“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”

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Every morning I take the pooch out for a walk before work, for the most part letting him decide our course, wherever his eleven pounds of fluff might wish to take us on any particular day.  Our initial route has been pre-determined by me. We go down the driveway and turn right, heading up the hill via the sidewalk of our favorite neighbor. With luck, he is outside smoking a cigarette so our pup can enjoy a visit with him and I can too.  Once past his house, the dog knows to head into the street, totally bypassing even the sidewalk of the following house. That is the house of Beverly X, the nastiest bitch on the block, perhaps the whole neighborhood. I had the unfortunate pleasure to tangle with her before I’d even moved into my place almost twenty years ago.

The house closing was scheduled for Monday morning, and the retired couple who’d lived in it for some forty years had already moved to their new apartment. They gave me keys the day before so I could go in to clean. Bright and early that Sunday morning I arrived with a new mop, and a bucket crammed with every cleaning product imaginable, incredibly charged at the thought I’d finally become a homo-ner. My wonderful next door neighbors appeared at their dining room window as I pulled into the driveway. Opening it while I unloaded my car, they introduced themselves and welcomed me to the neighborhood-genuinely warm and so friendly as they still are today. I could not have chosen better.

I carried myself over the threshold, and set to work on my cleaning marathon. To clarify, I am far from meticulous. My plan was to take advantage of the fact that the house was totally empty.  I could accomplish a thorough cleaning from top to bottom this one time, and I’d be basically set-at least until the thirty-year mortgage was paid off. I spent my first few hours concentrating on the kitchen, crawling into cupboards and cabinets, slathering lemon-scented ammonia full strength in corners and cracks I was certain had not been touched since the house was completed in 1929. It seemed the lemon couldn’t begin to cut through the acrid ammonia fumes which now were eating at the lining of my sinuses. I needed some fresh air and a cigarette to soothe my nose and throat. Shedding my Playtex extra-large gloves, I headed out into my back yard to survey my acreage.

The house is a two bedroom bungalow on a small piece of land. There is not much yard, which was purposeful, not wanting to waste my weekends maintaining a lawn. The backyard is sixty feet wide and only about twenty feet deep, sloping sharply uphill. The boundary line is a low, New England style stone wall, beyond which is wooded property left over by the original developers, not wide enough to cut another street. Looking into these woods beyond the stone demarcation, you would guess you are anywhere but in a small city neighborhood. The wildness of it evokes a tiny glade. The realtor explained it runs the length of our short block, and was purchased decades ago by owners of a house near the end of our road. It makes quite a lovely backdrop for the homes on our side of the street.

I sat on the smooth stone wall as I smoked, extending my legs, half-heartedly doing some stretching exercises to relieve my already sore shoulders and lower back. Just as I stood up to explore a bit deeper into the private autumn wood, a figure appeared out of nowhere, halting me with its presence.

“This isn’t your property!”, a gruff voice barked, cutting the sylvan silence. “My father bought this land after he bought our house.”

I backed away from her, stepping quickly and cautiously to my side of the wall, as though the crunching orange leaves were hot coals and my feet were bare. I assured her I was well aware of the property lines and would never think of stepping foot into her woods again. I was pissed that she’d so easily intimidated me. Now on my own turf and distancing myself enough to be able to study her, what I saw was not pretty. She was tall for a woman of a certain age, probably five foot nine or ten, built with shoulders broader than mine and a matching wide, flat ass. She wore a plaid flannel shirt and matronly trousers. Her greying hair was cropped severely, barely washed let alone brushed. Not a lick of make-up nor a scintilla of feminine quality, she was beyond plain. She was downright ugly, and after that introduction, it was definitely through and through, inside and out u-g-l-y.

“The boy who lived in this house used to come back here at night and smoke pot with his friends”, she tattled on him bitterly.

“Well, I’ll be sure to smoke my pot on this side of your wall, don’t worry”, I spit back at her. God, what a pathetic creature she is, I thought to myself.

“He even came back here sometimes…to have sex”, she choked on those last words.

“Really, how do you know? Were you watching behind a tree?” I grinned sarcastically.

“I found the condoms”, she pronounced her final word with a shudder, as though imagining what the discarded latex sleeves had once housed.

“I like my sex in bed.” I started to head back to my house.

“My name is Beverly.” I stopped in my tracks. What-after verbally abusing me she was now suddenly moved to introduce herself? Turning, I leered at her, wishing I could zap her into oblivion with my steely glance.

“You are some welcome wagon. Please don’t EVER speak to me again. You are a miserable bitch.” I slammed both the screen door and the back door, wishing her head was between them both. Once back in my kitchen, attempting to process the scene, I was overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu. But that other time, I was just a scrawny tyke of five.

