It’s been raining since midnight and the gray morning moved without notice into a darker afternoon. Cool temperatures slowly pushed this front across the mountains, past the piedmont, then over us, until eventually, tomorrow morning maybe, the clouds will move out to sea. In a short while I’ll don my black Columbia raincoat and walk to the river. I don’t mind rain when it’s still warm like today, but once the temperatures drop, the frost which has already appeared in the Shenandoah will sweep down to the Chesapeake. I’d rather the warm sun. I always prefer the sun.
One thing though: the rain keeps me present, like a cold wind, like a hot day, it becomes part of the conversation, sets the tone, determines the diction of small moments. When the weather is extreme, we wear it like a new garment, and everyone has something to say about how it looks. But any normal day of mild temperatures and indifferent atmosphere will usually pass in some pleasant fashion, just outside our consciousness; days, even weeks, can drift by this way, lost.
There are times the weather can be overwhelming and we long for that forgetfulness, such welcome irrelevance. But when it rains like this and I walk to the river, slightly uncomfortable and quite mindful of the moment, it feels as if I can manipulate time, slow the whole thing down, dismiss the anxiety and mood swings that come before and after the predictable deluge of ordinary life.
Czech writer Ivan Klima once wrote that when a society is working well, the mechanisms which keep it going also remain just outside the consciousness of the citizens. It is only when things are radically wrong or uncharacteristically fine that we take notice of who’s doing what and criticize or praise, unite or dissolve. We long for the quiet, but with such peace comes the risk of hijack. We have learned in a most difficult fashion the dangers of non-participation, of letting our guard down, of such dark indifference. No, people on the inside know for certain that peace takes trust; consistency demands patience, and order, above all else, needs truth.
And so in life. And the truth is, for me, here along a deceptively calm river, I would rather remain within the walls of my own consciousness despite the storms—both real and metaphorical—and remain aware of the highs and lows, awake to my failures and second chances, than walk some placid path of self-deception, pretending all will be fine. Such a mundane existence would steer this vessel directly into depression. I’m well aware of my place here, conscious of my need to navigate without hitting too many reefs. Oh, I’ve hit the rocks before, hard, and I’m certain to hit them again, but between such travesties I would rather not fall asleep at the helm. I’m okay with extremes. I’ve made my peace with my often-random life.
The rain is beautiful today, almost blue against the steel-grey sky. The maples are turning, and all along the road to the river wooly caterpillars head for the cover of the brush. Along the path which runs through the northeast side of the property, two deer stop to drink from a birdbath. They spot me and their ears turn toward me, their tail up. After a moment they return to their relaxed state as I move along the path to the driveway, down under the row of crepe myrtles, and finally to the patio, wet and alive.
First of all, early this morning I posted on Facebook a picture I like of my father; he died five years ago today. When I did I remembered a quote from Friedrich Schiller, “It is not flesh and blood, but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.” So I added that to the post.
I’ll come back to this.
When I’m at the river I like to remember places I’ve been, or people I’ve known, or people I’ve been for that matter—who I was when I lived in New England, or when I traveled across the country after living in Arizona, so many more versions through the years. So I try and save any remembering for when I’m walking along the river alone. I should say I don’t do a lot of looking back, only that when I do I prefer to do it in a peaceful setting.
Here’s the science behind that:
I read an article some years ago by a neurologist and psychologist from NYU or UCLA, I forget, which stated when we unpack memories they become very vulnerable; they can develop a relationship between themselves and the situation we are in when we open that box in our brain. If, for instance, someone I’m not fond of keeps bringing up a particular memory, even if I enjoyed myself and would personally recall the situation with a smile, that event is now tied, even loosely, to someone I’m not fond of, and the memory is compromised—and what’s crazy is that’s true even if that person wasn’t even there during the memory. Now they are, indirectly.
The converse is true as well: if we talk to someone about something in their past, and return to the conversation enough, the next time they remember that memory of theirs, even if we’re not around when they remember and weren’t around during the event, we are now part of the emotional response to the memory. Keep this in mind when jumping in front of a speeding recollection.
This morning I went to the cemetery and sat on the grass and didn’t remember anything, I mean on purpose. I drank one of those airline bottles of Glenlivet and watched a construction crew working on an expansion of the grounds. I noticed how well they incorporated the new section into the old and thought how nice the place will remain. I didn’t try to not remember good times with my father; I simply was in the moment, like we were watching the crew together. A short bit later I was in a store just a few blocks away and an older man noticed my sweatpants I was wearing with “St Bonaventure” down the left leg. He asked if I went there and when I told him I had he said both his kids went there but graduated in the early nineties. I could tell by his accent he was not from around here, and he said “No, I’m from New York.”
“Where?” I asked, and he said Brooklyn.
“Oh wow,” I said, “I was born there and my parents both lived there until I was born. What neighborhood?”
“Bay Ridge,” he said. That’s where my father is from. Just a few blocks away
I left, did some things, saw my mother for a while, did some more things, ate some stuff, and turned on the radio; the Moth Radio Hour was on, and the first person talked about death and what it is like to be with someone after they die; the difficulty but need to see the body. She is a minister and works with youth who are dealing with grief.
Five years ago this very evening my siblings and I and our mother stood around my father after he died and said our goodbyes.
On the radio, they played a clip of the woman who was up next. In the except, she said, “So I need to start with this quote from Schiller: “It’s not flesh and blood but heart that makes us fathers and sons.”
I pulled the car over to listen to the rest.
She is a neurosurgeon from NYU and talked about the “vulnerability” of memory and how when and where we recall events in our history can affect our future recollections of those events. She was funny, and poignant, talking about her father and how quiet he always was, how he shared moments of his youth but not often, and certainly never the tragic moments.
And I thought of my father, and how quiet he always was, and when he did talk about his youth, which, with me anyway, was rare, and even then in short summaries—like the Ebbets Field story, or the snake under the upside down dingy where their clothes were story, or his neighbors with Gold Stars in their windows during the War, or how he was listening to a game on the radio when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Really, I can’t recall many. He didn’t share many. Part of that is me; I didn’t ask enough. I’m sure he would have told more stories if I had asked. I don’t know.
So when I came home I walked to the river and while there watched a deep red and yellow streaked sky as the sun slowly melted into the trees across the reach, and I remembered this one: Mom and Dad came to visit me in Pennsylvania in August or September of ’86. I lived in an old house on Main Street that during the Civil War was used to house injured troops. The doors had replicas of those old latch handles that lifted up and out when you pressed down. Dad loved them. Mom didn’t feel well so she sat on the couch while Dad and I went for a walk around the corner to a beautiful farm with a tree-lined driveway and a split-rail fence with horses. One came over and we stayed a while. I don’t remember what we talked about, if we talked at all, but most likely how pretty the area was and how quiet it all seemed.
