—Margaret, your garden is so original.
Sylvia stood across the waist-high fence separating our back yards watching me twine honeysuckle vine around my son Roger’s old baby chair, the latest item in my display of found objects. I knew Sylvia had a dart to throw, and that she resisted only because Roger was nearby, reading on the deck. She’d loved Roger since he’d toddled into her arms the day she’d moved onto Greenville Lane thirty years ago, but her affection for me had never risen above strained civility. I knew even Roger’s presence wouldn’t stop her for long.
—I especially like the exquisite rust pattern on that trowel hanging from the dogwood.
Roger rattled his paper loudly as he folded it to the crossword puzzle.
—You know, Sylvia, beautiful as yourcannas and glads are – and please take this in the spirit it’s meant – there’s nothing that says, “Sylvia Granville and nobody else grew these flowers.”
—I must acknowledge that your yard, darling, does say “Margaret Sullivan” loud and clear.
—That’s high praise coming from you. I wonder how yours might say “Sylvia Granville” loud and clear?
—Assuredly not with cracked and upended flower pots. Margaret, I propose a neighbourly contest. Let each of us decorate in her own style and see who produces the more artistic creation.
I wasn’t afraid of a fair creative fight. Anyone who paid a consultant from St. Ives Horticulture to plant her marigolds wouldn’t stand a chance against me, but with my little pension and Roger’s troubles finding work worthy of his talent and education, I couldn’t compete with Sylvia’s money. Then I got an idea.
—Sylvia, I accept. And to make it more interesting, we’ll use no cash. Only our imagination and ingenuity.
The corners of her lips dipped. I knew I’d scotched her plan to outspend me.
—Splendid, Margaret. And dear Ivan from the Nursery can arbitrate the results.
—Why bother Ivan? Roger will be glad to judge. Won’t you dear?
Roger’s head snapped up.
Roger played the fool, but I knew he’d heard every word.
—Sylvia and I have agreed to a friendly yard-decorating contest, and we hope you’ll referee.
We allowed ourselves a month, with the stakes a bottle of Jameson’s for me, Dubonnet for Sylvia. Immediately, I dismantled Roger’s tricycle, hung a pedal from the dogwood, and then attached the bell to the wisteria’s wind chimes. Sylvia did nothing, which made me nervous.
Then, on Monday of week two, a two-foot-high white porcelain rabbit appeared among her pink impatiens. The effect was like Home and Garden, and she damned sure hadn’t gotten it free.
—You see she’s cheating, don’t you, Roger?
—Three weeks to go, Mother.
I tried to continue normally, but that rodent dimmed my spark, and I didn’t add a thing all week. Walking home from Sunday mass, though, I spotted a silver-and-red-spangled majorette’s baton on a yard sale FREE pile. I wired it to Roger’s tricycle axle, made an “X,” and mounted it on a fence post, like crossed fingers against vampires.
On Monday, a birdbath, topped by a silver orb, appeared perfectly situated in Sylvia’s circular pansy bed.
—Roger, disqualify her immediately.
—Two more weeks, Mother.
The birdbath inspired my anger and imagination, and I loved the way that old butcher knife looked hanging above my “X.”
About twilight on Tuesday I spied Sylvia sneaking a brass sundial into her azaleas. I snatched the pail from under my sink and pretended I was taking out the garbage.
—That’s lovely, Sylvia. I don’t know where you find such exquisite pieces.
—Barely a week remaining, Margaret, but you’ve done so much. I’ll never overtake you.
The deadline was sundown the following Sunday. Roger would assess the results on Monday morning. Even with the judge being my own flesh and blood, I’d never match Sylvia’s elegance. I had to prove she was cheating. I got on the phone.
—And that bunny. You’ve never seen anything so cute, Clarice.
—You know, Margaret, Betty Mason over on Silver Court had one like that, but the lawn man broke one of its feet.
