A Flock of Lawn Flamingos

This story first appeared in Lethal Kisses, edited by Ellen Datlow and published in England by Millenium Books. (Copyright 1996 Pat Murphy)

A Flock of Lawn Flamingos
by Pat Murphy

Live Oak Estates was a pleasant little townhouse development in a pleasant little California town. I lived there peacefully enough, until Joan Egypt moved in and everything changed.

I met Joan Egypt on a sunny autumn day. I had just pulled into my car port when I saw a moving van pulling away from the townhouse next door. It was late in the afternoon, and I was coming home from work--I'm the librarian at the local elementary school. I had spent the day preparing for the first day of school.

Cardboard boxes were stacked on the front lawn of the townhouse. From the sidewalk in front of my house, I could see through the open front door into the living room. The room was crowded with more cardboard boxes. From where I stood, I could read the black scrawls that identified the boxes' contents. "Dance masks--Tibet & Mongolia," read one. "Zuni fetishes," read another. "Shrunken heads," read a third, "Handle with care."

I was hesitating on the sidewalk, wondering if I should welcome the newcomer to the neighborhood, when Joan Egypt stepped out the door, heading for one of the stacks of boxes on the lawn. She was a tall woman with a tangle of curly white hair. She wore khaki pants with button-flap pockets and a flame red shirt. She grinned when she saw me on the sidewalk. "Hello, neighbor," she called.


"It really isn't all shrunken heads," she said, waving a hand at one of the boxes. "A few shrunken heads, a few blow guns and darts, and some other artifacts from the Jivaro culture that I picked up on my last trip to Ecuador. And a few pickled heads from New Zealand. But I thought the movers might handle it with more care if they thought it was all shrunken heads."

I managed to nod in agreement, while wondering how and why anyone would pickle a head. "I suppose you're right," I said slowly. "Movers can be so careless."

She held out her hand, still grinning. "I'm Joan Egypt. Just call me Joan."

I shook her hand. Her grip was solid and confident and I could feel callouses on her palm. She was not, I thought, the usual sort of person to move into Live Oak Estates. "I'm Nancy Dell, your next door neighbor."

"Glad to meet you, Nancy," she said. "It's nice to be back in the States." She told me that she had just returned to the USA after spending the last decade abroad. "Field work in a variety of places," she said. "Indonesia, South America, Nepal, Tibet, Siberia." She was an anthropologist, it seemed, and she'd come to our town to teach at the community college. "I thought I'd settle down for a time," she said. "Just for the hell of it. This seems like a nice, quiet place to live."

"It's very quiet," I agreed, wondering how she would adapt to the quiet life. The townhouse complex was a very orderly place. Several acres of identical houses, painted in earth tones, each with its own tiny front yard. Once, a young couple had painted their door bright red, but Mr. Hoffer, the head of the Live Oak Estates Home Owners Association, had spoken to them about it. They repainted it brown and moved soon after.

"I need a little peace and quiet," she said, gazing into the distance. "I had to leave my last post rather quickly. There was an incident...." She stopped in mid-sentence and waved a hand dismissively. "Let's just say it was time to leave."

I was trying to think of how I might tactfully find out why it had been time to leave when I heard Mr. Hoffer's footsteps on the sidewalk. "Hello, ladies," he called.

Mr. Hoffer was a retired minister. Every afternoon, he strolled through the development, alert to breaches of the regulations established by the Home Owners Association and to any other changes that might adversely affect his property values. He wore, as always, brown polyester sansabelt slacks and an immaculate polo shirt. He had a bad knee so he carried a burnished wooden cane, which with he gestured when he wanted to make a point. He was a stern, uncompromising man who showed too many teeth when he smiled.

"I'm Pete Hoffer," he said, holding his hand out to Joan. "You must be the proud new owner of this lovely corner house."

"Yes, I suppose I am," Joan agreed as he pumped her hand.

"Welcome to the community," he continued. "As you probably know, I'm president of the Live Oak Estates Home Owners Association."

"Why no, I hadn't realized."

"I certainly am, and I wanted to make sure that you'd been properly apprised of the regulations by your realtor."

