Summer of the Lawn Moths
That was the year the sod webworms turned into lawn moths and ascended from the grass, white and gauzy as souls. I was twelve and headed for boarding school in the fall. None of my family had even been to college. I, under the spell of romantic brochures featuring autumn foliage and girls in field hockey skirts, applied to preparatory school. I’m not sure what I’d imagined. An escape from the cul-de-sac we lived on? A way forward, straight into the heart of whoever I was going to become? Boarding school. Like being kidnapped and shipped off to an island where you turn, along with every other boy, into an ass. Not what I’d anticipated. Within a few months, my spirit frail from being hazed, I would be desperate to go back home. But that summer, those troubles were unimaginable, hidden in the future the way the sod webworms had been hidden in the perfect turf of our suburban neighborhood. These insects (of the genus Crambus) pass the winter as larvae, coiled up in a tight silk case in the soil. Come spring, the webworms change into pupae; and soon thereafter, adult moths can be seen in early evening flying in zigzags just above the grass—as we saw them that summer. It’s not these mature winged creatures but their larval offspring that do the damage. They eat the grass the way termites eat wood. Sun beats down on the closely cropped blades. A yellow sickness spreads (which reminded me back then of war documentaries, of fascism discoloring a map of faraway lands). The infested areas die. Twelve-year-old boys headed for adventure and disillusion, who make summer money pushing mowers in the heat, are put out of work. Downsized by ravenous caterpillars.
Mainly, the job meant money for record albums encrypted with subliminal satanic messages, and used science fiction paperbacks about the world after nuclear war. But the cutting of lawns also had a less predictable and more esoteric meaning. Mowing was a kind of meditation. My ears went numb with the noise. My hands, gripping the bail bar, absorbed the machine’s vibrations. As I paced the property, I left an orderly pattern behind me: a series of parallel lines, strips of clean-cut green in alternating light and dark shades. Something about these elements made me feel not only older, but realer. In the cocoon of solitude woven by the drone of the mower, I seemed to think more freely than ever before; and my body—until now a loose amassment of molecules that would scatter in every direction if I ever did anything of true consequence (like, for example, kiss a girl)—seemed strong enough to bear me through any number of brave and foolish actions.
What had I ever been?
A boy, a son, a brother, a right fielder. These selves struck me as so natural, so predetermined as to not be me at all. Me (I must have believed) was a person I would make. You become real when you become definable by your own choices. The kid who’s going to live away from home. The kid who cuts lawns.
“I hear you’re going away to K____,” Mr. Levine or La Rosa or Banfelder would say to me when I had the mower on its side and was chipping from the undercarriage the stinky dross of their property. “Fancy.”
“So your dad’s pretty flush these days.”
“Must be,” they’d say. “Those places cost a fortune.”
I knew, of course, that private school was expensive and public school was free. My siblings and I, from nearly the beginning, had been taught by nuns. My father, however, was not particularly “flush.” He reminded us, often enough for me to develop a definite sense of culpability, that of course he’d like to be taking vacations, of course he’d like to buy a speedboat, drive a luxury car, build a swimming pool. But his children’s education came first. My father himself had never taken school very seriously. His parents—who lived throughout my childhood on the first floor of our home and constituted a separate familial world with its own love laws, television shows, and snack foods—had never pushed him to excel. Had they, my father might’ve realized the professional destiny that has flickered like Gatsby’s green light of lost dreams (my analogy) ever since I’ve known him. Meteorology. A career in prediction. The job of knowing, ahead of time, what will happen (so that we all can be prepared with umbrellas, shovels, candles and canned foods). A way to exert a measure of control over the uncontrollable, to outwit the forces that conspire to make us wet, snow us in, hurl us into a primitive darkness.
But there are different kinds of foresight.
The webworm plague: my father never saw that coming. Nobody did. The moths were an omen that none of us knew how to interpret. We didn’t understand the meaning of their dusk dance; we couldn’t see, when they flew over our darkening lawns, the tiny eggs dropping like paratroopers into the grass. As a rule, the first generation of worms (born in early summer) will be too small to cause damage. That summer, in our neighborhood, more than a month passed without any observable signs of trouble. In June, the moths were just another part of the nocturnal transfer of beauty, deserving of the same goodwill as the crickets and the fireflies. Why not let them haunt us like friendly ghosts?
I repeat, my father was not flush. He had been working, for the past year, as a salesman for a security systems company. Before that, he’d been a trader in municipal bonds (a job which had always been, to my mind, as unimaginable as the daily labor of aliens from another dimension). In between, he’d been fired. His unemployment, which had coincided devastatingly with my summer vacation, had left like a receding glacier a moraine of confusing emotions in me. We’d been together too much—in the house darkened by shades drawn against the heat, in the yard where the industry of pollen-gathering insects was freighted with irony. I’d felt, at the start, an instinctual sympathy. But my benevolence gradually melted in the sun. It wasn’t just his presence, his omnipresence, his assertions of authority in a realm of time and space that had always been under my grandparents’ clement rule—it wasn’t just these obvious incursions that turned me against him. There was also the morning the phone rang and the man on the line asked for my father by his full name.
