The usual motley group was there
as I passed muddy grass slopes where
everyone brings their canine companions,
then circles up to watch them romp and court.
The humans laugh and grouse, call out
to pets as if gifted or very bad children.
I paused with hands on hips, smiling.
Recalled four-leggeds Twiggy, Max and Buddy,
how they disrupted work and time with
ideas of pleasure like zigzag tag,
charging after bees or cats, howling
off-key with our music and oh, endless
petting, scratching of strange places. There
was our bribing for obedience with smelly
treats fed by hand (as if they were royalty),
palms tickled, scoured by long drippy tongues.
Our children commandeered them as beasts
to pull heavy objects, as alarms and look-outs
during high-jinks, or wept-upon confidantes
but never once did said dogs bite rudely
in reasonable protest. They adored their kids.
I vacated those memories, moved on until
there was my dream dog upon a hill–
so luxuriant a coat, that dignified stance,
such fierce beauty of the husky
desired all my life–which finally turned,
watched me gazing back, noting a minor
magnetic pull of my deep admiration.
Rather, there were squirrels, ducks, robins,
rousing scents on a breeze, a master at rest.
My longed-for sidekick observed and waited
unperturbed, best behaved, already well loved.
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.
Don’t ask him who he is. He isn’t certain, anymore, though he gets the occasional hint. The view from his sight line tells him little, other than his feet appear average and his limbs look good enough. Passing by a storefront window he catches a glimpse and stops, taken aback. Is that all there is to it, this body he occupies? He has heard the name “Tipper” or “Tip” a few times and it seems odd, something to note about a restaurant patron. Although he might be considered a sort of patron, he is certainly not a “tipper.” He’s more a nuisance, he supposes. But for the most part he is unperturbed. Once he was called “Ruffian” loudly, three times, by a woman who tried to get a small sack of steak bones from him, telling him this was bad for him, finally yelling he could just choke on them, then. Who was she kidding? Bad for her, maybe. He worked hard to snatch it away with ferocious bared teeth. Triumphant, for once! He likes the association with that so kept the name she threw at him.
Not being accustomed to giving an account of himself to anybody, there is also no documentation. No tags, no numbers. Ruffian doesn’t feel compelled to say anything about his story, such as it is. It matters little if he is great or small, handsome or passable, refined or common. Well, he knows he is not refined though he suspects he could pass with certain right touches. And it’s possible he’s some closer to handsome than not but, really, he also knows he tends to be patient with ladies of his ilk and so they get along. The main thing for him, though, is to keep going, stay alive, or if taking a break and hanging out also stay alive. Avoid burrs and broken glass, rats, raccoons and skunks; a handful of cats unnamed; barbed wire fences and security systems that are hair trigger. And bad meat. And bad tempered two-leggeds. Well, his own kind also leave some things to be desired, it’s true. He isn’t bursting with trust despite being congenial. Cautiously nice with second thoughts at the ready is his general mode. But a dog can only be prepared for so much, despite the basics about famed noses and ears and possible ESP. He’s not up on things enough to know about all that. He lives by instincts, the gut feelings even more now. That has to be good enough.
The neighborhood he likes most is North Hedges. He heard of it from the man who sells houses. This was at a coffee shop when he tossed a bagel remnant to pigeons. Ruffian caught it and got away in time to avoid pecking and swatting from all. Anyway, the praised neighborhood translates into high walls and dense bushes that also are boundary lines (good for relieving himself). There is the occasional old-fashioned fence. Many of the houses are humongous, a few reasonably sized. Leftover food is excellent everywhere. He likes best those with ordinary fences along side and back yards; he can wriggle past rotting or unevenly spaced wood slats. He waits until garbage day, very early to beat out competition, or for compost piles to be enlarged. Or a more rare treat from a generous dog-lover. Ruffian could search less enticing blocks nearby–has– but pickings are not even close to being as tasty.
There are also overhangs on odd, smaller second houses–the ones that shelter cars and such–and since it is known to rain even when sky is blue and breezes smell more verdant than mud-wet, this is a bonus. In fact, it rains all year off and on. So if he can find a spot under a roof line and only suffer dampness about the edges, he’s set. Recently it has been drier. His black and patchy white fur is not matted as badly as he can scratch and gnaw at knots and bits much better. There are a few random generous humans who feed him treats. And of course, Ruffian knows which cafes and restaurants to go to when they close. He otherwise roams, searches and negotiates with others like him or not.
But he stays closest to the house with a freshly-painted white fence that happens to be missing two slats. Ruffian can’t decide just why. Yes, their food is good. It seems a place that is overall safe, which counts for something these days when free-roaming animals get poisoned and turned in to the dog cops. It’s quiet, yet not too quiet; he hears music and it’s sweeter than usual noise. Often there’s a man seated at a stool, hands running over a black and white ledge of keys. Good sounds wander outdoors, even last winter at times. Ruffian sometimes curls up by the wall closer to the music but he prefers to remain at the back edges. Occasionally he will forget himself and join in a few bars which then brings two smiling faces to the door. This shuts him up.
There’s a structure in the back yard that is covered with a round and pointy roof, with chairs to sit amid vines and flowers that wind up lattice. The woman often sits there. She talks with people, sometimes the man. Marie and Marvin Briggs is what they repeated when someone asked if these were, in fact, their names. Ruffian heard them say them to each other enough after that. But that day there were many boxes and other unknown items dropped off on the porch. That was awhile ago; Ruffian hasn’t seen Marie outdoors much though he’s been roaming farther with the warm weather so has no doubt missed much. Sometimes he notices the piano isn’t played; that may not be a good sign. He also hears their voices getting loud and crying sounds, like Marie is speaking in pain. It bothers him mainly because it is different. It changes the feel of the entire house and yard. But Marvin, especially, yet notes Ruffian’s presence by managing fast eye contact or talking to him when he sits on the deck, glass or cup in his hand. But he doesn’t try to approach Ruffian. Or vice versa. They understand something of each other.
