A Place For Dogs

I’m convinced nobody around here knows what love is. That’s probably one reason my Jerry doesn’t come to see me anymore, though more likely it’s because he hates old person smell.

They have a big sign here that says no pets, right in the foyer. Linda didn’t say she’d talked to the people in charge about Missy. Bright Futures is one of the best long-term care facilities, Mama, was all she said.

Not a word about dogs, so how was I to know.

Thing is, people don’t listen to one another these days, and it comes of the young  thinking they know better when they don’t. For instance, I said to Linda, When your daddy dies I want to keep things in the house like they are. I’m not one of those women who can’t stand to see her husband’s clothes hanging in the closet without a body to put them on. But, wouldn’t you know, after Jerry passed Linda came right in my front door with two ladies from church, and all three set to clearing out Jerry’s closet.

Don’t touch those things, I said, so they could all hear. But Linda bent close and said, Now, Mama, you know Daddy wouldn’t want you to hang on to his clothes. He’d want you to move on. Remember he said that?

Linda thinks she knows better than I do, and nothing galls a mother more than for her child to act superior. My own mother claimed I did it to her. Then again, that was a special case because my mother got to where she was half-crazy.

My daughter thinks because I fell, my mind is slipping, too. Well, it isn’t. I’m sharper than a double-edged sword, as the Bible says. It also says ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I do not feel honored these days, I can tell you.

After the funeral, the house felt like the inside of an old shoebox. There were still a few photos of Jerry on the pump organ, his cigar case over by the fireplace, things like that. But most of him had been cleared out. Linda and I had some words over the situation, and she ended up crying, but it seemed like things would blow over like they usually do.

It turns out we still weren’t speaking a week later, so I knew something must be wrong when she came by the house anyway. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which was strange because Linda has to work at a garden center to put her kids through college, and she’s never available during the day. (Her husband is a professor at the university, and they pay him peanuts. I asked her one time if she didn’t think that was ironic).

Anyway, there she was. I could feel her thinking behind my chair, and I waited for her to come out with it while I watched my midday stories.

“Mama, I know you’re upset with me and I can understand that. I just want you to hear me out, okay?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got nothing but time and empty space now, Linda, so say what you need to say.”

“Now that Daddy’s gone, we need to decide whether to have in-home nurses stay with you or have you…go to another kind of home.”

I twisted around to look at her. I could feel my blood pressure.

“Are you saying send me to a nursing home where idiots drool in front of Wheel of Fortune every damn day?”

“Not a nursing home. More like an apartment where they do your meals for you and provide entertainment. Bingo and checkers, the lady said.”

“’The lady said?’ Do you mean to tell me you’ve already talked to somebody without asking me first?”

“I’m asking now,” she said. “I did a little research so I could have all the facts for you. I know how you like your facts.”

Something I’ve learned over the years: Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. For instance, I did not, at that moment, mention to Linda that she’s clearly picked up weight and that I have no reason to trust a person who cannot keep up with her calories to help me find an apartment, daughter or no.

“Let me tell you something,” I said, “I appreciate you trying to help, but I will not be moving from this house. It’s mine and your daddy’s and it will stay that way. Besides, what will I do with Missy? Do they let dogs into those apartments? No, I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

“We’ll need to have somebody come out here and stay, then. Somebody to cook for you, do a little cleaning, make sure you’re getting your medication on time. There’s no shame in it.” She rubbed her forehead. “Insurance will pay.”

“Well, I don’t mind having a maid, if it’ll make you feel better,” I said. “I always had a cleaning lady when you and Doug were little, if you’ll remember. As long

as she stays out of my personal business, I think we’ll be fine.”

I meant that. I really did.

The maid showed up a week later. Her name was Tanya, pronounced Tan-ya, like the color. I guess she’d lived a beat-down life, as mother used to say. She wore a dingy nurse’s uniform, a faded blue cotton dress with questionable stains above the right breast and knee. She’d poured herself into that flimsy costume and she, and it, smelled like cigarettes. She told me right away that she’d need to take several breaks throughout the day. She looked down at Missy without smiling.

“This your dog?”

“Why, yes. This is Missy. She’s old but sweet.” I patted my leg and the dog jumped into my chair, precious thing.

