Love, Your Neighbor

On the rural road where I live, neighbors matter.  Sometimes they matter because, yes thanks, you need a cup of sugar or a ride to town, or maybe there’s a guy coming through with a cherry picker who’s willing to cut dead limbs for a cheap group price.  Other times they matter because this is upstate New York downwind of Lake Ontario, we average about twelve or thirteen feet of snow per season, and it can be a harsh place that scares the everliving shit out of you.

My road, Ridge Road, is a stretch of chip seal on a highish, glacier-deposited ridge that used to boast stony farmland.  The last remaining son of farmers on Ridge Road died a decade ago in a small trailer on top of the ridge.  I did not know him—he kept himself to himself as they say around here—but I often saw him out and about, tending his quarter acre vegetable garden, mowing his yard with a reel mower, tinkering with one of several old trucks in his gravel drive, or shoveling snow at a slow steady pace with a dirt shovel.  I don’t believe the farming in his blood was ever extinguished, although my understanding is that he worked all his life for the steam plant in Oswego.  By the time I moved here he had long been retired and seemed a 19th century figure.  It was a secret wish of mine for a long time that I might get to know him and become his neighbor.  But one day he yelled at me and shook a filthy fist when I was picking some wild grapes across the street from his property, and so my thoughts of softening the heart of a Silas Marner drifted away.

Nowadays Ridge Road has no more farmland, is in fact surrounded by second growth trees that are at least sixty or seventy years old.  A woman who owns a real estate business rents out the Silas Marner trailer at a cheap price, though most of them leave immediately after the first harsh winter.  Over time the takers have become more and more desperate people.  The last couple were opioid addicts and once asked me for fifty bucks, their eyes as hollow and dark as pockets.  They left in the early winter.  It would be impossible to juggle the full-time job of an opioid addiction with the nearly full-time job of snow removal on the ridge.  I don’t know that there will be a second growth crop of possible neighbors at the trailer.

My closest neighbors to the south recently sold out and moved west to the suburbs of Chicago where they have a daughter, a son-in-law and a new granddaughter.  When they moved away the wife gave me a stone she’d created with Love, Your Neighbor painted on it.  The comma, she said, was a mistake.  The husband left me a couple dozen treated lumber boards that I’ll be able to use on my decks.  We got along very nicely and often I’d snowblow parts of their driveway when I was first of us out after a storm, and they’d snowblow mine when they were.  Their daughter and son-in-law lived for a while on Ridge Road and I got to know the latter because of an incident with my pet chipmunk, Bebe.

Bebe, I must amend, is not really a pet though I have come to like him a great deal and, not so unusual in the country, I spend a lot of time in his company.  When I read outside in summer, often in a lawn chair with peanuts I share with Bebe, he will sit on his rump beside me, companionably facing the direction I face, his little hands, perfect for a book, hanging in front of him like a washerwoman’s.

One day I was chopping wood down behind the house, occasionally stopping to throw rocks at a yellow cat that had begun to hang around the property and look for trouble.  At some point, resting between swings of the axe, I happened to look to my right and see the yellow cat race by with Bebe in its mouth.  I could always identify Bebe because of the white stripe up his behind and that stripe was all I could see in the yellow cat’s mouth.  I took off after the cat with the axe, cursing the whole way, jumping over the rock wall that separated my neighbor’s property from mine, lurching like a madwoman though the axe was heavy.  The son-in-law, a sophisticated metrosexual Belgian whom I suspected of hating our rural road, came out of the house at this moment.

“But Leigh,” he asked, “vhat is wrong?”  I stood still in their front yard, apoplectic with rage.

“That fucking yellow cat,” I said, breathing hard and pointing with the axe, “it has my chipmunk.”

He gave a brief glance at the axe, saying no more, then he turned and took off at a brisk walk up their driveway and out of sight, a sane man.  I went sadly back to chopping my wood, crying now.  In spite of the fact that he never gave me rides into town or brought me a peanut, Bebe was a neighbor as far as I was concerned.  I kept thinking of his little hands, futilely punching inside the cat’s mouth.

“So where do you vant him?”  It was the son-in-law, holding his hands in a loose ball.  Bebe’s head poked out between a thumb and forefinger.  I showed him where Bebe’s hole was, up near the garage, he put him down on the ground, and the last we saw of Bebe that day was the white stripe up his behind.  I think it’s worth noting that until that day the chipmunk had no name—afterwards he did, in honor of Belgium.  And the son-in-law, my neighbor.

By far the closest neighbors I have had are to my north.  Their son was an early favorite of mine, helping me out with odd jobs and shooting the breeze whenever we met up, a sweet and charming kid who eventually asked me to marry him to his girlfriend, which necessitated an online ordination and an outdoor sound system that could be heard in the next county.  His father, a contractor as it happens, built my house and his own house and the house of my ex-neighbors to the south, sturdy homes that have stood the test of time in terms of design and character.  His mother once gave a piece of her mind to a guy at the bottom of the ridge whose dog bit me on the hand.  We know where to find each other’s keys and have often used them because of some trouble or other.  We know when one of us is out of town and keep an eye out.  We have given each other food and clothes and on occasion money and we have shared time and effort on behalf of each other’s property or domestic peace of mind.

