“A push-mower,” said Nathaniel, as if the very idea of such a thing were quaint and also as if he didn’t much care for quaint things. “Is it self-propelled?”
“No,” said Delphina. “But it’s light. The yard isn’t big. That’s the mower Alvin always used and it never took him more than 45 minutes to finish.”
“But with a riding mower, I could probably do it in, like, 20 minutes,” said Nathaniel.
“I want you to use this mower,” said Delphina. “This mower cuts the grass how we like it. This is the only mower that’s ever been used on this yard and that’s how I want it to stay.”
Nathaniel made an exasperated noise. “All right, well, I’d better get started then.”
“I put gas in it already,” said Delphina. “I’ll just stay here until you get it started.”
“Why?” asked Nathaniel, pulling the mower out of the shed and into the shaggy grass.
“Oh, it just has this thing,” said Delphina. “A little quirk. It never starts unless another person’s around.”
“What do you mean?” asked Nathaniel, eyeing the mower with distrust.
“You know how some things are,” said Delphina. “You try and try to make them work like they’re supposed to and they won’t, but then when you go get someone else to show them how the thing isn’t working, the thing works perfectly and makes you look stupid in front of the other person. And you always say, ‘It wasn’t working before, I swear!’ but the other person never really believes you. Well, this mower is like that. If you try to start it by yourself, it won’t start, but when you go get someone else to show them how it won’t start, then it starts perfectly. So Alvin and I learned to just cut out the middle step and always have someone else present when we needed to start it up. Well, it was really always Alvin who did the mowing, but I’d always come out of the house when it was time to start the mower so he could just get it going on the first try and be done with it.”
“But why not just get a different mower, then?” asked Nathaniel.
“Because this mower cuts the grass how we like it,” said Delphina.
“Then why not take it to a mechanic?” asked Nathaniel.
“No need,” said Delphina. “It works great once you get it started, you’ll see. And having another person there when you need to start it isn’t a big deal. Alvin always had me, and as long as you’re helping me, I’m pretty sure I’ll always be around when you’ll need to start the mower too. So there’s not actually a problem. It’s just a quirk, like I said.”
Nathaniel scratched his bare shoulder, a simple act rendered simpler still by the sleevelessness of his shirt. Then he bent down, held the mower’s start lever on the handle down with his left hand, and gave the pull cord a sharp yank with his right hand. The engine started like a champ. “I dunno,” said Nathaniel, loudly. “It’s working fine now.”
“That’s because I’m right here!” shouted Delphina. “Try it again while I’m inside and see what happens!”
Nathaniel let go of the start lever and the mower’s engine sputtered and stopped. “All right,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”
“Wait until I’m inside to try it,” said Delphina, and she turned and walked across the yard, up the back steps, and into her house, closing the door behind her. She stood in her kitchen for a good five minutes, giving Nathaniel ample opportunity to try various means of getting the lawnmower to start without her standing nearby. A short stack of Alvin’s books sat on the kitchen counter. Delphina had been working around them for months without moving them. She didn’t even know what the books were about, just that they were Alvin’s and that the police hadn’t bothered to look through them, although she hadn’t told the police the books were Alvin’s, but also, the police hadn’t asked if the books were Alvin’s, so why should she volunteer that information?
Delphina went back outside. Nathaniel was far sweatier than he had been the last time Delphina had seen him.
“I’m back,” said Delphina. “Try it now.”
Nathaniel looked reluctant to try, but he held the start lever, yanked the pull cord, and the mower started up, exactly, again, like a champ.
Delphina didn’t gloat. She understood Nathaniel’s skepticism. She’d be skeptical too if she didn’t have decades of experience with the mower and its quirk. “Come inside when you’re done!” Delphina shouted over the noise of the mower. “I’ll give you something to drink!”
“This isn’t good,” Nathaniel shouted back. “This isn’t how a mower should be. It should start every time. It should be dependable.”
“It is dependable,” shouted Delphina. “It hasn’t changed since we got it!”
