During the summer before I started college, I worked as a laborer for a lawn-cutting service. There were five guys on the crew — including me — and my boss was a guy named Crew Leader Carl. He had hair down to his shoulders and always had a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.
This is a story from one of my many lawn-cutting crew adventures:
It was mid-morning on a Friday, and we were working at the Schultz residence. Mr. and Mrs. Schultz were an elderly couple who lived in a small house in an older neighborhood. Mature trees towered over the property, casting most of the yard in cool shade. Working at their place was always a welcome relief from the brutal heat.
I knew that Mr. Schultz was sickly and bedridden most of the time, so I was surprised to see him sitting in his rocker on the front porch. He was small and shriveled, with large, bulging eyes and a homemade quilt draped across his lap. A tray stood beside him holding a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade.
I tromped up the stairs, holding my pruners with one hand and lugging a trashcan with the other.
“Good morning, Mr. Schultz!” I said, waving. “It’s good to see you out and about.”
Mr. Schultz extended a feeble, trembling hand. I brushed my own hand on my pants and shook it, making sure to be gentle. His hand was cold, and I felt like I could crush it if I gripped too hard.
“I’m not sure you can say I’m out and about,” he said, coughing into his fist. “I only made it as far as the front porch.”
“The front porch is better than bed,” I said. “Besides, it’s a gorgeous day, and I’m sure the fresh air is doing you some good.”
At that moment, Juan stomped by with the leaf blower, stirring up a huge cloud of dust and pollen. It wafted onto the porch, and Mr. Schultz started hacking violently.
I waved Juan away and clasped Mr. Schultz’s shoulder. “Are you all right, sir?”
The old man nodded. “Yeah. It’s just hell getting old. Sometimes I’m too weak to lift my own eyelids.”
He looked me up and down with his wide eyes. “You’re young, though. Barely grown up. I remember being your age. I was quite the rabble rouser.”
I smiled. “No kidding?”
“You bet,” he said. “In fact, I was a political activist most of my life. I contributed a lot of time to grassroots organizations, and I submitted dozens of opinion pieces to the daily paper. I was always up to something — disturbing the status quo.”
He motioned me closer, so I leaned down to his level.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said, his voice growly and breathless. “I have a theory as to why I’m so weak. I made quite a few enemies in my time. I embarrassed local politicians and called out so-called journalists. A lot of people despise me, and I suspect I’m being poisoned.”
I squinted. “Poisoned?”
He nodded solemnly. “Yes, poisoned. In fact, I told my wife recently that I no longer would eat another morsel of food unless she herself prepared it.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, nodding. “Unless, of course….”
I let my voice trail off.
He frowned. “Unless what?”
I grinned. “Unless, of course, your wife’s the one poisoning you. Who knows? Maybe one of your enemies finally got to her, or maybe she just wants your Social Security checks. Anything is possible.”
Mr. Schultz’s mouth dropped open, and his face turned white. In an instant, he had heaved himself out of his chair, the quilt toppling to the ground.
“Wait, Mr. Schultz!” I said. “I was only joking!”
He stormed into the house and slammed the door. A moment later, I heard violent screaming and the sound of breaking glass, as if a vase had been thrown against the wall.
I looked around, then started whistling nervously as I retreated down the staircase.
Crew Leader Carl came plodding around the corner, a weed-eater slung over his shoulder.
“What are you up to?” he growled, glaring at me and frowning.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just stirring the pot.”