It was bright daylight outside, but not inside. Inside, it was dark.
I was sitting at my computer, trying to write as usual. Michael was taking a nap. Rosie was taking a break from homeschooling to play in her room. The sun was doing its best to burst through the cracks in the blinds, leaving clean yellow stripes on the carpet.
The blinds were drawn because of our neighbor. We always keep the blinds drawn, because when we used to keep them open the harassment was worse. I would like to get some sunshine in the downstairs, but usually we can’t.
I heard the sound of a mower from somewhere nearby.
That didn’t surprise me. It was a nice sunny day and the temperature just below eighty. Next week will be cooler but probably rainier. Autumn is nearly here, and that brings the rain. Of course, people would take today to mow the lawn before it was too late. Michael was going to mow ours in the evening.
The mower made a nasty sound as it crunched over something plastic, a piece of litter thrown from the street perhaps. I cringed. I also wondered why the mower sounded like it was coming from directly out front. But then it receded again, back into the distance.
I tried to write.
I didn’t want to write. I wanted to open the blinds and let the sun shine into the room; I wanted to go for a walk in the brightness and look for signs of autumn. I wanted to burst out of my dark house like Mr. Mole in The Wind in the Willows, down to the riverside to go on a picnic– not in the dreadful, dangerous, polluted Ohio, but in a beautiful clean river in a children’s book. I wanted to take Rosie to Pittsburgh to play in Schenley Park where there are fat squirrels in the trees and the litter is picked up regularly. I wanted to go hiking in Pocahontas County and see if the leaves had begun to turn yet. Anything but being here in Steubenville, holed up in my house, hiding from a peeping tom, trying to make writing happen when it won’t. Anywhere but here, doing anything but writing.
Michael came downstairs. “What happened to the yard?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
I opened the front door and peeked.
Our front grass was mowed; dry clippings sprayed messily onto the front walk.
“Who did that?” I asked.
“You didn’t hear somebody mow the front lawn?”
“I thought they were mowing next door.”
I heard the mower again, and went upstairs to peek out the bathroom window at the back.
A scruffy man was shoving a push mower up the slight incline in our yard, which isn’t fenced and is accessible from the alley. The man looked a little like Jesus– not like Jesus actually looked when He dwelt among us as a Jewish man from the Middle East, with dark hair and rich brown skin, but Jesus as he appears on American prayer cards. He had long, messy, dishwater-blond hair and a matching beard.
“Some man I’ve never seen before is cutting our grass,” I said. “What do we do?”
Michael handed me a twenty dollar bill. “Give him this if he comes to the door.”
I thought about remaining in the bathroom for the rest of the day.
Our neighbor doesn’t like it when we mow the lawn. She used to be obsessed with the family across the street; she imagined that the mother was a prostitute and made it her crusade to get the children taken away from her by Social Services. She even kept a camera in her window to record evidence of their supposed crimes at all times. But the family across the street moved away, so now the neighbor has turned her attention to us. When we go outside to mow, she likes to stand in her yard filming us on her phone, cursing us out and talking about how she’s going to have us arrested. Then she rakes up a pile of grass on our side of the property line, and when our backs are turned she dumps the grass on our porch.I didn’t want to deal with our neighbor. I didn’t want to deal with the police if she did call them, and if they bothered to show up. I practiced telling them the truth, unbelievable as it was, to an imaginary police officer. “I don’t know who this man is, Officer. I didn’t hire him. I was sitting in my house with the blinds drawn on this fine day, hiding, and a vandal came along and defaced the clover and dandelions I was specifically growing out for the pollinators.”
It’s amazing how the truth can sound like the least likely story imaginable.
The noise of the lawnmower receded into the distance again.
I decided to get out of Dodge.
“Come on, Rosie,” I said. “Let’s catch the bus to the library.”
I intended to sneak out the quickly, making the house look locked up and unoccupied, so of course I bowled out the door at just the wrong moment right in front of my neighbor, who was wielding a broom, and just as the mysterious clover vandal rounded the side of our house again– our neighbor’s side. She once waved a knife at Michael when he came too close to that side of the house. We never walk on that side for any reason.
Any thought I had of stopping to ask the lawnmower who he was and what he expected of me vanished, and I fled.
As Rosie and I boarded the bus, I looked back to see my neighbor sweeping with dramatic, dance-like, pantomime gestures, not on the immaculate walk in front of her own property but in front of our house. She looked like one of those inflatable puppets they put in front of car dealerships during sales, the kind that convulse back and forth on the wind– only those mesmerize me, and she makes me want to flee to the ends of the earth.
At the library, I fantasized as I usually do about never going home. I would hide in the bathroom at close of business like the children in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, then sleep on the cozy sofa in the children’s section at night. I would go out during the day to buy wine and cheese at the Aldi across the street. I would write my blog posts at the Reference Room computers. And I would never have to draw the blinds to hide from my neighbor again. But of course, we couldn’t stay.
When we got home, there was a messy pile of grass on the street in front of our house, swept out of our yard, where our parking spot would be if we had a car. But at least the porch was untouched. And my lawn was mowed, and it was nearly Autumn; we might not have to deal with the mowing battle again until next Spring.
That night, Michael walked out to buy milk at the little market a few blocks away– where he met our mysterious lawnmower buying his groceries. It turns out he’s the father of one of Rosie’s neighborhood friends who lives up the street. He paints and does odd jobs for a living; I’d never seen him clean and on the ground– only on a ladder or up on a porch in his work clothes, with his face and hair covered with house paint. That was why I didn’t recognize him.
Michael tried to pay him but he refused any compensation.
“I just felt like cuttin’ grass today,” he said. He’d gotten his mower and gone down the block, mowing any yard that looked like it needed it.
When Michael told me, just for a second I didn’t feel so trapped. I didn’t feel like running away from LaBelle and Steubenville. I didn’t even feel like hiding; I had half a mind to throw open the blinds and laugh if I saw the neighbor with her camera.
I guess that’s the power that kind people have. They can make a hellish situation seem tolerable without meaning to, because they felt like spending their day off helping anyone who seemed to need it.
I hope to grow up to be a kind person some day.
(image via Pixabay)