Yesterday was warm and sunny, sweater weather at most. We went to the park and Nola discovered ice cubes. She also got yelled at by the dog who owned the ice cubes. For the first time, I saw her slink away from a dog instead of just shaking it off and going back for more. I find myself watching for signs like that and hoping they’re not signs.
When we got home, Dave left for his matinee and I tried to figure out what to do with the beautiful day. I raked in the yard a little but the lawn is a mud pit and there’s not much to do at this point. I came inside and there was a text from Gloria, “Are u home?”
“Yep,” I texted back, pleased to get such an informal text from someone I don’t know very well. Gloria is a dog whisperer who is unfazed by difficult animals, bad weather, and flaky owners like us who book her last-minute, “Sorry! Can you walk Nola at noon today?” I hoped she was writing to suggest a play date with Weejay, the puppy she’s dog-sitting down the block.
But no. “Jasper’s coming over to help with this vacuum. Weejay has feathers all over from a pillow and I can’t figure it out.” I thought she must be dictating because the only Jasper in the neighborhood is a realtor and why would he be helping with a vacuum?
“Sure! I’ll come through the back.” I brought our new Oreck along just in case.
In the yard, Gloria and indeed Jasper the realtor were huddled over a bagless canister vac. After greeting me, Weejay continued nosing the emerging forsythia, wagging his adorable little tail.
Gloria wanted to empty the vacuum before attacking what she called “a mountain of feathers in there.” I couldn’t wait to see the mess. But none of us could open the canister. It seemed like part of it should unscrew or unclip, but nothing was budging and none of us wanted to be the one to pull too hard and break it. Jasper gently poked a long-handled screwdriver into the opening. “Let me just use my vacuum,” I said.
“No. I’m not letting you do that,” said Gloria.
“I need to change the bag anyway,” I said, which was partly true. Dave hates this new Oreck because he claims it smells. I tell him, “No, it’s what the Oreck picks up that smells.” He counters, “The old Oreck didn’t smell.” I come back, “That’s because it didn’t pick anything up.” The old Oreck now lives in the basement, and he insists on lugging it upstairs whenever he’s doing the vacuuming. “Go ahead,” I say. “I’m just going to need to vacuum again tomorrow so whatever.” Surreptitiously, I change the bag as often as possible, even though Oreck bags are ridiculously expensive, being made partially of cloth, which is probably why they smell.
Gloria and Jasper poked around with the screwdriver until we agreed the canister looked pretty clean. Jasper clicked it back on the base, and then Gloria nudged another unmoving part, “I need this wand for the feathers.”
“Are there that many?”
“Oh this dog,” she said. “They’re everywhere.” I pictured the scene from North and South where the cotton bits float in a mist above everything, choking the millworkers’ lungs and causing industrial malaise. I was dying to get inside. But none of us could unclip the hose part from the carpet sweeper part. There was a lever that you either pull out or unwind like a clock, but neither way seemed to dislodge the wand, and once again we were all afraid to break it. “I’m just going to use my vacuum,” I said, grabbing the Oreck.
“No!” said Gloria.
“Don’t be weird,” I said.
“It is weird,” she retorted. I went inside and looked for the feathers. None in the kitchen. None in the dining room. Then, in the middle of the rug on the sun porch, a fluffy pyramid of white wisps. A slight drizzle of them on the sunporch sofa, and a random few drifting across the dark wood floor.
Jasper plugged in the Oreck and I vacuumed up the feathers. Weejay was briefly interested. Gloria shook her head slowly. I worried that the Oreck would smell and humiliate me on its outing, but it didn’t, or maybe the good smells in the house neutralized it—faint incense and fresh sunshine air. The procedure took about 60 seconds.
Afterward, Jasper found one rogue feather and suggested saving it for the owners. Gloria took the feather and shook her head again. We all agreed that Weejay was adorable and it was a good thing he hadn’t gone after the couch.
Jasper carried the Oreck back to my gate and went on his way. Gloria texted to say, “Thanks again,” and I texted back, “No problem. Any time.” She responded, “Hopefully it’s all downhill from here.”
I’m never sure how to read Roger’s Park. Is this a hip corner or am I about to get mugged? A question which, after some attacks in Ravenswood Manor, I’m asking a lot lately.
Feeling overly cautious and foolish about it I walk a half-block to the train. In front of me is a cute black guy with pulled-up dreads. He walks into the station ahead of me and then immediately back out. Is he going to ask me to let him in with my card? Should I offer? But why am I assuming that’s why he came back out? Maybe he just forgot something. He ignores me and goes on his way. I go through the turnstile.
Up on the train platform another strikingly handsome black man stands under the heat lights. He smiles casually as I join him. He looks familiar, but I’m always wary when I think someone looks familiar, especially if they’re of a population I might offend. I have this fear the person will say, “Do we all look alike to you?” Populations I am afraid to offend in this way include black men, white men with beards, and white women with long, dark, straight hair. I also question myself when middle-aged white women with short hair look familiar, but I don’t worry about offending them. I’m one of them.
