Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Healing Place

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cabin

“Hit it!” he yelled and the boat roared into action, skipping and weaving down the dark blue lake. The man struggled to pull himself upright but after a few moments, he flopped back into the water, head first. The rumble of the boat’s engine shifted down as it circled around the skier for another try.

At the next dock down, the black and brown retriever – a “dog pound special” as his owner called him – lapped at the waves set in motion by the boat. His master pointed furiously at the ball bobbing in the water a few feet out.

“Buster! Buster!” he cried. “You’re gonna lose your ball…”

It was early that morning, only 8:00 a.m. or so but warm, the temperature already inching towards 70. The sun was but two clicks up from the horizon but the lake already glimmered and reeled, the water cross-hatched with beams of light and dark. A bird darted near the dog’s ball, dive-bombing close to check for fish. Disappointed, it turned on its wing away, swirling through the early morning sky.

It was perfect, she thought, but then it always has been.

The woman was at the family cabin, the one her grandfather had built so long ago. He had chopped down each tree and then sanded and cut and hammered until the log cabin was pushed up from the earth as though it had always been part of the land. A large stone fireplace stood in the center of the place and each time the woman saw it anew, she was struck with wonder. It astounded her that her own grandfather, an assembly-line worker at the Chevy plant, had built the beautiful fireplace, stone-by-stone, with his own hands. He wasn’t a mason, he wasn’t a brick-layer, but he had figured out how to do it, anyway. Back then it seemed that everyone knew how to do most everything. There wasn’t a Home Depot you could call.

The cabin was simple, beautiful, and peaceful. It was set deep in the pine trees that scooped around Arbor Lake. Just beyond the cabin were twelve wooden steps that took you down to the weathered dock and the clear, cool water.

She had come to this cabin for 35 years, first as an infant with her mother and siblings, then through the years with one brother or the other, a sister-in-law, a niece, a new dog. Her father had died before she was born and she only knew him as a staunch man wearing a suit coat in a silver picture frame on the shelf at home. She had asked her mother about him many times over the years but since he had never been in her life, she didn’t really miss him. To her, it had always been her mother, her two brothers and her.

As an adult she continued to accompany her mother to the cabin at least twice a year. The boys had drifted off as boys do but she was still close to her mother – very close – and their relationship had deepened as they both grew older. She looked forward to traveling with her the 150 miles up the rural highway to the cabin in the woods. The two of them would spend their time outside on the dock reading Barbara Kingsolver and John Grisham. Later in the afternoon they might flit around the lake in the old wooden canoe that her mother had picked up at an estate sale. At night they would gather fallen branches and dried wood and make a fire in the pit on their small beach and stare into the flames, mesmerized.

Each year as life became more complicated as it so often does, the cabin remained a simple haven for the woman. An oasis. She began to think of it as her very own fountain of youth. Well, maybe not youth but definitely strength. It was where she came with her mother to gather and center herself after heartbreak from a broken romance, the loss of a job, the death of her beloved dog, even the suicide of her best friend.

The cabin always seemed to heal her.

She wondered if it could possibly work this time.

The woman sat on the dock alone this year, her feet draped in the water, kicking back and forth, back and forth. Across the lake a couple was pushing off from a creaky dock, settling into an old paddle boat. She could see their legs begin to pump furiously. The water cast off behind them curled into a vigorous stream.

“Slow down,” the wife laughed but the husband continued pistoning his legs in their own rhythm, focused solely on the duty at hand. Before the day was out his nose would be sunburned and his eyes sleepy but he will be glad that he accompanied his wife on the lake instead of sitting on the beach reading the latest Sports Illustrated.

The woman could feel the fresh water move over her toes, licking the soles of her feet. The sun was bright and it warmed her shoulders and slowly some part of the tension and anxiety she had felt over the past three weeks eased. She could feel herself fall into a trance-like state. Sometimes she thought she could stare at the lake for eternity, its ripples and waves breaking the still and silent glass surface. It was as though her mind no longer needed to think, to feel, to hurt. The lake did that for her.

