I HAVE NOT ALWAYS HAD A FEAR OF grass. IT'S treated me well. I'm not allergic to it and have enjoyed its coolness while watching lightning bugs flare and dissolve on humid July nights. I've even earned money by taking care of it.
If you are a teen-age boy in the suburbs, chances are you earn your summer money by mowing lawns. I was no exception. From the ages of 15 through 17, I cut a half-dozen lawns each summer.
When I become nostalgic about mowing grass, I am only remembering the richness of the sensory experience. The intoxicating and toxic vapors of gasoline mixed with fresh clippings. The chlorophyll tinge on the soles of my sneakers. The geometry of rolling the mower across a lawn, calculating quitting time by the ever-widening swatches of smooth, level grass. The eardrum-perforating pitch of an engine with the throttle fully opened.
I think male bonding with machinery begins with the lawn mower. From the cheap, arm-rattling, teeth-chattering, 2-horsepower, go-cart engine mowers to the electric-start, self-propelled, 2-cycle models, I have loved them all. Each machine had its own idiosyncrasies, as did each lawn and each customer.
The lawns ranged from postage stamp lots to what seemed like pastures where I expected to see sheep grazing or at least a horse or two. The amount of land was usually an indication of one's prosperity, but community respect was only gained by the neatness of one's lawn, not by the acreage of turf. There was always the neighborhood gossip at crab feasts or church gatherings about so-and-so not keeping up their lawn, the tsking at the sight of grass grown ankle high. Overgrown grass was an indication that the residents were either vacationers, agrarian eccentrics or the elderly.
Most of my customers were widows, widowers, or couples who had reached the graces and liabilities of old age and were unable to mind the yards themselves. Irregular hearts, respiratory conditions, arthritis, gout -- the ailments of the aging PTC robbed them of the pleasures of weeding a garden, trimming the rhododendron, mowing the lawn. To let their lawn go was a sign of succumbing to age, a sign that they were under the weather and could no longer fend for themselves. A manicured lawn was equated with stability. Time may have changed them but they could still carry on with the everyday details of their lives.
At the time I did not realize how much they relied on me, how independence is born from dependence. I was helping them keep their dignity. Ironically though, I felt that my independence was victim to their needs. The reason I mowed lawns was for the freedom it seemingly brought with it. It was a quick way to make a buck; I could knock off a lawn a day and then spend the afternoon swimming, playing tennis or whacking whiffle balls.
I became irritated when the customers made demands of me. The frugal who wanted the most work for their dollar. I was lazy and any extras like edging or sweeping only delayed my plans. The cleaning fanatics who wanted their property to resemble a putting green followed me around to point out blades that I had missed. One customer was so particular that she had me clean the mower's blade chamber with a putty knife and nail after every cutting. She stood over me like a drill sergeant as I cleaned the residue from it with the precision of a cadet cleaning his rifle for inspection.
Then there were those who demanded only my time and company, which I was impatient to share. They made sure I would take breaks on hot days, had me sit with them on their patios, and over glasses of mint iced tea or cold bottles of Coca Cola they'd quilt conversations about the unbearable weather, bridge games, hair and doctor appointments. Sometimes they'd invite me into their air-conditioned houses and show me school photos of their grandchildren. I could recognize a faint family resemblance in each child as he or she stood against a painted rural backdrop next to a plaster tree stump or a miniature Liberty Bell and flag. Sometimes they'd show me pictures of their departed husband or wife locked in pewter frames, the photos silver-toned and sepia.
Yet the conversations always returned to me. They were curious about my life, and at first I was flattered, but also felt awkward, something I now realize was my unwillingness to become a part of these people's lives, to have them rely on me too much.
I spent my life then focusing only on the future, and the temporary nature of the job suited this. The work was seasonal. I would move on. As I carted the mower from neighborhood to neighborhood, and pushed it across those lawns, I was certain that I was progressing toward greater things -- senior year, a minimum-wage job, college. I had rarely considered endings and what life must have been like when you are approaching it.
Yet I caught glimpses of this the closer I pushed the mower to the houses. Through screened porches and windows I saw cane handles, walkers, tired bodies holding onto furniture as they moved about their rooms. When this made me uncomfortable it was always easy to lower my head and pattern the cut so that it would send me on a peripheral orbit around the houses, furthering the distance between us.
There was one woman who would not allow me to escape, however, a widow who took such an interest in my future that my only option seemed to be to abandon her. She was refined, and I was out to prove to her that I was not merely a hired hand, that I had big plans. During one of our conversations I had announced my interest in geology. Upon hearing this, we began a series of talks where I was sold the merits of Purdue University, the school her late husband attended.
I admit I felt a self-importance, the kind a star athlete must feel when being recruited for a scholarship. After I had finished the lawn, we would chart my life course while sitting in her living room. I would apply to Purdue, where I would surely be admitted since she knew one of the deans, receive my geology degree, and then spend my time roving the Continental Divide discovering an overlooked gold lode.
I had begun to believe it myself; however, its perfection made me slightly suspicious, not to mention my math and science skills made me more qualified to study sand castles than rock formations. More frighteningly though, she was planning my life, and I would rely on her. I had to break away, and when August steamed in, I found the perfect opportunity. I was to join my family for a week's vacation at the beach, and the day we were to leave fell on the day I was to cut her lawn. I was in such a hurry to go that after finishing the front yard I weaseled my way out of the back by promising to cut it when I returned. I never did.
Her calls I would rudely ignore. Procrastination turned to guilt, a fear of her certain disappointment in me. Instead I directed all of my attention to my senior year in high school.
The following summer I accidentally ran into her at the public library. Any feelings of accomplishment that held from my recent graduation were --ed as she scolded me in a library whisper about my irresponsibility. She said she was ashamed of me, that it was wrong to abandon her like that. And she was right.
I had always wanted to live a life without imagining the end of things, without wanting to admit that we rely on one another, but that woman made me realize that this was impossible.
Since then, the fecundity of summer always reminds of things approaching the end of their days, of taking time for granted: station wagons packed with families and luggage returning from the beach, snowball and produce stands boarding up, baseball divisional races coming to a close, freshmen off to college.
Occasionally I'll cut down her street on my way to my parents' house and find that I can't keep from glancing at her house.
It was once yellow and now is gray. Her Oldsmobile that was once parked in the driveway is now replaced by a Bronco. A tricycle is tipped over on the sidewalk. The old woman is gone, yet I can't keep from wondering who cuts the grass now, and what became of her. And when I pass by I have to do a double take, because I swear that the grass in the back yard is always higher than it should be, and it chills me to think how it always edges back onto the sidewalk.
N BARNEY KIRBY'S last story for the magazine was on lacrosse.