It started back in August—the thing with the palm tree. And how I learned to love my neighbours. Or tolerate them.
Sacramento in August is hot, you know? Knee-buckling, stroke-inducing, fry-your-brains hot. Maybe that’s what happened. I was new in town, not used to the heat, and my brains got scrambled.
Anyway, it began when I took a job at the local Apple computer plant. “Hillside Court” was the name of our new block. Neat lawns, all the cars parked in the garages. Suburban, Californian, multicultural. The mailman waves, it’s so damned friendly. You’d think people would be welcoming, right?
Wrong. My wife and I met the welcome wagon our first day. Our next-door neighbor. King Bill.
“Hey there, neighbor.” Big smile, old white guy with a cane. He hobbled over to us. We were in our drive about to go shopping. He stuck out his hand. “Bill Royale.”
“Al Rodriguez.” I shook. He was big, with one of those bone-breaking grips, just to let you know what a man he was.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I looked at him, suddenly at full alert in the drowsy heat of the morning. Here came trouble.
“Oakland.’’ Jennifer named our poor, pissed-off hometown. She shot me a look: Don’t start.
He looked confused, then got down to business, all about this big old palm tree on our lawn bordering his property. It dumped seeds onto his precious grass, which he spent all his free time on. Main point: He wanted us to cut down the tree.
Up until then, shifting on my feet, mind mostly on the unpacking and groceries, I wasn’t thinking about the tree. But this old fart in my face, telling me what to do, got me riled. He may have been king of Hillside Court, but I was king of my old ’hood.
“I kind of like the tree,” I said. “I’m going to leave it.”
“Alberto.” Jennifer shook her head: Not again! I smiled like I had no idea what she meant.
“Damn tree drops pods all over my property.” Royale’s jowls quivered.
“Yeah, I get it.” Heartbreaking. Why old people get themselves so upset over baloney beats me. You’d think seventy-odd years would teach you shit sometimes comes off trees. Every place me and Jennifer lived since we got married, it was like this. Pods or leaves. We didn’t park our car straight enough on the street. We painted the house the wrong color. Blah, blah, blah.
“Do something about it.” Royale gave a last glare and limped away.
I didn’t. A couple of days later, I thought about it because I usually kept our yard pretty
neat—it wasn’t like we were slobs. But the next morning I found a note stuck under my windshield wiper, all about the tree.
“Royale.” I got out of my car after work. I was hot and pissed off in the sports jacket I wore to the office. He was watering the bushes between our properties.
“Don’t write me notes,” I said. “You got something to say, come over and talk to me.”
He just turned and walked away, which pissed me off even more.
So I let the tree shed its damned pods on his lawn. What else could I do, on Hillside Court, in front of the moms in their sundresses, the kids with their scooters? Where I grew up, if you had a problem with someone, you solved it in two minutes with your fists or a blade. But you didn’t do that here.
That Saturday night, I was sitting in our new hot tub—Jennifer’s idea—with some of our new neighbors in our new backyard, trying not to feel stupid because I was sitting in a hot tub with a bunch of people I barely knew. At least the wind had picked up, cooling things down.
“You know what?” I said in a break in the conversation. We were talking about how long everyone had lived on the block, and Royale’s name came up. “I’m going to get this guy Royale.” It was like out of the blue—even to myself.
“Al.” Jennifer shot me one of her shut-up-and-I-mean-it looks.
“‘Get him’?” Pam Johnson, this sweet-faced African-American lady, teacher, head of the neighborhood association, tilted her head. Her family was next door on the other side from Royale. “What do you mean by that?”
“I’m going to annihilate this guy.” Annihilate. I couldn’t believe I said that. Kick his ass, I would have said back in my real neighborhood. But you couldn’t talk that way around people like Pam Johnson.
“I know Royale’s a pain in the behind,” Pam said. The sun dropped below the horizon. I got that sudden, clammy feeling you get when you’ve been in the water too long and should start thinking seriously about getting out. “But do you think you could maybe cool it?”
Cool it. Whether she meant it literally or not, it wasn’t happening. “Don’t know what you mean, Pam.”
“In this neighborhood, we try to tolerate each other.”
“‘Tolerance.’ Now, where have I heard that word before?”
“Could you at least trim the tree? It’s even dangerous because their root systems are so shallow. They can fall over.”
Shallow roots. Jennifer and I had moved five times in the three years we’d been married. Talk about shallow roots.
“That damned palm.” Pam’s husband, Tom, spoke up, like he just tuned into the conversation. He was an engineer with the state and traveled a lot, maintaining our bridges or whatever. He was here physically tonight, but I got the impression he was gone mentally, gazing off into space, doing mental calculus. “I wish it would die. Hasn’t Royale driven off one family over it already?”
“Two.” Pam’s voice was small. “The Nguyens. And the Lunas.”
