Onyx Publications
  • The King of Weeds

    Written By: John Eric Vona

    © 2021 by John Eric Vona

Debbie, Mrs. Debrossie, as her students called her, died when she stepped on a shovel while gardening. That’s right. A shovel. It had been left in the yard with the spade facing up and when she stepped on it the handle flew up and hit her in the head like a Charlie Chaplin movie.

She died from that.

I wish I was kidding. The impact left little more than a bruise on her forehead and I can just imagine her laughing it off, that laugh I heard in countless faculty meetings. But it caused some sort of blood clot that worked its way to her brain. A few weeks later, she was dead, and I was taking another day off from work, putting in for another substitute to go to another funeral.

Early in my career Debbie took me under her wing and pulled back the curtain on how to really engage students. She told me to let the kids grow. “Wild as weeds,” she’d always say with a smile on her face. She talked with passion about the cosmos, took her classes into the hallway to race paper airplanes, taught them to build spring-driven cars. Her physics classes were always in motion. Her students gathered around her like iron fillings around a magnet.

When she died, just like with everyone else, the crisis team came to coach the teenagers through loss. The marching band dedicated their halftime performance to her memory. But what did she have to show in the end? Sure, she had a loving husband, kids, even a grandchild, but what about her work? What about her students, wild as weeds? In four years’ time, no students would be left who remembered her.

 

The lawnmower sputtered and growled, the roar of its engine fading to a staccato lurch. I pushed down on the handle, lifting its front wheels, and it returned to roaring, the blade whizzing free in the open air. I pushed forward and then lowered it again onto the knee-high grass that had gone to seed and felt it jerk and protest beneath my white knuckles, the blade flagging against the renewed resistance. I pushed down again, but too late. With one last spasm and a fart of exhaust, the engine died and the blade stopped.

  “Goddammit.” I let the front wheels drop, their cushioned fall into the overgrown lawn unsatisfying. I wanted a crash and a bang.

  I had managed to cut a nine-foot path along the chain-link fence that ran behind my property.

  My father, a proud member of the middle class who had worked his way out of poverty and into the American Dream: the suburbs, had always kept a presentable lawn. And it was about that: presentation. About keeping up appearances. He’d tell me that he did for it my mom, because she deserved a beautiful home, but she’d turn around and tell me how little she cared. The son of immigrants and rednecks, he was trying to prove that he belonged. Though later I suspected he did it out of habit. Going through the suburban motions.

  The problem with going through the motions is that you forget why you’re doing something in the first place. You do it without luster. So, for most of the spring semester, I’d ignored the backyard. I cut the front to keep the HOA at bay, though you could see the back from the side street. Occasionally they sent enforcement letters about it.

  But the end of the school year had been rough, and the most recent letters cited the unmown front yard. They were all thanks to the retiree across the street, Bill. He’s with the association. The one or two times I talked to him he told me all about how he liked to photograph birds. Bull. That just gave him an excuse to ride around in a golf cart with a telescopic lens, taking pictures of people’s overgrown lawns or moldy siding.

I should have started in the front yard, like I always did, but I knew that if I mowed it first there was the danger that I’d quit halfway, leaving the back again. It was the first day of summer and I woke up at the same time I would have during the school year, determined to stay productive, and it would begin by tackling the yard.

I yanked the cord on the mower and it coughed and jerked. I pulled it again and again, sweat accumulating in the pits of my shirt, on the small of my back. I cussed.

  I gave the mower’s cord one last rip with all my middle-aged strength. The rubber grip came loose in my sweaty palm and whipped against my other hand, holding the mower still. I swore and stormed inside. The first day of no school already felt like a bust.

  

            I imagine in other professions the quickness and meaninglessness of it must be more troubling. One day they’re at work and the next they’re not. Maybe your boss calls everyone around the water cooler and delivers the news. Then the hunt is on for their replacement. But not in teaching. One day they’re in the hallway, in their classroom, and the next the news is spreading like word of a fight in the cafeteria. The principal tells everyone over the intercom and leads a moment of silence. Then the crisis team comes and the morning show does a tribute video and there’s a candlelight vigil where the chorus sings and some parents set up a scholarship fund. It goes on and on.

