Ross was the type of guy one hoped never to run into at the grocery store because of his big, fat mouth. Really, he was not that fat; instead I would have characterized him as tall and hefty, like the magnolia tree he cut down in his side yard, only without the possibility of blossom. Back then he was just my neighbor, father to twin teenagers Allison and Ralph, and the wood shop teacher at the local high school, which might have led you to believe he kept up his property by painting the shutters, polishing the porch railings, or building birdhouses complete with turrets, terraces, and a colonnade. He did none of these things. Instead, he mowed his postage-stamp-sized lawn—on a riding lawn mover!—over and over again, even during periods of extreme drought. Allison and Ralph just stood there in their Bermuda shorts and preppy, collared shirts, checking their cell phones for scheduled appointments for tennis lessons or skin care consultations. All this might have led you to believe I lived in a fancy, gated community, but I did not. Allison and Ralph were fakers, just like their father, and we lived in a solidly middle class neighborhood right behind the hospital, where I worked in respiratory therapy. I thought I’d like to give Ross an asthma attack, though I didn’t know for sure he even had asthma, but if he did have it I hoped all that lawn mowing made him suffer and wheeze.
One year on the Fourth of July—Allison and Ralph were visiting their mother in a faraway state—Ross invited me over for hotdogs. He said it like that, too. “How about a hotdog, Harriet? To celebrate our Founding Fathers? Fireworks start at dark.” I should clarify that Ross once called me, “Mrs. Fast,” and only started referring to me as Harriet after my husband died in a boating accident, not that I ever confided in Ross or asked him to call me Harriet or even told him about the boating accident, but it was a small town, and people took advantage. I should clarify, too, that I had no plans for the Fourth of July.
“No thanks,” I said. “I have plans.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But if you change your mind—”
“Not a big hot dog fan,” I said. “Thanks.”
He went on to say he’d be adding hot Italian sausages and tofu pups, along with cocktails and an array of side dishes, including his mother’s famous Jell-O salad with carrots and raisins. Some other neighbors would be coming by, he said, along with a group of his students from Summer Driver’s Ed, and my presence would be a welcomed distraction from the anticipated argument between Katie, a Driver’s Ed student, and Nancy, the neighbor who owned a hair salon a couple of blocks over—something about a set of expensive hair extensions that turned out to be synthetic, he said, though he didn’t like to meddle in other people’s affairs.
I once again demurred and imagined myself hiding in the dark depths of my bedroom, watching a bad movie or turning in early. I decided to take a chance. “Maybe I’ll stop by,” I said. “Thank you for thinking of me.”
“I’m always thinking of you, Harriet,” he said. “I mean, sometimes.”
I mistakenly imagined this last remark was little more than commonplace neighborly decorum, for I’d forgotten how to flirt and maybe—let’s be honest—never really knew how to talk to men to begin with. My husband, before his untimely death, had been a scrub tech in the OR, and our first, last, and only date had been over dubiously manufactured nachos in the hospital’s snack bar. You may be wondering how a common scrub tech and a respiratory therapist were able to afford a boat and therefore end up in a fatal boating accident. Well, it wasn’t our boat. It belonged to my husband’s grandfather, Pops, they called him, and even though he and I shared the same birthday, he never liked me and in fact would not allow me on his boat. Pops, of course, came away from the boating accident completely unscathed. To this day I think of him on our shared birthday and wonder if he’s alive or dead.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, I made the mistake of calling Ross to ask him whether or not he needed me to bring anything to the party.
“Are you a vegan?” he said. “Because I hate vegans.”
“No,” I said. “But it’s pretty common these days.”
“Are you allergic to anything?” he said. “Any particular scents that bother you?”
“Nope,” I said. “I mean, there are certain scents that are universally loathed.”
“Yeah, like lotion,” he said. “I hate lotion.”
“Look, do you want me to bring anything or not?”
“Don’t bring lotion,” he said. “Whatever you do.”
These peculiarities—the constant lawn mowing and the lotion hatred—were merely the first two entries on a long list of unfortunate character traits, oddities I would discover and rediscover over a period of years. On that particular Fourth of July, I threw caution to the wind and brought along a six-pack of Canadian beer, as I did not want to appear too patriotic, another mistake, I realized later, when Ross hugged me and said his favorite sport was hockey and Allison and Ralph both ordered their acne medications from an online Canadian pharmacy.
“Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll bet they save a lot of money that way.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “The zits.”
The promised feud between the Driver’s Ed student and the hairdresser did not come to pass, but another set of neighbors, the Hornburgers, who were otherwise very nice if a little hard of hearing, set off a firestorm when they complained of unspecified people leaving “wet trash” in unsealed bags on the curbside, therefore attracting raccoons.
“If it’s not your house, who the hell cares?” Ross said.
“But it is my house,” Mr. Hornburger said. “It’s all our houses.”
“I’m not too worried about it,” I said, and that was it: the beginning of the end. Damn it all, reader, I married him. I didn’t want to, but I did. I mean, it was a second marriage for both of us, so it hardly counted as anything important. And the time that elapsed between that Fourth of July party and our wedding ceremony on the loading dock at the local high school was a mere six weeks-! Can you believe such a thing? That’s how much of a sucker I was, how much I hated those nights spent alone in the company of my mediocre memories of my long-dead husband: six weeks of wooing that consisted of little more than a weekend trip to Eureka Springs and a couple of movie dates at the Satellite Twin. And Ralph and Allison hated me, almost as much as Pops before them had hated me, though Allison eventually came around to borrowing my makeup and telling me I looked pretty in strapless gowns, not that I wore strapless gowns very often, but she seemed to approve whenever I did. That’s how the whole thing at the grocery store happened—the thing where I told Ross he had a big, fat mouth. Little did I know the principal of the local high school overheard the whole conversation from the gluten-free section.
“Oh my god, Harriet,” Ross said in the ketchup aisle. I was actually buying barbecue sauce. This was long after our courtship and well into the four long years of our marriage. I’d stopped at the store after work and didn’t expect to run into him there. He was holding a block of cheddar cheese—the cheap kind—and a can of Pringles Lite. Also, he was sweaty from mowing the lawn.
“Hi honey,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you at home. Do you think Ralph and Allison will want some lunch meat?”
“Why in the world would you wear a sleeveless evening gown to the grocery store?” he said. “Someone will see.”
“This is not an evening gown,” I said. “And I wore it to work.”
“You wore it to work?” he said. “At the hospital?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I brought a sweater.”
“You cannot cover your filth with a mere sweater,” he said.
You see what I mean about his big, fat mouth? I wasn’t kidding before. People like to talk about meeting romantic partners the old-fashioned way, as if there’s something inherently good and decent about borrowing a cup of sugar or attending an impromptu barbecue on the Fourth of July, but at that moment in the grocery store, I knew I’d have settled for one of those online creepazoids any day if it meant I’d never again have to hear the fateful sound of the riding lawn mower’s low rumble. And it’s a good thing the principal of the high school overheard us that day; otherwise the divorce settlement might have gone south for sure. Ross was a lawn-mowing, lotion-hating, modesty-loving shop teacher who tried to sleep with one of his Driver’s Ed students. (More on that last part later). People generally don’t believe women about these things, but they’re true.