When I was four years old I spent a lot of time watching superhero cartoons. My favorites were the borderline anti-heroes, like Spiderman and The Hulk. In their ultimate quest to do good, each was misunderstood and maligned by the establishment, and considered by some to be a menace to society.
Fueled by my identification with these animated misfits, my wild, overactive imagination often got me into trouble. Such was the case when I decided to become The Masked Marauder.
I fashioned a mask by cutting eye-holes into a paper plate and attaching it to my head with a rubber band. My cape was an old baby blanket and I used an aluminum garbage can lid for my mighty shield. Apparently I was under the impression that I had to establish the “anti” part of my reputation before becoming a force for truth and justice. I plotted to create mischief and mayhem throughout my quiet suburban neighborhood, one gabled house at a time.
Creeping along my block in broad daylight, the crunching leaves beneath my Keds would have signaled my approach. However, believing myself adequately cloaked and invincible, I set my sights on some Hefty bags filled with leaves that were neatly lined up on the side of Mrs. Schafely’s house. It never occurred to my four-year-old evil genius that Mrs. Schafely might be at home and looking out her window at the exact moment when I untied the bags and re-spread the leaves all over her formerly tidy front lawn.
When Mrs. Schafely ran onto her porch, I quickly learned that getting caught in the act was incredibly unpleasant. Her anger terrified me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she screamed. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to rake up all those leaves?”
Like an ill-prepared Oscar winner, I did not have a speech. I wanted to explain that I was simply The Masked Marauder doing what The Masked Marauder does. Eventually I’d get around to acts of virtue, but right now I had to build my street cred by wreaking havoc upon my neighbors. With all powers of elocution eluding me, I was unable to mount a defense. Maybe I already knew that what I had done was, in fact, indefensible.
Scolded, ashamed and repentant, I did as my crimson-faced neighbor instructed: I raked every last leaf back into a black plastic bag. I don’t remember if she told my parents about my foray into pre-adolescent delinquency. I’m thinking she must have spared me because I don’t recall any additional punishment. All I do know is that my career as The Masked Marauder was over before it really began.
From the ashes of yard refuse, however, rose a new opportunity. When I was ten years old, right around the time I’d polished off the last of my Halloween candy, I started going door to door offering to rake yards for cash. I’m not sure if I was aware of the Karmic significance in choosing that particular form of labor. At the time it seemed like a fun, easy way to supplement my allowance for the all-important mission of buying Christmas presents for my family. There was also my father’s birthday to contend with, which fell on the tenth of November.
Too young to drive or ride my bike any great distance, I was limited to the nearby Deal Pharmacy for all my shopping needs. Still, I took pride in my gift giving and was willing to work hard to secure the necessary funds. Such was life on the right side of the law.
Like most traveling salespersons, I faced a lot of rejection. Some households had their own built-in kids who would do the raking for free. Some economy-minded residents pointed at the brilliant fall foliage, still plentiful in the trees, and said, “Come back in a couple of weeks, hon. We’re not paying to do this twice.” Every so often I encountered a homesteader still too irate over Mischief Night hijinks to trust anyone under the age twenty-one to do anything.
Mrs. Clark ended up being my target client. A widowed senior who cared for her own elderly mother, she was too old to do the work herself and too young not to be concerned with appearances. If she wasn’t a retired school teacher, she should have been. She was tall with excellent posture and dressed in conservative yet feminine clothes. Her hair was wavy and white and she wore cat-eye glasses that she probably bought in the early sixties.
I knocked on her door on a Friday afternoon, the eve of my father’s fiftieth birthday. I told her I needed the money to buy him a present, and she agreed to let me rake her front and back yards for a flat fee of ten dollars. The house was a corner property that sat on a quarter-acre of land. There were two large oaks in front of the house that had blanketed the yard with their crispy brown cast-offs. I had my work cut out for me, but I had a system.
I used short strokes to draw the leaves into a long, thin pile, then wrangled each row to a center aisle and used sweeping strokes to whisk the accumulated heap to the street. My hands began to ache as the sun went down and the air grew increasingly chilly. The shadows thickened around me and I could smell a neighbor’s fireplace burning. It made me long for home, but I kept working, my scalp and back drenched in sweat. My eye was on the prize, or at least on the men’s cologne shelf in the back of Deal Pharmacy. I knew in the morning my Mom would make a special birthday breakfast for my Dad, and I wanted his Old Spice Musk for Men gift set (with bonus soap-on-a-rope) wrapped and ready for him to open.
