by Owen Banner
Dad’s at it again–mowing the lawn. I smell the grass and hear the quiet whirr of his push-reel mower even through my closed bedroom window. It fogs up with my breath, and I rub my palm over it to clear the fog away, hearing the squeaky rubbery sound of skin on glass. Mom left a month ago, and, since then, Dad’s been out there every couple of days.
It used to be their thing. He’d cut the grass in his riding mower. Mom planted flowers: powdery lavender, sweet white and pink peonies, yellow California poppies that closed up at night, and bright pink azaleas that looked like trumpets bursting open with so much color. Her favorites, though, were the Love-in-a-Mist bushes. They’ve got pale blue stars for flowers with wispy green veins stretching out behind them. She said they were a perfect cottage flower.
A few years ago, at a garage sale, she’d bought a beat-up garden gnome with a red hat, blue pants, and dirt smudged all through his white beard. She always put him right in the middle of the Love-in-a-Mist. It drove Dad nuts. He complained about it every time we grilled out in the backyard.
The gnome’s gone now. Mom must have taken it with her. The peonies are dead. All that’s left of the California poppies are their grey-green leaves and stems.
I can’t see them now, anyway, because it’s nighttime, but I can see the line of freshly cut grass that Dad’s leaving as he walks the imaginary boundary between our yard and our neighbor’s. He’s wearing grey sweatpants and a zip up hoodie because it’s getting colder at night. His white tennis shoes are slick with dew and spattered with blades of grass like bugs on a windshield. Before mom left, he kept his face shaved. Now he’s got a week-old beard climbing up his neck. It’s a lighter brown than the hair on his head–the part of his head that isn’t bald. The beard’s closer to the copper on the rims of the glasses he’s wearing.
Dad passes by the California poppies with his mower singing, to himself, “I can’t go for that. Oh, no can do,” by Hall and Oats, his favorite band. He pushes the mower from one side of the yard to the other, tripping the motion sensor spotlights like he’s on stage at a concert. He passes by the two trees on the right, then doubles back.
When I was born, Dad named me after his dad, Elmer. I don’t know why he did it, because we only see my Grampa at Veteran’s Day and the Fourth of July. The day I was born, though, dad planted an Elm tree in the back yard. Two years later, my mom got pregnant again. “And this time,” she said, “I get to name the baby.” She picked “Ashton” for my brother and planted an Ash tree beside the Elm.
A breeze blows through the branches of those trees and across the yard, knocking the rusty swingset by the fence into motion. We don’t use it anymore, but dad never got around to taking it down. Mom’s ivy geraniums are climbing up the wooden sides of it. Above and behind it, a low rumble starts in the dirty, yellow clouds somewhere over Cincinnati. The blinking red and green lights of an airplane follow the sound out into the sky. I watch the plane climb higher until it disappears again, wondering if Mom’s on it. I look down. Dad’s stopped. He’s watching it too.
I’ve got his light brown hair, but mine’s cut in a straight line a centimeter above my eyebrows. Mom said that Dad had freckles too, like I do, when she first met him. She said, “They just exploded across his face. I thought he was the cutest thing.” She told me that every now and then when she’d come in to kiss me and Ash goodnight. She’d bend over our beds, smelling like lavender and say, “I. Love. You,” tapping us on the nose with each word. But she always said, “Boop” and tapped my brother on the nose a fourth time. Then, she’d give us a kiss and go downstairs, open up a Clive Cussler adventure novel and read until my dad called her to bed.
Her and Dad started fighting about six months ago. They were in the kitchen washing dishes.
“Well, maybe that’s a sign that you should try writing again,” I heard mom say. “I always thought you gave up too early.”
Dad told her to be realistic. “No one’s handing out jobs in this economy, Jo. I’ve got one. I put food on the table, and I like what I do.” His voice sounded stiff.
“No you don’t. You hate it, Todd,” she said back. “It’s a soul sucking, shit-eating job, but you’re just scared that your dad was right and that you aren’t good enough on your own. You hate it, and I hate it, and I hate what it’s done to you–to us.” She stopped. “I can’t do this with you, anymore.”
Dad was quiet. Mom dropped a pot into the sink and pushed out the door to the backyard.
A couple weeks after that, she came home late from the library. She walked in to kiss us goodnight, and there was cigarette smoke mixed with the lavender in the curls of her hair. Mom hated cigarettes. That’s how I knew she was going to leave us.
Ash rustles in his bed behind me. I turn to see if he’s awake, but he’s just rolled over. He’s got my mom’s black hair and creamy white skin. He’s sucking his thumb again. I turn back to the window and catch my own face in its reflection. Ash and I have my dad’s eyes, a dull green that blends into the color of the night-time grass.
“What’s he doing?” Ash says, quietly, from behind me.
I look back over my shoulder to see his eyes open. There’s a wet smear on his pillow where his thumb is resting against it.
“He’s done with the mower,” I say, looking back outside.
Dad leans it on the worn-out picnic table and picks up his garden sheers. We listen to them snipping away under the sound of the cicadas in the trees.