After a while the couple in the paddle boat made their way down the lake and she could no longer hear their laughter. The power boat was silent, its frustrated skier giving up for the day. Buster-the-dog lay on the sand at the dock down one sunning himself, the wet ball at his feet. It was quiet for the moment, but soon, she knew, children would be out splashing in the water and the boats would speed by and in the midst of Arbor Lake, it would be just another day.

Life shouldered on, fairly or unfairly, she knew. The lake remained. The pine trees grew taller. The cabin sat where it had sat for the past 80 years. But her mother was gone, now, slowly fading away in her sleep three weeks ago.

“A good death,” they had called it.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut and the tears began softly drifting down her cheeks.

Her mother was dead and she didn’t know what to do. Who do you become, she wondered, when the ones who give you life are no longer alive, themselves? Are you now in charge of the world?

She looked back out onto the lake, wishing her mother was sitting next to her regaling her with some funny story from her seniors’ book club. Her mother had always made her laugh; she had always made her feel safe; she had always made her feel that all was right with the world.

The woman could feel her mother close now that she was at the cabin; the place where they had spent so much time together. But even so, the longer she sat on the dock thinking about her mother, the clearer it became that it really hadn’t been the cabin at all that had been her safe haven; it had been her mother. Of course it had.

The breeze blew through the tall pines behind her ruffling her hair and tossing it in her face. The wind caught the water and the wave ran over and out from her toes. She watched as it made its stalwart journey across the lake to the docks on the other side.

She loved the cabin in the woods, the dock by the lake, the silly canoe; probably even more so, now. It didn’t feel empty or lonely. The entire place was filled with her mother and for the first time in weeks the woman smiled.

She could hear her mother’s voice, warm, comforting, and very near.

“It’s going to be alright, honey,” she said. “You’re going to be alright.”

 

 

Three Blind Dates

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431173_3122783035962_823986167_nBack in my mid-30’s I went through this period that I like to refer to as, well – HELL. It was a time when all my helpful friends were trying to find the perfect man for me. As I think back now I realize that the people who set me up on these blind dates were really more acquaintances than friends. My real friends knew me well enough to have seen the disasters awaiting me with each one.

Blind date #1: The Meat- eater

One day a co-worker pulled a picture of her cousin from her wallet and told me how wonderful he was. This fabulous man owned a farm with horses, was the outdoorsy-type, and baked his own bread. It was incredible that he had not met the right woman, yet. He looked very handsome in the photo – dark, wavy hair, pretty green eyes so when she asked if I’d like to be fixed up with him, I shrugged my shoulders and told her “why not?”

He called me the next day and asked if I would meet him for dinner. I said yes. He chose one of those places with a name like Outriggers or Trendsetters out off the highway near one of the small towns past Ann Arbor. I had never been to that particular establishment but I knew its reputation: dank, hillbilly, drunk, pickup place.

Well, I thought, maybe it’s got a different vibe at dinner time.

When I arrived at Outriggers or SweetDreams or whatever the hell the place was called I saw that my Jeep was but one of only three cars in the parking lot. Apparently they didn’t do big business at dinner but at least it would be quiet, I thought, trying to stay positive. I walked from my car and pulled open the oversized, two-foot thick door to the restaurant and was immediately blinded by the heavy darkness. I had to squint my eyes for a full minute just to get my bearings. The stench of beer and sweat hung heavily in the air and I lost my appetite.

Once my eyes adjusted I spotted my date – he was at one of the three tables with customers, the only man alone. I made my way to the table but he remained seated, smiling. He pointed to the other chair.

“Take a load off,” he said.

Uh-oh.

I noticed that he wasn’t nearly as good looking as in his picture, but then I told myself not to be shallow; people are always way more attractive after you get to know and like them. But it didn’t take me long to know that wasn’t gonna happen. I didn’t like him much.

