Summer Solstice


“It is difficult to be convinced of the death of one whom we have deemed to be another self.”

                                                                                                     Nathaniel Hawthorne                                                                                                                           From “The Wives of the Dead”

In the north, as June approaches the solstice, the sun stays in the western sky higher and longer, and long after it begins its descent into the horizon, the shadows of trees lengthen and darken, until the ground is a patchwork mosaic of shadow and dimming light. Nocturnal animals, both predator and prey, are driven by hunger and hormones into the waning light, risking everything until the familiar blanket of night covers the landscape in blackness.

After the weather report on the 10:00 news, she stepped out the back door and looked out over the trees and fields to the western sky. The sun had collided with the earth, and a firestorm painted the entire sky blood red; the sky was bleeding and hemorrhaging in front of her. He’ll put it out, she thought. He’ll be back any time now. Feeling the chill of the night breeze in her face, she wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders.

June 21st, the anniversary of their wedding, and the anniversary of the warehouse fire.  Paul was 23 when he was taken, handsome and fireman fit, with thick brown hair that Rachel loved to run her fingers through.  He’d be thirty now, still young but still two years older than she was, and they’d be celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary.

She still rented the same farmhouse outside of town that she and Paul lived in at the time of his death. She rarely left home, and she lost contact with all of her old friends. She was still, after seven years alone, stunningly beautiful.  With porcelain skin and dark eyes and an hourglass figure, she turned heads on her infrequent trips to town, the heads of middle aged men congregated in the barber shop or the teenaged to twenty something year old gearheads perpetually fine tuning some classic car in Lacy’s garage.

Every year, as the 21st approached, she’d go to town and repeat the same sad ritual. Everybody knew that she’d pick up two New York Strip steaks and a couple of baking potatoes from the IGA and then she’d swing by the liquor store and purchase a bottle of the same wine.  Everybody knew that she was preparing the same meal that she prepared on that night, and like she did on that night, she’d wait for her husband to come home. The first year or two, most people were sympathetic to the tragic circumstances and the profundity of her loss, but the last couple of years that sentiment was shifting to why can’t she just get on with her life, and why doesn’t a beautiful woman like that get out once in a while, she’s driving herself crazy living in the same house amongst all the same things. She remained completely oblivious to the fact that she and her sanity had become the subject of rumors and speculaion.

It’d been seven years since the first time she set the table with her grandmother’s china. Paul had just taken the steaks off of the grill when his pager went off.  They looked at each other in utter disbelief, and laughed at the timing, saying they’ll just have to put off their celebration for a couple of hours. As he got in his truck she told him to be careful. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll always come back to you. They kissed through the truck’s open window and she waved to him as he backed out of the driveway onto the highway. She watched the red taillights fade in the low light of dusk as he drove off.

Maybe it was because there wasn’t a body to bury. Maybe it was because of the promise he’d made in his last words to her. Or maybe it was simply that she loved him too much to give up on him.  Whatever it was, it was strong enough for her, despite all reason and logic, to look for him in every face she saw, and to see him sometimes in the shadows cast by the June sunsets.

This year, June 21st was like every year since that first June 21st. It was warm outside, and fireflies flashed on and off through the yard. She set two places at the table with her grandmother’s china, put out the bottle of her and Paul’s favorite wine and took two steaks off of the grill. She lit two candles and sat down and waited for Paul to return.  And when the sun had finally set and the bottle was nearly empty she heard the gate by the machine shed loudly squeak open, and through the dining room window she watched the darkened figure approach the back door. She heard him softly speak her name through the screen door, Rachel, and she said Paul, oh Paul and she let him in. They quickly shed their clothes and make love in the darkness of the new night.

Then she was alone again, drifting off to sleep as from the highway the roar of the dual exhausts from a  1965 Ford Mustang echoed and faded in the night.

