All the Dogs Died and the People Got Old
LLyn De Danaan
The Ash tree had never looked so grand. It was a burning bush of red-orange, a color that glowed, seemingly from an inner source though it was clearly the rising sun behind it that caused it to shimmer with light. Sylvia looked at it for a long time. Then she looked at the yellowing plate-sized leaves of the maple and then out at ripples on the bay, the concentric ever widening circles moving out from a disturbed center. The chum were already beginning their journey to the spawning grounds and their occasional jumps and wags were irritating the otherwise smooth surface out there. The sky was clear today and the sun rose sluggishly but methodically from behind a bank of ragged trees that marked the grey, cloudless horizon. October. It wouldn’t be cloudless for many more days. It was already prudent, she thought, to wear a sweater or even a jacket when walking outside.
She studied everything this morning, tried to commit it all to memory. How many more Octobers would she see, she wondered. Not many. Remember this one. Remember each burnished leaf. Remember this brilliant, light morning and the quank quank of the distant ducks calling for one another. I’m here. I exist. I must have this to remember, she thought.
Sylvia was the kind of woman who had no waistline but was not given to fat. She didn’t care about either the waist or the fat. She cared about being strong and capable and able to clean the gutters and the beach stairs.
The raccoons had been defecating on the beach stairs. Again. They were a nuisance. Their families had multiplied and their visits had become frequent now that all the dogs were dead. Sylvia’s dog, a fearless, kinky haired dachshund that lived to a grumpy, incontinent fifteen years, had kept wild animals at bay for its entire life. Not one raccoon or deer dared creep up the gentle incline to the garden much less come into the yard. They all fled at the sound of one cranky yip from the little beast.
Now, with the helpful and companionable dog gone, it was up to Sylvia to develop strategies that might thwart the generations of raccoon and deer to come far into the foreseeable future as well as the rascally present ones. The goal, with respect to raccoon, was to prevent them from dropping their toxic shit in places where she or her guests might walk. The deer, of course, were to be frustrated in their attempt to eat all the fruit she undertook to grow.
Sylvia’s face had begun to shatter and crack like a too far gone dried apple or a left-outside -all-winter pumpkin squash. She blamed the demise of her blameless forehead and soft cheeks, in part, on the bother caused by raccoons. She found herself this morning wondering if they’d been back to the steps after her last cleaning, just a few days ago. She felt the deep creases between her eyes folding into themselves as she frowned with the anticipation of her irritation and displeasure. She felt the pathways that traveled a worn trek from the corners of her mouth to where her jaw line used to be deepen as she perseverated. Raccoons are aging me, she thought.
No one else in the neighborhood had a dog either. Well, there was one. It was not much of a dog and was not even allowed outside. But it could be heard, often, and especially during periods of its owners’ prolonged daily absences. It was reportedly, according to neighbors who had caught sight of it lunging at them from behind a glass door, small and pathetically lonely. It had to be confined. It would make a breakfast snack for a coyote, but that would be about all.
Another dog, the aptly named Old Hefty, had died two years ago. That was Sylvia’s closet neighbor’s dog. He was a frightening, mammoth black lab who had been observed tearing raccoons into small pieces, albeit one beast at a time. Hefty had been wrapped in an eponymous black plastic trash bag and laid solemnly at the bottom of a deep grave into which fresh flowers were scattered. Most of the neighbors came and stood around the hole with more respect than they showed each other most of the time. They stayed until the last shovel full of dirt had been tossed on to the top of the grizzled old body. As she watched, Sylvia thought again that she would be cremated and scattered on the bay.
While alive, Hefty had nearly knocked out the raccoon population though the only time there were no raccoons around at all was when the distemper virus took hold. Not one live animal was seen for a year or two. Hefty and the other dogs became as dreary as sloths and loathed their luckless, empty lives during that period.
The only person left from from the old original set of neighbors from the early days was Simone. Sylvia and Simone had shared the same long, rutted driveway, for almost fifty years but they’d never been in each others’ houses. They spoke or waved when they passed on the drive. They saw each other when they went out to help the men buck up trees that fell over the driveway in the winter. They sat opposite each other in neighborhood meetings when the community well had to be improved or the driveway needed to be graded. Neither of them spoke in these meetings. Discussion was dominated by the men, each of whom was easily set off by the others. These gatherings were grim. They were mostly about money and how much each household would need to pitch in to solve this or that problem. It was hard for some to stay on topic. The men debated and even shouted over each other. Whether or not Simone and Sylvia or any other women spoke, the outcome would be the same. At least that’s what they believed. An occasional smirk passed between Sylvia and Simone as they listened to the men rage.
