*Your Actual Life May Vary
It should be clear by now that the truth about the place is elusive,
and must be tracked with caution. –Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter.”
Eureka, we have found it. – California State Motto
Your Call Is Important
Here’s what I know, I tell myself each morning as I walk: There’s a little boy four doors down chained to a doghouse in his backyard. There’s a little boy chained up behind a house in my neighborhood. I let the sentences repeat in my mind as I take each step, the way children repeat rhymes as they jump to the next square in hopscotch. As if it will propel me forward. As if saying it does anything for anyone at all.
I start my walk to campus down a hill of broken sidewalk, a reminder that it’s earthquake territory. I count the houses as a kind of mantra, one, two, three, then four, as if it will bring luck, which sometimes it does. Sometimes, I don’t see him. I have to wonder, though, What do people in houses two and three think? What kind of comforting rhymes do they tell themselves?
House four: a sickly light green, shades always drawn, the dog run along the side leading no doubt to a back yard filled with overgrown weeds, mangled tree limbs, swirls of silt leading upward but not in any optimistic kind of way. Sometimes I make out his little legs, ending in a pair of imitation Keds tennis shoes.
There’s a little boy chained to a doghouse in my neighborhood. And I’ve done nothing about it, I whisper to the stop sign at the corner.
I’m the kind of person who’s done nothing about it, I say silently to the crossing guard, who’s too busy to notice me anyway.
But I’m pretty nearsighted. I once mistook this very stop sign for that very crossing guard, when some kids had put an orange jacket over it at Halloween. With my vision, he (she, it), the figment on the dog chain could well be a German shepherd. A smallish one.
A German shepherd in imitation Keds. A German shepherd playing with imitation Keds. The pictures do not soothe me.
Plus, there’s this weather. San Diego annoying smoggy mornings, afternoons that can heat up beyond expectation. The dryness—it causes hallucinations, fantasies. Drought and destruction and cracked-up sidewalks. Face it, it’s a desert, a mirage in itself.
That’s right Patty (I say this to myself a lot, along with Wake up Patty, It’s good for you Patty, and Just don’t think about it Patty). That’s right Patty: There’s (maybe) a little boy chained to a dog run on the side of a house. In this heat. A little boy imagining mirages, dreaming fantasies, trying to escape his leash in imitation Keds.
No wonder I’m always so sweaty by the time I reach school.
I’m sitting in my teaching cubicle—not an office, just a couple of closely placed partition walls, a desk, and a highly valued window—watching unexpected rain fill up the library pit. It’s not really a library pit, of course, but a construction ditch for what’s known as the new Library Center. No one’s announced when it’ll be finished, just as they haven’t announced why it’s called the Library Center instead of just Library. The rain isn’t that hearty, but it’s increasing its presence, although I’m not sure how weather can change so quickly and if it means we’ve done something indefensible to the environment. There’s a sudden coolness in the air that wasn’t there four hours ago, something not entirely unwelcome but still a little alarming. The rain taps against my window like a shy student wanting my attention but who’s afraid I’ll notice how really badly he or she is doing in my class. This rain (and any rain is unexpected here), though I’m happy to see it, has begun to muddy most of the campus within my view. If it doesn’t let up in a few hours, the streets will be flooded and traffic accidents will be in the double digits. You’ll be able to hear the sirens from all directions. Plus, it’s slowly, hypnotically, putting me to sleep.
I’ve fallen asleep before, after teaching my back-to-back freshman English courses. Most of the graduate teachers come into our shared area all springy and wired, babbling of peer editing groups and issues debated, abortion, euthanasia, racial integration. The issues never change; they’re in no way seasonal. As for me, well, I tend to go straight for my cubicle, look out the window at the pit, checking to make sure no progress has been made, and fall into dreamy sleep. I have probably failed to find my proper calling, and not for the first time. More than once, students have had to wake me to ask questions, but often they just leave little notes on my desk. “Came by to see you!” “Hope you feel better!” “Need help with essay when you’re well!” I find it touching that they figure I’m sick. Although sometimes I do have a headache, sleeping is just my natural reaction to teaching.
I am not very good at this.
