Volume 9, Issue 2: Pictura
Why don't they wave or smile? Neil leans back on his porch steps, raises his head, and lets the weak Spring sunshine fall upon his face. Yet another car drives by his yard slowly, a navy blue Ford Escort; the driver and passengers stare at Neil's yard and point. Neil waves and smiles; they turn their heads and accelerate down the street. Small town people keep to themselves, Neil thinks to himself. I can live with that. Before he and his wife Angela moved into this tiny Montana town in midwinter, his sister in Alabama told them that in small towns everyone waves to one another and smiles and chats. He would love it there, she said. But Neil couldn't even provoke a plastic parade-queen wave out of anyone, let alone a conversation. Only his elderly next door neighbor, Edward--last name unknown--would spare him a conversation over the fence now and then.
Across the street, a father walks with his preadolescents, stealing glances at Neil's yard. Neil waves; no reply. When they think they are out of view, Neil sees the father stop and point at Neil's yard from down the street and talks to the children as if scolding them.
Neil sighs and stares at his fledgling lawn. It could use a mow, he thinks. Maybe my grass is too high for their tastes. I can fix that. I'm easy--a team player. It's Saturday, after all. Neil oils and massages his old Black and Decker mower until its heartbeat rattles strongly again. Winter had killed any need for mowing. Dust and weeds and grass parts shoot out of the mower and sting Neil's bare ankles. He can take the pain. Not using a bag makes him feel like a tough old timer. Out of the corner of his eye, Neil can see his neighbor Edward, standing in the shadow of his tool shed shaking his head back and forth slowly at Neil. Neil shakes it off.
The mowing doesn't take long, and Neil is back lounging on his porch steps. Ah, the life. Then he spies old Mrs. O'Shannon shuffling down his side of the street. He plans to wave and shout a greeting. She stoops as she moves along, her black, pug-nosed somebreed dog clicking its pig feet along the sidewalk. Neil waves at the tiny woman and shouts. She walks a few steps right onto Neil's newly cut grass and looks up at Neil with a scowl. She coughs a bit and painfully bends over, plucking up three dandelion flowers that had been merely pushed over by the mower. She decapitates them and tears their petals limb from limb, hurling them toward Neil. He sits, open-mouthed. When the little yellow petals finally hit the ground, little Mrs. O'Shannon leans over and spits on the lawn. And boy can she spit. She starts to shuffle off again without a word, but her pug dog stops to pee on another of Neil's dandelions.
Neil hears Edward starting up his mower with one pull. Edward's lawn is virtually a putting green, and Neil remembers that Edward seems to mow his lawn every twenty minutes. When the smooth hum of Edward's mower stops a half hour later, Neil saunters over to the fence near Edward.
"Well, I finally got my first cut in of the year," says Neil with a hopeful smile.
"Good job, son, "says Edward, wiping down his mower with a towel. "But I have to be honest with you, son. That's not a man's way to do it."
Neil leans back unconsciously and giggles.
"You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?" says Edward. Neil shakes his head in a confession of ignorance.
"Can't you hear the angry screaming, Neil?" Neil looks confused. "Can't you hear the dandelions raging?" Neil starts to back up. "A mower doesn't kill them, son. It only makes them madder. You've got to get the roots. That will turn from rage to surrender. It's the only way." Neil hadn't even noticed the dandelions before. They had just made up part of the mosaic of his lawn. He figures there were about fifteen dandelions. They look pretty dead to him now. Edward leans over the fence and curls his hand around Neil's neck, pulling him close. "They'll be back tomorrow, as soon as the sun shines on them. Their babies are hiding in the thatch now, laughing at you." Neil listened but couldn't hear anything.
The next morning Neil discovers that Edward had been right. New dandelion flowers were stretching their necks toward the bright sun. Not to be outdone, Neil pulls the mower out again and machetes their heads down, sometimes passing twice over those dandelions that try to bow down away from the blade. When he finishes, he finds Edward leaning on the fence again, waiting to give his lesson. Neil indulges him.
Before he gets to the fence, Neil finds and pulls up a dandelion puff ball of seeds. He holds it up to Edward.
"If the flower is called a dandelion, what is this called?" asks Neil.
"Are you nuts, son, don't be waving that thing around." Neil lowers it.
"All over America," says Neil with a whine, "kids love to blow these puff balls into the wind."
Edward looks a little pale. "Those kids are perverts," says Edward. "In the Latin, those things are called, Taraxacum officinale, which means Ball of death." Edward carefully takes the seed ball from Neil's hand and pulls a ziplock plastic bag from his overall pocket, hermetically sealing the Ball of Death. Neil sighs heavily. Frustration sets in.
"You know they're just flowers," Neil pleads. "I don't see what's so bad about them." Edward looks up to heaven. He explains to Neil with open hands.
"Son, they suck the soul out of your lawn. They are parasites. They are curses. They don't fit the natural order. They're like little cows, for Pete's sake. They hide milk in their stems. That's not right. It's devilish. And they are flowers with thorns. What other flowers do you know that have thorns?"