  It happened too often. At Debbie’s funeral, as I sat there in the rigid pews with their office stock brand tissue boxes stuffed in between Bibles and books of common prayer, I felt a little heat of anger to think of my kids switching seats to take advantage of my substitute and groaning over the bookwork I’d left them yet again. They knew it was busywork and as much as I hated it, as much as I’d cried against it when I was a younger man, what else was there to do?

  It was the second time that year. First there was Mr. Woodcock, who died of a heart attack. At forty-five years old. And during the summer, before school even started, Ms. Cruz, the young (well, younger than me) horticulture teacher died of some untreated infection from a cut she got while working. The year before that, old Mrs. Banks—who only ever showed movies and we all wished would just retire and stop dragging down the reading department’s test scores—literally died at her desk. That old joke we tell students about sleeping in our rooms at night and staying in our job until we die at the front of the classroom, she lived it. The kids were watching Stand and Deliver and she sat and departed.

Sometimes, I’d imagine they weren’t dead. They’re just off somewhere else with a new job and a new life, like my kids and my ex-wife or every other teacher who runs the gauntlet and makes it out alive with a retirement party in the media center. Sometimes I’d just flat out forget. I’d walk by Mrs. Banks’ room and peer in to see what movie is on today. I’d think I see Woodcock walking down the hall through a crowd of students.

But then Mr. A shot himself. And just two years later Coach Zwuelski overdosed on pain meds. And six months later Mrs. Stephens turned the car on in her garage and went to sleep. And each time I’m reminded of how many we’ve lost. And it’s like losing Debbie all over again.

Does this happen in other professions? We aren’t soldiers.

Surely, surely, everyone dies. Tax accountants, janitors, restaurant managers, car salesmen, bank clerks, interior designers, machinists. Or is it just because this is my job and these are my colleagues and repeatedly I’m face to face with a parade of death? A parade moving on a circuit too short? Every year we lose more and more teachers against an endless stream of students. Eventually I too will die with nothing to show for it at all but a few pews filled with co-teachers staring at their cheap khaki pants in an outdated funeral home.

  

It was one of those things you didn’t expect to see in broad daylight: a kid jumping a fence. After the initial double-take, I did another: it was Jeremy Adwell. I’d taught him the previous year. I hate being the hallway cop at school; I don’t need to be the sidewalk cop at home. But Jeremy had been more than the usual trouble this year, one reason I try not to teach freshmen, but they’d needed me to pick up a section of Civics.

I’d been on the main road that twists through the labyrinth of suburbs, connecting one sub-division to another, and Jeremy had jumped the masonry wall that ran behind a row of houses. His buddies were on the other side, two other kids about the same age, late middle school/early high school,--sitting on bikes. As I looped around, I pulled onto the grass and directed my two-door toward them. Jeremy was just mounting one of his friend’s handlebars when they heard my car crunching through the grass. I leaned out of the window and shouted, “Is that your house or should I call the police?”

            Jeremy said something to his buddies, and they started to pedal away, not toward the street but toward the trees where the wall ended, a narrow alleyway of overgrown grass and wild bushes and saplings pushing their way up between the white fence of one subdivision and the stone wall of the next.

            “Hey!” I shouted, because that’s what you do. What else can you do? A kid walking down the hallway pulls some shit and doesn’t stop when you ask him to but the bell rings. You have a class to attend to. I wasn’t about to leave my car there and run after them.

            He threw a middle finger up over his shoulder as they vanished down this green corridor. I shrugged it off. It’s June, I thought. Let them run wild. Some things are better left alone.

            I drove home to a driveway that was just beginning to feel the squeeze of the front lawn’s newfound freedom, the encroaching arms of crabgrass and chickweed. I found another letter from the HOA in my mailbox. “Unsightly and unmaintained… overgrown… violation of community standards.” I tore it up and inspected some dandelions booming between angry bursts of what I think is called thistle.