Growing up we lived next door to the Schmidt family.  I’m told our two families moved the same week in the spring of 1950 when I was only three months old. Their daughter was born the following year, but I first remember her that summer before kindergarten. I got my swimming pool and Jeanie Schmidt got a swing set with a sliding board. My mother didn’t like me going over there, plus Mrs. Schmidt was awfully weird, especially to a five-year-old. She had scary bug eyes and long, stringy, dark brown hair. Her teeth looked too big for her mouth and she never wore lipstick, not even to church on Sundays like all the other moms did on our street. Based solely on her looks, my older brother had dubbed her the Witch of Edgecliffe Street.

When all we neighborhood kids were out playing together, Jeanie never went home to pee or wee-wee or tinkle like a normal kid. She either ‘urinated’ or ‘moved her bowels’. She was four years old, for chrissakes! Urinate was somewhat comprehensible to me at the time, but the bowel moving thing was beyond the pale. But then, Mrs. Schmidt did have this thing about scatology. She once told my mother as the two weeded their flowerbeds, that they were having a water softener installed because she quote: “had a crooked rectum” and had difficulty moving her bowels. Mom said it was all she could do to keep from laughing in the woman’s face. My father wondered how you’d even knew if you were so horribly cursed. “What’s the doctor do”, he questioned, “stick a wire up yer’ ass and if it comes out bent your rectum is cock-eyed?”

So it is a scalding hot August afternoon and my mother has sent me outside to cool down in my pool. It’s on a small patio a few feet away from the Schmidt backyard and near enough to our kitchen for Mom to keep an eye on me. She has a small cake-making business and if it isn’t already hot enough, she’s baking a wedding cake for an order that weekend. It has to be over 100 degrees in the kitchen. Jeanie is swinging on her swing set, sing-songingly taunting that she ‘can swing high in the sky’ and I can’t. I am trying to ignore her, but she begins to get the better of me.  Sitting on the metal corner pool seat I start to stick my little tootsies out onto what I’ve been told is the beginning of the Schmidt yard.

“Mother”, Jeanie sings towards the back of their house, “someone is trespassing on our property!”

“Jeanie! Come in here immediately”, calls the Witch of Edgecliffe. I slide back into the water, hoping to splash the burning sun off my shoulders and back. Almost as quickly as the screen door slams behind Jeanie, it opens again for the entrance of the scary Mrs. Schmidt in an aqua bathing suit complete with a ruffled skirt. She confronts me poolside.

“Do you see this gully in the lawn? It runs the length of our property. Jeanie’s father dug this for drainage and to mark the line between our two yards.”

Her mere presence so close frightens me to death, plus I have no idea what a gully is. She keeps dragging an ugly naked foot up and down in the grass where the lawn looks sunken a bit. I try looking away, because the gnarled, dirty toes are even uglier than her witch’s face. She persists in badgering me. Almost as quickly as my tears begin to trickle down my cheeks, I hear our kitchen door slam and my mother appears on the patio. Mom never learned how to swim and lives in fear of water, so of course she has no bathing suits. She is dressed in a white bra and shorts-her baking costume on this sweltering summer day.

When the Witch sees my mother, she retreats for her door.

“Lil Schmidt, you get back here!”, my mom screams at her in the voice she saves for my older brother or me when we’ve done something that truly makes her crazy. “Who the hell do you think you are telling my kid what to do in his own yard?”

Returning to our patio, Mrs. Schmidt points out the depression in the lawn, stating that Jeanie had seen me putting my feet in the gully on their property. The two women are now nearly nose to nose.

“His foot is hardly five inches long! What the hell is wrong with you people? You and your husband are really queer. I feel sorry for your daughter. She doesn’t stand a chance of being normal.”

The witch is unmoved by my mother’s words. She rehashes the boundary argument, now getting down on her hands and knees demonstrating as though Mom was an imbecile, showing  just where their property begins.

“I haven’t even gotten paid for this wedding cake yet, but my husband is taking me to SEARS tonight and we’re gonna’ buy a fence so there’s not ever going to be a question where your goddamn yard starts and mine ends. Then I’m gonna’ plant a hedge and let it grow twenty feet tall so I don’t have to see you, or your goddamn house, you witch.”

“I know that’s what the kids in the neighborhood call me”,  Mrs. Schmidt counters, now nearly bosom to bosom with my Mom, “but I didn’t think you would join them”.

“Nobody on Edgecliffe likes you, Lil Schmidt. They all think you’re a kook!”

“Well thank you”, she straightens her bathing suit skirt, stalling for what tact to follow next. “It’s like having B-O, I guess. Sometimes you never know you’ve got it until someone else tells you.” And those were the last words the two spoke to each other, for nearly ten years.

My parents did go to SEARS that very night. The next week they had a survey done in order to make sure to follow town ordinances to the letter. Turned out the infamous Schmidt gully had been dug on our property. My mother wanted them to fill it in before the fence went up, but cooler-headed Dad prevailed.

