The Good Neighbor

December 16th, 2009

(In Sixty Four Ottava Rima)


For one fed up with Pound and Eliot,
Who finds himself immune to sonneteers,
Who reads some Spenser (but would rather not),
And has to laugh at half of what he hears
About those “grand old poets,” that old rot
Passed out by fuddled scholars up in years,
It’s good to meet a poet with a smile–
I sigh, and say, “By God, it’s been a while!”


Byron will do (just as he pleases); he
Could perpetrate his literary crimes
While lesser poets sipped their tepid tea,
And shied away from courting female rhymes–
Or brought their suit off unsuccessfully.
So he survives, in these, the worst of times,
To offer comic verses at their best–
And spiced, just right, with females soon undressed.


Ah, in our age, so little taste for verse!
A bard who seeks a public must begin
With Whitman (or someone a little worse),
And hide his meaning deeper than his sin,
Avoiding meter, “Shakespeare’s evil curse,”
Till everyone accepts his stuff’s akin
To prose–for if a reader spots a rhyme,
The TV’s on. “Read poems? Why waste my time!”


Still . . . let me honor one who was a poet,
And tell my tale in batches of eight lines
(Though if I’m having trouble you’ll soon know it,
For in the rhyme and meter there’ll be signs;
The phrasing and the syntax, too, will show it
(It’s lucky that their laws don’t call for fines,
But if there’s tax on sin it’s other kinds–
What poets do to language no one minds)).


I’ll tell this tale complete with lass and lover,
But will not tell it from their point of view
(The point of view, you know, is just a cover
For anything a writer wants to do),
And in this case I’m sure you’ll soon discover,
Whose side I’m on, and what I’d like from you–
Your sympathy, of course, for my man John,
Just like you gave old Byron for Don Juan.


(I know I should pronounce the name Don Juan,
That otherwise you don’t get Byron’s rhyme.
Pronounce it Juan (you know that that’s the true one,
In Spanish, where they say it all the time)
You’re one beat short–the line will still be due one
(Parentheses were three sets for a dime–
If I get tangled up in all this stuff,
Please tell me when you think you’ve had enough.))


You may think, “I believe I’ll call a buddy . . .
And go play golf . . . then maybe have a beer.”
All right. But some day, when the course is muddy,
Peruse my poem . . . well . . . just because it’s here.
You might decide that I’m a fuddy-duddy–
But you’ll soon see my moral’s crystal clear:
If we’re to save the world (I think we should),
We ought to start right in the neighborhood.


Heroes are out of date, and, for my plot
I’ve picked one who’s a sort of “also ran,”
For I can’t help it if there aren’t a lot
Out where I live who’d match the Marlboro man.
So . . . let’s admit . . . he’s not the fastest shot;
He’ll never say, “Wait, Tonto . . . here’s my plan!”
In line of work he’s just an English teacher
(In Byron’s day he might have been a preacher!)


He lay there on the sofa with his book,
Cigar smoke rising in a lazy haze,
Though often from the page his eyes he took,
And off into the distance he would gaze,
To visualize a marlin on a hook,
Or Southern belles from antebellum days.
His wife was in the kitchen with her dishes,
And, running through her mind, a woman’s wishes.


The still of evening lends deep thought its aid,
As on his chest the open book reclines.
Romance is mingling with the lengthening shade–
He dreams of Zulu wars, of diamond mines–
Though those exotic scenes, too, start to fade.
Is it to thought . . . or sleep . . . our John inclines?
But if a nap confounds vicarious life–
‘Tis not for long. In breaks the worldly wife.


“Oh, John,” says she, “I’ve noticed that the hedge–
Between our house and Mr. Harper’s place–
Needs trimmed again. I’m counting on your pledge
To do our half this time. It’s a disgrace!
He does more than his share . . . far past the edge
Of his own yard. I’d think you’d hate to face
That man! He knows you’re in here on the couch.”
That grouch (there on the couch) just mumbles “Ouch!”


And then, “I didn’t want that hedge, you know.
I liked it fine when yard met yard in grass.
The only thing a hedge can do is grow!
Let’s build a wall, topped off with broken glass,
If you think they’ll attack, and want to show
A solid line no Harper’ll ever pass!”
He looked at Sue. She didn’t even smile.
“I told him you’d do our side after while.”


“Well, he’s the one who needs a hedge to clip!
Why send me out to spoil a neighbor’s fun?
He loves to watch the daylight softly slip,
As, clip by clip, he sees the setting sun
Go out of sight. While me . . . I’d rather sip
My coffee, thanks . . . if you’d just let me, Hon.
And, anyway, I wouldn’t cut it right–
Too tall! Too short! So why provoke a fight?


