Astroturf by Charles Joseph Albert

Bradley pulled his car up to the curb in front of his house, another day of work done. Across the street, a large truck, old and battered, slowly rolled to a stop in front of the house that had just been put up for sale. Bradley watched several Latino men get out of the cab to mill around the back, drinking McDonald’s coffee and waiting to unload their equipment.

The scene caught Bradley’s eye because it seemed out of all proportion to the needs of the property. True, the lawn had been somewhat neglected after the Brewsters had moved out, but really, all it needed was a good mowing and fertilizing. This big truck full of heavy equipment and this crew of men seemed to imply a major makeover was planned.

Bradley shrugged and turned to his house. He needed to change, pour himself a stiff belt, and then he could go to work on the weeds in his own yard. As he came out a few minutes later, he allowed a wry smile to form on his lips—what were the new owners thinking? Fountains? Pergola? Whatever egotistical monument they were going to build in their little yard was going to look silly, out of place in this neighborhood.

The houses on this street were modest: fifties-style tract homes, all built by the same developer. Many of the neighborhoods of Oak Lawn were like this. And the residents seemed to embrace this aesthetic. You could tell by the cautious landscaping of privet trees, box hedges and lawns. And by the stolid, conformist paint schemes of the houses: off whites, greys, pale yellows. Those neighbors who wanted to express their individuality did so only in the trim, the accent colors of the mid-century maroons and teals that did not scream of egocentrism or meglomania. Stay humble!

Bradley forgot about the work across the street until the sod tiller started up. The insistent whine of the two-stroke engine caught his attention, and he stopped to watch the front yard being torn out. What if this were another of those horrible xeriscaping projects? Ever since the Water District began installing cut-off valves in people’s water meters, the more whacko of the neighborhood had begun tearing out their and replacing them with wood chips and “native plants,” they were calling them, but that was just a euphemism for weeds. It was a sad day for the country when wire grass and yarrow were considered a “native landscaping plant” instead of the noble St. Augustine carpet.

And then he saw the roll of Astroturf coming out of the truck.

“Did you see that horror that the Brewsters are putting in, across the street,” Bradley texted his wife Esther.

“What?” Esther responded. “Are they working on the house?”

“Not the house! The yard!” Bradley answered, “You didn’t see it?”

“No,” she said, after a enough of a lag to indicate a lack of interest.

“Are you afraid I’m going to launch into a rant?”

She texted back a shrug emoticon.

“Well I’m not,” he pursued. “I’m disappointed. I know it’s supposed to save water…”

“…but, ugh,” Esther finished for him.

A week later, Bradley called Esther while she was at work.

“You aren’t going to believe this,” he said. “Guess who else is getting Astroturf?”

“Who?”

“The Johnsons!”

The Johnsons lived next door to Brad and Esther.

“What!?” Esther’s voice was appropriately shocked. “But they’re such—but they… But they shop at Whole Foods!”

Which pretty much summed things up.

In the following week, two other houses made the switch to an artificial lawn. Bradley finally happened to be out watering his roses that Saturday and saw Chuck Johnson rolling up his driveway in his Humvee.

“Hey, Chuck,” Bradley called over as Chuck sat in the front seat, fiddling with his phone.

“Oh, hey. Good evening to you, Bradley,” Chuck said, not actually looking up.

“Hey, Chuck—I’ve… I’ve uh, got a question for you,” Bradley said, coming apologetically up into Chuck’s driveway. Chuck paused at his phone. “I was wondering—why you did you make the switch to the… the artificial turf lawn?”

Chuck turned and looked sternly at him for a moment, then broke into a smile. “Oh, you probably think it’s super expensive. But, you know, it really isn’t. I mean, I’ll save the cost back in lower water bills after just two years. After that, it’s all money in the bank, you know?”

“Y-yeah…” Bradley started to object, but Chuck added peremptorily, “And of course, it looks just great, right? I mean, really sharp. Rich, full green. ‘Cause what’s the alternative? Desert rocks? Might as well put a cow skull and a bunch of scorpions out there, right?”

Bradley nodded and smiled, ready to join the joke at the expense of the neighbors, but Chuck was rolling up the window.

“Nice chatting with you, Bradley. Got to finish something here. Take care!” Then the window sealed him off.

Bradley turned away. “Yeah, take care,” he muttered.

By the end of that summer, every yard on the block except for two was paved over in the artificial turf. Several of them had accessorized with white rocks, golf-ball sized, into borders surrounding their yards. Every time Bradley looked out his front window to see another house fall to the Plastic Menace, his heart sank.

“I mean, I feel like we’re in Invasion of the Lawn Snatchers, or something,” he grumbled to Esther on the phone as he stood at the living room window, holding aside the curtain. “It looks like a cheap movie set out there. What happened to good taste? I would have thought–”

“I don’t know how this happened!” Esther interrupted.

