Yesterday this appeared in our (real, not virtual) mail box:
I really want to help this kid. Aside from the fact that I have a lot of distasteful chores around the house that I can outsource to him, I admire his attitude. At least he wants to earn the money.
But the main reason this flyer caught my eye is because it brought back memories of my adolescence when I was a “kid slave.” In those days we didn’t have school trips to China to fund, but we did have parents who thought that instead of spending our summer vacation indulging our proto-hippie tendencies and listening to rock music and growing our hair, we should be working.
Invoking the child labour laws did no good. My father informed me that they didn’t extend to what he called “casual labor,” which has to be one of the cruellest oxymorons ever invented.
My lack of enthusiasm in finding casual labor resulted in parental intervention. One of my father’s friends heard about some old lady who I will call Mrs. D. She was looking for someone to cut her grass. Everyone thought I would be perfect for the job.
Everyone but me. Working outside? In public view? I was hopeless—beyond geek or dork, I was charting new territory for the terminally uncool teenager. I had friends in rock bands. And I was “volunteering” to help old people. I could picture them jeering at me as they drove by in their VW vans on the way to the lake.
The next day I reported for duty.
You know how in every neighborhood there is a house that the little children say is probably haunted? Or that a crazy person lives there? Well, that was Mrs. D’s house. It looked like it was full of cats and newspapers dating back to the Civil War. It was in a shocking state of disrepair and the grass, the cutting of which was my objective that day, was knee high.
I so wanted to be somewhere else.
“Hello Mrs. D, I’m Tom.”
“Hello Steve. Nice to meet you.” She always called me Steve for some reason.
“So you want me to cut the grass?”
“Yes, Steve. The man who used to cut the grass brought his own mower. But I have one in the garage.”
She escorted me to the garage. I guess it could be called a garage in that it was a small structure at the end of the driveway. There wasn’t a ninety-degree angle in the entire building. And although at some point in its existence it may have been painted, now it was just bare gray wood covered with leprous chunks of flaking paint. It was right out of a William Faulkner novel.
“I want you to paint the garage, too, Steve.”
Alien abduction seemed like a preferable alternative. “I won’t have time today.”
“No. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. First we have to cut the grass. And get the doors open.”
That’s right. Because of disuse, warping and shifting, the garage doors would no longer open. The structure didn’t have a normal garage door. It had double doors that were supposed to open out. You have no idea how ludicrous I felt pushing and pulling on those doors and succeeding in opening one of them with the help of this 75 pound octogenarian. “Please don’t let anyone I know see me,” I prayed to the same God who had already brought me into Mrs. D’s employ.
After about fifteen snarling cats ran out, I looked inside. The windows had either been painted over or opaqued by about a hundred years of dirt. The only light came through the slightly open door. If the painting of the windows made me think that perhaps at some time in the past unspeakable rites had been performed in that garage, the stench convinced me. It was like opening a newly discovered tomb.
Except in this case the mummified corpse was the object of our entry into the garage. There, covered with spider webs and cat pee was the lawn mower. I only recognized it from pictures. I’d never seen a real one before. A push mower with two wheels. Just wheels—two rusty metal circles with no rubber on them. No way!
I wrestled the device out of the garage and the rush of fresh air to my oxygen starved brain led me to see the true horror of my situation. I couldn’t run away. Sure I could walk home–preferably run. But she would find me. And she had an ally in my father. Together they would make sure the sick ménage a trois of me, that lawnmower and the jungle she called a lawn would be consummated.
I was able to finish the job only because I had no mind for physical pain. My mind was solely focused on coming up with an exit strategy for getting Mrs. D out of my life and vice versa.
But that didn’t happen. I continued to suffer through the summer and into the fall, riding my bicycle over when I could to do odd jobs. Artful procrastination meant I never did paint the garage, but we did get the yard looking respectable.
The final perverse twist to the story came later that year in school when I met my first girlfriend. Everything was going along nicely and one day we were staying after school for some reason and I offered to walk her home. She agreed, and when I asked what street she lived on, she gave me the name of Mrs. D’s street. I was too young for a coronary, so the symptoms I was suppressing must have been a panic attack. What if Mrs. D was outside and saw me. How would I explain that?
We walked past the house, which looked unchanged. Fortunately, no one was around and as we passed the house Laura said quietly. “A crazy lady lives there. She has a zillion cats.”
I couldn’t say to her, “I know.”