It’s only fair to add that we have also baffled each other and, at times, annoyed the hell out of each other.  For example, although I can present to the world the very picture of an extrovert, I am a private person and do a fair amount of my own keeping myself to myself.  This means that I have repeatedly turned down my neighbors’ dinner invitations and party invitations over the years, which must strike them—has had to strike them—as damned odd.  One minute I’m chattering on in an amusing way about a woodpecker we all know, the next I’m turning down an invitation as if I secretly can’t stand them.  Once I used my binoculars from the study window to look at birds at the bird feeder next door only to see one of my neighbors using binoculars for the same reason.  It was awkward and I became convinced that they thought I was creepy.  One last confession though there are plenty more where this comes from: they have said zip to me about this, but the truth is, I mow my yard more often than necessary because I enjoy it; I’ve been told by others that such a neighbor can be maddening, like an alarm clock that goes off hours before it’s supposed to.

I’m thinking our neighbors are a lot like our families.  Unlike friends, they are always around.  There is no end to the frissons of potential guilt or potential blame.  One of my neighbors, as I said, is the contractor who built my house.  I have often asked him to fix something at my house, from the small hole a gigantic milk snake got through into my kitchen, almost giving me a heart attack, to the renovation of whole rooms.  At times he offers to do things he believes ought to be done, like supervise the building of a second back yard or begin the construction on an outdoor sauna.  I don’t always agree to these things, but once we embark on a  project, large or small, he never ever gives me the slightest ballpark sense of what something will cost.  In the case of the milk snake hole he charged nothing, jovially patching it up while snatching rolled up dish towels and  suddenly “finding” them near me.  After the room renovation, the bills just kept rolling in on a regular, daunting basis, as though it were an expensive subscription.  For the second back yard, months passed before I got a single, large bill about which I had forgotten.  Many times his wife has had to take over and charge me for something he’s done for me because I’ve gotten snippy about the bills and he has grown shy.  It is enlightening about the nature of neighbors (and family) that all of the information I have given you above could represent a pro about me and a con about him, or else a con about me and a pro about him.  There is no accurate knowing of these distinctions in a neighborly way.

All of this—the essay so far—is but a prelude to the following.

This past weekend at two in the morning a barking began in the back yard of these neighbors.  I recognized the voice immediately.  It belonged to the fourth German shepherd in a series of them I have known since I moved to Ridge Road.  This one’s name is Bernie, after Bernie Sanders, and a nicer guy you couldn’t ask to meet.  He’s immense, the size of a pony, and several times a week I will look out my sliding doors in the morning and see Bernie’s gigantic nose pressed against the glass, sniffing for the dog biscuit he always gets.  He isn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the porch, but he’s always ready with a handshake and when you give him a treat he takes it as politely as a debutante.

So I woke to the sound of Bernie barking.  I wasn’t happy about it.  It is mid-January, was about nine degrees outside, and the barking went on long enough that I knew my neighbor had fallen back to sleep.  Bernie’s got Iditarod-class fur but still.  Nine degrees.  I weighed the barking and my odds of falling asleep soon.  I weighed the thickness of Bernie’s fur and his odds of surviving the cold.  Pros, cons, who knew.

I got up in the pitch dark and put on some sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt that were both already on my bedroom floor.  I knocked into the side of my dresser and let out a suppressed yelp.  Downstairs in the kitchen I found some indoor boots to slip onto my bare feet, and then tugged on the dress coat I wear to work because it happened to be hung on the back of a chair.  It only has three buttons.  Somehow it made sense to me that it would be only a three button problem.

I got about three yards outside my back door and began to slip and slide on the snow.  These indoor boots are boots only in the sense that they come up to mid-shin and in all other ways they are more like striding forth onto ice with plastic wrap on your feet.  Until that night I had never understood the irony in the fact that I usually called them slippers.  Bernie has a run that’s hooked to a tree in my back yard and goes all the way over to my neighbor’s side porch about fifty yards away.  I met up with him on my side of the run where, ecstatic to see me, he jumped up and immediately knocked me down.  There was suddenly snow in the places where my clothing didn’t meet.  I had no socks.  I couldn’t stand up in my slippers and wrestling with Bernie was like handling a bronze statue that could move.  Around then I began to whimper.

I don’t know how I actually got to my feet, but I vaguely recall climbing Bernie like a ladder.  Basically I rode on his immense back over to my neighbor’s porch where I knew their sliding door would be open.  Done, I thought.  But there was something wrong with the clip at the end of the lead—it seemed to be a solid piece of brass.  Whimpering, I pummeled and pulled at the clip to no avail.  There were no moving parts in that mechanism.  I moved on to Bernie’s collar, blessedly leather and supple, though when I tried to drop the clip it stuck to the flesh of one finger and I had to blow warm breath on it to get it off.  Nine degrees.

