Thursday, January 13, 2005

Coup on Liberty Crescent

Author note: The only rational way to deal with the outrage of this wrong-headed U.S. war in Iraq is through satire. I'm not laughing at the war. While driving in Michigan a few months ago a car passed me with a handprinted sign on cardboard in its rear window that read: BUSH LIED NEPHEW DIED. Moreover, the son of a very close friend is soon to be sent to Iraq. So, in the spirit of Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 I have written "Coup on Liberty Crescent," which will appear in the February issue of Blank Magazine.

Coup on Liberty Crescent

It was noon on a Saturday in spring, and the mustached man of the house—whose Middle Eastern name had been anglicized to “Sam” by the neighborhood—stood in his kitchen making a hero sandwich. His face was grim-set as he sliced a plump tomato picked moments ago from his garden. Sam’s house was old and small—“modest” his wife, Sajedah, called it—but it had the largest backyard on the block, in which Sam grew a variety of vegetables that were the envy of the neighborhood. He was alone in the house, wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt: a “wife beater shirt” his eleven-year-old son, Rudy, called it. Following an argument a few days ago, Sajedah took Rudy, and his eight-year-old brother, Quincy, to her mother’s for an indefinite stay.

After placing the final slice of bread on his towering sandwich, Sam went into the living room to watch television. As if on cue, his neighbor, Don, across the street, fired up his lawn mower; an abused second-hand machine, which bellowed a grating, groaning cacophony that rattled Sam’s windows.

“A riding mower?” Sajedah had said, watching Don first motoring around his front yard with it three years ago. “His property’s smaller than ours, and Rudy cuts ours in forty-five minutes with a push mower.”

“What do you want from me?” Sam had said, smoothing his bushy mustache.

“Be a man! Tell Don to stop!”

There was no telling Don anything—Don was a seventy-two year old insurance salesman who refused to retire. He had lived on Liberty Crescent for almost forty years. After an argument, years ago, over some missing garbage cans, Sam learned that behind Don’s benign, grandfatherly exterior were tobacco-stained teeth, and a tongue that had been cursing longer than Sam had been alive. Didn’t even seem like Don had eyes behind his small, round glasses.

Sam bit into his sandwich. A glob of Russian dressing dripped down the front of his shirt; his fingers were already slick with mustard and mayonnaise. And of course he forgot a napkin. Rising from his chair, Sam started for the kitchen—and stopped. He went to his front window, moved the curtain aside. As Don circled back toward the street on his mower—a gargoyle in a gray cardigan; his hair the color of dirty dishwater—Sam raised a fist, and extended his middle finger.


George woke with a sour beer belch rising in his throat. He had stayed up until two in the morning drinking with his daughter’s boyfriend, Godfrey. “Back in the day,” George had said to Godfrey, while watching reruns of American Gladiators on satellite, “I used to pound back the beers.” George had wondered if kids still called it “pounding back.”

He rolled out of bed, and stumbled in the direction of the bathroom, but found himself in the hallway instead. His eyeglasses had gone missing days before, and the world around him was a blur.

“Honey?” he called. No reply. “Pumpkin?” He figured his wife had gone shopping with their daughter and Godfrey, who came home from college the day before.

As George felt his way downstairs, Don’s lawn mower roared into action next door. Sounded like a jet taking off. George cringed, head throbbing. The son of a bitch—but what could he say? Don was an old friend of George’s father, Prescott. Together, Prescott and Don had been active on City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Elks Lodge. Four years ago, when there were plans to turn a large Liberty Crescent lot into a park, Don’s connections and Prescott’s checkbook stepped in, and soon a contractor was there building George’s five thousand square foot home. A present from Prescott.

George found the kitchen. He had heartburn, and was deadly thirsty. As he drank chocolate milk from the carton, the ache of his bladder became too much. With no time to stumble around searching for the main floor bathroom, George pulled open one of the empty produce drawers at the bottom of the fridge, and urinated into it.


The sound of Don’s lawn mower didn’t disturb the Zen tranquility of Colin’s exercise regimen; he continued doing push-ups with military precision. A security guard at a plastics factory, Colin worked midnights. This morning he’d stayed on a few hours longer because the morning guy was late. Didn’t matter—Colin would have lunch with his wife today, rather than breakfast.

When he completed his one hundredth push-up, Colin walked out of the bedroom, still wearing his uniform. He didn’t have the largest house on the block, or the most enviable garden, but his wife, Conde, was the most beautiful woman in the neighborhood. Colin saw how men looked at her as she watered the garden, and felt a silent pride that she was his wife. He found her in the kitchen drinking an energy shake.

“Any left for me?” Colin said.

“No,” Conde said, turning her cheek for Colin to kiss; seeming to bristle at his touch.

“No probs, how about some lunch—”

“I’m going out,” she said, pouring the near-full drink down the sink.

“I’ll go with you. I just have to shower—”

“No, I’m late meeting Laura.” With that, Conde grabbed her purse, and left.


Rounding back toward the street, Don looked up and saw Sam in the front window of his house. What the hell—? he thought. Don halted his mower.

Sam had flipped him the finger.

The sight of it roused the Korean War veteran in Don; roused his inner disgruntled consumer who provoked tears in any waitress, cashier, or customer service rep who refused him what he wanted.

He shut off the mower, and dismounted. Stepped to the curb, and pointed at Sam. “You think I can’t see that?!” he shouted. “You lawless barbarian, I know about you!”

The sound of Don’s mower stopping prematurely brought Mrs. Limbaugh, the neighborhood busybody, out of her house, still speaking on her cordless phone. The sound of Don’s shouts brought more neighbors onto their porches. Men looked up from washing their SUVs.

The last significant altercation Don had had was with the paperboy who hadn’t wrapped the newspaper in plastic one rainy day. When he caught him the next afternoon, Don lectured the boy for twenty minutes on honor, duty, and taking pride in one’s work. The boy crumbled like dung in the desert sun. Neighbors walking by had looked at Don as though he had gone soft and was content to harangue little kids. This afternoon Don would prove them wrong.

“He beats his wife!” Don shouted. He looked around at his neighbors. “Did you know that? Sam beats his wife!”

“Are you sure?” said Mrs. Limbaugh.

Don learned in Korea that sureness was in the mind of the beholder. You see something move on the perimeter while on guard duty, you shoot at it—and worry about being sure later on. He knew the Cheneys who lived next to Sam for years, and moved away three months ago. Richard Cheney told Don he often heard Sam arguing with his wife. And there was the time Sam’s son, Rudy, ran over a soda can while cutting the lawn—Sam had yelled at the child in front of the whole neighborhood. One thing war taught Don: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

George came out of his house wearing Bermuda shorts and his wife’s salmon-colored golf shirt. He winced in the daylight. Don approached. “There’s trouble with Sam—”

“He’s beating his wife!” Mrs. Limbaugh shouted, shrill.

“Sam?” George said, shading his eyes with his hand. “Remember when that son of a bitch broke my car window?!” No one actually saw Sam do it, three years before, but the stone that shattered George’s window came from Sam’s rock garden. George explained that to the police, but they said it wasn’t proof of Sam’s guilt. Jerks, George had thought. Damn cops are so tied up with rules and regulations, they’ve lost all of their instincts.

“It’s worse than a broken window,” Don said. “Sam’s beating his wife.”

“The cowardly bastard,” George breathed.

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