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A different take on the day – The Problem With Neighbors (edited version)

April 24, 2013

Hello ladies and gentlemen!  Today is the day I normally reserve for giving a shout out to the great podcasts out in the Internet, but I thought I might try something a little different this week.  As this week has been an abnormal one in some ways (especially sleep wise), I thought I might entertain you with a story.  As you may recall, I posted a story on here about a week and a half ago titled, “The Problem With Neighbors”.   This was the first story I had ever released to an audience, and while the draft you read needed more work, I now want to share a later version of the story to show the progress I’ve made on it.  I still do not think it is a perfect story, but I feel it is a much stronger version than the earlier one. Please, check it out and let me know what you think.  Any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated.  I hope you enjoy this version and remember… Why so serious?

DLP

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The Problem with Neighbors

 by Donald L Pitsiladis

            “Does he have to do that now?!” Ted snapped as he turned the television volume up for a third time.  “Why can’t his lawn wait until later, like when the Steelers aren’t playing?”  Karen lowered the magazine she was reading and regarded her husband with a raised eyebrow. He met her gaze and said, “I know, I know.  I should go and talk to the guy, but what’s the point?  I mean the weather’s going to change soon and he’ll need to put that thing into storage.  He can’t possibly mow the lawn when there’s a blanket of snow covering it, right?”  Turning his attention back to the game, Ted added, “Besides, my mom raised me to respect my neighbors, regardless of how inconsiderate and stupid they may be.”  A small snort laugh erupted from Karen when he turned to her and said, “Plus I don’t want to be responsible for hurting him if he tries to pick a fight with me over it.”        

             After five more minutes of mumbling, grumbling and raising the volume to near deafening levels, Karen finally had enough. She slammed the magazine on the arm of the chair and said, “I don’t know what’s worse, you trying to make me deaf or me wishing I was so I didn’t have to hear to you complain.”  The magazine slid to the floor and Ted’s mouth opened and closed in shock as a near naked muscle-man smiled up from the pages.  “I asked you to talk to him weeks ago, fish boy, but oh no, not you.”  She raised her hands palms out and, with heavy sarcasm, added, “You’re much too high and mighty to do something so simple.”  She reached over and snatched the remote control from his hand.  “Well guess what, I’m done asking.  Either you go tell him to finish his lawn after your stupid game is over or shut up!”  She clicked the television off and said with a half grin as she scooped up her magazine, “Or are you not man enough?”

Ted’s face burned with anger and embarrassment and a dozen retorts flashed through his mind.  Rather than start another pointless argument, he calmly slid his feet into a pair of sandals under the coffee table and walked to the front door.  He paused before grabbing the door handle when Karen asked with heavy sarcasm, “Was that thunder?” Her laughter echoed off the walls as he gazed outside with trepidation.  The screen door slammed behind him as he walked out into the cloudless, sunny day.

“Is getting upset over someone taking care of their yard really worth the trouble?” Ted wondered as he watched the neighbor maneuver his mower from the bottom step of his porch.  The mower was a large one, but it looked small compared to the man atop it.  “Maybe I can watch the game with the closed captioning turned on.  It looks like he’s almost finished.  I’ll bring him a beer after the game and talk to him.”  When he turned to go back inside, Ted found Karen staring down at him from the top of the stairs, a disgusted and disappointed look on her face.  She mumbled something and shook her head before turning to go inside as well.  Ted felt the familiar heat of anger and embarrassment and thought, “I may love my Steelers, but my dignity is more important.”  He started across the yard determined to prove his wife wrong.

The neighbor seemed big from a distance, but not in any imposing way. The closer Ted got, however, the larger the mower jockey looked.  The red-haired man looked to be at least a head taller and had arms that looked more like steel cables encased in chiseled granite. His large belly jiggled in time with the mower’s vibration.  Oddly, the man’s legs looked no bigger than his own.  “How can a man with such strong arms care so little about the rest of his body?”

Ted stopped at the joint property line and waited to get his neighbor’s attention with hands in pockets.  His rational side took the moment to try to talk some sense into him, “The guy’s going to stomp a mud hole in you and walk it dry without breaking a sweat!”  It was quickly overshadowed by his louder, macho side, “Sure, he might beat you into a bloody pulp, but isn’t your wife’s respect worth a little pain?  Who knows, maybe standing up to this guy will make her want you more than the guys in those magazine pictures.”

