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Lawn of the Year
Smith stared down at the pile of dog excrement still steaming in the cool morning air at the edge of his neatly trimmed lawn: fresher than yesterday’s, smelled the same as the others, had a definite likeness with previous piles in both texture and consistency. He leaned over to pick up the paper, eyes on the offending pile the whole time. Difficult as it was to turn away from the eyesore—it was really the only thing you could look at—Smith looked up, off down Pine Grove, just in time to catch a glimpse of Johnson’s black Great Dane rounding the corner, its master in tow.
He had suspected as much.
The feculent series had begun a week ago, the day after Smith had bought a brand new Lexus SUV, parading it around the block with his son Brian behind the wheel, Smith casually waving to the gawking neighbors as they drove past. He remembered the look on Johnson’s face as he had been watering his garden—Prius parked at the edge of the driveway where all the residents of Pinopolis Hills could simultaneously see and appreciate both his wealth and political views—surprise at first, then defeat. Smith had had no trouble interpreting what that expression meant: the newest car in the neighborhood was no longer Johnson’s, no longer green. Johnson had wasted his money on a message that no one in the neighborhood would hear, eclipsed by the slick, gilded luminescence of the gas guzzler. John Johnson, you sorry prick, he’d thought, giving him his best Papal wave. For the rest of that day a week ago he had tended to the perfect geometry of his lawn, meanwhile imagining how he would seduce Johnson’s wife, moving beyond the mere symbolic act of emasculating his neighbor, which he had accomplished when he had bought a bigger, better car, and actually robbing Johnson of his manhood. Johnson’s wife was by no means as attractive as his own. There was no comparison—Mary beat Patricia in every category: hair, breasts, complexion, hips, legs—but the dominance he had displayed over his peers through purchasing the SUV would be short-lived, and he would need something less subtle to sustain the high he was experiencing. Not that he planned to be indiscreet and lord his achievements around the neighborhood. No, he would respect the privacy Patricia would naturally want to maintain, but maybe he would accidentally let it slip to his golfing buddy Ken. Who knew?
Newspaper clutched royal scepter-like in hand, still lingering over the fetid pile as he spied Johnson slinking around the corner, petty vandal that his neighbor was, Smith again felt power surging through his loins as he had when he had seen Johnson’s physique deflate from being beaten.
He stood and breathed out. The attack was both infuriating and complimentary: infuriating because his lawn had been soiled, complimentary because Johnson clearly appreciated the perfection that was Smith’s lawn and knew that desecrating it was the most strategic way to attack. Smith strolled inside, relishing the bold tones of hatred, and fetched some paper towels from the kitchen.
Brian was at the breakfast table, stuffing soggy chocolate marshmallow cereal into his pimpled face.
“Morning, son,” he said popping him gently on the back of the head with the wand of rolled up newspaper.
Distracted from his mission to clean up the mess, he paused for a cup of coffee, gazing out at the concert of sprinklers passing over the neat edges of the backyard, imagining what Patricia Johnson would be like in bed, what undiscovered details there were to her body that presently lay beyond his imagination. He knew Patricia jogged early in the morning. Perhaps he would take up the same hobby, repeatedly happen along the same route, gradually insinuate himself into her good graces. Before long they could be meeting in a hotel room first thing every morning.
That would, of course, have to be his long-term plan. In the meantime, he would need something else, an immediate assault on the frontlines, something to show the enemy and the neighborhood watching that he was not weak. However, he would not dirty his own hands. In many ways he admired Johnson’s own strategy of wearing down the barriers into his psyche through attacking the thing most important to him than anything else in the world: his lawn. In addition, Johnson did so keeping his own hands clean, using an apparent agent of chaos, the Great Dane, which from a distance would appear to be doing only what Nature ordained and what any dog would do, marking its territory on the only lawn in the neighborhood that mattered—let’s be honest, the only lawn in town that mattered—but Smith knew Johnson’s character, knew that the whole Great-Dane-pulling-master-around-the-neighborhood routine was just a carefully crafted performance. Johnson, an accountant, was not a big man, but he was clever and had probably spent a considerable amount of time training the canine to excrete wherever it was told to. Smith imagined a laboratory set up in Johnson’s garage, a large model of the neighborhood with soil samples from each lawn covering individual plots. He pictured the late nights Johnson had spent with the dog, teaching it to associate each sample with different vocal calls, so all he would have to do is yell the right thing at his dog when it was dragging him around the block, and it would respond by seeking out the corresponding soil and defecating there.
