Gertrude Meganhardt lives year round in a seaside neighborhood. Within the first three hundred words of “The Neighborhood Commandant” readers get plenty of story, setting, characterization, mood and potential conflict. Her territory is trespassed by a “shaggy-haired young man in baggy jeans and a black tee” seen behind a neighbor’s house. It’s March, and many of the homeowners have left until the warm weather returns, including Jim, who owns the house where Gert sees the man. He’s a plumber, checking out a leak, which is enough to disarm most of Gert’s apprehension, but readers are given an inkling the story isn’t finished with his character. The man’s reappearance at the end of “The Neighborhood Commandant” is not unexpected, but the circumstances are unpredictable and add a big dose of tension and crisis.
The theme of this story is embodied in the title, “The Neighborhood Commandant.” “Commandant” refers to a military officer in charge of a particular force or institution. In this story, the main character, Gertrude Meganhardt, is a loner who lives full-time in a resort community where most owners come only in summer. She is a self-appointed commandant in that she enforces the rules of courteous behavior in her part-time neighbors, keeps alert for problems and notifies the police when she sees them. The author’s intent is to demonstrate the natural and logical consequences of this attitude, especially in someone who is angry about being mistreated in her past.
If anyone on her street forgot to take in their empty trash cans during the summer within a half hour after collection, Gertrude made a point of reminding them. “This isn’t Tobacco Road,” she’d say. When tourists trotted past her house with their fancy city dogs, she’d hand them a plastic bag-just in case they forgot to bring one. If a neighbor dumped a useful item like a swivel chair on wheels, Gert would sniff it out and push it through the streets with her two tiny mutts perched on the seat before anyone else could get to it.
On a late March day, as she cut through her neighbor Jim’s yard, her head pivoting in that odd way she had as if she were sniffing out trouble, her two mutts yiping at her feet, she noticed his screen door was ajar. She slammed it shut. The next afternoon a shaggy-haired young man in baggy jeans and a black tee appeared from behind Jim’s house.