“She bite?”

“Only if she needs to,” I said.

“Well, I cain’t be worried about it, or I won’t be able to do my job.” She took a little step back.

“And what is your job, exactly?”

“Help you get along.”

It was hardly my fault that Tanya turned out to be an ignorant lump that cared more about sneaking miniature pecan pies from my pantry than tending to her duties. I’m a fair woman and I didn’t expect miracles out of her. But I did expect her to clean the house once a week and to stay awake while I watch my shows. And I requested a hot lunch instead of sandwiches every day which, I felt, was only reasonable. I can make my own self a cold lunch, even in this chair.

But you know how people are, trying to get by doing as little as they can. Tanya was no exception. First, she handed me baloney and bread on a paper plate, three days in a row. Then every time I turned around she was either in the bathroom with the fan on, or outside, sucking on a cigarette. She stayed with me nights, too, and I heard her snoring from the guest bedroom, louder than Jerry ever did. All that was bad enough. But when I saw her kick my Missy, well, that was it. I sent her packing.

Linda burst through my front room later that day, hair flying. She’d gotten a call from the home care agency. I’d reported a case of abuse, and she’d come straight from the shop to see about me. I told her Tanya was gone. Had she smacked me, or anything? Worse, I said, she hurt Missy. Everybody knows poodles are sensitive, and my dog cowered for the rest of the day because of that trash.

Linda’s eyebrows got low, then, like she was preparing to give a speech, but I held up my hand before she could get started.

“You made a mistake with that woman, but I’m willing to overlook it,” I said. “She was a sack of nothing, and she stole from me, but it’s in the past. I think we can agree that, from now on, I’m the one ought to be picking out my own help.”

Unfortunately, the next girl was no better than Tanya, even though her references were good. Lynn wasn’t fat, that was something, but I could tell right off she wasn’t a dog person. She never even looked at Missy, and the dog could feel the hate. The poor thing even got to where she raised up her jowls, showing her little crooked teeth, every time that woman came near me.

Then, at lunch, after Lynn had been sulking around the house for five days, things took a turn for the worse. It started with me leaning over my chair to reach for a bit of biscuit that’d fallen on top of my left foot. I’d seen where Missy was fixing to go after it and I drew back to let her have it, like I always do. Well, Lynn saw Missy lunging at my foot, and I guess she thought it was her place to discipline my dog, because she grabbed the poor thing by the back of her neck and tossed her across the kitchen.

She asked was I okay. I was so mad I didn’t answer. I wheeled myself over to where Missy sat shivering and patted my leg. Would you believe she wouldn’t jump in my lap?

I turned around and pointed at the door. “You get out of my house.”

She gathered her things and left, slamming the wall with her overnight bag on her way out. That afternoon Linda called me up on the phone and gave me an earful. Lynn had tattled to headquarters about me, said I treated her poorly. The people at the agency told Linda they could “no longer send home health care workers to my residence.” Home health care workers! Flunkies from the Holiday Inn, more like.

Linda, back at the house.

“We’re out of options, plain and simple,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for you to stay at home anymore.”

“Those girls were awful,” I said. “I never saw Missy bite anybody before, but I did see both of them girls kick her. If she bit, it was to defend herself. I’m not leaving.”

Linda pulled at her face.

“You don’t need to do anything,” I said. “Just go on back to the garden center. They’ll be wondering where you went.”

I pretended to look at something on my left. Nothing uglier than an old woman crying.

“Just for tonight, then, Mama,” Linda said, patting my shoulder. “You’ll call if you need anything?”

I nodded, and she dropped a kiss on top of my head, like I was her little girl.

Jerry visited me later that night, like he does sometimes, and I lay in my bed staring at him from behind my eyelids. If I keep perfectly still I can get him to stay on a little longer. I waited for him to tell me what he’s been up to, or that I should be nicer to Linda, or where I’d put my glasses. But he stayed quiet and looked at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher.

Then it dawned on me I’d forgotten to take my medication. That’s what he was trying to tell me. My pills sat all the way over on the bathroom counter, and I was flat out on the bed. I had no choice but to skip my dose, or haul myself upright and force my legs to get me to my chair.

