Tuesday, January 31, 2006


In Which I Raise One Last Glass...

This morning, the Brownie said it. She said it in a kindly way, but when she said it, the truth of it finally hit.

"Daddy," she said. "Great-Papa died. He's in heaven right now."

"Yes, honey."

"Do you have any more Papas or Grandmas left?" she asked.

"No, honey. He was the last one."

Then she hugged me. "Poor Daddy," she said in my ear. "You're a grand-orphan."

And then I had to leave her to watch Tarzan--where she's been learning all about being orphaned--and took myself off to the bathroom. I have cried maybe 3 or 4 times since I was 16 and it's always the same kind of cry: the kind where you can't tell where the crying ends and the laughing begins. Either way, it ends in tears.

Of the grandparents I knew the best, my grandfather--Papa Jim, my mom's father--is the one I've written about the least. My Dad's parents, who I knew least of all, each got some lengthy passages here. Even my grandmother--who died when Thomas was just a wee Art Lad--had a moment in the spotlight. But Papa was a powerful mythical figure for all of my childhood and I've barely written about him.

Now I have to do it with tears in my eyes.

He was a complicated man, which is what you're supposed to say about someone who had many glaring faults but was still someone you loved. At times, he was an absolute ogre to his family. He actively tried to dissuade my parents from marrying; he was physically and verbally abusive to his wife and two daughters. And he was a terrible, constant drunk. "I want things run in this house the way I want a drink brought to me: exactly as I ordered it!" he'd yell.

He was also the most unapologetic racist I ever hope to be related to. From him, I learned every ethnic and racial slur (but never understood or shared the venom behind them). He had particular dislike for Jews, African-Americans and Italians, and would disparage each group til the very end (except Italians, since I married one). He knew the kind of man he was. "I'm an arsehole and I know it!" he often said. "And that's more than most arseholes will admit, isn't it?"

But in his way he also had a generous spirit, was free with what money he had to friends and strangers (even people of the same groups he bad-mouthed). He was an especially generous tipper to everyone from waiters to theater ushers. Not because he had the money and liked to flash the cash (he was the master of slipping a bill to someone in a handshake) but because he had spent his life in the service industry and knew how tips could make the difference in someone's weekly checkbook balance.

And as hard as he was on his family, he never had anything but unabashed love and adoration for me and my brother, his first grandsons. I've written elsewhere about how every kid needs an adult in life who thinks everything he does is fucking brilliant. For me, that was Papa. He never in his life uttered a word to me that was unkind or critical. He only ever yelled at me once, and that was when I had locked my cousin Kelly in the basement and shut out the light (boy did she scream, which scared the crap out of Papa and may have had something to do with it). When my brother or I visited, he loved to drive us around Boston, paying calls on various friends in the old neighborhood or up to the Legion post, to have a drink. Always, he introduced us and expected his friends to make a fuss over us. Which they always did.

When you came to visit, he always drove down to the butcher shop to pick out the best steaks, and would come back and fix you an early or late supper (he was an outstanding cook). Before you left, he always took you aside and slipped you a couple bucks. As a kid, it really was just a buck. If you were a teenager, you got a five or a ten. In college, I got by more than once because of the couple of 20s he'd slip me during a Christmas visit, or the occasional check that he sent me.

He never let you pay him back and he never let you pick up the tab. "I'm in charge!" he'd holler good-naturedly in that thick Boston accent of his as he'd snap the bill from your hand. "Things around here are gonna be just like my drink: Exactly as I order it!"

And Papa always got things exactly as he ordered them, which made him seem larger than life, like a kind of demi-god, or at least an Irish godfather, the undisputed head of his little family.

Among the things he ordered was his appearance. He wasn't a fashion plate by any means, but he was always dressed to the nines. He grew up with nothing, a skinny scrapper on the streets of South Boston. In high school, he excelled at baseball and won a sports scholarship to Colgate. But his father died early and someone had to stay home and support his mother and sister, so after he graduated high school, he got a job waiting tables at the Statler Hilton. He knew his mixed drinks though, and within a year, he was tending bar. He retired 50 years later as the head of beverage services for the hotel.

He taught me many things my dad's side would never know. He taught me to play pool, taught me how to tip with style, taught me to grill a good steak. He taught me to be streetwise, showed me how a little kid could get an advantage in a scrap (usually this involved pretending to gouge your opponent's eyes out and as he moved to protect himself, you kicked him in the balls). He taught me how to mix drinks. At 7 I was making a decent martini (but I never drank them. Papa had some scruples). One time I made Papa a martini and put cocktail onions in the drink instead of olives. I thought I had invented a new drink--I called it The Papa--until he saw me bring it to him and said, "Holy Mary! How'd you know a Gibson's my favorite drink?" After that it was our drink. I'd make it and he'd drink it, but he always let me have one of the onions, which I considered a great privilege.

As I got older, I went through a period of resenting the man. I heard stories of how he had my grandmother institutionalized for alcoholism (insert ironic comment here), how he had always harangued my mom and aunt Cathy, and thrown them both out of the house more than once. I tried to ignore it, but sometimes arguments flared up and there was no avoiding them.

Once, when I was 10, he said one thing too many to my mom and my dad, who had been matching Papa drink for drink that day, stood up and said "Oh Jesus, Jim, shut yer goddamn yap!"

In a trice, Papa was out of his chair--all six-foot-four of him--and towered over my dad, who stood his ground. "Don't you goddamn tell me to shut up in my goddamn house!"

It almost came to blows. He wanted his house like he wanted his drink--exactly as he ordered it and defiance was NOT what he ordered.

I spent a while avoiding comment on this behavior, even as my resentment grew. But in college, not long after my dad got sober and started going to AA meetings, I noticed Papa would ask him, "Hey, can I getcha a drink? Oh yeah," he'd say, snapping his fingers theatrically. "You don't drink anymore. I got goddamn Carrie Nation in my house." My dad just ignored him.

Finally, I couldn't stand it. "Stop asking him!" I said. I was 20 and righteous. It was the only time I'd raised my voice to Papa and he looked at me in utter shock. "You know you're egging him on. Why do you do that?" I demanded.

And for once, Papa slumped, almost to my height, and whispered, "Who else do I have to drink with?"

"Me," I said.

Not the best solution perhaps, but after that, whenever I visited, we'd go down to the basement and he'd make us each a Gibson while we shot some pool. It was a ritual we'd repeat for many years.

But not recently. First my grandmother died. Then the year before last, he moved to an assisted living facility. "I'm ready to go," he told me over the phone. "I've seen what I wanted to see. I traveled the world, I served my country, I raised my family, I've seen my grandsons grow to men, I've met my great-grandson and great-granddaughter. And by God! I saw the goddamn Red Sox win the Series. I'm ready to go."

"Don't say that," I pleaded. We had already buried my grandmother a few years earlier and I didn't want to do it again with him any time soon.

"Aw, dear, don’t worry," he said (he always called me and my brother "dear"). "When I go, it won't be slow and crazy like your grandmother. It'll be quick. Like throwing a frigging switch. I tell ya, I won't feel a thing." Which of course made me think he was planning suicide, so I told my mom and boy did that cause a lot of trouble.

We continued to talk every few months, always very short conversations. My grandfather didn't like the phone. If you were side by side at a bar, he'd talk your ear off, but on the phone, it was as though he couldn’t hang up fast enough.

I spoke to him briefly at Christmas. He loved John Wayne movies and complained that my aunt Cathy had given him a DVD player but nothing to watch. So I sent him a stack of Wayne classics.

"They're great!" he cried, and I could hear gunshots in the background. "I love em! You shouldna. I hope you didn't pay too much. I should write ya a check for em." He said.

"No, no! They're a gift! Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, dear," he said. "Tell my great-granddaughter I love the card she made. And tell Thomas I love the picture. I LOVE the picture." We had sent him a framed copy of Thomas' t-ball picture, in full baseball regalia.

"I'll talk to ya soon," he said.

We never spoke again.

This past Sunday afternoon, my mom called and I knew from her voice it was bad news.

"Papa's dead," she blurted. "I mean Great-Papa. Not Thomas and the Brownie's Papa. Not your father. Not--"

But I knew who she meant. She meant her dad. She meant my last living grandparent.

Sometime early Sunday morning, Papa got up, made himself a drink (a cup of tea, actually) and sat down in his favorite easy chair. They're not sure yet if it was a massive stroke or a coronary but it hit so quickly--like someone had thrown a switch--he never felt a thing. When they found him, he was sitting serenely in his favorite chair, a drink next to him.

Just as he'd ordered it.

And with that I must take my leave of you for a few days. I'm hopping a flight to Boston tomorrow and will be with my family for the rest of the week, possibly into next while we sort things out.

However, on Thursday or Friday night, if you happen to be in a certain bar in South Boston and see a man sitting next to a seemingly empty stool, raising a Gibson in toast, come over and join us.

My grandfather sent me a few bucks this Christmas, see, so he'll be buying.

As usual.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, January 30, 2006


In Which There's A New Sheriff in Town...


(which in Latin means "Just when you thought I couldn't eke one more post out of this incident...")

And so peace slowly returned to our quiet little corner of Monopolis.

But not for everyone.

A week later, as Thomas and I were walking back from getting the mail, the Doohickeys waved to us. Dana, you'll recall, had been on hand for the second (and so far last) encounter between my family and Mrs. Belfry. We trotted over and said hello to her and her husband Danny.

"My mom knows Mrs. Bundt," said Dana. "Guess you made quite an impression when you met."

"Really?" I asked.

"She says you're going to the next committee meeting of the Neighborhood Watch."

"Oh," I said. "Well, she asked if I'd come and talk about what happened..."

"Yeah, well, we were thinking--" here she nudged her husband, who nodded immediately, "--that maybe it's time we started our watch group back up. Haven't had one since Mr. Reed died."

