My mother is standing on a bench in the spare bedroom. I can see by the certainty of her movements that she’s done this before.
“Look,” she points. “They turned the refrigerators around. Sanders must have told them I complained.”
Through the window I can see two rusting refrigerators standing flush against the back of the neighbor’s house. The refrigerators are just two of the many things that bother my mother about the neighbors. They are loud and profane, throwbacks to the hillbillies who settled along the river in pre-suburban days. Some of my childhood friends came from such families, although my mother doesn’t know this. She thinks my friends were from neighboring developments.
There’s a mountain of aluminum siding in their backyard. They put their garbage out for collection only when the plastic bags threaten to engulf the house. My mother refers to the siding as “refuse” and she’s got a point. It’s mostly broken pieces, too short to be of any use. From her perch on the bench she can see all of it: the siding, the bags, the wire frame of the mattress they burned two summers ago. I can see only the refrigerators, but I know what the rest looks like. If I were any kind of son I’d have it out with them.
My mother moved here fifteen years ago, twenty years after the death of my father. At 68, she’s been a widow most of her life. My father died when he was four years younger than I am now. My image of him has never faded, big and angry. If he were here the neighbors would not be a problem.
I have two bothers and two sisters. We’re not what you would call close, although I have heard from my sisters lately – about the neighbors. My bother Ray has a problem with alcohol, so I don’t see him much. The family gathers at my mother’s house for Christmas every year with our ever changing cast of spouses and children. We arrive in our late model cars and trudge to the back door, ignoring the mess next door. My father wouldn’t recognize us.
What happens with Ray is he goes crazy when he drinks. Certifiable. One time he left his house in a drunken rage and plowed his car into a pole. He hadn’t gone far, so he walked home, got his girlfriend’s car and plowed that one into a different pole. You can’t hurt him when he’s in this state, but he can destroy everything. Each year when the Christmas gathering is breaking up, I want to take my brother to the nearest bar, get him plastered, then turn him loose on the neighbors.
I watch my mother move from the bench to the bed, standing on her tiptoes to peer over the curtain. She’s a spry 68. Since moving here she’s put on weight. It makes her look shorter, though she may, in fact, be shorter. Her boys are tall like their father, but thin like she used to be. When she hugs me, which is often, her head fits right under my chin. It’s been that way since I was fourteen
“It’s just not right,” she mutters. “At first I thought they would go away. People like that are usually so unstable. Sometimes I think they stay just to spite me.”
“Mom, come down from there before you hurt yourself.”
She turns to me, and slaps her hands against her sides.
“Look at me. I never though I’d be like this.”
When I was nine years old I came down with St. Vitus Dance. Not for me those conventional diseases. I don’t know how St. Vitus figured into it, but the dance part was accurate enough. The virus attacks the nervous system and is characterized by sporadic twitching. It’s a painless but serious disease. My mother has since convinced me that my life was on the line. When I was sick she convinced me to get better. When you’re a kid, sometimes that’s all it takes.
The summer I had St Vitus Dance she bought me a radio for my birthday. When I think of that radio I realize how old we’re getting to be. It was brown plastic with rounded shoulders and a grille like a Buick. The tuner knob was in the center of the grille and when you turned it a needle moved across an orange band. They haven’t made radios like that in forty years. At night I could pick up stations from other cities, faraway ball games and radio serials. I would lie in my bed with my ear to the speaker, turning the knob in the smallest increments. By summer’s end I’d developed the touch of a safe cracker.
One night I listened to a woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, describe how she’d shot a man who tried to break into her house. I can remember picturing a man in a suit and hat climbing through an open window. I don’t know why, but I’ve never forgotten that.
“I don’t have to put up with it! I simply don’t!” my mother declares.
She made a lifelong commitment never to be a burden on her children, but until fairly recently my mother was young herself. She lives alone. Last summer the neighbors had someone living in a tent in the backyard. She complained to the police and they made them take it down. Two days later her leaf blower was stolen from the garage. I wanted to go over and confront them, but she forbade it. She knows when I leave she will be alone. I do count on that.
By contracting, then surviving an exotic disease, I became my mother’s favorite. My brothers and sisters never held it against me. St. Vitus Dance impressed even them. For years I had to take penicillin pills and there was always a container in the refrigerator to remind them of my precarious hold on life. The doctors confirmed I might have died, but I suspect doctors often say that when someone pulls through.
