Of all charges, I was found not guilty. That included manslaughter, physical neglect, medical neglect. The state wanted all that weight on my shoulders like I was the one that choked him blue. But at the end of the hearings, the jury got it right. I know I’m lucky for that, but lucky isn’t a word I want to use. It doesn’t taste right on my tongue.
This is what I think about when my niece Jennifer heads up the stairs for the night. She kisses my forehead like she does, and she doesn’t linger any longer than usual. She’s a great girl. Has been here since the second stroke. Goes to work in the morning in baby blue scrubs and black clogs, then spends her evenings here keeping me comfortable—bathing me, emptying the bedpan, maneuvering my near-paralyzed body to avoid bedsores.
Aside from her, there’s Pam, the day nurse. That’s it for the regulars.
I don’t tell Jennifer what I know—that it will be tonight. And it makes me sick knowing how cliché it will all be. Dying at the end of the story. But that’s just how things will turn out. I’ll let her rest and find me in the morning. I figure since I don’t expect life to flash before my eyes, I’ll take it slowly. Recall the good times. But it’s not the good times I think about.
The recollection starts with an emerald green, two stroke Lawn Boy. A push mower from the mid-70s. My father’s old one. One I would have likely passed onto my son, too, but I hoped that by that time we'd be somewhere else, somewhere with a bigger yard and a new mower. Somewhere nicer. Some parallel universe where Andre is still alive.
The living room was different then—gray carpet, a teal-patterned couch, an antennaed TV, the Lawn Boy in its corner. As one would walk through the front door of our home, the mower would peer at the visitor from the far left-hand corner of the room. Sometimes it reminded me of a child in time-out, but other times it stood brave like a guardian statue, attentive in its shadow of stains and sediment. I had nowhere else to keep it but inside. Wasn't like we had a shed or anything. No garage. No place for storage. And I sure as hell wasn’t keeping the thing outside just to get stolen.
I remember one morning in particular. Or it could be a blend of multiple mornings, but I like to think of it as a single time in history. I can see my tank top and mesh shorts. Grass-stained Reebok classics. I’m pulling the Lawn Boy halfway through the living room, its uneven wheels squeaking.
“Dad, lemme get it,” Andre says, pulling himself up from the couch. He’s fifteen years old or somewhere around there.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “I got it.”
“Dad,” he says.
“It’s fine. I like doing it. Really.”
And when I tell my son I like doing it—that I like mowing the lawn—I’m not lying. It isn’t so much a chore than it is a way to relax and forget the world around me. A blue-collar yoga, if you will.
“Yeah, but your back. Lemme at least take it out front. I’m serious.”
“Okay,” I say.
Outside, Andre helps get it running, afraid I’ll pull my back out with the starter rope. He wraps it around his hand—a gray shoelace tightly knotted to an inch or two of the original 1970’s pullstring. He yanks it repeatedly, pushes the choke with a come on, come on, come on, jerks the cord a couple more times until the whole thing rattles.
It takes me five minutes to mow the lawn. That’s it. Just a tiny patch of grass out front. Cement in the back. No different than all the others in the complex, but it’s my patch of grass. The other lawns are cut by contractors. Once a month at most. But in the saturating spring, the lawn needed more attention than that. I take pride in my little lawn. The greenest and tidiest of the whole complex. It breathes like a family pet. Well-fed and well groomed.
When all is said and done, Andre pulls the mower up the single step to place it in its usual corner inside the house. He starts snorting and wheezing like usual, wiping his nose with his shirt collar. Only this time he doesn’t have his inhaler. I swear it’s still in the house, but he thinks he lost it at school.
“Check the couch cushions,” I say
“I did,” he says groggily.
“What about the La-Z-boy?”
“What about your bureau? Did you check your backpack? How ‘bout the kitchen?”
“I’ll be fine,” he says, walking to the kitchen to splash water on his face.
* * *
Jennifer rubs my feet before letting me be for the night. She says it helps with the blood flow. Upstairs, I hear the sink running. The heat kicks on. The vents cough and spit. It reminds me of a motor. I inhale sweat. Some hints of fuel and fresh-cut lawn. I smell grassoline, as Andre liked to call it. And I’m back there again.
* * *
I wake around ten a.m. It’s a Saturday. I pee, brush my teeth, go downstairs, slip on my Reeboks, walk outside. Andre’s already up. Without a passing grunt, he wheels the Lawn Boy through the house and down to the cement pad with a single clunk.