But today I’m not just tired from classes, as I’ve gotten a memo that adds to the drowsiness, although you’d think it would get my heart pounding. It announces that the Samsons, both English teachers, both about sixty, with his and hers short gray haircuts (the kind of cut that’s so short it looks prickly, like one of those things you wipe snowy boots on) have taken early retirement. The Samsons, my sometimes advisors (I never ask for much advice), my all-the-time landlords, have no doubt been forced out, as I can’t imagine they’d ever voluntarily leave here. They love it here, decorating the place each Christmas with sprigs of fir, each Easter leaving little chocolate eggs for all their students. In the autumn they go out to the mountains and bring in fallen leaves, then scatter them through the halls for us to crunch our way through. They even clean up afterward.
I hold up my memo until the words start to blur. A voice wakes me.
“So much for Grandpa and Grandma,” says a fellow graduate student, a dark, curly haired guy several years my junior (they all are). I think his name is really Mark, but for some reason, he’s always referred to as Anti. He’s part of the group known as neuropostmodernists around here. Their name for themselves, but many of us consider it a euphemism.
“I’m very fond of them,” I say. “They’ve always been nice to me,” which is true. They’ve hinted at wanting to sell me the house when I get a real teaching position, which they’ve hinted they want to make sure I get right here. It’s the most natural, familial gesture anyone’s made to me in years.
“You’re just buying into the sappiness of the status quo,” the AntiMark says.
“You’re just young and don’t know anything,” I think but don’t say. Age is relative, of course, and I am old to be a graduate student, but I can’t take seriously a twenty-two-year-old guy with neuropostmodernistic tendencies—whatever they may be, and I do have a feeling something sexual is involved—and sneakers that cost over a hundred dollars, although I’m estimating.
“I run toward sap,” I say, turning away. The rain picks up outside, rattling the windows. I wonder if the neuropostmodernists have thought up some progressive, advanced way to get home in this rain without an umbrella, but I doubt it.
I walk home quickly, a San Diego Union Tribune over my head—I picked it since it’s a little thicker than USA Today, which of course is also in color and might run onto my clothes. I pass by house number four without looking up, afraid of what I’ll see, or what I might think I see. I do slow down though, and listen (my hearing is far better than my eyesight anyhow), but all I hear is rain, drops hitting the ground, the deeper sound of drops hitting that doghouse. My grandmother used to say that not knowing was worse than knowing, and she may be right, unless what you find out is that there’s a muddy boy in a splintering dog house waiting for something else you can’t imagine. I try to picture my grandmother’s face, what she might say to this, but for some reason, she won’t look up.
Patty, you may need another nap.
But no, today something different is planned for me. I get home and change my wet clothes, then get in my car and head for the local Hilton hotel. I’ve never done this before, and I can’t be sure why I agreed to do it now.
You may already be a winner, Patty, I tell myself, driving carefully so that (a) I don’t hit anyone and (b) the windshield wipers don’t put me to sleep. I’m headed for a perfect rainy day activity, I tell myself, although I’d be embarrassed to tell anyone else.
The invitation came in a phone call, the kind you get at dinnertime, the kind you know better than to answer, but when you live alone, you don’t always have your best long-term interests at heart. Besides, I told myself, it’s bad to eat dinner in front of the TV. Much better to eat while talking on the phone, which means you can talk to strangers with your mouth full, breaking two parental prohibitions at once. I surreptitiously took bites of chicken as the guy talked, telling me that I’d filled out an entry form to win a new Camaro, reminding me (of course) that I hadn’t won the new Camaro but am a prizewinner nonetheless. Something electronic. Something electronic and new and free, if only I’d come to my choice of breakfast or late-afternoon lunch and listen to a presentation on a new planned community. Or a planned new community. I probably swallowed at this point and missed the real order, but it may not really matter. As any underemployed graduate student knows, the words lunch is included have a certain appeal.
The hall is warm and cozy at this Hilton, something I hadn’t expected. It’s the kind of room that’s usually freezing with air conditioning, but somehow they’ve one-upped the weather, and this place is toasty without being too warm. I settle into an overly cushioned blue chair—there must be hundreds of them—and discover that it rocks slightly, not to mention that it’s the kind of soft I must have always been looking for in a chair, without even realizing it. I now know how Goldilocks must have felt.