For some reason undoing that collar was not unlike changing a tire.  I had to get leverage to pull but Bernie, unlike a tire, kept moving around.  Who wouldn’t have, with this whimpering woman crawling all around your neck?  Plus there was snow on the porch and I kept slithering across it without traction.  I fell down a couple of times holding onto the collar.  I began to curse under my breath, feeling that Bernie was the biggest pain in the ass in the world while simultaneously feeling that Bernie was a scholar and a gentleman, a fricking saint.  Finally the collar released.  I have no idea why.  Perhaps I tore the leather apart with my bare hands, the lunatic strength of desperation.  I was crying a little by then.  The sliding door, as I’d known, was unlocked and slid easily open, Bernie slipped easily in, and I closed the door easily.  Done.  I said “Thank God” out loud, one foot hit something solid on the porch, a frozen dog blanket I think, and then I did a flip over the stairs and onto the snow.  Again all of the places where my clothes didn’t meet filled with snow.  My feet and hands were already numb.  In a real sense, as I lay there, I would have welcomed death.  But I got up and slipped and slid across their back yard and my back yard until finally, at last, I returned home.

The word neighbor comes from two Old English words, one of them meaning “near” and the other meaning “dweller.”  Neighbors are defined solely by their proximity to us.  But I think this is a misleading definition, too concentrated on feet, yards, acres.  For I have come to believe that those who live nearest to us–who share every aspect of our weather and our landscape and our domestic activities and the daily nuances of going elsewhere or of returning home again—our neighbors are in many ways mirrors of ourselves truer than family, truer than friends.  We did not choose them any more than they chose us, but here they are, living their most intimate lives right there with us, partners somehow in the act of behaving to others as we would have others behave to us.

The morning after I got Bernie home again I got a text.  “When I woke up in my chair to get him I was surprised…. thought he did a Houdini,” it said.  “Thanks, your neighbor.”

 

 

 

 

 

Genius, debunked

An Interval of Supernatural Insight

A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
(from Out-of-Stock.net, Volume 9, October 2017)

One summer in the 1980s I was briefly a genius. Granted, my grandfather was the kind of man who called everybody a genius or an idiot. And granted, I wasn’t so sure what either word meant. But I was eleven and being something was better than being nothing.

“Jay-zus, Mary and Joseph,” my grandfather crowed one morning. He’d found out at the local OTB that a neighbor had picked the winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, all in a row. “That Armstrong guy is a bloody genius.”

My mother remarked absently that horses were an odd way for grown men to enjoy themselves. “You’d be a genius too, Molly, if you weren’t a facking idiot,” he told her. She dribbled iced tea over his head, cooling him off, something she did with regularity like cutting the lawn.

It was a puzzle to me why my mother (no idiot) had thought it a good idea for her father to live with us. Those were days when everything was a puzzle to me. Fifth grade had grown unpleasant, an old man had moved into our house, kicking me out of my bedroom, my father was gone for good, and my teeth kept falling out.

After school was out in late June my grandfather took to jumping out at me from behind doors and pretending to throttle me. It was his idea of being nice, I think. I didn’t like being pretend-throttled and so I began to roam the neighborhood during the daylight hours, visiting people in a friendly way, asking for ice cream or comic books, and once a piano lesson. I dropped by Mr. Armstrong’s house often to wonder aloud whether he might have any chocolate, and in this way I began to keep a daily betting log for him. Soon I grew very familiar with the names of racehorses and racetracks. Mr. Armstrong called me a “smart” little girl. I was inclined to agree with him.

One hot July evening at supper, my grandfather holding forth on the recently completed races at Saratoga Springs, I suddenly piped up, “Golden Feather in the sixth.” My grandfather stared at me, astonished.

“Jay-zus, Little Molly,” he said, shaking his newspaper, “you’re a genius. A horse named Golden Feather did win the sixth. Gawd, you’re a bloody fortune teller.”

“I am,” I said. Before supper I’d stepped in to see Mr. Armstrong, who had given me his winners to fill in. But it did not seem incumbent upon me to apprise my family of this.

“What the heck?” asked my mother, reading, not really listening, vaguely disturbed by the oddity of hearing my grandfather speak to me.

“Come-ere, girl.” My grandfather headed toward the back of the house, avoiding my mother who sat innocently lifting her tea to her lips.

“You aren’t allowed to strangle me,” I said, following him, and he said “The fack with that,” and in my old bedroom, the two of us sitting on the side of his bed, he drew out the Daily Racing Form. “What do ya like tomorrow, my girl?”

I told him what Mr. Armstrong liked for Saratoga the next day, without mentioning Mr. Armstrong. Ten races, ten picks. I pointed a finger at the names from Armstrong’s list on my grandfather’s racing form. He circled those names with an indelible pen.