“I don’t know how you live in Ann Arbor,” he told me immediately, dissing the place that held my heart. “It’s so suffocating there. I need a place to breathe.”

And before I could answer he stood up and said he had to “take a leak.”

When he stood up from the table I noticed that he very short, probably 5 foot 2 at the max – midget territory for 5 foot 7 me, another unfortunate surprise.

I looked around at my surroundings, the dank, dark restaurant attached to the cavernous night club. The waitress made her way over to me.

“Can I get you a drink, hon?” she asked. “You look like a white zinfandel girl.”

“Oh no, please. Just water.”

She furrowed her brow at me and left, annoyed that she hadn’t been able to peg me as the drinker of shitty wine. My date had still not returned after what I deemed the appropriate amount of time for leak-taking. Was he actually ditching me, I wondered both hopeful and indignant, but alas, I soon saw him making his way back towards me, his size 4 cowboy boots kicking into step. When he returned (did he see my look of disappointment that he had come back? was that a smirk on his face because he knew he had been caught being short?), I could smell the heavy smoke on him. He had been outside smoking a cigarette for ten minutes, apparently.

The rest of that night he proceeded to chain-smoke his way through our date, leaving every eight minutes precisely, and I laughed to myself at his earlier comment about ‘needing space to breathe.’  At this rate I wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to breathe at all and I knew the chance of my seeing him at the Cancer Center, where I worked, was much greater than on a second date.

In between smoke breaks we managed to order food and when our meals arrived, he dug in heartily – as heartily as a 5 foot 2 Keebler Elf could, that is. He had ordered a steak with all the trimmings – the most expensive item on the menu for $8.95 – and by God he was going to make that steak his bitch.

I wolfed down my iceberg salad as fast as possible, still hoping for a quick exit, thinking maybe I’d get out of there in time to watch Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. But he took his time, savoring each bite of that bloody, rare steak. When he was finished, he pushed the plate away and on it sat the sad remains of his meal: the red blood pooled in the middle of the plate where the steak had been, the forlorn potato, broccoli and rice left behind, untouched.  That plate with its neglected vegetables and bloody red heart haunts me still.

When he rose for his post-raw meat cigarette break, I thanked him for dinner and hurried out, rushing to exit before he could say anything. But I needn’t worry.

His short legs couldn’t catch up with me, anyway.

Blind date #2: The Quote-Unquote Film Guy

Apparently I didn’t learn my lesson because I somehow let myself be convinced by yet another co-worker to go on a blind date. She had a friend who was into “films” and I had to admit, he sounded promising – an artsy-type guy, interested in cinematography, maybe a creative individual who could put pieces together into a form that spoke to others.

This time I met my date at one of my favorite downtown restaurants in Ann Arbor, a good start since I knew we were at least on the same page about one thing. He was gentlemanly and met me at the door and escorted me to our table – a nice, sunny one in the front window where you could watch the eclectic mix of Ann Arborites wander by. He ordered a nice bottle of Malbec and I admired the way he spoke to the waiter. I put a lot of importance on how nicely one treats service people, and he had scored a point with me there. Two if you count the restaurant and the wine.

I began to relax, certain that this date held some promise. I asked him about himself and he told me he had lived in Ann Arbor for quite a while and loved the town – another win!

“What part of town do you live in?” I asked

“I’m on West Huron, just a couple of blocks from downtown. Do you know that large Victorian with the big sunflower patch in the side yard?” he asked.

I nodded no.

“Well, that’s where I live. Me and nine others, that is. We call it Conrad’s Commune because he’s the one who founded it back in 1966.”

I smiled; surely he was kidding.

He wasn’t.

Now, I realize that some think Ann Arbor was and still is the hippie-central of Michigan but come on! This was 1989. I was pretty sure that by then communes had suffered some majorly bad press especially after it came to light that Charles Manson ran one for his pretty murderers-to-be back in the ‘60’s. I’m pretty certain that took the bloom right off from that rose.

