3/22/11

Hey Kid. C'mere. I got a job for ya.

It was kind of warm on Sunday and even though I still have almost three feet of snow in my yard, it got me thinking about the spring cleanup that is presumably not too far in my future. Looking at the muddy, slushy driveway and the dead brush just beginning to poke through the snowbanks, It reminded me of my first real job working for someone else.

When I was about twelve years old, I decided that my allowance wasn't enough. I wanted a bb gun with all my heart and soul, and my mother said there was no way she was going to sign off on that. I petitioned my father, and he agreed that I could have one. However, because my mother was completely against it, there were two stipulations. One, he said I'd have to buy it myself, and two, I could only use it when he was supervising.

Since my allowance was only two bucks a week, I think he figured that it wasn't going to happen for a long time, especially given my tendency to immediately spend at least half of my weekly money on popular 45s. (For those of you who don't know, "45s" were flat, circular pieces of vinyl with tiny grooves in them. Inside these grooves lived various songs, and when you put a needle in the groove and spun the disc at 45 revolutions per minute, this needle chased the song around and made it come out of your speaker.) The first thing I did was ask my mother for a raise in my allowance, but she knew why I was asking and said no. She wasn't totally heartless, however -- if I really wanted to work, she could always drum up something for me to do.

Up until then, I had never had a job that I had to travel to on my own. The things I would do for next to no money were ridiculous. For instance, I can remember sitting on the living room floor putting thousands of neon orange price stickers on plastic bread bags. I think I got paid two cents a bag, which meant I had to stick a lot of stickers to make anything resembling actual folding money. They all had to be facing a certain way, and be placed in approximately the same spot. I can't remember how my mother stumbled on to that money making venture. I think she signed us up for it because it kept us busy and it also kept us in one spot.

I have no idea why the Friehofers bakery didn't have machines for that, and I also have no idea how they got away with letting some little kid's grubby hands come into contact with something that would ultimately hold foodstuffs, but there it was. They'd drop off huge boxes of bread bags and rolls of stickers and The Snitch and I would sit there on the floor for hours slapping those stickers on the bags until eventually the plastic bag smell made us stoned and a little sick to our stomachs and we didn't even know what we were doing anymore. I still can't smell the inside of a fresh plastic bag without it making me a little queasy in the back of my brain.

Another job we got occasionally was to ride around in the back of a pickup truck running flyers, phone books, menus or whatever other crap the guy up the street was hired to distribute. He paid us three cents a house, and it was really hard work, especially in late July when the temperate and humidity combined to make it unbearable to even be outside. This guy Tom would sit in the air-conditioned cab smoking cigarettes with the window cracked, and we'd be breathing engine exhaust and getting heatstroke in the bed of the truck. And we ran the whole time. We ran because the more houses we hit, the more money we made. Every once in a while, when one of us started weaving or stumbling, he'd let us sit inside with him for a few minutes and give us a drink of water. After about the third time of going on one of these all-day flyer runs, I was done. I had to get a real job. One that was ongoing, and didn't involve the potential need for IV fluids. I needed cash, and lots of it. I was going to get a bb gun if it was the last thing I did.

When I imparted my tragic tale to my mother, she grudgingly said, "I'll see what I can do about finding you something, but you are NOT getting a bb gun, regardless of what your father says."

A few days later, she called me in from the backyard with some good news. "Would you be interested in doing some yard work for extra money?" she asked. "A friend of Carol's has a next door neighbor who is looking for someone to do regular yard work for him." I jumped at the opportunity even before I knew how much it paid. I was an expert at yard work, since my father made us do it every spring at both our house and our grandmother's house. I hated it, but it turned out that this Mr. Payne guy was supposedly willing to pay me $2.00 an hour -- and since my previous income was roughly three dollars a week (including extra-chore bonus money from my dad), I thought I had hit the bb-gun jackpot.

