{Men’s Fiction} BULL, February 14, 2014


It was a bloodbath.

We crested the corner hill at sunrise, riding ten feet off the blacktop in the gray diesel pickup. The cab’s air conditioning vents blew steam off paper cups of coffee, but did little to raise the morning fog from the eyes of our fattened crew. The enemy hid behind neighborhood trees and knelt beneath manicured shrubs. They stashed themselves under cars at the curb and waited for our diesel to pass so they could hamstring us.

Mario’s scheme was to hit at first light, get there before whatever crew worked the street. He’d pick a block and we’d mow the lawns, trim the hedges, prune the trees, even tweak the damn sprinkler systems, all gratis at first. He’d laugh with a Spanish accent and leave a flyer on the porch when we were done, a promise to come in fifty dollars shy of the homeowner’s regular bill scrawled across the bottom in misspelled English. Our competitors would pull up as we drove away, have to explain to their customers why they were more expensive and less efficient. The next day we’d strike two blocks south. In a month we’d crisscross the whole territory, taking over one yard at a time until Mario owned another subdivision. It always worked.

Except the last occasion, on Emilita in Valley Village.

These guys wore grass-green jumpsuits and sat on tractors, Briggs and Stratton engines that purr and deposit their kills in heavy leather mulch carriers that leave not a single blade behind. Some of their riderless crew wore belts with holsters for small trowels, short handled steel rakes, and spring loaded shears. Too many of them carried telescoping pruning sticks, vicious spears that shred your guts at a distance of fifteen feet.

I blame myself for the carnage. My gift was for scouting neighborhoods, spotting lazy crews who’d lived too many years off a few square blocks, getting fat on flat lawns and drab landscapes. Emilita looked right. It reminded me of Bell Canyon and Mission Hills, cookie cutter communities where weak willed gardening squads cussed under their breath as we shoved them aside with nothing but a menacing stare.

We were halfway down Emilita, though, before we realized the greensuits were waiting.

They positioned their tractors on all four sides of us while their foot soldiers filled the gaps and came at a run with weapons in hand. Mario coasted to a stop and cranked the CD player. Relentless Mariachi guitar blasted from sixteen inch speakers mounted outside the cab. He loved that shit for a fight. A brick arched through the sky and crashed against the windshield. Glass veins spread across the horizon, distorted our view and made the oncoming rush look like an alien invasion. Mario gunned the diesel’s V8 and rocked the truck’s frame.

The rest of us shook off the surprise, climbed into the bed and grabbed our gear. I kicked the tailgate down and readied my mower as fast as I could. The greensuits were on us seconds later. A few of them fell, but they were too many and we weren’t prepared.

Jose and Ramon, twins from Guadalajara, hit the ground first. They stood shoulder to shoulder and swung their hoes wide, driving some of the greensuits back. I’d fought with these brothers before, had seen Ramon buckle a man’s knee with a low strike while Jose jabbed high and cratered the same man’s throat. They’d shove their victims aside and move through an enemy like a monster with four arms. On Emilita, they died in concert. Jose took the butt end of a pickaxe to the face, unhinging his jaw. His mouth dangling open, he stumbled to a knee. As the axe made a second pass at his head, he met eyes with Ramon, glimpsed his twin bleeding out from shears to the jugular.

Revving a straight shaft weedeater, the string whipping at a wicked speed, Hector Soliz leapt from the truck and into the fray. His soft, round frame bowled over several greensuits, but the only thing Hector ever did well was eat and nap. He kicked the air with his fat legs and struggled to get to get up, like a turtle stuck on its back. They swarmed him, hacked at his giant gut, and silenced the buzz of his weapon. None of us moved to help.

I tried to position myself with the rest our crew, but a burly, dark skinned boy struck the side of my head with his spade. The blow laid me over the steering wheel, but didn’t take me out of the seat. My mower puttered down the road, out of the melee, and ran into a curb under a giant sycamore tree. Behind me I heard the howls of men being ground to mulch by steel tractor blades, but then the blood from my wound pooled in my ear and filled my skull with the noise of the ocean scraping against sand. I whispered to God.

“Make it quick, Father. I won’t cry for the mistakes I’ve made, but don’t let me


The sycamore dropped dead leaves while I waited for the darkness to swallow me. But to be honest, my head didn’t even hurt. I reached up expecting to feel bits of bone and brain, wondering if I’d be able to touch my thoughts, but there was only a gash, a lucky slice that bled more than it burrowed.

Under my head, the engine hummed and soothed me as if it were my mother. I felt newborn, calm and satisfied, held in the bosom of a holy cathedral. I napped atop the mower’s warm hood, my black, powder-coated Troybilt.


