For the last three days Jimmy’s stupid F-150 refused to start. He’d bought it off an old man down the road last spring and after a lot of rehabilitation, turned it into a decent work truck. At least until this week, when the Green Machine refused to get going. Hovering over his engine, spraying starter fluid directly into the carburetor, Jimmy Carson tried to keep his calm. Today was Wednesday and Wednesdays always made him anxious. Maybe the truck could sense it and was trying to keep him home, he thought. He breathed in a mix of morning air and heptane and hope like hell those guys weren’t home.
They were sitting on their porch when he finally pulled up. The taller one called Sykes waved and smiled over a cup of tea. The other one nodded and stood. Jimmy sighed as he moved toward his trailer. He called out a hearty “Heya!” and then tucked his hat down further to hide his face. He knew better than to put on his work gloves just yet.
“Hey Jimmy,” the man he knew as Barry said. “How’s it going this morning?” He held out his hand and Jimmy took it. All part of the Wednesday ritual.
“Oh, you know how it is. This old truck doesn’t always want to start. That’s why I’m a bit late. Sorry about that.”
Barry held up his hands. “No problem, man. No problem. I keep saying you don’t have to follow a strict schedule. I… we just appreciate the work you do here.” Jimmy saw the man look over his shoulder with the word “we.” He pulled on his gloves and shook his head. Jimmy felt himself to be a pretty progressive guy and these two were not his only clients like that, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was going on. Once or twice he tried to figure out what he was sensing, but it was no use. He just didn’t have the nose for personal stuff.
“I’m surprised the storm didn’t knock down that old maple in your yard. You sure you don’t want me to take it…”
“No,” Barry interrupted. “The maple stays. You keep asking, and I keep telling you. It’s important to us.” Barry leaned on the edge of the trailer acting like he belonged there. He rubbed the back of his neck and fidgeted. Jimmy could see the man wanted to make more small talk but didn’t exactly know how. It annoyed him. Were it any other customer he could shoot the shit with them all day and probably not get a lot of work done. But with these two, especially this guy, he was at a loss. Mostly Jimmy didn’t understand why Barry bothered. Here was this good-looking guy, obviously well-off, but all the same seemed pretty lonely.
He looked past Barry to the porch. There was no hiding from the glare coming from Sykes. Jimmy waved and the man smiled, but he could tell even from this distance that the smile didn’t reach the man’s eyes. He turned back to Barry. “I should really get started.” He pointed the release hook on the side gate. Barry nodded and said, “sure! Thanks again,” and walked back to the porch.
As he rolled the mower off the trailer he glanced back at the porch. The tall man’s faced softened when Barry returned and sat down beside him. Months ago, when he first took this job, he thought Barry was hitting on him. He’d been flattered, uninterested, but also very mistaken. Even during small talk, Jimmy felt the presence of Sykes. It wasn’t oppressive, more that Barry unconsciously left a physical space for Sykes. Once Jimmy understood Barry’s friendliness was harmless, he came to realize that the man was just looking for a friend.
Soon after, he considered them friends and he started looking forward to coming over each week. The lawn stretched back at least 100 yards from the road and was dotted with round areas bricked off from the grass and decorated with ornamental and exotic plants. On the south-face of the house, Sykes, according to Barry, had been working on a box garden and was quite proud of his tomatoes. The tomatoes were very good, Jimmy remembered, having been ordered to take a bushel or two when they grew out of control.
He always thought that they could afford a larger company, not just a single mower. They paid Jimmy well and never imagined suggesting they call in a landscaping team, but the property could really benefit from an expert. He enjoyed the work and the friendship and Jimmy felt that even Sykes was warming up to him. But things still changed, and Jimmy could pinpoint the exact moment, about two months after the tomatoes.
It was a Wednesday in early fall, a crisp coolness to the air. He was near the back deck, squatting along the wall, trying to untangle the line on his trimmer when the sliding-glass door opened. He heard Barry’s voice: “He does a good job on the lawn.”
Sykes said, “yes, but it’s a bit uneven in places. I’d get a proper landscaper but you won’t let me.”
“Jimmy’s a good guy. He does a good job.”
“Whatever you say….Barry.”
“Why won’t you let me call you Barry?”
“Because it sounds weird coming from you.”
Jimmy had finished untangling his line, but froze when he heard his name. The feeling of unease grew inside him but he couldn’t find an easy escape. In the silence he imagined both faces appearing over the railing and looking down on him, accusing him of eavesdropping. And…and then what. He watched a chipmunk high-tail it across the lawn and grew jealous of its smallness.
Barry broke the silence. “How about we just get some sheep.”
“You know how I am around sheep!”
“I know,” Barry started to laugh. “It’s hysterical! You trying to round them up !”
“It’s embarrassing,” Sykes whined through Barry’s continued laughter.
Jimmy crab-walked along the base of the railing, still out of sight, hoping like hell he wouldn’t accidentally trigger the trimmer.
“They never found that little one, right?” Barry said, still chuckling.
“You jerk!” Sykes shouted and Jimmy heard the man stomp on the deck boards. “You know damn well that lamb was in the barn the whole time.”
Barry continued laughing, telling an old story and riling up his friend.
“The indignity I faced! You bastard,” Sykes said.
Jimmy heard the two men tussle. He stopped where the deck met the side of the house. If he stood up, he would be able to just make out what was going on. There was a crash and what sounded like one of the small tables being knocked over. A tea cup slid along the boards and through the railing, nearly landing on his head. Instinct made Jimmy look.
A long-haired, silver dog stood in the middle of the deck, his teeth bared. Jimmy didn’t know what breed it was, only that it was big and fancy. Below him lay a Doberman on his side, showing his belly. He didn’t whimper, but held one leg out, his paw restraining the other dog. The silver dog growled, but quietly, more annoyance than threat. Jimmy craned his next to see more of the deck, looking for Barry and Sykes, but they must have gone back inside. The Doberman sniffed and chuffed and to Jimmy it sounded like snickering.
He bent down, grabbed the tea cup from the grass and placed it on the floor of the deck. Jimmy’s eyes met those of the silver dog and before he got a chance to smile, the dog nodded elegantly, an obvious “thank you.”
Instinctively, Jimmy whispered, “you’re welcome,” then accidentally triggered the trimmer. The noise roused the prone Doberman, who leapt to all fours.
Jimmy took one look at the dog and moved. He jogged along the side of the house to the main driveway. A single bark came from behind him, but he didn’t look back, didn’t empty the gas out of his trimmer, didn’t take off his work gloves. He did take every ounce of courage he had to secure the trailer gates properly and then he was in the cab of his unreliable F-150, preying for a miracle. The engine growled to life and he nearly spun out of the driveway. Economics replaced fear the moment he stepped on the gas and calculated how much his one-man business would suffer without this job. He saw a figure come around the corner and, without looking directly, Jimmy gave a hearty wave. In the rear-view mirror, a naked Barry waved back at him.
Today, riding in circles around the old maple tree, Barry tried to let go of any nonsense notions about his clients. They were just a couple of eccentric, rich guys, living in the country. He carefully maneuvered around the roots of the old tree, the top half of which had fallen down years before, Barry had told him. Jimmy nodded to the non-existent music in his ear protection. He circled. Barry was a good guy, he thought. Sykes was alright too, he guessed. Circle and circle and circle. It was the fourth pass around the great trunk when he spied the new scratch marks about three feet up from the ground. This isn’t bear country, Jimmy thought. He looked back at the porch, the two men sipped tea and watched him work.
No, no bears would dare come here. Jimmy circled the trunk once more, for good measure.