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Patrick Hipp

THE YARDGOBBLER

 

           I wasn’t really mowing lawns—I was landscaping. The difference, say, between a barber and a stylist. It’s not easy to spot, the work I do, but when it’s done right, a yard will sing to the house that sits astride it in modulating choruses, like a field of reeds turned to the wind. It had as much to do with mowing as getting a haircut has to do with getting a shampoo.

           But anyway, lawns.

           The company I worked for was the Human Landscape Company, a very small outfit, and I was the only one who ever touched a lawnmower. On a good week, we would take care of maybe two lawns; three if it was a busy week, say in April or May. Things have gotten worse in the years since, and so business has gotten better, and the company has grown considerably.

           We took jobs in mostly upper-class areas in those days—although things have gotten bad enough that we make it into the middle class suburbs now—neighborhoods where the mean income is just shy of a fortune. The truth is, even if my Czech neighbors with the bad lawn had known what I did for a living, that I was probably the only person in the Mid-Atlantic that could fix their lawn, they couldn’t have afforded to hire me. Not even for their small patch of green and brown grass.

            I fixed problems like theirs all the time, at least once a week, on a far grander scale. Grander, I say, in the lawn sense.

            One week in June, I got a call from my boss to take the van over to a house in Warminster. By house, I mean mansion. Their yard took up over two acres, and they were having some problems with dead patches growing throughout the property. They’d called anyone and everyone, and no one had been able to do anything but shorten the grass, leveling it off at the same height as the dead grass, and leaving large, bright patches of sea-foam Sure-Gro where the dead grass had been and still was. Exactly as noticeable as it had been before, and truthfully, no healthier.

            I picked up the van from the office and headed over.

            The first step is always to park the van, then to apply the brake. Without doing that, the van either rolls down the driveway and clobbers a tree or idles its way through the living room window. So that’s the first step. Park, apply the brake, turn off the ignition.

            Next, I usually took the lawnmower out of the van and placed it onto the driveway—never the lawn—and headed over to the grass. I’d find a nice spot, the most lush, healthiest patch of grass I can find, and lay down. My hands resting underneath my head, fingers interlaced. Even if the sun was behind a veil of clouds, I’d close my eyes. In this case, I thought about the family whose lawn I was about to mow. I lifted my head up to check the mailbox. The Abbotts. Okay.

            So I thought about the Abbotts, and their unbelievably dying lawn, with its cancerous dead patches of grass making polka dots of the two-plus acres.

            Sometimes, I’d fall asleep. Thinking about the Abbotts that day, I did.

            I woke up at around noon, judging from where the sun was, which means I had slept for about an hour and a half. No one came out of the house to wake me up, no one called the cops thinking a vagrant was napping on their lawn. Sid made sure of that, and all of our customers knew better than to wake me up.

            There I was, waking up on the grass, thrown free from a dream that was already fading away. But it was enough. You’d be surprised how little can be enough.

            I got up from the lawn and brushed myself off. It’s amazing how many things stick to you when you just lay on the grass, how deep the impressions of the blades are in your skin. There was a cool film of sweat on my back, and if had I put my hand down where I had been lying, the grass would’ve felt cool and flat.

            A minute later, I’d knocked on the front door of the house and been let into the foyer, which spanned two stories with a massive chandelier hanging over it, twinkling in the sunlight.

            “Hi,” I said. The couple that opened the door stood there, expectant. They didn’t respond because they were waiting for something. It happened: “My name’s Jack. I’ll be mowing your lawn?”

            By upending the sentence, I was inviting them to respond, and they did. They were Douglas and Melissa Abbott, of the Long Island Abbotts. I didn’t know anyone from Long Island, but it was good to know that when I finally met someone else from there, I could small talk about how I once mowed the Abbotts’ lawn.

            “The Long Island Abbotts?” they’d ask me.

            “The very same,” I’d say. “Can you beat that?”

            Douglas shook my hand, and Melissa offered me a drink.