The following weekend my grandfather and uncle came out to help my father install the wire fence. Mr. Schmidt appeared early on and asked if they needed his assistance. My father suggested something else he might do instead. My grandfather planted a privet hedge for us that ran the length of the backyard. In a few years it filled in. By five years it was taller than the fence and so thick and lush it might as well have been made of bricks.

Our two families became civil with one another, without a formal truce ever being signed, once I’d started junior high. But the Schmidts only got weirder with the years. Friends and family, whenever they’d visit, wanted updates on our odd-ball neighbors. They begged to hear again the story of the day my five-foot tall, one-hundred-pound Mom, dressed like some Greek warrior goddess in her armored brassiere, fought the wicked Witch of Edgecliffe Street.

POST SCRIPT

About three years after moving into my own home, Beverly X reared her extremely ugly head once again. I’d hired a lawn service for my yard. It’s so hilly it is almost impossible to maintain with a lawn mower. To attack the job three men with huge weed whackers and one guy with a small mower come twice a month and do a fantastic job.

What I never thought to ask was what they did with the clippings and weeds. I had assumed they carted it all away in their trucks. Turns out, they’d been dumping them over the wall, thinking it was either part of my yard or the city’s. It was the same place where they’d heaved several small mountains of leaves from a spring clean-up. Here is how I learned of this:

Halfway through the summer, a letter appears in my mailbox, without address or stamp. It is marked only ‘Matthew’. I do not recognize the handwriting. Upon opening it, it is a two-page epistle, (both pages written front and back), in a small steady scrawl. You can see the writer presses firmly on the pen doing so in an androgynous hand. Quickly flipping to the back of the second page at the very bottom, I see it is signed ‘Beverly X’. Before even reading it my blood boils and I am seething with hate and disgust.

The first few paragraphs reiterate her original complaint, that her father purchased the land when he bought the family house when she was a child. This might be a good time to interject what I’d learned from neighbors, all of whom suffered various run-ins with Beverly through the years. Her mother had died over twenty years before and her father more than a decade ago. Beverly lives in a beautiful college town, and only spends a few days each week in her dead parents’ house to care for the property. She cannot bring herself to let the property go, the hopeless psycho.

Her letter advises me that my lawn service has been discarding grass clippings on her land. She has measured the amount in cubic gallons, estimating some cockamamie number or other which means absolutely nothing to me. I walk onto her hallowed ground for the first time since she originally chastised me and see there are several months of clippings, some already beginning to compost. Likewise she has measured the decayed leaves from the previous year. Oh, and there are two desiccated Xmas trees as well. She wants it all removed. She’s given me a deadline of a week, or maybe ten days.

I get on the phone with Mr. Tran the lawn guy and tell him he has to clean up the area, and promise to never cross over the stone wall again. I contract to pay ten dollars more each month to have the clippings taken away each time. He charges me very little to remove the old stuff which he will do the coming weekend, in ample time to meet her deadline.

Bright and early the prescribed Saturday morning, there is a rapping at my back door at 8:00 a.m. Thinking it’s the lawn guys, I open the door, and there stands Beverly X. She doesn’t say hello. She wants to know why I haven’t replied to her letter. I tell her I didn’t believe her letter requires a written response. I advise her first, that it is a Federal offense to use a mailbox without mailing a letter with a stamp-that she is fortunate I am kind enough to not report her to the Feds, trusting that she will never again touch my mailbox because the next time I will report her.

Next I tell her that my lawn service will be removing everything this morning. I assume I have permission to allow them to stand on her deceased father’s ground to do the work. The fool nods in agreement and says “Of course they do.” I so want to bitch slap the gorgon right there on my back steps. Of course I do not. I am more of a lady than she is, for certain.

I caution her that the dead Xmas trees are not mine. I dragged my tree to the curb in January and the city hauled it away. I have no idea whose trees these are, but I am not responsible for them. I’d like to suggest where she might put them and where they would surely fit, but I hold my tongue.

Lastly I ask if all the above will satisfy her complaint, half-thinking she will now demand a written apology that she can post on her long-dead parents’ tombstones. She says it all sounds fine to her.

“Sorry it had to come to this”, she says pathetically.

“I’m not”,  I fire back. “Now, you get the fuck off my property, before I call the cops. And don’t ever set foot on it again.” I am happy to report, more than fifteen years later, she has not.

As the dog and I walk in the street past her house each morning on our way up the hill, I gaze on her perfect yard. Some mornings she’s out there early, slaving. Sometimes she looks our way. If she does I usually face forward, in the direction we’re walking. Certain days, if I am feeling really nasty, I stare at her, like some weird oddity-some creature on display in a freak show. I would feel sorry for her, but she really is a misery. It angers me that it’s possible to waste so much precious emotion on such a waste of humankind. Then I smile, wondering what a matchup between Beverly X and my warrior mom might have been like.

2 thoughts on ““Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”

  1. These are some crazy people you write about, Matthew. Beverly reminds me of the Shirley McLane character in the movie “Bernie”. It seems you inherited your mom’s warrior gene.

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