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.

Our cleaning lady's car turned out to be too much of an eyesore for The Lawyer. She parked it on the city street alongside The Lawyer's house. She'd been parking in this same spot for five years.