When my daughter Sally was 4, she didn't need the ghosts and goblins of Halloween to wreck her composure. She was wary of cats, frightened of dogs and terrified of thunder. The heavy artillery of a fireworks display, even viewed from far away, would cause her to cower and weep.
And at night she wouldn't go to bed until her mom or I had given her room a spritz of "bad-dream spray." This was a bit of hoodoo invented by my wife and the magic potion was just water in a spray bottle, but it gave Sally the reassurance she needed.
But just when I'd be about to write her off as a coward, I'd be reminded that she is totally unafraid of the only things that really scare me: People.
Sally and I were on a routine patrol of our street, when we were accosted by a neighbor. Tom was red-faced and angry.
"I want to talk to you," he said. Sally, just 3 feet tall, looked up, all eyes and ears.
"A minute ago, your daughter Marie ran across my lawn and trampled a rhododendron I just planted. Knocked a piece off it, and when I hollered at her, she just turned around and said, "Uh, I'm sorry."
Mimicking Marie's inarticulate apology, he used a moronic monotone that was way off and bordering on the offensive.
Still, his anger was justified and he went on to trace its contours for me: "You know, I try to make this place look a little nicer and I spent good money on these plants. I don't have a lot of money," he said accusingly, as if either I do have a lot of money or am somehow responsible for his low income.
I continued to be sympathetic, but I didn't like the picture he was painting - this heroic guy, robbed of his rightful share of the world's bounty by Rick Epstein, spends his last dime to beautify Rick Epstein's neighborhood, only to have the rampaging spawn of this same Rick Epstein lay waste to his costly plantings.
"Which one is the rhododendron?" I asked trying to sound concerned.
Tom went over to a little bush and said, "This one," and he picked up a fair-sized sprig from the lawn. "See? Here's the piece Marie broke off."
The damage wasn't impressive, but the man's rights HAD been violated and I stood there helplessly as he paused for breath prefatory to renewing his prosecution. Uncomfortably, I waited to see whether he'd summarize his main points or go on to break new ground.
Sally, forgotten up to then, piped up: "My mom wishes your dogs would stop barking."
Instantly on the defensive, Tom said to Sally, "Well, we're getting rid of one of them."
I moved in behind Sally's counter-attack, asking, "Oh, which one are you keeping? Rambo or Brutus?" Not that I cared. They live several doors away and only his immediate neighbors and sharp-eared and sensitive souls like my wife are bothered.
"We're keeping Brutus," he said.
"I think Brutus would bite my head off," Sally said emphatically.
"Oh, no he wouldn't," Tom pleaded. "Why, yesterday a little boy was over here pulling his tail and Brutus didn't even growl."
Tom's hold on me was broken. "I'll talk to Marie about the bush," I said as Sally and I resumed our progress up the street.
"OK," said Tom, frowning the frown of a man who hadn't vented his feelings as fully as he'd wanted to.
Later, when I scolded 7-year-old Marie for her carelessness, she burst into tears and eventually explained, "I was running and I thought I could jump over it, but I missed," she said. Having witnessed a recent ballet recital of hers, I could see how that could happen, and we closed the file on the case.
EPILOGUE: A year later,
Brutus did bite Sally. Her head did not come off; the bite didn't even break the skin. But my wife called the cops, and Tom had to pay a big fine. His traumatized rhododendron never recovered from being trampled. Its 18-month decline was horrible to see. It turned yellow and then lost its leaves one by one. A brown twig remained sticking up until somebody stepped on it, but by then Tom had moved away. He was never heard from again. Sally's phobias faded, and now, at age 10, she's not afraid of anything. Once in awhile she still has bad dreams, but I'll bet they're nothing compared to Tom's.
- Rick Epstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.