BIG YARD DAYS • by Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Sissy had grown tired of going up and down the hill. Tired of looking at the green of the Appalachians. Tired of looking at Mr. Dixon across the street on his riding mower with his oh so flat and lovely piece of property. But not tired of looking at the Dixon’s fishing pond where one of her Zanesville High classmates sat with his pole in the water, waving up at her sometimes, just being friendly.  She thought of Tay Dixon as just one of her classmates to keep herself from thinking of him as the guy she’d had a crush on since 6th grade. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Right now she’d give anything to just go hang with him, dip her feet into the pond. Outside was pretty safe, right?

As it was, pandemic or no, she was stuck on this side of Frazeyburg Road with her Granny’s old push mower while Granny herself sat in the rocker on the wide porch reading the Enquirer and drinking a beautifully cool glass of sweet tea. If she so much as stopped to wipe the sweat from her hairline, Granny would call out “You ain’t done yet,” and motion for her to get back to it, then chide her again if Sissy tried to mow in an easier spiral pattern. There was no doubt in Sissy’s mind that this was definitely a punishment to be completed in the absolute roughest way possible. Granny wasn’t going to let her off easy.

All the cousins had gotten to use Granny’s riding mower when it’d been their turn to tend the yard, but she was trying to make the best of it. There was a certain pleasure to seeing the mixture of goldenrod and ragweed come flying out the side chute. Had she done this in early July like she was supposed to she wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy this sight. At least this is what she told herself as her calves and hands ached from gripping the mower handle and tackling the large hill over and over (and over) again.

When the pandemic hit, the family had had to adjust in a lot of ways, one of which was that there would be no more Big Yard Days out at Granny’s where all twelve cousins got together and took care of the weeding and mowing. There was always a giant dinner and bonfire out back after the work was done. They’d been having these days from early spring to late fall for the past eight years and they were usually full of good food and cracking jokes. With so many hands making light work, Sissy could get away with doing as close to nothing as possible. She’d take an hour sitting by the irises, pretending to look for more wild raspberries to pull while her sister Sal ran herself ragged digging out cow parsnips and tree of heavens from around the edge of Granny’s vegetable patch. The bonfires had only started last year and each went long into the night with everyone swapping family gossip and swigging cheap bourbon brought over by Bobby, the oldest cousin who had just turned twenty-one. Granny winked and no one tattled and everyone always had a grand old time on Big Yard Day.

Her cousins were good people and she liked them in general, though Naveah was on her shit list at the moment since this whole plan had been her idea. Back in March when the lockdown started and it became clear that Big Yard Days were no longer the safest thing, not with Granny’s sugar and their uncle Jack’s prostate trouble (they never said cancer though everyone knew they meant cancer), Naveah had come up with a plan to make sure all the work would still get done. They drew lots and each of the older cousins got assigned a month to look after the yard. Not the garden or the flower beds, those were Granny’s dominion, just the big stuff. Spread it out over the whole month, knock it out in a weekend, it didn’t matter so long as it was all tidy (country tidy, not suburban tidy) by the end of the month.

This had seemed like a great plan. Four months of sitting around and then just a few days of work in July before four more months of sitting around? No problem. But when she pulled up into Granny’s drive on the first Saturday in July and saw how much work it would be just to get the chicory and Joe-Pye weed under control, she’d backed out of the drive and pulled into the Dixon’s instead. Tay had been at the pond, like he was most Saturdays, and he’d sent her a text with just a single question mark. They texted all afternoon while she sat in the driveway with her window down for air. After she felt like she’d been gone a feasible amount of time she headed back home. She did this every weekend throughout the month and when August hit she’d counted herself free and clear.

When Sal came back from her first work day and said “Granny wants you to call her,” she knew it wasn’t going to go down pretty. As she thought about July, she smiled to herself remembering the feeling of sitting in her car texting with Tay, watching him make the bluegills he caught sing like a Billy Bass for her entertainment. What she wouldn’t give to be down there at the pond with him now. And as she thought, her hands gently let go of the mower handle. She watched the mower bump its way down the hill and across the road before it splashed into the pond. She shrugged her shoulders at Granny and headed down to retrieve the mower. If she had to stop and have a socially-distanced chat with Tay while she was over there, well then, so be it.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, originally from Columbus, Ohio, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she edits confidential documents for the government. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and SWWIM. Her chapbook, Fine, Considering, about her experiences undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, is available from Rinky Dink Press. She serves as a reader for Emrys.

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