Dandelions bloomed gaudily and defiantly across our unmown lawn the summer I turned 14. They were natural in a way that the livid green of our neighbors’ lawn was not. Our neighbors mowed their lawn weekly, more often if there had been a lot of rain. The husband-neighbor went outside on weekend afternoons with a spray bottle, kneeling beside the dandelions to cover each leaf with poison. He looked ridiculous in his brown chino pants and button-down shirt, and his precision unnerved me. It was so unlike my own parents’ behavior, or mine.
Natural was better. The dandelions were pretty during their peak, with heads as yellow as sunflowers. I liked them less when their bloom had gone, white haired with increasing bald spots, spindly and spiky like the old ladies sitting outside the nursing home I passed every day on my walk to school. I didn’t ever want to grow old.
One Sunday evening in August, the husband-neighbor knocked on our door. I answered. My mother was out with a boyfriend, as usual. My father had left us the previous Christmas. We were the only family on the block in which the father had left, and I could tell by the flush on the husband-neighbor’s closely shaven chin that he was thinking about my absent father while he hesitated in the doorway, not quite meeting my gaze. He didn’t ask if my mother was home. The half-eaten sandwich in my hand at 7 pm, the Doritos stain around my mouth, and the shriek of the television in the background announced the fact that my little brother and I were home alone.
“Your dandelions,” the husband-neighbor ventured. “Their seeds blow onto my lawn, and they take root.”
I looked at him blankly.
“The dandelions on your lawn make new dandelions on my lawn.”
“Oh,” I said.
The husband-neighbor flushed more deeply, perhaps at his inadvertent reference to reproduction.
I was embarrassed too, more because I had a father who lived in a bachelor apartment on the other end of town than by the fact of our dandelions blowing onto the neighbors’ yard, but in my mind and likely in his the two facts merged. I was fatherless and my mother husbandless. We were wanton, out of control, seeds and fluff flying everywhere.
“Would it be possible, do you think, to mow your lawn?” asked the husband-neighbor.
I considered his request. I knew where our lawnmower was. I had seen it the previous night on the back patio. I’d been smoking a cigarette my best friend Sheila had stolen from her older brother. She and I took turns holding it, pretending we were movie stars. I started laughing so hard it slipped from my fingers and fell behind the lawn mower. By the time I got the lawn mower off it, it had burned down to the filter, and Sheila didn’t have any more cigarettes.
“We like to keep things natural,” I said, immediately regretting my words, which sounded ridiculous and too revealing. I should have told him we would mow the lawn. Why didn’t my mother mow the lawn, come to think of it? Or my father, who could have done something useful during his awkward visits, rather than playing show tunes on the piano while my brother hid upstairs and I fidgeted in the doorway, trying to think of something to say.
“I’ll tell my mother,” I amended quickly. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell her. About the lawn. And the dandelions.”
The husband-neighbor nodded, paused as if he wanted to say something else, perhaps offer to mow the lawn for us, or ask us to move out, or to tell him why my father wouldn’t move back in. But the moment passed, he left, and I closed and locked the door behind him.
I put a note for my mother on the refrigerator. It was how we communicated. Our schedules didn’t often overlap. We could go for days without actually seeing each other.
My mother mowed the lawn the next evening after work, still in her heels and sleeveless work dress, glaring defiantly over her shoulder at the neighbors’ house with its curtains pulled so tightly closed that no crack of the inside showed through.
No one in our neighborhood mowed their lawn in the evening. I was embarrassed by my mother, yet also proud. I couldn’t stop watching her. I peered out our uncurtained, streaky windows while my brother whined beside me because he had finished all the cookies and wanted me to find him something else to eat. My mother’s heels left marks in the lawn. The grass got shorter. The dandelion heads disappeared. By the time she was finished I couldn’t see where our lawn ended and the neighbors’ lawn began. I felt oddly peaceful, as if life might work out for me after all.