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The Great Citrus War.

by Terry Sanville
  

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.
                                                      — Horace Mann, 1859

Charlie hasn’t even tasted his first cup of Monday morning coffee before the telephone in his gray office cubicle buzzes. He grabs a pencil and message pad and picks up the receiver.

“Is this the God damned Sarasota Planning Department?” a man’s voice roars in his ear.

Charlie counts slowly to five before answering. “Yes, this is the planning department, Charles Engen speaking. How may I help you?”

“Ya gotta do something about the God damned traffic on Lincoln. Some fool blew through here last night and hit Rambone—squashed my poor dog like a road squirrel.”

Charlie’s face morphs from grin to grimace. “Did you contact the police?”

“Sure as hell did. Lot a good they are. They told me to call you.”

He groans to himself, Damn, always get the problems the cops don’t want to handle, and speeding drivers in quiet neighborhoods is just one of them.

“Were you able to identify the vehicle?” he asks.

“Yeah, sure. It was a Ford. I told all that to the police. But I want something done about the damned college kids hotrodding up and down my street. Somebody’s gonna get killed out here.”

“I understand.” He stares at his appointment calendar. “I have some time Thursday afternoon when I can talk with you. Would you like to meet me at the…”

“I’m in a wheelchair, sonny. You’re gonna have to come here to do your talking.’”

Charlie smiles. He just celebrated his 48th birthday, yet seniors still call him sonny. Maybe it’s the hair…

“That’s fine. Would two o’clock be okay?”

“Yes. I live at 214 Lincoln, the fifth house from the corner, the green one.”

“I will see you then, ah, Mr.?”

“Sorry. Name’s Roebottom, Harold Roebottom. I live here with my wife, Leona. We’re retired Army, you know, Korea, Nam. Say, you don’t mind if I invite some of my neighbors over, do you?”

Charlie pictures a crowded room of ladies with tightly curled hair and men in pleated slacks, some with oxygen tanks but still smoking, reminding him that their tax dollars pay his salary.

“Sure, invite anybody you want,” he tells Harold. “Might as well get it all out.”

“Okay, then. See you Thursday.”

Charlie leans back in his chair and rubs his temples. Someone tugs on his braided ponytail and he jumps.

“Who was that?” Ann Crossie asks.

“Another complaint about traffic on the north side. Had two others just like it last week. I’m going out Thursday to talk with them.”

Charlie eyes her snug three-piece business suit and mannishly cut red hair. She’s definitely got that ‘dressed for success’ look this morning, he thinks. Must be a department head meeting. Jeez, what a bunch of Mensa rejects they are… and I’ve got to work for one of them. How smart does that make me?

“Just be careful,” Ann says. “Council members hate getting calls from angry citizens. After the mess you got us into on Broad Street…”

“Believe me, I remember,” he says, “and thanks for all your help with that.” Ann frowns and flounces down the hallway in three-inch heals. Charlie knows someday his wiseass comments will get him sacked.

He retrieves the computer files on traffic collisions, collects the engineering speed surveys for the Lincoln neighborhood and begins going over the options in his head. Better wear a flak jacket and drive a fast car. At least I can outrun them.

The Roebottom’s front lawn looks like a putting green, but not unlike others along Lincoln Avenue. Blue jays squawk from the tops of citrus trees, some of them trimmed into topiary shapes. Loaded down with files and maps, Charlie staggers toward 214’s ramped front porch. Before he can press the bell, the door flies open and a tiny woman wearing bifocals motions him inside.

“We’ve been waiting for you. You must be Mr. Engen. I’m Leona.”

The living room is crammed with people, some sitting on folding chairs, others scrunched onto a lumpy sofa or sitting on the floor. The room temperature is just below Brazilian rainforest levels. A chair has been reserved for Charlie. Harold Roebottom rolls out from the sidelines and motions for him to sit.

“I invited Mr. En… ah, En… What did you say your name was?”

“Engen, Charles Engen.”

“Yes, yes. I invited Mr. Engerman over to the house to tell us how the City is going to solve our traffic problems.”

The crowd grumbles and stares at Charlie.

“Thanks for inviting me. I’m glad to be here,” he lies. “Part of my job at the planning department is to work with citizen groups and develop traffic solutions for residential neighborhoods. But before we talk about traffic solutions, why don’t you tell me what the problems are.”

“You’re the expert. Don’t you know?” a stout woman demands.

“Yeah, we’ve been calling downtown for weeks now and they send you out, and you don’t know anything?’” A man shoves a meerschaum pipe in his mouth and glares.

“I know lots about traffic,” Charlie begins, “but you folks live here around the clock. Why don’t we start by going around the room and….”