Sometimes a new, ambitious neighbor would mount a workshop on septic tank maintenance and suggest people bring a potluck dish to share after each had learned to de-lid their tanks and check the level of the sludge. Sometimes a guest from the county attended and handed out leaflets. It was all boring, but Sylvia and Simone grudged through it. They never got to know much about each other. Sometimes a neighbor would invite them to a birthday party. They’d both go, Simone with her husband when he was still around. They were alway polite to each other but nothing of substance passed between them.
Sylvia decided many years ago that they had nothing in common, she and Simone, so if she talked at these gatherings, it was with the new people, the younger people, who slowly replaced all of her old friends and neighbors.
Now it was only Simone left from the old days. And the new people. Simone was the one who knew what it used to be like. Who had known all the dogs. Who remembered the ice storms and the power outages and the big snows and the high tides that carried one neighbor’s wood stash out to sea and the time the driveway turned into a syrupy slurry for five days, and the Thanksgivings when they had to sled their turkeys from the main road if they were to have anything to roast.
Simone lived alone since her vintage spouse had left her for a Korean woman he met at the PX. This new woman reminded him of a girlfriend he’d had while he was in the service.
This new woman worked in a massage parlor, completely legit and catering primarily to Asian and Caucasian women. The Asian women liked to rub their calves and thighs raw between repeated dips in a hot, viscous pool housed in a long cement trough. The almost liquid resembled soup and smelled of woody herbs and the stuff of cow pastures and soy bean fields. Small twigs floated here and there. The Asian women were interested in smooth, sensual bodies. They worked hard to maintain the allure of supple, ripple free skin and tight twats, willing to steam and manipulate for as long as it took. These bodies would be a delight for others. The Caucasian women, on the other hand, preferred to be rubbed raw by someone other than themselves but only if also covered with cucumbers or buttered with honey before or after the peelings or, preferably, both before and after. The Caucasian women were interested in the immediate pleasure of being palpated and not in stage setting their bodies for someone else.
Simone’s husband’s girlfriend delighted in the ritual exfoliation of these naked pale-skinned bodies while gossiping in a loud voice with the masseuse at the next table over the vegetable laden breasts and sugared thighs of clients. The clients, who understood not a word, sunk deeply into otherwise rarely achieved deep dreams and erotic fantasies.
Simone’s husband’s girlfriend was rough with the women and they loved it. Her tips were handsome and she had many repeat customers.
The girlfriend, in fact, not a girl at all but a woman in her fifties, had a small flat near the Army base and only a mile or two from the PX. It was decorated with Japanese screens, the only thing she could find that reminded her slightly of home, and cloisonné pots and dolls from around the world. She was very, very tidy. The husband and the girlfriend began to meet there each time the husband made a trip to the PX for groceries. Now he lived there. It was, he found, nice to eat regularly and to have a masseuse in the house.
Simone, kept in the dark both literally and figuratively, was surprised but not disappointed when he packed his bag to leave. She had been preparing to face the future, grim as the prospects were, with this old man who did little other than drink and watch television news 24 hours a day when not occupied with noisy naps and massive bowls of macaroni and cheese from a box.
The stairs to up to Simone’s house were made of bare but treated six by twos. Each step had a heavy veneering of moss and mildew. They’d be a terror to negotiate when the rains came and slicked the coating.
Simone had heard Sylvia’s footsteps and opened a door that, near its bottom, still bore the muddy scratch marks made by Simone’s former dog in its desperate hope to be let inside. Simone had sometimes confused the sounds the dog made at the door with her husband’s scuffling about. So dog had learned to keep it up, sometimes for half an hour or more. The door was landscaped with the animal’s deep frustration.
Simone grinned a heavily lipsticked smile of welcome as she opened the door to Sylvia. “Well hello, neighbor,” she said. “What you doing girl?” Simone’s spiked, sparse hair was a deep shade of burgundy and her cheek rouge matched.
