On one side of the Rosen's back yard, under a Bristol pine crowding the back porch, was a lawnmower graveyard. It was a small, undistinguished cemetery: five lawnmowers, all different models and makes gathered in a loose semicircle, slowly rusting away amid pine needles and cobwebs. And on the other side of the yard, Ted Rosen reclining on a picnic bench with a Saturday afternoon Dos Equis in his hand. If there were a losing team in the Rosen family, he was it. He was—if not in a fight for his credibility as a father, a protector, someone who his family could look towards in times of need—pretty well outnumbered by those who thought otherwise. Denise, his responsible and efficient wife, and his two daughters, who had recently become almost interchangeable and vacant save for a habitual scorn for their father, had given up on him without saying as much. Adam, at seven, hadn't made up his mind yet. But his fatherness was something that concerned Ted only as it came and went—at awkward times when the kids looked to Denise after he made some rule or other. But not now. Not on a Saturday afternoon.
The lawnmowers were also not an immediate concern, and if someone were to ask him about them, it would take him more than a moment to recall exactly which lawnmowers were meant. Each time a lawnmower broke down, he'd shake it, tighten or loosen a screw, but after a while, he'd roll it under the Bristol pine, and it would be as if it never existed. He'd even have trouble remembering how many he'd rolled over there, without ducking under the tree to count them. The Rosens were not a wealthy family by any means, and they had three kids who scuffed up the walls, slid down the banister, and ran through screen doors, so Ted was certainly not at any loss for things to repair. But half a dozen mowers—inches deep in pine needles—there was something irresponsible and lighthearted about that.
But late that afternoon, Adam, who was mostly an indoor kid, both pale and chubby, had taken it upon himself to dissect a red and white Hitachi. "You know, to see how it works," Adam had said.
"Fine," Ted said, “Just make sure the thing’s off when you stick a screwdriver or whatever in there.”
“I thought it didn’t run.”
“It doesn’t, but, you know, just in case.”
The dissection hadn't gone smoothly. Adam was only able to pull out a dozen screws. After that he, hammered at the unscrewable screws, then when that didn't work, he announced he was going to make the lawnmower into a go-kart.
"How are you going to steer?" asked Ted, in part because he was concerned about safety, and in part because he was curious.
"I'll figure something out."
It was summer so they had dinner out on the deck, which was enclosed by screens, on which small insects clung and watched the family of five eat chicken kabobs. At the end of dinner, but not quite, Adam asked if he could go back to work on the lawnmower/go-kart. He now used the words interchangeably.
"Where'd he find that?" asked Denise, but it was a rhetorical question. She knew (and Ted knew she knew) every square inch of their two-thirds of an acre.
"Where do you think?" he said.
"Is it safe really to let a seven-year-old boy play with a lawnmower?" He could feel Courtney and Jessica staring at him, mimicking their mother's disapproval. They had developed a taste for their parents' arguments. "What happens if it turns on?" she said.
They could hear clanking from the lawn. He would have to say something.
"It's not going to just turn on," he said. "There isn't even any gas in it." But because he'd be sorry if it did, he went down to help Adam anyhow.
It turns out that Adam was less mechanically gifted and more of an idea man. When Ted got down to the yard, he found Adam with the mower on its side, turning the blade around with the shaft of one of the screwdrivers, keeping at least a four inch buffer between his fingers and the blades. “We could use this as a propeller,” he said.
"Adam—I don’t think that’s going to work, pal.”
“Yes, it will. It’ll be like a boat.”
“Well first of all, a boat uses a propeller because it’s in water. But second, look at you.
You’re already afraid of it.”
"I'm not afraid of it,” he shouted, loud enough that Ted worried Denise might hear. “I was just being safe."
"I know, pal, I know. I’m just being safe, too." But Adam was not to be consoled—predictably. The construction was a fight—a three-way match now— though Ted would've been happy to let Adam and the Hitachi go at it on their own. Where were all the other kids, he wondered. Was Adam strange? When Ted had been eight, he and the kid next door had built a single tandem bike with two ten-speeds and a spool of his father's bailing wire. It had had three wheels and worked for an entire afternoon before they jumped it. That was something—an achievement. A father who forced practicality and physics on his kid between threats of time outs was, Ted thought, a poor substitute for a kid next door. Nevertheless, they worked on it Sunday, too. Ted realized that Adam's lack of mechanical know-how had probably sprung from him. They were both clumsy and made the other more clumsy the closer they worked. They broke for lunch, taking turns washing their hands under the tap in the back yard, and ate grilled cheese sandwiches while they drew up sketches of go-karts they were unlikely to build. The whole thing, even though it was going reasonably well, was a risky transaction and Ted hoped that the Hitachi would work to some degree and for Adam just to be happy. That would be a feather in his cap. He needed a feather in his cap.
