Old Mr. Worthington showed up at half past ten when he shoulda oughta been there at ten sharp. Miss Candleman was ready for him with a cup of coffee, hers. She walked out, pleasant as pie. Hi, Mr. Worthington. Good to see you. He smiled despite himself as she had nice eyes when she looked at him up close like that. I was just getting some coffee, she leaned it toward him a quarter of an inch just enough for him to take inference that it was his and begin reaching toward her. It's really good on a morning like this. Really peps me right awake. She pulled it back quickly and took a nice, warm drink.
He struggled to stay balanced as his surprise and then shock and gradually shame made it hard for him to adjust back on kilter. Had she done that a purpose? He didn't fall on his face, quite, but there were a few moments of his elbows balancing as he both pulled back and then tried to avoid looking like he had just pulled back, which as far as balance went, was the real problem. If the pendelum swings both ways, you're fine. If you try to stop it half way, you're in for quite a reverberation in your old bones. Or so he found.
She playprettied up a nice smile for him. You're not tired, though, I'm sure you're wide awake. Probably be up since dawn, right? She smiled enouragingly for him to agree with her and he did even though it wasn't true. She had a way of doing that to him. Of pulling words or gestures from him that weren't his own. She had a lot of potions up her sleeve, that one.
He grimaced and began, I'm gonna cut the front first and then go round back and do the garden, waddya think about that? Too much today for me to cut both. I can do the back tomorrow if that's okay with you. That way the flower bed'll be ready for you this afternoon when you get back from the nursery.
She frowned. Oh, I was hoping you could do both lawns at once. It's better that way. Makes more sense. She peered at him unsurely. You know, John'll be over tomorrow to deliver the paper. Maybe I can just ask him. I don't want to put you out.
His mouth formed a round O of astonishment and then fear prickled along his shoulders and hairline. As much as he hated her, he hated an empty icebox more.
I…oh. Uh. Well, I guess I could. But then what'll you do with your plants when you get back? I thought I was coming specially today so to get the bed ready for when you get back? He looked puzzled.
Oh, well, that. I'm not doing that anymore. That's old hat. I'll be here playing dominos with the girls. We'll be having lemonade. She grinned in the way that was an offer from a regular person but not from her. From her it meant watching him all day boil in her yard and then embarassingly asking for the bathroom one single time in front of all her clubwomen. And then going back outside with a plastic cup of water to fish in his truck for a little spot of drink, some orange juice and some jerky. He kept some stashed in the glovebox for in case.
He suddenly felt as if he had actually been up since the crack of dawn with the birds. So you don't want me to prepare your beds? He couldn't shake the puzzlement and kept at it like a dog with fleas. Sure to scratch a hole in the thought if he just kept scratching it enough.
I just said it. Don't you remember? You're here to do the lawns only. He took back a step at the "only". Okay, then. How about if I come back in the morning and get them all done by ten? Before the heat of the day starts. It's already pretty warm. He dug in his pocket for his keys.
No, the girls will be here. I need the lawns done. Pronto. A thought crept into his head that what she needed was him doing the lawns while her clubwomen were here. She needed him struggling in the heat like a fat, white grub…bait for her fish. His heatstroke was their conversation fodder over lady snacks like pinafortes.
I…are you sure? I was hoping I could come back and get it done early. I can come earlier if you want, get it all done by nine. I just didn't wanna wake the neighbors too early. I'm not worried about the neighbors. I'm worried about our agreement. She was getting angry and little spit drops formed at the side of her mouth and her eyes went from lavender to black then back again.
Okay. Well…so you feel you got your money's worth, how about I go on and do the front lawn now and come back and do the back in the morning, first thing? Or, I could come and do it tonight about seven. That might work. He looked up expectantly at the woman, like a pup who really has just not learned his lesson about peeing on the carpet but didn't yet know.
She brushed her hands together wiping dust out of thin air if there was such a thing. That's fine. That's fine. Okay, then let's not worry about it. I'll just ask John when he comes tomorrow with the paper. I'm sure he can get it done in a heartbeat.
He paused, unsure what to say next. I… He thought about the new teeth he was ready to put on layaway at the dentist and the way he missed cracking peanuts with beer in the evenings. He paused longer this time. Searching for peanut eating words that would make this job he'd had for three years of Wednesdays not die from one ten minute conversation in the summer heat.
Hold your horses, now! I can get 'em both done. Now, just gimme a minute. I need to go back and get all the tools I'll need. I didn't bring the edger as I didn't think I was gonna need it.
That's fine. Then, take your time. She grinned and waved her hands at her lawn. Take your time. She said it three times. Oh, and look for chiggers in that right hand corner. I think I saw a circle forming. There's some medicine in the garage.
He felt his own chiggers rising under his skin biting him quickredhot as she trotted back inside tap-tap-tap then stopped to speak again. Oh, and don't forget the girls are coming. So, don't park in front. Park on the side, if you can. Back by the pipes. I think you can squeeze in there if you try. I know Bob always could.
He hated to, but he had to call out to her. Can you go on and pay me half up front? I won't be able to get back and forth on the gas I have now. I'll be stuck long about Redmond street the way things are looking.
Sure, she smiled brightly and brought him the cash, the first time she was sweet all day and meant it. See you when you get back.
