The Yard Man
One sheet of shelving paper, a Kmart variety, covered
the bottom shelf of the cabinet. A dozen tumblers stood upside down on
the nearby countertop, blue, green, yellow. Lori raised a blue glass to
the window and inspected it. One by one, the colored glass lit up with
sunlight for a few seconds before she placed it in the cabinet. She had
reached all the way back into the corners of the second shelf when
someone beat on the kitchen door. Surprised, she jerked back
and raked her cheek against a protruding metal clip.
She opened the door while pressing a wet dishtowel to
her cheek. A man, skinny, dark, and unknown to her, stood on the steps.
He wore black nylon wrapped around his head. The loose ends dangling
from the knot resembled the feet of panty hose.
"Want your grass cut? I'll do it for $35," he said,
Lori pulled the door close to her shoulder. She
looked beyond him and saw the bicycle he had leaned against a pine tree.
A dozen pine trees framed an expanse of dandelions and daisy-topped
"No, I plan to do it myself."
Mowing the lawn numbered three on the week's list of
duties. The sales agent had given her the number of someone who would do
it for $65. She had thrown it away.
"It's a big yard, $35 is a good price."
"Where is your equipment?" Someone had left a
lawnmower in the shed, but she didn't know if it worked.
"I'll use yours."
"No. Thanks. Like I said, I'll do it myself."
"I'll do it for $30."
She pulled the door to her cheek.
"I'll do it for $20."
"I don't have any cash."
"I'll take a check."
She nodded and closed the door.
Soon a motor roared. Between a gap in lace curtains,
she watched him push the mower across the lot in steady lines,
effortlessly, thin arms taunt with muscle.
She smelled of Pine Sol and ammonia when he pounded
on the door the second time. Empty cardboard boxes littered the living
room floor. Mugs, bowls, and plates of no matching pattern filled the
cabinets over the sink.
From the window she saw water glistening in the
drive. She held the mop in front of her when she opened the door.
"I can't finish. I'll come back tomorrow, but I need
the $20 now." Beads of water dangled from his chin like tassels.
She pulled the check from the pocket of her shorts,
opened the screen, and handed it to him.
Five minutes later, he knocked again.
"What do you want?" she called from behind the closed
He answered, but she couldnít hear him. The tinkling
of wind chimes caught in the rising wind drowned his words.
"The ink ran."
She heard him, but she didnít respond. Rain pelted
the metal roof like pebbles hitting a windowpane.
He shouted it again.
When she finally pulled the door back, he held the
check up to the screen.
Blobs of blue ink only. No words, no figures.
"I'll get you another one." She shut the door again.
The second check she placed inside a Ziploc baggie. He stuffed it in
wet pants. "What's your name?"
"Marvin, how do I reach you if I want something
He called out a number while darting to the
protection of the carport. She wrote it on the palm of her hand.
She latched the screen and locked the door. He leaned
against the trunk of her car out of the rain for awhile. She had glanced
out the window several times before she saw that the bike was gone. Soon
after that the dark sky let loose a deluge so fierce she turned off a
Billie Holiday CD to listen to the rain hammer the roof.
The lights flickered and then went out. She sat in the dim light
until the cacophony eased into a reassuring pitter-patter. When the
electricity came back on, she unpacked books. Hard cover editions went
in glass fronted cases. Walker Percy, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe,
Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Pynchon. Sheíd just placed Will Rogers
next to Rimbaud when a heavy pounding erupted at the kitchen door.
Looking over the cafť curtains she saw his bike and a
"Marvin?" She heard a muffled, yes. "What do you
"The ink ran again."
"Wait a minute." She studied the door for a few
seconds as if it had a secret to reveal. Then she wrote a check and went
out the back door. She found him standing in the drive with his hands
shoved in his pockets, soaked.
"You didnít have to do that."
Lori ignored his offense. "Whereís the check?"
"It was so wet it tore up."
"How am I supposed to know if you are telling the
He didnít answer, but she gave him the check anyway.
He nodded, took it and put it in the same baggie sheíd given him before.
About ten, she showered. Wrapped in a white bathrobe,
she boiled water and brewed a cup of Sleepy Time tea. Leaning against
the sink, she sipped the tea and surveyed the result of the dayís work.
Outside, frogs croaked. "Iím so happy youíre happy," she said to them.
He came back at 10:50, just as she had turned back
the coverlet on the bed. The kitchen door shook under the force of his
blows. She sat on the edge of the bed listening to the violence of his
fists against the wood. Then she called the sheriff.
A puffy-faced deputy arrived twenty minutes later.
She told him the story. He walked around the house once. "Thereís nobody
here now," he said. Then he drove away.
She called the number written in red ink on her hand.
A woman answered, Marvin's mother. Lori told her about Marvin beating on
the door, after dark, without cause.
"He wants money. I tell him to leave folks alone or
he'll get in more trouble but he just keeps pushing."
