The neighbors from hell had left a message.
I saw the huge potted palm that blocked the driveway at once. The wilted plant sat there in a 100-pound pot, ominously blocking the path to our new neighbors' house. Do not come near me, was the obvious message.
Since it was now shortly after dawn, this dreadnought had been moved into place under cover of darkness.
This was the latest round in a continuing battle for attention from our newly arrived next-door neighbors.
They are a middle-aged lawyer who practices with a big firm in central Phoenix and his 25-year-old wife, a college student.
Not until they moved into the house next door several months ago did I fully understand Jimmy Breslin's misgivings about his own neighbors. A few years back, Breslin, the New York columnist, wrote about some neighbors who had driven him to the point that he could not even speak with them.
Breslin erected a sign at the edge of his property. It began, "These are the people I am no longer speaking to. . . ."
It's time I erected my own sign. Unfortunately, I won't have room on the sign to tell the whole story. So I'll tell you instead.
The Lawyer went to Yale. He drives a Mercedes that he boasts once belonged to the syndicated columnist Erma Bombeck. His wife drives a black Saab Turbo.
He's famous in legal circles not for his triumphs in the courtroom, but for his boring and inadequate imitations of former governor Bruce Babbitt and other well-known personalities.
His dress imitates the models in GQ magazine. There are the omnipresent suspenders and those round spectacles favored by the yuppie members of the Clinton cabinet. He reminds you of Murphy Brown's nerdy little boss on that TV sitcom.
He even has a meerschaum pipe and a $500 meerschaum fountain pen to match. The pen is a present from his wife.
The family unit consists of The Lawyer, Mrs. Lawyer and a small, male child, who is guarded like the crown jewel.
This is a very proper, educated couple, who have their own personal jogging machine in their high-ceilinged living room. They read to each other at night from the literary classics.
In a moment of gaiety not long ago, the two erudite madcaps signed their names to the following message on the wall of Il Forno, a trendy Phoenix restaurant:
"To be born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad."
This was every bit as good a quote when Rafael Sabatini used it, in almost identical form, back in 1921 as the opening line to his novel Scaramouche.
I have known The Lawyer for several years. We even worked together once. Before purchasing the house, The Lawyer came to me to seek a favor in the spirit of what I then perceived as friendship.
I and my neighbors directly to the east held a right of way through The Lawyer's driveway. Once in a while, we would walk across the property or drive through it if headed in that direction.
The Lawyer told me, agitatedly, that he could not get his house loan unless we signed a paper renouncing any claims to having a right of way.
"Tom," he said, "we are such great friends. My wife and I know it's going to be so wonderful living here. And I would never do anything to jeopardize that friendship. So just trust me."
We are talking about 73-year-old houses and an old, inner-city Phoenix neighborhood. There's nothing fancy here. None of this should be any big deal.
"You can be guaranteed," The Lawyer said sincerely, "that I would never close off the driveway. This is merely a formality for the loan."
We all signed over the right of way. Why not? People have been driving back and forth along this path for longer than our lifetimes. What's the big deal?
I signed this paper, but even then, I had a lingering doubt. Something was not quite right.
No sooner had The Lawyer and Mrs. Lawyer moved into the house than their complaints began to rain down upon us like so many cannonballs.
Trucks driven by workers during a remodeling project at our place were going too fast. The trucks made too much noise. The workers were supposedly peering in at The Lawyer's wife as they drove by.
I wondered: If they were driving too fast, how could they look in the windows? But I held my tongue. I wanted to think all of this was going to succeed.
The Lawyer put a note on her windshield commanding her not to park there anymore. The crux of his complaint was that he didn't want to see her walking across his property.
There was a barrage of other complaints. Strangers were walking across the property. Strangers were driving through. Students from the high school across the street were scaling the walls.
Then, a most dastardly deed took place. Mail was purloined from in front of The Lawyer's house in the dead of night.
"This is a federal crime," The Lawyer told me in an almost hysterical phone conversation. "In addition, that mail contained photos of my family and my travel plans, as well. This information, in the wrong hands, could endanger our lives."