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Max


One doesn’t buy a pet.  That would imply that it’s a simple financial transaction. It’s much more complicated than that. When you pay money to take ownership of a cat or a dog, you are making an investment.  You are investing in your own capacity to love and be loved. Unconditionally. The real cost that you have to consider is the fact that no matter how much and how well you love your pet that you will likely outlive him.

A little bit more than14 years ago, a Gordon Setter my children would name Max (after a setting on a hair dryer) was born, and a couple of months later, he came home to his new family, which consisted of five humans, two cats, and one aging and overweight and utterly charming Golden Retriever named Sid.  Max was a good puppy. House broken and kenneled at night very easily, he was physically the opposite of Sid.  Where Sid was lethargic in his old age and obeyed a strict economy of motion, Max was constantly on the go. He quickly learned the boundaries of our 2 ½ acre yard. This was the most satisfying thing about our relationship with Max.  We gave him the freedom to explore a world that he absolutely loved, and he’d run all day every day, chasing birds and squirrels and rabbits and even butterflies, running in graceful and long strides, a lean mean running machine, muscles rippling, a display of fluidity.  Nothing could slow him down, not even a bout with heartworm several years ago from which he recovered fully and quickly. After running all day, he’d curl up on the back of a couch and rest and begin the same pursuits the next day. Not that he ever actually caught anything. That didn’t matter in the least. He found true joy in the chase, the pursuit. I recognized this and I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how to view the world from the way Max loved every inch of our property, or more accurately, Max-land.

Over the past couple of years, in his old age, Max’s long strides shortened to a trot, and he’d come in earlier in the afternoon and rest longer on the couches.  He’d spend much of his outdoors time laying in the grass, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, content to be among the familiar grass and flowers and birds of the world that was still his.

A couple of months ago, very suddenly, on a Sunday, after letting him out, we found him barely breathing, laying in the back yard.  After a trip to the E.R., he was diagnosed with Pancreatitis and Aspiration Pneumonia. They kept him for three days, and after several medications and a new diet regime, he seemed to be doing much better, but he’d changed in subtle ways. He only wanted out when my wife and I were out, and he’d stick close to our sides, for the most part forgoing the adventure of the chase.

Then came today, when he woke up with a strange and foreign panic in his eyes and fits of coughing. My wife took him to the vet and he was running a high fever, and the vet suggested that it was probably time, so my wife made the soul-wrenching decision. I was up north at our cabin with our other dog, a four year old English Shepherd named Tucker, when my wife called and informed me that she had to have Max put down.  I’m up here trying to write, but I didn’t anticipate having to write about this.

When Max was three or four, we had to have our beloved Sid put down, and eventually both cats, too. Max mourned each loss with the rest of us, just like Tucker will undoubtedly mourn Max when him and I return home. We’ll come home to a house that will suddenly be emptier, and a yard that will still, if only in dreams and memories, be graced by the fluid black blur of a very special dog who created in its 2 ½ acres  a world big enough to encapsulate a lifetime of adventure and wonder.

Tough Enough


Throughout junior high and the first two years of high school, because of where my birthday fell, I was one of the smallest kids in my class.  I was also emotionally immature, not being able to control my big mouth. It might not seem like much, but when you’re early in the double digits of years, being a year younger than most of your classmates can be a big deal.

My brother, on the other hand, four years ahead of me, was in the opposite situation, being amongst the oldest in his class. So different were we that he was considered one of the toughest guys in town, while I was known as a little smart-mouthed wimp. When I was in 8th grade, my brother was in his senior year in high school, and I’d hear through the buzz about some new fight he’d recently gotten into, and how he once laid a guy out in the middle of an intersection in Burlington. I, on the other hand, had no such proclivity for fighting, and was, in fact, due to my mouth, the frequent target of bullies and bullying. Fight or flight?  That was always an easy and consistent answer for me in those days.

But perhaps my biggest fear back then was that word of my wimpy-ness would find its way to my brother, just as word of his exploits found their way to me. This was part of my motivation when one day, in 8th grade, I decided it was time for me to show off my hidden toughness. It was time for me to kick some ass.

