I’d Like to be a Landscaper or an Artist
I wasn’t really doing anything at the time. I didn’t have anything going for me, and it never bothered me as much as people thought it should’ve. My drawings were getting better. I spent a lot of time sitting on my staircase, drawing the steps. I had a whole sketchbook of steps that I still flip through every once in a while. I haven’t seen my charcoal pencils. I guess I left them somewhere, and they were pretty worn down anyway.
I wasn’t really doing anything around the time my dad broke his back. Well, he still walks fine, but the doctors said a disc had fragmented. He went for surgery last November. I was mostly just drawing at the time. I started going into the office and handling his business. He owned a medical supply store. He sold things like wheelchairs and hospital beds. I worked there sometimes in high school, mostly sorting inventory and answering phones. Dad was put out for a few months. He needed some help, and like I said I wasn’t doing much at the time. I didn’t want to start managing the store, but family is family and it got my mother off my back about my future.
It’s mostly busy work. I had to make a spreadsheet for just about everything: vendors, inventory, money, stuff like that. Sometimes when it got slow I’d lay down in one of the mechanical beds, but I could never fall asleep. I’d lay there. Sometimes I brought a book. I’d already read them all, so I laid there with a book in my hands and my eyes to the ceiling.
I met a landscaper the other day. He was very tan. He came in looking to buy a stair lift to take his mother up the steps. She was getting old. I told him sometimes I felt older than I was. But I could never really tell because who knows what 20 is supposed to feel like. It probably felt a lot different for all types of people. During the 1300s, people lived on average to 45 years old. 20 must’ve felt different. But there was the bubonic plague. The tan landscaper said he knew what I meant; he nodded here and there. Sometimes I wonder about war. If we had a draft, I wouldn’t need to worry so much about my life. I’d enlist if I had a real good reason. I would’ve fought in World War 2, for sure. I didn’t tell the landscaper all that.
He wound up buying nothing. I think he’s going to put his mother in a home. Most of the clients here are elderly. They can’t get around easily, so they have a younger family member with them at the store. Sometimes they leave without buying anything and I wonder if the young family member decided it was cheaper to sell the house and put them away. Sometimes I wonder if I’d put my father away. He’s only 63, so I don’t have to worry about that. My older sister will probably have to make that call. She moved into the city when I was still in high school. She has a good job and pays for dinners when we go out.
My sister being away and all, and my having no prospects, I was left to watch over the store. Like I said, I had nothing going on. I spent Monday through Saturday at the store. It was just me and Viv, who answered the phones and did all that stuff. The whole front of the store was a window looking straight onto a busy road. I didn’t like the traffic jams. It was a busy intersection with an impossible left turn. I liked when it rained because I liked the look of a grey sky, rain splitting off windshields. There was a row of trees that lined the other side of the street. The trees looked better in the rain. The sound of the rain mixed nicely with the hum of engines, and I’d look out the window as Viv would tell me about her life. She told me about her ex boyfriend. He didn’t hit her or anything, but he tracked her phone and got nasty when she hung out with her friends. Things like that. She got a restraining order. I didn’t like hearing about that so much. A decal on the window read, “all the things you hope you never need.”
My dad’s been back at work for almost a year now. I’m still there. He needs the help. His back still gets bad and sometimes he needs to lay on one of the beds. I set one up in his office for him. He lays down and does advertising work on the computer. He tried to teach me about google rankings and stuff, but I never took to it. I wanted to work with my hands or become an artist. Sometimes I get real mad and want to punch the wall. I never do, but I grit my teeth and get this fowl look on my face. He doesn’t seem to notice; he talks often about how proud he is to have a family run business. He thinks that I’ll take over when he dies and that makes him feel good. I told him that I don’t want that, but you know how parents are and they were worried about me last year. You get in one accident and people get worked up. It was one of those rainy days where the trees look nice and dark and they feel good on the eyes. I was fine except for this bum left shoulder. The summer is starting. I planted a small garden in the backyard; simple stuff like tomatoes and basil. I forgot to tell the landscaper about that.