Apparently unable to recognize my look of absolute shock (“We share everything,” he added – gross), he continued talking. He told me he loved books (oh? I perked up for a minute), and he loved reading, “especially Nietzsche, Homer and Tolstoy,” he said and I tried not to roll my eyes.

Nietzsche, Homer, Tolstoy?. ..you know – the guys that wrote the books that everyone absolutely hates in college. What a liar. NO ONE likes reading those books, not even Nietzsche, Homer or Tolstoy.

“I hate fiction,” he added and I nodded dully. Not only was he a hippie 20 years too late but he was an arrogant one at that.

Oh, and the part about him being into “films”? Turns out he was 39 years old and worked as the projectionist for a local movie theater.

“Free popcorn,” he smiled.

Blind date #3: The Hottie

Ok, while technically not a blind date since I set myself up on this one, I still went into it knowing absolutely nothing about the guy. Nothing except that he was hot.

Extremely hot.

I met The Hottie while I was trying to sublet my small apartment on the Old Westside.  He called for an appointment and when he showed up at my door, I was smitten. Yeah, he was that good looking. But I could tell that he liked me, too and we bantered and flirted back-and-forth for a while. After I signed the lease over to him, we made plans to meet the following night for a drink.

Dressed up in my finest, I met The Hottie at the Full Moon and he asked the host for a nice, quiet table in the back. It was martini night and we laughed over the ridiculous concoctions they had come up with – cucumber, anyone?  And miracle of all miracles it turns out The Hottie was more than just good- looking. He was well-read, funny, a tri-athlete and the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Bingo!

We had such a good time that I told myself I had broken my blind date curse.

As he walked me to my car I wondered if he would kiss me. With his amazing full lips he looked like he’d be an excellent kisser.

We stopped at my Jeep and he reached for one of my hands. He told me how funny I was and pretty, and so smart and my head started swimming with possibilities.

“But I have to tell you,” he continued, “you’re just too old for me.”

Say WHAT?

He said he knew when we made plans to meet for drinks that I was much older than the ‘girls’ he usually dated but he thought he’d go along, anyway. But, hell, he could see the beginnings of crow’s feet by my eyes and just knew it wouldn’t work for him.

I looked at him carefully. The man had just turned 40 a few days ago (something he had told me earlier) and his crow’s feet were more prominent than mine.

“I’m 35,” I said, baffled.

“Yes,” he answered, nodding his head as though I had a fatal disease.

He kissed me on the top of the head (like I imagined he did with his grandmother) and walked away. I stared after him in utter shock and then started to laugh.

He had no idea what he was missing.

Dante’

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photoThe man brushes the dog gently and watches as the white puffs of fur spiral softly down the street like clouds of cotton. He has placed a blanket on the new, tender grass near the front of his house, and he and his young son sit there with their dog, Dante’. The boy’s body is wrapped like a spoon around the old dog, all kid arms and legs and white fur intertwined. It’s a beautiful, warm July day, full of sun and just a whisper of a breeze, and the man, boy and dog are bathed in a sweet, yellow light.

It is the last few hours of the dog’s life.

He is an old dog, now – over 15 – and he trembles slightly, his body worn out. The man knows the dog’s vision and hearing are long gone, but it is only recently that Dante’ has truly failed, his body shuddering on idle, waiting to turn off.

There had been a series of strokes over the last year… small moments at first but ever growing and more serious until the man decided he could no longer bear to put his dog through one more. And yet, the dog ate his full breakfast that morning and it was just yesterday that he was able to walk down to the corner and back with only two rest breaks. The man wants to believe that Dante is ok, that he’d still be fine for a few months longer, but he knows better.

A woman drives up in a red sedan and stops in front of the man’s house. She exits the car carrying a flower – a yellow orchid in a clay pot. The man and the boy watch her walk towards them. The dog, who no longer sees, stares directly ahead, his head shaking with a Parkinson’s-like tremor. When the woman is near, she hands the man the plant without a word and he smiles.