Of course my mother had to check out the situation first, so we drove over there and knocked on the door. A man answered, and he was the oldest person I had ever seen. Stooped and wrinkled, with his pants pulled up to his armpits and held there with suspenders, he looked like a garden gnome without the pointy hat and beard. He invited us in, and my mother explained the situation. He eyed me up and down like he was sizing me up for a coffin, and they agreed to the terms of my indentured servitude. I was to report for duty the next Saturday, at 9 am sharp. He would provide the lawn mower, garbage bags and other assorted tools. I would provide the labor.

The one thing we forgot to do? Actually look at the back yard.

That was a mistake.

It rained all week, so I was thinking I wasn't going to be able to go, but Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. I jumped out of bed and changed into what my mother embarrassingly called "play clothes" (and I just called "clothes") -- jeans and sneakers that were too ratty to wear to school, and an old T-shirt that was slightly too small for me and had a hole in the back from where I ripped out the tag because it made my neck itch. I went downstairs and my mother was already sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee, talking on the phone. I grabbed my regular bowl of Cap'n Crunch, poured in some milk, and sat down to eat. I was so gung-ho that I didn't even take the time to let it get a little soggy, which, if you know anything about the Cap'n you know that's a recipe for disaster. Fresh Cap'n Crunch was like eating a bowl of broken glass -- it would shred the roof of your mouth something fierce.

My mother hung up the phone and turned her attention to me. "Big day, huh?" she said. "Do you want me to take you over in the car, or are you going to ride your bike?"

"No, I'll ride my bike over," I said. "I know where the house is."

I was also excited about the fact that she was finally letting me cross Central Avenue by myself (even if I did have to promise to walk my bike across) and the hill on the back side of Red Fox Drive was really steep and fast. Once I got to the top, I could coast the rest of the way to his house if I ignored the stop signs.

When I got there, it didn't look like anyone was home. The curtains were all closed and there was nobody outside. I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. I could hear this loud, weird music coming from somewhere deep inside - old music that sounded like black and white movies. I rang the doorbell again and waited some more, eyeing the front yard to see how bad it was. The grass was long from the week of rain, and there were some leaves in the shrubs up by the house, but it didn't look too bad. I opened the screen door and was just about to pound on the inside door with my fist when it opened, and Mr. Payne glared at me. "Do you always just walk into people's houses uninvited?" he asked.

"No, I was, I mean, I rang the bell, but --," I stammered, backing up a step and letting the screen door close again. This was not going well. He stepped out onto the front stairs and said, "Come with me and I'll show you where the lawnmower and rakes are. I'll expect you to put them all back exactly where you found them. Understood?"

I nodded.

He shuffled to the side of the house and opened the garage door. There was an old car in there with no plates that looked like it hadn't been on the road in ten years, and on the wall next to it hung a few different shovels, a thing that looked like some kind of spiked roller, a fertilizer spreader, and below that, leaning against the wall, was something I didn't recognize. "Here you go," he said. "Start with the front, and then do the back. The back will probably take you longer."

"Where's the lawnmower?" I asked.

"Right in front of you," he said, irritated at my stupidity. I looked again as he pointed to the thing I didn't recognize. It turned out that Mr. Payne's lawnmower was a reel mower, probably purchased around the time the Korean war ended.

"I'm paying you two dollars an hour," he said. "I don't want you working slow on purpose and taking advantage, understand? There are work gloves on the wheelbarrow over there if you need them."

I nodded again, and he turned abruptly and walked back into the house, leaving me standing there in the garage. I took the mower out to the front lawn, and pushed it experimentally over a patch of grass. Little green snippets of grass cascaded out of the back, and my nose was instantly filled with their sweet scent. The mower was in good shape - sharp and well oiled -- but holy hell, it was like pushing a stalled volkswagen. I had to lean my whole body into it to get it to move, then I had to keep it moving or do the whole procedure over again. Momentum was my friend that day.

It took me about three hours to mow the lawn and rake under the shrubs and bag the leaves, and by then it was getting pretty hot outside, and I was sweating buckets from pushing the stupid mower. I hadn't brought any water with me, and I was thirsty. There was a hose by the front of the house, so I walked up to it, turned it on and waited for it to get cold. I drank deeply, tasting rubber and chlorine but not caring. It was cold and wet and quenched my thirst, and I gulped it greedily.

