Yardwork does nothing for me. I'm expressing total honesty when I say that. I'm aware that some men look at their lawn as a vast canvas; they seem to think it's a stage where they can act out the ancient struggle of man against nature. A bunch of guys like this live on my street, like Harold Ronson, the crusty old fellow who got the neighborhood started on all the nonsense with yellow ribbons. I'll get to that part later.
Unlike Harold, I could hardly care less about keeping my lawn looking nice. Ellie knew that when we got married and bought the house, and she should have guessed that the rake and the Desert Storm ribbon she tied around the porch railing would only lead to a disagreement.
It took a while for that to happen; in fact, the pot simmered for several months. Ellie kept after me last autumn when the leaves from the neighbors' trees were landing on our lawn in thick layers and blowing wildly through the damp air. One weekend she came in the kitchen with two bags of groceries and announced that she had picked up a space-age rake at the local hardware store. "Would you get it out of the car for me?" she asked. That's Ellie for you. She knew the word subtle quite well, but I'm not sure the definition ever really sunk in. That's one of the reasons I fell in love with her, I suppose.
I slid the rake out of Ellie's back seat and took a long look at the thing before leaning it against my workbench in the garage, where it remained for a few weeks. Ellie sharply reminded me about the leaves several times as she came home from work and I would bring it up just before we went to sleep so she'd know I wasn't blowing her off. I sometimes complained about being forced to rake leaves when we didn't even have a tree in the front yard. We played this passive-aggressive game until the first snowfall in November, when it become clear that the moment had passed. Knowing the brutality of winter weather in Nebraska, I stowed the rake in the corner of the garage and promised to get the job done early in the spring. Ellie told me that I was making us look like poor white trash, and I just shook my head at that.
During those months, while our unkempt lawn was obscured under six inches of snow, that military endeavor known as Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. The price of gasoline went through the roof and the nightly news became impossibly boring. After a few weeks I gave up caring, despite the fact that Ellie had a cousin stationed right there in Saudi Arabia. I had never met the kid -- Lonnie was his name -- so hearing about his exploits from my wife didn't bring Desert Storm any closer to home.
Then one day in March, after the short-lived ground war and subsequent cease-fire over in Saudi, that majestic rake made a startling reappearance in our kitchen. I came out for coffee that morning to find the rake propped against the counter so that the silverware drawer was blocked. As I set the thing aside, I looked at Ellie, who had been wordlessly spooning a grapefruit, and asked if she was trying to tell me something.
"Can you do it today? Please? I know the game starts at two o'clock. Does that give you enough time?"
I closed my eyes and said yes.
A breeze whistled down the street. Tree limbs, still naked and smooth, tapped together in a lazy rhythm on my next-door neighbor's property. I had taken a seat on the cool concrete porch steps, and I could hear the branches creaking in the morning wind, rattling as the bright sun illuminated the suburban landscape. Both of my hands were clasped around one of the iced tea glasses given to me and Ellie as a wedding present two years back. I asked her to make some tea while I changed into grubby clothes, and she dug through the cupboards to find the proper glasses and the matching pitcher designed especially for iced tea. The pitcher was at my side. I stirred the ice in the glass with an absent-minded finger, feeling the slippery cubes wobble against each other. Then, with an ominous roar, Harold Ronson's vintage Dodge Dart rumbled past our house. I lifted my arm to wave at him, but he failed to return the gesture. No surprise there. Why on Earth would Harold expect me to be working in the front yard?
I thought ahead to the end of the job, when I could drag Ellie out of the kitchen to help me stuff the trash bags. She almost never works with her hands -- neither do I, for that matter -- because her job is mostly numbers in ledgers. Ellie's office works closely with the Internal Revenue Service in ways that I don't really understand. Today she took a break from numbers and decided to bake applesauce cookies using my grandma's recipe. I still find it rather surreal when she does this domestic stuff. She wasn't much of a baker when we met, and I don't think I ever saw her make cookies during the years we were dating. It's like she turned thirty and started doing the things that adults are supposed to do. One thing leads to another, I suppose. You buy a house, you get an oven, and eventually you get the urge to use it for something more than frozen pizza. So she spent the morning puttering around the kitchen, elbow-deep in cookie dough, checking out the window every twenty minutes or so to see if I was still tackling my assignment.
I noticed the rake leaning helplessly against the porch railing and took an easy breath of the warming air. Break's over, I thought to myself, and halfheartedly got to my feet. As I pulled on my work gloves, the dry bits stuck to my forearms flaked away and fluttered to the ground. I picked up the rake and got back to work.
Our house is just big enough for the two of us. Ellie says we will need to move to another place if we decide to have children, and I have no problem with that. A house is a house, you know? The lawn is equally modest: a short twenty feet from the porch to the sidewalk, no trees in the front yard, only a few in the back. If I had been realistic last fall and spent a few minutes thinking about the actual labor involved in raking the lawn, I would have recognized that Ellie was right. Leaves can be gathered and bagged quite easily before they rot into mulch, which became increasingly clear with every pass of the rake. I piled the dead stuff in long rows from one end of the yard to the other: green, brown, green, brown.
