|Image via Wikimedia Commons|
Miles got the call at 6:25 in the morning, five minutes before his alarm was set to go off. He checked the number, and considered tossing his phone across the room, except that would just bring the caller to his front door. His wife, Katlin, stirred beside him but did not wake. A buzzing phone she could sleep through, but a doorbell? Miles chose the lesser of two evils and answered.
“Hello, Jack,” Miles said, rolling out of bed and stabbing blindly with a foot for his slippers.
“I prefer Jackson, Mister Riverside.”
“Of course, of course. What can I do for you?” Miles bit back a grunt as his bare foot crushed a piece of kibble the cat had carried into the bedroom as a midnight snack. He decided to forego the slippers.
“He’s doing it again,” said Jack in a distinctive nasally tone Miles had grown to loathe.
“No, George Washington. Of course Derward Breen!”
Miles shook some coffee into a filter and started the pot. He turned and stared in the direction of Jack’s house, clear across the neighborhood.
“I’m not certain what you want me to do.”
“You’re the president of the homeowner’s association, which bleeds me each January for over four hundred dollars. I don’t use the pool, I don’t care about the hedges and marigolds around the clubhouse, but I do expect something in return. Like maybe being able to enjoy an unobstructed sunrise in my back yard.”
Miles frowned at some stray coffee grounds that were working their way between his toes. Should he clean them here, or could he tiptoe his way to the shower without grinding coffee and cat food into the carpeting?
“Has Derward added any height to his outbuilding?” Miles asked.
“You mean his monstrous eyesore? No, but –“
“Then like we’ve discussed before, there’s nothing I can do. It meets the covenances.”
“But he’s standing on it! Chanting gobbley-gook and gyrating.”
“Did you ask him to stop?” Miles asked. He opened the fridge to get the creamer and found it nearly empty.
“Yes, but he just nods and says it’s a religious thing, which it is certainly not. He was Presbyterian up until he stopped coming to my church a year ago.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Miles said and hung up. He’d go see Derward after a trip to the grocery for creamer. There’d be no peace in the house if the morning coffee started without creamer.
Derward Breen’s gap-toothed smile greeted Miles later that morning.
“Hey, Milo, how’s it hanging?” Derward said.
“I got a call this morning from your neighbor.”
“Old Jackass? We should call immigration on him. I’m sure there’s a banana republic somewhere in the world missing its tin-plated dictator.”
Miles limited himself to a wan smile. Jack was known to record these confrontations, though Miles could never see where the cameras were hidden.
“Derward, you need to bury the hatchet with this guy. I’m getting ulcers.”
Derward began walking to a gate leading to the back yard and motioned for Miles to follow.
“You know, before he moved in, I used to have a dog run here beside the house. He complained because the dogs barked every time he took out the garbage. The man empties his garbage five times a day. A reasonable man might move the garbage cans, but the board sided with him, and I had to move my dog run. The grass never has grown back.”
Miles looked at the balding lawn strip, and sighed. “It’s in the rules, Derward.”
Derward pointed at a hose snaking its way from an air conditioner to a faded blue kiddie pool. “He complained that the water from my AC was soaking under the fence line and rotting out the boards, though we both know it wasn’t hurting anything. The board sided with him.”
“Fences are the responsibility of both neighbors, Derward. I get calls on them –“
“But the kicker was my hummingbird feeder. Unsightly, he called it. ‘Cheap plastic crap filled with noxious Kool-Aid.’ Move it. I didn’t. He took pictures and sent them to me, asking why I hadn’t taken it down ‘like we had talked about,’ even though I didn’t agree to a damned thing. Guess what happened.”
Miles pointed to the hummingbird feeder. “It’s still there, Derward. They just made you lower it to an allowable height.”
Derward spat. “And how did they know it was too high? Because Jackson sneaked over here in the middle of the night with a tape measure and camera to show it was six inches too high.”
Miles gestured to what up until now his gaze had purposely avoided. In the middle of the back yard, a scale replica of an Incan pyramid. Ten feet wide at its base, its five stone tiers rose up eight feet to a miniature temple just large enough to allow a man to stand on its roof. Miles peered inside the temple.
“Is that a Barbie doll inside there?”
“Human sacrifice. Come the solstice, I’ll squirt ketchup down the steps. See how Old Jackass likes that. “
Miles shook his head. “You can’t do this, Derward.”
Derward scowled. “Hell if I can’t. Last time I checked, this was America, and we have freedom of religion.”
“You’re a Presbyterian. What if an actual Incan moved into the neighborhood and saw this?”
“I’d let him use it, no charge.”
As Miles stared at the pyramid, he felt as if a camera had zoomed in on the back of his neck. His skin burned, and the vertebrae tightened. He tilted his head to one side, then the other in a futile effort to relieve the pressure.
“Derward, I just can’t do this anymore.”
“Aw, come on, Milo. You don’t have to come personally every time the neighbor calls. Just text me or something.”
Miles shook his head. “No, I mean I can’t be the Homeowners’ Association president for you anymore. I’m stepping down next month.”
Derward grabbed Miles by the shoulder. “I need you on that board to keep guys like Old Jackass off my back. They’ll concoct something to force me out of my own house.”
“Do you know that you’re not even the problem child in this neighborhood? I get chewed out five times a week by people who expect me to solve their problems because they can’t figure out how to get along with the strangers that live right beside them.”
Miles spread his hands. “I’m just done with it all.”
Derward pursed his lips for a minute, then chuckled. “I was about to say, ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ but I guess that would just prove your point.”
Miles inclined his head. “Just so. But I do have one last solution for you.”
Derward’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s that?”
“I’ll endorse you for my seat.” He held up his hands as Derward scowled and raised a finger. “Just hold on for a second. Now, it’s likely that Jackson will blow a gasket and run against you. He’s certainly threatened that with me enough times. So either you win, and gain some control over how the neighborhood is run, or he wins and gets to field irate neighbors’ phone calls for the next year. What do you think?”
Deward gnawed at his cheek, then gave a slow nod. “Okay, I’m game.” He scrambled up his pyramid and struck a regal pose on the temple’s roof. “I shall make Jackson call me ‘El Presidente.’ But there’s one thing I need to know: if I’m not the problem child in the neighborhood, who is?”
“There’s a feud between the Shaws and the Epsteins that was started over ten years ago with a rogue hamster, a field mouse, and a dryer vent. I can get you their file.”
Miles made to leave, but stopped at the gate. “Where did you get that thing anyway?” he asked, nodding at the pyramid.
Deward gave his gap-tooth grin. “I bought it when the Happy Frog putt-putt golf course shut down. It was hole seventeen.”
“Ah,” Miles said, remembering the place. “Hole seventeen. I always hated that one.”