Tuesday, April 08, 2008


In Which Good Fences Make...you know...

Thomas is really not a troublesome kid, certainly not compared to some of his peers, and most definitely not compared to some former children with whom he shares the same gene pool.

But he's been a little unlucky in his friends of late. His best pal right now is a lad a few houses down the street, who has a mother who can be a real pain, asswise. The fact that the Asswises (for so we shall call them) are neighbors, and therefore harder to avoid than if they lived elsewhere, makes it a bit of a double-whammy. Mrs. A is furthermore one of those selectively hyper-aware mothers--the kind who is quick to notice problems in other people's children, but generally blind to her own offspring’s flaws. Of which there are many. Because these are kids, you know? They're works in progress and it's the height of arrogance to think they won't have a predilection for misbehavior now and again.

I certainly have no illusions about my children. Although I am quick to defend them if I think they are being treated unfairly, I am also the first to admit that my kids have their own unfortunate tendencies. Which is more than I can say for Mrs. A, who seems to feel that our son is some kind of bad influence on her perfect angels.

In the almost 6 years that we've lived in this neighborhood, Thomas has been in trouble with someone else's mom exactly once, and that was when he endangered himself by running into the street to pull that mom's toddler child to safety (and even then he wasn't exactly in trouble, you know?). But since this family has arrived, we've received so many telephone complaints following up a visit from Thomas that we pretty much dread letting him go down to their house.

Once, while the kids were playing super-heroes in the back yard, it was Thomas who was singled out for roughhousing, although every kid involved had skinned knees and grass stains on their clothes. Mrs. A's reasoning apparently was that because Thomas was the oldest (by maybe a year) he must of course be the engineer of the rough play and therefore should shoulder the blame for everyone's injuries and dishevelment. Another time, when Thomas came down to trade Pokemon cards, about as innocuous an activity as you could imagine, Mrs. A just decided that Thomas--again, no doubt because he was older--was trying to take advantage of her perfect, albeit naïve children--let's call them Cheeky and Sphincter--and so she supervised their trading session. Which by itself is just so fun-sapping and wrong, you know? But then she forced Thomas to surrender a rare card in exchange for a pretty crappy one that her younger son--that would be lil Sphincter--insisted was an even trade.

Oh, don't even get me started on that kid. Sphincter is about the Brownie's age, and is a real piece of work. If he were to take one of those aptitude quizzes and got a list of careers he'd be good at, I have no doubt that "super villain" would be at the top. That, or "used-car salesman." I find that the skill-sets for general slipperyness and deception are pretty interchangeable there. He's a great whiner when it comes to getting his way, and he has absolutely perfected the look of blank uncomprehending give-a-shitlessness that he can give you when you tell him not to do something in your house, like throwing a ball. Or a baby.

This past weekend, we had some gorgeous, quasi-summer weather, and we allowed Thomas to go down the street to play catch with his friends. Within about 20 minutes, we got the call. This time, Thomas was caught throwing a baseball at the Asswise's back fence. It's a wooden fence, not a chain-link one, and apparently Thomas threw one ball so hard that it split one of the cedar pickets and shot into the next yard.

At first, I was all, Cool. Just like in The Natural when young Roy Hobbs pitches a ball right through the wall of the henhouse but of course it was clear that a Deal was being made and that I was going to have to go down and survey the damage.

Which didn't seem that obvious to me. It was a fence with a double layer of pickets and the picket that broke was not on the Asswise's side, but on their neighbor's side of the fence--and would have been much more obvious to them than anyone else. As I examined the scene, I learned too that the next-door neighbors must have had a puppy at one time, because I could see that they had rather ham-fistedly nailed some blocks of wood to the picket at ground level, to keep a dog from digging under and out.

Mr. Asswise--who is actually a pretty nice guy, to tell you the truth--came out while Thomas and I were taking measurements. I like Mr. A not just because he's a regular Joe, but also because he seems to have this perpetual apologetic look about him, and there's no doubt what it is he's apologizing for. He noticed the chunks of wood his neighbors had applied to his fence.

"Yeah, they've got a pretty aggressive dog next door," he said.

"Oh, really?" I said, although I was thinking Why, of course they do.

"Yeah, pit bull. Doesn't bite, you know, but still makes enough noise to scare the kids. He was getting under and chasing 'em around the yard."

I made a mental note to check with the neighbors before I tried to fix the fence. And it was going to need fixing. What no one seemed to notice was that, because of the chunks of wood the neighbors had tacked up, they had split the picket long ago, so that pretty much any subsequent force--a good sneeze, say--would have split the picket all the way through and knocked it off the fence. Some 500 pickets on this huge damn backyard fence, and my son picks the one that's already broken.

Still, it seemed easy enough to fix. Thomas had already got an earful about respecting the property of others and now he was feeling rather guilty and responsible, so without any prompting from me or his mother, he had insisted on buying a new piece of fence and then nailing it back up.

Which was exactly the right attitude, and I told him so, although I was already pissed at the fact that my morning was going to be spent helping him be a more responsible citizen. For starters, there are many circles of Hell I would rather visit more than the local home-improvement store of a Saturday morning.