"Well, roses have thorns," says Neil.
Edward's hand is quick. He slaps Neil hard across the face.
"Don't sass me, boy," says Edward and walks off.
Neil mows down the dandelions each of the next four days. The dandelions seem to be multiplying. He counts about forty now. This nonsense is starting to cut into his work at the bank. On the fifth day of this, Neil's mower gives up the ghost. And he's tired of fighting dandelions. More townspeople drive by and point. More pedestrians spit on his lawn. Edward keeps shaking his head.
Neil starts to yell insults back at the cars and spit at pedestrians. He embraces a Walden Pond naturalism for his dandelions and begins to love them.
In the cool of the evening, Edward places a phone call. All he says into the mouthpiece is, "Do the Marlon Brando Surprise."
At the grocery store the next day, Emma the ancient clerk slowly bags Neil's few groceries with sharp movements. Her soft purple hair glistens in the fluorescent light from above.
"They're just flowers," Neil says. Emma stops bagging for a moment. The people in the line behind him gasp a little.
Emma stares at him hard. "You're a sicko, son. Are you a fascist or something?"
Neil tightens. "I think dandelions are rather beautiful," he says.
Her wrinkled hand is quick. She slaps him hard.
"Don't sass me, son," she says. She hands him the bagged groceries. "Thank you for shopping at Mulligans."
Day turns into night, but Neil and Angela's sleep is restless. He dreams of paving his yard with black top. He wakes to Angela's screams at about 3:00AM. She's standing beside their bed in the dark, screaming and brushing off her legs. Neil feels something odd and jumps out, pulling back the sheets. Angela's light reveals a green and yellow sea of dandelions all cut to pieces. Neil shouts with raised fists. He calls 911 and runs downstairs, outside, and shouts curses at his neighbors.
At the same time, three bright white search lights flash on. He shields his eyes.
Through a megaphone he hears, "Sir, did you call 911?" He can make out the shapes of three sheriff's cars, engines long quiet, and numerous officers crouching behind car doors, weapons drawn. Neil starts to explain.
"Someone broke into our house!" Neil shouts.
"Put your hands on top of your head, son," says the megaphone. "Lie face down in these dandelions here," it says. Neil does just that. "Now tell us what the problem is." Neil decides against this.
On his walk home the next day, Neil passes by several young men sitting on boxes outside the barber shop. They start to taunt him, calling him names like, "Lionlover" and "Dandy." One man shouts, "Milk should come from cows!" The others shout agreement. Neil walks with his head down, brief case close to his side, not responding. Three of the men start to follow him with their jeering. Neil turns down an opening between houses. The taunters get closer and one shoves Neil's shoulder and laughs. Neil turns on them quickly and pops open his brief case, setting it on the ground. He reaches in and stands up gripping handfulls of dandelion seed balls between the fingers of his fist. He waves them at the taunters. They turn pale and back up. He lunges at them. One of them runs off.
One speaks with a shaky voice. "We was just joshin' you, Neil." They keep walking backward. "We didn't mean no harm." They too turn and run. Neil puts the Balls of Death back into his briefcase.
Later that night, Edward stares out at Neil's yard, mumbling to himself. Nothing had changed.
"Well, if you can't lead a horse to water, then you can sure drown him in it." Edward picks up his phone and dials. "Do the Robert Duvall Apocalypse," he says softly.
That night Neil keeps waking. He knows he hears helicopters several times. But when he looks out he sees nothing overhead. He stares down at his lawn, but the moonless night hides the still boys in black Ninja suits and combat blackface. Neil goes back to bed. Some of the neat lines of Ninja boys poke holes in the lawn, aerating it. The next row distributes dandelion seeds in wide circles with muted seed spreaders. Another line of Ninja boys uses more spreaders to disperse fertilizer. The final line uses sprinkle cans to soak the dandelion seeds. After three sweeps of Neil's lawn the boys run off into the night in tight formation. The dandelion seeds drink up the water and fertilizer in their holes.
The next day, people start waving and smiling at Neil and Angela. At the bank, everyone talks with Neil now. No one spits on his lawn anymore. Emma bags his groceries with a wrinkled grin. The men at the barber shop even wave polite greetings. The neighbor women visit Angela as if they had been friends forever. The local mower repair shop fixes Neil's mower for free.
In a few days, Neil notices the explosion starting slowly. He starts to mow more regularly, but he can't keep up. The forty dandelions have turned into eighty and then two hundred. Neil starts coming home early to mow. Then he starts to mow also in the morning before work. Neil hardly notices when Angela drives home in a new car one day, loaned to her by the local car dealer. After thinking about it, she says that the dandelions are sort of, well, yukky. Neil can't hear her over the mower. Two hundred dandelions turn into four hundred. The dandelions have almost completely forced out the grass. He now mows a sea of yellow. The bank manager gladly gives him time off from work.