“Look Dante’,” he says sweetly to his dog. “Isn’t this nice? It’s a flower.”

And the dog somehow knows to move his nose towards the petals and sniff just a bit. He is still there, being a good dog, smelling the flower for his master. But he is ready. The old dog is ready to go.

“The vet will be here in a few minutes,” the man says to his visitor and she nods her head solemnly.

She bends to pet the dog and gives him a kiss on the head. She knows the man wants to be alone with Dante’ and she turns and leaves them to continue their sweet and painful countdown.

Eventually man’s son rises from the blanket, bored and restless, and goes into the house to find his older brother. They both come back out front, baseball gloves in hand, and play catch in the road, very near the man and his dog. There is laughter from the street – the sounds of everyday children at play who are trying very hard not to think about losing their dog. There is only so long you can think about things like that before you have to get up and throw a ball.

Very shortly a light-colored SUV appears and out pops a small woman carrying a red case. She is both a welcome and terrible sight but the man knows that this vet is a good human being just here to ease the dog’s pain, to ease everyone’s pain.

They move in a small processional, the vet, the man and his two sons, towards the back of the house for privacy. The man has picked up the dog and cradles him close as he shuffles forward in his slow, pre-funeral walk. His head is bowed, his face close to his dog.

Later that night after the two boys are asleep the man finds himself staring down at the place where his old dog used to lay, the spot right next to the couch by the window that gets the late afternoon sun. The man kneels down and pats the floor as though the dog, himself, were still lying there. When his two sons bound down the stairs in the morning, excited yet again for another warm, summer day, they find the man lying on the floor next to the couch, curled into a ball. He is sleeping soundly, one of Dante’s old toys brought into service as a pillow. The two boys giggle at their father and then grab their mitts and dash out into the sun.

 

The Cat Lady

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two cats_oI thought the Cat Lady lived in our backyard for the longest time, way out beyond the scraggily pine trees and tall grass. Whenever my friends and I would play back there, we made sure not to run out too far. We knew the Cat Lady lived somewhere out there, at the rear of our long, deep yard.

As I got older I realized that she actually lived on the street behind us, deep on her lot, as hidden from the world as possible. It made me feel better knowing that she didn’t share our property. The Cat Lady scared me.

But even so, as a teenager I did venture back to her property twice. The first time I had just turned 13 and a couple of my girlfriends were at my house for a sleepover. That night as we became more hyper and giddy, playing games of truth or dare and drinking way too much soda, we decided to sneak out back and try to catch a glimpse of the Cat Lady.

It was after midnight when we snuck out of the house and ran through the backyard, the tall grass already wet with dew. The low moon cast shadows of us on the slippery grass – three paper dolls in the dark weaving to and fro.

We had barely made it past the property line when we saw her. The Cat Lady was outside in the moonlight trying to catch fireflies. There was a line of mason jars on her wrecked picnic table, glass prisons winking with the taillights of the bugs.

We watched as she trapped another firefly in a jar. She moved towards the picnic table with her prize, her witchy hair hanging lank in her face, covering one eye. In the glow of the moon it looked as though the Cat Lady possessed only half a face. Suddenly she turned towards where we stood in the trees, her eyes piercing the woods. We were sure she couldn’t see us – we were far enough back to be in the shadows – but she stared long enough that we began to panic. As if reading each other’s minds, the three of us pivoted as one and ran screaming back through the pine trees and tall grass to the warmth of my parents’ house. I made sure to double lock the backdoor behind us. My father scolded us for making so much noise in the middle of the night but I didn’t mind. I was glad to see that he was safe-guarding the house.

A few years later, when I was 15 and feeling brave and invincible, I decided to visit the Cat Lady again. I was going to write an essay about her for my journalism class and I wanted to interview her. Although this meant I had to walk over to her property, again – and alone, this time – it wasn’t going to be in the dead of night, this time. I may have been older but I wasn’t stupid enough to venture over there in the dark again. She was still a complete mystery to me and, while I was pretty sure she wasn’t an actual witch, that didn’t mean she wasn’t crazy or dangerous.

