Prose from Poetry Magazine

Mow Job

A weed-whacking writer contemplates her lot.

by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I do the summer work of a twelve-year-old boy, which isn’t surprising as I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old boy: I cut grass. I do it for the money. I do it for the exercise. I do it for the fresh air.

But mostly it’s the fast cash.

I joined the yard work racket several summers ago when I ran low on funds. Real low on funds. Like, cartoon-trouser-pockets-turned-inside-out-and-moths-flying-from-my-purse low on funds. Bluntly: Essbaum was poor. Mind you, I’ve never been swimming in gravy, but I’ve never been destitute either. Nor was I destitute then; that’s a sober diagnosis. What I had was a slight case of the no monies. How’d I catch it? Doorknob? Public toilet seat? Recycled airplane air? It isn’t a kissing disease. But it is unhealthy and I needed to un-catch it and the quickest cure was immediate cash-in-hand work. So I babysat. And I housecleaned. And I lawn mowed.
I liked mowing lawns. I kept mowing lawns.

A straight-up, no-frills lawn job puts forty dollars of pin money in my pocket. For a single sawbuck more, I’ll edge (size of lawn depending). If it’s something other than mowing that you want, then we negotiate. I’m not greedy. In fact, I often undercharge. Example: Last summer I spent a hellish week and a half in an unrelenting backyard wrenching hackberry roots from the ground. Have you ever danced with a hackberry root? Don’t. It was the yard of my ex-husband’s former roommate. (Sit with that for a minute. I should have.) This is the man with whom my ex lived when we met. The man who, sixteen years ago and from the distance of only a hallway, watched as we tumbled into love, my former husband and I. The man who, last summer and from one-third of an acre away, looked on as I raked fifty fucking bags of yard waste into a fifty-fucking-bags-of-yard-waste-sized pile. My sadness was particular, if spasmodic. I was wistful, embarrassed, and improbably nostalgic for a cheerless past I’d done well to wave goodbye to. But there’s no crying in yard work. Yes, I made good money. But money rarely countermands the hangdog shame of loss.

Heartache and hackberry aside, I very much like the labors of clearing out, cleaning up, and cutting down. Two summers ago the woman who used to be the leader of my Girl Scout troop paid me to raze the overgrown backyard garden she’d neglected for a year. The weeds were six feet tall and the grasses irrevocably tangled. The ground held them like a grudge. It was a three-day tribulation that culminated in two conclusions. The first: Don’t grab a bee. Not even with gloves on. The second: Do not use the weed eater on yourself. It’s as bad an idea as it sounds. (Laugh with, not at me, friends.) In my defense, it was one of my first jobs, I hadn’t found my stride and on my honor (so swears the Girl Scout) this woman’s yard was as fucked-up as Rasputin’s beard. I kept the trimmer string too long. I wore shorts. I got distracted. I get it. Pay attention or pay consequence. You don’t get a badge for dumbassery.

(A digression: Years ago when I had the scratch to spend—and the itch to spend it—I paid a man to do my lawn. This is not a euphemism. When he wasn’t tending lawns he roped calves. He was a cowboy. “When you gonna come ride my horse, Jill?” he asked each time he came over. This might have been a euphemism. He stopped working for me when we started going out because, as a rule, one should never date someone she pays. He was nice enough, and good-looking. But it didn’t last. And I never rode his horse. One way or the other.)

My lawnmower is red and thirteen years old. My ex-husband bought it when we married. I assumed custody when we split. It’s been through more than a divorce. This is the mower I bring to your house when I come to cut your grass. The first time I used it I unintentionally pushed it over some rocks cached in the sod. You know the rules. Rock beats scissors; that blade was toast. Another time (and this is about as inattentive as it gets) I managed to roll up—no, drive up—on the damn thing with my truck. That’s right. I ran over the lawn mower with my truck. Just barely. Maybe an inch. Only enough to bend the right front wheel. After that, it wobbled when it turned, but it worked. Total fluke I didn’t crush the whole machine. The ex was livid anyway. The wheel’s never been fixed. It’s spun on an oblique axis for years. There’s meaning here. I’m sure of it.

My work uniform is invariable: jeans, T-shirt, leather gloves, and a camouflage gimme cap from the diner that invented chicken-fried bacon (it’s my favorite hat). Not a look that warrants wolf-whistles. But I dress for necessity. Pants are protective (learned that). Gloves seem obvious, and anyone’s head is naked without a hat. You think this is bad? When my mother worked in the yard, she’d don a long-sleeve chambray work shirt and a Vietnamese peasant hat tied in a lopsided bow under her chin. I miss her. Ours was a lovely, lonely, convolutedly zealous entanglement. Which is to say: goddammit we loved each other. In a lovely, lonely, zealous, and convoluted way. But that’s for nothing. Except to say that if I had her hat, I’d wear it when I mowed your lawn.

My father used to tend the vacant acre next to ours as a courtesy to the elderly woman who owned it. Dad was generous like that. It was a big job. Big jobs want big machines. For this, the riding mower. Sometimes, I’d mow the pasture for him. Memory: I snap a Duran Duran cassette into an off-brand Walkman and drive in circles, pretending it’s a car. I dream of elsewheres and elsewhens. I am twitchy, precocious, and fourteen years old.

Dad was magnanimous; he always slipped me cash. It was my first paying mow job. And it wasn’t even our lot to mow.

It is not my lot to mow. Of course it is. I’m no landscaper, no gardener. I don’t know for flowers or trees or even grass—except that it is very agreeable to me when I advance my engine over the tallish green bits that rise from the ground and in so doing make them less tallish. I like sheepshearing a line, sharpening an edge. I’m an army barber, your one-woman clean-up crew. What’s disheveled? Let me hevel it. You’ll nod yes, yes when you see your tidy lawn. My mower has memory. I’m ok with that. Inattention aside, when I have to, I shove my feet into boots and get to work. I don’t quit. I try not to fail. I try to try not to fail. I leave you with those good words.

Also: I take checks.

Originally Published: July 2, 2012


On July 3, 2012 at 1:03pm Leo wrote:
Got here from Tod's post. Nice piece Jill. Cute ending.

On July 18, 2012 at 9:04pm Joe Curtin wrote:
I made it through it's hard for me even to finish a page and I liked it!

On July 19, 2012 at 12:40pm HM Berman wrote:
Nostalgia, lost love, necessity and struggle, all bundled together with wit and sharp observation.

On August 6, 2012 at 9:54am Shayna wrote:
I really liked this piece. It was well written and witty. In this short piece were various characters and memories revolving around the current topic. Nice.

On February 9, 2015 at 9:28pm Nathan wrote:
Funny. I like this article. Quite witty. :)

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2012


 Jill Alexander Essbaum


Born in Bay City, Texas, poet and editor Jill Alexander Essbaum was educated at the University of Houston, the University of Texas, and the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.
Influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Simon Armitage, and Sylvia Plath, Essbaum’s poems bring together sex, divinity, and wordplay, blithely working with received forms and displaying a nuanced attention to rhyme and meter. Speaking to this unusual . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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