Woman and Dog
I’d found her there several times before when I came to hike. She made me curious, perhaps unforgivably so, the way she’d scuttle like some small animal behind the moldering cabin that marked the trailhead, or the gray barn abandoned in a field full of popple whips.
Or maybe it wasn’t truly abandoned: someone always seemed to stock the barn’s mow with the summer’s hay, baled tight, no wilt or dampness. But the hay was the least of several enigmas there, the woman herself the most. She came to gather windfall apples, accompanied by a mongrel dog who looked to have a tumor, ovoid and flat, below his stub of tail.
How did they live? Where did they go when they left?
When I first came to climb that sugarloaf mountain for its splendid prospect of fall foliage, I tried to greet her on several mornings. She never replied, and I speculated that she might somehow have lost her power of speech.
Her grooved and toothless face, her hands, her jacket, mittens, cap, and trousers were all weathered drab as camouflage. She’d scoot behind one of those buildings, and then, I figured, into the brush behind. That is, she behaved like prey, and that seemed motive enough for me to hunt her, despite what should have been my better instincts.
I’d push through hardhack, Joe-Pye, burdock, and berry canes, but would always end up frustrated and bloodied by thorns, an outcome that made me even more determined to root out the woman and her dog whenever I came again. The dog never seemed to bark. Maybe I’d try to sneak up on the two. For whatever uncanny reason, I could never find them otherwise after they flushed.
Why should I alarm such creatures? What exactly could I want of so luckless a pair that I’d waste those precious minutes when I might have been well up the mountain already?
This all went on so many years ago I can’t remember how I justified such behavior. As I think back, it simply can’t be justified. No, I’m ashamed to say, it was just that the challenge caught my fancy. Taking it up signified some mean propensity in me, no doubt, but I must have tried not to think about that.
Today I’m glad I always failed at unearthing those two. Perhaps the woman had trained her silent dog to disappear as deftly as she did, the way a rodent might flee weasel or hawk. When the mongrel bolted after his owner, his hideous growth, abraded red, was the one bright thing I’d see. Indeed, with every encounter, the view from the mountaintop struck me as duller than it once had been, or than it should be.
Our neighbor is almost ninety, and she’s the one I’m visiting. She’s Jerry’s neighbor too, and he’s the one I’m watching out the window. Fifteen years old, country to the bone, he’s there in the chill shooting baskets, trying to play some inner city black kid. His get-up is ludicrous. Hoodie. Bling. Sagging trousers. The boy’s expression and his moves are meant to suggest both control and indifference: a fluid leap, an easy spin, a follow-through, his hand dropping as smoothly as if he pulled a window blind.
But why the act? How would Jerry suspect he was being studied? Surely he imagines his solitude to be absolute.
Out of sight in the barn, his father must stay busy with the milking machines. I hear them drone. Life goes on. Jerry’s mother, I’ve been told, has rented a double-wide trailer down by the bridge. I don’t judge. Back thirty-some years, when I had a son near Jerry’s age myself, I too got divorced.
You’d think a kid like Jerry would be angry. My boy was. You’d expect him maybe to pound the ball between shots, but his dribble’s lazy, random, and his face looks almost dreamy. If the rusted rim had a net and I were outside, closer to him, I’d hear swish after swish. He’s accomplished, all right. It might do him good to play for our small school’s team; and they could use him.
My aged neighbor is, as ever, hard on Jerry’s mother. “Her husband gave his family everything,” she insists, shaking her head, wattles quivering.
I don’t answer, since I’m not certain if she means to imply disapproval of the wife’s behavior only, or to include some censure of Jerry’s appearance too. His underpants show above the belt of his fat-legged pants, his head’s clean-shaven, he may picture himself with neck tattoos.
I visit because our neighbor is rheumy, half-deaf, and failing by the month. Life goes on.
How recently it seems the old lady was hale, and the boy a sweet blond baby. And I? Turning into an elderly man is the biggest surprise of my life.
Like any such kid, no doubt Jerry hopes his parents will reconcile.
Darkness settles, only the far mountaintops still bearing light. He can’t know I watch him there as he paces off an NBA three-pointer, 23 feet from the backboard– or in this case the side of the barn, which could stand some tending. It’s late November, the dooryard earth hard as ice. I want to look away. Jerry must realize his long shot won’t go.
It will never go.
Jake in Circles
–for Jordan and Britta
Our son and his girlfriend were visiting. They had a dog back then, who, after he fought to his feet, would start moving around our kitchen, always counter-clockwise. The vet had referred to his ailment as intracranial massing, no doubt thinking the term would strike a tone less hopeless than brain tumor.
We didn’t hear any quickness of breath or whining as Jake pursued his circles. You’d have thought him sound if you’d seen him. He showed good flesh, and his eyes were clear. Too bad in a way. If he’d been in obvious pain, his young owners might have found it easier to end it all. But who knows? Children for them were something in the future, so small wonder they clung hard to Jake, the first pet they’d had together. I remember that hefty son as a small, tow-headed boy, no less sweet and kind in childhood than he was as he watched his pet whirl, than he is as I write this down.
Jake, the people at the pound had surmised, was part yellow Labrador and part Sharpei, with tiny ears and a tongue as black as death. Odors of cooking, even the least, still caused that tongue to show. All of us there –mother, father, sisters– observed him helplessly.
Even though, right off, I felt a charge of self-distaste at finding some poetic association to render what we all observed, I somehow thought of a random morning in the May preceding, when I’d stepped outdoors into a shower of florets drifting in their thousands from every nearby maple. They fell in graceful circles to the ground.
That handsome young man and that pretty young woman have married since the morning when their dog walked round and round, and the one when those seeds dropped in their own rounds from the canopy. Needless to say, after striking the earth, at length they would rise from the earth and grow.