A story in the news this week caught my attention. But, really, how could I help myself?
The smell came from a dark, thick patch of grass near the fence. Momma always said that the grass is always greener over the septic tank, or maybe that was the title of a book she liked. So I went to tell the groundskeeper.
He laughed and patted my head, something I’d never liked, but I held my tongue because I was getting paid decent money for mowing the grass and didn’t want to make him mad. “Rich people’s shit stinks just like the rest of us,” he said, then told me he’d take care of it.
He didn’t take care of it.
Next time I came, the patch was darker, and bigger, and needed a serious mowing. I got as close to it as I could stand. My eyes were watering from the smell. The grass was soggy, and maybe I was just imagining it, but it looked like the whole patch was kind of…sinking in the middle.
My stomach cramped. It could have been the smell. But I knew better. I knew that man’s voice.
“Hey, kid. C’mere.”
He was bigger than I thought. Meaner than he looked on the television. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth. Momma also said that I should stay far away from “that fool,” as she called him, and she never said anything like that without good reason. I tried to take a step back but my feet froze. Then he came to me.
“Kid. Don’t go near that if you know what’s good for you.”
Then he shoved five bucks at me and walked away.
I kept his money. Didn’t feel right spending it, but I kept it in one of Gramps’ old cigar boxes in my closet.
Then I started to wonder. What was so important about that stinky patch of lawn that the president himself was giving me money to stay away from it? Somehow I didn’t feel like he was scared I’d get hurt.
Next time I came, that part of the lawn was marked off with yellow tape, and three men were standing around staring at it. I didn’t know what good staring at it was going to do. It was all swampy now, and sinking even lower in the middle. And good Lord, that smell. I’ve been in a lot of outhouses and such and I never smelled anything that bad. That got me wondering if maybe some animal fell in and died, like the raccoon that got trapped under our porch.
I was about to tell them that when a big hand landed on my shoulder.
I turned and my mouth went dry. I’d never seen this man before, but he looked even bigger and meaner than the president. His face was one giant prune and it was getting redder and redder by the second.
“You got business here, kid?”
“I just mow the lawn…”
“Not anymore, you don’t. Get your ass out of here.”
I was so shocked and afraid that it was like my feet had decided for me that we were going to turn around and run. I made it about a block and a half away before I stopped. And thought. He didn’t have any right to fire me. I didn’t even know who he was. The groundskeeper was the man who’d given me the job, the man who gave me my twenty bucks after I’d finished. What was I doing, running away like a little baby. I heard what Momma might tell me: “Stand up for yourself and be a man.”
So I took some deep breaths and walked back there. Tall and strong like a man. Right to the groundskeeper’s office. And I told him what happened, plain as I could.
He listened. Nodding at me. I thought for sure he’d say the man was right to fire me. For standing around gawking while the men were doing their important work. For causing trouble. But he just said, “Close the door and sit down.”
I did. My heart in my throat. I might have been hovering an inch off my chair, I was so nervous. My palms were sweaty and I wiped them on the legs of my cargo shorts.
He leaned forward. “I’m gonna tell you something, son. And I need you to promise me you’ll never tell another living soul.”
I nodded, sure my eyes were bugging clear out of my head. Momma told me a man’s word went straight to God. That a real man—a real, good man—never promises what he can’t deliver. “Yes, sir.”
“That’s where he puts his sin.”
Now, I knew all about sin. But I didn’t understand the rest of it. The groundskeeper must have realized that, because he let out a long breath and moved a little closer, until I could see the red veins in his eyes. “There’s this story. It was writ a long time ago by this English dude. There was a man who made a deal with the devil to stay young and good lookin’ forever. But there was a catch. You know there’s always a catch when you make a deal with the devil. The devil, he put a painting of the man in his attic? And this painting, it had a spell on it, so that it got older and uglier each time the man sinned. Which was all fine and good for the man. He could do what he pleased and the painting took the hit. But he was overcome with guilt every time he looked at the painting. Eventually it drove him crazy and he stabbed the painting, and the man fell down dead as if he’d stabbed himself.”
It took me a long time to think about that. “So…the grass out there grows higher and gets stinkier each time he…?”
The groundskeeper nodded.
“Boy, he must sin a lot.”
“It ain’t for us to judge,” the groundskeeper said. Quiet, like we were in church.
“But that’s not good for the lawn.” I wondered if maybe the devil would give him a portrait instead, that he could stick in the attic. “And that smell, it could make people sick.”
He nodded again. “Well, I agree with you, son. That’s why those three men are out there right now.” He hooked a gnarled thumb over his shoulder.
“If it’s his sin, what can they even do about it? Dig it up and put it somewhere else?”
“They’re doing what they were told to do. Stand around and look at it for a while, make it seem like they’re fixing it. Maybe put some hay down, soak some of the stink up. Bless them, they don’t know it’s only gonna come back worse.”
It made my stomach ache. How could that thing get any worse? I swallowed hard before I asked my next question. “Do I still have a job?”
He gave me a soft and kind of sad laugh. “You’re a good boy. You’re a good worker. Yes, you still have a job. Leave that man to me.”
I couldn’t sleep that night, after what the groundskeeper told me, about the sin and about the painting in that story. It just wasn’t right, to be that full of sin and also be the president. And leave that stinky swamp out there on the lawn, making anyone who gets near it sick. But I kept my promise. I didn’t tell a living soul what the groundskeeper told me. I did my job. Eventually, they took the yellow tape away from the stinky spot, which was a little less stinky, and they’d raked up the hay. But that grass was way darn long and needed a serious cutting. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to take care of that.
So I did.
The next morning, Momma told me the president died. And that they’d asked everyone who worked there to come by and pay their respects. Momma said she’d come with me, though I knew from the pinch in her mouth that respect was the last thing she wanted to give him.
As we walked by the part of the lawn where I’d spent so many hours working, I tried not to look at the stinky spot. Maybe it was my imagination, but I couldn’t even smell it anymore. It just smelled like fresh-cut grass. It wasn’t soggy, it wasn’t sagging in the middle…it looked just like the rest of the lawn. Momma leaned toward me and said, “You do such good work, son.”
My jaw trembled with fear. Had I killed him? Was it really true, what the groundskeeper said, and what I did was like stabbing the painting in the attic?
No, I told myself. That was just a made-up book.
It wasn’t my fault, what happened to the president. I was just doing my job.