Delmur and the Old Man

by Steven Servis


His grass grew rampantly and malignantly and needed a good mowing, a chore that sucked two afternoons out of Delmur’s June retirement schedule. It wasn’t sloth, or that he had better things to do than upkeep his property; he simply dreaded running into his next-door neighbor, Mr. Johnson.

He’d managed to avoid the old man for months by hibernating inside his trailer home with the shades drawn and the lights low. Such was a habit adopted in the winter and carried on through the fog-ridden spring. But now the summer dawned on the peninsula, the boats droned along the nearby lake, and Delmur was the only neighbor who’d failed to fire up his riding lawnmower and conquer the Kentucky blue grass.

The sun was inescapable, lighting every inch of Delmur’s two-acre yard, glaring off the windshields of rusting parked cars in blinding spurts of alabaster. Though the sun was hot and oppressive, Delmur’s procrastination was not inspired by it. The idea of Johnson criticizing his methods of upkeep suppressed Delmur into a lethargic laze.

Such was Delmur’s mental state that he could not even motivate himself to restore his cars, a hobby that he was passionate about. However, Delmur wanted very badly to mow his lawn, to make an honest effort despite the property’s obvious flaws.

One afternoon, as the sun beat through the eastern windows, Delmur talked himself into doing just that. The middle-aged man poked his balding head outside, carefully listened, and wondered if Johnson wouldn’t be mowing his lawn at that very moment.

Outside he expected to see Johnson scowling at Delmur’s home, the only trailer house grandfathered into the uppity subdivision, a clause excluding his property from the neighborhood’s restrictive covenants. Delmur knew that Johnson had many reasons to hate him as a neighbor, but none of them was the root of Johnson’s discontent. Johnson was simply a rotten old man, and all the neighbors disliked him.

Delmur stood in his detached garage, which was built in the style of a barn and painted red, complete with ten-foot swinging doors, and he glared at his rusty lawnmower contraption. His lip was cocked, revealing a couple of teeth, one eye open wider than the other and glazed like a polished cue ball.

All around the neighborhood lawnmowers buzzed away, birds chirped, and the verdure of carefully pruned trees gently rustled, but not a single child could be heard playing and not one dog braved a lonely howl. As odd and quiet as this neighborhood had become in its retirement boom, it was even stranger to Delmur that one lawnmower in particular remained silent. Johnson, who labored in his lawn nearly every day, an ever-present lawn ornament to the neighborhood, had suddenly gone missing.

As Delmur stood in his garage, he became aware of this and wondered if Johnson had met an untimely death. He peeped his head out of the garage door. Johnson’s lawn was freshly mown, not a single grass clipping remaining askew, but Johnson was not watering the flowers in front of his Victorian-style house or pruning the shrubs that lined his front walkway.

The air was breezy and cool, the sun too busy weaving in and out of clouds to burn Delmur’s fair skin. He lit a cigarette and inhaled the smoke into his wheezy lungs as he enjoyed the view from his property that overlooked the popular vacation destination, Lake Takahee. If he didn’t look to the left or the right, the lake almost seemed as serene and beautiful as it had been many years before the boom.

He took a deep breath. Delmur liked it there in the country ten miles out of town. He’d moved onto the property many years before his neighbors, and back then, before the neighborhood had been incorporated, his two acres appeared to spread a square mile.

Delmur flicked his cigarette. Old Johnson must have gone to the store, and for once he wasn’t around to belittle Delmur. Maybe, thought Delmur, I won’t sell this place after all, if I can avoid Johnson. If that is possible.

He wasn’t trying to sell his property, but there was always a buyer with dollar signs in his eyes looking to invest in it, to haul the trailer elsewhere and build a proper house on the land. Though he often agreed to sell it — typically at prices higher than the property’s value — he failed to commit fully to such agreements.

The sensible choice was to leave the property and take the money, an intuition that stemmed from his business nature, and such would entice him to pursue the riches. He would take it to the very end, right up until the banker put the pen in his hand, and then he would suddenly stand up. “I’m sorry,” he’d say, and then he would abandon the transaction. He would remember at some point that he loved his home and his life and his long-standing presence on the property.

Delmur fired up the contraption — two broken lawnmowers morphed into one functioning machine — and he circled the outer edges of his two-acre plot of land, carelessly blowing the grass outwardly into the flawless lawn of Johnson. Delmur had a little chuckle and circled around again, repeating the joke as the wind tugged at his graying hair, and he grinned a fowl smile of enjoyment.

Just then, as Dulmur crested the very pinnacle of his happiness, Johnson’s shed doors flung open and old Johnson ramped out in his shiny RX2000, a state of the art machine only afforded to the most serious yard hands.

