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“The End of the Free Range Dandelion”

June 30, 2009 Leave a comment

My dog Amber taking a walk on the wild side.

My dog Amber taking a walk on the wild side.

The Story of “The End of the Free Range Dandelion”

Several summers ago I was enrolled in an intensive graduate fiction workshop at Emerson College and had to write a new short story every week.  Lawn mowing became just one more item on a long list of neglected chores, but unlike the piles of dirty laundry, it was on display for anyone who drove by my house.  The dandelions were thriving and my neighbors were slipping lawn service flyers into my mailbox.  Part of me felt morally superior for my chemical-free lawn and putting my time to better use than my neighbors, who spent large chunks of their weekends on lawn maintenance.   But my parents had instilled the Protestant Work Ethic in me at a young age, so another part of me was embarrassed over “letting the place go.”  I was spending a small fortune on my MFA, however, so I pushed back the shame and got busy at my desk.

One sunny afternoon, after several unproductive hours in front of my computer, I decided that if I couldn’t come up with a decent story, I should at least tend to the damn lawn.  So I muscled my old mower across the rutted front yard, repeating my mantra:  Don’t have time for this!  Need a story!  Don’t have time for this! Need a story! When sweat from my forehead made sunscreen leach into my eyes, I stopped the mower in front of the rhododendron bushes—I still remember the very spot, right over the septic tank where the grass is always a little greener.  I sighed and wiped my greasy forehead with my shirt sleeve.  Then, as I bent down for the starter cord, I suddenly knew what I wanted to write about!  My story would be about a boy who inherited his father’s lawn obsession.  And as I cut a path through the tall grass and the even taller dandelions, I remembered back to my childhood and Stub Proper, the next-door neighbor who taught me how to curl a dandelion stem with my tongue.  I left the lawn mower in the middle of the yard and ran inside to write.

“The End of the Free Range Dandelion” would be my first publication in a literary magazine.  My teacher, DeWitt Henry, described it as a “coming of lawn” story.  I was a thirty-something woman and my character was a twelve year old boy, but he and I had in common our lawn mowing ambivalence.  This story, born of desperation, taught me two important lessons:

Deadlines are Essential

Since I was under pressure to write a story a week, my subconscious was constantly churning through material for stories.  Under normal circumstances, I would have given up for the day and let the mind fog swirl.  Deadline pressure is what made my idea pop.  So seek out deadlines, whether they’re imposed through a degree program, an adult ed class, a writing contest, a writing group, or a writing partner.  Latch onto a deadline and meet it.

When You’re Stuck, Go for a Walk

When your writing is going nowhere, don’t give up—get up and go outside.  A ten-minute walk will give your brain a little diversion and help you lock onto something in the physical world that will click with your writing.  A little exercise and the outside world can be a powerful combination to jumpstart your creativity.  Take a notebook along so you don’t have to sprint back to your desk.  If nothing happens in the first ten minutes, take ten more.

The Story

Just a little explanation before I give you the story:  Back when I wrote The End of the Free Range Dandelion, I was reading a lot of those fat Norton anthologies.  At the beginning of each excerpt, they give some information on the author and the book it came from, and usually a quote from the author.  I adopted this format for my fictional character, Scott Eastmen.  What follows is his biography and an excerpt from his memoir.

SCOTT EASTMEN

  1. 1958

Scott Eastmen first came to the national attention in 1999 when he won the grand prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  A former Chem Lawn technician, Eastmen went on to found Lawns Across America with his prize winnings. The philanthropic organization is devoted to the spread and maintenance of well-manicured lawns “across America.”  Among the innovative programs offered are Lawn Lads and Lawn Lassies, lawn mentor programs for under-privileged inner-city youth, and Moms with Mowers, an institute introducing women to the aerobic benefits of lawn care.

Eastmen’s memoir, Man Behind the Mower (2000), immediately became a best seller.  “Until I won a million dollars, I never thought I was smart enough to write a book,” Eastmen told Regis Philbin in a 2000 interview.

From Man Behind the Mower

The End of the Free Range Dandelion

It’s the early seventies and my friend Raymond and I are twelve years old. We lie on our bare backs, side by side in the tall grass of Raymond’s yard, on a Sunday late in May, previewing the beautiful boredom of summer.  We pluck the dandelions within our grasp that have gone to seed and blow their downy tops; each individual speck of fluff, weighted by the dark seed at its tip, floats across the neighborhood on a breeze, until nothing remains in our hands but the bouquets of bald, white nubs. An army of lawnmowers drones in the distance and my father is among the ranks.  But not Raymond’s father.  His hand mower leans against the side of the house.