"Don't drink out of that!" a voice snapped from the window just above me. Startled, I dropped the hose, and soaked my foot as I scrambled to turn the faucet off as quickly as I could.

""You're not an animal," Mr. Payne said. "Dear God, you'll probably be pissing in the bushes next. If you want a drink of water, or need to use the bathroom, come up to the house and ring the bell."

I hadn't even thought of that, but now that he mentioned it, I did kind of have to go. "Yes Mr. Payne," I said. I paused, then added, "Can I... use your bathroom now?" He didn't answer, but a few seconds later the front door opened. "Come on," he said. "I'll show you where it is." He paused for a second, looked at the front yard and said grudgingly, "Not bad."

That was high praise indeed. At least I was pretty sure I'd get paid now. I walked into the house and it was nice and cool. It was dark too, with the shades drawn. He closed the front door, then motioned down the hall at an open door. "Be quick about it," he said.

I peed as fast as I could, aiming for the side so it was quiet, and then flushed and washed my hands. I didn't want to use his clean hand towels since I was pretty grimy, and I couldn't tell if they were towels for using or just for looking at. I didn't really understand the finer details of this, however my mother had both, and it stood to reason that Mr. Payne might too, so I just wiped them on my shirt. It felt good; even though my shirt was clammy with sweat, the water was cool against my chest. I walked back down the hall to the front door, which he had reopened and seemed to be guarding. "Come on, come on, hurry it up," he said. "You're making me let all the cool air out."

The door practically hit me on the ass as I stepped out onto the front stairs. Mr. Payne was clearly serious about his internal air temperature management.

OK, I thought. Halfway done. I grabbed the mower and walked toward the back of the house. The back yard was fenced in with a six-foot-tall stockade fence, and I propped the lawn mower up against it and went back to get the rake and bags. The gate looked like it hadn't been open in a while, and there was a rusted padlock hanging open on a clasp. I took the lock off, and grabbed the handle. The hinges were spring-loaded and they screeched loudly as the gate moved. When I finally got it open, I couldn't believe my eyes.

The grass in the back yard looked like a wheat field. I don't think it had been cut in four or five years. In the far corner of the yard was a gigantic maple tree, and the ground under it was thick with rotted, wet leaves. The leaves had also blown up against all three sides of the fence and the back of the house. I could just make out the top of one of the basement windows poking above the matted vegetation. The only place there wasn't grass up to my waist was under the tree and up against the fence - and those areas were a six-inch-deep, spongy mess.

I'll say this for my young self. I didn't give up easily. Or maybe it was a case of not knowing my limitations. I grabbed the bags and my work gloves and started in on the leaves first, thinking if I could get them cleaned up I might be able to do something with the grass.

The leaves smelled like death when you stirred them up, and there were....things....living in them. Squirmy pale grey things that didn't like the light, ants and beetles and worms and centipedes. His entire backyard was a fucking compost heap and it was alive with the process of decomposition. After the first hour I was soaked in sweat and swamp funk, and had collected four hefty bags of muck. I looked around at what I had accomplished. I had collected the leaves on maybe 1/8th of the yard. I tried to move one of the bags, and I think it weighed more than I did. I dragged the wet sack of putrescence toward the gate, and about half-way there, the bottom of the bag broke and I fell on my ass. The leaves slurped from the bag as a single, juicy mound.

I sat up and just stared at the mess. The heat and frustration and the utter ridiculousness of what I was trying to accomplish suddenly struck me full-force, and I hung my head down between my knees and started crying. This was no job for a 12 year old. There was no way I could do this alone. The yard from hell had beaten me.

Embarrassed by my tears and the small amount of progress I had actually made, I did what any 12-year old in my soggy, rancid shoes would do.

I quit.

In fact, I actually stood up and proclaimed my intention. "I quit this," I hissed vehemently, wiping the traitorous tears from my eyes with the back of my glove. I picked up the rake and threw it down again for effect. "I QUIT!," I repeated, more firmly this time.