Neil runs to the hardware store one morning and loads up on Round-Up lawn-weed killer. Round-Up is so expensive that it takes almost half his monthly pay. Edward waits for Neil at the fence.
"That isn't a man's way," says Edward, pointing at the poison containers. "You need to get the roots out, son, or they'll just be back next year." Neil reads to him from the Round-up label. It says it does just that.
Edward hisses through his teeth. "Voodoo," says Edward. "Voodoo for losers. Let me show you a man's way." Edward goes into the shadows of his tool shed and returns with a yardlong green bar with a handle at one end and a narrow triangle scoop at the other. "This is a man's tool," says Edward. "Mine's the TR-143 model imported from Japan." Edward demonstrates how to force the triangle scoop into the ground to grip each dandelion root and yank it up. Edward hands it over the fence to Neil. Neil holds it like King Arthur's sword and looks up at Edward with puppy eyes.
"Yes, yes, you can. You can borrow it," say Edward, standing tall. Neil giggles and runs off. "You'll need some WalMart bags!" shouts Edward.
For the next four days, Neil fills bag after plastic bag full of dandelions. If he accidentally breaks a root, he gets down on hands and knees to dig it out. His back burns in pain at the constant bending, but he sleeps well. Ten bags turn into twenty, then forty. The city agrees to send the garbage truck every day for a week. Crowds start to gather on the sidewalk to cheer him on.
At night, from his bed, he can hear new danedelions trying to grow. He can hear their squirming up through the ground with squeals of victory. He runs downstairs and grabs the Japanese TR-143 and works through the night, shouting and cursing the lawn leeches into submission.
When the crowds gather the next day, he pulls up each plant with a shout. The people applaud each time. Edward smiles. Angela hugs Neil. He pushes her off to get back to work.
"Can you hear them screaming!" he shouts to the crowd as he fills bag after bag. He can't bear to wait for the city garbage truck today. He gathers the bags of dying dandelions into a giant pile behind his house and pours gasoline over the mound. Soon its flames are reaching for the heavens, and Neil dances around the bonfire in delight, shouting "Burn, Dandies, Burn! Can you hear them screaming?!" He tosses back his head and laughs. Everyone claps. Mrs. O'Shannon sets up a potluck in his backyard and small neighbor children bring marshmallows over to roast in the tower of fire. Days later the fire department will volunteer to come and clear out the ashes.
On the last day, Neil's yard is pocked and scarred like a WWI battlefield, but a good battlefield. He can see remnants of grass amid the dirt. There are only three dandelion plants remaining, and they look scared. A hush falls over the crowd as he moves toward them with the TR-143 lancing through the air. Edward and other neighbors lean over the fence, mouths agape. His tired arms stab the ground beside the first one, twists, and through the steel feels the roots surrender in one piece. He slowly pulls it out of the ground. No one speaks. The second goes the same way, and the third follows. He holds them up in the air and runs circles across the lawn. A neighbor appears with a blow torch and kerosene. Neil holds out the three dandelions and soon he wields a dandelion torch high and starts running through the streets with children and dogs bouncing behind him. A crowd of teenage boys hoist him up in the air on their shoulders. Soon three helicopters circle overhead dropping tickertape on the neighborhood. The sheriff hands out champagne, sirens blaring.
The teenagers carry Neil in the air for a lap around the block and finally bring him to Edward and set him down by the fence. Edward shakes Neil's hand, as do all the men around them.
The cheers and laughter finally die down and Neil says, "Now I need some sleep." The men around him glance at each other. Edward puts his hand on Neil's shoulder.
"You know this work is never done. You have to keep vigilant."
"Yes, yes, I know," says Neil between breaths. "I will." The men smile more easily.
Edward leans in. "You know the dandelion growing season stops this week. It doesn't last into summer." Edward smiles nervously, as do the others. Neil nods. "And right now," says Edward, "the clover and Morning Glory season starts strong." Edward points over to some young clover starting in a corner of Neil's yard. Neil's smile falls a bit, as he looks around from face to smiling face. His knees weaken. Two men hold him up. He stares at the ground. Edward pats him on the back. "You can do it, Neil. We'll be here to help." Others pat him on the back too. Neil takes in a deep breath. Mrs. O'Shannon kisses his cheek.
"What do you use to pull up clover?" asks Neil, slowly twisting the TR-143 in his hands. Edward takes it away from him gently.
"Show him men," says Edward. And out of a dozen back overall pockets, men bring forth numerous pairs of shiny tweezers. The men click them open and close in time with one another. "That's a man's way," says Edward, nodding his head. Neil takes a pair of tweezers in each hand. The men stop clicking their tweezers and wait for Neil. Nothing moves. Even the birds are silent.
Neil takes a deep breath and then shoots each of his arms straight above his head. The tweezers, gripped firmly, point straight up and the sun glistens off of them. He clicks them in the air like a Spanish dancer and starts to shout. The crowd makes way for him as he starts to run.
"I'm coming clover! I'm coming Morning Glory! And I'm riding the pale horse of death!" Everyone cheers.