To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.
Hank Fredericks fumed at the sour sonofabitch who lived on the other side of the cul-de-sac, in the house that sat above the rest of the neighborhood on a low hillock like a watchtower. There he was, picking his goddamn toes as he sat on his stoop, glowering at the cracks in his sidewalk like an irrationally grouchy three-toed sloth. All the while, not trimming his Japanese maple. Not spraying any weed-killer to keep the creeping jenny out of other people’s lawns. For that matter, not even mowing his lawn but once a month.
“The sour sonofabitch…” Hank said aloud.
His oldest daughter, home from college, came in from helping her mother in the Garden. Ellie was always good about that. Hank never cared for gardening, but he assisted when it needed doing. But Ellie had the knack for it, the true green thumb. So she came home once a month in the spring to help her mother.
“What is it now, Dad?” Ellie said, in a tone that was amused without being patronizing.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Hank said. Ellie accepted that and poured herself a glass of lemonade from the fridge.
“Okay, Dad.” This time her tone did cross over into patronizing. Perhaps it was the extra “Dad.” It reminded one of talking to young children, so that they’d remember their names. But he didn’t want to lose his tempter at her. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and besides, young women enjoyed being patronizing with their fathers. It was a reminder of their new adulthood, and Hank didn’t feel like being reminded of that again. They grow up so fast, and when they’re done, you look at yourself, and realize you’re old.
He turned to face her. She was tall and skinny, an athlete like her mother. Scholarships and everything. Smart as a whip, and smart enough to know what she didn’t know, which was damn rare in the young. She stood a chance of actually getting educated at college instead of indoctrinated. It made him feel almost ashamed of the petty nonsense that had him so steamed.
“Is it the flagpole?” she asked.
“Your mother told you.”
Hank had been trying to put a flagpole on his property for sometime. Nothing massive or tasteless, just a metal pole to fly the flag on Flag Day, the Fourth, etc. Hank had been among the first to carry the flag into Kuwait back in the day, when he was still in the Army. He’d done color guard. He wasn’t one of these creepy fetishists who collected militaria and Nazi memorables, but he had the flag he carried into Kuwait, tastefully displayed in a shadow box. He wanted to fly it on the days you flew the flag. And he wanted a pole in his backyard to do it on.
No, said the Homeowners Association. Hank had appealed. He had cajoled, he had met individually with board members. He had pled his case with diplomacy and politic ease. But the sour sonofabitch who picked his toes and presided over the board didn’t like large flags. He thought them tasteless. “It’s not a military base,” he said, as if bases were bad things. And the rest of them didn’t care to cross the sour sonofabitch enough to vote the other way. He was a rich sour sonofabitch. Owned a liquor store, a pizzeria, and the trucking contractors who plowed the street in winter.
His notice had arrived this morning. It was terse and final, without even the “please contact us if you have any questions” boilerplate. It was a polite paper middle finger to Hank.
“Tell me, college-girl,” said Hank. “Why do Homeowners Associations even exist?’
“To ensure that necessary services are provided, and that owners maintain their properties.”
“On the nose. What it doesn’t say anything about is fucking dictating our entire goddamn properties. As in the aesthetic choices thereunto pertaining. Who do these people think they are?”
Ellie listened to the acid that Hank continued in this light, making comparisons, not to communist or fascist bogeys of common rhetoric, but of the oligarchies that Aristotle wrote of in his Politics. She smiled, for she had been made to read the Politics, and knew that her GI-Bill father wasn’t reaching for his analogy. Who called down such displays of classicism over a suburban flag pole? Her Dad.
“Dad,” she said at last.
“Ellie,” said Hank.
“Do you want a drink?”
“Is that your clever way of asking permission to drink in my house, college-girl?”
“I have to ask permission?”
“In that case, then yes, it is.”
“In that case, then yes, I want one.”
Ellie came back in with two thin elegant tumblers filled with spiced rum. Hank’s had only ice, but Ellie had added coke for the go-to college cocktail. They sat on the porch, Hank in his easy chair, Ellie with her legs curled up underneath her on the couch.
They sat for a while, drinking their drinks as the friendly heat of May ebbed and flowed in the afternoon breeze. They drank the rum that was black as pitch and quietly savored each other's company.
After she'd gotten her cocktail halfway down, she tilted her head another way and said "I get why you're mad, you know..."
Hank had let that go for the moment. The sour sonofabitch had gone back inside.
But the quiet conviction in her voice -whether borne of rum or mere pondering it both - intrigued him. "Yeah," he said, "Why's that?"
"Because of the inversion of standards," she replied. "They're very strictly imposing their aesthetic on you, while allowing someone powerful to ignore the basic fucking rules of the organization."
She paused to see if he would chide her expletive.
"And I got no fucking recourse," he said instead. She grinned.
"You don't. Their failure to enforce standards may not even be actionable in a court of law."
"Did you switch to pre-law?"
"My roommate did. Everything's 'actionable' or 'non-actionable' with her. She thinks it's cute."
"Roommates," said Hank. "Just luck of the draw, I guess. Like neighbors."