An hour later, Delphina realized she hadn’t heard the mower for at least 20 minutes but Nathaniel still hadn’t knocked on the door. She went outside and saw that the lawn was fully mowed, the shed was closed up, and Nathaniel’s truck was gone. Maybe he hadn’t been thirsty. Or maybe he didn’t want to associate with her too much for fear of what his mom, Delphina’s younger sister Mabel, would say. Things had been tense in the family since the accusations against Alvin had surfaced the previous fall, but Mabel had always hated Delphina’s husband, so the accusations had been a convenient excuse for her to start making her grievances known without worrying about sounding impolite. Delphina had been shocked when Nathaniel had called her up and asked if there was anything he could do to help her out. He hadn’t even made his offer of help conditional upon Delphina’s acknowledgment of her husband’s guilt. His mother, on the other hand, had made it clear that as long as Delphina was in “denial,” they would not be on speaking terms. But from Delphina’s perspective, it was Mabel who was in denial about Alvin’s innocence, so why would Delphina want to be on speaking terms with someone who only seemed to ever want to speak about what a bad choice of husband Alvin was? Anyway, if Nathaniel wanted to argue with her about her lawnmower and didn’t want to come inside for a drink, that was fine with Delphina, he was still being nicer to her than anyone else was.
A week passed and, during that week, the sun shone, rain fell, and as a natural result of all this time, sun, and rain, the grass in Delphina’s yard grew until it became unsightly. Delphina had not spoken to Nathaniel since he’d mowed her lawn the previous week. She didn’t know if she was supposed to call him when the grass needed another mow or if it was understood that he would show up again on a weekly basis or if the lawn-mowing had been a one-time deal.
And then, early in the afternoon, while Delphina was in Alvin’s home office looking through a file cabinet for some old birthday cards from her mother, she heard the sound of a lawnmower starting up outside the office window. Abandoning her search for the birthday cards, Delphina went outside and found Nathaniel mowing her back yard with a lawnmower that looked very similar to hers. When he saw Delphina, Nathaniel smiled and mowed his way back over to her, stopping the lawnmower next to her and turning it off. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Uh,” said Delphina. “Why aren’t you using my mower?”
“This is your mower,” said Nathaniel. “Last week after I finished mowing, I loaded it into my truck and took it to a small engines mechanic I know. She worked on it during the week, and now it’s fixed. It started right up today. On my first pull.”
“That isn’t my mower,” said Delphina.
“Are you saying that because it started without you being out here?” asked Nathaniel.
“No,” said Delphina. “It’s not just that. It doesn’t sound right either. And it doesn’t cut right.” She looked at the narrow strip of lawn that Nathaniel had just mowed. The cut grass looked all wrong.
“What are you talking about?” asked Nathaniel. “It doesn’t sound right? It sounds fine. And it cuts fine too. She didn’t change the blades or the height of the deck or anything. It’s exactly the same mower except that it starts consistently.”
Delphina shook her head. “I appreciate what you were trying to do, Nathaniel, but I want you to fix it.”
“It is fixed.”
“No, fix it back,” said Delphina. “The way it was. I want you to undo whatever you did.”
Nathaniel looked angry. He pinched the bridge of his nose in a successful attempt to project even more anger. “Aunt Delphy, I’m not taking the mower back to have the mechanic make it worse. I already paid out of my own pocket to have it fixed.”
“Well, no one asked you to do that. I liked it how it was, I told you that. I never minded standing there while Alvin started it and I didn’t mind standing there when you started it because it did everything else so well. It cut my grass exactly how I like it cut and now it doesn’t anymore. You and your mechanic ruined it.”
“I don’t want to argue with you about this,” said Nathaniel. “Do you want me to finish mowing your lawn or not?”
“I suppose,” said Delphina. “I can’t let it go uncut for another week or it’ll get out of hand. But tell me who your mechanic is. Give me her number.”
“All right, fine,” said Nathaniel. “Her name’s Vivian. I’ll write her number down for you when I finish.”
Nathaniel waited to start the mower again until Delphina was back inside of her house, probably to prove some kind of point.
