The long-running feud between two middle houses on Ashland Lane came to standstill that morning. Mitchell Horne vs. Donald McCray. The rules were, when one went out to get the paper, the other’s paper is either there or it is not. If it is, you win and get to feel smug. If it is not, you awaken all the rest of your family and start them doing chores immediately. Mow the lawn! Vacuum the rug! Get the kids to soccer practice or school! Leave for work! Make breakfast! No time for breakfast! Gather the laundry! Water the plants! . . .
((There is no worse horror than not being the first on your street to get the morning paper. Should you traverse your driveway only to find that even ONE other neighbor has gotten their paper before you, then you are judged as unfit for eternity. You may as well open the vodka and eat gas-station doughnuts until you choke on your own puke because your are less meaningful than an ant-fart you utterly worthless waste of life!))
A typical morning in the Horne household: Like a Navy Seal caked in mud - becoming one with the jungle-swamp, giving no indication of life in the house, still cloaked in complete darkness - Mitchell Horne would peek through the narrowest slit of the living room curtains and notice the lights already on in the home of his neighbor, retired pharmacist Donald McCray.
The old man thought he had all the time in the world since Mitchell’s lights were still off. Mitchell kept a small can of WD-40 hidden beneath an end-table by the front door. His eyes never leaving the house of his nemesis, he oiled the joints. He may need to rush out. He had brought his morning clothes into the living room, and he changed while making sure the silhouette of Donald didn’t make it down the stairs. Probably doing his old man hour-long bathroom routine. It would cut the fucker double if he saw Mitchell fully dressed and getting the paper. No man must ever show a hint of desperation to his enemy.
Clothes smooth and pressed? Check. Posture? Check. Door silent as the grave? Check. Mitchell made his way down the driveway. His paper meant nothing to him. Everything that made his entire world was contained in the yellow plastic bag of Donald McCray’s paper. Mitchell had won. He was mid-way down the driveway and the day was his. The only way this could be sweeter is if-
- but hark! is that the sound of McCray’s squeaky-ass screen door? It is! And that moment of hesitation . . . Mitchell turned around, paper in hand and caught the merest phantom of Donald McCray hurrying back into his home, taking care to quietly shut his screen door, as if he hadn’t been out yet.
Exhilaration flooded Mitchell Horne. The electric tingles ran up and down his arms. He had won! And better even, he had witnessed his enemy fleeing in defeat. Mitchell would gladly take his own life in triumph on this spot. The pinnacle of all evolution had been reached in his accomplishment. Take that old man, Mitchell thought, may as well blow your brains out all over your wife’s sewing room where she goes to pretend that she still has friends. Worthless shitbag!
Abandon Your Superstition Day in the Horne household: Most of the above still applied, although there was no sign of McCray when Mitchell picked up the morning paper. A mild satisfaction at the enemy giving up. But maybe being too good at something would get boring. Mitchell contemplated taking another quarter inch off the top of his lawn and keeping it that way, like a military buzz-cut. Make that neighborhood regulation. That would shove a poker up that fucking crony’s ass for sure!
Time for work. He didn’t pay attention to the news, so Mitchell had no idea what the world would be like today. Instead, he said goodbye to his kids and his wife. She would take them to school like she always did and then she’d . . . who the fuck knows? Did she still have that part-time job as a . . . had she ever? . . .
Before stepping into his SUV for the seven-minute drive to work, Mitchell’s blood turned to ice slivers and he was unable to breathe for so long that he almost lost consciousness. Donald McCray’s paper was STILL on his driveway! - and the old man was sitting on a rocking chair on his porch. Was he smoking a . . . CIGAR? . . . This is a family neighborhood!
Unwilling to leave the house without his car, Mitchell drove to the next driveway over. What did that old man think he was doing? It’s times like these that Mitchell was glad for his involvement in the HOA. Even if no one went to the meetings anymore. Someone had to be the grownup in this neighborhood.
“These old folks,” Mitchell said in his head, explaining his lateness to his boss, “they just don’t get that we have responsibilities nowadays that they never dreamed of. Today isn’t like when you could put a nickel in your gas tank and be set for life. You can’t just let the cows raise your kids anymore. I have fiscal duties to the community, and that requires maturity.”
Donald McCray waved to Mitchell as he got out of the car. “Howdy neighbor. Sit a spell?”
Mitchell beheld the old man on his rocking chair on his creaky porch. The morning sun pierced through the cold night clouds, evidence that day was actually breaking. Slivers of dandelion twirled across the gray air, deflating the dreariness and filling the sky’s bowl with golden light. Mitchell burst into tears and fell forward, clutching his knees and whispering to himself, “It’s all so hard . . .”
Donald reached down and lifted Mitchell with one hand, placing him on his own rocking chair. “No worries little buddy. I’ll have Bertha fix’s up with some sweet tea.” He winked. “My special morning edition.”
“Morning Edition?” panicked Mitchell. “I should be listening to NPR, I won’t know what to talk about -”
“Just you calm down there sonny,” said Donald McCray. He picked up a glass from the tray that Bertha had brought out. It was brown like tea, but any insect that flew too near it instantly died. “You just have a sip or ten of that -”
The mixture was like suddenly walking outside on a bright day. A shock to all the senses and you curl into yourself like a turtle. But then you relax, and the world that seemed sharp and painful becomes clear and open. Mitchell’s throat felt like he had swallowed a pail of thumbtacks until they passed, and they left a warm relief, like a hot bath. His neighborhood appeared a postcard, a diorama of paradise instead of the litter-strewn war-zone he had always seen before.
“You and I,” said Donald McCray, “we’re gonna have some biscuits with butter, and then I hear there’s an old barn out on East Commercial Row that we can shoot at until it falls down.”