Fiction | June 01, 2002

SLIGO’S NEW IDEA WAS WEALTH, sudden gouts of cashola, the vaguely cheese-like scent of new bills. He viewed our current circumstance – technically, a circumstance of poverty – as the ideal substrate. There was always a friend of a friend; there was always TV and the shiny-paper versions of TV. Runts with messianic grins and the right creation myth were becoming zillionaires on the Net. What was it anyway besides wishful thinking? Wishful thinking is always the linchpin of a sustained and senseless prosperity.

Our economy of scale, Sligo’s and mine, involved chicken wings and hot-dog buns. We were members of the reflective poor, a couple of can-do palookas with dreams in our socks and so on and so on. Sligo was hemorrhaging with ideas: freelunch.com; makeadecision.com; alibi.com. The key was seed money.

The career counseling center at Grover Cleveland Senior High was pasted with literature from the armed forces, an enterprise ardently concerned with computer training and cross-racial hygiene. Before we could even reach the desk, a woman in lumpy slacks appeared. Her manner suggested the brisk loneliness of a parent volunteer. “May I help you?” came out more like Dear God, turn me into someone else.

“We’re looking for the job board,” Sligo said. “Are you all students here?”

Sligo wore army surplus cutoffs and a guayabera. His skull was massive, which wasn’t his fault but contributed to a sense of menace. I was the possibly-more-dangerous sidekick. My hair hung in ridiculous shingles. There was a tendency on my part to skulk. “We’re alumni,” Sligo said. “My name is Fortran Sligo. This is Michael McGlinchy.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” the woman said.

I wasn’t quite sure I understood either. We were college graduates, after all, with lovely, pointless degrees in philosophy. But Sligo insisted the best jobs, the quick cash numbers, were at the high school level. He urged me to consider the dramatic upswing in teenaged millionaires. His logic was relentless and opaque.

“Graduates,” he said to the parent volunteer. “We are graduates of this fine institution, though currently on the market, as it were, when considered – that is, us – from an employment perspective.”

The woman inspected Sligo. Her mouth was a rubberized message of doom. “I think you’d better leave.”

“I’m sure that’s not necessary,” Sligo said.

But already she was moving to the phone. This was a period of extreme paranoia concerning schools and school property, thanks to the series of deadly assaults by disaffected students. In Europe and Asia, disaffected students fomented revolution and swung heroically from tanks. In America, though, they were more or less in the business of slaughter. Someone was always going apeshit in America, and never for the right reasons. You read about it all the time. Sligo had a plan to capitalize on this: amuck.com.

Out on the sidewalk, Sligo showed me the three-by-five card he’d nicked from the job board. Big $$$ – Growth Field – Sales experience preferred! There were directions to an orientation session, to be held in the courtyard of a leafy community college outside Sheperdstown.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Wrappers tossed past on a soft breeze.

At last a guy in a sweater vest appeared. He checked his watch and frowned. “You the only ones?” His hair looked like one of those Rogaine ads. You could see someone was paying very careful attention to his hairline, some poor hairdresser named Trish or Linda. “How old are you guys?” he said.

“How old are we?” Sligo said.

“Right.”

“In our twenties,” Sligo said.

“Right around there.”

“Any sales experience?”

I could see Sligo start to sort of cock his fist.

“Okay okay okay,” said the guy. “I’m late already.” He introduced himself as Phil, though tentatively, as if he might have just settled on the name. He took our number and handed us a pamphlet. AAAA Lawn Service. The Company That Cares About Your Lawn. The Company That Would Take a Bullet for Your Lawn. The Company That Died for Your Lawn. We hollered these mottos back and forth, Sligo and I. We were staying in the same place at that point, one of the shitholes off Lee Street.

Phil elaborated at our second meeting, which took place at a Waffle House: “We only hit the plush neighborhoods. The key is getting in before the Spic crews come out from the city. Our deluxe aeration process allows a special fertilized formula direct access to the root system.”

“Aeration?” I said.

Something was smoking back in the kitchen. “Not to worry!” the waitress called out gaily. “Grease fire!”

“How much do we get?” Sligo said.

“Fifteen percent on every sale.”

“Twenty.”

Phil made his eyes into black yolks. Country ham salted his breath. “Do you know how many young men, groomed young men, are interested in this unique sales opportunity? All right. Settle down. Let me crunch some numbers.” Phil stabbed at his napkin with a fountain pen.

“Try to dress appropriately,” he said finally. “Pretend you’re Mormons.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sligo said. He had recently outlined plans for a website called killeverymormon.com.