But also, I’m tired of being afraid to make a mistake. “I’m sure I know you,” I begin, and he says, “Yeah…,” and suddenly I remember. “We did that storytelling show!”
“Right, hi!” he says. “How are you?”
“Great!” I beam. “I just got a massage.”
“Nice!” We talk disjointedly as we get on the train and find seats. Both of us need to check our phones to see where we’re going and he does so straight off. I do so halfway because I kind of feel like I sort of know where I’m going. When he’s done mapping, he tells me about his event and I tell him about my event. “Cool,” he says. “Where was your massage?”
I really should be thinking about which stop I need to get off at but I ask, “Do you do yoga?”
“I do, but I need to do more of it,” he says.
At the risk of looking like I’m trying backhandedly sell him something I say, “Um, do you want a free yoga membership for Centered Studios?”
He looks at me a little blankly.
“I won it at a benefit auction thing,” I hastily add. “I used the massage part but I’m never going to make it back enough for the yoga.”
“Sure. Please.” I find the certificate and give it to him. I want to add that I’ve wanted to put an offer up on Facebook for someone who lives close enough to take the yoga classes, but I recently changed my Facebook policy to only go there on the first of every month and I don’t want the certificate to expire in the meantime.
“Can I send you some free theatre tickets?” he asks.
“That would be great!”
He puts his email address in my phone and I am suddenly dying to explain about Facebook. I think he would get it. He’s a poet and he seems fully engaged with life and up for new ideas. But will he think I’m an over-sharer who’s too worried about when to go on Facebook?
“Is this your stop?” he asks. We’re at Berwyn and the doors are open.
“Oh! Yeah!” I get out and run for the closing door.
She was not a dog you told your troubles to. Confidences made her uncomfortable. Also tears, hugs, too much petting. We have no stories of, “hey I was crying and you’ll never guess what she did! Cuddled at my feet and looked up at me with gentle understanding! Or nuzzled me and got me to play with a ball to distract me! So cute!” It wasn’t her job to distract you. She was a dog and you were a human and she had her own issues to deal with.
She had the neighborhood to patrol. Skateboarders to hysterically lunge at, no matter how many training techniques we’d tried over the years. Positive reinforcement. Time outs. Being the alpha. “Try putting her on her back and reminding her you are in control.” “Try abandoning her immediately, so she realizes there are consequences.” “Try ignoring her—when they only get responses for good behavior they learn to practice only good behavior.” None of it worked. She went ballistic, even in her last days, when she was shaky on her feet and the things her old eyes saw as skateboarders were actually bikers riding past. She never had anything against bikes. Only skateboards and scooters.
And certain dogs. Bill. Princess. Misty, until they made up with help from Kerry. She could sniff them out from a block away and her hackles would go up. She’d slow down, scanning the horizon and sniffing for their precise location. Even last week, when we walked up Sunnyside with Summer and Lake and Ever, Django trying to keep up with her newest favorite dog friends, maybe because they sort of looked like her, I saw Bill and his owner walking parallel to us across the street. He too was feeble, walking stiffly. I told Summer, “She used to hate that dog.” And Summer looked surprised that Django could dislike anyone. Dear sweet Django walking along, slowing down Summer’s dogs but they didn’t seem to mind. Then we reached the corner and suddenly a line rose on Django’s back like a Rhodesian ridge of backwards fur. She looked across the street, saw Bill, and let out a furious bark. “Rarrrrfff!”
Poor Bill seemed shocked. He was long over it, and anyway I don’t think he ever hated her as much as she did him. “Okay, Django, let it go,” I said, pulling her around the corner and away from Bill and his owner. Django reluctantly stopped barking and Summer said, “Wow, her hackles are up!”
“Yeah,” I said, a little proud of her fury. As Tashie would say, She still had the fire. It took half a block for the ridge to smooth back down.
There were many more dogs she loved, or at least loved seeing. Izzy and Lulu, Sullie, Tazzy and Toby, Ginger, Jack, Barney, once we weren’t fostering him anymore. Certain dogs she liked better as time went on. Buddy, Solo, Beau. Certain ones she always liked and seemed calm with. Maize, Charlie, Millie, Larry, Ernie, Chloe and Lucy.
There were the dogs from older generations who have passed. Nina, Audrey, Venus, Tiger, Bat, Cane, Riley, Moe, Jinx, Spoof, Poncho, Cinnamon, the rough-coated charcoal dog who looked a little like Mookie. Red used to take care of her and he and her owner were in a relationship for a while. He’d take Django sometimes when we travelled, and told me Django always slept with his mom in her bed. Those were the days of Roscoe, and Wrigley, whose owners moved into Dave’s apartment when he moved out, which reminds me of Windsor, who lived downstairs. And the one German Shepard she wasn’t terrified of, whose owner was Ann and had us over for a Christmas party once. So many dogs. And also Zoe and Teva and Barkley and Bramble and that dog who killed a squirrel, whose owner was a famous photographer. And Chase up at Watervale, and that dog she met last year in the cottage next to ours. So many dogs.