Eventually we reach for the mature dandelions.  We flick off their yellow heads with our thumbs, seeing who can propel theirs the furthest.  They leave a brackish smell on our hands, that soap cannot erase.  And they stain our palms, too, a greenish, brownish, yellow.  Even Raymond’s hands stain.  Though he is black-skinned, his palms and the bottoms of

his feet are white, like mine, but with a slight peach tone.  One of Raymond’s dandelion heads hits my nose as it flies by.  We both laugh.  Soon piles of stems surround us.  Raymond rolls to his side and props his chin on his elbow.

“Wanna see a trick?” he asks.

He picks up one of the stems, and with his teeth, makes four tiny tears in the top.  He nudges the tip of his tongue down into the hollow stem, separating it into four delicate curls that turn to ringlets and grow longer, the deeper he enters.  He stops just short of the bottom and hands it to me.  Between my thumb and forefinger, it feels sinewy, damp, and fragile.  I insert my own tongue between the curls and taste the bitter milk that trickles down from the bloom.  I push until I feel my tongue against my fingers and the stem is turned inside out and quartered.

If we had been paying attention we might have noticed one less lawn mower in the lineup but as it was, my father was upon us before we knew it.  A wide shadow on the grass in front of us and then I was yanked to my feet by my belt loops.

“What’s the matter with you boys?  You want DDT poisoning?”

Raymond scrambled to his feet and put his tee shirt on.  “We don’t spray that stuff in our yard, Mr. Eastmen.”

“I know you don’t.  That’s why I did it for you last night,” he said.  “I’m sick and tired of those damn weeds spreading onto my lawn.”  Then he yelled at me to put my shirt on and get home. If I didn’t have anything better to do than lie around tonguing dandelion stems, he’d find something for me to do.  I rammed on my high tops without tying them and scrambled through the opening in the hedges that separated Raymond’s yard from mine.[1]

My father was too big to fit through the hole in the hedge.  Waiting for him in the middle of the backyard, I felt like an exposed rabbit, frozen, unable to find cover.  When he came through the gate, the red, angry color had left his face, except for his nose, which always looked purplish red.  He solemnly called me over to the redwood picnic table and told me to sit.

“Now, Scott, you know I’d never stop you from playing with Raymond because he’s colored.”

I shook my head obediently, though when the Rileys moved in the year before, he’d said it was just his luck that the only Negro family in the neighborhood lived next door to us.

“It’s a matter of respect,” he said.   “I’m sure you’ve noticed that Raymond’s family treats their lawn different than we treat ours.”

Certainly I’d noticed. That was why we always played in Raymond’s yard.  Over there we were allowed to throw down bases and play ball and Mr. Riley didn’t care that we wore bare spots in the grass.  He even joined us if we were short a player.

“It’s not their fault they’re different,” my father said, holding up his large bear-like hands. “Raymond’s your friend and I’m not asking you to change that.  Just remember who you are and where you come from.  That’s all.”

Then he led me into the old wooden shed. The oily smell from the hot, tarpaper roof saturated the windowless interior.  Back lit by streaks of sun leaking between dry boards that had shrunk over the years, my father looked almost sublime.  He removed the grass whip from the wall and placed it in my hands.  As I gently jiggled the handle, a ray of sun touched the blade and one of its teeth sparkled like a cartoon diamond.  Next, spaced with ample time for examination, he handed me the clippers, the edger, and the catalog-order, specialty grass rake.  Finally he wheeled the spreader out from the corner and paraded it across the dark floor in front of me, dribbling a fine mist of lime.  The sour powder made me sneeze.

I followed him back outside, behind the shed, where he had saved the best for last—his red, three and a half horse power, Briggs and Stratton baby.  Strictly off limits to anyone but him.  Until now.

“Listen up,” he said.  “It’s time you learned.  This is the gas cap.”  He bent over and unscrewed it.  He picked up the rounded, metal gas can with the long, slightly bowed nozzle.  “This goes here,” he said, inserting the nozzle into the mower’s reservoir.  “Easy does it.  Too fast and you’ll slosh it on your hands and all over the grass.”  He positioned his fingers on the small, black rectangle of the starter cord.  “And this is how you get ‘er goin’.”

