It was the middle of July and summer season was in full swing down in the panhandle of Florida. The sun beamed with a ferocious heat, exciting the humidity to an almost impossible level. Where others would squirm and hide within the confines of their air-conditioned dwellings, Floridians embraced it. As soon as the sun rose, those at my apartment complex were out and about. In the morning, people could be seen loading up SUV’s and trucks with gear for that day’s adventure. Dogs happily played in the park with their owners watching from afar, engaged in delightful conversation. Everyone used the long day for what it was worth, undeterred by the occasional afternoon thunderstorm that would always pass by in a hurry around 2 or 3 o’clock. In the evening, many would sit outside in their screened in back patio porches and enjoy the cool breeze.
It was during this time, the community was on full display. Delicious smells of sizzling meats would waft from local cookouts. Families would get together and laugh over fond memories. Those that had third story apartments would get to watch the sun set on the beautiful Florida horizon, bearing witness to the magnificent arrays of reds, ambers, and golds that cast upon the drifting clouds. It was here that I enjoyed many evenings with my dog, George. We would sit out on our balcony, unafraid of the annoying mosquitoes lurking outside the safety of the screen, and I would read a book to help bring an end to my day. George was a puppy then, always eager to play, but also knew that when I had a book in my hand, he was to sit in his patio chair and enjoy the solace. A simple pat on the head every now and then would suffice until I was done reading.
Though many in the apartment complex were generally respectful, every community had those residents that just could not get along. In my apartment complex, there were two that always seemed to be in competition with one another, both of their balconies were conveniently across from one another; the only thing separating their ground level apartments was the main road that wound its way through the complex. My building was positioned adjacent to theirs and from my perch, I had a front seat to it all. Steve and Harry – I’ll never forget them. They were always trying to one up each other. If one of them would had some holiday decorations up, then the other would have to do the same – but more extravagant. If one would have a party, then the other would have to throw a bigger party. If one would hang a red flag from their balcony, then the other would hang a bigger blue flag outside their balcony. You get it.
During the summer, I watched their pettiness grow to an obnoxious level, smiling as they busily moved about their patios, jealously looking at the others dwelling. If they saw something they did not have then they would scowl at it for minutes on end. If the other neighbor caught them in this act they would try and play it off in the most obvious way. I remember one of their interactions going like this.
“Nice patio lights!” Steve shouted from his balcony. He glanced at Harry through the screen, faking the best smile he could.
“Thanks,” Harry replied, “There was a sale at Lowes. 50 feet of lights for 30 bucks! Can you believe it?”
“Wow,” shouted Steve, “Too bad I hopped on the sale for 35 feet of lights for 20 bucks last week.”
“Should have waited.”
“I guess so.”
They were quiet for a moment and then Steve asked, “What made you want to get em’?”
Harry shrugged. “Looked nice, I guess. It looks so much better when the lights loop all the way around the patio.”
I could see Steve take a quick look over his shoulder. His lights only covered three out of the four lengths of his patio. They would laugh awkwardly and return inside their apartments as quickly as they had both come out. I remembered I looked at George and he stared up at me and shared my sentiment of the interaction.
This went on for a while longer and though the community chose not to get involved, eventually I decided that enough was enough. There had to be a way to get them to shed their petty ways. Over the next few days, I continued watching them from afar, drawing up my plans, and waiting for the right time to make my move. When the time was right, I bought myself a tall top hat that was divided vertically down the middle with the left side being blue and the right side being red. It looked like something out of a circus act. That evening, when I knew Steve and Harry to be out on their patios, I put it on the top hat and took George for a walk down the main road. As I passed their apartments, both saw me and stood up.
“Hey,” called Steve, “Where’d you get that blue hat?”
“Blue hat?” shouted Harry, “That hat is red!”
“HAH!” laughed Steve, “Don’t be silly. That hat is obviously blue.”
“Me? Silly? Don’t be so rash. You are the one that’s being silly. That hat is obviously red!”
I let them both argue and said nothing, doing all I could to resist the urge to give a sly smirk. George and I left them behind, their cordial shouts shooting across the street like gauging artillery on the eve of battle.
The next day I did the same thing. I waited until they were both on their patios, and then I took George for a walk down the main road while wearing my dual colored top hat. They were both ready for me this time. As soon as they saw me they both shot out of their chairs.
“Hey, you,” called Harry, “That’s a nice red hat!”
“Red hat?” shouted Steve, “Stop your nonsense! That hat is blue!”
“You can’t be serious!”
Again, I continued on without word, leaving them to their ways; bickering and arguing like little children – except this time, they dropped the insincere pleasantries. Their words cracked and popped between them like the thunder that preceded a nasty storm. Many came out on their patios and balconies, to watch the shenanigans unfold. They talked amongst each other in hushed tones, like they were thick into the plot of a captivating movie and the action was about to begin.
The next day, I did another pass. This time, Steve and Harry were at the edge of their patios, waiting for me to show up. They eyed each other from behind their screens, the intensity of their stares burned upon me as soon as I came into sight. I heard many patio doors opening as people came out to see how things progressed this day.
“Hey, you,” called Steve, “my bimbo neighbor over there thinks your hat is red when it is obviously blue. Can you tell him that he is wrong?”
I said nothing.
“Bimbo!?” shouted Harry, “You are the idiot who thinks red is blue!”
“Me? An…an idiot!? How dare you! That’s it! Meet me in the street or I will kick in your door!”
“FINE!” shouted Harry, “This was a long time coming anyway!”
Both of them ran inside their houses. I could hear the cracking of opening beer cans and many neighbors talking amongst themselves. Some made bets. A moment later, Steve and Harry burst outside their dwellings and immediately started shouting at each other as they closed the distance between them. When they met in the middle of the street, they were both fuming with rage, posturing themselves against the other.
“Hey!” I called.
They stopped and looked over at me. Both were dumbstruck by what they saw. Their anger subsided in the blink of an eye.
“Do one of you have the time?” I asked.
Both were too shocked to answer, they just stared up at my split colored top hat, their mouths open in disbelief. When I didn’t get a response, I just shrugged and said, “Guess it’s time to move on.” George and I changed direction and went back the way we came so that, this time, the blue part of my hat was facing Steve and the red part of my hat was facing Harry – opposite to what I had been doing. They watched me pass between them. When they finally faced each other, wide smiles ripped across their faces and both burst out in laughter. I smiled as I listened to their animosity melt away. I looked down at George, who stared up at me with a happy face. His brown eyes gleamed.
“We did it, buddy,” I said, “For too long had they alienated the other from the confines of their patio.”
I looked back and saw them laughing together like good friends.
“It was finally time that they meet, face to face.”