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Straw One - The Chipped Heirloom Plate

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They say that the straw breaks the camel’s back, and it’s always the last straw, of course. Yet there are plenty of other straws that come before. And some of them may be heavier than others, but by themselves they might not be so big and so bad. 

Well, I’m here to tell you that even the first straws can be big and bad ones. And I am also here to tell you that, well; I confess that we should have nipped it at the very start. But at that point, it seemed so very small and inconsequential. We were proven wrong. 

You see, Officer, I was raised to be a good girl. And we were careful, God-fearing people, and we were so careful that we dared not even to accidentally blaspheme. While I’m sure that you’ve heard it all before, I grew up not only not saying the horrible words. I grew up, too, not even saying words that sounded like they might be cusses. We didn’t say folk; we said people. Beavers built twig structures. A certain type of horse-like creature was always referred to as a tall mule. You get the idea. 

I was brought up that way, and my parents are in their late eighties and they aren’t changing any time soon, I can tell you that for sure. They have lived here, in northern New Jersey, in this lovely, leafy suburb, since even before my birth, and I can’t imagine them being anywhere else. So you see, Officer, they can’t move, ever. And when the trouble started, it was, you know, we had to sit back and watch as their world began to crumble. 

I only did it to protect their world, and their divinely-given right to live in it. 

But I’ll go back to the beginning. 

You see, their original next-door neighbors were – we didn’t know this – but they had not paid their back taxes for years. And when they accidentally or maybe it was on purpose left the oven unlit and on, and that elderly couple passed, the house was seized and sold at auction, to the highest bidder. 

The highest bidder – that is to laugh. For, you see, the people in charge of the auction did not stop to inspect and investigate the quality of the people who would be moving into the neighborhood. Me, I live south, in a suburb that isn’t quite so leafy, with my two kids and a pair of hamsters. But I come to visit a lot, see, as my parents are older and so I am a good daughter and I do my best to take care of them. I do, I have to admit, thank my lucky stars that I get to go to my own home at night most of the time. 

So the people who were the highest bidders, they moved in, next-door to my parents, in January. And the neighborhood, you know, it’s a welcoming one. So everyone came over, with a cake, or a pie, or brownies or the like, and they presented them to the new neighbors. I wasn’t around for that particular part, but I do know that the new neighbors did not thank anyone. They just silently took the many plates of sweets and shut their door quickly. 

Reports came in that those people were kind of dirty and middle-aged like I am but with tattoos, and the man was often smoking a hand-rolled cigarette that didn’t really smell like tobacco. At least, that’s what I heard. So anyway, my parents left an heirloom plate there, because you know, it’s the neighborhood and everyone is trustworthy, of course. And their neighbors did similar such things. But a few weeks went by and the sweets were obviously long eaten and I was called and I came over. I dutifully went next door and rang the bell in order to retrieve the heirloom plate. 

The bell didn’t seem to work, so I knocked on the door and they didn’t hear that, so I ended up pounding on it even though, you know, that’s not too terribly ladylike. 

The man of the house answered, and he was unshaven and unkempt, with maybe three days’ worth of beard growth and he was kind of skinny and shirtless with a pot belly and he was smoking and blowing the grey vapor into my face. Once he saw me, he bellowed for the lady of the house to come over. I saw her – she, too, was smoking and was rather disheveled as if I had just woken them up out of a sound slumber even though it was something like two in the afternoon. 

I presented my case, requesting the return of the plate and emphasizing that it was an heirloom. The lady of the house disappeared into the back and I was not invited in. I saw the interior of that house long ago, when I was a teenager and the people who lived there were younger and, evidently, still paying their property taxes. I recall the kitchen was straight in the back, but the lady of the house went left and into some other room and that struck me as a little odd. I attempted to follow her progress with my gaze but the fellow blew more smoke at me and so I retreated a bit. 

I attempted to engage him in conversational proprieties regarding the weather and such, but he would have none of it. Instead, he seemed to be appraising me with his eyes and so I crossed my arms in front of my – oh, this is a naughty word! – my bosom and that seemed to snap him out of it. 

The lady of the house returned with a dirty yellow plate which I recognized as belonging to the people who live directly across from that home. I pointed out that my mother’s heirloom dish has little pink flowers around the rim. The lady of the house disappeared into the back and presented me, this time, with a stack of several filthy plates, some of which had mold growing on them. 

I recognized my mother’s amidst the stack and took them all with me. I thanked them and departed, and they didn’t even so much as grunt an acknowledgement. Instead, the door was slammed behind me. 

I returned to my parents’ home and the three of us began washing the many plates – eighteen in all. My mother declared that perchance these city people did not understand our ways and so she carefully hand-lettered a number of delicately-worded thank you notes to everyone in the neighborhood. We knew who had provided the apple pie, the cherry cobbler and even the New York-style cheesecake. 

There were deep scratches on some of the plates that we were certain had not been there before, and so my father carefully – his Parkinson’s disease permitting – matched paint and repainted many of them. As they dried, my mother sent me out with completed notes and repaired plates and, for a few weeks there, my task was to return the plates with the notes and add personalized spoken expressions of gratitude to all of their neighbors. I did so, and I was invited in for coffee and scones so often that it spoiled my supper for days. Yet I did so willingly as I am a good daughter. 

My parents’ plate was examined last, and it was, sadly, badly chipped along one edge. My father carefully obtained a similar fragment and then sanded it to size and painted it as well as he could, and then glued it onto the preexisting piece. You have to really squint in order to see the repair job. 

We heard nothing from the people next door about our kindnesses and our thoughtfulness and so I took to calling them, when I was alone and no one could hear me – the POJ family.  

That is, the Pair of Jerks.

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