They both have seemed welcoming enough. Marvin calls out with the name “buddy”. Ruffian wishes he could correct him but now and then barks in return. The man then shows him a treat of some kind, a bit of sausage or chicken, even a portion of cold baked potato, then lays it on the decking so it can be gobbled up in private when they leave. Marie talks to him as she works in the garden even if she isn’t looking at him, her steady, soft voice an aid to his dozing. He gets worn out, out there. But he keeps to himself in the end. He isn’t in the habit of going to strangers, even if they are better known. They are people. He is canine and long on his own.
There are other canines and most of them are leashed or even tied up or worse, kept indoors which Ruffian finds ridiculous and cruel. They generally growl at him, warn him to stay away from their domain. Maybe these don’t know how to manage things without a leash or commands. He sits a distance from those yards, listens to threaten and complain, then goes on his way. If he barks and bares his teeth, too, much fuss ensures, the humans get involved with a very uncertain end. Often it’s not fun for either dog when all they were doing was having a conversation that didn’t invite humans into it. It is not so hard to come to a mutual agreement, in Ruffian’s opinion, with talk that is to the point.
But there are other canines as footloose as is he. More so, in truth. Not the usual motley crew. Canis latrans. Coyotes. They have been moving in and about more lately, and Ruffian has seen a few things, cats that don’t get to see the sun rise, rats and mice that just give up, other small creatures that need not bother moving in much less seeking emergency shelter. But for the most part Ruffian notes coyotes comings and goings with detached interest, as they do him. Ruffian realizes he is a bit bigger than most of them, though not a forbidding dog. He just can take care of himself after a couple years on the street but he is not interested in aggravating anyone, either. No competition can be had with coyotes form what he understands.
One certain coyote shows up– Ruffian is pretty sure he’s the same one– a few times a month. Tonight he’s around again. The Briggs’ should clean up their brush and mend their fence but since they do not, coyote and Ruffian have equal access. Well, Sir Coyote (as Ruffian has taken to calling him; he’s a bit royal in bearing) can jump higher, four, five feet or more, something to witness. And is better at this night hunting than he is, admittedly. Though not that close to being congenial, they acknowledge each other with a brief clear glance, eyes locking for less than a second. Sir Coyote tends to be entirely unheard and unseen by humans. He sniffs out rodents, other smallish creatures, makes brief work of it, is gone. If it was possible to be more communicative and join in, Ruffian would. But he knows better. He is outclassed by Sir, who was born wild, still is though now sharing sprawling, densely populated cities. A dog that was once cared for and owned by others and then lost to the byways and highways one day, Ruffian has learned about his wildness out of desperate need. It hasn’t been so hard.
But it isn’t his the same way as coyote’s. There is dog and there is dog. Sir Coyote is so fast and sleek, smart right down to his bone marrow, and displays talents Ruffian wishes he could recall or learn as well. Like being able to vanish without you knowing it happens. Playing tricks on the mind when you think you are attuned. Since Ruffian’s been close to humans, he has lost his wariness. He’s a raggedy pet that was inadvertently freed. Sir is a “Sir” for good reason.
Tonight Ruffian sees Marvin come out to the deck and he wonders if Sir will do something about that but no, he is intent on scouting and grabbing and gobbling, if in that quiet, efficient way. Marvin frowns at a sound he stirred up, studies the spot Sir was but a second before then rubs his eyes and sits down with legs splayed, arms crossed over his thin chest. He looks up at the half-moon.
“Are you out there, buddy?”
Ruffian lifts his head. The anticipation of more brings him to his haunches.
“I can’t sleep again. I wonder if I’ll ever sleep again.”
Ruffian is unimpressed, also would like to sleep so lays back down, puts head on folded paws. Half-closes his eyes. Sometime Marvin talks to him. It’s okay.
“She’s gone, did you know? Marie. Our Marie.”
Ruffian jerks hi head up. That name, that tone. He looks about. Marie. But she isn’t there. He lowers it again, watches from among groupings of daisies and newly showing-off hydrangeas blooming by downed, forgotten branches and a rich thicket of ferns. It’s his cool spot to rest, under the fancy ferns.
“Why do you insist on staying out here? Or is elsewhere? Not having a home is not good. Is it?” He scratches his own fur-like head of hair. “Maybe you feel something here…? It hasn’t been good, not for a long time, really. Buddy, I tell you, she tired of things. She’s sick to death of my piano compositions, too, which cuts to the quick…”
He stretches, yawns, making a cascading sound on the exhale. A dissatisfied whine. Ruffian nearly barks at him to settle down, but the man might jump up, come after him.
“You there or not? I thought I felt you…I had mediocre fish tonight, old frozen halibut. Not your ideal meal–mine, either. She would have known what to do with that because she is a chef. A high-paid chef, you know that?” He laughs. “Of course not, you’re a dog. Well, maybe you could tell from the nibbles she gave you. Well, I have leftover French fries if you’re hungry.”
Ruffian has an impulse to show himself, anyway, but thinks better of it. Marvin sounds and smells very alone but also grief-bound, that trapped soured sweet odor. He should definitely be asleep now, escaping himself. Ruffian should be dreaming, too–of chasing things and winning. Of teaming up with Sir Coyote and finding a strong pack at last. He gets tired of being alone, too, but always something doesn’t work out. He doesn’t like the mentality of a gang of dogs gone crazy, either. He’s better off here in the flowers and ferns, a few other choice spots around North Hedges.
But could be Marvin is better off on the deck looking at the sky. It’s sharp and brilliant up there. Stars holding their patterns, each perfect place. Ruffian yawns, too, licks lips and nose. He’s feeling a bit parched. Licks dew off grass.
“There you are!” Marvin leans forward, hands dangling over his knees. He then picks up his glass from the side table, holds it aloft, drinks from it. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in close company with me tonight, either. I’m an idiot to have let her go! I’m a damned fool to have thought I could keep her with songs and lots of promises of better times…”
Marvin drinks again. Ruffian thinks he would like some of whatever that is. He’d like a really huge bowl of something, cool water preferred.
“The thing is, I have finally sold some songs, buddy! I booked more gigs.”