Simone had always been small. Now her stove pipe calves and thighs, elements of limbs that attached to her torso some where up under an enthusiastically large tent of a denim shirt embroidered with flowers, seemed too thin to support any weight let alone propel a body. Her pant legs were straight up and down, the circumference of the ankle the same as the circumference at that top of the thigh and that was the approximate circumference of an average size biscuit cutter.
Simone’s nails were too long to be functional. And they were sharp. Sylvia thought of all the things she could not do if she had such nails: pick up a dropped coin, type a letter, manage a pinch of salt. She wondered if Simone’s lengthy nails were glued over or on top of some average, sensible ones or if she had actually grown these daggers and if so, how? They were painted, each one, with the images of a green and blue Sea Hawk. Sylvia’s own buffed ovals seemed underdressed in Simone’s company.
That same blue and green image was on a beach towel tacked on to the wall over one of the Lazy Boy chairs in the room. There was a tiger striped cat on the arm of that same chair. His possum sized body was centered on yet another Sea Hawk towel, this one serving as a kind of drool rag. Long strings of this hung trembling from the cat’s lower jaw. They seemed caught in time and space, a slow motion, miniature waterfall.
On the wall behind the second Lazy Boy, beside which was a table with a half empty bottle of Coke and a full ashtray, both on an off-white, crocheted dolly, was an unidentifiable animal’s pelt. Peering out from deep brown fur were two glass eyes and a dark, seemingly leather, nose. The eyes were peering down in the direction of the Lazy Boy below them.
The floor boards, made of a narrow grained pine, were nearly but not quite covered by a tatty Kilim, torn here and there no doubt by the cat in his younger, pounce-driven days. Or maybe by a predecessor cat.
There was a smell of burnt coffee in the room, a hint of wood smoke, and just a passing, ghostly whiff of cat urine.
“Take a load off,” Simone said and made a flourishing gesture toward the Lazy Boy below the pelt. “How about some coffee.”
Well, I’m here now, thought Sylvia. “I’d love some,” she said and fell into the Lazy Boy. Her feet did not nearly reach the floor. She felt trapped by the oversized chair. Child like. She tried to feel at ease.
The kitchen was separated from the living room by an imposing oak counter that served as a divider. It was something that might once have prevented a prisoner from storming a judge on his bench. Now it simply drew a line between guest versus host, or it did at this point. Simone could see Sylvia hovering over the stove. The two talked while Simone set to brewing the coffee in an antique percolator. At least Sylvia thought of it as antique. She herself had an espresso machine, all chrome and dials, and such, in her kitchen and had considered switching to a single serving pot, one of the new ones that allowed a person to make all kinds of hot drinks, one at a time.
“No thanks. I like mine black. Maybe just a pinch of sugar if you have it.”
“Do you want me to do the pinching?” Simone said. And then winked and laughed.
Sylvia didn’t quite get the joke. And when she did she felt herself blush.
As the two old women sat and talked together. Simone, Sylvia noted as they reminisced, had lovely lips, the lower one still full and both upper and lower pink and even, though age had surrounded them with cavernous creases that arced from the corners of her mouth to her chin. Two other deep lines made their way from each edge of her nostrils to below the zygomatic bones and caused the bit of flesh above them to accentuate a slightly rosy though somewhat sunken cheek. Her eyes were rimmed with pinkish flesh and there was only the hint of eyelash or even an eye brow. Of course. She must have been a redhead or very fair when she was younger. There were intimations of a deep bittersweet left in the mostly grey though it was difficult to see for the green scarf she had wound around her head.
Her lids, her eyelids were lovely. They were the kind of eyelids seen in classic paintings, clearly, fully present, unlike her own hooded Celtic ones that sometimes actually obscured the printed page and caused her to strain to keep the curtain from coming down altogether. Simone’s lids were smooth and there was nothing under the eyes that suggested the dreaded swelling in the morning that Sylvia experienced after just a glass of wine or a bit too much salt with dinner the night before. True, there were hundreds of minute lines there on Simone’s face. But they were attractive in their way. She did not have furrows between her eyebrows but lines on the forehead so many and so even that they could have served as a staff for a series of musical notes. She chuckled as she imagined painting in a G, and A, and F and maybe a Bb. Or perhaps, she thought, a tattooed note here and there.