I had planned on quitting yesterday. His back still acts up, but the store has a sad feeling to it. It puts a balloon in my stomach. It’s this large emptiness, yet it fills me up. I tried explaining this to my sister, but she has a hard time understanding these things. I can’t get too upset with her; it’s just her nature. I can’t talk to my parents about it because they’ve been treating me funny since the crash.
The store smells like mothballs. The carpet is a dirty brown. We recently installed new lights in the ceiling. They emit a white light. It’s too bright for the space. It bothers me; it dives on the wrinkles of the old people and reflects sharply off the metal wheelchairs. Yellow lights are easier on the eyes, as they shine softly upon the room. I planned on quitting yesterday.
I thought it might rain yesterday. I stepped out of my car and saw my hair flying in the window reflection. I turned around and saw that the trees were bending in one direction. No swaying; just a continuous lean. The clouds were floating into one another- dark clouds.
The bells chimed as I opened the door. I’d been meaning to take them down because sharp noises like that bother me. I walked across the brown rug and hoisted myself up on the counter. I said hello to Viv and swung my legs around so I faced her. She was sitting in a big rolling chair and scribbling something on a post-it note.
“Good morning,” she said as she looked up from the note.
“Your hair is blue,” I said. She used to have blonde hair, but looking at her head then I couldn’t even picture it.
“Yeah, I think I love it,” she said. She gathered her hair up like she was about to make a pony tail and held the bundle in front of her face. We both stared at it.
“Cool. Maybe I’d do a lavender.”
“Or silver,” she said. “I was scared we left the bleach in too long and it wouldn’t come out right.”
“You have to bleach it?” I asked.
“Like a coat of white paint before you do the color,” she said.
That made sense, and I decided that I would not dye my hair. I asked her if she had any orders for me to get ready. She handed me the post-it note and told me that Bob Driscoll was coming in to sell us a fancy new cane.
“Who’s Bob Driscoll? I can’t tell if I love that name or hate it,” I said.
“I don’t know how you could feel either way about a three syllable name. That’s not really anything,” she said.
I shrugged, “We gotta sell the canes we already have.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“And what’d he say?”
“He said these are real nice canes.”
“If we were in Texas I’d probably spit on the floor.”
“Pennsylvania,” she said, “land of the trees.”
“Your hair looks good,” I said.
I went to the back and saw my dad bending over to pick up a box of latex gloves, which we sold in bulk. I usually tell him to stop bending and let me do it, but for some reason i said nothing. I watched him as he rose awkwardly and dropped the box on his foot. I shook my head and asked if he was okay.
“I’m fine, but I probably just broke my foot,” he said.
“You gotta let me do this stuff,” I said. I walked over to him and lifted the box with ease. It wasn’t very heavy, and my bum shoulder felt fine. Even on rainy days like this my shoulder feels mostly fine. I placed the box on the top shelf next to the other gloves. Most of the inventory is out there in the main room, so we really only keep the bulk stuff back here: gloves, scrubs, blood pressure cuffs, thermometers. Everything came in generic brown boxes, so I labeled them with markers. It was a room full of boxes. I was focusing on the boxes and their contents because I didn’t want to look at my dad.
I had planned on quitting. My dad looks a lot like me. People tell us that often. We both have thin hair, high cheekbones and big noses. We both balance from one foot to the other when we’re standing. We grab our hair in tufts when we get frustrated. He had gained some weight, but other than that we looked pretty similar. He always has this far away look in his eye. He thinks of other things.
I looked at him and didn’t know what to say, so i said, “Maybe I’ll take that door chime down today.” I looked again at the shelves of boxes.
“No. I need to know when people come in.”
Then the bell rang and I thought about god and if he knows what he’s doing. Dad walked back into his office. He stands up nice and straight now but only because of the back brace.
I walked into the main room. Viv was scrolling on her phone and swiveling left to right in the rolling chair. A tall man was standing in the middle of the store, under the white light and looking all round as if appraising the space: the contents, the setup, the walls. It was a very boring scene. I never thought there was much to take in here. He stood there with a cane held parallel to the floor.
