After a 450 page novel that took 7 years to write, I needed to do something quick and easy. Check out this short story….
The Summer of ‘88
by Mark McGinty
This is pretty much a true story. Sorry if anyone gets offended. Back in the summer of ’88 there were these two kids who lived in the same neighborhood. They weren’t really friends, weren’t really enemies either. They just never paid attention to each other.
Daniel had a lawn mowing business that he put together with an investment from his dad. Daniel talked his dad into springing for the newest state-of-the-art riding lawn mower with the promise that the machine would be used to make money. That Saturday they stood in the driveway and admired their purchase.
The Honda HT3815 Lawn Tractor was red with black tires and a cushioned black seat. It was equipped with a 13 horsepower 2 cylinder gasoline engine with a 1.88 gallon gas tank, and a 5-speed transmission capable of reaching a top speed of 5.4 miles per hour. It could also be shifted into reverse. The wheelbase was just over 45 inches across and the tractor was nearly 70 inches long, weighing in with an empty gas tank at 545 pounds. A stable machine, with little to no risk of tipping over. And the engine started with a key instead of a rope.
Daniel’s dad asked. “Have you thought about how you’re going to get it from place to place?”
Daniel froze. He hadn’t.
Down the street, Joe slept in. He always slept late Saturday mornings because he was always up late on Friday nights. He’d be awake long after his parents had gone to bed – if his father was even in town. Poor guy worked his tail off and traveled all the time. Last night it was just Joe and Mom at the house. She made dinner, timing the entrée and side dishes perfectly so that everything was ready at exactly 5:30.
“Thirty minutes to cook the chicken, ten minutes in the microwave for the potatoes. Put the chicken in at 5:00 and the potatoes in at 5:20. Make a salad while they cook.” At 5:30 the oven buzzer and the microwave bell sounded and her son arrived in the kitchen to take his seat. Like a passenger catching a train, or Pavlov’s dog. He arrived in the kitchen mere seconds after the buzzer sounded. “Like a robot sitting down for his scheduled maintenance,” she mumbled to herself as she set a pair of plates on the table.
“Robots,” she shook her head. She had seen too much of those Star Wars movies that seemed to always be playing on every television in the house. After cleaning the kitchen and dishes and settling down with a glass of rum and Diet Coke, Joe’s mom was usually in bed after the evening news, with the worst timing, arriving just as the nightly Cheers rerun broke for its first commercial.
“Damn it!” she’d curse as she arranged her blanket and settled in to watch a message from a prolific local law firm.
Joe hung out in the downstairs den, with the TV on almost all night. The spacey second family room was used mainly by Joe and kept all his most important toys: the television set and VCR, an old Atari 2600 that he was sick and tired of playing, the Apple IIe, hundreds of action figures, Transformers and little plastic green army men, board games, and Legos.
The really important stuff was in his room next door: his baseball cards (Joe didn’t collect football cards because as he once told a friend, “Football is dumb”), a shelf decorated with little league sports trophies and pictures of his friends and family, a writing desk with a top drawer filled with treasures Joe had collected over the years. A New York City subway token, a pair of voodoo dolls his dad had picked up on a trip to the Dominican Republic, a wad of cash. $33 in total. Some of that was from mowing the lawn – he had more in the bank.
Joe spent a lot of time at the Apple IIe. Wings of Fury, Lode Runner and Robotron were his favorite games and he played them over and over, until he mastered all levels and advanced so far he wondered if he was a pioneer. The first person to achieve the rank of Captain and sink five ships in one mission.
The Tonight Show was on after Cheers, then Letterman. Joe kept the TV on for background noise but hardly paid attention. After another hour of computer games he returned to the command prompt and wrote a short program.
10 PRINT “JOE IS COOL”
20 GOTO 10
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
And on and on and on…Joe stopped the program and added one more line of code that would make his infinite proclamation fall from the top of the screen like a curtain dropping to end a show.
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
JOE IS COOL
When Letterman was over he had no idea what to watch. USA Up All Night, Showtime or a movie on video? He had half of Return of the Jedi on video from when he’s recorded it the night it aired on prime time. But he had left the recorder on pause during a commercial and forgot to click play when the movie resumed, so he only captured the first half of Episode 6.
