No Lagoon Breeze
The prior owners of her Craftsman-style townhouse had let things go. Not only their marriage, Loretta heard, but also their kids, their money, the house. And because of that, a lot of folks wouldn’t touch it, said divorce and delinquent kids were curse and contagion, that the house was forever haunted by the ghosts of people who half-died while still living there. But Loretta wasn’t scared by any of this. She had nothing left to lose except a pile of cash to plunk down on a place to make new friends with people who liked a little more order and a little more space and a little more neighborhood than what she had living in the city for the past 40 years.
Loretta knew going into it that the house needed some work. Stained carpets. Three fist-sized holes in the master bedroom closet. Half the blinds pulled up crooked or not at all. And nothing had been painted — much less wiped down — in years. Loretta’s bank statements reminded her that she was going to have to pace herself if she still wanted to eat. Hang pictures over holes and place potted plants strategically on floors. Scour YouTube for DIY tips. Acquire the time and energy efficient knick-knackery of modern life in other ways.
For now, Loretta could swing a gallon of paint to freshen up the front door. She browsed color chips at the hardware store and took home a few sample jars in a range of turquoise, her favorite color. She wanted something deeper than the Tiffany’s box that cradled the gaudy engagement ring her sister Tawny just received — who gets engaged with a diamond a fourth time!? But something lighter than the Caribbean pics her former co-worker Daphne posts on Instagram during couples getaways — who wears a string bikini in her 60s!? She wanted no suggestive reminders of what she didn’t want but everyone said she would maybe one day still probably like to have, the things you are not supposed to tell an unattached woman her age but people do anyway because they are impolite or unhappy themselves.
As Loretta painted the last of five different swatches above the brass kick plate, she saw a woman’s reflection moving behind her on the sidewalk. A fluffy beige puppy was sniffing around near the woman’s feet.
“Updating your front door?”
Loretta turned around on her knees. It was Marj Switzer, President of The Bluffs of Placid Haven Homeowners Association. A lame duck president near the end of her second four-year term, and who Loretta heard takes every advantage to enforce the rules while she still has time.
“Yeah, thinking about it.” Loretta pointed to the dog at the end of a blue rhinestone leash. “Cute puppy. Yours?”
“Just picked him up this week! Tucker. He’s a Pyredoodle. Great Pyrenees and Standard Poodle mix.”
“Looks like he’s gonna be a big guy.”
“Nope.” Marj closed her eyes and shook her head with a smug smile. “Breeder said he should stay close to 40 pounds based on her last few litters.” Marj picked up Tucker and snuggled him close to her face. “You’re aware of the list of pre-approved colors in the Rules and Regulations, right?” She nodded toward the door.
Loretta wanted to pinch Marj’s condescending smile into a mute line and twist it. “No, I wasn’t. But I’m just testing out some colors to see how they look at different times of day.”
“Admiral Navy, Desert Steppe, Ship’s Hull … that’s a gray … Brick Red, Douglas Fir, and Obsidian. Those are the six approved colors. And you can’t have the same color as a neighbor on either side, of course.” Marj glanced at the bright blue stripes of wet paint glistening in the early May sun. “But those would’ve been fun ones! Too bad.”
Loretta stood up and took three steps closer to Marj. “Just six colors to pick from?”
“Surely you know this community is part of a homeowners association. We try to keep everything uniform. Consistent. Safe and predictable. I’m not sure how it was in the city where you lived, but that’s why people move here.” Marj leaned down and put Tucker on Loretta’s lawn. After spinning in three urgent circles the dog squatted and released a small mound of loose shit.
“I get there are rules about keeping things a certain way. But paint colors? On a door? How does keeping a short list of approved colors keep anyone safe? It’s just a bit of joy painted on a few square feet of solid wood.”
“He must’ve gotten into something he wasn’t supposed to.” Marj scooped as much of the shit off the grass as she could and tied a knot in the tiny plastic bag. “The list is the list. If you want to appeal there’s a process … ”
“Forget it.” Loretta looked to the left and then to the right at her neighbors’ front doors. “Black seems appropriate here. Excuse me. Obsidian.”
