I gave up a long time ago trying to be friendly to the neighbors. From the front window I can see the guy with the new black GMC, wiping the sides of it down with a soft chamois towel. He stops every once in a while to wipe the sleeve of his shirt across his head where he’s sweating. Once, he looks over and spots my figure in the window. He waves over but I don’t do anything. When he goes back to wiping I laugh out loud to myself.
The story with him is his wife left and he bought a truck. The story with the guy in the house to our left is that he’s a lawn freak. He’s constantly overseeding and fertilizing and aerating his pathetic front yard. It looks the same as my yard and I don’t do anything except pay some kid to mow it when it starts covering up the morning paper.
The people in the house to our right have got kids. Last Easter one of the kids, a little brown haired girl about six years old, came over and was rummaging in our front bushes looking for eggs. I hammered on the glass of my window with my palm and scared her so much she started crying. I could see the faces of her parents through the glass, unbelieving. They had their video setup rolling and some little Minolta, and they were shooting the kids having fun.
That’s the sort of thing I would have frowned on in the old days. But these are different times.
I quit my job when I turned 35. I know it’s a cliché, and probably you know someone who’s done something similar, but I don’t care. I used to be an editor for a trade publishing outfit. We did college textbooks, mostly, and sometimes, if I was a good boy, I could work on one of the two or three collections of poetry we’d put out.
My boss was a guy named Earl who was bald but who died his thick beard jet black. Every once in a while we’d bug out early and drive to this strip joint called The Cube, and we’d drink beer made in Texas and sometimes order pizza from the place next door. Earl had a little wife trouble a few years ago, and so he’d take these opportunities to fill me in on what was wrong with the world.
“It’s wicked,” he’d say, about four beers along. “Wicked. Every damn minute. We’re snowballs on the surface of the sun. Pffffft.”
We’d go along like that until he’d hand me his car keys and I’d drive him to his place.
But, I quit that job. Went in one morning and dropped a manuscript box I was working with on Earl’s desk.
“Give it to one of the kids,” I said.
Earl just looked up at me. “You’re quitting?”
“You want me to get you a girl or something?”
About the time he and Janet broke up he had met a couple of girls who worked out of the Sheraton. It wasn’t the first time he had suggested it.
“I could fix you up.”
I just waved him off and headed out. I left all my personal stuff in my office and just walked out the big front doors, across the parking lot to my car, and I went home.
My wife isn’t too happy about the whole thing. At first we just got the money figured out. I’d been pouring it into a retirement plan for seven years and we figured I could be out of work for six months to a year if I really had to. But it only took Rachel about a month to get tired of all of that.
“Get out of the house,” she says when she goes to work. “Go to a movie or the mall or something. Go fill your car up with gas.”
“Full,” I say.
“Mow the lawn. Go buy some fish. Miniature golf.”
“I’ve got it covered,” I say.
Rachel works in advertising. Don’t ask me to explain it. She’s not a photographer or anything, and she doesn’t write commercials. It’s something else. She buys or sells time on network TV. That’s it. That’s as close as I’ve come to understanding it in about six years.
We met during a rain storm at a rest area. No kidding. In ten years or so of driving I had never pulled over for any kind of weather. I drove through a goddamned snowstorm on my prom night. I’ve driven down a mountain on glare ice, drunk, arm around some girl I fell in love with on my one trip to a ski resort.
But this one day it had been raining for nearly two straight hours. And this wasn’t rain; it was vales of water washing down on the highway like a waterfall. I could feel the tires planing about every quarter mile, and the visibility was down to a couple of car lengths. I saw the rest area exit and nearly piled into a row of cars that had stopped there ahead of me.
I was on my way back from a little weekend at a Ramada Inn in Austin, Texas. No reason. I had just started working at the publishing house and my salary seemed formidable. I ate room service for two nights and watched cable TV. Went to the pool. I had been living in a crummy two room place back in Dallas, and getting away from it was the best vacation I had ever had. I had only gone a hundred and eighty miles away from my apartment. I could have gone to Jamaica. Stranger things have happened since.
But there in that line of cars we all sat while the rain gradually slowed. After it died down, I got out and stared at the vending machines for a while. Rachel was standing looking at a fruit juice machine and she was soaking wet. She turned to me and she was crying.
“Do you have any change for this?” she said, holding a wet dollar bill that she had been trying to jam unsuccessfully into the change machine.