I had been told what to do in this circumstance. Even if he was home, even if he was standing in the very same room, I was supposed to say he wasn’t. Then take a message. This was part of a strategic plan, designed to make him appear, to potential employers, as a man engaged in unknowable enterprises—not immediately accessible, not sitting around the house waiting for a phone call, not in any way desperate for a job. Take a message. The task was very simple, and in my best interests.
I couldn’t do it.
I just let the stranger hang up; and my father—who in fact had been present, watching from the doorway of the kitchen (I remember stubble and a bathrobe, but this image may just be memory’s cheap replacement for a lost original)—stared at me with something like disgust. I am convinced, when reflecting on that moment, that had a devil come just then and offered my father whatever he wanted in exchange for everything he had, he would’ve made the deal. I’d never seen him look that unhappy. I knew it was my fault. But I only felt anger. Why should I playact? Make believe he was somewhere else, performing actions of consequence, when in fact he was here. Doing nothing. I stayed mad about it all. He found another job, normalcy was restored. Still, every time I wheeled a lawn mower out of a garage, bent down and yanked the starter cord, the surge of power in my body seemed to be a direct response to my father’s past weakness. I never wanted to look the way he had that morning. I’d never be that idle.
Of the twelve lawns in our neighborhood, I had contracted for five, one for every day of the work week. One of these five, coincidentally, was the first to turn yellow. Mr. Banfelder didn’t immediately accuse me of killing his grass; but it was implicit, as we toured the defacement one morning, that I was the prime suspect. He was a big, broad, doomed-looking man on whose eyes the war had left its mark in the form of two gray crescent-shaped hollows. The muscles there, I imagined, had been worn out from too much looking or too much looking away.
“Japanese beetles,” I said. “Maybe.”
“You’ve seen beetles?”
“Yes or no, Hrbek. Beetles or no beetles.”
As we circumambulated the dry yellow zone, I tried to explain that the winged beetle was a ubiquitous insect. I traded on my own lawn’s elite status by informing him that, in a single week, the traps we used netted dozens of the pests in question. He wasn’t buying the alibi. He had zeroed in on his own supposition: the elevation of the mower blade. I’d set it too low, he said. I’d scalped the grass and the sun had done the rest. The flaw in this theory was obvious. If I’d cut too close, the entire lawn would’ve burned evenly. What we had here were irregular patterns of death. I made this point in a tone of utmost humility. However wrong in this case, he was a client and a veteran, not to mention a lightning rod for scary apocrypha. He’d committed a massacre in Vietnam. Was subject to violent hallucinations involving jungles and booby traps. Played Russian roulette in his basement late at night. I didn’t really believe any of this; and at the same time I did. Suburbia needs its false histories and fairy tales. Without them, its children would atrophy, lose all sensation, slip into comas. In the end, all he did was reach into his pocket and peel my weekly salary off a billfold, as if to apologize for blaming me.
“Severance,” he explained.
Strictly speaking, my neighbors didn’t give me the ax. The work just dried up. Within a week, our little community looked like the target of a biblical plague. It’s not like my identity was bound up in the job. My life, however sadly constricted, did consist of more than the cutting of lawns. I played Little League baseball (for “Local 675,” without ever really understanding who or what our sponsors were). On Friday nights, I skated in endless circles and pumped quarters into Asteroids and Space Invaders. Still, I felt adrift. Boredom had always been a factor. I could only take so much vacation before school started looking good again. But this was different. Not boredom. That’s an external force. This was something inside, an absence, a hollowed-out space. Six more weeks, I told myself. Then: girls in field hockey skirts; days of erudition; me on my own, in a little town on a river, surrounded by the heavy metal music and pin-up posters my parents had deemed anathema.
Initially, prep school had been my idea. An impulsive notion. Maybe nothing more than a mirage of independence. By that summer, it had come to mean much more. Money had been borrowed. Blazers and ties purchased. Sacrifices set in motion. All so that I, one day, would have the power to choose a path, instead of just ending up on one. See the trap I set for myself? What was I supposed to do that homesick winter (the river outside my dorm room window frozen solid) when it seemed I couldn’t stand another day of abuse? I would make a single effort to turn back: a letter to my grandparents cataloguing my miseries, asking for intercession. It went missing, that letter—not unlike me—and reached them weeks later with postmarks from the Deep South. By then, I’d found some new reserve of will power. Maybe some of the snow had melted. Maybe the ice had begun to break up, heaving under the pressure of the river’s flow, sending those thunderbolt sounds echoing through the valley. I told my grandparents to forget it. To say nothing. Several years later, in response to an entirely different problem, they would write words to me that explained perfectly my compulsion to stay at school, to tough it out, although a harm was being done that felt permanent and irreversible:
Again, I must say Dad and Mom have such great faith and trust in you—as do we that you must stick to the principles you have always had and prove that our faith and trust in you is not unfounded. I think Dad would just fall apart if you disappointed him in any way. I’m sure you’re not going to.
