When I turned ten, shortly after the dawn of the 1980s, it was suddenly very important to me that everyone think we were rich. Perhaps it was a combination of seeing Dynasty reruns at my friends' houses, reading Richie Rich comic books and visiting some wealthy cousins in New Hampshire. I'm not really sure, but the truth is we were not rich by any stretch of the imagination. I think we may have even been poor.
Faced with parents who were completely non-materialistic and somewhat out to lunch, I was forced to spend a lot of my time keeping up appearances. I begged my father to start painting our sprawling Victorian house front first and to hire people to do it -- this would ensure it always looked good from the street and no one would think we actually had to work. But he could only get about a third of the massive building finished each summer, so he would start wherever he had left off the previous Labor Day. Blake Carrington would never have painted a house himself, and neither would JR Ewing -- I tried to explain. But these things did not matter to my father as they did to me.
Unable to make a difference on a broad scale, I focused on details I thought would make a significant difference in the public eye. I pleaded with my mother to get us a push-button phone to replace the embarrassing white rotary model covered in Mr. Yuck stickers in the kitchen. I spent hours every few weeks rearranging our furniture in an effort to make the living room look somehow more opulent and desirable and to teach my mother some basic decorating skills. I washed our cars.
Moving our furniture around could not hide the heinous Kelly green carpet that blanketed the enormous living room, and removing the grey-blue sectionals Mom had bought at a discount furniture barn, while perhaps lending a certain Spartan flair to the decor, would simply have left us with nowhere to sit. Indeed, no amount of rearranging, fixing, correcting or pleading could get my father to do anything that was not on his personal list of priorities and Mom, while appearing friendly to my missives, was completely useless when pressed for tangible changes. Thus it seemed the white phone, foam sectionals, father doing manual labor in public, and our crappy cars were, cruelly, there to curse me forever.
But I sensed opportunity in the lawn. My father mowed the lawn only out of necessity, so it often got over four inches high and frequently looked shaggy while he was busy painting or cutting enough wood to heat the house in the winter. I had noticed that the wealthier people in town always had neatly manicured lawns. And our rich New Hampshire cousins had people tending to their landscaping at all times. Desperately, I asked Dad to show me how to use the lawnmower. Somewhat surprised, he gamely showed the simple mechanisms that worked it -- a twist here, a button there -- poured the gas for me, and watched me struggle to yank the old machine into life. Then he sent me on my way, watching me in his painter pants and a stained t-shirt while I pushed my new toy down the driveway to the front lawn. I spent four hours mowing and re-mowing that afternoon to get our grass looking just so. When I was finally done, emerald strips shakily adhering to the length of our house, it looked better than I had ever seen it. Happily, I wheeled the exhausted Toro back to the garage and went inside for some lemonade.
My father was flabbergasted. He had never been able to get me to do any work with the slightest amount of enthusiasm. Yet here I was volunteering to do one of his most reviled chores. He could not help himself, patting me on the head and fishing a five-dollar bill out of his wallet.
"Thank you, son, that was a wonderful thing you did. The lawn looks professional!"
I thanked him back, slightly embarrassed by his excitement, but glad to have the money. I headed up to my room to lie down, as Dad enthusiastically called up the stairs after me.
"Maybe you can start a business mowing lawns! You've got a natural talent, son!"
As usual he didn't understand the reasons for my behavior, but it didn't matter to me. I didn't say anything. We looked rich.
The next three weekends I mowed the lawn every Saturday, and my father continued to thank me and give me five dollars each time. But he wondered aloud over breakfast one morning if I had made any progress trying to get any other mowing jobs.
"What other mowing jobs?" I asked.
"Son, you can't keep relying on me for your money, you have to go out and earn it. I can't keep paying you five dollars every week to mow the lawn; you need to go find other lawns to mow. How about you mow ours for free, and I'll pay you in gas for other lawns."
Why would I want to help other people have nice lawns? I wondered. It was absurd.
"Dad, I don't want to mow anyone else's lawn. I just want ours to look good."
Perplexed, Dad just shook his head and laughed and looked up at the ceiling like he was talking to someone.
"What, dear God, is wrong with my child?" He left it at that, although he kept laughing to himself in one-sided conversation, shaking his head.
The next few weeks, right on schedule, I mowed the lawn before heading out to the video arcade that had recently sprouted up in a dilapidated storefront in our tiny downtown. Pac-Man had finally made his way even to the darkest corners of rural America and he quickly begun to gobble up my free time. One day Dad was waiting, standing with arms crossed on the stairs as I shoved the mower past him to the garage.
"Son, you need to clean that mower before you put it away."
The mower was covered in grass clods from a particularly dewy morning. It was a reasonable thing to say, if oddly timed, so I hosed it down and parked it. Dad watched me the whole time silently sipping iced tea on our back stoop. Again he interrupted me as I started towards the door.
