Lawn Mowers | by Joshua James Amberson | fiction

            “Hope is a foolish pursuit,” the rat says. “But we need it, you know?” 
            The hound dog gives him a look. 
            “Without it, how do we go on?” the rat asks, seemingly made more desperate by the dog’s lack of response. 
            Stink lines appear above the baby’s diaper. 
            The possum skateboards by and biffs a kick flip. 
            The rat buries his head in his hands. 
            The end.

            It wasn’t her best, but it would do. Looking at it, she wondered why this had taken her all week. There was a time when she imagined that doing her comic strip would become second nature—she would stop struggling, stop fussing, and it would just flow out of her each week. But she’d long stopped imagining such a thing; it would always be work, even if it was work she liked.
            She’d been in the same faded black hoodie and Garfield Team Lazy pajama pants—both of which she’d owned since she was a teen—for a couple days, but it was time for her to go to work, or at least what most people meant by work: a job at a physical location where she had to change her clothes and interact with other people. To her, though, that was the fake work; the time she could shut off and go into a mildly pleasant cruise control of niceties and rehearsed lines. The last two days—that was the work that mattered.
            She put her pencil case away in her pencil-case drawer, popped in her contacts at her desk, and ran over the timeline in her mind. She’d ink the strip after work, scan it in and touch it up in the morning, and send it off to the few random alt-weekly editors who still ran papers not owned by huge conglomerates, as well as her editor at the syndicate. From there, it would go out to other editors, ones she would never meet or communicate with, and be published in publications she would never actually read. Maybe these editors published her strips upside down on the final page, or reduced them in size to a point where readers couldn’t make out the words. She would never know. She just knew she was briefly satisfied each time she got to this point, even when the strip relied on a poop joke, and, as long as people still wanted her to do this and paid her for it, she would probably never stop. It had become, without ever wishing for it or naming it, her career.
            For as much as she thought about and worked on Lawn Mowers, usually she didn’t consider it in the grand scheme of her life. But for months she’d been working over in her head what the comic meant to her, questioning its existence and, by extension, her own. And now she had arrived on the verge of the milestone that started her existential wandering: one strip away from its 20th anniversary. While she had obsessed over this event—digging through drawers and old hard drives, searching out past strips—she doubted anyone would notice this fact. The comic’s first publication date was noted on its brief Wikipedia page, but she assumed there wasn’t a reader diehard enough to mark their calendar. If anyone was going to point it out, it would have to be her. But since—in her commitment to an apparently no-longer-cool, Luddite-ish stance—she refused to use social media, she had no way to easily announce this anniversary in a large-scale way. She thought about slipping it into the strip itself, but quickly dismissed it; to her, that sort of meta self-referencing only made sense in comics far more popular than hers.
            She read the new strip one more time, wondered if the attempted kick flip looked like an actual attempted kick flip, decided to watch a skateboarding fails video later. She took her phone out, typed, My comic is about to enter its 20s. Will you drink with me when it does? and sent it to Jeremy before she could stop herself.
            She wished she could have a big party, but none of her best friends lived near her anymore. She’d stayed around Eversburgh, the closest small city to her small hometown, while everyone, one by one, left for bigger cities—cities next to small towns that held no personal history or baggage. Now she just had coworker friends at the art supply shop she worked at on weekends, a few cousins, a step dad, all of whom she only sort of liked. They all seemed to view the comic as just a thing she did, a slight step beyond hobby—a job, they supposed, but a weird one. Mentioning the anniversary to them would only make them more confused about her life. Maybe you should just look at this as the end of a good run, she could hear her cousin Cyndi suggesting. But Jeremy wouldn’t say that. She didn’t know what he would say and, maybe, in his own unintentional or oblivious way, it would be even more hurtful. But he at least wouldn’t tell her to stop.

