The Spite House

“I ain’t selling,” he repeated for the hundredth time. “I don’t care how much money you wave at me, this is my place and I ain’t leaving.”

“But Mr. Hoding, we’ve bought every other piece of property we need for our parking deck. Your house is right in the middle. You’ve held out long enough, you’re a shrewd bargainer, but this is our final offer. Please just accept our very generous check and let us get on with it.”

“I. Ain’t. Leaving.”

The two men from the parking deck company looked at him in despair. This old coot had been driving them nuts for months. They’d kept raising their offer, but he was impossible to deal with. They were done being nice. Now the gloves came off.

“You know what they call a place like yours?” one of them said, his lip curling. “A spite house. Do you want to be known as the old fart in the spite house? If you won’t sell, we’ll build around you. See how you like living at the bottom of a stack of cars.”

“You better not damage my property,” Mr. Hoding said grimly. “Make sure you keep your machinery off my driveway, I don’t want it cracked. And don’t be killing my trees, either. That maple’s a hundred years old.”

“But Mr. Hoding, there will be major construction right on top of you; we can’t guarantee there won’t be any damage.”

“You’d better guarantee it. Newspapers would love to have a human interest story like this on the front page, with pictures: Big Business Bullies Old Man. I don’t think your bosses would like that. Now I’ll thank you to leave my home.”

Mr. Hoding held his front door open and stood waiting for his visitors to leave. They stalked past him, got into their shiny black car and drove away.

“Good riddance,” he said to Polly, his little dog. “For the next several months, I reckon we’ll be glad we’re both nearly deaf.”

Julius Hoding had lived in his little house for more than half a century. When he and his bride first moved in, it had been a leafy, convivial neighborhood, a good place to raise a family. But things changed. The children grew up, his wife passed on, and the small bungalows around him were bought and knocked down until his was the only one left standing. While there was still a beautiful tree canopy over his yard, much of the surrounding area had been paved to make way for offices and stores. With them came traffic – cars that had to be parked somewhere. Hence, the new parking deck that would soon engulf him.

When bulldozers started tearing up the ground Mr. Hoding sat in a lawn chair and watched. Old growth trees crashed to the earth. Mr. Hoding felt their screams. He wiped his eyes a few times, but he didn’t look away. He was saying goodby. That was the worst day, seeing the trees go down.

Earth movers roared as they scraped and shaped the bare ground around him. Mr. Hoding mowed his lawn, sending the smell of freshly cut grass over the silt fence to mingle with diesel fumes. A guy on one of the earth movers came to the edge of the yard and asked if he could get a drink out of Mr. Hoding’s garden hose. Instead, he was given a glass of iced tea flavored with mint grown in the garden. He sipped appreciatively.

“Damn shame about your place,” he said. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave, but what are you going to do when there’s cars parked all around you?”

“Why, just what I’ve always done, I guess. Mow grass, weed the garden, rake leaves, shovel snow.”

The earth mover operator grinned and shook Mr. Hoding’s hand before he climbed back onto his monstrous machine. He left a big island around the old maple tree so as not to damage the roots.

And then one day the deck was done and open for business.

~*~

“Hi, Mr. Hoding!”

“Morning, Sunny.”

She worked on the fifth floor, but parked on ground level and took the elevator. She told Mr. Hoding she just hated to wind around and around the narrow lanes of the parking deck. And besides, she liked to start her day by greeting him as he sat on his front porch watching the workers arrive.

The looming decks around him cast a pall over his garden and stunted his trees, but he got used to it. “Too old to garden, anyway,” he told Polly, “and the shade keeps us cool in the summer.”

He’d gotten acquainted with people as they came and went from their jobs. Many called hello, and some even came and sat on the porch for a few minutes. Sunny brought her baby to show him. A young man in a suit and tie took the shovel out of Mr. Hoding’s hand one snowy morning and finished clearing his driveway, waving off thanks and offers of payment. Mr. Hoding had never met so many nice people, not even in the old days.

“You just never know how things will turn out,” he told Polly. “Lemons and lemonade and all that. One thing for sure, anybody who comes to see me can have their choice of parking places.”

Polly saw his smile and wagged her tail.

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Birthday Club

balloons-1786430_1280They called it Birthday Club, eight young moms who left children to their fathers’ mercies every three months so they could meet for dinner. Each birthday that fell in that time period was celebrated, but often someone couldn’t make it because of conflicts with school activities or a sick child, so there might be only five or six at the table. They talked of toilet training, jobs and husbands.

In middle age, the conflicts with Birthday Club were apt to be business meetings or trips out of town. They spoke of college costs, teenage rebellion and husbands. Everyone grieved when Millie and Chet got divorced, and they let her talk it out until she felt better. They said goodby to Jean when her husband was transferred out of state.

