Nothing wrong with a little guerrilla lawn care, right?
“Katie Geller,” I heard someone exclaim and I recognized her the moment I turned. Still sturdily pretty, hair in the same neat bouffant, my favorite neighbor from my childhood block. She reached to hug me but forgot the plunger in her outstretched arm and a cascade of toilet chains and floaters tinkled to the floor.
I ought to issue a press release, with all the people asking me. But instead I just smile as I answer, “Really well, all things considered. They caught it early and her nodes were clear. Thank god for mammograms, right?”
“I never miss one myself, whatever the darn insurance companies say. Send my love to your mom, sweetie, will you?And tell her I’m going to call her for a bagel brunch. It’s been too long.” She turned to go, then stopped. “Katie, have you been back down the street lately?”
I shook my head. No, I hadn’t been back to Elmwood Drive. Not lately, not in twenty-five years, not since the day I’d walked through the freshlyemptied house, turned the back door key one last time, then walked to join my mother and brother in the car. Only ten minutes from where I lived now but ten lifetimes away.
“Better not to, Katie. Better to remember it the way it was.”She put her hand on my arm one more time then walked away. And I stared down at the drain snake in my hand as though it could tell me what in the world Mrs. Hancock was talking about.
Well, you tell me not to do something and of course I’m going to do it. So the following Sunday I loaded up some carry bags with the food I’d prepared for my mother – grilled chicken, baked ziti, minestrone soup, all parceled neatly into individual servings to make it easier for her to heat – piled into the car with Sam and the kids, and took a little detour on the way out to her apartment.
The July sun was bright on the trees, Jack Johnson mellow on the radio, and the road curved beneath me like another limb as I rounded the corner and drove up the hill.
“Looks like the Traegers finally painted their house. If it’s still their house. And I wonder if the Messners are still in number 16.”Like anybody in the car knew who or what I was babbling about.
Look guys,” I started to say as we reached the top of the street. “That’s where I grew up.”Then I turned. And as I stared at the ramshackle structure before me, the words dropped away, half-spoken.
The house I grew up in had pale yellow shingles with fresh white trim on the doors and windows. A sweet red maple tree graced one side of the front lawn and a tall, admittedly rather scraggly pine tree stood on the other, giving welcome shade on hot summer days. Begonias and impatiens bloomed hopefully in the gardens beneath the windows and the sinuous green ivy was kept meticulously in check by my mother. It was never a fancy house but it was always a family home.
Well, now the yellow shingles dangled from the frame and the white paint peeled from the windows and doors. The maple tree was gone, so was the pine, and without their shade the lawn had grown scabby and brown, the gardens spindly with weeds. The ivy swarmed over one side of the house, threatening to swallow it whole. And crowning the front stoop, like a ringmaster to a macabre spectacle, was a red-capped garden gnome with a lantern in one hand and a demented grin on his face.
Sam stared at me as I stared at the house and waited for a wisecrack to bubble up. All I got instead was the image of Mrs. Hancock and her plunger.
In the backseat, the kids were unusually, almost respectfully quiet, until Talie, my littlest one, piped up, “Mommy’s house is broke.”
A flake of white paint drifted lazily from the doorway as we stared. “That just about sums it up, Talie-bean,” I answered.
I made my first foray on Tuesday night. The kids were tucked in bed, stories read, lights out, and though it was almost 9 o’clock, the summer warmth made the evening feel longer than it really was. I called to Sam to let him know I was heading out, using the excuse that we were low on diapers. Which was true and as any parent of a toddler knows, you never want to run low on diapers. But I also stopped in the garage to grab a pair of pruning shears and gardening gloves, and I didn’t tell Sam that part.
The stars were just peeking out as I turned down the street. A small, sensible voice kept knocking at the back of my mind telling me that now – no really, any time now — would be a good time to turn back. But I ignored it, just as I ignored my fingers that were cold with nerves. “Just this one time,” I promised myself.
I pulled up to the house and turned off the engine. In the weak light of the streetlamps, the spindly weeds cast spiky shadows across the front of the house and the roof sagged like a droopy washing line against the moonlit sky. “Bloody hell,” I said to the silence of my car.
