Like elves, they show up in the most unexpected places. You'll be on a street of perfectly ordinary houses (although any house from the '20s or '30s is no longer all that ordinary; but at any rate, not extraordinary houses), each going about its business in an orderly way. And then, out of the corner of your eye, you'll catch one--a house behind a house.
They're always little, these shy and backward houses--completely unpresumptuous and yet almost smugly cozy. Oh, I'm nothing special, they intimate, just a little house back here trying not to call attention to myself. Don't take any notice of me.
But you do. You stand there, all but transfixed, mentally following that driveway toward the house, projecting yourself under the front porch light (even the tiniest houses have front porch lights) and into the living room. Chances are there will be a small brick fireplace in there, with a built-in bookcase next to it--maybe even a window seat.
It's odd how much privacy these modest houses command. You can walk in front of any big house on the street and stop and stare or even point at the roof (every third person who glances at our house points at the roof, as well they might, it being as close to an English thatched one as you'll find in Pasadena). You might bend down to look at a flower or inspect a hedge; you'll not feel that you're intruding. It's a public street, and one can look at houses.
But let that house get behind another house and you are foiled. It's not polite to point down the driveway (even though it belongs to the big house in front) and crook your finger, to take even three steps off the sidewalk to get a better view, to encroach inland to see if there's a chimney. That small house is out of bounds visually as well as physically.
I have often thought, if one wanted to go about this properly, that there is nothing to prevent you from bringing along a cat or a dog or even a rabbit (rabbits take longer to catch). Casually, as if by chance, you might allow it to escape. With a bit of maneuvering or a well-aimed pebble you could direct its escape route to the house behind the house, and then, could anyone fault you for running after it?
How self-righteously you could pursue that errant animal. Aha, I thought those were blue hydrangeas, and they are. And look--guarding the cobblestone foundation is a thicket of sword ferns. Good heavens, here's a tiny laundry shed out back; there might even be a soapstone sink in there. Oh, there you are, you bad dog, come on now. A neat lattice fence back here, made of old 3 3/4-inch laths; you don't see very many of those anymore. Yes, this would be an ideal ploy, a perfect excuse for a bona fide tour.
But lacking errant dog, cat or rabbit, you are forced to stand, feeling a little forlorn, on the sidewalk, wondering what the house behind the house is really like. Fascinating, how it appropriates the hedges running along each side of the driveway for itself, how it manages to make the flowers climbing over its minuscule porch look far more charming than the roses of the big house it hides behind, how it has made the slanting sunlight burnish the trash cans lined against the big house so that they seem more like interesting canisters than trash cans.
Oh, I tell you, there's a lot we have to learn about these houses behind houses.