A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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It’s strange how you feel right away that some people are your friends, isn’t it?
— James Salter, Light Years
I first met Nico at a gathering of country-club types. We two misfits clearly didn’t belong at such a party, where the other guests had doused themselves in so much cologne that we were forced to escape our host’s home to catch our breath on the freshly cut grass. “Ah, clean air,” one of us said, it matters not who, for in that moment we bonded for life. It wasn’t only that we had little in common with the others. We soon discovered that Nico and I had gone to the same university and had the same favorite professor, although Nico was a decade my senior. I was a writer, and he had once worked in publishing, though he was now unemployed. He’d also recently gotten divorced and lost custody of his daughter, but he retained an inner light. There was a mischievous glint in his eye that first night as he showed me a banjo-looking instrument he and his daughter had made from a soup can. They called it a “canjo.” I believe Nico brought it along not just as a conversation starter but as a way to feel close to the child he adored but rarely saw.
It’s fitting that Nico and I bonded on a patch of sod, because our lives became forever entwined when I began mowing lawns. I didn’t set out to become a yardman in midlife. It just happened: One day in 2008 I was mowing for a friend with a broken leg when a stranger stopped to ask if I would cut her grass too. I was reluctant at first, but then she flashed a wad of cash. I’d lost my job during the financial crisis and had no other lucrative opportunities on the horizon. I finished her lawn and was loading my mower onto the truck when another woman approached me about my services. The mowing business runs by word of mouth, and soon I had nine lawns on my docket — as many as I could handle without buying commercial equipment or adopting a husky son.
That June I asked Nico to help me one day at the estate of a man named Jones, a golfer who liked to keep his grass as finely manicured as a putting green. The money we earned inspired Nico to launch his own enterprise, Green Man Mowing. He bought an ancient push mower from Goodwill and placed an ad with the slogan “Real men, reel mowers.” I wondered how long he would last. Nico wasn’t well suited to dealing with other people, especially those who expected him to show up on time. It wasn’t that he kept strange hours so much as that he didn’t keep hours at all. His schedule was ruled by planets, not clocks. After waiting more than forty minutes for him in restaurants on three separate occasions, I’d suggested we stop trying to meet for lunch. But what Nico lacked in punctuality, he made up for with thoughtfulness: he would often offer to treat me to my meal, even though we both knew he couldn’t afford it.
One day I got a call from a woman named Cindy asking for “Mr. McGee” of McGee’s Lawn Care. When I admitted that I was indeed this McGee, she said, “Nico from Green Man Mowing listed you as a reference.”
“I see,” I said in a businesslike way, as if I had fifty acres to shear before a looming monsoon.
“Would you recommend Nico?”
This was a tough one. Nico had already dropped by my place to commiserate about our shared career and apprise me of some hiccups Green Man had endured during its startup. Once, he had spent hours pushing his rusty machine — which he’d named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse — up and down a steep hill for a lawyer. When Nico had asked if she could pay a little more than he’d quoted, to compensate for the hill, conflict had ensued. He soon learned that, though people may claim to want to save the planet, most aren’t willing to shell out a few extra bucks to have their grass cut by a dreamy romantic who eschews fossil fuels. After several such snafus, Nico ditched Rocinante and bought a secondhand gas mower whose color was green.
I gave Cindy a creative answer, portraying Nico as something of a yard artist. I mentioned how he had helped me at the home of the golf enthusiast named Jones. I didn’t mention that the second time we’d mowed for Jones, Nico had shown up late in his sputtering jalopy, looking anemic and feral and chain-smoking cigarillos. His tattered clothes and suspicious demeanor had caused Jones’s wife to fire us on the spot. I was actually relieved to be free of their enormous, high-maintenance lawn, but still.
I tried, in a cagey way, to prepare Cindy for the likely possibilities. “The main thing you should know,” I said, “is that Nico prefers to work in the afternoon.” (I didn’t explain that he didn’t wake up until the afternoon.) “But if it doesn’t matter to you exactly when he mows, things should be fine.”
She said she wasn’t too picky about when. She was a teacher and didn’t get home until late afternoon.
