Yard Work

19 Aug

This short story is all about a retired fireman here in Chicago, where I make my home. Reprinted from Black Denim Lit (bdlit.com)



Kent McDaniel


12119009_1031991273497961_559521635925518947_nBob Quigly stood looking out his bay window wondering when the neighborhood started to suck. When Janet, the kids, and he moved in, it was all cops, firefighters, and teachers. Who had to live in the city for their jobs. Things were suburban as Chicago got. But that was twenty-two years ago and for a while now, whenever somebody moved out, somebody worse moved in.

Like that fat slob across the street in her lawn chair. Why did she always sit there?

The people over there before never pulled that shit. They stayed inside or sat out back like normal people. Then that weirdo had to move in, who sat there every afternoon; usually came back in the evening, too. He felt like she was staring into his living room. Because she was.

Or the house to her left. Russian immigrants moved in about a year ago, owned three cars between them. Why they needed the third one, a rusted out Toyota, he never knew, but they liked to park it in front of his house. Left it there a week sometimes. Once, they left it there two weeks. Finally Bob made a late night trip to McDonalds for a chocolate shake. He flung it along the car’s street side. They might take a hint, he figured. But no, the car sat there another week. OK, milkshakes didn’t do it, so he started thinking he should slash their tires. Except, now maybe they were watching it. He could get in trouble with the cops–not to mention Janet. So he put up with it.

He glanced at his wristwatch: it was a little after two. Sun beating down outside, he sat in his recliner and clicked on the TV. The Cubs were on; he turned it off. Watching them sucked, since those Republican bastards bought the team. A retired fireman, he hated Republicans. He’d tried to make himself go for the White Sox, just couldn’t. But damn watching The Cubs.

He ran fingers across his bald scalp and glanced out the window: Tubby was still over there. Her and her neighbors weren’t even the worst, though. Across the alley behind him, this turban-wearing cab driver moved in six months back, and his friends’ cars were always blocking the alley while they worked on some car in the guy’s garage.

Bob got up, and as he started to the fridge for an Old Style, a mower fired up outside. He froze. That bitch next door and her lawnmower–not to mention her dog. It was Wednesday; Wednesday afternoons, she was always home.

She and her husband–Tito–moved in five years ago. First thing about them that got Bob was their dog, which he’d like to shoot. They left it in their backyard all day on a leash, a short-legged floppy-eared mutt. It yapped at him whenever he came out back. Yap, yap, yap, all the time.

But that was nothing compared to what the wife did– probably was about to do right now.

He peered out the front door window. The wife–he forgot her name–was pushing the mower, wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, back to him, a pretty woman with long black hair. So far, she was on their lawn. She turned and came his way, turned again, and again, starting a new circuit. He gritted his teeth. Now she was in his yard.

The first four years they’d been over there, Tito did the mowing, but this year she took over. From the start, she came over another row farther onto Bob’s side than Tito had. Bob let it go, even though she was taking his yard away.

As summer went on, she’d come farther and farther into his yard. By June–it was late July now– she was coming three rows over, even more on the other side of the sidewalk, like seven or eight feet. It looked like shit. His grass was two different lengths. Her mower must be on the lowest setting, and he raised his mower to the top setting once the weather got hot. Besides which, unless he watered the hell out of the short side, it dried up like straw.

So one day when she’d been mowing, he went out and politely– almost apologizing–asked her not to mow in his yard. She looked at him like he was some idiot. But finally she shrugged. “Sure. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be more careful.”

The next couple times she mowed she didn’t come much more than a row over into his yard. Which maybe was a grey area. Then last time, she strayed a little farther into his grass. And here she was back up to her old tricks.

Outside, as he walked her way, the air was hot and sticky, and a whiff of new mown grass was in the air. Why so faint? The grass was dried up? Or was his sense of smell getting weak as his hearing?

When he reached her, she stopped mowing.

He had to raise his voice over the mower. “Hi.”

She nodded.

He waved the back of his hand down. “Uh, you’re coming way into my yard…”

She gave the tiniest roll of her eyes, glanced back over her shoulder like she was checking the lawns out. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” She gave a shrug that was tiny as that roll of her eyes. He could almost have just imagined it, but she didn’t really sound sorry.