We fell silent—maybe everyone was also thinking those families were nonwhite. But we didn’t talk about it because no one did.
“We all put up with old Royale,” Connie Fong from across the street chimed in. “He’s always getting on our case about the ducks.”
“Ducks?” I looked at her.
“Wild ducks wander the neighborhood, and my kids like to feed them. Royale says they mess up his pool.”
An image rose in my mind of Royale bailing duck shit out of his pool. I grinned.
“Look, it’s not going to die,” Pam said. “Palms are indestructible in this climate. But maybe it’ll blow over someday. That’s why you really should at least trim it.”
“Yeah, I’ll think about it.” I did. For about five seconds.
Then later that week Royale somehow got our phone number and left a crotchety message on our machine.
I called another powwow with Tom in the hot tub that night.
“Did Pam give Royale our number?”
“How should I know?” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “She might have. I think she passes out a list of everyone’s number to all of Hillside Court, for emergencies. Your wife’s probably got one. Why?”
“Royale’s on the warpath. Jennifer’s all upset and wants to cut down the tree. She just wants to fit in here.”
“So why don’t you just do it? You care about the tree?”
“No.” I wanted to fit in too. Just not that much. “Look, I’m going to get this guy Royale.”
“Yeah, you said that before.” He sat up, an unimpressed engineer expression on his face. “What exactly do you want to do?”
“Don’t you get tired of it? Knuckling under to people like him?”
“Not really.” He studied his nails. “I just keep out of his way.”
“That’s what I mean.” I lowered my voice even though there was no one else around. “Why should we have to tiptoe around this old guy?” Guys like Royale with their stupid rules always made a beeline for me. And the more you tried to follow their rules, the more they made.
“Well, he’s lived here the longest of anyone—” Tom began.
“So what? That gives him the right to push us around?”
“So what are you suggesting?” He looked up again. “Kill the old creep?”
“Nah. That’s no fun.” Besides, it wasn’t allowed. “I’m talking more spiritual death. Like torture.”
“Al, what do you mean? You lost your mind?”
“No. How long you and Pam lived here, again?”
“Ten years this summer,” he said. “Why?”
“Ten years. You deserve a medal. You got some house cleaning to do, I bet? Stuff piles up, with two kids especially.” I continued when he didn’t answer, “I’m thinking, let’s hold us a yard sale, right under the palm. Next weekend. Nice way to make some extra cash, meet the neighbors, people from all over town. Lots of recent immigrants to this country, probably. We’ll advertise in the paper. They’ll be driving up in their old cars…”
A slow smile spread across Tom’s face.
“If we do well, hell, we’ll carry it on into the next weekend. And the next. We’ll call it…a Heat Sale. Your kids can sell lemonade. We’ll decorate the palm and our customers can sit under it. Now won’t Royale love that?” He’d have to either shut up, or come out and say what he was really worried about, which I somehow thought wasn’t the goddamned tree.
The first sale was the next weekend. I put up a sign on the palm: Heat Sale! Celebrate the Last of Summer!
“Alberto.” Jennifer stood in our yard in a sundress—arms crossed, feet spread apart, hair in braids, drops of sweat glistened on her upper lip. “This is dumb.”
“Yeah, okay.” I stood back to survey my work. Everything was set: the merchandise in neat, labeled boxes in the yard; the streamers tied around the palm tree; the cash box and the lemonade stand under it. Tom was going to play cashier, and Connie Fong’s kids were going to sell the lemonade, since Pam was onto our plan and didn’t want her kids involved.
“Why are you always stirring things up?” Jennifer asked. “I’d like to settle down someday, maybe have a couple of kids of my own.”
I knew where she was coming from, because I wanted those same things, but it was like something grabbed hold of me, and I couldn’t fight it.
It was always like this in all the neighborhoods we’d lived in: the exhaustion, the boredom. Getting curbside recycling was the pretty much the most interesting thing that happened to us at our place last year. Even when something exciting did happen, like a couple of years ago when Angelica Chan’s ex-husband showed up from the Philippines and they screamed it out on the front porch for twenty minutes until her current husband called the police, it ended the same. You got your restraining order against loud relatives so your neighbors weren’t bugged. There were a lot of unwritten rules that I wasn’t clued into. Or I didn’t care when I did learn.
“All I’m doing is having a little sale,” I said. “Lots of people do in the suburbs. What’s the problem?”
Royale came out to stand in his yard and stare at us. I was looking the other way, not facing him at all, but I could feel his gaze on my back.
I turned and smiled; he glared some more then swung around and slammed back into his house.
“That’s the problem,” Jennifer said. “Why can’t you try to get along with people?” “Am I really the one who has trouble getting along with people?”
“You really don’t see it, do you? What about Mr. Henderson?”
