Giving an old dog a new bone for Sadje’s photo prompt challenge. Woof!
“You mangy son on a bitch, get your ass off my lawn! Go on … get the hell outta here!”
That was Old Man Jenkins. He and his wife Harriet live next door to us and the source of his rage was none other than our pet French bulldog, Jacques. My husband Ted would run out of the house, apologizing profusely.
“Sorry, Mr. Jenkins! Jacques a handful but he’s just playing. He’s really lovable once you get to know him. Just look at that grin.”
“Get to know him!? Are you freaking nuts, Peterson? That bastard just crapped on my fruit trees!”
“Think of it as fertilizer, Mr. Jenkins” Ted suggested sheepishly and dragged Jacques away.
“FERTILIZER!?! I think you mean just plain shit!
“Hush now, Aaron!” chastised Harriet. “Using such language … why, there’s children next door!”
“Don’t hush me, Margaret! That damn dog’s a menace! If you can’t control your frigging mutt, Peterson, I’m gonna call the cops. Or maybe I’ll just put a bullet between his beady little eyes.”
And the kids started crying.
“Now, Mr. Jenkins, please don’t say things like that. You’re scaring my kids.”
“Well, that’s just too damn bad! You solve this problem or I will … permanently!”
Ted brought Jacques back inside, promising the kids everything was going to be ok, that Old Man Jenkins was just sputtering angry syllables he didn’t really mean.
The next few days we kept Jacques on a short leash. Old Man Jenkins seemed to calm down and busied himself with his fruit trees.
On Saturday morning Harriet Jenkins approached me in the grocery store. “Thank you, Alice, for keeping Jacques out of our yard. Now Aaron can care for his beloved fruit trees in peace. In fact, he’s been so preoccupied he hasn’t noticed the family of critters living in our wood pile. They’re just so darling, I even named them – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar!”
And off she went, chuckling suspiciously.
Sitting down to dinner later that day, we suddenly heard Old Man Jenkins yelling at the top of his lungs. We never heard him scream like that before so we knew it had to be something awful. Please … not Jacques! We raced outside, stopping dead in our tracks: there stood Old Man Jenkins, pricked by at least 100 porcupine quills.
So that was the “family of darling critters” Harriet was referring to!
“Excellent aim, my little darlings!” exclaimed Harriet. “Guess they know a prick when they see one, Aaron!”
My childhood home was a brand-new two-family brick house in The Bronx. It was the end house of a row of ten attached houses that looked exactly the same: each house was the mirror image of the one next to it. We were fortunate because we had a corner house which meant one side of the house was unattached, giving us a bit more property and providing access to our backyard via a walkway from the front. All the other homeowners gained access to their backyards through a door in the master bedroom or from the basement.
We lived on the first floor – my mother, father, sister Rosemarie and I – and always rented out the top floor. Over the years we had many different tenants ranging from an older couple and their unmarried daughter to newlyweds from our church. Almost all our tenants were people we knew; very few were new faces via word of mouth or people answering an ad posted in the local grocery store window.
Like most Italian families, we made good use of our large basement. We converted it into a comfortable open concept living space complete with bathroom, kitchen/dining room, TV area, a laundry and sewing room for my mother and workshop for my father. It was where we ate all our meals, did our homework, watched TV and basically hung out.
The basement had an iron girder running along the ceiling which supported the framework of the house; three floor-to-ceiling iron posts were positioned approximately10 feet apart and were attached to the girder. The cement floor was covered in a light-colored linoleum and the kitchen/dining area was painted a cheery yellow and white. One day my Dad came up with the idea to drill two holes about 20″ apart in one section of the girder. Using an indestructible S hook, he attached a wooden chain swing to the girder for me and my sister to play whenever we were unable to go outside. Pretty clever of him and great fun for us! When not in use we simply took the swing down and stored it away.
