You weren’t here when the wall went up, were you? You wanna know how it happened? All right. First off, you should know it surprised the hell out of everybody. Seriously. Nobody figured that Al Ralstein, of all people, would be the guy to build a concrete fortress around his house. Everybody liked Al. Nobody could remember arguing with him; I’ve never even heard him say anything mean to anyone. Well, except Maurice, but we’ll come back to that. Anybody else, though? Nope, not even when he had good reason to. I even went back through the newspaper archives. We’d run a ton of interviews with the guy over the last few years. He was a pillar of the community. Remember the stoplight that went up outside Altamont High after Ricky Brandt got hit by that beer truck while he was crossing the street? It was Al who pushed for that light. Or the annual beach clean-up that started a couple years ago? Al organized and funded it. And you know who helped pay for the new pews over at United Methodist? Well, I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. Point is, everybody liked Al. Moreover, everybody felt like they knew him. Hell, I’d interviewed him myself a couple times. I never figured he’d do anything like this.
Can I get another? Nah, something else. I don’t know, surprise me.
So anyway, everybody in the neighborhood was surprised when Al Ralstein began building the concrete wall around his house. It didn’t start that way, of course. Nobody complained when he took down his six-foot wooden fence. It was probably due to the fence’s coloring, which could be politely described as a mix of piss yellow and mold green. No, when the fence came down, most had assumed that Al had finally decided to stop openly insulting the Homeowner’s Association. They hated that fence.
But ol’ Hank Mester, the Vietnam vet down the street who never took off his service hat, which reminded everyone that ever walked past the man that he’d served in the US Army, goddammit and God bless him, he thought something else was happening.
“Only reason Al would take something like that down is so something else can go up. Mark my words,” he said.
Nobody liked to give Hank any credit, despite the fact that he’d won a lot of money at the local horse track and had been picking the winning presidential candidate for as long as anybody in the neighborhood could remember. But it wasn’t because Hank was always right. He was real humble about it, matter of fact. Nobody liked to give him credit because that meant acknowledging the man was pretty smart, which also meant acknowledging his conspiracy theories and racism.
Hank was the kind of guy to go on and on about those damned Japanese, despite the fact, as everyone reminded him, that he hadn’t actually fought in World War II, and that summing up any group of people as “those damned anything” wasn’t morally respectable or socially acceptable. You know how it is: everyone’s got that one relative who’s a lovely person, really, they are, but you can’t take them outside for any length of time before they offend someone and embarrass you and Diana, the nice waitress down at the cocktail bar who always gives you extra slices of lemon and orange with your drinks even though you never ask for any. She doesn’t do that with anybody else.
Anyway, back to the wall. There was, for a brief period, nothing around Al Ralstein’s house. Then the trenches appeared. Nobody could say for sure how they got there. People would just wake up in the morning and there would be more trenches. Once, Don McNair, who lives across the street from Al, tried to stay up all night to see where the trenches were coming from. He took a sleeping bag out onto his roof, mounted a portable floodlight to the outside of his window, and sat up there all night. Now, he’ll tell you that he didn’t see anything, but since no one cared enough to go out there with him and make sure he didn’t fall off the roof and hurt himself, or more importantly damage someone’s property, or most importantly, actually stay awake, no one can verify that this is true. Believe me, I tried.
So, the trenches got deeper, and people stopped to stare every now and then, but nobody ever saw Al. Mostly, everything was like it was before. I still went to the cocktail bar to see Diana, who still gave me extra lemons and oranges, Hank complained about the Japanese, and Don McNair kept trying to figure out where those trenches were coming from. You also gotta remember that this was during that month when the coffee-decaffeinating factory was threatening to close up shop and move further up-river to a town where the Mayor, according to the company’s CEO, “wasn’t in the pocket of the EPA,” so all of us were pretty on-edge. I mean, the largest single-site employer in the county is gonna pick up and leave because they’re mad that they can’t dump their filters in the river? Come on. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely fond of the fact that the whole town smells like an expresso machine, but we need that place. You’d think they could find a trash can or something.