The man stands and steps off the deck. He holds out his arms to the fragrant, damp garden, then raises them to deep sky and far moon. “Merciless, that moon, it keeps shining on. Looks so cold. Like Marie can be.” He steps closer to the flowers, pauses, then calls to Ruffian. “Hey, I see your eyes! You’re not keeping them shut!”
Ruffian backs up on his belly. What is Marvin doing? He knows better, this man. He’s offered him food but Ruffian has kept his distance from the start. If Marie is gone, what next? Will Marvin take over his life? Then he’ll disappear. Why should he even bother to offer his scent, his warmth, his stokes to such a one as Ruffian? It would be dangerous for them both. Ruffian could bite him or worse.
This living on the run, it’s been working for him okay. He backs away, then stands and trots to the gap in the fence.
From across the way a bigger voice cuts through the dark. “Briggs! Shut up out there! It’s two-thirty in the morning! Can’t you hang it up by now? Just give us all a break? Go to bed, man!”
Ruffian noses his way through the elegant ferns, finds the gap and exits the yard, pushes through bushes on the other side that snag his coat. Stands tall on the sidewalk. He spots Sir Coyote running down the street. He very much would like to follow. Knows it’s futile. He’s stuck on the sidewalk, panting lightly, about to search for water.
“Buddy, you leaving me?”
Ruffian knows this sound and look. Marvin talks like a disappointed boy. Bewildered. He stands there with his long bare feet, those loose pajama bottoms, narrow chest vulnerable and pale, head of hair sticking out like Ruffian’s. He studies him with one white-tipped ear tilting this way and that, then the other turning, but his tail is not wagging. It’s waiting.
Ruffian considers this abandoned human. Weakened, downcast, tired out. He knows how these can feel. He steps the barest bit forward, stretches his neck out so his nose comes close, closer. Sniffs deeply. Marvin does nothing, looks at him with dark, silent eyes. Damp nose bumps against empty warm hand. Ruffian sits nicely and licks the salty skin.
Marvin squats on the sidewalk, reaches out, uneasily smooths tangled fur between Ruffian’s floppy ears as if making contact with something special–or potentially hazardous, he’s not sure which. Ruffian wants to ask what’s going on and where’s the blasted water, but says nothing. He’s looking at thin trails of wetness on Marvin’s cheeks. He wants to lick them clean. The whole man needs something more, much more.
Marvin gets up, walks away with the last of his energy so he can crawl into bed to rest awhile. He opens the gate in his fence, enters his pretty but Marie-less yard. Ruffian hears that sudden, almost silent loping and scans dense air over his shoulder. Sir Coyote is passing, head and tail low, silhouette compact and powerful, driven forward, onward with barely a glance at the dog on the sidewalk. He surely notices him once more but likely finds dogs a tad foolish, even inferior if truth is faced. Ruffian’s heart races as the coyote vanishes into shadow, then it settles. He steps forward, nudges the unlatched gate with his fine, strong head. Marvin has gone inside and locked his door. Ruffian sees the bowl of shimmering water and drinks long. Lies down on the deck, puts head on paws with a shuddering sigh. He is filled with an odd relief and easily tracks night’s wiles ’til daybreak stirs up life in them again.
The phone’s ring sounded rude, even shocking and I answered. I didn’t want it to wake up anybody else. Kayla slept hard. Buster the Third did not, being a dog of indeterminate breeds but hard-wired to come alive at the slightest provocation. It was hard to sleep with my job being new and the neighborhood nothing like the one we had left. The rather unkempt duplex had been our place for two months while we looked for a better house. All noises were not accounted for. But that’s likely an excuse. I have never been a floppy, drooling, nicely unconscious sleeper. Kay’s mouth was half-open and half-muffled by the pillow. I had been listening to her gentle snore for an hour.
Buster lifted his golden head as I reached over him to the heavy, almost rooted black phone on the nightstand. It had come with the house. I liked it, along with the fifties metal kitchen table and chairs, the knotty pine flooring and a splintery miniature deck out back. It was possible the duplex would feel soon right for us all, but not likely.
I picked up the receiver, held it close to my ear and awaited the prankster’s heavy breathing or worse. I hoped none of my students had gotten my landline number yet. It was used for public calls or medical appointments, stores that needed our number, nothing personal. But there was no sound from the caller. I was about to quietly snarl into it when a voice slipped through, fell forward to me.
“Ben, is it you?”
A female voice. I looked out the window at the soft mercury flush of light on the street below. Stood up, unspooling the phone cord as I moved on stealthy feet. Buster stirred, thought better of it and settled his length by Kay.
“Yes, who’s this?” I whispered as I closed the bedroom door behind me. The springy cord let me get a yard farther down the hallway, to my surprise.
A pause, then a clearing of the throat. “You don’t know?…”
“No, I don’t! And it’s midnight.” I tried not to whisper-shout. If I kept that up Buster would be pawing at the door, then barking. “Who is it, what do you want, how did you get my number?”
“It’s… you said we were sort of like twins, only even better.” A tremulous release of air.
There was something there, the vowels a bit drawn out, tone light but smoky. I sank to the hallway floor, rubbed my eyes with calloused fingers, yawned. This was absurd. “Your name or I’m hanging up.”
My eyes sprang open in the dark. I pressed against the wall. “Jane. You mean Jane–from Taliesin?”
“Yes. Jane from Taliesin.”
Kay rearranged herself on the bed and Buster uttered a whine that turned into a yelp. I pressed the phone close to my ear. I felt anxiety’s tiny shocks in my diaphragm.
“What? Where are you calling from?”
“It doesn’t matter, I just needed to hear your voice again… I leave you to sleep’s sweet discord. Night, Woodcarver Benjamin.”
“Wait a minute, stop,” I hissed.
There was a sharp disconnect. I looked at the receiver. Pushed myself up, the wall cool through my t-shirt. I was fully awake. My skin tingled as if she had suddenly walked by, then vanished once more. Jane. Those last words would have been her words, that peculiar way of speaking to me. As if we were two poets caught in some time warp. It had to be Jane Kennelly. There was no one else who’d talk like that and know I’d know. No one in my everyday life who knew I knew wood.