When people began having trouble driving at night, Birthday Club was switched to lunch time. They asked each other’s advice about retirement plans and trips abroad. The little gifts turned into token remembrances, then funny cards, then….

“Let’s just knock it off,” Millie suggested. “We’ve all got more stuff than we know what to do with, and cards cost four or five bucks unless you go to the Dollar Store.”

“Yes, and we’ve seen all the ones from there,” Rose said. “I agree; it’s just a needless expense.” Her budget didn’t have much room for extras.

“And while we’re at it, it’s embarrassing to try to collect money for the birthday girls’ lunches while they’re sitting right there. We can all afford to pay for our own; it would be a lot simpler. And we certainly do not need birthday cake!”

So Birthday Club devolved into a sort of rueful shrug, but they kept on meeting. They felt triumphant to be, as Glenda put it, on the right side of the dirt. All but one were widows, and they knew about the other side of the dirt. The only husband left among them was Stalwart Sam. He took to tagging along for lunch, but it really put a crimp in their style to have a man at the table. Those lunches ended early and unsatisfactorily. Finally, they asked Serena not to bring him.

“I’d be more than happy not to bring him,” she said, “and not to bring him to the grocery store and my hair appointments and the Hallmark store…” Her eyes filled with tears. “I know you’ll think I’m ungrateful because my husband is still alive, but he follows me everywhere and he’s driving me crazy!”

There was a flurry of tissues and hugs while they patted her down. The next day, one of them placed a call to Serena’s daughter, and after that, Stalwart Sam didn’t join the ladies for lunch again. Serena looked much more relaxed.

One by one, they gave up driving. Zoe, the most adventurous, tried Uber, but the technology involved in coordinating the rides made her so nervous she couldn’t enjoy lunch. The two who still drove picked up the others for sometimes hair-raising rides. The conversation then was about grandchildren, ailments and obituaries. Car keys and spectacles became elusive. Sometimes whole cars were lost in parking lots for hours at a time and adult children would have to be called to come and help find them.  More and more often there’d be confusion about dates, times and places.

Finally, the daughters got together and arranged for their mothers’ luncheons to take place at home. The offspring would arrange transportation and bring potluck. This proved to be easier all around. Bathrooms were near at hand, and in case of embarrassing accidents, discreet help was available. The daughters were now old enough themselves to be tolerant. They murmured in the kitchen as their mothers held forth in the dining room.

Conversations centered on nostalgia spiced with shrieks of laughter.

“Remember when Rose got locked in the Macy’s dressing room and the store closed and no one heard her call until the cleaning crew came around?”

“And I had to pee so bad!” Rose added, laughing along with everyone else.

Relentlessly, the years extracted their price. One by one the members of Birthday Club passed on until finally there were only two ancient ladies in the same assisted living center. Even though they saw each other every day, they continued to observe the quarterly Birthday Club meetings with a special lunch for just the two of them.

“Remember Serena?” one said, wiping a tear. “Remember Maude?”

Her companion cocked her head like a sparrow. “I’m sorry, dear, what did you say your name was?”

Then there was one.

 

New Dog, Old Tricks

animal dog puppy pug
Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.com

“Ooooh, look, a puppy!”

Larry paused obligingly to let the beautiful young girl admire his dog. “That’s Scout,” he said, “you know, like the little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

He’d hit the good-guy trifecta – a puppy named after a child in a beloved book – and it had the desired effect. The girl smiled at him warmly.

“Aw, that’s so sweet. Isn’t she adorable!” She bent to pet Scout, who wriggled in delight.

Later, Larry abandoned the girl’s unconscious body in the secluded part of the park where he often took his victims. She’d wake eventually, dazed and disoriented from the drug he’d slipped into her drink. She wouldn’t remember going to a sidewalk café with him, making much of Scout who sat under the table. This one wasn’t even old enough for a beer; she’d had a Diet Coke.  She would gradually realize what had happened to her. Probably she’d be too embarrassed to report it, they usually were. Even those who did call the cops couldn’t give a good description of Larry because they’d been focused on the puppy. He’d lay low for a while, and next time there’d be a new Scout.

It was a foolproof formula and Larry had been using it for years. He’d pick up a cute puppy at the shelter and take it for walks in the park. Dog lovers always spoke to him, especially young women. When the urge got too strong to be denied, Larry would make his move.

Afterward, the puppy was an easily-identified liability so Larry’d drive into the country, open the door and push it out. Sometimes it ran after his car, but he’d accelerate and leave it behind. Then it was time to get a new Scout.

