I knew it was going to come to this.
But first, some filler.
Our neighborhood has an interesting character. It was built, for the most part, in the 1950s, when this part of Dallas was actually somewhat swanky. No mansions, mind you, not that ritzy, but there are quite a number of very nice homes that have managed to age with grace, with only minimal houses sprinkled about that have the sad aura of “the trashy people who somehow gained possession of this dwelling are basically thoughtless pigs”.
Still, mostly nice. There’s a Homeowner’s Association, of course, because that’s just one of the ways you keep a decent neighborhood decent. (And it’s not one of those Nazi HOAs, where bitter people on unnecessary committees make vindictive and pointless regulations out of spite, because those people are getting too much or not enough of something in their resentful little lives.)
It’s a nice HOA, for the most part. (There are a few hens in the yard that don’t always play nice.) Mostly, our HOA aims to keep the neighborhood informed of local issues and developments, maintains a good relationship with law enforcement, encourages the reporting of suspicious and unseemly behavior, and generally tries to get the neighbors to at least recognize each other. All of this helps us sleep at night as we drift off to the distant sounds of drive-by gunfire in other neighborhoods where they haven’t bothered to hold quarterly meetings, elect officers and have a potluck dinner at Christmas.
But there is one outgrowth of our HOA that troubles me a wee bit: The decision to start a “Yard of the Month” competition. On the one hand, I get the reasoning behind the concept. Making people care about their curb appeal improves the whole neighborhood, aesthetically, and it helps jack up the resale value should you decide to sell out and move to the suburbs where your new neighbors can always find the bathroom in your house because everyone has the same floor plan. (Okay, the bathroom tile might be different in every third house, but still, the cookie has been cut.)
On the flip side of that hand, we have three not-so-happy bits of fallout from deciding to hold a neighborhood competition. Exhibit A: The people who are super-competitive. These dynamos simply must win or their lives are apparently not worth living. (These are the same people who started campaigning for senior class president two years before they even started going to high school, those Perky Pattys.) As soon as the announcement was made in the HOA meeting hall, the Pattys whipped out their cell phones and began making battle plans with Henri, who apparently once worked at the Gardens of Versailles during his time in the Peace Corps.
Exhibit B: The homeowners who normally would be interested, but they just don’t have the time, the strength or the money. They’d really like to participate, but they’d also really like to make their mortgage payments without having to sell off their most annoying child.
Exhibit C: The homewreckers previously mentioned, the pigs who are sure as hell not going to lift a finger in any way. Ain’t no need to gussy up the front yard with a bunch of pretty crap. Besides, that yard is where Buford parks his truck when he comes home drunk from the tractor pull. He don’t need no daisies in his way. (Translation: The crack houses are going to look even crackier if you ramp up the rest of the neighborhood. Driving down the street we have a house with a wishing well proffering gorgeous tulips, a house enhanced by imported-marble pots of glowing geraniums, and a house with used diapers and rusted beer cans providing the only yard ornamentation. Yay.)
Our particular street has some really nice yards. Not “Better Homes & Gardens” nice, by any means. There will be no photographers milling about, and there won’t be a featured spread in the magazine, with Goldie Hawn waving from an air-conditioned window whilst she uses her phone to coordinate the landscaping. (“Oui, Henri, I want you to plant the flowers in the shape of an Oscar. I have one somewhere if you need an example. Oui, I understand that the flowers I picked are not native and they will probably die. But they should at least last until my next movie premiere, oui?”)
And to be fair, there was a time when I was deeply invested in the outside appearance of my home. Of course, this was way back in the day, old school, when you took care of your yard because that’s what you were supposed to do, not so you could win a prize and get your picture in the Neighborhood Association newsletter.
In fact, in the first several years after I bought the house, I was borderline obsessive. I was constantly out in the yard. If I happened to actually be in the house, and spotted an unsavory blade of glass through a window, I was racing back out there, regardless of time of day or current clothing choice. (Yes, I have actually trimmed back the monkey grass using a grease-dripping fork from breakfast and sporting jammie pants that no straight man would ever wear.) The yard was my pristine temple.
Then, things changed. My partner moved in, and he clearly was not interested in landscaping. (“You spend more time out there FERTILIZING than you do with me!” Door slams, followed by a silent evening and separate sleeping arrangements.) My responsibilities at work increased over the years, slowly squeezing out any free time whatsoever. The justification for spending hefty sums of money on plants that were just going to wither because I couldn’t get to them lost merit. And the ultimate sin: I just stopped caring.
