In the garage, away from the noises and needs of everyone in the house, I anticipated quiet, but instead the gasoline fumes and the cooing mourning dove made me think of my father. When Dad finished mowing the lawn, I always admired the lines he'd drawn, the way he created a maze of diminishing rectangles. As a boy, from the third-floor window, my eyes traced the outside edge where the wheels of the mower had bent the blades down, the scent of cut grass drifting through the screen. I followed the lines as they ran the length of the yard next to the fence, around the metal swing set in the back, under the pine and oak trees, and then back toward the house. A row of hedges bordered one side of the yard, and I imagined him standing on his wooden ladder trimming them, bending at the waist and leaning forward, waving the electric clippers like a wand.
The first time he let me push the old red mower I was ten. He spent weekdays and several nights in front of students, so he must have given me some instruction, if only to blurt out, “Follow the lines you make, and don’t run over your foot.” Maybe Dad watched me from the kitchen window, or from behind the screen door.
It was my turn to make rectangles in the yard while the engine rumbled over the tufts of crabgrass and bare patches. The mower chopped up twigs and needles from the pine in the back where moss grew over soft black dirt. I bet when I asked him if I could mow the lawn, one corner of his mouth turned up—a look he gave me when we slap boxed. His fingers jabbed into the flesh of my cheeks enough to turn my face, or tapped the top of my head. “C’mon,” he said, circling me. “Put your hands up in front of your face. Protect yourself.” He always found an opening, and of course, my arms weren’t long enough to reach him.
When I finished walking in squares, I called for him, and he met me in the middle of the yard. He pointed to patches of grass. “You missed, there, there, and there,” he said. And then he walked back in the house. Maybe he and Mom were arguing that morning. Maybe the weight of being the son-in-law to a millionaire car-dealership owner was too heavy for him, an artist and a teacher.
These are the memories of him that come back when I have a quiet moment to myself. These memories surface because his death has become an extension of the reconciliations we never made. When he died, we were both bachelors teaching high school. We had started to become friends. It was the part of our story that I most wanted to live. I was twenty-four, and he was sixty. The half smirk on his face that said, “You don’t know shit yet, kid,” had disappeared in our conversations when we ate together. His voice softened when we talked on the phone at night.
Usually I mow vertical stripes, which make the yard appear larger from the house. Recently, though, I mowed rectangles because it was faster, and Dad was on my mind. The small yard was twelve paces long—boxed in by the side of a detached garage, a row of arborvitaes in the back, a fence, and a deck. After the first several rectangles, I had to stop, tilt the front wheels up, turn, pace, and repeat. I turned and turned and turned, mowing the middle patches of grass, pivoting around in my mind searching for my father.
I was in my yard as a man, but memory placed me in the middle of the green maze of my childhood, on the day when I first mowed a lawn. He had disappeared behind the thwack of the closed screen door. Squirrels chased each other around a tree trunk. Their claws scratched bark. The mourning dove bellowed its song through the small opening of its beak, in low undulating coos. Branches rustled and wavered in the breeze. Their shadows shifted on the soft spikes. What kind of father am I becoming, and what do the memories of my dad have to teach me as flashes of his figure walk over the lines we’ve drawn? All around me grass blades bent toward light, and everywhere was green and growing.