Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mid-afternoon chores

It’s a hot mid-afternoon in late September, the sky above brilliant blue and cloudless. Sporadic rains some days previous, harbingers of the autumn’s and winter’s regular deluges, have begun to turn the dry, yellow grass that covers most lawns a cautious, hopeful green. No fear, the dandelions and other unwanted guests that dot the lawn in profusion are being cut before they turn to symmetric white puffs of air-worthy seeds wanting to plant themselves in any bare patch they can find.

An elderly, white-haired man slowly starts up his gas-guzzling mower and makes his way around the perimeter of his real estate, carefully combing uncuttable green grass spears for proud weeds to crop. He likes to cut his lawn from the outside edges—at least when he remembers—in a clockwise spiral, mystically avoiding spots where invisible minor sink holes dot the yard. ‘Have to fill those,’ he mutters under his breath. Usually he sings while he works, today he is strangely silent.

Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe he’s tired. Maybe he feels embarrassed that the lawn is such a forsaken shambles, more weeds than turf. Maybe he’s just not started his internal engine, the one that starts singing as soon as it warms up, but on a hot day like this? Who knows? The neighborhood is silent, and the street deserted, except for the rumble of his mower and the sudden appearance of a Winnebago, a large camping truck, which comes to a halt on the far side of the street thirty feet down the road.

He doesn’t think about it, or look up anymore, until on the far side of his yard he looks yonder and sees a large, young woman in jeans and blouse standing about ten feet from where he will soon be rounding the bend. He continues on, hoping or pretending not to notice her, but as he gets close to the corner where she’s standing silently, he abruptly kills the mower and asks, using a statement with a questioning tone, ‘It looks like you want to say something to me?’ She comes a little closer, and he moves closer too.

‘Excuse me. I really didn’t want to have to bother you and interrupt your work, but I thought I had enough gas in my truck to get down to the gas station, but I ran out. Could you possibly sell me some gas, if you have any for your lawn mower?’ The old man smiles and replies, ‘Of course, you can have whatever is left in my gas can, but it might not be enough. Wait here, and I’ll go get it and we can see.’ He disappears behind an old wooden gate and comes back a moment later with a red plastic gas can.

‘You know, it looks like maybe a little over a half gallon, will that be enough? Do you think you can make it to the station from here? Are you from around here? Do you know where the gas station is?’ he asks, looking doubtful. Winnebagos, he’d heard, take a lot of gasoline to move. The young woman’s eyes brighten up, ‘Oh yes, that’ll be enough,’ and as he starts to pour the fuel into the tank, she asks, ‘What do I owe you?’ The old man doesn’t blink and responds, ‘Where’s your gas cap?’ to change the subject.

The young woman blushes, ‘I lost it,’ and the old man grimaces and shakes his head, ‘You know you shouldn’t be driving this vehicle with an open gas tank. I’m surprised it works at all. The gas tank is supposed to be pressurized.’ Some more small talk about cars ensues, and the lady tries to offer money to the old man for his help. ‘You don’t owe me anything. That’s what I’m here for. I’m retired, and I have everything I need, but it looks like you needed help, so why shouldn’t I help you?’

Trying to override him, the young woman says that her boyfriend is at the bank getting some cash, so they can buy fuel for the truck, and that she will pay him a couple of dollars for the help, which he politely refuses, saying, ‘I’m not sure you’ll make it to the bank. Here, let me put my mower behind the fence and lock up my house, and I’ll follow you in my car to make sure you arrive at the bank and the gas station without running out of gas.’ The young lady is visibly surprised, but accepts the offer.

She starts up her vehicle and the old chap gets in his jalopy and trails her down side streets to where the route enters the main road of the town, but before they get there she suddenly stops. He pulls up beside her, and she rolls down her window as he sees a young man getting into the Winnebago from the passenger side. ‘Must be the boyfriend,’ he thinks to himself, and then, ‘Everything alright now?’ The young lady answers, ‘Yes, now can we give you something for your help?’ The old guy shakes his head.

‘I’ll follow you up to make sure youse make it to the gas station,’ he waves them on, and gets behind them again as they slowly drive to the main road. They turn into it, and other cars come between them and block their view of each other as the old man makes a right turn to return home, mumbling to himself with a hint of a smile, ‘Imagine! Thinking you can pay someone for doing a kindness! Either people will show mercy because they want to, or they won’t because they don’t!’

And glad that he didn’t rise to the occasion and lecture the young couple about ‘paying it forward’ or any other such divine nonsense, the old man parked in his driveway, went around back to fetch the mower, and continued his mid-afternoon chores.

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