I could see them coming — her and her dog — as I stood behind the great wall of okra that I’d planted in my side yard.
The wall is about 7 feet tall now and won’t stop growing and producing. It is a constant reminder of my temporary lapse into insanity a couple of months ago, when I thought it would be a good idea to plant a patch of that hellishly prolific and most questionable of vegetables.
But, then again, all true gardeners are, to some degree, insane.
Anyway, the wall hid me from her as she and her little unleashed dog strolled around the corner enjoying the cool, only-five-minutes-past-sunrise morning.
I thought about taking a walk myself before it got too hot. Then the dog took a hard right off the street, bounded into the middle of my freshly mowed, dew-dappled Kentucky 31 fescue front yard, squatted and did what all dogs must do at least once a day. The woman stood watching him with what I could only interpret as a fair amount of parental pride mixed with what I’m pretty sure was pure evil on her face.
I waited until the deed was done before I stepped out from behind the great wall of okra because I didn’t want to embarrass the dog.
“Good morning,” I called out, smiling. “You’re gonna clean that up, right?”
The dog wagged its stumpy little tail, proud of its accomplishment, happy to see me. The woman’s mouth dropped open and she stood frozen in mortification as if I’d just witnessed her selling meth to preschoolers. Her face grew red and her mouth closed and then opened.
Here’s the deal: I probably wouldn’t have said anything to the woman if it had been the first time that I’d seen her let her dog do its business in my yard without cleaning up afterward. I really wouldn’t have. But this woman and her dog were repeat offenders. So, I decided it was time to take a stand.
See, in the wilds of suburbia, there exist a weird civility and a whole bunch of unwritten rules that enable us all to live together in harmony as neighbors. This civility and those rules apply strictly to what goes on outside of your house.
Inside, you could be taking nightly milk baths while wearing a Sarah Palin mask, or worshipping before your altar of questionably stained, concert-worn Van Halen spandex you purchased off eBay, and nobody would care.
Outside, though, you must step lightly through the minefield of neighborly protocol if you expect to get along. You don’t mow your yard, for example, at 4:30 in the morning, or strip down nekkid to check yourself for ticks before going inside.
If someone waves, you always wave back, and you keep your opinions to yourself if you should happen to spy your neighbor maniacally digging a suspiciously deep body-size hole in their backyard under the cover of darkness. You drive very slowly and carefully if kids are playing near the road, and, at least once a year, you are obligated to buy a cup of crappy, overpriced lemonade from those same kids and then lie about how yummy it is.
It is also customary to deliver surplus okra, zucchini and tomatoes to your neighbor’s doorsteps when they’re not around.
And you definitely do not allow your dog the freedom to roam around the neighborhood pooping in yards that aren’t your own without cleaning up after them. If you’re new to the neighborhood and it happens once, I can consider it to be an accident that — even though I might be feeling mildly violated — I can forgive. If it happens again, then you are declaring yourself to be an irresponsible pet owner as well as — and this is very important — a gigantic, self-absorbed a-hole who’s too stupid to grasp the concept behind the Universal Truth that nobody likes your dog as much as you do.
Besides, we already had a dog we had to clean up after. His name was Bear-Dog, and we loved him a lot. And he was much, much better than anybody else’s dog. He was crippled the last few years of his life and three or four times a day, I’d carry him outside and hold him up while he did his business. It was all very dignified.
Every other day, I’d wander leisurely back and forth around the yard with a plastic bag and a pooper-scooper, smoking a cigar, cleaning up after him. At my age, I considered it to be a much-needed memory exercise. I also liked to look at it as a kind of gruesome Easter egg hunt.
“I … uh … I always clean up after my dog,” the woman stammered.
“OK,” I replied, smiling at the lie while waiting.
The woman looked around frantically while patting her pockets as her dog lifts his leg and pees on my mailbox post. Finally, she located a woefully inadequate 2-by-3-inch piece of paper — a receipt, I guess — and used it to very daintily retrieve the package her dog had deposited in my yard. She had a look on her face as if she was trying really hard not to throw up while disarming a bomb.
Then she tentatively — almost pleadingly — held it out to me.
“Could you … um … can you …”
“Nope,” I tell her. “You have a good day now.”
Just being civil.