Marj flashed her pert smile before heading back down the sidewalk. “Nice chatting with you. I’m sure you’ll love it here once you get settled and learn the rules.” She glanced toward the brown smear on the lawn. “Sorry about the little mess.”
No Ollalieberry Pie
Loretta tried to get away with it that first summer she owned the townhouse. Right off her back porch grew those royal purple berries no bigger than a thumbprint. The ones that her great-great-granddaddy helped develop on a West Coast farm, just like Mendel with his peas at the monastery. Loretta was open about it too — nothing clandestine like the ganja Beatrice McBarron grew in prim yellow pots on her deck, telling everyone they’re spider flowers that just won’t bloom goshdarnit! wink wink. Loretta tended and picked and sorted and piled those berries into deep-dish pie pans lined with her famous buttery dough. Made a dozen in late August for her neighbors on Breezy Terrace, suggesting a scoop of vanilla as she passed steaming pies across their thresholds. Her phone blew up later that night and she read the texts over and over and over. She was giddy from her new rank in the neighborhood.
OMG this pie!!!!!!!
What’s in this pie!?!? SO. GOOD.
I just ate three slices for dinner don’t tell Gary LOL!!!!
I need this recipe!
U R AMAZEBALLS
The next morning there was a knock on Loretta’s front door. Loretta peeked out the sidelights. The lime green cover of the HOA Rules and Regulations was tucked under Marj’s arm. Loretta smoothed her hair and opened the door.
“Can I come in?” Marj didn’t wait for an answer and as the door closed behind her, she handed Loretta a sheet of paper. NOTICE OF VIOLATION was written in bold across the top. For the next thirty minutes, Marj recited sections and subsections and parts and subparts of the Rules and Regulations, admonishing Loretta because only certain fruits and vegetables were acceptable to grow in gardens at Placid Haven, and ollalieberries were not on the list.
Loretta cocked her head to the side. “How’s a blackberry or raspberry that much different from a ollalieberry? It’s a hybrid of those two! They’re all just berries growing on a bush and they make great pies.”
“I’m not here to get into all that. The rules are the rules. If you want to discuss it with the Board you obviously have a right to a hearing first. I direct your attention to section … ” She trailed off as she pointed to the paper in Loretta’s hand.
Loretta scanned the notice and looked back at Marj. “Is this because I didn’t bring you a pie? I only made enough for my neighbors on Breezy. None of them complained about the kind of berry. Terri even asked if I could make three more for her mahjong tournament next weekend.”
Marj’s bottom teeth pulled at her upper lip as she opened the door to leave and then she glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ve got to run. If you pull the bushes out by the close of business tomorrow, there’s no more problem.”
Loretta spotted Tucker’s head in the passenger window of Marj’s car parked at the curb. “Looks like he’s getting big.” Marj laughed but didn’t reply.
At 4 a.m., under the cold glare of the back door floodlight and still in her nightgown, Loretta plucked the remaining ripe berries to freeze them for one more pie, then dug the ollalieberry bushes out of the ground. Fucking ridiculous, she grunted every time her spade cut into the soil, her hair in sweaty ribbons across her forehead. After she tossed the bushes next to the trash barrel, she stared at the three wide holes and contemplated her options: fill the holes or plant blackberries or raspberries instead. She thought of her great-great-grandaddy and all those summers he spent perfecting his hybrid berries. How raspberry and blackberry pies would never have the neighbors texting her late into the night because they could get them on the cheap at Clippity Clop Farm. She looked at her watch: the garden center would open in three hours. She dropped her shovel on the ground and went to clear out the back of her trunk to make room for the bags of loam before going back inside to shower.