Smith’s rally would also have to hit Johnson where it mattered most. He cleared his mind of everything and began a game of association. He thought only of the concept “The Johnsons”, and seized the first thing that popped into his head: the obscene brick mailbox that Johnson was so proud of, the mailbox that violated the Pinopolis Hills Neighborhood Code and Regulations, which stipulated in the second clause of section nine: “All mailboxes must be black in color with red flag, and must be affixed to the top of the arm of a wooden post constructed of pine, which must be painted uniformly either in ash, cantaloupe, or bronze.” Smith did not care about following the Code (he had after all had his own mailbox post painted in cream, again with a flex of muscle), but he did see the brick monstrosity that was Johnson’s mailbox as a prime target for counterattack.
So his target was decided upon. Now there only remained the details: the agent of destruction and the method of attack. As for the agent, he had no dog to train, but he did have something else . . .
Smith turned towards his son, putting down the coffee, unrolling the newspaper, and pretending to glance over the headlines. He studied Brian over the top of the paper, imagining what crude game he could force his son into. The answer was simple. The only problem would be convincing Brian.
After slurping the brownish milk out of the bowl, Brian craned his birdlike neck to find Smith staring back at him, grin twisting the corner of his mouth into a ghastly rictus.
“What the hell, Dad?”
“Enjoying your breakfast, Brian?”
“It’s okay,” he mumbled, shrugging his shoulders in an attempt to retract his long turtle neck.
“I was just thinking about when I was your age. What a blast we all had, my buddies and me.”
“Great, Dad,” he said through his orange juice.
“Seriously,” he said settling down into the seat across from his son. “We were a bunch of little hellions, terrorizing the neighborhood. What? You don’t believe me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
“We used to make these things—what were they called?—oh yeah, CO2 bombs. You ever heard of anything like that on the internet?”
At the word “bombs”, his son’s ears twitched, and he looked up from his juice. “What’s that?”
“You know: CO2 bombs,” he said taking a seat at the table. “Just some shit we used to get into back in high school.”
“Where do you get ’em?” he asked shyly.
“You don’t ‘get ’em’ anywhere, dunce. You make ’em.”
“Oh.” He was silent for a bit, looking into his juice. Smith patiently waited him out, sipping on his coffee. “How do you make ’em?”
“You think I’d tell my son how to make a bomb? What am I a sociopath?”
Brian guffawed at the absurdity of the question.
Smith frowned seriously and reached out to condescendingly ruffle Brian’s hair. “No, son. I care too much for your safety to do that. We were just stupid kids back in high school having a good time. Seems like that’s all we ever did back then. We’d take these CO2 bombs, light ’em, shove ’em inside a mailbox, and BOOM! that was the end of that. Sometimes I wish I were your age so I could do crazy shit like that again. I remember this one time—”
He retracted visibly at the appearance of his wife, who was returning from Pilates class.
“What are my boys plotting?” she asked, helping herself to a cup of coffee.
“Nothing, Mom,” Smith said, standing and kissing his wife. “Just reminiscing about the old days in high school.”
“High school . . . . You were a wild one back then,” she said in a gravelly voice, pawing his chest.
“God, you guys are disgusting,” Brian retched, pimply face choke-purple, abandoning his breakfast and storming upstairs to the rec room.
“What did I do?” Mary asked.
“Never mind him,” Smith said and then, taking his wife into his arms, added with a smile, “he’s just being a little bitch.”
He ate a light breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast with his wife.
During their time together he recycled over and over in his mind the image of the dog excrement soiling his lawn and Johnson’s grinning, conniving face, which he imagined dousing with a pot of boiling water. He held Mary’s hand affectionately, and she tickled his meaty calf with her toes as she had done years ago when they had only been high school sweethearts lunching together in the cafeteria.
After eating, Mary took the new SUV downtown to do some shopping in preparation for a fundraiser for the special needs program at Brian’s high school. Smith returned to the yard, cleaned up the mess Johnson’s Great Dane had left behind, and then began prowling around the verge of his masterpiece, scrutinizing every detail.
The yard was asymmetrical by design, consisting of one continuous swath of grass snaking from around the wooded area in the back and pooling against the curb in the front, with a few islands of pine popping up throughout. Every day, before and after work, he inspected every inch of it, plucking up stray twigs and weeds and discarding them in the woods, running over every inch with the mower, shaping the edge with the edger, studying the function of the sprinkler system. He had won Best Lawn at the Pinopolis Hills Awards Ceremony for five consecutive years. Before that run of victories, David Davis’s had won, and Smith’s had received an honorable mention, but that one year had not really counted. There had been a lot of politics behind the decision (for example, the Pinopolis Hills Planning Committee had been trying to prevent Davis from cutting down the oaks in his backyard, which of course would lower the value of a nearby plot screened by the trees), and at the time the Smiths had been relatively new to the neighborhood, and thus he had not yet had time to cultivate the lawn into the flawless work of art it now was. Objectively speaking, Smith’s lawn was superior to Davis’s and rightly so. No other man in the neighborhood respected and nurtured his lawn the way Smith did. He had dedicated all of his time towards the lawn, neglecting even his golf game and matinees with Brian.