I’m almost too comfortable to get up for the buffet, but the sweet smells of Danish, warmed turkey, mashed potatoes, and steaming chicken soup lure me. There’s something to admire in a place that serves you chicken soup. Maybe they know more about me than I think. It’s not even Campbell’s, but something someone has chopped and stewed personally. The meal embraces me and those around me as we each eat in our slightly rocking seats, which have been pulled up to tables covered in deep blue cloth. The napkins are orange—real fabric, not paper. I realize that this moment is everything I’ve always wanted from Thanksgiving, as it’s lacking only in family bickering and that disappointing cranberry sauce you slice out of a can. Whatever has led me here, I’m thankful.
I snap out of it only a little as the lights dim for the presentation. Somehow, I expected an old-fashioned slide show, someone clicking away at a rickety projector, the occasional slide turned upside-down. But welcome to the information age, Patty, where everything you need is digital. (Unless you’re a graduate teacher—we can’t afford CDs or videotape. We’re still using mimeograph machines. But don’t think about that now Patty.) No distracting clicking here, just the sounds of Windham Hill-like music behind a soothing woman’s voice, the kind of voice that would anticipate your every need, offering you a second Danish before you’d finished the first. The kind of voice you’d want to accept from. Yes, thank you so much. I do want a second pastry, a warm cinnamon roll. I hadn’t even realized how important one could be.
And I want to live in Santa Vallejo, I tell the voice, of course I do. The presentation completes the picture lunch has enticed us with: Now not only does the room contain all the scents of home, it fills our eyes with visions of needs fulfilled, needs met by the new community of Santa Vallejo. Parents hug little children and send them to play on the shiniest of swing sets. Grandparents cook up a stew in the kitchen of a house that could be yours (Patty), although it has clearly been cleaned by someone a little more attentive. In the kitchen’s background I could swear I see the same pastries we’ve just consumed. Freshly baked. Smelling of cinnamon. Seconds and thirds. Back in the town center, low, tiled office buildings blend into the community. “Community,” the woman’s voice repeats at us, “community,” although I’m not really registering the words as much as waiting for Grandma to reappear, waiting to see what lies beyond the next playground and the next, one tree-lined street after another, the houses with spaces between them large enough for another house. Teachers lead bands of children dressed in clean primary-colored clothing, some holding balloons. Malls greet you and fit into the architecture (of the community). Cleanliness. Godliness. All the comforts of home. Not too big, not too small. This place is just right.
After the show I find I’ve been asleep in my chair, the room quieted. Others are asleep, too, but not in any insulting way, not out of boredom. We’ve been rocked to sleep by the grannies of our dreams, by those with the power to say yes, yes you may. As I rise a person hands me a brochure, entitled Santa Vallejo—the Promise of Community, and a little black-and-white traveling TV. As she hands me the TV I feel like I’ve been given an assignment, but then I remember that I was supposed to win a prize. For a brief moment I’m unsure which I value more, the TV or the brochure with its promise. It’s a nice brochure, four color, thick, serious. With my arms full, I feel fulfilled, as if I’ve gone home for a visit to a loving family (not mine) and they’ve loaded me up with homemade packages to take home. And promises they intend to keep.
The feeling lasts all the way home. I take my treasures into the house and find a note stuck under my door. It’s from the Samsons, my somewhat adoptive family and sometime advisors, writing me a note, sharing their thoughts with me. I feel truly full, sated. I want to hug everything that is mine. Oh, the power of the written word, Patty. Savor it, Patty.
You’ve probably heard that we’ve accepted the Golden Handshake and are retiring. Well, life does hold its surprises. We’ve loved teaching and are so glad it has brought so many people into our lives, and we include you among our most treasured students. We’re so sorry to say that we’re going to need the house back. We’ll need to consolidate our finances for our retirement, and we plan to move back into our small house that you’ve been so kind to care for. We’ve loved having you as a tenant and, we hope, as our friend. We wish you luck in every endeavor. Won’t you please be out by the fifteenth?
Love, Elizabeth and George Samson
December fifteenth. Two days after the end of the semester. One week from yesterday. I think about all these numbers and passages of time as I go into the living room—with its nice old-fashioned moldings and working fireplace—and put all the wood I’ve collected into the fireplace. It’s not really cold enough for this, but I don’t care. I light the fireplace and watch the flames overcome the logs. On top of the fire, I place their letter. Warm as the room gets, I can’t completely regain the feeling from this afternoon. But I still feel a little something hopeful. I can still picture the grandparents from the video, their arms open, offering sweets and something deeper. They really look nothing like the Samsons.
