During graduate school, we lived in this run down post-Victorian that the previous renters, a bunch of hippies, had gotten permission from the landlord to paint neon green with purple trim and purple doors. The house sat at the end of a street that opened into the yard of a large feed store, the odor from which I always thought of as psychedelic manure.

Dick and Bertie and their very weird son, Dickie, were our next door neighbors. Dick was a short guy whose belly stuck out like he’d somehow managed to swallow a bowling ball whole. His jet black hair was combed straight back, with gobs of what you hoped was gel, all of it massed at his nape in an upsweep that lay over his stained and dandruff-coated shirt collar. Even though I was close to twenty years younger, Dick always called me “Boss” and told me I should call him “Big Dick…get it?” He claimed everyone on the city maintenance crew called him that. “Either that or Dick Head…get it?”

Bertie was bigger than Dick in every way. She wore dresses that could double as pup tents, but that didn’t stop Dick from putting the evil eye on anyone who looked at her for any longer than he thought they should. “Somebody messes with my Bertie, they’ll need a new sack for their nuts.” This protective attitude didn’t seem to keep Dick and Bertie from regularly mixing it up, the results of which were often seen in cuts and bruises on both. Bertie’s hair was permanently de-permed and she was missing a front tooth, of which you were reminded every time she spread her lips and hissed a deep toke off one of the unfiltered Camels that regularly dangled from her lower lip. Despite a similar age difference, Bertie always called my wife “Missus” and told her she was “too boottiful for words.”

I got along fine with Dick and Bertie, getting along fine usually meaning having too many beers while sitting on the mildewed sofa that lay legless on their front porch. Dick and I mostly talked about how often the little guy got screwed, a topic my wife mistrusted. “I suppose you see yourself as inclusive, standing up for the common man. I think it’s arrogant and patronizing. What do you get out of it? Some kind of approval? You can’t get more appropriate approval, like from your dissertation advisor?” I thought she could be snobby and cold, a poor example for Michael, our three year old son.

The comfort I felt with Dick and Bertie didn’t extend to their son, Dickie, or “Little Dick…get it?” Dickie was an eight year old kid with a square head and uneven black eyebrows. His nose ran constantly and he lost the privilege of visiting our house when my wife vomited after he left a stringy booger on the banister that she idly ran her hand over on her way upstairs. More troubling, I once caught him with his penis pulled out, asking Michael if he wanted to touch it. That was the first time I grabbed his arm and pinched him hard on his undeveloped little triceps. Similarly, troubling, one day I heard the loud mewing of a cat and went outside to find Dickie in his backyard, poking a stick at a small kitty he had trapped at the corner of the fencing. I yelled at him and when he turned around, the cat sprinted to safety. That earned Dickey another strong pinch and me a sit down with Dick.

“I’m not trying to tell you your business, Dick,” I said, “but I think this suggests Dickie may have some problems starting to develop.”

“I don’t know about that,” Dick responded. “I done things like that his age…I din’t keep doin’ them.”

I took a pull on an Iron City and felt my shirt pocket for the cigs I’d recently given up.

“But if you say, so Boss, I’ll kick the shit out of him.”

“You will like hell,” Bertie’s hoarse voice came from inside the house. “You’d be needin’ to beat on two of us then.”

Dick popped up, twisted himself and sank back into the porch couch, odors from a strange life wafting into the air. “That’d be easier done than even said.”

“No, no.” I said. “It’s just information. It’s your business how to handle it.”

My wife later told me that my manner of handling the situation was cowardly. “He’ll do enough one day, with the right person catching him, and he’ll come to the attention of the authorities. I hope we’re gone from here well before then.”

I decided against telling her about my behavior management program, figuring she’d see the pinching as a second wrong. I had to say though that I thought it was working. At least the little scoundrel quit doing things he must have guessed I’d catch him at. And, for reinforcement, no one around, I’d occasionally give him a general purposes pinch. He’d show a confused look after one of those. All of that went as well as I could hope. At least until the goddamn business with the bats.


Near the end of our third year living on Palmer Street, my dissertation stayed undone but my stipends were running out and we needed to think about money. That meant finding a job and perhaps re-locating, developments I think my wife welcomed.

It was a late Spring evening, a warm breeze transporting the day’s pollen and with legions of crickets settling in for the evening. Our son in bed, we sat in comfortably stuffed porch chairs. I had my trusty Iron City, she had a rare glass of Chianti.