The launch date was set for Wednesday evening after Ted got home from work. Adam had wheeled the Hitachi out to the end of the driveway as one would do a space shuttle. It was no longer a lawnmower. It was difficult to say what it was. They had knocked out the engine and then bolted a piece of plywood on top and made a seatback with another. In the hole where the motor had been, was the brake--a two-inch thick dowel on a hinge, wrapped at the top in electrical tape screwed to a short 2X4 at the other end. When Adam pulled on the taped end—“You know like Maverick in Top Gun,” Ted had explain to Adam—it would swing down and the 2X4 would drag against the pavement, stopping him—hopefully. This was Adam's only control, except maybe for his feet in an emergency. It was built to go straight and only straight. The original mowing handle bars had been left on to make it easier to push up to the house between runs. Adam was dressed in, and had been all day, a skateboard helmet and both his sisters' volleyball knee pads (the second set for his elbows), and a pair of ski goggles. "What are you?" asked Ted.
"I'm prepared," said Adam.
They lived on something less than a hill, but something also more than a flat. It was where the girls and Adam had learned to ride their bikes—coasting down, then pedaling languidly back up. The only sticky point on the road—it was also quiet, traveled only by neighborhood station wagons and minivans—was that it doglegged to the right just as the incline flattened out. Adam was blind to this. "What's a dogleg?" he asked.
"Never mind," said Ted.
"Is this safe?" asked Denise. The girls had stepped outside to watch, too. They were both lifeguards during the summer, and their arms were folded in professional disapproval.
"It's as safe as it's going to get," said Ted.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you going to tell him no now?" he said. Adam had snapped the goggles over his face and was readjusting them so he could see.
"Well, you shouldn't have encouraged him," Denise said, as if she alone didn't have the capacity to stop him. She could really do a mind job on you when she wanted to.
Adam was getting impatient and calling for him. "Don't worry," said Ted. "Mission Control's coming." He pulled the triangular building blocks away from the front wheels. After a moment, the Hitachi—it apparently didn't know the blocks were gone—began to creep forward. Ted paced it, baby-stepping alongside—something his own father wouldn't have done. His own father would've had a hard time seeing the driveway past his newspaper. He liked to think that maybe he was cultivating Adam's talents. And that maybe he had discovered Adam's talents lay elsewhere, in forethought, moderation, or even caution, that he was meant to go slowly and actually accomplish something. The tortoise to his hare. Ted warmed to this idea, feeling good about being so open-minded. As he listened to the Hitachi 's wheels make that plastic Big Wheel sound on the pavement, he thought maybe this was all going to work out. Adam was, after all, a smart enough kid. Who knows, he might have friends of his own sort.
"Dad!" Adam called. "Dad, it's going."
"I see it," Ted said, running to keep up. "I can see it."
Then Adam screamed. Ted slowed down, cupping a hand around his mouth “If you’re scared, pal, pull the brake.”
"What? Dad, where? Dad, I can't."
"The thing in front of you, pull it."
The 2X4 made a heavy grating sound until it became shrill and high, and then when it broke, it made no sound at all. Ted looked back to see if Denise had noticed. She had. Adam was—for several moments—the only one who didn't know the brake was gone. His scream grew loud, peaked likely when he realized he was all on his own, then trailed away as the Hitachi sped towards the Peterson's garage door.
"If you had just thrown out the lawnmowers, this never would've happened," whispered Denise. Ted tried to move past her to get a look at Adam who was camped out in the TV room with patches of road rash, a bloody nose, and a bowl of ice cream. What else could you give an injured kid? Money, maybe? "Did you hear me?" she said.
"I thought you wanted me to fix them," said Ted.
"Anything would've been nice. Jesus, Teddy, I just wanted you to do something with them."
"I will," he said. "I'm sorry. I'll throw them out. They're just kind of heirlooms for me." Denise's look took a turn for the worst. "You know, symbols," he said.
She didn’t answer.
Disposal of the lawnmowers was set for Saturday. Ted and Adam exhumed the four still under the tree, and along with the Hitachi, dragged them over to the Suburban, the largest car they had. They folded down the backseat and Ted hoisted them up over the tailgate, bending and breaking pieces to make the five of them fit. It was a desecration.