So many people, as Dave just said. People here and gone. Liz. Dan. My dad. My mom, who would throw bits of scrambled egg and toast at her instead of holding them out because she didn’t like dogs. Donna and Mark. Chuck and Kate. Lisa and John, who she only snapped at once, just a little John, because your hand was too close to her face and she didn’t know you were only reaching over her for a drink. Amy and Kristen when we all used to hang out together. Tom, who gave her the best nicknames. Heather who fed her way too much cheese and thus whose boundless affection was tolerated. Patrick who ignored her sufficiently to be trusted. Deanna and Tori, who technically I guess belongs in the dog category. Kelly who meditated in the living room, drawing Django to her with her calmness. Shannon and the other dog-obsessed herding people, and Shannon’s husband Bill, who would took Django out on his postal delivery rounds when she boarded with them. Shannon said Django would run to the barn where Bill was working, ready for action or just to watch while he did barn things. And Steven, who only met her once but said as he was leaving, “Good dog, Django, thank you for letting me live today.”
Summer and Shayna. Nina P. and John Byrne and Gayle and Other-Donna and Neighbor Dave and Ruth and Elaine and the Betty’s and their men. Amy and Tracy and the fun of being at their house in Madison. Michelle, the one groomer Django was truly happy to see. Bob the woodcarver. Aaron who she only bit a little that one time, because she was already stressed out by the party. A tall blond skateboarder at the park who used to slow down when she ran after him so he could give her treats. Once she got used to this, she stopped barking at him and trotted casually over instead. This had absolutely no effect on her behavior with other skateboarders, who remained objects of outrage.
There are a hundred people I’m forgetting and a million ways in which she was spoiled, treated, appreciated, laughed at, and wondered at. “She’s so beautiful,” people would say. One woman standing on a street corner smoking asked, “Did you have her highlighted or is it natural?”
Did she know what a good life she had? Or is that something for us to know? She knew joy. She knew fun. She and Nina wrestling on Liz’s deck when they were 2 or 3. Long before she began to be frail and I worried about her back. They would shove and gnash and twist each other onto their backs, and back up and jump at each other again, so happy and ferocious, but only if they could knock into me and Liz, intertwined right under our feet. Send them down to the yard where it was safer, with grass to land on and more room, and they’d stare blankly at each other and sniff around. Then they’d wander back upstairs and into our space, and Nina would nose Django, or Django would shoulder into Nina, and one would bat a paw at the other, and they’d start again.
There were random things she loved, like Abbie’s too-small dachshund bed, that she crammed into instead of the proper-sized beds we bought her. And walking slowly under plants to let them stroke her face and back. And her perch at the front window. And getting her butt scratched firmly and briefly. And sleeping by herself for the first few hours at night and then standing quietly over Dave at three in the morning, staring at him, until I woke up and nudged him and said, “She wants to come under.” Then he’d lift the covers and she’d crawl all the way in, a doughnut of fur with the tip of her nose poking out only when I couldn’t stand it, positive she would suffocate, and pulled the covers back a little. She didn’t like to be petted but she did like to curl up next to me with her rump pushing into my thigh or my shin. As long as I didn’t touch her too much or make much eye contact she was a great companion on the couch.
Django was a pretty good travel dog. I think she relished stopping at random gas stations along the highway. We’d trot over to unfamiliar ground while Dave filled the gas tank, and she’d do her business efficiently, and then come back and hop into the car. When we rode the ferry long ago, on the first trip Dave and I took together, Django jumped up onto the bench next to us and sat quiet and alert, looking at the water as we travelled from Washington Island to Rock Island, where no cars were allowed. She hiked with us around the seven-mile perimeter, staying close but reveling in the rocky shore and the smells and wading in the shallow water. It was all very idyllic until we walked back toward the dock to wait for the last ferry and Django suddenly saw a herd of deer and took off. Just disappeared over a hill. We ran after her but she was gone. We panicked. We wandered and called. We blamed ourselves for letting her off leash in unfamiliar territory. Dave hadn’t had a dog in 15 years and I knew he thought I was too lax with her. We waited and wondered if we could stay there overnight. We had no water or food. We wondered if the deer would kill her if she caught up with them.
About a half hour later she trotted back, ecstatic, bristling with energy. A happy dog.
Her passing frees me to remember all the years before she was unable to do so many of the things of vigor and action. Leaping into the car or up onto walls that seemed too high for a dog her size. Chasing a ball like fury, or circling other dogs who were trying to play and barking, shouldering, nipping, doing whatever she could to break them up. Because that was fun for her? Because that was her job as a herding dog? Because she simply disapproved of their chaotic silliness? We’ll never know. Or chasing Zoe to the garbage cans across the field in the parking lot. To bring her back? To join her? To simply be a follower in the pack?
Or running at a skunk and then running from a skunk down at Kenyon during a mime school barbecue, sprayed and confused but also seeming cheerful and curious about this new scent, trailing it into the open door of the dorm where we were staying. It only took one race up the stairs and then back down to stink up the whole building so bad that Kenyon decreed, next year at mime school, No Dogs.