We only used the first floor for ‘formal’ entertaining and sleeping. There was a nice living room, a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and two bedrooms – the master for my parents and a second room shared by Rosemarie and me. The design of the second floor which we rented was very similar to the first floor with the same number of rooms and basic layout. With my mother’s permission, and only when my parents were home, certain tenants were allowed to use the laundry room in our basement. Mom was very circumspect as to who she allowed into our basement and not every tenant passed muster.
My parents rarely left me and my sister alone during the day and never at night; however, one evening they had a wake to attend and our tenants were not at home to watch over things. Our parents were reluctant to leave but Rosemarie and I pleaded with them to let us stay home by ourselves; after all, they were only going to be gone for an hour or two.
My parents finally relented. They didn’t want us thinking they were treating us like babies so, without our knowledge, they asked our good family friend John Barbato who lived across the street to keep an eye on the house. John was a retired NYC cop and when he was asked to keep an eye on something you can bet he took his task very seriously.
After Mom & Dad left, Rosemarie and I settled down in the basement to watch TV; all was quiet and we weren’t the least bit uneasy about being left alone for the first time. We were watching our favorite show, Dr. Kildare, gazing into Richard Chamberlain’s dreamy eyes, when there was a sudden commotion out in the backyard. We heard running down the stairs, a dog’s loud barking, banging on our door and a man’s gruff voice. We clutched each other’s hands and huddled close together on the couch in fear. Then we recognized the voice of John Barbato shout out “Rosemarie! Nancy! Are you in there? Is everything ok?”
Relieved but still rather apprehensive, we peeked through the back door window curtain and saw John brandishing an official police flashlight. He had a concerned look on his face as he reined in his skittish German shepherd ‘King’ who was literally chomping at the bit. King was always friendly around us but in his frenzied state we decided it would be wiser to keep the chain lock on the door. Opening the door just enough for John to see us, we asked what was going on, if everything was alright. John, apparently reassured to see us safe and sound, immediately tried putting on a nonchalant face as he pulled King away from the door with a “Quiet, boy. It’s ok.”
“Oh, hi girls” John replied breathlessly. “I was just taking old King here for a walk. You, know – getting our nightly exercise – and just stopped by to say ‘hi’. You and your folks watching TV?”
John was not a good liar; Rosemarie and I knew right away this was not an ordinary social call. One look at our friend with his agitated guard dog and a huge NYPD flashlight that could knock someone out in a single blow was not normal behavior for John. We told him our parents were out for a while and we were fine. He seemed content and with a self-conscious chuckle said “Well, ok. I’m right across the street if you need me. Goodnight, girls.” John instructed us to close the door and secure it with the deadbolt, which we did. Then he was off, King huffing and puffing at his side.
Rosemarie and I looked at each other as if it to say “What was that all about?” We returned to watching TV, both aware that we were sitting just a bit closer to each other than before John and King showed up. I couldn’t help asking myself one question: if John thought our parents were home and we were all peacefully watching TV together, why did he shout out our names and ask if we were ok?
Less than an hour later, Mom and Dad returned and asked how our first evening alone was.
“It was fine” Rosemarie replied, “except something strange happened with John. He and King came by looking all nervous and asked us if everything was alright. We talked with him for a few minutes and he left when he saw we were ok. He reminded us to lock the door with the deadbolt.”
My father didn’t even take off his coat. He went straight upstairs to use the phone which was odd because there was a phone right there in the basement. A few minutes later he came back downstairs and said he had to go talk to John. When Dad returned, he looked agitated and Mom quickly announced it was late and shooed us off to bed; we didn’t even get to watch the end of our show! From our bedroom Rosemarie and I could hear our parents talking but we couldn’t make out what they were saying.
The incident with John and King was forgotten until four days later when the third house down from us was broken into via the basement door. Items were stolen but worse than that – the woman living there had been assaulted. That scene with John and King at our basement door came rushing back to us. That was when my father admitted that John told him he was certain he saw someone sneaking around the back of our house the night my parents were out. If there was someone lurking around our house that night, they were gone by the time John and King arrived. Who knows; maybe someone was scared off when they heard John and his agitated dog approaching.