"Dad?" asked Adam, "We're not throwing the lawnmowers away because of me are we?" He and the Hitachi had made up, but he wasn't about to ride it again. Instead, he had rolled it into the middle of the backyard, setting it at an angle like an Indy car in the winners circle, and read his chapter books sitting in the seat. So he had made a real heirloom out of Ted's bullshit heirloom. That was something. Making up with Ted was trickier. The Hitachi had only been the vehicle—so to speak—of the accident. Adam called it "My Accident" in his serious voice—as if, one, it was the accident to end all accidents, and two, it was only the first attempt his father would make on his life. Ted admired the optimism—that this was as bad as it was going to get.
"Your crash was part of it," said Ted.
"Because of me?" His voice was shrill. He was on the verge of tears.
"No. No. It was something I should've done a long time ago."
They waved to Denise as they pulled out of the driveway. She was sitting on the back porch half reading a magazine and half observing. She waved to them and shouted that lunch would be ready when they got back.
The Dump was just outside of town, in the dusty foothills. A mile or two from the entrance, signs began to pop up, which Adam, who was at that age, read out loud, "No littering...No dumping...Violators will...be pro...socuted..." Ted listened to Adam struggle and wished he had given Denise the finger. But it was too late now; it would've been too late then. He didn't hate her. He depended on her to do just about everything, but he certainly hated things about her. It wasn't laziness he had been driving at so much as futility. Couldn't she see the futility in it? He had a yearning to do nothing—not just to relax, but to get to that state of mind just before relaxation which made relaxation possible, and stay there for a while, make himself comfortable. How selfish exactly was that? But she was always go go go. He wished he had thought of that word futility before—it was amazing how much credence the right word gives you.
Ted veered off the main paved road onto what may or may not have been a dirt road. Adam held on with both hands. "Where are we going, Dad?" Ted didn't answer. He would know when they got there. He could feel Adam staring at him. With no more signs to read, Adam was trying to read him. They stopped next to a large ravine, where the road/non road came dangerously close to the edge.
"Have you ever heard of a Viking funeral?" asked Ted.
"For me?" said Adam.
"No. What are you talking about? No, for the lawnmowers. The Vikings used to put their dead relatives on huge canoes, light them on fire, then push them out to sea."
"I don't know. To say goodbye, I guess. To really say goodbye." The kid hadn't given up on the Hitachi. He had a pained look on his face. "Kind of to celebrate them,” Ted added.
None of the mowers had any gasoline--that was the one thing Ted had made sure of when he rolled them under the tree, but they did have this ravine and it did have jagged boulders on the way down and at the bottom. The mowers came out of the back in a clump. They separated them and lined them up at the edge, putting the Hitachi at the end as the grand finale. Ted asked Adam if he wanted to push the first one off.
"What would Mom say?"
"She'd call it littering, but she doesn't see things the same way. These are our lawnmowers. You can't just throw them away, right?"
"No. No, you do it," he said.
The first one dove and landed headlong into the rocks below, making only a muted hiccup on impact. The other three non-modified mowers did the same, the heaviest part, the engine, flipping each of them over and pulling them down. It was a disappointment for sure and from where they stood, the mowers looked only like small dots of paint on the rocks.
The Hitachi was the only one left. "All right, you've got to push it with a flick of your wrist so you don't go overboard and well...go overboard."
"Overboard?" asked Adam.
"Over the side."
Adam took a long second look into the ravine, and shook his head. "I don't want to go over any side,” then put a limp hand up on the handlebar, which wouldn't have been able to push the Hitachi in a million years. So they pushed it off together. They had designed a sub-par go-kart, but apparently the Hitachi was perfectly made for flight. It came off the top and twisted, then stalled and twisted the other way, like a knuckleball, finally landing on its side, corner down. Spitting off pieces, it cartwheeled down the ravine past the other mowers, crashed through some sage brush, rebounded off of several rocks, then came to a rolling stop, upright. Ted thrusted his hands into the air in triumph, "Score!"
But the future did not look promising for Ted Rosen. He had, it seemed lost another member of the family. The kid was bawling in the passenger seat on the ride home, making long passes at his stringy snotty nose with the back of his arm. How emotional could he get, Ted thought? Had he wanted to give the thing a eulogy? Seven-year-olds didn't just get up and cry by themselves, did they? He was at a loss. "Don't worry, Adam," he said, "Things like this, when you're a kid, don't seem so important when you get older." Though, Ted guessed, the opposite was probably true.
Matt Reed lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his girlfriend and three and a half year old daughter. Yesterday, he emptied out two pockets of dirt and worms from an Elmo raincoat. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobo Pancakes, Blue Lake Review, Stymie Magazine, The Nevada Review, and drafthorse.