After Nathaniel left, Delphina went outside to look at her lawn, the scrap of paper on which Nathaniel had written Vivian’s phone number tucked into her shirt pocket. The lawn didn’t look right. It didn’t look bad, but it looked wrong. It looked like someone else’s lawn, like a stranger’s lawn that would go unnoticed as Delphina passed it by in her van. Or it looked like an alternate reality version of herself’s lawn, a version of herself who had never met and married Alvin, maybe, the lawn of a version of herself who had never helped Alvin escape the clutches of the law with months of misdirection and deception. And that wasn’t accurate, her lawn was her lawn and it should look like it. If Delphina demanded one thing from the way in which her lawn represented her life, it was accuracy.
Vivian’s small engines workshop looked like the smaller, conjoined twin of her garage. The garage door to the garage was closed but the garage door to the small engines workshop stood open. Inside, Vivian knelt next to a presumably malfunctioning moped. She looked a little older than Delphina. Her hair was bright white at the tip of her long ponytail, but it got grayer and grayer the closer it got to her scalp. She wore a grease-stained, pale-blue t-shirt that said “Vivian” on it, but not embroidered on her left breast like a name on a work shirt, rather, screen-printed across the entire front of the shirt in bold, splashy letters like a souvenir shirt from a tourist town called “Vivian.”
“I spoke to you on the phone,” said Delphina. “I called about the mower my nephew had you work on without my permission.” She stepped into the workshop, which was full of small engines, some of them still attached to or nestled within the things they powered, some of them disembodied and of mysterious origin to someone uninitiated to the ways of small engines like Delphina. The workshop was orderly, though, and not overwhelming in its oiliness.
Vivian stood up and wiped her hands on a rag tucked into the waistband of her sturdy, brown pants. “Yes,” she said. “You said you’re having problems with the mower?”
“Yes,” said Delphina. “I want you to undo whatever you did to it. I’ll pay whatever that costs.”
Vivian nodded. “I warned your nephew that this might happen. As soon as I got the real story out of him, I figured there might be trouble.”
“What real story?” asked Delphina.
“Well, first he told me it didn’t start consistently,” said Vivian. “But it started perfectly every time I tried it and I told him it didn’t seem like it needed my help. So then he told me that you believed it only started when there was a witness present. So I had him go around the back of my workshop and sure enough, as soon as he was gone, your mower wouldn’t start at all. So I had him come back and I explained to him that your mower is one of those special kinds of machines that some people call ‘temperamental.’”
“Exactly,” said Delphina. “I told him that but he wouldn’t listen.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Vivian. “He didn’t listen to me either. I told him that fixing it would almost certainly have unintended consequences that I couldn’t predict, but he insisted.”
“What kinds of consequences?” asked Delphina.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Vivian. “But machines like that, once you realize they’re temperamental, you have to nip that in the bud, otherwise it just gets more and more set in its ways. If you had brought that mower to me when it was first sold, I could have fixed it right up and that would have been the end of it, but when you wait this long, when you just let it be temperamental for years and years like this, trying to fix it affects it on a deep, deep level. You break it out of its usual way of doing things and there’s no telling what will happen.”
“But can you undo it?” asked Delphina.
Vivian shook her head. “No, the temperament of the mower has changed. I could do something to it to change its temperament again, but it can never go back to the temperament it had before. What is it doing differently now that you don’t like, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m not really sure,” said Delphina. “Nathaniel mowed my lawn with it today and it worked fine, but when he was done, the lawn just didn’t look right. I can’t explain it, but I always liked how my mower made my lawn look and it doesn’t look like that this time.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Vivian. “If I had known you didn’t want me to work on the mower, I never would have touched it, but your nephew said that the most important thing to you was that the mower be able to start consistently. And I guess that was a lie. I’m sorry I believed him. But I will say that from what little I know about temperamental machines, it sounds like you got lucky.”
“Lucky how?” asked Delphina.
“Well, your mower is just sort of ‘off’ now,” said Vivian. “And probably always will be. But you’ll get used to it. But from what I’ve heard, some machines snap.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Delphina.
“They just go haywire,” said Vivian. “They behave very strangely.”
“Well, it’s not doing that, thank goodness,” said Delphina.
“Hey,” said Vivian. “I know this might be rude, and I don’t mean to pry, but-”
“No,” said Delphina, her voice going cold. “He didn’t do any of it. He’s innocent.” Then she got back into her van and drove home.