As he worked the edger against the curb (for the grass edge was already neat and raw from tireless attention), he fantasized about Johnson’s face and how he could employ the edger to lop off his hair, make a bloody mess of his eyes and face, eventually polishing off all the skin till there was only a smooth, shiny skull left behind and a pulpy eyeball soup dripping out of the sockets. He dug deeper into the fantasy and imagined what he would do with Johnson out of the way. Perhaps take over his house, setting up two kingdoms in the neighborhood with a queen in each master bedroom. He could slowly take over the entire neighborhood in this way, one house at a time, seizing land and wives, enslaving the daughters, beheading the sons. He would deforest the entire neighborhood and have a continuous expanse of impeccably manicured lawn.
It would be tastefully done: no gnomes like on the Taylors’, no cacti like on the Williams’s, and for all that was holy no pink plastic flamingoes like on the Joneses’.
He looked up to see Sophie Davis pedaling by on her training wheels, glittered helmet atop wobbly head. “Hi, Mr. Smith!” she waved.
He nodded back, edger clutched militaristically in his thick hands, lost in his dream. She could be made to work the lawn, he thought. She could one day be made to serve him. He would have all the daughters work the lawn until they came of age, and then he would pluck them from the field and make new daughters from them. He would eventually expand beyond the borders of Pinopolis Hills and into the lesser Birchwood Trails. The property value over there was laughable, but the soil was good and the grass would grow. The men on that side of the lake were weak. The wives were traitorous. The sons were lost. They would fall easily. House by house. Knock them down. Spread his grass. Plant his pine.
It would all be tastefully done—
The fantasy was broken by a squirrel hopping off a low-hanging tree branch and settling into the close-cropped grass. It dug around, trying to unearth an unseen treasure. The squirrel’s nonchalance maddened Smith. How many times had it stalked through the grass when Smith was not tending to the lawn? How many more times would it repeat the offense? As the edger was electric and quite silent, Smith crept up behind the little creature, the metal cords of the edger whipping viciously, closing in on the fluffy tail as it bounced side to side, up and down. But it was a poorly executed attack: Smith’s shadow appeared before him, and the squirrel, alerted to the presence of the predator, bounded off into the woods. With no time for Smith to cancel the attack, the edger, carried forward with the momentum, sliced deep into the lawn, upturning a mound of red clay. He stared at the wound in horror, the edger puttering to a stop.
A red gash in the lush green.
On his knees he desperately tried to mend the laceration, but despite his best efforts a scar remained.
He stood, collecting himself.
Two attacks on his lawn in one day, both before noon. He bemoaned the fact that there was not a better way for him to defend his property. He could install a fence, but that would be unsightly. He had at one time lined the curb with planks studded with nails: an effort to deter cars from parking on the verge, kids from riding their bikes onto the grass, and of course to wound any animal—man or beast—that attempted to set foot on the lawn. The Williamses had complained when their seven year old son had stepped on one of the nails, and soon after a petition had gone from house to house, asking for the removal of the nailed planks. He remembered having inspected the petition when it was finally presented to him by a livid William Williams and seeing Johnson’s obnoxiously grandiose signature taking up at least two lines. So he had graciously removed the boards, and now the result: chaos reigned. Since he could not resort to defending his lawn with something as civilized and aesthetically pleasing as two-by-fours with nails poking through, he was forced to resort to nastier methods, maybe a motion-activated laser defense system. He would have to do some research online about that.
Looking up from the scar on his lawn, he saw through the upstairs window into the rec room where Brian was sitting at the family computer. He wondered if it was necessary for him to go up there and check on what he was doing. Brian was dense and easily manipulated, but Smith was unsure if he had executed his plan correctly. There were certain threads Brian’s mind would have to follow, and although Smith found them obvious, he doubted his son would piece together the information correctly.
He walked into his shed and stowed his yard tools, compulsively taking a quick inventory of everything. He returned to the house and lingered in the kitchen, listening to the sounds descending from the rec room. Clicks. Brian’s whistling, nasal breath.
He crept up the stairs towards the rec room and stood at the threshold, half hidden by the door. The computer screen was concealed from him, so he had to satisfy himself by studying his son’s expressions.
It was no use. Brian looked as bland and uninterested as ever, his face unreadable.
