by Harris Lahti
The first house I ever worked on with my father was a farmhouse with syringes and beer cans ground down deep in the yard. It was my job to rake them out so as not to ruin the mower. But I ruined the mower anyway when a live shotgun round went off and bent the blade.
In response, my father handed me a scythe.
As the blade sang, every so often I would look up to see a slow tornado of vultures rotating in the sky.
Not two hundred years ago, apparently, the entire area was underwater. Now onions bubbled up from the drained lake like the snores of some subterranean giant. Migrants bent and collected them into bags.
What I am saying is: the grass grew deep green and long.
Every few days, it seemed, I was right back where I started.
An identical farmhouse stood across the road—the only neighbor for a quarter-mile—partially eclipsing the sprawling black dirt beyond. Its elderly owner regularly pushed a mower, also, with the athletic lope of someone half his age.
We began exchanging waves.
At the end of each day, lights from the migrants’ trailer’s windows described the vastness of the onion field’s perimeter. In the early morning, the trailers appeared to fade in the distance.
My father called to me from inside one of the rotten barns. Due to the excitement in his voice, I thought something horrible had happened. But he had only discovered evidence someone had been living there: an old box spring mattress, a refrigerator full of skunked beer, diabetic socks.
Probably the husband, he said. It was a lesson about how people live, specifically the prior tenants.
Inside the farmhouse: the closets still contained clothes and sets of car keys hung from the key rack. The microwave held the dried-out husks of three gas station burritos. I stuffed these belongings into garbage bags and we took them to the dump.
The family appeared to have vanished the way that old people or drug addicts tend to vanish.
One specific bedroom unsettled me: marijuana leaves, penises, and swastikas were crayoned between posters of celebrities on the walls. Its former occupant, a girl, appeared to have disappeared mid-transition: between teeny bopper and something sinister.
I found a pair of lace Playboy panties and put them in my pocket.
We discovered an electric organ buried in a dark corner. After my father and I unloaded it, the dump attendant plugged the instrument into the wall and discovered that it still worked.
It got so the attendant played a funeral dirge each time we arrived.
The song got stuck in my head so that later on I would catch myself humming it.
This other guy—a mentally disabled man named Brian—worked with us sometimes. He had a very thin neck and a bad heart, but to this day I am unsure how the two misfortunes were related.
Whenever he carried anything, his face brightened with blood. Every few years, for whatever reason, his heart needed to be restarted.
I’ve been legally dead six times, he would say with a laugh. This winter will make it seven.
I tried not to hum the funeral dirge around him.
One day, the neighbor who’d wave at me from the lawn across the way walked over and introduced himself: George. He had a gold tooth that sparked in the sun while he informed me about the farmhouse’s former occupants. They hadn’t died as I’d thought they must have to disappear so suddenly while leaving behind so many of their belongings.
What made you think that? he said. They just moved across town.
Why, then, they left all their belongings made no sense to me, like the crucifixes made no sense. An inordinate number of them hung from the walls describing varieties of positions, including the satanic one: inverted.
I kept waiting for the family to come back to reclaim what they had forgotten.
The grass kept growing and I kept mowing it. I hit another shotgun round, but the now-fixed mower kept working. None of the migrants in the field looked up at the sound. I expected I’d soon hit another.
Whenever a breeze kicked up, the onion in the air burned my eyes. George, the neighbor, told me the trick was to bite lemons. He cocked an ear at my father’s tools ripping and banging inside the farmhouse while he talked.
Anytime I was not on the premises, out around town, I looked for the dead-alive girl whose walls were covered in penises and swastikas in public places. I looked for her in restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores. I thought I would recognize her.
I felt guilty about keeping her lace Playboy panties at the bottom of my closet.
When a spark from my burning brush pile ignited the roof of the second barn, I blamed myself, cursing under my breath. Meanwhile, my father rushed up a ladder with a hose. Then he came down again before the brittle shingles stopped smoking and lay down in the now fresh-cut grass for a long time saying nothing.
He lay there and lay there, and with every second, I became more convinced he was dying. I wondered if he had inhaled too much smoke from the roof.
I think I had a stroke, he said finally and stood up.
I’m sorry, I said.
For what? he said.
We did not stop working. He was teaching me something else.
Somewhere along the line, he decided the kitchen in the farmhouse was too dark and too small. So, the day after his stroke, he rented a jackhammer and instructed me to jackhammer a window hole in the stone foundation.
After two days of noise and dust, a small square of white light poured over the countertop and into the darkness. The vibrations echoed inside my hands for weeks, months. Then the vibrations vanished like the previous owners had vanished.
By and by, their belongings either sold or got compacted into little cubes. Every crayoned word hidden beneath primer and paint. The lawn was now tamed and flat.
By late fall, the farmhouse was ready to rent. My father moved a single mother and her two children in. I think she was an accountant.
After her came a firefighter, then a web designer, then a maker of toys. And it went on like this: tenants coming and going. My father and I, maintaining the house, fixing up new ones.
Whenever he saw us, George loped across the road to share some news, a little slower each time.
Whenever my father forgot something, he blamed it on the stroke he’d supposedly had putting out the fire. I forgot things also, I assured him. It was normal, nothing out of the ordinary.
And that was true but he did not believe me. To keep up with him, I had to write everything down. I was taking over the family business.
The next tenant I moved in without my father. My list read: mow lawn, mulch gardens, replace lightbulbs.
While I worked, I waited for George to cross the road. I noticed his lawn was a bit shabbier than usual and he had started raising free-range chickens. I knew their droppings could poison the well with e-coli, so I kept waiting for him to appear so I could talk to him about building a pen.
A young man—George’s nephew, he informed me—answered the door when I knocked.
My uncle died nearly a year back, he said without offering how.
The ensuing conversation about the chickens did not end well, slipping into confrontation.
In the weeks that followed our conversation, the nephew allowed the chickens to multiply out of spite. He let the grass grow green and long. It was his house now and he meant to show us.
The lawyer couple who I had moved in at our place across the way complained about the chickens and the grass regularly before moving out. I moved in a postman, then a librarian, but the chickens remained, and our tenants did not stay long.
By the nephew’s curt nods I could tell he had not forgotten our conversation.
A woman lived with him now, and an older daughter, who nodded curtly also. He had a full-blown family to inherit his grudge. At the end of the day, their three cigarette butts pulsed in the dark. I saw the glints of upturned beers.
Of course, I still waved at them. It was clear where it was all going, what would happen to their decaying farmhouse. I knew it was just a matter of time.
To this day, I’m still looking for that yellow foreclosure posting on their door whenever I drive by. I’ve written down their address so I will not forget it.
While over the onion fields the vultures still tornado, the migrants harvest the bubbling onions into their bulging bags. The new tenant becomes the old one, and I post an ad for newer ones.
My wife discovered the lace Playboy panties still balled at the bottom of my closet, and I told her about the dead-alive girl. When she asks if she can throw them out, I cannot think of a good reason not to. I pluck them out of the garbage after she falls asleep.
I am moving in another tenant.
I cut a wedge from a lemon, bite down while the mower buzzes beneath me. The citrus burns a blister inside my mouth that I did not know I had.
I feel dizzy but do not stop.
A triangle of fresh grass spits sideways and I think about my to-do lists while tonguing the blister until it hurts but in a good way. I wave and smile at the nephew with the lemon wedge still in my mouth.
I hum a song whose source I can’t remember.
Harris Lahti's work is forthcoming or appeared in Post Road, New York Tyrant, Hobart, Fanzine, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. He edits fiction for FENCE. Read more: harrislahti.com