Monday, December 25, 2017

a holiday newsletter

The roads in and out are few. If you take the one eastward, you skirt the county seat, a town of 2,000, give or take. On the hem of this skirt you see a hardware store, a manufacturing plant, a creek, railroad tracks, a fast food joint, three gas stations, a car wash, a dollar store, an empty building with a buckling concrete parking lot, a couple of motels and a restaurant or two, a lumber yard, a large discount store, the county hospital, more railroad tracks, a large open-air vegetable and fruit stand open only during the appropriate months, and a few other things, this and that. Over the last few months the empty building—it may once have been a grocery store—was torn down, rebuilt. Now there are two dollar stores.

One day on the island—the island that is not really an island but rather a large hump of sand protruding into the river—I heard a chain saw revving up, winding down. Revving up, winding down. It was coming from across the river. I listened for a while. It was the only sound other than the whisper of the river and the peep of the chickadees. It troubles me that there are noises I sometimes want to quiet but can’t. That I let these noises bother me. But, do I have a choice?

A few days later at the cabin I could hear the noise of something like a bulldozer churning back and forth, the crack of a limb, the fall of a tree, a bulldozer churning back and forth. On snowshoes I walked over to the river, criss-crossing the lacework of deer trails, Josie plowing along behind, in front, then off on his own. Atop the bank I looked across the river at a little yellow ’dozer atop the opposite bank. It looked like some engorged insect or pre-Star Wars critter as it lurched forward, back, its gaping jaw moving up and down, the whole thing spinning ’round, slowly, in jerks, an exotic pre-historic dance, and, in reality, it seemed curious. Wide swaths of that bank drop away most every spring as the river cuts in with a resurgent flow. It is a sandy bank; at its bottom lie the washed remains of trees that have fallen. And now here was this creature, at its edge, felling trees, digging holes.

Back home, at the kitchen sink, looking out the window, I could still see the ’dozer. I got out the binoculars. What for? I put them away. And then I wondered: What if this yellow creature made a misstep, toppled over the bank, down into the river?

Elliott died in November. He had a massive growth, a tumor, in his head. In September I took him to Appleton, Wisconsin, to understand this. We took one of the few roads out, Josie, Elliott, and I. While Elliott stayed at a fancy animal clinic on the edge of town, Josie and I stayed at a motel. Someone I once knew had just died. Another hurricane was threatening the Caribbean. I was worried about a friend who lives on a small island. I watched a string of episodes of a show called “Fixer-Upper.”

The vet took pictures inside Elliott’s head. At the moment the name of this procedure—it is common—escapes me, but the vet’s description remains: Imagine you have a loaf of bread, you cut the loaf into slices, you take a picture of each slice. Upshot: Any way you sliced it, Elliott had this huge thing growing in his head. It was blocking one nostril and encroaching on the other. It had bent a bone near an eye socket, and there was something about a bubble of gas in that eye socket. The more slices of bread the vet showed me, the bigger the loaf became. So Josie, Elliott, and I went home. A few weeks later I took Elliott to the local vet for the last time, just before snow and cold wrapped us in.

Suddenly, there was a break in the weather. Josie and I found a road out and went to stay for a few days in the town where I grew up. We stayed across the street from a shopping center next to an expressway off-ramp. It was never quiet (constant hum of passing cars) and never dark (streetlights, shopping center lights, traffic lights, Christmas lights). It was a comfort. On our daily walks Josie, chasing squirrels, pulled me along at the end of his leash. High up in the leafless trees you could see the squirrels’ nests like huge beehives of sticks and leaves and whatnot, sometimes as many as three in a tree. Josie was sure there was a squirrel behind every tree. He may have been right.

I went to the store where my mom took me every fall to buy new clothes for school. A kilt, maybe, and knee socks, a turtleneck, a sweater. I thought how funny it would be to buy my sisters’ Christmas presents there—knee socks, definitely, what else? As I shopped I told the woman waiting on me all about how my mom shopped for us there so many years ago, and I learned the store is still owned by the same family. She had been working there 35 years.

For days I watched the Thomas Fire while my sisters breathed its smoke, waded through its ashes. The package with their presents of knee socks (and more!) from Lad & Lassie was delivered one day as they were evacuating, or preparing to evacuate, or maybe between evacuations—something, anyway. The situation was fluid, and, at times, frightening. In the end, though, many days later, for them, for us, and with much gratitude, no one and nothing was lost. Everyone went home.