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Oct/Nov 2001 spotlight

Memento Mori

by Ronald F. Currie, Jr.


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

With a nod to Nick Drake

1.

I first saw the black-eyed dog when I was twelve. It was summer in New England, in Maine, back in the summer of 1981, and that cocksucking, sonofabitching cur with his dry scaly nose and snaggleteeth, that "fearsome hound of hair," as Kerouac's Old Bull Balloon would have it, followed me home from my great-grandmother's house after I'd finished mowing her lawn and talking with her over glasses of lemonade and a tin of pink mints.

He followed me home, like strays are supposed to. My mother lived only two streets over from my great-grandmother. It was that kind of neighborhood, and mine was that kind of family. I pushed my lawnmower along the side of the road, my feet gritting in the summer dust, a crisp five dollar note from Great-Grammy in my hip pocket. The black-eyed dog appeared seemingly out of nowhere and followed at my heels. He kept his crusty nose to the pavement, and his tail wagged slightly with the movement of his hips. He looked sick, but he stepped briskly, bouncing along on legs like steel coils. When I first saw him, I was afraid; a dog that lean could have only one thing on his mind, and he might not be above trying to make a meal of me. So I did what I'd been taught: stop and face the animal, raise your arms, stand on your tiptoes and make yourself as big and intimidating as you can. Tell the animal in deep, commanding tones (difficult for a frightened twelve-year-old to muster) to go away. And whatever you do, don't try to run.

I did all those things. Above all I did not run. But rather than go away or bare his teeth and face me down, the dog stopped a few feet away and sat back on his skinny, mange-splotched haunches. He wouldn't look at me, instead casting his gaze to the ground and moving his head in that bobbing, servile way dogs do when they're being scolded. He whimpered a bit, and he was a pathetic sight—more than enough, certainly, to move my heart, which was a delicate, sensitive machine back then, bloated with guilt and sympathy.

What could I do? I started pushing the mower toward home again, calling him along. He resumed his bouncing gait and seemed encouraged now, though his nose stayed pressed to the dirt. By the time I'd turned the corner onto my street, I had named him and made plans for building a doghouse with the scrap wood left over from the shed my grandfather built. I envisioned August afternoons spent throwing tennis balls for the dog to fetch. I saw us ranging through overgrown fields chasing garter snakes, lying down in the tall grass where no one could find us.

My mother took one look at the dog and said, "No way."

My father was dead, or he would have convinced her to let me keep him.

But it was all academic anyway, because that night when I went outside to see the dog, he was gone, and the next day my Great-Grammy died, and I forgot all about the dog for a while.

 

2.

His eyes are deep and inky, yet sometimes, in the right light, they shine like new leather. Of course he does not age perceptibly. He is forever lean and dirty, his coat without sheen, his teeth yellowed and dull. His eyes have no sclera; they are black through and through. If I listen closely during those moments when I am most aware of being alone, usually when I am sick or can't sleep, I hear his nails clicking and dragging on the porch or the pavement. His eyes are blind. They sit, fixed and dead, like marbles in their sockets.

 

3.

I saw the black-eyed dog again when I was seventeen. My high school years were spent at a prestigious boy's academy in Massachussetts, a place where all the teachers were called "doctor" and people used the word summer as a verb. I ended up at this school through chance, athletic prowess, and the intervention of a kindly junior high teacher back home who considered my talents wasted on Maine's public school system. I hated the academy and all it represented; at a very young age I had already developed the personality traits and biases common in a class warrior. For example, I didn't believe that rich people were capable of love. They seemed that inhuman to me. But I stayed on in Massachussetts because this made my mother proud, and, as I got older, because it afforded me the opportunity to rub the administration's face in my poverty and my Catholicism. They tolerated me because I was not Jewish or Black, and because I could catch a football and run fast and tackle boys twice my size with ease and violent relish.

I and the other kids at the academy got along fine.

Three of them are dead now. They were with me the night I saw the black-eyed dog for the second time. We were drunk, staggering back to campus after a party in town to celebrate the next day's Homecoming game. I saw the cur dart across the darkened street, flitting in and out of the orange light cast by the streetlamps. He was there and not there all at once, like a name you can't quite recall. I knew what he was. I hollered, pointing him out to my friends, but they were drunk and slow in looking up, and they missed him. Those boys names were Scott, Leo, and Ethan. They were tall, well-bred children on the cusp of manhood: beautiful, blond, corn-fed Protestant boys without a mean bone among them. They exuded kindness and enthusiasm like sweat, as only children of the wealthy can. They thought I was seeing things when I told them about the dog. They kidded me about it. Their laughter rang out in the October chill. There was no Homecoming game the next day, because the three had been on the football team, but they were dead, and we couldn't field a full squad. No one wanted to play, anyhow.

 

4.

Heart attack. Asthma attack. Bear attack. Food allergy. Bee sting allergy. Prescription drug allergy. Hanta virus. Salmonella virus. AIDS virus. Flu virus. Heart failure. Liver failure. Kidney failure. Lead poisoning. Scromboid poisoning. Mercury poisoning. Arsenic poisoning. Radiation poisoning. Car accident. Hunting accident. Boating accident. Freak accident. Lou Gehrig's Disease. Multiple Sclerosis. Diabetes. Suicide. Homicide. Fratricide. Genocide. Laceration. Starvation. Mutilation. Contusion. Infarction. Cancer of the blood, bones, brain, breast, cervix, colon, intestines, kidneys, lungs, mouth, skin, stomach, testicles, throat, uterus. Pride. Greed. Lust. Sloth. Gluttony. Envy. Wrath. Went in his sleep. It was her time. At least he didn't feel anything. That's how I want to check out. She's in a better place. God called him home. We did our best. Nothing could be done. When it's your time, it's your time. Everyone goes sometime. Who wants to live forever? Who wants to live forever?