So even Miss Grumpy was curious about this phenomenon, Bradley noted, relieved not to feel like such a whack job for the obsession.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll try to go find out.”

However, no amount of strolling around that end of the block, driving slowly past, or watching from his house scared up the slightest opportunity to chat with the resident of that final hold out.

Finally, one evening late in the summer, as Bradley was strolling past the mystery house for what seemed like the hundredth time, he had a rare sighting of Mrs. Wolfe, the little old lady who lived in it.

She appeared onto her front lawn, her back to the street, pulling a tangled garden hose through the side gate. She wore a house coat and matching shower cap, and the hose was running full blast. She untangled it slowly, and, when, at last, she had it freed, she picked up the nozzle and began hosing off her dying lawn, still facing her house.

“Hello, Mrs. Wolfe!” Bradley called out. “Fine night for watering.”

She waved her free hand without turning around, and he added, “I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Bradley, from down on the other end of the block.” And he couldn’t resist adding, “The only other house that doesn’t have an artificial lawn.”

Without turning around to look at him, she snapped, “Proud of that, are you?” and then dropped her hose and hobbled back through the side gate, slamming it shut. She left the solid gush of water left streaming onto her yard.

“Well, not really…” Bradley tried to call after her, but she made no sign of hearing him as she disappeared.

He stood, watching until the growing puddle of water reached his shoes, and at last he turned home. “Maybe this really is just about saving water,” he thought darkly.

Back in his living room, Bradley took his now-usual place behind the right curtain, staring morosely out the front picture window. The thought occurred to him that he really shouldn’t feel the need to hide behind the curtain, but still he remained there and watched. Mrs. Wolfe finally reappeared at the side gate, though she had walked out facing backwards, facing back to her house and not the street. She fumbled with the faucet for a moment before managed to turn off the water. Then she disappeared through the gate again.

What the hell was that all about? Bradley wondered.

He stared at her house for a long while, eventually allowing his gaze to wander to each house in turn on the block in turn, at the artificial turf in front of each. The whole length of his street was now paved in it.

Plastic grass saved water, but he wondered if petrochemicals weren’t supposed to be bad for the environment or something?

For the rest of the week, Bradley kept hoping to spot any other neighbors out on the street, but he never saw a single one. He mentioned this to Esther, but she seemed to have lost all interest in the subject.

That Thursday, Esther left for a weekend conference in Atlanta, and Bradley took advantage of his first solitary evening to go out and be extra nosey. He left work early so as to be able to get home and intercept neighbors at the end of their evening commute: maybe ask for an explanation for their switch to a plastic lawn, or why so many other neighbors did the same thing within a few weeks of each other, or even why no one was ever visible on the street any longer? He really wanted to ask if they were singling him out somehow, if he had been turned into some kind of natural-grass pariah.

He slowly ambled the whole length of the block to Mrs. Wolfe’s house. Even though it was just six, not another soul had appeared.

Uncertain, he rang the bell at the Johnson’s house, but no one answered. He walked to the house next door. No one answered the doorbell there, either. Or at the next house.

He walked, then ran, from house to house, leaning on the doorbells, pounding on the front doors. No one answering, no sign of life from any of them, nothing except the flickering blue light of a wall TV was visible in any of the houses.

At last, he gave up and turned to go back to his own house, where he poured a triple scotch and took his place behind his curtain. Looking out across the street at Chuck Johnson’s Humvee, he noticed the long stalks of live grass that grew up through its windshield.

Friday morning, he chatted with Esther. As always, she was not interested in spinning hypotheses about the neighbors, but began their conversation with the usual, “Bradley! It’s me! It’s—it’s horrible!” and then rambled, unhearing, over his description of the latest changes to the neighborhood, ending the call, as she always did, with, “I love you!”

Slowly, unsteadily, the quart of scotch fortifying him, Bradley drove to work. There were still hundreds of rolls in the overturned astroturf delivery truck. He loaded as many as he could into the trunk of his car, and then came back, weaving around the foot-deep potholes all the way back to Mrs. Wolfe’s house. Sobbing and cursing, his nose running and his eyes streaming, he uncoiled the rolls and one by one spread the plastic patches onto her front yard. The trunk emptied, he came up onto her yard to arrange the patches as best he could to cover the dead weeds underneath.

When he stepped back to admire his efforts, he took off his oxygen helmet for a brief moment to say, “Ah, Mrs. Wolfe, I see you have succumbed to peer pressure at last.”

The tatters of her housecoat dangled from a clothesline by the back gate. Its arm waved slowly in the breeze, and she snapped, “It’s common sense, boy!” her hoarse voice very like the creak of gate that swung slowly on its remaining hinge.


Charles Joseph Albert is a theoretical physicist and writer living in San Jose, CA. His work has appeared in the 300 Days of Sun, the Literary Hatchet, the Abstract Jam, and the Rockhurst Review.