short fiction

"King of the Straight and Narrow"
by Joseph Freda
published in Coffee Journal

Thursday afternoon and Ed Jacques had his big Mack running a straight seventy along the Mass Pike. The trailer was empty. He had just dropped a load of copier paper at General Electric in Albany, and now he was headed home. With the trailer empty, he could roll along no sweat, make the hills without downshifting.

It was a beautiful afternoon in late May. The leaves had been out for two weeks; the western Massachusetts hillsides were a fresh green. The sun was shining. A breeze coming in the window, country tunes on the radio. Straight and steady. No curves, no swerves. Ed kept the left front wheel twelve inches off the white line. Exactly twelve inches. Or eight, or six. Whatever. He had marked a gauge on his side mirror, and on these long runs he practiced holding the eighteen-wheel tractor and trailer on a steady course. With the white stripes peeling away under the 12-inch mark, he could hold it this way for miles.

He had to. It was part of his training. Saturday was the annual Blessing of the Lawn-Mower Fleet, and Ed had a title to defend. He was the reigning King of the Straight and Narrow, and he intended to hang onto his crown. Hurley, New Hampshire had begun the festival in the early eighties as a civic-pride event and a fund-raiser for local nursing homes and day-care centers. Taking their lead from the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the planners of the event scheduled a parade of lawn mowers, cutting competitions, garden tractor pulls, and of course, the Blessing of the Fleet. They had clinics on Briggs & Stratton tuneups and blade sharpening. They held a beauty contest, where the Turf Queen was crowned. But Ed’s specialty was the Straight-Line Race, in which each contestant cut a straight swath across the middle of the town common. He had won the event for five years running, and he attributed his success to constant training, determination, and single-mindedness.

So on his daily run to Albany or Poughkeepsie or Augusta, Maine, where he delivered bulk paper to GE and Union Carbide and Digital, he’d practice for the race by keeping his ten-ton Mack a given distance from the white line: fifteen inches, twelve, or on empty stretches of road, six.

When he got home, he took his lunchpail inside and shouted halloo to Thelma. Her muffled “Hi!” came up from the laundry room. Ed went out to cut the front yard. He liked to get the front done on Thursday evenings, because it was easy to do, and it was mostly what the neighbors saw. Then he’d do the back yard on Friday, and he’d be all set for the weekend. The residents of Monadnock Street took pride in their properties, keeping their houses painted, the yards trimmed, the driveways freshly sealed. No broken pickets went unfixed, no car unwashed, no fallen leaves unraked. And of all the well-kept properties on the street, the most well-kept property belonged to Ed. He took great pride in it. He did not have one of the great Victorians or stately four-squares. His cape, though, was nicely set off with hemlocks and lilacs, flower beds and rock gardens. But the piece de resistance was his lawn. Ed had the greenest, thickest lawn on the street, the result of a rigid schedule of fertilizing and seeding and thatching, of aerating and mowing and raking. He watered it in the summer, limed it in the fall. He dreamed about it all the long New Hampshire winter, pictured it dormant under its covering of snow, each individual grass plant building up its energy for the green tumult of spring.

When he finished the front yard, Ed went in for dinner. Thelma was just setting out a pot roast.

“Good run today?” she asked.

“Ye-ah, good run. Clear sailing out there on the Pike.” He anticipated her next question. “Easy day tomorrow. Pick up a trailer in Boston, run it down to Hartford.”

“That’s good,” she said, and joined him at the table. “I thought we might have the kids over after the festivities on Saturday. Maybe a weenie roast.”

“Sure,” Ed said. “That’d be fun.” They’d been doing it for years, ever since Ed had been running in the race, so why stop now?

“I’ll pick up some stuff, then.” She ladled gravy over her meat and potatoes. “Gert Bartolomeo says Minnie Stark is putting her property out back up for sale.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that,” he said. “Fred would never have let that go.”
“That’s what Gert says.”

“Aaah—you listen to those hens long enough, you’ll believe any foolishness.”

The hen party—that’s what Ed called Thelma’s group of friends. Gert Bartolomeo, Minnie Stark, Mrs. Bain. Get together and cluck about this neighbor, cackle over that town bigwig. No thanks.