            Lawn Mowers was the same every time: five panels, four characters. A talking rat, a pre-verbal human baby, a talking-but-stoically-quiet hound dog, and a skateboarding possum. The rat tried to puzzle out the nature of life on earth, while the dog assumed he already understood it, and others just experienced it.
            The rare times she’d given longer interviews over the years—almost solely to mid-sized comics blogs and free papers—she’d cited Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos, and its premise of humans' big brains being the evolutionary flaw that renders them extinct, as the initial inspiration for the strip. She liked it as an origin story, since it felt like the kind of high schooler she had wanted to be—reading Vonnegut, armchair philosophizing, cynical but still cracking jokes. While it was true the book had influenced what the strip had become—a running commentary on the human tendency to overthink life at one moment and under-think it the next—she actually hadn’t read the book until a few years later, and when the comic started she’d just been a high schooler dating a guy in a band. Dating a guy in a band, at least in those years, at the height of boy-dominated pop-punk and emo, meant going to endless band practices where she would sit with the other band girlfriends on a dirty couch in an even dirtier garage. It was too loud to do much talking, so she drew. Occasionally a weed pipe would bump against her arm and she would take it, give a friendly nod to one of the other girlfriends, and hit it before passing it on and going back to her sketchbook.
            She modeled the characters after the band members: the skateboarding, fun-loving drummer became a skateboarding, fun-loving possum; the too-good-for-everything bassist became the too-good-for-everything dog; the dumb-as-nails lead guitarist became the pre-verbal baby; and her lead-singing, rhythm-guitaring, woe-is-me boyfriend became the rat. Until the comic got published in the school paper, she’d never showed it to any of the guys and they’d never asked, but the girls would occasionally look over her shoulder while she was drawing and smile. 
            When it came out, her boyfriend said, “that’s what you do at band practice.” Nothing more. It wasn’t even a question. Aside from the girlfriends, only the bassist seemed to realize the comic’s characters were the guys in the band. She thought it would be more obvious. Even the title was her way of poking fun at their band name, Bad Landers—a name she’d felt, from the first day the guys came up with it, was just asking to be spoofed.
            By the time the second installment came out, the comic was a hit. She didn’t know if people actually liked it, or liked it solely for being the only comic strip in the paper, but suddenly people were talking to her who had never talked to her before. It was like she was the one in the band. This ego boost gave her the slight nudge she needed to break up with the singer. He was stunned and soon, she heard via the still-girlfriends, wrote songs about how much she broke his heart. She wondered how this was possible, since he hadn’t shown any interest in her outside of his bed, but she let the information fuel Lawn Mowers. While she thought the strip might end with the relationship, she saw at that moment how it could be an outlet, one that—even then—she thought might stick around for a while.

            “Dog, how do you make art about feelings when you don’t have feelings?” asks the rat. 
            “Stop trying,” the dog responds. 
            “I see,” the rat says. “So you’re saying the idea of feelings is enough. I shouldn’t try to feel, I should just sing about what I imagine feelings are like.” 
            The dog stares. 
            The possum skates in. 
            “Feeeeeeelings! I haaaaaave themmmmmm,” the rat sings while the dog walks away and the possum skates out of frame. 
            The end.  

