Note: I have company visiting from Australia this week. The airline rescheduled their return flight extending their stay. Instead of a new episode, here is “Stanley the Horse Clips Again”, the extended version.
* * *
“Fannie, your mom’s on the phone for you,” Richard said, handing me the phone.
“Hi Mom,” I said, hearing her arguing with my aunt in the background.
“. . .Verla, I’m talking to Fannie, you’ll have to wait your turn,” my mother said, sounding muffled.
“Velverlorn, it’s my house, my phone and my idea,” Aunt Verla said, “I should be the one to tell her.”
“Mom,” I shouted into the phone, “go into the den and have Uncle Carl put me on speaker phone.”
“What did she say?” Aunt Verla asked.
“Go to the den and put me on speaker phone,” I shouted again.
“Carl, put Fannie on the speaker phone in the den so we can all tell her,” my mother said.
“Fannie are you there?” Aunt Verla asked, over the crackle of the speaker.
“I’m still here,” I said, laughing, “now what is it you’re trying to tell me?”
“Stanley the Horse,” my mother and aunt said, in unison.
“Okay, Stanley the Horse,” I said, “I don’t get it.”
“We’re going to settle this once and for all,” Uncle Carl’s voice boomed.
I pulled the phone away from my ear. “I still don’t get it.”
“We’re having a competition for the title of Stanley the Horse,” Aunt Verla said, in her clipped tone.
“And we want you and Richard to host and referee,” my father said. “Since you’re the third generation of our family to live in that house you have enough brush in your front yard to make this a fair competition.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said, “you want to have a contest between Dad and Uncle Carl to clear the brush in our front yard so you can answer the question of who’s the real Stanley the Horse?”
“Yes,” my mother and aunt said, in unison over the telephone.
“And no photographs either. We’ve seen the news and know what happens with that Facebook-You-Tubey thingy,” my mother said.
“You guys are nuts.” I said, laughing. “Let me talk to Richard and see what he says. I’ll call you right back.”
Richard stared at me.
“Did I hear you right?” Richard asked. He ran his fingers through his short brown hair. “Your family, who hates yard work, wants to come over and clear out the brush in the front yard.”
“Yep,” I said, smiling.
“Who’s Stanley the Horse?” Richard asked, resting his right arm on top of our classic white refrigerator.
“I’ve never actually seen it, but Stanley the Horse was a comic book my mom and aunt loved as kids,” I said, crossing my arms. Leaning against the yellow linoleum of the kitchen counter, I said, “Stanley was a horse who used clipping shears. The entire comic was about all the things he clipped.”
Richard looked at me like I’d come unhinged.
“If you don’t believe me, ask my sisters. We’ve been hearing about Stanley all our lives,” I said, laughing. “Whenever my dad or Uncle Carl would trim anything in the yard they earned the title of Stanley the Horse. I had no idea it had risen to competition level.”
Flashing me his devilish grin, Richard said, “Well, I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. Find out what they’re proposing for rules. I’ve been wanting to clear the brush for a while anyway.”
Groaning, I said, “Gift horse was the best you could do, really?”
“It was short notice,” Richard said, winking his blue eyes at me.
I dialed my aunt’s number.
Half a ring later four expectant voices asked, in unison, “What’d you decide?”
Laughing, I said, “What rules are you proposing and when were you thinking about doing this?”
“Your father brought his 100-yard measuring tape,” my mother said, “we thought we’d stop by to measure out two equal areas this afternoon.”
“Since we’re not spring chickens any more we thought we’d be timed over the course of a week,” Uncle Carl said.
“The man who clears the most by the end of the week wins,” my father said.
“And you and Richard’ll do the timing, make sure nobody cheats,” said Aunt Verla, “and call 9-1-1 if anything bad happens.”
Shaking my head, I asked, “When do you want to start the competition?”
“We wanted to give you enough notice, how does Monday work for you?” my mother asked.
Laughing, I said, “Mom, that’s tomorrow. Next weekend is Labor Day. We could swing it then if you can last that long.”
I could hear whispering.
“Done,” the uni-voice said.
Two hours later we watched the sky blue Mobile Land Yacht pull into the driveway of our brown and gray ranch house. My parents dressed in matching blue Polo shirts and khaki pants, and my aunt and uncle, wearing matching brown Polos shirts and khaki pants, poured out of the car. My father opened the trunk. Handing the tape measure to my mother, stakes to my aunt, and caution tape to my uncle, he kept the hammer for himself.
