All serious relationships have their ups and downs. My serious relationship just happens to be with my lawn mower.
It currently takes me more than 12 hours to mow my modest-size lawn, but that’s not the problem. At the moment, I’m peering one-eyed from an obscured corner of my carport, anxiously crouched behind the rusty handles of a 5.0-horsepower lawn mower, watching the neighbor directly across the street herd his kids into their van for school. In the art of mowing, he has become my nemesis.
Before I plunge into the front yard, I have to wait to see if he’s going to come back directly or take a few detours — perhaps head for Home Depot or the shooting range. He’s a stocky, mustachioed, gregarious chap, but that has nothing to do with the intimidation that has led to the point where I’m considering abandoning my duty and hiring a lawn service for the first time in my life. If you knew me at all, that would sound like the most ludicrous and far-fetched solution possible.
To begin with, I can’t really afford to have anyone trim my lawn, especially since we’re all supposed to live until 104 now. I did the math, and, even if I have $4 million in the bank when I turn 65, if I add landscaping to my budget for several decades that would allow me to spend only, like, $34 a week in my final two years, and the last thing I want to do is walk around today dreading how broke I’ll be on my 102nd birthday.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The money is inconsequential when it comes to lawn mowing. Mowing has always been the one area in my life where I could get immediate satisfactory results — crisp lines, clean edges — while stuck in an unsatisfactory world. It is the one act that always prompted my father’s admiration. I can easily flash back to one late afternoon in my teens, when he was returning from work and caught my friends and me drinking on the roof and throwing the empty beer cans into the pool. Before he realized exactly what we were up to and flung a full briefcase up at us and chased us down the street while cursing his head off, he had calmly looked across the yard and said, “Terry, heck of a job on the lawn.”
Hence, my own yard eventually became my inner sanctum, that rare place where I can excel without interference and revel in the simplicity of a job well done. But over the past few years, my mowing has strayed far from the mundane up and down — back and forth — that I often found so fulfilling and meditative. Now my mowing life has moved into something clouded in calamity and odd transgressions.
It all started with the three-wheeled mower: A few years back I spent eight months pushing around a three-wheeled Murray that my body is still recovering from. The motor was still good, but the right rear wheel had rusted off, so I developed this new method whereby I had to pull the mower backward and tilt the blades in such a way that the constant muscle strain made my physique look as if I pumped iron with only half my body. Soon the left side of my body was Matthew McConaughey, the right Paul Giamatti. But I was determined to go the distance. When a second wheel broke off, my response was, “Oh, yeah, let the challenge begin.”
All that remained were the two fronts, so it became a wheelbarrow race that I was winning every time, then, snap, down to one. For a split second I was commandeering a hover mower, and I masterfully covered about an 18-inch patch by the driveway. But that was the Murray’s last act. Plus, it was getting to the point where I could no longer find clothes to fit my body type. Not even online.
At the dentist’s office, I read a magazine — Lawn Digest or something — that detailed how, when mowing your lawn, you can damage the health of the grass by methodically cutting straight up and down every week. The article said you should be more whimsical, more inventive. Lay down a little outline of your favorite state, for example, or the caricature curves of that secretary from “Mad Men.”
I went wild for the concept. I started with a mermaid’s tail; then I was closing my eyes and trying to imagine putting ChapStick on a giant pair of New Jersey Housewife lips. It was truly exhilarating. Then, as if on cue, my wife came out and said: “What the heck’s going on? You’re mowing the lawn like a kindergartner with crayons.”
When I explained what I was doing, right away there were insinuations that there was no such publication as Lawn Digest or the Mow Review, and the whole thing went from making lawn mowing a little fun and imaginative to me having to defend my art. I had foolishly verbalized daydreaming about creating a portrait of an Indian pony kicking up dust on a winding trail beneath a quarter moon, and I let slip the phrase “mowing my masterpiece.” But she wanted proof that I wasn’t losing my mind, and where are any of us going to come up with proof of that on short notice, right? So that was that.
