YASMIN NADIYAH PHILLIP
How to Use Your Father’s Lawnmower
For several years I left this story on the backburner, unsuccessful in deciding how to write it. Then I took a class on experimental forms in nonfiction last summer, and my eyes were opened to the hermit crab structure. I knew immediately that I wanted to use the impersonal nature of an owner’s manual to tell a very personal story—one about family disruption, abandonment, and responsibility.
Fire-Red Push Lawn Mower
REVIEW INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY AND DIFFUSE SPARKS OF ANGER BEFORE ATTEMPTING USE OF MACHINE.
This mower has been well maintained by its owner since the date of purchase years ago. Now that its owner has left, it is required that you, the eldest daughter, take over its use and restore decency to the yard. Do this for your mother, who is swamped by mediation meetings. For your younger sisters, who are still processing the shock.
For the HOA, who recently mailed a warning about the height of the grass.
IMPORTANT: Improper use of mower could result in thrown objects, severed limbs, or worse.
Attempted use may result in feelings of stupidity. After all, you are seventeen years old and should know how to mow a lawn.
General use will result in the feeling that your family’s collective ego has been damaged. Neighbors in your tight, suburban cul-de-sac will see you fumbling in the blistering June heat and wonder why your father is missing from the landscape he always tended so faithfully. They didn’t know about the situation, he always smiling and she always trying to, muffled cries lingering on the other side of your bedroom wall. They didn’t know, but you did.
Swallow hard, then swallow hard again.
Free the mower from its hibernation in the cluttered garage and wheel it toward the front lawn. Hesitation may linger; the front lawn was always closely guarded, a sacred exhibit of neatly trimmed grass. Pleas to do just one cartwheel were met with you have an entire backyard to play in. Failure to comply, even by the accidental veering of your scooter off the sidewalk, resulted in heart-pounding reproofs.
But all of that is absent now. The exhibit’s curator just moved into a gated apartment complex across town. He recently tried to make you feel at home there.
Do you want to go out and see the pool?
No, Dad. I don’t want to see the pool.
It is advised that you familiarize yourself with the location of various controls and adjustments before operation. It is advised that you raise the mower blades to better accommodate grass left untouched since the afternoon your aunt whisked you and your sisters to Panera while your father packed.
Since your energy is waning, focus on the essentials—namely, starting the engine.
Repeat, once more, the instructions your mother gave you while she sifted crinkled court documents: Pull the handle to the thing, then yank the cord. Angle your body in different ways to better clutch the “handle” and the “thing,” which protrude to a height that makes your five-foot-one-inch frame feel incapable of generating any steering force.
Now, yank the cord. No, Yank! Invest all the exclamation points you can muster. Attempt three, four, five times. More, if necessary.
And, with a jerk and a roar, plunge forth.
Push, arms straight out, into the chaos of a new world. Awkwardly blaze each crooked row. Wince but endure the exploding grass stinging your bare legs, the stench of gasoline filling your nostrils.
Trample your way across the old exhibit, digging your heels in as you leave a disarray of razed shoots. Curve around the right and left flanks of the house, side-eyeing the obliviously joyful hydrangea bushes running along the vinyl siding.
Conquer the sloping backyard, repressing those sudden memories of laughter and fresh air. Clip, as best as possible, the irregular tufts of grass jutting around the playground set he built, sweating over wooden slats while you slurped homemade popsicles. Pause at the base of the wide patio deck, the location of countless family get-togethers, where he would grill pizza and pump Afro-Latin music through the outdoor speakers.
When all is finished—the echo of the engine still battering your eardrums—stop and look.
Look at yourself, at your drenched T-shirt, your sore arms, your chlorophyll-stained sneakers. Look at the grass, the rows uneven yet subdued in the afternoon sun. You don’t have to pretend to feel pleased. But at least acknowledge your accomplishment.
Save this manual for future reference. For when your father starts a new life halfway across the country. For when the needs left behind become more serious than that of an unruly suburban yard. It’s not a small task, learning how to live like this.
But you will learn.
Yasmin Nadiyah Phillip is a writer, musician, and freelance illustrator and photographer. She is currently based in northwestern Virginia.
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