Victory Lane
by Mark Averill

Part One:
The Hedge

Jax hushed the hysterical Maltese and peeked out his front window to see who was at the door. It was an older Latino man holding something wrapped in aluminum foil.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m Paco, your neighbor. I live in the house on the other side of the hedge. I came over to say ‘Welcome to Front Street.’”
“Oh hey, nice to meet you! One second —” Jax turned around and shouted into the house, “Toni, come out front and meet our neighbor!” 
Paco backpedaled as Jax stepped out onto the front porch to escape the incessant barking.
“I’d invite you inside, but it’s a mess in there. We’ve been unpacking for the last two weeks and there’s still boxes all over the place.”
“No, no, that’s all right. I already know the inside of your house like I know my own. The Rosens, who used to live here, were good friends of ours. We knew them for ... about thirty years. Here, Teresa sent over some homemade tamales.”
“Wow, thanks. It’ll be nice to taste some home-cooked food for a change. We’ve been surviving on carry out and microwave dinners.” Jax took the warm tamales and scratched his head. “Yeah, I wanted to introduce you to my wife Antoinette ... I don’t know what she’s up to ... maybe she’s dealing with the kids ... we have two kids, five and seven.”
“Ah ... it seems like you got your hands full, then,” smiled Paco. So, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m Jaxon. We’re Jax and Toni.” He shook Paco’s hand.
“Well, if you ever need anything, you can always find me right over there on the other side of the hedge.”
The hedge was a 20-foot wide, 120-foot deep patch of overgrown land, deeded to the City as the future extension of Victory Lane, one of the narrow residential streets — along with Pershing Street, Wilson Street and Admiralty Lane — that comprised this subdivision platted just after the end of World War I.
Victory Lane was never extended. Instead, it ended at Front Street, forming a tee intersection where the homes of Jax and Paco were now separated by the hedge instead of pavement.
“I was wondering —” Jax questioned, “Have you lived with this hedge for all these years? Doesn’t anyone take care of it?”
Paco and Teresa had lived there longer than any of their neighbors, and no one had ever seen the hedge look any different. 
It was dense with Indian grass and bluestem and prairie dropseed. In the Spring, dandelions and clover grew along the border, followed by wild daisies, bergamot and Queen Anne’s lace. In the Summer, monarchs gathered around the milkweed and bumblebees patroled the tops of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. Every year, the colors were a little different.
Grapevines nearly eight inches thick at the base had been growing through its middle ever since Italian immigrants had planted them there in the 1920’s. Sage, mint and basil still appeared occasionally, as generations of hedgeside neighbors had cultivated it over the years. Local legend held that marijuana plants could be found if one looked carefully.
Cottontail rabbits went in and out of the hedge all day, every day, and robins favored the dense thickets for nesting places. Cardinals and waxwings came for the grapes every August.
“It was always like that,” Paco replied. “We just let it be.”
“But there’s a lot of useable space there. Didn’t you and the Rosens ever consider using the area as a garden or something?”
“I suppose you could say it always was some kind of a garden,” Paco surmised. “And we got a little privacy from it, too.”
“Kinda like, good fences make good neighbors?”
“Yeah,” Paco chuckled and look over at the hedge. “I think that’s how the saying goes.”
The conversation ended, and Paco left the porch to return to his side of the hedge. Jax went in the house and announced loudly, “Toni, the neighbor brought over some hot tamales. I’m going out to mow, but save me one for later.”
The lawn was patchy in April, but in a few places the grass was already long. Jax paced around the yard, picking up small sticks and pieces of litter. It was the first time he had looked closely at the ground around his new home.
The hedge was greening up, too, and a few canes of forsythia were already in bloom along Jax’s lot line where Mrs. Rosen had once tried propagating it. He walked to the back corner of his yard to look for the metal stake that marked the boundary between his property and the unfinished Victory Lane. 
It took six pulls to start the lawnmower for the first time that season. Jax pushed it along the edge of his driveway toward Front Street, then turned and followed the sidewalk, and stopped when he reached the hedge. He killed the engine and raised the lawnmower blade as high as it would go. Aiming six inches to one side of the stake at the back of his lot he slowly walked the forty yard length, cutting down a narrow swath of the hedge. 
He lowered the blade and doubled back, rolling over the fresh clippings in order to cut them into smaller pieces and expel them back into the hedge. The rest of the job was unremarkable.
Dusk fell as Jax parked the mower and went inside to find one tamale on a paper plate on the kitchen table. It was cold.
 