Fortunately, the woman who had been attacked was not badly hurt and was able to give the police a good description of her assailant. He was quickly apprehended and the revelation of who he was shocked everyone, especially my family.
One day my mother and I were home alone; I think I was about 9 years old. I was doing my homework and mom was cooking dinner when we heard someone knocking on our door. It was our neighbor Dotty Pessin who lived a few houses away with her husband and two teen-age sons. Dotty hardly ever stopped by so we were curious about her visit.
She and my mom made small talk for a little while then Dotty said in that whiney voice of hers, “So Nancy, I brought this record album over; I don’t know much about little girls so I hope you like it. It’s a record of kid’s songs. Why don’t you play it on your record player?”
Now this came as quite a surprise to me; it wasn’t my birthday or anything so I couldn’t understand why Dotty was giving me a gift. Even my mother was perplexed and said something like “That’s very thoughtful of you, Dotty” but Dotty just stood there smiling and watching me which was very surreal. Between you and me, I think she was a little simple-minded.
I removed the album from its jacket and placed it on my record player. I carefully lifted the arm and gently lowered the needle onto the record, then the three of us stood around listening to kid’s songs. I liked the record; I was 9 and they were kid songs. What’s not to like? After about four songs Dotty asked me what I thought of the record. I told her I thought it was very nice; I liked it a lot and thanked her for the gift.
I expected Dotty to say “I’m so glad you like it”, “You’re welcome”, “Enjoy it” or “You’re just the sweetest thing ever” – something along those lines. That’s not exactly how it went down. What she said was “Oh, it’s not for you! I bought the record for my friend’s 10-year-old daughter and I just wanted to see if you liked it. I figured if you liked it then she’d probably like it.”
Well, I may have been only 9 years old but I knew jive talkin’ when I heard it and I felt this whole scenario was pretty fucked up. My mother thought what Dotty did was rude, mean-spirited and misleading; I was just a little kid and mom gave Dotty a piece of her mind. My mother could really get medieval on someone’s ass when necessary. Dotty was bewildered and couldn’t understand why we were so upset. In a huff, she took the album and left. I think I may have cried; how would you have felt?
From that moment on Dotty Pessin became known as “Dotty Pessin, that Indian Giver” (which I realize today is totally un-PC and not acceptable).
But, come on; I ask you: who does that? After all these many years I remember that day like it was yesterday. Dotty-freaking-Pessin!
He really wasn’t a king; he was the mayor. Well, in truth, he wasn’t even the mayor. His name was Joe Montalbano and he was a royal pain in the ass.
Joe and his wife Pauline were one of the first couples to purchase a house on my street when they were built in 1960. They had a large piece of corner property – plenty of space for their precocious son Joe, Jr. to run around.
Joe was one of those guys who knew everyone and their business and they in turn knew him. A retired firefighter, there wasn’t a store owner, restaurateur or town official who didn’t know Joe. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus, the Kiwanis Club, the local beach club, the town pool, the Italian/American Society and the bocce team. He was a scout leader, coached Little League and marched in every parade. He also attended monthly town meetings and made his opinions known loud and clear. Joe had a lot of opinions.
Joe was the self-appointed inspector of our street. He would drive around in his maroon Bonneville doing 5 miles per hour checking every house for scofflaws. Now if Joe was doing this as some sort of community watch program to protect our little street, well that would have been fine. But that was not what motivated Joe. He was a busybody looking to make trouble wherever he could. Joe wasn’t happy unless he made his neighbors miserable.
If someone was doing a little home improvement, perhaps putting in a patio or cutting down a tree, that person better have a permit taped to the window and all the necessary papers in order. Joe would go out of his way to schmooze it up with the homeowners, make seemingly friendly small-talk and if everything wasn’t kosher, he’d sniff it out and report it to the town supervisor. Nice, right?