When it became so dark I could no longer see the ground, I had to concede that my goal of finishing the job in one day would not be reached. I knocked on the door and told Mrs. Clark that I would come back the next day. She not only said that would be fine, but kindly agreed to pay me in advance. With the ten dollars she gave me, I had enough to pay for Dad’s gift, a funny card, and a root beer lollypop. The lollypop was for me.
The next day the weather took a drastic turn toward winter and I cowered from the cold. I didn’t return to Mrs. Clark’s house as I had promised — not that day, nor the following week, nor for the remainder of the month. The longer I waited the more embarrassed and guilt-ridden I felt. The idea of going back became unbearable.
For the next few years, having given up the leaf raking business, I continued to avoid Mrs. Clark’s house. I didn’t go there on Halloween. I didn’t get off the school bus on her corner, even though it was the closest stop to my house. The worst part, besides the remorse of having bilked on old lady out of ten dollars, was that I couldn’t explain my behavior, even to myself.
Then one December day one of my neighborhood friends came up with the ambitious notion of rounding up some kids to go Christmas caroling. Caught up in the holiday spirit, I was excited to go along, but with one caveat. Everyone had to agree that we would skip the Clark house.
After hearing my confession and absolving me of my sin (it was Christmas after all), my co-carolers acquiesced. That is, until the moment when we reached the corner and saw Mrs. Clark’s wreath hanging spot-lit on her front door. Then they decided an intervention was needed.
“Oh, come on,” my friend said. “She’s not going to remember you. You’re being paranoid.”
“Just stand in the back,” someone else suggested, “and keep your head down.”
Perhaps I was driven by the same impulse that lures all culprits back to the scene of the crime. I shuffled along with the crowd to the foot of Mrs. Clark’s porch and meekly joined in for a chorus of “Deck the Halls”. The stark light in the vestibule flickered on and a moment later Mrs. Clark opened the door. She looked absolutely delighted to see us. I shrank from the glow of her countenance and dipped further behind the tallest member of our group.
When we finished she applauded and thanked us all. Then she gingerly stepped forward and squinted in my direction. “You, back there in the red cap,” she said. “Is your name Lori?”
A hushed silence fell upon the group as everyone turned and stared at me. They must have seen my face turn the same shade as my knit hat. My heart was pounding and I wanted the frozen pavement to open up and swallow me whole. It was like getting caught by Mrs. Schafely all over again, literally standing there holding the bag of my misdeed. I was a bad person. A shady, dishonest wuss.
“Yes,” I admitted in a shaky voice.
“I thought so,” she said and beamed. “I owe you money!”
The kids around me laughed, but I was horrified. “No! Mrs. Clark, I owe you money. I never came back and finished your yard. I’m so sorry. You don’t owe me anything!”
“Well, then you’ll take it for your wonderful singing. Here, share it with your friends. Merry Christmas and God bless you all.”
In utter amazement, I walked away from Mrs. Clark’s house with several dollar bills in my coat pocket. I knew I should have felt terrible, but mostly I felt relieved. This whole time I had been living under the steadfast assumption that she cursed the ground I walked on, and any chance encounter with the victim of my embezzlement would result in my being reduced to a pile of salt. But as it turned out, Mrs. Clark wasn’t angry with me at all. The long-feared moment of judgment never came. I was off the hook.
But was I really?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reveling in appreciation of the fall colors blazing at their peak. Having moved back to a town not far from where I grew up, I’ve also had recent occasion to drive past Mrs. Clark’s house. A basketball hoop now hangs near the driveway, and an outdoor fire pit sits on the side of the house surrounded by benches. The once-white house, now painted cerulean blue, shows evidence of a young family living within its walls.
Also, lately I’ve been ruminating over the idea that I should write a story based on the events of that chilly November so long ago. Perhaps I could inject some eerie twists, transform the handsome Dutch colonial into a gothic Victorian and fabricate a fictional encounter with the ghostly apparition of Mrs. Clark granting me final absolution. But somehow it just felt wrong, even sacrilegious. Still, I wanted an ending to the story. I wanted closure.