Plus, well, I guess there's no easy way to put this, but I was feeling mighty conflicted. Of course, fixing the fence was the right thing to do, but in the event, really, I couldn't get over the feeling that Mrs. A was making yet another mountain out of my son, poor Mr. Molehill. So he broke a fence-slat that, let's face it, was already split and ready to come off. It just wasn't that big a deal. I mean, I've suffered every indignity imaginable at the hands of the kids in my neighborhood--including young Cheeky and Sphincter. They have put some sizable rips in some expensive furniture, painted my walls, let their dogs crap on my lawn (I even had one kid drop his drawers and do the job himself. And guess who had to pick it up?), killed two trees and countless of Her Lovely Self's gardening projects, blown out the screen on my back door, scratched up my car, and even once managed to put an earthquake-style crack in my driveway (how that little shit got the sledgehammer over his head, I'll never know). And do you know how many times Her Lovely Self or I have felt compelled to call those kids' parents and make a stink? That's right: Zero.

Because to my mind, that's the cost of doing business as a parent, you know? You make a decision to have kids and that means they're going to attract other kids to them and pretty soon stuff gets dinged up. It's the way of the world. Or so I was always brought up to believe. I guess I just have a greater tolerance for disorderliness, which is fine most of the time, but when that sensibility butts up against the ideals of someone like Mrs. A, well, it makes me feel like I'm in a fight with both hands tied behind my back.

And I couldn't really share any of this with my son who, by the time we got to the home improvement store, almost seemed to be taking a kind of perverse glee in his guilt, telling the guy in the lumber department what kind of fencing he was looking for, then explaining to him (and to a random guy on a forklift and to the cashier) why he was in the market for cedar fencing anyway. I just went along with him--the dutiful Dad helping his son make it right--and we got our cedar fence piece and a small box of galvanized nails. Thomas carefully counted out six dollars of his own money and we went back to our neighborhood to effect repairs.

Now, careful readers of my life are already waiting for the part with the pit bull, because, for one thing, I'm just not that subtle when it comes to frontloading a story. For another, in the history of my blog, almost anyone who's read even one story here knows that if there's a pit bull introduced in the first part of a post, it will end up attached to my ass by the end.

However, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you a bit when I tell you that the very first thing I did when we arrived to fix the fence was to knock on the neighbor's door and see if we could get permission to go into their backyard and nail up the new fence piece. And before the doorbell could proceed from Bing to Bong, a tawny mass of teeth and hair was hurling himself against the glass on either side of the neighbor's front door. The dog was snarling and woofing at me in a way that seemed to suggest that he, too, was a regular blog reader, and was only too anxious to play his little part in the drama of my life.

Thomas looked a little anxious at this development, even though he was holding the hammer. "Maybe we should go get Blaze," he said. I assured Thomas we'd be fine. And anyway, Blaze was out on his backyard runner up at the house and could supervise our work from there. We waited a reasonable interval for the neighbors to appear. Finally, I peered into their garage window, saw their cars were gone and decided we were good to proceed.

We hopped the neighbor's fence and carried our tools to the spot where the split piece of cedar fencing lay in fragments on the grass, a baseball nearby. Almost instantly we heard the distant yowfing of our dog as his head appeared above our fence. Thomas waved to him (to much increased woofage from Blaze). Then we got to work: I showed Thomas how to use the hammer to pry out some of the extra nails that were still sticking out of the fence and as I did, I was surprised to note how wobbly this part of the fence was. Like most modern wooden fences, this thing had originally been installed in prefabricated lengths about eight feet long, and as I examined things more closely it looked to me as though this length had been nailed back up at some previous point--and with regular nails, not galvanized ones, so that they were pretty near rusted through.

As I was making this discovery, I heard the unmistakable voice of young master Sphincter, on his side of the fence.

"Whatcha doin', Thomas?" he asked, in exactly that way that suggested that he knew exactly what Thomas was doing.

My son showed remarkable restraint, focusing his agitation through the hammer as he pulled those extra nails from the spot on the fence where we'd be putting up the new piece. "He's so mean!" he hissed to me, each word punctuated by the Reeeenk! of a rusty nail. "He and Cheeky were throwing balls at the fence too, and they didn't get in trouble."

I looked up from my inspection. "Seriously?"

Reeeenk! "Yeah," he said. "He just (Reeeenk!) lied and said (Reeeenk!) he didn't do it." Reeeenk!

All of a sudden, it occurred to me to wonder just how often Cheeky and Sphincter threw balls at their own fence. Perhaps often enough to warrant a whole panel being knocked down (and having to be renailed, albeit with substandard materials), a detail nobody bothered to mention to me, or to Thomas during his lecture on respect for other people's property?

But then I didn't have time to wonder about that anymore because several things happened at once:

--I realized that Thomas had been pulling out way too many nails. In fact, he had pulled out all the rusty nails connecting the fence panel with the rest of the fence.

--Blaze's distant woofing, so often just sonic wallpaper in my average day, ramped up to a decidedly hysterical level.