The thing Loretta had hated most about living in the city was not having a yard. At the human level, the city had soul and nuance, but structurally, things were pragmatic and anonymously claustrophobic. All she had was a sloping balcony with a couple potted flowers and her bike. At Placid Haven she finally had a real yard and she planned to use every inch of it by filling it with fun and friends. This is what she lived her whole life for, to loosen up and let go a little by dashing off quirky e-vites for mai tais and coconut shrimp on the deck. For eight straight weekends, Loretta curated the perfect mix of kitsch: three hot pink flamingos soldered from scavenged metal, a green wooden parrot with her house number painted on a sign hanging from its beak, half a yellow surfboard anchored upright into the ground near the small stand of white and yellow hollyhock, and twelve solar-powered LED pineapple lights staked along each side of the walkway to her front door.
When she came downstairs on Labor Day to marinate meats and assemble fruit kabobs for her cookout, Loretta saw Marj through the front window measuring the parrot and jotting some notes on a pad of paper before taking a picture with her phone.
Loretta bolted out her front door. “Can I help you?” Her eyes went wide in disbelief.
“These are gonna have to go. I mean, unless you get approval from the board first.” Marj pointed to the surfboard and flamingoes. “Definitely exceed the height requirements.”
“Nothing taller than twelve inches unless you get approval first.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me … ”
“But it’s going to be a hard sell anyway. I mean, that is if they are even considered sculptures or compatible by the board … ” Marj walked closer and pointed to an open page of the HOA Rules:
Oversized decorative objects are defined as any object exceeding 12 inches in height and 12 inches in either width or depth and includes, but is not limited to, such items as sculptures, fountains, driftwood, free standing poles of any type. Oversized decorative objects will be considered based on their size, color, scale, location, compatibility with architectural and environmental design qualities and their visual impact of adjoining lots.
“And the parrot with my house number? The solar lights?” Loretta asked.
“Hmmm. You’re right. Well the lights are out too, I suppose. Section 237(d) says no extraneous light fixtures.”
Loretta stared at the thick layers of eyeshadow and mascara in competing shades of blue that matched the array of plastic bangles clicking on Marj’s wrist. “This is unbelievable. Why is everything so strict around here?” Loretta scanned her neighbors’ yards and realized for the first time that they all looked exactly the same except for the color of flowers. Two warm licks on her calf made her turn around. Tucker was panting with his eyes half-closed near her feet. Loretta looked back at Marj. “Has he stopped growing yet? He looks a lot bigger than forty pounds.”
“It’s the way his fur makes him look.” Marj thumbed through her book of rules twice and frowned before closing it. “Since it’s only ten inches, the parrot might be okay. I’ll need to check with the rest of the board to determine whether it’s considered a small exterior object or a sign, which have a different set of rules obviously. You’ll hear back from me soon on that.” Loretta noticed Marj’s acrylic nails were painted a bright shade of blue when she’d made air quotes while saying sign.
Loretta stomped over to the pineapple lights and pulled them from the ground in rapid succession, then ripped the parrot from its post and tossed it on the pile of lights. “Don’t bother,” she replied.
So far, retirement hadn’t been exactly what Loretta hoped for. Her funds were starting to dwindle because she overspent on lattes and mediocre mall tacos just to have somewhere to go, and the electric bill was higher than she had budgeted for because the night sweats had unexpectedly returned. She also realized the way she relaxed was by keeping busy. She missed the long hours of rushing between city blocks to meet clients for small talk about design and corporate missions that fueled her fire in CorelDRAW when she created pamphlets and websites. She could only take so many watercolor and wreath-making sessions at the clubhouse, and Tiki Bar Tuesdays too often ended with Rosaria cornering her at the horseshoe pit for a bitchfest about her ex-husband.
The residents of Placid Haven didn’t exactly need any graphic designers, but Loretta did see one potential income source: dogs. Most residents seemed to own dogs, and dozens of non-Haven people walked their mutts through the quiet neighborhood. She could easily earn a couple hundred dollars a week and get out of her own way.
Loretta tacked up flyers at the clubhouse, created an Instagram account, and posted on the Placid Haven Facebook page to let people know about Loretta’s Leash Walking Service. In just two days, she was tethered to a fat French bulldog, two wheezy pugs, a recalcitrant Lhasa Apso wearing a pink bow, and a Doxie Scot that spent the first ten minutes of every walk nipping at the bulldog’s heels.