In the morning I stop at door number three. The dream house, the color of strawberry Haagen Daz, as clean and tidy and welcoming outside as the cottage Hansel and Gretel must have approached. The front door mat has bluebirds on it.
I knock softly, even though it’s 8:45 and the neighborhood is up and hopping. I can hear that crossing guard down at the main intersection. She sings. It’s Do Re Mi, today. It makes me glad I don’t live nearer to the intersection. No one answers at the pink door, so I knock a little more forcefully, although I can’t get the picture of Julie Andrews spinning around on that mountaintop out of my head. I know it’s not even the right scene for the song. Finally, through a small square window centered high on the pink door, I see the top of a woman’s head, an older woman. Many of my neighbors, I’ve been told, have lived in the area for years, lifetimes, which would explain the gray head top I see before me. Doe, a deer, a female deer—
“Yes,” the gray top says through the door.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Patty Grant; I live in the Samson’s house two doors down?” I point in my direction, then circle my hands around over my head as if describing my house as a large mushroom.
“I’m your neighbor?” I wait. Nothing much happens. Me, a name, I call myself. “I was wondering if I could talk to you about the child next door?”
“Could you open the door, just maybe a crack?”
“No, dear, we just don’t do that.”
Oh. “Well, have you noticed the child? Does it seem mistreated to you?” I lower my voice slightly at the word mistreated. I’m not sure if the whisper makes it through the door. Far, a long, long way to run.
“I’m sorry, dear, we really prefer not to buy anything door-to-door.”
“I’m not selling anything.” I raise my voice and stand on my tiptoes so I can see better into her small window. I can only make out to about her eyebrows. I’ve seen the woman before, of course, gardening. But she’s never waved or greeted me. I don’t know her name.
“The child next door?” I put my hand above my head and point in the doghouse’s direction. “Have you seen one?”
She shakes her head. “Sorry dear. I can’t say that I have.” And she’s gone. Which will bring us back to Doe.
All’s quiet at house number four, but from the street I can see the chain that leads to the doghouse. Swaying. I cannot bring myself to knock at house number four’s door, partly because I can’t imagine what I’d say.
“Excuse me, is your child chained to the dog house?” What if they answer Yes? What if they answer No?
Them: Yes, that’s our [boy/girl] by the doghouse.
Me: Shall I come by after school and take him [her] for a walk?
No, of course I wouldn’t say that.
Them: No, there’s no child by our doghouse.
Me: Oh. (The door slams here.) Or….
Them: He’s just playing. You know how children are. Or don’t you have children? (Slightly accusatory voice here.)
Me: Playing with a leash on him?
Them: Safety first.
Me: What about the splintering wood, the rain?
Them: Children enjoy being outdoors. It’s better for them than television. (The door slams here.)
None of the scenarios I can imagine makes any sense. I realize that this may not be my fault. But wouldn’t a good neighbor find out more? Someone living in Santa Vallejo, say, in the midst of the closely knit community with its red-and-blue swing sets, wouldn’t a neighbor there be bound by some sort of community pledge to take matters into her own hands?
What if they don’t open their door, Patty? What if they do?
When in doubt, consult a text. Like the good graduate student I am, I head for the bookshelf in the TA offices. Actually, consulting the research librarian might be the thing to do. I approach her in my mind. “Hello, one of my neighbors has his or her child tied to a dog house. Can you recommend a book or books to consult on this subject?” Instead, I grab the phone books. Yellow or white? Is this a case for 911? Is it an out-and-out emergency? Is it a time-crucial matter? How could I explain that I’m calling only after noticing this for weeks, maybe longer, time flies on the semester system?
The White Pages. A to Z. I try the Easy Reference List at the beginning of the government pages. And it really is easy. I only have to go to the C’s, Child Abuse Reporting, the county social services department. I flip the pages for the toll-free number (the department will be pleased there’s no charge, since I’m using the school phone, even though it barely reaches my desk). I dial the 800 number and wait for the recorded message. The voice asks me to consider which button I want to push for which service. Please press one to report a probable case of child abuse in your area. That sounds like me. I press one, feeling a little guilty that I didn’t listen to all the options.