Thus began a month-long collaboration with my grandfather that, even at the beginning, on the first day, I knew would be a short-term enterprise. In this—and in nothing else—I was in fact a fortune teller. Every evening Mr. Armstrong gave me his picks and every morning I gave my grandfather my insights. Mr. Armstrong was an ungodly good picker of horses. I was astonishingly good at feigning supernatural insight.

Sometimes it seemed to me that I was a girl jockey, tapping my whip about the flanks of my grandfather who walked each morning to the OTB with the jauntiness of a thoroughbred down to the gate. And we won and won and won. “You little genius, you baby genius,” my grandfather sang. “Your blessed daddy’d be proud of ya.”

My grandfather was of course betting, small sums at first, a dollar a race, and then larger sums as we won most races each day—five, ten, even a twenty sometimes. It is important to say now that Mr. Armstrong never betted. He was a man of no bad habits who once pointed out to me, as I busily transcribed his winners, that the worst habit of all was gambling. Trouble came the day Mr. Armstrong decided that simply picking the winners of races was a bad habit. He was, he said, determined to stop. He offered me a chocolate and shut down his books. Sorry, he said, but come over again any time, my dear.

That night I told my grandfather that picking winners was a bad habit I was determined to stop. His ears twitched like a horse’s. “Say again,” he said, and I did. Rhetoric passed between us, escalating until in the end I swung from my grandfather’s hands like a hanged person. My mother, alarmed by our shouting, came in with her tea and doused him. He let go. After that he did not speak to me for the rest of the summer and well beyond that. I roamed the neighborhood again, the friendly ghost.

When I think of this period of my genius I am struck by how, after my father died, the world suddenly unfurled like a seed for me, full of promise, for a single month. That fall we had a po-faced teacher who “dabbled,” as she said, in poetry. According to her a genius was one who must grow accustomed to loneliness, to misunderstanding, to suffering. I did not believe her, for what she was describing, as far as I was concerned, was not genius but regular life, and I had had my fill of that.

In Bear Country

Seeing Someone or Something
(Short Prose)

In late autumn Ridge Road, the country road where I live, settles into all the shades of brown. I associate the season with a winter coat I owned when I was ten, my second favorite coat of all time.  A brown-ish and otherwise humble garment, it contained all of the shades of late autumn in its fabric.  I know this to be true because even at ten I was enchanted enough with the coat to hold the fabric up to almost every single dead leaf or stalk I ever saw while wearing it.

Back in November I took a walk down my road on one such brown afternoon.  Everything crunched.  About halfway down the big hill a brisk wind arrived suddenly, rippling a pile of leaves along the verge in front of me as though somebody were shaking my old winter coat.  Revealed on the pavement was a flat chipmunk.  Road kill, I thought, and was preparing to move it when the chipmunk sprang up, did a crazy little dance toward me, realized I too was alive, and then dashed into the high grass off the verge.  From there it complained angrily in warbler-like chip-notes.  I could imagine it shaking its little human-seeming fist within the weeds.

In some ways (but not all ways) November usually appeals to me, because of the shades of color seen at no other time, because of the feeling—as the leaves and undergrowth disappear—of a slate being wiped clean, and because of surprises like that chipmunk.  This past November, not so much, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Surprise number one on my walk that day was the chipmunk.  Surprise two: I spoke to my neighbors who live at the bottom of the long hill, about a mile away from my house, and they told me they’d “seen something” on Ridge Road.

I like these neighbors and in fact consider their two highly eccentric dogs, Dora and Newman, to be god-dogs of mine.  Recently, my neighbors said, “something” took down the bird feeder in their back yard and cleaned it of oiled sunflower seed, carefully and meticulously, as though using a small toothbrush.  Nothing was pulled apart and the now empty feeder had been placed on their deck, a hint, perhaps, to refill it soon.  The next night they heard the dogs barking, turned on the floodlight out back, and there was a black bear on the deck, looking for the bird feeder they’d put in the garage.  Joe grabbed his phone and took a picture.  The whole neighborhood has since examined this picture closely: a sad black bear, not so very big, staring baffled and red-eyed into a distance that fades into darkness.  The bear looks embarrassed and not a little hungover.

Bear sightings in the area started back in the summer with rumors of people seeing “someone or something” in the very early morning or the very early evening.  “Someone or something odd.”  In a small town rumors spread quickly.  Soon fuzzy pictures appeared online.  The rumors appeared to be true—the pictures were so fuzzy the dark shape appeared to be “someone or something” in a twilit landscape.  I thought it was possibly a short-ish, round-ish kid in a dark sheet crossing a street or field.  Or a small, dark boulder rolled into the middle of a street or field.  Or maybe the thumb of someone or something taking the pictures.

