THE GREENER MY GRASS
Maureen could clearly remember the day in December the two young professors moved in across the street and how much more she respected them back then. It was a shame that Mrs. Graham had passed, really, but Maureen liked the idea of two yuppies coming into that stuffy, gray house, sprucing it up a little bit, and bringing some fresh energy to the neighborhood. And professors, no less! With any luck, they’d be the first step in turning Manasquan into a kind of cultural center along the Jersey Shore where intellectuals and artists lived and worked, anything that would warrant it being bolded on maps. Each box they pulled from their U-Haul held that dream.
When she first met the professors, they had been so warm and kind, so cute behind their nearly matching pairs of glasses, that Maureen, for the first time in her life, considered greeting her new neighbors with a pie. She decided that a pie would be too kitschy, but she held the idea of her neighbors’ potential close to her heart like a locket. For good reason, too, because in a matter of weeks the couple had painted over Mrs. Graham’s gray with a tasteful, beachy yellow that promised to melt the winter that surrounded it.
“You better watch it,” Maureen’s friend and neighbor Donna told her on their routine evening walk. “The professors are looking to upstage you.”
Maureen laughed because “nicest house on the block” was not a title she was willing to part with easily. Every angle of her house and yard was carefully designed and consistently kept. She resembled her yard and vice versa. They were both lean, neat, and smooth, and she spent plenty of time and money to keep them that way. If the professors wanted to tire themselves out in competition, have at it. It would only help her property values to have something pretty to look at across the street.
But after the paint dried and winter died for spring, it became clearer that surface level touchups were enough for them, and they were content to neglect the harder maintenance needed for decent curb appeal. Their grass grew long and thick like a sheepdog’s hair. It hurt Maureen to look at it. In the evenings, she’d stand by her bay window and chew on her upper lip in a confused scowl until Donna knocked on her door promptly at eight o’clock.
“Can you believe what they’re doing?” Maureen would start.
“You mean what they’re not doing? Ugh! I don’t know how you could let your house get to that point,” Donna said. “It’s laziness like that that I can’t stand.”
“It’s a lack of pride is what it is. These kids don’t have that. They don’t know what it means to work for something and be proud of it. They could at least hire someone to cut the grass.”
Maureen peered over her shoulder to bring the yard back into view, as if to remind her of what she was criticizing. Even from down the block, she could see the sharp property lines where the neighbors on either side kept their grass short and tidy.
“You know what I think?” Donna said with a click of her tongue. “I think one of their parents bought that house for them. I doubt two professors could afford a house like that at their age. They don’t want to care about that house because it’s not theirs. They’re not paying someone to cut the grass because they can’t afford it.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Maureen said, thinking. “I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“That’s what makes the most sense to me.”
And for days Maureen tried to see if it made sense to her too. Her husband, Irv, seemed indifferent towards a yard he could choose not to look at, so he was little help. Maureen was paranoid that a crumbling house across the street would reflect poorly on her, her house’s curb appeal, and the entire street’s reputation. Perhaps the professors really were just too poor to hire a lawn service, a thought that made Maureen sympathetic, though still dissatisfied.
“There’s no shame in being poor, but there’s shame in being dirty,” her mother always told her.
She couldn’t otherwise justify why the couple would jeopardize the neighborhood like this.
But, as much as she wanted to believe this, she couldn’t without proof. She sat by her window with a magazine spread over her lap but paid almost no attention to it. She nibbled the manicure off her fingers as she waited for one of the professors to show themselves. Professor Klein came out to get the mail, and Maureen decided she ought to do the same.
Klein was tall and handsome, even if a bit lanky, with wavy brown hair verging on curly. To Maureen, he looked like a bookish dweeb, like the kind she used to tease back in high school who never grew a harder shell. If he weren’t a professor, Maureen had a difficult time picturing him surviving as anything else. He didn’t look like he could handle being a lawyer, like Irv, or a manager or a doctor.
With mail in hand, Maureen waved at Klein and invited herself to his side of the street. As they exchanged pleasantries, she swept her foot across the grass and watched it unfurl in waves.
“You know,” she started, “I can give you the number for the lawn service I use. They do wonderful work, and they’re very reasonable.”
