Stumble On

By: Paul Handley

Josh delivered her Saturday newspaper and gave her a small, square, yellow receipt, torn from its stamp-like perforations. While doling out money, Mrs. Brendt asked him to mow her lawn that weekend. Josh said, “Yes,” as the bills were being placed in his hand. Biking to the next house he sniffed the currency from Mrs. Brendt and confirmed the scent of coffee grounds he thought had been in the air during the exchange.

On Sunday he cut the lawn with an electric mower through the suburban Chicago humidity. He should have woken up earlier and saved himself seven to ten degrees, but summers were for hanging out at his friend’s house at night and drinking beer while watching a Cubs game. The cheap beer gave him a hangover and an iffy gut.

While showing him where to dump the chopped blades from the detachable grass catcher, Mrs. Brendt recruited Josh to take down her storm windows. Josh narrowed his eyes in response, hoping to convey a demand for recompense. A grudging “sure” seeped from his lips. Dim wits had increased what he considered his charitability.

The windows were open from the outside in what Josh thought must be a desperate hope that a breeze would at least penetrate one pane of glass. In the midst of yanking out the ill-fitting windows, Josh realized that the cavernous hole was a bottomless bucket unless it was filled. This meant screen holes, thus nullifying his metaphor. “What a sucker I am,” Josh said to himself. Mrs. Brendt had conned him. Taking down meant putting back up.

The storms screeched their resistance. He shrugged his shoulders to indicate lack of fault as peeled paint and dust were torn from their homes, sprinkling his hair, which seemed to be functioning as a dryer filter. Josh reflexively looked over his shoulder in the manner of all adolescents to see if he was being mocked. Instead, an oblivious Mrs. Brendt was sitting in a lawn chair with rusty legs while fanning herself with a mailer from Super Star Asian Restaurant. Josh imagined sticking his pocket knife into her. She was so weak that at most she might make a couple ineffectual flails. If he shoved the knife hard enough it would stick into the back of the chair, pinning her to it. Mrs. Brendt would be a kind of lawn furniture Jesus.

She wore a painted dummy smile, extendo red like the Little Drummer Boy’s, that did not flatter her cotton white perm or skin the color of jaundiced eye balls. After he took down the windows she led him inside the house to retrieve the screens. The walk-in was the size of Josh’s bedroom closet. The floor was covered with a yellowing green material that was more of a mat than a carpet. Josh and Mrs. Brendt were forced into intimacy in the close quarters. Josh tipped his head back slightly and breathed through his mouth in search of any fresh air that may have migrated to the ceiling.

Against his will he examined her. She was straddled by an ill-fitting sundress. Her sweat smelled of three tablespoons of vinegar in a cream sauce steamed in a lobster pot. Her faint mustache was damp with sweat. This with a backdrop of repulsion for all that did not meet the standard rhythm of venerated music, glib comedians, alluring 15-17 year old girls, stasis of jocks.

They passed through a pantry at the top of the stairs on the way to the cellar where the storms were located. When Josh saw the twin towers of cat food in the pantry without any cat signatures, it meant dead cat leftovers, perhaps being saved for the first indicator of a neighbor in need. Friends and family seemed remote.

The screens were difficult. Josh had to slam an open palm on the first couple of frames to force them into place. The tricky part was running to hook the screens from inside. This usually wasn’t a worry due to the tight fit of the screens. When one didn’t fit so snugly, it would come falling out and just miss impaling a plant shorn of leaves with a grouping of gnarled stalks pointed upright like lances. Josh made a backwards grab as he was in the midst of rushing inside to grab the hooks to save it. There were other destructive forces that were easily within tumbling distance of the giant framed flyswatters.

They had to team up. Josh asked Mrs. Brendt, “Can you go inside and hold the screen by the hooks?”

“Do you have a friend that could help?” she asked in return. Josh’s brain fired off bolts of agitation through his body. If she hadn’t been standing right there he would have walked off. Questions immediately registered: A) Where was he going to find somebody willing to come over? B) Was she willing to talk to whomever he found about pay since she hadn’t even spoken to him about it yet, or was he supposed to tell him there was an implicit promise for an unknown sum? B) Subsection 1 and C, which bore repeating B) Subsection 1, why the hell didn’t she just do it? and D) Why hadn’t she told him ahead of time that another body was needed? Instead Josh just said, “I don’t think I could find someone right now. Could you just hold the hooks for a second while I run inside and grab them? The windows are so tight you probably won’t have to do anything.” She wordlessly moved toward the back door. “Thank you,” Josh said to her, receding back.

His familiar torpid pace sent him home with the familiar sensation of an incomplete job, familiar resentment at the measly monies paid down, and familiar dissatisfaction emanating from the customer, due to Josh’s weak efforts. They agreed to finish the next day at an agreed time-ish and he was rewarded with a smile shuffling between anxious and taut.

That night, watching the Cubs annual July skid, Josh complained to his friends about the “cheap, stinky bitch.” The basement they were in stank of Stroh’s beer. After describing the tin towers of cat food, one of his buddies said, “She is eating cat food.” Josh looked at his friend with an “oh yeah” expression. He said, “Oh yeah,” and felt stupid for not figuring out what the bulk cat food without a cat meant. Josh had heard about this dieting phenomenon, which had an urban legend quality about it. Josh didn’t even bother asking any of them to help with the windows because he would get an endless amount of shit when they received the expected token pay. It would come up eight months later when they were chipping in for beer. His buddy would say, “Remember that lady that ate cat food? You owe me. I can’t believe I let you talk me into that.” It wasn’t worth it.