"Yeah. Like Neighbors."
They continued to drink. The heat of the afternoon peaked and the rum caused a flush of warmth in kind.
"So what we have here is a non-accountable authority," Hank said at last.
"Exactly," said Ellie.
"And what does non-accountable authority eventually invite?"
"Rebellion," she said. "But how you do that ..."
"That's the thing. I can't march on his house with a pitchfork and a torch."
"Well, you could..."
They both smiled.
"But you wouldn't get anything that way. You wouldn't be a rebel against authority, you'd be a nut bag who gets arrested."
"You could build the pole anyway and fight then in the courts," she offered.
"I could," Hank said, "But I don't know if I've got a legal leg to stand on. Covenants are contracts, and they're specific. I might hold them off for a little while, and end up taking the pole down, paying their fucking fine, plus legal fees."
Ellie nodded in allowance that such was probably true. "You could run for HOA leadership. President, even."
"And lose. The same thing that allows that sonofabitch to get away with not mowing his lawn is what keeps him in power. Everyone's afraid of offending him. They like having their streets plowed early and often."
Ellie shrugged and took a strong pull of her rum. Hank did the same.
"Ew, Are you drinking?" came a voice dripping with disdain. The younger daughter, home from ballet, mother in tow.
Lydia did not approve of her sister doing grown-up things. Everything the nineteen-year-old did struck the thirteen-year-old as putting on airs.
"Lydia, don't be a pest. You need to shower," said her mother. The girls contented themselves with sticking tongues out at each other and Lydia retreated upstairs.
Liz Fredericks picked up the letter from the HOA and read it. She looked her husband in the eyes.
"Are you drinking?" she asked.
"No..." said Ellie.
"We're plotting treason," said Hank.
Saturday morning found Hank out after breakfast to pick up his son from staying over at a friend's house. Steven was 15 and had a new set of friends that were different from his old set of junior high friends, but they were basically the same kids. They played D&D and Warhammer 40,000 and other type stuff deep into the night. Hank would have worried about the boy ever seeing sunshine if he wasn't on the cross-country team.
The plan was to get the truck washed, pick up Stephen and then find the estate sale Liz had dragged the girls to. Her instructions had been verbal and Hank wasn't entirely sure he remembered it, and Steven was sleep-deprived and non-communicative as only 15-year-old boys can be - deconstructing language to a Neanderthalic series of grunts. Hank didn't mind. Yesterday's conversation with Ellie had focused his mind in a way that ranting and grumbling and writing letters to HOA board members had not. He was no longer lamenting his issue but considering what could be done about it. There was a solution, Hank was certain. He just was not seeing it.
Besides, one didn't take a boy's silence personally. A daughter might be communicating a thousand things by not talking to you, if chiefly that she wanted you to notice she wasn't. But a son only continued the laconic friendliness common to males -- we might talk, if there was anything to talk of, but otherwise, why?
"You eat anything?" said Hank.
Stephen yawned and blinked as though he was trying to remember. "No," he said at last.
"You know where we're supposed to be going?" The boy shook his head.
"Your mother's got your sisters at an estate sale up on Oakcrest."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "Mom's such a grave-robber."
"So she'd be good at D&D, then." Hank had played the game a little in his day, too. A big part of it was looting the corpses of vanquished enemies for weapons, coin, and magic items. "You should have her over to play with your pals."
This amused the boy, and he did his impression of his mother: "Stephen, there's some perfectly good leather armor on these trolls! You'll grow into it!" They laughed at that, and then Hank said, "You wanna get some donuts before we help your mother pillage somebody's house?"
"Yeah," said Stephen.
They went to Dunkin Donuts and drank coffee and dared each other to eat jelly-filled donuts in a continuation of a game that had been evolving since Stephen was a toddler. Whoever ate a jelly-filled in the fewest number of bites while getting the least amount of jelly out of the donut was the King according to current rules. Hank was winning until the last round, when Stephen guessed which end of the donut had bulk of the jelly in it and swallowed it down in a bite. He raised his fists over his head in triumph and Hank wondered what a karate-chop to the boy's abdomen would do to his victory. His own father might have done that. But it wasn't Hank's style. So small and precarious a victory should be enjoyed. They came so seldomly.
"Let's roll," Hank said, and they topped off their coffee and grabbed the donuts for the girls and got back into the car.
As they drove away from the center of town along elm-lined roads Hank alerted his son to the HOA's latest tyranny. Stephen mowed the sour sonofabitch's lawn once, but got bilked on the agreed-upon price and Hank ordered him never to do it again. The Boy shook his head in disdain as Hank relayed the story and the gist of his conversation with Ellie the previous evening. Stephen felt no rivalry with his sister's intellect and simply concurred with the wisdom of her conclusions.
"You want me to put some flaming dog shit on his stoop?" Stephen asked.
"I'll get back to you," Hank said. "And, language."
They followed the professionally-crafted signs to the estate sale at Old Mrs. Edison's house. She had been a woman of some means, but her children no longer were local and decided liquidating the estate would be the most efficient way of processing their grief. The traffic -- vehicle and foot -- on the street in front of the house was just heavy enough to impede Hank's normal speed. He and Stephen scowled at it together. Gradually they found a spot a few houses down and pulled into it.