Was my old-fashioned landline listed somewhere, just floating in online ether, waiting to be plucked by her? Did that really lead her to me? How did she know I was even in this town? Or maybe she didn’t yet know where I was. How did she think to call me after midnight on a Monday night as I lay relentlessly awake by my dog and my partner? It wasn’t reasonable she’d have an inkling about Kay. It was more likely she would think about my having a dog. Named after the ancient dog I’d had in high school, who died a day after my graduation. Every dog I’d had was called Buster–partly because of Jane.
I slipped back under the beige chenille bedspread and lay there looking at a glint of light gleaned from the street, now caught in a corner. Jane. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years. It was just a crazy mishap. A strange sleepwalking dream. I stared at another lacy light patch.
My last world history class was over and I was gathering my the stack of assignments when Kay called on my cell.
“Pick up some more tea, will you? And red-leaf lettuce? And we’re about out of butter.”
“And radishes for the salad. They’re out now.”
Kay laughed. “Yes, get your radishes!”
In the tea and coffee aisle my eyes roamed over four shelves of tea boxes and iced tea mixes. What was it Kay liked so much? Cinnamon and spice, orange spice? Red rooibos? There were so many and I was distracted by the enlivening aroma of coffees shelved across from the tea. I wanted some of that. My vision settled on a box of organic spearmint; that was what she loved, a sweet minty tea. I picked it up and tossed it into the basket , grabbed a bag of Kona coffee beans and headed to the check out.
Kay unpacked the shopping bag, held up the tea box and frowned.
“Why mint tea? You know I drink orange spice primarily. Are you going to try out something new or did you suppose I’d just like it?”
I crooked my head at the tea, then her. “I thought you liked it, I guess. Don’t you?”
“I would say it’s right down there with coffee. No, no mint, please. Most others. Call next time if you’re unsure. ” She flashed a friendly smile and began to wash lettuce and radishes.
I took my briefcase into the living room, propped it against the small desk when it came to me: Jane had had a thing for spearmint tea. She had insisted it was good for all that ailed you, made me drink it when I had colds, brought it for lunch at the arts high school we attended. Taliesin School. A riffle of chills ran over my length. Why unthinkingly buy it now?
“I’m going for my run!” I called to Kay and took the steps to our bedroom in three long strides, Buster scampering after me, ready to go as ever.
On the run I tried not to think, my feet comfortably pounding sidewalks as trees conspiring to shade me from the bright heat. But she came along with us, Jane with her wide sea blue eyes, all that messy chestnut hair swinging at her shoulders, the way her hands talked whole tales. I pushed harder, urged Buster on faster and faster until he overtook me and I had to hail him down.
Kay left for three nights, three days. She had a nursing education conference in the next state over and had decided to fly. I took her to the airport, then stopped by the neighborhood Thai spot and got take out. I had decided it wasn’t so taxing for just Buster and me to have the run of the duplex. I had a movie to watch, a novel about nineteenth century China I had just started, and there was always Buster. We took our run and each settled into the couch, me with my Thai and his rawhide bone being worked between his teeth.
The movie wasn’t stellar but it was a comedic detective story from the thirties with a few good punch lines. Kay was more into foreign movies, the sort I could never follow as there seemed to be slim to no plots. She liked nonfiction more than I, so we rarely read aloud our favorite passages or shared the complex machinations of plot or ideology, philosophy. I stared at the television without seeing. We were often at opposite ends about things. She liked contemporary art; I liked Degas and Monet and Chagall. Kay was a swimmer and swam laps three times a week or used a rowing machine at the gym. I liked moving fast, getting a sweat going by running or cycling or playing tennis. But we’d come together over a love of being of service to others–she, her patients and I, high school students to whom I taught World History and Economics, as well as American Cultural and Subcultural Communities.
On week-ends I was often engaged in woodworking, making bowls, a piece of furniture, or odd objects d’art. Sometimes I sold them at crafts festivals. It was the sort of thing Kay found time consuming and at times admired.
Jane would have been very happy with my work; she’d often run her hands over silken innards of a bowl, smiling up at me. A budding jewelry designer during our school years, she knew the value and characteristics of materials, held them in high regard, loved the way they yielded to our labor, and we, to them.
I had to keep myself in the present much better than this. I pulled my attention sharply back to the screen and the story unfolding, finished the Thai meal then let Buster lick my plate clean. I gave him a good scratch around his floppy Lab-like ears and surprisingly, I went to bed before eleven, slowly fell off my wakeful high cliff into a swirl of sumptuous light sleep, my mind emptying itself of work spaces and student’s questions and my latest project. Then the big black phone fairly screamed and Buster sat up, panting lightly, ears pricked.
“Yes, it’s Ben.”
“It is Jane again. I decided to try once more. Are you coming out of a sleep fog or just diving into it?”
“I never quite got there, no problem,” I said, scrunching up two pillows, Kay’s and mine, and leaning back onto them. “So, just talk to me.”
“Okay, I got your number online. I know you teach high school there, for starters.”
“You’ve been following me online or something? Not appreciated and I might hang up now.”
The sound of her laughter burst into my consciousness like a firework. I want her to talk and talk; she feels as friendly and interesting as ever.
“No, no, your sister told me you moved and are teaching history or something, high school, right?”
“Lilly? How could or would she do that?”
“We met at a bookstore, a reading actually. In Berkeley. Amazed me but I knew her at once. She wasn’t so sure about me. I’m not as skinny…my hair is very short…I guess I’ve really changed but anyway, we got drinks and caught up a little. She lives quite the life.”
“Lilly never told me about this but then, we don’t often talk.”
“I know. You never did. But she’s still so smart; I gather she’s become a superior physicist.”
“Yes.” I smooth Buster’s head, who has lain his head across my thigh. “I can’t believe we’re talking like this. It’s…ridiculous.” My voice lowered as if afraid to speak of my situation. “Do you know about Kay?”
“Who lives with me? Two years now.”
“Well, no, did I wake her up then? That’s stupid of me, isn’t it?”