“He’s saying you might frighten people,” I said.

“No tank tops, for instance.”

Sligo’s shoulders were starting to look like scar tissue from all the nicotine patches. Also: his tattoos.

The following Saturday, just a day before Easter, Phil drove us away from Winston-Salem, into what folks now call the country, which had once been a place where food was grown by rugged, somewhat naive families but had become, in the last decade or so, carefully parceled grounds where the rich retreated from their responsibility for the poor. Where had all the farmers gone? Near as we could figure, they’d been stockpiled in nonessential states.

“No more of this mock-Tudor shit,” Phil said. “No more fucking pipsqueak Doric column crap. Get psyched, sales force. Get psyched.”

Sligo was wearing the coat he’d worn for graduation; a camel-hair purchased many years ago by his mother. More than anything in our current lives – the drink, the flawed teleology – this coat doomed us. It assumed sophistication in all the wrong ways. Failure! it yelped. Yes! Me! And anything I touch! The temp hung around eighty.

“A true compassion for the customer cannot be faked,” Phil said. “You’re not just standing for the service, you’re standing behind the service. We’re about a lawn that lives forever.” He said he’d be back for us at the end of the day. Then he was gone, and our terror was briefly drowned out by relief.

Sligo took the north side of the street. I took the south. The driveways were vast black tongues, and the dogs were large, shepherds and barky huskies – reminders that one does not touch the property of one’s neighbor. Reclining on lots of pale cedar, the estates hummed the complicated music of matinees, violins and math. One sensed the proximity of buttery roasts and, possibly, vestal virgins. The lawns were majestic, incapable of want.

Everyone had intercoms. A typical conversation went like this: Me: Hello! It’s Michael McGlinchy!

Them: Aren’t you dead? Didn’t you ski into a tree headfirst?

Me: Ha-ha-ha. Good one, sir. Very sharp. Ha-ha. No, actually, it’s about your lawn, sir. With the summer months approaching –

Then there would be a loud pop, which (the bad news) was not me being shot.

Only the kids actually answered the doors.

Me: Is your mom or dad home?

Kid: (Aiming toy gun) Bangbangbangbang. You’re dead!

Me: Could you get them?

Kid: (Turning gun to a ninety-degree angle and firing repeatedly at my head) Dead!

Me: (Staggering) Oh, you got me! Better get your mom or dad before I die!

Kid: Shut up. You’re not dead.

The broad gutters were sprinkled with motes of yellow pollen. The sky was the pale blue of May, taped together by wobbly bands of heat. On days like this it was not uncommon to hear someone say, If God ain’t from North Carolina, how come he made the sky Tarheel blue? (The way it came out was Tahiil.) This was a reference to a college basketball team. Practically everything in the entire state was a reference to college basketball. People had died in defense of slavery, the glorious con of the bucolic. Now locals blithely pinned their hope to the fearsome rumps of giant leaping black boys.

The day kept going. On the proscenium of a gray, vaguely presidential home, I pulled out the tiny brown binder Phil had given me and illustrated the aeration process to a dazed young father: how the GrassMaster 2002, manned by a trained professional, would punch turd-like plugs into the lawn and spray a specially formulated fertilizer, providing direct access to the roots and encouraging a lush refurbishment of the grass’s natural defenses against the treacherous weeks of summer.

I wanted to believe. He did too, this young software magnate with sleep crusted on his brow and patchy whiskers. He wanted anything, anything, but to be within the earnest stranglehold of his life. How dearly he clung to my italicized bumbling. The problem was doubt. I didn’t manifest the obvious signs, the snarky cheeks or sour breath. This was something deeper, a private pocket of self-pity that had metastasized into a public aura of doom. I was not unlike Willie Loman. The harder I tried at optimism, the less believable I became.

Sligo told me he admired my commitment to doubt; it was a kind of ballast for him. He spoke of a website I could design: hopeless.com. But here, in the land of sales, doubt was the killer.

I could see Sligo tap-dancing down the front walks in his clownish coat, breathing sweet belief onto the lawns. “You got stuck with the tightwads, that’s all,” he told me. “The wads live on that side. We can work the rest of these joints together.”

He glanced at the tiered homes, beveled glass, rosettes, sconces, the dark tobacco fields beyond. “This country, Mikey. What it might have been. All this soil and sun. The fat of the land. It’s enough to kill an elephant, what the rich have done here.” He let his giant head loll. “Okay. Fuck it. Let’s go make a sale.”

We stood before a mansion, all square and wooden and cracked, a thing conjured from the land of Little Dorrit and Mr. Pumblechook. I had no idea what it was doing on this lane of parvenu, in the middle of our vaguely Southern state. Where was the livery stable? The family plot?