"Son, let's go have a look at your work," He got up to walk out front, "Come along!"
A bit confused by his behavior, I nonetheless followed him without hesitation, eager to hear forthcoming compliments on my superior mowing job. I had been working on it for weeks at this point and was sure our lawn was the best looking one in the entire neighborhood. I rode my bike around the block frequently to check on everyone else's to be sure ours was the best. Only the Millers' lawn was close, a vast open space that could have been a hayfield, which Mr. Miller mowed sullenly on his riding mower each weekend, beer in hand. Sure, theirs was big and they had Cadillacs and a pool, but the grass was dry and otherwise unremarkable. I was pretty confident. We got to the mailbox and Dad pointed down at an obscure grass clump around its pole.
"That'll cost you twenty-five cents."
Surprised by this announcement, I stood staring at the wisp of offending grass. It was so small, but it was one whole Pac Man game down the tubes. While I stood there, Dad moved on to the front walk, where he pointed at some grass along the edge I had missed.
"That's another quarter."
We moved on, me following him in a mild state of shock as Dad proceeded to point out the flaws in my mowing job. The maple trees -- each worth fifty cents -- robbed me of four whole games. The area around Dad's beehive was an entire dollar. I had skipped cutting near the cursed bees for two weeks because I got stung every time they sensed the lumbering mower's vibrations. No one important could see that part of our property from the road so it didn't matter for my purposes, but it was at least thirty minutes worth of arcade time now. All in all he knocked me down to fifty cents which, as luck would have it, he just happened to have in his pocket at the time. He handed it to me.
"Now, if you want the rest of the money, you have to go and fix all these issues and come and get me and we'll review it again."
I had no intention of doing that: I was already behind schedule to meet my buddy Todd at the arcade and had other money I could access in my piggy bank. I threw him a hurried "OK, Dad, thanks," and hustled off, perturbed by my mistakes and vowing to be more exacting in my next mow.
Despite my best efforts the next two weeks the same scenario occurred. No matter how careful I was avoiding mistakes, no matter how precise and immaculate I thought my mowing job was my father would always manage to knock me down to fifty cents. And as a hot July wore on, the drying grass began to require less and less mowing. I turned to watering it to rid it of unsightly dry patches, not even bothering to get money from Dad as I struggled with cultivation.
One week it was so dry I determined that our suffering lawn would not survive yet another mowing, so I spent a few hours staking out the perfect spot for the pool I had been planning. I had watched the Miller kids frolicking in their pool while their father mowed the grass on Saturdays and naturally thought we too should have one. I was sure that if I showed my parents the exact perfect spot, and offered to help, they would eventually realize it was a foolproof idea and build it. I took wood from the woodpile and placed it to show where the deck and patio would be, then used rocks from Mom's herb garden to create a rounded kidney shape to represent the pool. Our pool would not be rectangular like everyone else's in town. It had to be better. I showed Mom my plans, pulling her up from weeding chores and leading her to the side of the house. She was encouraging.
"I think that would look very nice, honey. Wouldn't it be nice to have a pool? I'd lie right there!" she pointed her glove at a sunny spot near her peonies and brushed her dirty blond waves out of her eyes with the back of her arm. I knew Mom would get it! I was excited. I admired my work from the porch. Everyone would really want to see our pool. Should we have a fence around it? I had to think that one through.
I called my friend Cindy to squeeze an invitation to go swimming at her house and met Todd to spend the afternoon there, explaining to anyone who would listen the differences between her pool and the one I was planning. Her family didn't seem rich to me. They too had ugly furniture, bad overhead lighting and a similarly large Victorian house they had painted green. Nothing special, except for the large rectangular pool that attracted neighborhood kids of all ages as if Cindy owned Disneyland. I dreamt of one day being so popular and after my plans had been completed I knew I'd be able to pull my uninteresting family up to new levels of importance. After Cindy's mom kicked us out so she could focus on dinner and not lifeguarding, Todd and I ran around the outer rim of the local golf course hunting golf balls to sell back to the pro shop. We made about three bucks every time we did this and it was fun to be in the cool of the woods near the course, carefully stalking around like we were on a perpetual Easter egg hunt; more fun then it was to be in the blazing sun with a smoky old mower defying your every command. It was also notably more lucrative than Dad's token fifty cents. I hadn't even bothered to show Dad the lawn in awhile. It was just a waste of both our time.
After two more weeks of my neglect and a few showers, our lawn grew unruly just like when Dad used to do it -- especially around my pool plans, where I had avoided mowing for weeks. My father shouted at me that morning from underneath my window where he was removing flaky paint from the outside wall with his blowtorch and a scraper.
"Son! Make sure you mow the lawn before you go anywhere today!"