We’d found the Troybilt at an estate sale, one of those vast mansions in the hills whose owners went bust and were forced to salvage their spoils for the bank. It’d almost never been used. The pristine leather seat had no impressions, no deep canyons left by some sweaty, fat-ass greenthumb who ate too many carne guisada tacos for lunch and took long siestas in the shade. I stared at it. Mario came up behind me, whistled a low note when he saw the pretty thing.

“Aye, que lindo,” he said and sat on the buttery leather bench.

Mario was christened. He’d see something he liked and couldn’t imagine why it shouldn’t belong to him, like some robed Catholic conqueror. Centuries worth of dim soldiers have impaled themselves on rival lances so men like Mario could build treasuries. They’ve rushed to their deaths in awe of single-minded maniacs concerned only with personal glory, and any generosity these despots showed their men sprang solely from the want to seize more for themselves. I know this now.

Mario fingered the keys to the Troybilt and without hesitation twisted them. The engine made a miserable crank and backfired, drawing scared and irritated glances from the young, well-dressed couples cooing over chic chaise lounges nearby. Mario spit in the grass and held their glares until they turned away, uncomfortable with defiance from a lower class type.

“Let me try,” I said.

We traded places. I pumped the gas pedal to prime the carburetor and pulled the choke halfway out before turning the key. The motor bucked and screamed, the pistons pushing so hard they threatened to crack the block. I came up on the throttle, brought the idle down to a powerful, steady whine. Mario smiled.

“This one is yours,” he said.

But he didn’t have to tell me. The Troybilt already had.

I named her Horse.


Under the sycamore on Emilita, a frail sun-withered old man in green jabbed at my ribs with the stem of his leaf blower and woke me.

“Got a mean crack in your head, guero. Bleeding all over your mower. Did Mario think we wouldn’t defend our street?”

His mouth opened wide when I sat up, unsheathed my machete and rested it on his collarbone, the blade against his neck. It was quiet. Ten or twelve houses down the block a few greensuits, the cleaners left behind, were raking up their victory. We were alone for the moment. The name patch over his heart read Stacy. He dropped his leaf blower and steadied his knees. Snot rolled from his nose and over his lips, hanging like a fine silk thread from the white whiskers on his chin.

“Stacy sounds like a girl’s name.”

“Not in the ’30’s when I got it,” he said, and eyeballed his people down the street.

“I’ll drop your throat on the ground before you scream, lawnman.”

“I’m too old for hollering, guero. Just as likely to buckle from an ancient heart than I am to slump over your sword. Either do it or say what you need from me.”

With my free hand I pulled at Horse’s choke and turned the keys, but her tank had gone dry during my slumber.

“You’ll need gas for your mower. I can get you some. You can ride out of here,” he said.

I pressed the flat side of my weapon into his shoulder and watched him wince as I stepped off Horse’s deck. I grabbed his collar and whipped him around. Men that toil under the sun in warring neighborhoods don’t reach his age without knowing a thing or two about killing. I kept the hoary survivor at arm’s length, so far unharmed.

“I’ll get the gas myself.”

“There’s too many of them, guero. They won’t let you.”

“If I die, I’ll have you for company.”

A breeze blew down the street and dried the blood-caked side of my face; already the crust was flaking and falling in my eyes. My wound kept a steady throb, a pulse and jab that had me grinding my teeth. The smell of fresh cut grass and tractor oil masked the scent of the earlier ambush, that stench of iron mixed with sweat from men covered in blood. The wind might carry it away, but the odor stays with you forever.

The booted feet of my dead crewmen stuck out from beneath a ragged tarp in the back of a greensuit pickup, their dark and dusty soles piled on top of one another like lumber going to the mill. I didn’t see Mario’s diesel anywhere on the street. He’d gotten away, leaving the winners to think the king had turned coward. He would be back though, that much I knew. A martyr can’t resist his cause.

I shoved Stacy forward, held him at a slow pace. His compatriots watched our approach now. They dropped their brooms and leaf blowers and armed themselves with pruning sticks and chisel tooth rakes. They fanned out across Emilita.

“They’re going to cut you down, guero. This isn’t worth dying for.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “But I’ve sinned enough to have earned it. Now don’t stop moving.”