Part Two:
Twenty Feet of Difference
After a month, most of the people on Front Street didn’t notice much difference around the house where the Rosens used to live, except for the daily routine of the family who had just moved in. Either Jax or Toni walked their dog twice each day, and their kids were spending a little more time outside as May brought warmer weather.
Paco and Teresa walked down Front Street almost every day, too, and their observations were keener. The turf looked different along Jax’s side of the hedge. The tall grass was trampled in a few places and a small pile of brush had accumulated along his back fence.
One Saturday morning, Paco heard the sound of a lawnmower on the other side of the hedge and walked over to investigate. Jax was mowing down another six inch swath of growth.
“I see your yard is getting wider,” Paco shouted from the sidewalk, feigning a smile.
Jax stopped the mower and slowly walked half the distance to the sidewalk, preoccupied by what he would have to say. “Hey, Paco,” he exhaled. “Yeah it’s not so much me widening the yard as ... I think the hedge has to go.”
“What do you mean exactly, ‘it has to go’ ...?”
Jax avoided eye contact as he explained, “Mainly we feel it’s a safety hazard.”
“A safety hazard?” Paco glowered. “In what way is it a safety hazard?”
“My kids are afraid of it now because Toni warned them about strangers, you know, child molesters or whatever ... and once they get over that fear, they’ll want to go into that thicket, and we don’t know — or trust, to be honest — what they might find.”
Paco scowled without saying anything.
“And ... you know there are coyotes around here that would love to take out my dog. This is a perfect hiding place for them.”
“So you’re saying the hedge is dangerous,” Paco countered. “Jax, the only way danger can get into the hedge is if it comes from my side, or from your side. And no danger is coming from my side.”
“I appreciate that, Paco, but we’re talking about nature here. Stray cats, skunks, snakes, rabid racc— ... it’s actually a public nuisance. It should have been cleared a long time ago. You know, the reason we got this house is because the buyers ahead of us decided this overgrowth was an eyesore, and they pulled their offer.”
“Jax,” Paco tensed, “all those critters you named need some place to live, too. They’re not bothering anybody. I think this is beautiful here, just like it is. I wish you could see it that way.”
“Look, once I have all this grass and brush taken out, we’ll set up a nice big garden. Toni and I will take care of it. Teresa can grow her own vegetables, whatever she wants ... I know how she likes to cook.”
Paco gestured toward the hedge and then dropped his arms, deflated. “I’m not with you in this, Jax. I’m not going to help you,” he sighed. “But I also can’t stop you because it’s not my land.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jax pleaded, “I’ll do a super nice job out here, and you’ll be real happy once it’s done.”
Paco shuffled away.
Every weekend in May, Jax could be found along his side of the hedge with his mower, or a heavy duty trimmer, or a saw or pruning tools. Every Monday morning, several brown paper bags filled with grass and leaves and stems were lined up on the sidewalk to be taken away by a sanitation truck. The brush pile rose a little higher every week, stacked with sections of old grapevine up to three inches thick.
Robins and grackles discovered the ever-widening strip of ground that had never been exposed to direct sunlight before, where a variety of bugs and worms were plentiful.  
Just before dusk on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Jax unwound a garden hose and soaked the ground around his pile of grapevine logs. Paco and Teresa strolled along Front Street, passing in front of Jax’s house, and stopped near the hedge. Teresa waited on the sidewalk as Paco walked along the abrupt border of tall grass, examining the newly exposed ground. Jax saw him coming.
“That soil will be great for growing flowers and vegetables,” Jax offered. 
Paco stopped and scanned the ground without looking up.  “This was supposed to be a road,” he said. “I never thought much about that before.”
“It’s going to be something so much better,” Jax said. “It’ll be the envy of the neighborhood, and I’m absolutely going to share it with you.”
“We were already sharing it.” Paco looked at Jax. “We were sharing it before. We still are, we still can.”
“I know you don’t agree with me right now, but trust me, getting rid of this will be good for your property value.”
Jax went to his garage and returned with a red plastic gasoline container. Paco looked back at Teresa and frowned, and then looked down again at the raw stubble of prairie grass.
“It breaks my heart to see the hedge going away,” Paco sighed, and turned to face his neighbor. “You’re a hard worker, Jax. You’re concerned for your family. Those are good things, but you don’t have to do this.” he stressed. “These weeds? These weeds are not your enemy.”
Jax kicked at some logs, picked up a few smaller sticks from around the sides of his burn pile and placed them on the top. Paco walked back to Front Street, then continued with Teresa past the foot of the hedge to his driveway. 
“Do we need to get the City involved?” she whispered, as they approached the house.
“Not yet.”
Once inside, they watched from the window of their darkened kitchen as the first flames shot up from Jax’s yard on the other side of the hedge.
 