I was supposed to meet Todd again at the golf course before it got too hot, and then we were headed to Cindy's to swim. I was busy ferreting out appropriate shorts and shoes, so I dismissed the lawn from my plans as nicely as I could. The weedy, seeding grass made us seem temporarily poor again, I knew, but my pool would soon fix that. I didn't want Dad to be too disappointed but mowing had become a bit of a bother in the meantime. Half of it was growing and half of it was dead, depending on where the sun hit it. I had also grown tired of turning the sprinkler back on three times a day as inevitably one of my parents would shut it off or take the hose to water their gardens without asking me. It was useless to persist, and my social life had gotten pretty busy between the golf course, Cindy's house and Pac Man. It was simply too much work. I poked my head out of my closet like a half-dressed meerkat to let him down easy.
"I don't want the money, Dad," I indicated cheerfully, "You can do it. Thanks anyway!"
"I didn't ask you if you WANTED to mow the lawn, now did I?" Dad yelled from somewhere outside. "Get out there and mow the lawn before I tan your hide!"
I heard the screen door slam under my bedroom and my father rummaging around in the kitchen. He was a bit too close for comfort and always made good on his threats to spank or belt us, so I sheepishly snuck out the front stairs and ran around to the garage to start the mower and get it over with. It was already hot and muggy at 10:00 AM, and I was sweating in minutes. I plowed the old mower through choking six-inch grass and weeds. It coughed and spluttered large chunks of clotted plant matter on the lawn every few yards. Every fifty feet or so, I had to bang the mower up and down on the ground to make it throw up the accumulating wet grass and it left large round piles of blackened wet slime all over the lawn. It was such a piece of junk and this was taking forever. I was still working on the front of the lawn after one hour. I looked at my Mickey Mouse watch. 11:30. I was supposed to be at Cindy's pool by 1:00 for grape Kool-Aid and Twinkies and checking out her big brother's new Asia record. I had to hurry. Twinkies! I never got to eat them. They were of paramount importance.
I skipped anywhere that couldn't be seen from the road, forgoing the entire back yard near the bees and mowed as fast as I could up and down the long sides of the house. I mowed carefully around the deck and pool plans again, leaving the grass to create a six-inch high three-dimensional representation of the pool.
I finally finished, with only minutes to get going and be on time, and looked back at the grass. It looked as if a five-year-old had mowed our lawn in the middle of a World War -- an atrocious result and I felt faintly embarrassed. But it was all in the name of progress. The pool area looked promising and substantial and I imagined people would be able to see it from the road and know just what we were planning. Dad will HAVE to build it now, I thought as I shoved the mower back into the garage and hopped on my bike. My plan was working!
When I got back home for dinner that night, after a long day of swimming, gorging myself on as many Twinkies as Cindy's mom would allow, and about eight spins of the Asia record, I noticed that the lawn had been re-mowed. I also could not miss the fact that my pool plans had been removed and left in a pile by the garage and the area I had so carefully staked out had been unceremoniously mowed over. But I had already drawn up plans on Mom's sketchpad to show Dad, so I didn't indulge myself in disappointment. I walked in, just in time to set the table for Mom. Dad was drinking beer on the porch, reading the newspaper, a day of painting still evident in his hair and mustache.
"Go and thank your father for finishing your job today," my mother said in an unusually hushed tone. I was a little miffed. It wasn't my JOB. I did it to make HER look better. What the hell was wrong with my parents anyway? I went out to Dad with a snack Mom had given me, pickles and chips.
"Hey Dad, thanks for finishing the lawn, it looks pretty good. Did you see the pool area?" I tried to make sure he knew I appreciated a good lawn job as much or more than he. I was easily more of an expert on it, of course, having studied lawns all summer. I figured he would enjoy a rare compliment from me.
"Son, thank you, thank you very much. And thank you for the snack. Now, was it your intention to leave the lawn like that, or did you just forget how to mow the lawn in the last three weeks?" Dad looked over his paper and finally looked directly at me as he stuck a pickle in his mouth and began munching.
"I didn't want it to look like that, but I had to go to Cindy's." I felt uncomfortable in his stare so I started back to the house.
"Ah, I see! Wait, wait, don't go back in, I think we're getting somewhere" said my father in mock epiphany, and holding the half-eaten pickle aloft and pointing it directly at me. "So you knew the lawn looked terrible, but you decided it was more important to keep your social calendar appointment and thus you left your job unfinished. Is that it?"
"... No ..." I was starting to sense a trap being laid for me.
"No? Which is it? You can't tell me one thing and then do another. Was visiting with CINDY more important than doing what you father told you to do?" He stuck the last of the pickle in his mouth and began chewing with crossed arms, newspaper flat on his lap as he watched my reaction.
