My father was a lawn mower. His scent was not fresh, but pungent, like cut weeds, and his lines were even, the grass always mowed in columns so straight you could measure the horizon by them. You could keep time by him, too–his steady gait as he walked up the stairway, the few floorboards he hadn’t fixed creaking under his weight. You could keep time by him, drumming his fingers slowly on the molding as he stood in the doorway, looking not at me but beyond me, into a corner of my bedroom, then announcing that we were going to mow the lawn.
I never understood the logic of lawn mowing when I was seventeen; I just knew that it always came at the wrong time. He had the uncanny knack–or maybe it was a conscious plan–to begin the lawn mowing routine on Friday nights after dinner, when I was just about to go out. I knew an old Rambler waited outside for me to drive it. My buddies from high school scanned the street for me as they leaned against the pillars of their porches, carving their initials in the wood. And there were girls, their long legs stepping out of the north shore of the lake, girls toweling their bare shoulders in the dusk as they stood at the edge of the beach. These thoughts were calling me, and I found myself leaning toward them in my pale blue button-down shirt, and always, at that moment, my father was standing there: a thick brick wall suddenly blocking my open window.
His voice grated against my ears: “I want to get it done before the weekend.”
My shrug must have bothered him as I stared at the parallel striped pattern on my bedspread. I suppose there was a look of irritation on my face, too, but because he wasn’t staring right at me but at the tiny, spreading cracks in the plaster in the corner of my room, he probably didn’t see it.
I usually countered his lawn mowing orders with something like “I was just going out.”
“Well, you’re not,” he’d retort, his words chiseled, stony.
As he stood there, I pictured that old mower: its chipped tan enamel paint, its underside a dark green, plastered with wet grass. At times, its hollow aluminum bar seemed to pull at me as I paced the half acre behind our house. Other times, when I was nearly finished, I pushed at it to go faster, but the mower seemed to suddenly gain weight and slow me down.
That Friday evening, the impasse reached, we each stood in our silence a moment: my silence was thick and dark, like a pool of oil. His silence was like a net: all the knots too tight and wanting to loosen a little, but afraid to. He turned his stocky body and walked slowly down the stairway, knowing full well that I’d follow him. I might take my dress shirt off, wad it up into a ball and slam it to the floor, but I’d follow him.
As I walked behind him in his undershirt and workpants, I began to see my life in the future. I thought about how every step I took on that creaking stairway was like another genuflection, another nod of agreement to his plan, another cower to his rule. I saw a quick vision of myself someday, in an undershirt and workpants, walking down some creaking stairway toward a paint-chipped tool shed.
So when I got to the base of the stairs and watched his wide silhouette cross the window shades toward the shed in the back yard, I grabbed my keys from the end table, stepped out the door, turned the opposite direction and ran toward my car.
The Rambler’s door opened easily for me, its hinges oiled. It was my car, it always had been. My father had bought it for me at an Army surplus auction for my sixteenth birthday. I gave it a tune up and repainted it, covering its Army green with a layer of metallic red so the car had some semblance of coolness for a high school junior. When I turned the key, the car started quickly. Backing out past his tan Chrysler parked on the grass, I saw him turn the corner with the lawn mower and just stop there. But he didn’t look up–just kept his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, as if he’d just come onto a patch of bristling weeds made of iron, weeds he knew his mower could never cut.
“Blade’s too dull,” I’d often complain to him after I’d mow. It seemed to me that the weeds and long grass simply bent over beneath it, then sprung back up again in a few days. “Can’t we get a new mower? Or at least get this thing sharpened?”
“That blade’s fine, Skip,” he’d always tell me. “You just have to slow down a little when you mow.” Then he’d put one foot on the flat top of the Briggs and Stratton motor, a motor that never quit on him, he often told me, not once. A motor that started on first pull in spring even after sitting in the shed for a long, cold winter.
That night I backed into the street and drove away without looking at him. He can keep his damn mower, I thought. He can mow all night, for all I care. He can mow every lawn in Cosmos. I drove for a half hour along the deserted county roads near the lake; the sun had set and the glow of my headlights seemed to be leading me where I needed to go. I rolled down the window, turned up the radio volume and let the rock ‘n roll songs—like “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town”—blare, distorted, through the speakers and into the countryside, each song an anthem for my freedom.
Then I saw a pair of lights flare up behind me. The car gained on me quickly, and I expected it to pass, but it didn’t. As the car closed in, I recognized its silhouette. It was the Chrysler, and inside, that dark shape, stiff behind the steering wheel, was my father. He stayed behind me, flashing his brights. I took my foot off the brake pedal and my Rambler coasted to the gravel shoulder and he eased the Chrysler close. I clicked the ignition off. For a few seconds, I felt short of breath, like I had just run the mile in gym class, and I could hear, through the dash, the hot engine of the Rambler ticking as it cooled. He stepped out of the car and walked slowly toward me, following the white line at the edge of the asphalt road like a state trooper. He reached my rear fender. Without even thinking, I started the car and floored it. My old Rambler wasn’t used to such acceleration, and the six cylinders stuttered beneath the hood a moment, but then it took off like I knew it could, spinning a cloud of gravel dust around my father.
