Monday, May 25, 2015

Home for Good

It is morning time, just getting light; I’m still in bed.  My eyes are still closed when I hear a thud and the tinkling of glass close to my head.  I imagine that one of my cats must have knocked over a picture frame on the dresser, but since it’s over there and I’m over here, spooning with my oldest cat Sara, I don’t get up; we fall back asleep.  A short time later I wake again and look around: sure enough, there’s a broken glass on the carpet next to my bed and water pooled on the nightstand.  I move Sara, still in full-spoon position, to the other side of me, but before I can sit up and get all the covers off, a sharp pain stings my foot.  I yell and move my leg, but it seems like something is biting me—something that won’t let go.  What could be in my bed?  I rip back the covers and bring my foot as close to my nose as possible: there, sticking out of my heel, is a dagger of glass, a miniature icicle buried deep in the sand of my skin.  I howl a little more, then slide the glass out; I look at the mess of broken glass on the carpet, hoping my other cats had the sense to stay away from it.  I half-sit on my mattress, leaning down to pick up the larger pieces when I notice dark spots on the carpet nearby.  I finally turn on a light and see that blood is dripping down my foot and pooling on the carpet underneath.  I grab a t-shirt as a compress and hop into the bathroom, where I am soon cleaned up and bandaged.  I return to the bedroom, blot the blood and spray the stains, pick up the rest of the glass, throw it out, vacuum, then strip the bed and take the sheets out front to shake them.  It is 6 a.m. 

I make coffee and wonder if my foot injury will prevent me from working outside later; I have ten tons of crushed granite piled in the driveway that needs to be spread evenly over my 4000 square foot yard.  The whack I gave myself across the forearm a couple weeks ago with the sharp side of my saw resulted in a trip to Urgent Care and a tetanus shot, so at least I don’t have to worry about lockjaw.  I stand at the open front door, looking out; I bounce up and down a few times on my toes, coming down firmly on my heels, especially the punctured one; it doesn’t hurt that much.  I’m sure that many people far worse off than me practically forget about smaller aches and pains when really big ones come along.  Slaves come to mind, then soldiers, then I turn to something else before I make too big of a deal out of nothing again.

Four hours later I am standing in my back yard surrounded by mounds of crushed granite.  I have worked out a deal with my neighbor, Nabe: for a reasonable sum, he will use a shovel and a wheelbarrow to dismantle the huge pile of rock in my driveway, distributing it throughout my property.  My job is spreading the rock with my hoe.  Nabe is wearing ear buds and singing, hardly breaking a sweat and not getting dirty.  He occasionally switches from listening to music to chatting with friends, responding kindly to questions and gently offering his wisdoms as he dumps load after load and returns for more.  I am smudged with red dust and streaks of sweat where I have scratched at new mosquito bites; I’m sunburned and bruised; there are ants on my ankles and rocks in my shoes.  I suck down warm water from a plastic bottle covered in bits of gravel; Nabe’s roommate drives to Circle K to get them each a fountain drink.  I am asked if I would like one, but I stick with the warm water; it’s more in keeping with my pioneer mania.  I veer in and out of foliage, spreading the granite with my hoe and feet, occasionally washed over with waves of remorse for chopping down my oleanders an entire month after prime pruning time.  If they were children, they would be taken from me.  I push gravel up next to a flower bed and notice a beautiful moth I raked to death last week, its body still perfect, its wings crushed and bent.

The idea of living in this house for the rest of my life—as in, not planning to move anywhere else and calling this house and this yard my home for good—is finally sounding right to me.  That’s my mailbox out front where the IRS can always find me; that’s my female Brazilian Pepper, considered a nuisance tree in Florida; that’s my fruitless olive, the one with all the fruit.  This is my tenth year here, and on my sentimental days, when life seems better than good, I start feeling like I should commit to this place, like we’ve been together for so long that we might as well make it official.  I dally in one of the far corners of my yard where a bush I neglected for years is now high-fiveing the breeze with a few red blooms.  I admire the way the small bushy part sits on top of the many bare stalks, a green afro with delicate red blossoms.  This is not in any way what the bush is supposed to look like, but this is what it has become under my care, the sun and the water I was able to arrange for it when the need crossed my mind.