            It was strangely satisfying to watch the grass in front suddenly take to neglect, to watch it stretch and lengthen in tidy blades, new to this unruliness. In the days that followed the death of my lawn mower, huge fans of grass leapt up and spread outward. They must have been a different breed, a different strain. But I didn’t know the types of grass. And towering weeds jumped up overnight it seemed, dangling their little flowers.

  

My favorite teacher in high school was Mr. Fischer.

Mr. Fischer taught World History and the Philosophy elective. He taught through stories and anecdotes, tales of his own misadventures mixed with history and mythology, regaling us with stories of his ex-wife whom he seemed still to love and of dorm room pranks dropped between the legends of King Arthur and the Buddha’s weeping origins. He’d earned himself the nickname Jesus among the students for his style of teaching through parable, something that as a teacher I often wonder how he got away with, how it really worked. I have no luck with lectures myself. Was it only a few of us listening raptly while the rest of the class dozed?

  But there was a dark side there, too. The disappointment when he spoke of his own children. The jokes about spending summers drunk in a bathtub. As a student, we thought it was all an act.

            I didn’t learn that the other teachers called him ‘Drunken Jesus’ behind his back until after he’d drank himself to death. That at the end, he would call into work from the bar to ask for a substitute.

            I learned this at his funeral. He’d taught for forty-plus years and was beloved by all. It never occurred to me that he would get the same cheap memorial service the others had. I went prepared to fight a crowd of former and current students. I imagined laughter and crying and anecdotes shared in an enormous reception hall. Instead, I was greeted by a few of his kids asking how I was related. When they learned I’d been a student, their faces wilted. They hadn’t wanted that part of his life there. His students had gotten the best of him while his own children got whatever was left over.

  

They were doing donuts on their bikes, drifting around between my house and the stop sign four houses down, just circling and laughing. It was the middle of the day and the middle of June. I was standing in my boxer shorts and an old T-shirt, drinking my morning black coffee out of my favorite mug which read: “Tears of my Students.”

I was bored and watching the grass grow, the weeds racing towards the sky with their jagged leaves and monolithic flowers. I could make out the beginnings of at least one new tree and a few vines crawled about.

Jeremy unstraddled his bike, letting it fall to the cement, and started to fish something out of his drawstring backpack. I didn’t realize it was a lighter and fireworks until the fuse was lit and he tossed one into the storm drain, the resulting sound like a burst of gunfire.

I whipped down the stairs and out the door and stood shouting on my front lawn. But mine wasn’t the only voice. Bill had emerged from his house at the same moment. The look of disgust he reserved for neighbors’ yards was turned on my boxer shorts, my pale, balding legs, my patina-stained mug. Lord knows what my actual hair looked like. I hadn’t bothered with a mirror that morning. Or the previous two. And there he was, standing on his well-manicured grass in a pair of loafers, khaki safari shorts and a tucked in collared shirt, looking like a fucking cruise ship entertainment director.

Jeremy and his friends escaped while Bill and I sized each other up.

 

I never got to ask Mr. Fischer about the time he gave me a ride home.

I’d ridden my bike over to my then-girlfriend’s house but instead of her sneaking out to walk around the block with me and make out in front of our favorite spot, a fence consumed by untended jasmine, she’d stepped out through the front door and under a yellow light bulb besieged by moths told me to go home.

Not looking where I was going, I must have hit a nail or bit of glass in the road, because, as I sobbed and pedaled, suddenly a bump and then my back tire was flat. It was a long way to ride, but I didn’t mind the trip if it meant a chance to put my hands in her hair. That night, my fingers gripped hard rubber as I made the even longer walk home.

But halfway home, passing the school and feeling sorry for myself like only a love-shunned sixteen-year-old with a flat tire could, a little tan sedan pulled into the shoulder and there was Mr. Fischer, leaning across the passenger seat, asking if I needed a ride home. He must have been leaving school after some event. He was at every basketball, football, volleyball, you-name-it-ball game. His students were his life.

I never got a chance to ask him if he remembered what he said to me, if he even recalled it at all. How many kids did he give rides home to over the years? How many broken teenage hearts did he mend with some folksy wisdom?

