Nagys Landscaping
Photo by Bryan Dickerson on Unsplash

Six-year-old Craig insisted on wearing his t-ball jersey, a too-large purple pullover that advertised Mim’s Pharmacy out front and sported the number 8 on its back. Their mom asked Luke if he also wanted to put on his team baseball shirt, but Luke declined.

“I only got an hour, not even that,” their father said when they were in the truck. “But goddammit, Luke, you got to put on a better show than in that first game.” Craig wasn’t sure if goddammit was on the list of words good boys didn’t say. Craig’s role was to stand in the shallow outfield and run down the batting practice balls Luke hit off Dad’s pitching. But Luke kept swinging and missing.

“Keep your eye on the ball,” their father growled.

“Come on, Luke.”

“For Crissakes.”

“Are you even trying?”

As their father’s complaints grew more intense, Luke missed the ball by larger and larger margins. It looked to Craig like it would take an accident or a miracle for Luke to hit one. The balls piled up near the fence behind home plate. Dad kept reaching into the bucket for another. There seemed an endless supply. “Concentrate!” he barked before releasing the latest. Swing and miss. It was a late, loopy swing that turned Luke halfway around and nearly corkscrewed him off his feet. “Hopeless,” Dad said.

The next pitch was faster than the others, and it hit Luke square in the upper left arm as he faced his father. He went down in a heap and started wailing, kicking up dust and grabbing at his injured arm. Dad stood steady at the mound. Without looking at Craig, Dad put his hand up, palm facing the outfield. Craig saw that hand signal, and after one short step toward Luke, he stopped. Dad was pitching hard baseballs from his playing days, which were stored in a big, cracked, red bucket in the garage, not the softer baseballs designed for the boys’ age groups. Dad didn’t believe in anything except hard balls.

“Stop crying,” Dad called into Luke, who was still writhing and carrying on. “If you can’t hit the goddamn ball, you might as well get used to letting it hit you. That’s the only way you’re going to get on base.” After a while, Luke got up without trying to knock any of the dirt off himself. His white T-shirt was caked. Craig thought it was a good thing Luke didn’t wear his team shirt; you wouldn’t want that special shirt to get filthy. “Don’t walk away,” Dad yelled at Luke. “We’re not done here. We’re not done until you hit the damn ball.” But Luke was done. He kept slow-walking off the field, letting the 28-ounce aluminum bat drag behind him. He headed toward the parking area, where the truck, dull green with Nagy Specialty Landscaping tattooed on both doors, was the only vehicle in the large lot on Sunday morning.

“I have half a mind to make you walk home. Quitting like that. Unbelievable. Goddamn quitter.” Luke didn’t walk home. The three of them got into the truck. The silence made the short trip long.

It was after 9 p.m., the time Luke said his shift was over. Still, he hadn’t called like he said he would. Craig called him.

“I’m in the car. I was going to call when I got home.”

“Okay. You can talk and drive, right?”

“I can talk and drive. You are coming in loud and clear. You’re filling up the truck, so no need to shout.”

“No one is shouting.”

“Got it.”

“Luke, you need to come home.”

“Uh, I don’t see how I can do that.”

“He’s dying.”

“Yes, I am aware. We are all dying. He has cancer. He is dying faster.”

“No, Luke, I was with him at the doctor yesterday. I was in the room with him talking to the oncologist. Two months, Luke. On the outside, the doctor said. He’s got two months. You need to come see him.”

“I can’t do that, Craig. I mean, I don’t just get to pick up and leave. I can’t do my job from a laptop in the bedroom. I work in a warehouse.”

“I know. I’m sure they give time off. I’m sure they would understand the circumstances. You are not a million miles away.”

“That’s what it feels like, tell you the truth. Hey, you know, I got promoted. Shift manager. Some of the fulfillment people call it shit manager. You take all the shit for the people upstairs. You’re the one who hears the complaints from the folks on the floor.”

“Congratulations, Luke, I mean it. That’s good news.”

“Funny, people come and go all the time here, but it’s the longest I’ve ever lasted working at one place. Three years. Longest living in one place, too, Flagstaff. Who would have thought?”

 “Well, I think some permanence is good for you. But you should see Dad before it’s too late.”

“Craig, it was too late for me and him a long time ago.”

Craig drove them back from the doctor the day the oncologist delivered Frank Nagy’s death sentence. His mother sat in the back of Craig’s Taurus, shrunken, staring at her hands. Frank Nagy looked out the window as they turned in and out of neat streets that boasted the green lawns and shade trees Nagy Specialty Landscaping nourished for so many years.