We finally got a clear video of an actual bear strolling down an Oswego street not so far from downtown.  This downtown bear, according to a DEC guy with whom my neighbors talked, was unlikely to be the bear now on Ridge Road.  They like big territories and the bears have been spreading out from the Adirondacks for years now, looking for space.  However, the downtown bear in the video also looked sad and embarrassed, lumbering awkwardly, looking nervously over its shoulder at some point above the camera.  One wonders if all bears are drinkers, since this one seemed hung-over, too, but of course there are things beyond alcohol capable of producing that expression.

At any rate, although for years I have been light-hearted and exuberant on my Ridge Road excursions, I came to be circumspect on all walks over the extended course of these bear rumors and sightings.  There are several reasons for this circumspection, but none of them have to do with being afraid I’d encounter our neighborhood bear, who is welcome here as far as I’m concerned.

One possible reason for it: all fall we began to have hunters in the neighborhood.  This December I got a pair of snowshoes in order to enjoy some of the constant lake effect snow we get because of Lake Ontario on our northern border.  On my second trip out in the snowshoes, deep in the woods across the street from my house, I heard shotgun blasts, two in quick succession not far from where I stood.  I cleared out.  Back out of the woods I saw a strange pick-up parked on the roadside.  An energy company owns the woods and it’s posted for no hunting and usually the posting is respected.  My thinking is that the bear’s existence proved too tempting a lure for the hunters, and they were probably shooting at deer (illegally) having seen no bear.

Meanwhile a danger factor has entered our home equation where it never existed before.

There is also an odd kind of concentration that comes with walking as winter and cold come on, and this too can bring on circumspection.  Possibly this has to do with the way you have to tuck your chin against the wind, pull in the drawbridges of your extremities, walk constantly through the fog of your own breath.  These things are all boundaries that don’t get drawn in summer.

But mainly the circumspection came, as many of you know, because in May of last year my relationship of thirteen years ended quite abruptly.  It is very difficult to let go of such things.  Almost every picture of me taken during the past year has surprised an expression on my face that I recognize as that of the black bear’s—sad, embarrassed, a little haunted or hunted, vaguely hung-over.  The appearance of the bear only increased this feeling of being hemmed in.  My ex-girlfriend had for a couple of years commented that she’d seen “something” that looked like a bear, and I had either paid little attention, or had teased her unmercifully about mistaking dogs for bears.  In a profound way I had become blind to what she saw.

For many months after our break-up, through last summer and fall and winter, I knocked around with bear-like awkwardness.  I mean this literally, knocking my body into things in my house I’ve never knocked into before, as though I really became blind and some prankster had moved all my furniture an inch to the right.

One dark early morning, going to Dunkin Donuts for my coffee and conversation with friends, I fell flat on my face going up the decking steps to the garage—the first time I’ve ever done that. Another day I walked straight into a large locust tree in my back yard, barking my chin against the trunk of the tree and then, falling, knocking my knee on an exposed root.  My massage therapist kept finding dark bruises all over me.  She’s a very good person, and I grew afraid she thought I was being abused.  “I keep tripping up and down stairs and running into doorways,” I explained earnestly, and there was an awkward silence.

I don’t like saying to people that I have been hurt badly, but I will say it to you: I had been.  I spent the summer avidly watching all the wildlife that intersects with Ridge Road, one sighting after another of wild turkeys, deer, opossums, raccoons, snapping turtles, bird after bird after bird, and snakes galore.  It seemed as if I could find a tonic for my grief if only I observed the local flora and fauna with enough insight and attentiveness—the very observation, insight and attentiveness I surely must have lacked in the last years of that relationship.

In summer I decided it was time for me to start seeing someone.  I made some phone calls to out-of-towners whom I had once thought attractive but hadn’t seen in many years.  As it happened, this was another way of knocking into things.  The calls resulted in a series of darkly comic conversations, most of which ended in nostalgic remembrance of things past, followed up later by Christmas cards emphasizing loved ones and extended family.

I had been warned about this by friends, warned about the many downsides of dating “too soon,” although I was as heedless of this advice as a thirteen-year-old sneaking out for a forbidden rendezvous.  They were right and I was not.  In fact, I feel an apology might be necessary to the thirteen-year-old I created in the simile above, since for all I know she would have shown better sense than I did in those phone calls and at one particularly disastrous dinner out where, impossibly, I turned off the lights in the whole restaurant with the back of my head, and then poked my dinner date in the eye when hugging goodbye at the end of the meal, accidentally flicking her contact into the parking lot, never to be found again.

It is now April and spring on Ridge Road.  The buds of leaves are fat in the tops of the trees, my forsythia is yellowing, and my sweet, white primroses already embrace our warming upstate New York landscape.  And I think I have begun to stop my bear country ways.

