After plucking all the dandelions, he powered up the riding lawn mower and in the slowest gear, drove stick-straight swaths on the lawn, cutting argyle patterns onto his postage stamp landscape. From the air it must have looked like a new pair of socks.
After mowing, he raked all the clippings that didn't make it into the bag and cursed his expensive contraption that didn't do its job. And so went his ritual every Saturday in spring, summer, and early fall. He filled plastic bags with grass and dragged them to the curb.
His ex-wife never understood his obsession with the lawn. She had left him two years prior to shack up with a gardener, to live on 100 acres of forest and farm, in the midst of dirt and wild animals. A pair of uncivilized hippies, they were. He restored order after she left.
He stood in the front yard, between the porch and the road to admire his work. Once a month in the growing season, he'd get the gas-powered hedge trimmers and make straight boxes out of his azalea shrubs that wanted to grow as though they were cowlicks, all this way and that. The azaleas were perfectly placed in the back and all the same, not a twig or leaf out of place. A week after the harsh shave, orange flowers mobbed the limb tips because the shrubs were dying. He thought their flowers had a delicate fragrance.
The flowers didn't do much to cover the scent of the neighbor's chicken coop, the acrid odor wafting to his airspace whenever the wind blew. Nor did they provide any screening from the hot tub that had appeared one day in the overgrown pit of a yard behind him. He frowned at the unkempt wildflowers they let grow instead of turf.
Most days he stared, arms crossed over his chest, his lips curling toward hell, his eyes squinting in disgust, at his neighbors' disregard for order. He was particularly perturbed after his weekly landscape forays, when his belly tested the limits of his white undershirt with stains in the arm pits, sweat trickling down the sides of his face and sopping through the band of his beige bucket hat, evidence of his efforts to distinguish himself from the uncivilized. Every Saturday he sweated to beat the life out of his landscape, starting with the dandelions, to reign supreme over his microcosm.
Until one Thursday, he was found in the back yard bloated from the heat, flies swarming his nostrils and eyes, the lawn mower having chewed one of the azalea bushes to nubs and then stuck on top of its stump where it had stalled out. Neighbors were too busy to notice the mower parked among the azaleas, the odd patch of neon green grass, or the stench.
His body recycled back to the earth, breaking down to its most simple elements to be rebuilt as a tree or insect or bird. Dandelions bloomed all around his corpse, their brilliant faces mocking him as they reached for the sun and invited the life back to the decrepit piece of earth.
J.D. Willoughby is an environmental educator who really is a dirt hippy at heart. J.D. lives in suburban Maryland.
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