My friend who has no power mower only the old push kind let the weeds in his yard grow to his shoulders before he called a man he’d heard of who would work for 5 dollars an hour.
The yardman brought his whole family with him, children riding in the back of the clanking truck with the tools.
Two little sisters wore headbands, dragged the sacks of cuttings from their father’s mower, gathering branches, stones, moving the hose. My friend noticed how they worked with almost no words passing between them, in a syncopated yet graceful rhythm. The yardman didn’t avoid any of the hard places – he mowed behind the grapevines, around the mountain of rotting pears.
Later in the kitchen my friend squeezed lemons into a blue crockery pitcher, mixing in honey, ice, while the yardman finished up and his family rested in the shade. The boy came in to use the bathroom.
“Is that how you make it when you really make it?” he asked. “We make it from the freezer, from one of those cans.”
My friend let him suck on the rinds. This had turned into a good day. He told the boy, “Your dad is a fine worker, you can be proud of him.”
“I know,” said the boy. “I am. My dad was born in 1956.”
“I’ll be darned!” said my friend. “That’s the year I was born too.” He admitted later he never would have guessed they were the same age. The man seemed older, his face deeply lined.
“He was born in January.”
“So was I!” They had been born two days apart.
The boy shook his head, said, “Life is short” and walked back outside.
My friend thought his comment strange but not terribly strange.
He paid the father 20 dollars extra and stood in his yard a long time before going inside to take a nap.
A few days later he noticed his neighbor Betty over the fence, who’d given him the man’s number to begin with. He called out to thank her. “What a thorough job he did!”
Betty looked startled. “He’s dead!”
“What are you talking about? He was just here Thursday afternoon!”
He died Friday morning.”
“How do you know? He was only 34!”
Betty said, “I called his house today and another woman, not his wife, answered. She told me – a hemorrhage in the brain. Nobody had any idea. Isn’t it awful? He was the best one I’d found in years.”
It seemed likely my friend’s yard had been the last he’d worked on.
My friend went straight inside and dialed the man’s number but the phone rang and rang. He kept calling. He wanted to drop off a large check for the family. “Those poor children!” Betty had said, but he kept thinking “That poor man!” Neither he nor Betty knew the family’s address or last name. A week later the number would be disconnected. He would never be able to reach them.
A whole summer would pass and the weeds and grasses of his yard go untouched again till they loomed above his head, their lavish frill and shag leaning in the heat till some of them looked baked. He would think of the boy every time he made lemonade – had it been intuition? And the girls’ turquoise headbands, small teeth gripping the fine hairs of their scalps, the wife with her blouse knotted at the waist. The way she twisted each brown undeveloped bud on the rose of Sharon tree enough to loosen it without bending the branch. And her husband untying the bandanna from his head when he was finished and wiping his whole face slowly, as the rich green breath of the ground rose up around him, and it was all going to grow back.
* * *
“Any Idea” First appeared in Gulf Stream Issue #4 (1991)
Naomi Shihab Nye has written or edited 35 books – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, picture books and most recently, THE TURTLE OF OMAN – a chapter book for 7-9 year old readers. “Any Idea” appeared in her chapbook called MINT from State Street Press.