As my thirties ended with nearly two decades of teaching under my belt, the old gods that had led me to be a teacher faded away. The years went on and the students rolled by, and teaching proved to be less of what I’d thought it would be. Never did I inspire a class with a great speech as Fischer had. Never did my students ride the rollercoasters of equations like they did in Debbie’s room. There were fewer and fewer moments where I even connected with a kid, much less impacted them. I started teaching by the rules. Started photocopying worksheets. Started enforcing the dress code. I started going through the motions.

Sometimes, I wish that car would pull up again and take me back to where I’d started.

 

Bill brought me the next letter himself. He knocked on the door and, when I opened it, thrust it out at me so quickly I caught the paper as a reflex, thinking he was about to punch me. I didn’t need to read it to know what it was, and I looked him dead in his wrinkled old face and said, “Did you run out of postage?”

  “Did you run out of gas for your mower?”

  “No,” was all I managed to say, surprised that I’d fired-off the first quip so smoothly, instead of thinking of what to say hours later. But I hadn’t been ready for Bill to strike back like that. He’d clearly ramped up for the encounter. He had on his button-up short-sleeve shirt with the HOA logo on the chest pocket.

  “I can see it in your backyard from Oak Bluff. It looks like you finally decided it was time to mow your lawn and then just gave up. I’ve seen you ripping up mail as you walk in your house. Well, there’s one you can rip up too if you want, but I’ll tell you to your face that we have standards here in the community. Some of us live here and pay our dues so that those standards can be kept up.”

To my surprise it was very much a form letter. I was really hoping to hear Bill’s voice, dripping with discontent and ire over the eyesore I’d grown for him. The letter included a list of things that were not permitted in the front yard, such as lawn ornaments, vegetable plants, and furniture not on a front patio or porch space. There were other things on the list, but these offended me the most as being the most unreasonable. While I’d never go as far as to replace my lawn with rocks or AstroTurf, I did muse on the idea of cutting some sort of crop circle into my grass. Though I’d have to resurrect the mower.

Instead I went to the store, came back, and waited for Bill to be in his front yard. With as much drama as I could muster, I opened my garage door and walked out with my weedwhacker and shovel. I cleared a space while he tried to pretend he wasn’t watching. Then I deposited in the dirt a tomato plant, complete with trellis, and adorned it with a pink flamingo on a stick and a garden gnome. The whole thing took less than ten minutes.

 

I pulled onto the shoulder and rolled down the window, leaning across the passenger seat and doing my best Mr. Fischer impression. It was Jeremy, strolling bike-less through the late July heat, his backpack probably holding fireworks and spray paint cans.

“Jump over any fences lately?”

“Have you gone child molester or something?” He kept walking and I let the car idly drift along beside him.

“If it was your house, fine. I was just checking to make sure I wasn’t witnessing a robbery.”

“You caught me. Call the police.”

“Why would a child molester call the police?”

He looked over at me with a flash of fear and shock, before he laughed awkwardly and shook his head.

“So, what’s in the backpack? Eggs? Spray paint? Rolls of toilet paper?”

“Are you going to talk me out of my rotten ways, again?”

“I was going to suggest a target. The guy across the street is giving me hell about my lawn.”

“You want me to egg your neighbor?”

“I was kidding.”

“Sure,” he said, turning to walk the other way.

 

By the Fourth of July, the wanton sprawl of grass had swallowed the gnome and flamingo whole. It seemed like justice. From my window, it used to be suburbs as far as I could see. Shingle roofs blotting out creation. Now my time by the upstairs front window transformed from vigil to vacation, from exile to exploration. Every day I sat up there, drinking coffee and watching the black seed heads of the grass, the white tufts of dandelion, the little flowers of quickweed drifting in the breeze. I imagined my weeds spreading, taking over lawn after lawn until they connected with the strip of wilderness between the subdivisions.

Nothing pissed Bill off more than the sunflowers that had popped up in the middle of my front yard out of nowhere. I figured some passerby had tossed a few seeds from the sidewalk, or maybe a bird had dropped them. Whatever. They were bright and defiant and six fucking feet tall and staring right at his house. Three of them.