The river is quiet tonight, calm, and the sun disappeared fast. Out across the bay the half-moon is already climbing and what I suppose is Mars is hanging nearby. This is a fine place to remember; there’s nothing negative to tether those events in my past onto, no sidebars, no distracting digressions. Just me, and the river to carry those memories out into the bay, and south to the ocean, where they might mix with the waters that maybe not so long ago washed out of the Narrows and into the headwaters of New York.
I’m not by nature a person who spends his time looking back, for a variety of reasons. But when I do, those memories are mine, just as I’m guessing Dad’s memories were his.
Oh, and that Schiller quote; it goes on: “Lose not yourself in a far-off time, seize the moment that is thine.”
Five years ago, on Thursday, October 15th, 2015, I had the last conversation with my dad who at the time was in the hospital. Oddly enough, this year the 15th is once again a Thursday. I had been staying at my parents’ condo just around the corner from the hospital in Virginia Beach, and I decided I’d head to the college to teach my 8 am class despite the dean’s suggestion that I cancel. Before leaving, however, I made a sudden turn into the hospital lot to run up fast and see my father. It was just before 7 am.
I walked into the room and he was alone, his head in the middle of the pillow, his eyes open and staring toward the ceiling. He turned his head slightly and smiled when he saw me, and with his baritone voice said, “Well, hello!”
My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t expected a greeting. “Hey Dad. How are you?”
His voice sank to something like a whisper. “You know I’ve been in here since 4:30 this morning.”
“Actually, Dad, you’ve been here for three days.”
“Oh Geez. Three days? What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?”
“Virginia Beach. First Colonial Road. Right near home.” He nodded but a nurse came in and Dad was distracted and our conversation was over.
It had been almost exactly three days at that point. On Monday, Columbus Day, Dad walked downstairs in the morning and told my mother he didn’t feel well at all and he was shaking and had a fever. Dad told my mother he thought he’d better go to the emergency room. That was about 8 am. I had been in West Virginia so Mom didn’t call figuring they would take care of him and send him home. But that afternoon about five while I was visiting a friend’s class to read to his students, Mom called and told me they were in the ER. I drove to the hospital and Dad was on a gurney as they still didn’t have a room for him. It was then I found out he had been there almost nine hours.
They got Dad settled in a room and my siblings came to town. I won’t go into the details of that week, of how one of us was always in his room even through the night, of the comic relief at the expense of everyone, of the shared stories of Dad, of the boxes of to-go food from Panera, of the phone calls from family, of the nursing staff—nearly all of whom had been students of mine at some point and of whom Mom always asked after one left, “Did she get an A? I hope she got an A.” There were the knocks from neighbors, and since one of us was always at the hospital, whenever the phone rang we all held our breath, and each call was followed by a few moments of horrific quiet and no one talked, no one said anything at all, but all thought something similar.
Dad had turned ninety the previous May. He had some significant health issues those last couple of years, and sometimes life could get stressful—for him, for my mom, and the best you could hope for is things were the best they could be. I can tell some stories that are hysterical, stories that we all have, each of us as individuals with Dad and some with all three of us as well as Mom; but the essential element here is we had those stories, and that is what life is for—the stories, the shared and personal memories. Dad was everyone’s hero when it came to being a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and a hard-working, golf-loving, gentle beautiful man. Oh, sure, I can tell stories of incidents and misunderstandings, but instead this:
Less than two months earlier Mom and Dad celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. A few days before that when my son and I picked him up for lunch—a monthly tradition the three of us had been doing for a few years—he asked if we could stop at an open-air garden shop at a parking lot not far from their home. We walked around slowly for an hour while he inspected every plant, every basket, and every arrangement looking for just the right one. He settled on a red-flowered Mandevilla and asked what I thought, then he asked what Michael thought, and finally we bought it and put it in the car.
Then he asked if I wouldn’t mind stopping at Hallmark so he could get her a card. Dad didn’t drive anymore so he knew he was going to do all this when I came to bring him to lunch. We went in and since by this point his eyes had grown weak, he asked me to read him some cards. I read maybe seven and still they didn’t really say what he wanted one to say. I found a large, beautiful card and while I can certainly no longer recall the phrasing, the sentiment was pure: something to the effect that he only had a life at all because he spent his life with her.
Perfect. No, really, it is perfect for my mother and father, for either to give the other.
Then we had oysters and beer.
And on the way home we surprised Dad by stopping at the golf club to which he had belonged for years and years, but at which he hadn’t played in a very long time, and we went to the putting green. Dad putt several balls and explained to us that it was always the best part of his game, and he leaned over and put a twenty-two-foot putt right in the hole. He was about to hit another, but I picked up the ball and said we had better get the plant home. I just knew that needed to be his last putt of the day. It was his very last putt.
The thing is, confusion and forgetfulness were not unusual, and by the time the fall arrived, it had been a very, very long time since I had had any normal conversation with my father—one with sharp exchange, or, to be wide-open about it, one during which he didn’t think at some point I was my brother.
Through the end of August and all of September, while I saw my father several times a week, there was little or no conversation. His words were slipping away. So on Thursday, October 15th, five years ago, when I walked into the hospital room and we talked and Dad was completely lucid, after the nurse came in and I could see in Dad’s eyes he was gone again, I walked to the car and instead of teaching class that day sat for hours in the parking lot unable to compose myself. Not because he was dying–Dad died the following Wednesday, October 21st–we saw that coming for quite some time. No, it was because he was so present, so with me in that moment, as he had been a few years earlier, or before that when Michael was a toddler and the three of us would meet somewhere for lunch and Dad and Michael would tease each other and laugh for hours, or when I’d meet him at the mall and we’d walk around looking in windows and talking, or when he and I went to my college when he dropped me off and I swear to you it was the first time I remember him every shaking my hand, or before that, earlier, when just he and I spent the entire day in Disneyland in California and then drove up into Beverly Hills.
Earlier, when he and my brother and I would play golf at Timber Point Country Club in our neighborhood on the Island, and we were all learning together, and his passion was ignited. Or how when I was little he’d open the door to my bedroom every night to tell me to “Sleep tight,” and I never really knew what that meant.
Before that when he coached my little league team and promised me if I hit a homerun he’d buy me ice cream for a week; and it was a safe bet because I absolutely sucked at hitting, but dangle ice cream in front of an eight year old and watch me clear that ball out into right field. I couldn’t hit but I could run and I stretched a double into a homer and, as promised, had ice cream from the truck everyday for a week.
Scotch every Tuesday. Nine holes Wednesday afternoons during high school. Heading to his office on the top of the Dominion Tower in Norfolk to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Calling him on his 800 number from anywhere I traveled in the country and he always answered, and he always had time to talk—I mean always. I do not remember him saying to me even once that he didn’t have time to talk.
When he’d come to my house and we’d sit on the porch and he’d comment how much he loved how quiet it was and I loved the way he understood why I moved where I did.
