The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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This is my summer of zero tolerance — for weeds, that is. Each time a dandelion dares pop its bushy yellow head above the lawn, I’m out the door with my wife’s Old-Timer, a small, curved, bone-handled knife that’s perfect for following the rubbery stems down below the soil and gently loosening the roots. With it I can pull up the plant whole, careful not to leave any part behind. I love the way this knife fits my hand. And when I toss it from any height, it always plunges into the ground point first: the perfect mumbletypeg knife.
My wife, an Illinois farm girl who loves all varieties of cutlery and works at keeping hers sharp, taught me this advanced weeding technique. She believes — and, because we intend to stay happily married, I now believe, too — that a weed is not only an unsightly blemish on a lawn, but also a statement about the quality of the lawn’s owner: the taller the weeds, the more slothful the proprietor. I never knew much about weeds until I met her. While she was a girl walking the long rows of soybeans and corn downstate, I was running in the alleys and vacant lots of Chicago’s South Side, all the time thinking that dandelions were exotic flowers and that corn came from a can at the A&P. The only weed-free zone in my neighborhood was Comiskey Park, where the White Sox used to play before the city tore down the hundred-year-old stadium to build a new one, with fancy sky boxes and gourmet “ethnic” food, across the street. The old site is now full of weeds.
Unfortunately, my zero-tolerance policy has done nothing to convince our neighbors to adopt the same approach. It’s May now, and the woman next door has yet to mow. If she waits much longer, she’ll need a combine and a baler. She’s a divorcée, and my wife, who loves me and always knows what’s best for me, says I am not to offer this woman any assistance with her yard — especially if she’s wearing her swimsuit. When this neighbor gives me a nice smile and says hello, however, I usually return the gesture. (I honestly feel this is not an act of betrayal.)
The divorcée’s dandelions are already in bloom, and the prevailing breeze sends their puffy parachutes on a slow descent over our freshly cut and watered lawn. By July, her Canada thistle will be thigh-high and topped with tennis-ball-sized blossoms that produce their own weight in airborne seeds; next year our lawn will be a sea of tiny thistle plants — “pioneers,” I think scientists call them. Then there’s the five-foot-tall tarweed in her back yard, along with other scary exotics that would cause most farmers to call in the crop dusters.
I suspect the proximity of neighborhood divorcées is a major motivation for wives to have a “honey-do” list — a long itinerary of chores, many involving tools and greasy substances, that husbands must accomplish in their few spare hours. My wife is not like those other wives. She does not have a honey-do list. I do have chores, however, and because my wife and I are as snug as peas in a pod, I go at them promptly and with a positive attitude. My chores include preparing meals Monday through Wednesday; taking out the garbage and the recycling Monday night; cleaning the toilet and the surrounding splatter zone; making the bed if I am the last one out of it; doing dishes and the occasional load of laundry; and, when necessary, moving heavy objects up and down a flight of stairs without asking why. She’s responsible for the cat box and everything else.
A single man just bought the house across the street for eighty thousand dollars — a little high, I thought, given the weeds. For a while, we watched him anxiously for signs of landscaping prowess. The last residents had been college students who parked their cars on the lawn, digging huge ruts into the once immaculately kept bluegrass. They weren’t people you’d accuse of having green thumbs.
When I introduced myself to the new neighbor, he told me right off that he was a public-radio announcer. “Ever listen to NPR?” he asked hopefully, not making eye contact but looking over at our lawn instead. He said NPR the way successful writers say Guggenheim.
Figuring he was about to launch into a plea for hard cash to build yet another transmitter in a sparsely populated part of the state, I lied and said, “Only a little.”
Actually, my lie wasn’t that far from the truth. Lately, I’ve been listening to sports talk radio to find out what’s on young American males’ minds: “Hello? Do you think the Bulls will trade Dennis Rodman?” “Hello? How much do you think Tiger Woods is worth?”
Sometimes in the morning I tune in to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the only woman in radio who tells other women off: “Dr. Laura? I’m twenty-one years old and I’ve been dating a thirty-five-year-old Christian for a week now. He wants to know how many sexual partners I’ve had. Do you think I should tell him? I really like him.”
Dr. Laura: “How many times have you slept with him?”
Caller: “Only once.”
Dr. Laura: “In the first week? You call this ‘dating’? Tell me, why do you think a thirty-five-year-old man is dating a twenty-one-year-old?”
This show gives me great pleasure. Last Christmas, I presented my sixteen-year-old daughter with Dr. Laura’s book Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives. Number ten: “I know he’s adulterous, addicted, controlling, insensitive, and violent — but . . .”
My wife and I eventually got the answer to our question about the NPR guy’s landscaping skills: he was out there one afternoon attempting to mow, with a small electric weed-whacker, the thousands of dandelions that had taken over his lawn. After watching this act of horticultural futility for a few minutes, I turned to my wife and vowed never again to give money to public radio. A little later, I observed the radio guy standing on his lawn talking with the divorcée — and making significant eye contact.
Now, I am a good husband — so good at it, in fact, that I’ve done it twice. I’m not like those bad husbands who never tell their wives they love them. I don’t swear (unless it’s really necessary) or forget to wipe the front of the toilet after I pee. And when it’s time for bed I don’t make a fuss; I hop right in with my book. My wife’s two cats follow us under the covers; Toby sleeps on my side, Mickey on my wife’s. I get two pillows, and my wife gets two. By ten o’clock, the lamp is off and we are in the popular spoons position.
It was on one such night, after we had settled in with our reading material, that my wife — who I know always has the best of intentions for me — handed me a number-two pencil and a form to fill out. On the form were a dozen or so questions, the answers to which would supposedly determine my longevity. She had completed one like it earlier and come up with a life expectancy of eighty-eight and a half years. Now she wanted me to fill one out, I guess because she likes to plan ahead and wanted to know how much longer I might be around to help with the weeds, the heavy lifting, and whatever else might come up.
I put my book aside and started in on the survey. Number three was Marital Status: “If you are married, add five years.” (There was nothing about divorce, which can easily nullify those extra five years, and many more.) I added five years to my life while my wife smiled. Then I got to number five: Disposition. “Good-natured, placid: add five years. Nervous, tense: subtract five years.” I hesitated for a second. “Subtract five years,” my wife said, not looking up from her book. I dutifully subtracted five.
Finishing the survey, I found that I will live to the age of eighty-three, auto accidents and cancer notwithstanding. This meant that, at my current age of forty-one, I am close to the halfway point: forty-two years to go (but only twenty-one if you subtract time spent sleeping and waiting in line at Starbucks). It was like waking up to cold rain pouring down on my face. Suddenly, I didn’t care about the neighbors’ weeds, or whether the radio guy and the divorcée would get together. Instead, I envisioned a giant hourglass with equal parts sand at the top and bottom. I even thought I could hear the noise the sand made as it rushed through the bottleneck: two brooms sweeping a linoleum floor.
I calculated how many books, at a rate of twenty-five per annum, I could read in my remaining years — about a thousand, if my eyes survived computers. I thought of how many times I might yet smell the lilacs in spring, or hug my daughter. I added up all the full moons rising over the mountains, the suns setting into the Pacific, the hikes through cedar forests and fields of wildflowers, the I love yous to my wife; the time left to forgive, to be kind, to make things right with my mom, to help people through crises, to put aside jealousy and craving.
It was as if my life — the rest of it, that is — passed before my eyes as I sat in bed with my wife, the cats equally distributed across the quilts, the window open to let the summer air blow over us, the best years of our life waiting to unfold.
Stephen J. Lyons