Outside, tires squeal as a car slides to a halt at the stop sign just up the street. The driver shifts the big-block V-8 into neutral and guns the engine. Its exhaust note rattles like a NASCAR racer getting ready to exit the pits. There’s a prolonged howl of tires as the driver pops the clutch.

“IT’S HIM, IT’S HIM!” Harold bellows and rolls his wheelchair to a wall-mounted gun rack. He grabs an M-16, inserts an ammo clip and hustles toward the front window.

“Now Harold, put that thing…”

“SHUT UP, LEONA! He’s screwed with me one too many times.”

Harold points the gun at the window as the car approaches. People dive for cover. At the last second Charlie slaps the rifle barrel upward. A spray of bullets dots the ceiling. Women scream. Teacups and plates of cookies go flying as fine plaster dust rains down. A huge orange cat low-tails it out of the room.

“Harold, give me the gun,” Charlie orders, his voice shaking.

“Sorry. Got carried away. But ya can see what we got ta put up with. Those damn college….”

“I understand, I understand,” Charlie croons as he slips the clip of ammunition from the rifle into his coat pocket and replaces the weapon in its rack. “But you’re going to jail if you fire that thing again, understand?”

The old man scowls and rolls his wheelchair to where Leona is crouched on the floor, scrubbing at tea stains. The room is an uproar of angry voices. Old guys check their pants for wet spots. The women look too embarrassed to check their seat cushions. Others rub banged elbows and knees. But nobody seems to have broken anything or suffered a stroke or heart attack.

“ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, let’s settle down,” Charlie yells. The hubbub subsides.

“I now know a bit more about your problem.” Charlie grins and the crowd chuckles. “But is it the same driver all the time, or different ones? And how often does it happen?”

A dozen people try answering at once. Finally, some raise their hands. Charlie points to a middle-aged woman with an aquiline nose who looks Italian.

“Those punks drive down here four, five times a day… always a different time… and the cars are different too. I think they use our street as a drag strip and—”

“But it’s not just the hotrodders,” Leona breaks in. “Most people drive too fast. I nearly got hit crossing at Elm.”

“I don’t know why the cops just don’t arrest them all,” another woman announces, followed by a general chorus of agreement.

Leona clicks on an electric fan made during the flapper era. The stink of gun smoke and bodily gasses dissipates. Slowly, the crowd settles down.

“Let me talk with the police,” Charlie says, “and see if they’ll put a patrol car on Lincoln. Maybe they can catch these guys.”

“But what about all the other fools?” a rail-thin man asks. “We don’t want our street becoming a speedway to the downtown. Let ’em use Lizzie, two blocks over.”

“It’s not that easy,” Charlie says and sighs. “Motorists have been speeding along Lincoln for years. We’re going to have to change the street so that they can’t drive as fast… and they’re not going to like that.”

“But it’s our God damned neighborhood,” Harold says, and the group applauds.

“It will take hard work,” Charlie says, “and you have to promise, no more gunplay.”

The neighbors laugh, but Charlie is dead serious.

Six months, fourteen neighborhood meetings, six City Council meetings, one construction contract, and hundreds of phone calls later, Charlie is feeling pretty good. The Council has adopted a plan for slowing traffic on Lincoln and the contractor has installed speed humps and more stop signs. Everything seems copacetic until one damp spring night.

“Who is this?” Charlie mutters into the phone. The digital clock on his nightstand shows 2:00 AM.

“It’s Harold Roebottom. Who the hell did you think it was?”

“Harold, I told you not to call me at—”

“Er, sorry. But we got a war going on and—”

“Call the police, Harold. And leave your guns alone.”

“You better get out here. Somebody’s gonna get hurt and it ain’t gonna be me.”

The line goes dead. Charlie slides out of bed and dresses. His wife grumbles something then resumes snoring. The early morning fog wets the Subaru’s windshield as he motors along quiet streets with flashing stoplights. But he can hear the commotion long before he reaches Lincoln Avenue – the sustained blare of car horns, the squeal of tires. He pulls down a dark cross street close to the Roebottom house. A caravan of cars cruises south along Lincoln, the drivers leaning on their horns and screaming expletives. The street is littered with fruit.

Now what? Charlie thinks. He parks and hustles down the sidewalk. People in bathrobes and pajamas stand in their front yards all along Lincoln with paper bags at their feet.

“What’s going on here?”

“Just watch, sonny,” Leona says, grinning.

“Before you do anything else, I’m calling the police.” Charlie reaches for his cell phone.

A caravan of cars approaches from the north, horns blaring, tires smoking as each rolls over a speed hump.