"John Reed..." I said.

At this Thomas looked up. "The Lone Ranger lived here?"

Danny looked up, startled, remembering our last conversation. "You know who that is, Thomas?"

Thomas looked at him and rattled off, "A fired-up horse with the speed of flight and a cloud of dust and a HiYOSILVER!" He took a breath. "Dad has him on DVD. He lived in the olden days and shot guys with silver bullets--but only in their hands. He had a guy with him called Toronto who got beat up a lot. His real name was John Reid but it was a secret."

(We watch an episode every Saturday morning. Come on! Can you honestly say DragonballZ is any better?)

"Anyway," continued Dana. "Me and Danny and the Hoosicks and the Najorks are all volunteering for the watch. And that fella Bill who works the night shift and wanders around at night on his days off. You know him?" I nodded. Blaze and I had had an encounter with him during the summer. "Well, he says he's up all night anyway, so why not?"

"That's great," I said. "I guess you guys want me to volunteer."

"Well," said Danny. "We sort of put you down as the block captain."

My mouth hung open just then. So did Thomas' but for completely different reasons.

"Well, I--" I began.

"Look, it's not that big a commitment. You got to three or four meetings a year. You're already going to one," said Dana. "And anyway, after the way you handled the Belfry thing, I think everyone in the neighborhood would pick you," she said. Danny nodded.

I thanked them kindly and said I'd think about it. First meeting is in three weeks.

As we walked back home, Thomas was all alight. "Dad!" he said. "Can you arrest people now?"

"No, of course not," I said. "But...well, the neighborhood does need a watch group. And I'm sick and tired of being blamed for other owners who let their dogs crap everywhere. And those damn kids who speed down Mediterranean Avenue..."

"You could do something about it! You'd be like the boss of our neighbors!" he cried. "You'd be...you'd be the sheriff of them!"

I laughed. Somewhere inside me, the boy I was--the Boy Detective I was--rejoiced at the thought. I thought about it for a few minutes that night. Then I didn't think about it anymore.

Until the next morning.

Late for work, I grabbed an overcoat and something flashed before my eyes. I stopped, transfixed, and saw that Thomas had added something to my lapel. A favorite item of his--a souvenir of Texas in fact--from a dear family friend. My son sets great store by it.

And now so do I.


Reckon I'll be wearing it to that first meeting in three weeks.

Adios kemo sabe.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Sunday, January 29, 2006


In Which Some Desires Cannot Be Ignored...

Desire is one of the great driving forces in the human race. Like fire, it can be used for beneficial purposes or, when left to run amuck, it can be a frightful force of destruction.

My life, perhaps like yours, has been the puppet of many desires. For love. For money. For a byline. For this woman. For that woman. For this woman AND that woman. For a moment to gather myself. For just one more. For...

Anyway. Desire. Driving force. Life. Think you're with me on this.

I suspect you're also down with me on the idea that desire comes in many flavors, some of which are not so good for you. I'm a full-grown man and more or less capable of figuring out which desires are good for me and which are not. I'm also capable of choosing to fulfill that desire, whether it's good for me or not. In fact, I sometimes choose fulfillment fully knowing it's bad for me. Still, the choice is mine.

Except in one particular case.

The desire for closure.

For good or for ill, rain or shine, elevator or stairs, if I have a shot at achieving closure, the desire to do it comes over me like a...thing that comes over you. There is no resisting it. I have to have it. Have to.

This has led me to do many ill-conceived things in my life, things that were not at all good for me or those around me. For example, after a good romance that ended badly, that utterly broke my heart, I had the chance to go out with this girl one more time for one more night, at a formal dance. I was already in college and--if you must know--already in the bed of another woman who was much better for me. I should have moved on. I thought I had moved on. But she had called. She had invited me. She had broken it off but now she was reaching out one last time. It was my last chance for closure with her. I took it.

And oh, my! it was an awful night, filled with awkward pauses and us stepping on one another's sentences and realizing fairly early on that we had outgrown one another. But that wasn't the worst part. In fact, that part was the closure.

No, the worst part was that, to get there, to get that closure, I was forced to rent a white tuxedo. With a pink bow tie and cummerbund. And by pink I mean shocking horrid little-girl-in-flouncy-dress pink. I told myself at the time that it was worth it for the closure, to finally put paid to this relationship, to be able to once and for all close that door in my heart and move on with my life.

And though the rational part of me knows I'm wrong--no force on earth should compel a heterosexual man with a light complexion and red hair to wear a white tuxedo with pink tie and cummerbund, EVER--the part of me that is the puppet to this desire still thinks it was worth it.

So perhaps you can understand how it is that I suddenly found myself going from a leisurely walk to a dead-flat-out-gasping-Godzilla-is-on-my-ass run back from my meeting with the formidably wattlesome Mrs. Bundt and the unremarkable Officer Peltz all the way around the lake, back into my modest little neighborhood, where it so happened I was in the end stage (I hoped) of a war between myself and the Crazy Neighbors.

After meeting with Peltz, see, he had indicated that he might drop by the home of the Belfrys to deliver what I can only imagine would be a stern warning about yelling at other men's wives and depositing bags of dogshit on their doorstep in the middle of the night and all the other thing that have been recounted here and here and, oh, here.

I say "can only imagine" because I was not going to be present for the meeting.

But as I was walking back, I remembered two things:

1.The backyard of some new neighbors of ours--the young couple I have designated Snooky and Num-num--abuts the backyard of the Belfrys.

2. For my son's birthday, my brother sent one of those handheld listening devices for kids. You know the kind I mean? With the radar style dish and the trigger and the headphones and when you pull the trigger everything around you sounds really loud and amplified and pretty soon you get tired of it and put it in your closet? That's the one.

Although my brother, who tends to spoil my kids, seemed to have sent a nicer variety of the device--all rubber-gripped handles and sensitivity controls and instructions assuring you that you "can hear the delicate sounds of wildlife or eavesdrop on private conversations at a distance of up to 300 feet." (I tell you, whoever wrote the instructions was a regular two-gun Sam, and I applauded his or her candor.)

Indoors, of course, Thomas and I had discovered it to be completely useless, except to amplify local noises. But outside...

Outside, without nearby sounds such as a whiny sister or a panting dog, outside in the quiet, if we pointed the listener across the back yard, between the houses, and into the next neighborhood, we could clearly hear two men talking by the mailbox. We also discovered that picture windows do not baffle sound but in fact amplify it. In short, if we pointed the listener at the back bay window of our nearest neighbor, we could hear--with only some distortion--the TV show they were watching and even snippets of conversation from the next room.

And virtually all the houses in our cookie-cutter development had picture windows.

So I raced back to the house. Peltz said he might stop by the Belfry house around supper to deliver whatever his version of a stern warning was. A thorough guy might call some of the other neighbors (whose names I had provided) and check my story. On the other hand, he did have my video evidence, showing their car pulling up to my house--lights off--in the middle of the night, and someone getting out of that car to lob a bag of dogshit on my stoop. And anyway, Peltz didn't strike me as a thorough guy, but as a guy who wanted to get an unpleasant task out of the way as soon as possible. If he was already in the area, it would be easy enough for him to swing by a local restaurant, grab a bite to eat, then swing back and have a chat with the Belfrys.

(Or maybe he was better at his job than I gave him credit for. By whatever name they use--beat cop, Police Area Representative--most police made it their business to know their territory. They know the empty lots where folks might be tempted to toss trash (or park a car and get it on); they know the kids who were troublemakers or on their way to growing up to be ones; and they know the eccentrics--the harmless old man with just a couple marbles left who tended to wander and the slightly nutty contentious dingbats too. Peltz never once questioned me about what I might have done to perturb the Belfrys, never even wondered aloud what their side of the story might have been, if I had in fact ever let my dog crap on their lawn. There was only one official police call on the record--back when my neighborhood had had a crime watch and the head of it had finally lodged a formal complaint. It never occurred to me to ask Peltz how many "unofficial" warnings he'd had to give the Belfrys over the years, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this had to be a task he'd done before.)

In any event, I wanted to be back at my house in plenty of time to find the handheld listening device, get it put back together (Thomas had taken it apart and stored it in its box somewhere in his rat's nest of a room) and get where I needed to be. Assuming they'd let me.

I got home a bit after 4 and, after catching several lungfuls of air and pressing on my side in a futile attempt to exorcise the Mother of all Stitches, I grabbed the phone and dialed my neighbors. Num-num answered on the second ring.

"I know this is gonna sound a little crazy, but..." and I asked her if she and Snooky would mind if I set up in their back yard with my son's spy eavesdropper thingy and tried to listen in on the stern warning when Peltz came by to visit the Belfrys.

Num-num squealed with delight. "Oh, this is like a spy movie! This will be great! Snooky will be so sorry he's gonna miss it. Oh my God, I HAVE to call and tell him. Maybe he can get off work early. Maybe--"

"So," I interrupted, "that's a yes?"

"Oh yes yes yes!" Num-num gushed. "When are you coming?"

I hadn't thought about that. It was getting chilly now that the sun was going down and I didn't want to hunker in their backyard all night.

"Well, maybe you could do me a favor. You can see their house from your living room, right? Can you keep an eye out and call me if you see a police car pull up?" I asked.

"Oh sure." Snooky and Num-num's house was at something of an angle on the lot, so she had a good view of Park Place--which was the most direct route to the main boulevard outside our development, and therefore Peltz's most likely approach. But Num-num informed me that she could also see between the houses and had a bit of a view of Boardwalk and would watch that gap intently, in case Peltz came that way.

"I'll call you the moment I see something," Num-num said. I gave her my phone number and we rang off.

