The Iowa Review

Lawnmower Jill

Claire Luchette

- claire luchette

The day it snowed eight inches in Woonsocket, we were all on our period, and we found Lawnmower Jill slumped in the alley behind the library, the mower parked beside her. She drove a lawn mower because she could not drive a car. She could not drive a car because she had too often tried to drive a car while drunk. One night the summer before, she had eleven margaritas and steered her old Saturn into the public pool, which dislocated a great deal of water and interrupte­d the two naked teenagers in the deep end. When we moved to Woonsocket months before, the deacon told us nice nuns like us had no business talking to Lawnmower Jill.

But we worried. This was a Saturday in December, and Woonsocket was gray and coated in ice. Lawnmower Jill’s nose was pink, her eyes bullets. She was drunk on Narraganse­tts and high on something we couldn’t name. When we knelt down beside her, she asked us, “Sisters, how does the zebra escape from the belly of the wolf?”

We shook our heads; we did not know. We watched her wipe a stretch of snot from under her nose with a mittened hand.

She told us: “Limb by limb.”

We reminded Lawnmower Jill that wolves did not usually eat zebras. She said, “What about a little baby? How do you know wolves don’t eat zebra babies?”

We confessed: it was possible. Who could say what went on in the belly of the wolf?

Then Lawnmower Jill told us she had good news. She had just been hired to sell jewelry. When we asked where, she said, “The jewelry store.” Tomorrow would be her first day.

We knew of no jeweler in Woonsocket. In Woonsocket there were no jobs for people looking, but it didn’t matter, because the people didn’t look. From Woonsocket, you could sneeze into Massachuse­tts, and from Massachuse­tts, kids came to buy liquor after nine. Woonsocket was split down the middle by a river that didn’t much move; the river was studded with condoms, and its condition was deemed “offensive” by the Rhode Island Department of Health.

We said, “Which store?”

Lawnmower Jill said, “A new one, by the Depot. Sisters, will you help me find something beautiful to wear?”

We had a million errands, we told her. We had to do a million things.

Lawnmower Jill cocked her head. “Like what?”

“Church business,” we said. “We have to shovel the parish driveway.” There were also private matters: we needed to buy maxi pads at the Tedeschi, explain our way out of Blockbuste­r fees, and pick up our medication­s (thyroid; asthma; depression; arthritis). Lawnmower Jill rolled her eyes. “Let’s go,” she said, and stood to straddle her mower. “I’ll help you shovel the driveway, if you help me with a dress.”

We hated the snow, and we hated relocating it. Lawnmower Jill, tall and strong as she was, could clear it all with ease, we knew. And so we nodded, said that sounded fair.

“But you can’t drive,” we said. “You’re in no state.”

When Lawnmower Jill smiled, it seemed she was trying to give each yellow tooth some air. “I’m in my best state, sisters,” she said. “Meet me at the thrift.” She fired up her lawn mower, and the dashboard glowed with a constellat­ion of warning lights that went out one by one.

She picked first a dress of velvet, and we said, “Velvet’s hard to clean.” The cotton was too sheer; the poplin had a hole.

We showed her blazers. We brought blouses with collars and bows. “Too stuffy,” she said.

Then we found, in a crowded rack, a shift dress in navy nylon. Kneelength, with flattering seams at the waist and bust. There were chalky rings around the armholes, but that was nothing a soak couldn’t right. We knocked twice on the changing room door. We said, “You’re going to like this one.” There was no response.

We said, “It’s perfect. Here, see.”

When at last she opened the door, she was in a sequined dress: sleeveless and covered in a million twinkling coins. She grinned; she twirled. Below the hem, her calves were sallow and spotted with scabs, and the dress’s waist was inches too generous, her form overwhelme­d. But when Lawnmower Jill turned and considered herself in the mirror, it looked as if the dress had healed something deep within her, and the sequins launched beams of light around the room.

She said, “Isn’t it something? Isn’t it special?”

Mary Lucille was, as always, the first to speak. “Oh, it’s lovely.” But Sharon said, “I’m afraid you’ll outshine the diamonds.” Lawnmower Jill smiled. She said, “I don’t have any diamonds, sister.” Sharon said, “The diamonds at the store.”

