Landscaping with David by Eric Van Hoose

David was on his hands and knees spreading the last bag of mulch across the flowerbed. His forearms looked like wet hot dogs roasting on a wire rack, flecked with dark patches of dirt. I watched him finish while I poured the last of my water bottle onto my head, letting the cool trickle run over my face. My arms had gotten badly sunburnt, and I was sure that my neck would begin to throb and feel tender against the rub of my shirt. My skin wasn’t used to the sun the way David’s was.

The yard and the house that sat in it were both huge—our biggest job that summer: mowing the grass, trimming the bushes that flanked the main entranceway and all the small bushes that lined the walkway, weeding the flowerbeds, edging the driveway and the sidewalk. It took thirteen hours. A woman with her three young, energetic sons had been pulling an SUV in and out of the driveway all day long on various errands. Soccer practice, groceries. With the window down, on one particular trip back up the long, sloping driveway, I heard one of the boys say, confoundedly, They’re still here?

Eight hours into things I started to brood. My energy dropped off and I felt a powerful urge to lay down. I regretted making the phone call to David, asking him if I could work with him. And I was angry with my father, who had pressured me into it. I was angry that we hadn’t been able to finish in eight hours—that what I’d imagined as a regular workday had turned into a slow moving, hot marathon. When I told David, after eleven hours, that I needed to get home, that I had plans, he just stayed silent, and I could feel the anger pulsing from him.

By then I had already learned how to tell if the days would be long or short. When David said Why don’t you just ride with me, which was not a question, that was a long day. I wouldn’t be able to leave until we packed everything back into his shitty truck and he dropped me off. If he said Go ahead and follow me over, that meant I drove myself and might be able leave once he was through with my help. He always said one or the other as we packed the tools into his truck bed in the early mornings, walking through the wet grass between his back alley storage garage and the two-story apartment building where he lived.

The building was one of four identical brick cubes that capped off the end of a dead end street called Roy Rd. It was a rough little strip of town, not kept up like the houses north toward the suburbs, and not close enough to the city to get much traffic. In the still mornings I could sometimes hear voices and dishes inside the open windows of the other apartments and the hum of the air conditioning units.

We made small talk and assessed the weather as we loaded the tools we’d need for the day into the truck. His tools were worn down hard. The trimmer required a small twig jammed into its controls before it could start—which was hard to do. And anything with a motor—edger, blower, lawnmower—was just barely running. I could picture him stuffing the thick cloth into the lawnmower’s gas tank as a replacement for the cap. The same lawnmower—the large, heavy kind, meant for industrial jobs—wouldn’t cut itself off when you let go of the safety handles. You had to run along side it and reach in to disconnect two wires to shut it off. The first time he showed me how to use it I could tell it hurt him to explain that to me.

You know, I really look up to your dad, he spoke up one morning after clearing his throat, one hand on the steering wheel—newer, shinier trucks passing us by. He’s a great guy, and I never really had a dad to look up to, so he’s kind of like that to me, he’s just really been there for me.

My father had fallen in with the church years ago, after my mother left. He’d been through a lot of different churches by then, tiring of them and moving to the next. That summer he was leading a support group—the vague, Christian kind of support—and helped David out a lot since he couldn’t hold a job. My father always felt better, more in control, when people were depending on him, and so he always looked for people worse off, people who would have no choice but to look up to him.

I knew that David had worked at Wal-Mart for a while, and had other odd jobs when the landscaping business wasn’t bringing in enough money. But now he had landscaping work most days, and even had a business card printed: Early Bird Lawn-Care, with a cartoon image of a bird holding a worm in its mouth.

Halfway through that summer, my father and I were having lunch when he took on a thoughtful look and asked Does David ever do anything that seems off to you? I didn’t tell him the way that David talked about women, that he commented on the girls walking in groups on the sidewalks, talked about how they were too young.

Part of our morning routine was stopping at the gas station. I got coffee and David got whatever was lying around for breakfast—sandwiches in plastic wrap that he warmed up in the gas station’s dirty microwave, sometimes three or four of them. Once he grabbed a hot dog off the rack and ate it in two bites—no bun, no condiments—before going up to the register to pay for it. He used the bathroom there every morning: his Morning Poo, he said. Just after that he said that was probably TMI, too much information. I faked a chuckle and felt it stop and solidify in the air, riding just above the sounds of the tires on the road. Sitting high up in the truck made the road and the sidewalks, the houses, the trees, all look different.