Her Lovely Self and Thomas and the Brownie would have been full of questions about my phone call and my mad dash up and downstairs, looking for batteries and listening devices. But luckily for me, they were off at the local skating rink for a massive birthday party and wouldn't be back til 7. I could pursue my desire for closure without hindrance.

When he first got it out of the box, it took Thomas about 40 seconds to assemble the listener and begin attempting to eavesdrop on our mailman down the street. It took me almost 20 minutes just to fit the dish thing back on the trigger thing and then find a 9-volt battery that still had a charge. Finally, I found one, unscrewed the battery compartment on the trigger thing, found a perfectly good battery already inside, closed everything back up, found the headsets (this was a deluxe version with double jacks so two people could listen to wildlife or private conversations at the same time), put them by the door, got on my coat and shoes.

And waited.

It was 5:30.

I left my post by the door and found some leftovers in the kitchen. Wolfed them down.

It was 5:39.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this before, but I have a big problem waiting. And I was going to have an even bigger one if Peltz decided to deliver his warning tomorrow or Sunday, or at any time that suited his convenience.

To settle myself down, I did a bit of channel-surfing. Nothing good was on.

Suddenly I had to go to the bathroom. It being a cordless phone, I naturally brought it in with me. If I had left it in some distant corner of the house whilst I relieved myself, no doubt my neighbor would have called. But I didn't. So she didn't. The minutes ticked by in a drip-drip-drip Chinese water torture of agony. I waited for what seemed liked years for my neighbor to call. But you, lucky reader, need only flick your eye to the next paragraph.

At 7:15 the phone rang. "He's here! He's here! He just pulled around the corner! Get over here!" Num-num said breathlessly. I hung up on her and dashed for the listening device. As I bolted out the front door with it, here came Her Lovely Self, with two screaming kids, full of cake, hooting and screaming in the back. She looked at me quizzically, but in nearly 12 years of marriage, Her Lovely Self has learned that I have a Look or two of my own, and I was wearing one of the them now, the No-Time-To-Talk-Off-To-Do-Something-You-Wouldn't-Approve-Of Look and I dashed across the street, down the block, and into the dark.

Num-num was waiting for me at her front door.

"He just pulled up," she hissed, clasping my arm and yanking me through the house to the back. Through the picture windows of her living room we could see the picture windows of the Belfrys' living room. Num-num opened her back door, there was mad scuffling and instantly I found myself wearing Wiggly and Piggly, the two terrier-like dogs who also lived Snooky and Num-num. Suddenly the room was aflail with me holding wires and earphones and listening thingies up out of the way of scrabbling paws as both dogs simultaneously attempted to climb my legs while humping them at the same time. It was as though I was in some dream where I was a cowboy spy and my chaps had turned into curly-haired bucking dogs. Num-num was already out the door and into her back yard and so of no help to me. I had no choice. I lowered the earphones to the dogs' heads, clicked on the listening the device and pointed it at the earphones.

The feedback was so loud it hurt even my ears. The dogs were off me as though telekinetically pushed from my body. They scurried across the room, eying me warily as though I had just done something offensive to them (more offensive then humping their legs, one assumes).

In one bound I was out the back door and onto the porch. Num-num was on her way back to get me. "Come on come on come on!" she said. I knew she was an enthusiastic young woman--the kind who hugs you on first meeting, who always waves cheerfully and shouts your name across a field or a supermarket. But even I expected to have to convince her to let me use her backyard to spy on the Crazy Neighbors.

"You sure you don't mind doing this?" I whispered as we edge to the back fence.

"No," she said. "I can't wait to hear what happens. Oh, that BITCH," she said under her breath. "I HATE her."

A second later, I remembered why Num-num hates her, because as we neared the back fence, I stepped in something that was neither dirt nor grass. "Watch out for the poo!" Num-num said, a moment too late. "It's everywhere."

The back fence here was wooden, about four feet high. I could easily see over it. Alas, the Belfrys had built a five-foot high fence--the tallest our development will allow. Num-num was just a little too short to get a good look over. At an inch under six feet, I still had a good enough view. But there wasn't much to see. A darkened back yard. A light on in what was probably the kitchen, and a darkened picture window that was almost certainly their living room.

Next to the house, on the Park Place side of the corner, I could see Peltz's car.
It was empty.

"He was sitting in it for a while, talking on a radio and looking at something. He got out just before I opened the door for you," said Num-num. She was clutching my arm. And trembling.

"You better go put a coat on," I said. "It's cold."

"Okay," she agreed. "I have to tinkle anyway." She scurried off.

I peered back over the fence. Carefully, I balanced the listening gun on the fence--aimed at the lighted window--and put one set of the earphones to my head. I ducked my head down below the fence. Anyone looking out the back window would see probably nothing (the dish was transparent) or at worst take it for a weird little satellite dish, maybe. I pulled the trigger. For a second I heard the sting of feedback, then nothing but outdoor sounds--cars in the distance, the ticking of a car engine (Peltz's?). There were indistinct shuffling noises. I let go of the trigger and moved the dish, this time pointing it at the darkened picture windows. Now I could hear something. It was very faint, like a distant radio signal. Two voices, maybe three, One was high and unmistakable.

"...always...bother me!...done ANYTHING! It's them! They pester and pester..."

There was some indistinct murmuring and then I heard, very clearly.

"...they ALL do it! Then they COVER IT UP! This is PRIVATE PROPERTY!! You should be arresting THEM!!"

Just then, there was a tug at my sleeve. Num-num was back, wrapped in one of Snooky's coats. I handed her the extra earphones and she put them on in time to hear some of the really loud hysterical yelling.

I peeked over the fence. There seemed to be a light on in the living room now; the picture window was dimly lit. I could see figures moving. Then I heard a voice I hadn't heard before. A deep, pleasant voice, actually.

"...you know it's not her fault. And I should..." here's there a drop-out because of a lot of background noise. "...we're talking to her doctor about it."

"IT'S NOBODY'S BUSINESS!" I heard her shriek.

"It is when folks complain...last time I can come to warn...They were ready to file...next time...won't be a warning," said Peltz.

I heard snickering. I looked down and Num-num was crouched by the fence, smiling. Before, I likened her and her husband Snooky to a couple of over-enthused kids playing house. Now she reminded me of a little kid listening to someone else getting a scolding. And my desire for closure was turning into something else.

Suddenly we heard a noise and I jumped. Officer Peltz was on his way back to his car. He stopped, looked around the neighborhood--for a brief second it seemed that he was looking right at me. Then he got in his car and started it up. Immediately a roaring noise filled my head and Num-num actually cried out--I still had the amplifier trigger pressed. I let up on it and dropped down next to her as we listened to the police car roll away.

"Well, he did it," I said, more or less satisfied. I wished Mrs. Belfry had been more abject when he showed up, but I had been right: it wasn't the first time he'd been by to speak to them.

As I was thinking about this, Num-num grabbed the listening gun from me and held it up to the fence. "Listen!" she hissed.

Actually, I had been thinking it had been enough, but wherever she was pointing the amplifier, it was getting good reception, because now we could hear the deep, pleasant voice again. Mr. Belfry.

"...why did you throw them out?"

"I TOLD you and TOLD you!" she shrieked, her voice sounding slightly distorted. "They make me feel SICK! And they don't help! They make me shake and cry and it makes it WORSE!" and as she said this she started to cry herself.

I heard footsteps, some shuffling noises.

"What are you DOING!" she sobbed.

I felt unease growing in me, like a wave of nausea, coming from the pit of my stomach. I took the headphones off and tried to grab the listener from Num-num. I'd had enough closure.

Num-num jerked away from me, her face alight with an almost animal glee. Whatever desire had her in its clutches now, it wasn't the desire for closure.

"He's calling someone," she said, moving the listening gun a bit. She frowned. "I can't--" Then her eyes lit up again. "It's the pharmacy. He's asking--she's crying now--" She shook her head as if to clear the sobs. I almost feel like crying myself.

Num-num's face went blank and then she looked at me. "What's Depa-Coke?"

Now I was just mad. At who I'm not sure. Me, I guess. I grabbed the eavesdropper roughly from her and unplugged her earphone as I did. "Enough! It's enough," I said. In the dark, we both lost our balance and tumbled onto each other.

And into the dog poop that Mrs. Belfry had been flinging into Snooky and Num-num's back yard.

"Eww!" cried Num-num, loud enough to be heard even up to my house. Thinking this would be a wonderful time for other neighbors to look out their windows--or better yet, for Snooky to come home--I jumped up and made a dash for her back door, wrapping the various cords around the listening gun as I did.

Inside, Num-num headed straight for the kitchen where she wet some paper towels and tried to wipe telltale smudges of brown off the sleeves of her husband's jacket. I have no doubt I had dog crap all over me too. But suddenly, I felt like I deserved it.

Num-num was still smiling, the excited little kid. "So what do you think it is? Depa-Coke? Like some kind of cocaine? Oh, that BITCH. I HATE her. I knew she was like a cokehead or--"

"Depakote," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"He was probably getting a refill for Depakote."

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's for a lot of things. But it mostly used for people who suffer from bipolar disorder." My face was burning with shame as I said it. It was so easy to joke about having crazy neighbors, pass their odd behavior off as eccentricity, get mad at them even. But now, I was out of anger. I was out of out the righteous desire for revenge. I didn't feel so clever for setting up my security cameras (and obviously it had not been Mr. Belfry who'd made the poop drop after all). I felt like an intruder. I felt like an insensitive prick.

I tried to explain to Num-num what little I know (which is not much at all) about bipolar disorders, about behavioral changes during mood swings. I had once worked with someone who was bipolar. I remembered her talking about her manic phases. But mostly I remembered her talking about her father, who had psychotic mania, and who thought his family--and his neighbors--were out to get him).