            “Thanks,” I said. “Can I ask you a couple things about your lawn?”

            “Sure, go ahead.” Mr. Abbott, who had probably never turned on a lawnmower in his life, seemed sure he could answer any question about his lawn.

            “When did it start developing those brown patches?”

            “Last summer,” he said. “We figured it was a seasonal thing, you know, because of that heat wave we had, and that it just never recovered. Doesn’t grass just die sometimes? You know, as an organism.”

            “I wouldn’t know about that,” I said. I really wouldn’t have known about that. “Your lawn isn’t a collection of separate organisms, like patches in a quilt. After a year or so, even a lawn that’s laid down in strips grows together and becomes one great big thing. Parts of it will get sick—like you’ve seen all over your yard—but it’s more like a person having appendicitis than, say, a tree dying.”

            “Okay,” he said, nodding his head with understanding, without actually understanding. They never do, if it can be helped. Sometimes, the act of fixing someone’s lawn is an announcement in and of itself, but usually it can be kept quiet.

            Anyway.

            Melissa Abbott came back with a glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon sacrificed on the rim. I thanked her and took a sip. The iced tea looked straight out of a magazine ad, with ice that tinked against the glass in this brilliant, cinematic way, as though there was a Foley artist in the next room, making a more lifelike sound than ice could really make inside of a glass. The tea was sweet but not too sweet, and the flavor of the tea was strong, but not bitter. The teabags had steeped in some sort of ritualistic fashion, precise and methodical. The work of an old, old woman or a very good maid.

            “Is your daughter home, by any chance?” I asked.

            Mrs. Abbott started a little.

            “Oh, you know Ellie?” she said.

            “Yeah,” I said, “We have some mutual friends. Is she here? Do you mind if I say hello before I start?” I leaned my head back, indicating the lawn through the front door.

            “Oh, of course,” she said. “She’s right upstairs. First door on your right. Just knock, I’m sure she’s up. I heard her banging around earlier.”

            “Okay, great,” I said, and I held up the iced tea gentlemanly and headed up the stairs and around the corner, where a long hallway with five doors began. I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I knocked again, softer, so the parents wouldn’t hear that Ellie was maybe possibly sort of asleep. I heard a nice groan somewhere on the other side of the door. The knob turned in my hand, turned, turned, and stopped. It rotated halfway, so it wasn’t locked; I could feel the door give a little inward.

            I opened it quietly.

            The room was dark. I could make out a lump in the blankets. One piece of sunlight was laid in a strip over the mid-section of the lump. Above the blankets, I could see the outline of a head. I imagined that she was very pretty, with dark hair and big eyes.

            I carefully mounted the bed, with my legs straddling the lump. She was facing the ceiling. I held my hand in the air just in front of her mouth, and I could feel the breath coming out, hot and slow. She was peaceful, and looked perhaps as beautiful as I’d imagined. Maybe she’d grow old and tired and the beauty would straddle the lump of her age. I don’t know how it works for women.

            This was the most important moment. The tiniest slip would ruin me, ruin Sid, ruin the Human Landscape Company and it’s four other employees. So I settled myself, steadied my breathing, and then I poured the glass of iced tea onto her head.

            Her eyes sprang open, two bright blue alarms ringing. The rest of the lump rose as she filled her lungs to scream, but my other hand had already clamped down on her mouth. She struggled, but my knees were pinning both of her forearms to the bed, my weight cutting her body down like a leather restraint.

            “Do. Not. Scream,” I said. She kept struggling, so I repeated myself. “Stop. Calm down. I just want to talk to you.” I put the glass down on the night stand and used a corner of the blanket to dry her face and my other hand. That’s when she realized her knees were free and started beating them against my back. My hand slipped for a second, and I heard a low whine, the running start all screams need. I readjusted, clamped down on her mouth again, and subdued her legs with my own. She twisted her body left and right, but my weight was enough to keep her in place. We all have such weights upon us.

