It’s late afternoon and time to call it a day, so I pack up my tools and come in from the porch. Jodie’s still in her corner of the couch where, when she’s not there, there’s a Jodie’s-ass-shaped dent in the cushion. The screen door claps shut behind me and I walk past her to the kitchen. I’m sure we’re both wondering what I’ll say. The TV’s not on and the house is quiet, but the sickly buzzing of the highway comes in through the window along with the clanging of Jodie’s bamboo chimes and birds pecking at the hanging feeder, chirping their disapproval at the low quality of the birdseed. Sorry birds, I want to say. But what are you gonna do?
It feels like the air keeps going out of me. Like I can only exhale. Even after a few hours out on the porch, trying like hell to think of something to say to her, there are still three mowers I haven’t gotten to. But they can wait. Grass doesn’t grow that quickly to where a day makes much difference. I sharpened some blades, gapped spark plugs, and cleaned out a gummed-up carburetor, the whole time wondering: will we get through this? After scrubbing my hands raw under scalding water, I walk with real difficulty in my knees over to where she’s sitting, avoiding my eyes.
Jodie, I say, the words as unpremeditated as I feared, I can’t have this anymore. You hear me? I’m amazed that I sound as calm as I do, but of course I don’t let on. Because it’s not like me to confront her like this, without anger, but I’ve had enough and my foot must come down. She needs to know that this time it’s not anger—I’m past anger, into something more like tiredness.
It’s been anger before, and at those times I have regrettably yelled and stormed out and drunk myself in a bad way, and returned hours later or even the next day, surprised to find her still there. The last time was bad, when she set fire to my new shed because she didn’t like where I’d put it. She said it interfered—interfered!—with her view, and burned it down when I went to the post office. She even took my tools out and laid them on the grass, ratchets arranged by size, screwdrivers by handle color if you can imagine such a thing, to let me know it was deliberate. The fire department came, ditto the cops, and I had to talk Andy Nagle out of arresting her, and the whole time that I was talking with him, explaining it away, she just sat there in the house rolling cigarettes. She wouldn’t even come outside. Afterwards, when the whole mess was finally resolved, when the neighbors tired of clucking about my heap of soggy cinders, I yelled and stormed around and still she sat rolling cigarette after cigarette, not smoking them, just making these perfect little cylinders. I kicked a hole in the drywall and threw that big creepy porcelain doll of hers out the door—its limp arms twisted in flight reminding me of something painful for which I was sorry and for which she stupidly forgave me. But she just kept rolling cigarettes, so I left and went to Nolan’s Pub. I stumbled in the next morning at the exact moment she was sliding a ham omelet onto a plate for me. Now how can you plan a thing like that? I asked her how, and she just told me to sit down and eat because I looked like I needed it.
But this time I’m unable to go on with things the way they are. This time I have got to let her know that things are different. So there’ll be no mistaking it. And then what, afterwards? I’ll go outside and sit with the mowers while she does what? Packs her things? Do I really want that? Will I come back inside to find an omelet waiting for me?
She looks at the corners of the room, at my mother’s chipped credenza, the stain on the carpet shaped like two kissing bears, at anything but me. She nudges some lint with her red toenail. Her legs are long in her tight pants and the sweatshirt that’s too big for her she’s got pulled down over her ass like a girl even younger than her 23 years. Her unwashed hair is tucked behind her ears, greasy and dark next to her face which glows so pale sometimes that you can see the blue mesh of veins at her temples. And me, tired and closer to her father’s age than her own. But good teeth. Not a single cavity, not ever. A house and truck owned outright. On her best days she gives me something unexplainable and wild. Other times, well, the other times is what we’re meant to be discussing now. I can forgive her—my capacity for it has seemed boundless at times—but even forgiveness must have a limit. A flexible limit maybe, but still.
