When I was a young teenager, I had the opportunity to make a few bucks mowing a lawn a few miles from our house. The homeowner was out of town and didn’t want the yard to get overgrown in his absence. My father drove me there and helped me get the mower started. As I began to tackle the tall grass, Dad yelled over the sputtering mower that he would return to pick me up in an hour or so, and then he backed out of the driveway and left.
It was a particularly hot summer day, and the afternoon sun shone mercilessly upon the unshaded lawn. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle from my forehead before I had cleared more than a few yards. The grass was taller than I would have liked, causing me to advance slowly. I pushed forward a little faster, eager to accomplish the chore as quickly as I could. A few feet further, the motor abruptly died. It was not a good sign, I decided, wiping my forearm across my beaded brow.
I gave the pull cord a good yank, producing nothing more than a momentary stirring from the mower deck. A harder pull seemed to have no effect at all. At last I put all my strength into it, tugging furiously at the starter rope, causing the motor to sputter lethargically before reluctantly coughing itself back into action. Relieved but now sweating profusely, I carefully propelled the mower onward, trying to find an optimum speed that would allow me to cover the ground as rapidly as possible without giving the blades more than they could take. I leaned into the handle of the old machine, which seemed to be getting heavier somehow.
As I neared the fence and made my first turn, the mower died again. I felt perspiration trailing down the small of my back. Glancing at the remainder of the yard, I weighed the time I had already spent and the energy I had already expended against all that would be required to finish the job. Suddenly the profitability of the whole endeavor appeared dubious. Still, it was too late to back out now. After another exhausting series of rope pulls, the mower bucked and growled, and I was able to move forward again.
I pulled up the bottom of my t-shirt and wiped the sweat away from my face. My clothes seemed to hang off me like burdensome weights. Trudging onward, I began to feel the slightest bit dizzy. It was probably not the wisest day for lawn mowing, even under the best circumstances. Add too-tall grass and a stalling mower, however, and the result was far too little return for the effort. I tried to tell myself that if I just kept my head down and didn’t think about how much grass was left to cut, I would make steady progress, and the job would be done before I knew it. That cheered me up a little. Then the mower died again.
Squatting down and panting, I steadied myself against the handle frame and cursed my situation. I didn’t feel like I had it in me to tangle with the pull cord once more. My shirt was soaked through. The longer I stayed idle in the sun, the more I noticed my precious bodily fluids escaping through my pores. What I needed was quick, cold, and copious hydration.
The house was locked, I knew, and I did not have a key. There was, however, one source of refreshment that I would not otherwise have considered. I had always taken a rather contemptuous view of the neighborhood kids who would stick out their tongues and gleefully lap up water from the backyard hose. It seemed unnecessarily barbaric to me, what with the kitchen tap just a few walls away. But now, desperate as a desert nomad in search of an oasis, I was ready to lower my standards. I eyed the coiled hose lustily. Maybe it wasn’t the cleanest delivery device for a drink, but I didn’t care. I would drink from it. I would douse myself with it. I would apply its life-giving fountain to every open pore, effecting a reverse osmosis until I would at last be as reconstituted as a glass of powdered milk.
I stumbled up to the house and unscrewed a spray nozzle from the end of the hose. The spigot turned easily as I released it to its full extent. A little too easily, in fact. It gave me a few squeaks but no more than a pathetic trickle of water, and even this spartan luxury petered out within seconds. The homeowner had prudently shut off the water before leaving town. Now the profitability of my opportunity was no longer dubious; I was certain that there was no net gain to be had.
Calling home would have been the logical next step, but the homeowner’s telephone was locked inside his house. [Note to younger readers: In Those Days, people had not yet begun to carry around their own cell phones. Telephones were generally found inside homes and businesses, and though some of them featured wireless handsets, the rest of the gadget was tethered to a phone jack that was mounted on the wall. This is what older people are talking about when they refer to a “land line.”] I could have sought assistance from any neighbors who happened to be home, but I felt rather self-conscious about my bedraggled state. It certainly wasn’t the manner in which I preferred to introduce myself to strangers.
I made a few more half-hearted attempts at mowing the lawn, but I made little progress. Mostly I sat down and waited. Eventually Dad returned, and he was surprised by the condition of the lawn and alarmed by my exhaustion. As soon as we got home, I drank as much water as I could handle, then I took off my damp shirt and plopped onto my bed. There I stayed for some time, stretched out like a starfish and totally whipped.
Just before drifting off into a long and peaceful nap, I thought about the half-mowed lawn and wondered what the homeowner would say. Whatever he intended to pay me, he was welcome to keep it. Sure, I had accomplished some work, but I would gladly forsake my prorated wage if it meant not having to finish the job. That, to me, sounded profitable.