A cloud of powdered leaves swooshed into the air with every stroke of the rake. Invariably, the leaves were caught by the wind and swept over the fence into the Andersens' gorgeous yard. Mr. Andersen groomed his grass like a putting green, and I worried that he might be bothered that my work was spoiling his little Garden of Eden. Then again, the Andersen's apple tree dropped dozens of apples into my yard last year and they ended up plain rotten, which stunk up the whole neighborhood. I swear his tree dropped more fruit on my side of the fence than his own. I sometimes wondered what would happen if I took down the chain-link fence that runs along the property line and built a new one with the apple tree on our side of the fence. I'd like to have an apple tree. Ellie could use them to make those applesauce cookies. As it was, I felt guilty picking the Andersen apples, even when they were growing on my side of the tree.
Before too long, I worked my way back to the porch. I designed the job so I would finish a row of leaves at the front steps, where I could reward myself with a sip of tea. The pitcher was still half full. I removed my work gloves and laid them aside. As I reached through the porch railing to refill my glass, a powerful gust of wind punched behind me. Some tiny bits of leaves sifted into the tea. I cursed under my breath and did my best to pinch out the dirty stuff with my fingers, which weren't that clean to begin with. Standing there with my hands between metal posts, I heard a rustling sound and felt something smack against my shoulder. I turned my head and got a mouthful of ribbon. Yellow ribbon.
Ellie had tied the stupid thing in a bow on our porch railing last August, shortly after Lonnie went to Saudi with his reserve unit. She made a special trip to K-Mart and bought a three-foot length of yellow ribbon just for that purpose. I think she was the first in our neighborhood to follow Tony Orlando's corny advice but for weeks after that, yellow ribbons were springing up like weeds, anticipating the homecoming of those soldiers over in Saudi. You couldn't turn your head without seeing a ribbon on a mailbox, front door, or car antenna. Some people wore little ribbons on their winter coats. The city affixed a gigantic yellow ribbon to the water tower at the edge of town. I expect they were everywhere from sea to shining sea.
I looked hard at the ribbon on our front railing. When Ellie first brought it home, the vibrant yellow color was quite eye-catching. Now that winter had taken its toll on the dye, you could barely find a wash of the old color. From a distance, the bow looked pale and dirty, like snow that had been trampled upon. Fluttering threads hung from tattered ends. If Lonnie were to show up at our front door -- not that he ever would, but if he did -- the boy would be ashamed of this tired-looking totem.
"Ellie!" I called. "Come to the front door!" I waited for a minute or two, taking sips of tea all the while. The wind asserted itself, inspiring me to cover the top of the pitcher with my hands to keep the leaves from ruining my tea. "Ellie! Can I take this old ribbon off the railing?"
Just as the words left my lips, she appeared at the doorway with a dishrag in her hands. "Take it off, you said?"
I swigged some iced tea and nodded, trying to forget the leaf bits now sunken to the bottom of the glass. "The war's been over for a month and Lonnie signed up for another year, didn't he? Why don't we take it down and put it away?"
"You're joking, right? This is a joke of some kind."
Ellie put her hands on her hips, looking a little too much like my mother. "You can't put away a homecoming ribbon until the homecoming. That's the way it works. Have you seen anyone else take down their yellow ribbon?"
I surveyed the houses on our block. Several neighbors were doing yardwork, even Harold Ronson, who had returned home in his Dart and was now cutting the grass with his top-of-the-line riding mower that certainly cost more than his car. A tough strip of yellow fabric had been knotted around the maple tree in Harold's front lawn. Mrs. Ronson violently shook out a rug on their front porch as Harold rolled around the tree on his mower, inadvertently tossing grass clippings at his wife's ankles. Harold is one of those old soldiers who gets up at the crack of dawn to run Old Glory up the flagpole in his yard. Seems like Army habits are hard to break. He served in World War II, so I would imagine that no one was surprised when his grandson joined right out of high school. The kid had been on the front lines in Iraq and also fought down in Panama. Only twenty-three and he's already won more wars than Grandpa Harold has.
I played with the ice in my glass. "Maybe no one knows when to take them down. Someone has to be the first, you know."
"Leave the ribbon where it is."
"Why don't we get a new one, then? It looks like something the cat dragged in. I wouldn't want to come home to that thing. It's not even yellow anymore." I tipped the glass to finish my tea and the ice tumbled against my lips.
Ellie glared at me. "The ribbon stays where it is until Lonnie comes home."
"Your call," I said. All of a sudden, my neck felt hot, like it had been badly sunburned. I stabbed my hands between the posts to pour another glass. The railing, not yet warmed by the sun, felt cool against my wrists. By the time I looked back up, Ellie had disappeared from the doorway and cookie sheets were banging against each other in the kitchen.
