In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I miss Herbert Robertson. He was my neighbor. I don’t talk much with my other neighbors: the alcoholic man and his fat wife across the street. Or the reborn Christians next to them. The young couple I never see, even though they live so close I can hear them cough at night. The divorced bachelors who sit every summer night on their front porch in cracked vinyl easy chairs with the filling popping out the sides, drinking beer and smoking until after dark, the lit ends of their cigarettes like fireflies.
Herbert was a tall, lean man with a big, yellow-toothed smile that flashed bridgework. He wore glasses all the time, and on his nose was a patch of skin lighter than the rest, grafted from somewhere else on his body to cover where a skin cancer had been removed. He and his wife Wilda lived in the house with the perfect lawn. They were both retired from the General Motors plant and had both been widowed by spouses who died of old age: the fate of all old bodies, like old refrigerators. They just quit working.
Herbert and Wilda didn’t pronounce my name correctly, Maureen. They called me Murine, like the eye drops.
“Murine, is that you?” they’d call from behind the six-foot stockade fence that separated my yard from theirs. I’d come around the fence and see Herbert smiling and Wilda holding a plant. Wilda did most of the talking. “Say, I had this old thing on the porch, and I said to Herbert, ‘I wonder if Murine would want that for her front room there.’ ”
I always took the plants, but sadly, most of them died in my house, though I gave them water and whatever light my windows offered. In Wilda and Herbert’s house, the plants were used to being talked to, groomed, touched, and fed. I always accepted the plants because Herbert and Wilda wanted so much to give them.
Wilda took care of the gardens: vegetable, flower, herb, bush, and rock gardens. Herbert was in charge of the lawn. What a lawn it was, all edged and trim, like a boy just out of the barbershop. It was green and thick and so tightly thatched that you could lace your fingers through it and probably hang on for life during a tornado. In the Midwest, storms skid low and fast across the sky, their winds threatening to lift homes from the flat squares of lawn, like a child sweeping tiny, plastic houses off Boardwalk or Park Place. I liked the storms. I would lie in bed and listen to the music they played on Wilda and Herbert’s wind chimes and think, That’s the music they listen to in heaven.
When I moved into this house — my first — I spent about a month agonizing over lawn mowers. I had no problem choosing and buying a house by myself, but I must have looked at thirty lawn mowers: cheap ones, electric ones, self-propelled; mowers with bags on the side, with bags on the back, with big back tires like old baby carriages.
I looked at lawn mowers about twice a week, but didn’t come home with one. For a full month, I borrowed my boss’s mower. One day I realized this had to stop. I went to Bill’s Tractor Sales down the street and bought an expensive, shiny, candy-apple red Snapper with a bag in the back for collecting grass clippings. It was the first purchase I ever made with a credit card.
I bought the Snapper because the guy at the store who had a burning cigarette stuck to his lip — a guy who could smoke a whole cigarette with no hands — said it would start on the first pull every time. I had pictured myself yanking a starter cord again and again in my front yard, as I remembered my dad doing, with the divorced bachelors watching me. This made me feel like crying. For the first eight or nine months after my boyfriend Steve died, anytime I couldn’t do something mechanical, or lift something heavy, or repair something, I cried.
I never learned how to ask people for help, even when I was taking care of Steve. It was Steve and me against the world from the day the doctor told him he had cancer and two months to live, to the day almost eighteen months later when he died. The doctor gave up, friends faded away, and visits from his family waned, but I was always there. We scrubbed pounds of carrots to make carrot juice twice a day, and envisioned healing scenes at night in bed — squashing cancer cells like June bugs on a leaf. We tried new-age body cleansing treatments, coffee enemas, skin scrubs with boar’s bristles. We grew medicinal plants in our one-bedroom upstairs apartment. It was just him and me — but now it was just me.
I could help Steve fight for his life, but I couldn’t lift a cement slab in my back yard or fix a leak in my roof that was damaging my kitchen ceiling. For the three-and-a-half years that Steve and I lived together, he had done all that. I was never initiated into male mysteries like auto repair or tinkering with appliances. I remember my father cursing as he sat in our basement amid bicycle parts for hours on Christmas Eve. Whenever something broke, my dad put tinfoil on it. For Christmas we always gave him a big roll of tinfoil.
I had always wanted Steve to teach me how to fix things. He was an electrician, but like all tradesmen, he seemed to know a little about everything: building, carpentry, plumbing. He picked up skills at construction sites where he worked with brickies, tin knockers, and drywallers. I worked with lawyers, writers, and public relations people. I learned how to write, and how to sell.