Ted’s mind was so focused on Karen and her magazine that he didn’t notice the mower pull up until an Irish accented voice said, “Top of the morning to you.”  He quickly turned to the source and found the Irishman smiling down from his mechanical steed.  Without waiting for the customary response, the big man extended a hand and added, “Liam O’Shaunnessy.”  Ted stared at the massive paw with an odd feeling of dread, but thought of Karen and her taunting before locking eyes with his neighbor.

“I don’t care what your name is,” Ted said calmly before growling out, “What I DO care about is me trying to relax after a long week of work with a football game on T.V., and having your lawn mower ruin it!”  Liam’s smile faltered and his hand lowered just a little while Ted continued the verbal onslaught.  “Look, I know you’re new to the neighborhood, and, judging by your accent, probably new to this country, but we Americans take our football VERY seriously.”  The Irishman’s smile disappeared and Ted noticed a slight blush rise in his neighbor’s cheeks, but didn’t let it stop the roll he was on.  “Now, I’m going back inside to watch the rest of today’s game.  Why don’t you go pour yourself some Frosted Lucky Charms, hide your wee pot o’ gold, or maybe put on a skirt and Riverdance your way up and down the street.  Frankly, I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re quiet while doing it.”

The perplexed look on Liam’s face was priceless.  Unsure of how long it might last or what the big Irishman’s reaction might be, Ted turned and marched to the house with his head held high and a satisfied smile.  The smile broadened into a grin as he neared Karen and saw the shocked expression on her face.  She glared at him when he said, “Surprised?” as he walked by and crossed the yard to a still stunned Liam.  Ted watched in amazement as she apologized for him before introducing herself.  A small cinder of jealousy flickered when Liam took her hand and held it for longer than a normal introduction.  Karen’s reaction, giggling like a little school girl hungry for attention, fanned the flames.  As he watched their interaction, the only two things that prevented it from becoming a larger blaze was the trust he had in his wife and physics.

Frustrated that his attempt to impress Karen failed, Ted sauntered back into the house.  A used car dealer shouting about how crazy he was greeted him when the television turned back on.  “At least her flirting will buy me some peace and quiet for the rest of the game.”  He settled back into the soft confines of his couch and thought, “I need to remember to do something romantic for her later.  I’m sure if I make her dinner or buy her a dishwasher she’ll get over it.”

***

            Several nights later, while taking the garbage to the curb, Ted noticed something odd sitting in Liam’s garage.  From a distance, it resembled a regular lawn mower, but the bright orange flames and neon green number four on the side made him think otherwise.  Curiosity sank its claws in deep, and, after a glance around to make sure no one was watching, he entered Liam’s garage for a better look.  Identical artwork decorated the opposite side and the hood, but that wasn’t what made it different from a normal riding mower.  While most lawn mower blades hovered close to the ground, the belly of this beast stood at least a half-foot off the ground.  “What kind of lawn does he intend to use this on?” he muttered.

A metallic ping from the ground drew Ted’s attention to a set of chrome wrenches under his left foot.  Next to them lay a meticulous line of screwdrivers that reminded him of the tools his older brother used to tune up a dirt bike before a race.  “Why would someone want these for a lawn mower?” he wondered.  Then he remembered watching a news story about lawn mower racing a couple of months ago.  He didn’t remember any with blades so high off the ground in the video they showed, and it made him curious why Liam’s was.  “Knock on the door and ask him,” he thought, but then remembered the past weekend.  He decided to leave with the question unanswered.

Ted stopped at the edge of Liam’s driveway with eyes wide open.  “The Steelers are playing the Pack this Sunday.”  It was the one game on the schedule he really wanted to see, and he’d completely forgotten all about it.  Hand met forehead with a loud smack as he turned back to face the garage.  “I can’t miss this game,” he thought.  “Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll be at some race this weekend,” he reasoned before deciding he didn’t want to take the chance.  It wasn’t neighborly, but if it meant watching the game uninterrupted…

A quick look around the cul-de-sac revealed only drawn curtains and an empty street.  Ted quietly returned to the mower and dropped to his haunches on the opposite side.  Another look at the shininess of the motor and he knew any disconnected hoses or wires would be noticed right away.  Instead, his focus shifted to a tiny wire above the motor.  “He’ll never notice this is gone.” Ted pocketed the red wire and exited the garage with a satisfied grin.