The way he would share books with me: Roger Kahn, John Grisham, and more. The way he bought us all a book every Christmas; one he picked up based upon how he knew us. The way I went to sit with Dad every single Wednesday for every single season of “The West Wing” to watch it with him. The way we watched every Superbowl together and Mom would put out wings and shrimp.
The way he knew what nights I taught, even in those last months, he might have forgotten most of everything, but he always knew exactly what nights I would be by. And I’d go by, and I’d no sooner be in the door when he’d say, “I think I hear some ice and Scotch calling my name.”
To say he was generally a quiet man with a sense of humor, who everyone loved and considered one of the kindest men they had met, is to describe my son; and I’ve said many times how much my son reminds me of my father. I’m lucky to have had excellent relationships with both. Dad and I had no scars that needed healing, no disagreements we swept under the rug, no false companionship or fabricated gatherings for the sake of family. He was genuine to the bone, and if I could ever have been one tenth the man he was life would have been different.
I’ve told the story of that lucid morning in the hospital many times, but sometimes I tell the whole thing and other times, depending upon whom I’m talking to, I leave off one part.
After he said he had been there since 4:30 that morning and I corrected him, he asked what was wrong. I told him he had pneumonia, and he said, “Oh, oh geez. I guess I only have a day or two left then don’t I?” And I said, “These are great doctors Dad and you got here fast as soon as you didn’t feel well, so hang in there.” And he said, “What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?” and the nurse came in and I went outside and sat in the car for hours just remembering.
The way he would be embarrassed by foul language or scantly clad women on television. The way the summer of ’75 he and I went to a large movie theater together to see Jaws when it first came out and we left, him saying, “Maybe we won’t get a canoe after all,” laughing. The way the last piece of writing of mine he ever read was “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and Mom told me he said he really loved it.
Or how when my book Out of Nowhere came out he told me he loved it but never made it past page forty-six. Of course I had to check, and on that page is, “long before my own aging father was born.”
Or how he loved, and how he was loved.
Sleep tight, Dad.
“Missing someone is like hearing a name sung quietly from somewhere behind you. Even after you know no one is there, you keep looking back.”
I heard some doctor today talk about Covid and the president and tests and ten days or fourteen days or twenty days, and I listened to him fumble through, Conley’s his name, and I felt bad for him, though not really, I mean all he can do is decide for himself who he’s going to be straight with, but anyway…
…around here people are talking about numbers of cases and medical costs and masks and the same thing everyone is talking about everywhere on the planet; seriously the whole world, eastern Siberia and along the Camino in northern Spain and on trains in India and on dried up riverbeds in North Africa; in skyscrapers and thatched-roof houses, in outdoor cafes where there used to be parking spots and indoor cafes where there used to be people; everyone everywhere is talking about the same thing at some point every day—sure they may digress or veer off into conversations about work and sleep and that new DeNiro film or that old MJ Fox film they rereleased, but it’s the new common denominator; seriously I have no idea when the last time was that the entire planet was all on the same page, maybe World War Two or probably 911 but even those events had a certain distance for many; I mean, plenty of citizens knew they would be fine during the war; everyone wasn’t running out and buying flak jackets, and 911 too, except for the first few hours when no one knew anything, but soon everyone knew one thing—that this attack was pretty specific, and then they mourned and talked about it, but not about themselves and whether or not they might die in a few days completely unexpectedly, but this time they do, they are, they’re all—we’re all—talking about the same thing, that we can actually get really sick and die because some fuckhead in line at 711 didn’t wear his mask and didn’t know he was contagious because he didn’t know that at his friend’s house the other day no one bothered to clean the doorknob as people went in and out…
but anyway, everyone’s talking about death and dying and what scares the hell out of me about this is kind of sick: I hear too many conversations where death is no big deal, like instead of life being some long beautiful compound sentence, some people find more favor in the fragment; and I suppose we have been heading this way for some time, for some years, as if someone wants us all to know what it’s like to get closer to death, feel it fingering us along; I know it sounds like a convoluted conspiracy, but listen, it makes sense, just like it makes sense that we come in the world as tiny babies and someone else helps us slowly digest this mess, and at the other end we slow down, grow tired, like marathoners who just want to collapse by the time they reach that last mile; we are slowly conditioned for death through disease; hell, I’ve been sick before; had Russian flu freshman year of college, and in fourth grade I had pneumonia and missed almost a month of school; before that chicken pox kept me from a third-grade field trip to the Bronx Zoo, but nothing made me feel worse than bad trout in Prague—that put me out with salmonella poisoning; I was so pissed that I went back to the same restaurant a year later and ordered the trout again and had a glass of wine and watched the waiter put the salt-encrusted fish in front of me, and I thought, “Fuck you Trout,” and finished it with another glass of wine; I was fine—until…
…until, oh geez, I had bad oysters in Asheville and wanted to die (see?)—my face faded to some shade of ash, went through a weight-loss program Richard Simmons never promoted; but I’ve noticed how older people get sicker more often and for less severe reasons than when we’re young–a cold lasts longer—the flu is cause for panic attacks, pneumonia a primary cause of death in otherwise healthy AARP members—I’m not dumber than during my college days; I’m not less cautious, no, in fact I wash my hands more often, eat healthier foods, swap way less fluid with far fewer people, but still, risk increases with age, and I know why: it’s all designed like some death pre-flight; we’re wired up to wind down; side step the slope toward the end of the end; go gently, fade away, pass—the euphemisms tell the story: death is usually not a sudden stop but instead more akin to running out of gas and gliding in neutral toward the shoulder, and those early maladies that kick our ass into bed, into the infirmary, into the ER, they’re practice, death-sprints, some sort of bucket of fatality at the mortal driving range—I mean, look at how our bodies work the rest of the time: we don’t gain fifty pounds, we gain an ounce then another, then another, and dying is no different, no; we don’t live then die–we live, then bruise, then recover, then fall a few times, recover again somewhat slower, and on and on, until like Paul Dunbar, death comes down to soothe our weary eyes…
…we’re all dying, but we need to learn to adjust our airspeed, keep the engine clean; our grandparents go through it all first as we watch with child-like confusion; then our parents have a go at it while our middle-aged minds linger in the space between sending both our old folks and our teenagers on their way; then it’s our turn—unless (unless, yes, there’s always an unless) unless something screws up the order of things–it’s a plague, it’s the Dark Ages, it’s Covid, it’s coming at us but look back now at how hard we fought on the way, at the onslaught we suffered then shattered, and then laughed at it all, knowing, of course, knowing if we do what the doctor says we can get through it, knowing that anyway, these viruses, the cough, the fever, the hospital stay the recovery, that, well, yeah, it’s all just triage.