I walked over to him and asked if I could help him. He said that maybe he could help me.
“Bob Driscoll,” I realized.
“Hey, yeah. I was coming in about the new model of canes we got. Is Martin around?” he asked.
Martin, my father, was in the back. “Nah. Not today,” I said.
“Is he coming in? I think he’s really gonna wanna see what we got here.”
“Not today,” I said.
“Is there a manager or someone I could speak to that could pass along the message? Martin and I go way back.”
“I guess you can tell me about it.” I looked at the cane, which he still held parallel to the floor. There was nothing special about this cane.
He flicked the cane upward and caught it on the way down with his other hand. He held it out like something valuable. I looked at it. He began speaking. Something about features and something about comfort. I didn’t really care. I’m bored even trying to remember it. He continued to talk. I looked back and saw Viv leaning over the counter with her hands supporting her chin. She was looking at the cane. Then she stood up and walked into the back room. I looked back to Bob, whose features fit naturally in the stale environment. He wore a starched yellow shirt, a dull yellow like a building’s exterior faded after many years. He wore khakis and brown orthopaedic shoes. Brown eyes. Clean shave. Stubbles of grey on his head. I thought about his life. My father liked to sing. He grew up poor, and could never afford to do anything but hard work. I wondered how his life would be different now if he had tried to become a singer.
The bells chimed again. I picked my ears and excused myself from Bob. It was the landscaper, whose golden skin had a shine that extended around him. A frail old woman with the beginnings of a hunchback followed him. She looked very weak and almost alien next to the broad shouldered landscaper.
They stood still and looked around the room. The landscaper noticed me coming forward. He nodded and shuffled his feet on the brown carpet. The old lady with the curved back supported herself with a cane. I asked them how they were and told the landscaper that it was good to see him again. He said they were just fine, and it was good to see me as well. I admired his tan skin. My father and I were pale. I thought I’d be a good landscaper. I shook his hand and saw the snakes winding within his forearm.
“It’s good to meet you, mam,” I said to the old woman.
“Good… Tommy,” the old woman said. She glanced up at her son then back down to the floor. The cane wobbled slightly under her weak wrist.
Tommy was the landscaper’s name. He thinned his lips and clenched his jaw. I didn’t know what it was, but the old woman had lost possession of all her faculties. She was nervous and confused. That happens often… I’d like to die all at once. I’d join the war if I had a real good reason.
“Are you here about that lift? It hasn’t gone anywhere,” I said.
“How does that sound, ma?” the landscaper asked. He put his hand on her back and looked down at the top of her head.
She said nothing. We headed to the stair lift by the far corner of the store. The old woman moved slowly. Tommy stayed by her side, but I went forward a bit. We stopped in front of the lift. It was a grey plastic cushion. I’ve sat in it a couple times. It costs about two grand. The landscaper asked his mom to have a seat; see if she’s comfortable. She stood still as the cane wobbled beneath her wrist. I looked out the window at the leaning trees. The three of us stood there in silence. “Ma?” the landscaper said. The old woman stood there, hunched and looking down at the brown carpet. She cocked her head slightly. She said nothing. I watched her eyes move back and forth across the floor. The landscaper looked at me with the same thinned lip expression. We silently agreed to give her a minute. I’m not too good with old people, and prefer not to engage much in these situations. My grandmother died a couple years ago. I never liked going to her house when I was a kid. When she got dementia my mother made me visit more often. It was fine and she mostly remembered me. My mother thinks she is a bird now.
I watched Bob Driscoll make his way to the counter. He leaned his back against it and poked the floor with his cane. I asked the landscaper to excuse me. I walked over to Bob. He stood up straight as I approached.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m not all that interested.”
“Well let me leave you my card,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Without opening the wallet, he said, “you know, you look a lot like Martin. Are you his decoy or something?”
“He’s my dad,” I said.
My father and Viv both appeared from the back. Then the phone rang and Viv turned around and returned to the back room.
“Hey, guy. How are you doing?” my father said to Bob.