***

            Ted settled on the couch with a large plate of nachos and a six-pack of amber beer within easy reach.  Karen glanced up from her magazine when the pregame show began and, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, asked, “Are you going to blast the volume now, or will you wait until you can complain about it?”  Before he could answer, a flurry of shouts and curses from outside drew Karen to the front door.  Ted grinned with pride as the players gathered midfield for the opening coin toss and didn’t stop, even when Pittsburgh lost the toss.

Karen’s heavy footsteps signaled her return, but Ted, determined to enjoy the game, kept his attention on the television.  Just as the Steelers kicker launched the ball into the air, she stepped in front of the screen with arms crossed and a scowl.  “What the hell?!” he shouted through a mouth full of nachos.  An open bottle of beer sitting on the table tipped over when he gestured toward her and the television.  He relaxed after the announcers called the player down on the Packer’s thirty yard line.  In a polite, but slightly impatient voice, he asked, “Can you please step away from the screen?  I’ve been waiting months for this game and, let’s be honest, you make a better door than a window.”

For a second, Ted thought he saw actual flames in his wife’s eyes.  “What did you do?”  He rolled his eyes and leaned back on the couch with fingers laced behind his head.  When it became obvious he wasn’t going to answer the question, Karen snatched the remote control from the table.  “I know you did something to it, and you’re going to tell me what.”  Ted smiled back at her with tight lips and he reached down and cracked open a fresh bottle of beer.  “Fine!”  She stepped away just as the Steelers safety leapt for an easy interception, but the screen turned black just as the ball hit the player’s hands.  “If you want to see any part of this game,” Karen’s voice said from behind the couch, “you will apologize to Liam and help him fix whatever you broke.”

Ted gently slammed his bottle down on the coffee table and flashed a sarcastic smile before walking to the front door.  He didn’t care what kind of mess the beer made as it foamed out and joined the previous bottle’s puddle.  “Don’t think you’ve won, because you haven’t,” he said as he stepped into his sneakers.   “I’m not going to apologize to that Irishman.  If anything, he owes me one for ruining the only day of the week I get to relax.”  Before stepping out the door, Ted looked over his shoulder and said, “I’m going to Joe’s.  Don’t wait up.”

***

            The Steelers easily picked up the win, but Ted found himself unable to enjoy the game.  Instead, he downed enough pitchers of beer to make the world around him blur.  He didn’t want to admit it, but Karen was right.  No matter how wronged he felt, sabotaging the lawn mower had crossed the line.  When the clock above the bar chimed seven times, Ted knew it was time to head for home and face a gloating, “I told you so.”  The dark storm clouds blowing in went unnoticed as he began his trek home.

Whatever alcohol induced buzz Ted felt vanished after the first streak of lightning lit up the sky.  Tendrils of fear wrapped around him as memories of nightmares past came forward.  “There’s no way I can make it home or back to Joe’s in time,” he thought after calculating the storm’s distance.  Fear quickly approached panic as he scanned for a place to hide without finding any.  “Stupid!” he growled under his breath.  “You should have checked the weather before you left!  At least then you’d be safe indoors instead of out in the open waiting to be struck.”

Ted saw the large shadow a split second before being shoved to the ground.  A loud, “Oof!” escaped him as chest, hands, and forehead struck the pavement.  Colorful lights played across his vision as he struggled on the ground to breathe again.  When the cool night air finally returned to his lungs, he closed his eyes and tried to crawl away from his assailant.  “The next kick will be in the ribs, I just know it,” he thought before a massive hand wrapped around his right ankle.

Ted opened his eyes in time to see lightening dancing through the clouds and he let out a whimper.  “Do you play in traffic often?” an Irish voice asked.  Ted scrambled to his feet, only to stumble against a wall as the rainbow blossoms returned.  After a couple of seconds, his vision cleared enough to see the concerned look on Liam’s face.  “Sorry I had to get so rough, but I didn’t think you saw the truck coming up behind you.”  He took another step closer, “Are you going to be all right?”