I rested my hand on Buster’s back, patted him a few times. “I am talking on a very old phone, it’s from the nineteen sixties or earlier, I think. It’s a landline number, weird, huh?”
“I figured it might be. Perfect.”
We both laughed for no reason.
“No, she isn’t here; she’s a nurse and is at a conference. But the first time, she was right here next to me. Well, next to Buster.”
“Oh, crud. Wait, Buster? Ah, good…that’s good. ” She did something, moved a book or something that made a sliding sound and thud. “Sorry, I’m closing doors on my studio cabinets with my free hand, thinking of leaving for the night. I might stay and watch the sky deepen through my skylight, wonder about this world and all its strangeness…you, too.”
“Studio with skylight? So, you’re making jewelry.”
“Sure. What did you think?”
I didn’t think, I had nearly forgotten you, tried like crazy to forget, I no longer follow women who have your quick steps, who wear their hair the same way, who may have worn your scent, that iris-with-sweet grass oil combo. I stopped thinking of you every single day when you got married. I try to not dream about you, but still you can barge right in.
“Makes the most sense, of course. I do some woodworking but make my money teaching. But aren’t you married, Jane?” Buster got up and jumped off the bed, nosed the door open and looked out. I watched him and fell silent again.
“Two years, that was it. After Italy I wandered a little then ended up in San Francisco. I’ve been here for over ten years now. Alone more or less, depending on how you look at it. I’m making a go of things. I could not have lived without my hands creating. You know that.”
Buster nuzzled the hand by his head. I patted him and he put this head down and closed his eyes. But something had loosened and opened inside of me and I felt afraid of it.
I took a deep breath. “How are you, Jane, really?”
“Long over drugs if that’s on your mind: woman calls up man in a stoned and drunken fit to tyrannize him, steal away his sanity! No. Not me. I’m a tamed woman now, more or less.”
I hear her say woman, and it jarred me. Tamed, impossible. We were barely nineteen but feeling thirty when we said goodbye. “Well. I’m truly relieved for you.”
“It’s lovely to hear your voice, Ben.”
“Yes, yours, too, but I’m thinking maybe you shouldn’t call again.”
“Alright, of course. I see that. So much time has passed.” Quietly, as if she is shrinking into an ever more invisible being.
“I’m glad you did just to say ‘hello’ at least.”
“Yes, me, too, my friend. Be glad of your life and fare thee well, Ben–and farewell, new Buster.”
And she hung up.
It was the inclusion of Buster that stopped time and re-started it and me again. “Jane? Wait.”
But she was gone.
I used to creep out of my bedroom window at the parents’ house and sit on my windowsill, my shoes pressed against the shingles. It might be early morning before all the traffic started toward downtown and I had to catch the city bus for Taliesin. Or before dinner, when I needed to just rest, take in all the oxygen the clusters of maples and oaks gave us, listen to the birds that hid deep within their green crowns. But my favorite time was at night. I was not a sleeper even then. And if I was angry–I could get so angry at life then–I could sit and stew for hours. Until the stars freed me.
She sometimes happened by when I did that, she seemed to just know although she lived some blocks away. I ignored her as long as I could. Until she informed me she had just moved to the area just to attend the arts school and couldn’t I kindly bestir myself long enough to make her acquaintance or was I going to be stuck up like everyone else?
“And by the way, I could just steal your dog, he’s so friendly, intelligent. Well turned out.”
“You leave Buster where he is, I’m coming down, and then you’ll move along, right?”
But she’d stayed. We took Buster the First on a long, slow walk because he was not in great shape even then and limped a bit. She was patient with us both. Buster fell in love before I did.
I looked out Kay’s and my bedroom window. There were no screens on the windows–part of the cheap rent unless I pressed the issue–so I could climb out and manage to find a spot on a flatter part of the roof where there was less of a pitch. If I was careful. I threw the sash up and put one foot and then another outside, crept a few inches toward the spot. Sweat sprang up around my neck and I wondered if I’d lost my mind. I was no teenager but thirty-four. The grassy patch of yard was far down there and hard. I sat and braced myself with my tennis shoes. Looked out at night’s patchy illuminations across the loose spread of town, a blanket of darkness imbued with sprinklings of sequins. Something inside welled up with more than I had room for–despite a good job, my reasonable lifestyle with Kay, it was there, a knot I couldn’t swallow. Buster barked at me once as if to warn me to be careful, then sat by the window waiting.
Where was she? Not Kay but Jane, heaven help us all. She was likely somewhere near San Francisco since she had seen Lilly in Berkeley, a long way away from my southern Oregon town. I felt her here, but she hadn’t called, she heard the “no more” and rightly so. Kay and I were to be married in another year, after we’d saved up more than enough money for all the festivities. She has always been practical, I, the more impulsive, given to extravagant feelings and spending at times. She laughed when she called me “The True Hopeless Romantic” and I’ve wondered how much she can really stand the truth of that. How I would feel the lack of acceptance years later.
But Jane would empathize. At least, she did. Absolutely, we were soulmates, we thought. Then two years after high school she met and married a fledgling businessman, one on the rise, older, much savvier. I was well on my way to an earnest academic life; she was soon on her way to Italy and beyond. That was all I knew. I couldn’t bear her name or face. a long while.
But time will take from us what we relinquish out of a greater need. I had to go forward, not languish. And now this.
The lights failed to obscure the swatch of sky that brought me to feeling some better. A reestablished steadiness saved me as I realized clearly my precarious position on the roof. It felt exhilarating, as well. I have been at home on a few rooftops, less so on the ground. I can see so much better from there. Even if rain fell hard on my face or wind whipped about me, any city or town with its secrets and a distant purplish horizon would hold me still for magical moments longer. It’s the possibilities that hold me to the high spot.
The phone rang. I listened to another sharp, nagging ring, then another. Buster sat up on haunches, put paws on sill as if to help me. I began to move in the window’s direction, bit by bit, finally got my head in and my trunk and then my legs crashed onto the floor as I heaved myself forward, crawled to the phone. And answered it, panting.