I strode across the lawn to a patch of scrubby garden beneath the dining room window (after first checking to see if the driveway was empty. It was. I’m not crazy). “Bloody hell,” I said again, staring down at the tangle of brambles. It was even worse up close. I yanked at a fistful of something prickly. Whatever it was came away easily in the dusty, dry soil. “What’s the matter,” I muttered. “Can’t even water your weeds?”
I’d never met the new owner – and he would always be new, no matter how long he lived in my house — but I’d heard about him from my mother. A single man, possibly an accountant though nobody knew for sure, he’d brought his mother to the open house and then to the negotiations, where she’d whispered in his ear and he’d called her “mother dear.”More details filtered in from neighbors over time — he was never home for trick-or-treaters, he avoided all the block parties, he was barely ever seen at all, except occasionally in the early mornings heading to his car. It was all too easy to picture him scurrying between the house and the stand-alone garage, avoiding daylight and the prying eyes of neighbors. A nocturnal hominid.
The shears made a solid thwack as they closed around the woody branches of an overgrown hawthorn bush. I scissored away for a while, lost in a rhythm, avoiding the thorns as I reached up and around the back of the bush, ducking as the clipped branches fell around me to the ground. When my face prickled with heat and sweat dripped down the small of my back, I stopped, pushed the hair away from my forehead, and stood back to survey my work.
Even by the dim light, the bushes looked cleaner and lighter, the garden patch tamed and subdued. And all it took was ten minutes. So then why didn’t he bother, I wondered as I trimmed back some stragglers. He’d told my mother that the house was a long-term investment. Well, it’s a funny sort of investment – thwack – to buy a house and let the roof slide off its beams. And it’s a funny sort of person who invests in a home – thwack – a neighborhood – thwack – a life – then spits on all it represents.
In the backpack at my feet, my cellphone began to strum its ringtone. I fumbled for the silence button and looked at the screen – Sam, calling to check where I was. Time to go. I gathered up the clippers and gloves then headed to the car. And it was a good thing the 7-11 on the turnpike stayed open late, because I had still some diapers to pick up.
“This is the last time,” I swore as I drove back two nights later to tackle the yew next to the front door. Once upon a time, the bush had been tall and abundant, with deep green needles and bright red berries that announced fall’s arrival each September and there was a deep cavern at the back that was perfect for hide and seek, or spying on neighbors, or whiling away countless hours in evergreen-scented daydreams.
My father, who could most easily reach the top, kept the bush trimmed in a perfect snow globe sphere. At least until the side-swipe divorce, when in the span of months he’d dyed out the grey in his hair and taken up with a tanned and lacquered associate from sales. “Your mother is the one with problems, not me,” he’d announced. And, “you’re a real bitch, you know?”After that, the responsibility for pruning, and for all the lawn maintenance, had fallen on my mother, and my brother, and on me, whichever one of us had the time to spare. But we never let anything slide. We just pulled out a ladder.
But now the bush was an eviscerated version of its old self, overgrown in some patches while hacked nearly to the ground in others. Like someone who’d torn out chunks of her hair. “You poor bugger,” I said, as I cut back the worst of the grasping branches. “What did you ever do to deserve this?
As I stashed some clippings at the back of the bush, I caught the garden gnome staring cross-eyed at me from the front stoop. “And you! Just what do you think you’re grinning at, you goon?”
If anything went through my head at all as I kicked him, it was that the gnome was probably wrought iron and I’d likely end up with a very sore foot. But as luck would have it, he was made of plastic and it was a perfectly landed kick. There was a satisfying crack as my foot made contact then he shot up head-first like he was making straight for the moon. Blast off.
And then – smack. The gnome hit the roof. I cringed as he body-bumped down the face of the second story and held my breath as he skittered to an undignified stop, feet in the air, in the portico gutter. “C’mon, c’mon,” I breathed as he wobbled uncertainly. “I’ll catch you, I promise.” But that was it. Wedged like a cork in a bottle, his journey was done.
“Aw, crap,” I said. “Now I’ll have to come back with a ladder.”Then I took another look at the yew. And maybe some compost too.
I picked up the ladder and the compost at Costco on Monday morning. While I was there, I also picked up a flat of yellow begonias for the shade garden and some hot-pant pink geraniums, on sale at check-out, to liven up the front stoop. Then once again I waited until the kids were in bed, and once again I told Sam I was going out for a drive. If he noticed the stash in the back of the wagon or thought my nighttime drives were an odd new development, he didn’t say.