My back begins to send out warning signals, so I prop my hoe against the house, brush off, and head to the patio door.  I’ve locked myself out again, so I walk around to the front, where the garage door stands open.  Nabe is in the driveway, shoveling more rock into the wheelbarrow.  He has noticed that the piles he was making for me earlier were too big, necessitating my use of another shovel to break them down further before using my hoe.  I watch as he pushes what must be 200 pounds of gravel across the yard, tips the wheelbarrow, and makes his initial deposit.  Then he pulls it back and tilts it again; he repeats this three times to make three easily spreadable small mounds.  He smiles at me on his way back for another load.  “Teamwork, right?”  he says.  I smile and nod.  Nabe has been on my team for ten years.  We’ve seen each other at our worst.  We are finally at our best.

I tell him I’m hanging it up for the day; he stays to work a little longer.  I head inside and close the front blinds so I can peel my clothes off immediately.  I dump them all in the washer on my way down the hall, including one bloody sock.  I’d forgotten about the glass.  I’d forgotten about hurting myself at all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

When a Semester Ends

A colleague retires and I talk to a guy at the party who I haven’t seen in forever, who mentions the name of another guy who used to be married to an old friend of mine who committed suicide about twenty years ago.  She was a teacher too, and one of the last things we talked about on the phone was getting our cars fixed over the summer with new used tires before all the driving we’d have to do in the fall.  
In the morning I start spring cleaning and find a four and a half month old piece of cat poop under the cats’ bed—sorry about that—and notice I must be in better shape because I spring up from the floor, poop in hand, in about one second, as compared to the many seconds it might have taken me in January.  I do a couple pull-ups on the Iron Gym bar I’ve been hanging laundry on.  

I listen to voice messages on my home phone for the first time in weeks.  A woman named Christy tells me I’m in trouble with the IRS.  I call Christy’s number and someone picks up immediately, a man with a thick accent.  He says something about a felony; I tell him I can’t understand what he’s saying. He gets upset and warns me about the trouble I’m in; I tell him to mail me something official.  He starts telling me that this is business that can’t be conducted through the mail. I hang up on him, and turn around to open other bills in envelopes.

I drive to meet a former student for coffee and wish I could be friends with all my former students, that my existence did not mean something negative for six thousand people.  I give myself the drive to think about yesterday, the last day of school, when I finally talked to that girl.  I should have talked to her sooner.  I need to order new business cards.  I need to buy candy.  My 2001 Hyundai Sonata moans its way into the parking lot in front of Starbucks, groaning like a wounded elephant as I turn the wheel.  It’s on the list.

I go home and put my winter shoes away, keeping the sandals and heels out.  One of my sisters tried to wear my shoes when I went home last month. “Oh, that’s right,” she said as she slipped one of them on, and then quickly slipped it off, “you have big feet.”  La la la.

I make my bed and stand back, eyeing the bloodstains here and there, the one jagged rip I have folded together and stapled.  My cats and I have been living much of our lives on this bed for twelve years, a fact that I conveyed to my brother on the telephone yesterday, to which he responded with several horror stories about why mattresses weigh so much more after you’ve owned them for a few years.  I will buy a new mattress this summer, and new pillows too, but for now I will put these fresh sheets onto my five million pound teeming bed. I glance out the window and am reminded that my decorative gravel needs to be replenished.  On the phone with my brother again, he advises me against moving 20 tons of crushed granite from the street into my yard with my wheel barrow.  I’ll be on the phone with him a lot this summer.  I’ll go to see him.

I end the day with a sunburn across my shoulders, a new tetanus shot and a saw bite out of my left arm from the saw I was using to remove a mesquite limb.  Urgent Care isn’t busy on Mother’s Day, so I am in and out.  I go to the gym and walk on the treadmill, my usual workout truncated.  I punish myself by only buying sugar-free ice cream at the health food store; I feel sorry for myself and buy pistachios too.

I watch the sun set through the leaves and branches of the trees that I have planted on my own land here in my own neighborhood, noticing now that the mesquite limb is gone that one of my other trees is leaning precariously close to the neighbor’s house, and another limb is growing precariously towards my own roof.  

I have no excuse for not calling somebody to come and take a look at all this, somebody professional.

