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Dawn Ruth

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, unsmiling.

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 weeds.

"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 door.

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 done?"

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 crimson horizon.

"Marvin?" She heard a muffled, yes. "What do you want?"

"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 truth?"

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 smile.

Lori frowned. "You scared the b-jesus out of me last night."

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 went off.

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 him.

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 the money."

"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.

"Hi, Joyce!"

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 week."

"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 notice."

Lori didnít respond.

"You should be more careful."

"Thank you for telling me, Joyce," Lori said to her retreating back.

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 stared back.

The anchor identified the dead man as Marvin Lamb, 38. Heíd been arrested once for vagrancy. He cut grass for a living. He was unarmed.

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 the face.

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 Magazine.

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