So, let’s say the poor schmo didn’t have a permit. He’d have to tear down any new construction he did on his own, apply for a permit and pay a hefty fine. Then if any new construction was approved, he’d have to hire someone to do the job and end up paying out the nose for work he could have done himself! But wait. If the construction wasn’t approved, then everything would come to a screeching halt anyway. And God forbid the building examiner found some unauthorized work that had been done years before; it would all have to come down. Good bye to that ‘illegal‘ den the family has been enjoying the last ten years. Thanks, Joe!
Once – and only once – I parked my car in front of my house facing the wrong direction. I wasn’t going to stay long; just enough time to use the bathroom and gather my dry cleaning. I couldn’t have been inside more than ten minutes when I noticed a police car out front. I ran outside but he cop was just pulling away and he had left me an unpleasant surprise – a ticket for “car facing wrong way while parked”. Who even knew that was a law? Apparently it is and I broke it to the tune of $150! Thanks, Joe!
Let’s talk about garbage for a minute. Collection days on my street are Monday and Thursday; we’re supposed to put our trash out in the morning on those days. God help the person who put their garbage out the night before! Good old snitch Joe would call the sanitation department. You can bet your sweet ass that person would get a serious reprimand and have to drag their trash back into the house. And if it happened again, a lovely fine would be doled out instead of a warning. Thanks again, inspector!
Everyone likes a little party occasionally, am I right? The Fourth of July, Super Bowl, graduation; these are times to celebrate. Invite some friends over, fire up the grill, have a few drinks, play a little music, talk, laugh, maybe even do some karaoke – that’s what people do at parties. Now, there’s a cut-off time for noise in the neighborhood; everything needs to end by 11:00 PM. So let’s say you’re on the front porch saying farewell to the last of your guests and it’s 11:08. Guess who pulls up in front of your house – Officer Krupke with his little ticket book and a big shit-eating grin, that’s who. “Is there a problem, officer?” you ask innocently. “Disturbing the peace by breaking the town noise ordinance” the cop replies as he taps his watch and hands you a summons. “You have a good night now.” You don’t have to ask who ratted you out; he must have all official phone numbers on speed dial.
That’s what Joe did; he went out of his way to make his neighbor’s lives miserable, all in the name of due diligence. Nice guy, that Joe.
So, years later when Joe finally kicked the bucket, everyone except the people who lived on our street went into mourning. The funeral was worthy of Vito Corleone! The fire department, the police department, the Knights of Columbus, the Kiwanis Club and the bocce team pulled out all the stops and paid for the biggest funeral with the longest limos, the most flowers and best catering the town could provide.
But our little street was cheerful as usual – not that we were necessarily happy that Joe was dead – oh, no no no! It was more a sense of relief knowing “Inspector Montalbano” wasn’t breathing down our necks … or anywhere else, for that matter.
Well, that sense of sweet relief lasted about a week. That’s when we saw the familiar maroon Bonneville crawling down the street at 5 miles per hour. And who was behind the wheel? Why, it was Joe, Jr.
One of the first things I noticed about the house across the street was the candle in an upstairs window.
It was December 1980 – two weeks before Christmas – and we had just moved into our new home. My mom quickly located the boxes marked ‘CHRISTMAS LIGHTS’ and put my dad to work decorating outside. When he was done every house on the street was aglow except for the one with the solitary candle.
I was fascinated by that candle; it was lit twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When I told my dad I was afraid the house would burn down, he assured me that the candle was either electric or battery-operated; the ‘flame’ didn’t flicker and the candle never melted. That made me feel a lot better.
About a week later there was a knock on our front door. Mom answered and I scurried along behind her, anxious to see who was visiting us for the first time. Standing on the front porch was a chubby little old lady with silver hair, twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks and I couldn’t resist blurting out “Are you Mrs. Claus?” She chuckled a bit saying no, she was Mrs. Granger from across the street and had come to bring us an angel food cake as a welcoming gift. Mom introduced herself and invited Mrs. Granger inside but she declined saying “perhaps another time”. Before she left I told her my name was Eleanor and I had just turned ten on December 1. She smiled slightly at us but there was sadness in her eyes.