Cindy had such a warm personality that I felt compelled to offer her a risk-free guarantee. “If things don’t work out,” I said, hoping not to sound like I was trying to steal Nico’s business, “give me a call, and I’ll mow your lawn.”
The next time I saw Nico, he regaled me with tales of a new client he called Teacher Lady. The first time he mowed for Cindy, he arrived a little late (even for Nico) and was just unloading his equipment when she returned from school. She was polite about Nico’s tardiness, provided him with a glass of water, and then went inside to do “whatever teacher ladies do.” Nico sipped his water, had a smoke, and moseyed about. There was a “groovy little stream” nearby, and he lingered there for a while, admiring “a kick-ass waterfall.” He got “pretty cozy” and sort of wished he’d brought a bamboo pole and some weed. Eventually, after taking a leak and wandering about a little more, he got down to business and did “one bang-up job.” It was dusk when Cindy came out to pay.
The trouble began when she asked, “To whom shall I make out the check?”
“The correct question,” Nico replied, “is ‘Do you accept checks?’ You see, a lot of us lawn guys don’t have bank accounts.” (Nico wouldn’t normally use this tone, but he was a little hot and bothered from mowing. To my knowledge, I was the only other “lawn guy” he knew, and I did have a bank account.) Cindy, kind soul that she is, went back inside, gathered the cash, and even tipped Nico for the sake of good relations. But Nico remained offended.
“Can you believe some people?” he said to me.
I didn’t answer. I was busy thinking that I was going to have to mow Teacher Lady’s lawn now.
But get this. Cindy was so kind that she gave Nico another chance the following Friday. Around three that afternoon (as I later pieced together from Nico’s and Cindy’s accounts), Nico was strumming his canjo when he gazed out the window and noticed a few wispy clouds to the north. So he didn’t mow, and of course it didn’t rain. He didn’t mow on Saturday, either — because the stars weren’t aligned, I suppose — and he didn’t communicate with Cindy on either day. Then along came Sunday, and he didn’t even think about mowing or calling to let Cindy know, because God gives us a pass on that day. On Monday Cindy contacted Nico — not early, mind you, since she’d been told he was more of an afternoon person. At half past two Nico was lounging about, eating Froot Loops and contemplating how best to spend yet another partly cloudy day, when Cindy called to make sure he was OK. Nico exhaled smoke from his cigarillo and said, “I was just thinking of you.”
Long story short, Cindy phoned me right after that and asked if I could please mow her lawn.
For twelve years now I’ve mowed Cindy’s lawn. Roughly two hundred times I’ve hauled my mower 4.8 miles, in April rains and August heat waves. I’ve mowed Cindy’s lawn while fighting the flu. I’ve mowed it with a sprained ankle. One season I mowed after fracturing my T6 vertebra. I’ve been stung by swarms of yellow jackets while mowing, and I’ve accepted all this as part of what I agreed to do. I don’t have the lawn business anymore, but Cindy is one of two remaining clients I just can’t seem to drop. Each spring I send her a text asking if she’s met some industrious teen who’s saving for college, or am I still on the hook? She always texts back asking if I would please do it just one more year.
As I mow, I think of Nico and what it means to be a friend to someone who doesn’t have a great many friends but who keeps the ones he does have for life. Despite our different paths, he and I have remained deeply connected by what Nico refers to as “white magic.” After months of not seeing him, I’ll get stung by bees while mowing Cindy’s lawn, and that day Nico will text asking, “How do you be?”
Nico has been in a downward spiral the whole time I’ve known him. After losing his home in the divorce, he bought a bungalow and shared it with an abusive roommate until dire finances forced him to sell. He moved in with a bipolar man who was prone to fisticuffs, and when that situation soured, he lived in his car. Then, during a rainstorm, he careened off the asphalt, flipped his vehicle, and wound up in subsidized housing.