“Ben? Where were you, already? I tried your cell first but you must’ve already turned it off. I figured you’d turned in and were attempting sleep, stage one. Sorry if I woke you, ha.”
“Kay. I was just on my way to the room. How’re things going?” But I didn’t much care.
The following night I finally gave up and went to bed, and hoped the drugstore sleep aid might help as I’d slept little to none the night before. Teaching was a struggle the day after Kay called. She’d talked a long time about little but she’d had at least three cocktails in the hotel bar. She was to be home the following night before eleven, would take a cab from the city airport forty minutes away. I wanted to tell her I’d get her, that it was nothing and I was happy to do it. But I didn’t and she was fine with the cab shared three ways, said the per diem would cover it.
Buster the Third started snoring right away. I nudged him twice but it made no difference. He warmed my feet; the breeze rushed under the raised window with a touch of frost. I took my blue pill, I read awhile, music was playing on my vintage clock-radio for an hour. I waited although I knew–and believed–I shouldn’t.
Just as I was floating down a blue flower-lined pathway the bedside phone rang. Once, twice, three times. I sat up. Buster barely raised his furry head to blink at it. He knows the sound now.
“Yes, ’tis me.”
“I’ve tried to not think about it, I’ve told myself to not answer.”
“I know, I nearly taped my hands to the table here in the studio. I’ve been working on a sterling necklace that has three different sized leaves–well, sort of leaves, they curve, are veined and aren’t feathers–and I told myself, Do not call Ben again. He told you, you need to be agreeable about it if he means that much. But then I waited a day–that’s my rule, wait at least one day before doing anything vitally important–”
“Where are you? I mean, just where is your studio located?”
“Berkley, of course.”
“I’m coming to see you. I’m getting a plane ticket, coming to visit face-to-face, isn’t that perfectly nuts? But just for lunch or dinner. A walk in a park.”
“Wait, I see. Okay, okay, that’s not why you called—it’s not like that for you, anymore. I’m kidding myself, being played for a fool again?”
“Ben, things are not the same. I am not the same. I will admit I called you partly because I was feeling sorry for myself, a little, just a tiny bit. And of course, you have never vacated my vast and buzzing brain because…Well.”
I found Buster’s paw and grabbed it as he looked up expectantly, inched his way toward me.
“What? Tell me what you’ve meant to say.”
“I’m not the same. I’m not well, Ben, I’m sorry to have phoned you in the first place now, I just thought we’d catch up, I have missed you, its true but–”
“What is it, cancer? A fatal illness so terrible that you can’t tell me?”
“No! I mean, not cancer. It’s MS. I have MS. I already have real trouble sometimes, other times not. But it’s not too good, the long view.”
It sank in. No, it wasn’t good. My heart felt like it was dislodged and was hovering somewhere near my knees.
“That’s really, really tough, Jane. Terrible.”
“Yes, sort of is. Some days. Weeks or more. Not this week. But next perhaps. I just keep making my jewelry. I do well. I have to create as much as I can, while I can.”
“Okay.” I felt the first rabid nick of sorrow, perhaps destined to become grief. “I feel turned inside out. But I’m going to book a flight.”
“You can’t and will not be a rescuer, not any hero, please don’t try it!” She was about yelling and then put her hand over her mouth, I heard it, then took it off. “I command you.”
Her bright warmth was replaced with a different vigor, that tough-skinned rush of energy that used to jump out at me in fits and jabs as we worked together on our projects, mulling over problems. Or when we sat side by side on a tight windowsill, debating techniques for this or that, the best time of day to create, philosophies of art and life. One and the same, we had agreed: Art. Life.
“I’m just not fit for heroism. I’m too much an artist, too little the warrior. Please let me visit. We’ll have spearmint tea and cinnamon cookies. Sit and talk.”
“You remembered the tea! And I still like cinnamon and ginger cookies…”
“I remember most everything.”
“Ben, you are a prince of a fool, a gentleman and a dreamer. Impulsive perhaps but I cannot imagine what I would like one mite better.”
So then, of course, I had to tell Kay things had changed. Biting my lip and keeping Buster close by as his tail thumped loudly on the floor, abut keeping time with my tapping foot. After I was done with my saga, she sat opposite me and said she had already felt her path was diverging from mine. The conference had cinched it somehow. She had ambitions and they were not like mine.
“You love your dog better than most humans. You’ve always wanted to be an artist or poet,” she chuckled as if it was a joke, “and I used to find both kind of attractive.”
But that would never change and she had known it and so had I. I was a good teacher of history and so on. But I’d always found aerial views from rooftops breathtaking, and also instructive. I liked to let my head take a look around the clouds. Soon I could be looking through a skylight with Jane Kennelly if things moved along as I hoped. And with Buster the Third. He had to meet her. I suspected he might even turn the tide; I was, in truth, counting on Buster’s help. Again.
The day was met with my favorite floral china cup of strong Oolong tea, the newspaper and Arthur, my unkempt miniature labradoodle. Though the hour was often marred by the rushing of cars carrying workers to important positions in the world, I persisted. Before long things would settle into a companionable quietness rounded out by bird song or squirrel chatter or the occasional barking, all of which Arthur offered commentary on. I could hear all this from my kitchen window, Arthur having exited through the side doggie door to do his daily and sniff about the flowers and trees. The light fell in such a way at seven a.m. that I was neither too wrongly awakened or kept lagging in that leftover daze of slumber. It caressed the deepening lines in my face and warmed my cool fingers. The tea was quite good, the cranberry orange scones I got by the half dozen, better, and the paper fell somewhere below par.
When he came back inside, I took us both out to the front porch. Arthur got to romp about the yard up to our white fence. I got the rocker and a decent view of everything my eye could find. The lumpy but firm green and gold pillow was stuffed behind my back; otherwise, the sitting would have been hampered by a spine that has had too much stress for too many years. As a ballet and later a modern dancer for twenty-seven years, I had felt the strain of a body’s glory as well as the wonder. Now things–connective tissue, the spots between joints, the arches and toes of feet overused so long–they hurt me if I moved too much or too little. There is a more happy medium but it had eluded me recently. I still danced once a week, if you could call it that, at a local studio. And Arthur and I took to the neighborhood park as often as we could and what a good time we had there, myself on the swing as he met up with his buddies. One of the appreciated features of the park is that people with dogs like to chat, so I got my own socializing in for a few days. We both ended up feeling well enough satisfied.