And it shows. Loud and clear.
There has always been one section of the front lawn, in the northeast quadrant, that stayed patchy and barren, because our massive trees stop all sunlight. It is perpetual twilight in that area, and not the fun kind with sparkly vampires and nocturnal passions to be explored. I tried everything, different kinds of seeds and friendly chemicals and elaborate sacrifices. I even went the route of laying sod on a number of occasions. Each time, there would be two days of “It looks so lush and full!”, then things would go south and the “guaranteed for a year!” sod would inevitably degrade to dried-out checkerboard squares. Then I had to drag the Triscuits to the curb, because that mess was uglier than just dirt. Then the city would fine me for putting items at said curb too far in advance of the sacred Bulky Trash Collection Day. (But those people over there can leave beer cans and diapers on their curb 24X7? Got it.)
At least the Twilight Zone was a small patch back in the day, when things were simpler. Now, half the front yard is a lovely mosaic of dirt and a brave tendril of anemic grass every couple of yards. (It’s like Election Day in Texas!) The only time that chunk of hell ever fills in is when the leaves fall in Autumn. (Autumn only lasts two days in Texas. And winter only lasts three, then we’re back to scorching sun and cranial-melting just from opening the front door. This also explains elections in Texas.)
So I leave the leaves there as long as I can. This is partially due to 12-hour workdays, partially due to the wise adage that the older you get the less you care, and mostly due to the layer of leaves giving the false impression that I actually have a lawn worth any kind of merit. Eventually the ruse is up. After several rounds of the wind blowing said leaves onto all the neighbors’ properties, the lawn services who work the neighbor properties using industrial-strength blowers to shoo the leaves back to the Hell Mouth, and insistent banging on my door wherein neighbors blaspheme me, I have to take care of the damn leaves.
I don’t really do this in a professional manner.
I don’t have time to rake. I did, once upon a time, long ago and far away, in a universe where Corporate America didn’t demand my soul in exchange for the possibility of making another dollar an hour. So instead of rake, I mow. (I do have a lawnmower, much to the shock of my neighbors and the City of Dallas and the people who sold me the lawnmower, a company that has distanced themselves from me due to reports of my negligence and malfeasance.)
I fire up that thing and I go to town.
It’s not a pleasant sight. Leaves are not cooperative things, especially dead leaves that have been left to rot for a century or so in the Twilight Hell Mouth. They are cranky and vengeful and brittle, and the ground beneath them is equally acrimonious, intent on insurrection. The lawnmower proves to be a catalyst for the revolt, the match in the evil twilight, and before one can say “maybe this was a bad idea?” there is so much dirt and lacerated, sharp-edged foliage flying through the air that there is a cloud billowing over the house, a Category 5 maelstrom of madness. Helicopters fill the sky, with choking and gasping reporters giving a live update to Biff Beckley back at the main news desk. I can hear dogs barking as rescue teams search for survivors.
For the next week, we have Mt. St. Helens residue for miles around. Sinus flare-ups, wheezing, insurance claims, appearances on Maury Povich. (“I’m here to tell you, and not just because you paid for me and all of my ex-husbands to be here in our trashy clothes so we can hit the right demographic, that mess was a mess. I got a yeast infection just going to the mailbox, sure did.”)
But it doesn’t stop there, the outrage, the shame.
No, we still have to deal with the dead trees, the trees that are not responsible for the litter of carnage that I have just sent skyward to Jesus and the Copter-Cam for Channel 5. (How the dead and live trees cohabitate I don’t really now, they just do, and somehow the leaves always show up, despite my lighting of ceremonial votives to Mother Nature.)
And as for the dead trees, we’re not talking little saplings that didn’t make it. We’re focused on Redwoods that have bit the farm, towering menacingly in their decay. I should have had those things cut down and hauled away. No joke, they could fall and crush a house into sawdust. But nope, they’re still there, taunting me. And every time a thunderstorm rolls through (and with this being Texas, the bad weather is as regular as a subway schedule), I’m all clenched, waiting for one of them to come tumbling down. I have State Farm on speed dial, and I am fully aware of my deductible and what country I should move to should the liability proceedings get especially harsh.