"Once more unto the breach..." said Hank.
"Or close up the walls with our dead," said Stephen.
"That's not the quote."
"Close enough, Dad."
They got out.
The sale was humming along. People has arrived early and we're staying, picking through the handcrafted detritus of a life with silent joy. Hank looked for a sign of Liz and the girls, but was not surprised when he didn't see any. They would be deep inside, if Liz found something she liked. Which she probably would.
As they walked up the driveway Hank noticed that the garage was opened. He put a hand on Stephen's shoulder and pointed at the tools, neatly organized by size. Size rather than function might mean whoever was running the estate sale was fuzzy on the actual value of tools. Bargains could be in the offing.
Stephen shrugged. It was all the same to him.
They didnt find many bargains, but they did find an old-fashioned push-mower, slightly rusted but still functional, with fading yellow paint and a general must that came of sitting unused. Hank had owned such a mower when he and Liz were first married. His father-in-law had unloaded it on him, and he had been between mowers at the time, so he used it for a season. He knew how well they worked for quick jobs.
"We'd better find your mother," Hank said.
They found the girls on the second floor, admiring a vanity. Ellie still had hers in her room, but was planning on taking it to her off-campus apartment next year. Liz had one, but it was an heirloom from her own mother and she wasn't planning on parting with it. But Lydia needed one. It was oak, with a rich creamy varnish on it. Lydia was sitting at it, happy, as she and Ellie went through the doors and decided what would go where.
"Who wants donuts?" said Hank. Everyone answered in the affirmative. Stephen brought some to his sisters, and smirked benignly when Lydia told him not to sit on her new vanity. Hank brought Liz a Cruller, her favorite.
"Nice," said Hank, indicating the vanity.
"And a steal," said Liz. "You could drop twice what we'd pay for it at retail and not get something as nice. You can get it into the truck, right?"
"I think so. But see if you can get some blankets to cover it up."
"Did you not get the truck washed?"
"No, I did. But I don't want the new lawn mower to roll onto it."
Liz blinked. "What new Lawn mower?"
"So let me get this straight," said Stephen, watching with bemusement as his father dismantled the parts of his new push mower, "You're planning on exacting your revenge on the guy who runs the homeowner's association...by mowing his lawn?"
"Not me," said Hank, "We".
* * *
"Mom wants you to know when you're done screwing around with that damn thing, you can come eat dinner."
"Is that what she said?"
"Word for word."
* * *
"What ya got there?"
"Old push mower."
"An old army buddy has a sideline in it. Sells them to collectors."
"Shouldn't he be the one refurbishing it, then?"
"I'm thinking of partnering up."
* * *
So it went for a few weeks. The school year wound down, and the heat wound up, and the sour sonofabitch's lawn got longer and longer. Every morning Hank looked to make sure that he hadn't mowed it. Every morning he was not disappointed.
The mower got a fresh coat of paint, oil on all its necessary parts, and it's blades sharpened to a razor point. It ran silent as an assassin. Once Hank was satisfied with it, he waited for the new moon.
* * *
"So how is this not illegal?" asked Liz.
"It's not breaking and entering, because I'm not entering the house, nor am I damaging anything. It's not vandalism, because I'm not causing harm to the property. Worse it is is trespassing. I might get a warning from the cops not to do it again. Which I won't."
"And what about the HOA?"
"I'm paid up on all my dues. I haven't put the flagpole up. There's nothing in the covenants about mowing someone else's lawn. The HOA has no power here."
"So you're going to admit it."
"I'm going to admit nothing. I'm going to prank him and leave it be."
They sat together for a long time in bed after that, tension held in place by the wise forbearance that long marriage cultivates. They pretended to read.
"It's just..." Liz said, putting her book down.
Hank put his book down.
"No one understands more than me how angry you are. I've had to deal with your anger for a long time. And I feel your anger. But is this the example you want to set?"
"There are many kinds of examples. There's setting the example of not knuckling under to assholes."
"Ellie is young enough to think that striking blows against power structures are fun and cost-free. You are old enough to know better."
"Yeah, I am. I'm also old enough to know how a life spent following orders and being responsible makes being under the thumb of irresponsible people sting. I'm old enough to know that sometimes bad persists because you let it."
"Hank, it's just a flagpole."
"It's not the flagpole! It's the rules!"
He took a breath, composed himself.
"Do the rules apply to everyone, or do they just apply to those who can't escape them? Because if it's the first, then I got no cause for complaint. But it's the second. And that gives me the right, the duty even, to make the rules apply. Even symbolically."
"Even if everything goes just the way you want, what difference will it make?"
"Probably none. But who knows? Maybe it'll remind people that we don't have to have the same President every time. Or maybe the asshole will start mowing his lawn. Either way, I'll have made my point."
She sighed. Hank knew that sigh.
"If you get caught," Liz said, "Don't call me."
"That's fair," Hank replied. "But what if Stephen gets caught?"