I plunked three quarters into the juice machine and she punched one of the lit buttons. She thanked me and handed me a dollar, which I didn’t accept.
“Please,” she said, but I held both hands up.
She shrugged, the tears still working a little, and she headed to a small red convertible that had the top slightly bent on one side. She apparently couldn’t get the thing latched and the water had poured in on her and the car during the storm.
“Hey,” I said, heading after her.
But that seems like a million years ago. We talked awhile, discovered we lived and worked a few miles from each other and once back in the city we dated for six months before we got married.
Now six years have passed and this is the first time we’ve had any trouble at all.
“Do something,” she says, when she finally leaves for work.
The first guy I talk to is the lawn freak. His name is Rick and he’s younger than me, a fact he brings up while he’s hatcheting tiny green weeds with some sort of foreign gardening tool that has an extremely small and sharp pointed end and a long fire engine red wooden handle.
“What do you do?” he asks me.
“Nothing,” I say.
He laughs. “That’s cool,” he says. “I park cars at a club downtown.”
“Valet?” I say.
“Yeah. Tuesday through Saturday, about 8 to 2 in the morning.”
He keeps working and I try to convince myself to stay and keep talking.
“What kind of club?” I say.
“Jazz. Fat Ed’s Jazz City. You ever heard of it?”
“Seen the name in the weekend paper sometimes.”
I put both of my hands in my pockets and watch him work some more. About two hours after Rachel went to work I got this wild idea that I should come out here and say hello at least. That’s the least a neighbor should do every once in a while.
“Seen you cutting your lawn last weekend,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, and then I swivel so I’m looking back at my place.
“”Yeah, you’ve got to do something about your mower.”
“Dull,” he says. “You get down and look at the tops of the blades of grass and they’ll all be sawed off. Here,” he says, reaching down and pulling a single blade out of his lawn. “Look at this.”
The blade is straight cut at the top, I suppose. Big deal.
“That’s a lawn,” he says, holding on to the last word for a second.
“Yeah,” I say, dumbly.
“And you need a pattern. What? You just go around in a big square, right?”
I just nod and he starts hatcheting again.
“I’ll draw you one, if you want,” he says.
I sort of nod, but not really committing myself to it. We stand there a bit longer and he works silently. After a full two minutes pass he stops and looks at me.
“Well? You got a piece of paper and a pencil?”
When I come back, after retrieving a yellow legal pad and a solid blue marker, Rick is talking to the guy from across the street, the guy with the black truck. They look like bookends. They’re both a little shorter than me, Rick with short cropped red hair and the other guy with brown hair, thick glasses, and a thin mustache.
“Hey,” Rick says. “Here’s the guy now.”
Rick introduces the black truck guy as Mike. We stand there in a little triangle and I feel foolish suddenly for holding the paper and pen.
“I just came over to tell Rick about this show on Hitler I was watching. Great black and white footage of some speech. I don’t know when it was. No subtitles or nothing. Just a bunch of those fucking Krauts cheering their asses off.”
“Mike’s got a new truck,” Rick says, walking back into his open garage, and hooking the garden tool to a brown pegboard next to various shovels and rakes.
“Traded my wife for it,” Mike says, and the two of them laugh.
The next day I meet Rick and Mike out at the end of my driveway at 9 sharp. Rachel has been gone for an hour and I’ve been looking over the grass cutting plan Rick made for me. As Mike and I stand there watching, Rick sharpens the blades on my mower with some red handled affair.
“Wal-Mart special, am I right?” he says, pointing at the mower.
“Sure,” I say. “What have you got?”
Rick and Mike look at each other for half a second and at the same time they say, “SNAPPER!”
The three of us take turns pushing my mower around, stopping after each pass to consult with one another and look at the map. “The key is the diamond in that front corner,” Rick says while Mike takes a turn. “You can see that you’ve been putting a tremendous amount of strain on that part of the lawn. This way we’ll get some natural aeration, and you won’t be treading on that area until it gets a little bounce back.”
“You got beer inside?” Mike asks as he passes by. He yanks his forearm across his forehead one time.
“It’s ten in the morning,” I say.
“Yeah?” Rick says. Then he slams me on the back.
Inside, Rick and Mike and I sit at the kitchen table. I found Lone Star longnecks in the refrigerator and we’ve got the sound of the television on in the other room.
