By Shane VanOosterhout
Peter Small stood at the edge of his power-washed driveway, arms outstretched. “A man’s lawn is an investment and a matter of personal pride. It’s a shame when people don’t respect that.” He gestured dismissively at his neighbor’s yard. “It’s ruined--sparse, full of weeds, and they don’t give a damn. Disgusting.”
The FedEx man nodded. “I hear you. Sign please.”
Peter sliced open the box and removed the bright green container of Milt’s Miracle Mychorrizea. Minutes later he paced behind his Agri-Spreader, dropping white powder in meticulous rows.
Elaine slipped through the sliding door and stood on the deck, watching her husband from above. Peter glanced up and waved. “The fertilizer I ordered finally came.”
“That’s nice. The beef is ready to grill.”
After dinner they sat under the fringed blue porch umbrella, drinking Chardonnay. Elaine was in the middle of a sentence when Peter sprang from his chair and ran down the steps, causing her to spill cold wine on her bare thigh. “Peter! What on earth!” She limped to the railing.
Peter was on all fours, his head turned sideways, listening to the grass. After a moment he rounded his back and stood up. “I thought there was something. I had to check.”
“You startled me,” Elaine said sharply. “What something? Moles?”
“I had to check, that’s all.”
She squinted, bunching the soft skin at the corners of her eyes. “Not again.”
“It doesn’t concern you, Elaine.”
Pouting, she returned to her chair.
At four o’clock in the morning Peter woke and stepped onto the deck to stare at the glossy polish of his lawn, flat as a gemstone beneath a white moon.
He descended to the grass, where his John Deere X749 had surgically sliced every blade. A dull noise—thrup-thrup-thrup—came from the backside of his cedar fence: the neighbors had forgotten to shut off their oscillating sprinkler. “Damn them, if I get fungus, I swear to God I’ll sue.”
In the back corner the Small’s yard grew Elaine’s beloved purple Rose of Sharon. Peter hated it. Twice he had threatened to chop the thing down because it cast shade, depriving the surrounding turf of sunlight and nutrients. Elaine did not see the difference between A and B. “The grass looks fine to me. Why can’t I have one thing to myself in this yard? No, you’re not cutting it down.”
He wondered, seriously, how could she not see the difference between the sickly color of the grass that grew in the shadow of that damned shrub, and the rest of the lawn, which was so flawlessly green? Besides, Rose of Sharon was a calling card for the Japanese Beetles that came to feast on the flowers and stayed for the filthy sex. Even now, in the grey shadows of the moon, he swore he could see their libidinous, quivering antennae. He crossed the yard, entered the garage from the side door, and lifted the long-handled loppers from their hook.
In the morning Elaine’s face was wet with tears. “Why would you do this? Why?”
He remained silent, listening to her sniffles. “It had to be done. That’s all.”
“Do you want breakfast?”
“I ate early.”
She went to find a tissue.
“I’ll be outside. The lawn needs coring.”
“What? I thought you did that last month.”
“Now it’s this month.”
When he finished aerating, he gathered the slender grey soil plugs and covertly tossed them into his neighbor’s yard where they landed, undiscovered and leaking excess fertilizers, beneath an arborvitae. Minutes later Jason flung his muscular arms over the fence. “Hey, Mr. Small, how are ya? Can you believe how fast that bush is growing?” He gestured to the arborvitae. “I don’t do anything to it and it’s getting huge. Isn’t that awesome?”
“Yes, it’s awesome. Blocks my view of your house.” Peter irrigated for twenty-five minutes then checked his watch. Elaine appeared on the deck. "I made sandwiches, aren't you hungry?"
“I have to keep my eye on how these heads are working. Might have corrosion."
She uncrossed her arms and went indoors, then returned with a plate. “I’m putting a chicken sandwich on the table. It can’t sit out, so come and eat.”
He briefly glanced away from the hissing sprinkler heads. “O.K.”