I sent an essay to a journal and they rejected it. This is year’s ago. Their brief note suggested they enjoyed the piece but ultimately decided to pass. It was a nice note; no one died in it. About a year later I did a reading at a conference and read that very piece, completely unchanged. After the reading, the very same editor came up and asked if the piece was available, that he loved it and would like to publish it. Not only did he do so, but the work went on to be my first essay noted by Best American Essays. The same journal with two different editors went on to publish four more works of mine, with two more going on to further recognition at BAE.
My point: publishing and rejection can be completely random. It can depend upon the particular style of the journal, or a particular editor, or even the theme of one particular edition, but it can often be equally dependent upon the caffeine intake of whoever read the work, the time of day, the weather, how much it reminds the reader of an old lover, or even whether or not the Pirates won that day. Sometimes essays and poems are rejected simply because the journal already had enough pieces for that time, and other times they’re rejected with great scrutiny and long epistles explaining all the changes that could be made for whichever other journal might publish it, though that new journal may just as easily prefer the essay in its original form.
Over the course of the last week or so I was rejected three times, accepted twice, had two personal invitations by publications to send them some work, started a new book of five long-form essays called “Five,” and sent off a manuscript to an editor for consideration. So tonight after an amazing sunset over the river and cool October breezes pushing September almost completely from my consciousness, I sat back like Charlie Brown perusing his pictures of France and wondered what I have learned.
Writing has taught me, finally, to trust myself and let go of my concerns and anxiety over what others think, how others perceive my decisions. In the writing world, editors can be helpful or random, can understand what they want but not what you do, or appreciate what you do but still not want it. Some like snark, some like drama, some like biting humor and some aren’t happy unless the piece sounds like it was written by some foulmouthed hack. It is essential to study the journal, to understand its history and style, its preference for length and how free one can be with language. In fact, for an editor to suggest in the rejection letter that the writer should first study the journal before submitting is so pretentious I can only assume the editors who make such suggestions believe they are addressing freshman comp students who have never submitted before.
I once sent a piece to a place and it was rejected. A few days later, forgetting I submitted it there because my mind sometimes slips, resubmitted the same piece without changes to the same journal and they accepted it with great thanks. Random.
I don’t pay attention to the comments and suggestions from readers at journals about how to change the work. I don’t know them; I do not know their style or ability; and I may be fine with the piece as it is but need to find another journal instead. In the end, I simply need to trust myself or I will forever be second guessing myself.
My favorite rejections are the simple ones. I received one which read, “Dear Bob, Pass. The Editors.” Perfect. They don’t want it; got it. I understand. That one is crystal clear. I also once received what appeared to be a detailed rejection from a journal which mentioned my piece by name several times in the letter, and which truly made me feel they took their time and honestly wished to communicate with me. Then I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is a writer in Ohio, and she revealed she received the identical rejection from the same journal, only the name and title changed in the paragraphs. How do they expect us to take their thoughts seriously?
Last year I received a rejection from the journal which published five essays of mine, but which turned down this particular piece with the suggestion I study their prose style before considering submitting to them and that they expect their writers to read their journal before expecting to be published in it. First of all, the rejection of the essay didn’t bother me; after reevaluating the work I agree it needed much more polishing, and I have since done so and sent it out elsewhere and it has been published. The trouble I had with the thoughtless rejection was that editor’s inability to simply say no. I wanted to write back and say, “I took your suggestion and read old issues to get to know your prose style and, oh, hey, look! FIVE of my works are in there! Moron!” Instead I deleted it. I delete lots of rejections. I have one friend who adheres to the trend to tape the rejections to the wall and shoot for 100 rejections in a month or maybe in a year, I forget. I prefer to keep the negative crap out of my line of sight. Besides, the implication the writer did not study the prose style of the journal is condescending. One writer/friend commented I might not recognize the editor is new and the prose style is no longer the same therefore the comment was valid, but that makes no sense. Then why in God’s name did they send me to old issues to study their style?
But it is the nature of rejection; I’m used to it, both socially and professionally. When the percentage of acceptances goes up, it is mostly because those essays have been rejected enough for me to rework them and then they all do well. It is a numbers game.
I know a writer who for a while every time a journal accepted one of his works, the journal subsequently folded.
Another example: I have a close friend whose manuscript was at a publisher getting ready for publication when a new editor there decided it needed a LOT of changes; “very invasive editing suggestions,” my friend told me. Instead of making the changes he pulled the manuscript and sent it somewhere else which accepted it and published it as is. The work went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors and readers are like teachers: just because they’re qualified to get the job doesn’t mean they don’t suck at it.
I swear I once got a rejection from a journal I never sent anything to. It was like a “Snoopy” cartoon. I mean, I must have sent them something and simply forgot, but I could never find what I sent them, didn’t have an email in my sent file or a file in my Submittable account, and have nothing on my list of “works submitted” which I keep. Perhaps they just anticipated receiving crap from me and wanted to cut me off at the pass.
A writer’s history with a journal is irrelevant to acceptance. The new piece must stand on its own and it must be the criteria for the new reading period. But that doesn’t mean the writer started from scratch when the piece was sent. It helps to mention previous successes in a cover letter, especially if some of those successes are the result of publication in that very journal. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t do this. But like a famous comedian taking the stage, the audience will give you a break and listen more intently for a few minutes, but if you don’t quickly start making them laugh, you’re outta there. A track record with a journal may get you read faster, but that’s about it. You still can’t suck. But neither should the journal treat any writer like he or she is a moron. Just read the damn thing and Pass or Accept.
I have no idea what my win/loss record is at this point. Better than the Mets I’m guessing, but really, I stopped keeping track. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly that’s because I do a fine job of rejecting my own work several times through scrutiny before I decide it is ready to head out on its own. I don’t believe writers should listen to the advice of anyone who criticizes the work unless the writer knows and trusts that person. I have a few I trust, very few. Of course, finding someone to criticize the work is as easy as finding a parent to praise it. In the end it is a waste of time trying to “improve” through blind criticism. You must know and understand and trust the person who makes suggestions. And this isn’t because these other people don’t have something beneficial to contribute; they very well may.
The list of famous rejections is out there; check it out. You’ve got to be one hell of an accomplished writer to make the list of famous rejections, and I don’t play at that level. Still, in my own little world I show up enough to understand the process pretty well, and I understand this most: my audience is me, I’m the first and most important editor, and only when I’m pleased does the work move along. I’m the primary reader, no one else. If someone finds something in what I do worthy of passing along to her or his readers, that’s tremendous, but if I’m not happy with the prose style, I probably won’t send it out; and if I am, I probably won’t change it for someone else I don’t even know. I write this shit for me, not you. I just hope you like it anyway.
One more thing: There’s only one thing worse than rejection and that’s completely ignoring the work or the writer. This is true in the submission world and the reading and book signing world. If you see us sitting at a table of our books, don’t walk past because you don’t plan on buying a book. Come say hi—we’re an intensely lonely bunch of people. And besides, someone else might come over if you’re standing there and that person won’t feel pressured since I’ll be talking to you.
