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Fiction by James Callan

The Perfect Lawn

The lawn was beyond mowing, perhaps beyond saving, a disgrace and affront to the trim and tidy expectation of a respectable community. It grew in profusion, a square of verdure untempered by Sunday routine, an unkempt hippy among a crowd of US Marines. Nestled in the curve of an otherwise quaint and orderly cul-de-sac, it rose skyward, an inflammation in the dip of a meniscus, the only man standing in a church of kneelers. Each weekend, the paperboy would pause at the edge of this prolific growth that marked the stark boundary between common decency and perversion. Shaking his head, he’d throw his roll of freshly-printed news as if a stone at a convicted witch.

From mailbox to front door, a dense population of green-skinned vagrants converged outside a condemned, ramshackle dwelling. Unwelcome, they basked in the sun; emerald invaders that arrived from the sky. Without eyes, they seemed to stare, hideous things that stood taller than children. Without mouths, they managed to jeer, tenacious marauders that marred the view. If they had yet to infiltrate the perfect lawns belonging to the neighbors, they had certainly infiltrated their minds, taking root in smalltown gossip. While contained to one address, they spread on the lips of an irate community. Weeds –the worst of their kind.

Google Maps and drone shots would reveal the same despicable reality: a checkerboard of short-shorn, vibrant green, a repeating pattern broken by a single rhombus of overgrown wilderness. It ruined everything, corrupting the entire length of a decorous avenue. Allowed to grow free, its flower heads and broad leaves cast bold shadows to sully the crisp, militant uniformity of suburban Middle America.

Nonconformist, or just plain lazy, the man living in the quarter-acre property let his white-picket paradise turn to rot. Dandelion, less desirable than syphilis, dotted crotch-high blades of grass, unsightly tufts of dead or dying thistle weed. It was everywhere, like McDonald’s golden arches, like teenage acne, a constellation of unwanted visitors, yellow heads that turned to spectral ghosts as they expired, spreading seeds on the wind like a plague carried on the faintest whisper of hot, summer gossip.

Have you seen the neighbor’s lawn?”

What? You mean the fucking Amazon Rainforest?”

I know, right?”

Does the man have an ounce of shame?”

A thimble of decency?”

What a degenerate.”

An utter prick.”

A gust of wind rips through a row of American flags and ten thousand airborne seeds take flight, kamikaze pilots delivering doom on resolute wings. Next season it’d be the adjacent lawn that hosts the assailant, that unwanted plant. Then it would be on someone else’s dollar, someone else’s time, to go out and poison every inch, pull up every root. But at least, in the end, it would be contained. It would look just like all the rest.

Do you think he’ll ever bother to cut back the grass?”

An interesting query. Here’s another one: does Satan wear snowshoes to work?”

John wakes to the flap of patriotism lining the well-kept street, fifty daytime stars and thirteen agitated stripes heralding the mid-to-late morning. He stretches, rising from bed to the buzz of bees that visit the flowers peppering his lawn. He yawns, walking to his kitchen to the buzz of weed-eaters, lawnmowers, liquid pump-action spray packs strapped to polo-collared backs. He puts on the kettle, which boils and steams, screams to drown out the active industry of the hive, insect pollinators and homeowners with immaculate plots of land.

Coffee at his lips, John peers beyond the screen door to survey the morning. Through a veil of mist rising from his cup, he admires the untamed patch of verdant green sprawling outward to the edge of his property, the unfettered plants that strive to touch the sun and engulf his mailbox. Lush and vibrant, proud and unabashed, the botanical ensemble of John’s front yard stands out against the reserved conformity of the neighborhood standard.

Often, those who pass by raise their eyebrows, sometimes raise a complaint. Occasionally, the locals offer a withering look, yet it does no harm, it withers no plants. Sometimes John overhears his next-door neighbors chatting about how they despise his overgrown lawn –and what is more– how they despise him too, that like the weeds, they wished that he’d just go away, shrivel up and die.