“I appreciate it,” Klein said with a clean smile, “and I can see that they do great for your house. But I think Renée and I are fine taking care of our lawn on our own.”
“Are you sure? I know I could get them to give you a free consultation.”
“For now, quite sure, but if we ever change our mind, I’ll give you a knock.”
Maureen feigned a smirk. Klein gave her a little salute with the envelopes in his hand and retreated back into his house. On the way back inside, Maureen knelt down to pull a weed that had sprouted in the gully between her grass and the sidewalk and threw it in the garbage.
“Take care of it themselves!” she scoffed at Donna on their evening walk. “That’s what they think they’re doing? Are they blind? You would think that professors would have more of their wits about them than that.”
“It’s just selfish,” Donna said, and Maureen was relieved that someone agreed with her disgust.
“Do they have any idea what this will do to our street? No one will want to live here anymore, and everyone’s property values will go down. We have a community we have to think about. We have to think and care about our neighbors.”
“This is exactly what happened to my sister Sue,” said Donna. “They had one bunch of slobs move in next door, and the next thing you know the neighborhood is trashed!”
Maureen shook her head and bit her lip.
“Ah! You know what I heard? The wife is pregnant now.”
“Renée? Who told you that?” said Maureen.
“The Myers, next door to them, they told me. Now, I don’t know how they know, but I saw her yesterday and I swear she had that glow to her. And she’s a little rounder around the waist too.”
“Well that shouldn’t be hard to notice. She’s a twig, that one. I can hardly imagine her ballooning like that on those little toothpick legs.”
But Maureen could imagine beyond that, all the way to them having a toddler running through grass that towered over its head, getting knotted and tripped up in it, falling, crying, blowing on dandelions, growing more weeds, cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, rashes, hay fever, Lyme disease…
“Well they better get their act together,” Maureen said, “because if they’re not responsible enough to take care of their lawn, they’re not responsible enough to take care of a child.”
The summer went on hot and swampy. There was regular rain followed by relentless heat, keeping it humid almost all the time. That and the salty breeze from the ocean made the days unpleasant and the nights only marginally better. But it was a great time to grow. Maureen hired her lawn service to heavily fertilize her grass and trim it once a week on Thursdays—perfect for the weekends. She ordered some tropical flowers to place in pots across her property. They would only last the year, of course, but Maureen liked to have nice things while she could.
All around the town, people seemed to be pursuing similar goals. Every day the overlapping hum of lawnmowers, sprinklers, and cicadas sounded like a single species. Everyone was doing their part to beautify the neighborhood. That is, everyone except the professors. Their lawn was growing wicked and wild, with tall grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and seedlings popping up irregularly. Looking at it, Maureen winced and bunched her brow, making her worry about the wrinkles this eyesore would cost her. So selfish, those professors.
The good news was that Renée really was pregnant, or at least she had started to look it and wasn’t intent on hiding it. The bad news, as Maureen saw it, was that with a baby on the way, it looked even less likely that the professors would spare precious time and energy fixing their jungle. Circumstances stacked as they were, Maureen had to work to avoid becoming hopeless. If she couldn’t stand looking at their yard, she couldn’t stand being quiet either. She’d annoy them, yes, but such matters were worth losing friends over, not that she and the professors were all that close anyway. There would be no love lost there.
She resumed her perch at her window, taking aim at the professors’ door. Their car pulled up, an outdated Civic, and Maureen went to get the mail. Renée and Klein almost made it to their door before Maureen got to their side of the street.
“Hello, hello!” Maureen called out to them. They spun around to face her. “I just wanted to extend my congratulations.”
She reached a hand towards Renée’s stomach. Renée rubbed her baby bump defensively.
“Thank you,” she said. “She’ll be our first.”
“When I was pregnant with my first, back when I was a bit younger than you are, I remember all I craved was olives, and I could never keep them down.” Maureen went on, burdening them with uncomfortable details until she could see them backstepping towards the door. “Before you go—I don’t want to hold you all day—I wanted to ask you about your lawn.”
“What about it?” said Klein.
“Well… some the neighbors, myself included, have noticed that it’s become a bit… overgrown. We want to know what your plans are for it.”
“This is the plan,” Klein said as he waved over his grass. Maureen blinked at him.