“I’d let him trim his dear old hedge in peace
He’d like that best . . . and asks no help from me.”
“Just clip our side! That may be in the lease!
I feel so guilty every time I see
Him in our yard . . . clipping away. I’ll cease
Suggesting jobs around the house. I’ll be
Content if you’ll just clip that hedge!” He knew . . .
She had long lists of other things to do.


Sue joined with women up and down the street,
Would help in planning showers, hanging drapes,
Looked in upon the sick . . . was there to greet
Kids coming back from camp (those “wild young apes”),
Would bring petitions home, after they’d meet–
Want him to sign! “Sam did . . . no one escapes!”
She badgered John to “get involved” as well;
He, reading Dante, wished them all in hell.


He had a few defenses he could use,
Time-tested methods that would seldom work,
The screens to paint (some job of Sue’s he’d choose),
The coffee pot to fix so it would perk,
The car to wash, and then–the final ruse–
The balk direct: “Just tell them I’m a jerk,
A lousy neighbor . . . hate to join or mix . . .
Please . . . take my wife . . . but get her home by six!”


He hated “group events,” as Sue well knew
(And once or twice he’d thought she’d understood);
He didn’t want to hear them all review
Domestic problems of the neighborhood,
Or spend long hours hearing what they do
With their long hours–though she thought he should.
So when he’d hear her talking on the phone
He’d hope that she’d . . . and they’d . . . leave him alone.


One day they’d planned a picnic (“with champagne!”)
Against a forecast that would curl your hair,
And when it rained, like on that plain in Spain,
John said to Sue, “I guess He heard my prayer.
Just look at that! Against that window pane!”
(It wasn’t often Sue was heard to swear.)
But she’d called Dorothy Harper (who was pouting),
And used the time to plan another outing.


“We want you men to take more time to play . . .
So you’ll know Sam as well as I know Sue,”
Said Dorothy, sitting in his chair one day.
“You’ve lived here for . . . three years? We hardly do
A thing together . . . let’s . . .” He said, “No way!”
Then “Dot” went home, and Sue said, “Shame on you!
Whatever plans we make, you sit and mock.
You haven’t made a friend on this whole block!”


“I’ve got a friend,” he said, and then he smiled.
“Who might that be?” Her move. The question came.
John savored it, like candy from a child,
“Why Old Man Burns–they tell me that’s his name–
Who sits there on his porch, while weeds grow wild,
And spits tobacco juice . . . yeah, that’s his game.”
(The juice he spat between his stockinged feet
Would seem to land in parlors down the street.)


The neighbor women called it “a disgrace”
For Burns to “let his yard go” like he did.
“Because he’s got no wife to run the place . . .
He doesn’t seem to care! Why he told Sid . . .”
They talked about him (never to his face),
And hoped he’d sell. He laughed at every bid.
“I built this house with Mae when we were twenty.”
“He’ll never sell . . . though he’s been offered plenty,”


John told his wife. “No other house in sight.
He hammered every nail, laid every brick,
While Mae laid out her garden, took delight
In flowers everywhere . . . ‘her bailiwick,’
He says. ‘Those were the days . . . no one to fight
About some hedge . . . no trash thrown in the crick.’
He’s hardly touched that yard since poor Mae died–
‘Once thought I’d trim her roses . . . never tried.’


“He laughs at what he calls our ‘store-bought houses,’
And ‘neighbors’ is a word he seldom uses.
We’re ‘newcomers’ to him. ‘Look at those blouses!
These men just let their wives run loose! Excuses!
Of course they’re not at home!’ It just arouses
His thin-skinned pride to talk about abuses
That he inflicts upon this neighborhood.
‘When wives have time to kill . . . well, that’s no good!


“‘Then criticizin’ “neighbors” never ends.
My Mae, thank God, had better things to do.’
Yeah, me and Old Man Burns . . . I guess we’re friends.
We let each other be. I like him, too–
In part, I guess, because he bucks the trends . . .
And minds his own affairs. I’ll tell you, Sue,
This ‘Let’s both clip a hedge’ . . . I bet he’d shout,
‘That hedge be damned! I’ll have my side ripped out!'”


“Well maybe you could get your ‘one good friend’
To paint his porch . . . or have his crabgrass mowed.”
The voice came from the laundry room, to send
Her parting shot, as Sue prepared to load
The dirty clothes, and then sit down to mend
Some socks, or patch his pants, in where she sewed.
And, as she moved in there . . . got busy, too . . .
To pester him was difficult to do.


