I love the kind of writing where nothing much and everything happens. Short stories are probably my favorite form; there’s a certain relish, as reader or writer, when every word matters. Also, stories are perfect summer sneaks — easy to read by the pool or on the beach, or holed up in a…
I haven’t said anything about Coleman’s death, not because I don’t care, but because I didn’t know him as well as many of you, and it seemed somehow parasitical, like trying to reframe an acquaintance as a best friend.
But then my daughter showed up from school and said, “Hey, Mom, I ran into [teacher]’s wife in the bathroom, and you know what she said to me? She said she hoped she didn’t sound weird, but she thought I was beautiful, and she figured if you thought something nice about a person, you should tell them.”
So I hope I don’t sound weird, but here goes.
I can’t say what Coleman was like to those of you who knew him best, but to me, he was one of those people who makes your heart race a little, like when you know you’re about to get in trouble, or hear salacious news, or latch onto some new mischief. He’d study you with those dark eyes, a little hard, a little amused, but never, ever mean. And I know there were demons, but the stupid adjective that keeps coming to mind is “sweet”. Coleman was sweet, the troublemaker who’s still innocent, the pain-in-the-ass who stays charming, the neighborhood kid you want to throttle and hug at the same time.
I hadn’t seen Coleman much of late, just on Facebook, but I always liked when he’d comment on my posts, because I could count on it being mildly scandalous, or out of left field, or just funny as hell, cutting through the bullshit. Once, I posted a picture of my barely teenage daughter, and of course you want to get compliments, but Coleman wrote, “Yeah, she’s a hottie.” And it was funny.
So he’d fly off with things like that, hilarious things, and once or twice he popped up in my inbox, saying he felt stupid, or he was just being funny, and I knew he was honestly worried about hurting my feelings. And there’s just nothing else to call that but sweet.
The Sunday we found out, my husband and I took the kids to the new El Myriachi, and it felt right, and they were playing the entirety of “Exile on Main St”, which felt right too. I looked up at Rick and saw he was teary, but all I felt was flat, everything expected and impossible to believe. I sipped my margarita, vacantly gazing over his shoulder, and slowly processed what I was staring at. There, on a perfectly-framed billboard outside the window, was a beaming man’s face, cheerfully hawking funeral services. I nearly laughed, because anyone who knows Coleman even a little would suspect it was on purpose. Rick ordered another drink and the album ended, and I watched with tired eyes as our waitress set down food no one wanted. I recognized the beginnings of a Joy Division song, and snorted into my burrito as Ian Curtis lost control again.
I keep imagining the whole thing as a cross-stitch grid. You get into a groove, threading in and out until you hardly remember there were holes to begin with. Then you lose track for a minute, a needle skipping a pinhole, and it’s only looking back that you notice an absence where you never really knew a presence. As you get older, there are more and more tiny holes, the stitched-past casualties of heroin and car wrecks, disease or old age, life and death. You find you can manage, but the missed stitches still nettle, the pattern never feels quite the same.
I know this pinhole is a chasm for many of you. I feel like the kid in line behind me at visitation tonight, who looked up at his mom and asked, “What should I do?” She put her arm around his shoulder and gave the perfect answer: “You just hug them, and tell them you’re sorry.”
So I thought something nice about Coleman today, and I figured you should know.
I could live a little better with the myths and the lies, When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried. I could live a little in a wider line, When the change is gone, when the urge is gone, To lose control. When here we come.
I won’t pretend to be excited about my newly-sagging eyelids or gradually gradating chins, but I contest the idea that it’s somehow selfish of me to walk around like this, as if I’m exposing others to some sort of putrid, decaying, possibly contagiou…
My piece on learning to love crow’s feet is up at HuffPost.
I’ve probably listened to this voicemail from Aud and her best friend 15 times. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of their age — I want to bottle it and uncork it 20 years from now. [ed. note: Aud’s friend and I have a running joke about a dream she once had, where I turned around from the driver’s seat and told her she had a big head.]