“What plan? Let it grow until you can’t walk on it anymore? It’s, it’s unsightly.”
“We want a natural yard,” he said. “We’re ecologists. Well, Renée is a bit more of an agronomist.” He tucked her under his arm, and they smiled at each other, as if to keep Maureen out of their joke. “Fertilizer runoff throws ecosystems out of balance, and we don’t want to contribute to that, especially here with the reservoirs and ocean nearby. It’s all very delicate.”
Maureen bit her lip again, unsure of how to deal with a kind of lunacy she’d never encountered before. “But can’t you at least trim it? The neighbors…”
“We’ve been busy,” Renée told her as she drew a circle around her stomach. “We’ve been focusing on making the backyard nice, since that’s where we like to spend our time.”
Frustrated, Maureen let them go, but she wasn’t sure if she told them goodbye. She paced around her home, biting her lip, biting her nails, and sneaking glances at the fresh meadow across the street. Irv got home around six, and she couldn’t wait until her walk with Donna.
“Is that so?” Irv said after she explained. “I never thought Manasquan would attract a breed of hippies.”
“I don’t know how you can be wedded to an idea like that when it actively hurts the people around you. I can appreciate science, but what happened to common courtesy?”
“Common courtesy and common sense are both going to die out with us,” Irv said, and Maureen agreed.
“Isn’t there something we can do? Can we report them to the town?”
“Outside of an HOA, there’s not much recourse. It’s their God-given right to let their yard go to shit.”
“What if it’s a safety concern? I’m sure they’re attracting all kinds of ticks and pests. You have to know some loophole that can get them to cut their grass.”
He said he’d look into it. Maureen made him dinner but was too distracted to make it properly and overboiled the pasta. Donna came, like clockwork.
Donna widened her mouth in a silent gasp as round as the pearls in her earrings. “Are they really that concerned? We all care about the environment, sure. I recycle. I don’t litter. But how can you do something like that?”
“Of course we have to care about our planet. We know that better than anyone. We’re next to the ocean. If it rises like they say it will, we’ll lose our homes!” Maureen donned concern, but behind that concern she had a fantasy that the ocean would rise right up to her backyard—beachfront property at last.
“There’s no reasoning with these people,” Donna said. “We have to try our best to ignore them.”
Maureen couldn’t let it go. Looking at that tall grass made her sweat, which was unusual for her. She tried putting herself in their shoes, imagining what it was like to care so much about the environment that you’d voluntarily live in filth, but her empathy couldn’t stretch that far. The environment to her wasn’t there in Manasquan but in mountains and forests so far removed from those suburbs. As long as she lived there, she couldn’t let their little experiment go on.
In a bin in the garage, Maureen dug out a Super Soaker that she gave to her grandkids when they came over. She filled it half up with bleach and topped it off with water. I’d rather see dirt piles out there than what they have now, she thought. Unusable dirt they’d have to at least cover with rocks, something more reasonable. Maureen put on a pair of black joggers and a black sweater. She looked like a cat burglar, a bad caricature of what a villain should look like. She wondered if she was stooping too low, but she quickly swatted that idea out of her mind. Nothing, nothing could be more important than her own sanity. She didn’t work hard until retirement for a couple of professors to ruin her peace.
Once it was good and dark, Maureen snuck out with her chemical weapon, crept across the street, and unloaded on a twisted column of grass. In the half moon’s scant light, Maureen could hardly see where she was shooting. Crickets drowned out the sloshing sound in her water gun, but she still worried that she would get noticed. She vastly underestimated how much she’d need, but she figured that whatever she sprayed would serve as a fine trial run. If she successfully stomped down a patch of the yard, she could come back, work bit by bit, and kill off the nuisance slowly.
She washed her hands, changed clothes, and climbed back into bed next to Irv. She threw an arm over him and slept well, and by morning she felt light in a way she hadn’t in weeks. It was Sunday, so no mail, but she could still wander around her front lawn plucking weeds, not that there were many left after all the Roundup, in order to get closer to her handiwork across the street. She could see a couple splashes of grass that had been drained white, but not quite the mass destruction she’d hoped for. Instead, there was a patchwork of stains that, hopefully, presaged death, and were luckily mild enough that they could be chalked up to a minor drought or the sheer volume of plants choking each other in a struggle for space.