Please hold, the voice says. On comes some music I used to work out to at aerobics, back when aerobics seemed necessary and wise. All she wants to do is dance, the music says, dance, dance. I’m not sure it’s appropriate music, but it does have a strong bass.
Every few seconds I hear a click that sounds like someone’s coming on the line. I get prepared to tell my story (should I mention the rain? The heat? The shoe?), but it’s just another operator voice telling me to (please) stay on the line and that my call is important. Your call is important, Patty. Finally, as the song plays for the second time—I’m not sure why they’ve only recorded the one song—I get transferred back to the main menu. I’m a little alarmed at this. If I want to report a probable case of child abuse, press one. If I want inquire about adoptive services, press two. If I want information on an existing case, press three. To speak to a representative, press the star key. I press the star key.
Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please try again.
But I do try again, because my call is important.
I press two this time, just because I haven’t tried it before. I get the same song. I find it annoying that all she wants to do is dance. I put the phone down on my desk, where I can still hear the music, and try to read a student’s paper about the similarities and differences between lesbianism and Judaism. The bass pounds. Toward the end of the song (it worries me a little that I can now tell when the song is going to end, that I know the song this well), I pick up the phone again. With the last beat, the recording hangs up on me. If a recording can do that.
I try a few more times, trying to keep track of which buttons I’ve pushed and which I haven’t. The student paper has completely misrepresented Judaism, but all the words are spelled correctly.
I dial 911. A real voice answers, surprising me, as I’m waiting for a recording to tell me which numbers to press.
“What is your emergency?”
“Yes, I’d like to report a possible case of child abuse in my neighborhood?” I’ve written the sentence down by now so I can just read it.
“You need to call child social services at 800-455–”
“Yes, I’ve tried, but their recording seems to be broken and won’t transfer me to anyone.”
“They might be busy and you have to be patient.”
“I think the recording’s broken, though.”
“Then you can call the local office directly.” She gives me the number.
Progress. I thank the real voice.
“Use 911 only for emergencies,” the voice says, then hangs up, confirming my fear, that a little boy in a doghouse is not considered an emergency.
I dial the new number. A different computer voice answers, instructing me to please wait and my call will be answered in order. It doesn’t say in what kind of order. It doesn’t mention that my call is at all important to them. A different song by the guy from the Eagles starts to play. It’s slower and doesn’t have anything to do with dancing, but it makes me wonder if someone got a Best of Eagles kind of CD on sale. Maybe each county agency takes one song. Still, I refuse to listen to the words—I don’t want to memorize them inadvertently like I did the last song. So I stare at my watch and try to hum randomly, fill my ears with a kind of blurriness. The song plays four times for a total of fourteen and a half minutes. I start pushing buttons, which has no effect, but the push button sound does at least drown out the music. After the fifth version, I hang up.
I check the phone book for the downtown office address and get my papers together. I give the Judaism/lesbianism paper a C+. It does occur to me, looking around the office, that I wish I could confide in someone. I’ve seen other TAs gathered round one another, chatting about penmanship and boyfriends, and I’ve even joined into a few discussions on the values of plus and minus grades, whether a topic sentence is overrated, and how to properly tone down your enthusiasm for the really cute boy students. But I don’t feel I can confide something like this to any of them. This seems more the thing to tell a total stranger.
I leave campus and walk as quickly as possible back to my house for my car. The crossing guard (is she there all day?) yells at me to slow up, although I think she means slow down. For some reason, I listen to her, as if she were really an authority figure instead of just a woman in orange. She has one of those forceful kinds of voices, I have to admit, especially when she isn’t singing show tunes. Once out of her sight, I run again, directly past house number four, and get my car going. I head in the direction of the local child abuse office. I will not be intimidated by any more answering machines. I prepare to be intimidated one-on-one.
But a sign on the door informs me that the office is closed until further notice. Other offices can be found in San Ysidro (this is far from here) and Riverside County (this is farther). Our local office may reopen if the new state budget is passed. It says this in professionally printed letters, as if trying to persuade me to take some political stance, some political action, which I might consider if I knew what could possibly help. I just have no idea. I try not to think about any of this.