And soon that friendly sound, the welcome hum
Of her machine, gave evidence that she
Was working on a shirt, or blouse, or some-
Thing from that pile of hers. She had to be,
For it was 7:10. The time had come
She always used to sew. John would not see
Sue’s face for half an hour. So, book in lap,
He often used this time to take a nap.


He finds his book has fallen to the floor.
Where was he, then? . . . ah . . . Queen Elizabeth . . .
But happy hum has met with rumbling roar,
A raucous rattle, worse than wailing death,
A cross between a scream and full-scale war.
John knows the sound . . . damns it beneath his breath,
“That teen-aged punk . . . and what he calls a car . . .”
No other noise precedes its source that far!


The gentle buzz of early evening sounds
Is gobbled up by this cacophony–
Then (like the yelping of a pack of hounds
That has a wounded lion up a tree)
That horn! Could signal ends to boxing rounds,
And then announce, “Here comes the cavalry!”
But it’s just Geraldine’s Romeo–“that jerk!”
McDonald’s shift has changed–Joe’s got off work!


The woman at her sewing mutters “Joe,”
Identifies by sound (no need for sight)
The lad who oft descends with twilight’s glow
To rout their neighbor’s daughter, and affright
Their neighborhood. “Good God! There’s Gerrie’s beau!”
Just drop the name, say “Joe,” they’re all up tight.
He heralds each new coming with that horn,
And Roland’s ne’er projected half the scorn.


Yes, “Joe,” that rowdy gallant in his teens,
Has come, a modern swain, to see his girl,
Will court fair lady in his faded jeans,
And take her for a ride, “a little whirl”
Around the town, a tour of Dairy Queens–
And with some luck he might take out a squirrel,
Or smash a can, or spin his left rear wheel–
In any case, young Geraldine will squeal.


Joe built that car, composed of traded parts
(And some he’s stolen, as he tells the tale),
To seem alive. It coughs before it starts,
And anyone who sees it knows it’s male,
As down the road it growls, and howls, and farts,
Maneuvered like a bull, or home-sick whale.
By instinct, then, it seeks out Geraldine,
Our high-school belle, our local beauty queen.


The color of the car is “Chinese red,”
But fenders here and there are many-hued,
For Joe ran into things–“Their fault,” he said–
Then painted over, as he felt the mood,
In color code–in black for something dead,
Green for a tree, and blue if he’d been sued.
“They’re only half symbolic,” smiled the lad,
“Are really just the colors my dad had.”


A connoisseur of ornaments was Joe,
An angel on the dashboard bowed in prayer,
A license plate that said, “Hey! Watch Me Go!”
A monkey bobbing, waving in the air,
From his rear window as he went. And so
They watched . . . the car, the red-haired boy who’d dare
To blow that heinous horn . . . go passing by,
In such delight, offending earth and sky.


Now here he comes, with car that he’s designed
To alienate the senses (jar all five),
Leans on that horn, slows long enough to find
Her drive for two quick squirrels to dive
Into that hedge, leaving their nuts behind,
While Harper (as his hedge becomes alive)
Stands still a moment, then, with nerves ajar,
Attacks the hedge as if it owned the car.


Still on the couch, John contemplates his book.
Where was he then? It seems he’s lost his place.
He sips his coffee, has another look
At his cigar, annoyance on his face,
Then settles in (and that was all it took–
There goes the horn again). The human race
Must suffer many things, but nothing worse
Than teenage noise–an omnipresent curse.


John lifts the coffee cup, another sip,
Lights his cigar, is puffing up a storm–
There comes that horn again! He bites his lip.
“That kid is on a roll . . . in ‘concert’ form,
No reading till he’s gone” . . . a paper clip
To mark the place . . . the evening seems so warm.
The only train of thought John can sustain
Involves a boy in jeans who’s suffering pain.


He calls a malediction on the clan,
The race of men who’d spawned this damned youth,
And raised him up to damn his fellow man
With that damned car. Not even John Wilkes Booth
Was hated more by this Abe Lincoln fan
Than this damned kid, with manners so uncouth.
He wished that he (the kid) had ne’er been born.
That wish worked like a trigger–there’s the horn!


Fair Geraldine could never seem to hear
That strident horn, those raucous engine races,
Till they’d been there, say, almost half a year.
She’d cultivated female social graces
That said a man who waits will rank more dear
Attentions paid when he’s put through his paces.
She seemed a simple, friendly little thing,
Yet she had all those charms (and she could sing).