I woke up the next morning with Linda heaving me on to my bed.

 

“You can’t make me go anywhere I don’t want to go,” I said, panicky, but I knew she could.

“Here.” She handed me a Styrofoam cup with a straw. “Drink something.”

“I’ll tell you what. I know things are hard for you, and you hate to see me like this. What if I get better, and then we can see about having someone else move in with me?”

“We tried, and it didn’t work.” She gave me one of my mother’s looks.

“Then I ask you this,” I said. “Let me get better and take what I want out of my closet without anyone bothering me. Let me have that.” I took a sip of my water like she wanted.

“Fine. When it looks like you can handle it, I’ll let you pack some things by yourself.”

Eight days later, Linda opened a suitcase on my bed, said she’d be back to check up on me in a couple of hours. Missy and I waited at the window until we saw her drive away. With my dog in my lap, I wheeled myself into the kitchen and over to the sink. I opened the cabinet where I keep my cleaning supplies.

Moving still hurt so bad I had to catch my breath, and for a minute I was afraid I might slump over onto the floor. I waited until the room stopped spinning, grabbed a bottle of Drano, and righted myself. I set the bottle on the counter so I could use both hands to love on Missy. She poked my good-for-nothing thighs with her little circus feet, and licked the tears off my cheeks.

“Jerry, honey,” I said, “I don’t know how to go on with however many years I’ve got left. I’d come be with you now if I could, but suicide’s a sin. I don’t expect you to follow me to one of those hospital homes that smell like old men, which is where I’m headed. You never even liked to stay in a motel.”

Missy spread herself across my lap and sighed. I took a second to memorize the weight of her.

“I know you never liked this one much. That was partly her fault, partly yours. But I need you to take care of her while I’m gone. She don’t understand how things are. Anyway, I don’t want you to think bad of me since I’m doing what I have to.”

I scooted to the other side of the sink where a half-empty peanut butter jar sat, lid off. I poured in a little of the Drano and stirred. Missy’s nose shivered at the smell of her favorite treat, and she strained from her perch on my lap even after I thumped her twice.

I stuck the spoon into the jar and pulled up a wet glob. Missy licked the spoon so hard I had to hold it with both hands to keep it from falling. I watched her tongue dart in and out like a party favor, eager for more, more, more. After a minute, she started to tremble. Then she froze and yanked open her mouth like she was trying to yell something but couldn’t.

I dropped the spoon and pulled her close, but she fought me, cut into my legs with her nails. Finally, she lurched forward and collapsed on my lap. I closed my eyes and stroked her till she stopped twitching.

When Linda came back, she found me with a dead dog on my lap, inside a dead house. She didn’t say a word, just looked at Missy, at the peanut butter jar, staring like they were some kind of riddle. When she saw the Drano on the counter her face changed.

“What did you do, you crazy old woman? I had made arrangements.”

I let Linda take the both of us–Missy, first, and then me, without a fuss, because there’s no point in trying to explain anymore. Nobody listens to anyone else. Anyway, soon I’ll get to the place where they let you have dogs.

 

Choosing Which Stories to Tell (And Which Ones to Leave)

As a writer, I can tell my own story, but what if I want to write about someone else’s life, and they don’t want me to? Is that okay?

Recently, I attended a talk by author Ann Patchett where she discussed both her fiction and non-fiction works. She said her friends and family never really “discovered” themselves in her novels, though their shadows haunted her literary landscape. But in her non-fiction? Hoo, boy. People saw themselves, alright. And some of them got mad.

Patchett had to decide how much to tell when she wrote about real people, had to weigh the cost of telling the truth as she saw it. In the end, she’d decided to write no holds barred, and it cost her some relationships.

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Me? I’m not sure it’s okay to write about someone who’s still living without asking permission first. Even if their life affected mine. Even if I I know big things. (There are exceptions. Another topic for another day).

We need more truth in this world, not less. But truth seasoned with love and, often, restraint.

Stories are powerful, and they can be true even when they aren’t. In my novels, I can call things like I see them. I can tell a true story in a way that keeps hurt feelings out of the mix. I can be honest without burning the town down.