It took Marj three days to leave the voicemail.
“Hey, it’s Marj. Listen, I saw your dog walking ads … cute name! … but I’m not sure if you’re aware of this … home-based businesses are kiiiiinda not allowed at Placid Haven. I’m sure you’ve read the regulations and probably just forgot. Section 140(a) spells it all out. True that Teddy Baxter does everyone’s taxes for half-price but we kinda look the other way on him. ANYHOO. I’m sure you’ll know how to correct this … situation. See you at the clubhouse luau tonight. Bring your party shoes!” Loretta deleted the message then opened her laptop to order two collapsible water bowls and a thousand poop bags.
Two weeks later, Loretta rounded the corner of Breezy Terrace with her pack of dogs when she saw Marj coming from the opposite direction. She looked like she was in a hurry as Tucker slowed down to investigate the other dogs. Rhinestones glinted in the sun as he pulled his leash taut to sniff the Lhasa Apso’s rear end. “Come on, Tucker. Let’s go.” The women avoided eye contact.
Tucker pushed against the middle of Loretta’s thigh as he moved toward the pugs cowering behind her. “Sounds like you don’t have time for a visit today, buddy.” Loretta gave him a quick pat on the head.
Marj yanked the leash and told Tucker to sit. “We don’t,” she sighed. “Started a new part-time job at Bristol Asphalt and Paving. Just some administrative stuff. They’ve been so busy with all the new subdivisions going in. But I can’t ever seem to get there on time.”
“Well, I won’t keep you.” Loretta stepped back away from Tucker.
“Now that I think about it … maybe you could walk Tucker in the mornings for me so I’m not always ten minutes late?” She untangled Tucker from the pugs’ leashes and glanced at the small crowd of canines circling Loretta. “That is, if you can even take on another dog.”
Loretta hesitated. Was Marj casting bait? She wanted to keep her Marj encounters to a minimum, but turning down an extra $25 when she was already out walking another five dogs didn’t make sense. Neither did stepping into a stinking pile of shit.
Before Loretta could answer, Marj continued to consider the idea out loud. “Of course I’d have to give you a key … But maybe we could keep this between us? Seems as though no one else on the board has minded this prohibited endeavor of yours.” Marj reached down to pet one of the dogs. “In fact, this is JJ Morton’s Doxie Scot, isn’t it? Seems like a bold move for the Board Secretary to go along with this.”
“I can do it. Monday through Friday?”
“I have Fridays off.” Marj smiled as she fished a key from her pocket. “Could you start tomorrow? I have a spare key hidden in the yard so you can just take this one.”
When Loretta came to get Tucker the next morning, she couldn’t coax him out of his crate, not even with the “good” treats. “Come on, buddy.” She leaned down to attach his leash and hoist him to a standing position, but he wouldn’t budge. With the other dogs waiting and tethered to the front porch railing she didn’t have time to negotiate, so she picked him up. “How much do you weigh, Tucker? My goodness!” His beefy breath was warm on her cheek, giving her that goofy dog look that made it hard to be annoyed. “There’s no way you’re forty pounds,” she said as she set him down with a grunt and patted his sides.
No Fiberglass Composite
Despite many mornings of tangled leashes and stepping on the paws of her furry charges when she first started, dog walking was proving to be a lucrative venture: Loretta now walked two groups a day (plus a wait list) and had a comfy cushion in her bank account.
She wanted to spiff up her yard and remembered the funny planters at her cousin’s pool party last year. Assorted chubby, troll-like faces atop stumpy legs and oversized feet with no arms or torso in between, with ferns and grasses for hair. A quick online search revealed they were called Mugglies and the local garden store had dozens in stock, plenty for the small crowd she planned to welcome to her front step.
Loretta spent a full Sunday adding potting soil and a variety of fringed and sprouty annuals to give the faces some silly hair. Their expressions were varied — crying, laughing, grimacing — and she couldn’t help but laugh when she stepped back to look at all thirty-three of them ready to greet her after every dog walk and trip to the grocery store.