One morning there was a red, scuffed up camera resting in the seat, looking out of place in the old truck.

Is this your camera? I had my eyes on it, couldn’t take them away.

Oh yeah, I want to get some pictures today.

When we pulled into a cul-de-sac lined with big houses David let the truck idle.

You heard of that dating website? E-Harmony? I’m getting a page together on there since your dad gave me his old laptop. Gotta get a picture on there. Then he was opening the door and stepping out.

When we finished the job at the house that afternoon I waited by the truck while David went and knocked on the front door to ask for money. From the truck I could see him talking with a woman. She closed the door and returned a minute later. David put something in his pocket and walked back toward the truck. We packed up the tools, and then he was walking toward me holding the camera out, saying Ok, can you snap some off really fast. I’m gonna stand here in front of the bushes.

We had trimmed the bushes sitting on either side of the driveway. He took a shovel with him as a prop. I held up the camera and asked if he was ready. He moved in spurts, finding poses—leaning his arm out on the shovel. He forced his mouth up into a smile like an animal. I held the camera steady and snapped the shot and said OK. Then he took on another pose, resting his foot up on the edge of the shovel fast, like he could tell the moment was running out, that he was doing something wrong and wanted to finish before getting caught. He tried a serious look, not smiling, and then put up his gruesome, hungry smile again. Then he stepped away, letting the shovel rest down by his side.

David had a plain face and carried enough extra weight to make his chin bulge out. He looked like a small boy working to control an overgrown body, and when I think of him now I picture his boyish, hazel eyes--round and wide. The stubble on his face seemed out of place, but was always there. He was heavy—gravity seemed to always hold him back—but under his weight there was a solidness and a quickness to his movements that could flare up. When we were moving something heavy, or when he had to pull, cursing over and over, on the cord to start the automatic blower, he moved fast.

The next morning I showed up at six-thirty, our usual time, but David wasn’t out by the garage. I felt out of place walking into the small apartment building and finding his door, the first one on the right. The hallway was dingy, and someone had spilled water. I knocked a few times and then heard David moving around inside. When he came to the door I could see he was still stunned with sleep. His door didn’t rest right in its frame and he had to pull it hard to get it open, it snapped free fast, and he put his weight into it to stop it from hitting him.

Hey. Mornin'. He was wiping his face with both hands.

The apartment was mostly empty. A small TV and a VCR sat on the floor, covered in dust, and a pair of dumbbells, also on the floor, was in the corner. There was a small wooden table that didn’t rest evenly, a big, silver exercise ball pushed up close to it for a seat.

He was wearing the same white shirt and cargo pants from the day before, the shirt still tucked in, pressed with deep creases from sleeping. He moved into the kitchen and I stood near the door. I heard him start up the microwave, and he came back out, pointing to the laptop that was open on the table.

Hey can you help me out? You’re good on computers, right?

He hadn’t used a computer much. He touched it uncertainly, tenderly. He typed each key slowly with one finger, backspacing when he looked up and saw he’d pressed the wrong one. w-w-w-.-e-h-a-r-m-o-n-y-.-c-o-m. It took another minute for him to enter his name and password. Then we were looking at his profile, which didn’t include a picture of him.

Now if I hit edit, right? He was talking to himself.

Read this and tell me what you think. He moved the computer in my direction and I read:
I am a very friendly person. Looking for serious commitment. I give all thigns to God on my life and put God first. I want a person to share that with me. Jesus is the center of my life and I have been working with my mentor Mark Gibson to help find the right path in Christ. My son Brandon is 9. I have not had a seerious relashunship since i was with his moether. Sometimes i have bad hornyness but want to find the right one to marry. Must be Christian to and be willing to share all good and bad things in life.
He was looking along with me, and asked me what the red lines were for.

It just automatically underlines what isn’t spelled right. If you click like this it will show you the right word and fix it.

I went through and corrected the spelling and then helped him upload his photo—he chose the one with his foot resting up on the shovel. It had turned out grainy, overexposed in the sunlight.

I just want a P.P.P, he said, then waited to see if I would guess. A Pretty Protestant Princess.

Eric lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He tweets @ericvanhoose.