Friday, August 9, 2013


Whether it was that this undulating tester rolled the savage away to far distant scenes, I know not; but he now spoke of his native island; and, eager to hear his history, I begged him to go on and tell it.  He gladly complied.  Though at the time I but ill comprehended not a few of his words, yet subsequent disclosures, when I had become more familiar with his broken phraseology, now enable me to present the whole story such as it may prove in the mere skeleton I give.”

My mother has been in the sun for weeks, and it has turned her skin nut brown; she has been taking care of my children, and that has made her tired at the end of the day.  One recent evening, after I put the boys to bed, I went into her bedroom to say goodnight and found her lying under her covers, only her neck and head exposed, her brown head resting in the center of her white pillowcase, deep creases radiating outward.  Her eyes were closed and she was clearly as good as half asleep.  Still, as I stood over her, we began to talk about mice.

There is a mouse in the backyard of my new house.  I know almost exactly where it lives.  When I first saw it, I thought I would have to kill it, that is to say to have it killed.  Then, after sitting at the kitchen table and watching it run around and gather things from the grass, I found that it was cuter than I thought a mouse would be, and became attached to it.  It became harder to imagine causing its death.  But then there would be times when, sitting at the table and watching it run around for ten or fifteen minutes, doing whatever it wanted, I became irritated with its sense of safety and entitlement.  So I sent the dog out twice to chase it, immediately regretting this decision both times, because the dog almost caught it, and I screamed at the dog not to do that, and confused her, and so felt bad about the dog, as well as the mouse. 

I told my mother that now I wonder, when the dog goes out into the back yard, if in fact she is looking for the mouse in a friendly way, and if one day I might look out and find the mouse stretched out beside my dog on the grass, the two of them enjoying each other’s company.

Mom nodded, her eyes still closed, or maybe open, but with heavy lids.  What color is the mouse, she asked, gray or black?  (Gray.)  Mice can be very cute, she said.  She had two white mice as pets when she was young, Herman and Josephine.  They had babies, and she had to decide which of the adults was Herman, so she could take him out before he ate the babies.  She couldn't distinguish physically between the parents, but it was a fifty-fifty chance, and anyway she had gotten it right.  Her older brother John, who wore his hair in a ducktail, had learned to sew so he could taper his pants, and then had sewed pockets on his shirts so he could carry the mice around in them, and bring them to the breakfast table, where they might poke their little heads out during the meal.  But the mice were my mother’s: She had gotten them at least in part in order to perform an experiment she read about in Scientific American, which tested depth perception in rodents.  You built a series of steps that had a clear plate over the top of it, and saw if the mice would go out onto the clear plate, or not.

I asked my mother what her findings had been.

She didn’t remember.  Still sleepy, still just a head, a little sadly, she said: Other people tell stories and they’re complete stories, but I only remember pieces of things. 

I thought for a moment about how rarely my mother tells me stories from her childhood.  I think I can count her stories on one hand.  I said:  It’s the same for everyone; everyone remembers only pieces, and if they put them together into a story then it becomes only that story, no matter what really happened.  She nodded, agreeing.  Then I lay down on the bed with my feet between my parents, so that my father, who had joined my mother there, could scratch my feet while I read.  I have been jet-lagged since I arrived on Nantucket, and that night couldn’t fall asleep until 4:30 in the morning.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Bosom Friend

“How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends.  Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning.  Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair.