Leaving a fourth of his sandwich unfinished, Peter returned to the yard, kneeled and lowered his nose to the flat tips of Kentucky Bluegrass. He inhaled. The odor was mostly correct, but something was not right. He stood up and dug his phone out of his pants pocket.
A woman answered. “Milt’s Miracle Products the place for a greener life this is Joan may I have your name sir?”
“Very good Mr. Peter and how may I assist you today?”
“I’m calling about your Miracle Mychorrizae.”
“O.K. sir and is that the Regular or Super Blast?”
“O.K. sir please hold while I transfer your call to a customer service representative.”
(Clicking, music, clicking.) “Hello this is Thomas may I have your first name please?”
“And how may I assist you today Mr. Small?”
“I put down some of your Mychorrizae product. But I’m not…”
“Regular or Super Blast?”
“Regular. I already told Joan.”
“I am sorry about that sir. Now what can I help you with?”
“It doesn’t work.”
“And when did you apply our product?”
“Two days ago.”
Pause. “OK sir? You do realize that all of Milt’s Miracle Products are guaranteed to show noticeable results after thirty days of application?”
“Listen, I want a refund.”
“Sir may I suggest that you wait until thirty days have passed and if you are still not satisfied you give us a call back? And I’d like to remind you that Milt’s Miracle Products have been certified by the American Lawn Association to be highly effective when properly applied to the average lawn?”
Peter snorted. “Average? I do not have an average lawn, Thomas. I have the finest lawn in this neighborhood!”
“Yes sir I’m sure you do.”
“You people are worthless.” Peter disconnected. He lifted a foot to check his clean white sneakers. Red thread could be a serious problem at this time of the year. “Elaine!” he shouted. “I’m taking the truck over to my storage locker. I’ll be back in an hour or so!”
She came outside. “Did you say something? I had water running in the sink.”
“I saw ants.”
“All right.” She eyed her pots of orange geraniums, surprised at how they drooped.
Upon learning in 2005 that the pesticide Diazinon would be phased out, Peter had made a retaliatory sweep of all the garden retailers within ninety miles, purchasing five hundred bags of Diazinon. He stacked the bags, warehouse style, in a rental. Elaine knew, because she had nagged the truth from him when she saw the credit card bill. He promised that if they ever needed the money, he could sell off the remaining inventory on Craig’s list and “probably double” what he’d paid.
The storage unit was hot and reeked of vaguely dangerous chemicals, like Elaine’s automatic room fresheners. He wiped the sweat from his lip and loaded two bags into the truck’s cab.
After sundown there were a few rumblings of thunder, but the sky did not break. They sat in the TV room while Peter watched tennis with the sound dialed down to a murmur. Elaine, curled on the sofa, read The Alphabet Murders—M is for Maim. When the tennis match ended Peter turned his head and saw that she had nodded off, her exposed cheek bathed in light from the brass reading lamp. He left the room.
Elaine woke at midnight. Her ankle throbbed. She limped to the kitchen for two ibuprofen and a glass of water. Gazing through the window she noticed Peter’s silhouette hovering in the center of the yard. She struggled to push open the window—it always resisted—but finally decided to give up.
Peter remained still, watching and listening. He saw only one cricket, and laughed at it, knowing that it would soon be dead. During the first seconds of dawn he grew hopeful, thinking he had heard a sound coming from the grass—not quite a whisper, but then the crows began cawing, and it slipped away. Suddenly he noticed the heat, and went indoors to start the central air.
The house smelled of eggs and tea. Elaine looked at him broadly. “You were out there all night for heaven’s sake.”
“I hope you’re going to take it easy today. Forecast is for extreme heat.”
“Still got a couple of things I need to do.”
“Peter …” She handed him a glass of cranberry juice.
“I’ll get some rest first.”
He napped, showered and returned to his lawn, wearing only bathing trunks. Gripping a magnifying glass he crawled across the grass, peering down. Sometimes he stopped, wrinkled his brow and plucked a single blade, which he studied with the nervous concentration of a forensics detective. Then he would toss it aside and continue crawling, searching for damning clues.
