Cutting the Grass

Cutting the Grass

by: Kerry Riley

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2011

Let me just state, right from the outset, that it was not my understanding that cutting the grass should be considered a thrill sport. I mean, how many professional thrill-seekers have resumes which read: Dirk Rambo: sky diver, lawn mower. You just don’t see it.

The whole sorry episode began, as it often did (in my humble opinion) with my ex-partner. Well, no, I suppose if you really want to appreciate the full, epic sweep of the thing, you would have to begin with the dog. Casey, the canine in question, was our five-year-old golden retriever. He was earnest and eager, beautiful and dumb. He had, in fact, spent the better part of his life waiting to have an idea. In the meantime, he practised adopting various poses of optimistic “readiness,” eyebrows aquiver with the effort. Should his scanty neuronal network ever ignite an idea, he was prepared to act in an instant.

In the meantime, he moonlighted as a minion of chaos. The little piece of order to which he had devoted himself to dismantling was my rock garden. He had, quite literally, left no stone unturned in his quest to scatter it hither and yon–but mostly over the lawn.
The end result of Casey’s efforts was that, for a rock garden, mine had surprisingly few rocks…and the lawn had surprisingly many, for a lawn. This had, for the most part, been a matter of complete and serene indifference to me. I didn’t do the lawn. I didn’t even dare suggest it.

When we bought the house, it came with a lawn tractor. I’ve come to understand that in my ex’s mind, we bought a lawn tractor that came with a house. I’ve heard stories of farmers, gone slightly potty, who fall in love with their farm machinery. I used to laugh. Since cutting the grass provided the opportunity to use the tractor, the lawn had always sported a rather severe crew cut. I understood, implicitly, that any attempts by me to share in this chore would be jealously rebuffed.

It all worked out rather well until Casey grew large enough to begin his assault on the rocks, and the rocks on the lawn tractor. Every outing resulted in a broken blade. I suggested that perhaps it might be easier to pick up the rocks before mowing. This earned me a look of withering scorn, as the ex headed out to mow–a task which now always involved gassing up the tractor and a trip to town to weld the blade. Apparently “guys” do not pick things up. Of course, if I’d thought about it, I knew that already. Eventually the inevitable occurred, and the tractor was damaged beyond immediate repair–a dark day in Essonville. I also noticed a simultaneous and equally abrupt decline in the ex’s interest in lawn maintenance.

Emerging from his tractorless misery, one day, long enough for a trip to the dump, he arrived back considerably brightened, sporting the unmistakeable look of a satisfied scavenger–he’d found ME a “really decent” lawnmower. Personally, I think “really decent” was overstating the case. However, since our grass had, in the last twenty-four hours, exceeded the standards normally set for a lawn, and was rapidly becoming a crop, I determined to make do.

My really decent lawnmower wasted no time in proving my contention that people take things to the dump for a reason.
After only forty-seven pulls, it started right up, mowed in a fitful sort of way for precisely twenty minutes, and expired in a puff of overheated fumes, whereupon no number of pulls could induce it to resume. Apparently the excitement was too much for it. It took three hours to compose itself to the point that it could be coaxed back into ignition, and mowed for precisely twenty minutes more. Operating in a series of three hour and twenty minute cycles, it took me five and a half days to mow the lawn. I was not amused.

“Why don’t we just buy a new lawnmower?” I asked.

“Why would we buy a new mower when we have a perfectly good lawn tractor in the barn,” came the answer.

“It doesn’t work,” I pointed out.

“It will when I fix it.”

“You never do fix it.”

“It costs too much to fix.”

The ex had long ago divined that logic can be an impediment in any argument, and on the perfectly sane basis that he preferred to win, had abandoned it utterly. Meanwhile, the grass continued to grow. Local logging companies were expressing interest in obtaining the timber rights.

It was at about this time that tales of a mythical lawn mower, of legendary prowess, began to drift our way. A huge, hoary silver beast, it was. Forty- years-old if a day, it had mowed through bogs and over stumps. It ate rocks for breakfast and had been known to take out small trees if they got in its way. (It did not, however, stir its coffee with its thumb.) It presently resided in our neighbour’s garage. I have to admit, when it arrived in our yard, like some big-shot hired gun, it looked ready for a mow-down.