Next morning, he left for work just as he did every day: at 4:00, parking lights on, engine off, rolling out of his driveway and down Monadnock Street. The street ran downhill and he always rolled without his engine because he did not want to wake his neighbors. Ed Jacques was a considerate man, and he respected his neighbors’ peace. Each morning he passed their houses—the Vanns, the Rosens, the Bains—and he thought of them sleeping.

To him sleep seemed like a pool into which they all slipped at night. Their heartbeats slowed; their souls commingled. Dreams were the proof. In the community of sleep, he and his neighbors shared visions, entwined emotions. They could be happy together or sad, angry or afraid, but they were in sleep as they were in their waking lives: a community. Toward morning they began to rise to the surface of the sleep pool, like dream trout rising to the new day, until one by one they broke through.
He happened to break through first every day. And he knew who was second. He had seen her, or at least her shadow, behind her shade.

Mrs. Stevens lived in one of the big Victorian houses halfway down the street. One morning, as he rolled along in darkness, he had noticed the light in a second-story room. He saw a shadow move behind the shade. It turned sideways: a woman. She bent, raised a leg, and in a motion that was both efficient and languid, she pulled on her hose.

And then he was past. He had never seen a woman other than his wife perform that motion, and even though he didn’t really see Mrs. Stevens, only her shadow, it had left him giddy. Wow. Mrs. Stevens should move that lamp.

He always thought of her as Mrs. Stevens, even though he knew her name: Susie. The other neighbors, those who knew the Stevenses, called her Susie. Susie and Bob. The nice young couple in the white Victorian. No kids. Bob was a marketing hotshot at Digital. Susie worked for the airlines. Flew out of Logan. That’s why she was the second person awake on the street. She drew early flights, and it was an hour’s drive to Boston.

She was Hawaiian or half-Chinese or some mix he could not decipher. Her face was full and round, with Asian eyes and high cheekbones, framed by thick, black hair cut bluntly at the neck. For some reason he could not explain, her face reminded him of a night in Korea. After a day of being sniped at from across a frozen field, the moon came up over the snow, full and beaming, drawing a silver road out to the horizon. That was almost forty years ago.

On his way home from Hartford, running the long, open stretch of I-84 in northern Connecticut, he held the Mack six inches off the white line for two straight miles, two and a half. He was approaching the third mile when “Your Cheating Heart,” came over the radio. He couldn’t help it, he thought of Mrs. Stevens. Her face, round and moonlike, drifted into his thoughts and for a moment he imagined her beside him in the cab, the wind blowing her hair, the sun slanting in on her shoulder. She’d enjoy the ride, the music. She’d look shyly over at him, smile a quiet Asian smile. And at the next rest area—he reached out and embraced the air above the steering wheel, pulled a phantom Mrs. Stevens to him.

The truck wobbled. He straightened it out. Jesus! Damned fool! Grabbing at the air like a lovesick boy. What would his buddies at the terminal think? What would Thelma think?

When he got home, he cut the back yard. Then he sprayed the little tractor with the hose, rubbed the dried grass off the blade housing, scrubbed the film of grease off the engine. Thelma came out with a beer and a sandwich, and he ate while he worked. He wanted his tractor in tip-top shape for the parade tomorrow. He polished the baby-moon wheel covers, waxed the yellow hood and fenders. He affixed a pair of CB antennas to the tractor, and finally gave it his special touch: he bolted a chrome Mack bulldog—the hood ornament off his big rig—to the front of the mower.

After he had showered and pulled on a pair of loose shorts, Ed went out to the yard. The grass was damp and prickly. He flexed his toes in it. When they were younger, he and Thelma used to drag a blanket outside at night and make love in the freshly-cut grass. Thelma was always convinced that their oldest girl had been conceived under the crabapple tree, so she had insisted that her name be Eve. He wondered what Thelma would do if he tried to drag her out to the apple tree now. Probably go along, probably go along. He imagined cutting through his neighbors’ back yards to Mrs. Stevens’ house, standing in the shadows and watching for movement behind her shades.

