“Don’t know why you care how I make my money,” my daughter Poppy said during a quarrel about spending cash, hard work and the injustices my wife and I endured under parents whose version of a surprise party consisted of signing you up for jobs you never asked for.
Poppy has as many reasons to earn “dollar, dollar bills” as I did when I was sixteen, though I didn’t think I had a say in whether I should pump gas at a station where the manager sold pills or referee soccer games in front of angry fathers who didn’t consider it abuse if it wasn’t their child.
Calling our break with Poppy a truce would be misleading, so after we all stopped yelling, I walked outside to marvel at the thin sheet of water leaking (flowing would be misleading, too) down the Santa Fe River. The value of summer jobs still hung in my mind and, as I absentmindedly yanked some grass from between two stairs, I thought of the first day I worked the lawn crew for Steve Kidney’s landscaping company 30 years ago. My best friend Arnold’s older sister had dated Steve, so he nicely hired us on. Steve’s business was split into two crews: landscaping and lawns. On most days, Arnold and I rode landscaping, which offered harder but more varied work that included boulders, ticks, and an assembly of tools, both human and manufactured. Lawns, the veterans said, was easier on your back but more monotonous, which is why they had two supposedly crazy men running that crew.
Lex was a short, portly man with a messy beard and crackly laugh who reminded me of prospectors I saw in Westerns. He drove the rumbling truck, large enough to hold all the mowers, attachments and tanks of gas and oil. Sitting shotgun was Mark, a Vietnam vet whose moods would change in ways that made me feel unsteady. One minute he’d be laughing about something Lex had said (and I did not understand), and the next he’d stare right through me. I sat on the hump in the middle, the gear-grinding stick-shift rattling between my legs. At the first house, I was taught to set the planks that served as a makeshift ramp for the heavy John Deere mowers. Lex and Mark piloted those huge oily machines, their width extended by attachable rotating wing cutters. My job was simple: trim. I pushed a crappy mower over roots and along driveways, places where it was deemed too difficult for the Deeres to maneuver. So while the two men kept flawless seams on the acres of dew-soaked turf, my shins were peppered by wood chips and gravel.
After the first house, Lex said we needed to make a pit stop. He pulled the truck up to a small liquor store in Fairfield. Mark trotted out with a six-pack of Mickey’s Big Mouth, a half-dozen squat green bottles of malt liquor. It was 9:30 in the morning, and we were already sweating. Mark pulled two tabs and hung them on a line strung across the roof of the truck along with countless others.
“Big Mouths for big mouths,” Lex said, draining his beer in one go.
“Giddy up,” Mark said and followed suit.
Both men tucked their glassware under the seat where it would rattle around all day. In my memory, that day was long and hot with the kind of humidity that Poppy has never experienced. Each house we visited seemed to grow in acreage. The two men had been servicing these clients for so long that they knew without the aid of a watch exactly how many minutes every house should take. When my mower stalled after overheating, they showed me that when you dip a spark plug in gasoline, it can help encourage a reluctant motor.
I don’t know how that day on the lawn crew shaped me as a man or what I’d tell Poppy about such lines of work, but I do remember shutting off the motors on the last house. It was after five, and the homeowners weren’t due back from wherever the hell they were until the weekend. Sticky from sweat and covered in dirt, oil and lawn clippings, my arms ached in anticipation of loading the winged beasts back into the truck bed. Lex and Mark stood on the other side of a clear swimming pool where the pure grass grew like a putting green. The machines ticked as their engines cooled down.
“Shall we?” Lex asked Mark, calling his partner a nickname that my memory lost.
“Indeed, maestro,” Mark said.
Both men stripped off their stained jeans, work shirts, and boxers. Together, they leapt into the coolness of the water.
“Come on, kid,” they yelled, waving me in. Wish I could say that I joined them.