Writers write because somewhere deep inside is a deeply-seeded need to scream, “Holy Shit! Did you SEE that??!!” but we don’t want to get arrested.
At the end of the day we usually head to the river to take pictures of the setting sun, but often that depends upon the sky. A “blank” sky usually means we won’t get any good shots. We’ll go anyway, to stand on the sandbar just off the rocks where we can look west well up river under the Lower Rappahannock River Bridge—the Norris Bridge—up toward Urbanna; but also we can turn around in our tracks and look straight out into the Chesapeake Bay and its twenty-mile span to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
On that same spot we stand every Fourth of July to watch fireworks from a half dozen locales: someone in White Stone just across the river, someone near Hummel Airstrip, probably at Grey’s Campground, just up river at the foot of the bridge, someone across from there which must be the Tides Inn in Irvington, someone else in Deltaville, though those are harder to view as it is down river on our bank, and the houses are in the way, and finally someone across from the Stingray, out on Windmill Point, which just might be the best place for such celebrations for its isolation yet visibility.
From this same spot we stand, as we will this week, and face across Windmill Point to the northeast and look further across the bay, across where—if we could see it—sits Tangier Island, then further still, and out there somewhere we can watch the rocket launches at Wallops Island. They have done a few during the day but mostly at night, and we see a white flash that stays lit for a few moments out across the bay, and then a red spear of fire—not the rocket, the sky is too dark to see the rocket—but the burn we can see as it rises and pushes the payload into the night sky and heads southeast until it just disappears, gone, like someone turns it off, but instead it has left the earth’s atmosphere.
We went down once to watch a launch thinking it would be the two of us but a dozen or more people showed up with binoculars and chairs and we all talked about the weather and the water conditions and the sky and what planet that is and what star that might be, and it was all friendly, some of the people, like Michael, having lived here their entire lives, and others, like me, who have made it home but will always be a “come lately.” Eventually, someone started to count and while we reach zero often a few minutes before the control tower out on Wallops does, at some point they do, and the white blast and red beam of fire commences, rises, then disappears. And we all head home, quietly.
On this strip of sand we stand when the sun is still high or earlier, when it is low in the east, and while I take pictures of the break in the clouds which turn the rays yellow or streaks of blue, Michael finds strips of color on the water, like someone laid long peels of various colored material on the water, and they float, lifting and bending with the current and the wind, and he find just the right angle of light and depth of water and picks that moment to isolate for us forever, though that moment itself with those colors and textures is gone.
Sometimes I come alone and work things out. I stood here when I left my job of thirty years which coincided with other drastic changes in my life and I watched the same sky turn royal blue and then dark blue giving way to something like crimson, and only then was I okay. And when Dad died, and long before that, when I drove home from school that Tuesday afternoon that September 11th, I got home and walked to the river and noticed out across the bay which always has jets flying north or south so far up you can’t hear them but you can see the gleam, that day there were none, and it was obvious, and I wondered here on the sand as the September water swirled around my calves if we were under attack and I had spent the last of my afternoons I ever would at the river.
It would be romantic to say I come here to write, or at least work out something I’m working on, but I don’t, not usually. Sometimes a digression will cross my mind, but more often than not I’m thinking about some old friend who I don’t hear from nearly enough, or some relative who I’d love to spend time with.
I’m rarely alone. Blue herons and white egrets and countless osprey and eagles and kingfishers and cormorants and gulls live here. Geese pass through and indigo buntings. Dolphin have made their way up into this part of the river from the bay, and quite often stingrays, which gave this area its name for the legend that while swimming in these waters, John Smith in the early sixteen hundreds was stung by a stingray. A few have washed up on the beach, hit by a boat or tangled in plastic. And a few times loggerhead turtles show up, though that’s rare and more often on the sands at the bay than here on the river.
Like anywhere else, at night the river seems smaller, people across the mile and a half wide river seem like they’re next door, and I can almost hear their conversations as they sit on their Adirondack chairs on the bluffs looking over the Rappahannock and stare out to the bay. I can see lights of cars and trucks crossing the sky-blue bridge, but I can’t hear them, not at all. In the mornings the low rumbling of the diesel engines of fishing boats head out from Mill Creek and further up to fill their hold with a catch or check the traps for the famous and delicious Chesapeake blue crab. I see these men in 711 when I’m heading out for the day and I stop to get some coffee and they’re there in fishing boots and getting their coffee, coming home for the day. These are hardworking women and men, though mostly guys, and they smell like cigarettes and raw fish and coffee, and I wonder for a moment but then know for sure that I’ve never worked that hard in my life. When I was young I went to the docks at Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach and applied to be a deck hand on a fishing vessel but they only seemed to hire sons and sons of friends. That’s okay though, I still developed a taste for the crabs and bluefish.
Usually we stand on the sand here and just talk, my son and I, about the day, about projects we’re working on, places we’re thinking of going, but, interestingly, not often at all of places we’ve been unless it is relevant to what’s next. We’ve done okay staying in step with where we are and where we are going. We want to go back to Spain, or cross Canada, or back to St Petersburg, we talked about going to Mt Fuji with a friend and his son, and we talked about going to Brooklyn. We talk about what movies we might watch or what we read that day in the news. It is a good place to let the anxiety of life drift off with the bay breeze and just, well, just settle down a bit, let things be still for a little while, here on the river.
I’ve always lived near water. As a child it was the Connetquot River and the Great South Bay of Long Island, and in high school the Lynnhaven River and this very Chesapeake, about seventy-five nautical miles southeast. Even at college I spent most of my time walking along the Allegheny River or some weekends out at Lake Chautauqua. I know there’s science about the percentage of water we are as humans and the percentage of water on the planet and how much of it is potable and how much of it is wasted, but that’s research for someone else. I just like how it feels when it rolls past my calves. I’ve stood in rivers on four continents, and always it is the way the water pushes past my calves that I remember most, and the tug of the riverbed on the soles of my feet.
I wore a t-shirt this morning from an organization which has zero tolerance for animal snares–Painted Dog Conservation. I drove to 711.
(Reminder: I live I very rural Virginia where wildlife and Trump signs are common)
A few men always gather near the coffee counter to talk; it is a routine. Their trucks idle outside and they wear camouflage clothing even when they’re just headed to the store. Ironically, they really do blend in here, especially near the shelves of chips and display of NASCAR paraphernalia.
One of the two noticed my shirt. I was not part of this conversation; just the catalyst:
“Yeah I gotta get rid of my snares.”
“Ain’t using them?”
“Nah. They’re not good. They snap the legs right off the turkey and the damn things get far enough to die where I can’t find them.”
“I saw me some snares got grippers electronically hooked up to know how much to grab to hold them without snapping off the best part.”
“I heard of them. I sure did, down at that show in Richmond.”