He forced his thoughts away from her. He flexed his toes in the grass, felt the cool, pure energy of the earth entering through the soles of his feet. So much to be thankful for, such a good life. He had never thought he deserved much. When his father died, Ed had had to drop out of school. Ninth grade. He worked in the quarry and took care of his mother and brothers. Then came Korea, and he learned to drive trucks in the Army. Ever since, trucking had been good to him. He’d earned a good wage, had seen some countryside. He was the traveler in the marriage, the adventurer. Thelma didn’t like to stray far from home. She walked all over town every day, but even when she drove, she got no farther than Nashua or Manchester. To her, his daily travels made him seem seasoned and world-wise. The cities he saw: Albany, Burlington, Bangor! And the great arteries of commerce: the New York State Thruway, the Mass Pike, I-95! No man knew these cities and highways like her husband. He had heard the pride in her voice when she repeated his road stories to her friends.

But, he thought, it’s not so much. After thirty-five years of running the roads, you get to know what’s over the next hill. Mrs. Stevens, now, she’s got some horizons! In one day she could cover as many miles as he could in a week. Every day she jetted off to places he’d only heard about or seen on television: Kansas City, Albuquerque, Salt Lake. Seattle, maybe. He pictured her in the air-conditioned comfort of an airliner, smiling graciously and passing out cool drinks to the passengers. He tried to picture her horizons: the clouds, the curve of the earth, the mysterious darkness of the stratosphere.

Although he knew he should go inside, Ed slipped on his moccasins and headed down the street. In the gathering twilight, house lights began to snap on. He could hear his neighbors settling into their evenings: dishes clinking at the Vanns, a piano scale tinkling at the Rosens, a television droning at the Bains. How he loved this street! He loved the older houses and the big maple trees, the bikes strewn across lawns, the quiet rain of sprinklers. He loved meeting his neighbors on these walks, greeting them and making small talk. He felt safe on this street. He felt at home.
As he neared the big Victorians down the way, he noticed a couple approaching. In the waning light, he couldn’t quite make them out, but then his heart kicked as he identified her graceful figure. Mrs. Stevens and her husband, Bob, out for an evening stroll.

“Evening,” he said.

“Hello,” Bob Stevens said.

“Nice night,” he said, and would have passed on, since he didn’t know them, really, except to say hello. But some impulse stopped him—a glimpse of her face, almost luminous in the afterglow of sunset.

“You folks going down to the festivities tomorrow?”

They looked at each other, and Mrs. Stevens asked, “What festivities?”
Her voice was surprisingly girlish.

“The Blessing of the Fleet,” he said.

“The Blessing of the Fleet?” Bob Stevens asked.

“The lawn mower fleet. Oh, it’s quite the shindig. They have—”

“The Blessing of the Lawn Mower Fleet?” Bob Stevens cut him off, laughing.

“That’s wild!” Mrs. Stevens said. She laughed a high, girlish laugh.

“It’s quite the shindig,” Ed said. Boy, they’d lived here, what—two years, and didn’t know about the Blessing of the Fleet? “There’s a parade of lawn mowers, and—”

“A parade of lawn mowers?” Bob Stevens asked.

Mrs. Stevens laughed again. Ed risked a look at her.

“There’s a parade, and tractor pulls, and the whole town turns out. You folks—” his glance included them both, so Bob Stevens wouldn’t suspect anything—“You folks ought to come down.”

Bob Stevens laughed. “I’ll be in Chicago tomorrow. Sorry I’ll have to miss this grand event.”

This was the most Ed had even spoken with the Stevenses. He decided he didn’t like Bob.

“Well, just thought I’d let you know,” he said, and began to edge past.
The Stevenses began to move too.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Stevens said. And after a step, “What time does it start?”

“Twelve noon,” Ed said, and they parted ways. But he carried with him that last image, the way she had turned her head over her shoulder to look at him. It was as languid as the motion he had seen in her window that morning, and it left his heart at a fast idle.

Exactly at 11:30, the King of the Straight and Narrow rolled out of his driveway. He didn’t want to raise dust all over his polished machine, so he rolled under gravity power just as he did with his truck every morning.

Ahead of him, several neighbors were beginning to stroll towards town. They hailed him as he approached.

“Hey, Ed!” hollered old Mr. Bain. “Keep it on the straight and narrow!”

“You bet!” he replied.

“No broken eggs, Ed,” called Marisse Vann.

