When Debra and I bought our first house, the one on Sugar Meadow Drive, the home inspector handed us a one-inch binder called “Your House, Your Home.” “Your House, Your Home” is a 300 page volume outlining the care and feeding of a house. It covers everything from the structure to the roof to the plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems. It breaks out lists of seasonal chores, building codes and maintenance hints and explains arcane topics like asbestos and radon. Flipping casually through the binder, there are diagrams illustrating the perils of truss uplift, wood rot, and combustion.
“Read this,” the home inspector told us. “Do what it says and you’re home will last a very long time.”
As a first-time homeowner and as someone who was never construction-inclined, he might as well have been telling me to read a book on Kung-Fu Mastery written in Mandarin. I know The Debra felt the same way.
Needless to say, when we moved into the house we were thrilled…and terrified. Every seam in the drywall, every nail-pop, every creak in the wall was a potential fatal flaw that could bring the house crumbling down around our ears. The Debra went through her Chamber of the Horribles, which is her dark path from uncertainty to acceptance. She would lie awake in bed and scan the walls and ceiling. “What if that crack up there is the roof about to cave in?” she would say. “I’m sure it’s just the house settling,” I would reply. We had ferocious winds in our neighborhood that would blast down the street sounding like freight trains in the night. “Will our house blow over?” she would ask and I would tell her no, that we might lose some shingles off the roof but that the house would stand.
But I’ll confess that when the heat pump died and the basement utility room flooded and when the lawn mower kicked the bucket and the monster trellis I built in the backyard needed a little help, when the R-values of the wall insulation came up for debate and when it was time to enter the neighborhood Lawn Olympics and fertilizers and the biological characteristics of grass and weeds were suddenly important (monocots versus dicots and the impact of fertilizer run-off on the algae bloom in the Chesapeake Bay) - when all that came up, I admit I was at a loss.
Fortunately I had at my disposal an incredible resource of immeasurable quality: Chris O’Neill, my next door neighbor.
And Chris shares what he knows. Without hesitation. Without compensation. He worked and thought and puzzled and noodled on my behalf so many times I can’t even begin to count. And he did it when he didn’t even know me, when I was just the clueless long-haired dude who moved in next door.
“Chris, my lawn mower won’t start. Any ideas?” Ten minutes later the lawn mower was in pieces and Chris had jury-rigged a spring to stretch from the thing to the whats-it and he’s pulled the starter cord and I’m back in the lawn-chopping business.
“Chris, I can’t figure out why my water heater is flooding my utility room.” And minutes later we were in the basement and I was getting a master class on water heaters and drainage and the downward sloping groove the original owner cut into the basement slab into which he had laid a runoff pipe designed to carry water to the sump pump and how heat and moisture can grow crud which blocks the pipe and causes water to back up and flood the utility room. “Bleach, Michael! Bleach will do the trick!” And we got a funnel and poured a half-gallon of bleach into the pipe and the utility room never flooded again.
I can go on and on. The trellis, the heat pump, adventitious roots, tree-houses, square foot gardens, the diabolical root systems of dandelions, the stealth qualities of gold-colored cars, the glory of re-wiring kitchen soffits, core-aerating the lawns, planning the tunnel we were going to dig from my basement to his…and of course the holiday extravaganzas: leaping from a coffin in a garage filled with dry ice smoke, bungee jumping off the second floor landing to deliver candy to the trick or treaters while bouncing from a cord fastened to an eye-hook in the ceiling of the two-floor foyer, the potato cannon on the Fourth of July, Rocket Man and the weekly unofficial holidays in the backyard where we all drank beer and wine or some other concoction while summer breezes lifted the humidity. Chris was at the root of all of those things.
A couple of years ago - on March 27th 2007, to be precise - a small ceramic deer appeared in our yard. We had no idea who he was or where he came from. He just appeared. This was him:
At the time, I wrote,
La Raymunda called me at the Place of Toil and Labor just after our weekly project status meeting broke up at 10:00.
“Do you have any idea why…”
(and right here I’m already thinking, “Uh oh…what did I do?”)
“…there is a chipped ceramic deer in our front yard?”
(Whew. She didn’t see the hookers and the crack pipes I hid in the closet. Home free!)
We have a guest living among our daffodils - a ceramic deer named Mystery Fawn. (You can see a photo of Mystery Fawn here.) I opened the garage door yesterday to go to work and as I walked around the back of La Raymunda’s car I spotted a deer sitting in the flower bed. I stopped, looked again and, realizing Mystery Fawn was ceramic, stood a while longer trying to figure out where, exactly, Mystery Fawn came from.