That night, Delphina woke up on the couch in the family room with the TV showing a black and white movie that nonetheless did not look old. It was almost as if the fact that it was in black and white had been a deliberate artistic decision. Disgusted, Delphina turned the TV off with her remote and rose from the couch. As she walked to her bedroom to continue her sleep in her bed, Delphina heard a faint sound that she couldn’t quite identify. It was like a buzz or a hum or a purr. She walked back down the hall and into the kitchen where the sound was a little louder. She opened the back door and, barefoot, stepped out onto the small porch. The sound was coming from the shed. She crossed the yard, the wet grass clippings clinging to her feet, and she opened the door to the shed. The mower was running. The start lever, which usually had to be held up in order for the mower to run, was not up, but the mower was running anyway. Delphina reached out to lift the start lever up against the mower’s handle, then let it drop, and the mower’s engine shut off. Delphina closed up the shed and went back inside. She used a paper towel to wipe her cold feet clean and then went to bed. An hour later, she woke up again to the faint, distant sound of the mower running its engine in the shed. Delphina dozed for a while, slipping in and out of consciousness, and then she heard the engine cough and stop.
The next morning when she investigated, Delphina found that the mower was out of gas.
Delphina fretted about her lawnmower while she prepared herself a lunch of low-salt potato chips and four miniature ice cream sandwiches, a process that only required the opening of packaging. Had her mower “snapped,” as Vivian had put it? She was tempted to call Vivian to get her opinion on the matter, but her pride wouldn’t let her after she’d made a point of acting offended at the rudeness of Vivian’s prying.
Delphina sat on the couch while she ate and looked through a multi-page Diamond Food advertisement she’d gotten in the mail, hoping that there would be a sale on something she really loved to eat this week. She had just finished the chips and was napkining her face before giving the ice cream sandwiches her full attention when her cell phone rang. She did not recognize the number, which usually meant a stranger was calling to harass her about Alvin, but she always answered just in case it was Alvin himself calling from a payphone or a hotel phone or a borrowed phone or a prison phone.
“Hello?” she said, already bracing herself for the accusations and abuse.
“Delphina! It’s me!”
“Alvin?” Tears fell from Delphina’s eyes.
“Yes, it’s me! Do the cops have your phone tapped?”
“I don’t know,” said Delphina. “Maybe? Probably?”
“Oh, shoot,” said Alvin. “Well, I’d better not say where I am now then.”
“Can’t they just trace it?” asked Delphina.
“No, not this phone,” said Alvin. “What’s going on in Multioak? How are you? How’s the house?”
“I’m OK,” said Delphina. “But I’ve had some trouble with the mower, Alvin.”
“What kind of trouble?” asked Alvin.
“Well, Nathaniel’s been helping me out by mowing the lawn.”
“That’s good,” said Alvin. “I’m actually surprised.”
“Yeah,” said Delphina. “But he didn’t like how I always had to be there for the mower to start, so he took it to a mechanic without my permission and she fixed it, but now it doesn’t cut the yard right. And then last night, it started up by itself in the shed twice and ran itself out of gas. The mechanic said something about temperamental machines snapping if you try to change them and I’m worried that may have happened to our mower.”
There was a long silence from the other end of the phone. Then Alvin, his voice heavy with emotion, said, “I never should have left. I never should have run away. It’s my fault, Delphy. It’s my fault that the mower is ruined.”
“Well, it’s just a mower,” said Delphina. “I’ll get over it. I’d rather deal with this mower thing than have you sitting in prison for crimes you didn’t do.”
“But the mower’s just part of it,” said Alvin. “It’s symbolic. I left you all alone. I’m not there and now things are coming undone without me. It took both of us to start the mower, but now I’m gone and look what’s happened.”
“But it’s not your fault,” said Delphina. “You were falsely accused.”
“Well, I know that,” said Alvin. “You don’t have to tell me that.”
“I haven’t told the police anything useful,” said Delphina. “I’ve been so unhelpful.”
“Thank you,” said Alvin. “I really appreciate that.”
“Everyone else thinks you did it, though,” said Delphina. “Friends, family, strangers.”
“Don’t blame them,” said Alvin. “I’d think I did it too if I didn’t know my side of the story.”
“Yeah,” said Delphina. “It’s just that I don’t know your side of the story so it makes it kind of hard for me to defend you or convince other people that you’re innocent even though I know you are.”
