It is never easy to live next door to a retired Department of Agriculture employee. Quarantine has made it intolerable. I had always reassured the missus that our yard would look just like Mr Ray’s if I too spent all day at home. Coronavirus has exposed me as a liar.
For four years I enjoyed my coffee and cigarette on the porch, digesting the New York Post’s reports of the calamities that had befallen the Mets in the previous 24 hours. Without baseball I spend my mornings staring out into the yard, reckoning with the fact that I am the New York Mets of landscaping. My wife has worked from home since 2011 and must have known all along. There’s a reason her office overlooks the front yard. Seven weeks into lockdown, the subtle hints about how great it would be to have a fire pit start to sound like threats.
The first step to reclaiming your domain from a half-decade of neglect is to roll up your sleeves and fire up YouTube. There you will find videos of men with calloused hands building perfectly level 16 by 12 foot patios in 15 minutes flat at a cost of $7.99 in material. Eight hours of osmosis by observation gives you all the brawn and expertise necessary for the project. You hike up those sleeves further and hop into the car.
When your only tool is a credit card, every problem looks like a three-hour trip to Lowe’s. You assemble an arsenal of saws, shovels, garden weasels, rakes, a weed whacker, hedge clippers, stakes, 250 feet of neon-orange rope, rope levels, weed and feed, sand and heavy-duty 64-gallon garbage bags for yard waste and disposing of Mr Ray if he plants one more vegetable. Then you go home and take a nap.
The only material you do not need is brick. Children have been hard at work all these years finishing the job that the misplaced ash tree started: namely tearing apart the walkway. Broken windows theory applies out in the suburbs, too. The scattered bricks in the back corner of the yard look like a pizza shop that has been set upon by antifa.
I can move these rocks one by one to another location or I can convince myself that this is an ideal place for a fire-pit.
I get to work clearing. I dig up bushes, tear out ivy by hand, swing rakes and hatchets and saws, wave a dulled machete against the unending plague of greenery. I am so taken in by this manly role-play — the Leonidas of landscaping — that I do not notice the five-year-old wielding a pair of hedge clippers. By nightfall, 23 heavy-duty 64-gallon trash bags are loaded with debris. The rain comes before I can finish hauling them to the front. I must wait until morning to marvel at the 300 square feet of barren soil I have created. I have made a desert, and I call it peace.
I awake on bloodstained sheets. My skin is covered in pricks and tears and popped blisters. I am covered in poison ivy. The YouTube DIYers and Mr Ray never seem to encounter this. Mrs McMorris strips the bed and heads to the laundry room.
The light of day reveals a swath of brown where once there was anarchic green. It also shows a 20-degree slope. The previous owner has concealed this descent with discarded PVC pipes and wooden slats that — wouldn’t you know it? — were obscured by weeds, leaves and spiked sweetgum seeds. Hundreds of pounds of dirt will be needed to level the area, and those are all tucked away in my 23 heavy-duty 64-gallon trash bags. Nothing another trip to Lowe’s can’t fix.
You look at your mangled arms. You turn to the woman who once accepted yardwork shortcomings as the cost of marrying a writer. You contemplate why she insists that you achieve something. Then you think back to the text message, the one from a father of five still working full time in lockdown, a man you used to call a friend.
In the interest of his privacy, I will refer to him from here on as Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project. The photos show a treehouse, which Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, built over the summer. What started as a platform a few feet off the ground has morphed into a two-story Craftsman with painted walls, side-gabled roof and a discreet compartment for beverages carved into the floorboards. There is a yellow slide atop the 20-foot citadel. This seems redundant next to the blue, tubed, spiral slide on the side of the treehouse. Normal fathers would leave this type of slide to Chuck E. Cheese, but such outsourcing is insufficient to the task when Terry Schilling is projecting his American principles.
The pandemic has exposed the importance of the domestic supply chain. That’s all well and good when it involves Chinese manufacturing of medical equipment, but quarantine has led wives across the nation to reevaluate the worthiness of their husbands. Liquor stores remained open nationwide, but angry men didn’t start storming state capitols until governors shuttered home improvement shops.
The age of social media has always been fueled by envy. In the summer of 2020, it is quaint to begrudge the childless, beautiful YouTubers, Instagrammers and other documentarians of the self as they pose in front of some exotic landmark in order to sell Flaming Hot Cheetos. Now that they’re stuck at home like the rest of us, we are forced to look with envy upon the self-evident superiority of our own friends and neighbors. Keeping up with the Joneses looks downright wholesome when you were previously trying to keep up with the Kardashians. There is no escape. Every new dawn rubs our noses in the verdant expanses of Mr Ray’s lawn right before it pushes us down the tubed slide belonging to Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project.
I take a final puff of the cigarette and return inside. My wife is in the kitchen. She whispers — or is it whimpers? — to the pan in front of her.
‘The dryer is broken.’
This article is in The Spectator’s August 2020 US edition.