Issue 213, Summer 2015
Yancey swishes down the dirt road, feet aflutter. The dog has always half hopped, and now that she wears little rubber booties, after two nasty bouts of bacterial infection in her paw pads, her dance-like movements are even more noticeable. This morning she set off on the trail of the wild turkey, who made a hasty exit into the bushes at the sound of the front door opening. I’ve lived here for twenty-four years. Yancey has been with me for the last thirteen. Two years ago she had Lyme disease, but she got good treatment and bounced back. Still, from the way she gets up in the morning, I know her days are numbered. No doubt she’s inspired to rise by the thought of the field that contains more possibilities than any doggy dream. In the field can be found voles, snakes, skunks, possum, raccoons. Just to say their names makes one hiss automatically. Onomatopoeia of the field!
My daughter Ginger and her wife, Stephanie, who goes by the name Étienne, want to take the dog away from me. It’s because I’ve tripped or fallen a couple of times, and once had to wear a soft cast. And because I spend so much time and money having her cared for. They’re distressed that if I can’t get a tick off her on the first pull, I drive her to the vet. I’ve explained that the vet does not charge me for this, but that seems to be the least of the problem. It’s that I’m in the car too often and that my life is “centered around the dog.” God help me if they ever find out Yancey and I sometimes split a microwaved chicken burrito for dinner. I wash it down with a glass of white wine, Yancey with a small bowl of milk.
Don’t worry: I do have a topic of conversation other than the dog.
I’m going to tell you something funny—if anyone thinks anything about the IRS might be even remotely funny. It’s that they sent someone to the house to look at the room I use for writing poetry. They did not believe, from the photographs my accountant sent, that the door was really on hinges and that the room had no other use. We weren’t lying. The room—which used to be the little sewing room of the lady we bought the house from, which I used for storage before I decided I didn’t need anything that was stored there and gave it all away—contains my desk, with a typewriter and the usual things that one has on one’s desk, such as a bowl of paper clips and a jar of pens. There’s a kilim with excessive knotted fringe that’s faded horribly in the sunlight. There are bookshelves filled with poetry, essays, criticism, et cetera. The broken fax machine sits on a little stool that also holds the orchid from what used to be the big greenhouse in town, until the owner’s wife left him and he moved away to Tampa. Ginger maintains that I overwater it. The low light and the cold will kill it. And it isn’t helped by Yancey pouncing on it, mistaking it, with her blurred vision, for her favorite toy, which is a squeaking Ed Grimley doll.
The man from the IRS was nice. He helped me push up a storm window and lower the screen, and he stood by while I vacuumed up dead flies. From his posture, I suspected he’d been to military school, or at least in the service, and I turned out to be right. He’d gone to VMI, he told me. We talked a little about Lexington, a Southern town we both liked. He was probably used to people trying to get on his good side, but when you have anything as real as a small Southern town between you, a few words of reminiscence aren’t likely to be mistaken for buttering up.
He admired the framed Audubon prints on the wall going up the stairs. I pointed to the black half circle below them, which he’d been kind enough not to mention. It got there because my husband, who drank, took a fall one night and went over backward, the rubber sole of his shoe scraping a near-perfect arc underneath the prints. The fall didn’t kill him, though driving into a tree did. Anyway, I told my visitor about the mark on the wall before we got to the landing. I had him precede me because I don’t bound up the stairs anymore. “But you do use your room regularly,” he said. I thought he was perhaps speaking sympathetically, cuing me. I use it every day, so agreeing was only telling the truth.
He saw that the door was on the hinges. That even the small closet held typing paper and a file drawer filled with rough drafts, not clothes. He admired the rug, which pleased me. He seemed like a genuine person, if you know what I mean. Yancey clicked along beside us, with her long toenails that the vet kept urging me to let her cut, though I know Yancey hates it so much, I’ve demurred. The IRS man said that his wife had a poodle that had been run over by a truck. Whether it was a standard poodle or one of those little things, he didn’t say. I told him I was sorry and waited for a signal we might leave the room. He took a few steps forward and looked out the window. Below, the white lilacs were blooming. He said, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d!” It crossed my mind that he might be testing. Of course I knew who wrote the poem. I wasn’t, for example, pretending that my husband’s office was mine, to continue to take the deduction after his death. So I said the poet’s name. Then we stood there a bit longer.
“You know, this is a peaceful, functional room,” he said. “More people should have a sanctuary like this. It must bring you pleasure to walk into this room.”
I’d been warned by the accountant to volunteer as little as possible, so I just said, “Yes, it does.”
“Not even a desk phone. A room for uninterrupted time.”
I nodded. That was entirely right. There was a phone in the kitchen and an extension phone in the bedroom that Étienne called “an antique.” She’d told me more than once that if I wanted to get a new phone, she could get good money for my pale blue Princess phone on eBay. I’m not rich, but I don’t have to sell every small thing I have. I give most of it away or put a few things in my nice young neighbor’s July tag sale. That was not the issue, though. My extension phone was perfectly fine.
“I see that it’s your office,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s certainly just as you said it was. I hope you’re getting good writing done in here. I know you’ve had quite a few poems published in recent years. My daughter is at Sarah Lawrence, and she’s explained to me that poetry writing doesn’t bring in much income. Totally separate from knowing about my seeing you today, I mean. She wants to be a playwright.”
“I think that would be very interesting,” I said sincerely. I tried not to miss any production at Hackmatack Playhouse, in North Berwick, that wasn’t a musical. Musicals I can do without. In the evening, I often listen to classical music in the living room. Yancey is soothed by it. Really, nothing is so lovely as a quietly snoring dog and some evening Brahms, as you sit in a comfortably overstuffed chair with your feet on the footstool.