This news just seemed to make Num-num happier than ever. "So she really IS crazy?" she cried. "Wait til I tell Snooky!"

Suddenly, I wanted to smack this girl (for girl she now seemed to me), tell her to grow up, at least grow a little sensitivity. Instead, I just thanked her for letting me use her back yard and stalked to the door, no doubt leaving her wondering why I was going in such a huff.

In this overlong drama I've told, it was Her Lovely Self who had the most to be upset about, twice accosted as she was. And yet when I told her what I had found out that night, her reaction was nearly identical to mine. "Oh my God, that poor woman. No wonder. You think she went off her meds, right? Oh my God, that explains so much." She was quiet for a while. Then she said, "What do we do now?"

Which is an excellent question, and perhaps one you yourself were asking.

For my part, I can tell you this: I haven't seen hide nor hair of Mrs. Belfry since that Friday night. I suspect she's not driving any more right now. I hope she's seen her doctor and tried to adjust her medication.

I say "I hope" because even as I can muster sympathy for her, there is a part of my heart that remains hardened against her, a part that remains vigilant, wary. A part that has dealt with people who have illnesses that slip out of their control, and has seen the consequences of those illnesses visited on others. That part of me won't let her bother my family again, or put them in harm's way, as I feel she came very close to doing in her last encounter with Her Lovely Self and the Brownie.

But tonight, when I walk Blaze along our new path, when I stand on the hill and pick out the lights of my warm house, when I think of my wife and children sleeping safely and soundly inside, I won't be filled with sympathy or vigilance.

Once again, I'll be filled with desire.

Not the desire for closure--that's been satisfied for now. No, I'll be feeling desire on behalf of another man, a man who must spend every day hoping that his wife will feel all right, who must leave the house every day hoping this will be a day where nothing bad happens, a man whose greatest desire must be for the simplest of things, things I don't desire overmuch because I have them in such abundance: Peace of home. Peace of mind. For himself. For the woman he loves.

And, one hopes, for the people in the place where he lives.

The war is over. I wish him well.

And yes, her too.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, January 27, 2006


In Which It's Over Sooner Than I Think...

All that is necessary for crazy people to triumph is for sane people (or at least somewhat less insane people) to do nothing. --Edmund Burke (more or less)

Day 9

The sprawling suburban development of Monopolis has five distinct neighborhood watch groups, each with its own head (or block captain or whatever you call it). There should be seven groups, but two neighborhoods--one is yours--lost their block captains and have since gone unrepresented at the meetings of the watch committee. Technically, the groups are required to meet only twice a year, but they meet about every other month, according to the schedule of meetings dictated by the head of the watch committee, a sturdy woman of middle years whose name is Mrs. Bundt (yes, just like the cake).

Mrs. Bundt is also your housing development's official liaison to the beat officer--I believe they prefer the term "Police Area Representative" (PAR)--who is assigned to Monopolis and it is she who has arranged the Friday afternoon meeting between you, her and PAR Officer Peltz.

Mrs. Bundt had a quiet voice on the phone, so you are a bit taken aback by her physical presence when she invites you into her home on the lake side of the development, where all the seriously wealthy people live. Not to put it too bluntly, but Mrs. Bundt looks like a man in drag. She is a full inch taller than you, wearing a brown jacket and skirt that put you in mind of a prison camp matron. Her most arresting physical feature, though, is the enormous wattle under her chin. It's half as long as her face and it sways, whenever she walks, whenever she talks. It has a strange hypnotic effect on you so that you find yourself staring at it for most of your visit.

You sit for a few minutes in her finely appointed parlor with its lake view. She finds out you're a magazine editor, which causes her to become animated for a moment. But then you tell her which one and she simply says, "Oh," and settles her chin down into the comfort of her wattle. You can tell she doesn't like your magazine.

You chat about the neighborhood watch system in the community and she immediately lambastes your neighbors and the residents of the neighborhood on the southeast sides who, in her view "lack the gumption to organize themselves. You know, it is a duty of citizenship, to aid in the safeguarding of your community. In earlier days, when there was a dearth of lawmen, the people of a community policed themselves, taking it in turn to stand night watch and so forth." You're tempted to ask her how she feels about vigilantes and whether or not mob rule and lynching and tar-and feathering should be brought back too. Instead, you point out that part of your reason for being here IS to help safeguard your community and she gives an ambivalent shake of her head, causing her wattle to almost--but not quite--slap the underside of each cheek as it sways back and forth.

Just then a police car pulls into the wide driveway out front, swooping around to park at an arrogant angle that takes up more of the pavement than it should. A short, burly man steps out of the car and promptly stuffs a hand down his pants. After a brief adjustment of his shirttails in relation to his underwear, he strides to the door, but Mrs. Bundt is already crossing the foyer and had the door open when he arrives on the step. You have also risen to follow her.

"Good afternoon Zoltan," she says, then turns and, seeing you, introduces you to the officer.

Peltz removes his regulation sunglasses and stares at you with dry lizard's eyes. "So this is the fella that caught some criminals on video, huh?" he asks, shaking your hand and chuckling harshly. You begin to brace yourself, realizing you're in for a patronizing afternoon.

Which starts off badly enough because after you give him a brief recap of the events up to the night of the Poop on the Stoop, you pop in the video of the surveillance footage you were so Mr. Smirky Smug about. But Peltz is singularly unimpressed.

"You can't really tell who that is, whether it's even a man or a woman," he remarks, watching the hooded figure toss the bag to the porch. When you show him the Handycam footage of the car, including a shot that shows the hooded person getting into it to leave, he does sit up then and asks you to play it back. You do and then he yells "Freeze!" as though the video were some thief he'd caught climbing a fence. He is looking at the still image of the car that shows the license plate. He grabs a notepad from his pocket.

"Don't bother writing it down," you say, opening the folder you brought with you. "Here's a copy of the DMV info on the Belfrys. The car is registered to them."

Peltz snatches the paper from you and sneers, "What'd you do, run a background check on them?"

"As a matter of fact, I did," you say.

Then you tell him about the incident the day before, of Mrs. Belfry driving her car up onto someone's driveway (and part of their lawn) to cut Her Lovely Self off. As a coda to this recent incident, you give him the copy of the DMV form that shows Belfry's license was suspended once before for reckless driving. You also hand him a sheet of paper containing a list of names and addresses.

"What are these?" he asks.

"Those are neighbors in our community who have had encounters with the Belfrys. The top one, Dana Doohickey, witnessed the reckless driving incident and is more than willing to file a complaint of her own, if you need it." You point to a group of three names spaced closely together. "These are people who were threatened by Mrs. Belfry when she told them she was a police officer or with the police."

"Huh," is all Peltz says, looking from the papers in his hand to the file on your lap. "Well, that isn't much of a deal. I'm sure they didn't believe her."

You grab another piece of paper from the folder and read aloud from the copy of a certain page of a state law book (emphasis mine): "Those who attempt to pass themselves off as law enforcement can draw a charge of first-degree criminal impersonation, a felony. The charge applies not only to those who show off badges or dress in uniform, but can also be used against people who suggest they're officers or say they work for a police department."

"Really?" says Mrs. Bundt, sitting forward, her wattle quivering with excitement. "I had no idea. So just saying it is a crime. Well, well..."

Peltz has gone from patronizing to irritated. "I know what the law is, son. Are you really wanting to make a case out of this? You're asking me to arrest these people for impersonating police and driving to endanger and what-not. What have you got against them?"

"Look, I don't even know these people," you reply. "But I'm a journalist. I talk to people for a living. A majority of my neighbors have had bad experiences with these people and it seems to keep escalating because no one confronts them to stop it. I can't get them to return my phone calls and they don't answer the door. But they come to my house and yell at my wife. My family goes for a walk and this woman drives a car up to within a foot of my daughter and my wife, scaring my family and other residents. She bullies people by representing herself as a member of the law enforcement community. If I were a police officer, I would find that unacceptable. But I don't want them arrested. I want them to understand that this is not the way to treat your neighbors. I want them to understand that what they do has not escaped the notice of the law."

Peltz looks at you, his smirk gone. "So you want me to go over there and warn them."

"Yes, please," you say. But you think Ba-doi! What the hell are we doing here?

"Oh! Well!" he says. "That I can do. I thought you were serious about pressing charges and that's a whole other kettle of fish." He pops the surveillance DVD out of the player. "Okay if I hold onto this?" he asks. You nod. His eyes narrow. "I don't need you media types putting it on TV and making a stink about it."

"Well, I work for a magazine, not a TV station. But don't worry. I would never do anything like showing the video around. Not even still shots or anything," you assure him.

"Because this could be evidence," he says, waggling the DVD importantly. "No need to be showing it around and stirring things up."

"Absolutely. I totally agree," you say.

You all stand up. Mrs. Bundt is regarding you quietly, as though she wants to ask you a question. You all move to the doorway.

"So, when do you think you'll talk--?" you begin.

Peltz scratches his head under his cap. "Oh, I'll probably stop by tonight right around supper. Or else come around tomorrow." He stops and looks at the list of names you gave him, then looks at you. "So if I were to call each of these people, they'd be willing to come forward with their stories. Even the ones about impersonating an officer," he says.

You nod.

He shakes his head. "You don't get that very much. People pulling together that way. Sounds like you've got a neighborhood watch group already set up and don't even know it." And with that, PAR Officer Peltz clambers into his car, then laboriously backs it up from where he has blocked in Mrs. Bundt's Mercedes. Then he's gone.

You turn and thank Mrs. Bundt for her help. She clasps your hand tightly.

"It was my pleasure. I hope this puts and end to the problem," she says.

"Me too," you say.

Mrs. Bundt us still holding your hand. "I wonder if you'd be willing to come to the neighborhood watch committee meeting next month and talk about this experience. I have to say, I'm impressed with the efforts you made to gather information. Zoltan had no choice but to warn these people or arrest them. That was well done. You were very meticulous."

"Thanks," you say. "I guess I read too many Hardy Boys books as a kid."

She smiles, and suddenly she doesn't look so mannish. "I was partial to Nancy Drew myself." She lets go of your hand. "Zoltan will call me when he's spoken to the neighbors. And I will call you about the next committee meeting." She casts about, suddenly realizing something. "Do you not have a car?"

"Oh, I walked the path around the lake. Cold, but I thought it would be good exercise," you say. She nods as you look at your watch. "Well," you add, "guess I better wattle--I mean waddle--I mean toddle! Toddle off home. Nice to meet you." And before she can say anything, you wave quickly and head back to the lake path, your file tucked under your arm.

Once again, you feel that strange mixture of relief and annoyance when these sorts of things come to an end. You did right by you family and neighbors, and you busted your ass gathering information. But in the end, someone else who doesn't act the least grateful for your help will end up lowering the boom on the Crazy Neighbors. And you won't even be there to hear it.

No way around it: anti-climax really sucks.

So it's a good thing this story isn't quite over yet...


Thursday, January 26, 2006


In Which We Come to the Poop on the Stoop...

Day 7

All has been quiet in your fair community (which we should give a name, so let's just call it the city of Monopolis). You remind yourself that when you write this part, you'll let readers know that, no, they didn't miss a post. It was just that Days 5 and 6 were largely uneventful. The highlights can be dispatched thus:

--On Day 5, your friend at the paper supplied you with a small file of background info on the Belfrys, which was largely useless and served--surprisingly--to make you feel as though you had perhaps gone a tad too far and were invading their privacy. But then that nanosecond passed and you were your usual obsessed self again. The two most interesting things revealed by the file are:

1. The fact that some years back, Mrs. Belfry was arrested on a reckless driving charge and compelled to appear in court. The charge was reduced but she still had to pay a chunky fine.

2. Paperwork on a complaint filed against the Belfrys. It's a poor photocopy and hard to read, but you can see the words "littering" and "criminal trespass," which you decide is code for "dropping a bag of dog shit on someone's porch." The complainant is listed as "Monopolis NW Committee." You realize this must be the complaint filed by the late Jack Reed, who used to head your local neighborhood watch (NW) group.

--On Day 6, nothing much happened, except that you remembered this job thingy that you do to keep the lights on and the kids' tummies from rumbling, so you focused on that for a bit. You did have two evening conversations with neighbors in your relentless effort to gather more details about the Belfrys.

One neighbor, who has no pets or children, has also had no problems with the Belfrys. Then he dooms the entire block by uttering the words, "They've always seemed kind of quiet, kept to themselves." Which as everyone knows is what at least one neighbor says on the TV news, after the shooting spree has ended.

The other neighbors are the newlyweds, Snooky and Num-num, whose property abuts the high-fenced compound that is the Belfry's back yard.

"Hey, MM!" cries Snooky, grasping your hand and inviting you in. He calls into the depths of the house. "Hey Num-num! Guess who's here!" Num-num squeals when she sees you and actually hugs you although you have met her all of twice (this being the second meeting). But you don't mind because Num-num is quite the yum-yum. Both are in their early to mid-20s, but their overall enthusiasm and demeanor give you the impression that they are like nothing so much as a pair of over-stimulated 6-year-olds playing house.

Snooky asks if you want a drink--Beer? Wine? Coke?--as he pulls you into the family room. Num-num proudly waves her arms around, showing you the furniture suite her daddy bought them as a wedding present (he bought the house for them as a wedding present, come to that). On the coffee table, she picks up a familiar magazine and waggles it at you: "Look what I'm subscribing to!" she squeals. It's your competitor, not the magazine you work for, but you thank her anyway for continuing to help you pay the bills at your own somewhat less tastefully appointed domicile.

Snooky really really wants you to have a drink, so you ask for a Coke. While he goes to get it, you hear scuttling from the basement steps and here comes Wiggly and Piggly, their terrier-like dogs. They race to you in an orgy of friendly dog enthusiasm. The operative term, naturally, is orgy. Wiggly jumps onto your left leg and begins humping it like a prisoner on a conjugal visit while Piggly conducts a very serious nasal interview with your crotch. Num-num gasps in shock and shoos the dogs away (though in so doing, she smacks Piggly at an inopportune moment, causing his hard, bony head to make scrotal impact. It hurts, baby.)

A second later, your jacket is off you and you're seated in an overstuffed chair, a tall glass of fizzing Coca-Cola in one hand. Snooky and Num-num grasp each other and sit as one on the loveseat across from you. They begin nattering on about your wife and kids, wondering how everyone is, telling you how much they loved the cookies the kids baked (to welcome them to the neighborhood, although this was now some months ago).

When they stop to draw a breath, you mention that you came by to talk about their experience with the Belfrys and their Leave-it-to-Beaver-by-way-of-Gen-X jocularity vanishes in an instant.

"Oh, that BITCH!" snarls Num-num. "I HATE her!"

"You hear about the fence?" Snooky asks.

"You mean they said you had to put one up?" you reply.

"Well, they strongly suggested it. Said if they caught either dog out, they'd catch 'em and turn them over to the police," Snooky says.

"It was money well spent just to build that fence so we wouldn't have to see that BITCH!" snarls Num-num. "I HATE her."

"Did they tell you they were with the police or anything?"

Snooky thinks a moment. "You know, seems like they implied they had friends in the police or were involved in some way. Anyway, we were going to put a fence in, so it was no big deal."

"That BITCH!" snarls Num-num. "I HATE her."

"Why?" you finally ask.

"She pitches her own dog's poop over the fence into our yard. I've seen her do it. She's crazy. And her husband--" and here she made a noise like air escaping a tire "--I don't know if he even talks. He's like her zombie servant. Just stands there and looks at you."

Snooky is back to his enthusiastic self. "What's up? Are you going to do something about it? When I moved in, the head of the neighborhood watch committee wanted me to restart the neighborhood watch in this neighborhood. I said no way. So seriously, what are you going to do?"

Once more you share your story. "I'm just trying to get some information to get a sense of what to expect. If it's was a one-time deal, I'm willing to leave it alone."

So much for Days 5 and 6.

Those words you uttered to Snooky now echo in your ears as you listen to your angry wife, buzzing on the phone to you on Day 7. While walking the dog, Mrs. Belfry has driven her car into the driveway--and slightly up on the grass and sidewalk--in order to block your wife and daughter and dog from walking. The front tires of the vehicle stop less than a foot from them. Your dog turns into the wild cop, the one they can't control, and he launches himself at the car, barking and snarling and generally intimidating Mrs. Belfry to stay in her car. She and your wife have a slightly muffled shouting match because Belfry won't roll down her window.

"I'm turning you in!" Belfry screams.

"We're not even walking by your house anymore! Just leave us alone!" Her Lovely Self retorts. The Brownie hides behind her and the dog, who is so upset he has actual foam coming out of his mouth. Come to think of it, so does Her Lovely Self.

Just then, Dana Doohickey bursts out the front door--it is her driveway into which Belfry has careened. She is a large and fearsome young woman and she joins the screaming match. She has also brought her mobile phone with her. Her Lovely Self thinks she is calling 911 with it, but in fact it is a camera-phone and she is using it to take pictures of Belfry's car up on her driveway (and partially on her lawn). Outnumbered, Belfry backs away, yelling incoherently. As she roars off, it takes both Dana and Her Lovely Self to keep Blaze from charging after her car.

When you learn of this second encounter, you resolve to make a complaint to the police and start getting this thing on the record. After posting a letter you have no intention of sending, you call up the office for your homeowner's association. You could file a complaint yourself, but the head of the neighborhood watch committee is supposed to be notified, since that person is the official liaison with the beat officer for your community. The receptionist gives you the number for the committee head, but you get a machine when you call and are forced to leave a message.

When you get home that night, you are torn about what to do. You want to go over and pound on the Belfrys' door and make caveman noises. You want to write them a terse and carefully worded note, formally and officially asking them to leave you alone. In the end, you call them on their unlisted number (obtained by your newspaper pal when he gave you the dossier on them). You get an answering machine. You say: "This is the Magazine Man calling for Mrs. Belfry. Please stop bothering my wife. If you have concerns about my dog, please speak to me about it." You give your home and work numbers, then add, "There's no need for neighbors to behave this way. We don't want any trouble. Please call me back so we can resolve this a reasonable way. Thank you."

Their response comes in the middle of the night.


Mr. Belfry, I presume?

Camera #3--the broken camcorder with the working Nightvision function--proves its worth from its perch facing the driveway.


Taken at 3-second intervals. I messed with the plate, but trust me, it's legible in the real version.

Which brings us full circle now.

Day 8

A day of dastardly discoveries and determined deliberations.

It's time to bring in the police. You already have Belfry on reckless driving (Dana Doohickey has told you she will be happy to be a witness, should the police require it). Now, wonder of wonders, your cobbled-together surveillance system has caught them in the act. But of what? Criminal trespass? Littering? Assault with a deadly turd? The police will have to decide.

Your brother will call you and rib you about your boy detective days. He will begin referring to this incident as "The Case of the Poop on the Stoop."

You will only refer to it as "the War"...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


In Which There Is Crap, Cookies, and Legendary Cowboys...

Day 3-4

It is the weekend and you are a busy bee indeed. From the Incredible Basement of Crap you have extracted an adapter that allows you to convert the battery-powered "scarecrow" camera into a fully functional one you can plug in. You have also located its mate, which has been in the box since you got it. In a brief moment of original thinking, you name it "Camera #2" and secret it in a tree in the front yard.