Sligo knocked and knocked. His line was Aristotelian at heart (he believed in a world delivered by the senses) but within a framework he termed viral consciousness. The idea was that self-knowledge, like any other virus, was in a steady process of evolution. Notions of truth and purpose were not fixed but continued to contract, expand, fragment. Theism gave way to rationalism, empiricism, relativism, existentialism; people found new names for doubt, each of which boiled away with the restless water of time. The only insoluble belief was an emotional apprehension of death – an idea in turn so absurd as to require magic.

The door swung, and a pale figure in a smoking robe poked its head out. You couldn’t be sure he wasn’t a shadow. He gritted his teeth tremendously. “When no one answers the door, the general protocol is go away.

“Good afternoon,” Sligo said. “My name is Fortran Sligo.”

The door went boom-chickee-boom.

“He can’t do that,” Sligo said.

Almost at once the door opened. “I’m summoning the police!” the man said. Neat little whiskers curled around each nostril, as if his nose were being quoted. It was the sort of mustache you had to be Muddy Waters to pull off.

“All we want-”

“I know what you want. You want to sell. Isn’t that it?”

Sligo let out a deflated breath. He was sweating with great plangency. “Jeez,” he said. “Howsabout you just, for a second, relax?”

Again with the door. That we could live with. It was the time left to us, three hours probably, before Phil would return to pick us up. We were halfway down the walk when someone cried, “Come back here!” The door opened, shut again, opened. A cane shot out from the crack, a silver-tipped cane. “You two! Lawn boys!”

Lawn boys. I’d never considered the idea.

“Come back!” The voice whistled and cracked, like wind passing through parchment. She was a wee thing, in the doorway, encased in a gigantic high-tech wheelchair. Her eyes seemed to have grown too big for the rest of her; they were as delicate as glass. The fellow in the mustache stood back from her and wrung his hands.
“Let’s have a look at you,” she said. “I can’t see a thing, you know. But I can still smell. There’s two of you, yes? What a dangerous musk! Starting at forty or so, the skin starts to turn. Chemically. Like old meat.”

“I’m sure these young men don’t need-”

“Oh, hush, Bob. These dears are here to pitch me. You are here to pitch?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sligo said.

She looked delightedly in the general direction of his face. “My first husband was a salesman. Red Wing shoes and hats, back in Missouri. An awful salesman, I’m afraid, but he looked terribly good in a waistcoat. We could only afford the one. I used to dab shoe polish on the stains before he went out on the road. That was the whole idea in those day:.dazzle them with wealth. No one wanted craftsmanship. What a tired old myth! They wanted glamour, an end to the dust and potatoes.”

She fingered the control panel on the right arm of her chair. The bones in her fingers clicked. “And his fedora. Such a rakish hat! Everyone wore hats in those days, of course. A man wouldn’t think to appear in public without one. There was something quaint in it, a certain humility. And all that pomade. I used to smell my father’s hat until I was ready to swoon. But when did that end exactly? World War II?”

Bob set his hand on hers. “Honey,” he said quietly.

“Yes, never mind all that. Sell me something, dears.” I looked at Bob, whose eyes were closed.

But Sligo was missing Bob’s reaction, the gift of his inattention rescuing him again. “What it is,” he said, “is a lawn service. Perhaps you’ve heard of aeration. The process is quite easy to understand. Mikey, could you show Ms…..”

“Kane,” she said. “Dorothy Kane. You may call me Dot.” I withdrew my brown binder and began scribbling.

“The problem with conventional lawn treatments,” Sligo announced, “is that they remain on the surface, never reaching the root system below. This is like pouring maple syrup onto your napkin. That doesn’t make much sense, does it? That’s not something you’d do if you wanted to enjoy a delicious breakfast of French toast. I don’t need to tell you that summer is just around the corner. A delightful time if you’re a child, but perilous for the concerned lawn owner. And why?”

Dot wheezed inquisitively. Her head looked like a raisin on a toothpick. “Because elevated temperatures allow a number of herbivorous contagions to gestate! These include stamaniscus, dropsy blight, stemwart, and, of course, lolligaganalia. All too often, these undergo spontaneous mutagenesis, which leaves your lawn vulnerable to new strains of killer weeds. But how to fight back? The only way is to nourish at the roots, allowing them to build up the necessary immune defenses. And the only way to do this – the only proven method, according to scientific study – is to aerate. In fact, a single preventive treatment is often enough to save the life of your lawn.”