--I turned to see what was bothering my dog and had time for one quick thought, and it was this: Doggy door!

--Which, coincidentally enough, is what the neighbor's pit bull had just come hurtling through on the back porch.

--As the dog came shooting across the yard, Thomas yelped and I felt a great weight smack me from behind as the entire eight-foot panel of cedar fencing collapsed on top of me. I pivoted in time to get both hands on it as the weight of the thing bore me almost to my knees, then I got under it and pushed it back up. A little too hard, as it turned out, because now I was lifting the thing up off the ground.

--Just then, Thomas climbed straight up my back and perched more or less on top of my head. The pit bull had arrived, snarling and snapping for all he was worth.

"Go! Go! Get the fuck out of there!" Blaze seemed to be barking in the distance. But you know, when you've got a 9-year-old on your head and about 70 pounds of cedar planks in your arms, getting the fuck anywhere is problematic. So I did the only thing I could, which was spin around and try to keep the fence between us and the dog.

For a second anyway, the plan worked. I don't think the pit bull expected me to try the Moving Fence trick. He backed away, growling at us for all he was worth. Then he tried to cut around the fence, so I kept turning, like a player in some surreal modern dance epic. We must have spun in about three full circles. Thomas said later it was like watching a bull fight, only, you know, with the matador wearing his son instead of one of those cunning hats, and using an 8-foot length of fence instead of a red cape.

And then I got the idea to sort of trap the pit bull between my piece of fence and the rest of the fence. So when I spun around a fourth time and got within sight of the fence, I took a step forward, nudging that tawny bastard up against the fence. He hopped back and I surged forward again, finally resting my burden up against the rest of the fence.

Except I hadn't, quite.

No, what I had actually done was put the length of fence precisely back in place. But in so doing, I'd also pushed the neighbor's pit bull out of his own yard.

And into the Asswise's yard.

Where, it turned out, he was only too happy to reacquaint himself with lil Sphincter.

Well, it all worked out okay in the end. Luckily for everyone, Mr. A was right: The pit bull turned out to be all bark and no bite. In short order, I was able to get him back into his own yard. It took considerably longer to convince the Asswise's youngest boy to come down from his perch atop the swingset (in fact, as of this writing, he may still be out there). Thomas got a somewhat unearned lesson in taking responsibility and mending one's fences, but I think it's fair to say that he also got an object lesson in poetic justice.

And no doubt you, gentle reader, learned a lesson too, which is that when a pit bull shows up in the story, you can be pretty well assured that he's going to get hold of someone's sphincter.

But it won't necessarily be mine.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Cheeky & Sphincter sound like two of the reasons I'm scared to death to have kids. Mrs. Asswise sounds like another...and a more prominent one at that!

I just love your stories!
So, I hope no back troubles from this incident? Having a 9-year-old kid on your back while swinging a fence sounds like it might aggravate things. I'm glad everything turned out OK for you and Thomas.
At least your life makes for great reading...

I have kids and am the only stay-at-home-mom in the neighborhood. I have more than my share of families like that. It's a grand life-lesson, but one I wish I didn't have.
This was a great story and I'm glad that nobody was hurt! :)
Oh my. That was a masterful setup and execution in story telling. Throw in some Stephen King-esque conversation with the Gentle Reader, and it's one of the best blog posts I've read in quite some time. Thanks for the great story and laugh to start my morning!
you remind my why every day i should thank my lucky stars that my daughter's friends parents are totally normal and laid back like we are. and that none of them have pit bulls.
Ahh Cheeky ans Sphincter...I think we have some of their relatives living down the street from me. Smarty and Tattle.....

Karma can be a bitch, eh MM? Think that little punk got what he deserved!

Hope your back is OK!
I hate people like that. Wait and see - those kids will be the ones in the most trouble in school! I spoken to a few teachers that have had encounters with parents like that - completely unwilling to admit their children have problems. It's a shame, because the kids don't get the help and guidance they need. They end up with no respect for authority and that bogus sense of entitlement.
They'll end up in jail by the time their 20.

That's when they'll know the true meaning of Cheeky & Sphincter!
I'm glad that little Sphincter got what he deserved: a good scare.

But it was really admirable of Thomas to take responsibility for his actions, even if it wasn't his fault. I don't know that I could have been that responsible at his age.

Glad to hear that you and Thomas are doing ok. Thanks for the good story! :D

:::hugs everyone at the MM mansion, even Blazey::: :)

Much love,
Geez I was worried more about the hammer and nails than the pitbull. :)

Hope the back is ok.
Great story!

I think it's good that your kids play with kids you don't approve of...it prepares them for life. I'm afraid my temptation would be to shield them from those kids, which while temporarily merciful would ultimately mean they'd be unprepared to deal with assholes.

I guess you never know though.
Wonderful story. Once again, you had me laughing aloud. And, for what it's worth, I am extremely glad that you didn't end up with the pit bull taking a chomp out of your behind.
I know pit bulls cause problems..but most I have met are big dufuses.

I'm glad this story didn't end in the ER..
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