During the years when Dave and I drove up to Wisconsin every Wednesday, so she could go herding at Shannon’s, she’d lie quietly in the back seat for the first 87 minutes. Then, as soon as we got to Genoa City and turned left at the pizza place she’d sit up. She’d sniff the window desperately and when we opened it she’d stick her nose out, pulling in the Wisconsin air. The road turned into country and farmland and she’d pace furiously between the open windows, seeming like she couldn’t get enough of the smells and the open vistas. Then we’d pull into Shannon’s farm and she’d jump out, vibrating with excitement to get at the dumb sheep and the more challenging goat mafia. Shannon could make her behave just with a look, and we’d tell ourselves again that we were bad owners, we must learn to do the things Shannon did to make her behave. Then one day she got side-butted by a goat and wasn’t so into herding, but we kept going because she loved to walk the field after herding lessons, running with Frodo and all of Shannon’s border collies and Snowball who didn’t really run and the beautiful, perfect herder owned by the woman who was a nurse in Milwaukee.
So many great memories, it makes my heart find places I forgot were there. The last few days, we’ve been overwhelmed with messages and flowers and cookies and chocolates and cards and poems and stories and healing stones and love and kindness from people who knew her, people who know the pain of losing an animal, or who maybe haven’t lost one yet and wonder a little bit how it is that other peoples’ dogs die when theirs surely won’t. Django, I miss you so much and love you so much. You were a good dog.
Zoe was discovered at Charlie Trotter’s. She was two and a half, and on display out front at a PAWS adoption event. “She was just watching everyone walk by,” Ruth says tonight, at the emergency vet. Ruth imitates Zoe’s confident tilt of the head. “She was so much furrier than I’d imagined.”
The emergency vet asks if Zoe has ever been here before. “Just once,” Ruth says, “twelve or thirteen years ago.” It’s hard to explain, because the vet is worried about Zoe now, suddenly weak and listless, unable to walk. Can she know how unusual that is for this particular fifteen year-old? Just yesterday she was bounding up the stairs, so inexplicably excited about every next thing she was about to do—get a treat, eat a tennis ball, walk through a doorway.
That first trip here was after one of Elaine’s first walks to the park with Zoe. She was still getting used to this bundle of energy whose name they’d changed from Daisy. The newly named Zoe bounded into the street and a car hit her. The car kept going. Zoe kept going too. Elaine walked her home, in fact, but then the sisters put her in the car and took her to the vet. “She had a little tear on one ear,” Ruth recalled. “Other than that she was fine.”
That would have been around the time Django and I met Elaine, the Katherine Hepburn of Horner Park, with her unruly dog who was so silky and beautiful and always running across the park to eat garbage. Zoe is still silky smooth, and we stroke her head as she lays on the gurney. She has a tumor on her spleen, the vet explains, and it has ruptured. “I think it’s time for you to let her go,” she says.
After the decision is made, the doctor leaves to prepare the injections. Ruth is quiet. Her family and friends try to make sense of this. We try to get Ruth to sit down, to drink some water, but she continues to stand, slight and strong in the middle of the small examination room.
A tech comes in and gently asks if Ruth would like to use the cremation service that the hospital usually works with. “Can you speak louder,” Ruth asks, “I’m hard of hearing.”
“Would you like Zoe to be cremated?” I can’t believe they’re already asking this.
“Yes,” Ruth says.
“And would you like a plaster cast of her paw?”
“We can do a plaster paw print.” I want to explain it in louder terms for Ruth but I can’t quite figure out what he means. Like one of those clay things we used to make of our hands in kindergarten? Would he do it while Zoe is still alive, and would that feel weird to her, sticking her paw in some clay? Or would they do it after, and what would that mean, emotionally?
“No, no,” says Ruth, shaking her head. “How ghoulish.”
We all laugh uncontrollably for too long.
The vet comes back, with two injections. She explains how the first one will relax Zoe, and then the second one will be very quick. “Yes, I know,” says Ruth. “I’ve done this before.” With Jenny, I remember, the dog they had before I met them, the perfect dog whom Zoe can thank for having landed her in their wonderful home.
Jenny probably set them up to think their next dog would also be perfect in time, would stop galloping through life with the energy and curiosity of a puppy, would become a proper adult dog suitable for two elderly ladies, and then for one of them after Katherine Hepburn passed. But if Zoe had aged appropriately, we would not all be there. Dave and I never would have met Ruth, who has become one of our finest friends. Django would not pull to go into Ruth’s gangway on our way to the park. I would not have learned how to throw the ball for Django, throw one treat into Zoe’s mouth, and then have two more treats ready when Django returned, one for her and the other for Zoe, who had completely forgotten she’d just had one a second ago.
Sometimes we’d let Zoe chase the ball too, which never resulted in fights over the ball because Zoe had learned that all she had to do was run in its general direction, dip her head slightly, and then run back and sit, and the treat would appear.
