The Man Without Yard Art



"Philip Gnome died in Johnson County on January 11, The Man Without Yard Art."

I happened upon his story while awaiting a bus in Kansas City where I passed the time drinking crème soda and reading notices on a bulletin board. I admit, I would have taken little note, had I not known Philip Gnome.

Years earlier I met with this dashing young fellow. Not a man would have refused drink with him. His neighbors, to a man, spoke well of him, except in one circumstance. He was obsessed with blandness. No house could be beige enough, no yard uncluttered enough, no garage clean enough for young Philip Gnome. He had, in point of fact, apprised himself a one-man crusade to eliminate yard art. And in his mounting obsession with sameness and despising of all things creative, he secured an army of attorneys who pummeled his neighbors with summonses written in obscure language inundated with "wherefore and whereas".

Little did poor Philip Gnome realize that his downfall awaited at 1752 Billings Lane, the home of one Erin Burr. Erin Burr was everything that Philip Gnome despised.

Erin Burr's house was a garish concoction painted in bright colors of purple, red, green and yellow that refused to conform to any known architecture. It sent chills down the spine of Philip Gnome and visited him
as nightmares when the lamp burned low and the owls hooted.

Yet there was more. Erin Burr passed vacations collecting odd bits and pieces of sculpture at various roadside stands which he dared place prominently in the front of his house. Birds, geese, windmills, gazing balls, ladies bent with bloomers askew, cherubs, lawn jockeys, and deer all found welcome at 1752 Billings Lane.

And so young Philip Gnome, in his defense dear reader, because he was driven to the point of madness each time he passed 1752 Billings Lane, because his nights were now a desert of sleeplessness which he passed walking the beige carpet of his tastefully appointed living room, Philip Gnome did the only thing that would keep the abyss of insanity at bay. He sued.

Oh dear reader, how was Philip Gnome to know what dark future lay before him? Would that he had a gazing ball that he might have glimpsed the future that was sealed by his wanton actions, and that such a ball was settled at 1752 Billings Lane in a pond of creaking frogs with their little tongues forever frozen in plaster. Was the hand of fate wrenching irony into the tortured life of poor Philip?

How could young Philip have known that Erin Burr, was none other than "the Erin Burr", heralded far and wide as the attorney who would play cards with the devil and exit with silver-lined pockets and a ticket to paradise?

So it was that the trial date arrived. The courtroom was hushed, the galleries filled with usually kind people, yet hoping as is human nature, I'm sorry to report, for Phillip Gnome to finally meet his match. Down below sat the reporters garmented in suites the color of vultures, notebooks poised, breath suspended, cameras pointed at two stark figures at the courthouse front.

What was in Burr's mind that day I know not, dear reader. It is not our business. The outcome would not have differed. Would he have deliberately exhibited chart after chart of elves, trolls, jockeys, wagon wheels, flying geese, and flamingoes only to drive poor Philip Gnome to a fate of immeasurable consequence?

"Damn Yard Art, I wish I had never heard of it." A hush fell upon the crowd, an inaudible gasp, as the audience measured the full impact of Philip Gnome's words.

So be it." The judge was solemn. "Phillip Gnome, hear the sentence of this court. May your wish be granted. From this day until the day of your last breath, you shall not glimpse, hear of, or speak of yard art. It is so ordered that you spend the remainder of your days in Johnson County, Kansas.

Gnome laughed, but the crowd remained silent.

"You are to remove Philip Gnome to Johnson County and give him a home according to his status, clothing proper to his needs, treat him justly, but he is never to see yard art again.

And so it was that Philip Gnome began his days in the far reaches of Johnson County. I knew him not in those days, but I had report from acquaintances who looked in on him from time to time, perhaps from kindness, but more likely from curiosity. He began his sentence in glibness, bragging that the judge had delivered of him just such a sentence as he so desired. He celebrated a life lived on a featureless street with row upon row of biscuit-colored houses with manicured lawns devoid of the trappings that Philip Gnome so despised. A newspaper full of cut-out holes was delivered to his pristine driveway each morning that he might not read or see a picture of even one smiling dwarf sculptured of stone.

For thirty years his sentence continued. It was at that point that I, having been stationed by my publisher in Olathe, which was near his outpost, took mind to visit Philip Gnome. I found him to be a changed man.

The lightness of his step was vanished, his posture bent, his resolve poor and I must report that overall he was in a wretched state. His hand trembled as he offered me refreshment while we sat in darkness with shutters drawn against the afternoon sun. At first we engaged in polite conversation that covered matters political or remarks directed to the heat of summer for it was July when we met. We sat opposite one another in a room without cushion or knick-knack or vase displaying flower and relieved only by the pictures glowing from a television screen. I did not know, but found out later, that the judge sensing that he might have occasion to find way around the sentence, had ordered that the box be set permanently to PBS.

Who could have known that a harmless rendering of William Wordsworth's "Splendor in the Grass" on Masterpiece Theater would be the final breaking of Philip Gnome?

"What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass,
of glory in the flower;"

Here the wretched fellow choked and motioned me to follow him down a flight of stairs to his basement chamber. Having reached the bottom, he paused and switched on an overhead light.

I was astonished to see a room carpeted with Astroturf upon which crouched, soared and lounged dwarves, elves, geese, young girls carrying baskets, old men fishing, turning windmills, shining gazing balls, squatting frogs, leaping deer, and a host of flamingoes, all of which were fashioned from a pottery wheel I glimpsed in the corner of the room.

As I stood in speechless wonder, Philip Gnome laid his arm upon my shoulder and spoke. "Youngster, let me tell you what it is like to live without yard art. It is to glimpse a world in which no creative impulse be countenanced, it is a world in which the hungry soul cannot feed from the celebration of diversity, cannot grow, but must wither until it is only a memory. If you should ever think to say a word against your neighbor because his tastes be separate of your own, then pray God for mercy. Stick by yard art, boy, write about it and tell my story so that others might not be sealed to this

Philip Gnome died in the solitude of his home one winter night when shadows caste long indigo rows upon snow-pillowed lawns. His final wish was that he be buried in a small cemetery in his former hometown. I visited him there in later years and took comfort that at least in death he was surrounded by smiling cherubs, winged angels, and flowers that hung in fragrant abundance from an arbor that spanned his grave.

On his stone was carved this epitaph, "He loved yard art as no man, yet no-one deserved less to see it."

The End


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