Fitzgerald puffs on the breeze slipping through his window. A scent of plowed earth tagged to the air teases him. His mouth waters from its heaviness, the mineral taste flirting with his hopes that the clouds might gather closing out the hard blue skies and moulding the shattered summer ground into one again.
“Come on, rain,” he says to the lone cloud streaking overhead. It merely spits at him. The offense, a spattering of drops, is cast in place by the layer of brown dust on his window, atomic shadows. Below, his lawn—thick and tall, uncut in months—rebels against the drought. He smirks at his neighbours’ yards, because even with municipal allotments for water, their grass is stunted, patchy, pale green and brown.
Fitzgerald’s alarm rings. His hips pulse. Out the west window the sunlight exposes his neighbourhood, a man-made archipelago of cul-de-sacs wading against a green and yellow gulf of canola. He moves to the banister, clasping the wood rail. His wrinkled skin stretches, looking as it may have in his 40s. He exhales and licks his lips.
Fitzgerald looks across the street for his neighbour, Rebecca. She has a 1950s starlet’s body, heavy breasts and hips with a firm stomach. Not bad after six kids, Rebecca. He clears his throat when he sees her lavender robe through the fence slats. Her hair should be brown, just brown, but she has blonde highlights today. “I like it. It’s like beach sand,” he says. He bets she’d enjoy having it brushed, hoping her husband, a pipefitter, takes pleasure in her hair. Lily had enjoyed her hair brushed until the last strand pulled free from her temple.
He had put Lily’s brush inside her casket, sliding it from inside his suit jacket sleeve. He scowls now, remembering that Lily had never had hair longer than her shoulder, but he never bothered to say anything about her wig to the funeral home. He had just wanted that day over.
Rebecca scuttles to the sprinkler on tiptoes over the cold morning sidewalk, snatches it, and takes it to the grass, dropping coils of hose behind her. Wearing only the short satin robe, she bends over to plug the sprinkler into her lawn. Fitzgerald stares, following the back of her knees up to the edge of her robe dangling across her hips. He memorises the soft rise, her delicate lines, like a poem, a glimpse as a cocoon unlocks, the pink tips of wings emerging gently into the air. The fluttering behind the old man’s lungs lifts a sigh out the window.
A low thump rattles the house. He groans, but waits for Rebecca to leave her yard. His lawn mower whirls an electric cry into the air and begins choking on grass. Fitzgerald hurries to his bedroom window. His son shoves and yanks the mower in all directions, the machine tilted up on its back wheels on the first push, jamming back and forth before dropping onto all its wheels on the second stab against the thick grass. Ken whips the extension cord away from the front of the mower as he changes direction, ignoring Fitzgerald pounding on the window.
He slaps his canvas bucket hat over his head and marches down the stairs in his pajama pants and undershirt to the front porch. His daughter-in-law, Joyce, beats a mallet against a brown and gold sign at the edge of the yard. He doesn’t see Ken anywhere.
“Where’s my idiot son.”
“The backyard.” She points.
“Tell him to knock it off.”
Ken comes out the side gate with the empty mower bag. A pink tie hangs out of his pants pocket.
“Knock what off?” Ken hooks the bag back onto the mower and smiles before flipping the mower’s toggle.
“Goddamn it, Ken.” Fitzgerald misses the first step and stumbles down the last three, splitting his big toenail against the sidewalk before tripping into the grass. A cool dampness seeps against his knees.
Joyce pulls up on his arm. “You need shoes.”
Ken hands him his hat back. Fitzgerald swats him with it.
“Hey, it wasn’t my fault.”
“Yes it was.”
“What’s the matter, Fitzy?” Joyce asks.
“Do not call me Fitzy. That was Lily’s. It doesn’t belong in your mouth.” Lily had given him that nickname, bundled it with kisses upon his earlobes, and fingertips gracing his forearms. His daughter-in-law shouldn’t understand how that name makes him feel. He scratches behind his ear, sensing the last day with Lily in the hospital slither up his neck. He had just watched Lily sleep. She had tossed and turned before opening her eyes.
“I’m going to miss you, Fitzy.”