John gave his poor cigar a dirty look,
Then ground it in the ashtray by his side,
Skipped back a paragraph . . . laid down the book . . .
And there’s the horn again. He can’t decide
Just what to do. “By God . . . by crook or hook!”
In his mind’s eye the vigilantes ride;
He gathers up the neighbors–“What say we
Just hang that youngster from the nearest tree?”


The horn again. He speaks, “That damned young fool!”
His eyes in irritation search the room.
There on the desk he spots a mislaid tool . . .
His wire cutters! Since he can’t resume
His reading, he’ll accept this as a duel!
He’ll dedicate that weapon to the doom
Of this offender of his evening peace.
Cut off that horn . . . then that much noise should cease.


John sits him up, puts both feet on the floor,
Then stands and stretches. There’s that horn again!
“Well, my young friend, I’ve suffered you before,”
He says, and tucks the handy cutters in
His pocket as he heads toward the door.
“But this time you and your unholy din
Pushed me too far. You’ve snapped my tranquil mood.
I’m up . . . so feel committed to intrude.”


He pauses at the door, surveys the scene,
The car two driveways down, between them Sam . . .
“Old Harper” . . . in his summer cap of green,
Stalled in the task of cutting hedge. “Well, damn!”
John’s wife, still hard at work, cannot be seen;
She hears the screen door close (just close–not slam).
“He’s going out,” she mutters, with a smile,
“To cut that hedge? I’ll check . . . but after while.”


John walks along the hedge, toward the car,
And Harper, with his clippers, watches him.
“It’s like I’ve always said–these hedges bar
The way . . . impede the flow. I ought to trim
A path straight through! What obstacles there are
Between a man and destiny . . . or whim!”
‘Good hedges make good neighbors,’ someone said–
But he who said it [now, not then] is dead.


His neighbor’s “Ev’ning John” is understood,
But John neglects to answer as he goes
Around the hedge directly toward the hood.
The horn again–up close, uniquely Joe’s–
He’s made it as distinctive as he could,
A Chinese gong played by a flock of crows
Would sound as sweet. But then, as John goes by
(And Joe sees John), the crows all seem to fly.


The boy who blows the horn looks up to see
A stranger (who he thinks he’s seen before),
And watches him with curiosity,
As he approaches, not his neighbor’s door,
But Joe’s own car! “You think he’s after me?”
Thinks Joe, and then, “I hope he isn’t sore.
I wonder what he thinks he’s gonna do.”
John lifts the hood, to hear Joe cry, “Hey, you!”


Just two short beeps, defensive little jabs,
As John lays back the hood–and what a sight!
A hundred wires marked with colored tabs
Go everywhere. The horn has red? . . . black? . . . white?
In his left hand John all three colors grabs,
His wire cutters cradled in his right,
Looks at those wires, saying, “Do, Re, Mi,”
And, not sure which one won, he clips all three,


Returns the hood, just as it was before,
As if he were concerned to scratch the paint,
Then, looking up, sees standing at the door
A wide-eyed girl, expression of a saint
(Though gossip said the morals of a . . . modern teenager).
“One thing’s for sure, don’t think that girl will faint!
She’s prob’ly wondering why the horn stopped blowing.
But now . . . that’s done . . . I guess that I’ll be going.”


And so he turns to go, smiles as he sees
Eyes blinking fast, young mouth a little slack
In sheer surprise, framed by the summer trees
As he goes by. Then gravel at his back,
An arm around his neck, and two young knees
Strike from behind, as in a fierce attack
A tiger just escaping from its cage
Might pounce upon its victim in its rage.


John’s turn to be surprised. “He’s strong as sin,
For just a kid,” he thinks, “. . . but jumping me?”
The arm that’s wound around his neck is thin,
But wiry as he twists to pull it free,
Then turns to face the boy. Again a grin–
Not at the boy, who’s serious as can be–
But at a picture tempting to a bard:
Old Harper, poised and speechless, in his yard,


Hedge clippers hanging limp, while there he stands.
“Each man his tool,” thinks John, putting his pair
Of clippers in his pocket. “Need two hands.”
The boy’s fists flail fantastic in the air,
As John just holds him off. He understands
A fight with such a child would be unfair.
The boy is just a symptom, not the cause–
How was it Plato put it . . . in The Laws?


“He’s still a force to deal with,” John then thought,
And marveled at the wildness in those eyes,
For that young face was frantic, as it sought
Some way to get at him. Like swatting flies,
Both arms went round, the body tense and taut,
As fists struck empty air. “At least he tries,”
John thought . . . began to think he liked the kid.
“Got qualities that he’s been keepin’ hid.