The vet does the first injection, and then the second. Zoe’s eyes close, and she goes quiet. “She’s passed,” says the vet, and then leans over to Ruth. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” says Ruth. She gathers her purse and the folder of paperwork. It’s less than two hours since she called, “I’m sorry to bother you, dear, but Zoe is on the back porch and she can’t seem to move.” Fifteen years and eight months is the age on the paperwork. From Charlie Trotters to a beautiful home to a ride in a Lexus to the emergency vet to a couple of shots and many tears. So sudden. So long. Good dog.
When Ruby saw her car again, the first thing she wanted to do was vacuum it. Also scrub and Armor All every surface, “erase the hell out of the bad ju-ju,” she said. But first she had to get it out of the impound lot and back to Wisconsin.
The CRV had been found on Medill and Belden, parked in front of a fire hydrant with a note on the windshield, and towed to the impound lot near Humboldt Park. At about 11PM on Sunday night, a week and a day after it had disappeared, Ruby and Roy got a message on their answering machine—a real, actual answering machine down on the dining room desk that you can hear from upstairs in the bedroom—from the Chicago Police. “Your car has been found. Call 9-1-1.”
911? Really? Okay.
During that week and a day, they’d bought another CRV, which oddly was missing headrests but also oddly Ruby had taken the headrests out of the old CRV the day of her trip, so they were still in the garage. Same upholstery too, so they fit perfectly in the new one.
A week ago, Ruby had decided not to fly or rent a car to get to the pig roast, but instead took an Amtrak home and then on pig roast night went to see some other friends of Slim’s and they all had a bonfire. She had adjusted. She’d emailed during the week to tell about the new CRV with 100,000 fewer miles on it, and the headrests, and the email chain agreed that it was serendipitous, and now the only real acknowledged drag was that they’d lost certain custom mix CDs that were irreplaceable.
But then they got the call, prompting joy and celebration—it’s been found! Which turned into a huge hassle of phone calls and arrangements—it’s been found and now we have to deal with it.
I have this picture in my head of how it should be when the police find your stolen car. Sargent Kielbasa calls and says, “Eh, we got yer car here,” and you drive over, and the sarge is waiting with a half-smile on her face, a little annoyed at you with being so gullible as to have left your car outside somewhere in the city of Chicago, where it could be picked up by any stranger with a master key, but whaddayou know, you’re from Wisconsin where people leave their cars outside all the time, sometimes not even locked!
She has to admit, she kinda loves your gullibility, your faith in basic human goodwill, your promptness in showing up after a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Madison, rain all the way, and how you don’t even complain about how you had to take off work for this. You’re good people. You are the reason this thankless police job is kinda worth it, she has to admit. Hell, she opens the driver’s side door for you, and shrugs modesty as you exclaim, “The garage door remote is still here! And our CDs! And the maps in the glove compartment!”
She loves that there are people who still use maps.
She points to how the rear seats are folded down and enjoys your confusion at seeing dirt and a couple of landscaping pavers back there. Sometimes people steal cars in Chicago not for a joy ride or the chop shop, but because they need to haul something for a job. “People do what they gotta do in this town,” she observes, and heads back to her cruiser after making sure you know how to get back on the highway in the cheesehead direction. Just another day in the city that never sleeps except when it’s sleeping.
What really happened is that Sargent Kielbasa gave Ruby the address of the impound lot and hung up. Ruby and Roy got there as the rain slowed, and found the trailer where business is conducted, and waited among several unhappy people whose cars had been towed for various reasons, and when their turn came paid hundreds of dollars to get it released. How does it make sense that you have to pay money after your car gets stolen?
The car was marked up on all windows with wax penciled numbers. “You should have brought Windex,” I joked. “I did,” she said. “It had to be scraped with a razor.”
A van drove them out to the general location and they hunted it down. They then drove it through two and a half more hours of rain back to Madison. When they got there, Ruby parked it in the garage and started vacuuming.
As soon as I realized Ruby’s car had been stolen out of my driveway, I wanted to vacuum the living room.
First I wanted to walk the neighborhood, hoping I would see it, sure I would see it parked around the next corner, wheels gone or door open, but there. The thieves would have gotten in and seen the tub of caramel corn in the front passenger seat, the summer tops on hangers, and the Pig Roast or Bust travel book Ruby had made, spiral bound and including section dividers. If they’d paged through it, they would have seen one tab for Fabric Stores between Madison and Alexandria, another tab for Motels, another for Campgrounds, and a Summary page linking the likely stops with approximate travel times between them (MT & Dave’s to Yoders in Shipshewana 2½ hours, Yoders to something in Ohio 3 hours). They would have seen the first bag of fabric from a store in Crystal Lake, and they would have said, “We can’t take this lady’s car. We like the spirit of this lady and we want her to make it to the pig roast.”
But Dave and I walked the neighborhood, as soon as I’d woken him and made him understand that “Ruby’s car is gone” didn’t simply mean she’d left early. As we looked around corners for her familiar car, one we’ve seen every August for the past ten years when we meet up in Michigan for a week, it became clear that what the thieves had actually said was, “1999 CRV, it’s a chopshop favorite. Let’s go.”
