Tagged: aging

Carl

When Carl woke, he knew he had to call his son. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew something was wrong. And he knew his son would be able to fix it, he would. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, that had happened, but by the time you got as old as Carl you had learned to trust your gut on things like that: if you thought something was wrong, something might be wrong, but if you knew something was wrong, well, you can’t know something that ain’t true, can you? No, you sure can’t, Carl told himself, a little upset that something needed fixing, but proud of himself for knowing about it.

He opened his eyes and the world slowly focused itself, stopping a few points shy of sharp. He reached for his glasses, fuddled for them on the end-table for what felt like a very long time, finally found them and placed them on his face. Now the world was still imperfect, but it would do. He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed, slowly raised his clasped hands over his head in a stretch, as he had done every day in his life, and said out loud as if to someone present: “Thank You, Lord, for minding things while I was out,” as he had done every day since Gloria died. “Now,” he said, as if to the same person, “what’s wrong?”

He stood up. No need to dress himself: when you live alone there is no one to tell you not to parade yourself about in your long johns. The dog might see, of course, but the dog didn’t really care— poor old man was losing his mind, he was. Carl felt bad for him, the dog, but he didn’t resent his illness. After all, one day Carl too would be old and decrepit, and when that happened, someone would have to take care of him. So he had to carry his pet up and down the stairs, so he had to help him sit up and lie down, so he had to feed him those awful-smelling dry food pellets out of his hand— he was already picking up his poop for fourteen years for God sakes, sorry God but You know it’s true, I did pick it up and carry it around the block twice a day for fourteen years, think I’ve earned a right to say so— well if it wasn’t for Your sake, whose was it for? Dog sure didn’t care if I left it— ain’t it funny that dog and god—

Carl kept mumbling to himself as he shuffled to the kitchen, thankful for his own legs and continence. You sure do mind things. He flicked the switch on the coffee pot and sat down, trying to remember what it was he had to to today. Something was wrong, he remembered, but what was it? It’s just like the movies, he thought, I gotta figure out what the problem is and then I gotta call David and he’ll fix it, he will, as the coffee pot began to make its familiar, comforting steamy drip-drip. Just gotta feed that poor old dog, he thought, poor old man probably doesn’t even know it’s morning, poor old man don’t know nothing any more…

He stood up again and walked to the dining room, where the dog’s dishes had been for fourteen years, for fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…

Carl stopped. Something wasn’t right.

For fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…

That was wrong. That wasn’t right. Of course he used to scoop them into the dish, but since Gloria died the dog hadn’t been eating right, ain’t that right… He’d had to feed them to him, out of his hand, and he would never eat them out of the bowl but when I held them in my hand he must have thought something was different about them, thought they tasted better that way, he used to be such a smart dog but he was losing his mind…

Wasn’t I supposed to call David?

Where in the hell, sorry Lord but I’m upset, where in the hell was the dog? And his God— his God-danged—

Carl was frantically dialing his son’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep. And the voice came on the other end, David, David, is that you? —something about an area code— we ain’t had no area codes here before I ain’t paying for no long distance— he dialed it again— David is that you this time answer your phone for Chrissakes, it don’t count Lord if I don’t pronounce the T, do it— it was the same stupid lady telling me I gotta dial an area code, I don’t get it, my son didn’t move, where the hell are you David? Finally he decided that if it was going to cost him fifty cents it would just have to cost him fifty cents— he dialed the area code and then David’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep.

David answered. Dad?

David, Carl said, David—

Dad? Is everything OK?

No, Carl said, no, listen… He paused, he took a deep breath. He had to be strong now. David, son, look, I’ve, I’ve got some very bad news.

Oh no, David said, what happened.

David… He sighed deeply, he wiped a tear from his eye. The dog is dead, David, he said, the dog died.

There was a long pause, a long, long pause, poor kid’s too young for this, why couldn’t I shield him, why couldn’t I protect him, You didn’t mind everything while I was out, I know I can’t question Your wisdom but would you throw me a bone once in a while, just—

I know, Dad, David said, I know.