Jesus, Ed, what is this swill? It’s terrible. Gimme another.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before the mystery of the magical trenches came to an end. Everyone in the neighborhood woke up to find them filled with wood walls. They were all put up overnight. And these walls were, man. Maybe twelve to fifteen feet, hand to God.
For the sake of completion and in the interest of rendering an accurate story, it should be noted that this was about the time Mrs. Bassey, the lovely old widow of Mr. John. J. (his middle name, for the record, was also John) Bassey IX, Esq., started digging holes in her backyard. And this was even more surprising than Al Ralstein building the wall. Mrs. Bassey was a nice old Southern woman in the traditional sense, the kind of lady who communicated mostly through phrases like “Well, bless your heart,” and “I do declare,” and “I’m fixin’ to” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd,” and held up her hands and said things like “Praise God!” when the preacher at her Baptist Church said anything she even remotely agreed with.
Look, the point is that if you took all those nice old ladies you see in the holiday commercials, put them into a blender, and then sprinkled a little bit of that Southern charm and the odd life experiences that cause someone to very seriously exclaim “Heavens to Murgatroyd,” you’d get somebody like Mrs. Bassey. So, it was kind of odd when she marched outside one day wearing a Confederate flag bandanna (Well, maybe the bandana wasn’t that odd), a pair of old Army boots, and carrying a shovel slung over her shoulder. She then proceeded to dig holes exactly three feet wide and three feet deep in her backyard, repeating the mantra, “Three feet wide, three feet deep” as she dug. Everybody figured that once she’d finished doing the backyard, she’d give up, but she just moved on to the front yard. She got so into it that she actually dug up the prize-winning rhododendrons she’d maintained for the last dozen or so years, much to the shock and horror of the Homeowners Association and the late Mr. Bassey, God rest his soul, we were all sure.
Anyway, now that was two strange actions by two rather fine members of the community–it should be mentioned here, again, for the sake of completion, that Al Ralstein owned the town’s used car dealership and, in spite of that, was widely considered to be a fine man of upstanding moral character and a noble pillar of the community, even with the ugly fence–inside of the past month, and everyone was beginning to get a little nervous, especially the members of the Homeowners Association, who called an emergency meeting to figure out what the hell was going on.
The Association had recently voted not to allow cats outside unless they were on leashes. Sources inside the Homeowners Association who requested anonymity because they weren’t allowed to speak publicly on the voting process told me that this was an attempt to keep property values up and lure lots of older white folks into the neighborhood. They were, according to the same sources, rather concerned by the growing number of blacks and Hispanics moving into the recently developed housing expansion, which they feared would drive down market value and desirability. They also considered both Al Ralstein’s wall and the holey state of Mrs. Bassey’s yard not only blatant violations of the Homeowners Agreement and a danger to the neighborhood’s property values, but serious eyesores, to boot.
As you can imagine, the leak provoked serious outrage from Mrs. Bassey, who, she reminded everyone at the aforementioned emergency meeting, which achieved the highest resident turnout on record, had lived here with the late Mr. John J. Bassey IX, Esq., God rest his soul, since before they had been a gleam in their Mama’s eye and very likely her Mama before her. This, the residents had to admit, was a good point, and everyone generally agreed that, the behavior of one Al Ralstein aside, the neighborhood was no stranger than usual. So, the Association took a bunch of procedural votes and agreed to hold another meeting should something more serious arise, but like most Homeowners meetings, nothing much got done and everyone agreed the refreshments, especially the brownies, were pretty lousy.
Nobody knew how Al was, however, because nobody could find him. He was widely considered to be hiding behind his walls, which, by this time, had become too large to even think about scaling. I was later told, off the record, that the Homeowners Association had, until this point, resisted punitive action because they feared punishing someone with as much community goodwill as Al would lead to a loss of support for the Association and were mostly trying to cover their asses. But the walls were just getting bigger and they risked losing control of the situation if they didn’t act.