Joe remembered a kid at his school, a brainchild named Matthew, who knew everything about Star Wars. Matthew had told him, “They’re going to make episodes 1, 2 and 3!”
Joe imagined the possibilities. “Man, those are going to be so awesome!”
But it wasn’t the right night for Jedi. He changed the channel to USA Up All Night which played some cheesy movie about zombies and teenagers. It would do. He slipped his Transylvania disk into the A drive and wondered what he could do about that damn werewolf who showed up on every screen.
Daniel was up late on his family’s home computer designing a flier for his lawn mowing business. He had the words curving over the top of the page, “Daniel’s Lawn Service”.
Under that he typed, “Lawn Mowing, Trimming and Weeds.”
He typed their phone number at the bottom. Under that it said, “Call Daniel!”
He sat back to inspect his work. Something was missing so he leaned forward and typed, at the very bottom of the page, “(Be sure to ask for Daniel Jr.)”
Satisfied, he saved the flier and printed 50 copies; the family’s dot matrix printer made an electronic back-and-forth zinging sound as it worked. Daniel calculated his costs and profits. Three lawns a week at $20 a lawn, figuring the season would last 16 weeks, was $960. Four lawns a week was $1280. The lawn mower had cost his dad $400, which Daniel had promised to pay back.
Then there was his four wheeler.
Daniel planned to use the four wheeler with a flatbed trailer as transportation for the mower. He could ride around the neighborhood and unload his mower at each stop, and carry extra supplies on the trailer. As the printer kept zinging, Daniel took a blank sheet of paper and made a list of his supplies:
gloves for four wheeler
gloves for yard work
gas for four wheeler
gas for mower
extra spark plugs
extra batteries for Walkman
pencil or pen (or both)
a couple baseball hats
water bottle (filled with water)
Daniel saw that he already had the word “rags” so he crossed out “rag” and continued.
key chain for lawnmower key
envelope to hold money and checks
He sat back to calculate his costs. He’d need to mow three lawns a week just to break even so he set a goal to mow at least four lawns a week. He checked the clock and saw it was 11:30…way past his bed time. He saved his work, flipped off the computer and went to bed.
The next morning Joe woke up in time to catch the last 10 minutes of Roadrunner-Coyote, toasted a couple of Eggo Waffles and headed outside to mow the lawn. He finished 45 minutes later and as he was pushing the mower back into the garage, Daniel from down the street walked up the driveway. He carried a stack of white papers with him and peeled a layer off the top, handing the flier to Joe.
“Will you give this to your mom for me?”
Joe looked at the flier advertising Daniel’s lawn service. Call Daniel. $20 a lawn. Joe wondered if Daniel noticed that Joe had just finished mowing his own lawn.
“I’m handing them out to every house,” Daniel explained before he headed next door to drop a flier in the neighbor’s mailbox.
Joe went inside for a glass of lemonade and the latest episode of This Week in Baseball. When Joe’s mom returned from her tennis match, she pulled into the driveway admiring the careful and thorough job Joe did with the grass. Once inside, she handed him a $10 bill and thanked him for mowing. “Good job.”
Joe handed Daniel’s flier to his mom. “Daniel told me to give this to you.”
She read the paper and scoffed. “Call Daniel? Yeah, right.”
Joe smiled as she crumpled the flier and threw it away.
“Got the flier, looks good.”
Daniel clutched his phone and listened.
Mr. Winchester said, “Twenty’s a little high but I’ll give you a shot. Can you do it Tuesday afternoon?”
Daniel spent Tuesday afternoon prepping for Daniel’s Lawn Service’s first official appointment. He gassed the lawn mower and four wheeler, emptying the last drop of the family’s 5-gallon gas tank. He gathered all his supplies, throwing most of them into a cardboard box that he placed on the flatbed trailer. He popped his helmet on and wiggled his hands into his gloves before running into the house to grab his last canister of Bubble Tape. He slipped the gum into his back pocket, a popular practice among the boys at his school and one that his father hated, since the round, plastic Bubble Tape case had the exact dimensions of a can of chewing tobacco.
