This story is by Sue Weems and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Our house was broken into the fall I turned thirteen. My dad blamed me and the lawn. My mom blamed my dad for making me start the lawn business, but I agreed with Dad. The break-in was a validation of my entire theory.
“If you had just left the damn yard alone, this would have never happened!” Dad thundered. The burglars had searched every drawer and cabinet. They took their disappointment out on my mother’s patched together curtains and couch cushions, which were slashed into feathery shreds.
“He didn’t do this!” my mother said. “It’s this neighborhood.”
My father’s face turned red. “I’m going to check with the neighbors. See if they saw anything.” He stormed out, rattling the last of the hanging picture frames.
I sat frozen in place surveying the damage. I couldn’t stop shivering.
“I’ll turn on the heat.” Mom’s defiance was building. My father never turned on the heat before Christmas, and it wasn’t even Halloween.
“No, I’ll get my sweatshirt.” I stood and picked my way carefully through the mess. My room was untouched. When a tiny beige bedroom has nothing but a sagging mattress with a lumpy pillow and a couple blankets, it’s pretty obvious there isn’t much to steal.
I reached into the closet to pull my sweatshirt off the hanger. Mom was forever reminding us to hang our clothes and take pride in our appearance. I never pointed out that hangers were cheaper than dressers. My socks and underwear were in a cardboard box on the closet floor.
Dad was right. There was no reason to break in, except the lush green lawn out front that rivaled the greens at any golf course in town. I had aerated, fertilized, over-seeded, manicured, mowed, and tended it as if my livelihood depended on it. And it did in a way.
When I turned twelve, my dad had insisted I get a job, and when no one would hire me (“Child labor laws!” my mother yelled at him), he shook his head and said that any real man would just go mow some lawns and make his own way in the world.
I borrowed the money from my grandma for a used mower and put on my best church clothes to walk door to door offering to mow for a low-introductory price. By mid-summer, I had invested in a new mower, and I had researched the best ways to make lawns look great. I even interviewed the head greenskeeper at the golf course. The grass grew greener and thicker in the yards I tended, and neighbors began to notice. Referrals quickly filled my calendar, and I had to begin turning away customers, until I hired my eleven-year-old cousin Rico to help me get it all done.
I stashed my money as fast as I could, but my father always skimmed a bit from the top for “incidentals and room and board.”
My mom snuck me down to the bank after school one day and opened an account with just our names on it. She helped me buy a credit card reader for my phone, so payments went straight into my account. I always made sure to leave a little cash in the pockets of my work jeans though. Just so dad had something to steal.
He returned to report that no neighbors had any damage. “Stick to other people’s yards from now on! I want that grass dead,” he ordered.
Bile rose in my throat and I jammed my fists in my pockets. My mom stepped between us, but I took a deep breath.
“It’d be better for me to cut it into strips and sell it as sod.” I met him eye-to-eye.
My dad winced, but he thought a moment. “Maybe you can replace my TV with the money. You got a week! Get this mess cleaned up.” The front door shook with his exit.
I stared out the front window at my lawn, admiring the perfect cross-hatching. Across the street, the yard was hard cracked dirt with sprigs of dried weeds that struggled to survive.
Mom stuck a trash bag in my hand. “He’s just jealous.”
“You. You are going to make something of yourself. Make a new place in the world.”
“What about you?” I glanced up to see the fierce pride in my mother’s eyes.
“I get to see you do it.” She grinned.
None of the homes in our neighborhood wanted the grass. I scanned the mowing route for lawns that needed patching with no luck. The golf course turned me down too.
On Sunday, my friend Gus talked me into helping him take flowers to a girl. I told him he was a sap, but I thought it might be worth a look.
When we steered our bikes into Longcreek Plantation, I knew we were way out of our league. Arched trees shaded the sidewalks, and the mailboxes all stood at attention. The lawns stretched in every direction, plush carpets of green. I needed to get a job in here, just so I could look at this grass every day.
“Gus, these are mansions,” I said. I looked from the grand brick homes with wrap porches and verdant lawns to Gus’ bike’s peeling paint and the bouquet of baby’s breath and three pink carnations crammed between his palm and the handlebars. We dropped the bikes in the shade on the sidewalk. “Why didn’t you get roses?” I asked.
“We aren’t all lawn tycoons.” Gus clutched his wrinkled tissue paper stems tighter.
“She’s gonna laugh us off the doorstep.” I rolled my eyes and tucked in my shirt. “Or we’ll get arrested for trespassing.”
“You wait here,” Gus said, adjusting his collar.
I looked up the street, feeling like a lookout. I stole a glance at the girl’s yard when a patch of brown caught my eye. The side yard had been completely torn out. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I squinted. Gus was already on the porch, rocking back and forth. The brown patch was directly between the girl’s house and her neighbor’s house. I watched Gus as the door opened and a hand reached out to take the flowers. It shut just as quickly. Gus stood with his hands in his pockets for a minute, and then turned around and walked down the cobblestone driveway whistling.
“Did she like them?”
“I’m sure she will.”
“Didn’t you give ‘em to her?”
“Naw, her sister said she wasn’t at home, but that she’d pass them along.” Gus was grinning.
“Listen, see that patch of brown? I can fix that.”
Gus’ mouth dropped open. “No. You’re gonna make us look like lawn boys.”
“You already did with those carnations.”
Gus’s face fell and I regretted my words. “Look, if you help me, I’ll help you get some real roses.”
He shifted. “I’ll wait here.”
I ran up the driveway. A well-dressed woman in slacks answered the door. “What now?” she said.
I handed her a business card. “I can fix your patch over there. I have references.”
She looked confused. “How old are you? Why would you want to fix it?”
“Thirteen and it’s a long story.”
“My husband refuses to pay for it. The neighbor’s dog tore it up, he says. The neighbor claims it was done by a stray. It’s on both sides of the property line and neither of them will budge.”
“I have a small patch of sod that would fit there perfectly. It needs to be moved quick. I can do it for cheap, and I’ll make sure it blends in with the rest of the lawn.”
“Who’d bring it over?”
“I have a trailer for my bike.”
She leaned out to look down at the sidewalk where Gus was standing over the bikes.
“Can you do it today?”
I nodded and gathered my courage. “If I do a good job, you think I could mow your lawn? I’ll give you a good introductory price.” I wished I had on my Sunday clothes.
She paused before straightening her shoulders. “I’m sorry. We have a contract with the homeowners’ association’s preferred provider’s list.”
I’d been turned down plenty of times, but this one stung.
“Still want to do it?” She looked at her watch.
I thought of my father’s discontent, my mother’s prophesy, and my lawn. My grass belonged here in Longcreek Plantation, and I could grow more. In a way, I could blame my father for that. I stuck out my hand with a smile.
She shook it, and I vowed one day, I would be rich enough to have my own plush lawn in a neighborhood where everyone had green grass. And maybe a security system.