Sunday, May 3, 2015


The neighbors’ dog had been barking for hours, through supper and kitchen clean-up, through the pictures we took of my nephew and his prom date, through the opening of my mother’s birthday presents, the sharing of her birthday cake, and the massaging of parental feet. Nighttime medications had been consumed and nightclothes donned—my father happy with his potpourri of sherbet, chocolate brownie and pumpkin bar in a bowl, my mother with her black jellybeans—and still the dog barked, all the way through the world news.  The dog barked as I helped my parents to their separate beds, as I pulled their doors closed behind me, but not all the way—and kept barking as I pulled out the sleeper couch, made my bed for the night, and opened the front door for some fresh air.  Of course, then the barking was louder.

If I would have been at my own house in Arizona and this was my own neighbors’ dog, I probably would have gone to investigate.  I might have left a nice note, in hopes for a better tomorrow, then I would have walked backed home, stuck in my ear plugs, and gone to sleep.  I might have ignored the situation altogether if I only had four and a half hours to sleep anyway before getting up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a flight.  But since I was in Minnesota and my parents had complained about this dog before, I pushed the screen door open and walked in my bare feet down their front walk, across the boulevard, across the street, and up to the neighbors’ house, where a very nice dog was tied to the porch railing, barking.

“Hi,” I said, and we played together in the front yard for a few minutes before I climbed the front steps and knocked.  There were lights on inside and other signs of life, so I hoped I would have the opportunity to let the owners know in a cheerful way that their dog had been barking all evening and all night, and while I hated to complain, I was hoping that they could take the dog in so my elderly parents could get some rest, thank you so much.  That was my plan.

I knocked on the door and waited, but nobody came.  I tried the bell, but it didn’t work.  I knocked again, a little more assertively, but there was still no movement in the house—I could see that plainly through the front windows.  I balled up my fist and banged on the front door like a police officer might.  I did that twice.  Nothing was happening, so I turned around and looked at the dog.  I glanced across the street to my parents’ house, glowing its peaceful glow. Then I untied the dog’s rope from the railing, opened the front door, and put him inside, rope and all.

I walked quickly down the porch steps and across the neighbors’ lawn, already wondering what I could do to make the situation right if the dog decided to defecate inside the house, or worse, pee and poop everywhere, and then rip all the furniture to shreds.  That’s what dogs do, right?  I mean, that dog was outside for a reason while his owners were gone.  What if he ate something out of the garbage and got sick?  What if his rope got tangled and he choked to death?  Where were all the coping skills I had learned in rehab?  My left thumbnail was still growing out from where another patient’s seeing-eye dog had accidentally bit me when I was roughhousing with him on the basketball court, the black spot a constant reminder of where I had been, and why, and why life was going so well now.  I knew better than to act on impulse like that, had known it was wrong as I was doing it.  I thought briefly about going back and at least taking the dog’s rope off, but it was too late.  I would only make it worse by returning and getting more fingerprints everywhere. 

I brushed off my feet before opening the screen door to my parents’ house, and stepped inside.  My mother stood on the other side of the pull-out couch in her floral nighty.  This could easily have been a Saturday night thirty years ago: me tumbling in drunk with mud on my shoes, her waiting for me on the couch before turning on all the lights with one flip of a switch.  Tonight, though, I wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t in the dark.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“At the neighbors’,” I said.  “Their dog was barking.”

“Well, I certainly hope you didn’t raise a ruckus because we have to live here,” she said.

“No, it was fine,” I said. “I just asked if they could take the dog in because he was barking, and they said okay.  Don’t worry, we do this all the time in Arizona.  People are always nice about it.”

This lie made itself up and came out of my mouth without any effort on my part.  When she asked who answered the door, I hesitated only slightly before answering, “A young man.”  She nodded and said a man’s name.  I nodded too.

I got my mother’s walker—she is forever without it because she’s not used to having it yet—and helped her back to bed.  I walked through my parents’ little house and triple-checked all the windows and doors.  I stood by my dad’s bed for a minute, making sure he was breathing, and finally slipped under the covers on the pull-out.  In three hours I would be up and gone, long before my parents awoke.  What would they do without me, I worried.  How would I protect them?