About 10 years ago, a six-inch bust appeared suddenly on top of a retaining wall in my back yard in Highland Park. How it got there was a mystery. Left by someone moving from the area? An abandoned kid’s toy? Or…something magical? The bust was creamy white and from a distance seemed likely a noble historical figure. But up close, the devil appeared to have sentenced the bust’s face to a permanent grimace. My family and I decided to let the bust lie.
A few months later we received a new health insurance card for someone living at our address named Mark. We have two children, neither named Mark. My sloppy handwriting likely led the insurer to believe I was applying for a “Mark” rather than renewing for Maria, my daughter. So, unlike millions of U.S. citizens, our backyard bust, newly named, had health insurance. We made several attempts to end Mark’s insurance, but the insurance cards and notices kept coming. We were questioned carefully. “Are you sure you don’t have a third child?” when we called to end Mark’s virtual life. Eventually the cards stopped. But we were warned: Mark would likely live forever in the insurance computers.
Mark aged over the next several years. He turned a sickly yellow green perhaps due to algae or pigments from dropping leaves, and his face showed more shadows as if he had lost weight. Some winters he would disappear in snow only to reappear in the late winter with a jaunty hat of residual snow.
Mark gained importance through his mysterious arrival and persistent mailed reminders. We came to believe Mark should not be touched as doing so might lead to bad luck. Early on, to promote the mystery, I would intermittently reposition him, and point this out to my wife and children, reinforcing the magic. But as I aged and began to sense my own vulnerability, I also avoided handling him. Rarely, I found him at the base of the retaining wall. Pushed off by the wind? He was heavy, so this seemed unlikely. Or dislodged by a falling branch? Or most disturbing, moved by his own power? I could always relate recent bad or unlucky events in my family to Mark’s fall. I would carefully return him to his usual spot. I began checking Mark each day as I drove out of my driveway reassured if he had not moved.
Mark startled me one fall day as I was raking leaves. Glancing up at him, he appeared to have a companion, a Chihuahua, tethered to him by a leash. A chill ran through me. I took several pictures to show my family later. Mark’s new pet was only visible from a very specific viewpoint, changing to a fallen branch from every other angle. After the spookiness faded, I was happy for him—his life had seemed quite lonely.
I am surprised I have spent so much time thinking about Mark. Most who know me would likely describe me as “rational.” I am not a religious man. Mark certainly represents no religion and has no positive moral force. He made me wonder if I am a religious infant, Mark representing my primitive icon. Maybe my minor “worship” of Mark is a way to hedge one’s bets and find reassurance in our uncertain lives.
After my children were grown, my wife and I moved to the country, a lifelong dream. How to handle Mark during this move was a frequent topic. I first believed he should stay for a pseudo–practical reason: how can we move him without touching him? Everyone else believed he should come with us. But, should he be packed and go in a box with the movers? Should he go separately with us in our car along with other valued possessions we would not trust to the movers? We took time in making the decision over several months. In the end, I took Mark. He and I were alone in the car in the last trip from our former home accompanied only by a few other items. I could not strap him in but placed him behind my seat. I would like to say that I drove more carefully than usual because of valued possessions other than Mark in the car. But, truthfully, I thought more about Mark. I did not want to upset him.
There are no retaining walls at my new house. Mark has an excellent view at the base of a large tree, visible to me from my living room window. I look for him most days, but less often than the past. I believe he is content and, like us, getting used to his new surroundings.