Today, I met our new next-door neighbors. It did not go well.
I live in Upland, California, which is considered part of the Inland Empire. Like most of California, our region boasts crowded freeways, coffee shops, grilled fish taco stands, and more than our fair share of crazy and offbeat people, a category which—as the result of a recent encounter with our new neighbors—I now consider part of myself.
Well, at least our new neighbors think so.
Oh, one more thing. We have citrus. Lots and lots of citrus.
An orange tree in Kansas is a novelty. An orange tree in my neighborhood is not only common but also often ignored, if not shunned. And not just orange trees. We’re talking the whole family of citrus: tangerine, grapefruit, lemon, lime, tangelo, kumquat, pomelo, and something called yuzu—which sounds suspiciously like something I just made up, only I didn’t.
Citrus is so common in our neck of the woods that folks ignore the fruit when it’s ripe. And they ignore it after it’s ripe. In fact, only squirrels, roof rats, and fruit flies seem to be infatuated with the surplus citrus in our neighborhood.
The fruit languishes on trees until flowering buds appear, signaling the start of a new crop, when the citrusy hangers-on that were hoping to be consumed by a human simply give up and dash themselves upon the ground.
It’s a sad and messy affair.
But there’s a happy consequence to this twice-a-year tradition.
When you want citrus fruit, you simply go outside and pick. And the fact that it belongs to a neighbor, an empty lot, a public park, or the local fire station is unimportant. If it’s citrus, it’s yours for the picking.
And that’s how it all started.
“Dave, will you please go get me some lemons?” my wife, Jay, asked early one morning. “I really want to use some in this bowl for a pretty table centerpiece.”
“Will do,” I replied. I could easily pick them from a lemon tree just two blocks from our house.
Like many men … ok, most men … alright, ALL men, combining two or more tasks into one is considered not only acceptable but also proof of one’s ingenuity and masculinity. Or maybe it’s really just laziness. Regardless, I combined the mundane task of obtaining lemons for our table centerpiece with the morning ritual of walking our yellow Labrador, Scout—named after the little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, my wife’s favorite book. Perfect task-combining plan.
I ventured out that Sunday morning, clad in my plaid pajamas, believing that no one else would be out and about at such an early hour. If someone sees me dressed like this, I hope they’ll chock it up to my being a 70-year-old California eccentric.
I quickly reached my goal and picked three lemons. While it wasn’t a Ponderosa lemon tree, which sports fruit the size of cantaloupes, the lemons I picked were exceedingly large and heavy.
After stuffing them into my PJ pockets, I picked three more. If three lemons weren’t enough for my wife’s bowl, surely six should do the trick.
With six large lemons crammed in my pockets, I began waddling home, careful to hold up my now-sagging PJs with one hand and clutch Scout’s leash with the other.
And I would have made it back home uneventfully, had Scout not sabotaged my efforts.
She pooped on the sidewalk.
Normally, such an outcome would be cause for minor celebration. If my dog poops on the sidewalk, it means she’s not pooping in my yard. But the timing of this particular poop, on this particular walk, could not have been worse. Now I had to stop, struggle to extract a poop bag from an overstuffed pocket of lemons, retrieve and seal the poop in the bag, then continue home—with no free hand left to secure my sagging PJs.
And, oh, how close I was to home! Just a mere half block separated me from my current awkward situation and the warm, enthusiastic welcome I was sure to receive from my wife when I arrived with six large, beautiful lemons for her bowl. Like a warrior returning from battle. A sailor arriving at port after a long voyage. A knight, riding home from …
“Well, hello there, neighbor!”
I had not officially met the new folks next door. But now, here they were, husband and wife, cheerfully hailing me from a porch swing while sipping their morning java.
And here I was, standing before them in all my glory, PJs drooping, lemons bulging in my pockets.
It took but a moment for their smiles to fade and become open-mouthed astonishment as they fully grasped the weird state of the odd man standing before them.
It was then that I said, perhaps, the most idiotic thing I’ve ever said to another human being in my life.
“I’ve got lemons in my PJs.”
As you might guess, this didn’t help. Not one bit. Our new neighbors just sat on their porch swing in stunned silence. Clearly not the time to exchange pleasantries or even learn their names.
I smiled sheepishly, hung my head in shame, and slithered away, Scout leading the way home. It must have been quite a sight for our new neighbors to see—me waddling away with bulging pockets, pulled by a strong yellow Labrador!
As I turned home, I overheard the neighbor’s wife lament to her husband, “I had so hoped we would have normal neighbors.”
Weeks passed, and I carefully avoided passing by, passing nearby, passing within the proverbial ten-foot-pole by our now not-so-new neighbors. I figured that, given enough space and perhaps the onset of new-neighbor dementia, they might forget our first encounter.
Then one evening I spied them on their porch swing, drinking what appeared to be margaritas.
Aha! An opportunity to rehab my image!
Limes. The perfect complement to a margarita. I knew of a lime tree down the street on the corner and marched toward it, fully dressed and minus Scout. I was determined to avoid a repeat of my previous performance.
While the lime tree was growing in the yard, a half dozen tantalizingly ripe limes protruded through a picket fence, practically begging to be picked.
I liberated them at once and plopped them into a plastic bag I had brought along for the occasion—no fruits in pockets this time.
And now, on to my redemption!
Our no-longer-new neighbors were still on their porch swing, enjoying their evening libations. However, their laughter and animated chatter abruptly stopped when they noticed me approaching.
“Hello, neighbors!” I greeted, undaunted by their silence. “I’ve brought you a gift.” With that, I produced the bag of limes.
I could see their faces soften a little. Well, at least, they were no longer horrified by my appearance. They slowly leaned forward, squinting and scrutinizing my limes—and me—searching, no doubt, for any new signs of weirdness.
“That’s very thoughtful,” the man offered, sufficiently calmed. “From your garden, I presume?”
“Oh no,” I responded laughing, “I picked them down the street, from a house on the corner.”
With this pronouncement, the couple paused and looked at one another. After a long silence, the woman turned to me and, with raised eyebrows, said, “Then, if I’m not mistaken, that would mean these are stolen limes.”
So much for my rehabilitation. First a clown, now a thief!
I returned home, defeated. There would be no forgiveness from our neighbors, no absolution, no pardon.
I gave the limes to my wife which made her happy. She didn’t care how or where I had procured them which, I suppose, made her an accessory to my crime.
I was seriously considering changing my appearance, growing a beard or shaving my head, when my wife informed me that the neighbors on the other side of our house—the ones that didn’t think I was a criminal—had sold their home and were moving.
Aha! That meant new neighbors would soon be arriving. A chance to make a good impression, I thought to myself. I’ll fill up a bag … no, a box … no, two boxes with a neighborhood sampler of citrusy goodness. Navel oranges, mandarin oranges, blood oranges, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, grapefruit—red, pink and white, key limes, and ooh, maybe a pomelo or yuzu.
I mean … what could possibly go wrong? ❖