The garage door opened, revealing Icks to the neighborhood at large – sullen, sunken, prematurely hunchbacked, prematurely mustached, a knee-length t-shirt featuring the Pillsbury Doughboy over his left breast. He was the deepest shade of white when he stepped out onto his parents’ driveway and a giant, crimson blemish on the asphalt when he left it. The sun was unkind to Icks. A fly flew into his eye.
Gwynne revealed herself out of her second story window.
“Hello, young man!” she called to Icks, as if ecstatically expecting him to climb up her hair, although what hair she had was no longer golden. “I’m on the phone,” she said. “Go ‘head and wait on the back patio. I’ll be down shortly.”
Neighborhood bylaws prohibited over-indulgent gardening, but Gwynne was wise enough to let loose beneath a trellis. Every conceivable genus of vegetation and vegetation-accessory cascaded in topiarian overtures from Gwynnevere’s home. Icks watched a sparrow catch a glimpse of its reflection in a birdbath and fall in.
“Baby doll, baby doll, Lord, am I glad you came. My back has nearly done me in.” Gwynne stepped out onto the patio carrying two tall glasses of sweet tea.
“You look thirsty,” she said. Icks did not reach for a glass. Gwynne set them on the table.
“Now it really was fortuity I saw your mother in the grocery store the other day and she was telling me how terribly out of work you were when I was just about to tell her how terribly overgrown my - ”
“I’m not out of work,” said Icks.
“Well, not no more you ain’t. I was - ”
“I don’t want a job. Divine seers are respected for their poverty.”
“My ambition keeps me up at night.”
“Well good, that’s what I like to see in a hedge clipper. Let me show you around.”
Icks followed Gwynne to all the foliage that needed whacking. She explained her designs and he picked his nose with his upper lip and mumbled things like “the sin of work” and “special dispensation” and “vitamin D allergy.” She asked him his price. He said, “thirty dollars an hour.”
Icks did not leave his house for a week after meeting with Gwynne and when he did, it was only at the behest of his father’s foot. He would trip his way down to Gwynne’s house and clock a few minutes here and there, mostly by sitting idly in the shade and counting ants. His first paycheck impressed him, though, and he started to spend more time with the ants. Having already made crystal clear his anathema to working, he didn’t mind at all if Gwynne caught him relaxing.
He spotted an even shadier spot under the drain spout one day
and moved to sit down. Something unexpected, however, entered his rear end. He jumped back and saw the ribbed tail of a rubber rattlesnake poised in the air. All the blood in his body fell to his toenails and once he could remember his name, he ran as fast as he could to Gwynne’s front door.
“Well, hey there little man - ”
“Sshh! Don’t be alarmed. It can smell alarm. Be still. Get a gun. There is an enormous snake in your backyard!”
Gwynne whispered back, “What kinda snake?”
“Sshh. It’s enormous, black, coiled to strike, and mean-looking!”
Gwynne laughed and hugged Icks.
“That’s a decoy, you dope!”
“For the birds! It keeps the birds away! It ain’t real!”
“The birds!” said Icks. “You’ve got bird feeders and bird baths and bird houses on every square inch of this property!”
Gwynne wiped her eyes and smiled warmly at Icks.
“You really are the most adorable, unsuspecting little boy,” she said. “It’s for the condo birds.”
Icks paused a bit to make sure he heard correctly. “What the hell is a condo bird?” he asked.
Gwynne’s smile waned and her eyelids lowered.
“You mean to tell me you ain’t never heard of a condo bird? Are you pulling my chain?” she said.
Icks tried again to understand. “Birds... that live in... what?”
“Condo birds!” she said. “Like condors, but big as condos. Condomaximum!”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Gwynne. “They just did a whole spread on the things.”
Gwynne flipped through her collection of National Geographic.
“Doggonit, you’ll just have to trust me,” she said. “Magnificent creatures. One-ton feathers and claws that fell bridges. Violent, beautiful animals that would love to snatch up my garden, to say nothing of my pergola, if it weren’t for me knowing their little secret. Turns out the darn things are as scared as they are proud and nothing spooks ’em more than a forked tongue. Put it in last Tuesday.”
Icks had long decided to ignore Gwynne and focus instead on his still-shaking knees and clammy palms.
“Listen, Gwine,” he said, “if you don’t remove that snake from your garden, I will never come back here again. You’ll have to let your hedges take over your house or throw out your back trying to stop them.”
“I appreciate your phobia, young man,” said Gwynne, “but you understand the snake is fake, don’t you? I can’t go inviting no condo birds to my house. I’d rather have unruly siding than be snatched up in the jaws of one those monsters. I’m grateful for the work you’ve done so far, though. How much do I owe you?”
“But – wait – you’re firing me? – But I need more money!”
Icks was caught on his bluff and hung over its side. He tried a different approach and collapsed onto the carpet, grabbing his legs.
“Call 911!” he shouted. “It got me! That damned snake got me in the leg! You fire me and I’ll sue! I’m dying! Dying, and I don’t even own my own dishes!”
Gwynne sighed. “Well, all right. But this old prune wants to see some pruning.”
Icks was chopping away without a snake in sight, rubber or otherwise. The money from his last paycheck went towards an electric fan that hung off a visor, a Mach-3 razor he used to remove his mustache, and a smaller Doughboy t-shirt. He looked sharp and felt it, too. He was even warming up to the work. Icks had never before realized how satisfying a slick blade of steel felt in one’s hand. He lopped the green off Gwynnevere’s home without dropping the slightest morsel of mercy, intending to prove to vegetarians just how blind they really were by slicing a plant so cruelly he would force its leafy friends to cry.
He saw Gwynne through her kitchen window washing dishes and he waved his clippers in the air, calling her name with a victorious girth in his chest. The side of the house was darkened by a long shadow. Gwynne dropped a plate. A condo bird took Icks by the neck. Gwynne watched, hand over mouth, as Icks was flown into the sun.