It was at this point that the Homeowners Association, quite despondent and not knowing what else to do, acquired the services of one Hans Eberstark, who had recently moved into town from Germany. A noted climber and outdoorsman, Mr. Eberstark was generally well-regarded by the town, despite the fact that, when he would inevitably fall off of his roof after some exploit or another, he would yell “Mein Kampf!” and then spend the rest of the afternoon apologizing and explaining to anyone who heard him that he was trying to re-appropriate the phrase on behalf of the entire German people. Anyway, seeing no other alternative, the Homeowners Association tasked him with scaling the wall, finding Al Ralstein, and if possible, retrieving him so the Association could figure out what the devil was going on and ultimately impose an enormous fine.
Eberstark scaled the wall by shimmying up a nearby tree, which was devoid of any branches. This made the entire job more difficult and it appeared as though he was attempting to hug said tree at a higher angle every few minutes. Soon, however, he was successful, and disappeared over the side promising that he would, in fact, return victoriously.
Yeah, one more. The Oktoberfest. That’s always good. When are you gonna rotate that out?
Oh, Hans? He never came back. Days went by, then weeks, and soon the neighborhood at large despaired of seeing him again. Everyone, however, did notice the security cameras mounted to Al Ralstein’s wall and house the very next day.
Now, this is where Maurice Jenkins comes in. Remember him? I told ya we’d get here. The feud between Al Ralstein and Maurice Jenkins has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. They’ve been going at it for 25 years, kind of like the Soviet Union and the United States. The difference is that Al lives across the lake from Maurice. They weren’t packing hair-trigger nuclear bombs as far as anybody knew, but people were still careful not to invite them to the same parties. Nobody knows precisely when it started. Maurice hadn’t liked Al for years. He claimed Al had sold him a car he’d known to be a clunker in the hopes of wringing him dry for maintenance costs. The claim was something Al flatly denied and he found the attack on his business to be the intellectual equivalent of attacking his children, and since pretty much everyone bought their cars from Al’s lot and no one else had experienced something like that everyone just chalked up it to Maurice being a cantankerous old bastard. Hell, Al sold me my car. Best I’ve ever had.
Nobody believed Maurice. Like I said, everybody likes Al. Al, though, he took it personal and it just made the situation with Maurice worse. Once, off the record, he told me that the whole thing had started at his daughter Anne’s wedding. He claimed that Maurice had gotten piss drunk, climbed a table during the reception, and began hollering inappropriate things about Al’s wife. If he’d been on the record, I’d tell you that Maurice had called her a “sweet piece of rigatoni” and that he’d be happy to let her “marinate his teriyaki chicken anytime.” I’d also note that I thought that it was a bit odd that he’d choose to sexually harass another man’s wife during the wedding of said man’s child and more than a little creepy that he would use food analogies to do it. I’d also say that I can’t really eat teriyaki chicken anymore, but Al wasn’t speaking on the record so that’s neither here nor there.
It started small. They’d put up opposing political signs and every now and then Larry down at the station would get reports of one house or the other being TPed or egged. You know, kid’s stuff. The biggest issue was that they wouldn’t shake each other’s hand at church on Sundays, which was really awkward for everyone because both of their families own pews at United Methodist and they sit right behind each other and sometimes Maurice forgets Al sits right behind him and turns around with his hand outstretched during the peace and Al just looks at him and stands so still you’d think he was at a funeral. And Maurice is proud, so you know he can’t withdraw his hand once offered. And they both just stand there, each of ‘em hating the other guy’s living guts. Hank Mester told me they got into a fight at O’Shaughnessy’s once. Apparently, Maurice said something about Al’s mother and Al called Maurice a “stupid, lecherous son of a horse-faced whore, and that’s just your father” and Maurice threw a punch and Al broke a chair over his face and it just got worse from there.
Anyway, point is, once Al erected that huge concrete wall around his house, Maurice felt like it was a personal attack, like Al had built the wall just so Maurice would have to see it whenever he looked out across the lake. So, naturally, he vowed retribution.
