The argument was originally just about the tree. Lori pointed out that the new smoking area would not, unlike the old one, have any adequate light, and smokers do after all keep smoking into the evening, so she proposed hanging a permanent light on the tree, and this was all amicable enough until she pointed to the spot, on the Grandfather trunk not far above the separation from Grandmother, where she would drive a spike to hang the light from. Maureen retorted vehemently that the old oak had had quite enough nails pounded into it over the years, and that this kind of continued abuse could kill or injure the tree. Lori pooh-poohed such objections, since the tree had survived so many nails already, which to Maureen indicated not just a lack of concern for the health of the tree, but an attitude of downright disrespect for such a venerable old creature, an objection which Lori did not seem to find comprehensible. The escalating volume in these exchanges made it plain even to me, ignorant as I was of the dramatis personae, standing there just below, naked of course, with my inevitable cigarette, trying hard not to appear as if I were eavesdropping, that there were deeper issues in play.
Abruptly, without any segue, Lori turned it into an argument about the children. If Maureen was going to take such an attitude, why then she would not be allowed to be "Grammy" to the girls anymore. It was Maureen's turn to pooh-pooh Lori, saying she would always be their Grammy: how could that possibly change? Lori insisted that the girls would not be allowed to speak to Maureen or go near her or have anything to do with her. Absurd, Maureen replied: who would take them to school or, since school was not in session, who would take them to gym class? Lori had a simple solution: they will not go to gym class anymore. Oh come on, they love their gymnastics more than anything, which was undeniably true as even I knew, having seen them cartwheeling and handstanding across the lawn, and besides, the classes were already paid for, for the rest of the year. Well then, that was all the more reason those gym classes should be disallowed: the girls must not have anything that Maureen has paid for, ever again! The exchanges began to escalate not merely in volume now, but in sheer incoherence.
Lori did an excellent job of the dramatic stomp-off, and Maureen did an equally good job of restraining the weepy breakdown. Cindy was appalled, and stammered that Lori didn't mean any of it, and was just being Lori, and would take it all back tomorrow, like always. Cindy's reputation for being confrontational is not entirely deserved: she does indeed give as good as she gets once involved in a face-off, but I have often observed her strong preference to stay out of face-offs when she is not a direct party. Cindy wandered off, so I came up, to listen to The Cat Lady if she needed to talk it out, as was my self-assigned duty to the community. She was not, actually, in any mood to talk about it any further. She introduced herself, and got my name in return, although she has generally referred to me since then as "Professor", or "The Nutty Professor". And all she asked of me at that time was whether I could help repair the swingy chair.
Oaktree Circle is next to a children's play area, with monkey bars and swings and a puppet theater and a merry-go-round, all on hard ground and gravel so the kids can hurt themselves, with a pole sticking up, for the kids to impale themselves on, with defunct old electrical outlets, from when the area was an artists' studio instead, until Lori vetoed that and disappeared all the artworks that Maureen had created there, except for one piece showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which Maureen had managed to salvage for her porch. The proximity of the children's play area might raise some legal issue about the appropriate distance to a smoking area, and Maureen's protege' Adam, an omni-competent Iraq vet whom she was the first person in the world, but not the last, to call "the Army of One", was charged at one time with measuring how far back the glass table ought to be moved, but as with other jobs that might raise disputes, somehow Adam never did get around to that. The Circle is, after all, a less stupid location for the smoking area than the old place, and not nearly in the league of stupidity of the designated but seldom-used smoking area behind the Restaurant, which is situated directly by the largest propane tank on the property, so that the staffers prefer to do their smoking, tobacco or other, around the dumpsters by the kitchen door. But aside from the children's swings, there was an adult swing, of the sort one might find on a porch back East, but which some exuberant child, perhaps it was Albert, had overswung, tipped over, and broken apart.
Could it be salvaged? Brief examination showed me that the reason for its disintegration was actually quite simple: there were supposed to be four screws holding the frame together, and there was only one, so I looked about to see if the other screws had somehow been knocked loose and were lying about the ground, but Maureen assured me it would be more in keeping with the Lupin way to assume that only one screw had ever been in place. From Butterfly yurt she retrieved a tray filled with miscellaneous screws, nails, nuts, and bolts, in which I eventually found one screw that was a little too large but which I could get wedged in to the point where it was never going to move again, one that was a little too small but could be made to fit with a glob of Crazy Glue, and one that was just right. We decided that the most level place was where an old redwood bench, now graywood from years of sun, had been standing until we wrestled it aside, so the question arose of where to put this bench. We settled on a position by the steps leading down to Hidden Oak, but carrying it that minor distance proved beyond our waning strengths. Would turning it over and sliding it make it easier? Actually, this increased the friction tremendously, and as I tried to yank it by one of the upturned legs, the rotten leg broke off in my hand and dumped me on my bare butt in the gravel. However, only my dignity, such as it is, was injured. Maureen assured me that OG, a tall elderly black man of quiet dignity and hard-working habits who lives deep in the Back Forty and speaks with a near-incomprehensible accent from deep in the bayou, would haul the now unlevel bench away and replace it with Michelle's bench, which had been sitting neglected for some time somewhere over in the Sleepy Hollow area of the grounds, where some people live who generally keep to themselves, so that I scarce know any of them even yet.
