Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
I had names for our neighbors. There was the Big Driveway Man. He had a big driveway. The Big Antennae Man and Lady. They were married. Same idea, a big antennae in the back of the house. There was a man who lived alone at the end of the block. He always had people coming in and out of his house, and good-looking girlfriends. I think he sold weed. His name was Buckethead. Everyone called him that. Egor was the guy with the hunched-over back. His wife looked normal, but we called her, Mrs. Egor. There were others: Cadillac Man, Mr. Pervert (don't ask), and Mr. George (It was his real name. He lived next door to me, so it was easy to remember. Although I don't know if it's his first or last.)
There was one lady, Ms. Mary Mary Quite Contrary. She lived in a small home in the middle of the block. The house was always quiet - no family - just her. Overgrown rose bushes covered the steps to her porch and front door, and vines ran up one side of the cottage home. My older sister gave her the name. The story my sister told: Ms. Mary Mary had three children my sister played with in her beautiful yard when she was young, when I was only a baby. Then the children mysteriously disappeared and three tombstones were placed in her garden at the back of the house. The story spooked the Hell out of me and I avoided Ms. Mary Mary at all costs.
One of my chores was to cut our grass to earn my allowance and thought it would be a lucrative idea to offer my services to the neighbors. I always enjoyed tending the lawn, it wasn't work for me to be out in the sun, the smell of fresh cut grass and moist soil, and it turned out to be a great business. My sales pitch was easy. I would go to the door with my lawnmower on the walk and say, "You want me to cut your grass?" It wasn't an enthusiastic hard sell but I didn't discuss price. I would just cut it and they would pay me what they wanted. Most times I'd get more than expected.
The Big Driveway Man would give me $20 dollars and he only had a sliver of grass in the front of his house because of the big driveway. And the Antennae Lady paid well and she only had a sliver in the back, the big antennae was cemented down. Mr. George, Pervert, Buckethead. Egor said he'd cut his own lawn - it was painful to watch. Cadillac Man paid the worst -- one time he forgot to pay me anything.
One day I was cutting Mr. Pervert"s lawn, I was thinking of what I would buy with my accumulated savings. I could get some brand-new Air Jordans (my favorite player) or a Sony portable CD player...a Turbo Grafix-16 if I saved a few months. My mind was browsing the aisles at Highland's Electronics when I felt a tap on the shoulder. When I turned, I almost jumped out my shoes. It was Ms. Mary Mary Quite Contrary. She wore a flowered gown with slippers. She had stringy gray hair and her wrinkled skin looked like it was melting from her skull. She scared the shit out of me. She said in a gravelly voice, "Why haven't you asked to cut my grass?"
I didn't have an answer. I was still waiting for my heart to dislodge from my throat. She said, "I didn't mean to scare you. Cut my grass when you're done here. I'll pay you good." And she walked back to her house, I waited with the lawnmower running, watching her vanish behind the house to the back door.
I wanted to just go home, but I thought it would be against the law to discriminate my services. My sister said once: if you open a business, you have to serve any and everybody. She told the man at Sander's Candy Shop that, so I started cutting. The lawn was mostly crab grass and weeds. It would grow back quick. What she needed was a good weed killer. And a trimmer for her hedges and bushes - with some love and hard work it would be a beautiful yard. When I finished cutting in the front, Ms. Mary Mary opened the door and yelled over the bushes blocking her porch, "Come around to the back door."
I came around expecting to be paid. I wanted no parts of cutting the backyard and no interest in locating any tombstones. When I looked in back, she wasn't there. There were more weeds and a garden that overpowered half the yard. Mrs. Mary Mary's voice came for the door at the rear, "In here...Come on."
I went through the gate separating the backyard to the door at the rear of the house. "Come on..." she said from inside. The heavy door was open, only the screen was closed. I wanted to say, "I'll just wait outside." But my voice didn't work. I opened the screen.
The inside smelled like onions, cigarette smoke, and baby diapers. She said "Go down stairs and get my trimmers to cut my bushes. I'll pay you good." Her voice sounded like the static from a station not tuned in completely.
I spoke back into the house in the direction of the voice, "I-I-I just...I just...was going to cut the front for you...It's no problem...you don't even have to pay, okay?"
"Nonsense boy! Go down dem stairs and get the trimmers to cut my hedges. They should be hanging on the wall." Her voice was stern and sounded like it was far back in the house. "Go down those stairs, boy."
I wanted to run but I was more scared to disobey for some reason, and I descended into the deep. Light from the windows at the top of the foundation walls lit the crowded basement. It was full of boxes and crates. Damp flowered nightgowns hung from an indoor clothes line. It looked like a group of Ms. Mary Mary's hovering in space.
In the far corner was lawn equipment. There was an edger, weed-wacker, brooms, and rakes. I looked at all the tools and imagined all the extra services I could offer if I had those supplies. Our block would be the best looking neighborhood in the community. All the money I'd make: I could buy Jordans, a CD player, and video game system in no time - maybe a bike. There was a chain saw, a sledge hammer, an axe, and a pitch fork. Then I remembered I was in Mrs. Mary Mary Quite Contrary's basement, who knows what happened to her children...The trimmer. Where was the trimmer? There was a tap on my shoulder. How does she do that?
"Here it is, boy." I jumped, knocking over the rakes and brooms and fell on the cement slab basement floor on top of the tools, to look up at Mrs. Mary Mary standing, blocking a beam of light shining through the window. Her face darkened by the shadow, holding 8" blade trimmers... And she laughed.
"Boy, you scare too easy. And when you're done in front, cut the backyard."
I trimmed her bushes and cut the backyard. When I got close to the garden, I did see three rocks that were make shift tombstones. The rocks had names that were painted on. It was faded, but still readable. I looked back at the house first, then read the stones: Alexis, Tabitha, and Kitty. Who would name a child "Kitty"? I thought at first, then "Ohhhh, they were her cats." And I sighed relief and smiled at the faith a brother puts in an older sister's tales. Then a shock went down my spine, another tap on the shoulder.
I was more composed this time when I turned this time, and Mrs. Mary Mary was standing with a scowl and a butcher knife in her hand and buried it into my chest... But that was only my imagination. She was standing there, and she got in close to say something - close to my ear as if someone could be listening. I could smell her stale breath and the smell of wrinkle cream like my grandmother. She said, "I'll give you a little extra, if you run down the street to Buckethead and pick up something for me."
Mary Mary Quite Contrary