Sligo had white specks in the corners of his mouth. I kept wishing he would take a breath. “The best thing,” he said, “would be if we took a quick look-see at your lawn.”

“Let’s not do this,” Bob whispered.

Dot thumped her cane against the oriental rug; her chair lurched down the small ramp that led to the front walk.

The lawn, hedged off by Juneberry, shone like a flag.

“Here, for instance,” Sligo said. He rubbed the blades between his fingers. “This color is usually predictive of a stinkweed infestation. Can I ask: Do you have a history of excess barium in your water supply? The reason I ask is because of the deracination patterns around the sprinkler heads. Either way, you’re going to be sod-stripped by July. Your neighbor, Mr. Packer, had a similar problem.” Sligo went on and on.

Dot interjected a question here, a doubt there, the exigencies of the shrewd buyer. She knew canniness was a part of the tango, a coy backing away that allowed for the delight of being pulled in again. They were elegant together, with Bob glowering from the front sill and the sun tilting through the long blue afternoon. After the proper ceremony, making as if to measure the lawn, Sligo named his price.

“But I couldn’t possibly pay that.”

“I can’t really go any lower.”

“It’s Bob I’m worried about.”

“All right. I’ll bend the rules. But I’m going to catch hell from my manager.”

“What about the backyard?” Dot said.

The backyard!

“Listen,” she said. “What if you take a look and give me a price for the backyard. Then come have something to drink.”

“Sure,” Sligo said. “We can package the front and the back together. That would give us an enhanced perimeter for discounting.”

The sideyard was impeccably kept, lined with peonies and snapdragons. Who would see them? Ever? Sligo lunged along. He looked as if he’d been shot between the shoulder blades. A sweat stain showed through his coat. His fingernails were bitten to the nubs. It was hard to imagine anyone buying anything from him. But people are often less callow than you’d think. Belief fortifies them.

The back lawn rose in slight knolls and did not appear ever to stop. “It’s like immortality,” Sligo said. There was a brand-new swing set in the foreground and the faint octagonal imprint of a gazebo. Otherwise the green was uninterrupted. “It just goes on forever, doesn’t it, Mikey?” Sligo said.

I agreed that it did.

Sligo tried a cartwheel and fell heavily. He whooped. “The old broads, Mikey. They’ve seen it all. Every little bit. I’d like to have sex with one of them sometime. I mean a real old one. Seriously, Mikey. I don’t mean something tawdry. It’s just how much they know, man, how much closer they are to checkout.” He went running straight out. We both went running.

A bell tinkled; a faint scratch of words floated back from the house. We legged it around to the front door and through a hallway lined with giant porcelain urns. The ceilings were high and filigreed like a wedding cake. “I feel like I should recite an ode,” Sligo said. He clicked his heels.

The door to a parlor stood open, revealing something of a set piece: Dot was enthroned on a red divan. A white shawl draped her shoulders. The air smelled of Bactine. The wainscoting was a lacquered wood, acacia perhaps. A pitcher of ice water stood sweating on the sideboard.

Dot held up her drink. “By all means.”

We drank and drank, and the lime I got immediately; the gin hit me later.

Dot peered at us, our swallowing throats. “Junelle used to make us toddies on the verandah. She put sprigs of mint in them. Mostly it was lime and sugar, though.

We’d sit on that verandah for hours, falling into our cups. The evenings passed at a more civil pace back then.”

We heard Bob stomping around in the room above our heads, his contribution to the conversation.

“That backyard,” Sligo said. “What’s with the swing set?”

“Bob keeps hoping the neighbor children will come play. I tell him, ‘There are no neighbor children here.’ He thinks we’re still living in Asheville.” The lamp behind Dot shone on her hair, which had thinned on top. She looked like she was wearing a little pink yarmulke. “How was the lawn?”

Sligo sighed heavily.

“Not so good?”

I excused myself to go to the bathroom and left them to the ecstasy of their haggling.

There were a thousand white doors, all of which looked freshly painted. The can was one of those special numbers with rails; beside it sat a bulging rack of mail-order catalogs. They had all been heavily annotated in shaky pencil, double and triple checks, exclamation points, questions: Available in hunter? Retracting blade?

I did my business and continued down the great hall. The booze had started to loosen my joints. I peeked into one of the rooms. Or, actually, I peeked into all the rooms. They were stacked with boxes on which the names of retailers were blazoned in hopeful fonts. But not a single box had been opened.