As he hauled back on the cord, I was distracted by his pale, flaccid his arms.  I was grateful he no longer took his shirt off to mow, because recently he had developed breasts that rivaled those of my older sister.

He pushed the mower down the fifty-foot length of the back yard and demonstrated how to properly align the mower’s wheels with the freshly mowed grass so that the two strips overlapped with no stray blades between them.  As I followed along behind him, heady from the scent of grass and gasoline, my gut seized with anticipation.  If the mower could transform my father’s lumbering gait into a dignified march, then a walk behind the mower could surely propel me across the bridge, to the other side of manhood. It was as clear as the mole on the back of my father’s neck.

Finally dad stepped aside to let me have my turn with the mower. He had already mowed the front yard, using the diagonal method.  “You stick to the straight rows. Diagonals are not for the beginner.”

I wiped my sweaty palms on the front of my pants.   Then I opened the throttle full, hauled back on the starter cord—once, twice, three times—and felt my biceps lengthen and bulge. The mower roared; vibrations traveled through the handle, into my hands and immediately I felt the largeness of the force I controlled.

At first I moved forward in spurts, as my father shouted directions from the periphery of the patio but I didn’t need further instruction from him.  Instinct had taken over.  The vibrations were already passing to my shoulders, spreading, fanning up into the sensitive nerve centers at the back of my neck, arcing, shooting down my spine, tightening, flexing the cheeks of my buttocks, exploding through to my groin, multiplying a thousand fold until there was no place to go but forward, onward through the thick, young blades.

My progress across the lawn became smooth and fluid.  Under control.  As the man-sweat trickled down the back of my neck, row upon row of tender, orderly grass spread behind me in the wake of my mower.

“The kid’s a natural,” my father shouted, through the screen door to my mother.

I never looked back.  In my mind’s eye, I saw myself skillfully employing the diagonal method on the front lawn, my tan, muscular back on display for all to see.

Raymond watched me over the hedge. At first he tried to tempt me back into his yard with root beer, Mad Magazine, even firecrackers.  He had seen my transformation, but he didn’t understand.   And when he couldn’t shake my lawn determination, he walked along the hedge, taunting me.

“How much is Daddy paying you?  I hope it’s plenty.  Cause you’re missing out, Scottie.  Can you hear me over that Goddamn mower?  You’re missing out!”

Eventually he left me alone and invited kids over from his old neighborhood on State Street.  Loud, unruly boys who played baseball with total disregard for Raymond’s lawn.  When the yard was empty, I looked over at worn-away patches of turf that would never come back without careful reseeding.  The zigzags and circles in the mud, from the imprints of all those sneakers, made me embarrassed for Raymond and for his father, too. I liked Mr. Riley, but he should have taught Raymond better.  Once he’d helped Raymond and me with our pitching, hitting, and catching, but now, I tossed and turned many a night, worrying that Mr. Riley would not realize the importance of lawn care in time to pass it on to Raymond.

One evening as my father sat on the front porch with a bottle of Iron City, I approached him with my worries about Raymond’s future.

“Dad, do you think you could teach Raymond about lawns?” I asked.

He drank deeply before answering and looked out over our freshly fertilized lawn.  “Scott, never put yourself between another man and his son.  When Riley thinks Raymond is ready, he’ll teach him what he needs to know[2].”

“But, Dad, I’m worried that Mr. Riley won’t know the right things to teach him.”

The Riley’s front lawn hadn’t been mowed in over two weeks, but since they never watered or fertilized, from the street it didn’t look all that bad.  But my father and I knew that many problems lurked beneath the stunted turf.  Their back yard was too depressing to think about—probably nothing to be done but dig up the remaining patches of sod and start all over with a fresh layer of topsoil.

Dad burped and sighed deeply.  “You’ve got a point there, Son.  Let me sleep on it.”

The very next weekend, while the Riley’s were picnicking at Presque Isle, dad performed an evaluation of their entire lawn and came up with a step-by-step regimen of seeding, rolling, weeding, watering, and feeding to present to Mr. Riley, man-to-man, so that he could educate himself and, in turn, could teach Raymond. Dad had drawn it all out on large sheets of paper he’d brought home from the Hammermill factory, where he’d recently been promoted to floor supervisor.  Those plans unrolled to cover the entire kitchen table.[3] The neatly numbered quadrants that corresponded to his scale diagrams of the Riley’s lawn were a thing of beauty.  My mother came up behind my father and hugged him. “You always know just what to do, Frank,” she said.