I want a drink. I want one badly. But instead of bourbon I tell myself water. I walk back to the kitchen and notice how the plants over the sink sorely need watering. For days they most likely haven’t been watered. I reproach myself for not thinking of them as I’ve gone about my chores while they’ve just hung there helpless and thirsty. This suddenly strikes me as unbearably sad and I want to ask the plants for forgiveness. I know it’s ridiculous but it’s nevertheless a thought that passes through my head. Quick and painful. She continues saying nothing as I fill up a glass for the plants. The water sinks into the dusty soil and I wonder if they can still be saved. I run the faucet for a minute to let the water cool and then fill up another glass for myself. It tastes like metal. The three mowers waiting outside will cover us the rest of the month if I can just get through this.
I look out the window and think that it might rain. I should throw a tarp over the mowers. The clouds move fast against the sky. I walk back into the living room and stand in front of her and say, Jodie, what’s it going to be? I look at her and wait, but don’t cross my arms pretending to be some father that I am not. Neither of us wants that. I only wait and look around the room, noticing many small piles of dust. She’s stopped toeing the carpet. Now she’s holding a pillow over her stomach, squeezing it across herself like it’s something she lacks, unwinding the gold tassels.
The place is a mess, she says, I should have cleaned. My scalp is itching something awful and when I scratch at it she finally looks at me and says that I should have gotten the refill on my medicated shampoo already like I was supposed to. She says she can’t stand to see me itching all the time. I don’t answer her about the shampoo because it’s not what we’re supposed to be talking about, but she’s right. The itch is back like fire. I’ll finish here and then go to the Drug Depot for my refill. Then maybe back to the mowers if the weather holds.
Up the road I hear Dan Holcomb weed-whacking his strip of driveway grass. The whine of his machine sounds to me like money. He bought one of those gas-powered whackers last year, the nice ones that the Mexican landscapers use, but has no real need for it and does nothing to maintain it. He pulls out more and more trimmer line and thinks that’s all there is to it. He puts gas in it but doesn’t give a thought to oil—you can hear it in the way the thing runs. Soon that $200 whacker of his’ll seize up and I’ll say to him, Dan, what did I tell you about the oil? But I can make it hum again for $60.
Suddenly it gets darker. I should turn on a lamp, but I don’t want to walk away from her when I’m owed an answer. I’ve done enough walking away when I’m owed answers and I hope she knows it. She’s still squeezing the pillow, but then reconsiders and lets it go. It falls to the floor and she pushes it away with her foot.
Rob, why don’t you sit down, she says, patting the cushion next to her with a small hand with those ragged, chewed nails. I won’t sit down next to her and give her the advantage of curling up tight and sliding herself between my arms and legs, putting an end to the conversation. This has worked before but not today. She nudges at my boot with her toe and I take half a step back, which is not a retreat.
Jodie, I say, don’t do that. Do me the favor of looking me in the eye and telling me what it is you still want here. Do you need the roof over your head, is that all? Go on, tell me. She pulls her feet up on the couch and hugs her knees. She looks away again, suddenly finding the molding very interesting. She’s shrinking, trying to become a little speck I won’t notice.
Across the street, I hear a mower firing up with two pulls followed by a kid’s laughter. It’s Bob Gordin and that puny, wonderful little cancer kid of his, Toby. God, just the thought of it. Bob takes him to the carwash on Sundays and lets him stick his giant bald head—it looks just like a grape on a toothpick—right up against the windshield of their Bronco so he can watch those big brushes come down on their robot arms. I’ve seen them there, and you can hear the kid squealing like an overjoyed little piglet all the way in the parking lot and it just about breaks your heart. I fixed that mower for him after those mongoloid-looking Phelps twins threw it in the creek for a laugh, and Bob was just so grateful to have it running again and not needing to buy a new one or having to neglect his lawn, which he and Toby mow together every week. I told him it’d be $50, and he asked could he pay in installments. I said okay because of him needing to pay for his kid’s cancer, obviously. And the next morning there’s a $5 bill taped to my screen door and he’s out across the street again just mowing away and Toby’s with him, over the moon with joy. And me? Total waterworks. Even though it was only 9:30 in the morning, I had to go back inside for a drink when I saw the two of them out there like that, just laughing and mowing with pure love in their eyes. And the thing was, even though everyone knew it was the Phelpses who’d wrecked the mower, when Bob asked their mother to pay the $50 for the mower she started yelling at him—at him!—because how dare he accuse her little angels of something like that. So, he shrugged and walked back home. Sometimes you just have to suck it up, he told me later. What are you gonna do?