“Your faith in me keeps me going, Delphy. I’ll be home soon. Well, I’ll try to be. And then we’ll get our old lawnmower back, you’ll see. There’s no such thing as a lost cause.”
“Well, the mechanic told me that a temperamental machine can’t ever go back to how it was once you mess with it,” said Delphina.
“Hey, Delphy,” said Alvin. “There’s a woman here looking at me with a lot of suspicion. I have to go. I love you! Bye!”
“I love you too,” said Delphina. “Bye.” When she hung up, her ice cream sandwiches were melty messes on her plate. She ate them anyway.
While she was washing her plate at the kitchen sink, Delphina heard a sound that she was afraid she recognized. She turned off the faucet so she could hear better and her fears were confirmed: she did recognize the sound.
Out in the shed, Delphina found the mower running again. It was even more disturbing in the daylight, somehow. She tried lifting and letting go of the start lever again, but it had no effect. But hadn’t the mower run out of gas last time? With the mower’s engine still running, Delphina bent down to unscrew the gas cap and peer inside. There was no gas. This had seemed impossible the first time, but it seemed even more impossible now. Delphina didn’t know what to do. She closed up the shed and went back inside, but even when she turned the volume on the TV way up, she could still hear the mower running in the background, or she imagined she could. It was maddening. She tried listening to music under headphones, but she couldn’t stop herself from taking the headphones off every few minutes to see if the mower was still running, which it always was. Fed up, Delphina left the house and went for a drive out in the country where she wouldn’t have to endure as many stares and insincere waves from other drivers. She drove around for two hours, giving the lawnmower plenty of time to wear itself out, and when Delphina got home, the mower was no longer running, but her relief was muted. She knew that if it didn’t need gas to run, it could start up again at any moment.
That night in bed, it took Delphina a long time to fall asleep. She kept waiting for the mower to start up again and hoping that it wouldn’t, but eventually she must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew, her eyes were snapping open and she was leaping out of bed, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. There were no engine sounds, but there was definitely something on the roof.
Delphina realized there was no one to call. Alvin was gone, Nathaniel would think she was crazy, the police hated her. The sound continued, just overhead, now heading away from her. A continuous sound, not like footsteps. Delphina pulled on her robe and walked through her dark house to the front door. She felt safer going out the front door than the back door, someone was more likely to see her if something went wrong, even at 3 in the morning. Delphina stepped out onto her front porch, went down the steps, and hurried down the sidewalk toward the driveway. Then she turned and looked up at the roof of her house, just in time to see the silhouette of the lawnmower’s handle disappear over the peak.
Delphina didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to think. After a few moments, the mower came back up over the peak to the front side of the roof, moving diagonally down toward the edge before swerving up toward the peak and moving parallel to it for a short distance and then disappearing to the other side again, and all of this silent except for the sound of the mower’s wheels rolling along the shingles. Delphina wondered how the mower could have possibly gotten onto the roof but then decided she would rather not know. She went back into the house and turned on all the lights in the kitchen and the living room, made some hot tea for herself, and drank it while sitting on the couch and watching the ceiling, her eyes following the sound of the lawnmower which had, Delphina decided, definitely “snapped.” She would set aside her pride and call Vivian in the morning for advice. She was open to any and all potential solutions at this point, even extreme ones. Delphina assumed she would not sleep, but she assumed wrong.
A sound again woke Delphina. An alarming, violent sound. She jumped up from the couch. Sunlight filled her living room, which meant it was closer to mid-morning than early morning. She ran to her front window and looked outside for the source of the sound. A black car and a tan car had crashed in the street right in front of Delphina’s house. The black car had apparently struck the tan car in the driver’s side quarter panel. Both drivers were out of their cars and appeared unhurt, although their backs were to Delphina. She didn’t know why, but she had a bad feeling. Well, actually, she knew why.
Delphina slipped her feet into her sandals by the front door and went outside, crossing her lawn and approaching the drivers, two men of average size, both bald, one in a business suit with a rip in the shoulder of which he was probably unaware. “Hello?” said Delphina. “Are you OK?”
The men turned and looked at her. “We’re fine,” said the one in the damaged suit.