Then I got on my bike and rode home. I didn't put the tools away, and I didn't tell Mr. Payne I was quitting -- I just left. By the time I hit the top of Red Fox Drive, I had convinced myself that I no longer cared. I was done with that place. I just wanted to get clean and forget about the whole thing. There was no way I was ever going back there, and nobody was going to make me.

I stuck my bike in the garage and went up to my room and just sat there. My initial elation at having had the balls to quit began to give way to other thoughts. Guilty thoughts. That's what happens when you think too much. My parents were going to kill me, or even worse, be disappointed in me. Mr. Payne was probably going to have me arrested for leaving all his stuff out to be stolen, and worst of all, I'd never get my $14.

I didn't remember falling asleep, but I woke up when the phone rang. I didn't think anything of it, until I heard my mother yell, "It's OK, his bike is here!" and then I heard her come inside and run up the stairs. A second later, the door to my room burst open and she looked like she didn't know whether to hug me or kill me. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "You scared me half to death! I was about ready to call the police! I can't believe you just left without telling anyone. Mr. Payne called me, and he was frantic. He said all the tools were just lying in the middle of the yard and you were nowhere to be seen. He thought you were kidnapped or something. Jesus, John, what were you thinking?"

She paused for a second, slightly taken aback when she finally noticed my condition. "You look like you were rolling around in the swamp," she said.

"I practically was," I answered. "I'm not going back there. It's too hard. And he's mean," I added.

I explained the whole thing to her. She agreed that it sounded horrible, but she made sure I understood it was wrong of me to just leave. Some jobs are hard, she said, and that was the nature of them. She explained that by taking the job, I had agreed to a contract of sorts and I couldn't quit without telling Mr. Payne my reasons, and I was not getting out of doing that. "If you don't want the job, that's fine," she said. "But you owe Mr. Payne an apology for leaving without telling him. And if you don't finish the job, you can't expect to be paid for the work you've already done. That's not fair."

"I think he owes us an apology for not telling us how bad it was," I countered, still sulking.

I lost the argument, however, and shortly thereafter we were in the car on the way back to Mr. Payne's house.

When we got out of the car, my mother walked to the side of the house and looked through the open gate. "Holy shit!" she said. "You did not just hear me say that," she added hastily.

"A reel mower?" she said, shaking her head. "I guess I can see your point."

I TOLD you," I replied.

We walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. When Mr. Payne answered, my mother explained that I had something to say to him. "I'm sorry I left all your stuff out and took off," I said. "And you should've told us about the back yard," I added quickly. My mother smacked me in the shoulder with the back of her hand. "John!" she said, trying to be stern and failing completely. "That's not how you talk to adults."

I apologized again, and my mother told me to go wait in the car. She and Mr. Payne spoke for a while and when she came back to the car, she said, "Mr. Payne has a deal for you. Since you did such a good job on the front yard, he's agreed to pay you an extra two dollars an hour if you finish cleaning up the leaves in the back, and he's agreed to buy a new gas-powered lawn mower if you want to keep doing his yard work for him. I'm supposed to call him tomorrow morning with your answer.

"No," I said immediately.

"Well, I would advise you think about it over night and let me know tomorrow," she said. "Four dollars an hour is a lot of money, and I'm sure he could get someone else to do it for less. I don't want you to be sorry you passed up this opportunity."

The next morning, I told my mother that I had reconsidered. I had thought about how long it would take me to save $50 for the bb gun using just my allowance versus the four dollars an hour Mr. Payne was willing to pay me. Given the math, I decided that I wanted to keep the job, as disgusting as it may be. The next time I went over to Mr. Payne's house, there was a brand new gas-powered lawn mower sitting next to the dusty car, all ready to go. I knocked on the door, and told him I was back and ready to get started again. He handed me a box of extra-heavy-duty bags like nothing had ever happened and said, "Don't over pack them and you'll be fine."

Over a period of about two weeks I got the back yard cleaned up. Eventually, I even started to take pride in how it looked. I edged around the big maple tree, and even fertilized the grass for him and set the sprinklers. I figured the faster the grass grew, the more times a week I'd have to mow it and the more money I'd make. It didn't take long before I had my bb gun money, but by the time I had enough, I no longer needed it.

