After the end of my sophomore year at the prestigious Universitas Viritis Montis, I was leaning towards staying in Burlington for the summer. During the school year, my parents had no objection to paying my rent. But once summer came, my dad said, “You have a free place to stay at home. If you don’t want to stay here, you pay your rent until the school year starts.” Fair enough.
Fortunately, I had G-money. G-money was going home to his parents’ house for the summer, but the room in his apartment on North Street was paid for already. He could have demanded that I pay him rent for the summer, and either pocketed the money or given it to his parents, but instead he told me to just pay my portion of the utilities for the summer and enjoy. Done deal. I was staying.
Meanwhile, my bartending job was only one or two nights a week. I needed a full-time day job to supplement the income. Enter Karen.
Karen ran a landscaping company as well as a horse and buggy service out of her home in Underhill, a small Vermont hamlet tucked just below Mount Mansfield. (The commute to and from Burlington to Underhill is still my favorite of all time.)
One of my fraternity brothers had been working for Karen already and told me she was looking to hire someone else. He introduced us. She asked what experience I had landscaping. I told her I mowed my parents’ lawn but not much else. She asked where I was from in New Hampshire. I answered. “Flatlander, eh?” she replied in her Green Mountain accent while sizing me up skeptically. She hired me anyway.
Karen is about ten years older than me. We haven’t seen each other in years but I remember her kind of like the big sister I never had. She was a strong and rugged woman yet unquestionably feminine. She was just as comfortable changing the oil and sharpening a mower blade, as she was getting gussied up for a night out with girlfriends. While she loved her horses and her pick up trucks, she also enjoyed making pretty flower gardens. One of my favorite Karen quotes was that she needed a husband so he could do the dishes and clean the house while she ran her businesses.
Karen had a wild and crazy fun side that showed up when the time was right. She’d throw a couple of us guys in the back of her truck as we drove around her pasture. We were supposed to be searching for missing horseshoes because the blacksmith was coming to shoe the horses. While we held on for dear life, she’d hoot and holler while accelerating the truck over hills all while honking the horn as horses galloped wildly around us.
Karen once arrived at a job where we had been working already to check on the progress with the customer. Like the idiot that I’ve always been, I avoided wearing a shirt whenever possible partially to fortify the tan but also to put any young ladies on notice that the gun show was in town. Karen preferred that we keep our shirts on whenever customers were present but she didn’t care if it was really hot or if our crew was working alone.
As Karen and the customer walked around, she flashed an urgent look in my direction. I couldn’t tell if she was mad or what. I was worried I planted a flower in the wrong spot or something. Or maybe it was because the shirt was off. Once the customer was out of earshot, I asked her what was wrong. “You’re damn pubes are sticking out of the top of your shorts!” she said while shaking her head but laughing at the same time. (I don’t remember owning much for undies in college.)
At the end of a summer work day, as the setting sun turned the sky orange-pink and stretched our shadows longer and darker, Karen would duck out for a short bit. A few minutes later, she’d reappear with a beautiful six pack of Molson, Moosehead, or Labatts (it was always an “Ice” brand of beer) to reward the crew on a job well done. That was the whistle ending our shift for the day.
After two summers, Karen and I logged in many hours together. Lots of laughs. Many great times. Before we met, I’d never operated a weed wacker, an axe, a chainsaw, a hedge trimmer, a rider mower, a tractor, or a truck with a trailer attached to it. I had never planted a flower, a bush, or a tree, for that matter. She was the first to teach me how to do any of that manly stuff. Of course, there were the occasional rough patches when I broke something expensive and we negotiated how much of it she’d have to take out of my pay. But we got over it and moved on. After all, she wasn’t just my boss anymore. We were friends.
A few years after I graduated college, I called Karen to tell her I was coming up to VT for a visit. I didn’t have a car and I was taking the bus. In classic form, she told me she’d leave a truck for me downtown with the keys on the tire. I tried to object but she wouldn’t hear of it. When I got to town, of course the truck was waiting for me. I had wheels for the weekend. That’s just how she rolls.
Now that the weather has improved, I’ve begun dusting off my own landscaping tools and oiling up the rusty skills. Not much has changed except that I’m more likely to weed with my shirt on. And I can’t help but think of Karen every time I either plant something nice, or break another rake.
Hey Karen, I know you are out there somewhere in the world working hard and enjoying life. If you happen to be in the neighborhood some time, I hope you swing by the casa on Gawaine Road. Just give me the head’s up so I make sure the lawn looks good before you come. Here’s a toast to you with an “ice” beer, and hoping this finds you well.