by Jeff Schroeck
I threw my back out again, this time while mowing the lawn. It was my first time using a manual mower, and it knocked me on my ass. I didn’t mind the time spent indoors and in bed. I had moved into the house the previous fall and was still excited about having all of the space for myself after a decade and a half of communal living.
The pain was brutal for the next ten days, but after that it was like nothing had even happened. I kept waiting for the pain to return, like when you get rid of your hiccups but it feels like there’s one more coming. I went back to life as normal, but I still had a reflex aversion to that mower, so I just let it lay there. I tried to think of a reason I had to use it, but the only reason I got the thing in the first place was the burned-in memory of the chore of lawn care, the thing you’re supposed to do. I don’t care about a yard. I let the grass grow.
Three weeks into this plan I received a letter from the Homeowners’ Association. I hadn’t gone to any meetings and only signed up to get Sharon and Ted, the chairpersons, to leave me alone. The letter from Sharon asked the owner of the home to please take care of the unruly and ugly grass problem on their property. I was about to crumple it and throw it away but thought better of it. I put it on top of the refrigerator with the bills and other meaningful junk mail.
A week later Ted knocked on my door. He asked if I’d seen the letter. I told him I had. He asked why the yard looked worse than it had the week before. I shrugged but didn’t answer. He said that it was in the contract I had signed with the Homeowners’ Association that I was to keep the lawn in a specific condition. I told him that lawn maintenance is a waste of resources and that the contract was more like an agreement. He said I had two days to cut the grass before taking legal action. I said goodbye and slowly but forcefully closed the door in his face.
I looked over my own copy of the agreement. They had no authority over my property but made sure that it was unpleasant for me to have disagreed with them. They called the cops on me for playing music too loud, which even the cops agreed couldn’t be heard past my front steps. They had some kids drive by and knock into my recycling bins the day after Memorial Day. I had to clean up all that glass and was late to work. Ted’s son would’ve thrown a rock through my window if I hadn’t come out from the side of the house as he was winding up.
This kept up for three weeks. I tried to fight it with silence but it was too much. I wasn’t going to use the manual mower and risk hurting myself again, but I had taken the gas out of the motored one, assuming I’d never use it again, and put that into my car. I dug through my shed and found a plastic gas can. Since it was a nice day I thought I’d walk the four miles to the gas station rather than drive. It was good exercise, which was something I had never really thought of as ever being at the front of my mind at any time in my life, but I didn’t want to be the thirty-year-old man who missed work because his fat gut kept aggravating his bad back.
Leaving my driveway I turned left, passing by the guy across the street, the Hard Rock Republican whom I liked despite our disagreements. We gave each other the same salute-wave we always did. He asked if I needed a ride. I told him I was just taking a walk. He asked if I was sure, then, when I said ‘yeah, just taking a walk’, he shook his head in disbelief. I went on. Towards the end of my street, which meets up with the main street of the development at either end, I ran into Steve, the car guy who came by and helped with my brakes the first weekend I was here. I had decided to learn to do car things myself after a lifetime of avoiding car knowledge. I grew up in a town where the car guys were also the guys who made fun of the remedial class kids and brought pictures cut from adult magazines to school in their pockets, so I thought if I knew what a carburetor was, I would become one of them. Steve was passing by that day while I had my car up on the jack. He saw the flabbergasted look on my face and offered to show me what to do. We never hung out but would say Hi as we passed in the liquor store.
“Run out again?”
“It’s for my lawnmower.”
“You’re finally chopping that thing down?”
“They sent me a letter.”
“You want me to cut it for you? I don’t mind. Or do you want my mower? I just gassed it the other day. You won’t have to walk all that way.”
“No, thanks. I don’t want to put you out at all. It’s a nice day anyway. Good for a walk.”
Steve shrugged and said, “Cool, man. I’ll let you go, then.” I waved and turned onto Washington St.
It was hotter than I thought it was going to be. My house gets shade in the front and back from a couple of large trees placed in perfect spots and I still haven’t learned to add a few degrees to the temperature when I walk outside the door to test it. I was already starting to sweat. I thought about going back and grabbing my headphones to make the walk go quicker but decided against it. I wanted to be in the moment.
Washington is a long, wide street and has all of the biggest houses on it. Sharon and Ted live at the far end of it, near the entrance to the development, in one of the only two story houses. Everything else is a ranch home. Most of the cars are expensive down this street, too. I can see why these people might be upset with dishevelment, but my house is tucked away in the far corner of the place on a circle road that nobody passes through. Passing my house is either very intentional or while one is very lost.
Gloria, the religious lady, was on her porch like she always was between noon Sunday and nine in the morning the next Sunday. She had her usual pitcher of iced tea on the table next to the same Christian book that she always praised but was never actually seen reading. I tried to speed past before she saw me.
“Where to, Charlie?” Until you earned a spot in her memory, you were Charlie.
“Lawnmower’s out of gas, Glo-RI-a.” I loved to feign ignorance and emphasize the second syllable in her name. She prided herself being named for Glory, so I tried to disregard that every time. “I’m taking a walk to the station so I can get it going again.”
“Oh, thank goodness. That thing was getting to be a bit much to look at.”
“You’ve seen it?” I asked.
“Sharon’s told me all about it.”
“I see. I’d better be going.” She turned her head off into space without another word. I kept on.
The can I was carrying was becoming a nuisance. It wasn’t heavy, but it was bulky and cumbersome. No matter how I held the thing it smashed into my knees and thighs. I switched to carrying it over my shoulder but my arms would get sore. I thought about turning around and getting my car but I was determined to make it on foot. Tony the electrician slowed as he was passing and offered a ride. So did Barb, the one nice person in the main circle of Homeowners Association people. I looked at the luxury cars surrounding me and refused both.