As I pulled up to the house, I could see two shadowy legs poking up out of the gutter. Of course he was still there. I could also see the t.v.’s blue light flickering from the den in the back of the house. The hominid was home. Well, I’d just have to work quietly then, wouldn’t I?
I made several trips, lugging the ladder and compost, shovel and flowers from the car to the front stoop. I arranged the geraniums by the front door then spread compost around the withering yew. I eased the begonias into the damp soil of the shade garden and bedded them down with some water from my water bottle. Then I extended my ladder to its nearly full height, leaned it against the front door of the portico, and climbed toward the gutter to rescue that darned gnome.
As I neared the top, I paused to run my fingers over the portico rim. The peeling paint came away easily, as though the house were relieved to finally shed its mottled skin. The wood beneath was smooth but solid. Next time, I thought. All I need is a chisel and some paint.
I put my foot on the next rung and then — as I supposed was inevitable — the front door opened. Not the exterior glass door I was leaning against but the interior wooden door, and that bought me time to scramble — not down (you think of these things after the fact) but up, onto the roof of the portico where I came face to plastic feet with the gnome. Well, aren’t we a pair? I thought as I hunched at the rim with my butt next to my feet next to my hands for balance. The human gargoyle and her gnomic friend.
“Hello?” I heard him call. His voice was thin and nasal, just as I’d imagined. My hand cramped as I gripped the gutter but I didn’t dare loosen my grip.
“I know you’re there,” he said. His pale hand reached toward the ladder.
“Please don’t,” I said, without even knowing what I was asking him not to do. Don’t take away the ladder? Don’t climb up next to me for a chat?
The top of his head swiveled at the sound of my voice though I couldn’t see his face. “Who are you?And what are you doing up there?”
The truth seemed simplest. “Your garden gnome was stuck.” Gnome, gnome. That’s a funny word, gnome.
“Who are you?” he asked again.
“You know, you really should repair this paint. The wood will rot if you don’t do something.”
“Answer my question!” he demanded.
“How about you tell me why don’t you take care of the house!” I shot back.
“Take care of the house!Take care of the house!” he mimicked, spitting my words back at me. “Everyone asks me why I don’t take care of the house. Well, if you must know, I have other things to do. Like take care of my mother. She’s sick.”
How ironic, I thought.
“Anyway, what’s it to you?” he continued, his voice changing from a whine to a wheedle. “How about you come down so we can talk? And then maybe I won’t have to call the police.”
No way was I climbing down to that voice. I’d rather take my chances with the police. I looked up at the stars and breathed in the summer air. How bad could it be? I mean, could you really be arrested for philanthropic lawn care?
But then, as I waited, I began to picture everything that would happen next. The climb down the ladder to the police. The neighbors, woken by the sirens, standing around and shaking their heads. There’d be the humiliating plea to please let me off easy because all I really did was pull some weeds and the even more humiliating call to Sam, who would be oh-so-understanding.
And, oh, crap, there was camp drop-off in the morning. And my mother’s follow-up consultation. What if I wasn’t released in time? Would Sam know where to find the dry bathing suits?Would he remember the sunscreen or that Ben hates yogurt in his lunch but Talie loves it as long as it’s strawberry?Who’d help my mother ask the hard questions?
The stars began to spin. I’ve got to get down. How the HELL am I going to get DOWN? Where HELL are the police so I can climb DOWN?
I waited but still there was nothing. No voice on the phone, no sirens or flashing lights. Nothing — but the sound of the door closing, the latch clicking back into place, and then the quiet night.
I gently swiveled the gnome from the gutter and carried him down the ladder football-style to the front stoop. I brushed him off with trembling hands and placed him carefully next to the geraniums. Then as steadily as I could on my shaking legs, I walked to the car with my ladder under my arm. I never did like heights.
I did go back, three weeks later. It was a bright, hot, cicada-wheezing Sunday in August, the kind of day that begged for the beach or the pool and a barbecue. Against all odds, the geraniums bloomed happily on the front stoop. But the yew had grown scraggly again, the garden was due for a good weeding, and, while I watched, another flake of paint drifted down from the portico rim. I put my foot to the gas and drove on.