"His Own Back Yard," by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Michael Jasper
Yes, this is going to be that kind of essay. Move along if you must (I would've done the same a year or two ago). But I will be talking about the writing of James P. Blaylock, so I hope that will redeem my indulgences.
Blaylock's story "His Own Back Yard" was the first piece of fiction I thought of when I heard of this excellent project. I won't claim to have read every piece of excellent fiction at the groundbreaking SCI FICTION site, but I've rarely been disappointed by those I have read. Great fiction, and all of it free? It was too good to last, I guess. Finding out what new story and new reprint would be posted was something to look forward to every Wednesday. I guess my time's running out for that, now.
Time is one of the key factors in Blaylock's story: how it passes and how we spend it, and who we spend that time with in our lives. His protagonist, Alan, returns to his boyhood home days before the house is to be razed. He wanders through the old shed, digs up some hidden treasures he and his father had buried, and even enters the condemned house. His trip down memory lane magically turns into a big step back through the years, as he slip-slides through time to glimpse himself at ten and encounter his father in his mid-thirties.
Blaylock knows the secrets about life we're afraid to say out loud. Secrets like the knowledge that if we're lucky, we find love in our lives to make each second worthwhile. Or the fact that with love comes a fear of losing it and the lingering sense that the one we love will one day move on without us.
Sort of like the feeling a new parent has while his baby son is still sleeping in the early morning, half-hoping the baby will stay asleep and get some rest, but half-hoping the baby will wake up so Dad can spend more time with the little guy before the baby grows up and doesn't want to hang out with Dad so much any more.
We get to experience this secret knowledge when Blaylock's protagonist is left alone as his wife takes their son off to college, and the empty nest echoes:
Alan had stayed home looking forward to the peace and quiet, a commodity that had grown scarce over the years. But somewhere along the line he had lost his talent for solitude, and the days of empty stillness had filled him with a sense of loss that was almost irrational, as if Susan and Tyler been gone months instead of days, or as if, like the old house in front of him now, he was coming to the end of something.
It's a reminder that life is short, and we can't go home again. Clichés, yes, but Blaylock is able to take this material to the edge of sentimentality without going over the edge. The story itself takes some interesting twists and turns without ever leaving the house and back yard of the title. The magic element is very understated and subtle, which I loved--it isn't a puzzle story. It is a bit of a wish-fulfillment story--I mean, who wouldn't want to go back and meet your parents when they were the same age as us? What would you say to them after you've all recovered from the shock and weirdness (which Blaylock handles masterfully)? And what questions would they have for you?
Since I've already admitted that I'm such a softie, I'm not afraid to admit that one of the questions the young version of Alan's dad asks his returned-from-the-future son made me tear up. It's a question I'd want to ask my son in thirty years, hoping the answer would be an unhesitant "Yes."
I won't tell you what the line is; you should read this fine story to discover it for yourself. But I will tell you this--it's a line on par with the question Kevin Costner's character in "Field of Dreams" asks his returned-from-the-past father: "Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?"
And yeah, that movie made me bawl like a baby too when I watched it this past year, thinking of my own father, me as a new father, and, most of all, my young son and our shared future together. It's rare that a piece of fiction affects me in such an emotional way, and for that I owe James Blaylock my gratitude.
Link to story.