"The regulations?" Joan looked faintly bemused. "I suppose they might have been in the papers that I signed when I bought the place."

"It's really quite simple," Mr. Hoffer explained. His voice had the soothing tone of a man who had offered sympathy and counsel in a professional capacity. "You've agreed--just as we all have--that you will not alter the external appearance of your home. The regulations list some of the troubles we've had in the past. You'd be surprised at the sort of things people will do. There was one family, for example, who left a packing crate on their front lawn for three full days! I finally had to ask them to remove it." He was staring at the boxes on the lawn as he spoke, and he thumped his cane on the sidewalk for emphasis.

"I can't imagine what they were thinking," Joan murmured.

"Of course not. Well, if you notice any irregularities in the neighborhood, please be sure to call on me." Mr. Hoffer shook her hand again and walked briskly away.

"Interesting," Joan said, watching him turn the corner at the end of the block. "Is that true about the regulations?"

"It certainly is."

Joan glanced at my house. "What about those flamingos on your lawn?" she asked, pointing to the pink plastic lawn flamingos on the grass by my front door.

"Oh, you can have a few lawn ornaments," I said. "Lots of people do."

"I see," she said, nodding thoughtfully. "But you can't change the external appearance of your house." As she spoke, she began strolling down the sidewalk, examining the houses one by one. I followed, puzzled by her seeming fascinations with this minor regulation.

We passed the Arvey's house, where a stone duck followed by seven stone ducklings waddled across the lawn. A few doors down, on the Winfrey's lawn, a stone garden gnome stood by the flower bed.

Nothing unusual--just bird baths, flamingos, and the like--until we reached Mr. Hoffer's house at the end of the block. In the alcove beside his front door, a life-sized, marble statue of the Virgin Mary stood, her hands spread in benediction. A pedastal elevated the statue by more than a foot, so she smiled sweetly down on passersby.

"That's Mr. Hoffer's place," I said. "The statue was a gift from his parish when he retired."

Joan nodded and turned back in the direction from which we had come. "I see that there's room for some individual expression in lawn decoration at least," she said.

"Of course," I agreed. "Of course there is."

# # #

The next day, I stepped out of my house and discovered a flock of flamingos on Joan's lawn.

I hadn't realized how very pink lawn flamingos were until I saw fifty of them, standing in a cluster on the square of neatly mowed grass. Twenty five flamingos stood tall, raising their heads high. The other twenty five were in the other traditional lawn flamingo pose, necks lowered close to the ground.

Joan was putting the last flamingo in place as I stepped out the door. She waved cheerfully when she saw me. "Good morning," she called. "It really brightens the place up, don't you think?"

"Oh, yes," I said politely. "It's very bright." From up close, the flamingos seemed even brighter, an expanse of pink punctuated only by the white spots that marked their eyes. I got in my car and headed to work, the flamingos a blur of pink in rear view mirror.

That afternoon, when I came home from work, I saw Joan and Mr. Hoffer, standing on the sidewalk. They were deep in discussion. I parked my car and strolled over to join them.

"It's quite clearly against the regulations," Mr. Hoffer was saying.

"I don't think it's quite so clear-cut," Joan disagreed calmly. "The regulations expressly permit traditional lawn decoration, and I don't think there's any lawn decoration much more traditional than a flamingo. Why, Nancy told me that she's had hers for years." She turned an innocent gaze in my direction.

"That's true," I said slowly. "And no one has ever suggested that my flamingos might be a problem."

Mr. Hoffer glared at me. "Your flamingos are not a problem." His voice was rising. "You have the normal number of flamingo. But this is not normal."

"Now Mr. Hoffer, " Joan began, "you'll find that standards of normalcy vary from culture to culture. Take, for example,...."

"In this culture, it's not normal to have more than two flamingos," Mr. Hoffer interrupted. "And if you can't interpret the regulations correctly, I suppose we'll just have to make them more specific."

"Now, Mr. Hoffer," Joan began again, but he was already hurrying away down the sidewalk, planning, no doubt, an emergency meeting to amend the regulations. "I seem to have upset him," Joan murmured. "I just thought they would look festive."

