A Message Served Cold
by Charles C. Cole
As the owner of a 12-acre wood lot, I take great pride in my elbow room. I know exactly where the half-inch solid rods are that define my property line. I recently had a neighbor, Doris, with whom I had a difference of opinion.
When my parents built their retirement cottage in the woods behind her, Doris delivered a home-baked pie. welcoming them into the neighborhood.
A private drive separated their two dominions.
When my parents grew old and died, my wife and I inherited their house. Doris started becoming territorial, insisting that the road cut through her property, a right-of-way, insisting that we could drive to our front door only because she allowed it. Doris had lived in her house for twenty years, and had become selective with the facts.
The driveway was a gravel road, a retired state highway from before WWII, and was now owned by my family. Photocopies of town tax maps and an independent survey were on my side. I called the police for advice on handling property disputes. They said it was a civil issue.
My wife Jill was mowing along our side one day when Doris popped out, ostensibly to weed her garden.
Doris called over, “Thank you for mowing our lawn.”
My wife, a first-grade teacher, responded with great patience, “I’m not going to argue with you, Doris.”
Doris gave her two big thumbs-up, a ghoulish smile, and chanted, “I’m not arguing. We own to the pole. We own to the pole,” meaning the telephone pole near our mailbox, on our side of the road. Having made her point, Doris spun around and went back inside, leaving her watering can behind.
When Mack, her first husband, died of a heart-attack following some aggressive weed-wacking on one of the hottest days of the summer, Doris kept indoors for weeks. My wife took her a casserole and some cut flowers, which we later found untouched on our front stoop.
Within a year, Doris settled down with husband number two, Von, a divorced bowling buddy of Mack’s.
While Von liked beer and barbecues, Doris liked quietly reading in her rope hammock and bird-watching. They were an odd pair. On hot nights when we had our windows open, we could hear them sparring. Twice the police were called to mediate.
When my daughter Meghan was three, we were walking along the trails in our woods and came across two thick cedars, back to back. She had me help her climb into the little space between them and immediately proclaimed the spot her Hide-out Tree, not caring that it was technically two trees.
Years later, Meghan was too old for hide-outs, while I would still hike the trails and wax sentimental for the good ol’ days. On one such day, something caught my eye. Someone had crudely shredded a piece of paper and tucked it into the cubby hole. I pulled out all of the pieces and reassembled them, like a jigsaw puzzle. It was a letter.
I think about you every day. There’s a guard here who reminds me of your brother. I’m counting down to the day we can be back together. I’ve done some stupid things but I promise, when I get out, we’ll have a fresh start. She’ll understand. You were mine before you were hers. Sometimes thinking of being in your arms again is the only thing that keeps me from going crazy. All my love!
The nearest house to that note belonged to Doris, maybe six hundred feet. I collected the pieces and brought them home.
“What are you going to do with it?” Jill asked.
“Someone clearly didn’t feel comfortable keeping it in the house. What if she found it, tore it up, and then he saved it and hid it? Shouldn’t we give it to her? Shouldn’t she know? Why didn’t he burn it?”
“Because it’s a love letter,” Jill said. “Look, I don’t think it’s any of our business.”
“I’m holding onto it. What if something happens to her? This could show a motive.”
“Real people don’t act like on television shows. Do whatever you want.”
Later that week, I was raking loose gravel out of the grass on the shoulder of the road, pushed there by winter plowing, when Doris came walking down to confront me. She was walking her stiff, ten-year old Golden retriever, Prince. He squatted on my grass to do his business.
“That’s just great,” I said.
“Nothing.” It took all I had, but I turned my back on her and continued raking.
“You say something?” Doris called.
“It’s my property,” she said. “I can do whatever I want with it.”
“We’ve been over this.”
“You’re wrong. I have a piece of paper that proves it’s mine.”
“Love to see it. Why don’t you get it right now and show me?”
She stared at me with her cold, bitter eyes. I had an idea.
“Tell you what,” I said. “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
“I don’t like your tone.” Von’s letter was in the back seat of my car, still in strips.
“Give me a second,” I said. “I have something that might interest you. I found it in my woods.” I handed her the pieces in a manila folder.
“I’m no expert, but it looks like a love letter and, seeing as your house is the nearest one to where I found it, I’m guessing it belongs to someone who lives there.”
“I don’t want it,” she said, letting the folder fall to the ground.
“I can tell you what it says.” And I did.
“You’re mean,” she said. “You’re a mean man.” She turned and walked back to her house.
That night we heard a loud fight. Von drove off and never came back. Six months later, Doris sold her house. My wife thinks I should feel guilty, but I did Doris a favor. I guess I did myself a favor, too.
Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole