I’ll admit it. Before, I may have been a bit of an alarmist. Before, I think I jumped the gun. Before, I didn’t know the range on Monotone Joe’s spectrum of paranoia. Before, I had no idea how loosely held together he is.
Then I came home and found my neighbor, Monotone Joe, in my mulberry.
He was all up in there, sawing at limbs that overhang my deck. His monotone sweat sweating everywhere.
I watched him from my kitchen for a while. Probably too long. Half-wondering why he was in my mulberry. Half-knowing that it was his crazy that put him there. Through the glass, I could see him soundlessly giving orders to someone on the ground. He was a man on a mission. There was urgency in the lines of his face. Tenacity in his grip.
Joe noticed me staring through my window.
I stepped out onto my back deck. Joe was scampering down. Leaving his DNA Steven Avery-style all over the branches and leaves.
“Need any help, Joe?” On my property, chopping at my shade tree, and I’m asking if he needs any help.
“We got mold!” someone blurted. It was Patty, his fucking lady friend. She’s the special lady he lives with and is committed to in some way. I don’t know what she is to him—wife, girlfriend, hostage. She never talks to me. At most, she’ll give me a nervous wave if she’s forced to acknowledge that she’s seen me.
She was the one Joe was giving orders to from my mulberry in his maniacally restrained voice. The look in her eyes pleaded: Please don’t make this worse.
“Yeeeaaaaahhh,” added Joe. “We got mold all over there,” he pointed to a small, sun-dappled patio with a short step of flagstones lining a modest garden. I didn’t see any mold. “I get all of Lopez’s water.” Lopez was his other neighbor.
“What, when he waters his grass?” I asked, seizing my opportunity to turn his paranoia away from me. Is Lopez purposely screwing you over, Joe? Just like the across the street neighbors who steal your parking? Maybe they’re in cahoots!! Oh, maybe LOPEZ chopped up your sunflowers! He’s trying to drive you out, Joe. I’d keep a close eye on him, Joe. Monotone Joe.
“Yeeeaaaahh, when he waters or when it rains it becomes like a lake over there.” Joe is a bass fisherman. Like at a competitive level. With papers and everything. I considered making a joke about him grabbing his fishing pole next time old man Lopez waters his backyard. But the frantic look in Joe’s eyes made me rethink my ha-ha. Joe’s eyes were so wide. The sweat was just flowing.
Patty’s smile looked painfully fake. Pleeaaasssee.
“I figure if I can trim just enough to get some direct sunlight during the day, I won’t get the mold.” Joe continued, as direct sunlight beamed down where the mold was supposed to be. His voice was as monotone as ever—but he was talking a little faster than normal. And he hadn’t stopped fidgeting since he came down from my tree. His eyes were constantly scanning. His hair in haphazard spikes.
The pruning shears were right there, straddling the fence dividing our properties, at the crux of Joe’s issues. A quick grab away. Hey, Jeffffff, they’re just a quick grab away. If you’re hearing that thought with any emotion in it, any variation in inflection or volume, then I have failed you. Monotone Joe’s voice is the sound of a suddenly sentient stone—so let’s go with monotone for his nonverbal communication as well.
“Ok, well, let me know if you need anything,” I said backing away.
Patty’s smile said Yes! Go inside! That is the good thing to do! The right thing to do! The best thing to do!
“Yeeaaaaahh, I think I’ve got enough.”
“Ok, stay safe.”
He offered his last “Yeeaaahh,” as I closed my back door.
I went back to my conditioned air. Back to my frozen-and-then-baked pizza.
I ate my frozen-then-baked dinner and wondered Is this what childless couples worry about?? Fucking mold on flagstones? That’s their biggest issue? Mold outside in the summer air is a cause for alarm and a little light trespassing? Fuck, I’ll send them one of my kids for a week and his backyard will be a mold farm by August.
I know HuffPost has all kinds of articles listing the 10 Things Parents Should Never Say to Childless Couples, but HuffPost can’t fucking tell me what to think. And besides, it’s not like I said it to them.
Through my front window I could see Monotone Joe walking briskly up my front walk. He wasn’t carrying any blades that I could see.