He rode the tractor onto the trailer while his dad stood in the yard and supervised. Then they both secured the tractor to the trailer with a pair of ropes before Daniel’s dad wish him luck and sent him on his way.
Mr. Winchester’s house was just 200 yards away and as Daniel parked his rig on the street, he inspected the vast green lawn before him. Flat and wide, with two small trees on the left side of the driveway and a wooden fence on the right that bordered the neighbor’s property. There was a flowerbed near the house, maintained by Mrs. Winchester and a garden hose snaked across the front lawn. He’d need to use the weed trimmer around the front steps and wondered if there was a nearby outlet. He removed his helmet, untied the ropes that held the tractor in place and got to work.
When Mr. Winchester arrived home from work a few hours later and inspected the fresh cut lawn as he pulled his Buick into the driveway. The kid must still be working on it, he thought as he noticed a row of dark green clumps of grass clippings where the driveway met the grass. A small bed of grass in the front corner had been missed entirely and there was a long row of uncut grass running the length of the yard from the house to the street. A ragged green Mohawk decorating the otherwise flat, even lawn.
“The kid missed an entire row!” Winchester said as he stepped out of his Buick, his briefcase in one hand and his gray sports coat draped over his other arm.
Winchester walked towards the house and saw the garden hose thrown sloppily across Mrs. Winchester’s flowerbed as if overturned by a pair of vandals. He dared not go to the back, but on his way there, he saw where someone had tried to trim the edge of the grass along with house’s side wall but quit halfway into the job. When he finally reached the backyard, he saw two piles of grass clippings beside the rock garden, decorating his otherwise pristine backyard like a pair of messy, green haystacks.
It was the worst lawn mowing job Winchester had ever seen.
“Twenty bucks for this shit?”
“He’s just a kid, Roger. He did the best he could.” Mrs. Winchester explained as she prepared the evening meal.
Mr. Winchester set his coat on one of the kitchen stool. “You didn’t pay him, did you?”
“Of course! It was your idea to call him. ‘Give him a chance,’ you said. ‘He’s working for a living,’ you said. I can’t not pay him, Roger!”
“He missed entire rows! Did you see where he dumped the clippings? I’ll have to go out there and fix everything he did!”
Mrs. Winchester shrugged. “I can’t argue with that.”
Daniel rested on his bed and stared at his money. A fresh, clean $20 handed to him by Mrs. Winchester after a job well done. Daniel held it to his nose and took a long, soothing sniff of the green cotton and wood pulp. It smelled like success. It smelled like Play Doh. Actual Play Doh, the gummy colored clay that came in yellow cans and dried up if you left it out too long.
He smiled and gently placed the twenty into his money box – a white cardboard cigar box with gold trim that his father had given him. He sat back and rested his eyes, satisfied with a hard day’s work.
Joe had a great backyard. Grass for about 30 feet and then nothing but woods and prairie for as far as a kid could walk. They had only lived in the house for three years but the amount of time Joe spent in the backyard, and the intricate fantasies he had concocted there made for a century’s worth of experience. He had buried a jar of nickels, dimes and pennies back there last summer and had drawn a map to their location but vowed not to dig it up until next summer. He had also buried a time capsule nearby – a paint can filled with a few sentimental trinkets: a Darryl Strawberry rookie card, Luke Skywalker in Rebel pilot uniform, a broken Swatch, a hackey-sack, a $2 bill, a quarter from Canada (another souvenir from one of his dad’s trips), a couple Hot Wheels, a box of matches, a AAA battery, a picture of a girl he liked in 5th grade, and a scrap of paper with Gary Gaetti’s autograph.
Joe had once planted a row of popcorn seeds in the backyard, trying to grow a crop of corn but they never sprouted. Other than a failed farm and a temporary burial ground the backyard also served as an army base, a nomad’s hideout, a strange forest on a distant planet, Vietnam, Guadalcanal, the future site of a kickass tree house and in the winter, with three feet of snow on the ground, the backyard was Hoth and nothing but Hoth. The family Collie, Buddha, was Chewbacca.