Elaine stayed indoors, hovering at the windows, wishing that Peter would quit. She pounded on the glass to get his attention, and then called his phone and begged him to come in, but he said he had to finish. At 9:30 AM the yard was in full sun. Peter lay chest down on the lawn with his arms neatly at his sides. Elaine yanked open the door and sprinted into the crushing heat, ignoring the awful pain in her ankle.
Peter’s mouth moved slowly. His eyes were half open.
“Can you hear me?” She rubbed his shoulder.
“Yes…it’s OK. Yes, I can hear you. I understand now.”
“It’s me, it’s Elaine. I called 911.”
By the time the two paramedics arrived Peter had roused and was leaning against his wife. “I’m OK guys,” he said. “Sorry you had to come here for nothing.”
“He fainted,” Elaine said angrily, moving away from him. She was soaked in sweat. “Don’t you boys dare leave without checking my husband over from head to toe.”
“Mr. Small we need to get you inside. Can you walk?”
“Good. Let’s take it slow now, OK?”
Elaine instructed them to put Peter on the sofa. She brought cold towels for his burning skin while they took his blood pressure and asked him if he knew the president of the United States. “Not personally,” he joked.
“You’ll be fine,” the paramedics reassured, “as long as you hydrate and get your body temperature back to normal. You over-heated like crazy.”
Elaine was on the verge of tears. “I kept telling him to come inside.”
“Don’t blame yourself, ma’am, this happens a lot around this time of year. Your husband’s a little stubborn, am I right?”
She wept, nodding in relief. “Yes. He never listens to me.”
“Just make sure he drinks a lot of liquids. Anything he likes. Except alcohol, of course. Soda, juice, water—it’s all good.”
“You’re welcome. Boy you sure do have a nice lawn, by the way.”
“I’ll be sure to tell my husband you said so.”
Peter slept for three hours. When he woke he was in good spirits. He ate three turkey sandwiches that Elaine had made for him and he gulped four cans of Pepsi. “I feel good,” he told her. “Really good.”
“I put the thermostat at 65,” she informed him. “Is that too cold? I was so worried. The paramedics said that if your temperature had been just three degrees higher they would’ve taken you to the hospital. But once I got those wet towels on you it seemed to come down pretty fast.”
“Feels good in here.”
“Look at me Peter. No more going out in this heat, do you understand?”
“I’ve been thinking, maybe we should hire a lawn service.”
He stared at the sliding door and bit down. “Let’s not get into that right now.”
That night when they crawled into bed, Peter apologized for causing a scene with the paramedics, as if he had perpetrated a hoax. In the cold, dry bedroom Elaine applied moisturizer to her arms and legs, accepted her husband’s apology, and switched off the lights. He lay awake, listening for her breath to change to its familiar sigh, and then slipped out of bed to answer the whispers that called from the yard.
The heat engulfed him.
Elaine woke hours later, pushed her pillow aside and screamed. Peter’s body was twisted, his neck exposed and his head flung back. She reared from the bed, damp sheets clinging to her legs, and tore open the blinds, flooding the room with light. Then she saw what was really there: a knoll of dark green stuff, rising from the mattress like a heaving mound of turf. The lampshade, carpet, walls and ceiling, the framed photograph of seashells, they were tinted as pretty as chlorophyll.
Sobbing, she hobbled along the edge of the room toward the door. “Peter?”
“Where are you? What are you saying?”
But the whisper did not come again. She left the room and shut the door tightly.
For the next two days Elaine did not open the door. Finally she knocked, called Peter’s name, and entered when he did not answer. The swollen mound of green was still heaped on their bed. “You look dry,” she said to it. “I’m going to give you a drink.” She got her watering can from under the kitchen sink and gave the mound a generous sprinkle.