“No broken eggs,” he promised.

The object of the Straight-Line Race was to get from one side of the town common to the other in the shortest time with the straightest line. And stay as close as possible to a row of brown hen’s eggs, one row of eggs per competitor. Of course, if you came too close, or deviated from your path, you’d break an egg. Failure would be clearly marked.

Ed had not broken an egg in five years, and each year he had tried to run closer and faster. The straight part he had down cold. Due to his practice in the big rig, and his ability to concentrate, his run across the town common was always the straightest. Last year they had shot it with a transit, and his swath, a mere two inches off the eggs, didn’t deviate more than an inch from one end to the other. His goal this year was to come within an inch of the eggs.

When he passed the Stevens’ house he kept his eyes straight ahead and forced himself not to glance at the upstairs window. The place seemed pretty quiet. Maybe Mrs. Stevens was flying.

Downtown the crowd was gathering. People were driving their lawn mowers, pushing them, hauling them in the backs of pickups. There were lawn mowers everywhere. Toros, Snappers, Lawn-Boys. Wheel Horses, Fords, Ariens. When they were started, they coughed out little clouds of blue smoke. Fifty American flags lined the perimeter of the common, and by the Parade Marshal’s podium hung a banner: “God Bless Those Who Bless Their Lawns.”

Ed maneuvered through the crowd to an area reserved for riding mowers and garden tractors. He was happy that he could start from his favorite spot, just under the big oak tree on the east side. He had hung out on this corner when he was a kid, smoking cigarettes and chewing gum with his buddies. Later, after he’d met Thelma, they’d pulled under the tree on Friday nights and waited for their pals to show. And even now, when they walked down for Sunday breakfast, they’d meet their lifelong friends on the bench under this tree.

He nodded to the other people around him, waved at friends. He complimented one fellow on his Toro self-propelled, as well as a man and his daughter on their lustrous new John Deere garden tractor. New people in town. Those little Deeres don’t come cheap.

At last the Parade Marshal cranked the PA system to life, asked for everybody’s attention, and began his speech. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, to the Seventh Annual Blessing of the Lawn-Mower Fleet! What a day we have in store! We have races, a beauty contest, clinics sponsored by....” Ed tuned him out and let his eye run over the crowd. Thelma sat on a lawn chair in the doorway of the video store with the rest of the hen party. Ed liked her permed hair and sunglasses. Not bad for sixty. She’d kept her lean figure, even after all the kids.

She’s really the hub, he thought. She’s what keeps the family wheel turning. They all thought of him throwing yard parties and barbecues, plowing their driveways. On Christmas mornings, taking the kids for rides in the back of his pickup. But Thelma deserved the real credit. It was she who performed the constant, everyday acts of goodness that tended to get overlooked: babysitting the grandkids, shopping for them, shuttling them to school, swimming lessons, scouts. He might get the glory of a perfect charbroiled steak; she deserved the credit for buying the right cut of meat.

The Parade Marshal was into the prayer part of his speech. Ed tuned back in.

“....and keep us from aphids and cutworms and other crawling things, and shelter us from the downpours this spring so the grass-seed doesn’t get washed away, but send us enough rain in July and August so the lawns don’t all dry up and turn brown. And protect us from machinery-related incidents. Let us have no sprained backs from balky starter-cords, no leg burns from brushes with the muffler, and no cut-off toes from slipping into the blade. Lord, protect us and bless our lawns, and for God’s sake, don’t let the Arabs raise the price of oil again, Amen!”

Amen, said the crowd.

“And now, the Blessing of the Lawn Mower Fleet! ”
A cheer went up from the crowd.

“The first category is Two-Legged Pushers!”

The first group began pushing their old-fashioned, engineless mowers past the reviewing stand, and the Parade Marshal read off their names: Carl’s Cutter, Mow ’Em Down, Saturday Morn. The owners pushed past in relative quiet, waving and smiling, looking quaint. Old ladies and hobbyists, Ed thought. If you can’t raise a racket and turn the air blue, leave the thing in the garage.