For example, I recently acquired my first favorite coat, an astonishingly simple and beautiful coat hand-made on a loom out of very fine yarn by a Massachusetts woman I have come to admire from afar.  The coat is mostly black and I might easily look like a bear in it, except that all of the hems are edged by a band of gold so rich that it shines as though sunlight were hitting it all the time, inside, outside, on cloudy days or in the middle of the night.  If there is the least glimmer of light, that coat shines, and there has so far always been a glimmer of light.

I haven’t knocked into anything for weeks and weeks.

And yesterday I saw for myself our bear on Ridge Road.  We met halfway down the long hill.  I must tell you that he did not look haunted or hunted or hung-over, nor did he look sad.  He looked a little shy, I’ll admit, and he did not stay long and he did not look back when he left.  But he also seemed rather graceful, as though coming upon somebody or something and then leaving were a natural interlude, a moment not to be forgotten, and not at all awkward.

Sex and the Single Chick

The Roberts
(Short Prose)

We are in the middle of one of the biggest droughts this area has ever known. You have to go back to 1843 to find a summer when the skies were less forthcoming in upstate New York. Naturally we are lucky here, on the shores of one of the biggest sources of fresh water on the planet, Lake Ontario. But that does not for various reasons inspire confidence during this epic drought. A friend at Dunkin Donuts tells me that he knows for a fact the water table where he lives is at least nine feet below the bottom of his well. He’s been getting water delivered by the truckload, but the trouble is, the thirsty earth guzzles it up before the well can fill. One pitiful aspect of this, he says, is that he now eyes his neighbor over the town line, who has city water, with envy and secret vexation. “What can you do?” he keeps asking, “What can you do?” Gloomy, he holds his coffee cup with both hands, as though hoarding the liquid in it.

When something commonplace disappears, there’s a terrible foreboding that it will never come back again. Early on in this drought season my girlfriend moved out after a lackluster couple of years and, to be blunt, I haven’t had sex in a record long time. I find myself surveying the social horizon with all of the fervent hope of a rainmaker—every promising cloud turns out to be a kite or a plane or a flying saucer. For a certainty my rainmaking skills are dubious, but I have always been hopeful.

One pitiful aspect of being newly single is that you begin to watch with keen interest to see if others are having sex. Here on rural Ridge Road, in spite of the drought, there’s been a lot of funny business going on this summer: the flocks of wild turkeys have crossed and re-crossed the road with their communal broods of eight or ten chicks; the snapping turtles have long since gone down to Rice Creek to lay their eggs; the birds seem to be in a second mating season, sometimes flinging themselves against the glass windows of my house, as if to immolate themselves in their own arms; my baby snake, which moved into the house in March, is now months old and no doubt laying eggs behind the drywall; and I’ve noticed that my next door neighbors have taken to holding hands after almost thirty years of marriage. Everybody is having sex. It’s been difficult not to feel a little glum in the midst of all this provocative activity.

For example, mourning doves are capable of producing up to six broods a year, making them the U.S. native birds with the most prolific sex lives. My spring began with two or three mourning doves whose cooing informed a daily sunrise stroll around the yard with my second cup of coffee. By June there are almost a dozen very young mourning doves jockeying for position along my fence railings. Sometimes on a stroll, with their twenty-four eyes upon me, I feel much as I did back in high school, walking the gauntlet of highly sexed popular girls who lounged around the hallways, eyes sated and judgmental. It is uncomfortable being single in front of these chicks. When the mourning doves fly off, their wings produce a whinnying sound, not unlike derisive laughter.

One very hot day I notice a lone wild turkey walking forlornly up Ridge Road. There have been lone turkeys on my road for as long as I’ve lived here, always males. These lone turkeys are a common sight each summer, a little bedraggled, feathers ruffled or missing, a look of hopelessness in the winking eyes, tittering in soft lunatic tones, sometimes pulling up the rear of a group that ignores them completely, other times affecting a limp for the sake of attention that is never given. I have always called these turkeys Robert. This summer it strikes me with foreboding that I may have been completely off base about these cross-generational Roberts, that I’ve gotten the Roberts all wrong. There may just be one turkey, one Robert, not many. It’s possible that this true solitary has spent the last twenty years, even the last century, brooding in a desultory way around the outskirts of the wildly rich turkey sex life on Ridge Road. This version of Robert, this forever unaccompanied turkey, has in my imagination now become some kind of ageless, gabbling symbol of alienation. Certainly he has never, ever had sex.

I have resolved not to be that turkey. I have an out-of-town friend I’ve known for quite a while, and whom I have found to be attractive. For a while now I’ve been toying with the possibility of calling her. Someone has warned me that this is a “temporary solution”—as though what I really need is a better set of problem-solving skills. Someone else pointed out that this would lead to fraught “rebound” sex—although surely desire isn’t dependent upon the last shot one took in a completely different emotional basketball game. The subtext is always that it’s too soon after the break-up, too soon to venture back into the world. “Too soon, too soon,” coo the surfeited mourning doves, full of good advice they need not take themselves.