Larry didn’t think of himself as cruel. When it was time to dump the puppies, he tried to find a spot near a farm so they’d have a good home, better than the shelter. As for the girls, well, they deserved anything they got. The way women laughed and rolled their eyes when he approached them! The scorn with which they turned him down! But he got even. Oh yeah, he got even.

~*~

Honey and Sugar weren’t their real names, of course. They worked the park every night, lurking beside the paths, watching for a certain look that meant a guy was in the market for it. Then they’d step forward and offer their services. It was a tough way to make a buck, but a girl’s got to live, right? There wasn’t much that went on in the park they didn’t know about, including Larry and the succession of Scouts. They’d both rejected his advances; not that one, not even for money, they giggled to each other. They saw the young women fall for the puppy ploy and shrugged. None of their business. But the last girl touched something in their calloused hearts.

“She wasn’t no more than eighteen,” Honey said. “And that old bastard left her layin’ there like garbage.”

“She was crying so hard. I wanted to help her, but I couldn’t afford to get involved if she called the cops,” Sugar said.

“Larry needs a lesson.”

“And we’re just the girls to give it to him.”

~*~

Larry could scarcely believe his luck. Honey and Sugar were coming on to him. He immediately forgave them for their previous humiliating rejections. From the way things were going, he wouldn’t even need to use the drug. They suggested a ride in his car to a place where they could go skinny-dipping. Larry’s head buzzed with excitement as he pulled the car around and the women got in. Even if he had to pay, it would be worth it.

He followed their complicated directions and after an hour reached a gravel lane that ended in a grassy meadow. They parked at the edge of a lake – more of a pond, really – and Honey produced a flask. He drank deeply.

“C’mon, Larry, let’s have a swim.” Honey and Sugar pulled off their shirts.

Larry, goggle-eyed, stripped, too, and they waded into the dark water. Things got hazy after that. There was a lot of shrieking and splashing. Sometimes there were two girls, sometimes one. Once he thought he saw three of them, but he rubbed his eyes hard and then there were only two. After a while, he floated dreamily on his back.

When he heard the engine start up, he stumbled out of the water shouting, “Hey, you forgot me! Wait, wait!” But the car didn’t pause as it bounced over the meadow in the direction of the road. Larry ran after it, but it accelerated and left him behind. His clothes, cell phone and shoes went with it.

In the distance, he saw the golden windows of a farm house. He started toward the promise of help and shelter, but stopped short when he realized he was more likely to meet a farmer with a shotgun and a dislike of naked midnight trespassers.

There was nothing to do but walk away from the light. Somewhere nearby, he heard a dog bark.

Taking Fatty Home

a-horribly-cute-pig-1011046I was never in favor of getting a guinea pig in the first place. Cute, but still too much like their rat cousins for my taste. But when it came to choosing between a guinea pig or a dog, there really was no choice. While we all loved dogs and wanted one of our own, my husband was on a fast career track and we moved every time he got a promotion. Complicating matters further by adding a dog to the mix just wasn’t reasonable.

Our six-year-old twins, Maddie and Noah, were not open to reason. They wanted a pet and they wanted it NOW, even though we’d be pulling up stakes and moving again in a year. Fatty came into our lives as the lesser of evils, never the most rousing recommendation.

He was a fluffy brown and white creature with sparkling black eyes and chubby cheeks (hence his politically-incorrect name). The kids loved him on sight and actually followed our exhortations about gentle handling. There was a surprising outlay of cash for a surprising number of must-haves, and we learned to speak basic guinea pig. Fatty could be noisy when he wanted something, and soon had us trained to jump when he whistled. We learned to balance his diet, line his cage with hay, and put him where he liked to be (with us). Fatty seemed happy, or at least that’s what I assumed. He was reticent about his emotional life.

After the next move, Fatty proved to be a gateway drug for making new friends. He went to school for Show and Tell, endured the caresses of strange hands and wheeked and whistled nonchalantly in his new home. We stayed longer in that house and town than we ever had. It was five years almost to the day when we got the news another transfer was in the offing. Once again we assembled boxes and packing peanuts and said goodbye to another group of friends and neighbors. Maddie and Noah cried this time. They were old enough at eleven to understand the pain of parting.

Fatty chose this moment of angst to scuttle off to Rodent Heaven.

“He was old for a guinea pig,” I said comfortingly. “We’ll bury him here under this beautiful maple tree and always remember him.”

“Mom! We can’t just go off and leave him!”

“But, well, he’s dead, he doesn’t know.”

We know. We have to take him with us to our new place so we can visit his grave.”

You see the problem. Fatty would be slowly decomposing during the three-day drive to our new home. I foresaw a car full of sad kids, stressed parents and one stinky dead guinea pig.

“Maybe we can put him in the moving van,” my husband suggested.

“And have all our upholstered furniture reeking of death? No, he’s going to have to go with us in the car. What about freezing him?”