“Hi, Mom! It’s Audrey, um, just call me back, in, um before, um, if you, before you go to bed if you receive the message, I guess? Um, I just wanted to say goodnight, and happy early Mother’s Day, and have fun in New York, um, I’ll miss you! And tonight we went to see the Amazing, the second Amazing Spiderman? And it was SO good, and it was awesome and I liked it MORE than the first, and I don’t understand why there were bad reviews for it AT ALL — it’s just sad — but um, also we watched The Carrie Diaries? Which is a really good TV show? And then um — do you wanna talk to her? You, you said you wanted — okay — here’s Anna — sorry, we’re not gonna make you — try not to make this message too long, ‘cause I know you don’t wanna listen to Anna, but— [laughter, muffled voices]
“Gee, THANKS, Audrey. Um, hi Mary Beth! Um, just wanted to say, like, have fun in New York and stuff, um, so yeah! And happy early Mother’s Day, and, um, and yeah, so Spiderman was SO good, oh my GOSH, we were like, SOBBING, when— [muffled voices] and we were like, sobbing, at like, part of it? And it was like, oh my gosh, it was just SO…eh-MO-tional, and oh my gosh it was so good though! Um, and yeah, so— [muffled voices] — just a minute — oh! OH MY GOSH! Okay, my parents? and Pete? didn’t LIKE it, and Pete doesn’t even like Gwen Stacy! Like, what is WRONG with him?! But, um…anyway! Okay, so, happy early Mother’s Day, and by the way, it’s SO offensive what you said about my big head. I’m so offended. That’s so mean, I’m sobbing! Um, alright, Happy Mother’s Day, um, here’s Audrey!”
“Bye! I love you! I’ll…talk to you tomorrow! Uh, love you, bye, good night!”
Leaning in for closer review, Sadie and I both catch a slight body quiver, but our excitement dissipates as we realize its leg is broken. The two of us make a grim, silent eye pact to do what we can to save it, or at least make it more comfortable dy…
My true tale of the Easter Moth, now on Huff Post.
“And I thought, all these things don’t seem that much like life, when you’re doing them, they’re just what you do, how you fill up your days, and you think all the time something is going to crack open, and you’ll find yourself, then you’ll find yourself, in life. It’s not even that you particularly want this to happen, this cracking open, you’re comfortable enough the way things are, but you do expect it. Then you’re dying…and it’s just the same plastic chairs and plastic plants and ordinary day outside with people getting groceries and what you’ve had is all there is, and going to the Library, just a thing like that, coming back up the hill on the bus with books and a bag of grapes seems now worth wanting, O God doesn’t it, you’d break your heart wanting back there.”—Alice Munro, Forgiveness in Families
Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.
No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.
When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.
In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.
I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.
For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.
Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.
I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.
Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact.
It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.
Name one thing gay marriage could possibly open the door to that would be more depraved than thrice-wed, craven-mouthed Charlie Sheen down on one rickety knee, proposing to “best friend and soulmate,” 24-yr-old porn star Someone Something-or-Other.
I am worried. Worried about the Olympics, the possibility of a terrorist attack. Worried about Philip Seymour Hoffman, already dead, I know. Worried about Dylan Farrow, and worried that it doesn’t undo Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Worried at my desk, pausing instinctively as I hear too many sirens, an animal frozen by scent, imagining my children hidden in a school broom closet just down the hill, just out of reach.
Yet I’m oddly unworried, floating backward on this conveyer belt into what I’m told will be a “very loud” machine, an MRI for these headaches that plague me each day. The sounds are loud, unbelievably so, but I feel good, safe in a moment where all I can do is surrender to stillness, close my eyes and breathe.
On the drive to this antiseptic office complex, miles up the highway, I peek at my phone and see that my daughter has left a trembly, breathy voicemail, then a panicky, all-caps text (the teenage equivalent of screaming “MOMMY!”), about a group video project she’s accidentally left at home, “in the computer, or somewhere around there.” It’s due next period.
I realize I’ve taken the wrong exit, distracted, in rush hour traffic, and my underarms begin to sweat. I worry that my daughter’s grade will be docked, worry more that her partner’s grade will be docked. I worry that I can’t bail her out this time, worry that saving her so many times before is the reason for this latest irresponsibility. I worry that I’m beginning to stink, that I forgot to bring cash for the pay lot, that I’ll be late for my appointment window. And then it hits me: I am actually looking forward to this MRI.
I’m not being flippant. I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, I don’t think MRIs are funny, and I would never discount the experiences of those who’ve undergone diagnostic procedures with devastating results. But right now, I relish the idea of relinquishing control, abdicating responsibility, being temporarily out of commission.