“You think I was too hard on you growing up. I know your brother does.” Craig kept his eyes on the road. He put a second hand on the steering wheel, as if both were needed to keep the car moving forward on near-empty residential streets. “No one in this world hands you anything, ever,” Frank continued. “Then they tell you that you have cancer, and you better get ready to be put in the ground. There’s no time for bullshit. This just proves it. You get it?”

“I know, Dad.”

Luke dumped a can of chili into a small pot that still bore the dark red remnants of his last chili dinner. He heard the couple in the next apartment arguing. The words themselves were largely muffled, though a few came through clearly enough to tell him the fight was about the husband’s gambling. Again. This one started when the husband got back from another losing night out. Luke turned on the television. He didn’t want to watch anything, just to drown out the battle next door. He thought about the time when he was seventeen, a newly certified driver, and asked his father to borrow the truck to visit Shannon Albright. Shannon Albright, wow, when was the last time he thought of her? Auburn hair, a little too thin, maybe, not really. Shannon was always happy, at least she always seemed happy. She wore a smile so intense it said fuck off to whatever trouble loomed in class or in the hushed conversations with her friends about jerky boys or bad drugs. That’s what Luke liked about Shannon. He hoped some of her positive attitude would rub off on him.

No, his father said. He did not look up from the television. He was in his armchair, a bottle of Miller on the worn, wooden stand at his right hand. He’d showered after work but still the scent of new mown grass lightly hung on him.

“Come on, Dad, it’s not that far. I won’t be home late.”

“Then walk.”

“It’s too far for that.”

“No. You mess up the truck, I can’t work. I can’t work, we don’t eat. You get it?”

“I’m not going to mess up the truck.”

“Somebody could mess it up for you. Not your fault, but still my problem.”

“Mom, would you please talk to him. All my friends get to drive.”

“Throwing your rich friends at me isn’t going to do you any good,” his father said.

“They’re not rich. That’s just your imagination, everyone is rich and sitting around all day at their pools, except you, of course.”

“Frank, why don’t you drive him over if you don’t want him to take the truck?”

“Because I worked all day in the sun and I am tired.”

“I can drive him,” his mother added, though she rarely drove the truck.

“That’s no good,” Luke said. “What if we wanted to go out somewhere after I got there?  What does it look like if my mother drives me over to a girl’s house?”

“Ride your bike,” his father said, still not looking at him.

Luke put some warm water in the chili pot and placed it in the sink to soak. The neighbors had gone quiet. He was still too amped up from work and the conversation with Craig to sleep. He wished he had someone to call.

Craig was at his old desk in his childhood bedroom, trying to program. They were understanding at work when he said he needed to be remote for a while. Parental health problems, he told the sympathetic HR person. They said they’d lessen his load, but deadlines were deadlines. He paused at a difficult juncture and swiped through his phone. There was a text from Aimee. How are things going?

Eh, he typed. They are going.

What’s the latest?

Heading downhill. Now we are down to days or weeks. That’s the latest.

So I’ll guess you’ll stay, you won’t come home before.

Yeah, looks that way.

We’ll come when it’s time. Me and Jill. At the end.

Right.

I miss you.

You, too.

Jill misses you, too.

Let’s Facetime tonight, before she goes to bed.

Craig sighed and looked at the laptop screen. He was supposed to join a Zoom call in ten minutes to talk about progress on the project. He emailed his colleagues and said he couldn’t make it. He added a note in Slack to be sure they got the news. His mother knocked softly on the door.

“I know you’re working,” she said.

“It’s okay. I’m not getting much done.”

She sat on the edge of his childhood bed, on top of the same duvet that was there the whole time he grew up. He had a vision of her sitting there, turned sideways to examine his red, feverish face, when he had the flu. Was he eight, was he ten? She put her palm on his hot forehead. “It’s okay,” she said then. “It’s going to all be okay.”

Now, she wanted to talk about the landscaping business. What would happen to it?

“I’ve seen the incorporation papers and the will. It goes to you. There isn’t much debt. It’s still profitable, though the revenues are down the past few years. Maybe more competition? I don’t know. But it’s a real business. Still.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“You could sell.”

“What would I be selling? It’s nothing without your father.”

“I understand, Mom, but the relationships he built have value to someone else in the business. One of the other landscapers. The company name, the Nagy name, it retains some value. Some of these people have been customers for thirty years.”

“Would you take it over?”

“Me? Are you serious?”

“I wanted to ask.”

“Mom, I do something else. That I enjoy. At least, most of the time. It’s a career. Aimee has a career, too. Jill is in preschool. It’s all in Santa Clara, not here.”

“I know,” she said quietly. “I just thought…” She let it end there, got up and closed the door behind her.