My first mower I got at sixteen and named it Remington. It was an antique push-rotor mower that clipped grass with five rusty blades. We worked three properties together, charged fifteen a lawn and did good work. I used to experiment and cut each yard on a different angle – vertical, horizontal or diagonal – trying to find the right texture and feel for the home. I’d lose myself in the lines, working Remington to keep tight and tidy patterns. On quiet, hot days, I’d rest and admire my sneakers as the grass darkened them to a deep shade of forest green. Every weekend I disassembled Remington, scrubbed and oiled his blades, greased the bearings in his wheels and re-taped the tears in his grass bag. With just a twelve inch cutting width it took longer to tend to yards, but we weren’t in a hurry. The lawn wars hadn’t started yet.

Mario found me one summer in Dos Caminos. He liked to tell newcomers, the illegals he stocked the crews with, that I looked sadder than a thirsty puppy who’d lost its bitch. That’s not how I remember it.

I’d just pulled out a plastic bag tangled in Remington’s axle when I saw him. I was working Mr. Fowler’s lawn. It sat at the end of a cul-de-sac like a backstop, caught all the trash the wind blew down the street. Mario leaned against his beater F-150. His oversized, silver belt buckle caught the sun’s glare and flashed at intervals, like a ship at sea giving orders to another vessel. He lit a cigarette and waved me over.

“Hola, compadre,” he said and followed my glance at his belt buckle. “Puro sterling. I dug it from the earth myself in La Parilla, a mine en Mexico, si? Carried the rock all the way to Nogales and had the buckle made. This is the eagle on my country’s flag. It’s eating a snake.”

In his pickup he had a gray plastic trash can, rakes, pole-pruners for trees, a chainsaw and even an edger, but his gas powered mower with its heavy, dark metal filled most of the bed.

“I own the neighborhood on the other side of Fulton street, tend all those lawns. You can tell by how green they are, si?” He dropped the gate on his truck. “Seen you before pushing that thing around. You want more work?”

“I got my own houses,” I said.

“Bueno. Keep ’em, pero any grass you cut for me, you use the Snapper.”

I’d seen the self-propelled Snappers on display at the hardware store where I bought used parts for my mower. You held a lever down and it ran on its own. They were pretty machines that any jackass with two arms could hold on to. I looked at Remington waiting for me in Fowler’s yard, thought of all the grass we’d cut, the hours we’d spent together and how he’d crumble under the care of anyone else. Mario stepped on his smoke and shook his head.

“You have Spanish? Muerto. That…chingadera…is dead.”

Remington is the first thing I gave up for him.

Mario taught me a lot in those early days, how to aerate and seed lawns so the grass grew thicker and what kinds of fertilizer to use so it grew faster. “We’re growing money,” he’d say. He showed me how to plant and trim hedges so they needed constant maintenance, and how to drop dandelion seeds in the fall so that a month later the customer would pay us extra to pull and treat the land with weed-killer.

We ate our lunch under a different shade tree each day. He used his teeth to tear off the mango skin, then rip the flesh from its seed. He’d start from the top and move downwards, smearing his face with the sticky, orange pulp while he preached to me.

“These people, compadre, they think we work for them,” he’d say, pointing at the houses on the street. “They stay indoors, go from one building to the next, make dinero and never see the sun. They raise their babies to do the same. You and me, we live in the world, que no? We turn the earth, make dirt into green grass. We plant the vines to grow up the fence so their neighbors can’t see how bored they are. We water the flowers next to the sidewalk so people will think they’re happy. We hold the truth of their lies in our hands and tools.

“Understand one thing, mijito, and never forget it.” He paused and wiped his mouth. “These people, they work for us.”


My hostage kept a careful march at the end of my machete. His men, the greensuits left to sweep up, looked more like hardened mercenaries than a cleaning crew the nearer we got. They widened their formation, trampling gaudy perennials along the sidewalk, ready to make a rush from all points. Only three houses down, they treaded slowly for fear I’d bury my blade in Stacy’s body. But these were veterans all too ready to toss another carcass under the tarp and gab about the battle over lunchtime beers.

Scared residents peered between the slats of their plantation shutters or peeked from the hem of their curtains while we squared off. I’m sure they thought about calling the police, but then worried about who’d take care of their yards if all the groundskeepers were arrested, jailed and deported. They didn’t want to do the work themselves, were afraid of what the neighbors might think if they were seen on hands and knees ripping clover weeds out of the dirt. No, Valley Village had seen enough of these savage campaigns to sit tight and stay safe, that it’d all be over before their morning commute.

My heart quickened and the pain in my skull switched to a rhythmic thumping, an ache and a pressure poaching my mind. I doubled at the waist, but held my weapon on the lawnman. In truth, he could’ve run away or even pushed me over and left me for the garden shears or rake teeth of his compatriots. He just stood there though, pretending to be my prisoner.