But I did dislike being one of two who appear over seventy. The other one, Mr. Carney, was disagreeable at best, ear flaps pulled down from his red and grey plaid woolen cap–yes, even in warmer weather– and his subsequent complaint that I spoke quite unintelligibly. If he could understand more than five words in a half hour I felt victorious about my ability to shout without seeming idiotic or rude. But he really didn’t want to converse. He whined about things, not just my speech, which he said often resembles that of a child with cookies caught in her mouth.
So I tended to keep watch from my swing while Arthur bounded here and there and Mr. Carney shuffled along the path with his waddling corgi. I have feared for them both, their weight and lack of cordial interchange. They frankly seemed happier with each other. As for me, I have remained thin and if my doctor has cautioned that I could benefit from more fat, I have liked the lightness and ease of a body not carrying unnecessary cargo. I’ve imagined it’s due to being a dancer so long. One is loathe to disturb what has served one well for decades.
But who am I to ever make a point of it? I have not been the most generous with my own time and attention in the more recent past. There was a time for all that, when I didn’t mind being called upon, when I was needed and not at all bothered. Appreciated, too. But as the years went by even my children came armed with many demands or needs but with little else–either to offer or to say. It’s the way of things, I suppose. They with the complicated lives which I have already inhabited and shed, like a snake of its useless skin. I now fit in yet another one and will get rid of that, too, and more, in time. My granddaughter laughed when I said that but she, too, will hopefully live to see the truth of the analogy.
This morning Arthur started barking before I even got the kettle to a boil. I felt out of sorts, as if I couldn’t quite see the point in the sun rising to shine. I fiddled with my crooked glasses–I stepped on them a few days back–and swept up my long hair into a topknot and stuck a decorative chop stick in the wispy mass to secure it. The last scone was dried out. There was s sliver of butter left so I spread it on, then a thick layer of peach preserves to see if that helped. The first bite was not a delight but I continued masticating until I could manage a swallow. Arthur kept barking, not ferociously, but with an emphasis that drew me away from my paper. I could see him jumping against the fence a few times, so stuck my head out the door.
“Get your mad, noisy self in here, Arthur! Now.”
He turned to assess my intention, then kept on barking. I frowned at him and swung my gaze over the driveway next door. Nothing. There wouldn’t be. The Bellsons had moved three months ago, the empty windows and driveway finally seeming normal to me. But as I looked farther down the drive, I could make out something, a truck and maybe a car or even more. And three people waiting on the patch of overgrown grass that separated sidewalk from street.
Had the real estate sign been taken down and I not even noticed it? Well, I had stopped thinking about who might come there or if it would be torn down for a new monster of a house, if a renter with uncertain origins or intentions would take up residence and the poor house surrendering itself. I guess it didn’t matter in the end. I was on the corner, a boon. My back yard yielded some privacy. And no matter who took over the neighboring house, I would be in the same spot until I wasn’t.
Arthur came back in and headed to his food and water as I made tea. I spread open my paper and scanned the usual dreadful headlines about politics, car wrecks, a fire in the next county, yet the weather would remain fair. We could hear the sounds of things nearby, doors opening and closing, squeaky wheels, masculine voices directing one thing or another. After my scone was finished by force of habit and appreciation of the jam, we took ourselves out to the porch. Whereupon Arthur resumed barking until I was sharp in my reprimand. But I could see why he was flustered. Something was certainly changing next door and we had little idea just what it would bring.
There were a husband and wife, they appeared to be Asian, on the front lawn talking with restraint while gesturing at the furniture and boxes being hauled inside. Then I spotted who I guessed was a daughter of teenage years. She was slight, compact. She wore her hair blue-tinged and short. I glimpsed bright bangles on her wrists. Misgiving rose up in me even though I liked young people, if largely from a distance. The Bellsons had not yet had children if they ever would; they were eager to advance and moved off to New Zealand. Nothing had been complicated about their lifestyle and I missed them, at the very least for that. I wondered how this teenager would conduct her life, if that meant my sleep would be jarred by exuberant pop music, if the street would be lined with her friends cars, if there would be antics of all sorts. I hoped for better.
Arthur lay down with head on paws, watching with me. I got up to pour more tea and then returned. The sunlight made its way through the latticework that was on each end of my porch and set its pattern upon the wooden planks. My pink-slippered feet rose of their own accord to dance in the streaming light, then landed by Arthur and stretched, toes pointing and flexing back, pointing again. The motion gave me twinges of discomfort and pleasure in equal amounts, as always.
And then I saw it, a massive irregular shape all swaddled and tied up neatly as it was rolled up to the front door. I slunk over to peer through the lattice just as three men removed it from the big rolling carrier and got the bulk turned sideways and lifted with effort. Then they slid it through the front door and out of my sight, the three newcomers following.
“Arthur”, I whispered, “that was a grand piano! We may have a piano player. Oh, please let there be music.”
Days later the sun brightened my dingy kitchen and the tea kettle let loose a steamy whistle as Arthur had his foray into the back yard. And I waited to hear the now daily piano scales. Up and down the piano keyboard, playing in major or minor keys, the girl worked her way with an expert touch. I knew it was only she who played since a week had gone by and we saw the father leave for work, then the mother. That left the girl at home alone for a half hour. Each morning she played exercises. My window was open enough that on a breeze rode every single note, firmly sounded. Arthur cocked his head back and forth, ears pricked, and I awaited his comment about it, perhaps dislike. But he, adapted already, went on about his business as I read my paper. Sometimes we got to the porch before she left but usually she had since left for the bus stop at the corner. I found myself stepping slowly about the floor of the porch, stretching this way and that, arms held aloft, then sitting with legs raised and scissored, slippers dangling, then discarded as the weather leaned more toward spring. The daffodils were shooting forth from the dark earth as if in grateful response to live music in their territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if my garden just up and blossomed in a frenzy.
