by James McGirk
I live surrounded by retirees in rural Oklahoma. They are spry. They own arsenals of gardening equipment: lawnmower-tractor hybrids that grind through the fibrous local flora with cruel efficiency; they wield wicked contraptions, whirling motorized blades that allow withered men to sculpt hedges into forms of sublime and delectable complexity. Their lawns are soft to touch and inviting and deep emerald green. They host garden parties. They know the mysteries of mulch and sod, their vegetables bulge with vitality and nutritious color, their compost heaps are not heaps at all, they are tarry and primordial, oozing and glowing with health. Their flowers glow. Their insects are harmless flutterers, not the stinging biting buzzing slithering demonic horde that inhabits my yard.
In the spring I chose a manual mower to help maintain my garden. I am no environmentalist nut, but as an ostensible elite urbanite, I wrinkled my nose at the fumes belched by my neighbors’ devices. This was a grave error. My man-powered motor leaves bald patches when I hoist the thing through a rough patch uphill and it accidentally sheers too close, and leaves miniature Mohawks when the sturdier weeds simply dip beneath my blades and spring up behind me unscathed. But I cannot blame the device. This is an operator error. I chose the thing, and I vowed to live with the consequences.
For months I huffed and puffed, hauling the bright orange plastic and metal contraption through the thickets in my yard. I felt close to the land. Its contours became familiar to me: the mysterious dead patch, which I fantasized came from natural gas seeping up from the Cherokee Shelf, five fathoms below; or the pits dug by the previous tenants where I once found a black snake tangled in my spinning blades (coward that I am, I let him crawl away instead of dispatching a merciful death: and lo the next afternoon my elderly neighbor came over to apologize for the shriek I might have heard because the poor thing had taken shelter in her kitchen before her husband—an octogenarian—beheaded it with a rake) and the plunging predator birds and the mysterious mushrooms and the owl feathers and squawking fledglings and tiny tragedies: the robin’s nest spilled on the ground after a titanic storm, her pale blue eggs still intact, the nest like a spun basket, and the mother’s frayed carcass a few feet away. I watched it slowly decay.
The blade on my mower can be adjusted to clip between four inches and one inch. The closer the shave the more effort it takes to cut. Any growth above two inches looks like an overgrown haircut. Sloppy, grubby and neglected. Seedy might be the precise word I want. Could this be a word that entered the vernacular from our centuries of lawn care? Next to the martial precision of our neighbors’ yards our shaggy lawn looked degenerate as the summer dragged on. Though I made a valiant effort to sustain it, I kept having to set my blade higher: one-and-a-half became two became three… and when I returned from a trip even four inch cut couldn’t make a difference I had to call for reinforcements.
Early in the season, lawn care was easy to arrange. People prowled the streets of Tahlequah looking for opportunities to lock down a lucrative contract: a summer of care, 40 dollars U.S. every two weeks. Our nasty yard was a cry for help. Knockers came daily offering help and fistfuls of fliers touting their services. But by September those plucky entrepreneurs had gone. I hunted for lawn care professionals. The Yellow Pages, pinned to the drawing board in the local Laundromat, there was nothing! After a week of searching I finally found a tout in the classified ad section of the local paper: Several decades of experience! Equipment and tools! It seemed sober and professional. I snipped and called the number.
A preoccupied, frail voice responded. He was driving, but said if I would just give him a moment he would take my call. “Let me call you back,” I tried interjecting, but he was adamant we speak. I heard grunts and the moans of zooming traffic seemed to recede. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve got me now. I’m in the parking lot of a bank, let’s talk estimates,” he said, and he told me he would be by. “Okay,” I replied. It’s the only house on the block with grass an elephant could hide in. “A what?” He said. “Never mind,” I replied and recited my address.
He pulled up in a white Ford pickup truck a few hours later. “You James?” He asked me. “Sure am,” I replied. He stepped out of the cab and told me his name. Now, Tahlequah is an awfully small town so I won’t repeat it here. He was shorter than I expected. Older too. I guessed he was about the age of my neighbors—someone who’d retired long ago. He wore a cowboy hat, blue jeans and a bright white shirt button-up shirt. Didn’t notice his boots, but I expect they were tough and leathery too. He wore a beautiful ring. Bright yellow gold on a thick band with what looked like a chunk on onyx as a stone.
We shook hands. Already, I felt ashamed. I could barely breathe in the air it was so hot let alone mow my own lawn. His face was flushed pinkish-red: a distinctly cardiac color. He waved away my offer of a glass of water.