Next came the Power Pushers, the largest group. A hundred mowers, starting in even rows of red and green and yellow, with clouds of blue smoke rising. The Parade Marshal called them all: Lucy B., Chlorophyll Clyde, Toad’s Terror. As they passed the reviewing stand, the Power Pushers made sure to maintain their even rows; they didn’t want to push their running mowers into the heels of the guy in front of them. Clip Job, Fast Freddy, Miller Time.

It took twenty minutes for the Power Pushers to get past the reviewing stand, and then the Parade Marshal called for Ed’s group: Riders and Garden Tractors. Best group in the parade, Ed thought. The serious yard men. Oh sure, they all had power pushers at home, but they entered their main machines in the parade. Ed started his engine, and when the row in front of him pulled forward, he eased out the clutch.
As he circled the common, he could get a full view of the crowd. Bigger than ever before. People lined the sidewalk and shop doorways. When he spotted friends or neighbors, he waved. They called to him: “Good luck, Ed!” and “Give ’em hell, Ed!” His children and grandchildren were positioned in knots around the common—“Go Dad!”—and it made him feel so proud to know he had put five families into this community, and that they all turned out respectable. Ernie, still at home, was a heller in a car, but he’d be getting married soon enough, probably, and then he’d settle down. The rest of them had. Ed, Jr. with his own delivery truck and two young sons. And the three girls—Eve, Elizabeth, and Edie—all married with kids. “Gram-pa!” called little Kirsten.

When the Parade Marshal called Ed’s mower—“Little Mack!”—Thelma stood and applauded, as did the rest of the hen party. He smiled broadly and waved. After the Blessing of the Fleet, Ed parked under the oak tree and set out to see the other events. He paused at a tuneup clinic, caught a mulching demonstration. He got a kick out of the oil-change competition, with the contestants getting sloppy and black. One of his favorite events was the garden-tractor pull. The little tractors were paired up by horsepower and linked with a chain. At the drop of the flag, their engines roared, the chain snapped taut, and they snorted and strained to pull each other across a chalk line on the pavement. Tires slipped and smoked, clutches heated up, engines conked out. Nuts, Ed thought. What’s the sense in spending good money on a tractor and then straining its guts out over some foolishness?

He stopped in front of the video store to see Thelma, and was greeted by the hens. “Hey, Ed! ” “Gonna drive it straight, Ed?” They all cackled. “Oh, we know he drives it straight!” He just grinned and shook his head. Good thing they were on his side.

He walked over to the common. It was cordoned off with bright orange pylons and tape. The course had been laid out for the Straight-Line Race, with row upon row of evenly-spaced eggs. The eggs were donated by Fallon’s Egg Farm, and those that weren’t broken in the race would be gathered up and made into omelets over big, cinder-block grills. Every contestant got a free omelet.

The Parade Marshal spoke over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’re gonna start getting ready for the biggest event of the day—the Straight-Line Race! Contestants please approach the reviewing stand for your numbers.”

As the reigning king, Ed received the numeral 1 to stick to the front of his mower and the back of his shirt. An official directed him to his starting position. He would cut the centermost swath on the common. The high-ranking contestants from last year were positioned to his right and left, and the rest of the pack flanked out from there. He liked the idea of the fastest contestants cutting across the center of the common, with everybody else spread back—a flying wedge of grass clippings. In this way the town common would be mowed, and the season of the yard officially kicked off.

Ed felt real pride as he looked at the mowers being lined up on either side of him, thirty in all. Anton Circelli was to his left and a guy named Hodges to his right. They had finished in second and third place last year. He shook hands with them both and wished them luck. These were the real yard men. This was the event that really proved what you could do. Who cared about how quick a guy could change his oil or whether one tractor could outsnort another one? When you got down to it, the mark of a good yard man, and, in Ed’s view, a good citizen, was how well you cut your grass. It was simple: your rows had to be straight, and you had to get it done quickly. A neat, quick job. Take care of your lawn that way, and your lawn would take care of you. He knew this to be so; all his friends and neighbors admired his lawn, and hence, him. For all they knew, he beat his wife and kicked his dog, but as long as all they saw was his neat, trim lawn, they’d think he was a fine fellow.

When everybody was in position, the Parade Marshal called for quiet. All the engines were cut. The crowd gathered round the edge of the common. Ed’s family was almost directly across from him. Thelma, Eddie and his family, the girls and their kids. This was Ed’s favorite moment. He could hear the murmur of the crowd, the flapping of the American flags in the breeze. In the distance, the whining of a diesel rig out on the highway.