Then there was a refrigerator, out of nowhere, and I figured … you have to remember that we’d been banned from many of the local happy-hour feedings. We had become somewhat expert in the area of perishable theft. I envisioned a Dagwood sandwich: turkey, cheese, roast beef, bacon, lettuce, mayo, mustard. I swung the door open. The shelves were lined with bags and bags of plasma, dextrose, IV tubes coiled crosswise like bandoliers.

Behind me, Bob cleared his throat. His eyes were a soft gray. They looked tired and unsurprised.

“I was, I’m sorry,” I said. “I got sort of lost.”

He stepped forward, and the sorrow rose from him in uneven waves. For a moment, I feared he was going to embrace me, that I would be expected to hold him and say something heart-rending. He reached for my cheek but suddenly paused and pulled back his hand, which came to rest on the freezer handle. I couldn’t think of a word to say.

Back in the parlor, Dot and Sligo regarded me indulgently. The pitcher on the sideboard was empty.

“We should go,” I said.

“Fortran was telling me you boys are recent graduates.” Dot’s fingers clicked away. “Where were you, Fortran?”

“About the business plan?”

“Yes.”

“What it is is an attempt to restore humanism to the Net. The original plan, remember, was to connect people, a kind of organic knitting of the nodes. But there’s nothing profitable in that, is there? They’d rather have people wanking off and buying sweaters all by their lonesome. Our idea is to create portals that respond to the profound feelings of dislocation and rage arising from late-model capitalism. An electronic map of our emotional neglect. Bereft.com. Freewill.com. Meaning.com. People aren’t as dumb as they’re treated, Dot. They want meaning in their lives. What matters? How much support do I need? What do I make of death?” His face looked like a pumpkin lit from behind “Timeandbeing.com. Fearandtrembling.com. Being philosophers gives us a sort of novelty cachet in the world of web startups. Like a horse that does math problems.”

Dot listened, though now you could see the toll it was taking. Her face kept losing color. The dull drum of pain measured each moment. An then, abruptly, she slumped to one side.

Bob rushed to the divan. Dot waved her arms weakly. “Don’t ruin this for me,” she said. “Please, dear. I won’t have you ruining this.”

She struggled to right herself. “Please don’t be alarmed, boys. All the Kanes get the same treatment. Nana took it in the belly at seventy-one. Mother, too. Seventy-one on the button. That’s all He gives us. That all we get. I try telling Bob, but he only blubbers.” She took a last slug of her toddy. “Some days I don’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

“Can’t you do both?” Sligo asked.

Something of her blood returned. “You’re an insolent boy,” she said. “I so appreciate that.”

Soon the light would peter out, and Phil would pull up in his fetid Corona and return us to a world made of tacky-tacky. And later still, we would read of Dot’s death and of her life as heir to a petroleum fortune bequeathed by husband number four, two before Bob – who had been for many years, her loyal chauffeur. Toward the end, we would learn, her sanity had been questioned, though she seemed terribly sane to me on the afternoon we met. To be human is to be lied to, consistently, ardently, from diaper to diaper. Dot understood this. The whole bus ness is a negotiation. All she wanted was the theater of struggle an belief, a decent lying-to before the next rake of pain.

“You.” She pointed at Sligo. “Sell me something else. Something nice.”

“Yes,” Sligo said tentatively. “Yes. Of course.” He could see now that she was dying. It was sinking in.

“Say something,” Bob whispered.

Sligo looked at Dot. For a moment, he resembled that single pale figure at the center of Goya’s The Third of May, his face alight with the to rible knowledge, the booted executioners squared before him, the dead laid out in a giant red yawn. To maintain poise in the face of such intense feeling! This was Sligo’s unique talent.

He stood and removed his jacket and laid it out on his arm for Dot to inspect. His fingers made a dainty flourish beneath the hem. “This coat for instance,” he said. “Not only is this a garment suitable for low-key dinner engagements, but it can be used to . . . ”

Dot smiled faintly. “Take your time,” she said. “There’s no great rush in this life.”

Sligo nodded. He took a few deep breaths. We could hear the angel of death circling the house, singing out his sad final melody.

Sligo began again: “This coat can reveal the future. Ma’am, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself. The future! If I were to rub the elbow pads, just like so, we could see the precise destiny of your lawn. This isn’t something I would do under normal circumstances, Ms. Kane. But in the case of a valued customer. . . ”

Dot nodded drowsily. She looked like a child fighting off nap time. “Certainly, one can imagine the nefarious ends to which such a coat might be put.” Sligo rubbed briskly at the elbow pads. The air thickened, and Dot Kane clicked her fingers, and the back lawn rose and washed against the windows with a green so beautiful and unrelenting that none of us, for a full minute, could breathe.

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