Mrs. Granger’s angel food cake sat on one of her beautiful Spode Christmas plates. Mom said we should return the plate on Christmas Day brimming with sugar cookies, which is exactly what we did. We rang the bell and mom apologized for showing up unannounced, adding that she hoped we weren’t interrupting her Christmas festivities.
“No, dear. Not at all. I was just preparing myself one of those frozen TV dinners – turkey, for a special treat.” Mom made polite small talk while I glanced around the living room. There wasn’t a single Christmas decoration in sight, not even a card. A fading ember in the fireplace made me think that Mrs. Granger was probably very lonely.
I suddenly found myself asking the question: “Mrs. Granger, why is there a candle in the window upstairs?”
Mom gave me a withering look as Mrs. Granger slowly walked to the sofa and slumped down. I felt awful when she started crying, dabbing her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. Mom sat next to her and held her hand, not speaking.
In hushed tones Mrs. Granger told us her story: she married late in life and was blessed with a son, Edward. Her husband died in an accident when Edward was three years old and she raised the boy by herself. When the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, Edward enlisted; he was declared MIA on December 1, 1970 and she hadn’t heard a word in the ten years since then. The candle in the window was her way of holding vigil for Edward, steadfastly waiting for any news. We sat together for a few minutes, then Mrs. Granger politely said she wanted to be alone. Silently we left. It was then that I understood why she looked so sad when I told her my birthday – the dreadful day her son went missing.
Two days later mom returned to Mrs. Granger’s. She apologized for the intrusion on Christmas Day and said we hoped she would join us for New Year’s Day dinner. Mrs. Granger said gently “No, dear. I haven’t celebrated a new year since Edward disappeared.”
All week I thought about Mrs. Granger. Our New Year’s Day table was set for three, sparkling with mom’s best dishes, silverware and crystal glasses. I sat in the bay window watching the lightly falling snow; then I noticed the candle in the window of Mrs. Granger’s house was not lit.
“Mom!” I gasped. “The candle is out.”
Mom, dad and I walked across the street on leaden feet. Mom rapped softly on the door; we could see a dim glow coming from the fireplace. One more knock and the door opened slightly; Mrs. Granger appeared, her face wet with tears.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Granger?” mom inquired with obvious concern in her voice.
“Oh, my dear! My mind has been preoccupied all day” she replied, her voice trembling. “You see, I received some news today.”
Mrs. Granger turned and walked back inside, leaving the door ajar; apprehensively we followed her. By the fireplace stood a smiling soldier; her long-lost son Edward had finally returned home.
It all came about one day in April. Newly divorced, I had recently moved into a house in the country and was enjoying my morning coffee on the patio. Birds of many different varieties flitted about the bushes and fruit trees in the yard next door. Even a couple of deer and a few rabbits were contentedly munching on the grass. I felt like I was in the middle of a Disney movie and wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the animals started singing!
Looking around my property I couldn’t help but compare my landscaping to that of my neighbor Marjorie. Hers was overflowing with every sort of plant imaginable while mine had a paltry number of pitiful-looking bushes on the verge of death. Right then I began to envision my very own Garden of Eden; there would be shrubs and trees and flowers everywhere, even a few statues and perhaps a water feature. My yard was going to be even better than Marjorie’s!
Perhaps her ears were burning or it was just a coincidence but at that very moment Marjorie turned in my direction. Even from thirty feet away I could see her beady eyes squinting at me. A rather obese woman, she was sweating profusely as she labored in her garden, her ridiculously small bonnet providing little shade to her balloon-like face. I waved to her but she didn’t wave back; either she didn’t see me or she chose to ignore me. Marjorie wasn’t all shits and giggles. Her husband left her for another woman (no big surprise there!) and her grown children lived far away. It seemed like her only joy in life was gardening.
Being a city boy I knew nothing about gardening so I called the local nursery where one could get anything from a watering can to a majestic pine tree. One of the workers came by a few hours later and walked through the property with me, making suggestions as we went along. I told him how much I wanted to spend and gave him free reign to plant whatever he thought best – the more impressive the better.