A couple houses down I saw Stan working on his yard. He was older than me by a couple of decades but we found that we had a lot to talk about. He was a bohemian type in his twenties, painting and living in communes in the country and squats in the city, but was now doing what some consider to be the opposite of that. He didn’t see me coming up the sidewalk and couldn’t hear me through his sound mufflers and over the mower noise. I watched as he carefully carved a straight, Euclidian line from the street end of the yard to the house end. I knew he was going to turn and come back on one of the sides of that line, but I couldn’t tell which. The difference between the height of the cut and uncut grass was immeasurable. It would’ve been hard to see even if I were down on my knees staring at it for days.
He turned around and began the line to his left, coming back towards the street. He saw me and gave the “hold a minute” finger. When he completed the track he turned off the motor. “What you say there, pal? How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long. Just taking a stroll and figured I’d stop and say hi.”
“Oh yeah. I could use a minute myself.” Stan took the water from the cupholder on the mower handle and took a large sip. “You been to the library this week?”
“No. Not in a month, I think.”
“They have a great big sale going on. I grabbed some good stuff: the Raymond Carver biography; a book of unexplained phenomena; a book about how artists predicted scientific discoveries years before scientists did. I’d head over there if I were you. It ends tomorrow, I think.”
“What’s with the gas can? Going on a long trip?”
“No, it’s for the power mower.”
“Giving up on the pusher?”
“Yeah, it was too much on my broken back.”
“I see.” Stan thought a moment. “I don’t see much point in those things anyway. It’s never as clean of a cut as you want it to be, as the flat blades are, and you can never keep it going as straight as you want it. The motor pulls you, you just have to keep it steady.”
“Stan-how often are you out here cutting the grass?”
“Once a week at least. Tuesdays and Saturdays when it’s really starting to get out of control. There’s a marker I have by the front porch,” he said while pointing. “When it gets past that I know it’s time to cut it. It’s important to keep things like this under control. Otherwise you get anxiety and the other things in your life begin to slip away from you.”
“Have you ever tried letting it go? Or covering it up?”
“Never. It’s the first part of your home that you present to the world. If your outside is a disaster, what does that say about what may or may not be crumbling inside?”
“I think it’s a waste of time to be pleasing to someone unwilling to walk past a dirty or disheveled façade to get to the inside of the house and see it for themselves.”
“I wish that was how the world worked,” Stan said. “I’ve got to get back. If I wait too long, the beginning will have outgrown the ending. Don’t forget about that library sale.”
“I won’t.” I waved and he turned around to continue his pattern. I stood for a moment, thinking. I needed a way to get the homeowner people off my back, but I didn’t want to keep pushing a stupid lawnmower across my yard once or twice a week. I had an idea. I turned back and walked towards home, taking the same route and passing the same people. I walked briskly to let them know I was on a mission and I couldn’t stop to chat again.
I got to my car, got in, and drove to the hardware store. I bought a hard rake, a large iron fire pit ring, a fire extinguisher (I still hadn’t bought one for the house), ten cans of forest green spray paint, and a couple hundred pounds of light-colored gravel. I also finally stopped for gas. When I got home I began to rake the grass, hard enough to rip it out of the ground. I set the fire ring over a large dirt patch, put the pulled grass inside, poured gasoline on the pile, and lit it up. I did this a number of times, clearing a little portion of yard at a time.
During the sixth fire, Sharon drove past my house. She screeched to a panicked stop near my curb and got out of the car, but stayed a few feet safely away from danger. “What are you doing, you maniac? You can’t have a fire!”
“I’m fixing the yard problem like you asked.”
She got back in her car and called someone, which I soon found out was the fire department. A truck got to my house as I was burning the last big batch of grass. Sharon ran over to them, pointing at me and yelling in the fireman’s face. After a moment of deliberation, he came over to me.
“What’s going on here? I was told there was a house on fire.”
“No, I’m just burning my yard.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I know, but I just wanted to be rid of it. You should’ve seen it before I cut it down.” I was more nervous than I was letting on. “Am I in trouble?”
“No. Just don’t do it again. You could start a real fire one of these days.”
“I won’t. I’m done with it.”
The fireman walked back to his truck, stopping to say something to Sharon which sounded like ‘you have to stop calling us again and again for no reason’. I began to rake the small remainder of torn up grass onto my driveway for the moment.
“What are you doing now?” Sharon yelled from just outside her car. She didn’t want to come closer.
“I’m fixing everything.” She stood there and watched as I poured the bags of gravel onto the dirt yard in front of my house. I used up most of the bags I had bought, with some left over for maintenance, and flattened the pile evenly with the back of the rake. I sprayed the whole thing with the cans of green paint.
Sometime during the process, Sharon yelled out, “I know what you’re doing. You can’t do that. That’s not allowed.”
“I checked the rules. It says the lawn has to be kept green and kept under five inches. It doesn’t say anything about grass.”
“You’re unbelievable. That’s an interpretation. It clearly means a grass lawn.”
“If it meant grass, it would say it.”
“We can see what everyone thinks about your interpretation at the next meeting.”
“Can’t wait,” I said. She got in her car and drove away.
I swept the remaining grass into a bag and put it behind the shed in the backyard. While back there I noticed how out of control the grass there was too. I thought I’d take a run to the gas station, fill up the mower, and mow the lawn.
Jeff Schroeck is a musician (Black Wine, The Ergs) and writer living in Englishtown, NJ with his wife, infant daughter, and two cats. He works in machine parts manufacturing. His story “Risk” was published in Cabildo Quarterly. He can be found punning on twitter @jeffreyschroeck.