            She’d been seeing Jeremy for a little over a year. She liked him because he was different from her. He was generally excited about life, outwardly friendly, and a bit of a spectacle—a walking canvas of loud vintage prints, a head nodding in perpetual interest sticking out the top—while she tended toward evasive, wore black, sunglasses, headphones playing nothing, trying to just slip by. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have the same demeanor or hobbies, they just, so far, liked being around each other and both seemed to be more amused about their differences than needing to battle over them. It was an unfamiliar dynamic to her, so she had no idea how long the relationship would last, but she thought it had the potential to be a while. In some ways, it was what she’d always wished her high school relationship had been—stable, mostly relaxing, occasionally spontaneous. There was one night, after the K-Mart by her house shut its doors for good, they pushed each other around the empty parking lot in shopping carts for a solid hour, totally sober, as their personal close-out party to this weird emptied edifice of cheap stuff that she’d lived around the corner from for years. But mostly they got take-out food and fawned over his cats.
            For a few months, he’d been asking to see her comics. He could have found them online—Eversburgh no longer had an alt-weekly, so he would never just come across them in print—but he seemed to think he needed permission. Or maybe, she thought, he wanted it to be a moment of connection—her ceremoniously pulling out a scrap book of published strips and laying it on their laps, one side on her right leg, the other side on his left leg, her pointing, him laughing, him loving her even more. But she knew it wouldn’t happen like that, so she avoided it each time. “I’m embarrassed,” she would say. “Whenever you’re ready,” he would respond. But he would ask again a week or two later, making it clear it wasn’t whenever she was ready, because she would never be ready. “What if you don’t like them?” she’d ask. “How could I not?” he’d reply.
            But, as she knew from experience, it was possible, even likely, he would not. The singer wasn’t the only one to think her comics were pointless. In the decades since, she’d dated a couple men—both of whom worked really basic, unmemorable jobs from which they made a lot more money than her—who, eventually, came to think of the comic as childish. At first they each had a how interesting! how random! reaction to this aspect of her life, thinking it a charming little thing she did. But once they were past those first few dates, the men realized how it wasn’t a little thing at all and keeping up with a weekly strip—52 comics, 260 panels a year—meant a time dedication they felt somehow wronged by, as if she had tricked them. 
            She had dated a few rare guys over the years who seemed to like her almost solely because of Lawn Mowers. Each time this had seemed ideal in the beginning but had inevitably become uncomfortable. These men seemed to want an anecdote for later in life, when they’d settled down with someone who wasn’t her. Once, I dated an underground comic artist, she could hear them say. One of these men, in the days before their city’s alt-weekly had died, introduced her to everyone as “the girl who does the comic with the rat and the dog.” She initially liked the pride he said it with, but it soon made her feel like she wasn’t a person but a comic in human form. 
            Mostly she’d dated men who were indifferent to it. She tried not to take it personally, but she was always mildly offended that they each acted like it was her equivalent of a desk job that had no personal meaning to her life whatsoever. She understood, all too well, that not everyone thought of a weekly comic strip as art. And she was mostly okay with that. But Lawn Mowers also wasn’t, in her mind, so far away from art that it could be dismissed as just work—some poorly conceived-of hustle she’d come up with solely to partially avoid a 9-5 and still receive a paycheck. It felt like, after all these situations, if she had to add Jeremy to any of these clumps of men it might break her will, or at least her comic’s will.

            Your comic still has one more year until legal drinking age, Jeremy texted her back a few hours later. She’d been waiting for his response, wondering what his slow reply time could be a sign of. Did he feel offended she hadn’t made time for the ceremonial viewing he desired? she had wondered. Was her text too quick, too casual? Even knowing full well he kept his phone off at work, she felt like the delay was weighted with meaning. But this text made her feel like, maybe, it was okay.
            As I am a law-abiding person, he wrote, I’ll wait until next year to go out drinking with you and your cartoon children.
            But I’ll buy beer for them from the corner mart. 
            If they’re going to drink, I’d rather they drink at home. 
            While these were, in most ways, the best of all possible responses, doing the celebration at home also created a level of intimacy that felt more difficult to navigate. But she didn’t know how to push against it and still stay casual and playful, so wrote, Okay, apartment party this weekend then.
            For the rest of the week, she tried to figure out how to handle this. She had made an occasion of it, so she didn’t see any easy way out of showing him what she actually did—the small thing that, by the fact of its longevity, had become big—but she still didn’t want to. After two decades of her short-lived relationships to men mixing with her long-term relationship to her comic, she’d become sensitive enough that there maybe wasn’t even a good way he could respond. Any slight hesitation, or poorly phrased comment, would play in her head for weeks, signaling impending doom. She felt like her single-mom friends who dated, expecting that, at some point, the kid was going to be an issue. For her, at some point, the comic was always an issue.