“I’m all right, Martin. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. You got your decoy handling the salesmen now, huh?”
My father laughed and said, “yeah, well he’s been a big help to me.”
“He looks just like you,” Bob said.
My father thanked him and began telling Bob about his back surgery. He tells a lot of people about it – really anyone who comes in. It was over a year ago. I’ve heard the story many times, so I turned my head and watched the darkness of the sky tinting the trees. I felt my left shoulder with my right hand and rolled it back and forth.
I returned to Tommy and his mother. The old woman was sitting in the chair. Her head turned slowly back and forth. Her old hands dangled off the arm rests. She didn’t seem to notice me coming. Tommy was smiling; the tension in his face had lessened.
“Usually I have a home aid with her. She went back to Trinidad or somewhere to visit her family a while. You know, I can’t always be there and I don’t want to put her in a home. I really don’t. This way she’ll be able to get up to bed at night, down in the morning. She’s pretty fine. She does most stuff on her own. She makes her own food and all that. It’s just, you know… It’s different now,” Tommy said.
I nodded here and there; I told him that I knew what he meant. The old woman sat there as we discussed her current state. My father and Bob continued to talk about business, about family and their declining health.
“Tommy,” the old woman whispered. “I have to use the ladies’ room.” Her voice had a steady shake, a tremor like her wrist.
“It’s right over there, ” I said.
“Do you see, ma?” Tommy said. He bent down so he could meet her eyes. Then he pointed to the bathroom across the store.
The old woman slowly rose to her feet. Her knees grinded beneath her blue floral dress and her arms shook as she pushed off the chair. She got up by herself, though. “Right over there,” I said again. She didn’t indicate whether or not she understood. She had eyes dull like milk and it made me sad to look at her. She began to walk off in the right direction. I saw Bob intercept her. He stopped the old woman and began speaking to her, gesturing at her cane then at his own. My father watched from behind the counter.
Tommy and I joined them. Neither of us really liked Bob. Tommy hadn’t said anything, but I couldn’t imagine a landscaper liking a guy like that. Bob introduced himself to Tommy. The landscaper grunted and squinted his eyes. I squinted my eyes as well, but mainly because we were directly under a light rod.
“Your mother’s cane is no good. See that old wooden grip? It’s putting too much pressure on her wrist,” Bob said.
“I don’t know. What do you say, ma?” Tommy asked.
She said nothing.
I made eye contact with my father, who shrugged.
“How about you give this a try, mam? It’s got a foam grip, so it’s not so hard on your wrist. The bottom is nice and adhesive. It’s top of the market,” Bob said.
Tommy looked through his squinted eyes at the cane then up at Bob. “Okay. I don’t want her wrists going bad,” Tommy said. “Well.”
Tommy gently placed his hand over top his mother’s then grabbed the cane with his other hand. Bob and Tommy switched canes. Then Tommy put the new foam grip within his mother’s hands. The old woman said nothing while this took place. Her eyes widened, but that’s all.
Tommy walked with her to the bathroom. He asked how her wrist felt; If she was comfortable. He opened the bathroom door and let his mother in. Then he came back to us. The four of us stood around the counter. The salesman started asking Tommy about their home setup and things like that, but Tommy didn’t have too much interest. He just said something about maybe getting a lift so mom could go up at night and down in the morning. Then the salesman began to talk about sports, which didn’t interest me. I used to read the baseball stats in the paper when I was young. I liked to look at the standings, batting averages, things like that. I had a Jeter card in my wallet before I lost it. Other than batting averages, I didn’t have much interest in sports. I decided to head into the back room with the boxes. My dad was out there and they didn’t need two of us. I didn’t really want to be around him, if I’m being completely honest. My parents say I have trouble expressing myself with them.
Viv was taking inventory. She had her phone out and was putting everything in an excel sheet. She’s good at that sort of thing. She’s very organized. I’m not much of an organizer even when I try.
“Hello,’ she said as she looked into her phone.
“Hi, Viv,” I said.
“How’s it going,” she asked, half paying attention to me.