Have you ever seen anything so goddamned out of control? It’s a disgrace. And right next door!”

It makes me sick.”

I should call the council.”

Or an exterminator.”

That’s bugs, Honey. Not plants.”

No, Darling. Not bugs or plants. I was thinking of John.”

Hearty laughter fills the warm air which smells of fresh-cut grass and citronella candles. A clink of crystal greets the evening’s first star; a swish of Chardonnay coats the fragile glasses, coats the throats of a disgruntled pair. Orange coals sizzle on the grill, bubbles of fat screaming, boiling, escaping to the surface to cry out in protest. Mosquitoes whine, an incessant complaint.

That’s the ticket, Honey. Let’s kill the bastard!”

I’ll drink to that!”

From over the serrated edge of a white-picket fence, John doesn’t allow the venomous commentary to bother him. He is used to being a little bit different, historically gravitating towards the fringe. Besides, John favors his own aesthetic, his own lawn, which to him is perfect, and is his to do with what he will. He looks up to the evening’s first, glittering star, back down to his suburban wilderness, and smiles. The ding of the microwave announces the completion of his Tombstone pepperoni pizza. He cracks open a cold beer, cracks open the screen door and breathes deep of the rich night air, an aroma of wild thyme and lemon verbena, flower heads and insect pheromones. Filled with content, he appreciates the chaos of his lawn.

Later, under the brazen glow of a full moon, there before him, glorious and free, his unshackled plot of land, Mother Nature’s unaided beauty, untouched by the hands of man, unsullied by heavy-handed labor to beat back what is only natural. With pride, John looks out over his lawn of tall shoots and erect, emerald prongs, the carpet of white daisies and purple clover, the ever abundant, golden lion’s mane peering above a miniaturized Serengeti. Then, beyond the yellow dandelions, the feathered tips of nipple-high grass, he sees the hateful stare of his neighbors, a disgust that seems to take the shape of demons, a vaporous ill-will that hovers long after they’ve left. It lingers, unseen, like a viper among the veld.

#

The next morning is like any other. The sun rises. Birds tweet. People tweet. The mid-July air is thick and hot. Nationalism hangs limp in a morning devoid of wind, stars and stripes falling to the earth in the wake of last week’s fireworks. The neighborhood is filled with the sound of nearby bees, the sound of distant mowers, Weed-Whackers, leaf-blowers, and something soundless too; a collective essence of targeted discontent, a subtle, unseen malice that coalesces, invisible yet palpable, accumulating in the concave curve of a meniscus that gives shape to an otherwise dignified cul-de-sac. The dandelions shine, reflecting a buttery luminosity that attracts a growing hatred like bees to pollen, like flies to a rotting corpse.

With his coffee, John enjoys his personalized version of Where’s Waldo, his hunt for hidden objects while gazing out the kitchen window, searching for the lawn gnomes lost within the prolific growth of his quarter-acre jungle. Ah! And there they are! Aligned in a row –red, blue, and yellow– the very tips of their pointy, conical hats poke beyond the rich canopy of leaf and stem, a trio of primary-colored plaster summits penetrating a model Borneo rainforest.

Look at that no good layabout grinning out over that despicable mess he calls a front yard.”

A despicable mess!”

It turns my stomach: all those goddamned bees, those goddamned flowers.”

Goddamned weeds.”

Yes. Quite right. Nothing like our roses.”

Nothing at all like our roses.”

I tell you, if God was good he’d strike that man dead.”

Pastor Tom says the work of God shines forth in the deeds of noble men.”

Food for thought.”

Food for thought, indeed.”

#

John returns from the supermarket with a cache of frozen microwavable dinners, a fresh case of beer, and some sunflower seedlings with hopes they may thrive among the uncultivated soil of his all-natural front lawn. As he turns down his street, a reputable road, towards the bulbous end of its termination, its rounded cul-de-sac, he notices two busybodies meandering at the edge of his lawn.