“Could be difficult to keep him on ice, with all the other stuff we have to keep track of.”

“Not much choice, though, is there?”

Fatty was sealed in a clear plastic bag and spent a frosty night in the freezer. The next morning he was packed in ice in his own little Styrofoam cooler and placed in the trunk. The kids wanted him in the back seat with them, but we put our parental feet down on that one. We didn’t want Fatty defrosting from too many loving peeks and pokes.

Many stops were required to re-ice Fatty. Many tears were shed in the back seat, mourning his loss.  I wondered how many of those tears were really about other losses.

Once we got to our new place and the shovel was unpacked, my husband gathered the family and started digging. We were soon joined by three neighborhood children.

After introductions came the inevitable question: “Watcha doin’?”

“Burying our guinea pig,” said Noah.

“Oh, neat. Wanna see my tree house? It’s got a zip line with a trampoline at the end.”

“Wow! Mom, can we?”

“What about Fatty?”

“Yeah, we’ll visit his grave later.”

Just like that, the kids were gone and my husband and I were alone with Fatty’s slowly melting corpse.

“Here, just toss him in,” my husband said. He quickly filled in the hole and patted the surface flat with the shovel.

“Hey, are you crying?” he asked, looking me over.

“Maybe. A little.”

“But you didn’t even like Fatty all that much.”

“Look, we dragged that poor frozen guinea pig across the country so he wouldn’t be alone, but when we move again he’ll be left in that little hole. Now he’s not even getting a proper funeral. The least I can do is cry.”

I don’t know for sure what made my husband re-evaluate his mad climb up the corporate ladder, but after that we stopped moving every couple of years. He said it was time to put down roots.

Thanks, Fatty.

 

 

 

 

Puzzlement

crossword-146860__340Crossword puzzles were just a way of filling some time, like knitting or whittling. He’d pull one out of his pocket if he had to wait for a pot to boil or his name to be called at the doctor’s office. If he was tired or worried or bored, he’d work his way through one or two as a distraction.

“Just one more,” he’d promise himself. Then, “One more and I’ll definitely stop and do something productive.” Sometimes he’d go through six at a time that way.

Not for him the easy ones in the daily paper. He got his puzzles at a bookstore, paid for a book of three hundred printed in good black ink on bright white paper. He worked with a pen, scorning the need for an eraser. If he made a mistake, he could always cross out the wrong letters and fill in tiny-sized right ones, but he didn’t make many mistakes. Nor did he often need to resort to the answers in the back of the book.

His wife compressed her lips and shook her head when she found him with head bowed over a black and white grid. “It keeps him out of my hair,” she told her girlfriends, but she did begrudge the way he wasted his time. He could have been helping around the house. Or maybe they might have talked, although they’d run out of conversation years ago. When he got out a puzzle, she shrugged and turned on the television.

His days rolled on uneventfully, one after another. He went to work, came home, ate dinner, worked a few crossword puzzles, went to bed, got up and did it all again. Sometimes just before he fell asleep he’d wonder if this was all his life would ever be.

Some of the puzzles contained jokes or quotes you could only read after all the squares were filled.  He didn’t pay much attention; it was all about solving the clues for him. But one day, he noticed that the line across the middle of a puzzle read,

“Y o u c o u l d d o b e t t e r.”

“Huh. Well, I suppose any of us could,” he thought.

The bottom line of next puzzle said, “G e t o u t m o r e.”

Down the right side of the next one: “B i g w o r l d o u t t h e r e.”

Then, across the top: “L i v e b e f o r e y o u d i e.”

He put those pages through the shredder. His wife asked what he was shredding, and was he sure they wouldn’t need it?  He just shook his head.

“It’s silly to pay any attention to messages from crossword puzzles,” he admonished himself. But he couldn’t stop thinking about them. The enigmatic lines rang like prophecies in his mind.  He began having dreams, vivid dreams he didn’t mention to his wife. Not that she would have been interested.

One day, on an impulse, he stopped at a pub after work and had a beer instead of going straight home. He sat in restful solitude and worked a crossword puzzle. No one sighed or turned up the TV.  No one paid any attention to him at all. It was nice. It became a regular thing. One evening he was nursing his drink, staring into space, trying to come up with the five-letter answer for “Christo Redentor sculptor Alonso,” when he felt a presence at his shoulder.

“Marin,” she breathed in his ear.

He turned his head, feeling no surprise. He’d known she was out there somewhere. She looked exactly like she did in his dreams.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

He nodded, swallowed hard. He couldn’t have broken eye contact if he’d tried.

“Go to pieces, seven letters,” she said.

“Shatter,” he whispered.

She took his arm. He left his crossword puzzle book on the bar.