I didn't get a chance to speak with the Admiral about The Sign or the noise issue before things had gone sour between us. Perhaps I shouldn't have waited as long as I did, looking for the proper moment. Instead, I parked in front of his house for what he claimed was the fourth Thursday night in a row and the bloody street sweeper couldn't clean his asphalt.
Forced to the defensive, I took the opportunity to point out that it wasn't his asphalt to begin with, and that surely he could work the gutter into his Friday morning sidewalk sweeps.
"You want to keep that car?" he said ominously.
"It's not for sale, if that's what you mean," I answered.
"That's not what I mean, buster, and you'd better move it." And car left 48 hours can be towed, and that's exactly what'll happen if you don't find someplace to keep it. I pay taxes here, not like you renters."
After that the Admiral and his wife never spoke to us although I think she would if he weren't always around. We've seen her take sympathetic interest in Mr. Gimble, who is old and doesn't have many friends. She seems to do it on the day, however, cautious of her husband's whereabouts. I've honestly never seen the Admiral say anything very harsh to Mr. Gimble, but he's certainly not friendly.
Mr. Gimble confirmed this for me and spoke pointedly about noise pollution when we met in the alley. I was washing my car and he had spied me awkwardly jumping back and forth over our gateless rear fence. he appeared from his cottage with a bag of trash for the garbage and lingered in a way that invited conversation.
His name was Jack, a lifelong bachelor, and he had been a fairly good gymnast while in college. He mentioned this while glancing at the fence.
"And you know what they used to call me? I mean a nickname. Jack-Be-Nimble-Gimble!"
He grinned and laughed at himself and I knew we'd be friends.
Yes, it was true that the Admiral seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, but he wasn't all that bad. He hadn't raised the rent in two years and, well, the yard was always very clean.
"Besides," he said, "I've got better things to do than shoot the breeze with your Admiral."
In 20 minutes Jack had given me the rundown on his interests and passions. For instance, he was interested in keeping himself fit, which explained the brisk walks we had seem him take every day. His passion, though, was writing letters.
"At least a couple a day," he said. "At least. But when I'm really putting on the steam, I can get off nine or ten. And it's a full day's work, don't let anybody kid you."
Raising his left hand, he exhibited as evidence an ink-stained palm.
"Being left-handed and a letter writer like myself isn't so good," he said, moving his smudged hand in writing motion. "I can't even wash it off now, but I don't try anymore."
He wrote letters to all kinds of people, most of them famous in one way or another. When he began, about four years ago, it was mainly to local politicians, city council members. State senators, and the like. The responses he got encouraged them to shoot for the big leagues, and soon he was penning notes to various governors and foreign heads of state.
"There's something about politicians, though. They don't care whether you're complaining or not. Every letter they send you says, thanks for your interest and please stay in touch. They're a boring group, those guys are."
Jack now restricts his letters to celebrities, and told me with pride how Frank Sinatra had gone to the trouble of sending along an autographed picture with his thanks for the birthday card.
I wondered if the loudspeakers ever distracted him while he was concentrating on an important letter.
"Those damn things," he said, making a fist and taking aim, "sometimes drive me crazy. You know what I do? I wear ear plugs."
About a month ago, I met the somewhat reclusive Vietnamese family down the street and as a result, the entire neighborhood now basks in relative peace and quiet. My intention had been to tell them how much we enjoyed the fragrance from their fireplace. Only in the hottest weeks of summer did they fail to keep a fire going. The pleasant aroma wafting from their chimney had softened many evenings and soothed an occasional melancholy spirit.
When the subject of the car lot came up, Mr. Hua told me, with a charming inversion of grammar, that I should take matters into my own hands and speak with the owner.
“For complaints like this,” he said, “you belong to the boss. Suggest you are keeping away from sleep.”
The simplicity of it humbled me. The following day I made a phone call and arranged an appointment. When we met, the elderly owner, resplendent in three-piece suit and watch fob, expressed his concern and surprise. He had never imagined that the volume of his music and the wit of his salesmen was anything but subtle. At my request we left his insulated office and headed for the back lots. He tried breaking the ice with a little small talk.
“What line of work are you in, young man?” he asked.
I told him I was in the unemployment line and he actually slapped me on the back as he guffawed and reached for a handkerchief.
“I like a sense of humor,” he said, wiping his eyes.
I smiled and thought he might offer me a job, but he just stood silently as we listened to the speakers crackle.
The swarming rush of cars on El Cajon Boulevard nearly ruined my demonstration; we could barely hear the music above the roar. I could see his growing impatience and desperately tried to convince him that the absence of heavy traffic made things worse, not better. Just as this fragile logic seemed about to unravel, the music stopped, and like one of Dr. Pavlov’s dogs, so did I.