Since moving into the laneway house in the spring, I have noticed an odd habit of one of our neighbors. I’m speaking of the dark-haired middle aged woman who lives across the lane. Every day at five in the evening she comes out the back door with what looks like a cereal box and stands at the edge of her porch, which faces the alley. “Dee-me-tan,” she says, shaking the box. “Dee-me-tan!” She’s calling something, that much is clear, and at first I thought it must be a pet. However, I have since seen cats race past her, ignored, and once a great black dog zoomed up from the alley and in through her back door. “Dee-me-tan!” she persisted, shaking the box. “Dee-me-tan!” In the same way, I’d assumed that the box contained pet food, possibly a kind particularly beloved of this Dee-me-tan. It has an overwhelming fermented smell, heady with alcohol and foreign spices, and it reaches me from across the alley. I’ve grown doubtful of this since noticing that the quality of the rattle it makes as she shakes the box is not that of dry food, like cheerios, but that of hard candy or stones. So perhaps the smell comes from her, and not the box. Anyway, there is no way to tell, because I’ve never seen her without the box, and I’ve never seen the box without her.
This little ritual occurs, as I said, every day around five, and it lasts ten minutes exactly. That is a long time for a woman to be on her balcony shaking a box and calling out, calling even at the top of her lung sometimes. In any case, it feels long. At first, I could do nothing while she was out there except look at the clock to assure myself that time was passing—and even that did not help entirely. My heart rate increased at nine minutes and I grew certain that this time she’d go over, not stop, just go right on calling into the night. It has never happened, of course. After ten minutes the box drops to her side, she stops calling and simply stares out. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of disappointment in a sigh or in the way she casts her eyes on the barren alley gravel. Then she goes back inside.
It is heartbreaking in the quietest way, seeing her close the door to the alley, to her Dee-me-tan, precious Dee-me-tan. You almost want to say, I am Dee-me-tan! I will come home to you! Once I even found myself getting up from my desk in response to her call, and before I knew it I was at the back door, my hand on the knob, ready to run out with the confession on my lips. Was it not possible, I reflected absurdly, that I was really Dee-me-tan? All this time? The smell of her box of food certainly had grown on me; familiar now with the fermented odour, I could discern behind it a lemongrass freshness and a tang that made the back of my tongue tight and prickly. I emerged onto the porch. The woman and I made eye contact; then she looked away again. She continued calling. No, I wasn’t Dee-me-tan. I was just another of those things that were not Dee-me-tan, a non-Dee-me-tan like the cats, like you, like this lamp here.
I began to feel somehow, inexplicably, invested in this woman’s ritual; it began to make sense to me, acquire pathos and momentum. Once, I had wondered only at the woman’s stubborn, perhaps delusional, persistence; now I wondered, Why did Dee-me-tan refuse to come? What kept him, her, it, away? At the same time, I began to hope for Dee-me-tan’s return. One fall day she came out on the back porch, calling, and I thought I heard something approach from down the alley, a heavy thing dragging itself along with effort. Dee-me-tan! My heart began to race, as if to meet the sound halfway, and though I was on the phone with my work I ended the call to go out and look. Ah, the disappointment! It was just an old car trying to get into gear. Both the woman and I went into our homes, heads hanging down. Where are you Dee-me-tan? I cried out inside myself. All the way into late December the woman called, and when the snow and ice covered the ground I watched for footprints—until, that is, I noticed that she did not. Was Dee-me-tan then not the sort of thing that left footprints? Suddenly I felt guilty of a kind of sin, a sin of hoping for the wrong thing, and I scrambled to recalibrate my longing; when five o’clock rolled around the next day a new vigor burning in my chest. If Dee-me-tan was not what I’d expected, I realized, then already it was revealing itself. Was there not reason to hope? Was there not, indeed, reason to begin also to call?
Today, I did. Today I called along with her. The woman looked up at me from across the alley, startled at first, then comprehending. Then I saw her expression change further—and I knew all at once that I had involved myself in something great and strange and perhaps irrevocable. I am back inside now, my heart racing. Snow is falling in the empty alley. Something is happening. I can feel Dee-me-tan out there in the world, drawing near.