So, we immediately became the fastest of friends. We would sit in the Circle nearly every day, with our inevitable cigarettes, and talk for hours. She might talk about how she and Glyn had worked their tails off rebuilding the nature trails Up Top in the years after the earthquake, in the morning until she had to go off to feed Glyn's cat Rowdy, whom Glyn loves very much but never feeds, driving over in her car, always with the same tape playing, Moody Blues, In Search of the Lost Chord. And in the afternoon she might tell me how she and Jane Goodall, later known as the chimp lady, would rescue ponies when they were teenagers, and I might tell about the time I hiked across Turkish Kurdistan, until it was time for her to do her evening round of feeding the cats, Smooth Bell and Little Bell and all the other members of the Bell family, and dear Samantha and arrogant Simon Legree, and one-eyed Vanna and poor Judy's Fuzzy Davis and all the others. And in the evening we would talk about the nature of reality, and whether it is true that wishing makes it so, until she put on her earphones to listen to Madame Butterfly, or unplugged the earphones for Bob Dylan, so that I could sing along, since I knew all the words and sounded, she said, more like Bob Dylan than Bob Dylan does. On Maggie's Farm she would change it to "Lori's Farm", and change "She's 68 but says she's 54" to "She's 66 but says she's 67" since she did not like the somewhat beastly number 66 and would not give that as her age, and I shared the extra verses I had written for that song years ago: "I ain't gonna work for Maggie's sister no more / Nawww I ain't gonna work for Maggie's sister no more / She winks when no-one's looking, tries to lure you to her bed / The face on that woman would frighten the dead / I'd rather go out naked into war / I ain't gonna work for Maggie's sister no more ... I ain't gonna work for Maggie's cousin no more / Nawww I ain't gonna work for Maggie's cousin no more / His eyes are always bugging, halfway out of his head / I never could follow one word that he said / Half of it is nonsense, that's for sure / I ain't gonna work for Maggie's cousin no more."
The Army of One bought, well OK it was Maureen's money if you want to get technical about it, but Maureen's money is Adam's money as far as she is concerned, a string of bubble lights that solved beautifully the original issue about illuminating the Circle, along with some oil lamps, two of which at Chef Phil's suggestion we hung from the ends of the swingy chair, while the third was kept in the middle of the table on a silver platter, surrounded by a ring of votive candles on evenings when the breeze would permit us to keep them lit, and the bundles of spare bubble lights, for which we had plans, and spare drippy-hoses besides the one I used to water the ring of rosemary around the Circle, in the mornings when I came down to wipe off the glass table, if not very well, and hear Maureen tut-tut about the smears I left and how poorly my mother had evidently trained me in the art of table-wiping, along with extra blankets and towels, since nudists always need towels, and other miscellanies were left sitting on the graywood bench, to deter people from trying to sit on it. I kept dribbling green wax from the taper I used to light the other candles, and Samara called those splotches lily pads, homes to invisible frogs, so I would work around them as I wiped the table, and they only disappeared gradually, like the presence of Samara herself, whose less frequent visits would prompt Maureen to bouts of reminiscence. Maureen and I have tried to tell each other our life stories, speaking of things we had never voiced to another soul, but as both our life stories are more complicated than most, we still have a long ways to go even now. And Maureen's style is so tangential that when I invited up my friend Jimbo, who is the only person in the world to call me "Viceroy Cabrillo", since long before I heard of Cabrillo College, for he is "Capitan de Portola" and our buddy Dominic is "Padre Junipero Serra" in the triumvirate of conquistadores who go camping everywhere, claiming each new site "in the name of the Empire of Spain foreeeever", el Capitan Jimbo nicknamed her "Virginia Woolf", and if I too am being Virginia Woolfy, going off on all these run-on sentences that seem to leave little hope of ever wandering back to the point, that is because it seems to be the only style which could possibly hope to convey the quintessential Lupinity of this place.