“That’s where I saw ’em. They got a device will text me when the snaresnaps.”
“Ain’t cheap I’m betting you.”
“Forty or so.”
“Ain’t bad. I’ll have to get some.”
They sipped their coffee. One asked how I was doing and that he liked my shirt. I honestly think he believed the shirt promotes snares. Though to be fair, I moved through swiftly, snaking around the men not in line and not getting coffee, the ones just, well, standing.
One guy to the other guy:
“You ready for deer?”
“Almost. I needs me new collars for the dogs. Something with better range so I can track them right to the kill. I shot me one last year made it a mile before he collapsed. Damn dog collars were out of range and I had to hike out there looking. It was pouring out, like today.”
“Can’t wait to go huntin.”
“Yeah, me too.”
I opened the door to leave and I wished them a good day but they asked me how I liked the snares and what kind I used. Now, when I’m in situations like this I can’t help but feel uncomfortable. I don’t hunt, trap, snare, or in any way harm animals, and I don’t know if that’s because I grew up listening to folk music or because when I was young I fed a deer in Heckscher State Park, but I knew immediately I had nothing constructive to add to the conversation. Instead, I wanted to say that I understand the appeal, the up-before-the-dawn draw of it all, the crouching in nature, rain dripping down my back, or the slick leaves beneath my feet in the quiet stillness of the wilderness when a deer lights out from the brush and stares at me. I get it, but I don’t hunt, and I didn’t know how to tell them about Thoreau and the idea that “many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it’s not the fish they are after.” Instead, I wished them a good day.
“Yeah, you too. See ya out there, brother!” one said. I walked to my car drinking my coffee and eating my empenadas. If you get there early the small breakfast bites are fresh and hot, and the clerk will pick out the ones which are most plump. Three for a dollar.
The conversation on NPR and other media outlets in respect to students missing out on a real “college experience” has focused on how Covid-19 has forced more long-distance education, zoom lectures, hybrid courses, and only the occasional face to face teaching/learning many students and faculty are familiar with and prefer.
The fear is that they’re missing out on the campus-life activities, the nighttime routine with classmates and dormmates and frat and sorority mates. There’s a severe lack of mating as a result of this pandemic and the subsequent downsizing of schools, and everyone is upset about it.
It’s true. I loved my professors when I was in college, and as a journalism major I appreciated the small group of peers I met in class and became friends with for four years, in and out of class, in and out of each other’s lives, stopping to talk when crossing campus or in the Rathskeller, packed in like sheep, bodies pressed together, beers held over our heads because there was no room in front of us, eyeglasses steamed up, music—Springsteen and Joel—blaring from the dj booth, tables packed with students playing drinking games and ordering wings and two dollar (not kidding) pitchers of beer.
We talked to each other all the time, I mean all of the time. We were in the hallways of the dorm, packed into each other’s rooms, tight around café tables with eight, nine, or ten chairs at a table for four, everyone talking at once, heading to or from classes, spending five minutes to make plans and say goodbye to people we would inevitably see that evening, or before. This went beyond friendship—we were tight, family, we lived together, ate together, showered, peed, and played together, we moved in groups and just about everyone knew just about everyone else.
So when the conversations center on students missing out on campus life, I have two thoughts—first, yeah, they are, and that is the best part of college. We spent fifteen hours a week, tops, in the classroom, and absolutely all of the rest of our time with these people, doing these things, road trips on weekends, floor parties, groups of us moving like a pack of wolves down the road, laughing and talking, crossing to the local pizza place, running into another pack of wolves where we stayed until closing, and then kept the momentum back to the dorm. Dawn came hard more than a few nights. Yeah, missing out on campus life—I get it.
Except (you had to see the “however” aspect coming, right?):
A chasm exists between the campus life of the current coed and the way it was when we were in college. This is not about being old now; this is about changes—real changes—which changed the experience of dorm life to more often match the home routine than anything new being out on their own, back when all ties to high school and parents had been cut completely until the next vacation.
Most notably, back then we had no technology. Personal computers didn’t exist yet and the only phones available to students were the pay phones—one on a floor for ninety people. If anyone called, which wasn’t likely since getting through to an actual student was always a challenge, someone would answer and be summoned to fetch the student from a room. If that person decided to do so, there was no guarantee they didn’t let the phone dangle and go back to bed, but if they decided to find the floormate, that person might not even be around. So communication was intensely limited. No cell phones existed, and the only televisions were in the lobby of the dorm, usually only on when a sporting event was on or if it was raining out. The campus lawns were crowded with people playing ball, reading, and just hanging out. We talked to each other because each other was all we had. No connection existed to friends from high school or before unless one of them happened to go to the same college. You were adults now, and everything before that was set aside for what comes next, which as it turns out was way more fun than anything that came before that.
No video games, no “online” anything. And we had more expendable money to spend on the two dollar pitchers of beer because we had no cell phone bills, no Starbucks (coffee was in the cafeteria), no laptops or desktops or computers at all to spend money on, hardly anyone had a car so we hung out or hitched to somewhere. I’m not talking about a primitive lifestyle absent of luxuries. It’s just that we were focused on each other and absolutely nothing else.
Just three vocabulary words which didn’t exist back then:
Cell phone (except for Captain Kirk but it was called a communicator)
Laptop (for this you had to go to a strip club)
Online (completely non-existent phrase…in line comes close but involves waiting more than anything else)
My point isn’t to demonstrate how old I am, or how things have changed, though I am and they have. My issue is with the “college experience” which should not involve late night texting with junior high school friends, or a room full of people (as is common in my classrooms before I arrive to start class) and NO ONE is saying a word to each other but are deeply engrossed in their phones.
I will say this about what used to be: we got to know each other, we talked and laughed and planned and grew close.
So close, in fact, that thirty-seven years out of college and those people are still my brothers and sisters, my confidants, and are the people who “can see where you are but they know where you’ve been.” This way of connecting to others was losing ground for years before the pandemic, and students today stay tethered far too long to high school ways.
The college experience as so many of us knew it died long before classes went online, and it is a shame because it was from that experience I learned how to love beyond my family, to share, to compromise and sacrifice, to confide in people.
I was on campus only a few weeks freshman year when one Friday night about two am the floor was loud with laughter and stereos and people getting to know each other, so I walked to another building where it was quiet and just a couch was there. And a guitar. I picked it up to play and a young woman walked in and told me to keep playing. Until six in the morning we played and sang songs, told stories, laughed, and others joined in so that what I was escaping in the dorm after several hours of partaking in that lifestyle, I inadvertently recreated there; and that type scene played out every night all over campus for four years. That’s college life.
That’s what they’re missing. That’s what’s missing from their lives—being on their own without calling home or old friends, not spending hours at the coffeeshop online, not holed up in some corner watching Netflix.