Once in a long while, or perhaps every few months — maybe twice a week — we all have one of those days when you want it all to end. That’s not just me, is it? I happened to be having one of those days and tried to placate myself with a York peppermint pattie and some orange sherbet, but that didn’t quite improve my worldview. I was standing outside when I noticed a neighbor a few houses down, whom I’d never had any reason to talk to, pulling the cord on a mower that wouldn’t start. Something to do with the choke, I assumed. Anyway, I moseyed up his driveway on about his 15th pull, and I said: “Hey, hey, let’s make a pact right now. If either one of us goes down while pushing the mower, if we peek through the backyard fence because we sense a mower has been idling in one place too long, and we spot a body crumpled beneath the push handles, we’re to let that man be.”
“You mean if we drop of a heart attack or something?” he asked.
“Exactly. One of us drops, the other guy sees it, does nothing. No yelling or screaming. No Joes from down the street taking turns pounding on our chests. No neighborhood revival. No 911, none of that. One of us drops, the other sees it, does nothing.”
It became pretty clear that we were a little out of sync on my suggestion. He did eventually make a deal with a limp handshake to make me go away, though. When I got home and relayed the conversation to my wife, who had been complaining that I was antisocial, she was disappointed in my effort to reach out. “You finally talk to someone you don’t have to talk to, and you make a death pact with them?”
And then it hit me: Death pacts are for amateurs.
I always buy the cheap mowers, the kind you see ready-assembled in front of Kmart with brand names like Kelly, Bochino and Vasilatos — all those names of kids you went to junior high school with and liked to punch you in the knees when you were trying to put on your gym shorts in the P.E. locker room — and I’ve had great luck. (Even the three-wheeler gave me a good six years.) But I was only about eight months in when the current model I’m using started giving me trouble. It would start and rev up fine, and I’d be off and running, but after about 90 seconds there’d be sputtering and bursts of black smoke until it wound down to this trembling, barely running mode, with the blade moving at about the speed of the second hand on a grandfather clock. But it didn’t conk out.
I’ve always been big on keeping something going if it doesn’t totally conk. Whether it’s a car or a love affair, I will hang on and let it sputter and spit and whine as long as it doesn’t die. If we’re moving, we’re mowing. That’s my motto.
Enter mustachioed man. One day he stepped right in front of my mower, catching me by surprise mid-row on the last sliver of the olive tree’s shade. I immediately stopped mowing. He was excited and animated.
“I know what’s going on,” he said. “I know, I know, I know. I had the same exact thing. At first I was going to have my dad look at it ’cause I’m not mechanical, but then I realized it was just the gas. You’ve got water in the gas tank. All you have to do is remove the tank, drain it and it’ll be good as new. Zoom!”
I guess I was giving him that insincere Okay, thanks face, similar to when someone pulls up to you at a traffic light, starts honking and says, “Your left rear tire …”
“Your left rear tire looks like it’s going flat.”
So he kept it up.
“No, really, I know that’s what it is. It’s so-o-o easy,” he said, crouching down. “You take the tank off, detach these two clips and then just remove this spring …”
Spring! I don’t ask a lot of my fellow man, but don’t tell me you’re not mechanically inclined, then regale me with a tale of how you removed and replaced a spring. (I stopped buying tuna salad kits because they were too complicated to put together.) I continued to nod at him, but I was done. I ripped the cord and sputtered off, back into my perfected routine. When it comes to mowing, I’m a formidable force. Mower Man. Nothing is stopping me.
However, the following week I pulled the mower out with some trepidation, crouched down myself and stared down the spring for a moment. So-o-o easy …
No, no way. This thing worked. If I took it apart, I couldn’t bear to have it not start up again. So I ripped the cord and got about eight feet, merrily sputtering along when the neighbor’s van came inching out of his circular driveway, with him flaunting a slight wave. Let me preface this by saying that others with whom I’ve discussed this matter think I’m being paranoid — my fellow customers at Costco, for example — and they tend to dismiss my read of the situation, but the tilt of his wave was crystal clear. It was no “Howdy, neighbor, lawn’s looking good.” It was a wave designed to say, “You moron — are you actually not going to fix a problem as simple as water in the gas tank?”