Simone’s neck was lean and the jawline soft but still defined. It was a nice neck. Simone was, all in all, pleasant to behold.
“How about another coffee, Hon? Or would you rather have a drink. It’s after 3 I think. My Dad always said you aren’t a drunk if you don’t start in till after 3.”
“Maybe a glass of white wine if you have it.”
“I must have some around here somewhere.”
Simone got up and went back into the poorly lit kitchen area. She put finger to lip and stood staring as if wondering if the bottle of detergent on her sink might be the wine in disguise. Then she suddenly dove under the sink. Or at least appeared to from where Sylvia sat. There was the noise of glass and metal bumping and grating. Sylvia wondered how Simone might be protecting her nails during this search.
After a bit more rattling about, up she rose, like Venus, clutching a bottle against her breast with her right arm, her scarf gone, and her hair falling like coils of rope all around and in her face. There was something funny and triumphant in the way she angled herself across the oak divider toward Sylvia and then raised the bottle above her head.
“I knew it was back in there! Now to find a corkscrew. No, wait a minute, its a twist top. That makes it easy.”
Simone opened a cabinet to the left of the sink and grabbed a couple of logo tumblers. One was from a 1983 oyster festival and the other was from a logging show held in the next county ten years ago. Of course the wine would be hot. It had been, obviously, living under the sink next to the hot water pipe Sylvia supposed. Yet, it was maybe a red. Still, probably very old and cheap. But what the hell. If she wanted to have company, she had to over look little things like that.
A tumbler full was thrust into her hand. She took a sip. It was warm. And it was sweet. She glanced at the label on the bottle Simone had placed on the floor next to her chair. Moscato. Sylvia never drank Moscato. Loathed it. Usually drank red wine, deep, heavy, almost syrupy red wine. Usually from a bottle she’d purchased after a tasting at a smart wine bar or during a visit to a winery. If she drank anything else, it was a gin or vodka martini but made only with upscale brands of gin and vodka. She associated Moscato with people who drank to get drunk. Or with her ex sister in law.
Still. Here she was. Getting to know her neighbor.
Simone adjusted the damper on her wood stove. It wasn’t really obvious that there was a fire in it, but when the door was opened, she could see a glow. Simone threw in a small log. Just enough to keep a little heat in the house. Then she fell into her own lounger.
Simone pulled at the glass the way a beer drinker might pull at a mug of brew. Then her lips formed a crenellated pucker just visible over the rim of the glass. The lips mimicked the scalloped edges of the painting of the oyster shell on the glass. Tiny channels had darted the flesh around her mouth and the dabs of color from her lips had found their way into them. Sylvia, who rarely wore lipstick, thought, “This could be avoided with the use of lip liner.” She knew that from reading glamour magazines while waiting for dental appointments. Then laughed out loud at herself. She realized that she wasn’t giving Simone the credit she deserved. Of course Sylvia knew about lip liner. But who cares.
“TOO SWEET!“ Simone announced abruptly from the depths of the faux leather chair. “This is some junk he left.”
There was a sudden accompanying movement. The ginger cat was awakened by the shout, leapt, and found purchase on the knee of Sylvia’s denim trousers. She felt the stinging prickle of tenfold untrimmed claws. From the knee, the cat moved quickly up and crumpled itself into Sylvia’s lap and began to wheeze and hum. Sylvia imagined it might be pleasant to pet the cat’s head, but an audible grumbled reproach caused her to think better before the hand made a landing. The cat resumed its hum and began to drool.
“Wine’s not really my drink,” Simone continued. “I’m a scotch woman.”
“Oh.” Said Sylvia. She could think of nothing else to say.
Anything to avoid the Moscato.
Simone took Sylvia’s glass and hers to the sink and ran them both under water to rinse any trace of the wine away. She found the scotch easily, up in the cupboard above the stove. It was a brand Sylvia did not recognize. Simone poured a couple of inches into each tumbler. No ice. No water.
It was getting warm, even cosy, in the room. The cat dribbled. Sylvia kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up under her thighs and settled more deeply into the Lazy Boy.
The women drank.
What to do about the raccoons could wait for another day.