On my way home I stop at Ralph’s to get some good packing boxes, even though I still have a few in the garage, having moved too many times to admit to. I have boxes from my days in Mission Viejo working for the letters to the editor section. I may even have a few boxes from old family days in Los Angeles, the brief visit to Orange County, the mistaken journey back to Los Angeles, although I don’t always like to see the old markings. Kitchen, bedroom, living room. The words seem ambiguous enough, but they bring back memories. I prefer my boxes unmarked.
Next to the big trash bins behind the store I find some really good boxes—they’re from canned goods, bottled water. No stains, no rips, no funny smells. I probably look a little odd standing there smelling boxes, but such things tend to be worthwhile. I pick up a nice smallish V8 box but something scurries out of it and runs behind the bin, startling me so that I throw the box back as fast as I can. It was something’s home, I berate myself. I step back and feel a little dizzy.
Get a grip, Patty. Tell yourself what a nice set of boxes this is. Altogether I’ve got five really good boxes, maybe more than I need given my previous collection, although you never know what will become of cardboard left too long in the garage. I fumble with the boxes, like a clown juggling items never intended by nature to be juggled, and try to load them into my car. My very old Toyota wagon, beige fading to a sickly skin color. I look up to see a woman in a bright blue car slowly approaching me.
“You can ask for boxes inside!” she yells at me angrily. She gives me a sneer as I lift two of my boxes from the ground. The woman’s about my age, although her car is much nicer and she’s wearing noticeable makeup, pink lips and cheeks, although not the same shade. Complementary shades, if you like pink. She drives away with this look of disgust, her car eerily making almost no noise at all. I guess that’s an attractive quality in a car these days, stealthiness, but I find my thundering old Toyota comforting. I like to hear it roar as I press the gas, whether it’s supposed to or not.
At home I find myself sorting and stacking belongings, unearthing long streams of dust-mite ridden material. When it gets dark, I stand out in front of my house, looking out into the street, which is fairly still. The neighbors are all inside, so the only sounds I hear are cars from the distance, plus the rattling sounds of animals rustling through bushes. Occasionally a skunk will come up to the back door, brave and fat, hunting around the garbage cans. The possum are far less attractive—I tend to make a lot of noise in hopes they’ll run off, but they’re fearless and dumb. Creatures braver than I pad around through the trees as I examine my street, not looking in that certain direction of that certain green house. I turn to look back at the house I’ll be leaving, wondering how long before the skunks need to move on, too. Something that lives out here ate my tomatoes right off the vines last summer, waiting until they were a perfectly ripe, deep red. I can’t see the Samsons putting up with this, although there might have been a time when I’d have thought they would.
I spend the next days packing and grading final papers, writing little comments in the margin for the students who’ve been nice, turning in my grades. Taking breaks, I go room by room evaluating my belongings: Little of the furniture is mine, just books and blankets, mostly. Clothes, a few of my grandmother’s pots and pans. The dishes belong to the Samsons, along with the silverware. Even the computer is one of theirs, old, the screen fading on one side. I have my aging small TV (it’s not cable ready) and its new little traveling TV offspring from the presentation, plus my tiny stereo. Folders and folders of schoolwork that I don’t even want anymore. Throwing things away at a time like this may come back and haunt me, I know. But I load up a few garbage bags anyhow. There’s not even much in the fridge to part with. Living alone means I don’t have much that’s too heavy for me to carry by myself, that everything I have seems condensed enough to fit into the compact car. Even my TV seems oddly light, as if it were made out of Styrofoam like the fake display TVs you find at furniture stores. When I’m through packing up the car, the house looks pretty much the same—lamps, pictures, sofas all the Samson’s—enough so that I wonder whose life I’ve been living. I don’t even like these pictures—flowers painted in periwinkle mostly, not even a real flower color. It makes me wonder if I’ve ever liked it here. I thought I did.
On the fourteenth I open my mail to find a package from the presentation. A full-color notebook filled with Santa Vallejo postcards, bumper stickers and a ten-page brochure. I go to put the brochure, the one from the presentation lunch, inside this one, but find it’s gotten itself lost in the moving mess. It may be trapped inside a garbage bag, soon to be nibbled by skunks of various weight, heft, and aroma. It may turn up five years from now in a box with no marking whatsoever.