Adjusting my gardening gloves with care, I stepped forward for the initial pull. The behemoth lept to life. I started across the lawn–the sun shone, the birds sang, and…the mower mowed. Infused with that feeling of well-being that emanates only from the sense that a benign universe is finally unfolding as it should, I rounded the bottom corner of the garden.



Pffft. The sound of my bubble breaking…and the mower dying–the beasts of chaos once again loosed.

Eyeing this strawman of a mower with considerable contempt, I contemplated whether I should, just for the sake of thoroughness, attempt to start it again, or, if it would be better, simpler and less painful, to quietly accept my place in a lawnless universe. Thorough to the point of perversity, I had to give it one more pull. Apparently, this act of persistence pushed the fates too far, opening the very gates of hell–for the mower instantly, and very impressively burst into flame.

I’d like to say that I lept into instant, and appropriate action. In reality I was, initially, so paralyzed with outrage over the complete and excessive injustice of it all, that I was unable to do anything but stare. I was just trying to cut my lawn, for heaven’s sake! Flames were not something that one should, reasonably, expect to have to deal with. It’s not as if the evening newscasts are littered with accounts of hapless homeowners perishing in lawnmower fires.

A suddenly warm toe awoke me to my more immediate dilemma. As is its want in time of crisis, my mind split into three, not necessarily interconnected, foci of concern. While one section began composing my speech to the neighbours, the mower’s owners, another wrestled with the problem of just how big an explosion might be expected once the flames reached the full gas tank. My mother lived in a granny flat just across our patio and we had often joked about the number of New Year’s Eve champagne corks we had sent flying over her rooftop. Somehow the image of a fiery lawnmower hurtling past her chimney pot had a more sinister aesthetic.

Another corner of my cortex was assessing my knowledge of gas fires. SMOTHER IT, my brainstem (a much more practical organ) screamed with an urgency that sent me scampering into the garden. Scooping up great double handfuls of dirt, I began flinging them at the flames in an adrenaline soaked frenzy.

Just at this particular moment, my mother, who as I said, lived close by, happened to glance into the back garden. Now, I know that our arrival, six years prior, more or less on her doorstep, had expanded her horizons in many strange and unexpected ways. However, no incident in our collective past could have prepared her for the sight she now beheld. In the witness’s own words, “I looked over, and there was Kerry–screaming like a banshee and hurling dirt at the lawnmower. I thought she’d finally lost it.” (Finally??…apparently she’d been expecting it for some time.) For some reason, from her perspective, the flames were not visible.

A combination of garden dirt and a good hosing eventually succeeded in extinguishing the inferno. The neighbours were informed. An inquest was held. Albert, the mower’s father, as it were, approached the burnt out hulk, and with what was, I felt, a bizarre degree of optimism, attempted to start the motor. “How sad,” I thought, standing by with the hose, “he’s in denial.” After some minor tinkering, however, the dinosaur shuddered back to life, arising like a phoenix from the ashes, ready to mow again. You’ve got to respect a machine like that.

To make a long story, only slightly longer, the proud owner imparted to me an intricate set of new starting instructions. I was, apparently, supposed to jam a wrench into this thing called a carburetor, while simultaneously pulling the start rope. Once running, I had only to manipulate the manual choke with one hand while screwing the carburetor lid back on with the other. Elementary, my dear Riley.

I can not begin to express the trepidation with which I approached this dragon for the second time. After only a few false starts, and expecting incineration at any moment, however, I succeeded in coaxing it into operation, and set off, grim jawed, to finish my task. No birds sang. There was no time, really, before the wheel fell off.

That, I suppose, really should have been the end of it, but this time, fate had pushed me too far. It was a personal thing now, a matter of spirit. Calling on reserves of mechanical know-how I didn’t know I possessed, I tightened a nut on a bolt and re-attached the wheel. Despite running out of gas three times, and one more little wheel incident, (each of which necessitated another starting ritual) I had, by nightfall, only a small patch left to mow. The machine had been backfiring all day, which, considering its recent past, I did not find surprising. I was unaware, until darkness, however, that “backfire” is not a random appellation, but in fact, refers directly to the spurts of blue flame which I could now see shooting from the beasts innards. Acutely aware, as I was, of the machine’s penchant for spontaneous combustion, this new knowledge did nothing to decrease my level of agitation, but I was determined to press on. Disappearing into the gloaming in a fit of spurts and sparks, I mowed the last row.

The next day I rested, and it was good.

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