Nico’s health has also been in steady decline the whole time I’ve known him. During a years-long battle with cancer, he endured insomnia and weight loss and constant worry. But to know Nico is to know a poet. He’s been a dedicated father, no matter what disasters have befallen him, just as he has continued to be my most thoughtful friend. He always remembers my birthday and is the best listener I know. Once, when I had pneumonia, he brought me homemade ginger-miso broth concocted from provisions he’d purchased with food stamps.
So I will continue mowing Cindy’s lawn in Nico’s stead for as long as she needs me. I no longer even set my rate of pay. I leave that to Cindy, knowing that she’ll pay what is fair. As it turns out, she and I have a few mutual friends, and I’ve come to consider Cindy a friend by extension, despite the fact that we rarely see one another. Two years ago our paths crossed on a May afternoon. We spoke of the weather and her plans for summer, and I remarked on how nicely her garden was shaping up. Having exhausted those breezy topics, I said, “So, you know I don’t actually have a lawn service anymore, right?”
“Yes,” she said, “you’re some kind of writer, and you mentor children with autism.”
I asked if she remembered how I’d wound up mowing her lawn, and she recalled the reference I’d given Nico.
“How is Nico?” Cindy asked.
“He’s had some troubles,” I said, “but we’ve been friends for a long time.”
I told Cindy that I’d come to view mowing her lawn as doing penance for Nico; that it had become a matter of honor — like when one warrior saves another, and the second warrior dedicates himself to protecting the first until the debt is repaid.
“And what does Nico think about that?” she asked.
“I’ve never told him.”
“You should,” Cindy said. “I bet he’ll get a kick out of it.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Instead of divulging the personal details of Nico’s life, which weren’t mine to share, I told Cindy that I planned to keep mowing her lawn until I died or she let me go.
Cindy laughed and said, “Please don’t die. I’ve never had anyone so reliable.”
In March of this year, just as COVID-19 lockdowns began, Nico left me a voice mail saying he wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t check messages until the following day, by which time it was not safe to visit him. And though we sent each other a few texts making plans to meet once the world began to spin right again, by early April Nico had died alone in a chair facing the setting sun.
The closest I ever got to telling him that I was mowing Cindy’s lawn was in October 2019, when I went to fetch him from the hospital. He’d been there overnight for observation, and when I arrived at the arranged time, I was pleasantly surprised to find him waiting right where he’d said he would be.
I barely recognized my friend. He was already thin but had lost at least thirty pounds since I’d last seen him. Strangely, Nico acted like he didn’t know me at first. He squinted for a long moment at my truck before drifting my way like a tumbleweed. As he opened the passenger door, he said, “I thought you were someone else.”
“A tennis pro,” he said. “Or a building inspector.”
I suppose it made sense. The sporty shirt I wore suggested an athletic fellow, and my white pickup could belong to someone in construction.
“Should we get lunch?” Nico asked.
“Oh, I ate hours ago.”
“Early dinner, then? I’d like to treat, as a thank-you.”
“Maybe I’ll have something small,” I agreed, less from hunger than from a desire to soothe my friend.
We drove to a place we both liked and each had one taco and a glass of iced tea beside the 300-million-year-old French Broad River. It was one of those pleasant meals where afterward you don’t remember any part of the conversation, or if there were even words. I do recall thinking of Cindy, as it was nearly time for the season’s final mow. Then, just as Nico and I were walking out, Cindy walked in. We passed close enough to make eye contact and wave, but far enough apart that there was no need to speak.
After we’d reached my truck, Nico asked, “How do you know that woman?”
“She teaches at the high school,” I said, not lying per se, but not quite divulging the truth.
“That’s it!” Nico said, and he laughed and slapped his thigh. “I don’t think she recognized me, but I’m pretty sure I mowed that woman’s yard.”
“Oh?” I said, straight-faced.
For a moment I considered coming clean and telling Nico everything, but I worried he might find it more tragic than funny. So I simply drove Nico to his building and asked him to check in with me later and let me know he was OK. After not hearing from him for many hours, I picked up my phone to text, and the wonderfully cockeyed tin-can telepathy that connected us revealed itself again: A text came from Nico, who said he’d just awakened from a dream that had reminded him of me. “Receiving your smoke signals loud and clear,” he said.