Part Three:
Entrenched

    There was a crude, homemade workbench in Jax’s garage, where he tended to put everything down. It was cluttered with tools, cans of paint, empty bottles, yard waste bags, receipts from the hardware store — anything but a pair of gloves.
    “Toni, have you seen my gloves?” he yelled across the yard. “I just had ‘em yesterday.”
    Toni was coming out of the back door carrying a set of wind chimes and a chair from the dinette. “I don’t know where you put your gloves,” she huffed. Jax cussed unintelligibly. “Why don’t you borrow a pair from Paco? Didn’t he say, if you ever needed anything, just ask?”
    “I can’t ask him right now.”
    After a short trip to the store, Jax returned with two new pairs of leather gloves. He laid one pair on the workbench in the garage, put on the other pair and walked out to the hedge with a spade and a bow saw.
    About twelve feet of vegetation had been cleared from the hedge along Jax’s side — just a little more than half its width. The exposed ground was lumpy and covered with the coarse stubble of all the grass, weeds and wildflowers that he had removed since May. He had finally cut back enough growth to reach the bases of the old grapevines, whose long branches and canes had already produced enough wood cuttings to build three large fires in his backyard.
    Near the ground, they were as thick as tree trunks, but they tapered sharply as they rose. Jax knelt beside each vine and sawed it off, leaving a stump about eight or nine inches high. The wood was orange on the inside and the saw cuts oozed so much watery sap that it dribbled down the bark in some places.
    The ground was highest in the middle of the hedge where the grapevines were planted, and every time Jax stood up, he could easily see into his neighbor’s yard on the other side. Paco was sitting in a lawn chair in his open garage doorway, reading a newspaper. They didn’t make eye contact.
    It took Jax all day on the first Saturday of June to dig out three of the grapevines. Each one had several thick roots growing downward in all directions from the stump, and he had to remove enough dirt to reach a point where the root was thin enough to cut through. Over and over again he positioned the blade of his shovel over a root nearly two feet deep in the ground and stomped on the shoulder until it gave way.
    As each stump was removed, it left a knee-deep pit in the ground.
The following Saturday he resumed his project and succeeded in getting the other three grapevine stumps out. Exhausted, he didn’t bother to backfill any of the holes.
    On Sunday after supper, Paco and Teresa took their usual walk down Front Street. It seemed like nobody was home at Jax and Toni’s place, so they walked up on the hedge to see what Jax had been up to.
    The row of six holes was surrounded on both sides by piles of dirt. The six stumps were scattered helter-skelter and had begun to dry out in the summer sun.
    “They look like witches’ heads,” Teresa snarled. “This looks like a grave yard.”
    Paco looked up and down the area of excavated ground and over at the remaining strip of standing vegetation that bordered his yard. “He’s very determined,” he observed.
    “Can’t you say something to him?” Teresa wondered. “Maybe he would stop at this point and leave us this piece on our side.”
    “I tried to change his mind. I can’t talk to him now. We have to let this run its course.”
    Their conversation was overheard by the Maltese, who jumped on the back of the sofa and began barking intensely inside the front window of the house.  Paco watched for a few seconds, then strolled toward the back yard to look at the makeshift fire ring that Jax had created out of cement blocks. It was full of ashes and charcoal residue from burnt grapevine logs, and still more wood was piled up a few feet away.
    He reached down, picked up a single left-handed leather glove that lay on the grass and examined it. It showed lots of wear, but the leather still smelled new. The right-handed glove was not there. 
    “Papi!” Teresa called from the sidewalk. He laid the glove on one of the cement blocks, and they continued their walk around the block.
    By the end of the month, Jax had cleared the entire hedge, front to back and side to side. The pits were backfilled and he had mowed down the new growth that was starting to appear, mainly along his side where he had begun the project more than two months before.
    The last weekend of June was hot and the sun was bright. Paco walked outside Saturday morning wearing large, dark sunglasses and watched from his driveway while Jax connected two fifty foot hoses together and carried a two gallon jug of concentrated herbicide to the edge of Victory Lane.
    “Good morning!” Jax said loudly and defiantly. Paco sipped from a bottle of iced tea and said nothing in return.
    He screwed a gun-shaped nozzle to the end of the hose and attached a long plastic tube to its base.  Turning toward the house, he yelled “Okay, turn it on!” The length of hose stiffened as it filled with water. After shaking the jug for a few seconds, he removed the cap and inserted the tube. With the jug in one hand and the hose nozzle in the other, Jax started spraying.
    He started along Paco’s border first, being careful not to get any overspray on his lawn. They exchanged no words during the ninety minutes it took to cover the entire area with herbicide. By late afternoon Sunday, Victory Lane was completely dry, and the stubble was a uniform shade of pale brown.
    That evening after he returned from his walk, Paco made a telephone call. “You know that job we talked about?” he said to the person on the other end of the line. “Can you start tomorrow?”


Part Four:
Good Neighbors

    Independence Day would fall on a Friday that year. Jax took a full week of vacation from work, and the family drove north to a lakeside cottage to spend time with Toni’s relatives. The dog went with them.
    Things were quiet on both sides of the Victory Lane extension Monday morning, until a crew arrived at Paco and Teresa’s house in a flatbed truck loaded with lumber. Two men hopped out, and shook hands and talked quietly with Paco on the driveway. They looked over some large papers, pointed toward Victory Lane, and nodded in agreement. The men unloaded tools from a chest behind the cab.
    One set up a tripod on the Front Street sidewalk at the corner of Victory Lane and attached a construction grade surveying instrument. His helper walked to two other corners of Paco’s lot and held up a reflector. After each measurement, the man made a mark on the cement, and moved the tripod a bit.
    The helper found the metal stake in Jax’s back yard and held the reflector there. After a few minutes they put away the equipment and came back with hammers and lengths of pipe and a spool of string.
    One man drove a pipe into the ground in the back yard, where it bordered Victory Lane, and tied the string to it. The other drove a pipe into the ground near the sidewalk. They pulled the string tight and tied it to the second pipe, marking Paco’s property line.
     For the rest of that day and the next, they lowered thirty-one 4 x 4 inch square posts into the ground, each carefully positioned in a hole, filled with concrete, four feet apart, five feet high and perfectly plumb.
    On Wednesday they bolted on crossbeams, and began attaching pickets on Paco’s side. On Thursday, the construction was done and the fence received a coat of stain.  As the sun went down, a long, wide shadow fell across Victory Lane for the first time in a hundred years.
    On Friday morning, Teresa placed a pot of red, white and blue petunias on the front stoop, and Paco flew the flag from a bracket mounted on the porch.
    “What do you think he’s going to say?” she asked. “They won’t be expecting to see this when they come home.”
    “He’s ... on his own, he knows that. He chose to go his own way,” Paco sighed. “But now it’s going to be my turn to explain.”
    Jax and Toni pulled in early Sunday evening and unloaded the car. Except for pausing a few seconds to look over at the new fence, they acted as if nothing was different. The kids did not seem to notice.
    Jax came out to walk the dog after the long ride in the car, and headed down the sidewalk toward Victory Lane. He stopped on his side of fence to examine the craftsmanship, closing one eye to observe whether the fence was completely straight from end to end. It was. The Maltese urinated on the end post.
    He stepped around to the other side and saw Paco in his garage filling a cardboard box with small scraps of lumber, and watched until they made eye contact.
    “Jaxon!” It was the first time in weeks they had come this close to communicating. “Stay there, I’d like to talk with you.” The Maltese barked and pulled on his leash as Paco approached, carrying the box.
    “What — ... what’s with the fence?” Jax demanded.
    “Remember the day we met, you asked about the hedge and I said we valued it for privacy? You said, like good fences make good neighbors? That’s all this is. It’s a good fence.”
    Jax paused. “I thought you’d change your mind after I did all the work to clear this area.”
    “I tried to change your mind, too.” Paco countered. “Maybe we both have what we want now. Your family is safe — no coyotes are coming through here!”
    “I notice you put up the fence boards facing your house, so I have to look at the back.”
    “I wish I could afford to finish both sides, but ... I wasn’t planning to build a fence this year.”
    Jax interrupted an awkward lull in the conversation by correcting the dog.
    “How about you and Toni decorate your side,” Paco lilted. “You can put up your own pickets, or paint it, or hang garden tools, whatever you want, on your side. If you want to connect your own fence to enclose your back yard for the dog, that’s okay, too.”
    Jax grunted.
    Paco held out the box. “Here, you want these scraps for your fire pit? It’s left over from the fence.”
    “You get rid of it,” Jax growled as he turned around and headed the opposite direction with the Maltese. Paco put the box down by the curb with his trash cans.
    Twenty minutes later, as he returned to the house with the dog and a plastic bag of poop, Jax noticed the dark shadow spreading out across his future garden. Once inside, he grumbled to Toni, “That fence can’t be legal. It’s too high, it’s too close to the property line ... you have to have a permit to put up a fence — inspections and everything. He couldn’t have done all that inside of a week.”
    Toni was half listening. “Did you ask Paco about it?”
    “No, but I’m calling code enforcement tomorrow. He’s gonna have to take it down.”
    On Monday morning, Jax reached someone at the City’s Code Compliance office and explained the situation. They asked for an address.
    “I’m at 748 Front Street, and he’s my next door neighbor. Paco Cordero ...” Thinking for a few seconds, he added “actually he’s not my next door neighbor, he’s on the other side of Victory Lane, in the 800 block.” When the code officer found a name in a database, Jax said “Nope, I don’t know any Francisco Cordero ...” A few seconds later he agreed, “Okay, whatever, that’s him.”
    They opened case number 18-0309, titled “Illegal Fence.” An inspector was scheduled to visit the site on the following Monday.
 

