Dave Clemente would walk around the neighborhood, ostensibly for exercise, but really he was inspecting everyone’s curb appeal, like he was the Duke of Tryon Court and we neighbors his vassals.
If your lawn was a little shaggy, or some dandelions decided to pop their little butter pat knobs above the grass, Dave would be like, “Off with their heads.” And he would pretty much tell you exactly that.
“You know, Ben, you’d better get control of those dandelions before they go to seed. I don’t need any parts of those little puffy tops finding their way to my lawn,” he told me two years in a row. The fact that I lived six doors downwind from his place didn’t matter. I and my lawn were just one of the invasive species that had taken over his verdant domain.
In truth, no one took better care of his lawn than Dave. Or more interest in everyone else’s. I would see him when I would go out to fetch the paper at dawn, positioning his sprinklers for maximum coverage, one inch of water in the ground per day, each day a third of the lawn catching his godlike decree of showers that kept his greensward looking like a billiard table straight from the factory.
I’d wave to him later as I walked out to the car on my way to work, but he didn’t notice very often. You could see him eyeballing the arc of the sprinklers’ spray, nodding approvingly at the way, if the sun’s angle was just right, it would drape a rainbow across his lawn. His head would follow each sweep of the sprinkler, left to right, right to left, mesmerized by the gift of life he was imparting to the organism that his house wore as a mantle.
If grass was supposed to be purple instead of green, Dave’s lawn would be the most royal of purples.
I sometimes would imagine what it would be like to be in his head, gauging everyone else in the neighborhood’s lawns against his own. I would watch him stalk the sidewalks, turning his head a bit sideways to observe if any of our lawn’s had grown irregularly over the past week since mowed on Saturday or Sunday.
“You need to check the level of you blade deck, Ben,” he’d say. “Look how unequal your cuts are. Lopsided and, well, trashy. And you really should stick to one kind of seed instead of those cheap blends. See how the rye grows faster in this weather than the fescue?”
“Here,” he’d say and pull me down to knee level and then tilt his head to the side again like he was sighting a sniper rifle. “See how those rye blades are popping up like moles out of their hole in relation to the red fescue? Makes it look shaggy as hell. And speaking of moles…”
“I gotta go, Dave. I think I left the tub running.”
“Okay, and that reminds me. One inch of water over the whole lawn. Gotta water deep to keep those roots well hydrated. Can’t let your lawn turn brown when everyone else is trying for green,” he shouted over my shoulder.
Like I said, Dave practiced what he preached to the nth degree. He treated his lawn as well, if not better, than he treated his kids. Which, if I had his kids, so would I. Wild little buggers, but probably since he wouldn’t let them play on his precious grass.
You’d see little Marisa doing cartwheels on everyone’s front lawns all the way down to the Cramers’ place, where she’d play tag with their kids. All around the outside of their house, including the front lawn. I’d find Dave Jr. running under the spray from my lawn sprinkler on those days I remembered to give it fifteen or twenty minutes of shower time. Kid would leave the lawn a muddy mess. But my son would join him, so I couldn’t bitch too much. I’d join, too, on those hot evenings.
Besides, what’s the sense of having grass around your house if you can’t enjoy it?
And where was their Dad? More often than not, he would be peering down the breadth of his lawn, flat on his stomach on the driveway, ruler in his hand, making sure the height never deviated more than a quarter of an inch from three and three-quarter inches. Then he would move to the middle, lie on his belly again, and do the same thing for all 360 degrees of that island of hoped-for fescue perfection. And he’d see to it with a pair of surgeon’s scissors.
I once wondered where his obsessive-compulsive bent in turf grass science came from. Dave hadn’t attended agricultural school, he was an IT guy. His father was an accountant and his mom stayed at home with the kids. I did notice some old family photos on his hallway walls once at a Christmas party. One showed young Dave and his Mom and Dad and brothers—all wearing the same little outfits with matching bow ties and two-tone shoes—seated on the couch. On the clear plastic-sheathed couch. Next to the clear plastic covered lamps. Feet dangling above the snow white carpet with the clear plastic runners leading back to the camera and across the whole living room.
I once played golf with Dave and instead of shooting the breeze as we walked the course, he would point out how the greenskeeper had done this to fix this part of the course and how he should have used that to keep a certain green from having darker green spots. I asked him how he knew that and he said his Uncle Carmine, who was a greenskeeper at a public course in Jersey, had taught him all this.
I once asked Gracie Clemente if Dave’s Uncle Carmine had ever been to their house.
“I imagine he’d be proud to see the efforts of his nephew.
“Carmine? Dave doesn’t have an Uncle Carmine. Oh, you mean Carmine Verducci. He was just a friend of the family. Sort of a surrogate father for the Clemente boys, since their dad was always working late hours. Dave and his Mom took Carmine’s death really hard,” she said.
After that, I didn’t begrudge Dave his idiosyncrasies as much. I may keep a shitty lawn, but I’m not exactly an unfeeling barbarian.
And I felt kind of sorry the day Dave died. We found him out in his backyard, lying on his stomach, his head up, looking and reaching out toward the back of his house.
“Poor man. he must’ve been looking for help from inside,” my wife said.
I say I felt kind of sorry because I knew Dave Clemente died doing what made him happiest. In fact, there was this calm and…I don’t know…accomplished look on his face when we found him. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife about that few rogue blades of grass in front of him and how the Duke of Tryon Court already had his scissors in his hand.
This story — since I seem to be incapable of digging up sufficient emotion to write poetry lately — was prompted by Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky for her “Six Weeks, Six Sense” writing feature. This week, we were supposed to use the sense of sight as a theme. I’m sure I blew the assignment altogether, but this thing just took off on me. I saw that one of her prompt photos and this story jumped out of my head to the page.