"No Dad! I was going to fix it later. Besides, I wanted you to see the pool plans ..." I started to protest. I knew where these sarcastic arguments from Dad ended up. With me punished. But I wasn't even sure what I had done. Since when did Dad care about what the lawn looked like? I was the one who labored to make it look good; if I did a half-assed job it was certainly my prerogative.
Dad washed down the remaining pickle and some chips with the last of his beer and crushed the can. I gulped, sensing I was about to be made very unhappy. "How about this? You are grounded from going to Cindy's for the rest of the week and you are not to leave this house Saturday until you have mowed the lawn to my satisfaction. Is that clear?"
I immediately started to cry. An entire week of the summer was a precious eternity and my friends would all be having a blast without me while I sat in our stuffy old house all day and did nothing. It would be hell. It wasn't fair. School was only three weeks away. It was a humungous punishment for no reason at all.
"MOM!" I sobbed, and ran inside. "It's not fair! I didn't want the lawn to be my job! I didn't want the lawn to be my job! I wanted it to look good! I'm the only one who cares!" I couldn't explain it any better. I had never wanted a job and, although I had gladly taken the money, this amounted to betrayal.
"Go to your room. NOW." She said through gritted teeth and opened the stairs door. I ran upstairs on my hands and feet like a dog, the quickest way, as she shut the door and headed towards the porch to confer with Dad. My parents were completely against me. I hated them. I hated being in this stupid house with our crappy cars and lame furniture. I hated my father for not being rich. I hated that I did all the work around the house that was important and no one ever understood the REAL value of what I was doing. I hated ... everything.
I heard my parents arguing downstairs and a screen door slam. Then, more shouting. They were really mad. I was screwed. I turned on my clock radio as loud as it would go. It was an April Wine "select set" on the Canadian rock station, the only vaguely interesting radio one could get in rural Vermont. I slammed my door shut and locked it and dove onto my bed. My dreams of a pool seemed very distant now, and it was dawning on me that it was quite possible we were not rich and no one would confuse us with being wealthy no matter what I did to our lawn or living room. "Just Between You and Me" was playing and I stared off into space wanting to be in a galaxy far, far away ...
I awoke later to banging on my door and The Guess Who playing at full blast on my radio.
"Open the door, kiddo, we need to talk to you." It was Mom, no doubt with Dad right behind her. My sentencing. I opened the door. I was slightly relieved to discover it was just Mom, still in her apron with her hair pulled to the top of her head and held there by a purple rubber band.
"Come on down to dinner, Dad has something to say to you."
I followed her down. Dad was at the table, whistling as if no one was there and back behind his newspaper. A plate of cold barbecued chicken and broccoli was at my place on the table.
"Now, son, we have to get some things straightened out here," said Dad, looking again at me over the edge of his paper. I still wasn't sure what the hell was going on, so I was silent.
"Your mother informs me that it isn't fair to force you to do something that she and I had not agreed would be your job. So I am retracting your grounding for now."
I could barely hide my smile, but I tried my best to look as somber as possible. Dad was a humorless person, after all. And this moment of retraction -- nearly implausible -- had caused him to be extra serious. He was normally acutely unaware that he was wrong about anything.
"You will not be required to mow the lawn this year, although next year, we have agreed, it will become your chore. If you choose to mow the lawn this year, you will no longer be paid for it. You will also not leave wood and stones in the middle of the yard and you will put back the ones you left out. Do you understand?"
"Yes!" I said excitedly. I was totally relieved not to be grounded, and I could mow the lawn whenever I wanted. I kept myself in check about our pool and decided not to say anything until I had perfected my drawings. I pushed my chair back to go back to my room.
"Son! Sit down and finish your dinner!" Dad nearly shouted at me.
Mom placed a hand on my arm. "Thank your father."
"Thanks Dad." I slid back into my chair and dug into my plate. I looked outside at the fading summer light as I gulped down my food in seconds flat.
"Can I go catch some lightning bugs, Mom?"
"Sure honey, finish up and be back in an hour."
"Looks like that damned Tip O'Neil is at it again," said Dad over his newspaper to no one in particular.
I got up and went outside the side door, got on my bike and rode to the end of the street. I pretended I was someone casually looking out the window of my car and that I just happened to notice a very wealthy family's house as I drove by ... damn it, the lighting wasn't right. Our house looked gloomy and haunted. Not good.
I rode the bike up to the front steps and quietly went in the front of the house. My parents were talking to each other in the kitchen, several rooms away. I turned on the porch light, the lawn light, and a few of the lamps in the living room, and opened the curtains. Then I ran upstairs and turned on the guest room side table lamp, opened the shade half way and ran back outside to take another run.
I pedaled furiously to work up a good coast and silently whisked by my house. I was Blake Carrington. My car was extremely luxurious. I squeezed my wife's supple arm and looked out the window I had just opened electrically.
"My goodness, that family has taste. Look at that home, darling, perfectly lit. You know they must have money."