After a few days the mattress sagged and reeked of algae, an odor that crept through the rest of the house. She installed air fresheners in every room—Vanilla Summer, Lavender Morning, Strawberry Sunset. Then a grotesque, yellowish slime appeared and spread into the carpet, which was the last straw. Besides, she was sick of sleeping on the couch. There was nothing left to do but call a service. “Can you take a look at my yard?” She inquired.
When a man named Tony arrived she led him through the house to the bedroom and paused before opening the door. She had been rehearsing this: “You might think this is weird. I’d rather not explain.”
They stood at the edge of the expanding wet stain oozing across the floor.
“Here it is,” Elaine said. “Can you move it to the backyard?”
“I could get some guys over this afternoon. We could shovel it into some pails and dump it outside.”
She shook her head. “It has to be moved in one piece. You know…transplanted.”
“No way we can get it outside in one piece unless we cut a hole clean through the side of the house.”
She looked him earnestly. “Then that’s what we’ll do. Do you know a good contractor?”
A week later Tony returned with his three taciturn sons. They heaved the soggy mattress and its green passenger through the bashed bedroom wall, onto a hydraulic platform, and lowered it to the ground. Next they moved it to the corner of the yard, where her purple Rose of Sharon had once grown, and they slashed away the ruined mattress with box cutters, leaving only the strange dark lump of stuff that was once Peter Small. Elaine put the hose on it, but only after first refreshing her geraniums.
The carpenters tore out the bedroom carpet and set out heaters to dry the damp from the sub-floor. The wall was reframed for a large picture window that provided a wider view of the yard. Elaine bought herself a fancy chair with deep cushions—a bright floral print, and a generous matching ottoman, so she could sit and look out whenever she pleased.
The mound faded to dull green. But after a few weeks in the sun and a twenty-minute soak every morning, its color improved. In early fall Elaine dialed down the irrigation system from once per day to once per week. Chickweed crept in but she didn’t bother to spray it. Ants marched through and crickets sang at night.
In October the Flower Haus ran a fifty percent discount on all remaining flowering shrubs and trees. Elaine purchased eight Rose of Sharon and set them in the backyard, abutting the fence. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a loosely buttoned shirt, she retrieved the long-handled shovel from its hook, and began digging.
“Hello Mrs. Small.” Jason leaned over the fence.
“How’ve you been?”
“Oh, much better, thank you.”
“Was something the matter?”
She stuck out her foot and wiggled it. “Had a terrible sprain when my husband left the string trimmer lying on the ground this spring—didn’t see it there. But now, good as new.”
“Cool.” He grinned. “So where is Mr. S. these days? Weird not to see him mowing and stuff. You guys have such an awesome lawn.”
“He’s away.” She smiled politely. “So I’m tending the yard now.”
“Ah, I see.” His eyes scanned the yard. “Looks like you’re more the natural type.”
Elaine struck the earth with the tip of the shovel, forcing it through the turf’s roots with swift shove from her foot. “Did you hear that?”
“Sounded like shouting.” And then she laughed, mysteriously, with her eyes closed.
Jason shrugged. “Eh, maybe that couple next to us--they argue a lot.”
“How is your wife, Jason? That baby must be due any time now.”
“Charlotte? She’s terrific, thanks for asking. Although she can’t stand being outside since the pregnancy—makes her feel sick. But now that it’s cooled off I keep trying to get her to at least walk around the block. Problem is she’s so darned huge!”
“She’ll be back to normal soon, I know I was.”
“I’ll tell her you said that. Hey! Looks like you just did some remodeling.” He pointed at Elaine’s bedroom window. “Charlotte and I were just talking about adding on.”
“I’ll give you their number.”
“Thanks. So, you need some help with those plants?”
She glanced at the row of shrubs in black plastic containers. “Rose of Sharon—my favorite. I thought I’d do a whole hedge of ‘em, right here by this lump.”
He stared. “Funny. I don’t remember that being there.”
Jason climbed over the fence. “Just tell me where to dig.”
Shane VanOosterhout is The Passionate Gardener.
For more garden inspiration, you can follow him on Facebook.