Delmur combed his hair to the side with his hand and concentrated on steering the mower straight, failing to meet eyes with the old man or to even look at the new, expensive mower. But Johnson stared as he arrogantly rode his lawnmower like an aristocrat upon a stallion, browbeating the younger Delmur hardly dressed for summer in his stained jeans and red pocket t-shirt. The two lawnmowers, the new one and the rusty one, parted at the south side of the properties.

Though the lawn tractors were very different machines, they traveled at equal speeds, each with one high and one low gear. The two properties being equally allotted, the tractors circled their confines at equal intervals, causing Delmur and Johnson to meet in a figure eight. As they rode toward each other, Johnson glared with such enthusiasm one might mistake him for a hexing witch. Delmur looked only at the grass and even at the sky, but not once at the disturbed Johnson.

“Hey!” Johnson yelled, but Delmur failed to hear the old man over the two-cycle motors. He did, however, see the man’s lips mime in his direction, and he did not care. Delmur ignored Johnson.

As Delmur turned into the innards of his property, old Johnson veered in after him, shifting his lawnmower into high gear. Delmur looked back just in time to see Johnson make a cowardly U-turn back into his own property. Trespassing, Delmur thought. Still Delmur ignored Johnson, hoping the old man would give up on communication.

As Delmur circled around his house and veered toward Johnson’s property, he noticed Johnson speed out from behind his own residence, a green John Deer hat towering over his pasty white face and fitted over an obvious gray wig, Johnson swiftly, easily maneuvering his imperious machine toward Delmur’s property.

Delmur cursed. But still Delmur mowed his lawn as he normally would if Johnson weren’t there and trying to get his attention. Delmur hoped that Johnson would take a new route, and he was suddenly relieved to see Johnson circle around an old chestnut tree. Aha! Delmur thought. We will not meet this time.

But suddenly Johnson shifted his lawnmower into high gear and ran Delmur down, yelling something or another at him as they sped along the property line like racecars on an Indy track. Still, as Delmur’s face reddened, he ignored Johnson and any attempt the old man made to gain his attention. But suddenly, as Delmur was distracted by Johnson’s behavior, his mower clipped a rock and halted, the motor ceasing.

“Hey!” Johnson shouted, shutting down his giant mower. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What do you mean?” Delmur reluctantly muttered.

“I’m talking about the laws of the land!” he wailed.

“There are no laws of the land,” Delmur refuted.

“Yes! Yes, there are. And they say you can’t blow your nasty grass on my lawn!” Mr. Johnson insisted.

“Give me a break,” Delmur said and gave his lawnmower a shove.

“Laws!” Johnson squealed, pointing his finger in the air.

“Come on?” Delmur sneered.

“You think you can just blow your grass on my lawn? I don’t think so,” Johnson explained.

“It’s just grass, Johnson.”

“I don’t want whatever you’re mowing over there blowing over here,” Johnson scolded and poked out his chin. Delmur looked down at his dirty boots. He took a deep breath.

“Maybe you should get off my property, Johnson,” Delmur said and looked up, “before I call the police.”

“Too late,” Johnson said. “They’re already on their way!”

Delmur’s face flushed and his heart fell cold. “Why would they be on their way, Johnson?”

“Because I called them as soon as I saw you destroying my property.”

Delmur thought about killing Mr. Johnson at that moment. It wouldn’t take much to shut the old man up. One good punch in the mouth would do it. However, the old man wouldn’t likely survive a smack in the face, and then Delmur would be on the hook for murder. So instead, Delmur took a deep breath, let out an egregious battle cry, and gave his lawnmower an angry shove, dislodging it from the rock. “Whatever, Johnson,” he said and mounted the mower.

It wasn’t much longer after Delmur had gotten his lawnmower dislodged from the rock that the deputy sheriff pulled into his driveway discretely, lights off. Delmur stubbornly continued mowing the lawn until the deputy waved him off the tractor. He parked the contraption, dismounted, and lit a cigarette indifferently.

Johnson stood with his wife on this back porch eavesdropping intensely with a beer in his hand. It was like a screenplay to him, except the outcome was within his hands. They watched and laughed as the deputy attempted to play the peacemaker in a ridiculous game Johnson had created in the boredom of his retirement. Delmur made it clear to the officer that this was a waste of taxpayer dollars. No laws had been broken.

The deputy got into his car and drove over to Johnson’s. Delmur watched as they had a hoo-hah over the situation, laughing and talking loudly. The deputy knew old Johnson pretty well by now, Johnson having called the police so many times in the past.