“My house looks like a tornado hit it!” he said. “Your husband drank? My wife drinks. Our daughter could have had a very good scholarship at a nearby college, but she insisted on going away, and I knew exactly why. Last year when I had my appendix out, my wife forgot to pick me up when I was discharged. I had to get a cab home. And do you know what she was doing that she’d lost track of time? She was having a gin and tonic in the middle of the afternoon, painting our daughter’s bedroom bright yellow, to make it ‘cheerful.’ She just painted whatever area of the wall was available to her. She didn’t move any furniture. She painted around the headboard. It was quite a mess. It made me feel faint, when I saw it.”
I knew this conversation would not be taking place if I’d allowed the accountant to come to the house the same day the man from the IRS came, but I hate it when people stand there like I’m a young, helpless girl again, and that inevitably happens if two people are present, because one of them is bound to feel sorry for you. I’m seventy-seven years old. I’ve had two poems in quarterlies this year, and I received a personal note of rejection from Paul Muldoon, who said he very much liked an allusion I made in section 1 of my poem about Galileo. No one has suggested I’m senile.
“So would you consider leaving your wife and moving into this peaceful home and changing your life?” I asked.
He looked startled. “Leave her?” he said. “I don’t think she’d remember to eat if I wasn’t there.”
“All right,” I said. “So I’m not breaking up your marriage today. Think about it, though. I could use some help walking Yancey at night. In March she got skunked. It was terrible, but there’s nothing you can do. I led her into the house and doused her with tomato juice. It’s happened before, so I had some on hand. Still, I made her sleep in the garage, in her old dog bed. I put an extra blanket over her and had to throw it out later, because three cycles in the washing machine didn’t get rid of the smell.”
We walked downstairs. Yancey waited at the bottom. I knew what she was thinking: field, breeze, sticks, little scurrying animals. We all forget the painful parts. The tomato juice.
“I’ve never before had someone invite me to move in!” he exclaimed as he picked up his jacket from the banister. “I thank you for that. And I wish you good luck with your writing. It was a pleasure to see the lovely room you write in.”
“My daughter and her wife drive me crazy, and you would have been good protection,” I said. “You know how it is when there’s a man around the house. People back down when there’s a manly presence.”
He nodded. He said, “If you were to recommend one book of poetry I should read, what would it be?”
“Do you prefer reading older poetry, or are you interested in new poetry?”
“Let’s say newer. Because I’ve never read recent poetry at all. We subscribe to magazines that print poetry, but I skip over it. I’m an equal-opportunity idiot, I guess you’d say. I don’t read cartoon captions either.”
“Tell me a little about yourself,” I said. “Sentimental? At all mystical? Do you like a poem that tells a story, or a poem that’s more of an enigma?”
“I liked Robert Frost when I was at VMI,” he said. “I think he would have been the most recent poet we read.”
“And I’ll bet they taught you all wrong. I’ll bet they told you ‘The Road Not Taken’ was about making important choices and exhibiting free will, didn’t they?”
“I don’t really remember. I just remember that my roommate got two days in detention because he didn’t memorize it.”
“Are you Facebook friends now?”
“With Hank? No, he’s not on Facebook. He’s in jail in Delaware. For menacing his ex-wife.”
“My daughter’s wife was stalked by her ex-boyfriend. She says there’s no connection between her coming out and his doing that, but you have to wonder. He was an awful man. He slit her tires once. There’s still a restraining order against him, though they’ve heard he went back to Chicago.”
He shook his head slowly, lips pursed.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “He’s not at all like Robert Frost, but I think you might like the poems of James Wright. My favorite poem by him is ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.’ ” I held on to the banister and sat on the step. Yancey settled on her haunches next to me. When was this man ever going to leave, when was the door going to open with a great heave, when would the vole have to race into its hole, the snake take a break, the rabbit hide by habit, eyes bright and ears perked to the crackle of grass?
I cleared my throat. Reciting poetry while sitting was a little like trying to sing when flat on your back in bed, but I wanted him to hear the poem, and I’d been standing long enough.
“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
“Is that really a poem?” he finally said.
“What else would it be?”
“I’ve never heard anything like that. The last line comes out of nowhere.”
“I don’t think so. He could have said that from the beginning, but he gave us the scene so that we’d be seduced, the way he’d been, and then he changed the game on us—on himself—at the last moment.”
“That’s the kind of guy who’d stick a pin in a balloon!” he said. “I mean, thank you very much for reciting that. I’ll get a book of his poetry and write to let you know my reaction.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Any day’s good when you get someone to buy a book of poetry who wouldn’t ordinarily do it.”
“You thought I’d identify with the guy in the hammock,” he said. “And I guess I do, to be honest.”
“Most people who are being honest feel that way at least some of the time, in my experience.”
“I appreciate your asking me to move in,” he said.
I smiled. When he left, when the car had safely backed out of the driveway, I’d clip the leash on Yancey and walk her back to the field, then unclip it and let her loose to sniff out the day’s still-dazzling possibilities. She looked a little kinky in her black booties. And her lovely coat could use a brushing, I saw. No day failed to contain the unexpected. Which I suspect Yancey thought, too, especially because she didn’t quite understand why she couldn’t make a wild dash like a thunderbolt from door to field, why she panted, why she failed to catch anything, why she’d been skunked, in fact.
Startled starlings flew up out of the high grass, their black whorl a little tornado that did not touch down and therefore did no damage. They disappeared like a momentary perception above Yancey’s head, fanning out and flying west. Or like the clotted words crammed into a cartoon bubble. Like one of Ginger’s finger paintings from so, so long ago, brought home for inspection and praise.