We chatted as we strolled the grounds together. He appraised the lawn. My weeds were no problem at all, and they had to go, and he was happy to trim the edges of our lawn, which was crucial because edges are like shoes: if they’re scruffy it ruins the effect of everything else and are absolutely impossible to trim without one of those whirling edge-trimmers. Not for nothing is a tidy lawn a reflection of an orderly household and a stable income and sober minds within. It takes hard work or cold hard cash to maintain one.
My front lawn is misleading – it looks tidy and easy to maintain but there’s a pretty steep slope and there are thickets of spongy clover-like stuff that resists cutting. He said this was no problem. He was an old hand around these parts, trimmed the yards of massive estates ones with hills that made ours look like mere pimples. I took him around back. We have a narrow gate (someone who lived must have once owned a dog) and I worried about him getting his riding mower in, but waved away my concerns. This was no serious problem, he said, we could just unscrew the fence if it didn’t fit.
I was starting to notice his gait. He had a stiff, painful walk. He noticed me noticing: “just had my hip replaced,” he said. A two thousand pound steer had fallen on him. “Let me rest for a bit.” We leaned against the fence and then he slumped over on his side. “Just have to let it set,” he said. “I’m tough. I’ll be fine.” He asked me where I was from. “New York,” I said. And he told me about how he’d been part of a construction team up there, hired from Louisiana to come up and put power-lines up, but the local union types “had objections.” So “we Cajun boys had to straighten ‘em out with wrenches and pipes.”
Now, if my front yard was the ski-slope equivalent of a red slope (or a single black diamond for our American readers), my backyard was a professionals-only black. There were crannies and pits and the aforementioned snake and I tried to point out all the deep pits where I had fallen and nearly broken my leg. “Are you sure you can do this?” I asked him. He sure was.
I walked him back to his truck. We shook hands, agreed on a price—slightly more than the eager hordes were quoting me earlier this season—and he told me he would be back the next morning at eleven.
It was really hot. Well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and close to a hundred percent humidity (spills wouldn’t dry up on their own, the air felt steamy, the bugs were fizzing like crazy). He showed up an hour early. And unloaded a wide riding mower. He zoomed back and forth, and the front yard seemed to be done in an instant. I chatted with him for a bit – he regaled me with his story about the Cajun boys showing up the Jersey thugs again, and then we attempted to tackle the back. But the riding mower wouldn’t fit through the narrow gate. It was wired together so it couldn’t be unscrewed (at least not without my landlord’s permission). He asked if he could summon a friend with a smaller mower.
“Of course,” I said. “And if it’s too hot you should come back…” he wouldn’t hear of it, and eased himself down in the same shady spot as before and began punching numbers into his phone. His friend arrived in a scruffy blue truck with ancient gas mower in the back; he himself was tall and thin and came dressed head to toe in blue denim the exact worn shade as his truck. The old mower wouldn’t start. The two men discussed strategy. I handed over their money (and a substantial, guilt-induced tip) thinking nothing would get done, and turned to leave for an art exhibit.
“Hey, James!” shouted the ring-wearer, who was lying on his side again. “Did you ever think, coming from New York, you’d have two old rodeo clowns mowing your yard?”
A cold, sick feeling spread through my guts; as did a peculiar feeling of déjà vu.
I needn’t have worried. Though I did when I arrived home that night to find their old gas mower still in my yard and only a quarter of the grass cut (an effect not unlike being interrupted mid shave), three days later my lawn was completely trimmed and the clowns were alive and kicking. It took me a little longer to identify why their interaction felt so uncannily familiar.
It was their air of conspiracy and the compact little world the two rodeo clown friends had made for each other. I had encountered it once before. For a couple of months I worked for a pair of friends who were running a hedge fund. It was a wild idea they were gambling on, one that on paper sounded cynical and deliciously depraved but was really just playing at being soldiers and spies; and this pair of financiers—they even looked like the two rodeo clowns, one was stout and fair the other lean and dark—used the promise of making a pile of money to lure people—myself included—senior executives and former government officials who should have known better into their fantasy. And when it all blew up they were left unscathed. That moment of plotting I witnessed between the two clowns, reminded me of the two financiers plotting before a meeting with Goldman Sachs; and it felt good to see it. Working as a freelance writer in the hinterlands of America can be a lonely business—so even though my garden looked like shit when they left and it took a week of raking to get in order, and even though it was only because the financiers’ secretary felt sorry for me and shamed the pair that I was eventually paid for my work; but it didn’t feel as bad as it could have.
I enjoyed the japes, just wished for once I could have been cut in rather than been played. I’d better go. My lawn is looking haggard again. I’ll have to haul out the mower again.