A month ago, I walked by my parent’s room and saw Mom’s suitcase half-packed, lying open on the bed. Clothes, jewelry and a few books were scattered around it. She was in the bathroom, showering. I knew that I couldn’t make her stay–maybe if Ash was there, but he was at soccer practice. And besides, I thought she might be happier if she left. Maybe if her and dad just had some time, she would come back and he would quit his job and write like he always wanted to. I didn’t knock on the door to say “goodbye”. I dug through the suitcase and found the Bon Jovi, Live in L.A. T-shirt that she wore to bed sometimes. I pressed it to my face and smelled the sweet, dreamy lavender on it. Then I put it back at the bottom of the suitcase and went to my room to start my World History report.
The next day she was gone. Ash locked himself in our room and wouldn’t come out for dinner. Dad and I sat downstairs at the table eating some microwaved vegetables and a rotisserie chicken he’d bought at Publix. The only sound between us was our forks punching through peas and clinking against our plates. I slept in Dad’s room that night. He cried in his sleep.
He started mowing the yard the next day. At first it was just every few afternoons, but then it got later. The neighbors called the cops because of the noise, so Dad bought the push-reel mower. Ash and I were in to bed one night, and we heard the rotors on the mower start to flick across the grass. We looked at each other in the darkness.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” he said, his dark hair falling in his eyes.
“Nothing. He just misses Mom,” I said back.
Ash was quiet for a while, then he fell asleep. He started sucking his thumb. I started watching Dad at night. Sometimes he sings. Other times he just talks to himself.
“Something’s wrong with him,” Ash says.
We both listen, and I watch him. He’s cutting the strands of grass that he couldn’t get with the mower. He starts around the legs of the picnic table. Then he clips along where the yard meets Mom’s flower beds. When he’s done, he lays his head sideways on the grass and scans for any blade he missed. He’s still singing, “No can do.”
“He reads mom’s books,” Ash says from over my shoulder again.
“What?” I look at him.
“Last week, I thought I heard someone downstairs, in the living room. I thought mom came back.”
He looks like her, and I wish I did.
“I went down to see if it was her. But it was him. He was sitting in her rocking chair, reading a Cussler novel that he got from the library.”
“Did he see you?” I ask.
We’re both quiet, listening to dad singing to himself outside and the snipping of the garden shears.
“I hate him,” Ash whispers through his teeth. His eyes are full. Tears run sideways over his nose and cheek, down into his pillow.
“She’ll come back,” I say, “for you,” I finish.
He sniffs, wipes his nose and squeezes his eyes shut.
Dad finishes with the sheers and pushes himself to his feet. The front of his sweatpants are wet and stretched out around the knees. He’s stopped singing. Now he’s just talking to himself. I can’t hear much, but every now and then, I catch my mom’s name, “Joanna”. He tucks the sheers under his neck, hitches the waistband up and ties the drawstring tighter. Then he sets the sheers back on the picnic table and grunts as he picks up a bag of mulch. His tennis shoes squeak over to the azaleas. He tips the shiny, white plastic bag and the mulch comes tumbling out. He pours too much, sets the bag down, grabs a handful from around the bush and sprinkles it on the dead peonies nearby. Pretty soon the bag is empty, and the whole yard smells like manure. Dad takes Mom’s spade and kneels down by the bushes, pushing the mulch around till it’s even.
On Monday he planted some Love-in-a-Mist underneath the Ash tree and a few lavenders. I’m getting sleepy while he works his way around to them. I lean my head on the glass, feeling the cool, hard pane press against my face. My eyelids feel like old rags rubbing against my eyes.
A creaking noise wakes me up. I jolt, thinking that Dad’s at the door and he’s caught me with my face against the window. The door’s still closed, though. I look for Ash, but he’s asleep, sucking his thumb again. The creaking is coming from outside, down at the swingset. Dad’s sitting on the swing, nudging himself back and forth with the dirty tips of his tennis shoes. There’s a stray piece of mulch in his beard. His hands are tucked into his sweatshirt. He’s singing “Sarah, Smile”, the part of the song that says, “It’s you and me forever,” and staring at the dirt in front of him. I look to the right and see what he’s done. Under the Ash tree, between the lavenders and the Love-in-a-Mist that he planted on Monday, the garden gnome is standing.
I feel cold at my ribs and pull my elbows in to touch them. I want to wake Ash up, but I can’t take my eyes off of my dad. He creaks back and forth on the swing. The cicadas have died out, so it seems louder. He takes his glasses off. They glint in the spotlights. He rubs them on his sweatshirt, then unzips it, and sets the glasses back on his face. He stands, walking towards the house, and the chains jangle behind him. Still singing, he takes off the sweatshirt and ties it around his waist. He’s wearing mom’s T-shirt, the one that says Bon Jovi, Live in L.A.
If you enjoyed this, consider checking out my novel, Hindsight, available on Amazon for only $0.99 and in the Kindle Owners Lending Library for free.