Much to my mother's dismay, my father had come home with a C02-powered Marksman air pistol that looked like a Colt 45 and shot bb's, pellets and darts. He set up a range in the back yard, and we took turns shooting at targets and learning all about gun safety. Oddly, it turned out to be not as much fun as I thought it would be. I think sometimes that's the way it is with stuff you lust after as a kid. Sometimes, the anticipation and sheer, naked longing for something you want makes the fantasy of owning it better than the reality.

I worked for Mr. Payne for almost four years, and only quit when I got my first job making deliveries for the local drug store. He was actually a pretty cool old guy once I got to know him, and doing his yard work taught me a lot about personal responsibility at a time when I really needed the lesson.

Oh, and the booming music? It turned out that he and his wife had been classical music lovers, and he collected antique audiophile equipment. He had a 78 rpm record collection that spanned an entire wall of his finished basement listening room. He told me that she had passed away a few years before, and playing their favorite music always made him feel closer to her. I was too young to really understand that at the time, but now...well, now I know exactly what he meant.

One day he asked me if I liked music. I said I did, and he asked if I wanted to see a cool "new" record player he had just purchased. He seemed really excited about it, so I said sure. He took me into the listening room and showed me a record player that had two tone arms, set opposite from each other, one to play records that spun clockwise and one for records that spun counter-clockwise. I guess at some point in history they hadn't quite decided which way a record should spin, so for a short period of time, some turntables had both. He was elated that he had finally found one and could now play some of the records in his collection that he couldn't before.

That day, he paid me eight bucks to sit there for four hours and listen to classical music with him and drink lemonade. I didn't want to take the money, but he insisted.

You know what? It was totally worth it. To both of us.



28 comments:

  1. ARGH! Really? You should put a warning at the beginning if you're going to have a cliffhanger like that. It's like Data finding his own head in some old cave!

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  2. KMarie11:33 PM

    C'mon now. That's not the way to do us fans. Get your rest so you're bright eyed and bushy tailed to continue this story. I'm hanging on to the edge of my seat!

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  3. I'll be looking forward to part two, just like a .....


    Comment to be continued.

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  4. Ha, you guys are funny. Sorry about that. But 4:30 should only be allowed to exist once a day...

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  5. I can't wait for the movie version to come out!

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  6. kristina1:24 PM

    Oh choot! (WV for ya...)

    You can't leave us hanging for too long!

    I hear you on the commute...

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  7. JV, My only good memory of being a Brownie ( a younger version of Girl Scouts) was the factory tour of Freihoffer's Bread Bakery in Lansingburgh. They gave you a slice of hot, pasty, white bread at the end of it, I'll never forget the delicious smell either, much better, I'm sure than the smell of the plastic bread wrappers!.

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  8. T - I did that tour too, but I think it was at the Albany plant on Central Avenue. The bread was good, but the smell of that place was overwhelming. Like walking into the Yankee Candle of baked goods.

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  9. You'll shoot your eye out...

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  10. I was allowed to shoot the hay bales and the wheel barrel. Which would ricochet! Way cool. The archery arrows also went right thru year old hay bales....

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  11. Despite the fact I'm now dying to read what comes next, this was just the tonic for what is shaping up to be yet another crap day...
    Thanks so much for these lovely stories, told so beautifully!

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  12. Worth the wait! Thanks. I'll bet that there was other cool stuff in that house as well. Bless his little garden gnome ass.

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  13. Darn good read. Worth the wait. Never had a bb gun. When and where I grew up it was a .22 that you would get for your tenth birthday. Can sympathise with you on the chore though. Glad you stuck it out

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  14. Marie Nachtwey9:31 PM

    Your writing style is fascinating. Honestly, I have yet to read an entry from you that I thought was boring. This entry reminding me of the movie Prancer. This little girl rescues an injured reindeer and needs to buy a bag of oats to feed it. So she sets out to get a cleaning job. Her first and only client is an elderly woman with a huge house. She's the wealthiest person in town. Turns out the room this girl has to clean hasn't been lived in for decades. There's dust everywhere. It's basically been used as a junk room. The girl protests that the money she's charging was for a room far less cluttered and messy. Your entry just reminded me of this. She learned a lot about the lady and sort of bonded with her, kind of how you bonded with the old man.
    Good stuff!

