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  • cassieebrown

When the Grass Gets a Little Long.

My neighbor across the street tells me he has asthma, as he pauses from mowing his lawn with a push-mower. It’s early April, but the earth seems determined to behave as though frosts are over. The dandelions are raggedly high, clover blankets fields in purple, and we even have a few irises blooming.


It’s time to start mowing lawns again. He assures me he has his inhaler with him, patting his jeans pocket, which is good, because the pollen from all of the above has got to be miserable for him.


Neighbor has a cheerful smile, a wry sense of humor, and ears that stick out from his rather boxy head, beneath his omnipresent trucker cap. He asks after my mom, and I love him for it. He was one of the rascally folks in the neighborhood who mowed Mom’s lawn for her to keep her from getting ticketed by the town cop for an overgrown yard when she was running herself ragged with Dad in the hospital and her working over sixty hours a week.


No one would ever own up to it because coming home to a freshly mown yard made her irate as hell that someone dared to help her. I think it felt something like pity and something like an insult to her stiff-necked Ozarker pride. As if the neighborhood had passed judgment that she couldn’t do the impossible. How dare they?


So, she would go knocking at several doors, and each neighbor would rub the back of their neck or scratch his ear and point across the way. Elroy would shake his head. “Nah, wasn’t me. Must have been Eddie.” Eddie, of course, would only point fingers across the alley at Bob. And Bob, likewise innocently confused, would suggest Eddie was the culprit.


And so on, as Mom would grind her teeth.


But Neighbor, years after Mom’s temper had simmered down, had acknowledged that he had loved her enough to help and respected her enough to lie about it.


I like Neighbor greatly for both.


He’s thrice divorced, last within the past year. God love him, he tried.


He and I share in common characteristics with cats who are most lovable when allowed to come and go as they please, rather than being kept indoors, no matter how much they might be doted upon and indulged. He’s decided to commit to bachelorhood in his seventies, instead finding himself a nice “lady” to go fishing with or spend time with at car shows.


Mom and I considered asking Neighbor to join us for this past Thanksgiving at our table. Mom turned it over in her head and heart for weeks, because the first guest we invited was a trans woman that we’re friends with, who’s part of our “holiday family.”


Mom was thoughtful of the whole thing, and I watched her try to make sense of it. I realized quickly she wasn’t embarrassed to be known to have a transgender person at her table. She was deeply concerned for the comfort of her guest. She knew Neighbor has a good heart, but wasn’t certain how comfortable he would be, mostly out of unfamiliarity, she realized. And she didn’t want our other guest to be hurt if he responded to her with confusion, discomfort, or reticence. Even misgendering her would have been painful for us all.


“He’s very respectful of ladies,” Mom said, thinking aloud. “It’s just… it would be new to him.”


And I watched how Mom thought this through.


Mom eventually found out that Neighbor had alternate plans for Thanksgiving, and we sort of let it go easily.


I thought of that as I hugged Neighbor before he returned to mowing his lawn.


Mom and I talked the other night about how she cannot believe that she is surrounded by bigots and hateful people. She isn’t sure if she refuses to believe it or cannot accept it or doesn’t see it. But she said, “It just can’t be true.”


And I felt the weight of her disbelief settle uncomfortably around me and my short haircut and my work in the Capitol advocating for my trans friend, and all of our community, and the poor, the Black, immigrants. For bodily autonomy and public education.


And I sighed.


“But I guess I just blend,” Mom admitted after a minute. “Maybe I don’t see it because I blend.”


And I agreed.


Municipal elections were last Tuesday. Speedtrap had a bond issue up for vote. A minuscule property tax increase (pennies per hundred dollar of property) for a few years to raise money for necessary repairs and changes to the property of the K-12 public school that sits in the heart of the community. It might be the thing that gives Speedtrap its sense of identity: that public school. And the building portions seeking repair have been there since 1932.


The tax levy failed.


I voted for it, as did Mom. Neither of us have children in that school now. My memories of it are a bowl of gall. But it is public education which I believe in deeply.


Public education is currently on the block to be chopped throughout our state as property taxes are being cut, money is being diverted into charter and private education, and even basic oversight of homeschooling is being challenged and dismantled, as teachers and public librarians are constantly under attack and scrutiny. These are all hot ticket legislative issues, which breaks my heart.


My education wasn’t the greatest in the world. It wasn’t without pain. But it was available to me, a poor kid in a poor, rural county. It wasn’t religiously-based. It wasn’t legally segregated by sex or race. It had to meet standards, but my teachers were also given leeway to be creative and compassionate. It was a public education, and kids are entitled to a decent public education.


And many of our neighbors must have voted against just such decency.


Mom is right in that she won’t see bigotry or selfishness or narrowness always clearly. And many times pleasant people will vote for absolutely abhorrent things once it is them, a piece of paper, and a pen that they do not need to justify themselves to.


I see people turn away when I say certain things. When I say “gay” or “queer” or “trans,” I pay attention to who flinches and turns aside. When I mention that I work for social justice, I watch people’s cheerful faces in conversation. Sometimes, it is as if a cloud passes between the sun and their smile. It is fleeting, that moment in which I know that we might agree on coffee and movies and yes, this town really has done wonderful things with downtown revitalization, but we will not agree on human rights.


And that is sad.


I refuse to dehumanize the people who I disagree with. They are not necessarily monsters. I don’t have to trust them to see their fundamental humanity. I don’t have to be a monster myself to protect myself and those I love.


But then there are the hard cases.


Neighbor might misgender my friend.


He might not know how to respond to a transgender woman like her. She has cheeks softened and made lovely by hormones but would still be more than a foot taller than him. Where has he been given information about people like her? Is it fair to cast him aside because he operates out of ignorance or even misinformation, rather than malice or hate?


I wave to Neighbor as I cross the street back to my own side, to our own yard that needs mowed.


He returns to neatening up his culvert beside his fence, smiling.


“I’ll tell Mama you said, ‘Hey,’” I holler over his lawnmower, which has just roared back to life.


“You do that!” he calls back.


I realize that he’s the kind of man who will care for someone when no one is looking, and that matters a lot to me. I wonder what kind of people he cares about when no one is looking, and I realize that matters to me, too.

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