And now Carl was wiping more tears away— And your mom’s dead too.

I know, Dad. I know. I know.

When did she die? And the kid didn’t answer for what felt like a very long time, a very, very long time, three years ago. Three years ago, he repeated himself, and his voice cracks on the “ago” and I couldn’t protect him—

And the dog? Carl asked. When did the dog die?

A year after that, David answered. Two years ago. A year after that.

You didn’t mind things while I was out, Carl said, Carl started to shout, You didn’t mind things while I was out, You were supposed to take care of everything, and David knew that Carl wasn’t talking to him. He listened. He waited. And eventually his father burned himself out, eventually the fire ran out of fuel and the line was silent.

Dad? Do you want me to come over?

Aren’t you in New York?

No, Dad, I moved back here, we all moved back here, for… Look, why don’t I come over, Dad, I’ll even bring the kids, we’ll have a nice time.

We can have a nice time, Carl repeated. We can have a nice time. I’ll make a pot of coffee. And he hung up. He walked back into the kitchen and saw that the coffee machine was already on. He wasn’t sure when, exactly, he had made the coffee, but he was grateful it was there. Maybe You made it for me, he thought, now I just need a mug, which he took out of the cabinet, the same cabinet the mugs had always been in. He set the blue ceramic mug that Gloria had made on the counter and he poured himself a cup of steaming hot water. It don’t look like coffee I’ve ever seen, but I sure gotta believe that You know what You’re doing.

About the Dog

NOTE: You may just want to skip to the story below the horizontal line.

When people ask me what it is I write, the best answer I can give is that I don’t know. “I’m just starting,” I tell them, “I’ve just come out of a very intensive course of study and I’m changing career tracks.” “Did you study writing?” they ask. “No,” I tell them, “physics.” “Oh, but you’re a writer now?” “Well, I’m applying to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant.” “Ah,” they say, “I understand,” and I wish they would explain it to me.

The goal of my writing up till now has always been exemplified by the quote from On Keeping a Notebook that I’ve repeated so many times: to remember what it was like to be me. But the world (in the narrowest possible sense) is changing, and it is not just Didion I must live by, but also Rilke:

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Maybe Rilke is being too exclusive; surely there is such a thing as the hobbyist writer, for whom writing is not quite as important as water and air, but nonetheless more important than (say) sex or automobiles? I don’t think I would have to die if I were forbidden to write; I have gone long periods without writing. But then, there are those who fast.

Though I naturally have some private journals, an inappropriately large fraction (it seems at a first estimate to be around half) of my writing in the last few years has been on this blog. It’s been primarily nonfiction, first-person, like a diary (which the prankster in me would like to call diaretic, but which is actually diarial). I have sparingly but unapologetically sprinkled in fictitious elements where they made the story better; but from now on, my focus will be on using this as a platform to publish more polished short stories, essays and other literary efforts. My last post (from April!) was my first effort at this; expect more like it to come.

Eventually my hope is to submit writing to magazines, but I’m not there yet. If you are reading this, the odds are that you know me personally; if you take the time to read a whole story, I sincerely appreciate constructive (interpret broadly) feedback in the comments section.

Today I offer you a piece of fiction largely inspired by real events. Its working title is “About the Dog.”


ABOUT THE DOG

Michael carried the dish across the kitchen. It was still replete with the old dog’s lamentably uneaten breakfast: a cup of crunchy, dry, almost unscented kibble, with a spoonful of leftovers for palatability, garnished liberally with ketchup in a crosshatch pattern. The plate was crawling with a mass of six-legged scavengers, seeking to capitalize on the sick old dog’s lost appetite. He turned on the sink. As the scalding, steaming water washed the food and its formicid inhabitants, incapable of protestation, into the gently whirring garbage disposal, he was reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

He let fall a single drop of soap, massaged it with his thumbs into the old, decaying sponge. “This sponge,” he said aloud, “has seen better days,” and it was true; but he kept using it, nonetheless, because he had no other. Having worked the soap into a lather, he vigorously scrubbed the bottom of the dish, intent on removing every last invisible ant-germ. On some level he knew that ants carried no significant diseases, and that the old dog had, in his day, eaten enough of them to get an exterminator’s license; but it seemed important to get it right this time, to give the dog a dinner to remember, one not… Outside, there was the faraway grumble of a motorcycle.