“I don’t really know. I’m tired.”
“I hear ya.” She locked her phone and slid it into her jeans pocket. “So I got into college.”
“Oh, wow. I didn’t even know you were doing that,” I said.
“I figure it’s not too late. I always wanted the experience. You know, going away and starting fresh. I sure as hell don’t want to work here forever,” she said. “My mom just texted me. The letter came in the mail today. Penn State!”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“What are you going to study?”
“I’m not sure. Probably something like accounting or finance,” she said.
“There’s money in money.”
“Well… when do you leave?”
“It starts up in the fall, but I’m moving up a little early. Early August.”
I felt the balloon filling my stomach. I could pop. I just looked at the floor because I didn’t even want to look at the boxes with my crappy handwriting on them. It didn’t even rain today; nothing was going to happen. I guess she was on the waitlist until now because those letters are supposed to go out earlier. I got an acceptance letter two years ago in January when I was 18, but everything went to crap my freshman year. I don’t want to go to college anyway. I want to be a landscaper. I’d like to put trees in the earth and be tan. I was looking at the floor and trying to remember the nurse I woke up to after the crash. I remembered her dark skin and the way the hospital bed sunk when she sat down next to me. She said I was lucky.
A loud bang came from outside the room. Viv and I scrunched our eyebrows and looked at each other. She rushed out the door and I followed her. I saw my dad struggling to hurry over to the bathroom. The landscaper was already there with Bob trailing close behind.
“Ma!” the landscaper screamed. His barrel chest was thumping and his eyes were mad and scared.
The old woman had fallen. I think she busted her head on the porcelain sink. It looked like she had tried to get up because blood was smeared on the linoleum floor and white walls beneath the sink. The blood stained her white hair, and it began to matt. She was groaning and releasing small guttural screams with every few breaths.
“I’m calling an ambulance!” Viv shouted, but my father was already dialing.
It was a terrible scene.
It was a terrible scene.
The tan landscaper went to pick up his mother, but he didn’t know how to go about it. He didn’t want to hurt her. He began to gather her up. He scooped his hand across her back shoulders and tried to locate the back of her knee with his other hand. He began to lift. Then he changed his mind and let her back down. He kept his arm around her shoulders. He was shaking a lot. The old woman’s head bounced softly on his chest due to his shaking. She was blinking her eyes slowly now and the screams became weaker. Blood had stained her blue dress. Blood was seeping into the landscaper’s shirt and dripping onto the floor.
Bob unbuttoned his shirt and bent down next to the landscaper. “Let me make a tourniquet,” he said.
The landscaper found the new cane beneath the sink. He grabbed it and jabbed Bob in his bare chest. Bob fell onto his ass. “Get the fuck out of here,” he screamed. “Get the fuck out of here! Get out of here!” He repeated this as he continued to jab. Bob had scurried to the far wall and was out of reach. He stumbled past my father by the doorway and left the store.
“Oh, god,” the landscaper said. Oh, god. He repeated this as he looked upon his mother’s bloody head. “Goddamnit. Oh, god.”
I took off my shirt and sat next to the landscaper and his mother. I tried not to look at her face. We searched for the wound and figured the trauma happened right above her left ear. I wrapped the shirt around her head with even pressure. We had gauze and all that medical stuff, but I forgot about it at the time.
I sat there with them for a while. Viv was in shock and went to the back to breathe. My father stood by the bathroom doorway. We stayed like this, the four of us in the room, until the ambulance came and took the old woman away.
There was blood smeared all around the floor. Bloody finger marks on the walls. Splotches of blood on the sink. My father and I got the gloves, bleach, mop, sponge and paper towels and began cleaning. Every time we thought we finished, another spot would pop up. She lost a lot of blood. My father kept grunting. He was mopping the mess on the floor. He let out a groan whenever he shifted positions. I said nothing. I was scrubbing the walls. My shoulder began to ache, and I wondered if I’d see the landscaper again.
Noah Kenny is a writer from PA. He has previously appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and Dead Peasant Journal.