David has a stress fracture in his foot, or at least something we call a stress fracture for convenience’s sake—he hurt his foot, but then it was all right, but then it wasn’t, and it hurts to walk on it, but the X-ray didn’t show a fracture per se—and at night he takes a Vicodin before bed, and falls fast asleep.  Also, we’re in a new house, and we have only one bedside table, on his side of the bed, and one small light, on the floor on my side.  So the room is dark.  The dog is unnerved by her new surroundings, and wants to come, every night, up from the first floor into our bed.  Tonight I let her, and she lay her head against my leg.  As I stroked her face her eyelids flickered, her side rose and fell rapidly, and we stared at each other: I said Shhh, Daphne, it’s all right.  Once when Henry was a tiny baby, I took him to a meeting of our childbirth group, the only one we held after everyone’s babies had been born.  It was at the house of a couple who lived outside the city, and I had Henry—we were in Brussels, and no one worried about whether this was dangerous—in his car seat in the front passenger seat next to me, facing backwards.  I looked over at him and he looked at me so meaningfully that I said, What, Henry, what is it?  He stared deep into my eyes and I said, What is it darling, what do you want to tell me?  Then he was asleep.  But that’s not really what I think about when I stroke the dog’s face and she passes, fretfully, into a dream.  I think about the time, three summers ago, when my parents’ dog, Ollie, lay down on the grass outside their house on Nantucket, and we all gathered around him, stroked him and soothed him, until someone went inside and called the vet.  My father and my sister took him in together and then left him with the vet to be euthanized.  You can stay with him, the vet offered, and my father, who had been moved to tears by the end of the dog’s life, declined.  I don’t like pain, but I like feeling something that can’t be separated from pain.  Two days ago I heard a story on the radio about a man who died.  After he died he was lonely, so he packed up his things and went home, and, when he got home, slid into bed with his wife and said, Darling, it’s me.  In the morning he took his children to school.  The author didn’t know how to end the story.  Of course not.  How do you end a story about flickering, inconstant connection?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Sermon

"As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command.  But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, He oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade.  And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists."

"And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is still, as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind."

Our dog Daphne was sick recently.  She vomited eight times, always on a carpet.  It reminded me of how David will never put a spoon on a counter, he likes to put spoons on top of pot-holders.  Or maybe, I thought, scrubbing the carpet, again, it was an aesthetic decision she had made, as if vomit just didn’t look right to her on the bare floor.

By the time she’d vomited four times I knew, even though I had not yet called the vet, that I would have to take her to the vet, and that they would have to x-ray her, and that it would cost $600.

I did it, even though I believed, correctly, that the x-ray wouldn’t show anything, even though I didn’t want to leave my house and my children that night and go out to the vet’s office, where, the last time I was in the waiting room with Daphne, a woman said to me, in the most unfriendly way, I’m passing a kidney stone so could you keep your dog from getting my dog to pull?

A long time ago, before we were married, I made David promise that someday we could get a dog.  I remembered loving the dogs my parents had when we were young.  I remembered calling Molly to me at night, and holding her by the collar so she wouldn’t leave me and go to my sister’s room.

But when we did get the dog I didn’t love her.  And when we moved from New York to San Francisco, and flew Daphne out on an airline, now defunct, that carried pets in the plane’s main cabin, and met her in Los Angeles, and drove her up the Pacific coast road  for three days, and arrived at our new home, and she decided, in her wisdom, that she would not shit on the sidewalk, but only on grass, and for the first few weeks we were there I had either to run her several times a day up the steep hill on Laguna to Lafayette Park, where she would grudgingly shit, or to take her out to one of the trees on our street and yell at her and sometimes cry, while she wouldn’t shit, there—then I wished her dead, I really did.  One day, as Daphne and I entered the park across from John’s school, I threw a ball for her to chase.  Except instead of throwing it into the park, I threw it hard against a tree at the entrance of the park, and it bounced off the tree and into the street, where Daphne was almost run over by a car.

If she had died, my children would have mourned her.  At night, John calls her to his room, and tries to keep her on his bed.  She submits for a minute or two before sliding to the ground and heading for her spot under the piano.  Dogs are not children.  They don’t hold, within them, a future, or at least they don’t when you raise them, as we’ve raised Daphne, to be a guard who greets people by licking them, a retriever who looks only for orange balls, a baby who can’t have babies of her own.  Daphne will never be transformed.  She is a dog, and always will be a dog, and I will be her master.