Now it’s darker still and a truck pulls up. The bamboo chimes clang. Rain’s definitely on the way. Bob had better get a move on with his lawn. It’s a newer Toyota pickup at the end of the driveway, the kind that never sees any real work, and a guy about my age gets out. He takes a rusty Lawn Demon push mower down from the bed, a sorry old thing that seems out of place with the truck and the nice shirt he’s got on. There’s also a younger guy that doesn’t budge from the cab. Scowling down at the floor mats. My knees ache with the thought of rain. I do want badly to sit down next to Jodie and to forget things, even if only for an hour or two. I want to sleep. I want a hot tub. A trip to China. Ten thousand dollars cash. The guy’s pushing his mower up the driveway and I think: how’d he hear about me? It’s rusty enough that I wouldn’t need to bother with a tarp if it rained. I could leave it out there for a year and it wouldn’t be any worse off than it already is. His truck makes me think he’s got a landscaper who comes twice a month or that he wouldn’t bat an eye at dropping $300 on a new mower at the SmartMart, so why pay me to get this piece of shit up and running?
I walk outside and tell him, Hey.
Afternoon, says this guy and nods at the mower. Think you can get her running?
Couldn’t say, I tell him. You been mowing the bottom of a lake with it?
We both chuckle.
Oh, you know how it goes, he says. Got time for a look?
Why not, I say.
I open the gas cap and smell nothing but varnish. I doubt it’ll run again. This guy standing here in a clean pressed shirt driving a city truck? Even though he’s bringing me business, I hate him. I could quote him my rate and in a day or two tell him the engine’s seized, tell him I did all I could but that she was gone long before he brought her to me. Still collect $30 just for telling him I tried. But for the first time in all the years folks’ve brought me their broken down mowers I’m disgusted by the transaction: they bring me some neglected and ill-treated thing, a tool not cared for and then taken to another man to recondition. They pay to ease their consciences for letting it get this bad, hoping that I’ll work a miracle. And usually I can, but right now the fact of it makes me sick.
Afternoon, miss, he says.
I turn around and Jodie’s looking out through the screen door. She looks past him, past me, at the scowling guy in the truck. She turns away.
Pretty lady, the guy says.
I tell him, Yeah, well.
It occurs to me what this is about.
That your kid there in the truck? I ask him.
Yeah, well, the guy says, shrugging.
Now I don’t know what to think of this guy. Is he here out of concern for his kid? Does he want to feel things out? See whether or not I’m the kind of guy’ll do something violent? He’s probably worried, trying to look out for this kid he’s raised whose actions he’s not entirely responsible for anymore. Wanting to know if there’s someone out there looking to do him harm. I think about it and wonder: is there? This guy, well, he’s just doing what any father would. My gripe’s not with him. I’m just so damn tired.
Hell, I say, leave it here. I’ll see what I can do. $30 to look, no guarantees.
Sure, the guy says.
The same deal as the rest: he’s been careless and now he feels bad. He gets to pretend it happened by accident, or that it was inevitable. I get to pretend there’s something left to fix. And that it’ll be worth my while.
I tell him to stop by in a day or two, but we both know he won’t come back. He pulls a $50 bill out of his wallet. Sorry, I say. I can’t break that.
Keep it, he says, holding it out. Afternoon. He walks back to the truck, reassured, and drives off. I push his mower, that shallow prop, over to the others. Bob Gordin and his cancer kid are finished up across the street. He looks my way and points me out to the kid, who waves at me like a goddamn lunatic, grinning so hard his cheeks might burst. I wave back, the $50 still in my hand. It’ll rain soon. I realize that I missed my chance. This garbage kid, he was right there and I couldn’t even do anything. I could have at least gone over and yelled, kicked a dent into the door of the truck. They must be so relieved to know I’ve got no spine. It feels awful. And worse, my revenge will be inadequate: I’ll use their mower for parts.