“I know you’re the kid burned down Mendoza’s house and started these wars,” he said.

“Then you know more than most.” I didn’t have the strength to lie. The vice in my head eased, but left me a husk, a hollow, rotted stump.

“I know suffering, guero. My suffering reaches all the way back to Nogales where I’m from. A vicious boy stabbed my brother through the neck for a shiny piece of silver, a buckle to hold your pants up. I watched it happen. I was already an old man then.” He turned and took a deep breath, exhaled and leaned into my machete. He grabbed my wrist as I tried to pull the blade back. Any more pressure and it would’ve slid through his gut. He put his face near mine. The sharp stink of ammonia coming from his sweat-caked skin assaulted my nose and widened my eyes.

“Then I came here and this place made me a cripple,” he said, pointing to his heart and then to mine. “Just like you are now.”


Mario and I owned every lawn in Dos Caminos within two months. I dropped out of school a year later, when he gave me the F-150 and three teams to run. Grown men nodded to me, labored as I ordered. They knew I had Mario’s ear, and their weekly envelopes, stuffed with small bills to make them feel heavier than their worth, came from my hands. Soon, he put me in charge of all collections. “It’s easier for people to pay someone the same color,” he told me. Once a month I’d travel door to door, leaving customer invoices and counting payments. Cash only. Mario didn’t trust checks and never paid taxes.

The Camarillo gardening crews were the first to put up a fight when we started expanding his territory. They’d huff and puff, pissed off we’d mowed their lawns and stole their houses. We’d throw blows, wrestle in gravel driveways, but they always ran away when Mario broke out the chainsaw, swinging it in wild arcs. They must’ve thought there were plenty of lawns left and weren’t ready to die for the ones we took from them. A black eye from a push-broom or a broken arm by a post-hole digger, these meant more to me than the pockets full of cash. I followed Mario into every brawl, fed on his bravado and basked in his praise. I lived to be his general.

By the time we pressed into Thousand Oaks, some three and a half summers later, Mario had more equipment and bigger crews than any outfit in the western valley. He’d gotten meaner, too. One night, late, I watched him bludgeon the owner of La Crescenta Nursery to death with a water hose nozzle. The man had been selling supply to Gustav Mendoza, our only remaining competitor in the territory. We’d met the owner at his shop after hours because Mario told him we wanted to buy his surplus bush inventory. Neither me or that poor soul knew the reaper was coming.

Mario stood over the body, panting and foaming at the mouth.

“Load two pallets of fertilizer in the truck,” he said. “Ahora.”

Gustav Mendoza ran a family business. His crews were made of uncles and cousins of different generations, men who held a strong allegiance to their line. Mendoza flourished in the eastern pockets of Thousand Oaks, gated communities with uniformed security at the entrance, stone columns announcing each home and vast, rolling lawns that seemed like plush green velvet. Likewise, Mendoza kept his precious gardening tackle in a guarded and locked compound so we couldn’t threaten him to sell and stop work, like so many of the others who gave in without contest. He even ran spotters on our crews, men that reported our whereabouts and movements if we ventured anywhere near his area. Mario would catch sight of his spies, and  as much as he liked being watched, I think he feared Mendoza’s vigilance. The man scared Mario.

With the owner of La Crescenta Nursey dead, stashed behind stacks of empty clay flower pots in his own shop, Mario and I drove through dark neighborhood roads and didn’t speak. He cruised at a slow speed down unlit streets I didn’t recognize. These lots were spacious, houses built far from the front curb and one another. I trembled in my seat thinking again about the nursery owner, his two hands held up for mercy while Mario caved his forehead in. The smallest piece of the man’s bone had landed on my work gloves, yet I felt covered in his blood. Mario parked the diesel.

“Where are we?” I said.


A halogen porch light gave off a dim glow in the mist, but the windows were dark. Mario gazed at the home.

“If you want a man’s whole life,” he said, “todo su mundo, you paint yourself in his allies blood and be the demon that wakes him from a dream.”

With that, Mario’s gave his orders. I unloaded two hundred and sixty pounds of Green Max Southern Lawn fertilizer, a starter formula of 20-27-5, enough ammonium nitrate to incinerate hell itself and dry satan’s throat. In a silent daze, I stacked the fertilizer on the sides of the house while Mario soaked it with gasoline.

Gustav Mendoza and his family, six kids, a mother-in-law and three dogs, burned to death so we could mow more lawns.

We rode off while I watched bright burning embers float into the atmosphere and darken to nothing as they went cold. I felt like that.