BOOM BOOM BOOM he pounded on my door. No polite knocking today. Not with mold on the march.
I opened the door. I had no choice. “What’s up?” My breath full of reheated sauce.
“Hey, I was wondering if I could come into your back yard with my ladder to get a branch on the maple?” he was almost pleading, in his monotone way. He was visibly uncomfortable. I’m losing daylight Jefffff. Are you purposely stalling me? Whose side are you on? Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the sunflowers. Or the mouse.
AH the fucking mouse! I had forgotten about that!
One day, about a year ago, Elsa caught a mouse in our front yard in a butterfly net. She wanted to keep it. I told her that it was pulsating with disease and it would bring plague to our home, killing us and wiping out our extended family after they were exposed. She weighed her options for nearly 20 minutes before finally agreeing to let the mouse go. She needed her parents for another year or two.
We flipped the net inside-out. The mouse hopped off and away, right onto Joe’s property. I named the mouse Hawk Food. We waved goodbye to Hawk Food.
Two days later, Jill came home from the grocery store to find Joe pacing up and down our driveway.
“Need any help, Joe?”
“Yeeaaaahhh, have you seen any mice around here?”
“Yeeeaaaaahhh, I saw a mouse on my front lawn today and you know what they say, if you see one there’s probably a hundred more. Ha. I think they’ve gotten in my house, actually.”
“No, I haven’t seen any mice,” Jill flat-out lied. “You think they might be over here?”
“I don’t know,” Have you seen your backyard Jiiillllll? It’s a fucking wilderness. You probably have anacondas back there! There’s enough tall grass for lions to stalk prey! They could film entire episodes of The Walking Dead on your property. You guys are pigs! Are you just fucking with me now? You think I don’t see the games you all are playing? Games, Jill! You’re all fucking nasty game-players! “Just thought I’d check. Thought I saw something scurry over this way.”
“Ok. Well, I’ll keep an eye out,” said Jill as she retreated into the house.
“Yeeeaaaaahh. And tell Jeff.”
“Yep. Will do.”
I wasn’t thrilled that he was moving on to the maple. But at least that tree was in his back yard. He had every right to chop the entire thing down if he wanted.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Cool. Do you have a latch on your back gate or . . .”
Ah. I realized that he was only asking permission because you can’t open my back gate from the outside. He had to go around the front and risk being seen. He was just avoiding the issue and being direct.
“Yeah, I’ll go back there and open it for you.”
“Ok, thanks Jeff.”
I went into the backyard and there were branches everywhere. All over on and around the trampoline. I unlatched the back gate and in staggered Joe. The heat was getting to him. The long ladder on his shoulder shifted awkwardly. He fumbled with the pruning shears and hacksaw in his left hand. He was running on fumes.
He walked around and positioned his ladder under the lowest branch. It was the one that hung down between the deck and trampoline so I was happy to see it go. But the wire providing the Internet to my home was directly below the branch, adding some risk to the operation.
Joe climbed the ladder and said, “I’ll be careful to make sure nothing hits the wire,” FUCK he was in my head! “I’ll cut the branch a little at a time.”
“Oh ok.” Then in an inspired moment of collaboration, I offered to show him how cool I was with his crusade against the mold, “hey, want me to hold the branch and catch it while you cut?”
Joe turned to me. Looked at me directly from up on his ladder in my backyard. “No. I got this,” speaking slowly. “I said I will cut it a little at a time.” I like to cut things a little at a time, Jeffff. I like to take my time cutting. And cutting. And cutting.
“Oh. Ok. Whatever you need, Joe.”
“This branch ought to do it,” he was already turning back to his mission.
Patty was at the bottom of the ladder. I hadn’t even seen her come in. But there she was, smiling and holding the ladder steady. Steadfast and solidly on the Joe side in Joe v. The World.
“Stay safe, Joe.”
I went back into my house as a little at a time fell into my backyard. As Patty smiled in every direction. As I noticed the million bits of debris that were probably driving Joe deeper into mania. As I wrestled with the urge to scream, “Holy shit, there’s a mouse!” just to see if he would fall—and hopefully, comically, land on the trampoline.
I went back inside without getting a “Yeeeaaaahhh.”