Late that night I stand outside again, since inside seems so much like a house that I might have once lived in. The air feels as if it desperately needs to rain, but some other element won’t let it. Something angry bites me, which somehow isn’t surprising. I trip walking along the sidewalk as I have dozens of times—I’ve always thought that it’s my nearsightedness that makes me trip, but these cracks would attack anyone, I finally realize. Tripping makes the right side of my head threaten to ache, just a stab, but it decides against it. I head up the street, but not with a great sense of purpose. It’s a little surprising how purposeless I feel, unless I’m just hiding it from myself. I think back to Goldilocks for some reason—now, did she have a certain determination, looking from bowl to bowl, bed to bed? Was she actively pursuing that thing that would be just right? Or was she just wandering? No, Goldilocks was starving, exhausted, desperate, not just for food and sleep (she could get these) but for the right food and sleep. The loving sense of food and sleep, rest, warmth (community, the presentation’s voice echoes in my mind, nodding, urging me on). But I’m not sure. Was she greedy, or just in search of some much-needed and fulfilled promises?
Outside house number four I hear yelling. It’s coming from way inside the house. A bathroom, maybe, because there’s that funny reverberating you get from tile all around you. I can just picture the tiles—green with that bathroom mold and crud blackening the spaces between them. The porcelain tub with its orangy drippy-looking rust stains. I hear an odd woman’s voice, slurring words, the way the parents on the Peanuts cartoons talk—just garbled sounds without meaning. The way dogs supposedly hear us. But these are angry sounds. Threatening. And outside, I see the chain leading into the doghouse.
Wake up, Patty.
It’s after midnight. There’s a little boy chained to a doghouse after midnight, bitten by angry insects, definitely without the right kind of food and sleep. I let myself into the dog run—it’s locked, but the lock is so dilapidated it springs open in my hands. It’s not much bigger than the cheap lock you keep on a diary—especially a diary you don’t ever expect anyone to care enough to break into. I see an old dog bowl next to the house as I approach, and this bowl, with its dirty white outside and scratched up inside, this bowl is, I think, the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I once saw a woman with her head cracked open in a car accident (everyone was looking), but this is worse. This one ten-inch bowl is worse, and I want to tear it apart, bludgeon it with a hammer, just blast the hell out of it. But I can’t move, because this stupid bowl has me paralyzed.
I finally turn to look. A light from the side of the house shines directly into his eyes. What’s around his neck isn’t a dog collar, as I’d imagined, but a thick piece of rope, like a curtain sash, tied to the chain. Double-knotted. He looks at me sleepily, sucking on one hand at his mouth, the other grasping one of those blankets people take to picnics or football games for their laps, only they wouldn’t take this one. They wouldn’t give this one to a dog, I think, a little afraid to approach, as if he were a scary stray dog. But he’s a little boy, like I said, three or four, I can’t tell. Curled up on an old pillow. This is a little boy, Patty. There’s no such thing as a stray little boy.
Getting the string off is hard–I finally have to cut at it with the small Swiss Army knife I have on my keychain (it has a dollsize, unreliable scissors, but I make them work this time). Although I worry briefly about him striking out, he stays amazingly still as the rope binds and pinches his skin. I hear a few sounds, squeaks that must come from him, but he continues only to grasp at the filthy blanket. When I take it from him I expect a little fight, but he lets go of it easily, as if he had no claim to it at all. I pull him out of the doghouse, his ripped imitation Keds half hanging off. He’s so light. I carry him and try to figure out how heavy he is in comparison to other things, but I can’t really imagine the weights of the usual standards. A sack of potatoes? I’m one person—I don’t usually buy a whole sack. They’d go bad.
I’m not really surprised to find that he fits perfectly into the last free space in the car. I place him next to a soft, soft blanket (you have to have one when you live alone, or it’s just too sad) and my unused guest pillow. The look on his face confirms for me what I already suspected, something about the vast difference between greed and desperation. He sinks into the thickness of the blanket and that plumpness I’d found so annoying in my extra pillow—I can tell they feel just right. I place the Santa Vallejo notebook between the front seats—there’s a little map inside—and start driving my way out of this storybook.