I was a paper boy from the ages of ten to sixteen. I imagine that this job doesn’t exist much anymore since most Americans get their news from television or the internet. But in the early eighties, it was the best way to earn money before being old enough to hold a “real” job.
There was a scary old man on my paper route, Mr. Ake. The six years of collecting $6.80 for his paper were torture. The only person who ever talked to him was my dad. He told us Mr. Ake had been a farmer his entire life and had moved to our neighborhood to retire. It always took Mr. Ake forever to answer the door. His hips were so bad that he could only move half an inch at a time and was slower than anything I had ever seen. Slowness is the greatest crime someone can commit against youth. Most days, I gave up after a few minutes and headed back to my driveway right across the street. Sometimes, as soon as I got back home, he would finally open the door. I would have to return to his house. I’d run back with my six foot tall gait in a second, showing off. He always answered the door with a toothpick rolling around his mouth, wearing the same gray pants with suspenders and a flannel shirt, even in the summer. His hair looked like it was drawn by Charles Schultz, more scalp than hair. For my last month, I didn’t even collect the final $6.80 because, as a sixteen year old, I was in too much of a hurry and too rich to care. I was working at Arby’s by then, making $3.35 an hour. With a salary that high, why would I care about six bucks? Goodbye Mr. Ake, and don’t let the turtle beat you in the rat race of life.
I was of college age when there was a knock at our back door. I looked and saw the wiry hair of Mr. Ake distorted from the peep hole. I ducked down as if he could see me. Why was he knocking on our door? I slowly crept up and looked again hoping it was a Three Stooges skit and he would disappear. No such luck. I really did not want to open that door. I thought about how long it must have taken him to cross the street. He had probably left his house last Easter. Knowing the effort it must have taken him to make the trip from his home to ours, I opened the door.
He stood there looking around rotating his toothpick and wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief that was decades older than I was. Of course he was in no hurry to explain himself. Let’s just stand in silence. That was worth making the Trail Of Tears. After a beat he said, “Grass is high.”
As a college kid I wanted to respond, “Yo, Dude, grass gets you high. 4-20!” Instead, I responded, “Uh, yeah? Did you want me to get my dad?” I wasn’t going to be sucked into some long, slow conversation. I needed to get out of this immediately.
He made a face that tried to mask the pain that he was feeling. “You’re young, mowing my yard will be a lot easier for you. This damn hip.” His damn was more foul than any F word I had ever heard. He said it like a soldier curses the enemy in a black and white war movie.
Was this guy crazy? I was 20 years old. Like I was gonna spend one of my last college summers mowing this old coot’s yard like a piddly high school kid. I was ready to give him my answer plain and simple.
“Scott would love to mow your yard.” answered my dad from behind me, appearing like a god to be sure I did the right thing. Fast as that, my summer of watching Moonlighting, Three’s Company reruns and Back To The Future marathons were put on hold.
“I can start tomorrow,” I said, feeling this was the part of the situation in which I at least had a choice.
“Now is better. I got it all ready. Let’s get it done.”
“Great, let me grab my Walkman.” As soon as I said it, I realized he probably thought I was making a crack about his walking. It was going to take him so long to cross back to his house that I probably had time to create a new mix tape for the job.
“Dad!?” I exclaimed after shutting the door.
“You’ll do it. You were just gonna sit around and watch TV all summer. The man can hardly move. It’ll do you good. And when you are done with his lawn, you can do ours too.”
I filled the Walkman with batteries and headed over. I had never noticed his lawn before. I mean, I had seen Mr. Ake mow it. He moved with baby steps and it took him so long to mow it that when he was done he basically just started over again. But now, looking in light of it being my job, it was the size of Wyoming. He had pulled his old car out of the garage, a lawn mower that should be in the Smithsonian and a thin long yellow tube lying on the driveway. He started putting the tube in his car’s gas tank. What was this old man doing and why did I have to watch this? I stepped towards the lawn mower to start it.
“Ergh. Don’t touch that. Bring it here.” It seemed speaking hurt him as much as walking. I rolled the lawn mower closer. He took the edge of the hose and continued to thread it in his gas tank. This took tremendous effort for both of us. For him, the arm action was a strenuous exercise. For my part, I was annoyed I had to watch him do some chore that had nothing to do with mowing the lawn. The sound of Prince singing I Would Die 4 U was rattling out of my orange headset. I was hoping the more vulgar Darling Nikki would come on next. After the tube stopped entering the gas tank, he took the other end and put it in his mouth.
“What are you doing?” He drew in a wheezy breath and started sucking on the gas hose. His wheezing was more disconcerting than the action. “Stop that. I will go to the store and buy gas. It’s not far. I can fill a can.”
Too late. The gas poured into his mouth. He spit it out and held his yellowed thumb over the hole with the taste of gasoline in his mouth. Good God, this was the worst thing I had ever seen. What century was this yokel from? Why would you risk having gasoline in your mouth when you could just go to the gas station and fill up a can? He took his baby steps over to the lawn mower and released his thumb as gas trickled from the car to the mower. Slow as everything else.