At first, you know, nobody thought anything would come of it, but then all those wooden stands appeared in Maurice’s yard and nobody could figure out what they were. So, Don McNair camped out on his roof with a pair of binoculars because he’d missed figuring out how Al built that damn wall almost overnight and he went on the record saying he “wasn’t going to screw this one up too and give the wife more ammo” for her book club.
But Don, being Don, did of course screw it up and couldn’t figure out where the wooden stands were coming from or what they were for before anyone else. It was actually his wife that figured it out because she was the first one who saw what got put on the stands. Cannons. 16th century cannons like they’d put on pirate ships, I kid you not. Anyway, she passed that along to me and I checked it and it turns out those are like 12-pound guns. Nobody’s super worried because how would Maurice test them, but I asked him about them and when I did, he just winked at me and said, “Escalation, son. Escalation.”
Now Al, of course, he wasn’t going to take this lying down. So, the wooden walls went up again and parapets were attached to the walls and pretty soon he had workers coming in and out with more wood and before you knew it Al had trebuchets on top of his towers, aimed straight for Maurice’s place.
Well, naturally, Maurice’s view of the other side of the lake is getting worse by the day so he puts up a stone wall in front of the cannons to protect his firing line, and about a week later he installs an old Soviet missile launcher behind his cannons. I did some digging, and it turns out he got it shipped in from Ukraine because the tech was so old that they couldn’t do anything with it, but Maurice figured he could still get it up and running.
It was about a week after that we figured what Mrs. Bassey had been digging those holes for. Al’s wall had freaked her out, so her plan was to build a huge underground bunker on her property. Once she’d dug enough individual holes, she’d rented some heavy machinery to dredge the rest of the dirt out. Then the contractors came in and started pouring concrete. By now, everybody in town was pretty much in abject panic, so Mrs. Bassey started a lottery. When Al and Maurice started shooting, the lucky winners could come stay in the bunker under her house and avoid the fallout. Best part was your first ticket was free; every one after that was five bucks. She’d hand ‘em out every day and then announce that day’s winning number by calling in to the local morning radio show. It became a regular part of their programming.
By now, the Homeowners Association was in full-blown crisis mode. They sent representatives to talk to Maurice and Al to arrange a sit-down before anything got any worse. Maurice was easy to reach, but nobody figured they’d get in touch with Al. Somehow, though, they did. Turns out, Hans Eberstark is fine. He just lives with Al now. Says the world’s gone too crazy to live anywhere else. Anyway, Al and Maurice agreed to meet, and everyone was cautiously optimistic. The whole town showed up for the meeting, me included. The optimism lasted until Al walked into the room and Maurice asked him where his lovely wife was. Al just looked at him, shook his head, and walked out. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was like the whole world had let him down. That was the last time anyone saw him.
Anyway, you know the rest. You’ve seen the wall, the cannons, the bunker. It’s all still there. Nothing’s worked. The Homeowners Association has tried everything, but Al won’t talk to anybody anymore. Don told me that he might be getting a wall, too. God knows he has the money for it, what with his wife’s inheritance. And I talked with a few other folks who are considering it, too, all off the record. I dunno. Maybe everybody figures everybody else is the problem and if they put up the walls everything’ll be okay.
You know the only good thing about this? I asked Diana out the other day and she said yes. She said she was scared, and life was too short to be scared. Might as well have fun now. Nobody knows how this’ll end. Everybody’s worried. A few people are trying to sell their houses, but I don’t know who’d wanna buy one here. I reached out to Maurice for comment, but he wouldn’t answer his phone.
Hans answered when I called Al. If he’d spoken on the record, I’d tell you he said Al was just tired. He was tired of the Homeowners Association, tired of Maurice, tired of the harassment, tired of the gossip, tired of the neighborhood’s crazy and the way Mrs. Bassey was preying on people’s fear to make money. I’d tell you he said Al just wanted to be left alone. But he wasn’t, so I can’t. I called the Homeowners Association, too. No comment. Typical. But I figure it doesn’t matter what anybody says anymore. The wall’s there now. And I don’t think it’s ever coming down.