There was a moment, then, when we could see her story catch up to her, like a shockwave of recognitio­n that ran through her skeleton. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right.”

The dress went on glittering. Her voice soft, Sharon said, “Do you really have a job?”

Lawnmower Jill’s face went wild with hurt, and Sharon said quickly, “It’s okay if you don’t.”

Lawnmower Jill crossed her arms and said, her voice caustic and quick, “Who told you what’s okay and what’s not?”

We looked at each other. Mary Lucille said, “Sharon didn’t mean to upset you.”

Lawnmower Jill’s eyes sped up, and her neck flushed over. She grabbed her plastic bag from the changing room floor and rushed past us, and we watched her go, headlong through the denim aisle, past the display of snake-like belts. She did not stop at the register to pay for her sequined frock, but strode on, and wore the dress right out the doors, which parted for her and stayed wide long after she was out of sight. We, the victims of our own kindness, went with our purses to pay at the counter, like we all along suspected we would.

Outside, wet snow fell on car tops, on hamburger wrappers, on spent needles catching the light.

Woonsocket. If Rhode Island was a palm, Woonsocket was a blister. In Woonsocket, weekday evenings we cooked vats of food—soup, chili, stew—to ladle into bowls for the homeless. We had arranged to stay for all of Advent, the season of waiting, the season of frostbite. If things went well, and if we liked the parish enough, we could stay on into the new year, the deacon had said.

Our days were monastic, pleasing in their patterns. Mornings, we prayed the rosary and prayed it again, then browned meat and simmered broth, and we devoted our afternoons to making porcelain figurines to sell in the St. Edward’s parish gift shop.

We spent hours bent over slabs of cold clay. With stiff fingers, we reduced the gray hunks into small lumps, and we slicked smooth the lumps into little figures, then shaped the figures into the likenesses of the saints we most admired. We used toothpicks to indicate eyes, to shape the limbs.

This cold, tedious work was hard, but harder still was relinquish­ing control of the process to the kiln. We had no idea what happened in there. The great wide oven, mysterious and merciless, had its way with our tiny clay people, and often we’d find, the next day, our work had exploded overnight, as if the kiln had decided our pieces were not fit for committing to porcelain.

But the survivors, the tiny figures that cooked without breaking, these we painted with the slightest and most tender of brushstrok­es: the pink

mouths slim as filament, the wee fingers and thumbs. Our hands were steady, patient. When everything was good and glazed, we liked to look upon the little things we’d made: the sometimes ugly, always inexact replicas of great people.

We spent a lot of time in those days thinking about resemblanc­e, the fraught relationsh­ip between a thing and its copy. We’d been told since we were girls that we had been made in God’s image, and often we turned sour wondering which of us bore the closest resemblanc­e. It wasn’t a contest, we knew, but still we found ourselves competing. In our pottery, we could get only as close as the copy, and the copy was never enough, because the originals were unknowable and the copies not true, not real. Our miniature Joans and Catherines and Clares stood all day in a display case. They did not speak or perform miracles. They only stared out from behind glass, standing still.

And they did not sell, much to our resentment. The deacon had warned us when we first started working with clay that no one had any need for knickknack­s. The deacon was someone we did not like to stand near. Long stiff hairs stuck out of his nostrils, and he spoke in a booming, authoritat­ive voice, as if always practicing for his chance at the lectern. “You should brew beer,” he said. “Or knit socks. Things people actually use.”

But we wanted to make things that would last.

The flawed figurines, we gave away. When by accident Sharon made the Virgin Mary blue in the face (she’d missed the edge of the veil), we gave the statue to Mickey, who worked the register at the Tedeschi and had a baby on the way. Sharon said, “Mary can watch over you and your child.”

Mickey said, “Mary looks like she’s sick at the thought.”

We said maybe she just had a little morning sickness.

Mickey looked at the little porcelain woman. She said, “Poor Mary. She didn’t even get to fuck first.” She placed the Virgin on top of the register.

We made other things, too: silk string rosaries, chalices with sturdy necks, tiny wooden crosses whittled smooth. We bowed hardy pine branches to make Advent wreaths, and for days our fingers were tacky with sap. These wreaths were all bought up, taken to brown on other people’s kitchen tables. We were glad to see them go.