Even my sister seemed impressed.  “Wow, groovy, Day,” she said, adjusting her halter-top and sneaking a peek at the plans.  “I wouldn’t mind teaching Raymond’s dad a thing or two myself,” she said, under her breath.

The three of us sat on the front porch glider while Dad went to call on Mr. Riley.  We were surprised to see him emerge from the Riley’s a few minutes later.  A plan that complicated would require much explaining.  My father looked weary and stunned as he climbed our porch stairs. He flopped down in one of the webbed lawn chairs.

“Well?” my mother asked.

“Not interested.  Said he didn’t have the time.  Said he preferred to let nature take her course.  Nature!”

Just then Mr. and Mrs. Riley’s laughter drifted out the open windows.  Since the houses on our street were only five feet apart, it was hard to ignore.

“My God!” Mr. Riley said.  “It’s the Five-year Plan for lawns!”

My mother bustled my father inside for rhubarb pie.  The Riley’s back door slammed and Raymond came out. He didn’t see my sister and me on the front porch, and slipped through the opening in the hedge.  We tiptoed around the side of the house to see what he was up to.  And there he stood in the middle of our backyard, urinating on the grass in the twilight.

“Holy shit!” my sister whispered.

The last Sunday before school started, Raymond’s gang was playing ball.  One of them whacked the ball clear over the hedge, directly into the path of my mower.  They all ran to the border of Raymond’s yard, their dark, disapproving faces lined up along the hedge.

One of them called out, “Hey Lawn Jockey! Throw us the ball!”

How I resented the mocking expressions on their faces. Who were they to judge me?  They who had never mowed a lawn.  They who would never understand my family’s lawn maintenance legacy.

When the mower reached the ball, I didn’t stop.  Those ruffians thought the mower would skin their ball and unravel its skeletal strings, when anyone who knows anything would realize that a mower wouldn’t be raised high enough for a ball to pass under it unless the lawn hadn’t been mowed for weeks.  So the mower continued to push along the unharmed ball.  I couldn’t hear what they were yelling.  Their heads disappeared, all except Raymond’s, and branches of boxwood came flying over onto my lawn.  Raymond was still yelling and out of respect for our former friendship, I shut the mower off.

Raymond’s voice cut through the abrupt silence. “Throw back the ball, you mother fucker, before they wreck the hedge!”

I hurled the ball up into the air as high as I could.  During the ball’s descent, while Raymond’s friends looked to the sky, he and I looked at each other. The deep brown beauty of his eyes, so familiar to me at the beginning of the summer, beseeched me on a level that was no longer accessible.   For I had been expelled from the simple boyhood pleasures of summer, into the man’s world of four-season responsibility. I felt a twinge of sadness because I knew that Raymond and I would not inhabit the same adult world.

Raymond’s friends, intent on the ball, heads tilted back, gloved hands extended in the air, jockeyed for position.  “Got it!” they all shouted.  “I got it!  I got it!”

I came to understand then that the essence of the male journey is competition.  While our paths may briefly cross in childhood, we walk alone.

Despite all the gloved hands, when the ball dropped, it hit the largest player on the nose and landed with a thud on one of the lawn’s bald spots.  Blood trickled from one nostril.  He turned his back and wiped the blood with his shirttail.  He sniffed loudly; the others looked down at their feet.  Raymond picked up the ball.  Without so much as a glance in my direction, he returned to the tortured area of the lawn that they called a baseball diamond and the others followed.  At home plate, for my benefit, he raised his middle finger high above his head.

As I started my mower, the guy with the bloody nose tucked in his T-shirt and stepped up to the pitcher’s mound.  Raymond tossed him the ball, underhand, and their game continued.  The days of the free-range dandelion were behind me forever.


[1] If you have a serious lawn problem and cannot afford professional help, call 1-800-544-TURF for a free, confidential consultation with a Lawns Across America counselor.

[2] Scott Eastmen’s How Do I Keep it Under Control? A Young Boy’s Guide to Difficult Lawn Care Questions will be released by Green Press in June 2001.

[3] A souvenir copy of these plans may be obtained for a $19.95 tax-deductible contribution to Lawns Across America, P.O. Box 115, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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