If the world must impose droughts, it must also allow for the end of them—or else there’s no need to name them. I have the sneaking suspicion that “too soon” is what the Roberts are always telling themselves. I understand exactly why my friend at Dunkin Donuts held onto his coffee with two hands during a drought. Because it connected him to something he had learned, perhaps too late, that he valued. Because what can you do, having valued, but try to hold onto some version of that valuable thing? Because in the end the connection matters, desire itself matters, hope matters.

And so, of course, I make the call.

Chicken Little

Chicken
(Short Prose)
Published in Blue Earth Review, Issue 20, Spring 2018

Today I’m thinking about chickens.

I have a checkered history with chickens, but my attention has been drawn to one of them lately, a rooster whose lunatic, flirty voice wakes me up every day at sunrise on Ridge Road. Since this is when I prefer to wake up, I feel this rooster and I are simpatico, which is awkward, like being simpatico with one of the road construction workers on Route 104, guys who hoot in exactly that rooster’s tone of voice when any woman drives by. It is not an unalloyed good.

I don’t know where this rooster lives. Somewhere to the south and west, I believe, though when the wind changes it could be south and east. One of my favorite passages from Melville, in Moby-Dick, goes: “Queequeg was from Kokovoko, an island far away to the south and west. It is not down in any map. True places never are.” The rooster is perhaps from a true place; his timing at sunrise is impeccable and his pitch is perfect. And I don’t much care where he really lives. If I had a map to him, I certainly wouldn’t use it. Many things are best loved from afar.

I had a great-aunt who lived in a house on a wooded hill in Tennessee, where I grew up. It was sort of a farm and sort of a madhouse, and in my six-year-old mind a place of many horrors. It was also a place where I investigated, intimately, all of the courage I would ever be able to muster as a child. Roosters, a dozen at least, crowed all day long. Whenever my mother dropped me off to be babysat for an extended time, which I resisted mightily and always lost, my Aunt Paul made it my exclusive chore to go get the eggs from the henhouse every morning. The henhouse was a shack, half wood and half chicken wire, with what seemed to be hundreds of deranged red eyes staring out from its dark interior. The roosters walked stiff-legged outside across a no man’s land of packed red clay dirt, blocking the way to the coop, the roosters uneasy with each other and ready to be pissed off.

I had to cross the roosters to get to the henhouse, an impossible journey unless I closed my eyes. But when I closed my eyes and made my way across the packed dirt, I worried that the roosters—I could hear them scratching, scratching—would trip me up and at once encircle me in a frenzy of pecking. Also worrying me was that if I veered much to the right, I’d miss the henhouse and, possibly, fall into a terrifying hole in the ground that used to have an outhouse positioned above it. There was, literally, a lot of shit to worry about.

For all of that many worse things waited inside. These chickens were astonishingly mean creatures. They seemed to feel enraged by secret information they’d received about each other. They turned against their relations with such sudden viciousness that very often in the morning the henhouse would contain dead hens, victims of an overnight fracas. It seemed impossible that alcohol or drugs were not involved. I had been told by Aunt Paul to throw the bodies into the ditch on the other side of the fence to the cow pasture, but I never touched the dead ones. Even at six I understood that the living did not respect the gravedigger, and these chickens watched everything, unblinking. In fact, chickens cannot blink—they have a third eyelid that they stow, like a hanging noose, in the corner of the eye nearest their beak. At the end of a relationship once, I had a girlfriend who began to blink so slowly when I was speaking that it seemed she was trying to erase me with the equivalent of a third eyelid. This is never a good thing. One has no trouble imagining row after row of chickens as enthusiastic, furious bystanders at the French Revolution guillotines.

Inside the coop the smell was harrowing, a blend of death and filth. I held my breath as long as I could. No one—certainly not I—ever mucked out the henhouse, and so generations of chicken shit had accumulated on the floor, to the point that my Aunt Paul made me go in barefoot so as not to ruin shoes my mother would then shake in front of her, asking, “Do you know what these cost?” Only I seemed to know what the cost of this place most certainly was. My bare feet would sink several inches into the muck at each step. The roosts had once probably been several feet off the ground, high enough that an adult could easily reach under the chickens without bending over. At the time I was gathering the eggs, the roosts were below my waist, requiring me to look the insanely angry creatures right in the eye.

It did not matter to the chickens that I did not throw their dead in a ditch. The chickens hated me. You had to pick them up with one hand, reach under them with the other for the egg, and meanwhile they had a go at your arm, beaks pecking up and down in a series of rat-a-tat motions of surprising speed and agility. No matter how quickly I moved, the chicken in question could dot the length of my arm with a perfectly straight row of red gashes, usually three, sometimes (if I were slow) four. I’d come out of that place with blood coming from a score of wounds, the overall effect having a kind of complicated design, as though I’d been tattooed. Sometimes the roosters paused in their restless pacing when I came out of the coop, as though alerted by the smell of blood.

