UB grad student Kimberley Lynne is writing a short story collection set in Hamilton called Something with a Crust. Enjoy this hot, free sample!
He is egg-headed. His skin is tanned, not a Creole shade, but more like grease that coats an abandoned order of breakfast potatoes. Time hasn’t been kind to him. His missing sections of teeth give him a slight lisp. His thinning hair is combed over and peaked in the center of his skull, and something woolly grows out of his ears and wraps around the arms of his gun-metal glasses. His cheeks sag in pouches, pocked like pears teetering on the edge of decay. “I said I don’t do battery,” the lawn mower repairman slurs into one long word.
“This isn’t the battery one,” I try to explain. “This is the gas one, and I don’t know how to turn it on.” When he wouldn’t fix my husband’s old battery-powered mower, I had bought a second-hand gas one from him. When I couldn’t find its oil dipstick, I returned to his crooked rows of engines shining on the parking lot beside his store.
The repairman’s acolytes surround him, his posse hanging out in their sacred clubhouse. Some work for him; some waste time. All their white chins are patched unevenly with scraggly tufts. The disciple in the frayed Lacoste shirt patrols the loading dock, back and forth, jutting forward his bumpy jaw. “You a teacher?” he asks me. “You look like one I used to have.”
I wish I was a teacher, so I nod. Let them think that. Somehow that seems a better use to society than running the MRI machine at Good Samaritan Hospital. I wish I didn’t have to buy a lawn mower; that should be a man’s job. Lawn mowing feels like vacuuming outside to me. But my husband Frank has left me, and the grass continues to grow.
Probably on methadone, a haggard, stooping, younger helper twitches beside me, trying to be still, waiting for a command from the old repairman. “Battery like the hum, like robot,” he mutters toward me.
The repairman picks his black-tipped nails. He tells me that he’s a proud University of Baltimore alumnus; he knows his value. I concur. The community needs him, this king of lawn mowers, this guru of little gas machines, this tender of American, status-driven engines. Homeowners must keep up with the Joneses. If the grass grows too high, people complain. Frank didn’t understand that.
The lawnmower king tilts his hard-boiled head. Something mischievous and boyish rolls from one clouded brown eye to the other, lighting them like the end of his cigar. “You want us to train you?” He hisses happily, almost dancing.
I swallow and promise him cash in exchange. He nods, shrugs, and wanders away across the lot, distracted by a dented pickup truck bouncing off Harford Road. The pale blue pickup truck has Lil Truck painted on its side and Ravens stickers cover its bumpers; it comes to a skidding stop.
The twitching methadone helper shows me the mower’s oil cap, and we pour gasoline into the engine’s mouth. I hear it gulp, refreshed. “Robot almost ready, ready, ready,” Twitchy chants under his breath as he works. He pops beige gum. Threads of old bubbles twirl in his moustache.
“Maybe I’ll name it Robot,” I say, feeling sorry for him. I hear my vowels drift south into the nasal Baltimorean twang, so I’ll temporarily fit into this fragile patriarch of oil-stained men.
Twitchy thinks for a minute, then removes the safety lock and demonstrates how to prime the machine. “Robot, dear robot, won’t you come out and play? Dear robot, she loves this song.” He sings new lyrics to an old Beatles tune. “Shiny. Push here,” he explains.
From several feet above us, loading dock man watches, shaking his shaggy head. The lawnmower king listens to a long-haired and muscled biker as they lift a mower out of the pickup truck. The acolytes smoke cigarettes and discuss the Orioles.
I have nothing to add about baseball. “Did you say robot?” I whisper into my armpit to Twitchy as I lean over the handle. The parking lot air sparks with something secretive.
“Pretend not to know,” Twitchy spills in a rush. “He’s working on something new, the king, something big. He sells that and we can all live down the Severn and fish every day, even Mondays.” He shakes with anticipation or he fights tremors from heroin withdraw.
Loading dock man appears at my elbow. “That’s five bucks, teacher lady,” he says.
In the empty store, a shrill engine revs and catches; it has the odd ring of laughter under it. The king slowly turns to the windows as a sapphire light flashes. Suddenly, I see the skeletons of old mowers hanging on oil-dappled walls and then they disappear as the radiance fades. A plump ring of ivory smoke puffs out the back door.
“She at it again,” mumbles Twitchy. “Doesn’t like to be alone, dear robot.”
More engines roar in a mechanical symphony; apparently no one live has started them. “Crap,” says loading dock man, limping toward the dock steps. “Minnow!” He calls over a sloping shoulder. “Get the Karo syrup!”
Twitchy springs up from the lot and bounds to the store. The afternoon sun bounces off the lawn mower king’s glistening, sloping forehead. His snarled eyebrows lower.
“What the hell?” the tattooed biker croaks. “Is this joint haunted?” He looks worried. “Cause I’m outta here if it is.” He heads back to Lil Truck.
I shake my head, wondering how a machine can possibly run on Karo syrup. Lawnmower ghosts are the least of these men’s problems.
Kimberley Lynne is a playwright, novelist, teacher and theatrical producer. Her ghost folklore novel, Dredging the Choptank, was published by Apprentice House in 2010, and “Keys” and “The Guru of Harford Road” will both be included in her upcoming collection of Hamilton short stories, Something with a Crust. Lynne is a member of the Dramatist Guild and Actors Equity Association. For more information, please visit her site.