My father would never (not once!) tell me what to do with the education he gave me. But he did, in the days after I lost my job, begin to speak to me of work. Not of security cameras and fire systems and commissions; but of work in general, its power to frustrate and foil. Nearly every night (around seven p.m., after he’d tuned the radio to the baseball game and pulled the tab off a can of Schaefer), we had a conversation along these lines:
-How was your day, kid?
-I work with clowns.
-If it wasn’t for you kids, I’d quit tomorrow. You’re what gets me through. Imagining you. Graduating. Holding up your diplomas. People think I’m crazy. I tell them where you’re going in the fall and they look at me. Like why would you spend your hard earned money on that? I’d like to tell them why. I’ll tell you why I’m borrowing against the equity in my house. So my son never has to work with a clown like you.
In those last weeks before I started to drift away, I must have felt tied to him more tightly than ever before. Not by blood, but by experience. Until then, our commonalities had been ones of genetics and tradition: an uncannily similar (nearly calligraphic) printing style; allegiance to a once-but-no-longer-miraculous baseball team. Unemployment was different. Not an inherited trait or a contracted passion, but a judgment passed by the world. I imagine it was that summer that I experienced for the first time, in a small and tentative way, the ghostly feeling that seems to erase me from the face of the earth every time my writing is turned down, every time a rejection letter arrives in my mailbox or inbox. Back in the summer of 1980, rejection was still a new experience. I hurled myself into its empty deep end every weekend at the roller rink when, around eight-thirty, the lights slowed entropically, as from the mounting disorder of a hundred frenzied libidos, and the DJ cued up “Lost in Love” or some equally ecstatic ballad for the couples’ skate. (“Wanna, y’know, skate?” “No, no, I’m gonna play Ms. Pac Man.”) That’s the kind of rejection that intensifies longing, collapses all of life into a present moment without limit or relief. Then there’s the kind that breaks the spell of the present. Allows you to see through hairline cracks a greater portion of a future you had every intention of averting.
My parents were not readers, so we didn’t have many books in our house. (I remember The Good Earth, Michener’s Space, a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.) What we had in spades were copies of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. My father bought this religiously every fall, even somehow procured editions from years past, to immerse himself in its precipitation tables and its temperature charts and its augury. Much later, cable television would depose agrarian wisdom; and the obsession became about radar tracking, a god’s eye view in a ceaseless present, an ultimate perspective on the world. But in the beginning, when I was a kid, it had more to do with history. To know the future, you had to know everything about the past. My father never did become a meteorologist. Even if he’d gone to good schools (been given the opportunity he was giving me, to quote a line from the family catechism), it’s doubtful he would have. The subject didn’t interest him in his formative years. But that’s beside the point. He was not what he wanted to be, and he didn’t want me to end up the same way. My mother, of course, was a part of all this. She worked, too. As a secretary at the knitwear company where they made the copycat shirts emblazoned with a pair of handprints instead of an alligator. But my father was the one with the shadow life. The one with something to prove. They were equally selfless, my parents. But when it came to boarding school, my mother had a wavering faith; my father the certainty of a martyr. No swimming pool. No luxury car. I was the investment and the prize. A son who would grow up out of sight, and would become, the more he studied, less and less like the people he came from.
Isn’t that what my father wanted?
For me to live a different kind of life? To do things he hadn’t done? To be nothing like him? He succeeded. He did. The writing life doesn’t have much in common with the tyranny of nine-to-five. There’s no one looking over my shoulder, no one calling me into his office, no coworkers to disdain. I am as independent and free as a democracy. In a way, I’m not employed at all. (“It’s not,” I am often told, “like you have to go to work.”) And maybe that’s why I feel, so much of the time, like an unshaved man in a bathrobe. Why I let the machine pick up, when I’m alone in the house, whether I’m writing or not. To maintain an illusion. To appear, to anyone and everyone, as a man engaged in lofty pursuits. It’s terrible to think that maybe my father failed after all. All his financial worry and all my scholarly diligence. So much running just to stand still.
If we’d been more observant, more vigilant, had we been mindful of our own history, we might have saved our lawns that summer. I might have saved my job. You can’t have a moth without a caterpillar, and vice versa. Had we already forgotten about that other variety of worm-like larva, spotted yellow and blue, whose webby tents had entwined the leaves of the trees, whose guts were discharged like snot by the tires of our bikes? We’d used a gooey tape to stop their millipedic advance up the trunks of oaks and maples. But sod webworms are not invaders in the old fashion. They don’t march in the open. They infiltrate, ingrain themselves. You have to hit them where they hide. With Spectracide, Dylox, Chlordane. That, anyway, is what you would do in those days. Dilute pesticide in water; hook a sprayer onto the garden hose; pace your blighted property releasing a fine toxic mist. Then wait. For the grass to come back. For the summer to end, so you can leave home and be who you don’t know you’re going to be. An orphan; a prisoner; a writer. I don’t remember what I was thinking the day we set out for that town by the river (“the lovely valley land of K____,” went the words to the school song). In hindsight, though, as we pull away and snap free of the gravity of the cul-de-sac, foreshadows of bruises are showing on my face; and our neighborhood is green and lush and growing: a place where a boy will always have a job.