Authors: Gary Paulsen
This is for Kathy Dunn Grigo, publicist extraordinaire,
and for Dylan, Ryan and Kaylee Grigo,
for sharing so much of their mother’s time with me
I don’t have a clue how all this will end.
There are people who say I’m a wonderboy—one who got jinxed—or that I knew some secret—which I fumbled—or that I had this big, hairy plan.
One minute I was twelve years old and wondering where I could get enough money for an inner tube for my old used ten-speed. And the next minute I’m a financial prodigy with my own business and a bunch of people working for me and a stockbroker and a prizefighter of my very own. The minute after that I’ve got tax problems and
employee difficulties and threats of lawsuits and greedy relatives no one’s ever heard of before and I’m sick to death of being rich.
Six weeks ago, I inherited my grandfather’s old lawn mower and came up with a wild plan of making $7,500 over the twelve weeks of summer if I worked all day, every day, mowing lawns. At the time, it seemed like a staggering amount of money.
Half a summer into my plan, after working really hard, partnering up with another lawn guy, and lucking into Arnold, a customer on my route who was also a genius stock wizard on a hot streak, I was suddenly worth $480,000 from business expansion and stock investments that were, for the most part, happy accidents.
For a little while, it seemed like everything I touched turned to gold. That was the good part.
But then for a little while, it seemed like everything I touched turned to compost. That was the bad part.
I’d better explain.
It all began at nine in the morning on a day in late July, when my grandmother showed up with Joey Pow and his brand-new long-lost cousin Zed.
I sponsor a great fighter: Joseph Powdermilk, Jr. His nickname is Joey Pow.
My grandmother is the kind of person who always thinks the best of everyone. She’s also very big on family.
So when this guy Zed approached Grandma and Joey at the gym and said, “Hey, Joey! It’s Zed, your second cousin once removed,” Grandma was thrilled.
Joey couldn’t hear what the guy was saying because his ears were still ringing from his sparring partner’s accidental haymaker. Cousin Zed threw
his arm around the still-reeling Joey. “I’m one a yer dad’s stepbrother Sam’s boys from his second or maybe his third marriage. Could be the seventh one, hard ta keep track a Sam, he’s always been what ya call a bad boy, gotta real taste for the ladies.”
Grandma beamed at Joey and Joey got all excited because Grandma looked so happy. Grandma hugged Zed and then Zed hugged Joey, and bam, faster than one of Joey’s knockouts, Zed had weaseled himself into becoming part of Joey’s family.
Over the past few weeks, Grandma and Joey have developed a great and unusual friendship, even though they don’t appear to have much in common. She speaks really fast and he talks really slowly; he’s enormous and powerful, she’s small and gentle. But they’re both early birds, which is great because Joey likes to do his workouts at the gym in the morning and Grandma likes to drink coffee and read the newspaper there to the sound of uppercuts to the chin and body punches.
Grandma’s learned a lot about boxing recently. I walked in on one of Joey’s training sessions the other day and saw her shadowboxing in the corner.
She’s been pestering Joey to teach her to feint and jab. Joey likes to have someone look after him, fussing about whether or not he’s getting enough sleep and eating enough fiber and all those other grandmotherly things.
That morning, before Zed appeared, my mom and dad had left town for a few days to look at lakefront property up north; Arnold had told us that investing some of my earnings in land would be a good idea. Grandma was staying at our house to keep an eye on me while they were gone, so after Joey’s workout she brought Joey and Zed back to my house.
Zed’s broken-down pickup truck towed an ancient camper. He parked next to Joey’s old station wagon in our driveway.
Grandma is amazing and fun, but there are times when she makes no sense. Still, if you think really hard, you can usually figure out what she means. When she said, “I have always despised the taste and texture of olives,” and gestured to this dirty, hairy Zed person as he climbed out of his truck, I couldn’t figure out what Zed and olives had in common, but I got a bad feeling.
I think I have a good sense of whether or not a
person can be trusted. For instance, I knew right off the bat that Arnold, my stockbroker, and Pasqual, my lawn-mowing business partner, were good guys. And even though Joey Pow is large and slightly terrifying in appearance, I appreciated his good qualities immediately.
I didn’t get the same vibe from Zed.
“Good ta meetcha.” Zed stuck his hand out and I forced myself to shake his grubby paw. “Yer granny tol’ me how ya sponsor Joey.”
“I did?” Grandma looked a little perplexed. “Oh well, it’s like I always say: people who are cut from the same cloth can’t see the forest for the trees.”