You install the software that lets you monitor (and capture) images from the video feeds of both cameras from your computer. Alas, you can't set it to record continuously (your puny hard drive would be filled within an hour) but you can set one camera to take a snapshot every 2 to 3 seconds. The other camera has a motion-sensor built-in, so it will only turn on when it, er, senses motion.

To complete your surveillance operations, you press into service an old Sony camcorder (give you 3 guesses as to what you will name this one). Its motor died ages ago and it ate an 8mm tape (which is still stuck inside the device). It would have cost so much to repair you realized you were better off buying a new one, so you did. However, you couldn't pitch out the old camera because, well, you have a C.R.A.P. disorder. What's more, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the camera apparatus. Jack it into any Audio/Video inputs and it delivers a crisp, clear color image with stereo sound. It's just the recording part that's shot all to hell (of course once you jack it into a VCR or DVD recorder or a computer with A/V inputs you can always capture whatever video the thing sends). Although larger and older than the mini-cams, this Handycam will be handy indeed because its Nightvision function is also in perfect working order. What's more, once you plug it into an A/V adapter that connects it to your computer, you find that the software that runs the other cameras will recognize the Handycam (sort of) so you can set it to record images at 3-second intervals (sort of).

And just like that, you have a working 3-camera surveillance system, complete with infrared viewing and motion-detection.

You are in the process of modifying a pair of wire coat hangers into a makeshift carriage that will allow you to hang the Handycam from the small tree that is next to the garage (and facing your driveway), when you see a woman and a girl approaching. You recognize them as neighbors but can't quite place them, name-wise. The girl is selling Girl Scout cookies. The mom is supervising, but she gives you a Yummy Mummy smile.

"I hear you're getting the goods on the Nutty Neighbors," she says. She is good friends with the YM who was accused of letting her dog crap in their yard, (despite the fact that the dog had died months earlier). You get to chatting, telling her what's happened so far in the saga.

"Have you had any run-ins with them?" you ask.

"Funny you should ask," she says, giving a meaningful shake of the clipboard that holds the order form. She looks down at her daughter. "Want to tell him, or shall I?"

The girl gives you a look you have seen all too often on your own daughter's face. "Will he buy some cookies if I tell him?" she asks. A girl after your own heart. You agree to make a purchase and between her and her mom, you learn that last year, the first year the girl started selling cookies, she and her mom made the mistake of knocking on the Belfrys' door. No one answered so they continued up the block. On the way back, they decided to knock one more time. This time, Mrs. Belfry threw the door opened and began yelling at them that she had a "No Solicitors" sticker on her door ("I didn't see one," the mom added as an aside) and that they were trespassing on private property.

"Then she said they were both police officers and they could have Mom arrested," the little girl in the brown uniform says. "I was littler then, and it made me cry."

You look at the mom in disbelief, and she nods. "It's true. I was so weirded out by the woman I just had us get out of there. But later I was so..." she stops herself, glancing at her daughter. "I was so P.O.'ed that she would talk to us that way. My husband was so mad, he went over there and pounded on the door a couple times, but she didn't answer then. Neither did her husband. In fact, I've never heard him say a word. But it's a terrible way for police officers to act, don't you think?"

And finally the light bulb goes on for you.

"You're sure she said she was a police officer?" the mom and girl both nodded. "Why?" the mom asks.

"She said the same thing to one of the other moms this fall when the bus stop was on their corner," you reply. "But when she yelled at my wife this week, she didn't say she was a cop. She said she was going to turn me in to the cops. Which makes me think she isn't with the police at all."

The mom nods politely, not catching your drift.

"If she's telling people she's a cop when she's not, that's impersonating a police officer. It's a felony offense."

"Oh!" says the woman. "I never realized."

"If it came to it--and if I can get the other mom from the bus stop incident to tell her story too--would you be willing to tell the real police what happened?" you ask.

She frowns when you say this, but then looks down at her daughter. "Yeah, sure, I guess."

You buy 7 boxes of cookies.


On Sunday you and the kiddos walk down to the Doohickeys. Their younger kids and yours play together often and the husband--let's call him Danny--is always finding a reason to borrow your chainsaw (he loves gas powered tools). They are your good friends. More importantly, they've lived in the development since it was built and know everybody. Danny has been more or less briefed by his wife (we'll call her Dana) on the incident with the Belfrys.

"So are you interviewing everyone on the block to get dirt on them?" he asks.

"I guess," you reply. "You must have had a few run-ins with them?"

"You know, not so much. They moved in not long after we did, but this was just after the development was built and Jack pretty much kept them in line."


"Yeah, old Mr. Reed. He was our next-door neighbor before the Najorks moved in," Danny says. "He was the block leader--or whatever they called him--for the neighborhood watch group on this side of town."

"Wait," you say, smiling. "The head of the neighborhood watch was Jack Reed? As in John Reed?"

Danny nods.

"So, the Lone Ranger was head of the watch."

Danny stops nodding and just looks at you.

"The Lone Ranger," you start to explain. "His real name was John Reid and--"

Wisely, you stop talking. Danny clearly has no idea what you're talking about. You clear you throat. "Okay, so anyway, you were sating--"

"He pretty much WAS the watch," adds Dana, who has just come from around the back yard. "After he died, the watch group kind of fell apart. We're the only area in town that doesn't have one," she says, looking accusingly at Danny.

"Oh, as if I have time! I--"

You interrupt what sounds like an old fight and hey, you can get that at home pretty much whenever you want. But right now what you want is more details about Mr. Reed. "So wait. I thought the neighborhood watch thing was just, you know, looking out your window and keeping an eye on kids."

"Oh no, not for Jack. He took it very seriously. And he didn't just watch out for strangers breaking into basements and stuff. He was kind of like the arbitrator for neighborhood disputes. He certainly kept them in line," Dana says, jerking her hand back at the Belfrys' house, a few houses distant.

"Really?" you ask. "What did he do?"

"Well, I think they had just left dog crap on a bunch of people's doorsteps--they've been known to do that, you know. And Jack finally went over there with a cop and they got a talking to. Things settled down after that," Dana sighs. "But Jack died just before you moved here and ever since, they've been getting more and more up to their old weirdness again."

"And no one has filed a complaint since?" you ask.

"Not that I know of. Rumor has it they have some kind of connection with the police. And anyway, they usually only bother you once. I guess it was just your turn," Dana says.

"You're probably right," you agree. "I mean, now that I've taken to walking the dog on a completely new route, I can't see them bugging us again."

Just the same, you activate the surveillance system that night and make sure it's working. You're not sure it's anything The Lone Ranger would have approved of, but it helps you sleep at night.

At least, it does for the next three nights...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


In Which "Crazy" Becomes a Relative Term...

O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands. -- Sun Tzu

Day 2:

You feel the needle chill as you inject the coffee directly into a vein. It is 6:30 AM. You have had just a little over 3 hours of sleep, but you wanted to get out of bed the instant you awoke to see if anyone visited in the night.

Downstairs, the dog is still lying in the front of the door like some living, breathing draft stopper. You and he have a comically fractious relationship usually, but this morning you exchange a look of mutual purpose and alliance. You are connected by that great and primal bond betwixt man and animal, dating back to before the dawn of civilization, when life was brutal and short, and yet somehow we forged a pact with this faithful creature, who stood silent sentry through the night, just in case the Cro-Magnons the next cave over decided to leave a pile of shit on our doorstep.

A quick visual inspection of the porch confirms no night deposits were made. Unless...would the Crazy Neighbors be craftier? Placing it over the doorway, or anticipating some spot in which the children might step? Caffeine and that special brand of logic that can only come from fatigue drive you to inspect the premises. You must go--now!--but you are wearing only your "Daffy Duck for President" t-shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms that have become...breezy...through years of wear. Quickly, you pull on whatever winter clothes come to hand--in this case your good overcoat and a scarf you have never seen before (it will turn out to belong to one of the Brownie's girlfriends from school). Together you and the dog go out for an inspection of the property.

There are no footsteps in the frost, no marks on the back stairs to the deck, nothing whatsoever to imply that the Belfrys have violated your boundaries. But already the coffee has hit bottom and your mind is racing. You need to know more about these people. All you have is their name and address. You need numbers: license plates, social security, telephone, the combinations that when twirled on the dial of the system will cause all the tumblers to fall into place and give you the edge you need--more information.

Suddenly, you remember something from the stories Her Lovely Self reported last night: One of the Yummy Mummies talking about seeing Mr. Belfry leave his garage about the time the kids were waiting for the school bus.

The gears grind slowly for you in the morning, but with the aid of a little more coffee you finally put it together: The buses all come between 8:00 and 8:30. Belfry leaves about when the buses come. If you can somehow be near their house around that time, you'll be there when the garage door opens and you should be able to get the plate numbers of both cars.

But how to do it without being spotted?

You lash the dog to a porch post to stand guard (and also to relieve himself), then rush back inside, eat something, and ask to borrow your wife's van. She gives you The Look and when you try to explain, she simply sighs and reminds you to bring it back by twenty of 9 so she can take the Brownie to pre-school.

At 8, you dash out to the van. Yes, you could take your own vehicle, but it is the only white station wagon in the area and you have no way of knowing whether Mrs. Belfry has seen you in it. On the other hand, the van is a popular make and model (in your private moments, you have come to call it the Official Vehicle of the Yummy Mummies). In fact, you have counted no less than 10 in your surrounding neighborhoods. Two others besides yours are the exact color, too. You could not have picked a better vehicle for cruising your neighborhood anonymously.