She had to remind me. Our neighbor at our last place who complained because our music bothered him. Like it’s really against the law to play your radio on your own property in the middle of the afternoon. So I took up the drums and practiced them every Saturday morning in my garage. He moved as soon as he could sell the house.
“I was provoked,” I said.
That ended that conversation because our first customers, a Russian immigrant family with about ten raggedy kids, drove up in their beat-up van. The mother lode. I could feel Royale glaring at us from behind his drapes as I helped them look through my old jeans, outdated software, and Jennifer’s cookbooks. The rest of the day was a mix of neighbors and people from miles away responding to the ad.
Afterward Tom let the Fong kids count the takings. I gave them twenty percent and watched their faces light up.
So everyone had a great time, and I might have been satisfied with that. But a couple of days later, we got a letter.
“What’s this?” I said. I was sorting the mail on the dining room table after work. I held up the plain white envelope addressed in big sloppy print to “Mrs. Maria Rodriguez.”
I started to throw it on the junk mail pile, but on second thought gave it to Jennifer. “I think it’s for you.”
She read it over, brow furrowed, eyes scanning the lines. “It’s from Mr. Royale.”
“Oh, shit.” I couldn’t believe it—he’d actually write a letter, stick a stamp on it, and mail it instead of just talking to us. “What’s his major malfunction now?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Let me see it.” I took it. It was a list of complaints about “Maria’s” husband.
I slammed it down. “Can you believe that?”
“Al, I don’t want you to do anything. Please, just talk to him.”
“Oh, you can bet I will.” I rose to wash for dinner even though my appetite was gone. She followed me into the hall. “Al.”
I turned. Her eyes were wide and dark in her pinched face. “I’ll even clean up the pods if it’ll keep the peace.”
“How do you think that’ll keep the peace? I don’t want you slaving for him.”
“I’d rather do that than move again. I won’t move again.”
“I get it.”
“I don’t think you do. It’s like it’s some kind of game, or challenge, to you. Well, it isn’t to me.” She paused then said, “If I have to move again, I’ll go live with Sonya.”
My stomach dropped. “We won’t move again,” I said, when I could get myself together enough to talk. I’ve been through a lot with this girl—since we were fifteen. My mom’s death and two arrests, over minor bullshit, and working my way through San Francisco State University. All so we could have this. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Sure you will.” She shook her head. “Let’s just eat.” She strode away.
That conversation got my attention, and I spent the night figuring out what to do about it.
“Royale.” I got out of my car the next day and strode over to where he was kneeling in the side yard, digging around with a spade, pulling up weeds or whatever. Here we went again.
I let his letter drop on the ground between us. The spade stopped moving. He looked up. He lurched to his feet.
“My wife’s name,” I said, “is Jennifer.”
“Yes?” He pulled a bandana out and wiped at watery blue eyes. Pretty stupid to be working out here in the hottest part of the day with no hat or shades.
“Okay.” He looked confused, like I was a lunatic who had shouted at him at a cocktail party. They’re so brave behind your back, but get them face to face, they go all civilized.
That pissed me off even more, and any plan I had of reasoning with him flew out of my mind.
“You called her ‘Maria’ in your letter,” I said. “She’s not ‘Maria.’ Not all Latinas are.”
“Is that so?” Royale wiped his eyes again. “When are you going to cut down the tree?”
“When I’m good and ready.” I stalked back to my yard.
“No more garage sales,” Royale yelled after me. “They mess up the neighborhood.”
I froze. I closed my eyes on the mental image of me swinging around, striding back to the side yard in two steps, seizing the spade, and bashing him over the head.
Then I kept walking.
So Royale bought himself four more weeks of yard sales.
“You guys do a lot of business today?” Jennifer asked one afternoon. She strode up the drive, wearing jeans, clutching her leather shoulder bag, home from her new job at a neighborhood florist.
“Must be a lot of people showing up to fight over my old Tupperware.” She continued into the house before I could think of a smart comeback.
The heat broke but the sales dragged on, the merchandise cheesier and cheesier, the customers louder and louder.
“Al, my man,” Tom said one afternoon after clearing out the cash box and handing the takings to Danny Fong. I don’t think he even looked at it. “We need to talk.”
“What’s this? A break up?” I stretched out in one of the lawn chairs we had set up in the drive.
He didn’t laugh. “I think it’s time we called it a day with this.” He sank into the chair next to mine.
“Why? Aren’t you having fun anymore?”
“No. Besides—Pam’s been on my case to knock it off, and I agree with her. We proved our point. Let’s quit.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“What do you mean?” He peered at me. “Just stop.”
“I’ve got this problem.” I cleared my throat. “With starts and finishes.”
“Starts and finishes?”
“What’s that called, Tom? The law of inertia?” More like I was waiting for some sign. From Royale? I didn’t even know.