Speak of the devil— when he turned around to replace the empty bowl, the old dog had dragged himself into the room, looking forlornly up at Michael, his master. Thick front paws supported his entire weight; neurodegenerative myelopathy (Michael remembered the name without a clue about the underlying causes it signified) was now several months advanced, paralyzing, atrophying muscle, working its way from the hind paws forward, until it would eventually reach… The two held eye contact for what seemed to him like a long time, until finally the dog’s rear legs gave way and his hindquarters fell into an unenthusiastic intercourse with the lacquered wood floor. “What do you want,” Michael asked, “old boy?” The dog, unaware of his slippage, did not change expression: waterfallen, cloudy eyes fixated as best they could on his master; bent and patch-haired tail, splayed out behind the bony, fragile legs, vibrated, feebly, once.

He sighed and went to go refill the dish. It bothered him, the amount of food he discarded every day. After all, each dry brown nugget represented a portion of the life of (he read the side of the bag) a chicken, a pig, or a lamb. Some animal somewhere had suffered and died, to be fed to the old dog, to be fed to the ants; to be washed down the garbage disposal. But dutifully he poured the chicken-pig-lamb-bits into the dish, and dutifully he opened the refrigerator and reached for the Tupperware of last night’s vegetables. It was empty. “Sorry, old boy,” he said softly, “nothing special for round two,” and satisfied the both of them with extra ketchup.

He returned the bowl to its spot on the low table. The old dog was now lying on his side, not looking at anything in particular; the squeal of the mailman’s cart outside did not even disturb him. “Come on,” Michael said resignedly, “come on.” The dog made a halfhearted attempt to lift his head, but gave up, waiting for what always came next. Michael knew. He slid his arm under the visible ribcage, feeling the tumor that was growing larger every day, and his other hand around the veiny neck. He gently picked the old dog up and righted him; he uncrossed the dying legs by hand, straightened them, and left one hand in contact with the old dog’s buttocks, to push him in the right direction should he slip.

Now they stood there, the two of them, in silence for a while. The old dog watched his food continue to exist; time did not seem to pass, the ticking of the clock above the shelf drowned out by the neighbor’s comically overpowered lawnmower. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen; but nobody moved until the first ant had made its way up the leg of the table and into the dish. The first ant was followed by a second, and by a third, and before long the whole colony was back in force, consuming the sustenance that had so generously been proffered it. As the neighbor finished mowing and the engine sputtered to a halt, the old dog turned his head back towards Michael, who removed his hand. Ignobly, predictably, and slowly, the dog’s hindquarters slid backwards; he lost his balance; he fell sideways. Michael did not take his eyes off the ever-growing, squirming mass of ants, the ever-diminishing pile of ketchup. He was once again reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, and softly he began to cry.

The Bench

The big brown house— the one that must have four or five apartments inside, it must, it’s just too big to be anything less, but I have never been inside— it has a new porch. I can tell the porch is new because, like my parents’, it is unpainted, unstained, fresh and raw lumber still smelling of the forest, sawdust still dusting the ground out front. In the spring the sawdust, untreated, will rot and disappear, and in time the porch will not be the new porch any more.

But what else is different? Did they paint it? The windows are new, it looks like, that must have cost a fortune, and the trim. But the main exterior walls, that dark rich soil-brown, is that new? Is that brown an aged veneer of local filth and Dust and bird shit, the product of Time’s industrial darkening, or is it Pantone from Lowe’s, six years old between the Boulevard and highway?

