The sun glinted off of the green X728 riding mower as it slowly emerged from the back of the semi-trailer. Rob Smith peered at the hard metal machine from down the block, and licked his lips. Turning, he regarded his own riding mower, an X534 with a fading paint job.
“Mike!” he yelled. His 17-year-old son jogged out of his garage.
“Do you know that kid who lives down the street, Jason Strong? Frank’s son?”
“Nah, he’s younger. He’s, like, 14, I think.”
“You ever think about hanging out with him? I think you guys would get along.”
Mike looked at him suspiciously.
“Is this one of your weird dick-measuring contests about landscaping? Jesus, Dad, he got a new lawnmower, give it a rest.”
He went back into the garage, shaking his head. Rob took one more longing gaze at the brand new John Deere down the street, then turned back to his hedging.
When Rob Smith moved to Atherton in the summer of 2003, his first new-home purchase had been a riding mower. He started small, with an LT190 he picked up for $1500. They’d bought a house that was in mint condition, but when Rob saw the lawn, he despaired. Flowerbeds lay fallow, the leaves of the trees hung brown and limp, and the grass itself teemed with weeds. His wife encouraged him to hire a landscaping company, but he insisted upon doing the job himself. Every weekend, he bustled around, pulling up weeds, planting flowers in the vacant beds, and driving to and from the hardware store. The manager of the Garden department soon realized that when he saw Rob’s red Ford truck, he would have a good day.
By 2005, he had grown to hate that his backyard swimming pool took up space that should be going to more flowerbeds and grass, and the kids only went swimming a few days a month anyways. Even Rob realized he couldn’t do this job by himself, so he hired a contractor who managed to get the job done in only a month and a half, and left in place of the pool a beautiful layer of sod. Of course, the boundary between the sod and the original grass was clearly visible, so he had to have the entire backyard sodded as well.
In 2006, Rob retired, and the yard work began in earnest. He had noticed that the Strongs, who had recently moved in down the street, had a hot tub with a gazebo in their backyard, and he decided that he needed a focal point to his lawn. He momentarily missed his pool, but decided on a faux waterfall in the south-eastern corner. When he finally finished construction, and heard it burbling happily as he mowed his crisp, green grass on his new X304, he felt positively serene.
The next morning Frank Strong broke ground on the new gravel pathway that wound from the street to his front door, and Rob stood at his front gate, brow furrowed, fists clenched. He imagined himself as a general, scanning the horizon with his field glasses, surveying his competition. He knew his task was a difficult one. He must prove himself worthy.
Two months later Rob began re-fencing his property, with an ornate, wrought-iron design that just reeked, he thought, of old-money class. He also looked into recovering the swimming pool, but deciding doing so would be an admission of defeat.
And so it went, with volleyball pits and seasonally appropriate topiary and a fleeting fascination with nativity scenes. Every new addition to Strong’s lot demanded a reaction, and his moments of inactivity were opportunities to gain the upper hand. Rob satisfied himself with the thought that over the years, he had mostly fought Strong to a draw, but in the night he would sometimes become consumed with the certainty that he had lost.
Standing on the curb, gazing at the smooth new paint on Strong’s X728, Rob felt himself lose hope.
Waiting until Strong had gone to work on a cold but sunny Tuesday, Rob stalked over to his rival’s house. He looked at the sharp color contrast in the tanbark and the cool sheen of the brick flowerbeds. He examined the roots of the perfect Japanese maples lining the front of the lot. He admired the precision of spacing between the beds of petunias and the beds of morning glories. He peered through the windows of the garage at the meticulously organized tools that lined the walls, and caught a glimpse of the white sheet that covered the tractor.
Rob Smith despaired. He wandered down the gravel pathway, crunching the perfectly speckled pebbles under his feet. Blinking through tears, he began walking down his street, passing from the sunlight into the shade of the high, full oak trees that lined the streets.
After several minutes, he realized he was lost. Wiping his eyes, he squinted at the street signs, finding two unfamiliar names staring back at him. He patted his pockets for his cell phone without success, and resigned himself to wandering for a while. Turning back the way he came, he began to trudge.
To take his mind off of his ultimate defeat, he critiqued the landscaping of the houses he walked by, scoffing at their overgrown lawns, their withered plants, their lack of an over-arching design. A few houses in particular showed no effort whatsoever, leading to great brown patches and wasted flowerbeds.
As he continued to wander, he caught a glimpse of a lawn that seemed different from the rest. The fence seduced the eye, inviting glimpses but not stares. The trees protected and embraced the rest of the yard. He moved closer and found that the colors of the flowers were subtle but deliberate, planned carefully but made to look improvised. The green of the grass looked cool and inviting. Walking into the driveway, he saw the shine coming off of the still pond next to the smooth concrete path. He heard the burble of a fountain somewhere behind the garage. Cutting across the grass to the front door, he put the key into the lock, and, sighing contentedly, opened it.