Dispatches | July 20, 2004

I should have read the signs; they were everywhere flashing like a traffic accident flare—watch out. But one of the problems with an advanced education is that you’re trained to be open-minded. Perhaps, writers even more so.

The problem was my lawnmower. It was mid-June and had been an excessively rainy spring. My lawn grew fast; it needed cutting every week, sometimes more. My Quantum 5.5 VC PowerPro clipped its last blade on June 11th. I checked gas, sparkplugs, blade; its problems were beyond my knowledge of small-engine repair as well as my husband’s.

The yellow pages listed only one lawnmower repair service in Columbia, the other two were far out in the county. I’d have to take my PowerPro to McCullough and Sons (names have been changed to protect the incompetent), which according to the phone book map was ten miles south of town, down a narrow two-lane stretch of black top. A small hand-painted sign nailed to the trunk of a diseased Oak signaled that this rusted doublewide that looked to be splitting at its seams was the Brother’s place of employment. The first sign that I ignored was the yard—a waist-deep jungle of weeds. The second: a fence of abandoned lawnmowers—of all ages and size—outlined the gravel driveway. I followed the curve of the push handles glinting in the harsh June sun to a tin garage. The double-doors were open.

Inside, the air was stale, fetid and the husks and hulls and innards of small engines were everywhere. This massacre of machine parts was sign number three. Number four was the proprietor. He came out of a dark corner, hiked up his pants, wiped the sweat from his sloppy baldhead and said, “Want a cat?”

He dumped a bag of Always Save cat food on the sawdust-covered dirt. Skinny, pinheaded tabbies jumped down from the rafters to eat, ravenous.

As a teenager growing up in the sticks of Missouri, I would have known better than to let this fleshy, sad, pendulous man pull my Power Pro from my trunk. I had many incidents to verify that I knew how to handle the McCulloughs and Youngbloods and Straighans of the world. I used to hitchhike to high school my junior year, waited on the Hells Angels who frequented the coffee shop where I worked, and shot “slop” with the rednecks at the pool hall. But I was no longer the hick from the sticks who saw schemes everywhere. I was educated now and I liked my new and improved, trusting self.

Without asking questions, the proprietor tagged my lawn mower and pushed it into his tin garage. I didn’t see it again for three and a half months. Every time I called he had a different excuse: poor health, an ugly divorce, problems with “the kid.” But mostly, he told me he was overworked. When I threatened to drive out there and pick it up, he promised, “One more week.”

As I waited, my own lawn beginning to resemble his, I asked around: “Who fixes lawnmowers in town?” A friend of a friend gave me a phone number, which I called immediately.

“McCulloughs. No sons,” a man answered. He had a slow, thick drawly voice that sounded familiar. I checked the number. It was different from the one that belonged to the man who had my mower.

As we talked, I discovered that Randy was Raydean’s younger brother. They’ve been feuding for more than ten years. He called his brother a lazy SOB.

“The reason he ain’t fixed your lawnmower is that he’s too busy with the pornography.”

I didn’t need to know this, but I said to Randy, “Maybe you can help me out. I will pay you extra if you get my lawnmower and fix it within the week.”

He said firmly, “I ain’t talked to him in years and I don’t plan on startin’ now,” and then hung up on me.

Finally, on a late Saturday night in September, Raydean called.

“Mower’s done,” he said after I answered, “Hello?”

He told me it would be a hundred bucks, no checks. He hissed out the words: “Thanks for the business, lady.”

My training in the sticks came back to me. I understood the subtext: I’d pay every last cent or my PowerPro would find itself joining the other mowers that outlined his property. Even more, he’d taken three and a half months to fix it, but I better get over there right away.

I sent my husband. I couldn’t take seeing the overgrown grass, smug Raydean, the runny-eyed cats, and all those abandoned mowers. Somehow this had become my battle and I’d been beat. Not by Raydean McCullough but by my own so-called enlightenment.