“That small, almost-square house is the one,” said the bearded man sitting on the front porch of the house on the corner.
He looked at the journal book that the younger man was holding. “Do you mind if I see that?” he asked. He felt the worn edges of the cover and the smooth silkiness of the ribbon place marker. He opened to the first inside page and read aloud, “If found, please return to Nathaniel Elliot, 3910 Columbia Street, Portsmouth, Virginia. Reward $20.00 or as much as you would care to know about The Living Library.”
He thumbed through the pages, trying to appear casual.
“That’s the house alright, the one with four columns on the front porch,” he continued, hoping to stall the return of the journal to its finder. “It still has a metal roof, the only metal roof left in the entire neighborhood.
“There’s a garden in the backyard, though it doesn’t have as many vegetables and flowers as it once did. That’s because there’s a chicken coop in the middle of the garden. And off to the side, there’s a stage, an exactly-square stage.
“There’s a gate to the garden. The strangest gate you’ve probably ever seen. It’s right there in the path, but there’s no fence to go with it. Just a gate that stays closed. How is that going to keep anybody out of a garden?
“The long red flag is still up on the chimney too. Nobody knows what it’s for because people don’t really do things like that, do they? No decent explanation for it.”
The man with the beard paused at a page with a curious drawing of a white peacock and a man wearing a black top hat and cravat. The feathers of the peacock had been carefully outlined and then shaded around to create the absence of color. The man’s face had been smeared to look as if it was covered by a veil.
“See what I mean?” he asked without looking up. “Now, that right there is a picture that needs some explaining, don’t you think?
“But you can’t miss that almost-square house. It’s the one with a sign in the front yard that says: Home of Amelia, the only chicken who ever flew to the moon and back.”
“People say the old man who still lives there claims the sign was painted by another chicken of his named Emily. That ought to tell you something right there.”
He flipped through the drawings of street cafes, monuments, and statues from faraway places, then he paused to study several pages with portraits that all seemed to be of the same young woman.
“Well, she’s quite a looker, isn’t she? I can’t really say I’ve seen anyone around here who resembles her.”
He handed the journal back to the young man. "No secrets worth twenty dollars in there. It’s likely he’s never been farther from that house than he can travel on his bicycle either.
“If I were you, I’d give him this journal and get my twenty dollars before he had a chance to fill my head with any of that muck about chickens painting signs and flying to the moon.
“We only go near that house now to buy pecans. They’re left out by the street on a table in brown paper bags. It’s all on the honor system. We just drop money into the coffee can. And if you don’t leave money, the blue jays will nearly take your head off. So should you ever buy any of those pecans, make sure you put lots of coins in and give it a shake so the blue jays can hear.
“Sometimes fresh eggs are out on the table too. Strange because nobody’s ever seen a chicken there in years. But folks hear them sometimes. Must be when they’re getting ready to lay an egg or when there’s a cat coming through the yard.
“His uncle never cut it down, that big pecan tree, like he said he would, even though it was way too close to the house. People say it’s because some crows from out in the country wouldn’t let him, but with the uncle long gone, I guess nobody’ll ever know unless they ask the old man himself.
“Why don’t you sit on the top step there and watch that house for a while? You can tell me how you came to find that old book of drawings, I’ll bet that’s a more interesting story than how a chicken flew to the moon and back.
“That twenty dollars isn’t going anywhere. You just watch from here like I do. You’ll see more birds there than anywhere else around here. Foreign ones too. The old man, he hardly ever talks to anybody except those chickens nobody’s ever seen close up.
“Some curious things happened in the garden of that small, almost-square little house. They sure did. And I believe they still do.”