“Did you see the accident?” asked the other.
“No,” said Delphina. “I just heard it.”
“It was a lawnmower,” said the one with clothes that were neither a suit nor ripped. “It just drove out into the road by itself! I swerved to miss it and ran into him.”
“I saw it too,” said the man in the ripped suit. “Do you think it was remote controlled?”
“Where did it look like it came from?” asked Delphina.
“Over there,” said no-suit-non-rip, and he pointed at Delphina’s next door neighbor’s house where it appeared as if a lawnmower had run amok in the flower beds, leaving them in a state of utter devastation.
“I wonder where it went,” said ripped-suit. “I just saw it for a moment and then the accident…”
Delphina heard police sirens approaching. “Well, I’m going to go back inside,” she said. “I didn’t see anything, so I don’t think I’d be a good witness, but let me know if you need anything.”
The men nodded and went back to looking in the direction they said the mower had been headed, but there was nothing to see now except for ordinary yards, trees, houses, fences, sidewalks, and neighborhoody things like that.
Back inside her house, Delphina went into the master bathroom, which had no windows, and used her cell phone to call Vivian.
“Hello, Vivian? It’s Delphina, I spoke to you at your workshop the other day.”
“I remember you,” said Vivian. Her voice sounded guarded. “You’ve got the temperamental lawnmower.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Delphina. “And you mentioned that sometimes temperamental machines, that when they’re tinkered with, that sometimes they snap? That’s what you said, right?”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” said Vivian. “Do you think your lawnmower may have snapped?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Delphina. “It still just seems a little ‘off,’ like I said before. I just want to know what to do if it snaps.”
“Well,” said Vivian, “if it snaps like the temperamental machines I’ve heard rumors about, then the only sensible thing would be to destroy it.”
“And how would I do that?” asked Delphina. “If it ever comes to that, I mean, God forbid.”
“I’m not exactly sure,” said Vivian. “Blow it up? Crush it? I could try to take it all apart, but it might be hard to get close to it. And dangerous.”
“Thanks for the input,” said Delphina. Her hand was shaking.
“Before you go,” said Vivian. “I just wanted to say, about the other day…”
“Oh, no, it’s OK,” said Delphina.
“No, listen,” said Vivian. “I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t asking if your husband really did…all that. I was going to ask if you needed anything, if there was anything I could do to help you out.”
“No,” said Delphina. “There isn’t.” And she hung up.
Over the next few days, the grass in Delphina’s yard grew and her lawnmower did not return, at least as far as she knew. She didn’t see it, didn’t hear its engine, didn’t hear its wheels on her roof, saw no evidence of further destruction wrought by its figurative hands, but she still didn’t sleep well. The number Alvin had called her from was still saved in Delphina’s phone and she tried calling it a few times, but it just rang and rang and no one ever picked up. Was he closer to her than he’d been when he called? Farther away? She didn’t know. She wondered if a wife in a better couple would have a sixth sense for something like that. She wondered if maybe she should just call and the police and hear what they had to say, maybe let them give her a general overview of the evidence, maybe see what they thought about some of Alvin’s more unnerving habits, maybe tell them some places Alvin may have hidden the bodies if he did it.
As she was getting into bed one night, it occurred to Delphina that the next day was the day that Nathaniel usually came to mow the lawn. She wondered what she could tell him. But maybe it wouldn’t be that hard, actually. She’d just say she got rid of her mower, she needed a new one. She could even give Nathaniel some money, tell him to use his truck to go buy her one, whichever one he’d prefer to mow with, even a riding mower if he could get it into his truck. It wouldn’t cut her grass right, of course, but Delphina knew her grass would never be cut right again, that ship had sailed.
That night, Delphina’s dreams, lovely as they appeared, were all drowned out by the persistent sound of an attention-craving engine, and when she awoke 20-some minutes after sunrise, she looked outside and saw that her lawn was freshly-cut and, not only that, it looked right, how it used to look, how it was supposed to look.
In the shed, Delphina found her lawnmower. It was in rough shape: battered and scratched and scraped, its deck even blackened in places, scorched. But none of that mattered. The yard looked right.
Later, Delphina called Nathaniel and told him not to come by ever again.
And she never called the police.