What was more apparent was the steely smell of bleach that reached down her nose and nipped at her lungs. But even so, she could only smell it when she got close.
Convinced that her plan still held promise, Maureen set out to replicate it. She swapped the water gun for a plain bucket, reasoning that the bucket would give her the coverage she needed and would be easier for her to spill out and retreat. She also didn’t like the idea of her grandkids playing with a toy laced with bleach, so she washed it and put it back in its place. She stopped paying close attention to the bleach dosage, figuring that the water would evaporate and the bleach would accumulate until the soil was too poisonous for anything to grow.
She carried on like this, dumping bleach in their yard at night and sleeping soundly right after. The sore on her lip was finally healing. Neither Irv nor Donna, and especially not the professors, knew what she was doing, and she planned to keep it that way. The less they all knew the better. Still, it was hard for anyone to dodge the smell of bleach that suddenly began haunting the street like an industrial ghost.
“What is that?” Donna asked her each night.
“Chlorine? I bet the Myers are messing around with the chemicals in their pool.”
Donna accepted that answer at the time. When the smell sharpened, Maureen got her to believe that it was someone’s fertilizer. When the smell became a stench, Donna was told that it was emanating straight from the professors’ lawn, which was an easy sell because it became strong enough to pinpoint the origin. Conveniently, a good percentage of their lawn had died, turned brown, and began decaying into a juicy sludge that at least looked like it stunk.
It was working perfectly. The professors’ lawn was withering away, and in the process, it had become the disgusting onus of the street, leaving them no choice but to be ashamed of it. It was only icing that the whole dying thing provided a neat cover for Maureen. Now, whenever she saw the professors, she noticed embarrassed grief caked on their faces. She felt bad for them, truly, but some lessons have to be taught brutally, and Maureen thought it was incumbent upon the professors to learn how to properly take care of things, especially with a baby on the way. She hated seeing that shame inhabit them, but she mostly hoped that they’d change, work themselves out of it.
Maureen and Klein crossed paths at their mailboxes again, and this time Klein came to her side.
He conceded, asking Maureen if she could put him in touch with her lawn service, please.
“Really?” Maureen acted surprised. “I thought you were opposed to that.”
“I was. We were, but everything in our yard is dying.” He looked worried, maybe even close to crying, but he swallowed it. “I feel like I’m losing it. Every day I walk out my door and I swear I smell bleach, but bleach doesn’t just appear.” He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged on it.
“Bleach? I’ve smelt it too, but I assumed it was all the fertilizers people spray around all mixing together. Pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, you know.”
“I can’t quite place it. I’ve been around plenty of dead plants, and I know it’s not them.” He paused. He bit his lip, for once. “Renée can smell everything right now. Her nose has gotten so sensitive lately. She completely believes that it’s bleach. She says she gets a migraine every time she leaves the house. I can’t disagree with her, but I don’t know how to help her either.”
He trailed off. Maureen held his arm and flashed him an assuring, winning smile. “I’ll get you the number.”
By early August, once everything in the professors’ lawn was dead or dying, the bleach smell too was subsiding as a heatwave scorched the soil dry. This was the best Maureen could ask for. Her lawn service was scheduled to clean out the debris and lay down sod in a week or so. But before that could happen, a nor’easter tore up the coast, shaking houses and laying down thick piles of rain. The next morning, the bleach was rehydrated, reinvigorated, and ready again to accost the street’s noses. Even from her porch, as Maureen stirred sugar into her morning coffee, the fumes mingled with her drink and turned each sip sour. Yet, she remained in good spirits because the gray-brown mess across the street would be gone shortly.
The professors emerged, as they always did on weekdays, around eight-thirty. Maureen had been seeing less and less of Renée, but she saw that she was coming along and had started waddling slightly in an effort to balance her stomach with the rest of her frame. Klein was dutifully by her side, arm in arm, helping relieve the pressure on her swollen feet. Then, once she got a good whiff of her yard, her veneer of calm cracked and caved inward as her face drained of all color. She folded at the waist and vomited before her feet. Klein held and straightened her, but she lurched forward again and further emptied bile from her stomach. He wrapped her arm over his shoulders, carried her to the passenger seat, and sped off.