Part Five:
Nine Tenths of the Law

      Paco & Teresa rose very early on Sunday morning and drove to a suburb an hour away. They went to a morning mass with their extended family as three young cousins took their first communion. When the family celebration ended around sunset, Paco drove home in the twilight and arrived after dark.
    On Monday morning, the doorbell rang. Paco muted the sound on his cable news broadcast and answered the door.
    "Mr. Cordero? I'm from the City's Code Compliance department. We received a complaint about your fence, and I wonder if you have a few minutes to talk about it?"
    "My fence? Yes, of course." Paco stepped outside and the two men walked over to the fence.
    "We get complaints all the time from people about suspected code violations, and anything that involves unauthorized construction or property lines, we give those priority," the man said. "This complaint was specifically questioning the height and the placement of your fence."
    Paco had never seen the man before. He examined the monogram on his polo shirt as he listened, and looked at the lettering on the white Ford Escape parked at the foot of the driveway.
    "I saw your permit was approved on May 17th, you used a licensed contractor and the project passed inspection on July 3rd. So there's no problem with the fence. "
    "That's good to hear," Paco confirmed. "My nephew built it."
    "But when I checked the City survey of this subdivision, I found that there's an old road easement that runs back here," he motioned toward the fence. "Between you and the next house."
    "That was supposed to be a ... continuation of Victory Lane."
    "It looks like somebody's been working over there?" the man questioned.
    "Ya, the guy next door wants to put in a garden." Paco started toward the corner where his fence met the sidewalk. The man followed. "He's been clearing it for the last two months, but I think he's done now for the season."
    They reached the end of the fence and turned to look back toward Jax's house. The sod was turned over and broken up across the entire 2400 square feet of Victory Lane.  A gas-powered tiller with a tag from the rental yard was parked against the side of the house next to a bag and a half of powdered lime.
    "He must have just tilled that yesterday," Paco gasped, and turned to look at the Code Compliance officer. "When we were out of town."
    "Well, he can't just take over the land and cultivate it without permission from the City," the man explained. "Something like that would require a lease, and those are hard to get. It takes time. And lawyers."
    They ended with a few pleasantries and the man drove away.
    One afternoon about a week later,  Toni set up a pair of sawhorses on the driveway in front of her garage. She let the kids watch as she put a coat of white primer on four plywood panels. Once they dried, she had the kids take turns painting pictures on them. They painted colorful flowers and grass, with butterflies, inchworms, ladybugs, bunnies — and birds flying among fluffy clouds against a sunny blue sky.
    On Saturday, Jax used his cordless drill to attach each painted panel to a post on his side of the new fence. They looked nice when the bright July sunshine shone on them for a couple of hours in the late morning, and the family took selfies with the artwork to post on social media.