# # #

There was, of course, a meeting of the Home Owners Association. It was attended by Joan, myself, Mr. Hoffer, and the five other members of the board. We sat in metal folding chairs in the Live Oaks Community Center, a small inhospitable building beside the swimming pool. The Community Center had been intended, I believe, to serve as a site for parties, community lectures, and other gatherings. But Mr. Hoffer kept the key, and as far as I knew, no one ever borrowed it.

Mr. Hoffer explained the purpose of the meeting very briefly. "There are entirely too many flamingos on Ms. Egypt's lawn," he said. "I recommend that we set a limit on how many ornaments a lawn can sustain."

Before the others could speak, Joan raised her hand. When Mr. Hoffer called on her, she delivered a short, and I thought very interesting, lecture on flamingos and their habits. "I think we need to consider the natural history of the flamingo," she began quite seriously. "These birds are extremely gregarious. In their natural habitat, you would never see a single flamingo; you would never see a pair of flamingos. Never. It just doesn't happen. In Madagascar, they gather in flocks of hundreds. As far as the eye could see, the shoreline is crowded with flamingos." She waved a hand, gesturing at the white plaster walls that surrounded us as if, just beyond them, we could see flamingos in their flock.

"They squabble and nest along the shoreline. At night you can hear them honking like geese. When the flock takes flight, the flapping of their wings is like thunder. They wheel overhead, as pink as a cloud touched by the setting sun."

She lowered her hand. "Yet we keep our flamingos in lonely pairs. Our children will grow up thinking that this is a natural situation: two flamingos, all alone. I think it's rather sad." She studied the faces of the board. "On my front lawn, I have, as much as is possible with the materials at hand, recreated a natural situation for these plastic flamingos. Perhaps you can think of it as an educational display."

When she sat down, the board remained silent for a moment. Then Mr. Hoffer spoke briefly on how this extreme sort of behavior could cause all of our property values to plummet.

The discussion of precisely how the regulations should be amended was lengthy. The existing regulation read: "Homeowners may, at their discretion, install lawn ornaments depicting traditional subjects." Mr. Johnson, a young, upwardly mobile bank manager, suggested putting the words "a few" in front of "lawn ornaments." Mrs. Michaels, a retired accountant who had been calmly knitting through all the talk, looked up from her work to complain that the wording Mr. Johnson had suggested would necessitate removing some of the stone ducklings from Mrs. Arvey's lawn. Mrs. Arvey had a mother duck and seven ducklings. Seven was, after all, more than a few--but no one had ever complained about Mrs. Arvey's ducks. In the end, they agreed to insert the words "a traditional number of," so that the regulation read: "Homeowners may, at their discretion, install a traditional number of lawn ornaments depicting traditional subjects."

As Joan and I walked home from the meeting, I offered my sympathies. I had, after all, gone to the meeting to support her. No one ever attended meetings of the Home Owners Association. "It's really too bad," I told her. "I liked looking out my front window and seeing all that pink."

"Yes, I think they're quite festive. And biologically accurate, as well." Her tone was thoughtful, and I wondered if she was thinking of trying to ignore the board's dictates.

"I'll help you take them down, if you like," I said quickly.

"I suppose I do have to take them down," she said.

I nodded. "I think so. Over the years, I've found that it's easier to live within the regulations."

She nodded and continued walking, frowning a little. We were walking past Mr. Hoffer's house, with its neatly trimmed lawn and the statue of the Virgin Mary. As we approached the driveway, moving within a few feet of Mr. Hoffer's car, the car spoke to us.

"Please step away from the car," it said, in Mr. Hoffer's calm voice. "Alarm will sound if you do not step away from the car."

We both automatically stepped away from the car. Then Joan stopped, staring at the vehicle. She took a step toward it and the car spoke again. "Please step away from the car." She stepped back, then stepped forward again. "Please step away...." She did.

"Careful," I said. "When the alarm sounds, the car starts honking its horn and switching its lights on and off."

"What a strange thing," Joan said, stepping toward the car. "Please," the car said. She stepped back, then forward again. "Please....Please....Please...."