The Parade Marshal began naming the contestants from each end of the common. There was scattered applause and encouragement, increasing as he got closer to the center. As the Parade Marshal called out the names of the top-ranked contestants and finally Ed, the whole crowd cheered and whistled. But Ed paid no attention. He didn’t so much as nod when his name was called. He needed his concentration to run the race, and he was focusing inward and on the line of eggs just off his left wheel.

Two inches, he was thinking. Two inches off the eggs until you get up to full throttle. Just focus on the eggs. Cut on the dotted line. A cinch.

“Ladies and gentlemen, start your lawn-mowers!”

Thirty mowers burst into life. A great roar thundered across the commons, a blue cloud rose and then dissipated in the breeze. Ed brought Little Mack up to half-throttle. Too fast a takeoff could jerk you sideways. A lot of guys made that mistake and lost the race at the start.

The Parade Marshal held up a green flag. Ed kept his eye where he could see the flag but was focused on the eggs. He allowed a quick glance at his family, and then back to the eggs.

The flag dropped. Ed popped the clutch and Little Mack shot forward. A good start—didn’t swerve, didn’t spin the tires. Anton and Hodges started well, too, with Anton slightly in the lead. Ed was right where he wanted to be—two inches off the eggs. Little Mack felt good—steady and solid and eager for more. He thumbed the throttle up to three-quarters, and Little Mack roared and drew even with Anton. Hodges lagged slightly behind. Two inches, mind the two inches. Little Mack was faster than Anton’s mower, Ed knew. When he had gained full momentum at three-quarters throttle, Ed thumbed the lever all the way down. Little Mack roared and jumped forward. Ed was out in front.

Two inches. He was right there. Cutting a straight, fast swath across the common. Halfway now. He allowed a peripheral glance: on both sides, mowers streamed back in his wake. He pictured a rooster-tail of finely cut grass spraying up in back of him. Eat clippings, slowpokes!

Only Anton was close, but Ed knew that if he just held a straight course, he could stay ahead. The only other way to gain points, and to improve his own performance, was to cut closer to the eggs. Ever so slightly, he nudged the wheel. Nobody else even noticed. But he was a half-inch closer to the eggs. They flew past his left front tire; Little Mack felt as solid as his big rig on the turnpike. He nudged it again. An inch! An inch off the eggs—five blades of grass! Measure that with your rulers, by Jesus, and know that Ed Jacques is one grass-cutting son of a bitch!

He was ten yards from the finish line when it happened. He knew he had the race locked up. Anton was a full length behind him. Little Mack felt good under his hand. He could chance a smile at his family—they were right there, after all. So as he dragged his eye away from the line of eggs, intending to look at Thelma and wink—she’d like that, she and her friends would talk about it for summers to come, how Ed was running ahead of the pack, one inch off the eggs, and he looked over and winked at his wife—as he swept his eye toward her, expecting to encounter her dark shades, his eye snagged on something else. It was both dark and light at the same time: the full-moon face of Mrs. Stevens. She was there, not three feet from Thelma, her black hair glistening in the sun, staring right at him.

He was aware of three things at once: her calm, beautiful stare, the spasm in his arms, and the mighty “Ooohhh!” from the crowd as he veered left and ran over three straight eggs. As he swerved back into his lane, Anton caught him. Before he straightened out, Anton passed him and crossed the finish line.

He cut the throttle and braked to a stop. His head was steamy with embarrassment. She knew, she saw! He was a fool! He picked Anton’s grass clippings out of his collar. Eddie and his kids clustered round, as did the girls and theirs. “Tough break, Pop,” Eddie said. “Grandpa—you broke the eggs!” scolded little Kirsten. He picked her up and bounced her, pulled the others close. It made him want to weep.

Only his wife hung back. She had seen. She had to. So had her friends. She stood alone now, just beyond the orange tape. As he watched, his heart beating its apology, she slipped under the tape and passed around the little family grouping. She walked with the same tentative, ginger step she used on his own freshly-cut lawn, as if paying respect to his work. She stepped back down the swath, and began gathering up the broken eggshells.

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