Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Chihuahuas Must Die: Rental House Blues

When we bought our home on the outskirts of Winter Park we didn’t mind that the house next door was a rental unit. It looked a bit run down, but not as bad as the worst examples in our old neighborhood in Orange County. And we had rented houses for nearly all of our married life and had been responsible about the upkeep of the properties. My wife and I had no fear of being tormented by the folks next door. We were lulled further into a state of complacency when the first three families beside us turned out to be friendly, reasonable people.

The first sign of trouble came when a couple moved in with a beagle named Copper. Copper was an aggressive, territorial dog who charged the fence separating our two back yards. He never accepted us as natural inhabitants of his environment, and saw us as invaders hovering on the edge of the land that he had sworn to protect. Sometimes he dug his way into our back yard and would bark and charges at us when we went to open the side gate. He apparently believed that he had a right to defend any piece of property in which he currently found himself enclosed.

We moved to Gainesville for Judy’s first sabbatical after earning tenure, and when we got back we discovered that three young men lived next door. One came over soon after we unpacked the last box, and he showed us his two Dobermans. He said that they were really friendly, but that was hard to believe when I saw the predatory look in their eyes. Our neighbor also gave us his phone number and told us to call if he and his housemates ever played music too loudly or if a party woke us up at night. He was more than willing to personally address our concerns, and there would never be any need for us to call the police.

We discovered about a year later that the police were interested in our neighbor without receiving any complaints from us. My son looked out his bedroom window one morning and saw men wearing black hoods in the rental’s back yard. They had guns drawn. Alan reported the news to us, and I yelled, “Get down!” I heard a loud bang just as I entered his room and saw white smoke billowing out of the French door of the neighbor’s house. Two hooded men charged inside.

I didn’t call the police. There were officers in the front yard and more men in black hoods. When I looked closely at their jackets I saw the initials, DEA, on their chests. A half hour later I walked down to my mail box to deposit a letter, and startled one of the officers in the rental’s front yard when I opened the squeaky lid. His hand went to his gun and he stared me down. When I backed my car out a few minutes later to take Alan to school the same officer reacted the same way when the brakes squeaked at the bottom of my driveway. I began to wonder if the police expected an imminent shoot out.

When I returned I saw them handcuff the young man who had befriended us and stuff him into a patrol car. We found out that he had been involved in a grow house operation, though the rental house hadn’t been the actual site of illegal, agricultural pursuits.

We began to miss the druggy Doberman guy a few months after a fresh set of tenants moved in. A young couple and their disabled boy were our new neighbors. When Judy said “hello” to the mother and began a conversation, the father stepped out of the back door and yelled, “No! Stop that. Get away from there.” His wife obediently turned on her heel and left Judy standing there.

They mostly pretended that we didn’t exist if we encountered them at the mailboxes by the road or in the adjacent driveways. I was content to ignore them, but had to engage with them several times when the father’s brother moved in. The young man liked to do yard work while playing rap at high decibels. I went over several times to ask him to turn it down, and at first he complied. He figured out eventually that I had no plans to assault him and grew more and more reluctant to do the decent thing. Sometimes he left the boom box on after having gone to meet up with friends.

I called the police and made a complaint two months after the two brothers installed a pool table in their carport. Judy was awakened night after night at three or four in the morning by the crack of pool balls and the loud, obscene conversations held by the men. I listened in once and discovered that human beings could construct sentences that included a noun, adjective, adverb, and verb all built around the root word of “fuck”.

The younger brother moved on shortly after a police officer gave the two brothers a chat about being responsible neighbors. Silence, intensely hostile silence, reigned once again between the two households. But a few months later The Chihuahua Scourge began.

Our neighbors owned two female Chihuahuas that occasionally barked at us when we worked in our back yard. One day the father brought over a stud, a male Chihuahua with a jaunty bandanna tied around its neck. He mounted the compliant bitches, and a few months later the two dogs pupped. The tiny, newborn, bug-eyed creatures looked cute until they grew up to the point where their ears stretched long and pointy and their barks got loud enough to be piercing. After that they became very aware of their environment and yipped at butterflies, crickets, airplanes passing high overhead and phantom intruders that only they could see. We began to close the blinds when we discovered that they could spy us within our bedrooms and would consequently yip whenever we came into view. Our backyard became a forbidden zone: the high pitched barks of a chorus of seven Chihuahuas were devastating to both the eardrums and nervous system.

I hired a man to enclose my carport and turn it into a studio after my last workshop closed down. We needed a place to store the garden equipment, bicycles and mower, and I paid a local company to put up a shed in my back yard. Two lean, muscular men went to work sawing, hammering and using a nail gun to erect a wood frame shed. They worked at a high pace, and when they finished after a couple hours I approached them with checkbook in hand. One of the men was covered in sweat and his chest heaved as he struggled to catch his breath. I asked them why they had driven themselves at such a furious pace. They told me that the seven Chihuahuas had pestered them the whole time that they had been working. Three took up a position across the fence and near to where the men worked, and they barked and yipped. When they grew tired a second shift of dogs took their place near the fence and renewed the harassment with fresh vigor.

The man with the heaving chest held on tight to a nail gun, and I could see him flexing the muscles in his forearm. He looked over his shoulder at the Chihuahuas who still tormented him with their barking, and he grimly said, “I want to kill those little motherfuckers.”

A month or two later our hostile neighbors sold the five pups and used the cash for a down payment on a house further north. As they pulled out of their driveway one last time I was glad that they and their two remaining dogs were gone for good, but I pitied their new neighbors.

We visited Bill and Carmen after the Chihuahua people left. They were an elderly couple who lived on the other side of the rental house and had suffered torments similar to ours. We compared notes about how many exterminators had visited the rental during a massive clean up operation, and speculated that the house must have been crawling with fleas while all those dogs were in residence. Bill shook his head and said, “I can’t believe that they were here for seven years. Seven years!” I answered, “Seven Chihuahuas!”

We talked about how it would be nice if the rental management company left the house vacant while it took its time making the repairs, and Judy related her dream of buying the property, razing the house and turning the lot into a garden. But I just hoped that the next tenants would not surprise us with something worse.