I lug the paint-peeling trash cans up the hill in the backyard and lean them against the hollow oak tree drooping over the marigolds. They slide on the grass and I steady them. Crinkles of green embalms my hands. I then glance back at the flowerbed downhill in front of the pool and sense that it looks even lonelier without the crowded bunches of sultry Spurweed snaking around the browning Maiden grass. It’s all dirt now, save for the overgrown grass and my long wooden shovel with its steel mouth reflecting and cooking in the sun.
I start to stamp on clumps of Spurweed ten to fifteen at a time, towering my right leg over the bunch, and then dropping it down like a crane to expose the darkened roots, which is, of course, to avoid the nauseatingly banal task of handpicking each one by one. The caked mud on my steel-toed boots is dried, hardened, and ugly-looking, and my jeans fluctuate between rigidity and dampness from kneeling down in the slush. My long sleeve shirt with my navy-blue college lettering on it is blemished with streaks of dirt, and smells, and is comfortably sweaty, and I want to tear it off.
I go over to the yellow hose left of the garden and wash myself off.
I continue to yank weeds from the soil, getting thistles stuck in my rubber gloves, shaking my hand to get them out, and then continuing on with my work. They hurt like hell, and every few pulls, a few of the bushier ones pierce my bare hands, and all I really want to do is fall over and curse and throw a fit and jump into the pool, and then slope my callous-infested hands in a subzero bucket of ice—if that even exists. But I restrain the pursuit of this hypothetical aspiration in order to continue working at a steady pace.
I walk over to the bending-wire fence behind the garden and take hold of it. It’s thin and insubstantial, and maybe I will twist its oval ridges and rip out a chunk for me to jump through. Why not; I’d run into the forest; I’d sprint, and my stringy hair would float behind my head; the icy winds would wrap around me, and eventually, I’d get somewhere unfamiliar and emerge from the trees to a place where nobody knows my name, or cares to learn it.
I wipe my sweaty forehead with my arm, and as I do, Mrs. Baldwin calls for me from the front yard.
“T-ii-mm! Come get a drink. All done for the day.”
I slip off my muddy gloves, place them in my back pocket, and toss a mint in my mouth. “One second, Ma’am.”
Mrs. Baldwin’s home is Victorian, I guess, or however an old mansion that is gigantic and old-fashioned is professionally designated. And it has a stale and uptight aroma about it: like the place is on its way out after many years of dutiful service. Thank you for your service, I whisper.
There is a winding ornate staircase with an ivory hallway runner descending to the first step. It seeps down like a languid river, calm and collected, no cascades or sways. The ceilings are broad and milk white. The paint is evenly spread. It is unnerving. There is an oil expressionist painting that extends from one side of the second floor, to the other, like a college dorm tapestry; it depicts a shirtless man—a mainly man—with a ball of chest hair and a bearded face. He’s biting into an orange. Not an apple. An orange.
Directly in front of the stairwell is a glass vase with mostly white flowers, miniature yellow blooms scattered in between. The flowers sit on a circular stone table that has two thick and wide legs. It seems like it was taken from an old museum, of sorts. Although this entire home is really an old museum. I picture people, any people really, her friends, I suppose, or loathed acquaintances, or likable colleagues, or obliged to invite colleagues, waiting for Mrs. Baldwin to gradually tiptoe down the steps. She wears her nightgown, her slippers, or whatever the hell she wears or wore to bed at one point—and then—she peeks into the viewing hole and allows the visitors in a moment later. She kisses them all on the cheek. Takes their coats. She wears her sleep attire in order to show the visitors that it is just another charade. Just another night at the Baldwin residence. She changes after the first group piles in and walks down the steps looking like the rest. Her husband whistles.