Pound, pound, pound.
Richard and I moved from the sofa to the living room window. My father stepped back from the stake. Aunt Verla held one end of the measuring tape up to the stake balancing on the three-inch heels of her matching brown fashion sandals. My mother, in blue three-inch pumps, walked the length of the yard.
“Forty-four feet,” she said, stopping at my grandmother’s prized rhododendrons.
“Anyone who touches the Rhodies will be immediately disqualified and will spend the next month sleeping on the couch,” Aunt Verla said. My mother agreed. Both women wearing matching Suzanne Pleshette wigs.
My father and Uncle Carl shared a look we could not quite interpret.
“Do you think that means they’d risk cutting the rhodies?” Richard asked.
“Let’s not take the chance,” I said, walking to the front door, “we’ll set some guidelines of our own.”
“Hi Everyone,” I said, joining my family, “We want to make clear that the rhododendrons are off limits to the contest as well as the trees. You’re limited to brush only.”
“Fannie, we discussed that before you came out,” Aunt Verla said, waving a stake at the men for emphasis.
“Glad to hear it,” I said, nodding. “I also want to remind you this is a family neighborhood with school aged children so you may not start before 8 a.m. and you must finish by 4:30 p.m. each day. We will supply food, water and the bathroom. This means no peeing in the yard,” I said, looking at my father.
“Fannie, we wouldn’t dream of doing that to you,” my father said, flashing his Cheshire Cat smile, which almost disappeared into his brown eyes. His head crowned by his white horseshoe hair.
“Uh huh,” I said, rolling my green eyes. “I don’t care how hot it gets, there will be no repeat of the Speedo Tool Belt,” I said, looking at my father. My mother nodding with vigor. The scars of seeing my potbellied, wrinkled father in a red Speedo bikini, which supported his garden tools and held on only by sweat, are burned into my retinas. “We will also designate a portion of the driveway for the debris pile, which you’ll help us chip when the contest is over. Any questions?”
They shook their heads.
“We also reserve the right to amend the rules based on unforeseen circumstances. Our decisions are final, you may not argue your way to victory,” I said, looking at Uncle Carl.
“Kill joy,” Uncle Carl said, shrugging. Both hands in his pockets with the caution tape tucked under one arm accenting a small pot belly.
“I assume since this is a Stanley the Horse competition, you’ll be using hand tools only and no power tools. Is that correct?” I asked.
“Yes,” my father said, “we’ll be sharpening all our hand tools this week.”
“You guys are gonna be hurting units after this is over,” Richard said, shaking his head. His shadow shading the group.
Fifteen minutes later five more stakes dotted the yard. Uncle Carl tied the caution tape to the first stake. Attaching the tape to each stake, he created the perimeter.
“Richard, Fannie, we’ll be back bright and early next Monday morning,” my father said, escorting his entourage back to the Mobile Land Yacht. “Be ready.”
Richard put his arm around my shoulders, I stood just below with his chest. We waved as they backed out of the driveway.
“Do you think we should sell tickets?” Richard asked.
I punched him in the arm.
Rubbing his arm, he said, “You realize this’ll draw a crowd. We could at least pass out popcorn.”
“And while we’re at it, why don’t we get referee jerseys,” I said, laughing.
“We’re not getting jerseys.”
“How about a whistle?” Richard asked, flashing his devilish grin.
Smiling, I said, “That would be fun wouldn’t it.”
* * *
Monday morning, the sun rose at 6:32 a.m. The doorbell rang at 6:33. I groaned. I peered at the clock through swollen slits.
“Didn’t I say they couldn’t start until 8 a.m.?”
“Yes, but your dad said to expect them early,” Richard said, pulling the covers off me. I pulled them back over my head.
“Sorry. Your family, your get,” Richard said, pulling the covers off me.
The doorbell rang again. Jumping down from our pedestal sleigh bed I stumbled down the hall to the front door in sweats and t-shirt. Smoothing over my spiky, brown morning hair as I arrived at the door.
“Fannie, the day’s half over. You’re not even dressed yet,” my father said, wearing blue jeans and a long sleeved white t-shirt. Leading the way into the house he carried a large tan leather tool bag. “Get a move on young lady.”