When she went to get Tucker for his walk on Monday morning, there was a note from Marj near his leash on the counter.
Hey Loretta, Noticed your new plants yesterday. Just FYI those kind of containers aren’t allowed. Concrete or terra cotta pots only. HOA Sec. 49(a)(xvi)(2). Thanks again for walking T!
Loretta’s pulse quickened. She stared at Tucker dozing in his crate before striding to Marj’s master bathroom. She flicked on the light and scanned the room. The edge of a bathroom scale stuck out from under the maple vanity. She pulled it out. Dust-free. Of course Marj would be the type to keep meticulous track of her weight.
She put the scale on the kitchen floor and plucked a dog treat from her pocket. “Here, Tucker!” He walked toward her open hand. As he took the treat, she picked him and stood on the scale. Peering over his fluffy back, she read the number: 231. She put him back on the floor and stepped back on the scale: 164.
The green cover of Marj’s copy of the HOA rules was tossed on a stack of cookbooks near the fridge. Loretta scanned the table of contents. Pets. Section 22.
No more than one approved, registered cat or dog per unit; no exceptions. The weight limit on any pet is 40 pounds (unless the pet is an approved assistance animal).
She did the math in her head. “Well, well, Tucker.” He moved closer to her and pushed his head against her leg looking for a scratch behind the ears. “Looks like you’re twenty-seven pounds too big, mister.” His tail started wagging.
As she walked her second group of dogs, Tucker now back at home and no longer blinking those brown eyes at her, Loretta thought about her next move. She could confront Marj about Tucker’s weight and the violation of the rules. But that was too easy and not worth the trade of simply removing the plants on her front steps. She had the better hand here. She had to play it right.
That night, after trips to the garden center and hardware store, Loretta brought her crew of Mugglies into her kitchen. “OK, kids, temporary change of plans.” She downed a handful of sweet and salty nuts, opened a can of Dr. Pepper, and cued up the YouTube video she found earlier that afternoon. In another tab she went to the Placid Haven Facebook page and scrolled for photos she could crop, enlarge and print for the project; she found the best ones among the photos uploaded from the annual clubhouse pool party and Vic and Dollie’s 50th wedding anniversary luncheon. She organized an assembly line along her counter: empty square concrete pots, spray glue, printed photos cropped to various sizes that could be seen from a distance of several yards if you squinted, polyacrylic finish, wide paintbrush, and a couple of rags. The kitchen window was open and the fan was on so the fumes wouldn’t get to her while she worked.
The project took long enough that eventually she switched from Dr. Pepper to Grand Marnier on ice so she wouldn’t lose her nerve.
When the concrete pots were dry to the touch, she repotted all of the Muggly plants and brought them outside. It was dark outside and only a few of her neighbors were still awake in their homes. She arranged them along her front patio to face the street like spectators at a parade. Loretta knew the first people to see her new arrangement of plants would be the runners and early morning tennis doubles pairs walking to the clubhouse. Marj would see them last on her drive to work.
The pounding on her front door came precisely at 8:47AM. “Loretta! What the hell are you doing?” Marj shouted through the heavy door as she continued to pound her fist. “Loretta!”
Loretta opened the door and glanced at the concrete pot Marj had plucked on her way to the door. It was the one with the picture of Marj’s half-closed drunken eyes rolling upward. Without saying anything, Loretta crossed her arms in front of her chest and waited for Marj to unleash her tirade.
“What the hell are these?” Her face deepened to red as she pointed to the rows of pots behind her. “Why do all these pots have faces of me? I look ridiculous in all of them! Have you been spying on me and taking pictures? Where did you get these?” she yelled.
“Placid Haven Facebook page.” Loretta smiled at her, arms still crossed.
“You must get rid of them. Immediately!”