The thieves couldn’t know that the pig roast was in honor of Ruby’s first boyfriend, Slim, who died earlier this year. They couldn’t know that Ruby hadn’t been able to make it back east for his funeral, or that a funeral had anyway seemed an odd thing to connect with Slim but the summer pig roast his friends always threw felt like a better place to say goodbye.
When Dave and I got home from our neighborhood search, Ruby had already talked to the police and found a 2pm train for Madison. We offered her our car to continue the trip east but she wanted to get back home and start shopping for a new CRV. I held off on vacuuming until we took her to Union Station, and then I held off again because some other friends were arriving in their rental car from Midway. I wanted to erase the event by vacuuming and then maybe also mopping, but instead I had to say to my other friends, “Did you get rental car insurance?”
When they said no, we had them put their car inside the gate, and we parked ours in front of it.
There were also three bottles of dressing in the CRV, because Ruby’s pig roast task was salads. I believe there was also a Recipes tab in Pig Roast or Bust but I can’t be sure. I only got to see Pig Roast or Bust for a minute, standing on the driveway as Ruby got an overnight bag out of her car, paging through it and marveling at how a drive to DC suddenly seemed short and fun when you looked at it in terms of 2-3 hour fabric store destinations. And marveling at Ruby, who continues to interact with daily living in a way that is unlike anyone else I know yet mostly manages to pass for normal.
I’d almost asked to hold on to Pig Roast or Bust and bring it inside to look at longer, but when Ruby reached for it I knew I’d feel terrible if she ended up forgetting to put it back in the car in the morning. Like the last conversation you don’t get to have with someone you’ve loved, I couldn’t have known there’d be no car to put it back into.
As I drove home in the snow yesterday, a review of Bob Dylan’s new album on NPR reminded me that every evaluation of everything is contextual, including my opinion of the review.
The road conditions were suddenly terrible, meaning I couldn’t make it to Russ’s house as planned, so maybe I was grumpy, making all kinds of right-turn detours just to get back to my neighborhood. I’ll admit my hackles went up for no apparent reason when the reviewer dismissed Rod Stewart as a “standards hack.” I don’t listen to Rod Stewart, whereas I do have some Dylan albums and just spent a bunch of money to hear him in concert. But I scoffed audibly when the reviewer claimed how because Dylan recorded live in-studio the old-fashioned way, in the same room with his musicians, his renditions were truer to the “smoke-filled rooms” where the songs were first heard. Was there smoke in the studio? And also, Rod Stewart’s voice sounds like he’s smoked a bunch, doesn’t he get any points for that?
Why does Dylan deserve the automatic assumption that there’s deep emotion to his voice just because he switches up the melody line in “What’ll I do”? Maybe if I listen to the song ten times, I’ll be able to tell for sure that it’s a deliberate interp and not just a casual evasion of the notes, but I don’t know that my ear could take it. A deep knowledge of the American Songbook doesn’t mean your singing is any more in tune.
It was like the reviewer needed to give us all this evidence of Dylan’s creds so we wouldn’t laugh when we heard the clips. But I laughed anyway, or would have had I not been gripping the steering wheel like a clamp, praying not to get rear-ended or rear-end someone else. I smiled and gave at least one “Oh my God” to Dylan’s voice wobbling and wavering its way through “Autumn Leaves.”
Dylan’s got great taste, I give him equal points to Rod Stewart’s cigarette nodes for that. Dad had a cassette with seventeen versions of “Autumn Leaves” on it. It is one of the most perfectly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Who wouldn’t want to sing it? I started singing it on my dog walk after safely thank God making it home and getting the dog around the block. And singing it made me think of my dad and his seventeen versions, and suddenly I wanted to call my brother and sob, “I miss Dad, I miss Dad,” but didn’t because I didn’t want him thinking I’m emotionally unstable due to childlessness or hormones.
Luckily I saw Lake and her owner coming up the sidewalk, and pulled it together in time to talk about the weather and our shoulders and the shoveling. And by the time they passed, the dad sadness was gone.
That’s a good thing about longterm grief. It’s just as intense when it hits, all images of Dad and his gentle smile and excellent taste and the longing to just be in a room with him, asking what he thinks of the new Dylan album, but it’s more polite than new grief. Dad and Uncle Ralph used to debate whether certain vocalists were singers or crooners. Singer meant a serious artist, whereas a crooner, like Dean Martin, was just someone who sold a song with style. I think they used to argue over which one Sinatra was.
I think Dylan must fall into the singer category, whereas someone like Stewart only gets to be a crooner. But also, and I’ll bet this never happened in Dad and Ralph’s day, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone get the singer tag just because I couldn’t bear listening to his music long enough to decide for sure.
In the afternoon we went to Home Depot, where Dave struggled against his recent overwhelming desire to buy more plants. “Let’s come up with a plan first,” I said, reminding him of his earlier plan to come up with a plan.