Smith considered sneaking up behind him and taking a peak himself, but he would certainly be heard and did not want to risk interfering in this matter of revenge any more than he had to. He had already soiled his hands too much by planting the seed in Brian’s mind and should not risk further complicity. He studied his son for a long time, wondering how he could increase his control over him. Brian had been an experiment in manipulation from the beginning. Smith was the puppeteer behind the keying of Wang’s SUV, the disappearance of the horrendous inflatable Santa Claus the Johnsons had put out several Christmases ago, the “accidental” crashing of Davis’s boat into the dock, and many others. A number of times the manipulation had not worked: for example, the Wilsons’ Chihuahua still breathed, the Taylors’ guest house had not been burned down, etc. Nevertheless, he was pleased with his son’s deeds. A daughter might not have responded with such mindless obedience. Boys (especially simple-minded ones) were better suited for acts of terrorism. Brian even seemed to maintain the illusion of being unique in his vandalism. He was fascinated by the boy sitting at the computer, finger crammed up his nose. Such a dim creature.
His wife inadvertently colluded with him by slamming the front door and calling for Brian to come help her with the groceries. As usual, Brian was nonresponsive, but upon further prompting from his mother, he shouted, “Just a second, Mom! God!”
Smith stole into the recess behind the door and waited. After several minutes and several more provocations between mother and son, Brian stomped down the stairs, leaving Smith with a window of a few minutes to pursue his investigation.
He slipped behind the computer and opened up the internet browser history. Then he smiled the same twisted smile he had given his son earlier that morning.
“Brian, you beautiful idiot.”
That night at two in the morning, the phone rang. Smith was already lingering on the edge of consciousness, pulled out of sleep several minutes earlier by some far off disturbance.
Johnson was calling from the hospital.
“It’s Brian,” he said with a feigned air. “There’s been an accident.”
He and Mary rushed to the hospital. They were led into the emergency room and found John and Patricia Johnson waiting for them at the nurses’ station. Johnson clutched Smith’s hand with both of his, assembly line tears perched in the corners of his eyes. Patricia wrapped her arms around Mary.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” Johnson said.
Smith watched Johnson’s mouth move and the phoniness in his eyes as he described what had happened to Brian.
“It was just some stupid prank. I know these kids. They don’t know what they’re doing. Just out getting some kicks. He had a bomb or something. Damned thing must have gone off in his hand. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the face. The doctor said it’s not looking good for him.” He spoke this last sentence with particular relish, Smith thought.
Johnson leaned in to hug him.
Smith kept him at arm’s length and said, “Tell me: what happened to the mailbox?”
Brian lived, though he was scarred horribly and lost the use of his left hand, which now only boasted a pinky and ring finger. His face was unpleasant to see at mealtimes, and his food had to be mashed up and passed through the melted formation of his mouth via a straw. His son had been a good soldier—foolish, yes—but he had gotten the job done. The mailbox had been destroyed, and incredibly the replacement that had been erected was built according to the Pinopolis Hills Code and Regulations and (ha, Smith thought) was not exactly ninety degrees perpendicular to the curb (he had gone out one night and measured it himself, confirming that the post leaned two degrees to the left). Overall, he considered himself victorious.
Over the next month Smith was especially absorbed in the maintenance of his lawn. Every day at four thirty he rose out of bed and spent two and a half hours scouring the grounds. Then he had a quick breakfast, showered, dressed for work, and spent another half hour or so re-combing the yard for stray weeds. He returned around five, worked two hours in the yard, ate his dinner, and returned to mind the yard till nine or so. If he ever missed a day or did not feel he had spent enough hours working on the lawn, he would become cross and explode at the dinner table or berate the underlings at work. But for the most part he was completely serene.
He awoke from the middle of a dream one night and saw with perfect clarity a vision of his lawn spreading throughout the neighborhood. He saw the leaves of grass cracking up through the road, roots spreading beneath door jambs, creeping up carpeted stairs, human bodies consumed in green. He wanted to take Mary out into the lawn and copulate there where everyone could see them. He wanted to live on the lawn. He would later tell Mary he wanted to be buried there.
The next morning he rose when the dew was at its freshest, and he buried his face in the itchy cool blades in the backyard. From that vantage point he could see the Taylors’ house overcome by gargantuan grass shoots. A glorious sight. A vision of the future. He stood and as if through telekinesis commanded several sprinkler heads to rise in unison in order to worship and bestow gifts upon their god. He smiled contentedly, undisturbed by the shadow of his deformed son in the bedroom window.
He took his usual gander around the property, once for pleasure, then again with a keen eye on the ground. By the time he reached the mailbox for the paper, his slippers and flannel pajamas were soaked through. He leaned over to pick up the paper and froze with shock, staring at the steaming pile of dog excrement beneath the mailbox. Familiar texture, length, shape. Pine Grove was deserted, but he did not need to see the Great Dane to recognize this as Johnson’s counterstrike. The man was completely unshakable in his lack of creativity.
Smith’s response would have to be something more invidious this time.
Perhaps he would pick up jogging after all.
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