The morning clouds over Valley Village parted, leaving the sun to warm the back of my neck. My head wound thumped and made it hard to think. Exhaustion replaced the marrow in my bones. I craved the permanent rest of death. The old lawnman tightened his grip on my wrist, held the machete to his rib cage, and kept his greensuit comrades, situated yards away, waiting for an opening to come at me. I struggled to stand and meet his stare.

“Let go of my hand so they can finish this,” I said.

“No, guero. I want you breathing for a minute.”

Then I heard the growl and ping of Mario’s diesel. It rounded the corner in a feral slide. His reinforcements, a new witless militia, clutched the truck’s light bar as Mario jumped the curb and plowed across manicured lawns, making toothpicks of picket fences. He righted the diesel and just missed the giant sycamore, but he clipped my Horse. She got caught in the diesel’s chrome grill, driven back and then swallowed beneath the pickup’s thirty-seven-inch Michelin cutters. The truck’s engine roared like a wounded animal, stranded on top of my mangled girl.

The greensuits fell back and set up new positions. The odds were different now. Stacy dropped my wrist, let the machete swing at my side and stood shoulder to shoulder with me. We watched Mario hop down from the cab, his chainsaw in hand. Sparks flew as he dragged its teeth across the sidewalk cement, his illegals fanning out behind him.

Stacy clicked his tongue. “That was a good mower,” he said.

“It’s the second one he’s taken from me.”

Mario stopped two feet short of us and stood in the yard of a yellow clapboard bungalow. He itched his eye with a dirty finger, then pointed it at Stacy.

“The only Mendoza we missed in that fire is this old man,” he said. He tapped his belt buckle. “Did you come all the way from Nogales for this, abuelito?”

The old lawnman straightened his wiry frame and stood his ground. He held Mario’s stare, unaffected and unafraid. Then he spoke with a weary authority.

“That silver is cursed.” He raised his hand and ran the sign of the cross on himself. “It drove you mad, murdered my brother and burned my son and his family to death.”

Mario let loose a howl, a wild cackle.

“No, no, abuelito. That was me, not the sterling.” An eerie delight danced behind Mario’s eyes as he scanned the street, the greensuit trucks full of our fallen crew, the deep ruts his diesel had carved in the lawns, and my broken mower oozing her oil onto the ground.

With a pop and a hiss the bungalow’s lawn sprinklers rose from the ground and covered us all in a fresh mist. Mario sneered as he spread his arms like Christ on the cross, tilted his head back and drank in the rain. He was blissful, drunk on all the darkness. Without thought, I stepped forward and buried my machete deep in his forehead. His chainsaw dropped on the grass as he clambered to his knees. Blood ran down his forehead and into his open eyes.

In his ear I whispered, “That was for Remington.”

My boot on his chest, I wrenched the blade from his brain, hoping my words crossed the plain and would travel with him for eternity.

I turned and faced the old lawnman. His face quit short of smile while I forced my machete into his torso, downward, between his collarbone and shoulder, severing his insides. I twisted the blade and felt the vibration of his ancient spine snapping against the steel in my hand. One gasp and he was gone.

Mario’s men and the remaining greensuits stood still. They watched me pull Stacy’s blood soaked chest to mine, gently lay him on the earth and shut his eyes.

In his ear I whispered, “Lo siento, abeulo. Vaya con dios.”

The sprinklers stopped as quick as they’d started. I grabbed Mario’s chainsaw and ripped the belt buckle from his waist. I looked at the two crews. Their eyes shifted from me to their dead heroes, unsure whether to attack one another or wait for orders from a new ruler.

“Emilita, and the rest of it, belongs to me now. If you want to live, you can keep your jobs.”


There’ve been no more wars in the time since Mario and Stacy fell. There’s been no peace either, those of us left alive are marked with scars while the dead fertilize the earth and feed the soil. At night, I pray for mild summers and rainy winters. I ask for forgiveness, though in my heart, Mendoza’s house will never stop burning.

Over weeks and months, I unified all the rogue valley crews, convinced them that there’d be less trouble and more money under one man. Still, there are newcomers, eager boys who missed the wars and dream of their own. They eye my buckle with envy and contempt, gossip about the cursed guero wearing silver. I don’t care. Let them come.

I found a used reel mower in a salvage shop. It’s not Remington, but it’s quiet and suffers with me through the tall grass without complaint.

Jarrett Haley:

This might be overdoing it, but I like that he “liked being watched” and maybe it’d be fun to see how that played out in a little anecdotal scene like this?


Josh DuBose:

I hear you on this one, but I feel like making this longer will jack the transition into the house burning.