I had finished raking the north end of the lawn and now I had to attack the south. The freshly disturbed grasses were a sickly color of green, apparently unconvinced that spring had arrived. Last year they remained that same color until Ellie bought a sprinkler and let it run every night for a few weeks. Harold Ronson has an automated sprinkler system. He also pays a lawn service to come out to his house every few months and spray little yellow pellets of fertilizer all over the yard. The lawn service guys show up wearing masks to filter their chemicals out of the air, and they plant small flags along Harold's sidewalk right before they leave to warn unsuspecting neighbors about the pellets. All sorts of horrible things can happen if you get the fertilizer on your skin, put it in your mouth, or even smell the fumes too deeply: nausea, skin rashes, blindness, death. All for the want of a picture-perfect lawn. For a week after the service comes, Harold's grandkids can't even roll down the big hill in his side yard for fear of getting poisoned.
I put on those canvas gloves again and got to work on the other side of the lawn. The Andersens had fewer trees than our neighbors to the north did -- just that apple tree and a couple others -- so I made a quick job of it. I had gotten into a good groove, running the rake up and down with any conscious thought, and so my mind wandered. My attention kept returning to that flapping scraggly ribbon. I noticed that I had started grinding my teeth. I tried to lose myself in the rhythm of the raking, but couldn't stop thinking about the white ribbon waving eastward to a faceless cousin who, the way Ellie tells it, cares more about making payments on his new Honda than he does about patriotism, duty, or honor. I scraped dead stuff from the soil, roughly, pulling out some young grasses along with the mulched leaves. I worked away from the porch now, making a line from the front walk to the fence along the Andersens' property. The row of mulch grew thicker and deeper as I approached the fence line, and just before I reached it, the rake snagged itself on something. I jerked the rake roughly and released a rotten apple, a product of the tree from last autumn, from a small hollow where it had been sheltered all these months. I was ready to kick it into the pile with all the other yard waste when the pungent odor of the apple made its way to my nose, causing me to hesitate.
The smell took me back to my childhood, to my grandmother's living room, where I would watch cartoons and football games on her big black-and-white while she used a paring knife to slice tiny apples that had been brought home from the orchard at the edge of town. She hummed to herself as she creaked back and forth in her rocking chair, and I often tried to figure out which tune she was humming. Sometimes I recognized a hymn from church, but more often than not I was stumped. The sliced apples would make an appearance in the hours or days to follow, usually in the form of a sweet-smelling pie or homemade applesauce made with too much cinnamon for my taste. My grandmother prefaced every meal with a prayer for Uncle Jasper, her youngest son, using a quiet voice that even a divine presence would have trouble hearing. As far as she was concerned, Jasper had been a heroic soldier. My father saw it differently: he said his brother went to Vietnam to keep himself from being unemployed. Once there, he lost two fingers while mishandling a gun, received a medical discharge, and found a monthly check from the government in his mailbox ever since. I had only met Jasper on a few occasions in my childhood. He came to Thanksgiving dinner one year, which shocked the whole family, and told violent stories about his battles against the Viet Cong as we ate. Jasper called the enemy Victor Charlie, or sometimes just plain Charlie. I remembered one particularly gruesome tale where Jasper and his buddies ran a length of thin wire across a trail, positioned precisely so any Charlie on a motorcycle would be decapitated. I played with my cranberry sauce while Jasper rambled on and on, going into intimate detail about the look on Charlie's face just before his head was ripped clean off his body. Jasper laughed loud and long before growing sullen when he saw that no one else at the table had joined him. Despite my grandmother's prayers, Jasper never found a good job, never married, and died before his thirty-fifth birthday.
I rolled the apple back and forth with my foot. Then I stopped and applied a little pressure against the apple. It collapsed ever so slightly and I heard a crunching sound. I took a deep breath and smashed it under my shoe. The juice dribbled into the dirt.
The rake fell from my hand into the unfinished row of dead leaves as I marched back to the front porch, breathing harder and faster with every step. I peeled off my work gloves and tossed them to the ground. My neck felt hot again. My clumsy fingers had a devil of a time with Ellie's knot, but before too long I had pulled it apart. The filthy white bow slipped from the cold metal railing with a slippery sound. Parts of the ribbon had remained yellow, hidden from the elements within the tight knot, which only served to underscore the extent of the fading. I slid the ribbon into my back pocket.
Dirty leaf fragments were clinging to the edges of the pitcher and floating on the surface of the tea, so I gathered everything and clattered through the front door. I went to the kitchen sink and poured the spoiled tea down the drain. As I rinsed out the pitcher, I wondered where Ellie had hidden herself. The sweet smell of applesauce cookies brought me into the pantry, where I found two batches cooling. I took a long, slow whiff of the cookies and felt a smile creep across my face. I imagined that my grandmother would be quite proud of her.
I returned to the front porch and sat down on the concrete steps. Harold rolled past our house once again in his Dart, and this time he took the opportunity to wave at me. I watched the wind swirling leaves across the sidewalk and into the sky. Then, as the clouds rushed across the sky, I looked at the long rows of leaves radiating away from me in every direction and tried my best to think of a way to bag them without losing everything to the wind.