A few days later the nursery truck arrived at my house. I caught a glimpse of Marjorie peeking through her curtains as my purchases were unloaded and carried into my yard. The landscapers got to work planting everything from small flowering shrubs to walls of bamboo. They put in a birdbath and several animal statues as well as a Japanese-inspired water feature. Before my eyes the once barren desert was now a flourishing oasis. Take that, Marjorie!
My new bountiful yard only spurred her on to do even more planting; every time she added something new, so would I. It became a childish game of retaliation.
Returning home from shopping one day I was shocked to see a police car and an ambulance outside Marjorie’s house; she had suffered a fatal heart attack while working in her garden. Well, there certainly was no love lost between us but I never wished the woman any harm. I hoped whoever moved in next door would treat Marjorie’s yard with the same tender loving care.
A few weeks later I woke up to the screeching sounds of power tools. Unable to see through my dense hedges, I walked to Marjorie’s old place; all her marvelous landscaping was being leveled to the ground! After everything was hauled away a bulldozer began digging a huge hole for a swimming pool. Week after week work continued on the pool. Occasionally I’d see two attractive women talking in the driveway, obviously the real estate agent and the new homeowner.
Finally one August day all was quiet; the pool construction was complete. I had asked my friends Charlie and Frank to come over to help me install my new 80″ flat-screen TV. Afterwards as we sat on the patio enjoying burgers and ice cold beer we became aware of the sound of splashing water and girlish laughter.
“Damn kids!” I grumbled, rolling my eyes.
Charlie nearly spit out his beer. “Don’t tell me you don’t know!”
“Know what?” I asked. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You dumb son of a bitch!” Frank howled. “You got two super hot chicks living next door to you! You could be savoring some girl-on-girl action right now if it wasn’t for that damn bamboo curtain!”
“You mean those two women are a couple?” I asked Frank in disbelief.
“Oh yes, my friend. Very much so!” Frank replied cracking up.
Damn! I just couldn’t let old Marjorie win. Hoisted by my own petard!
Open a map of New York, go as far east as possible and you’ll find the town of Montauk – a laid-back fishing village kissing the Atlantic Ocean. I lived there with my brother and parents. Winters were harsh and barren, a sharp contrast to the summers teeming with tourists escaping madding NYC in search of the perfect wave, a golden tan. My favorite month was April – trees budding, flowers sprouting, the delicious smell of the ocean.
Our house was off the beaten path, with only two neighbors nearby. One was a young couple with rambunctious five year old triplets: Timothy, Thomas and Theodore – ‘The Terrorizing Trio’. The boys had identical bicycles – one red, one blue, one yellow – which they rode with wild abandon throughout the neighborhood.
Our other neighbor was snooty old Professor MacGregor, newly-retired teacher turned nature enthusiast. He was very particular about the upkeep of his yard and the glorious profusion of flowers attracting all varieties of birds and insects. His pride and joy was a tall redwood hive encasing eight honeycomb trays. Inside sat the queen, surrounded by her working and droning colony. Mac, our secret nickname for the professor, would don his protective suit every day and inspect the hive and the honey within – puttering, muttering – making sure everything was as it should be.
And it always was .. except for THAT day when mom looked outside and saw a huge black swarm rapidly approaching. Closing all the windows and doors, we watched anxiously as thousands of buzzing bees hovered over our house, took a sharp turn and headed straight for town. Once we knew it was safe, we ventured outside only to hear the enraged obscenities of the professor.
Dad and the triplet’s father ran over to see what was going on. There in his yard was a blustering Mac, wandering around the remnants of his beloved hive which were strewn about the yard, the redwood gouged and marred with traces of blue, red and yellow paint. The triplet’s dad groaned and raced out the yard toward his house, yelling out their names as he ran.
Suddenly, we heard screams coming from the village as horrified townsfolk ran for cover from the buzzing horde. It took a long time for Montauk to settle down; the only one to benefit from that infamous day was the town doctor, busily tending sting after sting after sting.