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  15. Time spent with older people is one of those things you don't cherish enough until they're gone. This is a great story. I think you could sell the rights for an after-school special! (Do they still have those?)

    BTW, all the bike-riding greenies in my neighborhood have those mowers. They always look miserable pushing them.

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  16. I bet you gave that old man something to look forward to every week - someone to visit and spend time with. You probably helped him more than you know!

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  17. Great story as usual, reminded me of my first job working for some old folks doing about the same work. Can always count on a JV story to bring back some memories of childhood, keep 'em coming!

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  18. Anonymous3:13 PM

    Great story Johnny -

    I think they wrote a Simpsons episode on your very story, where Bart gets the identical job as yours, for the Really Old Lady down his street. At the end of his agonizing day, she pays him a quarter, or something:
    "Lady, if you think after all that work I did, you're paying me a QUARTER, and I'm going to say Thank You -
    - You're welcome dear!"
    (*DOOR SLAMS*)

    Oh, and as far as those Reel mowers go, at least yours was sharp! Someone tried to loan me one once (when I was about same age/fin. situation), but it was dull as hell. The tiniest twig or - even a sturdy dry tree leaf - would stall the thing and the handles would immediate slip out of my hands & batter me in the chest. And pulling did no good either, the wheels would just slip & you'd be dragging a #@$% useless, heavy ^%&* pile of metal across the grass. Good riddance.

    Anyway thanks for the story, and bringing back the memories! (Both fictional & real ones.)

    - Mike from CA

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  19. All right. I laughed about ten times. That was great.

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  20. LOL - my parents bought a reel mower for our yard in the first house they owned in 1981 in southern Louisiana where the grass grows thick and OVERNIGHT. Guess who eventually got stuck pushing that beast around?? I also once considered cleaning up an enormous compost pile of grass clippings on the side of our house and then decided that there *might* be a snake in there so I left it. Seemed a reasonable deduction / rationalization to me at the time :)

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  21. kristina5:50 PM

    Ye you made me laugh, but I almost cried at the last part... Darn you guys who write so well!

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  22. Great story - a real Paul Auster feel to it (and that's a compliment from me as I've loved Auster's writing since I bought Leviathan on a whim 15 years ago because I liked the cover...). Your descriptions are so vivid I can SEE the scenes - a movie in the making, so to speak...
    PS I had a reel mower in my flat in Scotland when I was a student and I was too much of a wimp to push it up the slope of my garden - a friend eventually took pity on me and did it for me, just asking that I bought him a whisky in exchange - a good deal, I feel!

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  23. I am far too young to say anything like "brings back memories" but your writing tends to, I think all kids have something like this somewhere along the line or I would hope so at least.

    Joy to read and gave me this odd detached pang of nostalgia and the warm n fuzzies, thank you.

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  24. Wonderful story. I enjoyed every word.

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  25. Wonderful story. I enjoyed every word.

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  26. That's a great story JV. In your preview version, I predicted the swamp in the back yard, but did NOT predict the reel mower. We actually had one of those when I was a kid and all I remember about it was that it was nearly impossible to push.

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  27. ArizonaDi3:10 PM

    Maybe it's just the day, but this story brought tears to my eyes. The day you spent listening to music with the old man was probably one of the best days of his life. And it sounds like it wasn't bad for you either ;)

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  28. Wow, I didn't see the preview and just read the whole thing in one go. Fabulous writing! I, too, had one of those "character-building" jobs as a teenager, and so did my brothers. I am sad that my own children have not experienced that yet. Things often have a way of turning out to be worth it, when you least expect them to. I'm delighted you had the opportunity to spend time with an elderly person and APPRECIATE him and his interests. So many people do not... and it's a shame. I guarantee you that your visits were the highlight of Mr. Payne's days. You did good, Little John.
    (P.S. I really ought to write about my brother's job groundskeeping in a cemetery - it wasn't the dead people who were scary to the poor boy, it was the other ganja-loving employees!)

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