He explained nicely why what she was doing was a problem.

She turned her head, a look on her face like she was asking someone, Can you believe this? She gazed back at him like, Get a life.

“OK,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I’ll try to be more careful.”

She’d try.

Her nose wrinkled. “Where exactly do you think your yard ends anyway?”

He pointed to the dividing line between two sidewalk slabs. “That was always the border.”

She pointed at some flagstones that ran from her house to the narrow sidewalk beside his. “I thought the boundary was those.”

Which was three inches further into his yard. And why didn’t she cut her goddamn mower, so they didn’t have to shout?

He raised spread palms. “OK, you wanna use that as the dividing line, fine. I’d just rather you didn’t mow way over into my yard.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “OK. I will try to be more careful from now on.”

“Thanks.” He forced a little smile. “I’d appreciate it.”

She matched his phony smile, and he went back inside. That goddamn bitch.

Funny thing. When he’d been working he never gave a shit about his lawn. It wasn’t much bigger than six Ping-Pong tables anyway. But now he kept it trimmed nice and neat. He edged the sidewalks, too, put fertilizer and weed killer, and sprayed for weeds. He watered the lawn every day. And the bushes in front of his house, he trimmed them like he was a goddamn sculptor.

He strode out to the fridge for that Old Style, which he decided to take out back. Janet had a flower garden between the patio and the garage. She grew sunflowers and roses and other plants whose names he didn’t know: Some tall as a baseball bat, with orange blossoms, kind of saw-toothed, size of a silver dollar. Others maybe a foot shorter, leaves heart-shaped, flowers big, with little red or yellow petals in circles, one row of them inside the other. Others came up to his chest and had shiny stems, with pale little blossoms, different colors on different plants–pink, white, or purple.

He glanced out the window. The sky was blue, and Janet’s flowers blazed. Maybe sitting out there would calm him down.

It probably would’ve, too, except no sooner did he step into the backyard than the dog started barking. Bob sat down in a lawn chair anyway, hoping it’d shut the fuck up. And after maybe ten minutes it did.

He took a swig of Old Style and gazed up at the deep wide blue.

“Hey, Bob,” a nasal voice sang out, “look who’s with me.”

He looked left. At the wire fence, Jillina stood grinning. She was the nurse of his neighbor, Freddie, who was beside her, a blank look on her face. Jillina was maybe five four and Freddie was almost a head shorter. Jillina turned to her. “Look, Freddie, it’s Bob. You know him.”

She used to. He walked over.

“Hi, Freddie. Good to see you.”

Her lips turned up at the corners.

Raspberries ran along both sides of the fence, glowing in the sunshine. They were darker and smaller than the ones in stores, but they tasted tart and sweet. And every year there were more.

He swept his hand above them. “Getting a bumper crop, aren’t we?”

Freddie gave him that little smile, her white hair thinner since the last time he saw her.

“Anyway,” he said, “I guess I’m gonna head in.” He dredged up a smile. “You two enjoy the sunlight.”

He walked back toward the fence, which started the goddamn dog yapping. It kept at it until Bob was halfway to his side door.

Inside, he sat back down in his recliner. Seeing Freddie, who’d been his neighbor since he moved in, made him sad. He and his family had gradually become friends with her. A widow, she’d invite them over to little dinner parties, and they’d have her over for pizza. She became the kids unofficial third grandma. Bob never went, but she hosted a weekly poker game at her house and took the charter bus once a week to the Casino in Joliet, where she usually won. She also sold options on her stocks and almost always profited on that. She was funny, too. In time, Bob learned she’d been a child in Germany when the Nazis came to power, remembered Kristallnacht, and later hiding out in their neighbors’ barn for a year.

She’d really been something.

After a while, the side door opened and closed, and he glanced at his wristwatch. It had got to be four. Janet came in. She taught art in the Chicago Public Schools and was going to a workshop down in The Loop this week. She was a small woman with curly auburn hair and nice curves. She was a certified yoga teacher, too, and it showed. Her skin and eyes shone.

“Hey, there.” She plopped down on the couch under a painting/collage she’d done: Three little ships made out of palm leaves floated in a cove, its shore made of brown wrapping paper and colored tissue paper, the pale ocean and sky painted.

“How was your day?” she said.