I can’t tell, and when I linger a moment too long the dog lets me know he wants to keep walking. He no longer has the strength to strain at the leash, though he outclassed me in his younger days. Now he gives it an impatient but resigned tug, having learned, in his long life, that we will go when we go. Realizing that looking at the house longer will not be enlightening, I accede.

In the center island he crouches, stance wide, to defecate, but his back legs are like a weak flamingo’s and he cannot hold the position. He inches forward, leaving a trail of tracings several feet long, like a walking horse. I tell him he is a good boy. He does not look at me.

We pass the bench and I stop. I think they redid this a while ago, it seems that way anyway, maybe when they put in the stop sign and the new sidewalks— but I am still confused, where is my bench? As long as I can remember, as long as anyone can remember, the bench was here. It was a meeting spot, a cigarette spot, an iced-tea spot, a black-and-mild spot, a talking spot, a sitting spot, sometimes a beer spot, if you knew what you were doing, exactly the kind of spot that gets removed in urban-renewal projects— a nuisance spot, a loitering spot, a lock-your-car spot, a hold-my-hand spot. I can imagine the phone calls, yes, it’s 1:30 in the morning and these hoodlums— but we never did anything, never did anything but sit and talk, these hoodlums are out loitering, there’s a tall guy and a black guy and a short guy with a beard, what are they doing in my neighborhood, it’s too late, someone should get rid of that bench.

There is a new bench, but it has no back to lean on. It is a long, flowing artistic piece, with slates and seaglass set in moons and suns and waves along the front, where they can be occluded by your legs. It is just as good a place to sit as ever, there is nothing wrong with it except that it has changed. If I were totally open-minded then I might be able to see the new bench as an improvement, if I were even a little open-minded I would see that because it is longer you can fit more people on it, because it is wider it is more comfortable, because it is newer it has no splinters, and the suns and moons and waves are even a little pretty. But it is natural, I think, to want nothing to change in your hometown, to leave it exactly as it was when you left; to come back and hope that nothing has changed, that what was beautiful still is and that what was decrepit still is, that what was falling down is still falling down because that means it has not yet fallen; to want to freeze time in that moment you left.

The dog now looks at me, come on, he says, and it is not the come on, let’s walk, let’s go, we have places to go, things to smell, come on come on that I left a year ago. He looks at me, come on, he says, I want to go home. We have not made a full lap of the block, we are only going to walk up and back the same street, but at least because of the center island it is sort of like a lap. I look at the bench for another second and take the dog home.

Bookended by Bites

I turn the key. It still turns. I remember the door of Cochran Place, the way I watched my mother open it, and I have the familiar and pleasant feeling that even though I have lived elsewhere, even though they have redone the porch and the kitchen and the washing machine, even though they threaten to get rid of the wallpaper in the dining room (and never do, yielding, I have to assume, to my superior powers of persuasion and interior design), even though the bedroom pillows are worn out, even though the driveway is no longer made of gravel– even still, the key still turns.

I lay my skis against the foyer wall and go to seek my dog. I do not have to seek far. He is asleep, on the couch, prone, in the usual spot. Fred is old, older than dirt, we say, older than the hills, older than 9/11, older, in point of fact, than the porch or the kitchen or the washing machine. He has been so long a part of my life, a part of my family, a part of my home. But he, too, is changing, aging, deteriorating. Coming home only once every few months, before that not coming home for a year, I have watched him age in spurts, I have sampled his progress in low resolution to find it, of course, aperiodic, asymmetric; teleological.

The dog’s legs don’t work; what had been a slight limp has become the threadbare vestige of control over the rear two legs, splaying out at his sides when he sits, the left further forward than the right. On hardwood floors they do not grip, the pressure between pad and ply is not enough to keep the angles straight, and he slides, quasi-skating backwards, a miracle on ice, the sad but inevitable march indoors. He takes glucosamine daily. While he does not seem to be in pain, he sometimes seems embarrassed, and we are careful to encourage him, never to make fun of him, to treat him as family, to give him his dignity.