John recognizes Carl, his pink polo shirt doused in sweat, as he sways left to right in murderous arcs, Weed-Whacking the edges of his lawn that lines the street. He places Jeanette, her red blouse, her white flesh, her blue, varicose veins, her outlandish, press-on nails at the ends of stubby hands that work a trigger, drawing up the contents of a heavy, shoulder-strapped pack, pumping away toxic chemicals all over plants that reach for the sky. Together, his next door neighbors, both husband and wife, work in tandem to massacre John’s lawn. They labor away to behead and dismember dandelions and tall grass, poisoning tender, young shoots in their infancy and choking out matronly giants that have taken months to mature.

John drops his groceries, paper sack splitting upon the pavement, contents spilling forth unceremoniously at his ankles. From above, a drone shot would reveal a frozen pizza box sweating in the heat, a panicked man sprinting across a disc of black asphalt, half a dozen oranges rolling to its curved edges to collide with collected leaf litter, grass clippings, and sprinkler runoff –the blood, sweat, and tears that have been secreted, accumulated from noble acts of diligent lawn care. Seeing his own lawn decimated, desecrated, unlawfully shorn by unwelcome hands, John charges in, he raises a mighty battle cry. Without thinking, he marches up to Carl –a much larger man– and communicates with violence, as words would only be lost, drowned out by the deafening buzz of a voracious Weed-Whacker.

John grapples with Carl, takes hold of his meaty forearms and shakes for all his worth. Surprised by the Herculean strength of his lazy neighbor, Carl loses his grip on the trusty garden implement, a motorized tool that does to John’s lawn what the burnout hippy is not willing to do himself. In despair, Carl watches a Weed-Whacker fall to the weed-infested soil. Like Excalibur tossed into a deep lake, it is lost to green. There is no Lady of the Lawn to receive it. It is simply gone, swallowed by grass. Its motor goes dead just as John’s rage comes very much to life.

In moment more animal than man, certainly more bestial than botanical, John seizes the fallen tool, wields it with intent in the direction of a non-plant target of flesh. He arcs the helicopter spin of hard plastic at his frightened neighbor, tallying Carl’s pink, polo shirt and belly fat in deep, crimson gashes, red and white stripes. He drowns the screams with a quick buzz over a wide-eyed face distorted in fear.

Across the lawn, horrified, Jeanette runs, tripping, tangled up in tall grass, ankles snared by a network of overlapping dandelion stems, a complex ravel of thistle weed holding her firm. John casually walks over to her as she struggles. He takes the nozzle from her feeble, shaking grasp, weakened by the overlarge encumbrance of her press-on nails. John guides the instrument. He takes aim. He works the pump that draws from the heavy pack that anchors his neighbor to the overgrown earth. It takes longer than he likes, but the poison gurgles any noise that may raise an alarm.

Several minutes later, Jeanette no longer strives to protest. She lies, uncomplaining, over a bed of lofty weeds. As the nozzle pumps little more than air, a spittle of dregs from an empty industrial-sized pack, his neighbor lies quiet.

Among the tall grass, Jeanette and Carl are utterly still.

#

Under the radiant assault of a hot, summer sun, a microwavable dinner remains uncollected, a Tombstone pepperoni pizza thaws out, bakes upon the scorching, black asphalt of a commendable byway, an exemplary cul-de-sac. Later, under the unabashed glow of an almost full moon, ants devour a mound of plasticized, congealed cheese. They feast upon discs of low-grade meat, of golden crusts that circumvent greasy innards. Two sunflowers rise, happy in their new home, roots digging deep to tickle the ample fertilizer that is the decomposition of Carl and Jeanette.

From his screen door, John admires the night, smiling into his beer, eyes reflecting two golden sunflowers turned silver by the midnight moon.

James Callan

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