I didn’t know where I was going; I was just trying to lose my father, lose him, leave him far behind with his little world of orders and lawn mowers and perfectly straight columns.
In the rear view mirror, I saw his headlights closing the gap between us. I knew the Chrysler had guts–that beast could do nearly a hundred and ten on an open stretch of asphalt. In seconds, his headlights edged within inches of my bumper, and I began to sweat as I glanced into the mirror, then back at my speedometer, which read 85, then into the mirror again. I was desperate, and I knew that after what I’d just done, there could be no slowing, no turning back. The Rambler didn’t seem to have any power left; still, I kept pushing hard on the floored accelerator until it felt as though I might break through the floorboards and up to my knee.
It was then that I noticed another set of headlights behind the Chrysler, and, a few seconds later, a red cherry light stung my eyes.
I gasped and yanked my foot off the accelerator, as my father must have done at the same instant, because our cars, as if they were doing a dance, coasted gradually to a stop at the same time.
I stepped out of my car and walked on shaky legs back to my father, who stood on the shoulder next to the cop.
“What’s goin’ on here, Dwight?” Evan asked my father. Evan Schlueter was a county cop we’d known around Cosmos for years; my father was a member of the Knights of Columbus with him. Evan pointed the flashlight upward, and the shadows carved deep guilty creases in the skin of my father’s face.
“Nothing,” my father replied, his voice suddenly calm, controlled. “The boy here, well,” he paused, faltering a moment, “the boy’s having carburetor trouble with his car. I tried to fix it, told him to take it out for a run. Told him I’d follow him in case the car killed.”
“You had to go that damn fast to test it?” Evan puffed. “Sure looked like some kinda race to me.”
I could feel the arteries in my neck throbbing from the adrenaline. I knew that with a speeding ticket–at this speed, at least–I’d lose my license, which I’d had for only a year. My father knew that too.
“Well, you see, the car only killed at higher speeds,” my father said, continuing his fabrication. “Runs like a top on city streets, though.” He managed a chuckle.
Evan shook his head as he examined at our laminated licenses we’d pulled from our wallets. He shined his flashlight at them, making them both appear thin, translucent. Typed in black, I saw my full legal name, the name my father gave me out of patriotic pride when I was born, the name I hated and never wanted to use: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Carrigan. “I don’t know who the heck to ticket here,” Evan said, “the lead car or the one who was followin’.”
He paused a few seconds, rubbing his double chin as if to find a solution. “So I’m not going to ticket neither one of you.” He pointed at my father. “Just take this as a warning, Dwight. You better take care of this boy, and clear up the problem on that Rambler some other way. You can’t be out racing like a couple of teenagers.”
After the squad car left, my father didn’t say anything, just tipped his head back, looked at the opaque sky as if he was recognizing something, and then laughed a quick, sharp laugh. At that moment I felt maybe everything was okay. “Thanks, Dad,” I said, trying to sound confident, though my nerves were tangled and sparking like crossed distributor wires. “I mean, for bailing me out.”
He turned toward me and opened his big palm. “Give me the keys, Skip” he said, his voice flat, like a piece of tin.
“Give me the damn keys. You’re walking home.” He took a step closer to me and spoke through gritted teeth. “You’re walking until you’re eighteen.”
I lifted the keys, attached to a leather strap, from my pocket, lowered them into his palm, and he clenched them. But I didn’t let them go; feeling a sudden rush of resistance, and thinking about the five long miles back to town, I held tight to my end of the leather strap.
In those few seconds, as we both pulled on the keys, I could feel the whole world pulling on us like a tug of war—the whole world pulling us together, pulling us apart at the same time.
Then the strangest thing happened. He released his grip and let them go, and the keys jingled against my knuckles. He closed his eyes. In the dim light, I tried to read his face, but I just couldn’t figure it out. That was the thing about my father–I was always on the verge of understanding him, but I never quite could. He pivoted and marched toward the Chrysler. Opening the driver’s side, he leaned on the wide tan door and looked at me a few seconds as if he were about to say something. Then he slipped behind the wheel.
For a moment an image of that tan lawn mower appeared in my head. I pictured it in a field: stained with oil, low on gas, sputtering, my father trying to cut a straight path through the long weeds and not really knowing how.
That night, the layer of clouds was thick, impenetrable, and no stars or moon appeared as we drove toward the horizon on that county road. When I glanced in the rear view mirror, the asphalt road was pitch black. I turned the radio down and stayed behind my father’s car, our lights cutting a column through the darkness. At one point, his Chrysler seemed to hesitate a little, and I concentrated on keeping an even distance between our two cars. Not too far back, not too close. All the while, I couldn’t help but focus on the taillights, and wonder just how long I’d follow them, and how far, their steady red eyes neither angry, nor forgiving, but simply watching me all the way back to town.