    By the first weekend of August, Jax had finished raking his newly tilled plot completely smooth. He took three soil samples to a large commercial gardening center the following week, and based on a few tests, they created a special blend of fertilizer just for his soil conditions. He spread it the next Saturday.
    Monday morning around 7:30, the Maltese leapt on the back of the sofa and barked aggressively at something outside. Jax, in a tee shirt and boxer shorts, ignored it as he filled his cup with coffee before the brew cycle was complete. He returned to the den to watch the morning newscast. The barking continued.
    After a minute, Jax turned his attention to a series of loud metallic clanks coming from the front yard. Once he muted the sound on the television, he could hear the sound of men's voices and the rumble of diesel engines outside.
    He got up from his recliner, walked to the front window, grabbed the frantic Maltese and looked out. A city snowplow had backed up over the curb and was slowly maneuvering down the Victory Lane extension in reverse. A man was shouting directions to help the driver get as close to Paco's fence as possible. Three more snowplows were idling on Front Street.
    "What the f**k?!"
    Jax dropped the dog and scrambled to his bedroom to put on a pair of pants. "What's going on?" Toni stirred.
    "You're not gonna believe this," he huffed. "They're parking snowplows in our f**king yard."
    Jax hustled outside in bare feet and strode toward the man as the second snowplow backed up onto Victory Lane.  The first driver shut off his motor and jumped out, then took over shouting directions as the first man turned toward Jax.
    "What the hell is this?!" Jax demanded.
    "Sir, are you the resident at 748 Front Street?"
    "Yes and this is my yard you're in!"
    "Sir we have instructions from the City to park this equipment here," he said sternly. "And if you have any questions or concerns, you're supposed to call the legal department." The man handed Jax a business card.
    "But wh—" Jax sputtered, "Why are you doing this?"
    "Sir we were told to park some of the fleet here for the off-season while they clean and seal the floor at the depot. You got any questions, call that number."
   As they talked, the third and fourth snowplows backed into Victory Lane and parked. Jax shouted objections and waved his arms, but the drivers ignored him.
    "Wait, you can't just —" Jax gulped. "You gotta let me get back there and take down my kids' artwork at least ...?!"
    Jax started toward the fence.  The crew leader turned around and saw the four drivers walking to their fleet minivan parked in front of Paco's house, as Jax sidled through the narrow space between two snowplows.
    "What, those paintings?" he said sarcastically. "That's your neighbor's fence, right? If you ask me, they belong to him."



BRAVO serial fiction presents an original short story by a local writer in a series of short sections of approximately 1000 words each. A new chapter of “Victory Lane” appeared each month from April to August 2018.

Mark Averill is a computer analyst and amateur writer whose articles can be read on the performing arts blog, The Elgin Review (theelginreview.blogspot.com).