He told her about his encounter with the neighbor.

She sighed.

“Why does she do it?” he said.

“I don’t know.” Janet raised and dropped a hand. “But Adriana doesn’t do it to make you unhappy. I’m sure of that.”

Adriana, yeah, that was her name. Sometimes Janet talked with her. Janet got along with just about everybody–except for some problem kids at school–and assumed the best about everyone. Bob admired that.

She still loved him, he knew. But sometime in the last few years–they’d been married thirty-one–she’d figured out her happiness had to be independent of his. He knew that from hearing her talk on the phone with friends–not about her and him, about life and relationships, all that shit. She was right, he figured, but it made him lonelier. He wondered sometimes if she’d be happier without him. Did that ever cross her mind?

He didn’t give a damn; he didn’t need anybody. Some days, though, Janet was the only one he talked to.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t do it to make me unhappy?”

She shook her head.

“Then she’s a goddamn fool.”

Janet looked like she was going to say something and thought better of it. She walked to the stairs, started up and paused. “You remember Colleen and I are going out for dinner tonight? For her birthday?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “You got a pizza for me, you said.”

She smiled. “Pepperoni. It’s in the freezer.”

His favorite.

After Janet left, he went to the freezer. His pizza rested on maybe seven gallon-size baggies filled with raspberries, the baggies fogged with condensation. Janet picked raspberries every day.

After supper he took an Old Style out in the backyard. At least the dog was inside. Adriana–what a fucking name–generally took it inside when she got home. He started thinking again about her “get a life” look earlier and felt pissed off all over again. One patch of ground he could make look good. Was that too much to ask for? Or a beer outside in peace and quiet. Adriana and her dog had fucked up his day, and this wasn’t the first time. That look. Where did she get off?

He ought to turn her fucking dog loose. Let it wander away. Or drop it off in Kanakee, maybe. Then when she came around looking for it, give her that same look. “Your fucking dog is gone? Who gives a fuck? Get a life, you bitch.”

He felt good, thinking about that. And now that he thought of it, it would be nice to have the little bastard gone. Maybe Adriana would get so upset she wouldn’t want another one. Maybe he would turn it loose. But if she knew he did, she might call the cops, do something crazy even. And Janet would hate it if she found out.

Well, fuck all that, he thought. Payback is a bitch. He went in for another beer. Outside again, the air was warm and muggy, but a breeze had started. He sat staring at the sky, just a few stringy clouds up there with little strips of orange at the edges. He thought about how he could turn the dog loose without getting caught. For one thing, he had to figure out how he could go in over there without it raising ten kinds of hell.


Next morning, after Janet left, he went to McDonalds and got a couple burgers to go, that hamburger smell filling his car. Back home he got out of the car, the air already hot, a couple boys across the street kicking a soccer ball back and forth.

Freddie and Jillina were coming down Freddie’s front stairs. She was clinging to the railing with one hand, the other on Jillina’s arm. It looked like a film in slow motion. He was halfway to his front door when they reached the ground.

Jillina beamed at him and pointed. “Look, Freddie! It’s Bob.”

No escape. He strolled over to them.

“We’re going for a walk,” Jillina said. “Want to come?”

He glanced at his McDonalds bag. “Ah, I’d like to eat this before it gets cold…”

“Sure.” Jillina hiked a shoulder. “Maybe next time.”

“Bye Freddie.” He was shifting from foot to foot. “Have a good walk.”

A little smile was plastered on her face.

Inside, he peeked out the window. Jillina and Freddie had almost reached the sidewalk. He crept out the side door, easing it shut. He wasn’t worried about them seeing what he was up to. They always walked to the end of the block and back and it never took less than twenty minutes.

He strolled to the back yard, where the dog started yapping right away. But Bob didn’t let it bother him. He ambled back to the dumpster in the alley, took the hamburgers from the buns and threw away everything but the meat. Hot greasy burger between each thumb and forefinger, he headed for the fence.

The dog was barking and growling. Bob tossed a burger into the yard like he was throwing a Frisbee. The dog raced after it on stumpy legs, ears flopping. What was it? Half Beagle, half Chihuahua? No, its hair was too long.

