By Michael Minassian
In the early 1970s, I was about to start graduate school. Only my scholarship application was still pending. Although I had been active in the anti-war movement, after the shooting at Kent State, my appetite for protests waned. My parents made it clear they didn’t want me hanging around the house for the summer. I made a half-hearted attempt at finding work, hoping that I could scrape together enough money to help when I started grad school in the fall.
My younger sister had been dating Alan, my old high school buddy. He talked me into working for a cleaning company where he had been for about six months.
“Easy work,” he said. “Sure, you have to clean the bathrooms and the kitchen, but most of the time we just run a vacuum over the carpets and dust the bookshelves. No hard work, no heavy lifting.”
I talked to the owner of the company, a gruff ex-marine named Ralph, who squinted at me over his cigar. “Just do what the guys tell you to do,” he said, “and don’t steal anything from the customers.”
Most times, Alan and I would work together as a two-man team. Occasionally, I would ride out with one of the other guys, and if the job was especially big, we would create a four-man team. What surprised me is that all the workers were close to my age, mostly students or between what we called “real jobs.” When I thought about people who cleaned houses, I pictured middle-aged women, or dowdy hotel maids. But we were all young guys, and when we were on the job, we talked about girls, sports, and what we were going to do with our lives.
The houses we cleaned were to my eyes not that dirty. They were a lot less messy and cluttered than the dorm rooms and student apartments I had seen over the past few years. Since we worked during the day, no one was at home in a lot of places we cleaned. That was fine as far as we were concerned. Most houses had a decent stereo system, and we could listen to FM radio or sneak an album onto the turntable. It was great listening to our favorites like Simon and Garfunkel, Mountain, CCR, and John and Yoko (Instant Karma) while we swished a rag around the sink or danced while vacuuming the rug.
At lunch we argued about who was better: The Doors or Cream, Hendrix or Clapton, The Beatles or The Stones. Half of us blamed Yoko, half of us blamed Paul for The Beatles’ breakup. After work, Alan and I would stop off for a couple of beers; both of us lived with our parents and we were in no rush to get home.
One place Alan and I went to every two weeks seemed a bit odd. Several of the rooms in the three-bedroom house were empty. The master bedroom had a bed and a single dresser, and the living room had a couch, a console TV/stereo, and a spider plant in the corner. Alan told me he thought it was because the young couple who lived there had spent almost everything they had to buy the house. Still, it seemed strange to be cleaning a place that was half empty and not that dirty, except for dust and an occasional food-caked dish left on the kitchen table.
Towards the end of July, Alan and my sister came down with a bad cold. Ralph had no choice but to send me out alone to clean the young couple’s house, but I didn’t mind. I thought it would be the usual: a half empty house, no one around, and I could crank up the stereo while I worked.
Most of the owners left a key with Ralph since they worked during the day. I let myself in and crossed over the living room on my way to the kitchen. Halfway through, I stopped, shocked to see someone lying on the sofa.
“Whoa,” I said, “sorry, I didn’t expect anyone to be home.”
“You’re one of the cleaners.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah, um, should I get started in the kitchen?”
“Don’t you want to know what I’m doing here?”
I didn’t say anything to that, so he continued. “I got fired from my job, for no reason, and my wife decided that was a great excuse to leave me.” I shifted uncomfortably and put down my cleaning supplies.
“Are you one of the guys who comes here regularly?” he asked.
“So, are you the one who’s been dipping into my pot stash?”
“What? No way.”
“You see, I find that strange, since every two weeks, my supply is just a little bit lower.”
“Really, I never…” I lied.
“Very clever, I must say. After all, I can’t go to the cops and say someone’s been stealing my pot. Get out!” He yelled. “And tell your boss not to send anyone ever again. Just be glad I don’t tell him you guys stole from me.”
I left right away and drove around for a while, then stopped to get a burger and Coke. I still felt shook up by what had happened. When I got back to the office, I told Ralph we lost the job. Then I quit. Ralph asked me to stay on for another week at least until Alan came back to work and I said OK. Alan, as usual, wasn’t stressed. “Serves him right for keeping his stash in such an obvious place,” he laughed. “And it was some primo weed.”
My parents weren’t quite so nonchalant about my being unemployed, but they OK’d my plan for the rest of the summer especially since I also received the news I had won a full scholarship.
I borrowed my father’s lawn mower, rake, and trimmer and drove around until I had rounded up a few clients, three of them a few blocks from my parents’ house, and another in the next town, about two miles away, thanks to a tip from another friend. Thus, I started my brief career as a landscaper. July flowed into August. The days got hotter. Most times I sweated right through my t-shirt, then took it off. My face, chest, arms, and back got a deep tan and I lost more than ten pounds. I quit smoking and felt better than I had since running track in high school.
The client in the next town was the biggest job on my list. An older three-story house with ten rooms and a big wrap-around porch, it had a huge lawn. The owner was a lawyer and former state judge, and he still drove around in a black 1954 Hudson Hornet, quite the classic car even in the 1970’s.
The last time I mowed the lawn there was right after Labor Day. Unusually warm for September, it was close to ninety degrees. Alan had called me earlier to tell me to meet him later in the afternoon at the Idlewild Swim Club. “Your sister will be there, and a couple of her hot girlfriends. One of them is sure to fall for an older stud like you,” he said. “When was the last time you got laid?”
“Jeez, I don’t remember. Maybe at Elliot’s party?”
“Three months ago? When did you turn into a monk?”
I hung up before I blurted out that I had slept with an ex-girlfriend a week ago. Let him work hard at hooking me up. I had no trouble with that.
By the time I had almost finished mowing and edging the lawn at the Judge’s house, I was soaked through with sweat. The housekeeper brought out a pitcher of iced tea, and I took a break by the pool. While I was cooling off, a young girl came out of the house. I had never seen her before. She had short red hair and was wearing a halter top and shorts. She looked like she was about sixteen.
“Hey,” she said.
“You’re the lawn guy.”
“Pretty good iced tea.”
“It’s cold and wet.”
“You look pretty buff. You work out?”
“No, just cutting lawns and working outdoors in the hot sun.”
“Just graduated. But going back to grad school in a couple of weeks. You?
“Senior year in high school. The Judge is my grandfather. I’m here from Atlanta. You ever eat a Georgia peach?”
“I guess,” I could feel myself blushing.
“Juicy,” she said, then took off her top and stretched out on one of the chaise lounges.
Lucky for me (or unlucky depending on your point of view) the Judge came out the back door and headed straight for her.
“Cover yourself, Natalie,” he barked, handing her a towel.
“And Mark, you come with me; let’s see what you’ve got left.”
I showed the Judge a small section of yard still to be mowed, and some bushes that needed trimming.
“Finish up the lawn and then you can go. I think we can say this is the end of the season anyway. By the way, this has nothing to do with what just happened. That girl is a handful. Been taking her top off every chance she gets. I appreciate what a fine job you’ve been doing for me.” He took out his wallet and peeled out two fifties. “Here’s a little extra to get you started when you go back to school. I guess next year I’ll have to hire some middle-aged guy to do the landscaping. Though don’t know if that will stop that little vixen when she comes visiting.”
I mowed the last patch of lawn and packed up. Just before I got in my car, I glanced over at the pool. The judge’s granddaughter was standing next to the pool, topless, jumping up and down and waving the towel over her head. I took that as my signal to go. I watched her for as long as I could in my rearview mirror until I pulled out into the street, and she was swallowed up with the rest of the summer.