Two weeks of torrential rainfall had turned the front lawn of the small, two-story apartment house into an unruly mess of knee-high grass and weeds. But Francesca was undeterred, moving as if wielding a Hoover vacuum. Dressed in flip-flops and last night's floral nightgown, she attacked the grass in rapid bursts, creating her own rhythm of parry and thrust, leaving the green blades neatly trimmed.
My wife, who owned the building, couldn't afford to pay a lawn service, so initially our teenage son and I committed to mowing the lawn. My son and I alternated. I began with the mower; he grabbed the trimmer. When the trimmer sputtered and died, we took turns sitting on the steps near the front of the building. I made slow progress, as the high grass frustrated the lawn mower. It stalled whenever I pushed too fast. Each time, I paused to drink water and wipe my brow before bending over to restart the engine.
It was during one of these brief interludes that Francesca first appeared. For a few minutes, she looked on with interest, this grandmother with a girlish twinkle in her eye.
"Can I try?" she asked as she walked over. I surrendered the lawn mower.
Francesca rented the first-floor apartment with a female roommate. They were both natives of St. Lucia, a Caribbean island where locals mix French patois and English dialect like rice and peas. On the phone, when she would call to let me know she had her rent, it took a moment to decipher her words, delivered in a lilting musical voice. But there was no mistaking this odd turn. She wasn't looking for a break on her rent; her reward was the simple pleasure of pushing the noisy lawn mower. And for a brief moment, any enmity between tenant and landlord was buried in Bermuda grass.
At first I tried to sit while she worked, but this was uncomfortable as I endured the skeptical looks of the Hispanic men walking to and from the rooming houses that dominate the neighborhood. When it became unbearable, I stood up and collected the empty beer bottles and soda cans littering the walkways. But even as I picked up the trash, I couldn't help but notice how the men stole glances at Francesca as they walked by. They seemed equally fascinated and bemused by the spectacle of this mature woman in a nightgown and flip-flops pushing the lawn mower. Some couldn't resist tossing a few words in her direction. She'd stop and smile with a sort of "you can see, but you can't get" expression. Beads of perspiration ran like rivulets down her forehead. Her slim, athletic legs were taut, the legacy of a life of picking and transporting green bananas and ground provisions up and down the volcanic hills of her West Indian childhood.
Francesca's story spilled out in bits of conversation during moments of rest. When she was a girl, she never knew anyone who owned a lawn mower. Perhaps that would explain her childlike fascination with the two-stroke engine, but not her skill. Her father and uncles wielded razor-sharp machetes as they earned extra money cutting the grass and trimming the hedges of well-to-do senior civil servants. As I marveled at her ability to deftly conquer the high grass, the lawn mower sputtered and stalled in the recalcitrant grass. Francesca bent over and tried to restart the engine.
"Maybe I'm not strong enough," she said, as I sauntered over to the smoking machine.
When I yanked the starter cord, the machine responded with a sputtering cough. I unscrewed the gas tank cap and peered inside. No gas, I said, reaching for the 2-gallon red container.
Within seconds, the machine returned to life. Francesca reached for the handle and resumed her onslaught. The roar of the engine filled the hot afternoon air, a noisy salute to work and the unexpected delight of a woman and a lawn mower.
Andrew Skerritt is a former St. Petersburg Times columnist. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University.