for Tony Hoagland

Like-new karumi.

2-stroke. Kireji design.

Make an offering.

I had phoned, not sure I needed another lawnmower, but you never do know, and I lived alone, and living alone like that, I thought lawnmowers were unchanging truths. Like other men I was drawn to them, seriously drawn, so I had them. Where a car might be parked, or chairs and tables and children’s outgrown shoes and clothes stored, I had them everywhere, seriously, everywhere.

    He answered the phone, “Basho!”

    I told him I read the Thrifty Nickel, asked if he still had the karumi, still wanted to sell. Yes, he did, he had, how pleased he was that I read his simple ad, he said, and it would not “disturb” if I came in the evening when he and his “disciples,” who had gathered at his “hut” (his words: hut, disciples, disturb), would “demonstrate karumi.”

    It all was intriguing, it was strange, but, strangely, not surprising from the start: a guy in a hut with his own demonstrating disciples. An ad for a karumi. A karumi! And I had lawnmowers, I had many, enough, enough that, after years of collecting, I was pleased with every mower. But I had no karumi, manufactured by the Dogen Company in ‘67, design by Kireji, discontinued in the 70s. karumi Kan! was the TV campaign.

    There was more I was trying to remember about the skillful means of karumi when I drove out of the city, up to his place. I drove across an arched wooden bridge to an adobe hut in the middle of a large lawn—the wrong lawn for our long New Mexico drought. Next to the hut was a tree with giant leaves, and, under it, shovelheads of sunset shade, and in them what you’d have to, should, might call disciples. I took off my straw mowing hat, breathed out, breathed out, said my name, said, “I’m Wallace,” to all of them. Disciples. Seriously.

    The four of them sang it back like a chorus of frogs. “Wall-less! Wall-less!”

    And my own name was all I needed in order to breathe in, to remember more then about that TV ad: karumi Kan! karumi Kan! whooped blissfully by gray and white cranes pushing mowers with their wingtips over blocks and blocks of city lawns. A close view of their knotted long legs, and the big paper boats of their bodies. The long view of them, a kinship of hundreds of thousands. The view from heaven of mown lawns, dewy and glistening. Finally, just the word, karumi, all lowered lower-case. Pulsing, vibrating, like an opening lotus. karumi. Like the engine of a calm mind. And from the machine of the one word: the clipping sound, beyond cessation.

    He wheeled it out from behind his fragile hut. If he pushed his feet against any wall it might collapse. A little monk-like, this guy, he squinted the way monks do in Disney. It had to be him. Basho. He held the mower handle with one hand. He pinched his hat brim. At first, he didn’t look at me. His mineral-blue eyes made a pass over every fresh blade of the fescue around him. He bent over to look at but see no farther than what was the way between distant and close. He wavered, he nearly tipped over, nearly tipped up. Seriously, what was I supposed to make of that?

    I almost spoke to the mower. I felt I already had Basho’s invitation.

    He said, “You are here at last—the moon, rusting red, follows—my correct address!”

    The co-arising words and the silences were like shallow cups poured full and taken someplace far away to be emptied and brought back over a great distance before being poured full from other cups.

    We looked over the mower, like two men in a mirror, one pushing his face forward, the other back, and only so much room. Clean mower—like you’d expect of this man in a clean white terrycloth bathrobe with a wide black band around it.

    Clean mower, I said to it, inside myself, of course, because that’s why I had them, so many mowers—to privately talk to. Clean mower, I said. I felt as unworded as in my dreams.

    The disciples of Basho left the shade of the tree. They formed a playground line. Close. You know the kind: hands on each other’s shoulders. Grown men.

    Basho said, “The tall grasses bend—hours and hours of relenting—making offerings.”

    He pulled the starter cord, he set the lever from the sign of the turtle to the sign of the rabbit. When he placed his hands on the T-shaped handle, the disciples bowed and bowed and bowed, nine slow prostrations, and stood. Basho moved the handle towards Wright, who bowed again, a determined bow that was in the man’s nature now, no matter what his nature once had been.

    He cut the first, the outermost, circle, and bestowed the karumi to the next, Shiki, who faithfully made a path partly inside that smooth path, and passed it to the next, Issa, and the smiling next, Buson.

    The disciples introduced themselves: Buson softly said, “Buson,” and took my hands into his and turned them up and over as if washing them in his gaze; Issa put his face very close to the closed bud of my hands in the cradle of Buson’s; Shiki stood near, said nothing, and the first determined man I had met said, “He’s Shiki, I’m Wright—I love saying that! Give him his hands back now, Buson.”

    A little doubtfully, Buson handed me back that part of myself as if it was still mine. It was, of course, but for a second I had forgotten. I recognized Wright as somebody with the nametag “Richard,” a clerk at the K Mart.

    When I said so, he said, “Known as The Big K—lovely, appealing features—but: Martha Stewart.”

    “Right,” I said to Wright, to Richard, in order to delight him. Do you see that already I had changed into my hands? Mine—and then, lost in the giving of them, not mine. I knew I had seen Issa and Shiki at the Target department store, place of many afflictions and wisdoms. The Lawn and Garden Department. Buson, I learned later, owned The tzu-jan Nursery on Highway 28 near Vado. He sold flowers and, with full flats of them, he gave away goldfinches. I have his handwritten poster: Goldfinches inside—hold one and you will decide. They already know.

    Look, I could see, I can see, seriously now—this was pretty clearly a mowing cult. They—cults—found me those days. And that wasn’t a bad thing. I was more ready for Basho than I thought.

    Half an hour of mowing passed, but it felt like only an instant. Instantly, the bowing blades of grass stood straight, the bag swelled: side-carriage, pure duck cloth, green-striped white. The rain-smell of freshcut grass rose from the earth. The disciples, now holding each other’s hands like small boys, looked within from within. They stood in a circle with a broken space where I could stand.

    At the tree, Basho slowly circled, cutting not quite close enough around. On the handle his slight, closed fists subtly jumped like hatching chrysalises.

    He finished.

    He handed me the karumi. Kireji design. The T-handle painted, lacquered a pearl cloisonné color. Before I even pushed, I felt: Lightness! Lightness!

    Quiet-running. You can talk to a mower when it’s still. When it’s running what is there? No matter how ready you are, the hard thing to accept is that you have nothing to say—nothing. Seriously. Nothing.

    I halved the path Basho had halved of his disciples’ paths. Circling smartly, smoothly around the tree trunk, the point of origination, I said inside myself, Clean mower! Work done! Asking me nothing, nothing—no answering song.

    On Buson’s instructions, each of us mowed a ray from the Basho tree to the outer edge of the circle we had made. A wheel. Seven spokes.

    People want to know how I came to live in this isolated falling-apart hut near the Rio Grande river, which flows towards but no longer finds the ocean. A lawn boy at the age of fifty-four. Pushing my mower over this small wooden bridge, and going into the world to mow, and keeping my shift as groundskeeper at The Big K, too, and leaving that world to push my mower back.

    I needed to mow. I needed the right mower. Many of us do.

    Have you ever seen cranes kettling? By the hundreds, by the tens of thousands, they circle upward, slower, higher, rising into a galaxy shape. And, over many hours, it feels like eons, the circling becomes a churning.

    And a single crane falls out of that open sleeve. And down. It pulls cranes after it in a fast-spinning unthreading. And you see a shallow funnel form that deepens until it has a wide lip, a throat, a bottom tip, and is a tornado of turning cranes.

    When I said I would buy the mower, Basho nodded to his disciples, who bowed their necks, who seemed emptied, or their eyes did, or their bony shoulders, or their shorn heads. They retreated, returned with shovels, including one for me.

    By now it was late. Evening. The moon, through the darkening clouds, burned.

    We dug.

    We wounded the roots the way you have to when you tear something from all its attachments. Wright recited a prayer, “O, child of noble birth, do not be afraid, do not be afraid of what you remember, do not be afraid of what you forget. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not.” We said nothing. But, inside us, we recited the weird prayer after him.

    We sat down.

    Basho left, walking on the spokepath that led to his hut. He brought hot water that he poured into a clay bowl with powder at the bottom.

    The steam burnished the goldening air around us. We passed the bowl. Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Wright each held it up to the tree’s branches before they drank. When the bowl got to me, the sharp green smell poked me in the eyes and made me woozy. I giggled, and they all spontaneously giggled with me, once and all at once.

    Our warmed hands held the trunk of the tree. It almost seemed to help us lift it from its home.

    Basho explained to me that this was the fourth transplanting.

    And now he was taking it away again. And only it.

    He asked if I felt it clinging. I did not.

    Our faces and hands grew cool—our eyes and our throats.

    The next morning Buson laid a harp of jonquils on the slight depression in the earth. He left that day. Issa and Shiki stayed a week. Before Wright moved on, he helped me bring a few things here from my home in town.

    I took Wright into the triple-wide garage, showed him my mowers.

    Wright croaked, “Wallace! Wallace!”

    Twenty-eight lawnmowers, each one uniquely itself. Not, after all, metaphors of truth, of purity, or of mowers. My first bought when I was twenty-eight.

    At auction, we started them all up and left them running. The radiating noise and the fuel odor and the pointlessness of the blades slicing air made the bidding go high, the final offers higher. As each one was sold, we full-throttled the engine to the sign of the rabbit; slowly, slowly down-throttled to the sign of the turtle; turned the machine off, and transmitted it to its new owner. We bowed.

Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His short story in Freight Stories is from his almost-completed collection, 57 Octaves Below Middle C. Through his website,, he offers book editing and mentoring to fiction writers, nonfiction writers, and poets. For twenty-four years he has taught in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College. In 2008 he retired from New Mexico State University; he has not forgotten his hours in the classrooms there, since they are enduring blessings in his life. Mc has work forthcoming in The Cortland Review and Virginia Quarterly Review, and work recently out in Iron Horse Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prime Number, and Kenyon Review Online.

Back to Freight Stories No. 7


Kevin McIlvoy

Basho, poet, diarist, recluse, sells lawn mower—used but like new