Two years ago a close friend of mine now who I knew forty years ago met on campus in western New York. We walked around noting how much had stayed the same and what had changed, which, visually, wasn’t a whole lot. But we both noted one major significant difference. It was mid-week around lunchtime when we walked across campus, and maybe, MAYBE, we saw a half-dozen students on what was a beautiful, clear day. During our tenure the paths and benches and lawns would be packed with people and a five-minute walk would take twenty for all the conversations you’d have along the way. We saw six students. We said something to a quiet, wandering worker who told us this was pretty normal. “Yeah, they’re all in their rooms.”
But no music flowed from the windows; no groups of guys stood in the doorway. They were all in their rooms. That’s not a college experience. It’s just not.
When this is over, I hope students move back into the dorms, wander down the hall or out into the common areas, and get to know each other without the umbilical still attached through WiFi to what they left home for to begin with. “Look around you” I’d like to tell them. “If you get to know these people now, you’ll be closer than ever when you’re sixty.”
It’s easy to swirl and drift and fade and cry and lose focus when you wake up at three am and it seems like nothing, really nothing at all, can convince you the path you are on is even remotely the correct one, and sometimes it feels like all the decisions you’ve made were just wrong, simply wrong, and there is no escape, no way to rationalize your way out of it, especially at three am, and the plans you had are hazy now, the hopes you had are in pieces, and even sleep is not helping.
Yeah, that feeling. Me too.
So I made a “Reminder Page” to help me recall and look forward to the amazing people in my life, the ones I love beyond love, the ones who keep me going, the ones when I was young, the ones who are gone, and the ones here now, the ones I will see again soon or someday, and we will laugh, because before those times in these photos, not long ago and longer ago than that, it was three am and I couldn’t sleep and no medicine, no pep talk, nothing was going to make it feel right, and look–I mean just look–at the beautiful people who met me after that for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and we laughed, oh my, we laughed.
and we had the time of our lives.
“For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while”
Thank you for sharing this pilgrimage with me
(it helps now if you scroll to the bottom and play Green Day and listen while looking at pictures…just saying)
I had an amazing dog—Sandy—a golden retriever/collie mix who never knew how to bark and had the attitude of Snoopy. When I’d throw a stick or a ball, he’d sit next to me and look up as if to say, “Well….now it’s over there.” We spent a lot of time at a state park in Virginia Beach and along the ocean. He’d run full speed down the sand but wouldn’t get anywhere near the water. This was right after Jaws came out and he would sit on the sand next to me, panting hard from running for an hour, and then look out at the ocean and say, “No, no way. Remember what happened to that black lab in Jaws? Gone. No.” Sandy was gentle. He would lay in the grass in the yard, and when two ducks waddled from the river to the patio, he would simply raise his head, sigh, and go back to sleep. Perhaps the scariest time happened when I was away at college. He ran out onto a frozen river and fell through the ice. Neighbors called to tell my parents that our dog was paddling in circles unable to claw back onto the surface. Thank God my brother happened to be around at the time, and he dragged the canoe over and paddled out, breaking the ice with the oar, and saved Sandy’s life.
All these decades later I still miss Sandy. He seemed more human than canine.
Scientists have discovered that the first animal we would call a dog lived about 32,000 years ago in Belgium and lived off a diet of mostly horse, musk ox, and reindeer, not as random kills but table scraps from their masters’ hunts. The dog resembled a Siberian Husky but closer to the size of an Old English Sheepdog. They must have been man’s best friend even then since the tools and jewelry were often depicted with dogs. Paleolithic footprints of children next to paw prints indicate the whole pet thing came about 26,000 years ago when the pooch would accompany his pal on hikes in caves or on narrow mountain trails, as protection against wildlife, perhaps.
One significant difference from today’s dogs–when they died, they became food. Today we bury dogs in pet cemeteries, backyards; we cremate them and build monuments. Schnauzers mostly die from kidney disease; when Great Danes die young it’s often from intestinal diseases; Goldens and Dobermans often get cancer. Larger dogs commonly have hip or joint issues prior to death. Heart disease is common. However, freezing your ass off in a rampaging creek bed during a deluge is surprisingly unusual, but it has happened. At least once.
I knew a couple when I was at Penn State, Ricki and George, who owned a manor house on a few hundred acres in central Pennsylvania and a penthouse in New York. Whenever they went to New York they called me to watch their house and take care of their dog. I’d stay at the estate and fill the birdfeeders, answer the phone and basically be there so burglars wouldn’t bother. Mostly, I’d feed and take care of their Old English Sheep Dog, Dilly Dally. Dilly Dally was an old Old English sheepdog, about sixteen. She mostly lived in the house but had her own large digs with a heated doghouse not far from the patio. She was Ricki’s, and Ricki made no apologies for spoiling the dog she raised from a puppy. When they first asked me to watch Dilly Dally, Ricki was insistent I dedicate my full attention to her furry child. No writing while Dilly Dally was awake. No talking on the phone unless the old dog was asleep in her house. No daunting about watching movies or listening to albums while darling little Dilly Dally wanted attention. That’s what Ricki called her, “My darling little Dilly Dally.” I called her Dildo; she still came when I yelled for her. They paid me well, left me full run of the house, and their only request was I took good care of their only child. Actually, Ricki expected that; George really couldn’t care less. Ricki wanted her pampered until she returned; George simply wanted her alive.
But one November I stayed at the estate for ten days, and one night it rained. I put on a raincoat and checked on Dildo and she was comfortably asleep and dry in her heated estate house, so I returned inside. But by midnight, the temperature had dropped to the mid-thirties and the rain hit hard. I was in the brick-floored den cooking tuna kabobs on the indoor fire pit, listening to music. Eventually I noticed the torrent, and when I walked out on the covered porch and looked toward the pen, I couldn’t see Dilly Dally. I called a few times but nothing. Finally I put the raingear back on and headed to the doghouse. She wasn’t there. Dilly Dally had disappeared. Damn.
I hiked about the house in fading concentric circles, moving up the trails, in the ditch that ran along the road and then out in the road past the thousand feet drive. I headed up the trails she’d walk with me in the morning as I filled birdfeeders and checked the property for problems. Everything flooded, the creeks ran rapid, and though it was the type of downpour one expects can’t possibly last long at that pace, this one did, for hours and hours. Rain fell like a stalled tropical storm, and I couldn’t find the geriatric Dilly Dally anywhere. At two am I called a friend to come help me look. Brian and I scoured the property in the pouring rain for another few hours. Eventually we settled back into the den, restarted the fire pit, and at about four in the morning cracked open some of George’s beer. We figured she’d show up in the morning, drenched and smelly like us. She didn’t.