He went and got the edger and struggled it into the pick up and got the gas and avoided the coffee pot inside by the register. Especially because he was now only working for a partial day's pay as work trucks were gas guzzlers by definition. A body has to make a certain level of income to have a job where you could afford to buy a fuel efficient car.
By the time he got back, the sun was leeching the living daylights out of him every step he took. His eyes drained sweat and his lips were white. He pulled the edger out while he still had the power to do so. He
brought his gallon plastic jug to her hose and filled it. He drank half and then poured the rest over himself. He filled it again. This time, he had no room left for water and not in a good way. He sloshed inside like a fish tank on a freeway. Bile came to meet his tongue in the back fo his mouth. Oh, gosh.
He pulled himself together and began to work one blade at a time. By the time he got the front done, the ladies had arrived. They smiled and waved, those that knew him. The others walked stiffly past him unsure whether to say hello or not. He tried not to look up to make it easier on everyone.
He went to the shade for a moment and sucked the salt off some peanuts he had in his extra coat in the car from last week. It worked. He felt like himself again. He felt around for some more and sucked and sucked and sucked until his heart and his brain and something else that had no name was on track again.
He began walking to the back lawn as she came out in a huff. I thought you'd be back here working by now. Oh, I was just getting some water. The heat. I needed some water. Why was he lying about such a simple thing? But somehow, she made the very truth a lie and vice versa. Some devil in her jumped into him and did the hooligan shuffle. He just couldn't help it.
You know, maybe I shouldn't have offered to pay you up front if you don't feel you can finish today. She sighed a very tired sigh. Come back tomorrow if you need to finish up.
But, wait! You didn't pay me up front. You paid me half. For the gas.
Oh, is that what you remember? She smiled her sad smile. She kept one just for old men like him, simple-simple-simple old men. My grandfather got like that, too. Especially in the sun. Here, she took his arm, let me get you in the shade and you can sit down. We're having sandwiches. She grinned and gave him half a hug and waved at the ladies through the window as they watched her walk him out of the sun and into her nicest chair by the tree. The one she saved up for and that had the nice non-mildew cushions and flowers from many countries.
Sit here, I'll be back with some lemonade. And maybe a sandwich. We're having pinafortes. Sounds like you'd like one.
He was silent. His tongue was dry and sore and the sun had baked his will until it was crispy little strips of nothing. They fell to the ground next to him snapping in the dust of the day. He was empty and waited for food, waited for water, waited for his blood sugar to rise, for his body to apportion its ratio of salt and water and potassium appropriately. He waited mostly for her bright voice to comfort him again on such a long, hot day. An angel in the desert if there was one.
She took one look at him and she knew. Knew from the three faded spots on his pants and the vacant look in his eyes and the hair growing in gray on his dark arms. She knew from the way he looked without food and the way he sat there unable to fetch it for himself when he was most in need of it.
Oh, and don't worry about the lunch break, Mr. Worthington. I won't dock you. If you can get here tomorrow before seven, you can help John finish up the back. Then we'll be even. She tralala'd her way inside, fresh and ready for her second cup of coffee of the day.
The women looked up from their dominos as she walked in. What's going on out there? He feeling sick? Oh, just the heat of the day, she said. You know how men are. Always want to finish what they started. I
told him…well let's give him a few of our sandwiches and pinafortes as well. That ought to help bring him round.
And it did. it did.
He became our Mr. Worthington again, himself but also not. Gradually he put aside his plan of layaway teeth and began watching The Price Is Right in the mornings, not caring too much about the time of day. He found his houseshoes more comforting than his work boots and stopped washing the windows on his truck. By three months time, he had grown into his old age, just fine.
When his nephew came to visit as he did in the fall, he said, You haven't driven this thing in ages. The battery's dead. Oh, yeah. I guess it is. You can have it. I don't need it anymore.
And, he wouldn't. No longer willing to venture out into the heat of the day with the hyenas waiting by the watering hole, he stayed safe at home with the antelopes and the marmelots in the nice tall grass of his carpeted home and his ice tea with a little too much liquor and some poundcake he'd found on sale at the dollar store.
He began to carve armies of little wooden men from matchsticks and set them up to work in the cactus garden he had on his coffee table. See here, he said, Get this done by Saturday or else and the matchstick men sighed and wished they could obey. They even wished for little pick axes so they could work harder or at least some shovels so they could get some rows started alongside the cactus for whatever else Mr. Worthington might want to plant. He saw it in their faces. He did. He did.
Out of pity, then, he put them in with the devil's ivy to work since it was a little moister in there. It was a cooler environment to be sure. They did appreciate the change of temperature and the moderating coolness. Their skin was not as clammy as before and they felt a breeze in their little matchstick men beards from the fan he put nearby. Once he set it too high on the back of their necks and they all thought with one great thought that a tornado must have been up.
Then, gradually he got tired of their yapping and no good complaining about dawn to dusk and their little matchstick men stories about wooden nickels and tall fearful tales about termites and woodboring bumble bees and he simply put the lid on the terrarium. Their voices were quieter then and they began to grow pale without the fan.
The moisure was not good for their lungs but the devil's ivy prospered in the mist and twirled its way around their feet, paralyzing them unintentionally with its great growth spurts.
And then, little by little, the little matchstick men's feet rotted off from the wet dirt and they tottered over, one more each day until at last, he and Bob Barker were the only ones still standing upright. And, then there were no more contestants, of any sort, human or wooden, in sight. And, the price, the price. The price for old Mr. Worthington, was finally right.