I imagine the parties that could have went on when Mrs. Baldwin’s husband Alan was alive and well. Over the top snotty outfits worn by all, harmless and harmful drinking, the snickering, the gossip, the all-male servers hiking from the bottom floor to the top—top to bottom—clenching circular black trays, sporting rigid white gloves, wearing their stone faces well, with curling mustaches that they oil tenderly before a night’s labor, approaching the guests with a napkin and a crab cake. And then the guests. They are beautiful female snobs rocking ovular diamond necklaces that dip down to above their breasts, kissing their white wine, trying to impress one another, doing so accordingly. The men wear blazers, of course, choking silk black bowties, that will be loosened in the car ride home, and set aside in the glove compartment for the next charade. I now observe the house the way it is now. Desolate even, like my own. Outdated. A step behind the world; a sort of old harbor and human sanctuary that has shriveled up and been left behind by a transformed America that no longer prefers suburban materialism the way it used to
Maybe I’m all wrong.
Mrs. Baldwin is in fact in her eighties and I suppose it is a likelihood that she’s lived in this home for most of her life. It is suburban residence that exemplifies ‘old money,’ or rather the very notion of the, once, communally held American Dream with which all people assumed subservience towards. But what kept her on the outskirts of Delaware? Why hadn’t she traveled or gone on to live somewhere nicer? Somewhere where you didn’t freeze for more than half the year. If I was her age, and without a significant other or work obligation, I’d have left this area long ago. Hell, I want to leave it at 20. But she must’ve remained comfortable in the tender confines of her first-class vintage home all these years. A home that makes one feel transported to another time, to another life—to another futile existence.
“Here you are, Tim,” Mrs. Baldwin says, walking towards me with a glass of water and an envelope.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Oh, you’ve done quite a good job. Quite a good one indeed. Those damn weeds of mine thrive this time of year! It’s quite hot out, even for a strong boy like yourself. I gave you a little bonus, Tim. I did.”
“Oh, that isn’t necessary, Mrs. Baldwin. It’s alright.”
“No, no! It’s my pleasure. Can you come back in two weeks to clear the flowerbeds again?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll be back at college. I go back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, darn. I’ll have to hire the Mexicans down the block again.”
She pauses for a moment—rethinking her words.
“Well...anyhow, I wish you a splendid school year. What is it you are studying again?”
I start mouthing a response.
“Oh, oh. Let me guess. Your majoring in Economics and Political Science? Or International Studies? Maybe the Natural sciences? Biology?”
“Oh, quite good. Quite alright.”
I scratch at my ear.
“I better get going. Thank you for the money.”
“Of course! I’ll see you over your break.”
She walks me to the door, and I walk down the cracked and powdery brick steps. I wave and she smiles.
I change into sneakers and get the air conditioning panting before I sit in the steaming car. I light a cigarette and gaze at Mrs. Baldwin’s home from the very tip of the driveway. The house begins to illuminate in the induction of the summer darkness. A lamppost turns yellow to my side. And then another.
I wonder if she is still roaming about inside. I wonder if she is conscious. I wonder if she persists when left alone inside. I wonder if she becomes a statue.
I light another cigarette.
Once the car seems cool enough, I take my right hand off the roof of the car and slide myself into the driver’s seat. I shift the car into drive, put on my high beams to radiate the path ahead of me, and am on my solemn way, into the coming night.
It is 6:00 PM. Outside in the looped driveway, Donna Reedman’s car is packed to the brim. But inside, Donna washes the last dish. It sparkles.
She spins around to lay it atop the pile, and as she sets it down, she pauses, and sees the off-putting Paul lugging himself unhurriedly down the khaki-carpeted steps. His long and black and stringy hair hangs over his forehead and he wears a white shirt and briefs. He dangles an empty wrapper-peeled beer bottle in one hand, rubs his nose, and negates eye contact. He walks into the living room and turns on the TV.
Donna walks over to him, plants in front of the screen. She grabs the remote control and mutes it. She crosses her arms and he shifts his body left, then right, then back to the middle—like a child might when he gives in to his Mother’s declaration of a cartoon-less day.
“We need to tell Tim the news when he gets home. This has gotten out of control, Paul. He’s going back to school tomorrow for God sakes.”
Paul looks down and his hands. His palms are still red and marked up. He balls his hands in a fist, and then unclenches them, and purses his lips. He looks at Donna blankly, and nods.
“You do it.”