It was a Sunday afternoon when his father asked Craig to join him in the small, cyclone-fenced back yard. It was indistinguishable from the backyards of the other, modest properties to the right and left and the ones from Grant Street that backed up to their Spring Street line-up. You wouldn’t know it was the yard of a landscaper, though the grass was strong and regularly cut. There were no interesting plants, and a spindly elm in the far-left corner was nothing to cheer about. Nagy Specialty Landscaping’s customers didn’t live in this neighborhood. The customers’ broader expanses and more handsome trees resided in the affluent districts of town. The Nagy neighbors mowed their own lawns.

Frank Nagy was in an old fold-up camping chair, the same one he used to drag around to watch Luke and Craig play youth baseball and soccer. He’d sit in his camping chair, purposely placed yards away from other parents, and scowl at the action. Now, he said, “I want to talk to you about working with me in the summer.”

“Yeah, well, I assumed I would. I mean I’ve worked with you every summer since I was, what, twelve.”

“But, now it’s different. You are going to graduate high school. I want you to come work with me for good, not just the summer. I want you to be a partner.”

His father took a long swig of his Miller. “Dad, you know I am going to go to college. We’ve talked about this. I’ve seen the school guidance counselor. He likes my chances.”

“Guidance counselor. What does he know about anything?”

“You’re a college expert now? You know more than the guidance counselor?”

“I don’t care about college. I’m a life expert. And I’m making you an offer that’s much better than paying to go to college. I am making you a partner in a business. Something real. Something you are smart enough to take and make bigger than it is.”

“Dad, I don’t want to be a landscaper.”

“Of course, it’s not good enough for you. Just for me.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You think that.”

“You should make Delgado your partner. That’s what makes sense.”

“Delgado isn’t family.”

 Craig turned to walk back into the house.

“I’m not going to pay for your college. Not one cent,” his father yelled at his back.

“Yeah, yeah,” Craig muttered. He kept on walking.

At the end of a summer’s day when Craig was fifteen, he sat in the truck’s passenger seat as his father drove. He kept looking down at his once-white t-shirt, streaked with dirt from left shoulder down to the right bottom, like it was a sash in a perverse beauty contest or the result of getting run over diagonally by a motorcycle tire. How did that pattern occur? He had no idea. His hair was matted and his hands ached from gripping the handles of the beastly big lawnmower all day.

“That goddamn new kid. Did you see him? Laughing and lollygagging all day. Letting the others pick up the slack.”

Craig knew who his father meant. The others called him Tijo. He was a tall young man with wavy hair he held under a blue and white bandana. He looked strong but not pumped up from working out in a gym. He did laugh a lot, a sound not heard often as they moved from big lawn to big lawn. Craig thought he was cool.

“Bastard. I’m going to get Delgado to fire him.”

“He didn’t seem so bad,” Craig said. “Shouldn’t you at least talk to him and give him another chance?”

“Another chance? I gave him a big chance. Listen, Craig, there are things you don’t know, don’t understand. I take a chance with a kid like Tijo. He’s not really supposed to be here, get it? But I don’t care about that. If a man wants to work and make something of himself, that’s the sort of man I want to work with. I don’t care where you were born.”

“Still, Dad…”

“Hey, do you see me out there. I do the work every one of the men do. I don’t lord it over anybody. I can’t stand a little prince who thinks he’s better than everyone. And before I had this business, I was one of them, getting treated like shit, making too little money. The difference is I wanted to learn. Give me every lousy job you have, I’ll do it and I’ll learn how to do it better, faster, cheaper. Get it? So when I had a chance to start my own business, I was ready.”

“You won’t let me do every job. Just mowing.”

“You’re too young, now. In time you’ll get to do it all.”

“Just like you did,” Craig said.

“One big difference. You’re the boss’s son.”

It was time for eulogies. Just short talks. Craig put it that way to Luke when Luke initially declined to participate. “It’s not right,” Craig said. “He was every bit your father as he was mine, even if you cut him off.”

“That’s not how it happened,” Luke said.

“Whatever,” Craig said.

Finally, Luke agreed to speak.  Their mother made clear she would not speak at the funeral. It was not her thing. She knew what she knew and remembered what she remembered. That was enough. Luke went first.