I pull the tarp over the other three mowers and go inside to Jodie, who’s back on the couch. Jodie, I say, please talk to me.
You think it’ll rain, Rob? she asks, turning her face up to mine. And even in the darkened room, even unshowered, even after all this, she looks the way you hope that a woman who says she loves you will look.
We should close the windows, she says, shouldn’t we, Rob?
I ask her, aren’t you going to talk to me at all?
She says, I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I? You always think we’re not talking.
Her saying this makes me regret so much. I stand there waiting for rain, thinking she’s right, that I should go close the windows, especially in our bedroom at the back of the house because the wind’s coming from there. Jodie unwraps her arms from around her knees and pats the couch again. Up the street I can hear the Phelps twins running around their gravel driveway screeching like a bunch of assholes. Their mother’s shouting for them to get inside before it rains. I wonder suddenly, what does Jodie’s mother think of me?
Rob, come sit with me, she says.
I want to but I hope she won’t ask me a third time, because then I surely will. If she asks a third time, I’ll sit and forget and sleep and, in the morning, I won’t be able to find the strength again to stand here.
Don’t do this, Jodie, I say. I don’t deserve this.
Listen, she says, it’s starting to rain. Can you hear it?
I do hear it, a few drops falling tentatively on our roof. Soon bigger, more assertive drops are exploding above us. I can hear the rain hitting the gutters and mailboxes and cars with sharp metallic pings, the dirt and the gravel and grass with muffled thuds. Before a minute goes by the smell of wet pennies comes in through the windows. It’s really coming down now, beating the scent out of the ground. Our bedroom is probably soaked. The kitchen’s getting wetter and wetter. I shouldn’t have bothered to water the plants because now they’re getting water enough through the open window. But they were so brown. How could I have left them like that even another minute?
The Phelps twins have finally gone inside. I can hear their mother yelling, giving them hell because they’re soaking wet. I actually respect her for it. I go to the kitchen to close the windows but Jodie says, No, Rob, leave them open please.
Water is pooling on the countertop. I take my wet hands off the window and walk back to the living room. I hope that maybe she’ll start talking to me since I’ve done this for her. I stand there for a moment, waiting, but she doesn’t say anything. Then I turn and throw the living room windows open as well. In comes the rain. I pull the door open and watch as the wind whips Jodie’s hair around. Puddles start to form on the carpet, swelling it, watering our house, leeching over our things, mixing with the dust to create a filmy paste. I wonder if I’ve made my point. I wonder what my point could possibly be. Of course, I should shut the door and the windows, start drying things off before everything’s wrecked, before the house fills with water, before we’re swimming in it up to our necks. But then I think: let it all go. Let something better grow here.
She sits there, expressionless, letting the wind and the rain dance over her. Through the open door, I see the rusted mower. Now outside, the rain washes over me warm and heavy. I twist the gas cap off again and pull a book of matches out of my pocket and hunch over trying to light one. Finally, I manage. I throw it into the gas tank and step back waiting for something to happen, but nothing does. I strike another and another, with increasing difficulty, throwing them all into the tank. Still nothing. I’m soaked to the bone, not even capable of setting a lawnmower on fire, and I realize that what I thought earlier must be true. I’m simply at the end of things.
My shoulders are heaving and there’s some sort of noise coming from my chest. It’s all mud now. My back’s to the house and I wonder if she’s watching. Does she see what a fool she’s hitched her wagon to? She’s probably not looking, though, but I won’t turn to find out. I just stay there, my boots sinking in the mud. Then behind me I hear the squish-suck of footsteps. I turn and there she is, barefoot still. Her face is wet with rain but to me it looks like tears. It’s the rain making the supplication, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I put my arms around her and we say nothing as the rusted mower is overcome by mud bubbling up all around it, pulling it down. Soon it’ll disappear and one day even the memory of it will be gone. It’ll just be a lump in our yard, something to occasionally stumble over and look down at, shaking our heads.