An excerpt from The Lawnmower Club: How Leo Zitzelberger Lost and Found Paradise on Earth, a novel by Randy Evans (copyright 2015, Little Traverse Press)
The Cart Shed
Leo Zitzelberger opens his eyes on an ordinary summer day. He thinks that he might be the luckiest man on earth.
Waking at nine from his morning nap, he yawns and stretches his long arms and legs. He rises slowly from the slider on the clubhouse deck to watch the morning riders on the golf course he now calls home. He pours a large cup of lukewarm coffee. He yawns again—his yellow teeth jutting out from shrunken gums, a dental hygienist’s nightmare. He opens a cookie tin and removes the last bit of a blueberry muffin from its paper doily, his favorite morning snack when he wants a little something. He tears away a piece of muffin from its stretchy, donut-like top and pops it into his mouth. The taste is not nearly as good as the muffins that Mona, his deceased wife, had baked from scratch on Sunday mornings.
Remembrances of Mona come less frequently these days. The change of locations has helped. For a long time after she died, his consciousness had been split between “before Mona” and “after Mona,” but his lawn mowing club has offered him a new life, not as good as the old one, but acceptable, tolerable, and digestible like a store-bought blueberry muffin.
As he finishes the last crumb, he remembers an important task. Oh, yes, a new lawnmowerian has applied for membership today. He must interview him before the first shift—one of his duties as owner and founder of club.
Zitzelberger carries his large body over to the old cart shed to inspect the new member’s lawn tractor. He walks east into the morning sun, dragging his shadow like a black cape—like a character created for a novel. A tall healthy 65-year-old except for bulk, his feet leave large footprints in the sandy soil. He passes a boxlike, glassed-in sign, the kind you find displaying a sermon topic in front of a country church. The sign reads, “NO CHILDREN, NO PETS!” He pauses and bends reverently before entering the dim light of the cart shed, as if he’s stepping into the tabernacle of a sanctified sect. He smells the sweet incense of grease, gas, and mildew.
In some ways, he’s like a priest. He leads a celibate and solitary life, dedicated to cutting grass and maintaining his independence. He stands over six feet tall with a hatchet face and large steel-colored eyes. His sharp chin looks like the toe of a Western dress boot. When he walks, his arms swing like the blades of a chain saw. To people in town he looks fearsome—mothers pick up their children when he lumbers down the sidewalk. Dog owners heel their dogs. Boys laugh or throw stones at him. In Zitzelberger’s mind, the perfect town would be one with a few shops along brick-red streets, a large grassy village green with a flag pole, and no people.
Most of the town people hold grudges against Zitzelberger for relieving them of the burdens of car ownership. Before he retired, Zitzelberger owned a car repo agency, and hauled away cars when people couldn’t make their car payments. Popular only with bank collectors and finance companies, people who hate him dot his life like dandelions on an otherwise perfect lawn.
Zitzelberger wants to make sure the new member is a good fit——that he possesses true lawnmowerian values—a love of grass, respect for machines, and a do-it-yourself mentality. He only wants people as members who never get bored making straight-cut rows and running their machines. And people who don’t want to turn the club into anything else. If a prospective member asks, “What else can we do with our membership besides cut grass? Could we have picnics with our family, play horseshoes, or camp?” All knockout factors. He only wants members who want to mow grass—who are obsessed by grass cutting; who don’t even daydream while cutting, because there is nothing more engaging or satisfying or exciting than cutting grass.
Now he walks catlike by rows of lawnmowers, and wrecks of other machinery that members could not part with when they lost their homes: weed eaters, hedge trimmers, power edgers, leaf blowers, uprooted sprinkler systems, log splitters, air compressors, de-thatchers, front-end loaders, and spreader attachments. Zitzelberger has no rules about storing extra equipment as long as there’s room in the cart barn. He’s unusually liberal in this regard. Men need their machines, he thinks.
Each member has a dedicated work space where they can place their workbenches like altars. On peg board above the benches t squares hang like crosses, and socket wrenches lay on top like communion candlesticks; everything necessary for maintenance on their mowers. Zitzelberger doesn’t allow family photographs or trophies or service club plaques. No pinup calendars or other ephemera clutter the sacred space. But yellowed diagrams and posters of lawnmower engines and mowers are fine, or clipboards of maintenance records and instruction manuals. If someone has a non-mower-related hobby of any kind, from woodworking to building model ships, Zitzelberger says, “You can play with those things at the senior center!” He allows no drinking or smoking in the cart shed. “NO CHILDREN, NO PETS!” I want a fixed focus on lawn mowing in my club. No distractions. Purity. Simplicity. Dedication.
He walks quietly up behind the new member, as if preparing to scare the bejeezus out of him, which is exactly what he is doing. He wants to catch him off guard, a test for healthy reflexes. “LOOKS LIKE A SCAG!” he speaks in a low rolling rumble like the sound of distant thunder.
He develops a good first impression, not of the man, but of his machine. It looks clean and oiled, a V-Ride with a Stripe Roller. Zitzelberger had read about this bright new orange model—a Cheetah 61-inch zero-turn rider with a fast, air-cooled 36-horse-power engine.
The new member turns to Zitzelberger, and tries not to act startled. “Yep, I’ve always had Scags, every model they ever made: Turf Tigers, Tiger Cubs, Saber Tooth Tigers, and the Wildcat—now that was a great cutter. But this new Cheetah is the best! Runs up to 16 miles per hour!” As he moves his hands with love over his lawn tractor’s steering wheel, the new member grins a gold tooth at Zitzelberger. Zitzelberger raises his eyebrow, but decides to smile back, even though he regards smiling as a sign of weakness. He parts his lips as if he’s opening a wound.