I waved back, but there was also an obvious flutter in my finger tips that clearly stated, “You and your f#$%-ing spring can go straight to …”
Let me say that I don’t like either of these feelings: being publicly belittled for my shortcomings or wanting to condemn another hardworking man to hell for all eternity. From then on, I began trying to prevent him and the act of my mowing from colliding in the same moment in time. (To make things worse, mustachioed man’s arrival coincided with my new mowing rule to avoid the sun at all costs. The way the trees line up in my yard, if I follow the shade and mow only two 15-yard strips at a time, there is absolutely no sweating involved. So before he even appeared, it was already taking me from 6:45 in the morning to 8:10 at night to mow a lawn half the size of a tennis court.)
Now, stuck in this one-sided game, I slowly realized that getting so worked up about avoiding him had nothing to do with my lack of mechanical ability. If I had been putting my A/C filter in upside down for the past nine years, I’d have welcomed his suggestion. I ask for assistance in so many parts of life. But mowing is that space where I meet all challenges on my own, in my own way. I simply do not want mustachioed man returning — crossing that line — to relay more advice. This is a solo act, and the power of avoidance is my first line of defense. But, man, he was hard to pin down.
Every time I thought I had his routine nailed, he threw me a total knuckleball. He’d go off in a formal suit and come back with an ice cream cone. One time he loaded his car full of suitcases, only to return 14 minutes later. I had to shut down my mowing mid-row and run (nonchalantly) back into the house. When his kids went to day camp, his schedule was absolutely dizzying, and I was a man frozen to the handles of a defective mower, trying to anticipate whether he was going to be back in four minutes with a jug of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or going to spend four hours hand-picking floor tile samples, even though everybody knows he always goes with terra cotta.
During my time in trapped observation, I noticed that he is not your average neighbor. I mean, sure, he’s probably a great dad, husband and provider, but there were a couple of disturbing things I picked up on. One thing — Okay, I’ve noticed just the one thing, and the others I’ve only imagined — was that he was able to shake his head in disgust while keeping it perfectly still. Two, when he drove by at about 3 mph, there was something odd dangling from his mirror that, to my mind’s eye, appeared to be no less than a dozen tiny springs eerily hooked together into some sort of suburban voodoo trinket and ...
“God, just get a landscaper and stay in the house” was a common response I’d get from the Costco line. But you already know how I feel about that.
I have four brothers, and the normal rite of passage was that the oldest would mow, then the next one would take over, but when it got around to me, at about 10 years of age, the ritual stopped. I refused to let go of the handles, and, consequently, my two younger brothers never earned any yard-work credits or acquired my diligent work ethic and, in turn, were never quite able to function properly in life, but that’s another story. Bottom line: If I let go of the handles now, who knows how my own life might spin out of control?
I want to be buried on a sod farm.
Actually, it didn’t all start with the three-legged mower. It goes much further back. It was the act of mowing that got me my one and only recognition in life for doing something for which I wasn’t seeking any recognition. My childhood home was a short distance from the entry of our neighborhood, where there was a white brick wall and a fairly large circle of grass surrounded by a two-foot-high, corral-style fence that we would all climb on, tightrope-style, while waiting for the school bus. I noticed no one ever mowed the area, and after I finished our family’s lawn I would just head down the street, tilt the mower over the fence and whip it into shape. This must have gone on for a couple of years. There were neighborhood association meetings, and eventually someone asked, “So who the heck has been mowing that lawn?” My dad proudly mentioned that I had been, and the next thing I knew, I was being awarded a Deer Pen Association check for $67. About 34 cents a mow, but I was shocked.
And sometimes, when life becomes increasingly dreary, on those days when my spirit can’t even conjure an Indian pony kicking up dust on a winding trail beneath a quarter moon, it feels as though that little check, that moment, is the only thing that keeps me going.
T.M. Shine is a writer based in Lantana, Fla.
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