Ted nodded and managed to cough out a thank you before noticing the Irishman’s shirt.  His stomach lurched as he read “The International Lawn Mower Racing Championship” in bright red letters across the front.  Massive hands clenched his shoulders and helped straighten him up.  “Thanks,” he said again as questions ran through his mind, “Did Karen tell him what I did?  Is this all just a setup so he can pound me after?  Why did I pluck that wire out?”  A rumble of thunder echoed through the street and Ted’s body tensed up again.

“I hope I didn’t hurt you badly,” Liam said with concern.  When it looked like Ted was steadier, the Irishman offered a handshake.  “I know we got off on the wrong foot after I moved in, and I’m sorry if my mowing disturbed you.  I’d like to change that, if it’s okay with you.”

“Did you walk or drive here?” Ted asked after another bright flicker lit up the sky behind Liam.  The big man gave him a curious look and gestured to a red pickup truck parked about a block away.  Ted grinned nervously and said, “Good, you can start by driving me home please.  I can’t be out here when this storm finally opens up.”  Liam looked up at the sky and, when realization of his neighbor’s fear hit him, he helped him to the truck.  The rain began its torrential fall just as the doors closed.

After a couple of minutes of silent driving, Ted’s nerves finally began to settle and he thought it best to test the waters and see if Karen tattled on him.  “So, I heard you had a bit of trouble with your mower today.”

“Aye, I did.  It didn’t want to start.  I tried everything I knew, but nothing worked.”  Ted felt his heart jump into his throat as they drove by their houses and Liam said, “Then I got a visit from that little wife of yours, and she told me this wild tale.” He turned to look at his smaller neighbor, “She said that you had something to do with it and then showed me a little wire.  Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I put that wire where it belonged, the motor fired right up.  Isn’t that the funniest thing you ever heard?”

“Look, I’m sorry.  It was an important game, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.”  They turned left at a corner and Ted guessed they were going around the block before heading home.  “He just wants to talk, that’s all,” he thought.  “Just play along and you’ll be safe at home in a minute or so.”  “I realize it was a rotten thing to do and I feel really guilty about it.”

Liam waved it off and said, “Oh pshaw!  I completely understand what team loyalty is all about.  Believe it or not, I used to play a bit of rugby in my homeland of Ireland.”  He stared off into the distance and said in a wistful voice, “Now there’s a sport.  It’s played a lot like your American football, only we didn’t use pads or helmets.  I was quite good at it too, on the verge of a championship season.”

They turned right and Ted began feeling a little nervous.  “W-What happened?” he asked.

“Oh, they banned me from the game.  It seems the game officials don’t like it when you cripple members of the opposite team.  They really hate it when players accidentally die in a pile up.”  Liam’s smile fell as he continued, “After that, no sport wanted me because of my reputation.  Professional lawn mower racing became the only thing left for me.”  Ted swallowed hard as Liam’s expression darkened, “Today was the championship, and I was the odds on favorite to win it all.  My one and only chance at a championship, and I miss it because of a little wire.”

Guilt and fear rolled around inside Ted.  He wanted to apologize so badly, but the only thing to come out was, “I-I-I…”

Liam’s large hand clapped Ted on the shoulder and he said, “If you’re going to say you’re sorry, don’t.  You didn’t know about the race, so I can’t hold that against you.  If you want to make it up to me, I might know of a suggestion.”  Ted cocked his head with curiosity, unsure if he wanted to hear the suggestion.  He fought the urge to laugh when his neighbor said, “Race me.”

“Race you?”

“Aye.  I’ll be on my mower of course, and you’ll be on foot.  If you win, I’ll tend to my lawn quietly during every one of your team’s games.”

“Sounds fair,” Ted said knowing it was anything but.  He smiled and asked, “But, what if you win?”

As they passed the last building in town limits, Liam turned and fixed a crazy smile at Ted.  “Why, I get everything.  Your house.  Your car.  Your lovely wife.  All of it will be mine.  In short I get your life.”

Ted’s smile faltered as the words sank in.  “You’re kidding, right?  Joking?”  His smile disappeared completely when he saw the seriousness behind Liam’s grin.  “You can’t expect me to agree to that!  No one in their right mind would.”

Liam’s hand shot out and grasped the back of Ted’s neck before the smaller man could react and he said, “You’ll agree to it, boyo, because if you don’t, I’ll snap your little neck.  You’ll die knowing your little wife is next.  Perhaps I’ll get to know her before…”  The hand on Ted’s neck tightened slightly.

The rest of the trip passed in silence, broken only by momentary bursts of humming from Liam.  They pulled ahead of the storm, but only by a couple of miles.  Ted thought of different ways to escape, but each one ended either with him, Karen, or both dying painfully.  By the time they pulled to a stop in a grassy field, he resolved to win the race by any means necessary.  “It’s only a lawn mower, how fast can they really go?”

When Ted climbed out and looked around, he was in utter shock.  His eyes closed and opened a couple of times as the grassy meadow waved back at him.  A rumble of thunder in the distance completed the scene from his nightmares.  “How is this possible?” he thought.  “It has to be a bad dream, it just has to be!”  He brought his left hand to his right and pinched hard.  One “Ouch!” under his breath and he knew it wasn’t.

“You better start stretching,” Liam said with a savage smile as he walked to his mower.

Instead of stretching, Ted followed Liam, “Where is she?  Where’s my wife?”  The Irishman looked back over his shoulder with a grin and gestured with his head to a person sitting in the middle of the field.  “Karen?”

Before Ted got more than two steps towards her, Liam held up a device and said, “Uh, uh, uh.  I wouldn’t do that unless you want the both of you to go boom.”  He looked at the device and said aloud, “If you try to free her before you win the race, I will detonate the explosives attached to her chair.  You both will be nothing more than a fiery memory.”

“He’s telling the truth!” Karen shouted.  “There’s some kind of device attached to the back of the chair.”  She sobbed a little and added, “Just do what he wants, Ted, please!  I want to go home!”

“Now, if you feel ready, let’s conclude our business.  The rules are simple, first to the forest wins.”  Liam glanced to the sky and added, “And, out of fairness to you and your little phobia, I’m giving you a head start of a quarter of the distance.  The storm’s already caught up with us, and I know how distracted it makes you.”  Ted lined his foot up to the edge of the front wheel and waited.  A part of him felt the rush of anticipation before a race, something he hadn’t felt since his college days.  “On your mark!” Liam shouted and he focused on the nearest tree.  “Get set!”  Ted leaned forward, his toes digging into the dirt.  “Go!”

Ted shot off the line in a hard sprint hoping to take a sizable lead before slowing his pace to conserve strength and energy for one last burst at the end, if he needed it.  The modified lawn mower uttered a loud roar as it left the starting line and the race really started.  Ted fought the urge to panic and increase his pace when he heard the machine’s growl grow louder behind him.

When he was about fifteen feet from his goal, Ted decided it was time for one last burst of speed.  Before he could, bright tendrils of lightning crossed the sky in his direction and something struck him in the back.  A massive jolt of electricity ran through his body and he dropped face first into the grass.  A feeling of déjà vu came over Ted as his dream from college, the source of his lightning phobia, played out in his mind.  Instead of waking up, however, he lay on the ground with muscles convulsing.

The mower stopped within a couple of feet from Ted’s legs.  Liam’s grin widened when he forced out the words, “You cheated!”  His anger turned to shock when he heard a woman’s laugh behind him.  Karen stepped up next to Liam with a funny looking gun in one hand.  He managed to ask, “Karen?  How? Why?” before she pumped another cartridge into the chamber and fired again.  Another jolt of electricity traveled through his body from his stomach where the projectile struck him.

“Because, this is cheaper than a divorce, and your life insurance is too good to pass up.”  She put the Taser gun next to her and ran the back of her hand lightly against Liam’s cheek while staring at her husband.  “You honestly thought I’d let myself take the heat for something you did?  That I let myself get bound to a chair and be blown up for you?”  She shook her head and said as she walked away, “Remember, complete mulch.”  A satisfied grin stretched across Liam’s face as he looked from Karen’s sashaying hips to Ted and shifted the mower into gear.

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