"Mr. Hoffer had it installed a few weeks ago," I said. "He cares a lot about his car."

Joan studied the shiny vehicle and nodded. "I see. That's really an interesting device he's got there. I wonder...." She stopped in midsentence, then turned away and began walking toward her house. "Yes," she said quickly, her tone brightening. "You're quite right about staying within the regulations. I think I can manage that."

We took the flamingos down the next afternoon. While we worked, Joan told me about her days in Madagascar, studying lemurs in the forest and camping beside the lake where the flamingos nested. We left two flamingos in place, and I thought that was that.

For a week, Joan's lawn was empty. Then, one afternoon, a truck arrived. Its cargo was wrapped in white canvas. I stared from my kitchen window, watching Joan chat with two burly men as they untied the ropes and unloaded the truck, setting up a new display on Joan's lawn: a garden gnome holding a lantern

Only one gnome, no more. A traditional number for garden gnomes, I think. I didn't notice anything unusual in its appearance. It was a smiling, cheerful, innocent garden gnome. The only thing that seemed a little strange was the sign on the side of the truck. The delivery was from AAA Auto Alarms. Why would an automobile alarm company be delivering a garden gnome?

As I watched, a crowd of children gathered around the truck, around the gnome. They were behaving very oddly. One by one, they would approach the gnome, then leap back, laughing. Mrs. Johnson, who was walking her dog, had stopped and was chatting with Joan.

I went outside to find out what was going on. A girl in blue jeans and a red t-shirt stepped toward the gnome and I heard a gruff voice say, "Please come close to the gnome. No alarm will sound. The gnome is not alarmed. I don't mind if you approach the gnome." The child stepped away, giggling.

"I suppose you could think of it as an art installation," Joan was saying to Mrs. Johnson. "I started thinking about it when Mr. Hoffer's car told me to back off. It seemed so sad, when even inanimate objects told you to keep your distance."

"I hate that car," the woman said.

"It does seem rather unfriendly," Joan said.

"Mr. Hoffer is going to have something to say about this," I said, gesturing toward the gnome, which was once again telling the children to approach.

Joan smiled. "I don't see how he can object. There's nothing against it in the regulations. It's a traditional lawn ornament, in a traditional number."

"I suspect the regulations will be changed again," I said.

# # #

I was right, of course. Mr. Hoffer didn't like the gnome. He called another emergency meeting of the Home Owners Association to talk about amending the regulations. As before, we met in the Community Center, but this time Mr. Johnson had to set up extra folding chairs. Mrs. Johnson was there. So was Mrs. Scott, the woman who lived next door to Mr. Hoffer.

Joan spoke first, talking about the importance of public art, about how it could provide us with a new perspective on our society. She talked about the isolation of modern life and the irony of lawn gnomes, which reflected our fantasy about and our yearning for a pastoral life. She discussed the sterility of modern life.

When she was done, Mrs. Johnson spoke up in favor of the Harold, the Talking Gnome, which is what the lawn ornament had come to be called in the neighborhood. "The kids like it," she said. "And I don't see that it's hurting anyone. It doesn't bother me, and I live right nearby."

Then Mrs. Scott directed a few remarks to Mr. Hoffer. "I don't like your car," she told him. "It's always yelling at me. If you make Joan get rid of the Talking Gnome, then you have to make your car shut up."

Mr. Hoffer turned red. Then he talked for almost an hour--about property values and about how the gnome was a public nuisance, encouraging children to gather in unruly groups. What would happen after the novelty of the Talking Gnome wore off? The children would be wandering around with idle hands, looking for something to fill their time. He talked about the crowds that would come to visit the Gnome. In somber tones, he described the consequences to Live Oak Estates--keep the gnome and there would be hordes of unchecked teenagers rampaging through the neighborhood, tearing up mailboxes, painting graffiti on the walls, tossing garbage cans about; there would be crowds of curiosity seekers, trampling people's lawns and leaving litter behind.

"This is not an art gallery," he concluded in an impassioned tone. "This is our home. We can't have every Tom, Dick, and Harry trooping through, staring at our homes and leaving their litter behind."