“Lily didn’t drop that name at Thanksgiving dinner for anybody else to pick it up.”
“Are you okay, Fitzy?” Rebecca in her robe, standing sideways before him, finds his collar with a hand, straightening it. The soft pads raise the hairs all over his arms and neck. Fitzgerald smiles.
“Now stop wrecking my lawn,” he says.
“We’re not wrecking it,” Ken says.
“Don’t call him Fitzy.” Joyce says. “And it’s curb appeal. This house will move faster if it looks clean and neat.”
“It is clean and neat.” Rebecca says.
“Excuse me, this is what we do.” Ken says to Fitzgerald. “Prospective buyers, they’ll show up, see your lawn and won’t even come in, because they’ll think your house is littered with columns of old newspapers and cat crap.”
“I don’t have cats.”
“Appearances,” Joyce says.
Fitzgerald yields to the sweet aroma of cut grass. “You don’t cut grass during a drought. It shortens the roots.”
“It’s plenty healthy,” Ken says. “The mower barely gets through it.”
Fitzgerald watches Rebecca tuck her hair behind her ears. “The thicker it is the better.”
“I’ll turn on the sprinklers after I’m done.” Ken takes hold of the mower, his thumb on the toggle. “Oh—what are you doing with that cow in your freezer? You only have enough room at assisted living for a roast and a couple of packages of ground beef in your fridge freezer, so how about we take it off your hands?” He whips the electrical cord away from the front of the mower and turns it on.
“Assisted living,” Fitzgerald says. “He says it like they’re sending me to a kennel. It’s a condo.” He fans his son’s words away from his face. “I’m moving into a senior’s condo.”
“We found you a lovely condo,” Joyce says.
“I’m moving for you, you know?”
“I can still take care of this place—there’s a drought.”
“We’ll water the lawn when we’re done. This is what we do. We wouldn’t do anything to hurt the resale value. Don’t worry, Fitzy.”
Rebecca, kneeling with a tissue, dabs away the blood on Fitzgerald’s big toe.
“Ask them their commission. And that’s before they get their inheritance.” He looks down at Rebecca’s part. It’s on the left.
He takes his eyes off her hair. “I’m not dead yet.”
Joyce isn’t there. Her Lexus drives away. The trunk, bungeed, bounces up and slams on the half dozen other for-sale signs sticking out over the bumper.
“Take care of them,” Lily had said in the doctor’s office the day they diagnosed her stage 4 lung adenocarcinoma. She had turned and looked at him, “Fitzy, you have to look after Ken and Joyce.” He remembers squeezing her hand, nodding, thinking, but they’re 55. Was this looking after Ken and Joyce? Selling his house, moving, giving them the money?
He watches Ken. His pink tie falls out his pocket. “They decided everything. The sale of the house. Everything.”
“Really? How come?” Rebecca asks.
“So that we don’t have to pay any death or inheritance taxes on—how did he put it—The Estate.”
Fitzgerald looks across the street, following the bicycle path away from the cul-de-sac beyond the ball diamonds to the yellow canola fields crawling over the horizon. “Lily liked the smell of canola; said it had sweetness. She would have me close my eyes and wait for it. ‘Can you smell it now?’ she’d ask.”
“You don’t want to sell your house,” she says.
“What do you want?”
A fat raindrop slaps Fitzgerald on the forehead. “I wanted a grandchild.”
“You don’t have any?”
Fitzgerald, drawing his wrinkled fingers through the thin white tuffs remaining over his ears, sips on more air. The smell, not in his nose, but deeper, beyond his throat inside his lungs, stirs up moisture and rinses an image of the knotted wood handle of Lily’s brush, stained with oils from his grip.
“Not a grandson, I wanted a granddaughter. So that I could braid her hair.”
Another breath, but the smell of rain enhances the sour, almost septic, smell Fitzgerald has always associated with canola. He marches to the garage, to his freezer and takes out three packs of T-bones, “They’re fine, Lily.” Then he unplugs his freezer.
Gregory Koop grew up on the border of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Living the life of Garp, Gregory cares for his daughter, practices Muay Thai, and writes.