For three months now there has been a sign in our neighbor’s front yard advertising that the house is for sale. This is the house of our neighbors to the left. The house on the right was recently renovated, so they certainly are not thinking of selling it, at least not for now. The house to the left, however, has seen better days, and this is the main reason, or so my wife thinks, that they have not been able to find a buyer for such a long time, though our papers are repeating day in and day out that the available real estate in Calgary is not enough to meet the vast demand. Every two or three days an agent from a real estate agency brings around people who are looking for a new home, but we are already into the fourth month that the house is for sale, and the sign is still there, unchanged.
It doesn’t bother me. I even find it engaging to observe the potential buyers from behind the curtain, their bold stride and grinning faces as they get out of their cars and follow the agent, and their plodding stride and glowering expressions after they have finished touring the house and go back to their neatly parked cars. There are sometimes children with them, and a dog. The children run, call to each other, make noise, and the dog, just in case, starts marking the new territory and leaving its spoors.
“I don’t get it,” I said one day to my wife when new buyers arrived on the neighbor’s lawn with their dog, “why do people take a dog along with them and not a cat when they are looking at a house. Don’t cats care where they will live?”
“You’d be advised,” my wife said while she peered over my shoulder, “to start thinking about what we’ll do if a family moves in with little kids. It’ll be easy with the dogs, that is our least worry.”
My wife does not hate children, she simply does not like to have them in her immediate vicinity. She told me so as soon as we met. Then I didn’t care; later I hoped she’d have a change of heart; afterwards I learned that there are some things a person cannot hope for. When we bought our house, after all, my wife demanded that there be no children in the houses on either side of us, on both sides of the street. That is why we settled on this neighborhood, where most of the residents were retired. After a while, some of the retirees died, others went to homes for the elderly, and now children of various ages could be often seen and heard. Our part of the street, until recently, according to my wife, was the last haven of peace and quiet, but now, to her horror, this haven is being threatened with the danger that it may disappear.
First, as soon as the sign announcing the sale went up, she called our lawyer to ask whether she could forbid the sale of the house to families with little kids. The lawyer informed her that she could sell her own home to anyone she wanted, she had no need for a formal prohibition, but when my wife explained that she wasn’t calling about our house, but about the house of our neighbors to the left, the lawyer asked to speak to me. I listened patiently to his complaint, during which he informed me of how many times my wife had called him the last two weeks. “Twelve times,” said the lawyer, “and her demands included suing your supermarket for rotten potatoes, seeking a ban on bringing young children in public transport, reporting the woman from a nearby street because the grass was too long in her backyard, and yesterday she insisted that I write into your will that the funeral must not be held in the rain.”
“Whose funeral?” I asked.
“Yours,” said the lawyer. “Her funeral is not even mentioned in the will.”
I said nothing to my wife. After all, when she decides something, there is no force powerful enough to prevent her. “Did she make plans,” I asked the lawyer, “for where I would be buried?”
“You will be cremated,” the lawyer answered, “and then she is taking the urn to Belgrade, where there will be a memorial service.”
“And that is when it shouldn’t be raining?”
“Right,” said the lawyer, “the day must be beautiful.”
“Wasn’t I smart to think of that?” my wife said proudly when I complained to her about this. “That way no one will get mud on their clothes or shoes, not like back at Bežanija cemetery when they buried my aunt during a downpour. My poor uncle slipped and sat down in the mud,” she said, “and our godfather got his shoe stuck in his galoshes and he almost couldn’t find it. After all,” said my wife, “it will be nicer for you, too, in the sun than in the rain.”
That’s true. I have hated the rain ever since I can remember. I called the lawyer and said that I agreed with my wife’s request regarding the funeral. The lawyer sighed and hung up the phone without a word.
Meanwhile, my wife had come up with a new strategy for the people considering the house of our neighbors to the left. She found a “Beware of Dog!” sign and added the words “The Dog Bites!” to it in red lettering, and then she hung the sign up on the low fence that separated our front yard from the neighbor’s.