The discussion of how to change the regulations was more heated than before. Mr. Hoffer's car, which had, apparently, annoyed everyone at the meeting at some time or other, drew fire. Mr. Hoffer kept protesting that his car was not a permanent fixture of the development and was therefore exempt from regulation.

Mr. Johnson, with an eye on his wife, defended the gnome. But Mr. Hoffer maintained that lawn ornaments should not speak. In fact, he suggested that the board forestall future problems by dealing with other possibilities: lawn ornaments must not speak, light up, move, or otherwise interact with the passersby.

Mrs. Scott took a more general stance. "If we're going to make the gnome be quiet, then Mr. Hoffer's car has to stop talking too."

In the end, after much discussion, the regulations were amended to read: "Homeowners may, at their discretion, install a traditional number of lawn ornaments depicting traditional subjects. Lawn ornaments, vehicles, and other objects must not be electronically embellished to speak, light up, move, or otherwise interact with passersby."

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Hoffer was scowling, unhappy about his car alarm. But Joan did not seem at all upset. She thanked the two women who had spoken out on behalf of the gnome and left the meeting smiling.

"You seem to be taking this well," I said as we walked home. "I guess Mr. Hoffer got his just desserts."

"Oh, I suppose," she said. "But that isn't really the point."

I frowned. "What is the point, then?"

She strolled down the sidewalk, still smiling beatifically. The moon was full and it was a lovely autumn evening. "Ripples in a pond," she said at last. "That's the point."

"What do you mean?"

"Ripples, like the ones that spread out when you toss a pebble into a pond. I love watching what happens when you introduce a tiny perturbation into a system. You give a little push here--or there. And somehow, everything adjusts to accommodate that change. But you can't predict exactly how things will change." Her smile grew broader. "There's an element of chaos. I think that's what appeals to me."

"I guess that's what Mr. Hoffer is afraid of," I said. "Chaos. That's why you two will never get along. Chaos and order don't mix. Like oil and water."

"Not at all," she said. "You've got it all wrong. Mr. Hoffer and I belong together. In fact, we require each other. We're not like oil and water. We're more like yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, a cosmic balancing act. The world requires chaos as well as order"

"If you say so," I murmured.

# # #

A week later, the giant flamingos arrived. Two of them, in traditional lawn flamingo poses. I saw the truck and went out to watch the men set the birds up on Joan's lawn. The tall flamingo was over eight feet tall; the stooping one was easily six feet.

"Hello, Nancy," Joan called. "Aren't they wonderful?"

"Where did you get them?" I asked.

"I called around. A friend knew of a sign shop that had cast some flamingos for the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. So I called them up and explained what I needed. I think they did a bang-up job."

A boy riding past on his bicycle had stopped to watch. "They're rad," he said, nodding his approval. He called to some kids down the block, and they ran to see what was happening on the corner.

A woman in a turquoise blue jogging suit lingered on the corner, her eyes fixed on the flamingos. "In the sixties, I had a dress, just that color," she said, a trifle wistfully.

I gazed up at the taller flamingo. Against the blue of the sky, its head was an amazing shade of day-glo pink. Joan and the woman had started talking about the color pink and their general hatred of pastels. "But real pink is different," Joan was saying. "It doesn't have to be a pastel. A really intense pink is a fine color."

I listened to them chat as the men fixed the flamingos in place, sinking their legs deep into the sod. At last the woman jogged away, the boy pedaled off on his bicycle, and the other kids wandered off to tell their friends about the latest addition to the neighborhood.

"Mr. Hoffer won't have it," I told Joan. "You'll never get away with it."

She shrugged, smiling. "It's within the regulations," she said. "A traditional number of lawn ornaments, depicting a traditional subject. I don't see how he can object." When I stared at her, she just laughed.

# # #

And so there was another meeting of the Home Owners Association. This one was better attended than the last--Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Scott had both brought friends. The kid on the bicycle was there. So was the woman who had been jogging.

Joan spoke about her flamingos very briefly. "There are only two of them," she said. "They depict a traditional subject. And they aren't electronically embellished. There's nothing in the regulations against them."