As you edge forward out of the garage, the dog blocks your path. He is at the very edge of his leash and is trying to bark at you in a emphatic way, but it comes out "Gork! Glgork!" You jump out to move him. In the cold distance, you can hear the rumblings of school buses entering the development. There's no time for this. You unhook the dog and order him into the house. Instead, he arrows for the van and jumps in the driver's side door, which you left open. For a moment he appears as though he intends to actually pilot the vehicle, but as you climb in, he hops over to the passenger seat. You head into the street and begin slowly cruising down the block toward the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place. Invisible. Inaudible. Holding the enemy's fate in your hands.

But...let's just let that image sink in for a moment:

They're a couple of guys who don't play by the rules...

Here we have a man who has come straight from bed--and so bears spectacular bed-head which makes him look like nothing so much as, well, a crazy person--trying to look all casual in his pajamas and Sunday-go-to-meeting overcoat (topped off with a jaunty, Juicy-Fruit-striped girl's scarf), while next to him his dog, riding shotgun, is looking all about, yelping and sniffing and scratching up the dashboard as he tries to scrabble forward, not understanding that the windshield is keeping him from actually climbing up on the hood of the car. So he starts looking out the side window and begins whining excitedly at the neighborhood kids--and their parents--who are walking to one of three bus stops in the neighborhood. To a child, every one you pass stops and waves at the dog.

Yep, you are the picture of inconspicuousness.

Slowly, and resisting the urge to duck, you roll past the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place, past the house of the Belfrys. You continue on up Park Place to where the bus stop is now located (after the Belfrys forced it to be moved from their corner). Only one of two children has gathered, along with one mom, who stares at you as you stare at her. You have the slightest tint on the windows in the van, but at this moment you feel there is not enough tint in the world to hide that bed-head nor the crazed look it gives you. You know her Pervert Alarm has just gone off and if she sees you come back down the street it's likely you'll end up being the Crazy Neighbor in this scenario.

You make a quick left at the next street, then another left and another, and now you are on Boardwalk, coming down to the intersection of Park Place. When you reach the corner, to your left, at the bus stop, there are many more kids than before. The mom who saw you earlier seems distracted, so you make a left again, going past them to round the block one more time. As you come to the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place once more, you see the bus approaching on the left, its red flashing lights forcing you to stop where you are. You look to your right and--my God!--there's Mr. Belfry's car, stopped in the middle of the street, facing the bus.

And facing you.

"Get down!" you hiss to the dog. But you might as well have said, "Here, take the wheel!" The dog just looks at you, happy and panting. Has Belfry seen you? Does he know who you are? Quickly you cast about the cab of the van for something to write with, finding a short stub of pencil and a gas receipt. You scribble his license plate number on the back of the receipt. Your hands and forehead are slick with sweat, even though the van is frigid.

The bus lights go out and before it moves forward, the driver waves you to make your turn from Boardwalk onto Park Place in front of her. You gun it, and although you manage to clutch the paper with the license number on it, you drop the pencil and hear it roll to some distant part of the van. Ignoring it, you turn onto Park Place and you and Mr. Belfry pass within five feet of each other. He is a round-faced man with beady little lizard eyes. He is talking on his cell phone and seems not to notice you. As you pass the house, you see the Belfry's garage door closing. At the last second, you catch a glimpse of Mrs. Belfry's car--and her license plate. The school bus is right behind you. You dare not stop to forage for the pencil to write anything down, so you begin reciting the license plate number aloud over and over, until you get back to your house.

You skid to a halt in your driveway and leap out of the van. Kids heading up the street to another bus stop say good morning to you, but you ignore them, still muttering the incantation of letters and numbers over and over. You dash into the house still holding the receipt, grab the nearest pen and scribble the second license number below the first one. Mission accomplished.

"Good timing," says Her Lovely Self, as she and the Brownie arrive at the garage door, dressed to head to pre-school. HLS takes a moment to look you up and down. "You better go clean up and get to work," she says. You kiss them both and start to head upstairs to grab a quick shower.

That's when you remember: the dog.

You left the driver's side door open when you ran into the house.

You rush back out to the driveway, looking around wildly. No dog.

Just up the street, the van is pulling away. From her perch in the back seat, the Brownie waves and blows kisses. And then she is blocked from view completely as the dog rises up in the very rear window of the van. He seems to be laughing at you in exactly the way your wife will not be later, when she returns with her stowaway and that evening makes you run a lint brush over every surface of the interior.

But no matter, you have the numbers.

Back inside, you postpone your well-deserved shower long enough to call your friend who covers the police and courts for the Semi-Great Metropolitan Newspaper. You could do this yourself on the Web with a little time and more money than it's worth. But this man owes you A Favor. He knows it too, so when you ask him to run the plates on the Belfrys, he agrees with only a few questions.

When you tell your friend why you want the information, there's a short pause. "If they're your neighbors and you have their names and address and stuff, why didn't you just give me that?" he asks.

For a moment you are nonplussed. "You don't need their license plate numbers?"

"Well, no. If you really wanted me to expedite things, you should have gotten their dates of birth. But what I've got will work. And when I get the info from Motor Vehicles, it'll give me their driver licenses, cars registered to them, license plates of the cars, stuff like that," says the friend.

"So...you don't need the license plate numbers?" you repeat.

"No, MM, I do not need them," my friend says. And he says it slowly, emphasizing every syllable. Like he was speaking to an idiot.

Or a crazy person...

Monday, January 23, 2006


In Which We Take It One Day At A Time...

Day 1:

Crazy Neighbor yells at Her Lovely Self for a crime she believes you committed. She yells, then leaves, not even giving her name. HLS is too rattled even to think of writing down a license plate number.

She calls. She freaks. You freak. You cope by blogging. She copes by calling the Yummy Mummies (YMs). By the time you get home, HLS has already gathered three first-hand accounts of dealings with the Crazy Neighbors.

YM #1: She had virtually the same experience as Her Lovely Self. She owns a large black Labrador retriever and it is a well-established fact that Labs can excrete their own weight in crap everyday. This requires regular walking. YM #1 and her husband share the walking chores. While husband is walking dog one summer day, Crazy Neighbor, who is out mowing her lawn, suddenly veers towards him. She shouts over the mower engine that he has been failing to pick up after his dog. He waggles pooper scooper in her face by way of rebuttal and, a moment later, is even forced to demonstrate as his Lab assumes the familiar squat then and there. Crazy Neighbor shrieks at him, gesticulating at him and at the ever-growing pile of crap. She whirls the mower around, completing an odd crop-circle type design in her lawn, mowing and watching over her shoulder to make sure he retrieves all of his dog's crap. He does. Nevertheless, the next morning, the couple discovers two hardened doggy nuggets on their doorstep, with a note indicating that the husband missed these post-digestive gems.

YM #2: Last fall, she was waiting at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place (the corner where the Crazy Neighbors live) with one of her younger kids, standing in line with a group of children waiting for one of the first buses of the school year to come pick them up. As they stand on the sidewalk waiting, the garage door opens and the male counterpart of the Crazy Neighbors comes roaring backwards out of his driveway in an SUV. He backs it into the street until the vehicle is parallel to the line of children. He stares hard at YM #2, then picks up his mobile phone and appears to be making a call, even as he tears off down Boardwalk.

A moment later, Mrs. Crazy Neighbor storms out of the house, yelling at everyone in general to stay off her grass. YM #2 and the children look about: Everyone is on the sidewalk. When YM #2 points this out, the Crazy Neighbor insists that they are trespassing on private property. YM #2 asks her name. Crazy Neighbor refuses, but warns YM #2 "not to push her luck." Then ignoring YM #2 completely, she turns to the slightly frightened children and says, "I am with the police and if you know what's good for you you'll stay out of my yard or I could have any one of your arrested." This prompts YM #2 to respond in anger, telling the woman to return to her house, unless she wishes to be knocked on her ass. Crazy Neighbor opens mouth, closes it, opens it again, then scurries back into the house. From a safe distance, she shouts more unintelligible threats and remarks until the bus comes. (When YM #2 shares what happened with the bus driver, word goes up the chain of command and a voluntary decision is made to move the bus stop to another location, across and the down the street. The rumor that the Crazy Neighbors called the police and forced the change is erroneous).

YM #3: Lives diagonally across and three houses down from the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place, when her phone rings. When YM #3 answers, she is immediately assailed by a screeching voice. YM #3 demands to know who is calling. The caller identifies herself only as "living on the corner." She is furious, she says, because she knows YM #3 lets her dog out unleashed and he comes over to relieve himself in her yard. "I just saw him do it and run back to your house. That's against the law. If I see him in my yard again, I'm turning him over to the pound!"

YM #3 has presence of mind to retort, "Ma'am, if my dog comes into your yard again, please DO give me a call. He died last spring, so if you see him, I'd sure like to know about it." While the Crazy Neighbor stammers, YM #3 slam the phone down on her.

It is full dark by the time you arrive home and gather this information, which you find both illuminating and amusing. There are two key details that will prove useful as you formulate a response. The first--and the one that you must act on immediately--is that these people have a history of leaving nighttime deposits on the doorsteps of neighbors who have wronged them.

(The second piece of information no doubt leapt out at nearly every reader here, and will later prove to be a very useful, er, nugget of information indeed. Feel free to make guesses in comments below. As usual, yours truly, the Boy Detective, didn't realize how helpful this one piece of info would be until almost the very end).

While Her Lovely Self is relating each story to you, you begin rooting through the address books and documents you keep in a small desk by the kitchen. The development in which you live requires all residents to be automatic members in the development's homeowner's association. The association's primary functions seem to consist of sending out an annual bill for an ever-exorbitant membership fee; hosting quarterly meetings of the heads of the neighborhood watch groups in the sprawling development; dispatching a dried up old prune of a woman to yell at residents who haven't put their garbage cans away within 12 hours of trash collection; and issuing an annual calendar and directory. After some searching, you find the directory and under the address at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place you find them: Bob and Bea Belfry, 666 Park Place. No phone number listed (and directory assistance has them as an unlisted number), but no matter. Now you know their names, and naming has power.