From the Tedeschi we needed root beer, peach rings, maxi pads. How lucky that the four of us bled at the same time each month. As novitiate nuns, we had turned giddy to find at the washing machine that all our full-cut briefs were stiff with blood. The discovery of ovarian synchrony

is a kind of magic; it’s a supernatur­al kind of coincidenc­e; it’s like falling in love.

We thought we might find Lawnmower Jill parked behind the library like before, but she was not there. It had started to snow, big wet globs that fell fast. Probably, we agreed, Lawnmower Jill was behind the old drawbridge, or in a parking garage, or drinking the free coffee at the bank.

Inside, we found Mickey eating fat cheese puffs. Her red apron hung over her big belly; she was eight months pregnant with a baby she did not want. She was angry almost always.

We asked her how she was feeling, and she said she was feeling like shit. She still couldn’t keep her breakfast down, and she couldn’t take her Ritalin, and at night she couldn’t sleep.

Was there anything we could do, we asked.

She licked a fingertip and said, “Yeah. Cover the register while I pee.” Though we didn’t know how to work the cashbox or distinguis­h between types of tobacco, we stood before the cigarettes and the lotto tickets and looked out at the aisles. Dark pop in fat bottles, beer in tall cans, white cartons of milk. Shelves stacked with bagged candy and nuts, and a million varieties of chip and jerky. We smiled to see, standing upright on the cash register, the tiny blue-faced Virgin. She looked calm staring back at us.

A bell rang when the door opened, and we looked up to see Horse, a woman we knew from town trouble. Horse, we knew, had hepatitis and a quick temper. She had once stabbed a man’s dog for no reason at all. Horse lurched in, wearing her fat red parka, and flung back her dirty hood.

“Horse,” we said. “Have you seen Lawnmower Jill?”

She shook her head. “Last I saw her, she was behind the library.” Then Horse asked for Mickey. She told us, “Most days, Mickey will sell me a tallboy and a cup of boiled peanuts for a buck.”

“And what about the other days?” Sharon said.

Horse said on the other days she got her beer somewhere else. “But when Mickey’s here, she does right by me.”

We looked at Horse, and we looked at each other. No one among us could say if what Horse said was true. We told Horse she was welcome to wait for Mickey to come back. We offered to buy Horse some peanuts and some beer, but Horse didn’t want our charity. She wanted nothing to do with us. She said we were a bunch of cunts, and she left without saying goodbye.

When Mickey came back from the toilet, we absconded the register and in the aisles bent to claim our cube of maxi pads, our pouch of peach rings, our liter of root beer.

“Anyone come by?” Mickey asked, guiding each bar code across the laser.

We could have asked her then if Horse had told the truth, but we weren’t the tattling kind. And so we told her, “No one unusual.” Mickey winced at something internal, rubbed her big belly. We, eager to be on our way, handed her a clump of money and grabbed a black plastic bag for our pads, our candy, our soda. Swinging the bag, we went out the door and into the gray day, the ankle-high snow.

Snow kept falling as we walked to Blockbuste­r, and we spoke in hushed tones about Lawnmower Jill. It was reckless not to have a coat, but to not have a coat and also rely on a lawn mower for transporta­tion in the snow—this suggested lunacy, the kind that can’t be healed with prayer. She was in danger, we knew, and we vowed to make sure she was somewhere warm before nightfall.

We pulled our parkas tight and kept our noses low. At some point we’d learned a trick for walking in the snow: step only where another foot had fallen first. We trudged single file, leaving one set of prints. In order to have our late charges forgiven, we needed only to speak kindly to the Blockbuste­r girl. We knew her from mass. She sat with her parents and her five siblings in a pew near the front and liked to chew the end of her braid. We promised we’d make time to watch the tapes— King’s It and a documentar­y about pandas—and return them by the end of the week. One of us said, “God bless you and keep you warm,” and the rest of us waved, and we were out the door.

We passed the Tedeschi again on our way back and saw Horse on the step with three tall cans of beer upright in the snow. She held another in her pink, chapped hands.

Horse grinned and said, “Mickey’s little baby’s coming.”

We said, “Mickey still has a month to go.”

Horse shook her head and issued a laugh that suggested she had only a loose grip on the events transpirin­g before her.

