It rains, on average, three-and-half inches here in June. Scattered over thirty days, that’s barely a dribble per day, an amount that evaporates almost as soon as it speckles the pavement and scarcely postpones a ballgame or two. Typically, at this point of the summer, city officials start talking about reservoirs drying up and how water rationing may be enforced. With 4th of July grilling in the near future, warnings start to appear in the paper about charcoal embers and illegal fireworks and flicked cigarette butts igniting grass parched beige and crunchy. In the extreme, misting stations open for old folks to shuffle through and fire hydrants open for kids to splash in.
Not this year though.
“Temps with Tony” DeMarco, the ass-wad forecaster who’s been doing the weather for twenty years on Channel 2, longer than I’ve been alive, has been growing more frenzied as each rainy day followed the next. His five-day forecast projected gray gray gray gray gray, each square accompanied by a percentage likelihood of rainfall 80% 60% 70% 90% 90%. Extended forecast: build an ark, Tony joked on the noon, five, and eleven newscasts on a daily basis. On day thirteen, he wore a canary yellow three-piece suit just to bring some sunshine into viewers’ lives, he said. What an ass-wad. Two entire home series were postponed, pushing the team into last place simply because they were seven games off pace with the rest of the league.
The falls ran so high we were able to use Wilson’s inflatable raft to tag an unreachable part of the overpass. When the water recedes, people for years to come will wonder how the hell graffiti got there.
So when a dry window of opportunity opened, I jumped on it, gassed up the mower, and headed to the stretch of neighborhood with the most original homeowners. The identical row homes each had a twelve-by-twelve stamp of grass in front, as green as a ten-dollar bill, separated by a slab of sidewalk. The houses were built after the war on the belief that returning soldiers would want to settle down and get right to knocking out kids, which they did. That makes the average age of folks on this block pushing 80. None of them wanted to keel over mowing a lawn, but they also don’t want them looking all shaggy. Easy pickings. Ten lawns at ten bucks a pop equals serious ka-ching in less than half an hour. Straight to the hardware store for more spraypaint.
First house first knock. The geezer who answered the door had a crew cut, all white and sharp, like little fangs on his head.
“Lawn’s bushy,” I said through the crack between screen door and doorjamb.
“I know it,” he said, looking past my shoulder to the grass.
“School’s out,” I said.“Trying to make a few dollars.”
“You a Mitchell boy, right?” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Which one?” he said. “There’s a goddamn passel of yous.”
“David,” I said.
“No,” he said, “which one in order? I can’t keep yous’ names straight.”
“Second oldest,” I said.
“How old?” he said.
“Seventeen,” I said.
“That won’t do,” he said.
“Being seventeen?” I said.
“You really mean to rob me,” he said.
“It’s 10:30 in the morning,” I said.
“Robbers don’t mind what’s the time of day,” he said.
“I’m just trying to make a few bucks,” I said.
“How old’s your older brother?” he said.
“Just turned twenty,” I said.
“Send him over,” he said.
“He’s at work,” I said.
“Can’t work all the time,” he said.
“He don’t need to cut lawns for money,” I said.
“Everybody wants to make some extra,” he said.
“Look, mister, I’m standing right here,” I said. “And it ain’t raining for once.”
“‘Temps with Tony’ says there’s a 50% chance this afternoon,” he said.
I said, “But right now there’s a hundred-percent chance of it ain’t raining.”
“Don’t sass,” he said. “All you Mitchells have mouths.”
“Come on, mower’s all gassed up,” I said.
“You gonna set me on fire?” he said.
“With a lawn mower?” I said.
“With the gas,” he said.
“Hadn’t crossed my mind until now,” I said.
“How old your youngest brother?” he said.
“Twelve” I said.
“He’ll do,” he said.
“He’d chop his toes off,” I said.
“Lawn get mowed though,” he said.
“How say I come back later?” I said.
“To rob me or set me on fire?” he said.
“To see if you’ve changed your mind on the lawn,” I said.
“I won’t have if it’s you who’s come back,” he said.
“It’ll be me,” I said.
“I’ll shoot you,” he said.
“Over a measly ten bucks?” I said.
“Ain’t about the money,” he said.
“What’s it about then?” I said.
“Send the olderun or the youngest,” he said.
“They don’t need the money,” I said.
“Work out a deal, split 50-50 with them,” he said. “That’s your problem.”
“You’re the one with the problem, old man,” I said, descending the porch stairs. I flipped him off.
With part of the $34 I made from just four of the cheapskate houses along that block, I bought a can of Krylon blue and a can of Krylon orange, plus some extra black even though I had plenty. Near the hardware store’s paint display was a sign declaring “Narrate” as one of the year’s color trends. “The NARRATE palette connects our past to the now,” read the sign. “It features modern, bright pops of colors, and deep blues and greens that are paired with metallic tones reminiscent of years past. Emotion is experience, and by immersing the mind in memories, the past can shape the present and form the future.”
Bullshit, I thought. The past was over. Dead.
That night, in the mist, Wilson and I returned to the crew-cut geezer’s house. I shot some Krylon blue into a brown paper bag and inhaled deeply. I sprayed an orange line across the width of the lawn, then in blue outline drew a fist with an extended middle finger pointing toward the house. I filled the fist in with orange, and traced back over everything in black outline, careful not to smudge anything with my feet. The oily paint and wet grass did not mix, and the tag looked more like an upside down version of that graffiti mark of the bald dude peeking over a wall. Already it was bleeding into a fuzzy memory. Hit I huffed under my breath. Then, as an afterthought, I wrote two words in anger in orange in all caps. It began melting into FACE KILROY before I even capped the can.
“Hurry up,” Wilson said. “I hear he still has his rifle from the war.”
“Old news,” I said. “Tomorrow’s what’s important. He’ll want his lawn mowed for sure now. I’ll be back in the morning.”
It rained—hard—all night.
© Gregg Wilhelm
Gregg Wilhelm is a Baltimore-based writer, publisher, teacher, and arts administrator with more than twenty years of experience in the literary arts. He has worked for independent publishers as an editor, designer, and marketer. In 2004, he founded CityLit Project, a nonprofit literary arts organization, and launched its CityLit Press imprint in 2010. Gregg earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Tampa.