            It was past midnight on Friday when she had an idea. Twenty years of operating on a deadline had somehow taught her how to come through at the last-minute; sometimes she felt like her brain wasn’t even making a real effort, somehow couldn’t make a real effort, until it absolutely had to. She walked out to the parking lot and grabbed some big pieces of white cardboard from her apartment’s recycling bins and started to work.
            The next night she showed up at Jeremy’s door with a large black portfolio. She opened the door to a mess, his clean-and-orderly place that she loved, in all its anal retentiveness, looked like it had been demolished. “What happened?” she asked.
            “I decorated it like a 20-year-old’s birthday party,” he said, his voice full of pride. He walked her around the apartment, pointing out the empty beer cans on every surface, cigarette butts in the sink, half-eaten bags of chips on choice floor spots, a semi-smashed cake, and the single exposed overhead bulb harshly lighting it all. “And I made sure there was not a single shred of toilet paper in the bathroom,” he said, lingering at the bathroom door, the tour evidently over.  
            “This is impressive,” she said. As she stared at the toilet, the lack of toilet paper, not knowing what to do, she noticed him eye the portfolio. “It isn’t what you think,” she said, more flustered than she wanted to be. “I’ve actually got a proposition for you.” 
            “Okay. That sounds interesting and maybe a little scary.”
            “I wish it wasn’t either of those things, but I don’t know.” She felt a mild panic that seemed out of proportion, but she couldn’t stop it. “Should we sit down?”
            The couch was filled with odd pieces of garbage and knickknacks. She pulled a snow globe out from under a wadded-up blanket before sitting down. She wished she could calm down enough to appreciate the work he’d put in. The words she planned, and how this was happening, felt both more and less formal than she had imagined it. She hadn’t seen this conversation happening right away, maybe a few drinks in, but it had come out of her mouth and now she needed to follow through with it. She stared off into the messy room and started talking. “My comic and my love life have never gone well together,” she said. “But I like you. A lot. And I like my comic a lot. I don’t want to stop either.” She saw him smile out of the corner of her eye. “So, if you’re up for it, I want you to never read my comic. But also, I want you to let me tell you about it and help me work out ideas and just be generally supportive.”
            “So, I never get to read the comic?”
            “Like, ever?”
            “Yes, probably never.”
            “But I get to imagine it and, in a way, help you write a comic I will never see?”
            “That’s what I’m proposing here.”
            “You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. It feels like a surrealist exercise.”
            “But will you stop thinking this is cool? Like, will it just seem absurd at some point and you’ll get mad at me?”
            “That doesn’t sound like me. If you don’t want me to read it, I won’t.”
            She took a small breath for what felt like the first time since she’d arrived. “How did you get all the empty beer cans?” she asked. “Did you actually drink all this beer?”
            “You know, I did actually drink all this beer. I started after we texted on Monday. I feel pretty bad. I don’t think I even drank this much when I was 20.”
            “Maybe we shouldn’t drink tonight?”
            “I would honestly love to not drink tonight,” he said. “Tea?”
            They walked to the kitchen and she grabbed her portfolio on the way. She unzipped it on the counter and pulled out four painted, couple-feet-tall cardboard cut-outs. “Even though you’ll never see them in their natural habitat, I wanted to introduce you to all the Lawn Mowers. Just so you know who I’m talking about when I talk about them. They turn 20 in a few days and this is their party.”
            The tea kettle whistled as she made the rounds, telling him the faults and secret charms of each, what part of her they each carried, how she liked them more because they were flawed.

            “Dog, do you believe in love?” the rat asks. 
            “I do not,” the dog responds. “I believe we are each wholly alone.” 
            Behind them, the baby crawls by in one direction while the possum skates by in the other. 
            “But can we be alone together?” the rat asks. 
            “Sure Rat, we can be alone together.” 
            The possum and the baby roll by, both sitting on the skateboard. 
            The end.

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Joshua James Amberson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and creative writing instructor. In his work, he’s explored the history of mobile homes, eyepatches, screwball comedies, the romanticization of the typewriter, and the beauty of the cassette tape, among other subjects. He’s the author of Everyday Mythologies and the forthcoming Slow Motion Heroics, both from Two Plum Press.