“Mike quit his job, too,” Rick says.
“I was an auto shop teacher at the high school.”
“Why’d you quit.”
“I hated it. Hated those stupid kids.”
“I used to paint houses,” Rick says. “But now I just park cars a little bit.”
“That’s working,” I say.
“Hardly working,” Mike says, and we all laugh.
“What did you do?” Rick asks me, finishing one bottle and heading for the fridge to get another round.
“No shit,” Rick says. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Tell him about your wife,” Rick says.
“She left,” Mike starts. “Get this. I’m in the back yard cutting some crepe myrtles, and I see her standing there on the patio. She says something about some shit, I don’t know. Then I get the hose and I start watering the myrtles. She’s yelling at me about something over the sound of the water and I swear I can’t hear a thing. So I turn and face her, and blammo, I just spray her with water.”
Rick laughs so hard that a little beer comes out of his nose.
“Got her with the hose?” I say.
“The hose. Soaked her. She packed up while I was raking up dead branches.”
Rachel isn’t real impressed when she gets home and finds the beer bottles everywhere. In fact, just seeing her, I feel a little ashamed.
“Is this the new schedule you’re working on?” she says. “Drink all day? Watch TV?”
“Actually I was meeting the neighbors.”
“What neighbors? Our neighbors?”
“Yeah,” I say, getting up from the couch. “The guy next door, and the guy across the street.”
“Mr. Lawn Man?”
“Rick,” I say. I go stand next to her in the kitchen where she’s still standing staring at me. “Rick and Mike. Really nice guys.”
“I bet. Don’t they have jobs, either?”
Rachel moves past me and down the hall.
“Actually, no, they don’t. Rick parks cars? You know that jazz club downtown? And Mike’s wife left him, but he got a new truck.”
Rachel stops for a second and looks at me. “Jazz club? What jazz club?”
“I don’t know. Jazz City something?
“Isn’t that nice,” Rachel says. “You have someone to play with now.”
Rachel keeps getting undressed and I stand there and watch her while she changes from her business clothes to soft blue sweatpants and a t-shirt.
“You’re beautiful,” I say, coming up from behind her and holding her around the waist.
“Get off,” she says.
After she pushes me away I say, “Want Mexican?”
“Big cheeseburgers from ‘Omaburgers’?
“Italian from Golden Sicily,” she says, hands on hips.
“I’m going next door,” I say.
As I make to walk away, she comes up quick behind me and grabs me around the legs. “I love you more than rigotoni,” she says.
“You don’t like rigotoni,” I say.
“There you go,” she says.
We end up eating frozen dinners and making love on the couch, the light from the TV flickering over us.
Many hours later, I’m sitting out on the patio under a perfect half moon. There are stars everywhere, like you sometimes see when you get out of the city some. I’m just sitting there trying to think of a reason to stand up and go to bed. Or a reason to do anything. But nothing comes. I just sit there, unable to move.
“What’s the matter?”
Rachel’s voice comes to me through the screen door. I can see her leaning up against the door jamb in a blue cotton t-shirt. Her legs look white in a splash of moonlight.
“Nothing,” I say. “I can’t sleep.”
She slides the door open, closes it and then pulls a chair up next to mine and sits down. She reaches over with one hand and holds my arm. Her beautiful hair falls over her face so I can see only the side of her face lit by the moon.
“You’ve got to come back,” she says. “You’ve got to get back to me.”
“What do you mean?” I say, but I’m panicking. I feel sick to my stomach and I’m afraid I know what she means.
“Where have you been? What the hell’s been going on? Is it something about me?”
“No,” I say, and I turn to face her and it’s only then I realize she’s crying. “It’s me,” I say. “I’m confused, or something. I don’t know. It’s not you.”
Right then I just want to go get my job back or turn back the clock or something to make it like it was before. How did we get here, sitting on a patio in the middle of the night?
“I’m scared,” Rachel says, and then I stand up and pull her to me. She cries against my chest and after a while we go back to bed.
The doorbell starts ringing at seven on Saturday morning. Rachel has to nudge me about eight times before I get the message. When I get there I see Rick standing on the sidewalk outside with twelve inch clippers taking out part of a large green tree with red berries that overhangs our front door.
“Do you know what time it is?” I say to him.