By the time we got home with firewood and mulch and landscape bags, I was so hungry I almost didn’t help carry any of it into the yard. But then I saw Dave walk out to the sidewalk to talk to the neighbors, and I didn’t have keys to get inside, so I started hoisting bags from the trunk, hoping it would speed things up once he was done consulting about the bare spot on the parkway that used to be a tree.
“I’ve got a bag of grass seed from last year,” I heard him offer. I lifted out the last bag and tried to slam the trunk in such a way that would make him notice me and want to let me inside. I know I should carry my keys but sometimes I don’t know where they are or I think they’re in my purse but actually they’re in a different purse or sometimes I just don’t feel like it.
The trunk slamming didn’t work. He was still talking with the neighbors, a pleasant woman and man, and gesturing at the bare spot on the parkway. They all seemed to agree that nothing seemed to be growing there. I ventured a few steps toward them and announced, “I’m sorry but I need to get inside.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Dave immediately; and then, “this is why you should have your keys.”
“Yep.” Dave started to follow me inside, but then made the error of saying to the neighbors, “Oh, by the way, I wanted to ask you about these.” He pointed to some flattened plants peeking out from under the tangled coil of the neighbor’s water hose.
“Yes?” They walked up to look.
“These day lilies.”
“Oh, the day lilies,” said the neighbor woman. “Those grow like weeds.”
“Yes, well, I was thinking maybe I could move them.”
“So they can grow,” Dave explained.
“Oh.” Suddenly the temperature seemed to go down. “Well, where would you move them?”
“I’d find a place for them, “ Dave said.
The neighbor couple looked at each other and then back at Dave. “I don’t know about that,” said the neighbor woman.
“I could move them closer to the front of your house,” Dave offered. “I’ve moved a bunch of ours.”
The four of us stood in silence.
“Or not,” said Dave. “I just thought, so they could grow.”
“I’m going to have to think about that one,” said the neighbor.
“Dave, I’ve got to get inside and eat something,” said I.
We got inside and I ate something. Heather stopped by and we went to Gene’s Sausage Shop for a rooftop beer. “Look under that hose,” I said as we exited, “but don’t look like you’re looking.”
“Got it,” she said.
At Gene’s, she told us how her father had planted a whole fence-worth of day lilies, dividing them season after season until they spanned the length of the yard. “But then we got new neighbors,” she said, “and it turned out the day lilies were over their property line. So they dug them up and put in a fence.”
I am the worst person I know. The worst one. Yesterday I sat in a packed church, at a funeral for a very kind man. Prayers were said, and I prayed along, and was careful not to cry because I hadn’t known him very long, but the whole time I sat there feeling grief but trying not to feel too much, do you know what I was thinking?
A few things. First, the guy in front of me. He did not for one minute ever stop messing with himself. First he rolled his white shirtsleeves all the way up to his triceps. Then above his triceps. Then he rubbed his beard and his neck and the top of his head, symmetrically, with both hands, like he was rubbing in some magic ointment that would make it not 90 degrees in the church. He was with an older couple and I decided that he probably had something going on, maybe his skin was itchy or he had a mental challenge or maybe he was more upset than I because he knew the deceased better, but do you think that stopped me from being all snobby and needing to stand even more perfectly still, to prove that I was better and more holy than this guy who was probably doing his best to stand as straight as he could in this church of heat and strangers and mystified sorrow? Of course it didn’t.
I stood as straight as I could. When we kneeled down, I kneeled as straight and still as I could. I sang like I meant it. The uncomfortable feeling of half-pretending and half-believing in what was being said in the mass was comforting. It reminded me of being a kid in church, back when I thought that looking holy and reverent was going to get me somewhere. The only thing it ever got me was sort-of picked up once at a Christmas Eve midnight mass I went to with my dad. I know I must have started flirting with the guy next to me because at some point I was showing him my ID to prove “I am SO eighteen,” and my dad looked over and I realized the priest was talking. After that, I stood super straight again, like I was standing now.
The only thing that made me move was the woman behind me. I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was looking at her phone, so I turned a few times, just now and then, as if to say, “I cannot believe that you are looking at your phone in a church, so I have to physically turn around in order to check. Yep, that is you looking at your phone right now. You see me looking at you? Good, I’ll turn back around like I don’t want you to see that I was staring at you because I have such good manners. Maybe you can learn something from me.”
You can just imagine what I did when she started accidentally playing a voicemail message on speakerphone. A VOICEMAIL MESSAGE! On SPEAKERPHONE!
To my credit, I held it together when I noticed that the woman two rows up, a stalwart-looking Russian grandma type with white hair gathered in a clip on top of her head, was wearing the exact same vest I got at Target that I wear all the time. For some reason I’ve always thought this vest was so cute and special that Target only sold one of its kind, the one I have. I thought it looked kind of handmade and chic, but seeing it stretched across the back of this woman over a peach top that did not need a knitted vest because it was 90 DEGREES IN THE CHURCH, I felt rather ill.
Are all my clothes this bad? Certainly the sundress I was wearing which is at least 15 years old but I think looks great because it hides my waistline, that dress is okay, right? I mean, the purposely-uneven hem that is short in the middle and longer on the sides is coming back in this year, right? And the knotted straps that show my gray bra straps, those are cute, right?