It skidded up to the burger and–chomp, chomp, chomp–scarfed that thing down. Bob sailed the other burger to the other end of the yard, and the dog shot after it. Its leash squeaked along the clothes line it was attached to, which ran from house to garage. The dog gobbled up the burger and trotted up to him barking, its tail wagging. It stood there panting.

“That’s good.” He tried to sound chummy. “Yeah, you don’t have to bark ever time you see me.” He walked off, and just as he reached the house the dog yapped a couple times.

Back inside, he peeked out the window, and Freddie and Jillina were walking back in tiny little steps, stopping every few seconds, while Freddie gazed up at the empty sky.

That afternoon he drove to Lincolnwood Mall, and bought a White Sox hat, which he tossed in the trunk of his Taurus.

That night when Janet came home, he was feeling OK. Revenge is sweet, he thought. They went to Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston and had wine with supper, while she told him about her day. He asked when she’d said she was going to visit her parents in Florida. Oh, yeah that was right, week after next. He nodded. And then, he thought, goodbye doggie.

As Bob glanced over the check before they left, Janet said, “Oh, honey, could you do me a favor?”

He looked up.

“While I’m in Florida, could you pick the raspberries? Otherwise they’ll rot.”

If it depended on him, the raspberries would rot on the bush every year. Yeah, they tasted good, but not enough to make them worth picking. Still he felt guilty about Janet picking them, because they did taste good–really good. “OK, sure, I’ll keep ‘em picked.”

She leaned back. “The freezer’s getting full. I’m going to make jam when I come back.”

That’s how she used the frozen raspberries, and her jam was legendary. Freddie was a big fan, for one.

Next day he went for more burgers. At home he parked in front and glanced at Freddie’s door, hoping she and Jillina weren’t about to appear. He didn’t want to explain what it was with him and McDonalds all of a sudden. Ah, they wouldn’t even think anything about it. Truth was, seeing Freddie made him sad, scared, guilty.

She’d had Alzheimer’s at least ten years. When her memory got bad enough, Freddie’s daughters had hired Jillina as a live-in nurse. Freddie still knew who she was and everything then, and Bob went on walks with her sometimes. Going around the block took them half an hour, and along the way Freddie would gaze at houses and murmur, “Oh…I used to know the people there…They’re…gone…” Bad enough losing good neighbors; how much worse was it to feel even the memory of them dry up and blow away?

Freddie’s memory had continued to go, and by last year’s spring, she no longer always seemed sure who Bob was. By this past winter, she didn’t know Bob most of the time. He’d still visited her occasionally but hadn’t in months. It was lame: they just sat there. Jillina said it was good for Freddie, but he couldn’t stand seeing her. It pissed him off. It was bullshit. Everything Freddie’d gone through–and there’d been plenty even once she escaped Germany, even after she was grown and raising a family–and what finally got her? Her memory faded away. She used to think faster than anyone he knew. Now she was this pale little ghost. It made him want to break something.

Sitting there in the car, he glanced at the bag he held. Forget that shit.

He climbed out and hurried to his dumpster, the dog chasing him along the fence until the garage stopped it. He tossed the buns and sack away, and when he got to the fence, the dog jumped up and ran around in a little circle still yapping. “That’s right,” he said in a friendly voice, “you stupid little fucker, it’s me, your old pal.” He tossed one of the burgers, and the dog shot after it like the burger was gonna run away. The mutt gobbled up the meat and flew back. Stood there barking and wagging its tail.

“Easy, easy.” He tried to sound soothing. “You gotta quiet down.”

It kept barking.

“No god damn it,” he hissed and then calmed his voice, “you gotta calm out, goddamn it.” He held a finger to his lips and shushed.

The barking tapered off.

“That’s right.” He tried for kind. “No burgers till you calm out. From now on.”

He let the other burger sail, almost to the other side of the yard. The runt scampered off and devoured it. Came back and stood wagging its tail.

“OK,” he said in a sweet voice, “you shit-faced runt. See you soon.”


Saturday afternoon, at a wig-shop over by Lincoln Square, he bought a long brown wig, which joined the Sox hat in his trunk. Now when Janet left for her parents, he was good to go. He was going to disguise himself when he let the dog out. Wear the Sox hat, some shades, and the wig. Then, what he’d do was drive off from the house in the morning, park a few blocks away and put on the disguise. He’d walk back over, go down the alley, and get the dog. Anybody happened to notice them, no problem.