            “Okay,” I said. I leaned down. Her eyes were wild and teary, although it was probably from the tea. “Look, I know what you’ve been doing. I know what’s going on. But a year is enough.” I whispered, “You. Are. Pushing. It. Your parents don’t know, but I do. Stop it now, or I will be back and stop it myself. Do you understand?”

            She hesitated, and then shook her head. She wouldn’t look me in the eye.

            “You don’t know what I’m talking about?”

            Another shake.

            “Of course you don’t.” I checked the time. I’d already been there too long. “Can I let go? Can I trust you not to scream?”

She shook her head. I pressed my hand against her mouth to stop the negative movement. “Try that again,” I said. “Can I trust you not to scream?”

Her head tried to shake.

“I’m going to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”

Her head didn’t move, so my hand nodded for her. The rest of her tried to twist out from under me again.

“Do you—stop—do you know what a family is?”

Blink, blink.

“It’s a blanket of grass that’s grown together over a lifetime.” She raised an eyebrow. “I know, you’re your own person, you don’t need them, you don’t need anybody. Right?”

            Blink.

            “You’re wrong. You need everybody.”

            When she blinked again, a tear rolled down from each eye. My muscles were started to tremble from holding my body in position.

            “Do you know what blight is?”

            She didn’t blink, not even once. Everyone thinks of cities when they hear that word anyway, so I just shook her head ‘no’ for her.

            “It’s a disease that destroys entire crops. Like the potato famine in Ireland. The bad apple spoils the bunch thing.” I could feel sweat beading up on my forehead. “Do what you want to yourself, but understand that you are killing everything around you. You are a blight, the bad apple. You—” Spasms in my left leg. “Look, I’m going to let go. Scream all you want, slap me, whatever, because my leg is falling asleep. Okay?”

            Blink.

            “I’m serious. My leg hurts.”

            She nodded, and my hand nodded with her. I took my hand off of her mouth.

            “Okay, good,” I said. I got up off of the bed and thought I felt the slight breeze of a kick just missing my head. I hopped over to the window to relax my leg, opened the shades and tied up the curtains. I heard her sit up in her bed. “Goddamn. Charley horse,” I said, looking back at her.

            “What are you doing in my room?” we asked each other. I told her I was fixing the lawn.

            “What are you talking about?” we sang. I even match her inflections. I told her not to worry about it.

            “I’m going to report this. I’m going to call the cops,” she said.

            I sat on the edge of the bed. “And tell them what? That the guy who came to mow the lawn came into your room?”

            “Yeah,” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m going to tell them.”

            “And then what? They’re going to ask you what happened. In front of your parents. Are you going to tell them what happened?”

            She blinked again.

            “Right. You won’t even admit it to me, and I’m hardly the public record.”

            “You assaulted me.” She was rubbing the part of her left arm where my knee was.

            “Prove it.”

            “There’s probably a bruise. There are probably bruises.”

            “There probably are. From who though?”

            She was silent again.

            “What about the ones that have already gone yellow and started to fade? Can’t blame me for those.”

            She stopped rubbing her arm.

            “A year is a long time. Too long to give up on things getting better on their own, maybe. But some things… some people deserve to be given up on. Hasn’t it been a long year?”

            She nodded like she was hypnotized.

            I got up again and went to the window. Outside, the lawn sang to me, even the dying parts. “This is very simple. It’s a… wake-up call. You’ve been asleep a very long time. Do you understand?” I turned around to see if she’d nod. At this point, there’d be no talking from her.

            Her hair had fallen down around her shoulders, and even in the sunlight, the waves of her hair were black and nothing else. Not a hint of a highlight, not a single white hair.

            She nodded.

            “Now, I’m not going to watch you. I’m not going to check up on you. You are simply going to move on and forget this ever happened. And in a month,” I said, “I’ll be back, and without following you, asking around about you, or anything, I will know if you’ve kept your word. Do you understand?”

            She nodded, and her hair nodded with her.

            “Good. Because if I come back and you haven’t made things right…” I trailed off. This was my favorite part of the speech. “I’ll have to schedule an appointment with your friend, and then it will be assault.”

