By David Oppegaard
I started mowing lawns when I was about twelve-years-old. I’d whip our mower into a rumbling fury, crank up Alice Cooper’s Trash or GNR’s Appetite for Destruction on my cassette Walkman, and mow the shit out of our yard.
Grass, waist-high weeds, branches, frogs, my sister’s stupid toys—if it could be mowed, I mowed it, without mercy or hesitation. I was an epic god of rock, cutting through the tall grass of boredom while shouting along to gloriously stupid GNR lyrics such as
Ya get nothin’ for nothin’
If that’s what ya do
Turn around bitch I got a use for you
Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do
And I’m bored
while the neighborhood rabbits fled for their rabbit lives and I grew coated in sweat, chopped dirt, and gasoline fumes.
Eventually, as I grew in strength and manhood, I took on bigger lawns, jobs where riding mowers were provided by the owner. One job was on a hog farm, a smelly place of despair where I lasted three or four weeks before I carelessly ran over the sun bloated carcass of a dead rabbit and was thankfully fired. Another job was mowing for the town mortuary, which I had standing orders to mow every four days, whether the lawn really needed it or not. For that gig I had to enter the mortuary’s creepy, creepy garage to get the riding mower, which was parked next to a big gray hearse. Every time I opened that goddamn mortuary garage door I imagined a horde of carefully groomed zombies waiting for me on the other side, eager to feast on the resident lawn boy.
But I loved mowing lawns, whittling down grassy squares into tinier and tinier grassy squares while the sun cooked my teenage brain into a fine, simmering stew.
It felt pure, and good.
Alas, the halcyon days of my youth were not to last. In high school, I got a job at the local IGA grocery store and started working year-round while still mowing lawns on the side. Then high school passed, like a horrible acid trip, and in the May of 1998 I was faced with the prospect of college in the fall.
In the fall!
I would need money. Heaps and heaps of money. More money than a part-time minimum wage grocery store job and a few half-assed lawn mowing gigs could provide. It was time to go big, to go epic.
I contacted my best friend Ben Jacobson, who himself worked part-time at the gas station on the edge of town. Ben! I said. Let’s start a fucking company. A lawn maintenance company that will bring this town to its goddamn knees. And lo, Ben, who was as bored as I was, said Okay, that sounds good, Dave.
We decided to call ourselves Lords of the Lawn, a mocking tribute to Michael Flatley’s
theatrical dance phenomena Lord of the Dance. We printed up fliers, which proclaimed our inherent usefulness for all manner of lawn services, and drove wildly around town in my Oldsmobile land submarine, shoving fliers into screen doors and peeling madly away, cackling as I cranked up the local classic rock station.
Our first client was a nice lady I’d met at the grocery store. She said she had a lot of work for us and I promptly quit my job at the IGA, triumphantly walking out with my head held high, destined for greater things.
As it turned out, she had only about ten days of work for two people, work that included pulling, by hand, a small sea of tiny weeds from her front yard, a mind-numbing process that caused tempers to flare among Lords of the Lawn employees and which, once, culminated in an actual knockdown fight involving landscaping forks.
After this first job petered out, the Lords of the Lawn faced a grave crisis. Nobody had actually replied to any of the fliers we’d delivered. We had sunburns, but not much cash. We were weakening.
Which is why, in retrospect, we agreed to work on the Farm.
We found out about the Farm through my stepdad, who worked as its mechanic in residence (shit is always breaking down on a big farm). The Farm wasn’t just a farm, however—it was also a grain depot, which meant lots of grain silos and augers and a pervasive smell of rotting corn which, it turns out, smells worse than gangrene and diarrhea combined.
The first task given to the mighty Lords of the Lawn was pulling nails from the roof of a big sheet metal garage. Ben and I worked high in the air, roasted in the July sun, and pulled nails eight hours a day (lots and lots of nails). By the third day, I was waking up in the middle of the night with a numb, claw-like right arm that seemed to have a life of its own.
Ben and I finished de-nailing that roof in a week or so and moved on to a series of tasks that involved shoveling rotten corn into the maw of a skid loader, sweeping feed corn into comically huge piles (we could spend a forty-hour work week just sweeping out one aircraft hangar-like building, coated in corn dust and sweating like Bruce Springsteen), and, most terribly of all, descending underground into the corn tunnels and swamping out the rotten corn that had been festering there for years and years.
This last task was so horrible that Ben and I took turns going underground. One lucky bastard stood by the tunnel’s opening, cooling his heels until the underground bastard lifted up a five-gallon pail of corn shit for the lucky bastard to dump into the skid loader. We did this in fifteen-minute shifts, as if excavating Chernobyl, and the combination of horseflies (how they liked to bite!), stifling underground heat, and tremendous corn stench was truly fierce, a far cry from the sunny days of lawn mowing I had once known.
Yes, life was harsh on the Farm. We saw a farm cat holding a rat between its paws and gnawing on it as if eating a burrito. We sweated our body weight hourly and replaced it with rusty lukewarm hose water. I was even forced to create a story, a chaste little fantasy about Ben and me going on a bucolic picnic with two beautiful redheaded sisters. How much fun we had on this picnic! How kind and delightful were these girls! Yes, I’d repeat this story daily to Ben, elaborating on it further each time, until both of us, in our sweaty delusion, almost started to believe it.
In the end, Ben and I lasted maybe five or six weeks before we quit the Farm and disbanded the Lords of the Lawn permanently.
My stepdad said he was impressed we’d lasted that long.
David Oppegaard is the author of the Bram Stoker nominated The Suicide Collectors, Wormwood, Nevada, and The Ragged Mountains. David lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota and teaches at The Loft and Hamline University.