“Show ‘em who’s boss,” Aunt Paul would say, but it was impossible to be the boss of them. I was henpecked. They hated me, and I hated them. Whenever possible I cursed them with the worst curse I knew: “I wish you were dead.”

In the end I never figured out how to get the eggs without harm. That blind and complicated journey was all prelude to a pecking party. In my memory—another true place that is not down in any map—that terrible henhouse is a gateway to hell and hell, I am sure, is a view of the world through the illiterate red eyes of angry chickens.

It is worth mentioning that there was a silver lining. Every Sunday Aunt Paul and Uncle Tom Sheddan sat down to an after-church lunch of chicken. You could have as much as you wanted, and I always wanted a lot. Often it was fried, sometimes boiled and made into sandwiches, less often grilled over a fire pit back of the house. Every Sunday I ate chicken until my stomach hurt and my ears rang. I’d eat so much chicken I could smell it on my skin for days. I had wished them dead and here they were.

Even now I will still tuck into a piece of chicken occasionally. It is a dish I am able to eat without the slightest sense of guilt or remorse. One could even say that I like chicken, a pleasant and mild creature, particularly when served cold.

Trust of an Old Turtle

 

Trust of an Old Turtle
(Short Prose)

Today I saw a baby snapping turtle in my yard.  I have seen other baby ones and each time I am much struck by their sense of purpose, but more so by what seems to be a serene confidence in what the future holds for them.  I suspect good parenting.  Here’s a photo of one from several years ago:

OurNewNeighbor

But let’s take a look at the parents—it is, after all, Father’s Day.  Once I found a very large snapping turtle on my side deck.  Moss grew on its back.  It was three feet long and at least two feet wide.  Things grew out of the moss on its back as if out of a forest floor.  It had been stopped by the balusters of the deck railing, but kept pushing itself pointlessly forward, its huge neck thrusting into the air on the other side of the balusters, its head under the illusion of freedom.

Apparently the snapping turtle seeks out water when it is time to lay eggs.  My Oswego Township home is on a ridge and below the ridge is a creek—Rice Creek, named after Asa Rice, the last name of my town’s first resident.  Around the creek are thousands of wild lilies.  The female turtles are called to this creek where they were probably born, and where their offspring will most certainly be born.  And the male turtles return often, as though prodigal sons.

But the big turtle trapped on my deck had lost his way.  He was incalculably ancient.  These turtles can live to be 150 years old.  That’s about five full generations of human beings, and a lot of time.  150 years ago the Civil War had been over for one year; Jesse James and his gang robbed their first bank; and Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was born.  It is a long time to be alive on this planet.  However, this turtle (whom I think of now as my turtle) could not find his way, although until I met him he’d found his way for so long a forest floor had grown on his back.

I resolved to help him.  I put on some thick leather gloves I use for my wood stove.  I put on some sturdy shoes.  It is worth mentioning that at this time I had been lifting weights for almost 7 years, and hefted 20 pound weights in each hand every other day.  My muscles were as strong as they will ever be.

I put a hand on the turtle’s shell and he immediately struck back at me, his enormous jaws snapping.  It is a creature that has not been misnamed.  He hissed.  He snapped.  I tried again, putting my hands further back on his shell—this was difficult because it meant most of his weight was forward at an awkward angle.  Nevertheless, I was strong enough.

I picked him up.  I don’t know what he weighed but it was almost as much as I could lift. All seemed well.  I would take him to the forest edge and release him.  But there on the deck, away from all safety, he began to thrust his neck and all of his legs toward the ground as though he were a submarine firing missiles.  His head and neck disappeared into his shell, then whump, he shot them out toward the ground with all his might.  There was a terrible rhythm to this, as though I were practicing a demanding dance step that involved carrying my partner, but this turtle was practicing a felonious assault.

I was reminded of a time my dad, whom I adored, picked me up to make me take a nap.  I did not want to take a nap.  I became instantly limp, a dead weight.  I hung in his arms until he felt secure, and then shot my limbs suddenly toward the ground, and then plummeted out of my dad’s arms and sprained my wrist.  Of course, I should have trusted him.

So I was a step ahead of this turtle.  I did not drop him.  I stood on the deck and let him fling himself toward the ground.  They are stubborn creatures, like we are, but we don’t hold a candle to them: they can hold their breath for six months.  Just when I thought my strength would give out, the old boy relaxed.  He’d had enough of the fight.  Against all odds he acceded his will to his own powerlessness.  And that’s how I saved him.

So I’m thinking of my turtle today, not the babies.  One day, perhaps even this year, I’ll see him again, lumbering toward Rice Creek, wild lilies riding on the moss of his ancient back.  Those times I feel myself in the grip of a hard fate, it is worth remembering this turtle with a forest on his back.  He had been right to relax in my hands, against all instinct.  He had been right to give himself over to whatever might be next.  He had been right to trust in the world.  As Toni Morrison wrote at the end of Song of Solomon: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”