“Time to get going,” he says. “The nurseries open at 6:45.”
I leave him there still cutting and I go back to the bedroom to get dressed.
“What’s going on?” Rachel says.
“I promised the guys I’d go look at cactus with them.”
“Cactus. You know? I thought I might put one out there in the backyard.”
Rachel sort of half squints, half stares at me.
“Loamy soil,” I say. “That’s why that damn Bermuda won’t grow.”
Rick and Mike are waiting in Mike’s truck and they holler my name as I come out the front door. Mike even blows the horn twice. We stop at a Texaco and get hot coffee to go, and then we drive about twenty miles north of town to a place called Wolfe’s. It’s one of those mega-nurseries with every kind of plant and tree available. Rick knows the guy who works there and we all help him move a bunch of small shrubs with a Mexican name I’ve never heard before.
“This guy,” Rick says, hooking his thumb back toward me, “needs a barrel cactus.”
“Saguaro?” the nursery guy says.
Rick looks at me and I nod. “Oh, yeah. Big barrel son-of-a-bitch.”
The nursery guy holds still a minute and then laughs and slaps me on the arm. “Gotcha.”
Mike and I carry the three foot cactus from the netherlands of the nursery and get it to Mike’s truck. He’s got a camper top so we lay it down, real gently in the back.
“Tell this guy the story,” Mike says, pointing at me.
The nursery guy gets a big grin on his face, spreads his legs about shoulder width, hooks his hands in his back pockets and starts up. “Yeah, well let me tell you a little about the cactus. Lady here a few weeks ago. She came in, sort of like you, and she took a 2-footer home. I loaded the damn thing. Right on the passenger side of some Ford. Anyway, as she’s driving home she hears some thumping.”
The guy reaches out and bangs one fist on the side of the truck. Rick and Mike have heard the story before apparently and they’re walking away, laughing, looking at large red cement blocks cut in the shape of California.
“So anyway, she figures it’s the car, the transmission, what the hell does she know? She gets home, takes the pot inside. Sitting there watching Oprah and she hears the noise again.” He hits his flat palm against the side of the truck again. “Mystified.”
“She goes to sleep, and the next morning she calls here. The boss takes the call and tells her to call 911 and get the hell out of the house. Fire guys showed up about ten minutes later, took the damn cactus out on the street, blasted it with an axe. The road just went black with the spiders. Tarantulas. A hundred and fifty of them.”
The nursery guy smiles at me, kind of squinting, eyes closed about half way, mouth turned up only at the corners. I don’t have any expression.
When he walks away, without another word, Rick comes up beside me. “Oh, well,” he says. “Tell the wife. She’ll get a charge.”
Rachel cooks up a big roast the next Saturday and we’re sitting at the table after getting through most of it. The door bell rings and we just sit there, quiet. We’re not going to answer it.
All day long we’ve had a series of visits from local church people. It’s a pretty standard routine. A father and a mother and at least one of their children, all dressed like they’re coming back from Sunday school. They smile and start handing the literature about their church. First Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Methodist. You’ve got to just about close the door on them sometimes to get them to go. Every Saturday, all day long.
Rachel sometimes wants us to answer it, but I never do.
After one more bell ring, one of them knocks real hard. You can hear a little conversation, and then nothing.
After we clear the food and plates away, Rachel gets some documentary going that she recorded during the week. It’s this thing about wolves or foxes or something that are being killed down in Australia. She watches it and I rummage through about three days worth of newspapers.
She sits there for about twenty minutes watching, sometimes fast forwarding through the brutal stuff, and then when it’s over she writes down some 800 number, tears the page off and twirls it around on her finger.
“What are you going to do?” she says.
I’m right in the middle of the car ads. I’m looking at this new van, the ones with the space shuttle thing going. I’ve got this idea that maybe I’ll just go down to the car dealer tomorrow and make a trade for one of them.
“You know,” she says. “Maybe you should teach. You’ve got those education hours, right?”
“Teach?” I say. “Like at high school?”
“Yeah. Get your certificate.”
“Not a bit,” she says.
She continues working the Tivo looking for something else to watch. All I can hear are the bubbly pops and tones.
“I don’t want to do that,” I say, sitting up a little, putting the paper down. I know I’ve made a mistake. I’ve used the wrong word here. I know what’s coming next.