Two days later, a young married couple got out of a brand-new van and went over to the neighbor’s house. By the hand the wife was leading a little boy who had only just learned how to toddle, but the moment she caught sight of the sign on the fence, she swept the boy up, spun around, and while her husband ran after her, she fled back to the van. Her husband tried to convince her to get out, but then he got into the van, and soon they were gone.
The next day the neighbor knocked at our door. My wife asked me not to open it to him, and when I refused and started walking toward the door, she locked herself in the bathroom.
“What is this?” asked the neighbor. “Since when have you had a dog?” He was holding my wife’s sign.
“We don’t have it any more,” I said. “It was biting, so we returned it to its previous owner.”
My neighbor shoved the sign furiously into my hands, looked me up and down in a rage, and marched out of the yard.
My wife came out of the bathroom and said that she was proud of me. She wanted to call the lawyer immediately and submit a request for compensation for suffering and fear. She had had to sit down on the toilet, she explained, because her legs were shaking so badly and her heart, look, was still pounding. I told her to lie down, and, just to be safe, I unplugged the phone.
After that my wife changed her tactics. She found a horrendous old hag mask at a store, probably left over from Halloween, and then, whenever she caught sight of potential buyers with small children, she’d put the mask on. The mask had a knobby nose with several revolting warts, protruding teeth and long, gray matted hair. My wife would wait for the buyers to go into the neighbor’s house, then she’d put on a shabby house dress, grab a broom and go out into the back yard. She wouldn’t do anything special in the yard, she’d just stand there in the corner of the back porch, easily visible from the kitchen of our neighbors to the left. Sooner or later, someone would come to the window—people are sure to be interested in the view from the kitchen, especially if there is a sink nearby—and catch sight of my wife, and then there would be a fuss and a panic, and you could see the frightened people through the neighbor’s window as they gesticulated and quarreled. All of that with the audible cries and sobs of children.
This time the neighbor didn’t come knocking, he called the police. The police car pulled in and parked in front of our house on Wednesday afternoon. The policeman who rang was young. He smiled when I opened the door and said that they’d received a report that a mentally disturbed woman lived here who was putting on masks and attacking children.
“Nonsense,” I said, “my wife wouldn’t hurt a fly. She was trying on that costume,” I added, “to get ready for Halloween.”
“Halloween is six months away,” the policeman said.
“My wife is a perfectionist,” I answered.
The policeman was insistent. He asked if he could see her.
“She has gone off to a game of bingo,” I said. “She plays bingo every Wednesday but she never wins anything.”
The policeman said that he played Lotto, but he, too, had never won anything. He asked to see her costume. “I assume,” he said, “that she hasn’t worn it to play bingo?”
I asked him to wait. I went up to the room, put on the mask, wrapped the shabby house dress around me and grabbed the broom. When I appeared suddenly in front of the policeman, he was startled and his hand flew to his gun. “Hey,” he said, “that is one dangerous mask.” He reached over and fingered the wart on the nose. He sniffed his fingers. “They seem almost real,” he said, “they even smell of pus.”
“The hair is real, too,” I replied, “it isn’t synthetic.”
The police rubbed some of the hairs between his fingers. He said that the mask would appeal to his wife, and he asked where we’d gotten it. He took out a pad and jotted down the name of the shop. While he was writing, over his shoulder I noticed our neighbor: he was wiping the For Sale sign with a damp cloth. By that time the policeman had written down the address, tucked his pad into his shirt pocket, said goodbye and left. As the police car pulled away, I saw a new van pull up to the neighbor’s house, and out of it came a husband and wife, three small children and two dogs. I closed the door and hurried to the back porch. The bathrobe tripped me up, but still I got out onto the back porch just as the faces of the young married couple appeared in the kitchen window. A little later they were joined by the face of our neighbor. All three of them stared at me, their eyes bulging. At first I felt a little awkward, and then I remembered my wife, and slowly, ever so slowly, I raised the broom in greeting.