This is important because, in the end, writing isn’t ultimate for me. It can’t take the place of flesh and blood people, and it’s often not worth hurting others for. So I’ve decided if I really need to say something sensitive, I’ll put it in the mouth of someone I (kind-of, maybe) made up.

 

Walking the Line

We live in chaotic times.

When it comes to reading fiction, do stressed-out people want an escape from reality to ease their minds? Do they want to see themselves represented on the page? vicariously live out the worst case scenario? fly to fairyland?

Many writers try to tap in to the zeitgeist to give readers what they want. And that’s good if it means they want to use their writing to help people. Or, you know, write books that’ll actually get read.

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The problem is, by the time they find out (and write) “what readers want,” those same readers want something different.

Artists walk the line between understanding readers’ desires and staying true to the stories they need to tell. These aren’t always at odds with one another, but sometimes they are.

So, when push comes to shove, what’s a writer to choose?

Well, you hear different things. But, at the end of the day, I believe writers tell the best stories when they go with their gut. Which is to say, I won’t be writing about zombies or post-Apocalyptic worlds any time soon, not because those kinds of stories are beneath me, but because I’m just not interested in them.

And if I’m not interested in my stories, how can I expect anyone else to be?

What do you think? Should writers be concerned, first and foremost, with what they think readers want?

On Teaching Students (and Myself)

I teach writing to high school students. Yesterday was our first day back to class, and I gave my freshman a little assignment to start things off. Nothing heavy. Just a topic sentence derived from something about which they already know a lot and three sentences that support it.

Everyone knows something about something, I said. You can write about Fortnite.

I could tell within a few minutes which of my students will fight the writing process this year, and which won’t.

That seems a little presumptive, you say. You don’t know them yet.

Right, but–here I go again with my groups–there are two kinds of students : 1). the kind that dive in and try, haltingly, maybe, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing, and 2). the kind that stare at the teacher in mental anguish (or boredom).

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I have compassion for these kids. There was a time when I didn’t because I taught what I wasn’t doing on a daily basis–i.e. staring down a blank page and pushing past the nothing.

Now I know how hard it is.

It’s going to be okay, I want to tell my kids. There is no way out but through. You will learn by doing, by giving yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. It will hurt, but it will make you better.

(You might even like it).

I will say all of those things, and more, probably. Most of my students won’t believe me, and that’s okay. We learn through experience. And, sometimes, we don’t notice the learning because it happens while we’re trying to escape our own weakness.

But it happens.

 

From 40 Years Old, With Love

Two of my kids are enrolled in high school and college at the same time. This wasn’t a thing when I was in school, but it’s all the rage now. Since my oldest only has a driver’s permit, he can’t take his younger brother to their college campus without a licensed driver (read: mom) in the car.

So here I sit on a blue chair in a recently painted hallway, watching college students act bored before class. I feel one million years older than they are and, yet, I’m surprised when they ignore me and my laptop. Because, seriously, I’m as cool as they are, and maybe even cooler. I dress cute, and I dye my hair, so they can’t know how much gray I have.

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But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the window and, yes, okay…

I’m working through edits of my novel, a chapter at a time, while I wait for my sons to get out of class. I may not be young (Are the 80’s back? because that’s what it looks like from this chair), but I know what to do with my time. I know how to be productive.

How many of these kids have no idea what they’re doing in school or life? Which, fine. They have time to figure it out.

But if this saggy face is the price I had to pay for finally figuring out what I want to do when I grow up, and how to do it, I’ll take it.

Yes, my nonchalant kiddies, I’ll take it.

And I hope the same happiness for you, someday.

The End of the Beginning (or the Beginning of the End)

Last night, I finished the first draft of my current novel. After I typed the last words, I hit save, closed my laptop, and stared at my closet doors.

From my writing perch, AKA my bed, I thought about all the hours I’d spent creating this story. It was six months of good/hard//exhausting.

And now it’s time to leave story world and become Ruthless Editor.

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I wanted to do something to celebrate getting over this big hurdle, but I didn’t want to get out of my pajama pants, so I told my husband and kids to get ice cream and live it up without me.

How did I celebrate? By watching an Alfred Hitchcock Hour on YouTube by myself.

And now, to kill my darlings.