Several creeks meandered through the estate property and ran full during the spring thaw and after autumn’s heavy rains. The night of the storm found the creek careening over its banks and rushing past trees and small creek bridges. I walked about at six am and pulled sticks and fallen branches off of birdhouses and birdbaths, and when I paused on a small bridge which led back to the yard near the house, I heard whimpering. The water flow made it difficult to determine from which direction the cries came, but it didn’t take long to know it was certainly the weak sounds of an animal. I focused past the prevalent pounding of water and found Dildo beneath the bridge, against the side of the creek bed, half her torso beneath the rushing icy November water.
Old English sheep dogs are heavy, particularly when the back half of one is frozen solid and sits like dead weight. I wrapped my arms around her waist-like part of her body and while she kind of pulled at the creek-bed with her front paws, I carried the rest. We fell several times and my foot kept slipping and a few times I went completely in the creek. I had to sit on the bank and slide down into the water at her head, but when I did I dislodged the poor girl’s only grip and we both dropped into the middle of the water. At that point I simply pulled Dilly Dally away from the shore and floated her down creek to a bend beyond the bridge and heaved her again by holding her hind legs and rolled her onto the soaking ground. I picked her up from behind while she dragged herself with her front paws, and we made it to the patio and eventually inside the den where I collapsed onto the brick floor. I moved her to the fire pit and lit a fire for us both. She shivered with some dog version of hypothermia and threw up on the bricks.
I grabbed a stack of towels from the bathroom and covered her up while drying her off. As I rubbed she licked my hands, though her eyes were little more than slivers. Dilly turned her head toward me as if to say, “Sorry. What now?” I called the vet and left a message for an emergency call back. I pet Dilly’s head and got her a biscuit but she couldn’t eat.
The phone rang as Dilly Dally rested.
“Hi Bob it’s Ricki!”
“Is it too early to call? We’re at Penn Station and I wanted to call before we boarded. We need to stop at the store on the way home from the train station there. Does my girl need anything? Food? A new toy?”
“You know, probably not, Ricki.” I had about five or six hours max.
I dried Dilly Dally a bit more with a towel, but her eyes kept closing and once in awhile I would lift her hind end to make her stand but she’d just fall each time, paralyzed; the poor girl was frozen, her legs numb.
She took a deep breath and wheezed but not loud enough to be heard.
I no sooner hung up with Ricki when the phone rang and it was the vet. I told him the whole tale. He hung up to head over.
They kept a book about the care of Old English Sheepdogs on the corner shelf and I lay on my back next to Dilly and read to her. “Let’s see what it says about a frozen ass, shall we? Hmmm. Nothing. But, it does say you like to be the center of attention and if you get enough you’re friendly and loving but if you don’t you get a negative temperament and your health deteriorates.” I looked at Dildo who rolled her eyes toward me. “Says you won’t bark a warning if something is wrong, but it also says you’re extremely devoted.” She looked at me again as if to say, Well, that’s true.
“Says you’re a good herder, especially of sheep. Says you’re good with kids. Says you love to play and frolic.” I stared at the poor girl a long time and told her, “Well, you’ve got two old owners, no kids and no sheep.” She put her head down and sighed. “Yeah, sucks,” I said. Her hind had stopped shivering but when I poked her harder low down, she didn’t flinch.
The vet pulled in and after a brief examination he said he’d take her with her. “You going to be able to help her when you get to the office?” I asked as we lifted Dilly Dally into his van. “I’m not so sure, Bob” he said, discouragingly. “She’s old and this isn’t her first retreat into the creek. Does Ricki know what happened?”
“No, but she gets in later today.”
I don’t know if he said or I thought he said, “Well you killed her dog she had for almost two decades, asshole,” but that was floating in the air as he drove off.
About an hour later Dilly Dally died.
After I hung up with the vet, I walked alone filling the birdfeeders. I swear some birds seemed surprised Dilly Dally wasn’t there. Cardinals, house wrens, finches, titmouse all flew to the feeders after I’d moved on to another. The woods were wet, still swamped from the storm, but fresh. I could see my breath and the sky was blue and clear. Earlier reports indicated snow that night, but it didn’t seem so now. I finished the trails and walked to the house.
That afternoon, the car came down the driveway. Ricki and George pulled to the far side since my car faced out closest to the house, and Ricki headed immediately to the pen area. George came to me and asked how things were going while Ricki peered into the heated doghouse. She walked toward the other side of the house near the gazebo where Dilly Dally would sometimes linger on sunny afternoons.
“George. Dilly Dally’s dead.”
“She’s at the vet.”
He spoke in a hard whisper. “What happened?”
I told him everything, after which he thought quietly then said, “Ah, you know during bad storms she always hides under that bridge.”
“That’s important information, George!” I said. “I probably should have known that.”
He touched my arm and apologized to me, which threw me, of course, since the dog died on my watch. “Bob,” he said, looking back toward Ricki, “You might want to go home now. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Not everyone is good with dogs.
Some guy in British Columbia ventured out one morning to find his dog frozen inside a block of ice shaped like a rubber bin on his front lawn. The dog is standing looking forward, like the ice age hit him without warning. The man was arrested for animal cruelty. In Wisconsin some poor overweight Border Collie lay on a sidewalk in front of his home and froze there for several days. He was okay, but animal rescuers poured warm water on him to free him from the cement. When the owner was told what happened, he said he wondered why he hadn’t moved from the same spot for a while. He was arrested. The dog lived because he happened to be obese and the fat saved him.
Ricki called me the next week and said the vet told her Dilly dying anyway, and she would have been suffering quite soon. She said they had decided to head back to Manhattan to avoid the quiet there without her Dilly Dally but asked if I’d please stay for a few weeks to simply watch the place.
I did, and each morning I’d walk the trails to fill the feeders, and I’d stand in the morning cold and listen to the quiet, but it was simply too quiet, absent of the small shake of her collar, the click of her nails on the patio.
But that’s not the point. And the dog dying isn’t the point either. The point is Brian. The moral is companionship and trust. I called him well past midnight and he got up, drove the half-hour in pouring rain through hilly country roads to the house and then walked about in a storm looking for a dog which not only wasn’t his, it wasn’t even mine.
I have friends like this. I know people like this, people who will not only give you the proverbial shirt off of their backs but have consistently made me want to try and be a better person. I’ve been lucky throughout my life to have friends like this.
I saw Brian recently and as soon as we met again after nearly fifteen years, it was as if I saw him the day before. True friends are like that; it’s very doglike. The real friends, the kind that know who you are and the ones to whom you can’t make excuses about anything because they know you too well—those friends—as the years go by and time rolls like water under a bridge, they’re all we have.
They’re all we need.
My close friends live too far for such a swift journey as this pilgrimage we find ourselves on. They’re 800 miles west. 300 miles north. 600 miles south. Maybe that’s why we get attached to our dogs. They’re there when we get home, waiting, panting. Sure, it’s food and a walk they’re after, but still. Their love for us is unwavering. They don’t care about what mistakes we have made; the don’t give up on us. Ever. True friends–both canine and human–keep us going.