Sunday afternoon he and Janet were reading in the living room, when he heard the dog start yapping out back. He walked out to the kitchen window. Adriana was in her back yard throwing a stick and the dog was scampering after it, then dropping it at her feet. Bob watched for a minute or two.

Behind him, Janet’s voice said. “Having fun, aren’t they?”

He started and turned around. “Huh?”

“They’re having fun, I said.” She smiled. “The dog’s cute.”

“If you say so.”

Next morning Janet went to Botanic Gardens with one of her girlfriends for a walk and lunch. Soon as she drove off, he headed down to McDonalds for burgers. The air had yet to heat up, and he had his window rolled down, the breeze ruffling his shirt.

When he got back he drove the car up the alley and parked in the garage, so he didn’t have to worry about Freddie and Jillina coming out. He headed out to the dumpster and as he threw in everything but the burgers, across the alley, his neighbor’s garage door started rattling up. Aw, fuck. If that shithead started working on his car, he could be at it for hours. Bob stood behind the dumpster, the hamburger patties at his sides. The garage door thumped to a halt, and Turban Head was opening his car door. He gave Bob a deadpan nod, got in, and fired up his car.

As it pulled off, Bob hurried for the fence. Soon as he got there, the dog came running up, barking, but it sounded happy. He’d never heard a bark like that. The dog ran around in a circle, leaped up, and ran around in another circle. Bob shook his head.

It jumped into the air.

He shushed it till it quieted down. “That’s good,” he whispered. “That’s the way.” He sailed one of the burgers over by the house. The dog made short work of it. Came trotting back toward him, but he tossed the other burger to the opposite side of the yard. The dog scrambled over, polished off the burger, and came back.

He gazed at it. It had a worn leather collar with a dog tag on it. He was going to have to get that off, so nobody could return the mutt once it was loose. Would he be able to get that close? Let’s just see. Gingerly he reached his hand down to tap its head. It lifted its nose into his palm and licked his hand. He scratched behind the dog’s ear, and it stared somberly at him, like this was serious business. Well, it was.

“OK, buddy boy.” He leaned back up. “See you next time.”

As he walked off for the house, the dog gave a couple of yips. Payback is a bitch, Adriana, he thought. He glanced back over his shoulder. The dog was eyeing him, like when he rubbed behind its ears. It barked once, its tail going.

He turned halfway toward it and then all the way. The dog took a step toward him. He let his shoulders slump. “Aw, fuck.” He pressed his lips together and breathed deep, watching the dog wag its tail. “Well, ain’t this some shit.” He marched back inside.


That afternoon when Adriana came out in her backyard, he sat next door having a beer, the air hot but not sticky. Janet was a couple feet away on the chaise lounge, a new-picked bowl of raspberries beside her on the patio. Across the fence, the dog was going apeshit, yipping away. It must’ve been off its leash. He could hear it scampering around, and the leash wasn’t scraping along the clothesline. Adriana was laughing.

His chair was just a few feet from the fence and he stood up for a look. The dog was tearing all around the yard, ears flapping, tail straight out. When it got to where he stood, it raced around in a little circle and stood wagging its tail.

Adriana walked his way, maybe not gaping, but pretty damn close. “He likes you.” She wiped the surprise off her face.

Bob cocked his head. “Yeah, well, we’re both out here a lot. I talk to him sometimes.”

Adriana’s lips turned down and her eyebrows went up.

He glanced down. “He’s a good dog.”

Janet stepped up beside him. “He’s really cute. We were watching you play the other day.”

Adriana turned to look at Bob.

“Looked like you were having fun.” He felt sheepish.

“Oh, Ralph’s a lot of fun.” She gazed down at him. “Aren’t you, boy?”

“Ralph?” He couldn’t believe she named him Ralph.

“Yep.” Adriana looked up. “Ralph.”

He held up a hand. “Good name. Right, Ralph.” Ralph was staring up at Adriana.

“Well,” Bob said, “I wanna catch the news. See what junk the mayor’s up to.”

As he headed in, Janet and Adriana were talking about Ralph.

He sighed through his teeth. What the fuck was he going to do with the Sox hat? Not to mention the goddamn wig.




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