I was watching them wave around on the sixth of July when a riding lawnmower that had been prowling the neighborhood, making the rounds to each paying house, pulled up into my driveway and cut a swath of the grass between the sidewalk and the road. By the time I got into the driveway, waving my arms, he’d finished that little stretch and taken a chunk of the main lawn.

He cut his engine.

“Wrong house, buddy.”

The guy sighed beneath his wide-brimmed sunhat, then looked across the street, as though for help.

            “How much did he give you?”

            “Forty dollars,” he said. “I told him I don’t normally do this sort of thing. I don’t want trouble.”

            “Hold on,” I said, jogging inside and returning with my wallet. “Here’s fifty. Beat it.”

            The guy gaped back at me and it was in those bewildered blue eyes that I recognized him, a student from a decade ago and when I called him by name, he recognized me back.

            “Weren’t you salutatorian?”

            “Law school didn’t suit me.”

            “That’s not why I asked!”

            “I get that a lot, though,” he laughed. “You know, philosophy was the only elective I ever took. I was too busy collecting AP credit. I was so busy studying my way through college I almost missed that whole experience too. And then, just as I was about to go to law school, my old boss from when I cut lawns one summer offered to sell me his business, just a trailer and some lawn equipment, but boy it pissed my dad off. Pisses my dad off.”

            “As long as you’re happy.”

            “I knew you’d say that,” he said. “I can’t say I remember many of your lessons, but I always got that from you.”

            “It’s pretty wild, how you can get something so meaningful on accident.”

            He gave me back my money and left my lawn alone.

  

It was early August and Bill stood in his driveway shaking his head. A school bus rolled past my lawn. It had recovered from its lawn mower wounds, weeds beginning to become bushes reaching heights taller than me, hiding my house from the street. In the backyard, my lawn mower was lost. I stalked behind windows grown green, leaving the house only to drive through the neighborhood, slowing to nearly a stop to gaze at the untamed corridor that occupied that no-man’s land between one subdivision and the next.

I imagined virgin tracts of wilderness back there, loose fence boards that yielded passage to other’s sanctum backyards, Neverland forts of Lost Boys, plants unplanned and uncut.

Bill stalked across, intent on knocking at my door, but paused, unable to find the path to my front porch. He looked up at the window where I watched and shouted something up at me before stomping back home.

  

Just a few months before, during the end-of-the-year annual Greek tragedy that was yearbook signing, as seniors faced for the first time their own mortality and age while the underclassmen just as desperately tried to write something, anything of meaning in a pseudo-friend’s yearbook that might make sense of the last ten months, that might make it matter, I started to look around at my fellow teachers, wondering who would be the next to go. I took stairs carefully and privately hoped it was the girls’ soccer coach.

Danielle in my fifth period, an over-made-up freshman who I’d occasionally had conversations with about the obviousness of her marijuana perfume, came to me right before exams and told me that Jeremy had weed in his backpack.

“Pot brownies,” she whispered, the same way she once told me she had to go to the restroom to change her tampon.

“Really?”

“I’ve been clean for a while now,” she insisted, “and if he wants to do that stuff it’s fine with me, but he said he was going to eat a few in the bathroom during lunch and I just don’t want him to get in trouble. What if he gets arrested?”

She seemed earnest enough so… in I flew. To the rescue.

I pulled him into the hallway and led him to a deserted stairwell and told him that I didn’t care at all if he smoked weed or ate weed or whatever.

“Not at school,” I said, and he met my eyes. Here was a teacher not demonizing him. Not telling him he was going to go to jail and ruin his life, not turning him in. Giving it to him straight. It felt like going back to the way I’d been. It felt like life. Like teaching. “I don’t care if you smoke weed. I’ve smoked weed. Who gives a shit? But don’t do it at school. Do it at home. If it’s not safe there because of your parents, do it somewhere else, or wait until you’re out of the house. But bringing stuff to school is about the dumbest thing you could do. Get rid of it.”

He promised me he would. He looked in my eyes and thanked me.