When I was well enough to get around, I used to crawl out on the roof at night with my radio and listen to ball games. I’d developed such a deft touch with the tuning knob that I could pick up the Cardinals, the Pirates, Detroit, the Yankees, and the Mets. I would lie on my back on the warm roof shingles and stare up at the stars, imagining my radio pulling signals out of the sky. Those are my fondest childhood memories.
“It’s Sanders’ fault. Why doesn’t he fine them?” my mother wants to know.
I wish I could tell her. Sanders is the police chief. His interest in the case has waned. I have written several strongly worded letters to Sanders on my mother’s behalf. He has chosen not to reply. I have made sporadic phone calls to the police station, but he’s never there. For this I am grateful, it shames me to say. I am not good at this sort of thing. Since I spent a decade in California shirking family responsibility, my brothers and sisters have assigned this to me. In two weeks I am to appear before the local board of supervisors to plead my mother’s case. The idea terrifies me. In the meantime my mother is slowly losing her grip. She is obsessed with the neighbors and the police chief. She speaks of nothing else. She keeps a journal of all the violations, including photographs. I find slips of paper with surveillance notes and inspirational messages to herself. It’s like a bad TV movie. A psychological thriller.
As my mother’s favorite I was encouraged to be artistic – another pursuit for which I am ill suited. I thought of myself as a writer, but the ensuing years have proven otherwise. There is no work in progress, no novel or collection of short stories to support the illusion. I once wrote a letter to a newspaper columnist who thought enough of it to paraphrase it in his column. This is the extent of my literary recognition. I kept it taped to my refrigerator until it turned yellow.
“Oh, if your father were only here to see this,” my mother laments.
“You should move, mom.”
I’ve tried thinking of ways to distract her from this obsession. For a while I talked of returning to California, but she didn’t take it seriously. I pretended to be working on a novel and even plagiarized a chapter to pique her interest, but she couldn’t be budged. I even considered faking a St. Vitus Dance relapse. The symptoms are easy enough to mimic, but something told me not to. I’d planned on a longer visit, but two hours of this is all I can take.
I check all the doors and windows before I leave.
For the next week I think about my mother constantly. I am obsessed with her obsession. I suspect a real man would take the matter in hand and force a resolution. I’ve noticed that lately the news is filled with stories of neighborhood disputes that flare into violence. I’m not a violent person, but I’ve never considered myself a coward. I must admit to sparks of exhilaration in all this. I can’t stop wondering what will happen.
My brother Frank calls about “the problem”. He lets me ramble on about the board of supervisors meeting and my latest attempts to contact Sanders, but I can sense his dissatisfaction. He tells me to keep him posted. His tone suggests that other options are being considered. Frank is a partner in an engineering firm – a man who has come to expect results.
There’s a message on my machine when I get home from work. My mother. The neighbors have added a boat to their collection of debris. I agonize for an hour before calling the police. To my horror the chief answers on the first ring.
“Uh, chief, this is Joe Fenner. Listen, I’m calling about my mother. It seems the neighbors have parked a boat in their yard.”
“Little sailboat. Picked it up yesterday afternoon.”
“ …You know about it?”
“Sure do. I had to help them with the trailer hitch.”
“But chief, they can’t keep a boat in their yard.”
“Just till summer. They’re taking it down the Chesapeake.”
“But that could be months from-”
“You tell your mom they’ll have that boat out of there by the first of June. They just have to paint it and plug the holes. June first, tell her. Maybe sooner.”
“Listen, I got a call here. I’ll get back to you.”
One night when I was up on the roof I heard my parents arguing in their bedroom. My mother’s words were muffled, but I could hear my dad loud and clear. He was talking about sending me to a military academy. It would be good for me, he insisted. It would get me headed in the right direction and teach me discipline. My father was a firm believer in discipline. He claimed that the new friends I would make would help me in the future. He said my old friends would never amount to anything and, in fact, they never did.
I crawled to the peak of the roof and poked my head over the edge. The light from the bedroom window cast a faint square on the grass and I could see my father’s shadow pass through it as he paced the room. He was trying to sell her on the idea. I could picture him prying his fingers from his fist as he listed the benefits. Teach me independence, teamwork, discipline, always discipline. From his tone I knew that my mother was resisting. I prayed for her to spare her favored son.