            I turned back to the window. So much grass, I thought. And it’s getting late.

            “Okay,” I said. I went to her night stand and got the glass. Ellie tensed a little when I got close, and it broke my heart a little to have such a pretty girl be  afraid of me. Me. She was my age, after all, a peer, one of a million possible friends and acquaintances I could’ve met along the way. But her eyes were so young, so unaware. I felt like a monster for a second, but it passed. I was, in the end, an agent of good in the whole thing.

            He was the monster. 

            I circled her bed and headed for the door, and she asked me who I was. Just “who are you?” in a voice that was all sex and sleepiness. The voice of a pillow when all you want to do is sleep.

            “I’m the lawn guy,” I said and closed the door behind me.

 

Downstairs, the mother was sitting in the foyer, reading the lifestyle section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, but she was really waiting for me. The lawn guy inside her house. Who ever heard of such a thing?

            “Was she up?” she asked. “I suppose she was.”

            “Yeah,” I said. “She’s wide awake. Is she still seeing what’s-his-name? I forgot to ask.”

            “Oh,” she said. “Yes. Yes she is.” I gave her a look that said, there’s no accounting for taste. She gave one back that said, tell me something I don’t know.

I went for the door—I still had a lawn to mow, after all—and she cleared her throat. I turned around and was flanked by a maid holding a serving tray with nothing on it. Oh, I thought. I put the empty glass on the tray and nodded to the maid.

            “Thanks for the iced tea,” I said. “It was just what I needed.”

 

The lawn was easy. Most palatial estates have sprawling, unobstructed lawns that you can run a mower up and down in long stripes until the whole thing is uniform and short. On the east side of the house, I could feel Ellie’s blue eyes following along with my slow serpentine path north and south. She’d have been thinking how I knew her, if I knew her, how I knew she was hiding something from almost everyone she knew, and why I’d given her an ultimatum. Despite my promises to the contrary, she was probably wondering if I’d be watching her over the next month, before I finally came back for the second appointment. Sid always scheduled two appointments at a time because of the nature of what we—what I—do. It’s necessary to come back.

            But I already knew that in a month’s time that lawn would be as lush and green as ever. The brown spots would come alive again and sway and sing with the rest of the grass. Unlike everything else, though, the grass didn’t tell me that. I just had a feeling. I just knew.

            Around the west side of the house, the grass spoke to me one last time, and so I looked behind myself and saw Ellie standing there. In full sunlight, showered and dressed, she was an artist’s rendering, a study in proportions, a beauty on the brink. I throttled down the engine as she walked towards me, and when I turned back around, she was on top of me, her arms around my neck, and her eyes as blue and wet as the ocean. I put my hands on her back. She was already pressed pretty snuggly against my chest; I just secured her. I felt her breasts against me, but I wasn’t aroused. Her chest heaved and her breathing hitched and I could feel little drops dotting my shoulder and my neck, mixing with my sweat.

            She’ll need another shower after this, I thought.

            And after an eternity of being wrapped around her like a blanket, she pulled back. She wiped her eyes and made a face that said isn’t this embarrassing. She laughed, nervously, and the sun brightened a little bit.

            “Thank you,” she said, and walked away.

 

I finished up the lawn, and it looked pretty good. I took my time doing the edges of the property and all around the house with the weed-whacker, made sure I didn’t leave any unsightly clippings behind, and I loaded up my van.

            Before I left, I laid down on the grass again. The sun cut an angle to the earth that I made out to be very late afternoon. I stretched out with my hands behind my head and listened. The earth was cool beneath me, sweaty as I was, and the grass was short and prickly, but not uncomfortably so. A breeze picked up and blew through the grass, through me, and through the grass again. Everything sang under the bright pink shades of my eyelids.

            A month, I thought. In a month, you can change everything.

            Lulled to sleep by the breeze and the soft song of the grass all around me, I dreamed my dreams, knowing that everything was going to be all right.

 

END



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