During the short mowing session, I watch Andre’s eyes follow me through the barred window. The look on his face is inquisitive, but I can’t tell if he’s lost in thought or just blankly staring. I assume the latter since it’s still pretty early. He looks relaxed despite his allergy-ridden face. Already scales of skin flake around his nose.
Even in the early morning when everything is fairly calm, the art of mowing brings with it a new kind of peace. I’ve grown to love my neighborhood, but there’s a lot that goes on here that I can’t get behind. The things that grow from poverty. Petty crime. Drug trade. All the things a whirring motor drowns out. A green white noise.
* * *
I’m startled by a hollow sneeze from upstairs. It’s high-pitched and echoes through the old floorboard. I wait for Jennifer to get up, but she doesn’t. It’s nothing like Andre’s jackhammer expulsions. Nothing like his storms of sneezing and coughing, the gasping for air and pinching of his snotty face. It’s just a single sneeze and the house falls silent.
* * *
I shower and lace up my sneakers. I press my foot hard on the floor, tiptoeing across the house, trying to get the talking soles to stick back in place.
“You need anything from the store?” I ask Andre, who is engulfed in a video game.
“Nah. Thanks, though,” he says to the TV.
“Don’t forget to call the doctor,” I say.
“Can't you just—you know I hate the phone.”
“Well, you can’t last all summer like you’ve been. You need your inhaler.”
“But—” he begins and stops.
“You’re almost sixteen, god damn it. You can’t be afraid of talking to people on the phone forever. What are you going to do when you get a job? Isn’t it about time—”
Andre grabs his headphones off the floor and presses a button on his square device. He thumbs his video game controller. I open the front door.
“Oh, you know what? I need deodorant,” he says above the roar of pixelated gunmen.
“Are you gonna call the doctor?”
He slides his headphones around his neck. “What?”
“Call the doctor,” I say.
“You gonna get me deodorant?”
“Only because I can smell you from here," I say.
“All I can smell is grassoline.”
I close and lock the door, then walk the two blocks to Market Xpress, tiptoeing so the sole of my shoe doesn’t peel back. Inside the store, a sports game plays low on the radio. The air is thick and sticky. I grab a handful of toiletries and bring my purchases to the counter. I pull cash from my wallet and slide it under the glass.
“What’s going on?” I say.
The man clicks some buttons and slides my change under the glass.
“All right. Have a good one.”
The man nods and I walk out.
The sun shines directly above me. I take a different route home just because. Something new to see. On Forty-Sixth, three girls jump rope on the sidewalk with only a hint of a shadow beneath them. When I turn on Poplar, I see a woman with a thin cigar dangling from her lips, spicy smoke dancing around her face as she picks out one side of a young boy’s long hair. The other side is braided thin.
I walk on and take the small alley behind our complex. I struggle to unlock the back door, but eventually the rusted thing budges. It creaks and I step inside our kitchen with three plastic bags dangling from my forearms. Then they hit the floor. From the doorway and through the kitchen, I see Andre’s face. Larger somehow. He’s kneeling on the couch, looking in my direction, his eyes bulging and his lips pale.
* * *
Jennifer comes down to check on me around one-thirty, says she was having trouble sleeping. Me too, I try to tell her, but I can’t get the words out. I want her to stay so I can say the story out loud, but it’s too difficult. For a number of reasons.
Jennifer sets a glass of water on the mantel next to my gurney and kisses my pasty forehead. She lingers. Wants to say something, but doesn’t. She gives my arms a few pats, offers me a closed-mouth smile, and turns toward the stairs.
* * *
Andre’s wheezing is a high-pitched dog whistle. His body thrusts. I trip over the grocery bags on the floor.
I can't see his arms. They are under his body and clutching his chest, pressed tightly against the back of the sofa. He seems too weak to peel them from their sandwiched state. It’s like he doesn’t have the strength to move anything but his mouth, wider and wider. A hollow hiss from his oral hallway.
I toss him into a sitting position on the couch. I tilt his head back to open his airway. I try to call for someone, a neighbor or a passerby, but nothing comes.
“Tell me you found your inhaler,” I eventually say. “Andre, please. Your inhaler.”
To be honest, I don’t even know if words are coming out of my mouth. We could be mimes together in that room. A couch of clowns. A freak show of panic and groaning.
I should reach for the phone, but I don’t. I run out the front, leaving Andre hyperventilating alone. I bang on my Mr. Jackson's door. I figure he can help. Somehow. He knows remedies for everything—headaches, itchy eyes, sore throat. But what is he going to do now? Rub lavender oil on his back? He’s just an old man. But I’m at his door already. I try the knob. Locked, of course. I pound on the door, punch it with the sides of my fists, ram it, kick it hard. I curse, run back across the way and inside our house.