The target of my aggression would be Jimmy K., who happened to be not only the son of the school principal, but also one of the two or three guys in my class that was as small as I was (I was at least smart enough not to pick a fight with the 97% of the boys that were bigger than me.) Jim had done something to piss me off that afternoon, and I remember telling him, you just wait until after school, you just wait.

Then we were released, and walking across the grassy yards of the middle school lot. Other kids were swirling around us as I followed after Jim, taunting him, jabbing him in the shoulders. He just continued on, silent, with his head down, not looking at me and absorbing my verbal abuse without reaction, carrying his books.

His books. Jim’s not responding was emboldening me to push harder to get a reaction from him. I reached out and knocked the books out of his hands, folders and papers falling to the ground and scattering in the breeze. How do you like that, I snarled. And then, within an instant, though I can see it all now, forty some years later, as if in slow motion, he turned around, his right hand balled into a fist, and landed a perfect punch to my face, to my left eye. I remember my eye welling up with water, from the impact, not because I was crying, well, mostly not because I was crying.  Whatever, the fight was over, and by the time I walked home I had a bona-fided shiner, my eye socket swollen and purple from Jimmy K.’s perfectly thrown right cross.

When I gott home, I told my mom that she should see what the other guy looks like, though I know I  wasn’t very convincing. In the days that followed I wore the bruise on my eye socket like Hester Prynne, instead of a scarlet “A,” a purple “W” for wimp.

A couple of years later, in the summer between ninth and tenth grade, I suffered through my last encounter with a bully. It was a kid in my class who I shall call G who for some unremembered reason took an intense disliking to me. Looking back on it now, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it was about this kid that I feared.  He was was ridiculous looking, short with long hair and a big soft stomach that protruded well past his belt. I guess it was the fact that he smoked and hung out with some older kids who also had long hair and smoked that intimidated me so much.

One summer day, after stopping in the hobby store on Main Street and purchasing some poster boards (on which I was going to design golf courses, having decided recently that would be what I’d someday become famous for.  I was ahead of my time in that the words “nerd” or “geek” weren’t part of the culture yet.) when I spotted G in the alley across the street, smoking with four of his friends, all of whom were older than him. He saw me and yelled “Gourdoux!”

I ran, and as I took off, I saw his friends start running across the street. I ducked into an alleyway between a couple of the stores and emerged in the bright sunshine of the empty parking lot behind  Main Street only to find that I was quickly flanked on all sides by G and his friends.

“Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to see you around here?” G snarled.  I almost answered that no, I don’t seem to recall ever hearing you say that. Two of the older guys held me, pinning my arms back. I was unable to move, but I felt myself recoiling right before he delivered a sucker punch to my gut. I bent over when I realized that his punch didn’t even hurt. He’d hardly hit me. My big mouth started to say the words, is that it, is that all you’ve got, but for once, my brain was faster than my mouth, and I realized that G’s heart just wasn’t into beating me. Perhaps one of those friends that held me was an older brother who G had to impress. Perhaps he chose me to be his victim because I was an eaasy target. Whatever his reason, when he hit me, it was clear to ne that bullying didn’t come naturally to him, and that he was no more a tough guy than I was when Jimmy K. landed “the punch.” He mumbled soething about me not being worth the hassle and told the guys who held me to le me go.

They disbursed as I reached down and picked up the poster boards and headed for home.  I was thinking, that didn’ even hurt, why had I been so afraid of G for all that time, when am I going to stop being such a wimp? I also remembered wondering why G didn’t punch me harder, and the more I thought about, the better I understood, and I saw more than just a chubby kid who smoked. I saw a kid who, when he had a chance to really hurt me, chose not to, and I understood the toughness that took.

In the following year I’d go on my big growing spurt, going from 5’6” to 6’1” by the time I’d start eleventh grade. I’d never run from a fight again. Even better, I’d never start a fight again, either.

Now I can say, with all of the confidence I lacked in those days, that I am one tough S.O.B.

 

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