Loretta reached over to the small table next to the door, opened her copy of the HOA rules, and began reading aloud. “Residents may have plant pots or planter boxes on front porches, patios, decks, and backyard stone retaining walls. Pots and planter boxes shall not be placed on driveways or sidewalks. Pots or planter boxes may be no larger than 16” wide and 16” high. Pots and planter boxes shall be manufactured of only of one of the following materials: terra cotta, unpainted wood, and concrete. Pots and planter boxes are allowed without permission so long as the plants are pruned and maintained in good health, free of weeds, and do not obstruct a neighbor’s view.”
She paused. Marj’s eyes were darting around the room like she was trying to remember something. “Not sure what the problem is here, Marj. Concrete pots … not too big … no weeds … ”
Marj interrupted. “They have my fucking face!”
“Hmmm.” Loretta glanced back down at the page. “Funny. Nothing in here prohibiting fucking faces.”
“Look, I … ”
Loretta held up her hand and flipped to another page flagged with a bright pink Post-It. “The weight limit on any pet is 40 pounds.” She tossed the book on the side table and stared at Marj.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Marj asked.
“Tucker’s got … shall we say, a weight problem?” Loretta smiled her mean girl karma smile, the same one she used when she ran into the three colleagues who stole her client list and started their own company that failed within the first ten months.
Marj’s face went pale. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s twenty-seven pounds over the limit. I weighed him myself on your bathroom scale.” Loretta took her phone out of her pocket and showed Marj the photo of Tucker’s paws dangling over the digital scale display.
“You had no right to do that!”
“Maybe. But I’m sure the Board would love to know someone’s breaking the rules. I mean you certainly seem invested in keeping order and safety for our community. He could be a danger being that big. Unsafe. Be a shame to see him go … ”
“You need to leave now. I have to get ready to walk the dogs.”
“Give me my key back.” Marj held out her palm. “Your services will no longer be needed. I’ll find someone else.”
Loretta silently unwound Marj’s key from the ring she had for her clients’ keys and handed it to her. She opened the front door and stood to the side to let Marj pass.
When Marj was back on the front porch, she turned around and faced the dozens of pots staring back at her, all with her own face. With her mouth open and full of food. Frowning. Raccoon eyes from being in the pool. The worst of them all: a pinky in her nose. She had on fake eyelashes which meant it must have been taken at Vic and Dollie’s 50th wedding anniversary. The plants in the pots had coarse, wiry leaves, some bushy, making her look like a deranged caricature of herself. Loretta’s front door squeaked as it started to close. “Wait!”
Loretta pulled the door open a little wider. “Yeah?”
“Tell me what you want.” Marj set down the pot she was still holding. “Tell me what I can do so you’ll get rid of these and not rat me out about Tucker.”
As the pie cooled on the wire rack, Loretta scanned the Placid Haven weekly bulletin linked on the Facebook page. Upcoming events, recent real estate transactions, and updates on the new security guard gate. She scrolled to the bottom of the page for the list of HOA regulation amendments voted on at last week’s meeting. Section 140(a) now permitted a limited number of home-based businesses: tax preparation, pet care services, personal trainer, and online sales of homemade jellies and jams. Section 22 now allowed for dogs up to 45 pounds and the Board amended the list of permissible garden plants. The motion to amend the list of approved paint colors was tabled until the new board president was sworn in next month because “President Switzer recused herself from voting due to an inability to be impartial on the issue.”
When the pie was cool enough to carry, Loretta walked over to Marj’s house and knocked on the door. There was some movement inside and she heard Tucker whining, but no one came to the door. Loretta set the pie and a bag of low-cal dog biscuits on the wicker chair next to the door before heading two doors down to walk the pugs.
Loretta walked toward the small dog park on the other side of the development and thought about what she needed to do later that day: repot her plants into the Mugglies and move them to her backyard and order ollalieberry bushes with expedited shipping so she could transplant them before the first frost. As she fiddled with the pugs’ leashes to let them run loose, she felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket. The dogs ran in big circles while she read the text: Thanks for the ollalieberry pie. It’s almost as good as the raspberry pie from Clippity Clop Farm!
Featured image: Shutterstock