“Yeah. Whatever, man.” He got up. “I’ve got to go.” He shook his head and ambled back to his own lawn. I collected the empty cash box and went in.
So I carried on the sales without him. School started, and the Fong kids went back, and I carried on without them too.
* * *
One warm and rainy Saturday, I found myself in a rowdy game of tag around the palm tree with a couple of neighborhood kids, while their moms picked through a box of my old CDs and DVDs, chatting in a Spanish too fast for me to follow.
Royale came out on his drive and stood staring at us, leaning on his cane. Something in his glare made me stop.
I smoothed down my wild hair. “Hey,” I said. “How’s it going, Bill?”
He narrowed his eyes.
“Oh, look.” How could you get yourself so upset over what goes on in someone else’s yard? Especially when it’s completely innocent. “We’re just—”
“Speak English,” he said.
“What?” For a minute, I didn’t process the comment. “This is English.”
“Speak English.” He hobbled away.
I stared after him. I felt a grin spread across my face. This was what I had been waiting for.
The women behind me had fallen silent.
“Sorry about that.” I turned to them with a shrug. “Who knows?”
After a minute, their conversation went on, but it was quieter now.
Standing there in the pouring rain next to our sorry merchandise, I was suddenly dead tired. And ashamed. What in hell was I doing? Torturing some senile old fart. Next thing I’d be doorbell ditching him.
I waited until that night, after the sale, after I cleaned up, after one of the pass-the-salt quiet dinners Jennifer and I had now. After she had gone to bed.
I was on the porch, smoking, a habit Jennifer had nagged me into giving up but I had gotten into again, pacing like a caged panther. I needed to do something. I just didn’t know what.
So what I ended up doing was going to my garage, finding the ax I bought to chop down last year’s Christmas tree, and dragging it out to the side yard. I took some big swings at the trunk of the palm.
It made some creaking and groaning sounds, almost human, in a weird way.
By the fifth swing, I was drained. And my arms ached. It was a lot harder than I’d expected. I’d wanted the tree to fall on Royale’s precious yard pods and all. But now I felt stupid and worried someone, Royale or Jennifer or one of the Johnsons, would come out and see me, in my shorts, whacking away at a tree.
I put the ax away and went inside.
The next Saturday, I stood on the porch smoking again. There’d been no sale today, so it was my first free Saturday in a long time. The storm had moved out, leaving just some wind behind. Royale was working in the side yard, right next to the palm, probably picking up the tree’s pods because I could hear his swearing all the way over on my porch.
He didn’t say anything or look at me, even though I could tell he knew I was there. I guess he had given up.
The winds picked up. I let my cigarette drop, stomping it out so sparks wouldn’t blow around. The palm swayed in the wind. Why did I get into this? Why didn’t I just cut the tree down in the beginning?
The tree swayed again and bent. I stopped pacing, watching. Shallow root system.
“Bill.” I started across the lawn. “Get out of the way.”
I stopped, frozen, as the tree swayed for a last time, the cracking sounding as if the earth was going to split apart.
I raised my arm against the shower of fronds.
* * *
It was ruled an accident. The tree’s roots were weakened by that first storm. No one saw, or thought about looking for, the blade marks on the trunk.
After the shock it was kind of comical, in a gruesome way, waiting for the emergency crew—Royale’s pudgy bare legs sticking out from under the tree like the Wicked Witch’s under Dorothy’s house.
“How could you?” Pam demanded a couple of weeks later, after the funeral. We were standing next to the mailboxes. She held an umbrella against the pouring rain.
“I didn’t do anything.” I didn’t look up from the junk mail I was flipping through. I didn’t want to meet her eyes.
She stared at me. “I hope that’s true.”
“I’m sorry, Pam. Really. Sorry the whole thing happened.”
How did it come to this? I never really meant for anyone to die.
Her eyes filled with tears and she stalked away. For a minute, staring at her back, I swear she reminded me of Jennifer.
Jennifer did what she said she would and moved in with Sonya. I’m still hoping she’ll forget about the whole thing soon and come back. So I’m trying to clean up my act.
I don’t like talking about this that much, you know? Which is okay. Nobody talks much to me.
A new family moved into Royale’s old place, and they don’t bug me about my grass when it gets too long, and I pretend not to hear when they fight over sex or money.
In other words, I’ve played my last game of king of the hill.
Stacia Levy lives in Sacramento, California, with her husband and daughter. She teaches writing and English as a Second Language.
Past publishing credits include short stories in The Blue Moon Review, Sambatyon, True Story, and two works of academic nonfiction based on her dissertation. In addition, she was a second-place winner in The Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards of 2010 for her short story, “Father,” which is upcoming in The Apalachee Review.
She has completed one novel of romantic suspense and is currently working on a series of mysteries.
If you enjoyed The Palm Tree, leave a comment and let Stacia know.
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