"They fall within the letter of the law--but not within its spirit," Mr. Hoffer protested. "They're too big."

Joan studied him calmly. "I didn't think size was an issue," she said. "After all, the lovely statue on your lawn is at least eight feet tall, including the base."

Mr. Hoffer stared at Joan in horror. "You're comparing those pink monstrosities to my statue of the Blessed Virgin."

"Only as far as size goes," Joan said. "The flamingos come from a very different tradition, of course. But they are a bit smaller than your statue."

The discussion of how to amend the regulations began at seven o'clock and ended at ten, by which time the members of the Board, with the exception of Mr. Hoffer, looked exhausted. In the end, they added the phrase "of a traditional size" to the sentence about lawn ornaments. Mr. Hoffer also insisted on adding a line that expressly permitted his beloved religious statue: "Masonry figures of religious or cultural significance are exempted from regulations governing lawn ornaments."

At the end of the meeting, as Mr. Johnson wearily folded chairs and put them away, Mr. Hoffer smiled at Joan grimly, certain he had won.

# # #

More than a month later, a truck pulled up by Joan's house and five burly men unloaded an enormous stone disk and stood it on edge in the middle of the lawn, like a giant wheel from some prehistoric monster truck. The disk was about eight feet tall and two feet thick, and it cast a long shadow across the lawn.

"Where did it come from?" I asked Joan. We stood in the shadow of the disk, gazing up at it.

"The island of Yap. On Yap, these disks have incredible cultural significance."

"Of course," I said. "But how did you get it?"

She smiled. "It wasn't easy. But I have friends who owe me favors and some of them work in museums. You have no idea the sorts of things that some museums have in storage." She went off then on a story about the Smithsonian storage warehouse and what was in it. Apparently she had worked at the Smithsonian briefly, before being dismissed for "irregular conduct." I never did find out exactly how she had obtained the stone disk, but perhaps it was better not to know.

Of course, Mr. Hoffer objected. He scheduled a meeting and Joan and I attended. So did all the people who had attended the meeting about the giant flamingos and all of their neighbors who had heard about it. The meeting had the air of a party. Mrs. Johnson brought a cooler full of beer and Mrs. Scott brought a couple of bags of potato chips. People set up folding chairs and filled the space with noise and chatter and the crunching of potato chips.

Mr. Hoffer had to shout to call the meeting to order. The other members of the board seemed nervous. Mrs. Michaels' knitting needles clicked along at twice their usual rate. Mr. Johnson kept glancing around the room nervously.

"We are here to discuss that thing in front of Ms. Egypt's house," Mr. Hoffer began. "I don't think there's room for much discussion. The regulations permit traditional lawn ornaments of a traditional size in a traditional number. That chunk of concrete on Ms. Egypt's lawn does not fit within the regulations. It's as simple as that."

When Joan rose to speak, the room was quiet except for the crunching of potato chips. "I'm afraid Mr. Hoffer is mistaken about the artifact that decorates my lawn," she began. And then she told us about the Micronesian island of Yap, where families display large stone disks, sometimes up to twelve feet in diameter, in front of their homes. The size and quality of each stone is an indication of the prestige and wealth of the family that owned it; the stones, anthropologists say, are a unique form of money. These masonry lawn ornaments are quarried on an island that lies some 250 miles from Yap. Each stone is transported to Yap at great trouble and expense.

The stone on Joan's lawn was, of course, a stone of great consequence, imported from Yap. "I will," Joan said, "recite for you the credentials of this notable stone, in the language native to the island of Yap." And there, in the Live Oak Estates Community Center, Joan held out her arms like a high priestess about to perform a pagan ritual. She took a deep breath and she began to chant. Strange guttural sounds echoed from the white walls; long unintelligible polysyllables drowned out the sound of crunching chips. She turned as she chanted, her dark eyes scanning the crowd, as if inviting each of us to celebrate with her.

She paused to take a breath, then continued with the babble of unfamiliar sounds, ponderous and mysterious as the Latin of a high mass. Though I could not understand the words, her presentation was powerful.