When the kids were little (the oldest was six when our fourth was born), I used to fantasize about being hospitalized. Not for anything serious, just a minor accident, maybe the painless removal of some obscure, unnecessary organ — anything to get away, somewhere I couldn’t conceivably be expected to look after anyone else — vacation, minus the guilt.
Things have changed a lot since those days. For new stay-at-home moms, there’s still the Sisyphean monotony of feeding, dressing, changing, bathing, soothing, and bedding an infant, but for all of us, it’s not so isolating now, with smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and mom blogs connecting frustrated, flabbergasted, fawning mothers the world over. It’s never been the sort of job you would telephone about anyway: “Hey! What’s up? I’m goo— look, here’s the thing: I’d rather chop off my own head than spoon one more bite of clumpy rice cereal into a slobbering maw.” But you can say exactly that on the internet, as its sole basis for existence is connection, assuring us with the tap of a screen and the prayer of anonymity that we are not alone.
This has opened up the world in ways that are sometimes wonderful — I helped fund surgery for a child I previously would never have known existed — but often not so great — I learned about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the bathroom floor and the needle in his arm, before half his relatives had been notified.
It’s tough to know what’s worth passing on, things that would normally exist in the realm of personal triumphs or tragedies. I was moved yesterday, clicking on an image from Anne Frank’s rediscovered toys, a simple tin of colorful marbles. It felt significant, a poignant stand-in for innocence lost then regained through the power of prose. But do I feel a similar need to leaf through the details of Paul Walker’s will, discover what Hoffman ate for lunch the day he died, or watch a viral clip of a hotel maid, surprised by a generous tip, bills splayed beneath a lifted top sheet for maximum titillation? Sometimes even the good things I don’t want to know.
I try to breathe evenly through my nose, and I think of my husband, how the atonal droning of the MRI sounds like the avant garde music he loves and I loathe, how I could make him a mixed tape of my brain scan for Valentine’s, how years of heated art-or-noise arguments resurface here, in a tube, where I’m fighting only the urge to laugh. Would it show up on a technician’s screen, my amusement, this history inside my head? So many things that can never be known, about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Walker, about Anne Frank and me, no matter how much we choose to share or who pores over images of our brains.
My right ear mimics the machine’s bleeps and grinds, echoing in staticky feedback; my hearing on this side is distorted, like a dial stuck between radio stations, but this doesn’t concern me. Instead, I remember the ugly yellow polka-dot glider stationed in the upstairs hall, the hardened, curdy spitup I cleaned from its blond wood slats the day before we set it on the curb, relieved and ready to move on to the next phase. How an inconsolable baby, in the endless black of a newborn night, squawked with such force and determination that my right ear turned to fuzz and I cried, exhausted, convinced of a brain tumor that would leave my children motherless.
I worried then, shushing and rubbing this tiny infant’s back, how I’d ever pump enough milk to sustain her after I’d gone. I worried she’d go hungry even as she spewed chalky milk over my shoulder, down the unseen back of the glider. I worried, sniffing her skull, aching for the things I’d miss, until we both fell asleep, upright. And I dreamed of a nurse pull cord, just down the bed, just out of reach.
"I’m just now getting in the Christmas spirit, Mom — you know? I feel like it should be Christmas now."
It’s mid-January, in the car, and I nod at my oldest daughter — I do know. She starts singing a Christmas song, willing time backwards, and I try to join in, but it’s a Justin Bieber song I know nothing about except that he says “shawty” a lot. She gives me a look as I trail off, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or making fun of me. The teenage years have dropped over us like a heavy blanket, insular and suffocating, and I’d like to kick them off, screaming.
"So what does ‘shawty’ mean, anyway?" I say, to prove I’m still participating. I’m familiar now with this daily log walk between riverbanks, between nosy and not listening, caring too much and not caring enough. "Um, I don’t know. It’s just like saying ‘honey’ or something, like he likes her or whatever." Aud leans over, pulling the tangled fishing line of headphones from her new bag, a Christmas gift with a print of a black cat and the word "noir" stamped above it. She toted it around for nearly a month before asking what the word meant, another weird characteristic of the age, curious about everything and nothing. I see that we’re done, so I try the backseat.
"Hey Sadie, I saw they’re making a new show about ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a series, like about Dorothy? But it’s supposed to be kind of dark…probably not for you anyway." She’s 11, and still interested. "Who plays Dorothy again? I forget her name." "You mean the movie? Judy Garland! She’s great — isn’t she great? Don’t you like her?"
Too polite yet to roll her eyes, she offers a noncommittal, “Yeah, I guess. Is she dead?” ”Oh, yeah,” I say, “dead for a long time. She tried so hard, though, worked really hard to please, but she had kind of a rough life — lots of drugs and alcohol, studio people always telling her she was too fat, not pretty enough, gross stuff like that.” I glance sideways at Aud, who harbors acting ambitions, to see if my cautions register, but she’s staring at herself in the sideview mirror and mouthing lyrics to some unheard song, the star of her own mind video.
"How old was she, though? Like old?" asks Sadie. I tell her I’m not sure, maybe late 50s, so she seizes my phone with that strange modern fervor for instantly proving people wrong, and discovers that Garland died just 12 days after her 47th birthday. She does some calculations and raises an eyebrow, laughing: "So Mommy, that makes her just 18 days older than you when she died!”
This stings more than it should, and I feel a ridiculous kinship with the deceased, as Sadie goes on to report that Ray Bolger, Scarecrow to Garland’s Dorothy, shook his head and sighed at her funeral: “She just plain wore out.” I consider this for my tombstone, and immediately begin to cheer up.
"Oh, Mommy! You used to sing that song to me all the time when we were little. Remember? You used to sing it all the time!" Fudge is nodding in the very back, pleased by his contribution to the conversation. He’s eight, the baby, and used to being left out. "Oh yeah!" I say. “You mean ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? I did used to sing that a lot — I’d forgotten!”
And I had. The little one always gets the shaft in a big family. I hardly read to him anymore, much less sing to him every night as I tuck him in. I feel the usual twist of guilt in my chest — I’ll do better! — but I already know it’s a lie. Our life is jam-packed, and songs will always be the first to go.
"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", as sung by Judy Garland, is one of the clearest-eyed songs around, nothing like the cheery pop versions you’ll hear today, the difference between Joni MItchell and Amy Grant singing "Paved Paradise". Garland sings about loss and longing, change and inevitability, and if you watch her, she wears an almost flat expression, resigned but not dejected. She’s comforting a child, but they both know it’s fantasy. There’s not a smile in sight.
And that’s the way it is, kids. Fast, difficult, special even when it’s not. The myth of a trouble-free future is no more real than the myth of an untroubled past. It’s all slightly out of key, misremembered lyrics, a soothing hand in the dark.
So give me one more second before you go, shawties. Because I thought I was plain wore out, but it turns out I’m just now getting in the spirit.
Creepiest middle-of-the-night experience ever. Wake up a little before 4:00 a.m. and head to the bathroom, where gradually it dawns on me I’m hearing a man’s deep, droning voice somewhere inside my house. It’s deathly still otherwise, pitch black, everyone asleep but me.
I feel my way down the hall, then down the stairs, cold with fear but unable to resist moving toward the sound. I lean around the kitchen doorway, and there, across the open floor plan, above the living room fireplace, on a TV that was decidedly turned off before bed, is a silver-combed man, Southern and insistent, in an outdated blue suit, a deeper blue curtain drawn behind him, sitting at a desk cleared of all but a single, old-fashioned table microphone.
He’s pointing one thick, bullying finger at what seems to be me, quoting fiery scripture on accountability and thundering on about condemnation. I stare up at him, powerless and terrified, the accused before the judge, when the screen goes suddenly black, then just as suddenly back to the man, black and to the man again, as if he’s willing himself there, conjuring this court and conviction into my living room.
My eye catches movement over the sofa back — is that a head? — a child? But no, no child would dare lie in the dark here like this, alone with this harbinger of doom. Unless they were possessed…a possessed child, maybe?
Oh — no, it’s only Floyd. Thank God for Floyd, though I notice with alarm he seems just as scared as me. My brain kicks in and I begin searching for the remote, the man shouting above us then silenced, shouting then silenced. And at last, I understand.
"MOVE, Floyd!!!" I yell, shoving at him, digging through fat and fur until finally I locate the remote underneath his rear. Once the house is quiet, I start to feel sorry for him, so I go back and give him a reassuring hug, whispering that the mean man’s all gone now. He settles in, and I head back up the silent staircase, accountable to no one.