The Musgraves across the street waved at me one Thursday as I exercised-arms in and out, stretch side to side– in sweetening breezes. I hadn’t seen them for months except huddled in their cars, on their way downtown to their offices. I waved back, then pulled my soft blue shawl about me as I stood on the porch looking at the now-empty bus shelter. They were not the friendliest neighbors, but they were civil and we exchanged good wishes and general inquiries when we all emerged from behind the barrier of wintery rains. Could they have heard the piano, as well? Or were they just feeling more friendly with more sunshine, I wondered. I had also noticed the Engers had lingered at their door one afternoon when the grand piano had flung its notes into the street with some vigor.
In the late afternoons, the girl came home alone and after a short time, sat again at her piano. I could see her from my side living room windows. I put down my hobbies or my work–the crocheting or a large book of collages I was making from photographs and mementos. Or the tedious polishing of silver place settings taken from a red-velvet-lined, teak silverware case. I was thinking of giving it to my daughter-in-law for her upcoming birthday, as she liked to entertain. I had been thinking I had too many things I didn’t even like, anymore. But music wasn’t one of them. I still maintained a large collection of records and CDs that I listened to off and on.
Now this new family and with their arrival, piano music slipped out their walls and windows every day. As early spring turned up its heat bit by bit, it got so Arthur and I would settle ourselves on the porch even before the girl–Japanese, I’d decided, though I was no expert on such matters–got home. She walked fast and ran up the front steps and disappeared inside her house. I imagined she got a snack, something light, and set her books out on a desk for later study. The she pulled the piano bench up to the mammoth instrument, Lifted her lithe hands above the keys and placed fingers on each white or black key and began the sonata, the concerto, the specific measures she sought to master. And oh, the music produced with each touch of the keys.
And I remembered. I was sent back to that room with the wall of full length mirrors, the other wall of rectangular windows casting such light caught beyond the historic brick building. We were lined up along the barre. The standard ballet positions began, and plies ensued as the accompanist played the songs that gave us rhythm, that steady, encouraging practice music for our warm up. The common score of the dancer starting work. I remembered how my muscles pulled and lengthened, how feet found their places and held fast, then responded to the spoken and clapped commands, pushed from the floor for airy spaces. Strove for perfection, created beauty. Delved deep for disciplined and rich expressions of life. Such pain and sweat, that homely exchange of energy for minute or grand movements. And even elegance beneath each exacting motion. Leaping and bounding, then tattooing the old wood floor with a hundred tiny changes in step, in balance and form, in center of gravity as the body whirled and rose and fell, lengthened softly, and speaking with limbs and emoting with face, hands, feet. The neck and chin. All.
Art was wrought from primal animal life and a vigorous athleticism that pushed and prodded me until I found the needed connection as bone and muscle and tendon synchronized at last with mind, heart, soul. Heaven opened up for me as the rest of the world turned and tossed. The most ordinary paths of being and doing released me every hour I danced. It had gone on to carry me and I, it, into a lifetime of fulfillment.
But, of course, then the neighborhood piano would stop and silence would shock me back. I would refocus my eyes on the yard, our porch. Arthur would get restless. The night then began to gather in corners of sky. We we would go indoors. In awhile Arthur and I heard the girls’ parents’ car pull in and their voices using a language that confounded.
Then one night as the temperature rose to a balmy record-breaking high the girl opened wide her living room windows. Arthur and I stepped onto the porch again. There came music that was flashier, a semblance of jazzy notes that caught fire. I heard every note; each chord was insistent. I slipped off my woven flats, left my chair, and started to sway and turn and execute a few little steps, my knees resistant at first while my head filled with visions of stages from long ago. Arthur pawed at my long skirt as I swept about, wanting to join in, so we descended the steps and bobbed about the yard, the piano music swelling, cascading. My old flesh and bones answering with each feeling, the beckoning notes weaving and rising inside the measures.
And I was happy! I twirled about, feet feeling soft prickles of new grass, my skin slipping through tender air, a fragrance of flowers and green growing things a veil of perfume that forever entranced young and old. I was dancing and Arthur was singing along in his way and prancing about and all that was upside down was righted again, my solitude of widowhood; strangeness of finding my way inside a thinner, looser skin; the odd reality that everyone was on a fast train, thundering by without so much as a wave or my agreement.
I was dancing, I was still that dancer and no one and nothing would change that. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned and turned in the swirl of mysterious, life-giving music, felt my body transport from this time to another, I gave it my respect and permission to do what it wanted. Unfettered again.
Then bit by bit, I reigned myself in, slowed to a stop. My breath tore through my lungs and it felt good. All was still. I opened my eyes.
In the faint sheer blueness of that time between dusk and twilight, outside my fence but right in front of my house, there stood the Musgraves and Carsons, the Engers and even the Harolds from way down the street and several others I barely knew anymore. They were staring at me, hands to mouths, arms linked with their mates’, their eyes so wide. I felt a sudden horror that they believed I had lost my mind, that I had finally succumbed to the threats of advancing old age and would never be the same. How could they even know anything of who I had been and was?
Unsettled and embarrassed, I stepped back, saw Arthur licking the new neighbor girl’s hand. She patted him, then advanced toward me. I stood my ground as she entered the yard, her small, quick steps bringing her closer and closer until she stopped and carefully put her hands together before her as if praying and gave a little bob of her head.
“I am Miyoko. Thank you for appreciating my music enough to feel like dancing.”
I said, “Oh. Yes…well, I’m Daphne. Thank you so much for sharing your fine gift, Miyoko.”
She gave me a good smile as her parents came forward, the faces made friendly with kind eyes. Then my old and new neighbors started to clap, the light, sharp sounds a lovely syncopation, filling the evening like bright confetti. Arthur barked in glee, I suspected, and raced about in circles.
And I bowed, almost full of grace now, nice and easy, head low so a vagrant tear would fall away, my trembling arms high above my head, heart and hands to sky.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson