The more I think about it, the more I realize that Pearl, Mississippi, the town itself, raised me as much as my mother did. It was no fault of hers; she did her best, and I understand that a nurse’s duty is as much to her patients as to her children, even if it meant spending the majority of the day at the hospital instead of at home. Her work ethic set the precedent for mine, though I hardly had one to speak of at the time. So in the summer of my thirteenth year I begrudgingly went door-to-door around the neighborhood to offer up my lawn mowing services. She suggested I charge ten dollars per lawn, though I was vying for at least fifteen—after all, life was expensive, and I was trying to save up for life’s necessities, which then included a guitar and some video games. I managed to snag a few customers and that was enough for my mother. There was Mr. Daley a few houses over, the Petersons across the street, and Mrs. Crowley at the end of it. One customer in particular, though, actually made me enthusiastic about my new job, and that was Ms. Crespo one street over, whose daughter Giana had been in my English class the previous year.
I was most definitely in love with Giana, and had been from the time she’d read Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” aloud in class. I didn’t find the poem terribly mind-blowing, but the way she read it—no mistakes, no speed-ups or slow-downs, just steady with a smooth and soft cadence—got to me. She had the darkest hair I had ever seen, and darker eyes. When I came to Ms. Crespo’s house on my quest for employment, Giana came to the door. It was only a five-minute walk to her house, but before that summer I had no idea she and I lived so close to one another. I had always assumed people like her lived somewhere else—somewhere specifically not near me.
The Crespo house had light beige siding, a black roof, and a chipped-white front door. An army of grass and moss infiltrated the beat up driveway, which led to a small garage with a rusty, netless basketball hoop nailed to the top of it.
“Hi, I’m Aaron,” I squeaked when she opened the door.
“Yeah, I know. What’s up?” Her blank stare made me feel twice as self-conscious as I already did.
“Are your parents home by any chance?” I didn’t know yet that parent wasn’t to be pluralized for her. Sometimes I forgot other people had split parents, too. She gave me a look I couldn’t interpret—sideways frown and an up-and-down eye motion. I was oblivious to most things, I would later discover.
“I’ll get my mom.”
Ms. Crespo introduced herself and said that in this heat it was more than worth it to pay someone to mow the lawn, and that she was happy to help a young man earn his keep. She was a short, pretty woman, neither thin nor thick. Her teeth, almost always revealed, were very white and her hair, like Giana’s, was straight and black, but other than that she didn’t look much like her daughter. I assumed Giana’s thin face and lean frame must have come from her father.
The first time that I worked for the Crespos, it was the last week of June and the beginning of a dreadful heat wave. It had reached ninety-five degrees by noon and I felt every single degree, not to mention the humidity that engulfed my pores and lungs, making any movement a slog through thick Jell-O. The furnace that was the air, coupled with my curiosity about Giana’s location, inflicted all sorts of anxiety. Was she in her room watching me cut the grass? Were my lines straight? Was she in the living room, reading or watching TV, where I, all sweaty and disheveled, might run into her if I was invited inside? Was she not in the house at all? I considered asking Ms. Crespo when she came out with a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade but couldn’t figure out how to formulate the question without seeming too direct. I cut the engine and wiped my forehead.
“I really am a sadist, aren’t I?” She widened her eyes and made a fanning motion with her free hand.
I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but found the gesture appealing. “Thank you,” I panted, graciously accepting the refreshment before absorbing all the liquid with one gulp.
She handed me a generous twenty. “A little extra for the heat.”
“You don’t have to do that.” I knew the things you were supposed to say. She ignored my protest and asked if I could come back in a couple days to help with the garden. We settled on Friday, the last day of June.
I had thought she’d be waiting outside like the time before, possibly already starting her work on the garden, but I didn’t see her. I knocked on the front door and waited, then heard a faint call in the distance.
“Aaron! Over here!” She was shouting from the side door, which took me a good ten seconds to figure out. Embarrassed, I scurried to the side where half of Ms. Crespo could be seen propping the door open.
“I probably should have let you know I might be inside.” “That’s okay.”
The side door opened into a narrow vestibule attached to the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out the Crespo kitchen; it was such a strange combination of broken-in and state-of-the-art: slick hardwood floor, spotless black marble counters, an oven from what looked like the fifties, and scratched-up cup-boards whose handles scuffed the walls when opened too wide.
Ms. Crespo offered me fettuccine alfredo with a side of roasted red potatoes—leftovers, I presumed, but still a much more elaborate lunch than I was accustomed to, and much tastier. It wasn’t that my mom was an awful cook—she just worked so much that my lunch options were normally limited to microwaveable carbohydrates and cereal, and by nighttime she was so exhausted from dealing with the handicapped, injured, ill, and dying that she either resorted to take-out or settled for preparing something simple. But as good as the meal was, the thought of Giana entering the kitchen upset my appetite. For a moment I thought Ms. Crespo was telepathic because she suddenly brought up the subject most urgent in my mind.
“You know, I told Giana to come down for lunch five minutes ago but sometimes I wonder if she’ll ever leave that room of hers. I’ll go call her again.” She got up to leave and the house creaked as she made her way up-stairs. Suddenly I was sitting at the sleek kitchen counter alone, my plate a creamy war zone of potato chunks and white sauce.
She returned with Giana, who was wearing gray sweatpants and a baggy white T-shirt, her hair falling chaotically over her shoulders. Even this look suited her.
“Hey, Aaron,” she said, her back turned to me as she reached into a cupboard for cereal. I loved the way my name sounded in her voice.
“Giana! What are you getting cereal out for? Lunch has been waiting here,” Ms. Crespo said.
“I want cereal,” Giana replied, nearly overflowing the bowl with generic brown oats, then drowning them in milk.
“Are you finished, Aaron?” Ms. Crespo asked, grabbing my battlefield of a plate.
“Yes. It was delicious.”
Giana stood in profile, leaning on the counter and staring out the window while she ate her cereal. The sunlight landed on her hair, revealing the auburn hidden beneath the black. With all my being I wanted to know what she was looking at and thinking about.
“Aaron’s going to help me with the garden. We’ll be outside,” Ms. Crespo said to Giana, who remained in her picturesque pose, chewing but not blinking.
We started on the garden, which ran alongside the walkway leading to the front steps. I knew nothing of gardening, so I merely did what I was told. Ms. Crespo wore a flattering wide-brimmed sun hat that not everyone could pull off. She lent me some gloves far too big, giving me deflated Mickey Mouse hands. As I self-consciously dug some holes for her new azaleas, I worried that they were the wrong shape or size or depth and that Giana, from inside, would take notice and deem me an unworthy human being.
Between the two of us, it only took a half hour to put the plants in place, pull the weeds, and water the whole row. It looked vibrant, though a bit at odds with the neglected driveway and old basketball hoop in the background. I realized there was no car in the driveway or garage. I wondered what Ms. Crespo did for a living. Maybe she took the bus to work. Maybe she walked.
She handed me two fives and asked if I’d be willing to help her clean the house on Monday. Once again I refused the money, which, for thirty minutes of hole digging, I really hadn’t earned. But she insisted, and I told her I’d be over again at noon.
“Have a great weekend, Aaron,” she said, gliding back inside. I wanted to say goodbye to Giana but saw no sign of her.
Sunday at ten in the morning was when I took care of Mr. Daley’s lawn. He was an older man who lived alone, had a small, perfectly square front lawn, and always gave me a soda or a piece of candy as a tip.
“Morning, Mr. Daley.”
“Morning, Aaron! My favorite lawn barber!”
This was his favorite line. He had me come every Sunday, so his lawn never really got to be long enough to justify being cut, but I think he appreciated the company. He would, without fail, be sitting on the front steps in his lawn chair reading the paper, glasses perched on his nose, white eyebrows elevated, pale forehead wrinkled.
“Now, get a load of this—they’re postponing the launch of the space shuttle Discovery because of some bad weather!”
“That’s interesting.” This was my usual reply when I wasn’t exactly sure which side of the fence he stood on, which was most of the time.
It was just as hot and humid as it had been all week, but I had begun to enjoy the therapeutic effect of mowing lawns, the way the consistent hum blocked out all other noise. I loved as well the up and down motion, the clear objective: go straight, turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, go straight again, repeat. The rhythm cleansed my thoughts, until they too moved in unobstructed straight lines, simple and direct. My consciousness coasted and cut the excess, but now and then I got caught up in thoughts of Giana: Would I see her tomorrow? What did she think of my coming over to her house to help her mom? And why didn’t Ms. Crespo have Giana do the tasks for which she enlisted me? If she needed a man, surely she could do better than a scrawny thirteen-year-old boy who still ate overly sugared cereal and watched cartoons most mornings. Giana was taller than me at the time, and I’d be willing to bet, equally as strong, if not stronger. Maybe she was occupied with other tasks. She could have been practicing an instrument, or writing poetry, or any number of endeavors more glamorous than yard and housework. And perhaps Ms. Crespo wanted to encourage me, a young man, to develop a good work ethic as my mother did. Moms were on the same wavelength that way. Single moms, especially.
After I finished Mr. Daley’s lawn, which only took about twenty minutes, he handed me a ten and a generic orange soda and called my attention to the paper once more.
“Would you get a load of this? The Jews and Muslims won’t stop blowin’ each other up!”
“See you next week, Mr. Daley.”
I didn’t know any Jews or Muslims. All I knew at the time was my town, some of the people in it, and that I was part of Mississippi, which was part of the United States of America. The world was much bigger than I could have imagined, of course, but my world was Pearl, and more specifically my mother, my little jobs, and my school. There was also Madison, where my father lived, but I saw him so infrequently it hardly counted. So the Jews and Muslims may have been blowing each other up, but as long as it remained in a land far removed from me and my town it didn’t concern me. Mr. Daley, however, seemed heavily invested in these matters, though I couldn’t figure out why. Here was an aged man glued to his front steps, boxed in by his lawn, concerning himself with the world at large, as if one day his house might be the target of an air strike. I had to admire his engagement. The man knew more about the goings-on of the world than just about anyone else in town.
When I got back my mom was in her green bathrobe, a Sunday ritual, making a brunch of scrambled eggs, fruit salad, and wheat toast, her hair wrapped in a purple towel. Sundays were her only full days off, and even then she might be called in from time to time. “Being a nurse is more than a salary—it’s a commitment to every human being who’s rolled in those doors, good or evil, night or day,” she would say.
She welcomed me with uncharacteristic vigor. “There he is, my working man. How’s Mr. Daley?”
“Same as ever.”
“Throw that soda in the fridge, Aaron! You’ll ruin your appetite.”
The eggs were overcooked, the cantaloupe and strawberry and kiwi juices congregated to create a discordant flavor, and the toast was slightly burnt.
“So, how was week one?” she asked, sitting down across from me. I told her that Ms. Crespo wanted me back over tomorrow.
“Again? She sure is putting you to work.” She didn’t sound as delighted as I’d anticipated.
It’s not bad. I’m never there long.”
“What does Ms. Crespo do?” she asked after a long intermission of chewing. “Her job, I mean.”
I recalled the car-less driveway. I didn’t know. Tomorrow was Monday and she would be home. Maybe she taught and had summers off. Tuesday was the Fourth of July, too, so she might have been on vacation.
“Why?” I asked, somewhat defensively, to my surprise. She shrugged. “Just curious.”