She concluded the chant with familiar words that it took me a moment to interpret: "Joan Egypt, Live Oak Estates."

Then she took a deep breath. "As any inhabitant of Yap could tell you, that list of the stone's owners includes many important warriors, chiefs, and religious dignitaries--whose company I am honored to join. On the island of Yap, this stone disk is a traditional lawn ornament in a traditional size. So it quite clearly falls within the regulations. Unless, of course, you wish to amend the regulations to eliminate the provision that allows for masonry fixtures of cultural significance. Because this stone is an object of great religious and cultural significance, and its presence on my lawn brings prestige to our community." She smiled at Mr. Hoffer and sat down.

The crowd applauded and Mrs. Johnson stood up to defend the stone as an example of freedom of expression. Then someone else stood to talk about the need for cultural diversity in the neighborhood.

Through it all, I watched Mr. Hoffer. His face had gone pale. He had, only now, recognized the trap. He could require Joan to remove the stone, but the change in regulations would necessitate the removal of his beloved statue.

The regulations did not change. The Stone from Yap stayed. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Hoffer limped to his now-silent car, defeated at last. The neighbors remained in the Community Center, drinking beer and eating chips and chatting about this and that. Joan circulated through the crowd, thanking people for their support.

# # #

Time passed. The grass grew thick around the base of the Stone from Yap. Every evening, Mr. Hoffer walked through the development, just as he always had. But his attitude had changed. Before Joan's arrival, I would have said that he strolled through the development like a lord, surveying his lands. Now his gaze was furtive. He glanced at each house as he walked past, a hint of fear in his eyes. What changes might he see? What new trouble was headed his way? He walked slowly, as if his old knee injury were giving him trouble.

Then Joan told me that she'd be moving away. "It's been lovely here," she said. "The quiet has done me good. But one of my old friends has planned an expedition up the Amazon by hovercraft. It's a wonderful opportunity. I can't pass it up."

"But what about the Stone from Yap?" I protested. "What about the balance of yin and yang?"

She shrugged. "I think I've done my part on behalf of chaos. But I was thinking--perhaps you'd you like the Stone from Yap on your lawn?"

The evening before Joan left for the Amazon, she and I--with the help of half a dozen neighbors--rolled the Stone of Yap from her yard to mine, leaving a patch of bare dirt surrounded by green grass in the center of Joan's lawn. After the others left, Joan and I sat by the Stone, drinking beer. She wrote down the chant that she had recited at the meeting of the Home Owner's Association. Even thought I couldn't understand a word of it, she made me recite it over and over, correcting my pronunciation of the rolling polysyllables. "There's a glottal stop there," she said, pointing at the paper. "Don't run the syllables together like that."

At last, after much practice, she nodded. "Close enough," she said. "Now just add on the last two owners and their villages. That's Joan Egypt and Nancy Dell of Live Oak Estates. And you're done." She twisted the cap off another beer and leaned back against the Stone from Yap.

"I'm looking forward to this expedition," she murmured. "It's a great opportunity."

"You're all packed?" I said.

"Pretty much," she said. "Except for the lawn flamingos."

"The lawn flamingos?"

"I've still got all fifty of them. Goodwill didn't want them, so they're still in the garage."

"I know what to do," I said.

That was how we ended up strolling through the development at one in the morning, putting pairs of lawn flamingos on the lawns of twenty five deserving neighbors. And the next day, I took Joan to the airport. "Keep the balance," she told me, and she flew away.

It's been almost a year since Joan left. I think about her every day. She gave me, as a going away present, a pickled head from New Zealand. It's on my kitchen windowsill and I look at it every time I do the dishes.

I got a letter from Joan the other day. The envelope was grimy and tattered and covered with stamps that pictured exotic birds. "I hope this letter reaches you," she began. "I'm entrusting it to the local trader and he doesn't seem like the most reliable sort." She was staying in a small village somewhere in the rainforest. "I'm getting to know the villagers," she wrote, "and I'm learning the local customs. It's a lovely place. So very peaceful."

I thought about ripples in a pond and I wondered how long that would last.

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