The two men live across the street from one another. Once they were on friendly terms, but one of them is meticulous and controlling; and the other, younger by a few years, is casual about his responsibilities. Sometimes he doesn’t bring in his garbage container fast enough. Sometimes his lawn is more weeds than grass.. With each passing day the easy-going attitude of the younger irritates the older, who emails letters of complaint to the entire HOA, citing the umbrages, affronted by the lack of focus, the inexplicable priorities. And these letters are taken as an insult. At one time the two men exchanged greetings and fell into spontaneous conversations. Now they no longer speak, no longer wave when their cars pass going in and out of the gate. In fact, the sight of one to the other causes blood to heat up, anger to pound in hairy ears.
The wives, too, are involved. They glare at each other from their across-the-street porches.
“Let me warn you about her,” Hillie tells me, glowering balefully at the house on the other side of the road. “She’ll tell you one thing and do another. She acts like she’s your friend, but you can’t trust her. If she sees you talking to me, you’ll be her enemy.”
It’s eighth grade all over again.
“Maybe I’d better go, then,” I say, yanking on Trip’s leash, wanting to get away before someone hates me for no reason. The afternoon sun shines on my vulnerable nose. I forgot to apply sunscreen.
I like Hillie, who’s energetic and pretty—thin, straight teeth, cute haircut; but not vain about it. Unhappy, made anxious by the intensity of the bad feelings, I hurry down the street, to the safe harbor behind my door, where no one ever argues, not even a little bit, and the only thing to be concerned about is what to have for dinner and where we’ll go on our next vacation.
The next morning, once again I walk Trip up the street. The birds are going crazy and the bluebonnets are popping up, a joyful signal that spring’s arriving. There’s not a cloud in the sky. I contemplate all these things peacefully. It has certainly been a mild winter. On the way home I bump into Monica, Hillie’s duplicitous foe. She’s lurking in her driveway. I suspect she saw me walk by and raced out to catch me on my way back.
“G’morning,” I say.
In her late sixties, Monica is a gray smudge—hair, eyes, complexion; all gray. She’s stylish, tenacious when it comes to accessorizing. Bare legs poke from beneath her gray coat. While it’s warm for March, it’s still chilly; but she wears sandals with sparkling straps, toe rings and ankle bracelets. Who puts on toe rings and ankle bracelets at seven in the morning? I’m wearing sweat pants, two sweaters, and fluffy bed socks stuffed into my shoes. I’m pretty sure my hair is poking straight up, as it tends to do in the morning.
“You’re new here, and I see that you’re getting friendly with her.” She juts her sharp chin toward Hillie’s house. “You’ll find out soon enough that she never thinks of anybody but herself. And if you don’t agree with her about every little thing, she’ll badmouth you to everybody.”
“Oh dear,” I say. “She seems real nice as far as I can tell.”
“Just be careful.”
She makes it sound like I’m in danger. I say good-bye and move on.
Monica and Barney invite us to dinner. We accept the invitation and take a bottle of wine. It’s a nice meal—chicken, salad, homemade bread, and pie from the Bluebonnet Cafe. They tell us about themselves and the history of the development. It’s all very convivial until they start complaining about Hillie and Edgar. Their bitter words batter our minds for an hour, at which time we’re able to politely thank them and depart.
Hillie and Edgar ask us to accompany them to a wine tasting at a local winery. The afternoon is lovely—clear skies, gentle breeze, mid-seventies—and the atmosphere is bouyant. Strangers talk to each other; bustling workers pour wine and explain its aspects in terms so flowery that we make fun. It’s an entertaining few hours, until Hillie and Edgar get started on how evil Monica and Barney are. David and I exchange a look. This can’t be healthy. Later, at home, we discuss the situation.
“We’re going to have to move,” I say sadly.
“That’s not going to happen,” David tells me. “We’ll remain neutral.”
“They seem to place importance on choosing sides.”
“How do the other people in the cul-de-sac handle it?”
I think about it. Our neighbors wave from behind their steering wheels. When we run into them on the street the talk is of the weather and the pesky armadillos. They keep a distance. A safe distance. And that’s what we’re going to have to do.