Why I give my middle-school-aged daughter a little freedom: so she and a friend can buy ugly frosted lipstick at the CVS with their own money; get yelled at by the manager of Ted’s Montana Grill for spinning around and around in the revolving door entrance like Will Ferrell in “Elf”; spend an hour filming a 2-minute music video in city street settings; notice that salespeople are rude when they’re empty-handed and nice when they’re carrying store bags; get told off by an old lady for sitting and blocking the staircase at Starbucks; and slide into the backseat at our meeting spot, smelling of sun and tic tacs and floral hand sanitizer, spilling over each other to share the tales of learning to be human.
1. The diaper goes on the baby’s bottom, forwards or backwards, but forwards is better.
2. You can buy “nighttime” diapers if you want, but your ass is getting up either way.
3. You can use one of those baby wipe warmers, but warm things near private parts make most people need to pee, and a cold retracted penis might not be a bad thing.
4. No one knows if your baby is gassy, but everyone will say, “Maybe he’s gassy!” because it’s not something they can help you with.
5. Mylicon Infant Gas Drops are made from the tears of laughter of Johnson & Johnson senior executives.
6. If your baby falls off the bed, reframe it in terms of “Free Range Parenting”.
7. You can sterilize your baby’s pacifiers, but dogs’ mouths are supposedly cleaner than humans’, so you could just thank them for finding it and pick off the larger hairs.
8. You can put “Shhh! Baby Sleeping!” signs on doors and speak in stage whispers during nap time, but only if you want to spend the next five years tiptoeing around like Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
9. You can stick your finger in a baby’s diaper to see if it’s clean, but you can only do this once.
10. You could wake the baby up to see if he’s hungry, or you could shave your dog’s fur to see if he’s cold.
11. You could twist the umbilical cord into a dried “keepsake heart” for the baby’s nursery, or you could dress in witches’ clothing and post “keep away” notices for all normal people.
We’re backing into this thing. Last night, the girls and I watched “Clueless”, this afternoon, “Emma”. By Friday, I anticipate reading Jane Austen aloud, girls needlepointing on stands by the fire, all of us leaping up, flustered, smoothing dresses and pinching cheeks and fluffing pillows, as the UPS man rings the bell unannounced.
As the ER doctor wriggled my index fingernail free of the nail bed with pliers, he asked if I worked with my right hand.
"Well, I like to write," I said.
"Eh? So what kind of things do you write? What’s your writing style?” he asked.
"Oh…I don’t know," I said, "mainly just parenting essays, sometimes funny."
"Sort of like Erma Bombeck?" he suggested.
"Um, I guess." I said.
I wanted to be prepared, should such a question ever come up again, so I jotted down some “writing style” slogans at 4:07 a.m., after being awoken by the pulsing, strobe-lit rave in the tip of my finger:
Mary Beth Holcomb: Sort of Like Erma Bombeck
Erma Bombeck, Now with 30% Less Mom Hair!
Erma Bombeck: The Martini Years
Are You There Erma Bombeck? It’s Me, Mary Beth.
Erma Bombeck if She Carried a Dull Swiss Army Knife and Didn’t Know How to Use the Tools
Erma Bombeck: Laughter is the Best Medicine (Outside of Gin and Pain Pills)
Erma Bombeck: If LIfe Gives Us 10 Fingernails, How Did I Wind Up With 9?
Erma Bombeck, Minus the Good Housekeeping with Water Glass Ring Stains
Look Again, Erma Bombeck, this knife is ENGRAVED.
Erma Bombeck With Irreverent Cussing
Erma Bombeck: Watch My Four Kids for an Hour Then Tell Me to Keep My Dominant Hand Completely Dry for a Week
Erma Bombeck: Is That a Pulpy Flesh Flap Where My Nail is Supposed to Be, or Are You Really Interested in My Kids’ Names and Ages?
Do you think that somewhere, a slight, middled-aged woman wearing a Christmas sweater, tan slacks, and knee high pantyhose just gasped, checking over her shoulder to make sure the children weren’t watching, then pressed her lips together, inhaled w/a small, strength-gathering nod, and clicked on the headline, “Brian Boitano Announces He is Gay”?
Saturday evening, Thanksgiving Break, doing my damnedest to stay “grateful” while cleaning a newly-discovered mound of partially-dried, electric-yellow bile crusting over the back right corner of the non-removable wool seat cushion. I marvel, between reluctant dabs and cursed mutterings, at Annie’s stamina. Even at death’s door, barely able to lift her own head, she’d hauled herself onto a pricey armchair before voiding the contents of her stomach.
“At least she’s alive” I tell myself, ignoring my brain’s smartass rejoinder: “Too bad about sending the kids to college!” Indeed, the vet assured us Annie will recover, as the front desk receptionist swiped a four digit fee onto my Visa.
We’d spent all Thanksgiving morning cooking and cleaning, prepping for an evening feast at Rick’s mother’s. I won’t point fingers, but RICK accidentally left out an overflowing trash can when we left for the suburbs. If you made up a list of “Most Toxic Items For Dogs” it would look a whole lot like this trash bag — raw turkey skin, splintering bones, damp coffee grounds, razor-edged cans, powdery chocolate wrappers, and so on.
When we returned after dark, it was like turning on the lights in some grisly detective drama; there’d been a violent struggle throughout the downstairs, but the villain had prevailed, devouring nearly everything in the can, including packaging. Floyd and Bobo cowered in the corner like traumatized witnesses in the back of an ambulance. Annie, on the other hand, lay stretched and sated on her side, Jabba the Hutt in an opium den. We decided to wing it, cleaning the floors and bidding her goodnight.
Predictably, the next morning presented a fresh new crime scene, with strategically-spaced land mines of vomit on hardwoods, beneath tables, under chairs, over the sides of dog beds, and camouflaged in busy rug patterns. Outside, at least, was gorgeous, so we opened up the house and cleaned again, leaving the dogs to the front yard. Annie lounged all afternoon, sleeping it off we hoped. She’s never been one for exercise, but as day bled into night and her lethargy didn’t lift, a creeping worry set in. Then the unthinkable happened: she did not eat dinner.
I lay awake half the night, checking on her several times. By morning I admitted defeat, slamming a cup of coffee and driving her up the highway to the emergency clinic. It was really no surprise, as our kids and dogs years ago held a secret meeting where they swore to demand urgent medical attention exclusively on holidays and weekends.
I learned several interesting things during our visit. First, Annie’d put on 10 pounds since her last weigh-in, roughly the equivalent of a human gaining 70 pounds in five minutes. I knew she was rotund in her wormlike way, but I wasn’t prepared for the technician to shout, “SERIOUSLY? Is that even POSSIBLE?” when reading the scales. In our defense, Annie’s been on the same sensible diet since we got her, but it’s hard to control for variables like large pepperoni jalapeño pizzas stolen off kitchen counters or generous slices of chocolate layer cake snatched on self-initiated “walks”.
More fascinating still was when the vet, who looked all of 15, came in to discuss Annie’s x-rays. “Of course you’ll know about the air rifle, then?” he asked in a lilting Irish accent, nodding encouragingly. “Excuse me?” I said. “You REALLY don’t know? ” he said, suddenly animated. “Why, she’s been shot by an air rifle — TWICE — look here! They’re still inside her!” He tapped the film for emphasis, drawing finger circles around the pellets. “Nasty ones, too!” he added, folding arms across his scrubs and swaying foot to foot.
I felt it first in my eyes, then my cheeks, and before I knew it I was laughing, so hard it came out silent, so hard the vet crinkled his eyes and laughed too. I gave his back an awkward pat and wiped my eyes, apologizing, though in truth I wasn’t all that sorry. I just couldn’t stop imagining Annie, in a tight little Peter Rabbit coat, rooting around a garden, lifting a pie off a windowsill, sliding a steak off a grill, while some bearded, overalled crabapple of a man chased her with a hoe, or in this case an air rifle, zeroing in on her ample rear as it disappeared under chicken-wire.
For some crazy reason it made me proud — “I like your lapdog. My dog’s been shot.” I laughed for the old-fashioned dogness of her, unrepentant in her roaming and snuffling and gorging and scrounging ways. I laughed because Annie never has and never will give a shit, and she’ll outlive any old Mr. McGregor, maybe outlive us all. And I laughed because I got to bring her home, and just this once, put her to bed without any supper.