“We brought breakfast for everyone,” my mother said, looking at my hair and shaking her head. She held grocery bags in one hand and gave me a quick one-armed hug. She matched my father’s outfit except for the added accessory of a blue scarf in place of her wig. “We’ll fix breakfast while you and Richard get cleaned up.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, closing the door behind them. Looking down, I asked, “Are you really wearing tennis shoes?”
“I needed something I could get dirty.”
I walked two step down the hall when the doorbell rang again. On the porch stood Uncle Carl and Aunt Verla also wearing long sleeve t-shirts and blue jeans. A brown leather tool bag slung over Uncle Carl’s left shoulder.
“Fannie, how come you’re not dressed yet?” Aunt Verla asked, sporting a brown scarf and no wig.
“I’m working on it,” I said, “Mom’s in the kitchen getting breakfast ready. We’ll join you in a few minutes.”
As I walked back into the bedroom, Richard handed me a black and white rugby shirt.
“You said no referee jerseys, but you didn’t say anything about matching rugby shirts,” he said, smiling.
I laughed. I walked into the bathroom. In the mirror, the image of an over-sized cotton ball stuck in an electrical outlet stared back at me. I’m allergic to mornings.
As we emerged from the bedroom wearing our first matching outfit in the ten years of our marriage, the aroma of eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast with melting butter, and coffee filled the house. It smells so much better when someone else makes it.
My mother handed Richard and I each a cup of coffee.
“Thank you,” I said. Smelling the steaming mug of caffeine from my perch on the bar stool on the far side of the kitchen counter. I asked, “So what’s the plan for this morning since you’re here so early?”
Seated next to me, Uncle Carl pointed to a spot on a scale, hand-drawn map of our yard. He said, “Once we get breakfast cleaned up, we’ll each set up our tool staging area here outside the work zone.”
“I forgot to ask, in what way are Mom and Aunt Verla allowed to help?” I asked, sipping my coffee.
“They hand us tools as we need them,” my father said, leaning against the kitchen counter, “and they’ll remove the brush.”
“You’re sure we can’t take pictures?” I asked, smiling. The thought of immortalizing this moment more than made up for rising at the crack of dawn.
“No,” they said, in parental uni-voice.
After breakfast we moved out to the yard. A warm sun rose above the tree tops. A single cloud drifted across the sky over Gig Harbor, Washington. Moving to their respective staging areas, the two teams set out their tools with precision. My father moved behind my mother to sneak a peak at Uncle Carl’s tools. Sitting in the middle of his tools, a brand new pair of three-inch loppers.
“Velverlorn, do you see that?” my father asked, nodding toward to tools, “we’ll have to get one of those tonight.”
Uncle Carl caught my parents looking at his new tool. “I’ll bet you’re wishing you’d have thought of it Conrad.”
“Okay everyone, take your positions, we start in 30 seconds,” I said, cutting off a potential argument. “Richard, will you do the honors?”
Richard pulled the silver whistle from his jeans pocket. He put it between his lips. We counted down the seconds.
“Three, two, one. . .”
Richard blew the whistle. My father grabbed his old loppers, Uncle Carl grabbed his new ones. They stormed the brush.
The whistle drew George and Bunny out of their home across the street. They watched from their front porch.
The sound of maniacal snipping competed with the neighborhood birds. The men threw salal branches behind them. The women caught the branches and raced to the yard waste area.
“Fannie, how long do you think they can keep this up?” Richard asked, watching two seventy-something women race around like twenty-five-year-olds.
“Maybe ten more minutes,” I said, looking at my watch. “Then they might remember the wheelbarrows sitting behind them.”
My mother heard me. Moving the wheelbarrow into position behind my father, half of the branches landed in the bed. A small smile formed on her lips. Following her lead, my aunt wheeled her’s into position behind my uncle.
Thirty minutes later, identical three foot wide holes formed in the bushes. A green pile grew on the driveway.
As the sun traveled across the sky, the green pile expanded. Several of the neighbors gathered in George and Bunny’s front lawn. Seated in garden chairs under umbrellas, the crowd shouted encouragements, drank iced tea, and shared popcorn.
“Richard look,” I said, pointing across the street, “they’re doing the wave.”