“I know a little somethin’ about the boxin’ biz.” Zed threw a few fake punches and zipped his feet back and forth like he was bobbing and weaving to avoid an opponent in the ring.
Grandma beamed at him. Joey wasn’t paying any attention; he was petting the neighbor’s cat. Next to the cat, Joey looked, as always, ginormous.
I turned back to Zed, who had made himself comfortable in my mother’s lawn chair. He leaned back, farted once, burped twice and gave a mighty scratch in an area most parents urge toddlers not to
touch in public. Charming. I moved upwind once I caught a whiff of him.
“So, uh, where do you live?” I asked.
“Oh, ya know, here ’n’ there. I was passin’ through town and heard about my cuz Joey from a buddy.”
“Uh-huh. What, exactly, did you hear?”
“I heard Joey’s gettin’ ready for a big fight. Bruiser Bulk—ain’t he the Upper Midwest heavyweight champ? From what I hear, Joey’s got a shot at takin’ the title.”
I looked over at Grandma and Joey. She’d put her hands up in front of her face and Joey was, very gently, tapping them with loose fists as she taunted him. “Is that all you’ve got? C’mon, let’s see some speed and power.” Never mind that if Joey so much as flicked her with his forefinger and thumb, he’d propel her into next week.
I looked back at Zed, who had been studying me with the same look that I see in the neighbor’s cat’s eyes when she watches baby birds learning to fly.
“I heard how ya got stinkin’ rich this summer.” Zed smiled, and I got a chill down my spine when I saw his teeth. They looked like he’d sharpened them with a file.
I thought: I’m not the only one who needs someone to keep an eye on them for the next few days.
“So, what do you do for a living?” I asked.
“Oh, ya know, this ’n’ that. I’m between jobs now an’ it seems to me Joey could use a good corner man, and who’s better to have on yer side than fam’ly? Plus I don’t go all squeamish at the sighta blood ’n’ guts.”
“Hey, bud.” Zed looked around and nodded. “Ya got a nice spread. Figger I can park my rig here? The parkin’ lot at Joey’s place don’t have much room.”
“You could, um, probably stay here while you’re in town. For a few days. I guess. Because Joey’s real busy getting ready for the fight.” And I’d rather have you where I can see you, I silently finished. Looking out for Joey’s interests was part of my sponsorship responsibilities.
“That’s real sportin’ of ya, pal, don’t mind if I do.” Zed looked way too happy about the chance to park in our driveway.
I broke up Grandma and Joey’s boxing lesson. “Zed’s going to park here for a few days.” Grandma didn’t seem to be bothered that we had just brought down the property values of the entire neighbourhood
by offering to host this rusted-out piece of garbage. Meanwhile, Joey helped Zed plug in the world’s longest extension cord from his camper to our garage.
Then Joey took off for his midmorning training session (not to be confused with his early-morning workout and, of course, nothing like his late-morning weight lifting). Grandma went inside to rest her eyes (that’s what she calls taking a nap), and Zed—after blowing his nose without using a tissue, sending a snot rocket onto the perfectly mowed lawn—thumped up the step into his “rig” and started to fry up some roadkill he’d scraped off the interstate. At least that’s how it smelled.
And that was how the bad part started.
I stood on the driveway for a second, wondering: How was I going to handle Zed? Because I had a really strong sense that Zed was a problem. A big problem. Epic. The kind of problem I didn’t want a nice guy like Joey to face on his own. I wished I could ask my parents for advice, because they always approach a problem calmly and thoughtfully, but I knew that if I told them about Zed while they were gone, they’d worry about me and Grandma and Joey. And they really deserved a couple of days up north without any worries, because they worked
really hard, Dad with all his inventions and Mom teaching math. I wanted them to enjoy the little vacation they’d taken.
Then I glanced at my watch and realized I was running late. I walked into the garage and took the tarp off my lawn mower.
Every evening when I come home from work, I take a rag and wipe all the loose grass and dirt from the riding mower, and then I cover it with a big tarp. I saw a cowboy movie once and was impressed by how the sheriff always brushed his horse and threw a soft blanket over its back at the end of the day. I know I’m no sheriff and my lawn mower isn’t a horse, but it just felt like the right thing to do. Crazy, I know, but I’d spent a lot of hours in the seat of my lawn mower and it had been good to me. I owed it to the mower to take good care of it.
I enjoyed five or ten minutes of quiet, just me and my lawn mower. It had started making some weird grinding-buzzing sounds on the drive home last night and I was tinkering with it, trying to recapture the familiar humming growl I’d come to know like the sound of my own breathing.