I returned to my day, energized. I spoke to my students, tried to engage with them, instead of just eyeing the obese drop-out specialist and trying to triangulate the old Calculus teacher’s age.

But when the epidemic came later that day, the disaster I’d sensed lying in the grass like an upturned shovel, my fellow teachers were not its victims. Hordes of freshmen sick but strangely so. Some vomiting, some just lying on the cafeteria floor, babbling.

“They thought they were dying,” the principal told me after school. I sat on the other side of her desk, its wood like a church pew. The only thing on it were a few papers and a cheap box of tissues.

She told me they’d all eaten brownies, not knowing what kind of brownies they were. The culprit had been caught and was facing expulsion.

“Well, he got rid of it.” The principal shook her head.

I slouched in the chair, thinking about how death comes for us all.

  

In my boxer shorts, with my coffee, the heat of summer drooping into late August, I surveyed my kingdom. One corner of my backyard had ballooned with ‘weeds’ that turned to full-on shrubs, spreading long, sparsely leafed arms up and over the rising lawn, a swelling tide that rose so high it seemed my whole plot was lifting from the Earth. A half-dozen oak trees waved their gloved hands above the bending flags of grass blades. Dark-stemmed and dark-leaved, a patch of land had been overtaken by yearning arms that yielded purple stars for flowers. My best guess from internet searches was that they were Mexican Petunias. And running like the Milky Way through all this: a vine that seemed bent on wrapping around every stalk, every blade, every flower and pulling them back down.

The front yard was a near mirror, though somewhere down in there a garden gnome and flamingo guarded a tomato cage. The actual plant had been choked out long ago by a parade of ferns.

The wildness ran up the walls of the house in sticky ramblers, crept inside on six or eight or more legs at a time, traversing territory once unknown to their kind. The smell of green filled my nostrils day and night, slipped in through the air conditioner, permeated the eaves, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like death was not my destiny. After coffee, I soaked up water like root systems, until it was time to sleep with the windows open, sweating dew drops beneath the stars.

What I looked like at the grocery store, I don’t know. I don’t really, truly remember going, though I must have. I had more than one carton of eggs when I came to in front of Jeremey’s house to the sound of his father screaming.

 “What the fuck, you asshole?”

I threw an egg at him. It missed but hit the front window.

“I’m calling the police.”

Jeremy appeared behind him, following the trail of egg shells up the wall to the dripping yolks.  “You,” he must have said. I couldn’t really hear him.

Father turned on son. “You know him. You know an old man who eggs someone’s house? What did you do? Egg his house first?”

“No, Dad!” Jeremy yelled. “That’s the teacher who told me it was okay to do drugs, just not at school. That’s the guy who told me to get rid of it.”

The father turned on me, rushing down the driveway.

“I’m glad they fired you!” Jeremy yelled after me as I ran.

  

If the police came for me that night, I didn’t know. I wasn’t home. I walked and walked, the endless lines of sidewalk passing like film reel. A dead man careening through the dead of night. Maybe I slept somewhere out in the suburbs, dreaming that I stood at the wilderness of weeds, that narrow alley between one development and the next. Or maybe I really went there and gazed into its darkness untouched by streetlamps, its path unknown, uncontrolled. Something untamable between neat, fragile little lives.

I staggered home in the bright of morning. For the first time in a long time, I could see my house’s gray exterior, as bare as the day I bought it. The weeds were gone, ripped away. A mini-bulldozer squatted in the fresh black dirt and beside it on the street, a flatbed heavy with fresh sod.

“The invoice is in your mailbox,” Bill called triumphantly from across the street. “Your backyard is next!”

I felt suddenly present. Not the feeling of time slipping by, of a life that had gotten away from me while I watched others end. Not the eerie feeling of a school year begun that I wouldn’t be a part of.

Bill’s next words were choked out as he got a better look at me, whatever I was then, outwardly. I only knew that inward, I was dead and thus free.

I ran through the dirt, past the staring landscapers, around the house and into the backyard, tossing open the gate, spreading out my arms and falling into the weeds, taller than me, greater than me, a kingdom come of wild open arms, every shade of green and swallowing me whole.