A few days ago, on the eve of my father’s ninety-first birthday, I woke up and wondered if it might be possible to return to Mrs. Clark’s house and finally finish the job she hired me to do. Of course, Mrs. Clark would have passed away years ago, but the yard and the leaves were still there calling to me. An irresistible impulse became a mission I had to fulfill.
Living in a beach community where the houses are snugly situated, I don’t have a yard. So the first thing task before me was getting my hands on a rake. I texted a friend and asked if she had one I could borrow. If the answer was yes, I’d take it as a sign that I was on the right track. She texted me back, “Sure, I’ll bring it over.”
That was the easy part. The next obstacle was getting permission from the current occupants to let me onto their lawn. Would they think I was completely insane? What if their lawn was already raked? What if it wasn’t, but they owned a fancy leaf blower and it was their crowning joy every autumn to go out and blow their lawn clean? Would it be fair to deprive them of that seasonal right just so I could clear my conscience?
Despite my qualms, I couldn’t help but feel I was embarking on something magical. As I drove the miles that separated my current abode from my childhood home, I tenuously hoped for a sign. Not a voice, a vision or even the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Just some moment or connection to validate that this was the right thing to do; a sign to reassure me that keeping a promise, even if it takes forty years, is never an act of futility.
When I pulled up in front of the house, I couldn’t help but stare in awe and wonder if my sign had arrived. One half of the front yard had been completely cleared of every leaf, twig and acorn. They were piled high along the curb.
The other half of the lawn was overflowing with foliage.
I was a little freaked out by that. It was like coming back to Mrs. Clark’s house and finding half of my job still waiting for me, as if forty years had not passed. I was also partly relieved that I wouldn’t have to rake the whole yard.
I knocked on the door and waited. After a few moments I realized that no one was home except for a very large, very loud dog.
Now what? I figured, either they were out for the day and would return to find their yard mysteriously raked, or they would catch me in the act, and I’d have some explaining to do. At that point, it didn’t matter. I had a job to do so I grabbed the rake from my car.
It was a beautiful morning. The sound of the leaves whooshing across the grass and the scrape of the rake’s fingers on the gray concrete were just as I remembered. I was moving along so quickly I couldn’t imagine why I hadn’t finished the job as a ten-year-old. Had my imagination tripped me up again? All those years ago, had I been stopping every few moments to gaze at the sky, indulging in one of my endless daydreams? Is that why it seemed to take forever?
There was no pausing for me now. The more leaves I cleaned from the yard, the more anxious I became that the family would return and wonder what the hell I was doing on their property.
I was almost finished, with one last row to corral to the curb. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black SUV cruise slowly past the house, make a U-turn in the intersection and pull to a stop on the opposite side of the street. Oh boy, I thought. Here we go.
I crossed over to them as they piled out of the car. An attractive married couple and their two teenage daughters, all dressed in their Sunday best, walked quickly toward me.
“You must be wondering why a complete stranger is raking your yard,” I greeted them.
“Uh…yes,” both the man and woman replied, looking deeply perplexed.
“Well,” I began, “forty years ago, the elderly woman who lived in this house paid me to rake her yard, and I didn’t finish the job. So I came back today to finish up. For Mrs. Clark.”
I could see that their concerns weren’t entirely allayed. So I filled in the details and they listened graciously, even the teenagers. The husband still seemed confused by it all, and maybe he was indeed disappointed that I hadn’t left him many leaves to blow to the curb. He said he’d only managed to get half the yard done the day before. The wife looked amused, and perhaps a bit touched that I’d kept the promise after all this time. We all shook hands and made introductions.
They hadn’t known Mrs. Clark or were aware that she’d ever owned their home. But it turned out they’d just come from church in the town where I currently live. They even knew some of my neighbors. Small world? Or another sign?
I’d like to think Mrs. Clark is aware of my deed. I hope she knows that a beautiful family now lives in her house, and that her yard looks great. Maybe she’s watching from the other side, trying to figure out how to get another ten dollars into my pocket.