“That witch needs her head examined!” roared my father after yet another confrontation, evidently hoping his shout would carry out the screened window to Mrs. Hokinson’s pointed ears. I could see her in her backyard, fuming as she pruned a bush with quick chops of a hedge clipper, which was almost as sharp as her nose. Her angular body jerked with each snip, a few stray locks from the bun of gray hair dangling over her waxy face. Our family thought she looked exactly like the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz,” with an identical personality.
My mother, father, five-year-old brother and I lived in the Dundee area of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1960 to 1966. Our decision to move to another middle class neighborhood was partly influenced by Mrs. Hokinson’s lack of hospitality. At six years of age, I understood little of the arguments she and Dad carried on over the back fence, but the tone of their voices told me everything I needed to know.
The Hokinsons’ brooding bungalow squatted to the west, close to our basement garage, and it seemed to loom over the wire fence into our massive catalpa tree, which shed long cigar-like pods that Mrs. Hokinson frequently complained about. All the windows of her house were sealed by heavy curtains, like shut eyes.
Mr. Hokinson, some sort of engineer, appeared so infrequently that we doubted his existence. The children in our neighborhood whispered that he was chained in the basement, and that if you listened closely on summer nights, you could hear him scream. They had a teenaged daughter, Monnie, whose rare presence contributed to the myth. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of her walking off to high school early in the morning, carrying her books in the crook of her arm with her head lowered, as though she needed every bit of concentration to move her feet. Some afternoons I watched her walking back with the same demeanor, climbing the stairs to the front porch, tugging herself up the rusted rail like an old woman. Rumor had it that her mother and father regularly deprived her of food, evidenced by her frailty and bony physique. She baby-sat for my brother and me once, reading in a dark corner and paying no attention to us at all. Because we ate a whole package of chocolate Ex-Lax under her care, she was never asked back.
“Next time I’m going to tape record that Hokinson witch,” my father threatened again and again. He set the reel-to-reel on the back porch, ready for action. But the arguments flared up so quickly that he never had the chance to turn it on.
Each “discussion” (my mother’s term) seemed to last hours, though they were perhaps ten to fifteen minutes long. Mrs. Hokinson’s shrillness seemed to carry for blocks, though only a few houses on either side heard.
Every week or so, I saw her and my father leaning at each other over the dilapidated fence, their faces so close they could have touched noses. My father’s shouts sounded like gunshots, Mrs. Hokinson’s like a crashing piano. From my secret perch in the catalpa, I watched my father’s red face shake, his hands clenched at his sides. The Wicked Witch gripped the frail fence, her reptilian body ready to spring, the loose skin of her neck flapping every time she uttered an epithet.
I had never known my father to use foul language, and to discover that he cursed liberally with his neighbor shocked me. “Watch your tongue!” I wanted to yell. “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!” With their loud and venomous voices, I often feared that Dad and Mrs. Hokinson would trade blows. Although they never did, on one occasion Mrs. Hokinson spat in Dad’s face.
As far as their many differences went, I never thought they warranted this level of animosity. Most topics struck me as ridiculous. Several times our dog got loose, digging under the fence to explore the Hokinsons’ yard. Occasionally the dog barked briefly at night. Sometimes my brother and I lost a baseball in their bushes, or the lawn sprinkler accidentally doused the side of their house.
Our other neighbors to the east pleasantly chatted with us every time we saw them. The elderly couple behind us exchanged cookies and pies with my mother. But they had their own difficulties with the Hokinsons. Secret alliances formed between all of us unlucky enough to live nearby. My friends from up and down the street believed the dark bungalow was haunted, that Mrs. Hokinson, an escaped lunatic, had blood under her fingernails and a hatchet under her pillow. We tiptoed past the house, lowered our voices whenever we were near. A Frisbee over the fence was forever lost.
One ongoing source of conflict became the property line, an invisible divider that Mrs. Hokinson asserted was eleven inches further into our yard than my father claimed, the line supposedly running across the top of the driveway wall instead of giving us a little more space. The sagging wire fence, which looked like a snake from one end, just caused more confusion. Yet because of its wandering nature, it provided a “demilitarized zone” of approximately eleven inches, appearing to belong to no one.
One winter my dad shoveled the basement driveway, heaving heavy, wet snow atop the seven-foot rock wall on the Hokinsons’ side. This drew another protest from the Wicked Witch, who shoveled the snow back down onto the driveway. The two of them shouted at each other from our front porches, Mrs. Hokinson shaking a ruler to demonstrate how far our snow had encroached on her property.
The next spring, after a night of pouring rain, the wall collapsed, sending armies of roaches into our house. Dad suspected the Witch had done something to it–perhaps stomped her feet along the edge or undermined it with a shovel. We wouldn’t have put it past her.
While my father made the repairs himself with cement and cinder blocks, Mrs. Hokinson notified the authorities that he hadn’t gotten a building permit. He spent the night in jail and had to pay a $100 fine, a sizable amount back then. This served to bring the conflict to a fever pitch.
Soon after, our family finally got the opportunity to move to a newer neighborhood. I would miss our old clapboard house with the big kitchen and dusty attic, the upstairs screened porch where I spent warm days in the hammock. I would miss my friends–the games of “Hide and Seek” and “Crack the Whip,” the humid summer nights catching fireflies–and I would miss Dundee School, with its yellow wood floors and smell of wax. But moving to a new place excited me–the houses stood farther apart and the neighbors were more friendly.
As we packed the U-Haul, Mrs. Hokinson stood watching from her sidewalk, arms barricading her flat chest. Once the last box was put into place and we all piled into the car, the Witch’s screech shattered the sticky afternoon:
My father twisted the key and pumped the gas pedal. “Same to you!” he yelled as our tires squealed. My brother and I watched her disappear in the back window. Just as we rounded the corner, Mrs. Hokinson tripped as she climbed the stairs to her front porch. We didn’t stop giggling until we’d driven all the way across town.
Zan Bockes, (pronounced “Bacchus”), earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. Her work appears in numerous publications and she has had four Pushcart Prize nominations. Her first poetry collection, CAUGHT IN PASSING, was released in 2013 and her second, ALIBI FOR STOLEN LIGHT, appeared in 2018.