They sent brother Ray instead.
Clearly my efforts to deal with the problem are doomed to fail. My pending confrontation with the board of supervisors will resolve nothing. Any action taken against the neighbors will expose my mother to retaliation and that, too, will be my problem. The situation is beginning to take a toll. I’m unable to sleep at night and my work is beginning to suffer. I wince when the telephone rings. My mother leaves long, rambling messages and I worry she’s been drinking. My siblings leave messages voicing their concern.
I am driving to my mother’s when it hits me, a germ of a solution. What’s to be done with these people, these slovenly neighbors who prey on helpless old mothers and their helpless sons? Quite simply, nothing. In the unlikely event that my meeting with the board results in some action, the neighbors will still be there. And as long as they’re there they will drive my mother crazy. She must be made to see that moving is the only way out. Desperate measures are called for and a desperate measure is just what I have in mind.
She is in the backyard taking pictures of the boat when I get there. I lead her into the house and recount my conversation with Sanders. She doesn’t take it well. I force myself to listen as she rants and raves. Sanders and the neighbors are “in cahoots” she maintains. It is strange to hear her use such a word. Instead of reasoning with her I encourage her outrage, inferring that the board of supervisors and zoning committee are in “cahoots” as well. They view her complaint as a nuisance, I say. All involved are determined to drive her from her home.
When she is sufficiently agitated I take her by the hand and sit her down in the living room.
“There’s only one thing left to do, mom.”
She looks at me hopefully.
“We’ll have to kill them.”
Once, during my artistic period I wrote a story about a man who hires someone to kill his wife. It wasn’t a good story, but it made me think about how to go about it. Now, as I sit in my mother’s living room, watching her face run the emotional gamut, I level my gaze and arch an eyebrow.
“I know a guy,” is all I say.
“My God, you’re serious. Do you realize what you’re saying?”
“It’s got to stop. Don’t worry, mom I’ll handle everything.”
“Oh Jesus, what have I done?” she buries her head in her hands.
This is just the reaction I was counting on. If I can convince her I’m crazy enough to consider murder, she will forget about the neighbors and worry about me instead, the favorite, just like old times.
“OK, just the old man.” I pretend that it’s the sheer number of people to be killed that’s putting her off. She shakes her head and sobs.
“This guy knows what he’s doing, mom. I promise you, it will look like an accident.”
“STOP!” My mother clamps her hands over her ears.
I kneel beside her and take her hand. I’m pulling out all the stops now.
“Look, I know this is hard for you,” I kiss her wedding band. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll make all the arrangements.”
“Please, don’t talk like that.”
I give her hand a squeeze. “Remember when I was sick and you promised me I’d get better? I knew you’d take care of me. Now it’s my turn to take care of you.”
“I didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m so sorry,” she sobs and all my anxieties melt away. She will move now. Whatever she thinks of the neighbors, it’s not worth a son’s madness. We’ll find a nice place for her near my sister and then we can all get on with our lives.
“Tell me you didn’t mean that, Joey,” she sniffles. “Tell me you were just making a joke.”
“You’re my mother,” I force a tear. “They can’t push you around. I won’t let them.”
“Sit down, Joey.”
I love this. She hasn’t called me Joey in years.
“When your dad died I just wanted to crawl into a hole. I had five kids and no prospect for a future. But I had to be strong. I had to struggle to make a life for you kids, to see you got raised properly. When you were all grown I just wanted to retire to my little house and grow old gracefully. This is my little house. Those are my neighbors. But it’s just another problem, honey. I’ve had problems all my life. Sooner or later they’ll move or I’ll move and it will all be forgotten. To think that I could drive you to think of such a thing makes me realize how selfish I’ve been about this. It makes me sick.”
“No, Joey. I don’t want to hear anymore.”
I drive home feeling better than I have in years. Not only have I neutralized the dreaded neighbors, I’ve rekindled my mother’s maternal instincts. She will be mom again, peppy and independent. Hell, I’ve probably added years to her life. I sing along with the radio imagining calls of congratulations from my brothers and sisters.
There’s a message on my machine when I get home. It’s my mother.
“This man you know. … Is he reliable?”