"Goddamn thing won't start."
I shook the lawnmower and smacked the handle. The dusty blue Briggs & Stratton hopped, its black wheels rose then slammed into the green turf. The hot midmorning sun glinted from a row of polished marble headstones.
I looked along the row of monuments to where a co0worker buzzed the grass around the bases. He was about fifty yards off. He looked like a vertical cockroach with bug-eye sunglasses, reversed ball cap and whirring trimmer strapped to his back.
I had been cutting around shrubs and monument bases with the mower while he came behind for the finish trim. If the prick had followed what I told him to do last time he would have been right along with me, but he liked to play. To him the blades were army men he eradicated with his super weed-whacker. It was like securing a hot LZ with a blurting M16 in the 'Nam where he claimed to have served.
A voice called from nearby. The voice came from a large hydrangea bush, a round green bush with large white snowball-like flowers. Hearing a voice in a cemetery is a bit unnerving if you can't see the source. Occasionally in the cocoon of noise from the machines I operated on the grounds, I would talk to the names on the stones, usually to the ones with short life spans. I even had a grandmother somewhere under the sod, but didn't quite know her name or location, a source of family amusement.
The voiced hissed, "Psst, over here. The snowballs shook like laughing mummies and a tanned peanut shaped head with limp blond hair appeared among them. Johnnie Razelli.
Razelli was a stoner, a real lost-in-space stoner. He had graduated a couple of years ahead of me at the boy's high school. Based on his stance as a total burn-out working for day wages at a cemetery I felt just a little more okay about my low position. I could refer to Johnnie when I felt like a loser – at least I wasn't a burn-out like him.
Razelli was always looking to get high. I saw him once in the nearby shopping district.
He asked, "Do you want to get high?"
"Sure," I answered in the same way I would have answered, "Amen" to "The body of Christ" back in the church school.
We walked a bit and he swung into a hardware store. "Why are you going in there?" I asked.
"To get some startin' fluid."
"That's okay, Johnnie. I got to be somewhere." I couldn't see burying my face in a paper bag and lolling around the back alley. Johnnie's heaven was always just a hit away, a hit of anything.
"In here, crawl in," he said from inside of the bush.
I had never considered crawling into one of the large bushes. Inside was roomy and cool. The earth was bare and you could sit comfortably Indian-style on the soft earth. "Cool digs, Johnnie," I had to say. He grunted and handed over a wheat-straw jay. A curious mix of smells – the flowers, the earth and then the pungent smoke. "Best part, Newt'll never see us, man," he said as he exhaled.
I took a small draw on the yellow stick – I was never one for the holy smoke and heavenly tickets. Jonnie was in his element, holding court, passing the sacraments. He peeked out several times and then stuck out his head calling in Skipper.
Skipper was my bug-eyed wingman. He crawled into the lair. He kept the tinted goggles on and said, "Far out." Skip was on the chubby side with walrus mustache and bushy sideburns. He had done a tour in 'Nam, Army he said. He spun stories with a thick Boston accent. His stories were hard to believe as he was always the center of some action or another. He sucked the joint greedily. "Newt talk to you?" he said to me. "I think he's got microphone all over this motherfucker. That or the dead keep him posted."
"Yeah, he talked." Skip had entertained a couple of us somewhere on the site with an extremely vivid account of oral lovemaking with his girlfriend. The girl was the sister of one of the neighborhood guys; that's how he had landed in our circle. "Gotta get down once and awhile," he had said. That phrase and the idea of his jiggly cheek walrus face in action had me laughing.
"Yeah. Twice on a hard." We wondered if Newt had somehow overheard because he had pulled each of aside earlier to tell us he did not talk about his wife. He left it at "twice on a hard" if he said anything at all.
"That's what he told me too. He never said he heard anything we said. He just went into what he does with his wife. I couldn't fuckin' believe it." He pushed the glasses up on his head. "Twice on a hard! What the fuck is that?"
Johnnie laughed along with us. He was always laughing at something.
"Your shit break down?" Johnnie asked me.
"Stopped. Won't start."
"You didn't hit no stone did you? Gunboat Dave will kill you, you hit a fucking stone."
"Gunboat makes that shit break on purpose so you have to take it back in and he can yell at you. He's nuts. Went nuts wasting gooks. Happens to guys," Skip said.
Like you would know, I thought. Skip's war stories were the typical bilge you would get from any barroom blowhard. If he was even in the service I doubted if his lazy ass was ever sent into combat.
The bush rustled. The top of a girl's head appeared along the ground as Kassie snaked into the now crowded quarters. "I heard you guys laughing then I smelled the weed." She took the small joint from Johnnie. She was dark skinned with angular face. She wore her long hair natural, parted in the middle and swept over dark eyes. She was one of those pretty girls who knew how to be "one of the guys". She held the pot in long delicate fingers.
"No stiffs today?" I asked. Kassie and another girl had been hired by Newt in a seeming double-pronged plan to appear to be "with it" and to disturb the old boys who had worked there for years. The old boys were refugees from the West Virginia hills. The men and their families lived in a group of houses on the site. They were intensely loyal to each other, wary of Newt the Tennessean, and deeply disturbed by his choice of new hippie help.
Newt had tired of his experiment and was looking for ways to divest himself of the problem. He thought he had had an inspiration by placing Kassie in the crematorium while the onsite operator was on vacation. This move would let the old boys know that Newt could get anyone to do their jobs and serve to scare off the girl. Alas, Kassie embraced the new position much to Newt's consternation.
She pulled the joint away from her thin lips and answered me, "there's one after lunch."
"I"ll check in," I promised. We tried to meet the arrivals with Kassie. She was cool and tough, but it was still a freaky thing to have to do, a little company was nice.
"Got to take my mower in to Dave." I said as I backed-crawled out of the bush.
I rolled the broken Briggs & Stratton along a dusty asphalt road at the bottom of the graveyard hill to the maintenance shop, Dave's domain. He wasn't the swaggering gunslinger that the guys made him out to be. True enough he served in 'Nam on a gunboat patrolling the Mekong, but he was quiet about his tour around the job.
I helped him sometimes on side jobs after work. I was a go-fer and sounding board. Dave had a nice looking wife and a kid in a two-bedroom in a halfway decent apartment complex. I met her a couple of times stopping off on the way to one of the side jobs.
The jobs were either in a bar or close to one. We'd drink a take-out sixer while he puttered with a new wall or whatever then hit a table for a couple before heading home.
There was no Gunboat Dave at these sessions. He was subdued. He carried the war with him in his moods and his manner. The small number of returning fighters that I had encountered, the real ones, said little. They seemed to be sheepish about their time over there. They were in awe of the world they found on return and more than a little intimidated by the changes.
When Dave spoke of his time on the boat you could feel the oppressive fear and loneliness. The river patrols were dreary endless days in a hot, hostile climate. The weight of the boredom was mixed with lurking unknown dangers from the shadowy banks.
But most of our talk was the usual work scuttlebutt. The bizarre side of the working in a cemetery led to funny stories in a decidedly black humor vein – some dumbass didn't hook a trailer right and it rolled through a graveside service. Shit like that punctuated with silences. One more round would appear when I thought we were heading back; me to my squalid pad and a novel, he to the nice woman.
"You wanted out of the sun anyway, didn't you," Dave said when I rolled the broken machine into the Quonset hut that served as a shop. There were metal pans on the cement floor. The pans were filled with solvent and held a variety of machine parts. The chemical smell of the solvent rose from the pans. A row of sharpened mower blades gleamed from a greasy shelf. We shared a laugh about the meeting under the bush. He was no fan of the man from Tennessee either.
Leaving Dave in the hut I rolled another refurbished Briggs & Stratton back up the hill to where I had left off. Johnnie was outside of the hydrangea sitting cross-legged and pulling weeds with his idiot grin. The interlude was over, I could see Skip out fussing with his trimmer and Katie was due back at the oven.
I planned to attack the grass around the stones. I would bring the spinning lawnmower blades as close to the stones as I dared. If Skip did his job right we could get some nice straight lines of dead grass. Next week I would hit the edges with a spray of Paraquat. After the poison was applied there would be no need to trim for the rest of the summer.