“Get ready,” Harold bellows. “Find a target. FIRE!”

A volley of fruit smacks into the passing cars. The air is thick with lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, and the occasional pummelo. A huge lemon sails through an open window, catches a driver square in the face and splits open, spraying juice in his eyes. The guy is too busy yelling and flipping everybody off to duck. The car swerves and noses into a telephone pole, hood buckling. The driver rolls up the window and locks his doors as the neighbors swarm the car, pounding on the roof, breaking headlights, and rocking the Dodge from side to side.

A second caravan approaches from the south and motors slowly around the crashed car.

“Reload, get ready, FIRE!” Harold bellows.

The thud of citrus striking metal and glass can be heard up and down the street. But the horns don’t let up. In the distance the wail of sirens cuts through the melee’s roar. The volleys of fruit grow even more intense. In an instant they stop. The residents disappear inside their dark homes, hauling their bags of ammunition with them. Two convoys of police cruisers slide to a halt, blocking Lincoln Avenue off at either end and trapping the caravan. Their flashing blue lights create a sickening strobe effect. A man swerves his maroon Explorer onto the sidewalk and charges toward a cross street and freedom. But one of the cruisers chases him down.

A tall cop and his stubby partner climb out of the nearest squad car. The towering giant steps on a squashed orange and almost goes down. He moves cautiously toward the Roebottom house.

“Charlie, what the hell’s going on?” Sergeant Topham asks.

“Just got here myself. Looks like these cars were driving through and honking their horns.”

“But what about all this?” The Sergeant points to the littered street.

“Yeah, the neighbors fought back with fruit. That guy got the worst of it.” He points to the battered Dodge as the motorists exit their vehicles and surround the pair.

“We were just using the public street,” a guy in a baseball cap complains. “Officer, I want you to arrest those… those…”

“What were you doing out here this early?” Topham shoots back.

“I, er… we were trying to show these crazy people they can’t steal our street from us.”

There’s a rumble of agreement from the crowd.

“So what’s this about blowing horns and yelling?” Topham asks.

The crowd is quiet.

“What about my car?” the owner of the Dodge complains. “Those people, they should be….”

“Just take it easy. All of you, have your driver’s licenses and registration ready and the officers will take your statements.”

The crowd grumbles. Charlie and Sergeant Topham move toward the Roebottom’s front porch. The cop bangs on the door but gets no response. A window curtain quivers but the inside remains dark.

“You have any idea who all was involved?” Topham asks Charlie.

“Just about everybody along the street, but I can’t be sure. Only got here at the tail end of it.”

Topham groans. “We’ll dispatch a detail in the next couple of days and talk with them.”

“What good’ll that do?”

“Probably nothing. Maybe keep them from doing it again. But it’s all your fault, Charlie,” Topham says and grins. “Those damn speed humps.”

“My boss is already ragging on me about them. Those suckers work, which is what really pisses people off.”

The police cruiser crunches to a stop on the park’s gravel service road. Sergeant Topham rolls down his window. Charlie quits stuffing grass clippings into a canvas bag and grins.

“Hey Sarge, what’s got you up this early on a Friday morning?”

“It’s all your damn fault,” Topham says. “After the Council ordered those speed humps on Lincoln removed, they’ve got us patrolling the neighborhood 24-7… and we gotta do it for an entire year!”

“Bet you wish my solution had worked, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Topham says and reaches into a pink cardboard box for a powdered donut. He takes a huge bite and sneezes, blowing sugar dust all over the front seat.

“Easy there, Sarge. It’s not worth blowing your brains out over.”

The sergeant glares and heaves the remains of the donut at Charlie. He ducks, grabs a handful of grass clippings and dumps them through the open car window into the Sergeant’s lap. The cop bolts from the car, but starts laughing.

“Christ, Charlie. I’m glad you don’t have any citrus lying around. This could get ugly.”

As the police cruiser motors away, a white-haired man sitting on a nearby park bench calls to Charlie. “Weren’t you the guy I saw on TV that caused all the ruckus up on Lincoln?”

“Yeah, that was me. Go ahead and complain—I’ve heard it all.”

“That was the stupidest thing the City ever done. Whatever happened to common sense, anyway?”

“It only works when people share common concerns.”

“But speed humps? You should’ve known better.” The old guy stands and steps squarely on a steaming pile of dog poop.

Charlie grins and moves toward his maintenance truck, glad to be free of the town’s mean streets. I’ll take dog poop over traffic problems any day, he thinks.

  

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two cats (his in-house critics). He is a retired urban planner with 30+ years experience and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist. Since 2003, Terry's stories have appeared in over 30 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies.
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