January 02, 2006

The Lawn Guy's New Year

He used to come around every other Tuesday, and I was glad to give him the work because our lawn needing mowing, a task I’m lazy about because I’m allergic to grass pollen. Each time he came, he had a new sob story to tell me– a relative was sick in the hospital, or his edger had broken and he needed money to fix it – and I wanted to tell him not to bother, I’d give him the work without the sob story. Sometimes he told me that the Lord was taking care of him. At some point I seized an opportunity to mention, as a sort of experiment, that I was Jewish, and he told me that was okay, he’d been treated well by several Jewish people; and he stopped telling me about how the Lord was taking care of him.

His manner made me distinctly uncomfortable: it was the first time I’d ever been treated that way, as if I were a landowner of the southern gentry and he was a stereotypical servant, with his thick accent and exaggerated, eager-to-please intonations, all but rolling his eyes as he assured me what a good job he was going to do for me. I wondered if that was the way he talked when he was with his own people. It seemed hardly believable. Maybe he was weak-minded, though, a throwback: there had to be a reason why an able-bodied man in his forties made his living walking from neighborhood to neighborhood asking for lawn-mowing work.

But it turned out he didn’t do a very good job: one time he mowed down some plants we’d wanted to keep, and another time, when the sob story was especially heartrending, he hastily raked up all our leaves but left a pile of them unbagged in a corner of the yard, ready to blow away, after taking double the usual price with a promise to work for free the next time. And then didn’t return to fulfill the promise.

After a few months he came back again – neither of us mentioning that he owed me a free mowing job – and I told him we didn’t have any work for him. I told him the same thing the next few times he came. I began to dread the doorbell ringing on Tuesdays, and sometimes I pretended no one was home and didn’t answer. After a while, he no longer came by. Every so often I glimpsed him walking past our house without looking at it as he dragged his mower to other customers.

Sometimes I mowed the lawn myself with our push mower. Then we got a regular guy who was efficient and smart, who’d made a steady business out of lawn care.

Then, the other day, it was Saturday December 31st, our old friend rang the bell, rake in hand. We happened to have an entire autumn’s brown leaves lying on our ground, so I figured, why not, I’ll let him rake them. We smiled greetings and I asked him how he was doing, and slumping onto my porch bench, he said, “Oh, not too good, it was a hard Christmas this year, my daughter died two weeks ago.”

She was thirty-two years old, he told me. And he began saying that it’s hard, you know, when someone close to you passes away, and I murmured some kind of understanding comment. I hoped he was lying to me – I hoped it was just a sob story – but I had a feeling he wasn’t. He was just someone whose life often took the form of such a story and who had learned how to get some incidental compensations from it. In addition to his daughter’s death, he was a couple of hundred dollars behind on rent and utilities – he showed me a bill. And he started complaining about how his landlord kept preaching to him. He didn’t want people preaching to him, telling him about something he couldn’t see. This attitude, he told me, sometimes got him into trouble with the Christians around him.

We really did have a lot of leaves to rake: front lawn, driveway, and back lawn. We didn’t have enough lawn trimmings bags to hold all the leaves, so I got into the car and drove to the supermarket to buy some, but the supermarket didn’t have any so I drove to Home Depot.

On the edge of the Home Depot parking lot, where the cars turn in from the road, the usual bunches of Mexican men were standing around, waiting to see if any Home Depot customers had work for them. They’re there every day of the year and they were there on the Saturday of New Year’s Eve too, about twenty of them talking in small clusters, lighting cigarettes, though it was getting to be too late in the morning for there to be much chance of work.

By the time I got back home with a stack of lawn trimming bags, all the leaves in front and back and driveway were neatly piled, and the guy was sprinkling the lawn with our hose, assuring us he was making it look nice in case we had company for New Year’s – even, as he pointed out, filling the bird bath so birds would stop by. He bagged the leaves quickly and adequately, though he overfilled some bags, and I figured I’d give him $25, which was, I calculated, about $5 more than the job deserved. But he asked me if I could lend him $40, and he would return it by working free for me the next time I wanted.

“Sorry, I can’t,” I said, smiling.

That was okay, he said. “This is a blessing,” he said, lifting the $25 in midair in front of him. My $25 would keep him going so that he could earn the remainder at other places. I wished him a better year to come, and he walked down the street, rake in hand.

I wonder whether I’ll answer the doorbell the next time he rings.