That night, hating myself but determined not to be swindled, I sneaked across the fence. Sure enough, beneath the giant impatiens blossoms, was a fist-sized gap where that rabbit’s hind foot should have been.
—Yes, Betty, I know we haven’t spoken in some time…Well, Roger did regret his remarks that evening, but he’d been under such stress, and with one cocktail too many… Soon, soon. He’s deciding among several nice offers. But the reason I called is because I’m sprucing up my yard, and someone said you might be willing to part with that precious bunny of yours… Oh, dear. I’m always a day late… Sylvia? Really? Do you mind my asking how much…
So, Sylvia had appeared at Betty’s yard sale, paid for a pile of items she surely didn’t want and insisted that Betty add the rabbit “for free.” It turned out the birdbath was a “gift” from her bridge club and the sundial a “bonus” from the Nursery for referrals she’d provided. Slick as a Louisiana politician and just as crooked. On Thursday, I hung Roger’s BB gun right next to the knife, aimed directly at the rabbit.
Nothing changed for the next three days. Then, at dusk on Sunday, just when I figured Sylvia had decided she didn’t have to lift another finger, just when I was tasting victory – and my Jameson’s – a pickup truck carrying a large, tarp-covered object parked near her back steps. It took two men to lug the thing, still covered, off the truck and onto the porch. Then they drove away.
Sunset came and went. Sylvia didn’t show. Good. It was too late for her to use whatever it was in the contest now. Besides, I had the goods on her for her other shenanigans. A slam dunk for Margaret. But Sylvia’s house stayed dark, and stayed dark, and I couldn’t stand it. Over the fence I went.
I was struggling to loosen the ropes when Sylvia’s lights came on. I scrunched behind the whatever-it-was and held my breath. Sylvia walked out the back door, not two feet away, strolled to and fro, humming, then went inside. I hightailed it home, too upset to sleep a wink.
In the morning, the object was still draped. The judging was set for after breakfast, which meant seven A.M. for me, nine for Roger, and after The Price is Right for Sylvia. She appeared right on schedule.
—Yoo-hoo, Margaret. Are we ready?
I called Roger and counted to ten before I sauntered out.
—Oh, this is the day, isn’t it? Roger should be here soon. Best of luck, Sylvia.
I was standing right behind Roger’s Daisy Rifle as I spoke.
—And to you, Margaret. Ah, Roger, hello.
—Good morning, ladies. I hope I can manage this without alienating either of the two most important women in my life.
It hurt that Roger put me on the same plane as Sylvia, but I was sure it wasn’t his true heart, only the awkward situation.
—Before we begin, Sylvia said, I do have one modest last item. I know it won’t make any difference, since Margaret has done so much more…
—You can’t add anything now, I said.
—Oh, it arrived before the deadline. I just haven’t uncovered it.
Sylvia pulled some secret rope, and the tarp dropped, unveiling a statue copy of that Venus-on-the half-shell painting, naked as the day she was born, but painted blue and gold like the Virgin herself.
—Goddamn it, Sylvia, don’t tell me you found that.
—Margaret, I’m surprised at your language. Heavenly Greens Cemetery where my Clarence rests is redecorating. They were thrilled to find a home for this piece.
—Roger? I said. And I revealed all Sylvia’s illicit activities. Not only that, I said, dollars to donuts she paid that gigolo Ivan to design everything.
—But, Mother, she didn’t exactly buy anything.
I was screeching, and I couldn’t stop. Things got uglier, and I guess I shouldn’t be proud of myself, but I am. Surprisingly, I don’t miss Roger all that much, and it’s amazing how quickly he found a job when he had to pay rent. I’m still decorating like mad, and I still haven’t paid a cent—even for the toy AK47 I borrowed from little Michael across the street. I strung it up beside the butcher knife and the BB gun, and they’ll all stay there, along with whatever else I can lay my hands on, until Sylvia gets rid of that Venus. And the deer. And the flamingo. And the stork.
This is much more fun than strained civility—even though I do have to buy my own whisky.