by Kevin Finnerty
It was autumn again. The leaves, some yellow and red, others still green, more than half brown, were falling once more.
Have fallen, Rick thought, as he paused the mechanical operation of raking. He saw leaves on trees and in his yard. Rarely did he actually see leaves falling.
Rick raked as he had the two previous Saturdays. As he had the two previous years of autumn Saturdays since he and his wife had left their urban condominium in favor of a stand-alone house and its corresponding increased space and supposedly better schools.
Sasha assigned him the task a month after they moved in. She reminded him every week that first autumn. Last year, she only had to tell him at the start of the season. This year, he assumed the duty without any prodding.
He hadn’t minded at first. Leaves fell, you raked them into piles, stuffed them in bags, left them to be collected. It had been so when he was a boy and his father tackled the duty. Only difference was Rick used compostable, rather than plastic, bags.
Rick wondered if, as a result, the leaves his father had gathered still existed somewhere, sealed in plastic. And then: Why did he have to rake at all? What would happen if Rick simply shrugged his shoulders at the falling, or fallen, leaves?
Rick retrieved the sometimes smart phone from his back pocket. “What the hell would happen…”
Rick didn’t finish his query. He already knew what would happen if he decided to let the leaves lie all autumn, all winter.
His neighbors would notice. Specifically, Mike would complain; Chuck would shake his head; Chris would whisper, “Bold move.” Sasha’s companions would come into their home and stare at their yard through the windows. Others in town would stop by, point, and murmur.
“What did humans do before they invented rakes?” Rick would ask the neighbor with whom he spoke most often.
“Huddle in caves,” Chris would tell him.
“What about the period of time after they left caves and had cabins but no rakes?”
“That time is a figment of your imagination. The first settlers who asked for land were told, ‘Sure but take this rake. If we English are going to run the Indians off their land, at least make it look like we’re doing so for a good reason. We need to have presentable lawns.’”
“Did the English actually call the Native Americans ‘Indians’?”
“I’m sure they didn’t call them ‘Native Americans.’ They didn’t just spring out of ground here.”
Rick would be quiet and stare.
“They probably should be called ‘First Americans.’”
Chris was a good guy. He meant well. Just had trouble remembering to keep certain thoughts in his head.
Rick learned that lesson long ago. In high school. When he was a freshman and sophomore, he believed you made friends by talking a lot, feigning knowledge, pretending to be clever. He didn’t have many friends at that age. By the time he was a senior, Rick realized the more often one spoke, the more likely you were to offend. It was far better to listen and occasionally nod. Didn’t matter if the speaker was a guy or girl. The former liked to think they were right; the latter that you seemed to care enough to listen without interrupting.
Rick concluded it didn’t hurt to pretend. Arguing when you disagreed rarely accomplished anything. Better to stand silent and let the person tire themselves out. Or to excuse yourself and go about your business.
Rick resumed raking and gathered enough leaves to form his seventh pile of the day. He looked about the yard and guessed he had three more to go if he kept compiling them in the same sized piles. Rick was pretty confident in his ability to guestimate at this point.
“I should give you a hand.”
Mike was a decade older than Rick. The sort of person people used to label as fat before that became a four-letter word and before what used to qualify as fat became normalized as a little overweight. Nowadays socially if not medically Mike would be classified as could afford to lose a few pounds.
Rick thought Mike might actually lose a few pounds if he picked up a rake but knew Mike didn’t own one. He had a leaf blower that he occasionally used to blow leaves off of his property onto that of his neighbors. He never gave a hand to anyone, including his wife, as far as Rick could tell. But he spoke with genuinely fake sincerity much of the time.
“Bet they’re mainly from my tree.”
“You’d win that bet.”
Mike offered a guilty smile. “Wind. What you going to do?”
Hard to argue with that, Rick thought, except when the wind was machine-made and man-propelled.
Mike took a couple of steps towards Rick before stopping near the invisible property line. He folded his beefy arms across his chest. He wore a red-checkered, short-sleeve shirt and could-afford-to-lose-a-few-pounds jeans but didn’t appear cold without a jacket. He looked, rather, as if he would be perfectly comfortable treating Rick’s raking as a spectator sport.
Rick wasn’t keen on the idea, so he approached the property line and extended his hand with the rake.
Mike stumbled backwards and almost fell in his hasty retreat. He placed his hand on his side near his hip. “Bad back. Anyways, it’s a rite of passage. I did my share long before you moved here.”
“After a few years will leaves stop falling on my property too?”
“Can’t say for sure. It’s possible when someone new moves into one of those homes.”
Rick glanced to his left, then his right. He saw homes that were mirror images of each other at the foundational level. Two stories plus a basement and attic. With lawns that ran parallel to Rick’s along its vertical axis. “Should I try to get one of you guys to move?”
“You can try. Don’t see it happened though.”
Rick knew Mike wasn’t leaving. True or not, Mike believed he controlled his tiny section of suburbia. He spoke; his neighbors didn’t question. At least they didn’t challenge him. So he always got his way.
Rick knew Chris wouldn’t move because it would have been too much of an effort to do so. Better the plot one knows, after all, he would say.
Rick didn’t know what thoughts scrambled through his other neighbor’s head but knew he wouldn’t be making any residential decision for his family. Likewise, Rick knew that even if any of his neighbors moved, he wasn’t getting out of his duty. Not as long as he lived with his wife. Unless he had a better excuse than a feigned back or hip injury.