“I told you we should’ve sold tickets,” Richard said, laughing.
At four-thirty Richard blew the whistle. The men put down their tools, groaned, and stretched. They walked like un-oiled tin men to the black wrought iron and wooden bench on the front porch. They sat next to Aunt Verla and my mother.
“When you’re done in Richard and Fannie’s yard, feel free to come do mine,” my childhood best friend, Clarissa, shouted across the street. Her short red curls bounced as she laughed.
My father grimaced and waved. Uncle Carl massaged his low back before sitting down. They slumped against each other. Their heads lolled forward followed by soft snores.
“That went well, don’t you think?” I asked, watching my aunt and mother leaning against each other napping on the other end of the bench.
“Should we wake them?” Richard asked.
“No let them sleep while I get dinner ready.”
* * *
The sun rose at 6:33 a.m. The birds sang as the sun climbed above the trees. Richard and I rose at 6:45. The coffee finished brewing at 7:40. The doorbell rang at 7:52.
Four hunched adults with swollen eyes, stiff joints, and gray hair, which escaped their baseball caps, stood on the porch.
“Good morning everyone, we have coffee ready and waiting,” I said, holding open the door.
Shuffling into the house they sat around the maple dining room table and drank the offered coffee. Richard cooked breakfast while I prepared more Joe.
“How are we feeling today?” I asked, looking at their pale faces.
“I feel like I got run over by a truck,” my mother said, staring into her coffee cup.
“We may have to rethink our competition,” Aunt Verla said, rubbing the back of her neck.
Both men hunched over their coffee, their elbows keeping their faces from landing in their cups.
“Do you still want to go out and clear brush today?” I asked, looking from my father to Uncle Carl.
They looked at each other. Whether the competition or finding misplaced testosterone, both men stiffened their backs.
“Yes,” they said.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll be watching you closely. If either of you looks like you’re in trouble, we’ll be calling the competition.”
Their shoulders soften a bit.
By 9:45 a.m. we ventured into the front yard. Dumping the tools in their respective staging areas, they moved around rubbing their arms and backs, stretching their legs. The women shuffled the wheelbarrows up to the starting line. They groaned all the way.
“Are you ready,” I asked.
Holding onto the wheelbarrow, my father slowly bent over to pick up his loppers. Uncle Carl followed suit. Straightening up, my father and uncle waved at us.
“Richard if you’ll do the honors?” I asked.
Richard blew the whistle. Walking into the brush like they’d ridden horseback for ten hours they clipped.
Two hours later, yesterday’s ten foot long pile in the driveway grew an additional eight inches. With slow, jerky movements as though operated by an inexperienced puppeteer, my father lifted his loppers to a branch. Using both hands, he squeezed the handle together. He stifled a groan and dropped one handle cursing under his breath.
Uncle Carl lowered his loppers. He reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. His hand stopped halfway to his forehead. He bent forward to meet it. A moan escaped his lips. They looked at each other, neither willing to quit.
My mother leaned against her younger sister for a moment before reaching down for three more branches and dropping them into the wheelbarrow. She and my aunt meandered behind their wheelbarrows aiming toward the debris pile. Emptying her wheelbarrow first, my mother limped towards my father.
I looked from my parents to my aunt and uncle.
Running my fingers through my hair, I asked “Richard, what do you think?”
“I think we should call it and declare a tie.”
“I agree,” I said, relief spreading over me like a wave.
Richard blew the whistle.
“Thank god,” my mother said, dropping her last branches into the wheelbarrow, “My nails are ruined and I don’t know how much more I could take.”
“Me either,” Aunt Verla said, setting down the wheelbarrow and stretching her back. She and my mother hobbled toward the front porch.
My father and uncle stood in place looking from Richard to me. I nudged Richard.
Clearing his throat, Richard said, “Gentlemen, it looks like we have a tie.”
Both men smiled. They pried their fingers from the handles and dropped the tools. They shuffled toward each other. Raising their arms as high as they could, they gently shook hands.
“Well done, Conrad,” Uncle Carl said, patting him on the arm with his other hand.
“Same to you, Carl,” my father said, flexing the fingers of his free hand.
“So Dad, Uncle Carl, since we have a tie, how about same time next year?” I asked, winking.
Both men summoned enough energy to marshal the family sign.
I’m just sorry I didn’t have the camera.