As the sun set, Delmur retreated to his house, his lawnmower still parked in the half-mown lawn. He opened a beer and touched a picture of his late wife, Sue Ellen. He turned the television on and watched the sun set over the lake. He opened the sliding glass door and listened to the crickets and frogs and owls. He thought about fishing but decided he was too hungry to fish. He sat on a bucket on the back porch. It was a really nice place, he thought. But his eyes fell on the half-mown lawn, and he realized he hated living like this.

He didn’t have to hate it, he thought. It didn’t have to be this way. If he could only get Johnson to be reasonable, they could live in peace. It would take some arguing, he realized, to get past his defenses. Delmur wasn’t sure if he had it in him, to face old Johnson, to befriend him.

Suddenly Johnson’s voice echoed through the crisp, nighttime air. Delmur hurried into the house and peeped through the window. The deputy was having a beer with old Johnson now. He couldn’t believe it. What kind of officer drinks beer on the job? he thought.

Delmur closed the curtain and the backdoor. He turned the television up and tried not to think about it. He sat on his couch and lit a cigarette. I wonder, he thought, how Johnson would feel if the shoe was on the other foot? What if he couldn’t mow his lawn? What if his property looked despicable? Would he spend all day in the yard then? Destroying Johnson’s property was a fine idea, Delmur thought, but it wasn’t plausible. There was nothing he could do that wouldn’t start a feud. But if it appeared as though it were an act of God, Johnson would have to accept his circumstances.

Then suddenly without warning, Delmur felt pain run up his arm and his back, and he hunched over. He fell to the floor. He wondered if this was a cramp, but no, he realized, he was having a heart attack. With his one good arm, he crawled to the phone and called the paramedics. Delmur promptly went into shock, his eyes rolling into his head.

Delmur didn’t remember signing the papers or even arriving at the hospital. He awoke in a critical care unit when the nurses sat him up, told him to cough, and harshly yanked the breathing tube out of his throat. Delmur tried to speak, attempted to tell them he couldn’t breathe, and he choked on mucus.

When they turned his head to the side and told him to spit in a pail, he saw him there. Delmur’s vision blurry, he wondered if he was having a nightmare. All of this, however, was all too real. And there he lay in the bed beside Delmur, Johnson snoring away like a snorting pig, his tongue hanging out of his ugly face, sedated after a stroke.

And with that, Delmur inhaled his first half-breath since his multiple bypass surgery. He tried to speak, but nothing would come out. He wanted to tell them to get him out of there. He wanted a different room. With his arms outstretched, he requested pen and paper, but they ignored him, told him to lie back in the bed.

A voice called out, “He’s waking up!” Hurried, the nurses rushed to Johnson’s side. Delmur choked on his spit, on his own words as he sat up and whispered as if they were his last, “Let him die!”

The nurses looked back to see Delmur’s gritting teeth, Delmur on his elbow. “Lay back,” the head nurse shouted. “Your sternum’s been cut in two.” Delmur’s eyes bulged as he felt the bone crunch; he howled in pain.

“Well, you should have done as you were told,” the head nurse scolded. “Two milligrams of morphine.” The anesthesiologist injected a needle into the IV in his chest, and Delmur collapsed into the hospital bed, his eyes falling on Johnson’s lifeless scowl.

“Don’t you ever smile, you son of a bitch?” Delmur throated.

“Try not to get yourself worked up,” the anesthesiologist said as he scanned the barcode of the morphine vial into the computer.

“That’s my neighbor,” he told him.

“We’re working on getting you a different room, but everything’s full right now,” the bald man said and pitched the empty bottle.

“Good,” Delmur said, and landed his eyes on Johnson’s lifeless, liver-spotted arms.

“Here’s the television remote,” the man said, and placed it in Delmur’s hand.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” Delmur asked as he noticed drool careening out of his slack jaw.

“He had a major stroke,” the anesthesiologist said.

“When?”

“Around the same time you had your heart attack,” he said.

“How’d he get here then?”

“There was only room for one in the ambulance, so he had to wait for another one, unfortunately.”

“How long did he have to wait?”

“Too long,” he said. “Do you need anything right now?”

“Water,” Delmur said.

He raised a straw to Delmur’s mouth. “Just a couple of sips.”

Delmur nodded and sipped the lukewarm water. “I’ll put it right here for you,” the man said, and placed the cup on Delmur’s TV stand. “Anything else?”

Delmur motioned for the anesthesiologist to come closer, and the man leaned in. Delmur pointed his slimy finger at Johnson and said with the most sincere voice. “Adjust his face... so it isn’t scowling at me.”

The anesthesiologist frowned and jerked the curtain around Johnson’s bed. Delmur lay in the hospital bed alone, tuning out the echoes of Johnson’s endless snores.


Copyright © 2012 by Steven Servis

Proceed to Challenge 503...

Home Page