Inside, Mickey was bent over the counter, her face pressed into the hard linoleum.

We were gentle and sweet. “Are you in labor?” we asked, and one of us stroked Mickey’s hair.

Mickey could only howl.

At once, we became no longer sweet. Everything announced itself to us with urgency: the droop of Mickey’s wet pants, her lips, pale and

chapped. About the pain, we asked how long, what kind, how big, and her answers came as moans. We pressed the artery in her wrist and counted its swell.

When we told Mickey we’d better take her to the hospital, she opened her eyes and seemed to notice us for the first time. “Sisters,” she said. “I never want to die.”

The ambulance dispatcher reported that Woonsocket’s truck was stuck in the snow. “Try a cab,” she said. “Or a friend.”

Empire Cab, Orange Cab, Island Cab, and Mr. Taxi quoted us hourlong waits.

Mickey spat swears like seeds.

We fretted. And then, all at once, we ran to the door to see the great hulking vehicle charge down the sidewalk, undeterred by snow: the gleaming orange lawn mower, and ah, yes, perched upright on the seat, gallant and brilliant in her sequins, was Lawnmower Jill, her bare arms red. We watched her come to a stop outside the Tedeschi, and Horse handed her a beer.

We each hurried to grab a limb and proceeded to carry Mickey hammock-style out the door. The bell clanged its jolly clang and to Horse, we said, “Move,” and to Lawnmower Jill, we yelled, “Baby’s coming!” Sharon slapped the new beer from her hand. Lawnmower Jill said, “Fuck,” and I said, “Let’s go.” There was no way the four of us could fit on the mower, so we planted the wailing Mickey atop Lawnmower Jill’s lap.

Dread and panic swept across Lawnmower Jill’s face. She shook her head, but we nodded back. She said, “No, no, no,” and we said, “You must, you must, you must.”

We said, “The hospital’s just three miles down the road.”

She said, “Sisters, that’s way too fucking far.”

We said, “Just take it limb by limb.”

Something shifted within her, like a seam pulled taut. She released a breath and a final curse, then took hold of Mickey and started her engine.

We could see that this situation didn’t thrill Mickey—she issued a curse of her own—but surely she would soon find reason to smile. And oh, the stories she would tell her little baby about this day. The sore fear and the excellent luck. How grateful, how blessed she was, that we had saved them both.

We stood back and watched them go. The mower sent out clumps of thick exhaust and, as it charged forward, pushed through the soft snow where no one had yet walked, leaving behind wide tracks in the blank belt of sidewalk frost.

For the rest of the night, many hours after the store was scheduled to close, we stayed behind the counter under the bright lights of the Tedeschi, and we prayed to the little blue-faced Mary standing on the register. Horse was asleep in the corner, and every ten minutes we would lift the receiver from the phone on the wall and call the birth ward and ask to speak to Lawnmower Jill. “Any news?” we’d ask, and Lawnmower Jill told us there wasn’t any news, until there was—mickey birthed a boy, Lawnmower Jill said, a loud gooey thing they wrapped up in a blanket and gave a little hat.

We told Horse the news and left her belly-up and drooling in the warm store, and in our joy, we walked home, side by side, gloved hand in gloved hand, four across on the sidewalk. We kicked up the gathered snow, made it glitter in the moonlight.

It’s easy to be fooled by joy, to think it will never abandon you, never leave room for hunger and fear. Walking home that night, we had the keen sense that things were wonderful, and they would continue to be wonderful forever.

Under the highway overpass, we shrieked to hear the echo and waited until the last memory of our voices had died. Then we turned the corner and arrived at our little street.

If we had a pulpit, we would preach about driveways: the first roads we ever know. Our short black link to the unknown, our supremacy over the grass. We think we know their every inch—the fist-big crack, the belt of tough tar, the place where the lawn begins.

But imagine our surprise, we’d tell our disciples. Imagine our shock when we plodded up to our house and found the thick tracks of the mower’s wheels pressed in the sidewalk snow. Imagine how stunned, how small we felt when we saw that all the snow in our driveway had been cleared away. A million flakes, lifted and thrown by the spadeful, so our walk to the door was made easier—so we could see, through the sparkling rime, all the dark pavement beneath.

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