The right people are working for lawn services, I was thinking; people humble with their heads down thinking of things they have done wrong. It can all be righted by the perennialism of grass, purely perfect grass without weeds in it.
Grass, the hide of the animal earth. Smoothness leading you toward something. In golf it surely does. In dreams it surely does. All leading you toward something. The last flag, the little prize, the giant prize. Some prize.
These were my running thoughts as I was on the phone with the lawn service.
“You don’t have to have any more treatments this summer. Just if you would like them,” the lawn service woman, Teresa, said to me over the phone.
“The lawn is looking perfect,” I said. “What treatments would you recommend, if I were to have only a few more?”
She named them. The treatments were ugly sounds. They involved exclusionary chemicals which could banish the outsiders, the outriders, the plants that became too happy and reproduced too rapidly and replaced any weakling grass. O, dandelion, I could hear in my head. O dandelion, named for the teeth of the lion. O dandelion, the lurking happy king, with your squareate yellow fringe-petals, squared like the castle crenellations, the cutouts at the top which allow bowmen to hide behind them when they have fear. Square like the teeth of the lion which only fears the wild boar.
I had read somewhere weeks ago that if not for a meteor, people would not be; we could not be alive today. The dinosaur, the mightiest, would never have let us or any other mammals thrive; they would have continually weeded us out before we began. But by meteor, dinosaur was weeded out. Startled, reduced and then buried, by polluted air and heat and darkness. The crash and blast of Hiroshima was nothing compared to that fallen meteor’s blast felt round the world. O Meteor.
O Dandelion. O Romeo where art thou? Romeo and Dandelion and Meteor all the same: all on the roam, seeking landing spot. Out, damned spot. Juliet and Earth and Lawn all the landing spot. Love. Perennial as the grass.
“Put everything on it,” I said. “I want the greenest lawn in all the world. I want people to look at it and think Helen lives here.”
“I thought your name was something else. Not Helen,” she said.
“I’m not Helen,” I said. “‘Dust hath closed Helen’s eyes.’” I quoted.
There was polite silence.
“I was in a classics program,” I said. “They wanted us all to travel to Ireland with them. I thought that was very odd. Helen didn’t have anything to do with Ireland. But it was a tragedy. I could have been one of the ones on the rock.”
“The rock,” she said.
“I hope I’m your most interesting customer today,” I said. “The ones whose parents truly loved them sent them to Ireland with the three classics professors older than their fathers. I wish I’d gone. Ireland must have had much more sweetness then, more trueness to itself, before computers, people travelling on airplanes just to see a place and drink the ale. The rock was where three of the lucky ones, the students, the girls, sat on a rock to look at the ocean around them. They were so star-dazzled; there they were on a rock, and coming from the Midwest they didn’t know about a tide, or thought the magic power of parents and dollars and airplanes and their luggage with its cunning and endlessly findable compartments meant they were quickly portable from disaster.”
“The tide came in,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “The tide came in, swept over the rock, and they drowned. They had no cell phones, of course. It was the nineteen seventies. Empty airplane seats on the way back.”
“I’m glad I was poor in college,” she said.
“I’m not,” I said. “There were so many things I wanted.”
“I wanted to have a small, perfect house at the top of a hill with a tall flight of stairs,” I said. “I wanted golden lamps in every window. I wanted Odysseus and I wanted all the bored young men waiting for me to finish my weaving to want me.”
“That’s not Helen,” she said suddenly, as if waking from a sleep. “That’s Penelope.”
“Oh, Penelope, Helen, they’re all the same,” I said. “One’s hell and the other’s an envelope. Both have high standards. They’re both above everyone else, though sometimes I think they were just in the Lucky Sorority; they weren’t really superior to anyone. They had the house with a harp, they had the house or castle with the golden lamps and candles, they had a history of wealth: their ancestors paved the way to their dwelling at the top of the castle stairs. Surrounded by loyal soldiers. Surrounded. By the way, I have stairs at my property. I want them–the stairs–edged. Snow-in-Summer and mosses. Surrounded by heavily poured rock. River rock. Not a single rock—with sharp edges. Rocks worn round. By water.”
“This is a desert,” she said. “I don’t recommend moss. Really all we can deal with is grass.”
“Not for me,” I said, imperially. “If you want to do my lawn you must be able to bring me some moss. Can’t I have moss?”
“I can work on that,” she said. “Can I call you back?”
“That’s a question the girls in Ireland wish they could have heard,” I said. “No phones then.”
“Oh, yes,” she said.
Then I heard her weeping.
“Why are you weeping,” I said. The sun was slanting through my windows of my house. Everything was lit up by thousands of little points of light: dust. Dust was the most beautiful thing in the world; I knew it now.
“I wish I had been on that rock,” she said. “What a beautiful death. So lonely and so pure.”
“Drowning’s not pure,” I said.
“Drowning’s not pure?” she said.
“No, it’s not pure,” I said. “But I understand. To just always be safe—isn’t ever much of a challenge or a test of character—not really.”
“Yes,” she said. “What if I do this for thirty years and then I drop dead of boredom?” she said. “Where’s my castle? Where are my last thoughts that tell me what I wanted most in my life, and realize suddenly I could have had. Will I know in that last half hour those things I could have done to turn the key?”
“Oh, I don’t think you would,” I said. “All your energy would be scanning the horizon. Hating the blankness of the view of the sand and the beach and the crags and the hills and the slightly dry, slightly moist faraway clouds. No people. What you’d give for one person. By the way, what does the name Teresa mean? Other than you’re a Catholic saint?”
“I have no idea,” Teresa said. “I’ve always hated this name.”
“Me too,” I said. “I think I’d rather die than have that name. It sounds like a servant to everybody.”
I then heard the phone click. Or I suppose it was all because of a pile of medicines in boxes beside the coffee table made from a large wooden spool which once held wrapped around it–like a million wedding bands for giants–metal cable or wire. You could spill coffee on it again and again or tea. It loved the spills. The spills were soaked up by the wood. The wood became more interesting and more golden. You could even push the spill into the wood more deeply with a rag. I’d always thought everyone should have a table like this–and no other kind of table–for their living room; a table like a raft, which survived everything.
I’d opened the medicine boxes; I’d looked inside. I’d seen the capsules which they say if taken fairly, hopefully, and religiously, would extend life for someone with my affliction, my incurability of condition, an average of three months. But each oval, polished, shiny capsule, to me, looked like death. A torpedo which would fail. What sweetness would there be in three more months, when you could not hold your head up, or talk, or touch someone without a shudder or a tremble, as if you were on board one of Odysseus’s boats and the sirens were about to take him over? And you were nothing but the shuddering foam while he thought of Penelope and then–why not–forgot about her? You knew then the seafoam was like the frolic and the vomit of the sea. It was like dishes being washed in the dishwasher. Crash and crash. It was love and it was conception and flotsam jetsam. In all the bubbles—Romeo’s embraces, the dinosaurs’ anger when they could not breathe and the grass with so much water on it there was the danger it would be mudded away.
No more grass as perennial as–love.
I do not want to be the girls on the rock who thought studying classics would protect them, surely, from the classic Irish sea, but became more doomed and mute than dying dinosaurs or grass. I do not want to be Juliet, so desperate for someone you agree to be shipped almost dead to a tomb to wait. They should not have trusted the apothecary or the friar. And never trust the sun, or a meteor, or a rock larger than yourself.
What’s left, for a modern death? Who will hold your shoulders at the end? Will you look into someone’s eyes or will you ask him to stand behind you in your chair with his arms around your shoulders? Like the back of a rowboat, cradling you?
I think, his eyes.