“I left home as soon as I was through with high school. Wanderlust, I guess you could call it. You could also say it had something to do with my father and me, how we got along. Or didn’t get along. You wouldn’t be wrong. But none of that matters now. I’ve been plenty of places since. I’ve lived in some, passed through others. When each place is new, you are on edge when you arrive. When you are traveling alone, like I do. Funny, but what always helped me settle into a new place was thinking of Dad, Dad in the living room of the bungalow, with Mom there, too, of course. Thinking of him sitting in his old armchair, with a Miller within reach. The smell of mulch all through the house. Not a terrible smell, but strong. Thinking of him in one place all the years I was moving around. It was helpful to me. To know where to find him. If I needed. That’s over now and, well, I’m getting too old to keep moving. So maybe in my own way, I’m ready to take that over. The being in one place, rooted. But it will never be like him. No one will ever be like him. So long Pop, so long.”

Craig was next. “Our father was a strong man, a self-made man, a man who started with nothing and made something of himself and for his family. If you didn’t know that about him, he was happy to tell you. He was proud of that and rightly so. He accomplished a lot. He started and ran a successful business. With Mom, he raised Luke and me. He had firm ideas about being a parent. Some of them seem out of step now. To be honest, some of them seemed out of step even when we were growing up.  But he was a man of convictions. Sure of his abilities. He raised us the way he thought best. He left a lot behind. He came in with nothing and made something. With hard work and persistence. I believe he would have liked hearing me say that. About the hard work. I don’t have a problem saying it. Because it’s true.”

Next up was Luis Delgado, who was the landscaping company’s second-in-command for as long as both boys could remember. Craig was embarrassed when Delgado first called to express his sympathies after Frank’s death and introduced himself as Luis. Craig needed more than a moment to realize who was on the phone. To Frank Nagy, and thus to his family, the man was always simply Delgado. The oft-mentioned, always reliable Delgado, who, among other things, was responsible for recruiting and training the teams of seasonal workers the company employed. Luis Delgado’s close-cropped hair was gray now, which amazed Craig but should not have. He hadn’t seen Delgado since Craig was eighteen. Delgado’s compact physique was still powerful. His brown suit was old-fashioned, an outfit that said it was rarely worn and only for solemn occasions.

“Everyone knows Frank was a hard man. A hard worker, sometimes a hard boss. Maybe all of you don’t know what a good man he was, too. An honest man. A man who treated everyone with respect. If you worked hard for Frank Nagy, if you showed up on time and took the job serious, he appreciated you. And he let you know. Even if maybe some of the workers didn’t know all the English words Frank used, they understood what he meant. It would fill them with pride when Frank said good job, because, you know, Frank worked alongside us. It meant something. Of course, if you weren’t serious about the work, Frank would let you know that, too. In those cases, you didn’t last too long. I will tell you one story, just one.

“Years ago, my nephew worked with us. He worked with us for two years and he was good and reliable. I told my older sister in Mexico I would look out for her son. But it turned out I didn’t look after him close enough. He got into trouble. A fight on a Saturday night. Too much drinking. Someone had a knife. The police came. For my nephew it was worse than for the others. For my nephew, it could have meant being forced out of the country. I told Frank about the situation, about why my nephew would need a few days off because of this trouble. He told me to hire the best lawyer I could find, the most expensive lawyer, a specialist who would see to it that my nephew wasn’t taken out of the country. I told Frank what he already knew, that I didn’t have the money for the most expensive lawyer. He said, don’t worry. You find the lawyer and leave the rest to me. So, I found a good lawyer and he was able to get the charge reduced to a level that wouldn’t cause an issue with immigration. My nephew did community service. He stayed out of trouble and after a while the case was sealed. No more record. It all turned out okay. I told Frank the best way for me to pay him back for the lawyer was for him to take an amount out of my paycheck each week. I told him he could decide how much. It would take a while, but that was the way I would pay him back. Frank said nothing doing. He wasn’t going to take a cent out of my paycheck. Not now, not ever. He said, ‘Delgado, you already paid me back, don’t you know that? More than paid me back.’”

Craig turned to look at his brother, both of them in the front row of mourners, Luke two seats to Craig’s right. He heard hard, heaving sounds coming from Luke, and watched Luke rock back and forth like he had no control over his movements. Craig couldn’t remember the last time he saw Luke cry. He thought of the ball field when Luke was ten and he was six, when Luke was bawling in the dirt after their father purposely hit him in the arm with a baseball. Craig wanted to comfort Luke then but was too scared of their father to move from his position on the field. Now, Craig reached across his mother, who sat between them, and put his hand on Luke’s knee. Squeezing it. Gently. Luke’s rocking subsided. The heaving sounds quieted. Craig looked at his mother, who was dabbing at her eyes with a folded tissue. He wondered if his mother saw as clearly as he did that it was Delgado’s company now.

About the Author

Neal Lipschutz

Neal Lipschutz' short fiction has appeared in a number of digital and print publications.