There is a house down the street that has been for sale for nine months or so. They have weird red bricks piled up around their trees and flower beds and fake deer standing in the backyard. No one will buy the house, even though the asking price has come down about $75,000. Apparently weird red bricks and fake deer in the backyard are the kiss of death in real estate.
But I digress.
So the only thing I could think of was that some teenage kid stole Mystery Fawn and deposited him amongst our daffodils. Why us in all of suburbia? Well, why not? “Totally random,” I told La Raymunda. She, with her extensive experience with vandalism, believed that vandals actually thought things through before they ran around smashing mailboxes and pumpkins and riding their bikes across other peoples’ lawns.
La Raymunda guesses our next door neighbor, Chris, dropped Mystery Fawn off for an unannounced visit. We had sushi with Chris and Cindy a couple of nights ago and we talked about the fake deer in the backyard down the street - and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Chris digging out some old garden-fawn from out of his basement and plopping it down next to our driveway in the middle of the night. This is the same man who dressed as a vampire and then harnessed himself to the ceiling of his two-story foyer with bungee cords so he could swoop down on trick-or-treaters on Halloween. A ceramic deer prank is kid’s play for Chris.
I’m coming around on the Chris O’Neill’s Wild Kingdom story myself. Chris is a perfectionist and Mystery Fawn wasn’t just cast ashore on our lawn. It’s obvious that Mystery Fawn was arranged with care, so as not to trample any flowers, aligned nicely with the sidewalk in a narrowing pinch of the flower bed with soft, chipped little eyes gazing longingly toward the northwest.
Mystery Fawn traveled back and forth between our house and Chris and Cindi’s, each time dressed up in something different.
Mystery Fawn became Leprefawn…
and Bridal Fawn…
It was a friendly game of one upmanship, with each iteration of Mystery Fawn being a little more outrageous than the last. And then summer came and everyone got busy and Mystery Fawn nestled quietly in Chris’ garage and went to sleep.
Until this week.
Cindi was in Calitastrophe visiting us when the job situation blew up in March. She got the full story of The Plagues of the Calipocalypse. She heard about the wildfires that nearly burned down our house, the mudslides that threatened our property, the vicious Santa Ana winds that blew pounds of ash and soot and leaves and charred debris into our pool every day, the lightning strike that knocked out the data center I worked at, the endless power crises that crippled that same data center for months and ultimately led to its demise, the food poisoning and the IRS bill and then the grand finale: losing my job. Lucky Cindi, she was there to hear all of that. And thank God she was or we would have lost it. We needed a friend to lean on and here we had an O’Neill! And when we decided that enough was enough, that we were fleeing what we called The Anaheimville Horror, when I had to fly from Califiasco to Virginia on a Monday to interview on a Tuesday and then fly back on a Wednesday, Chris and Cindi opened their home, took me to dinner, loaned me their car and massaged my weary feet until I fell asleep.
Ok, they didn’t touch my feet or massage anything else. But they might as well have for all the love and friendship they showed. Because that’s the kind of friends they are. And when The Debra and I returned to Virginia for good, schlepping our worldly possessions across the country for the second time in a year, they housed us and fed us and made us drinkies and then, once all the dust had settled and we were settling into a rented townhouse in Herndon, Chris made us laugh again.
Debra and I went for a walk one evening this week. As we returned home and turned the corner onto Rose Petal Circle, Debra laughed suddenly and said, “Oh my God. Look.” She pointed to the small bed of flowers in front of our front stairs. There sat Mystery Fawn.
The only way to describe this new iteration of Mystery Fawn, whom we’ve dubbed Califawnia, is from the ground up.
Our little friend sits on a California-shaped slab of foam which is split at the top by a bold red lightning bolt which doubles as the harbinger of doom for the data center (death by lightning strike) and the twin earthquakes which rocked our house in April (epicenter: two miles away under some dude’s driveway up the street). Califawnia is threatened by flames and wears a surgical mask so he can breathe while he fights fires with a garden hose and save the homes of the neighborhood.
His shiny coat is smudged with soot and he’s got bandages binding his wounds. A dashing silvery-pink scarf blows lustily in the Santa Ana winds, defiantly announcing that yes, winds of Calistupida, you may fill my pool with dirt and ash and leaves and soot and make me labor for hours every day to clean it, but I’m going to look like million bucks while doing it!
Screw you, Calipocalypse, Califawnia says. I see your disasters. I see your betrayals and stupid natural calamities and I stick out my tongue at you and say nyah nyah because I am home and I am whole and I am, once again, among friends.
And so Chris, I wrap up this very long piece by saying to you, thank you. Thank you for Mystery Fawn. And thank you for being a fantastic neighbor, a port in the storm, an encyclopedia of knowledge, a co-conspirator and, most of all, a damn good friend.
Now I’ve got to find a way to one-up you on the next Mystery Fawn. I already have an idea…