A week before my essay was due I made my way through our backyard and past the trees that separated the two properties. When I crossed the border and stepped into her yard, I was shocked at how much worse it looked in the light of day. There was a legion of long, stringy vines and tall weeds in her yard pushing right up to the edge of her house. An old, rusted trash can sat in a small opening and a fine finger of smoke rose from it, sputtering to its end. The wrecked picnic table was still there, worn even more so two years later. I noticed a trail that appeared to lead away from her house to what I assumed was the other street although everything was so overgrown it was hard to tell for sure.

I picked my way through the scrubby, wild grass to her ‘house’ – a word I use loosely. It was actually little more than a shack with tarpaper walls and a thatched roof. I wondered how she survived in a place like that through the seasons. One good storm and it looked as though it would topple over like the third scoop of an ice cream cone.

I approached the place warily, swiveling my head back and forth, making sure she wasn’t staked out in her yard somewhere. I know I should have just walked up the stoop and knocked at her front door, but now, actually on her property and close to the Cat Lady herself, I found myself starting to sweat. It was damn creepy there and the memory of her half-face during that dark night two years ago crowded my thoughts.

Still, I crept slowly towards the house until I was against its side. My heart was thudding, loud and afraid, but I also felt stupid. Why had I decided that writing essay on the Cat Lady was a good idea, I asked myself?

It was then that I decided to forget it all and go back home. I turned to leave but at the last second I couldn’t resist the urge to peek in the low window just to the left of me. I had to blink my eyes several times at what I saw. The entire room was moving; the floor, the furniture, the shelves – all in constant motion. It made my stomach drop, the undulation of it all, and I stuttered back for a moment, unsure and queasy. When I stepped back to the window I realized it wasn’t the objects in the room that were moving, it was her cats. There were dozens of them in all shapes and colors, mewing and wailing, climbing, jumping, sleeping.

Suddenly a group of cats moved together at once and I realized it was her – the Cat Lady – underneath them all, covered by her pets. As though by instinct she turned exactly towards the window I was at and cast her eyes directly at mine.

And then she smiled.

I fell backwards on my butt and spider walked my legs until I could stand again.

And then I fled.

I didn’t tell anyone about my encounter with the Cat Lady that warm, spring day. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was afraid the Cat Lady would send her mountains of cats to climb all over me, weigh me down and suffocate me. Maybe I thought that I had been stupid to have spied on her in the first place and would get in trouble if anyone knew. Who knows? But it wasn’t too long thereafter that I heard my parents talking at the dinner table about a Miss Jensen and how she had over 60 cats living with her in a one-room house when animal control came and took them all away. The fact that the Cat Lady had such a normal, harmless name – Miss Jensen – made me suddenly feel sorry for her at losing all her cat friends in one, fell swoop like that. I asked my parents what happened to her.

“Oh, she’s still living in the same place,” my father told me. “I’ve heard that she’s taking in strays again, already. She just loves cats.”

“She’s a millionaire,” my mother piped in and I stared at her, mouth open.

“She inherited a lot of money from her grandfather years ago. I think she kept very little for herself – just enough to live on. I remember there was an article on her in the newspaper after she donated the money and it said all she ever wanted was to live alone and help stray cats.”

“She does get carried away, though,” my father piped in, “and every few years she has to call the Humane Society to help get her cats adopted. They always do. After all, she gave almost all of her inheritance – two million dollars, if I recall – to them.”

And then I remembered – the short, squat building that sat right next to the Humane Society on Center Street: The Janice Jensen Cat Shelter and Adoption Center.

I laughed at myself and my parents looked up from their dinner plates briefly, but I just smiled and went back to my meal.

(photo credit: Tracie Harris)