Lying in bed, she awoke every time the wind pushed
the Ligustrum branches against the window screen above her head. Half
the night, she lay listening to the frogs. A train whistled at one a.m.
and then again at three. Later, it woke her again, far off at first,
then closer, wailing over and over. "Whoever you are, get off the
track," she muttered.
Before dawn, she gave up trying to sleep. In a gray
light, she walked down the long drive to retrieve the morning paper. She
frowned at the bushy hedges crowding the house as she went by. The lawn
smelled of cut grass and morning dew. A neighbor drove by in a white
truck splattered with mud. She waved, but he didnít wave back.
While drinking a second pot of tea on the screen
porch, she heard the roar of a lawn mower. A few minutes later, the
sound moved into the back yard. It was not long after eight, but sweat
ran down Marvinís naked back. Lori waited until he could see her, and
then motioned for him cut the motor.
"What are you doing here?"
"Finishing up, like I said," He flashed a startling
Lori frowned. "You scared the b-jesus out of me last
The too-white smile ceased. His expression reverted
to stony darkness.
"Sorry." His gaze dropped to a point between her nose
and her shoulder.
She looked at him but didnít respond.
"Iím nearly done."
"Then go ahead." She went back to reading a magazine.
"Those pine needles need to come off your roof. I'll
climb up there for $15."
"Marvin, I don't have much money. I'm in over my head
as it is."
"I'll do it for $10." They looked at each other. His
eyes dropped to her neck again. "I'm in trouble. I need money."
"What kind of trouble?"
"My son, he needs school supplies."
"He lives with you?"
"He lives with his mama."
"What's his name?" She looked him hard in the face.
He looked away.
"He's Marvin, too," he said after a pause.
"How old is he?"
"Eight or so. If you leave the pine straw up there,
itíll ruin your roof."
She nodded an agreement. He started the mower and
After awhile she took the broom out of the closet,
took it outside, and leaned it against the car where he could see it. On
the broom handle, she taped an envelope with a $10 check inside.
Even with water running in the sink, she could hear
his footsteps on the roof. He knocked on the door again, but she ignored
When she called the bank three days later, all the
checks sheíd written to him had clearedĺ one
for $10, two for $20.
He came back the same day.
"Your hedges need a cut," he said, flashing the
salesman smile again.
"Marvin, you are some bold. That check you said was
ruined cleared the bank. You conned me."
"Iím sorry." His gaze dropped to his feet. "I needed
"So do I." The slamming door said it all.
He climbed on his bike and rode away. From the
kitchen window, she watched him biking hard down the empty lane. A
swerve to the left, and he was gone.
The next day she sanded peeling paint from the
exterior window frames. A few feet away, on the other side of a
chain-link fence, she saw the only neighbor she had met draping white
sheets on a wire strung between two trees.
The woman waved and came over to the fence. "Are you
okay over there by yourself?" she asked. Her head, topped by
gray-streaked hair clipped at the back, hardly cleared the fence. Bushy
brows furrowed with the question.
Lori stepped off the ladder. "Yes, all is well. Iím
trying to get as much done as I can before the fall semester starts next
"You know that black yardman that cut your grass? He
just got out of jail. He went up for a sex crime."
"I donít know his name, only his face. I saw the
Lori didnít respond.
"You should be more careful."
"Thank you for telling me, Joyce," Lori said to her
Weeks went by. Pinecones littered the yard. The
black-eyed susan had died, but the Yuletide camellias bloomed in traffic
light red. One night, a few days before the New Year, the weather
reporter on the evening news predicted a frost. Then the anchor read a
report of a shooting.
Lori looked up from a home improvement magazine to
catch a mug shot flashing on the screen. Marvinís dark, inscrutable eyes
The anchor identified the dead man as Marvin Lamb,
38. Heíd been arrested once for vagrancy. He cut grass for a living. He
The picture disappeared and a clip of a woman holding
an infant appeared. A boy huddled against her thigh. "Itís not right,"
she told the reporter with tears in her eyes. "Nobody ought to be gunned
down for just knocking on a door! Whoís going to feed these boys? They
need their Daddy." The baby wailed, his chubby face pinched in fright.
The womanís image disappeared. The county sheriff
appeared, tall and stern. An investigation was underway, he said, but no
charges had been filed against the home owner who had blasted Marvin in
Lori stared at the screen for a long time without
hearing it. When the news changed to a sitcom, she clicked it off. The
night was so still she could hear the train rumbling toward her from a
long way off. It came and it went, as usual, wailing, wailing, a long
series of warnings.
Dawn Ruthís fiction has appeared in a New York University
student publication and New Fiction 95, an anthology of Texas
writers. A former staff writer for The Times-Picayune, she now
teaches English and creative writing at Nunez Community College. Her
freelance work has appeared in The Times-Picayune, New
Orleans Magazine, InCONCERT magazine and Prime