But power is not enough. Sometimes, you need paranoia too. So, being Your Mother's Son, you prepare for the worst and anticipate a night assault. You descend to your basement of Crap which, despite being depleted by a recent giveaway, is still, well, a basement of Crap. In one of three boxes marked "Electronics" you find an assortment of patch cables and mismatched AC plugs. In the second box, tangled up in a gaggle of keyboards and mice, you find it: The wireless camera sent to you ages ago by some company for review.

It is a battery-powered device and in the cold night air it likely won't have power for long. You also can't locate the wireless receiver that is supposed to allow the camera to transmit images directly to your VCR or computer. Nevertheless, you mount the camera in a prominent spot on your front porch and leave the porch lights on all night. Until you get a proper (or at least operational) camera up and running, this non-functioning camera can serve as a scarecrow (a term you remember from your long ago days working at trade magazines, when you interviewed a manufacturer of fake security cameras, who claimed that a third of all security cameras in use today were either complete fakes or not hooked up to anything. Their primary function was simply to be visible, to preserve the illusion of surveillance. To be, well, scarecrows).

(Her Lovely Self, incidentally, is furious when she sees the camera. The last time this camera was used, it was as a nanny cam: you had it mounted in your baby son's room and the receiver was hooked up to the TV downstairs, providing a constant live feed that permitted you to watch your infant son snoozing. The camera and wireless hook-up remained in the room even after your son outgrew his nursery and was moved in his own room. Eventually it was consigned to the basement of CRAP. Until now.

That night you sit up in the living room, where you have a clear view of the front yard and driveway. Pacing back and forth in front of the door is the dog. Mrs. Belfry's visit was an upsetting one for everyone. The dog barked intermittently for the rest of the day. Now he can't bring himself to leave the front hall and ends up sleeping on the floor, blocking the door. You doze, wake around 3:30 and go up to bed. You need your rest because tomorrow, you've got to start doing interviews and you have to call in that favor with your friend. Your friend the newspaper reporter. Your friend the newspaper reporter who covers the police beat...

Thursday, January 19, 2006


In Which Someone Lets Slip the Dog Shit of War...

So, this is interesting:

Went out the door this morning to put the trash on the curb and found this on my welcome mat.


Blaze thinks: I KNOW that's not one of mine.

I went to bed around 12 last night, so some time between midnight and 5:30, when Thomas woke everyone up, my crazy neighbors drove up, one of them jumped out, made the drop, jumped back in and off they took.

We are now officially the victims of a drive-by shitting.

I confess, my first thought was, Boy, good thing I didn't send that letter from yesterday. Because, you know, that might have escalated things.

My second thought was Of course you know dis means war! Which I believe comes from Sun-tzu. Or Bugs Bunny. I always get them mixed up.

There was no note with the bag, just the bag. And of course its contents: a single, spectacular torpedo of frozen dogshit. I'm not kidding; this thing was huge. It was no bullet from your average .45 caliber canine rectum. This was a freakin' Howitzer shell. You don't need to be a ballistics expert to realize this didn't come from my dog. In fact, it was so enormous, I'm not sure it could have come out of my brother, and that's saying something.

(My personal suspicion is that this was the product of the large Great Dane-type dog that lives up the block from the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place, where the Belfrys live. Of course, I have no desire to confirm this. My interest in proving my suspicions goes only so far.)

It caused quite a stir at the Magazine Mansion. Thomas decided to play police sketch artist and secured a description of the Crazy Lady from his sister (you can see the result here). Her Lovely Self was no help in offering details for the sketch. In fact, she was so incensed, she couldn't decide which course of action to pursue, although at one point she wanted me to go over to their house with a fresh bag my own dog's crap and make a side-by-side comparison for them. Then she got mad at ME for not being as upset as she was.

"What are you smiling about, anyway? You don't know what it's like to be targeted and yelled at by this woman. It's not MY fault she has dog crap in her yard. YOU'RE the one she should be talking to. That'd wipe the smirk off your face!" she cried.

This is an old complaint of my wife's. She feels that I don't take things seriously enough, that the graver the circumstances, the more I turn into a grinning wise-ass. Which is true. But sometimes I think I'm justified.

I mean, can YOU think of any reason I might be smiling?


Maybe this will make it a little clearer.

Sun-tzu--or Bugs Bunny--also said: The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.

Ever since this crazy lady stormed into our life last week, I have been making calculations like a CPA at tax time. I just haven't talked about it very much.

But now, it's time to tell you everything.

Now, it's time to go to war...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


In Which the Self-Restraint is Almost Killing Me...

Hey, I need you guys to proofread something for me real quick:

Magazine Man
2323 Baltic Ave.
Somewhere, USA

Mrs. B. Belfry
666 Park Place
Somewhere, USA

January 18, 2006

Dear Mrs. Belfry,

We have not been properly introduced, but I am your neighbor, the Magazine Man, husband of Her Lovely Self, who you met last Thursday, January 12 and again this afternoon, while she was walking our dog, whose name, incidentally, is Blaze.

From my wife's experience and that of other neighbors you have encountered over the years (I have spoken to several in the past week) I gather that you do not wish people to know your name, since you have never offered it. Based on this fact--and the obvious care and scrutiny you give to the boundaries of your property--it is clear you and your husband Bob are people who treasure their privacy, and I have no desire to intrude upon it.

However, I must address certain accusations you have articulated to my wife both today and last week regarding my dog and the manner in which I conduct his daily walks.

Oh, let's not mince words: You have now twice accused me of allowing my dog to defecate on your lawn without picking up after him.

Having experienced the result of such rude (and unlawful) behavior myself, I can certainly sympathize with any neighbor who finds herself in the same predicament. I share the indignation that you feel--and that you more than adequately conveyed to my wife.

However, you've got the wrong man.

Oh, I have no doubt that you have seen me, that, as you repeatedly told my wife, you "know" who her husband is (though not, of course, in the Biblical sense). For the better part of two years, my morning routine has been to walk my dog around the block, which would necessitate passing your house at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place. It is true that my dog--like many dogs in our community--regularly stops to sniff and urinate upon the street sign that exists on your corner (here I use the term "your corner" very loosely, since the sign and the corner upon which it sits exist as part of public easement, and are not private property).

And while I appreciate your curious offer to "guarantee" my behavior, I'm afraid any such guarantee would be trumped by the truth: Mrs. Belfry, I always collect my dog's droppings. I am well aware that many dog owners in our community do not--I see the evidence every day--but I am not one of these people and I cannot be held accountable for their actions.

Nevertheless, as a result of your dramatic arrival at my house later that morning, and the manner in which you addressed my wife, we made a decision not to compound your mistake any further. Since that day last week, I have altered my walking route with the dog so as to avoid completely the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place. We felt such an action would remove us entirely from future suspicion and mistaken identity.

Alas, based on your brief discussion--or perhaps monologue would be a more accurate term--with my wife today, it appears that is not the case.

This afternoon, while she was walking my dog, you pulled your car into the driveway directly in front of her, so close in fact that she, being on foot, felt threatened--especially in light of the fact that she was walking with our 4-year-old daughter.

(In fact, one might go so far as to call your action "reckless," a term I believe you are familiar with.)

I understand that my dog's reaction to your startling appearance prevented you from opening your car door or even rolling down your window, but based on your sudden arrival, one can hardly fault a family dog for responding protectively. Nevertheless, my wife heard you clearly through the driver's side window, and was surprised to learn that you still suspect me of leaving dog droppings as recently as this week, despite the fact that I have assiduously avoided your area of the neighborhood.

Mrs. Belfry, I would be very grateful indeed if you would contact me at my office (my card is enclosed) so that you and I might discuss--and conclude--this unfortunate misunderstanding in a civil manner. If you are on speaking terms with any of our neighbors, I invite you to ask them about me (as I did about you). You will find that I am a respectful and conscientious resident of this community, especially when I am out in public with my family, including my dog. Our neighbors will also tell you that I am a man of my word. When I say that I pick up after my dog, I mean it (and the proof of it sits in dozens of bags in my garbage can, which you are welcome to inspect). When I say I have not so much as driven by your house since the day after your visit last week, you may rely on it.

You may also rely on the fact that I have reached the end of my patience as regards your behavior towards my wife. I feel that she--and I--have responded in an exceedingly reasonable and fair manner to your complaints that, I must observe, were articulated with unnecessary aggression and threats. I'm sure if our positions were reversed, you and your husband would feel the same way. So it should come as no surprise that I must now ask you to avoid further contact with my family, unless you are prepared to do so in a calm and courteous way.

Should you decline to contact me, which is your perfect right, then I will consider this letter the final word on the subject and hope that we may now put this matter to rest.

I thank you for kind attention and hope that you accept this letter in the spirit in which it is offered: as a good-natured attempt to deal with you in a reasonable manner.


If you persist in holding me responsible for the misdeeds of another, if you persist in harassing my family, then you will learn something about me that none of our neighbors could tell you: That when I have exhausted all efforts to be reasonable, I am fully prepared to be unreasonable. That the interval in which I will permit my family to feel threatened is very short, and once it has expired, I will not simply react. I will over-react. That as good a neighbor as I am capable of being (and still am willing to be to you), I am that much more implacable and unrelenting an antagonist. You have told my wife repeatedly that you know who I am. If you press me on this matter any further, you may discover to your chagrin that, in fact, you do not have the vaguest idea with whom you are dealing.

But I am confident that is a discovery you need not make. And so I thank you again for your attention and extend to you every good wish. Please give my regards to Mr. Belfry, unless he's already reading this. In which case, he can help himself.


What do you think? Should I slip it in their door tonight?

Or tie it to a rock and put it through their window?

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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