Mike unclasps his hands from the mower with a satisfied flourish. He places them on his hips and stares at his yard trying to remember why he felt bothered to mow it in the first place. In a few days it won’t matter. The yard will be gone, his home leveled. Just forgotten bits of concrete and dust, turned over each season for the farmer’s crops.
He pulls the grass catcher from the back of the mower and dumps the clippings into the garbage can. Tufts of loose grass exhale into his face. Tiny blades stab at his throat, trying to send a message, trying to tell him to move on and leave well enough alone.
He coughs to clear his throat, but it only aggravates the situation. He pounds his fist into the top of the garbage can in frustration as his throat turns to gravel.
Why should they get to encroach on his home? Mike thinks, unsure who or what he’s really upset at now. He bought this house fair and square. Its quarter acre lot was practically a bargain at the price he’d paid. Land was scarce; there wasn’t enough to divvy up for everyone who wanted a piece to call their own. Now they were just taking it all back, destroying homes and giving the land to the first overall-wearing redneck that decided to make a go at growing something.
Mike bends over and coughs again, bringing up the intruders from his throat and spitting them onto the ground. Soggy bits of grass swim in his mucus. He shudders and wipes at his mouth. He slides his foot over the phlegm, wiping it out to a faint, grey stain on the concrete.
“Damn farmers,” Mike thinks as he stands back up. “It just isn’t fair. What do they have that I don’t?” He wheels the mower back into the garage, letting it click and clonk as the engine cools down.
“Hey! Mike!” someone yells out.
Mike squints his eyes, trying to see through the darkness of the garage. His neighbor, Stan, raises an arm in salute and jogs across the road.
“Thought it was funny, you out here mowing the lawn,” Stan says, hopping over the curb and meeting Mike in the middle of the driveway. “Don’t you usually pay landscapers to do it for you?”
“Yeah, but I decided to do it myself, seeing that it’s the last time and all.”
Stan jerks his thumb backwards, pointing to his own house. “Carrie’s been over there half the morning, watching to make sure the maid cleans all the nooks and crannies of the baseboards. I said, ‘Carrie, sweetie, that’s about the stupidest thing you could do since we’re leaving tomorrow and they’re tearing this place down the day after next.’” He shrugs. “But what are you gonna do?”
“Yup,” Mike says, looking behind him and slightly lowering his voice, just in case his wife can somehow hear him from inside. “Mary is the same way. Doesn’t want the home levelers to think we were slobs.”
Stand nods understandingly. “So, where you guys headin’, then?”
“Ah, well,” Mike scratches at the back of his head. “Found a new neighborhood up around Pinewood. About three and a half hours from here.”
“One of those lots with tons of trees and an enormous backyard?” Stan jokes.
“Good God, I’ll tell you what, Stan,” Mike says. “Who the hell wants all those damn trees? Everywhere we looked it was all about how big the backyard was. What the views were like. I don’t get it. First all this with our homes here and what not and then they’re just spacing out people everywhere else. Giving them room to breathe. I can’t believe it.” Mike shakes his head.
“I hear ya man, I really do,” Stan says, shoveling his hands in his pant pockets. “I don’t understand it. Hey! Did I tell ya? The other day, I drove down by that high school they built, oh, what? Five, six years ago? They’ve completely taken out all those car dealerships. It’s all just fields now.”
“Hand to the Bible.”
“It’s just too bad, you know? They’ve been leveling houses like it’s the goddamn Second Coming.”
“It’s the strangest thing, Stan. It’s a whole new world we’re in here, I’ll tell you what.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Stan kicks at imaginary rocks on the ground. “Well,” he slaps Mike on the back of his shoulder, “I’ll let you get on with it. I’ll shoot you a message when we leave.”
“Sounds good. Have Carrie do the same for Mary. I know she’d like to write out a proper goodbye. You know women.” Mike shakes his head.
“Don’t I?” Stan laughs and raises his hand. He turns and walks back across the street. Mike stays, watching him leave; watches him climb the two steps to the front door of his house and then disappear inside.
Mike sighs, unsure if he’s relieved or sad to see the last of Stan. His gaze drifts down the street where, only a few houses away, a bulldozer is climbing over the skeleton of what was the Goodwin house. The machine inches forward like a ship against the swell of the sea. Roof shingles sputtering out from its track wheels like drifts from the tide.
Men in orange vests wander the outskirts of the property, shoveling up glass and other undesirables. Their conversations are clipped and in a foreign tongue, conversations that Mike can’t make out from here.
Another crew stands in a semi-circle around the swing set the Goodwin’s left behind, trying to find the best way to remove it with as little effort as possible. Mike realizes with a small jolt that he had once bought that same set. In fact, now that he thinks about it, it’s still set up in the backyard.
He spins around, thinking he’ll somehow be able to see it from the front of his house, but of course he can’t. He can’t even remember the last time the kids used it. Now that they were older, it was only a sanctuary to take calls or reply to messages that they didn’t want him to ask about.
Mike looks up at the sky, squinting in the sunlight and remembers teaching his two kids to lean back as he pushed them on the swing. “Now, Daddy! Push me now!” he can almost hear his daughter yell out to him. He remembers pulling her backwards, holding her close to his chest, and pushing her forward with restrained strength.
He told them to lean back and look up as they swung so that all they could see was the sky. He smiles to himself, remembering how scared each of them had been that they were actually falling and how much he had had to reassure them that they were safe. He can even see his daughter’s long hair nearly brushing against the ground as she leans backwards. “Don’t let me fall, Daddy.” Her eyes closed tight, simultaneously scared and excited. She’s weightless and content, happy to just be spending time with Dad.
Twack. Twack. Twack.
A smacks against the Goodwin’s swing set as the crew begins disassembling it. The sound shatters Mike’s time machine and spirals him back to reality. He feels suddenly naked, cold as if someone dunked him in a pool of water. “Why the hell am I so distraught about a set of swings?” he thinks, chiding himself for being so sentimental.
Mike turns back towards his house. He can vaguely see his daughter’s reflection through the third story window. She’s packing things away inside a cardboard box. He raises a hand to wave but lowers it when he realizes he hardly recognizes her.
She’s no longer the little girl who enjoyed spending time with him. No, that version of his daughter is long gone. Even from here, he can tell that she’s growing more and more like her mother. That same hard stare he knows all too well. The thought worries him. It gnaws at him, telling him that he should do something about it, but he doesn’t know what.
His daughter turns and disappears from his view, never even noticing that he was there. He shakes his head, clearing away the troublesome thoughts. “It doesn’t matter. She’ll grow out of it. She just needs her space,” he thinks to himself. “I should start packing my things up too.”
Mike closes the garage and enters his house. The air conditioner kicks on as he disturbs the perfectly cultivated sixty-eight degrees. He grabs a glass from the kitchen cabinet and fills it with water from the refrigerator. Mike pulls the glass to his mouth, but stops short.
There’s a chip on the glass.
He pulls the glass back down and inspects it. How could Mary have missed such a thing? She’s usually such a perfectionist. Something like this should’ve been thrown out long ago. Perhaps she didn’t notice it?
He holds it up to the light and looks at its imperfect reflection. How could Mary have missed such a thing? The thought putters in his mind, looking for a place to sit down, for a place where it can make sense, but there doesn’t seem to be one.
He sets the glass on the counter without drinking from it. “Mary?” he asks, speaking sideways into the grated square of the intercom system, his eyes locked on the water glass as if the chip will suddenly disappear if he looks away. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the bedroom, Mike,” she replies. In the silence of the house, he hears her voice reverberate from upstairs.
“I’ll be right there,” he says to the box.
A bomb of neatly folded clothing has gone off in their bedroom. As he crosses the threshold, he sees the aftermath. Stacks of clothing are strewn up and down the room. Towers of undergarments threaten to topple as he passes by.
“I’m sorry it’s so messy in here,” Mary says, stopping briefly from her work and pinching her lips up to meet his kiss.
“It’s to be expected. We’re moving,” he says, carefully stepping over designer-brand shrapnel.
“Yes, but I just hate clutter. It’s hard to get anything done with all this stuff to pack up.” She lifts up a sweater and grimaces. “Who knows if we’ll even want any of this when we get to our new place?”
“It is a little pedestrian to keep everything, isn’t it?” he says, the words coming from his mouth almost automatically.