Maureen watched it all unfold from her porch. After the first vomit, she stood up as if she were offering herself for service, but she was only searching for a better view. She sat down when they left, and it took her a few minutes to crave her coffee again. What a shame, she thought. All that big, nasty yard to throw up on and she chose her walkway. Left in the sun, that’ll bake in and leave a stain.
When Donna knocked on Maureen’s door two nights later, she had already pieced a story together from her threads of gossip.
“You didn’t get this from me,” she said, lowering herself to a whisper, “but I heard that they took her to the hospital, and she had a miscarriage.” She hissed slightly on the final s.
Maureen looked surprised, but news fell on her softly as if she’d known it all along. “No, no, she couldn’t have. She’s more than three months along; that’s unheard of.”
“I couldn’t believe it either. It’s rare, horribly rare, but it can happen under stress. At first I thought it was an abortion, because you know how these kids play fast and loose with those things, but I heard her say so many times that they were excited.”
“You’re assuming that the baby is gone,” Maureen leveled at her, “but we can’t be sure of that, unless you have her ultrasounds.”
“I’m just talking. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to. I heard this from the Myers, and you know they’re closer to them than we are. They haven’t led me wrong yet.”
Whether it was true or false was inconsequential to Maureen, nothing but another nagging loose end that came to mind whenever she thought of the professors. More crucial to her peace of mind was when the rotten plants would be trashed and the sod would be laid down. After the storm, the bleach must have leached across to the neighbors’ properties, because their grass too was getting that yellow tinge. The sooner that all got fixed the better, but Maureen hoped that the innocent bystanders would understand the collateral damage. It was horrible, really, that their yard had to go through that, but Maureen was confident that it would look so much nicer in the end.
Anticipating that, she spent the off hours of her days leering out her window sipping tea—she had switched to tea, it was lighter than coffee without all the cream and sugar. The professors’ comings and goings became less common, but Maureen always took notice. Their faces were difficult to parse, mostly because they now looked down more often than up, and they moved slowly, like the air around them was heavier than normal. Sighting after sighting, it became clear that Renée’s stomach was deflating rather than bulging. Maureen had been lucky that all three of her children came to her easily, so she had to imagine what a heartbreak like that felt like, and when she concentrated on it she could almost feel it, but the recreation was never as strong. The thought made her sad, and she didn’t want to let it go any further than that.
But it did lift her spirits to see truckloads of sod roll up to cover the barren landscape that had become the professors’ yard. She celebrated the sight by applauding to herself excitedly with tiny claps right in front of her face. Klein and Renée were outside overseeing the process, still looking down, but Maureen couldn’t blame them this time. It was beautiful. For the first time since Mrs. Graham had died, the lawns across the street flowed from one to the next. The street was respectable again, and Maureen was sure that everyone’s property values would benefit from being a part of such a presentable neighborhood.
Maureen didn’t bother to get the mail as an excuse to invite herself over this time. She had a vested interest in seeing how much they liked their new lawn.
“What did I tell you?” she said to the couple. “My guys do the best work.”
Renée broke her gaze to face her. Her mouth smiled but her eyes didn’t. “We’ll have to find a proper way to thank you. It looks so much… neater than it did before.”
“It looks marvelous,” Maureen said, getting carried away with her own satisfaction.
“It’s neat, but it’s plain,” Klein said. “We still want to have a natural yard one day, but we’ll plan it better next time. Do it right.”
“There’s always next year to try again,” Maureen said.
Maureen spat a goodbye at them and turned back to her porch. They’re already planning on ruining it again, she thought. They can’t think straight. I know they’re grieving but even in grief people should appreciate the silver linings when they come, and they got one served straight to them, and they want to throw it away. Ungrateful. They suffered a tragedy, I know, but life’s full of them. Lord knows I’ve had mine, Irv has had his, and Donna hers too. They’re too young to understand that that’s what life has in store from them, so it’s best to learn how to move on and try not to be so bitter about it. I’ll give them a year or two. That should give them enough experience to teach them how to stay in line and fit in around here.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected]. Visit his bio page here.
Cover Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash