Ever since Duke had trotted down the alleyway and not returned, Marina gazed out her kitchen window with worry and longing. She found herself at the sink several times a day, rinsing out her mug again or wiping down the counter. In truth she was studying the frail, leafy carpet of burnt colors. Or the rough texture of the Hartzell’s brick house, the two fading Peace roses leaning below their living room window. She wondered about their scent, if it lingered, and instead of submerging it in books or radio programs, the odd ache lodged itself in her chest until evening. Marina used to be able to name that scent no matter from which direction it emanated.
But that was long before the need of Duke arose. She suspected he became filled with the despair of ceaseless boredom. He was a good dog, an older fellow form the pound, and after two years they’d become decent friends. But the truth was, she wasn’t fit for any sort of company–she’d had a canary who stopped singing and eating in two months, an angel fish that died sooner–and he knew it, too. Who hires a dog walker when one’s own two legs are good enough to get the job done? Who buys their dogs a basket full of toys and stocks jumbo boxes of treats so one can ignore him a bit longer? So he left her one day. She hadn’t seen him in time. He’d slunk around her ankles through the kitchen door, which was only ajar. Just made a dash for it.
The original idea of a “therapeutic pet” had been her sister’s.
“Get a dog and get out of that darned house,” Ginny implored from Pittsburgh after the first six months of Marina’s lack of activity
“I’m not a pet person. I’ve tried that and failed. Or they fail me, I’m not sure what the difference is in the end.”
“You’re not trying hard enough. Just because you were sick doesn’t mean you’re still that sick! Get back to life, Marina.”
Marina narrowed her eyes at a crow that had landed near her forsythia bush and gave her its usual beady eyed look. She was irked by its grating calls and rued the day she’d bought a home with its own entrenched regiment of crows. She sometimes felt Ginny was actually one of their kind with her frequent directives.
“Well, you’re the healthy one, so it’s easy for you to say. I just need more time to get going…”
Her sister snorted. “A repaired heart doesn’t mend well just hanging out in a house day and night. You have to get it into fighting shape again. I’m calling the Hartzell’s and asking them to take you down to the animal shelter. A pet will get you moving forward.”
Ginny was an RN. She felt she had authority on medical issues as well as other topics. So Marina ventured out with the Hartzells and reluctantly took home an nine year old fair-sized dog that looked a cross between a hound and a beagle. She kept its old name, Duke. He adapted slowly and preferred the back yard to her living, bedroom or even kitchen. They didn’t communicate much. She tried to walk him once or twice then, a chore what with leash and treats and her own heavy feet. The reality was, by the time they got down the front steps and to a sidewalk, her heart was taking off like a freight train. She yanked him back inside.
“I can’t do it,” she told Ginny. “My body doesn’t want to do it.”
“Nonsense. You’re giving up too fast, let Duke lead and help you. Your mind is the barrier; your heart will go wherever you go.”
“I can’t do it. I feel I’m going mad even leaving the house. I’ll have a heart attack out there in some gutter and Duke will take off and that will be that. I can go to the store in my car–that’s bad enough, four blocks away but I feel safer somehow, people are all about me if I need help. But I will not risk heading out there with Duke on mostly deserted streets. He could pull me down in a flash. We could be missed by speeding cars. Or what if i just cannot get back home due to my heart rate edging up to 120 beat per minute ore worse again? I will not go out on foot.”
“I’m absolutely serious. I cannot do this. If he stays, he stays pretty much inside with me. There’s the back yard and, anyway. I’m hiring a dog walker.”
And so it became established that Marina was not going outside at all if she could help it. She started to order groceries and her three medications for delivery. Duke had to get with her program. He’d chewed up three pair of shoes and a handbag. He wore out the oval rag rug in front of the fireplace with his fitful circling and eventual snoozing. He soiled the carpet a few times, out of spite she was sure of it. He disdained all but the most expensive brand of dog food. And he clearly favored the dog walker, a teen-aged boy from the neighborhood who came by before and after school daily. Marina had considered asking if he wanted to have the dog but his family already housed two cats and a guinea pig. She and Duke did share pleasant silences. Marina inquired about his frame of mind throughout the day with a pat on the head and brief ear rubs, even shared some of her thoughts. But they never got close so that he wanted to jump up on the couch beside her for more than a minute. She didn’t expect him to actually like her or vice versa.
So Duke left. He didn’t even stop by the dog walker’s house, it was reported, to the boy’s disappointment. He had to be serious about relocation.
Marina felt ashamed of her incompetency–with the creatures she’d let in her home and with her faulty body and the new fears taking over like weeds. She was, in truth, afraid she would die if she changed things around. She took her medicine and she ate well enough. But she still felt every anomaly of her heart’s innermost workings as if a rude alarm, at times a big nudge and other times blaring. So not changing didn’t improve the state of affairs.
Standing at the kitchen window afforded a good view of the alley if she pressed forward over the sink. It tended to stay empty, providing more privacy which she preferred, but it also was used as a short cut. It had been well over two years since she had stood at its end, looking down toward the parallel street. She watched it undergo seasonal alterations, new leaves greening and flowers blooming–she especially enjoyed the irises and roses. But it had not enticed her until two weeks after she told her sister and neighbors Duke was missing. It all started to alter as she gazed from the window–she kept watch for Duke up and down the alley. Then she worked open the stubborn sliders off the dining area and she stood in the open space between house and deck. And heaved with panic.
One morning after a few days of that she pushed herself through and out. Her heart promptly banged as she stood rooted. From the splintery deck that overlooked her small back yard Marina admired the golden-foliage of the oak tree. The sight of cloud-scudded cobalt blue high above rustling tree tops shook her a bit. How many times had she lately been out under that broad expanse? It seemed impossible now, not so reasonable, that her life had been conducted indoors for most of two years. Yet the atmosphere felt oppressive, despite variable weather.
The openness of outside vistas–even the alley, even back and front yards and tidy sidewalks beyond–brought upon her a feeling of grave uncertainty, as if she was a tiny lone blade of grass threatened by a murderous lawn mower or stampede of feet or icy, side-winding rain.There was too much space, that was the thing. Nowhere to go without having to fend off the whims of the world, all those people marching about with purpose, those vehicles honking and swerving and engaging tempers. Even the pulsing light of day and crows were too much for her. Her heart cried out against such massive life going on so she drew inside. Locked the sliding door and then the rest.
The next morning Marina put on the kettle. Then, rather than grabbing the newspaper from her front stoop to settle in the captain’s chair with blue plaid cushion at the breakfast table, she stepped out. Breathed in rain-cleansed air, nostrils twitching and throat opening, rib cage expanding under the circuitous flow of it. A tabby cat was stalking something in too-long grass at the edge of her street. A man with wide brimmed hat and sitting tall on a bicycle cruised by, a wicker basket of produce attached to the handlebars. Four big crows balanced on a telephone wire as if a quartet of wise overseers, took note of her presence then broke out in reprimand. Marina pivoted, entered the house but did not shut the wooden door over a screened one. Her fingertips pressed against the mesh and her nose found a mixture of things. Stones in mud, wet cat and Peace rose, doggy residues, chilled leafy breeze. Her heart worked inside her, flushed blood through veins while tears crept up and up until they held her eyes and mind captive. The pain radiated from the inside out and back again. But it was not her physical body, but all the rest she had made into a hard knot.
The intimidating beauty of it all. Her pathetic retreat. The sudden hunger for life. Too much to stand in the center of and hold in. Marina felt her health’s damage, an exhaustion that begged for a cave of endless rest. Then came a clarity like fog swept out as her heart presented no jumbled beats, did not recoil or threaten to ruin everything despite her self-examination. An upsurge of curiosity.
The phone rang four times before she answered.
“Weekly check in,” Ginny said in her nurse’s voice.
“Yes, I’m fine. Busy.”
“With what? Are you having any luck with the ‘Missing’ flyers the neighbors put around for you? Signs of Duke yet?”
Her hand went to her lips then to her chest. “Duke? No, no sign. I’m just thinking about photography. Making decisions.”
“Photography? Whatever for? Are you looking at old photo albums and feeling nostalgic?”
Marina shook her head at the cat as it raced after a squirrel and nearly opened the door again to see where they would end up. “No, not this time. I just miss it, taking pictures.”
“Huh Marina, I didn’t know it was ever a hobby.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Well, is everything going alright? Got enough groceries for the week? Tended to your bills alright?”
“I’m not ninety, Ginny. I’m fifty-six. I can manage my life.”
Ginny didn’t respond. Marina could hear a train in the background in Pittsburgh and knew Ginny was on her lunch hour. Ginny always thought she needed to take care of things. It wasn’t her age–she was younger–but her nature, decisive and no nonsense with her patients and overbearing with her sister. Marina knew there was love in it but it grated on her some times.
“I have to go. I was working on something.”
“Baking again? Your weight, Marina–remember that’s important to keep in hand.”
“Just a little something new. Sorta.”
“Wish I was there to help you eat it. My lunch hour is nearly over, anyway. You call one of your friends yet this week?”
“What friends? They all work or are dead. Ginny, I’m just occupied.”
“Marina, really…Alright, later then.”
Marina went into her bedroom, opened up the door to her crowded closet and yanked the chain on the closet light bulb. There were shoe boxes on the shelf above, some with shoes from her legal secretary days and some with odds and ends and others with photos. And her old pocket sized camera. She got a chair form beneath her peeling, white-painted desk and set it up before the closet, then climbed up. Fingering the stacks of boxes, she found the one labeled in black marker, Pictures 2012-2013, and took it into her hands.
No one printed their pictures anymore, Travis, her closest friend right down the street had informed her. She used a computer, of course, yet she wanted to hold each photograph in her hands, up close as she did paper books and magazines. She liked the feel of glossy or satin finishes and their designs made permanent browsing. And she liked black and white pictures, too, how they were comprised of minute gradations grey. The way she could arrange them into albums for leisurely Not everyone had to race ahead with technology; old ways had some use.
Marina sat back on her bed, head on the pillow, and opened the box. One by one she surveyed the meanderings of her healthy–or at least unsuspecting–living. Trout Lake and her favorite cabin and the red canoes. Winding, demanding trails in mountains. The river walk and seasonal markets. Churches and skyscrapers, a phantasmagoria of night’s fake and real lights winking at her in a fifteenth story hotel room in Seattle–how she loved it. And there, there was her buddy, Travis, a mere month before he’d finally left her to her own erratic company.
She traced his trim white beard with her index finger, the squiggly heavy eyebrows, the breadth of his sagging shoulders as he leaned against a tree in pale early light. He was twelve years older, a retired professor, and had had both hips replaced. Once they’d often walked together, he encouraging her to frame eye-catching shots, but in time he wasn’t able to keep up. She visited him often, they played intense chess games, and she brought over dinner or flowers or books. They talked or not. But one night he took himself down to a corner, his ornately carved cane in hand, and when he got back and sat down he was knocked over with a fatal stroke. Marina hadn’t known he was out there or she’d have joined him, helped him, called 911. She could not figure out why he hadn’t called her or come by but when she couldn’t find sleep he drifted into her mind and told her to stop fussing, he was fine.
Travis hadn’t lived to see his “lady friend” suffer, too, and she was glad. She missed him more day by day. Now she took his smiling face and propped it on her nightstand next to a Mary Oliver poetry collection. Then she dug out the little camera at the bottom of disorderly pictures.
And then she laid it next to his picture. She went downstairs and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” CD on the stereo in remembrance. She listened and made a pumpkin spice bread as she did every fall before he died, before her own heart got snared by nasty snags and brought her to her knees.
Early next morning she slipped the camera (after it got fresh batteries) into her jeans pocket, opened the kitchen side door and stepped into the alley. Stood stock still, swaying back and forth a little, feeling her heart, hearing it in her head, sixty-five, then seventy beats a minute. She counted, fingers to wrist. Nothing else occurred so she took a few steps, her knees trembling. The crows hadn’t seen her yet; she feared they’d buzz-bomb her, forgetting she had lived there for twelve years. So she gathered all strength–would she suddenly pass out from too much oxygen; would her heart rebel with fatal arrhythmia?–and went for the roses, burying her nose into petals.
The voluptuousness of deep sweetness drifted into her lungs and triggered a cough that made her eyes water. She inhaled the fragrance again, snapped a picture of it, then stepped forward, one foot before the other, down the alley. Before she reached its end she felt disoriented by arcing and drooping tree branches, the crows which suddenly zoomed ahead and full of strident commentary, the tabby cat crisscrossing before her careful steps. Shaky and lost. She wondered what Travis would suggest and she sat down on a mossy boulder. Her heart was drumming away, telling her something, urging her to do what? To take it easy. So she waited and looked out over the street. It hadn’t changed too much. She thought two houses were different colors, fresh and bright. Bushes and small trees had grown considerably since she last walked this way, taking her time. She pointed the camera at vermilion leaves above her and snapped two pictures, then snapped some of the lovely Wedgwood blue house with white pillars, then a stuffed witch figure perched on a step for Halloween. She took a wavering breath and stood again, her heart keeping up with her, not leaving her behind. Although it took up her entire chest with its hammering presence. She pressed her hand against it.
So much beauty surrounded her. But it hurt to be amid it.
“It’s okay. Be at ease, heart. Please.”
As Marina emerged from the alley, a red diesel truck roared by and she stumbled back, feeling chastened by its brute power and informed of her inferiority. Absurd, she told herself, and kept walking down the sidewalk. Another car and then two cyclists and she kept moving even though by now she was sure her fist-sized organ that was pumping away would escape her chest. What was she thinking? How could she do this alone? She paused, then with her camera framed a little girl arranging tiny fairy figures on a stump. And then saw a yard full of tiny white mushrooms and yard art made of blue bottles and two stylishly painted birdhouses high in horse chestnut trees. Her vision was fresh and seemed unusually acute; things began to appear almost hallucinatory. She blinked a couple of times then took pictures as she sauntered. Her chest space opened wide and her heart slipped into a more tolerable thrum. In fifteen minutes her spirit began to unwind from the recesses of a lonely, dank place, rising up to shake off one small shackle.
She made her way home, passing by Travis’ house, now inhabited by strangers. She gave it the barest smile.
Each day Marina decided to get up early and enter the daunting open space. She added five minutes more to each walk. Her heart jumped about several times. She felt she’d be struck dead when rushing from one corner to another to avoid a cantankerous van but when she rested and breathed slowly things settled again. She thought she saw Duke once but it was appeared to be a similar dog as it loped away. She felt sorry. Was it possible he would return, even now? She gave up thinking of it, as it triggered a hot sting of disgust with herself. Of regrets.
Once Mrs. Hartzell, a heart healthy if bent over old woman with wispy white hair, came out and looked right at her as Marina left the house. Marina waved cheerily to reassure her. Mrs. Hartzell appeared first stricken, then relieved and waved back.
But by the end of the week she’d managed a good thirty-five minutes, much of it pausing as she took photographs. When she returned home she felt tired in a satisfied way, assuring her she was at last making wiser decisions. Her mind clattered here and there less; her heart rested better as she retired at bedtime. She awakened to more daylight: she hadn’t died yet.
Marina had taken over eighty pictures and needed fresh batteries soon.
“Checking in before once more before I go to a conference,” Ginny said when she called. “How’s the busy-ness going?”
“It’s going fine, thanks.”
“What are you up to?”
“I’m taking pictures, for one thing.”
Silence weighted the miles between them.
“What did you say?”
“Pictures. I got my camera out again.”
“You’re taking photos of….random stuff inside your house, a bunch of still life arrangements? Or are you pointing it out windows and doors? I mean, great, glad to hear it but what are you really up to?”
“I’m making changes, Ginny. Taking a couple of steps forward.”
“Alright. Wait. You mean–you’re going outdoors again?”
It took Marina a few seconds to recognize the sound of her sister weeping yet trying not to weep. It startled her, made her want to assure her it wasn’t so big a thing as all that, it was a small move in the right direction and don’t worry–she’d actually be okay without anyone there to hold her hand, for that matter.
“Marina, thank God!”
“I suspect you’re right on that. And Duke, since his leaving got me thinking.”
“He isn’t back, though?”
“I can’t imagine why he would be, can you?”
They started to giggle, a little on the hysterical side but still, a real laugh shared for once.
“He might return if he finds out you’re out and about.”
Marina thought about that. “I’d make it up to him. But I’m afraid he’s really gone.”
Marina hung up and went upstairs to the picture of Travis. She tucked him into her purse and they got into her car and drove to the drugstore, Marina’s foot jerky on the gas pedal and brakes so that she got honked at twice and almost turned back. But they arrived and downloaded then printed her pictures. She drove one block to the tiny coffee shop. On the way in she looked up just to see what there was to see of the aged building she’d missed so long and snapped a picture of leaves clinging to the glass awning. She stood in line, patient under high ceilings, all alone. Let the echoing up conversations of perhaps better adjusted people wash over her as if it was just a sweep of friendly wind.
She ordered and paid for her decaf mocha latte. Sat down at a table and pulled out Travis so that the sun fell over his strong, kind face. Then they reviewed her first work in over two years. Simple and unschooled but it was hers. A couple were interesting, a couple more were good, the rest rubbish as Travis would agree with a laugh. But what it took to venture out and find, then capture each image was more than anyone could ever know. Travis surely did, was cheering her on, but she sat alone in the end.
Still, Marina’s heart was beginning to feel more at home within the world and herself. So when she finally registered the incessant barking and scraping of nails against the window beside her, she knew it was Duke. Dirty, nicked here and there, tongue hanging, hoarse voice demanding her attention, his skinniness begging proper nourishment as he smashed his nose against the window, looking her in the eye. Needing her. She pressed her own warm nose and hands to the glass, smiling. And meant it.