Interesting aside: Despite my fears and constant intake of anxiety meds, the dead trees have NOT come down. Yet our neighborhood has been hit hard with storms, many times. And every time, in the aftermath, all the other neighbors are running around with chainsaws, hacking up all the healthy felled trees that didn’t survive the onslaught in their own yards. Naturally, they manage to glance my way as I perform clean-up in Deadwood Forest, picking up the two miniscule branches that fell, pausing to study the hollowed-out trees that really should have killed somebody by now, and then slinking back into the house. I feel guilty. And I can also sense their hatred, thick as humidity in July.
Okay, spinning the wheel again, because I might as well fess up to everything. We also have clay pots all over the damn yard. I went through a terra cotta phase back when I cared, literally buying hundreds of these pots and cramming them full of plant life. There were all shapes and sizes of vessels, artfully arranged in little groupings, thematically based. (“This is the Van Gogh area. Notice how I trimmed back the ears on this begonia?”) It actually looked really good, almost professional, if I may say. But at the height of my clay pot mania, it took three hours to hand-water all of them in one session, because I didn’t plan ahead and didn’t place any of the pots near the automatic sprinkler system that would have made life so much easier.
So, that got old fast, although I did persevere for several summers, slowly slimming the herd as plants didn’t come back after the winter. We’re now down to about 12 pots with the heartiest survivors. I haven’t bought any new plants in years. And we now have two clay pot graveyards, one along the east fence and one directly behind the house. Hey, I paid good money for those things, I’m not just going to chunk em. Besides, they kind of look artsy still, all piled up randomly. It’s just not good art. It’s Grandma art.
I could go on, but I’m drifting away from my opening for this post, wherein I knew a certain thing was eventually going to happen. And that certain thing is that the neighbors immediately to our west just got Yard of the Month. They worked hard, their yard looks great, and they deserve it. I’m not jealous at all that they got this award even though I never did because nobody was handing out awards when I was busting my ass. No, not jealous at all.
I am mortified.
Let’s review. I have just described only a small portion of the obvious devastation and neglect on our property. It’s bad enough that our neighbors and their friends and family have to drive by this place, staring surreptitiously at our homestead hell and wondering if people have died in that mess. Now, we have the official “yard-of-the-month” magnet pulling in even more traffic to our street.
As mentioned, this competition is a big deal in our little pocket of the world, partly because there are a lot of retired folks in this subdivision who make something out of nothing just because they are bored waiting for their children to call. People feverishly read the monthly HOA newsletter for the award announcement, and then they race to the indicated address, wanting to see who pulled it off this time and how they did it, scribbling notes and stealing ideas.
The latest edition of the newsletter has led to a Conflictive Tableau on our normally quiet little street, what with our immediate neighbors receiving the laurels. On one side we have the House that Enriched-Fertilizer Built, with the prize-winning yardwork that has visitors gasping and applauding. Cries of “I didn’t know you could do that with jasmine!” and “Is that a hand-carved garden gnome? Oh my God!” fill the air.
Meanwhile, on the other side, we have the House of Death and Poor Choices, a land of dryness, broken pottery and trees that can kill you. It was bad enough when the occasional person who didn’t actually live on our street drove past, shocked and dismayed. (“Harold, are you seeing what I’m seeing? Should we call somebody? Just hold me until we get past it.”) But now we had the neon glow of the Garden of Eden next door, beckoning folks from near and far, with said glow inadvertently bringing into focus the End Times dwelling just across the property line.
This has led to some uncomfortable moments for yours truly.
Picture this: A lovely Sunday morning. I’m drinking coffee and gazing out the front window. (I’m not sure why, considering the view. Maybe I’m studying that one good tree and reflecting on better times before I lost faith.) I spy a car filled with a happy family, fresh from church, slowing to a worshipful halt in front of the Anointed Neighbor House. There’s excited chatter spilling out the windows, some picture-taking, one of them even hops out to place an offering in the bougainvillea-scented mailbox. They bask in the beauty and are refreshed, spiritually renewed for the second time that day.
Then Daddy drives on and our house comes into view. Immediately, there are shattering screams, the children’s eyes are forcibly covered, Momma grips the finely-jeweled cross around her neck, and Daddy floors it, natural instinct kicking in to protect his family. They race away, the sheer velocity of the car stirring up all the dirt in our yard, sending a mushroom cloud into the sky. I hear the helicopters start up, and the barking dogs approach.
I quietly finish my coffee. And then I call my therapist. On the secure line.
(Originally published in “The Sound and the Fury” on 06/19/09. Revised and updated with extra flair for this post.)