“Oh, Mike!” Mary drops the sweater; it lands in a ball at her feet. “I was hoping you’d say that! I know that the kids would feel better with a fresh start. Would you be alright with that?”
“Excellent!” She claps her hands together. “I’ll go tell them right now!” She rushes from the room. “Kids! You can stop p-a-a-a-cking!” Her voice trails away as she ventures further down the hall.
Mike sits tepidly on the edge of the bed—there’s hardly room for him to do so. He wonders how she fit all the clothes in their closet. He picks up a pair of her jeans, noticing that they still have the price tag tacked on them. “Why does she have so much stuff?” he says out loud and tosses the pants onto the floor to be with the sweater.
“Oh, goodness, Mike,” Mary says, returning to the room, she fans herself with her outspread hands. “I’m so relieved. That just takes care of everything then.” She smiles at him, softly touching her fingertips to the corners of her eyelids. “Dr. Henry will want to thank you, you know.” She adjusts her mouth, as if in fear of the lines she’s possibly inspiring. “He won’t have to work so hard to put me back together after this move. Say, how about we go out for dinner tonight? To celebrate?”
“Sounds great,” Mike says, lost in thought.
“I was thinking sushi.”
“Are you alright, Mikey?”
“Hum?” Mike looks up, realizing for the first time that Mary has re-entered the room. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”
“You don’t seem alright.”
Mike reaches out and grabs Mary’s hand. “Hey, here’s a crazy thought,” he says. “What if we don’t move to that new house? What if we just stayed around here?”
“Mike, what are you talking—”
“What if we bought some land. We could get a dog, maybe.” He catches her bewildered look and shakes his head quickly. “I mean, it would stay outside, of course. I read somewhere that people who have pets are happier.”
Mary pulls her hand away. “Stop. Stop right now, Mike. You’re scaring me. Aren’t you happy with how things are?”
“Just think about it, Mary.”
“Mike, you’re being crazy. They’re tearing everything down around here.” She spreads her arms wide. “They’re turning it into a farm town. Where would the kids go to school? Where would we even shop? What would we do all day?” She shakes her head. “You’re silly,” she says and softly hits his shoulder as if he was joking. But neither of them are smiling.
“The kids would learn to love it,” Mike says. “You would too. They have stores and schools in small towns. We’ll figure it all out. You could grow your hair long,” he reaches up and runs a lock of her hair through his fingers. “Let it go back to its natural color again. Like you had it when we met.”
She knocks Mike’s hand away. “This is my natural color. Shows what you know. Your memory is getting bad, Mike. My hair has always been this color.”
“Come on, Mary. Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe we should stay here and start over without all the noise. We could all do with less stress in our lives. Maybe this is the way we get it. You’ve been saying you hardly see the kids anymore, what with their schedules and—”
“No.” She cuts him off, her hand slicing through the air as if to physically remove his words. “No. Mike. It’s a terrible idea. This whole moving business has made you a little stressed. That’s all.” She shakes out her shoulders. Shakes off his words.
“I don’t think—“
“Yes, you’re just STRESSED, MIKE!” she yells, her voice reaching a hysterical climax.
Mary readjusts her facial features, returning to the pleasant, unbreakable housewife. She draws closer to Mike, sliding herself up to the outside of his thigh.
“Mike, honey, the sooner we put all this dirty farm business behind us and just get back to our normal lives, the better,” she says, gingerly touching his face. “You’ll see. We’ll make new friends, have new neighbors and everything will be back to normal.” She lowers her hand and trails her fingernails seductively across the bridge of his knee.
“Maybe you’re right,” he says, a small shiver crawling up his spine. “Maybe I’m just a little worked up, that’s all.”
“I am right. We’d go crazy living out here, you know that. We aren’t meant for this new kind of life, these farm people aren’t our people. It’s all too… simple. And you and I aren’t simple people, are we, Mikey?
Mike grins slightly. “No.”
“Then it’s settled,” Mary says, teasing the inside of his thigh. “Let’s go out tonight and when we get back—” she leans in closer and whispers in his ear —“I’ll help you find your priorities. How does that sound, Mikey?”
Mike briefly thinks about the Goodwin’s swing set one last time before his thoughts flit away in a haze of distraction. He pulls Mary into a kiss. “That sounds great,” he says. “Let me just change my shirt.”