A Way Out

Oh, my goodness. Just when I’d made up my mind I needed a couple or three social media accounts in order to build an author platform, Austin Kleon comes along and reminds me why I don’t want to.

The conundrum (and, yes, I know it’s boring to bring up) is that to be a creative with an audience, you have to find people who might benefit from your work. In today’s world, that means finding them online. But to find them, you have to spend time thinking up ways to virtually “connect” on social media when you’d rather be exchanging ideas with an actual person.

And, look, you have to make the connecting feel real. Not too real because that’s weird. But certainly not fake.

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You have to do this while everyone else in the entire world is also connecting in the same giant room, at the same time, and you have to try not to feel too depressed that no one’s listening to anyone else.

It’s like going back to high school, only meaner, plus you will never graduate, and the principal is selling your data.

There’s got to be a better way to find your tribe. I don’t know what that way is. I’m just wanting to believe it exists.

Austin?

 

 

Everything is Story

The Wangs aren’t the kind of people you wave to as you pass their house on the way to yours. Not because you don’t want to wave, but because they turn their backs when you try to make eye contact. They put orange cones at the edge of their driveway, and after they mow their lawn, they use salad tongs to pick up clumps of grass.

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Tonight there are so many police cars and ambulances in front of their perfect yard that we collect on the front porch and squint. The neighbors across the street do the same thing, and we end up congregating.

Mr. Wang was a Taiwanese refugee a long time ago, someone says, but I think they mean immigrant. He got a job with a big factory in town and did pretty well. He and his wife don’t talk to people in the neighborhood except to the lady across the street. They have brilliant kids who didn’t know to roller skate when they were little. They’re grown up and living in California now. One became a doctor, maybe? Anyway, they’re smart.

Mr. Wang had, has? cancer. He’s small to begin with, but now he weighs 98 lbs, a lady says. He still worked in his yard up until two days ago, though he started sitting on a low seat under the Japanese maple a lot and wore a surgical mask.

My husband walks down to the Wangs’ house, though neither one of us has ever so much as said hello to them.

EMT’s carry a gurney out of the house, a tiny shrouded body on it. We can’t tell if the face is covered from where we stand. Someone says he’s gone already. But then the ambulance turns on its siren, and we figure they wouldn’t do that if he was already dead, would they?

When my husband returns, he tells us Mr. Wang had died, that the emergency people broke his sternum trying to get him to breathe again. His chest caves in at a steep angle, but he’s alive, for now.

I helped Mrs. Wang into the ambulance, he says.

This morning, one of the neighbors from last night’s huddle tells us Mr. Wang died again at midnight, but not before he became responsive in the hospital. That’s what he said: became responsive. We imagine him grasping his wife’s hand, telling her it’s okay, to let him go. But we don’t know anything for sure. Or at all, really.

Mrs. Wang is out in her yard exactly five and a half hours after her husband died. It’s trash day, and she moves her cans to the end of the street so the trash man can do his work without walking on her driveway. Then she gets out the salad tongs and cleans up her grass.

And I can’t help but wish I’d said hello before.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Marketing

I sort-of watch my teenagers play video games together. They talk trash while making little square-headed men jump up and down. The ceiling fan goes ninety miles an hour over my head, drying my eyes out as it always does, because our T.V. puts off heat.

As I listen to the kids argue about which avatar is the lamest, I think about the uncomfortable position writers are in now. Gone are the days when an author wrote a book and let a publishing house handle the marketing. Now they’re expected to “promote themselves.”

Promote: to cheerlead for a team made up of oneself.

It turns out, I really don’t want to do it, along with lots of other creative types.

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A book launch guy, a big name who knows what he’s talking about, tried to convince me I should think of marketing as being “relentlessly helpful” instead of salesperson-y.

Thing is, I don’t know how to be relentlessly helpful–to anyone, not even myself.

No matter how you slice it, marketing is saying, “You should pay attention to this thing over here that I made that you should buy.” To a crowded room.

And when everyone is saying the same thing about different things, the room gets loud.

And annoying.

And I don’t want to say any of it.

If it were enough, what I’d say is, I write books I care deeply about and labor over. I want to share them with you.

But I’m not sure that’ll cut it.

These are the things I think through as I watch my kids grow up in our living room.