The wheezing left the room while I was gone.
I know it’s terrible to think at a time like this, but Andre reminds me of a character in a sci-fi movie. It’s a woman he reminds me of, lifted into the sky by a UFO, chest up and back bent. He has the same face she did. Same crescent-moon posture. I think I’m laughing, and as soon as I begin to feel awful about it, I realize there is a phone against my face and I’m crying.
“You said your son?” a man asks. “Can you give me your address?”
I look back at Mr. Jackson, who is now in the doorway. He looks at Andre, looks at me, looks back to Andre. But he’s not the one talking.
“Sir?” a phone says pressed against my ear.
My mouth is open. Andre’s body is both stiff and limp at the same time. Everything in sync. We’re paralyzed in harmony. We’re all breathless.
* * *
After my first stroke, they came frequently. The dreams. For a long time, Andre was never in the dream itself. Not as a physical being. Not as my son. Just his forced inhales and hushed whistles. Sometimes it was a calm dream. A peaceful dream even. I’d be levitating through the bottom floor of the house, unaware of Andre’s death. It felt so lackadaisical, like nothing mattered. But then I’d remember somehow. The dream would become louder—the strained breathing amplified, the beat box of Mr. Jackson’s stuttering, the mower puttering in its corner. Sometimes the Lawn Boy would glow like a piece of art on display. It would stare at me, never losing eye contact. It huffed and puffed, wheezed and whistled. I’d find myself sobbing in my sleep, or drenched from rain after sleepwalking. Other times I’d just be standing in the living room not knowing where to go from there.
After the trial, there was no celebration of innocence. I didn’t leave the house. Family and friends came to visit in what I can only describe as a fast-forward time lapse. The whole year had been. Mounds of food spoiled on the countertop.
Bits of the Lawn Boy were scattered all over the house from when I dismembered it. I slashed my hand when I removed the mower blade and clenched it tightly, stabbing the couch cushions and shredding the carpet. I still have the scar. Pieces of metal littered the room. Each one stared back at me. My chest tightened and I struggled for breath. I couldn’t speak his name. Not there. Never could in the presence of the Lawn Boy. Even after it was just scraps.
For the remainder of the summer, my grass grew wild. The landscapers continued to skip over it like they always had. I’d stare at the jungle of it from the living room window for hours. It was my way of mourning until I had the courage to buy another mower. Two years passed before I could. It was a Remington, motorless push mower. I began leaving it outside, almost wishing someone would steal it or break off its handle. But all summer, no one ever did. I finally put it back inside after the first snowfall in late September. Andre wasn’t there to offer his help moving it.
The Remington sat in the shadow of the Lawn Boy until I fell ill. For ten years it ridiculed me. It even seemed to have a backdrop, a wall whiter than the others, a bright reminder of when it was patched up and painted over. And the thing never held much scent. Nothing like the Lawn Boy. But the Lawn Boy’s musk still lingered. Still does. Still exhales from the walls when it rains. Even now I can smell it through my sunken face. I feel it hovering over me. It’s everywhere.
* * *
The first day I had back to myself—the first day free of visitors expressing their condolences, weeks before the charges were pressed—gray skies covered the neighborhood. The damp air brought out the ever-present smell of grassoline more powerful than ever. Everything felt soggy and used. I stood in the living room for quite some time, listening for patterns in the rain. I began to translate what it was saying in its pitter-patter language.
“It was the father in the living room with the Lawn Boy,” the rain said.
“Let’s play again.”
“Let’s never stop.”
And it’s like it never did. Maybe the jury got it wrong after all. Of all charges, I found myself guilty.
* * *
That’s what I wake up to. My mind going but my body unable to move. It’s something I’ve relived over and over. But this time it feels different. Feels new, like it’s the first time I’ve had these thoughts, these dreams, these past lives. It’s in this moment I feel like I should melt away from the world of the Lawn Boy. Like my brain could hemorrhage for the third and last time. But it doesn't work that way. The sun peeks over the horizon.
Instead of struggling with my last breath, I produce a morning yawn that's anything but graceful. It’s a short one. My lungs barely expand, but the little air I do take in tastes pure. Clean and untainted. Not a single hint of gas, of green lawn. I don’t even cough. I just exhale slowly. My breath like a dying motor.
Soon, Jennifer will be up. Soon, the water will run. Soon, she will leave for work. In the evening, she will relieve the day nurse and I will be back here again. Back with the gray carpet, the teal-patterned couch. Back to the dreams and the wheezing. Back with my Lawn Boy.