"If it's a federal crime, why don't you call the FBI?" I asked. I wondered: Did he actually think I was taking his mail?
Then, a mysterious truck appeared one day and dropped off a portable toilet in The Lawyer's yard. The big truck, The Lawyer charged, also damaged some branches on his trees.
The Lawyer was turning into a regular Sherlock Holmes. I can imagine him shouting exultantly: "These are the footprints of an enormous criminal hound!"
All of this was too much for him. So he acted.
Perhaps they teach you at Yale to deal with pranks by summoning the cops.
So, that same day, a Phoenix police officer appeared at my door to ask me a series of probing questions.
The officer wanted to know about the toilet that had been delivered next door . . . the missing mail . . . the mysterious strangers spotted lurking in the area.
Apparently, I was a suspect in these matters. What else is one to think? I was dazed.
Luckily for me, it happened that late evidence turned up to clear me.
The portable toilet had been delivered to the wrong house. It was not meant for The Lawyer at all. It was addressed to a house at the opposite end of the neighborhood, where construction was under way.
"I thought the toilet might be a prank," The Lawyer said. He never bothered to apologize.
"But there's lots of weird shit happening," The Lawyer muttered. "My water in the backyard has been shut off. And then it was just as mysteriously turned on.
"Strangers are walking across my property. My little child is growing up. He must be protected. Workmen have peered into my windows. We need more privacy."
I told him I'd put up an electric gate on my side to close off traffic from the main street.
I went to the credit union and borrowed five grand or so for an electric gate. I settled back. Our troubles with The Lawyer are now over, I figured. We'll all live happily ever after.
Turns out I was wrong. It was not enough to have an electric gate constructed. To satisfy The Lawyer and his wife, it also must be closed at all times.
The Lawyer's wife called up and bellowed to me over the phone:
"I noticed you had left your gate open last night. What time did you finally close it?"
Is it possible to answer a question like that in a civil tone?
The Lawyer decided to demonstrate his disapproval of my lax gatekeeping. He blocked off his driveway by night with Erma Bombeck's old Mercedes.
During the day, The Lawyer's wife blocked the driveway by parking her shiny, black Saab Turbo directly across it.
The mail carrier asked her to move. She refused. So my mail and my neighbor's mail went undelivered. We had to drive up to the post office to pick it up.
I turned the other cheek. I spent another $100 or so to buy a new mailbox and placed it at the opposite end of the property. The post office rerouted the carriers to accommodate this new move.
Certainly, this will solve everything, right? Wrong!
Next, I received a call from The Lawyer's office. It is important I contact him at once, I was told.
"You apparently walked through our backyard yesterday with your dog," he said. He was almost hysterical.
"My baby sitter was frightened to death to see this big dog and a strange man that she didn't know. We've got to protect ourselves. We've got to keep these strange cars and people away," he said.
She once propounded her philosophy that the only kind of ethnic restaurants she likes are those in which there are no ethnics. People who have low incomes make her terribly uneasy. Obviously, she prefers neighborhoods in which neighbors are not visible.
I reminded The Lawyer that I had only signed the right-of-way memorandum to make it possible for him to get a loan for his house. And I recalled his fervent assurances that he would never try to close the drive.
"I never said that," The Lawyer said, not looking me in the eye. "Besides, if I did, I now regard the circumstances as being changed."
The gate never went up. Obviously, though, relations in our neighborhood had cooled.
Then, the other day, we had a new incident.
The potted palm, set in a 100-pound pot, was placed directly in the center of the drive to block it off.
On the following day, two big pieces of concrete rubble were placed behind the potted palm, as if they were a second line of defense.
The Lawyer seemed to be building his very own Maginot Line to seal himself from harm.
I called The Lawyer at his law firm. I was told he was out of town. He had left instructions that his whereabouts not be divulged.
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I was glad to see The Lawyer was consistent about his security. But he returned my call.
"Please explain what's going on with this potted plant," I asked.
"It's a matter of safety," The Lawyer said. "It's a matter of protecting my family."
And that's where the matter rests with the neighbors from hell. The potted palm sits like a sentry, blocking the driveway.
Time for me to get to work painting my sign, I guess.