“Still . . . first things first.” John grabbed a slender wrist
And tried to get the boy to settle down.
But Joe swung out, swung back the other fist
To catch John on the jaw. That brought a frown,
A dizzy blur of vision, like a mist,
Changing his mood. “Hey, now . . . you little clown . . .”
Then, as he had to duck a second blow,
“Enough of this! Afraid you’ve had it, Joe.”


A wild mosquito zooming in to hit . . .
The boy’s long hair was flying everywhere.
“Swat him, I guess. No sense in getting bit.”
John drops the wrist, “Hey, back off . . . and I’ll spare . . .”
Joe lands one on his forehead. “What I get!”
While one hand winds its fingers in that hair
The other, open, strikes below the ear.
Those eyes go wide . . . amazement . . . laced with fear.


That urge to kill an insect dies as fast–
John’s sorry that he gave him such a slap–
But part of that base impulse must have passed
Across the old communication gap.
The anger in John’s eyes, which didn’t last,
Had still been real enough. “Disturbed my nap . . .
That always makes me cross,” John thought, and sighed.
Then he relaxed . . . as all his rancor died.


The boy’s face, too, was changing rapidly,
As all the blood ran to the side just slapped,
Each finger outlined in a murky sea,
Like islands in a region roughly mapped
By pirates, long ago. “What can it be?
Not something I imagined while I napped–
No, some old chart I’ve seen in some old book.”
Releasing Joe . . . a look around he took.


Poor Geraldine was standing at the door
Half in, half out–her bubble-gum un-popped–,
The screen door, like her mouth, still open, for
She never did shut anything, just hopped
From this to that–“Why bother keeping score?”
“She feels betrayed now that that horn’s been stopped,”
John thought. Then as, again, he turned for home,
He let his eyes toward his neighbor roam.


“That holy hedge,” was all that he could think,
“Suppose I’ll have to clip our side some day . . .
But not today! I’d still prefer chain-link . . .
And two mean dogs . . . to keep the world at bay.”
Sam Harper gasped when John gave him a wink.
Then back toward his house, where he can lay
Him on his couch. But first he’ll find that book
That has that map, reflected in that look.


To reach his porch, John gives a little hop . . .
Then, “Shhh,” the screen, like entering a tomb . . .
Still, once inside, he hears the sewing stop.
“Is that you John?” comes from the other room.
A pause. “Where did you go?” “To kick a cop . . .”
He starts to say, but knows he can assume
Before the day is done she’ll hear it all.
“Just out,” he says, “to pay a little call.”


“What?” He can hear her slippers on the floor,
As he stands at the bookcase . . . finds the book.
Then, shirt in hand, she stands there in the door;
“I want my questions answered,” says her look.
“I thought about the things you said before,
And how a ‘neighbor’ gave more than he took . . .
How I should give . . . a little of my time.
The way I treat the neighbors . . . is a crime.”


She frowned. He dropped his eyes, looked at the shirt,
One elbow mended, one a little wild,
Where he had torn a place. That didn’t hurt,
For she’d saved extra pieces . . . had them filed,
“Since when I made that shirt,” she would assert.
And then–he couldn’t hold it back–he smiled.
She frowned again. “Now what’s all that about?”–
Then to her kitchen window to look out.


The rumble of the car is heard again,
And from the kitchen comes philosophy:
“I guess that being young is no real sin,
But Geraldine and her young man must be
The youngest kids that there have ever been.
As I recall, you never honked for me.
I guess she finally heard, for there they go . . .
Our local belle . . . and her obnoxious Joe.”


John moved his cup . . . re-lighted his cigar.
The car could still be heard from down the street.
“A bit subdued,” he thought, “as, from afar,
The sounds of trains or tractors can seem sweet;
It’s when they roar right over you they mar
The tenor of the times, the moods they meet.”
Someone who knows enough ecology
Could tell us what the principle must be.


Another pause. The woman’s voice once more.
“Where’s Mr. Harper? He’s not finished yet.
He left one corner . . . and an open door . . .
His shears are near the sprinkler . . . getting wet!
I’ve never seen him act like that before.
What did you say? I hope he’s not upset.”
Back at the door, she looks at John again,
Then turns away with, “Where’d I stick that pin?”


The answer from the couch is just a grunt,
As John has settled in to look at maps.
Some like to read, while others like to hunt . . .
And some trim hedges, mow their lawns, perhaps.
Some like to lead, but yet, to be quite blunt,
There’s some of us depend upon our naps.
“Let others fight those battles, win those laurels”–
Which gives our little tale at least two morals.

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