Let’s not even talk about my hair.
Afterward, we walked to Lincoln Square and bought an air plant. We didn’t get ice cream from the vendor outside the church because it didn’t seem appropriate.
Today I cleaned out the back closet because I got a new shelving unit that is going to change everything back there. I saw a box of photos and inside was a picture of my mom and me, just a few days before she died. She is smiling at the camera—or maybe at my cousin Liz who took the picture—in a way I don’t remember ever her smiling. Probably she only had this smile for a few days. Her smile is as wide and toothy as her normal smile, but her eyes are different. They look rueful, which I just had to look up to make sure that’s what I mean, and I’m glad to see that its flavor of regret is “slightly humorous,” because that’s exactly what I see in her eyes. It feels like she’s living somewhere else other than in that room with us, but she’s stepped back for the picture. She’s slightly sorry that she forgot about us for a second, like “oops,” but she really does love us and wants to give this picture all she’s got.
I did not open that box because of the funeral. I opened it because of a shelving unit from Home Depot that allowed me to reorganize the closet and this box of pictures had to be moved and the picture of my mom happened to be on top. Grief is random and cyclical and not affected by petty or grand or judgmental or kind thoughts. It’s just there, first an affliction you can’t get rid of, and then a balm you are grateful for because it brings back for a moment the person you have lost.
Yesterday, after much deliberation, we carried a cushion back to Victor’s Upholstery. He’d made it the week before, two cushions for the bench on the back porch. An extra job we added to the main job of having him re-upholster the Danish moderns from the living room. A main job that shouldn’t have been necessary because Dave had had those reupholstered less than ten years ago. However, the upholsterers he’d used made the cushions too small so they never fit the chairs properly. I still remember when they delivered the not-quite-right chairs. It was just before Thanksgiving, which Dave was hosting. They had come highly recommended and were very expensive. These factors somehow blinded us to the fact that the cushions were the wrong size.
Even now I can remember the guy setting down a chair and trying to arrange the cushions so we wouldn’t see the gap in the back because the cushions were too short. There was a weird energy in the room, maybe because Dave was paying almost a thousand dollars, and the guy was smiling a lot and in a hurry, and it didn’t seem possible that the cushions couldn’t be right, and just too awkward to look too closely. In fact, I think it took us about six months to admit to each other, “They don’t look quite right.”
So when we brought the chairs to Victor, who runs a little shop on Montrose, no delivery that I know of, an ancient adding machine on his desk that he still uses, we checked and double-checked the measurements. I didn’t want him to even see the old cushions, although also I did. “These are the old ones, see how wrong they are?”
Victor laughed. “Yes, it’s no problem.”
“So you won’t go by this size.”
“I make them fit the chair.”
On the way home, I said, “We shouldn’t have shown him the old cushions. What if he forgets and goes by that size?”
“It’s fine,” said Dave. And it was. For half what the other guys charged, Victor completely reupholstered the chairs, made beautiful, sturdy, perfectly-sized cushions, and even cleaned and re-lacquered the wood. We are now in love with Victor. So we asked him to make new cushions for the back porch bench. “No problem,” said Victor. He made two beautiful cushions which are almost perfect except that they’re about an inch and a half too long.
At first we were going to let it go. He’s so reasonable, and maybe we screwed up on the measurements. Except Dave is pretty sure he didn’t screw up. Except he’s already erased the note from his phone, and we can’t find the quote Victor wrote up on his carbon-paper form. So we have no idea who screwed up, us or him. And without knowing who screwed up, how do we know what we’re asking for? Are we hiring him to adjust one of the cushions? Is he going to charge us? If he says it was our fault, will he get his copy of the receipt and show us the measurements and then we’ll need to bring in the second cushion too, so that we can prove that it was him and not us, or maybe it will turn out to be us, which will be slightly embarrassing but we’ll just ask what it costs? Should we just forget it? “I think I could live with it,” Dave said. “It’s one of those things that will always bug me, but only a little.”
“No, you went through that with the chairs.”
“I should have said something as soon as that guy set them down.”
“It’s a matter of principle.” So we grabbed a cushion and walked over with the dog. As we neared the shop, Dave said, “Who’s gonna be good cop?”
“I’ll be bad cop,” I said. Though because of the dog I’d need to stay at the door and not really be able to get in his face and threaten his adding machine.
We walked in, and Victor came out from the back and saw the cushion. “Ah, what it is?”
“It’s a little too long,” Dave began. “I don’t know if we maybe, or…”
“Too long?” Victor took the cushion. “How much?”
Dave said, “About an inch and a half?”
“I shorten it.”
“Sure. Come back tomorrow.”
“It’s not a problem, with the zipper or anything?”
“No problem. Come back at this same time.”
“Thank you!” Victor took the cushion back to his machine and that was that. No long discussion about who was at fault. No long discussion about how it might have happened. We walked back home a little stunned. Now we’re wondering how much to pay him, even if he doesn’t charge us anything.