I finally started mowing. I had to admit that old mower was the greatest lawn mower ever. No matter how high the grass was, it sliced through and spread it perfectly. Our plastic Lawn Boy would bounce and shutter at each divot. His rolled easily; no issues with that old Bessie. But his lawn went on forever. I would have to flip my 90 minute mix tape in the middle and keep going. By the time I finished, I was dead dog tired. I had basically spent the last hour performing anger meditation just refining my hatred with each blade of grass. I must have cursed Mr. Ake more than he cursed his failing legs. This seemed fair to me because my legs were jelly by the time I finished. I rolled the lawn mower into the garage. Under a brick was a bright crisp five dollar bill. Five damn dollars; that was all I got? I should have left it just to show him how disgusted I was. I took it begrudgingly.
“Five dollars, Dad? That is all he gave me.”
My dad howled with laughter as he slid the crisp bill through his fingers. When my mother heard this amount, she chimed in. “You go over and tell that man you are not doing it for five dollars. He is sitting over there with bundles of money and he gives you five dollars. You tell him you want 75 dollars or he can mow it himself.”
“You will do no such thing,” my father said in his voice that meant this discussion was over. “You aren’t mowing the grass for the money. It’s the right thing to do. Now go do our yard. You are lucky to get that five dollars. I'm not giving you anything.”
And mow it for five dollars I did. When summer turned to fall I was excited to say goodbye to that Wyoming lawn. The next spring, the phone rang.
“I’ve been looking for you.” His voice sounded like the killer in a babysitting horror movie.
I was back to Wyoming. I mowed that old farmer’s lawn all the way through college. Never once getting to choose when I mowed it. He would just call me. I would answer the phone and hear “I’ve been looking for you.” I would have to mow right then. Whether I had just showered, whether I had friends over or whether I was in the middle of the Three’s Company episode where Jack Tripper takes the sleeping pills, drinks alcohol and dances on the top of the bar. All through college I had to mow at the whim of an old mean farmer. Each time I finished, a crisp five dollar bill would be waiting for me in the garage. Ten years after being his paper boy collecting $6.80, here I was a college graduate making less.
A year later, I was getting married and moving out of my childhood home. I would have my own lawn to mow. I could mow it whenever I wanted. Goodbye Mr. Ake, don’t let the turtle beat you in the rat race of life.
Sitting here now, it seems ridiculous that we let 24 year olds get married and buy a house. But there I was, living at my new house, with my new wife and my new life. I also had a new phone. It was this phone that rang. Just like the coda of all those horror films, I answered it innocently when I heard, “I’ve been looking for you.” The music played, teenage girls screamed and the camera froze on my wide eyed expression. What? Why? How? Mr. Ake is back? But, I have my own lawn. “Looks like rain’s coming, you better drive on over. Spring is here and I need help filling the gas tank."
My dad had given him my new number. He had tracked me down. He was syphoning me back to his lawn. I could get married and move away from home, but I couldn’t out run a man who only moved an inch at a time. It didn’t end there either. Even when I had kids, he still called me. This became a lifelong commitment. Five damn dollars hardly paid for the gas it took driving over to the old neighborhood.
Three years later on my birthday the phone rang and it was my mom. Mr. Ake had died on my birthday, in my mom’s car. He had called her and she had tried to take him to the hospital, but he died on the way there. I didn’t know quite how to feel about it. He had no family, no one to remember him. I thought about how I had prayed while mowing that he would die. And now he had. I still think of his death every year on my birthday. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? I didn’t even know. Since this is real life, I admit there was not a moment when we connected. I mean, he was an old farmer and I was a young punk college kid. He was a pain in my side who paid me a measly five bucks. I didn’t really know what to say to my mom about it or to anyone really. It had been years of dealing with this old man. He had even been slow to die.
Three days later my phone rang. It was Mr. Ake’s attorney.
“We found your number in Noah Ake’s belongings.” NOAH? Seriously? All that time I had been mowing Noah’s yard. Of course that was his name, what else could it have been? I was sure he hurt his hips crafting the freaking ark. “He had your number down as lawn care. We need someone to continue to keep the yard mowed while we sell the house.”
You have got to be kidding me. This bastard was back from the grave. I would have better luck dodging Jason or Freddy Krueger. Noah’s good deed was coming back to drown me once and for all. This call wasn’t to tell me that I was his heir and that he had left me $100,000. No, what he had left me was his yard. Will the pain of Mr. Ake ever die?
“We will set up a payment for your services. How much did he pay you to mow his lawn?” asked the lawyer.
“How much did he pay me?” I asked as the anger bubbled up inside me. “Well, sir, you are going to love this. That man paid me… seventy-five dollars a pop, sir. Seventy-five dollars in cash. I am also going to need you to provide the gas."
Goodbye Mr. Ake, don’t let the turtle beat you in the rat race of life.
Scott Ryan is a writer living in Ohio.*