When I brought home the new mower, Herbert inspected it like it was a new car and nodded approval. “Nice rig,” he said, and walked up and down the sidewalk for five or ten minutes watching me mow my lawn. The next week Herbert bought the same mower from Bill’s Tractor. He already had two other mowers: a small push mower and a nice riding mower. He also had a weed whacker. He mowed the front yard with the riding mower and in the back yard he used one of the push mowers — most often now, the new Snapper — to maneuver around the gardens, bird baths, statues, and farmer windmills. He mowed his lawn at least once a week, and often twice. He kept the grass short, like a putting green. He fertilized and watered. His lawn was as green as Ireland. It was much more beautiful than mine, but he treated me as a lawn equal.
Whenever I was out mowing my lawn, Herbert would take a few steps in my direction and mouth, “How’s the Snapper working out?” I couldn’t hear him so I’d cut the engine.
“Mine isn’t starting on the first pull, like the guy said,” I’d tell Herbert.
“Try pushing that button under the motor. It works for me.”
It turns out he had a more deluxe model, even though they looked the same, and mine didn’t have this button. He was sure it did and that I just couldn’t find it.
By mid-summer I had been over to Herbert and Wilda’s patio several times after mowing. They gave me a can of Red, White, and Blue beer, or a shot of peach brandy. Looking over their garden one night, I said, “I don’t know why people grow broccoli. It takes up so much space and water, and you only get one head.”
“Oh, we get several heads a summer, two or three at least,” they said, glancing at each other for verification the way old couples do.
I learned I had been pulling up the broccoli by the roots instead of cutting off the head to let a new one grow.
“The package of seeds didn’t have instructions for harvesting,” I complained. They laughed.
“Live and learn,” Wilda said.
For the first time in months, I had made people laugh. I was funny, I thought, but of course this was an easy audience.
Pushing a mower with a bag through heavy, wet grass is hard work. I started wearing ankle weights while I mowed to build strength in my calf muscles, and to make me feel outside the way I did inside — heavy and sad. I was grieving and wore my self-pity like a jewel.
In early summer, when it rains a lot and you have to mow your lawn every third day, Herbert and I began to complain about the bag in back of the mower. I had bought that model to save myself hours of raking grass clippings. (I remembered having to rake the yard after my dad mowed — a torturous task when other kids were playing dodge ball in the street.) Herbert went to Bill’s Tractor and bought a plastic attachment for eleven dollars that allowed the grass to spew out the side of the mower so you didn’t have to use the rear bag. He encouraged me to get one, explaining that short grass clippings are actually good for the lawn and don’t need to be raked at all. But I was deterred by the thought of lifting my mower into the back of my car. Much later, I realized Herbert had brought the attachment home and installed it himself. But I didn’t think like that in those days.
There is only so much to say about mowing lawns, and we had nothing else in common, this old man and I. In late summer, just when I thought our lawn mower conversations were drying up like my grass, when I thought that no more could possibly be said about lawns and mowers, I got a letter in the mail from the Snapper manufacturer. My model had a factory defect that made it extremely difficult to start. I couldn’t wait to tell Herbert. He’d heard me say more than once that I’d selected this expensive mower because it was supposed to start easily. He was my witness that life was unfair. I rolled my mower the three blocks down to Bill’s Tractor and they fixed it for free when I showed them the letter. After that, the mower started beautifully.
One day, I bought a picnic table and had it loaded into my car at the store. When I got home, I realized I couldn’t lift the box. After some thought, I discovered that I could open the box in the car and carry the pieces to the back yard. I spent hours figuring out how to put the table together and proudly assembled all the legs for the table and benches. When I tried to put the legs on the table, I discovered that I had screwed them all together backward. I ran inside, threw myself on my bed, and cried. The saving grace was knowing I could tell Herbert and Wilda of my misfortune and they would laugh and think I was funny.
In August there was a dry spell and the grass wouldn’t grow; it dried up and stabbed your bare feet. I didn’t have to mow for three weeks, and I saw Herbert and Wilda less often. Sometimes I’d see Herbert glancing my way when I was in my yard checking my flowers. If he caught my eye, he’d wave and call out, “Say, Murine, awful dry, isn’t it?”
At times when I saw him approach with that big, yellow-toothed smile and those tan hearing aids, I thought, oh no, because I knew I’d have to stop whatever I was doing, take ten or fifteen minutes to talk with him, and risk being invited over for beer or brandy on a night when I had so many things to cross off my “to do” list. Nothing, not even listening to their police radio, could entice me to visit Herbert and Wilda after I began to fill the empty spaces in my life with chores and tasks.
Winter came sooner than I’d thought it would during those long days of missing Steve, cutting my grass, and raking leaves. I saw Herbert sporadically, when I was shoveling and he was snow-blowing. He waved cheerfully but we never conversed. Herbert died that winter of a heart attack. I didn’t miss him until spring, when the first long grass needed cutting. I’ll go over and offer to mow Wilda’s lawn, I thought. But before I could, I saw her climb aboard the riding mower and shear strips of grass in a pattern I haven’t seen her deviate from yet. She offered a little wave, and I thought, When did Herbert teach Wilda to operate the riding lawn mower?