“I saw that act of aggression.” Chris emerged from his house in a winter coat, gloves, and a hat with the local NFL team’s logo on it. Rick thought he looked like a tall fourteen year-old whose emotional being had yet to catch up to the physical one.
“I had been expecting a quiet, solitary task.”
“You’re doing a good job so far.”
“I’m glad I’m satisfying the community’s standards.”
“He just has to get the rest up before the first snow.” Mike looked up to the heavens as if he had the power to invoke or withhold precipitation.
“I have confidence in Rick.” Chris’s smile told Rick he was being genuinely sincere. His lack of movement told him he didn’t intend to help.
“Not like Old Man Thompson,” Mike said.
Rick had purchased his home from Reggie Thompson, who had only been in his early fifties at the time of sale. The seller had been extremely forthcoming with his pre-sale disclosures concerning the condition of the home. He’d been far less so regarding the neighbors.
Chuck completed the quartet by peripherally joining the group at his approximate boundary line. Chuck was an Asian and had an Asian name but asked Rick to call him Chuck on the day Rick moved in and every time they spoke after until Rick simply knew him as Chuck.
“What I miss?” Chuck didn’t project his voice as much as his other neighbors, despite the distance between him and Rick and Mike and even more significant space between him and Chris.
“Not much. Rick hasn’t been working since I got here.”
Rick couldn’t dispute Mike’s statement, but he expected the reason would be self-evident.
“How’s the restaurant business these days?” Chris shouted.
Chuck owned a Korean barbecue, and Chris was one of its few regulars. “Making a living.”
“That’s all any of us can do.”
“Speak for yourself. I wouldn’t want to just scrape by.”
When Chuck hung his head in response to Mike’s comment, Mrs. Chuck opened their backdoor and screamed three sentences full of words at her husband. She was a tiny woman, seemingly half the size of her husband, but with concentrated power inside her small frame. The men observed a moment of silence out of respect and fear.
“You should hear her talk to our daughter.” Chuck feigned doffing his non-existent cap before retreating to the apparent lack of safety in his home.
“Either of you understand that Chinese gibberish?”
“It’s Korean,” Chris deadpanned.
“Five years here and I still don’t know if she speaks English.”
“She’s an adjunct at the college.”
“What’s that mean? If she does, it’s rude of her to come out here and yell Japanese so we won’t understand.”
Chris shuffled along the property line and gestured for Rick to approach.
“Go ahead, I can monitor your progress inside.” Mike’s home, with a different street address than Rick, Chris and Chuck, was larger, especially in its width, than those who lived on the street abutting his lawn from the rear.
“Why’s he always pretend he doesn’t know their nationality?”
Rick moved to the upper right quadrant of his property, looking to change the subject. “Is there a reason yardwork is so important to the three of you?”
“It’s probably due to Reggie. He used to do what you’re doing. Create these big piles and then his grandkids came over and dove into them before he put them in bags.”
Rick scratched his stubble.
“So that created a mess. Sometimes they tossed the leaves up in the air. They crossed boundaries.”
“Onto your properties?”
“Not often. Anyway, Reggie always reached over and pulled them back.”
“So why do you care?”
“We don’t now that we’ve seen your work.”
“You know I don’t even have kids.”
“It’s the way suburbs are. There are a lot of unspoken rules. It takes a few years to know them all.”
Rick gathered enough leaves for two more piles after Chris had retreated to his castle. Once more, in his solitude, Rick wondered what he was doing; he wondered why. He then pushed both piles together to form one large one in the center of his property.
Rick retreated and took a moment to admire his creation with his arms folded atop his rake, his head resting on his arms. After a minute, he dropped the rake and ran towards the pile with as much speed as his thirty-something legs could muster. He leapt into the air five feet before the leaves and crashed onto them. Contrary to what physics would have suggested, they flew into the air evenly in every direction.
Before he could emerge from the pile, Rick heard a door open. He wondered which neighbor would be the first to complain.
“That looked like fun.”
Rick recognized his wife’s voice. He saw Sasha with her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. “Was it worth it?”
“Absolutely. You want to take a run?”
“I better not. They say it’s going to snow tomorrow.”
Rick got to his feet and gathered his rake. He held it out to his wife.
“Don’t be silly. Dinner will be ready in a half hour. I’ll open a bottle of wine for us.”
Rick knew what that meant. They’d been trying to have a child for more years than he could remember. The original plan had been to conceive and give birth and maybe even spend the child’s first few years in the city, in their condominium, before they moved to the suburbs when the child was ready to begin school. After more than a few hundred unsuccessful successful copulations, and the somewhat empty celebrations of their thirtieth birthdays, Sasha decided they should move anyway.
Maybe the fresh air would do them some good, she said.
Maybe, he thought she thought, if everything were ready for the child, he or she would come.
He’d lost count how many times they’d tried since moving. It was no longer an everyday occurrence but still too often. At least too often the way it was.
It was all rote now. As if they’d forgotten why they’d originally made love. Or fucked.
But Rick didn’t say anything. Hell, there are worse ways to pass a Saturday night, he thought as he finished gathering the leaves into the last pile.
Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago. His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Me First Magazine, Newfound, the Westchester Review, and other publications.