Two summers ago, somewhere in the backyard, Joe had found a rock that looked exactly like the Sankara Stone from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He painted three white lines across the face to look exactly like the rock from the movie. But during a frantic escape through the backyard, it had fallen from his shoulder bag and Joe had never recovered it. He was on a search mission now, sweeping his feet over the ground trying to find the lost rock when he saw something better: a flat piece of glass with a red tint. It looked like the bottom of a glass bottle. He picked it up and brushed the dirt off seeing that it was translucent, with a slight red hue. Perfect! He put it in his pocket and continued his search.
Winchester was livid over his lawn. Entire rows missed. Clippings everywhere. Disrespectful treatment of a garden hose. That was the last time he’d spend $20 on an amateur. Maybe he could get that Joe kid from down the street to do it for $10. The kid’s lawn always looked great and he wouldn’t bring an entire construction crew with him.
“Are you interested in mowing my lawn next Tuesday?”
Joe was undecided. “Um, Tuesday?”
“Sure, Tuesday! Are you free?”
“Um,” Joe nibbled his lower lip and he fiddled with the cordless telephone. “It’s just that I don’t really mow lawns on Tuesdays.”
“Can you have it done before 5:00? I like the lawn to be mowed by the time I get home from work. And dump the clippings all the way in the back, behind the giant tree.”
“Give a knock on the door when you’re done and my wife will pay you. $10.”
They hung up and Joe went back to his project. He took the circular piece of glass with the red tint and attached it to the top of a broomstick using a couple strips of clear packaging tape. He took his contraption outside and saw the sun was starting to set and was about to cast the perfect light on the family shed. He opened the door and slipped his side.
On the floor of the shed Joe had used empty milk cartons and juice boxes to build a miniature city. An Egyptian city. The city of Tanis, the possible resting place for the lost ark. Late afternoon sunlight spilled in through a circular window near the ceiling and would illuminate the city in a matter of moments.
Joe positioned himself under the window and stuck the broomstick in place on the floor. The red tinted piece of glass sat atop his makeshift Staff of Ra, ready to focus sunlight on the city and point a red beam of light onto the final resting place of the lost ark. Joe waited, holding his staff, watching as the staff’s shadow slowly crawled across the floor of the shed.
It did not emit a sharp red spot like he hoped it would. It didn’t emit any red at all. It was just a blurry shadow that took forever to move across the floor. It worked much better in Raiders.
“Aw, this is stupid.” Joe pulled his staff away and tossed it across the miniature city.
He went inside for a Fudgsicle.
His mom asked him about Mr. Winchester.
“Yeah, he called.”
Joe’s mom sat at the kitchen table reading a magazine and drinking a rum and Diet Coke. “Mr. Winchester told me Daniel does a terrible job. He said Daniel leaves entire rows uncut.”
His mom smiled. “What?”
“Nothing. I just always thought that Daniel kid was kind of a dipshit.”
“You better not let your father hear you talk that way.”
“It’s true though.”
Her eyes returned to her magazine. “Yeah, I know.”
Daniel had delivered 48 fliers and had booked four jobs, but for some reason, Mr. Winchester never called back for a second gig. Maybe he just needed a reminder. The business was secure and Daniel began planning for the winter. He sat at the computer and typed the words “Daniel’s Snow Clearing”.
Under that he typed, “Driveway Clearing, Shoveling and Salting”.
He typed the phone number at the bottom. Under that it said “Call Daniel! (Be sure to ask for Daniel Jr.).”
He smiled and saved his work.
It was getting late and Joe could hear his mom closing the dishwasher, putting things away in the refrigerator and shutting off the kitchen lights. A few minutes later he ducked into her bedroom. Dad was still on a business trip and Joe’s mom was under the covers watching the last ten minutes of Cheers. Sam and Coach were arguing about something while Norm watched from his corner stool.
“Good night, Mom.”
She managed half a smile as she awoke from a half sleep. “Good night, honey.”
He went downstairs on turned on his computer. He typed a quick program.
10 FOR T = 1 TO 3000: NEXT
It made his computer pause for 3000 whatevers before the blinking cursor reappeared at the bottom of the screen. It was boring. He turned on the TV just as Johnny Carson was getting underway. He went to his bedroom and started sorting through his baseball cards, opening his box of 1985 Fleer and sorting the position players by batting average, highest to lowest, as Doc Severinsin’s band played in the background.