“Want?” Rachel says, freezing the picture on a long shot of one gray wolf running madly away from the approaching camera crew. “Well, what is it you want?”
I go over to her, pause a second, and then take the remote control out of her hand. I shut everything down, smiling all the time.
“You’ll be the first to know,” I say.
It wasn’t always like this. We had the kind of understanding that you’re supposed to have, I guess. For the first years of our marriage it was as if we were using the same brain matter. She knew what I wanted. We wanted virtually the same things. We went about our careers differently, but we each had made sacrifices for each other. We each had supported the right things at the right times. There wasn’t any talking that had to be done about it. The goals we had fit pretty well, and for the first years we just followed the dots.
But then I quit my job. I know it’s not an answer or an explanation, but it really is the core of everything. It wasn’t as if I had spent months complaining about my job. We hadn’t spent sleepless nights worried about what I might do. I simply never said a word about it. Who knew? I was scared that’s what it was. And I still am.
On Monday when Rick and Mike start banging on the door I don’t even go and answer it. I’ve got the job section open in the paper and I’m already working on my fourth cup of coffee. I can hear their voices out there and I’m trying to be quiet.
There is a pretty good editing job open at Taylor’s, a long time competitor of my last company. Maybe I’ll go there and start working again, get back into life. Jesus, I can’t just sit here.
When I don’t hear Rick and Mike anymore I just close the paper up and go get an old resume out of our den. I sit down in the nice black chair I always sort of thought I’d use when I worked at home. I look at the resume some and then get a blue pencil and start marking on it. All this is stupid. I’m going to put my experience up first, and then my education. That’s the way to go.
Suddenly I hear a noise outside the window and I reach over and pull the drape. Rick and Mike are out there, trapped between a large stand of 5 foot photinias and the den window. They’re looking in at me, waiting for me to do something.
“Go away,” I holler, one time.
After a second or two I hear them sliding along the front of the house, likely breaking off branches from the bushes. Then I hear the doorbell start up. It rings short some times and then long other times. I sneak out of the den into the living room so I can hear better.
“Pussy,” I hear one of them say, but I can’t tell who through the door. I hear footsteps and then they’re gone.
I pick up the phone and call Rachel at work. She’s not in but her assistant takes the call.
“Hi,” Alison says. “Do you want to leave her a message?”
“Yes,” I say, and then I’m stuck for one. “Tell her that I called, and that everything’s going okay here, and that I’ve just got back from being out of the house.”
“You’ve been where?”
“Out. She’ll know. I was at Wal-Mart, and then I went to post office, and then I went and got breakfast downtown and I’ve been all over. I played miniature golf. I bought a fish. Tell her I got a job.”
Just then I feel tears starting in my eyes.
“You got a job? You want me to tell Rachel all of this.”
I feel light headed but I keep going. “Tell her I’m all right. Tell her I’ve figured it out and that I got a job and that everything’s okay.”
My head is spinning and it takes a second for me to hear the crash behind me. When I turn, I see glass first, everywhere. The entire patio door is shattered, shards of brilliant glass distributed across the carpet, one big sheet leaning up oddly perfect against a table. Laying on the carpet in front of me is the cactus, one side absolutely flattened from the impact, but otherwise intact and laying against the back of the couch. In the back yard I see Rick and Mike standing together, laughing. When they spot me they both turn and run toward the back fence. I see them scramble over and hop into Mike’s black truck.
“What else?” I hear the voice on the telephone say.
I sit back down on the couch as if nothing’s happened. “Tell her I love her,” I say to Alison. “Tell her that.”
It takes about an hour to clean up the glass off the carpet and to knock the rest out of the frame. I call a couple of hardware places to see if I can get a new one delivered. No one can. Tomorrow.
I vacuum and everything. I get the cactus up with a spade from the garage, and take it back out into the yard. When I get done I go back inside. The breeze feels nice with the place wide open. I sit in one of the dining room chairs and look out there. It’s a pretty yard. It’s a nice house.
I know what I’m doing. I’m making myself feel better. I’m taking stock of what I’ve got and I’m thinking positively. I’m not thinking about my job or my neighbors or anything else. I’m thinking about Rachel, and I’m waiting for her.
Your work reminds me a bit of Richard Russo. This was a pleasure to read. And lawns are monocultures, anyway; look what planting only lumper potatoes did for Ireland. : )
Thoroughly enjoyed this.