It was not immediately apparent that a war had begun, for although Lori is not the type to apologize for anything, it did seem possible for a while that Cindy was right about the argument being forgotten, and there was a relatively quiescent period, reminiscent of the 1940 Sitzkrieg between the French and Germans, after Poland had been destroyed but before the Western Front erupted. Lori did permit the girls to go to gym class, though she took them herself and did not let Maureen take them anywhere. She had already hired an au pair from the Netherlands to babysit them for the whole month of July, a very nice and perky-breasted girl named Emy, pronounced "Amy" but not to be confused with the hard-working Amy who came much later, but the girls were not always with Emy and sometimes came up to the Circle to sit with "Grammaureen" and me. There was a little sketch-pad in which Samara had drawn a doodle-bug, which became a message pad for Maureen, Adam, and I to leave notes for each other in those latter days when the girls were forbidden the Circle, but back then I remember a day when Simone sat down to the sketch-pad and drew a cute-looking panda bear, and informed me that this panda was "Evil! Eeeeeevil! He is so, so evil!" And Samara would stage silly plays with the giraffe and the crab in the puppet theater, although Maureen told me about a play she had once put on, about "the Black Widow Spider, who eats her husband, and then starts eating her children," and when Lori would tell her it was time to go, she would say "Stop interrupting! Now I have to start over! The Black Widow Spider eats her husband..." and Lori would interrupt again and re-start the cycle, appearing utterly oblivious to the subtext of the play.
And when the Army of One bought, well OK Maureen bought if you want to get technical about it, new sand-filters for the pool, and installed them, with some help, since he cannot quite do everything all by himself, from Roy LNU, the tall electrician and general handyman with the ZZ Top beard, there was a large cardboard box left over, which sat by the wall guarding one end of the entrance to Oaktree Circle, at the other end from the graywood bench and the steps down to Hidden Oak. The box was immediately adopted by Samara as a playhouse, decorated with chains of silvery stars and artificial flowers, protected by a bit of fencing and "Keep Out!" signs, and filled with her crayons and scissors and construction paper. Of Gina's boys, little Santino had not so much interest in the playhouse, but Carlos, who is nearly of an age with the twins, and has an unconcealable crush on Samara, had standing permission to go in anytime, even if Samara was not there, although the older Albert, who would also try to go in all the time, was expressly forbidden: "Albert can't not be in the box," the sign read, which, as Harry pointed out, actually meant that he could never fail to be in the box. And three-year-old bright-eyed unruly-blond-mopped Brandon, sometimes called "Little Bubba" since his dad Chris was called "Bubba", was often in there, and would stash his favorite bead-strings in the box.
What can I say about Brandon? He was far more articulate than a child his age had any right to be, speaking not only grammatically, but in complex sentences with clauses and everything, and fearlessly making up words that sounded like what he meant, whenever his vocabulary was not quite adequate. Once, he was jumping up and down in the TV room, and his pants fell down, so he looked at me, whose nudity he had never really seemed to take any particular notice of before, and said, "There, you see, now I'm just like you!" before pulling his pants up. Another time, his pant-cuffs were inverted, so Maureen tried to adjust them, but he insisted, "These are MY pants, so let ME do that!" But I was most struck by the time when he and Carlos and Santino went racing for the swings, which looked like trouble since there were three boys and only two swings, and sure enough when Santino lost the race he started crying and trying to shove Brandon off his swing, so I was on my feet at once, and then Brandon said "This is my swing, but you can have it," let Santino take his place, and started pushing him gently. The whole community loved him, although it was Ronnie the groundskeeper, the only person in the world who calls me "Bill" although he generally corrects himself, who tended him most of the time, since Chris the bicycle repairman, sweet though he is and a devoted father, has never been quite right in the head since his motorcycle accident.
Pam too was a caretaker to both Chris and Brandon, and it was Pam who greeted me at the gate, there by Fairmont trailer, saying "Welcome to Lupin!" on July 1st when I pulled up with my car full of stuff to move into Tiger Lily, although I had been to Lupin a dozen times before over the years, and had even been staying with Turtle in Hummingbird cabin from May 21st to June 10th, stretching Turtle's right to have guests ten days out of the month to the absolute limit of the law. I would hear about Pam, but only spoke to her once more, when Brandon was tearing across the parking lot and I ran to intercept him, since Ronnie was nowhere in sight, but Pam came up and said, "It's OK, I've got him," and I replied, "Just making sure some adult eyes were on him," and Pam expressed appreciation for that. So, when Maureen told him, "You're a Lupin baby, all right," no-one was surprised to hear Brandon retort, "No, I'm a Lupin DUDE!"