He opens his eyes. The dog is deaf, now, almost stone deaf. Like Zayda, his hearing loss is highly selective, but it is still quite real. The cataracts cascading over his lenses are a little more opaque each time. Still, I think he recognizes me. I scratch his ear and lean in to Eskimo-kiss his muzzle.

It happens very fast.

I am cursing with hellfire and thunder in my voice, rumbling up from my gut, from a wellspring of baritone I was unaware I had, “BAD FUCKING DOG,” I do not even remember the Christians next door with their impressionable baby, I am sure they are displeased with my display of irreverence. Blood literally drips from my beard, I catch it in my hand as I use the other hand to grab the dog by his scruff and shake him. “SEE WHAT YOU FUCKING DID,” I growl in a voice that is scarcely half human, and I can see the recognition now, the fear, the realization of what he has done. I order him off the couch and into a corner. He slinks there like a cat, trying to make himself invisible, as I go to inspect the damage. There is a cut just below my lower lip, on skin uncovered by beard, which is nearly invisible when my jaw is relaxed, but widens into nearly an 8-gauge piercing when I stretch my lip, as if to chew with a closed mouth, or to make a silly face. I soak a gauze pad with my blood, discard it, use another. The flow is already lessening, but certainly not stopping.

I call my mom. “We’re almost home,” she says, “are you home?”

“The fucking dog bit me in the fucking face,” I tell her.

“He what?!

They arrive home ten minutes later or so. I spend the entire interim glaring furiously at Fred. He tries to make himself small, pill-like, and I occasionally tell him what a bad dog he is, causing him to curl up even tighter. My parents arrive and my mom agrees that I do indeed need stitches, and gauze still pressed to my mouth we head to Prompt Care.

In the waiting room, my mom says, truthfully, “We’ll have to forgive him– he doesn’t have that much time left.”

“It’s true,” I agree.

“Do you remember,” she asks, even though she knows I do, “when he bit you in the face last time? You were ten and now you’re 23… his life has sort of been bookended by biting you.”

“Yep,” I mumble. I don’t want to move my lower jaw much. When the nurse asks me, later, how much pain I am in, I tell her it is a four out of ten. It is probably only a three, but I know not to underestimate at Prompt Care.

“We brought in the dog psychologist then, do you remember? She told us to get rid of the rawhide and to make you and Molly be the ones to feed and walk him… so he would learn dependence. I wonder what happened this time. I guess he just didn’t recognize you. You’ve been two months… and you startled him.”

“I look like an animal,” I say, smiling and then stopping, conscious of the blood in my beard and that it is mine.

“All he saw was fur,” Mom says. “He feels so bad. Did you see him sitting on his bed? He’s so embarrassed.”

“I know,” I say, “I yelled at him pretty fucking good. I think I offended the neighbors.”

“They’ll deal.” She pauses. “We only had him for a month then, and we might not have him for another month…”

The nurse comes and gives me a tetanus shot, but there is a delay before the stitches. “He’s getting old,” I tell Mom. “He’s been going blind, deaf, arthritic, he’s been doing those for a couple years now… but now he’s really getting… old.” She nods. “I mean… I think his mind is going.” She nods more slowly. Neither of us really wants to pursue the topic so instead we play Words with Friends.

Eventually I get my stitches and we make our way back to the car. I cannot talk due to the anesthetic; I limit myself to mm-hm’s and hm-mm’s. On Concord we see Dad walking the old man. I roll down the window. “Who’s that vicious animal?” Mom calls out. “I’m not talking to him,” Dad says, “or touching him. He needs to pee so he doesn’t pee in the house but this is not a fun walk.”

I make eye contact with the dog. I do not know if he remembers what he has done, but he looks at me in the eyes. Benefitting him with doubt, I ascribe to him my own intelligence and think: Will they ever love me again? Will I die shunned? What have I done? Wordlessly, I call him to the window, and deliberately, slowly, I lower my hand. He looks at it for a moment and then, deliberately, slowly licks my fingers. I smile and scratch his ears. “He’s sorry,” Mom remarks. Mm-hm, I hum.