Twilight zoning

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I spent a large part of last winter standing outside my house in the cold, waiting for my Siberian husky to relieve herself. It wasn’t fun and I realized a few weeks back that I just didn’t have it in me to spend another winter that way. So my wife and I decided to fence in the backyard.

But as we were getting the estimate, I saw the fence guy glance down at the Kerry/Edwards sticker on the bumper of my Hyundai. I was going to take it off after the election but then I didn’t. The sticker seemed to unsettle the fence guy somehow.

He snapped his head back up and said, “You do have a zoning permit for this job, right?” Not yet, I told him. “Well, you give me a call when you got that permit,” he said, and climbed back into his truck.

So eight o’clock the next morning, I was standing at the counter in the zoning office. I stood there for a long minute, and nothing happened. A Garth Brooks song was drifting lazily from the back room. There was this little silver bell on the counter and I popped it once gently with the flat of my hand.

Immediately a guy stuck his head out from the back, and on his face was an expression of utter disbelief. I had the sense that he thought ringing the bell was impossibly rude. The man made his way to the counter, but then just stood there, looking at me.

“I’d like a permit to fence in my backyard,” I said. The man just kept staring at me.

So I went on. “We’d like to get the permit as quick as we can, so we can get the work done before the snow flies.”

And then the zoning guy said, “Oh, would you really now?”
I was a little taken aback. “Yeah, we would.”
“Well, isn’t that precious. And you’d like that permit chop chop, I suppose? So you can just build to your little heart’s content.”
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know what the problem is -“
“The problem,” the zoning guy said, leaning way out over the counter, “is that we had a presidential election a few weeks back. And there was a winning side and a losing side. And sometimes people on the losing side think that they can talk trash for two years and then have all forgiven when they finally go down in flames. They think they can just waltz in here and get a zoning permit any time they feel the impulse.”

“You’re telling me I can’t have a permit because I went for Kerry?”
“No, I’m not saying you can’t have a permit. No, no, no, no, no. I’m just saying that the zoning rules have changed. Blue States don’t set the agenda anymore. Your application has to be routed through the nearest Red State. In 2000, it would have gone to New Hampshire, but now it’s Iowa. And that can take a good little while.”

“This is crazy,” I said.
“No,” the zoning guy said, shaking his head, “crazy is thinking you can lose a bullfight and somehow avoid the horns.” He handed me a 26-page application.

“Look,” I asked, “can you give me any idea when this will be approved?” The zoning guy took the bell off the counter and slid it into his pants pocket.
“Sometime around the middle of Jeb’s second term,” he answered.

As I left the zoning office, the first few snowflakes of the winter were curling to earth. My husky always howls the night of the first snow and I knew suddenly how she feels – intensely alone, separated somehow from the majority of her pack, with winter closing in.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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