 

5.

I've loved two women in my twenty-nine years. One of them is named Claire, and she loves me in return, but grows tired, I suspect, of my fear.

The other was named Bonnie. She was a tall, thoughtful girl with a smile for everyone and hair like scorched honey. We had two wonderful years together, during college, until the black-eyed dog came up and licked her on the shin while we were throwing a frisbee around one Saturday afternoon. She died that night in my bed. Something in her brain gave way. She went through a series of seizures, thrashing the covers and biting through her tongue, while I slept soundly and without dreams only a foot away.

I never really got over Bonnie, the love she took with her, or the way she died. Lots of people have losses from which they never fully recover. But life goes on, more or less.

 

6.

It's not just me. Pay attention. Keep your eyes open, let them adjust to the darkness. Listen carefully when it seems there's nothing at all to listen for, when the air around you becomes a still, silent vacuum. You'll see him. You'll hear him.

 

7.

I haven't left my apartment for nearly a year. The black-eyed dog is out there somewhere, waiting.

I've found that I can live a more or less full life without setting foot out the front door. I have to rely on the help of people less easily cowed than I am, of course. I rely the most on my mother, who is still youthful and energetic despite her age and all she's been through. She does most of my shopping. She takes care of the mail. Whenever it's necessary for someone to meet with me and that person cannot come to my apartment, my mother goes to them as my representative. I feel guilty about having her do so much, but I am able, with my income, to provide for her easily, and that's something. For the first time in her life, she doesn't have to worry about being evicted, or having to choose between staying warm and eating. I give her this comfort, this peace of mind, and it is a great satisfaction. She insists on doing my chores and errands for me, in return. I think she enjoys mothering me still. And she loves to be outside, takes pleasure in going from place to place, in the day's small transactions, in chatting idly with checkout girls, mailmen, and other friendly strangers. She engages life. But she does worry, sometimes, about doing too much for me, encouraging my hermetic lifestyle. She wants to see me come out into the sunlight again.

When I complain that she doesn't buy the sweet, fatty foods I want, she says, "It's my job to make sure you eat well. If you want to eat junk, you'll have to go out and buy it yourself."

"Mom," I say, "it's dangerous outside. For everyone."

"Well, I go out every day. I'm still here, aren't I?"

"Plenty of people aren't, though. Dad, for instance."

Hearing this, she gives me a warning glance and says, "Don't bring your father into this. That was different. He went to war. In wars, people die."

"People die crossing the street."

"They die hiding from life in their stuffy apartments, too!" and she shuts the cupboard door with a bang. "Put some coffee on," she says.

 


8.

Claire calls my personal line while I'm in the middle of faxing an article.

"Hello."

"John. It's me."

"Hi, honey. Listen, I'm busy. Can I call you back?"

"We haven't talked in weeks, John. How important can it be, whatever you're doing?"

"A popular men's magazine. They pay very well. I'm a frequent contributor. I have a reputation with them, and a deadline."

"Fine. I just wanted to say one thing to you, anyway: Everyone else in the world has come to terms with mortality, theirs and others."

"They haven't come to terms with it, Claire. They just don't think about it. There's a difference."

"Well, either way, they leave the house from time to time. Just a little food for thought."

And she hangs up.

 

9.

I sit at the kitchen table sipping lukewarm decaf coffee. It is well past midnight. I won't sleep until the windows begin to brighten with the dawn. In the crack between the entryway door and the doorframe I can hear his diseased snout poking around, sniffing. The whole world is asleep, and there is no other sound.

 


10.

My mother brings the mail from my post office box. I let her in, scan the yard quickly. "No one and nothing is out there," she says as she passes by me, and I close the door and throw the deadbolt.

"Magazines, magazines, magazines," she says, tossing a bundle on the table. "A few letters, a few bills. Flyers from Wal-Mart and Rite-Aid. Plus I got the part you needed for the printer. That little doohickey."

"Thank you," I say. I dig through the pile of mail, find something important-looking, open it. "Do you need any money?" I ask.

"I could use some. I'm going to the beach. It's a beautiful day."

"Looks like it." I put the letter down and reach for my wallet.

"I'd rather not go alone," she says. "These things are better when you share them with someone."

"Mom," I say, not wanting to have this discussion again.

"Johnny," she says, "I'm dying."

 


11.

Esophageal cancer.

My bedroom is filled with the gadgets and electronic devices of an exceedingly modern existence. Tonight, all of them are turned on. The televisions and stereo flash and holler. Two cell phones and a pager wait with fading patience to ring and beep. The five-CD changer is set to random so it will whir and clack while switching discs. Tinny music comes from the Gameboy on the bed beside me. The PC and printer and fax machine and zip drive are all on, microchips buzzing industriously, cooling fans humming without end.

He's out there, I know, prowling around my driveway, but all I can hear is this cacophony of human invention, blaring defiantly into the silent maw of everywhere-night.

 


12.

Claire says, "Your mother told me all about it. I've known for a month now."

We are lying in bed together at noon. We are naked. I am tired and drowsy, but in a good way. We were gentle with each other while we made love. Claire likes for us to take our time. She believes that people, especially young people like us, are always in too much of a hurry. She drives slower than the speed limit and lets old ladies cut in front of her at the grocery store. What's the big rush, she sometimes wonders aloud.

"She's really a remarkable woman," Claire says now. "Your mother."

"She certainly is."

"So brave and cheerful. So unafraid."

"She's always been that way."

"I admire her," Claire says.

"Good," I say. Then I say, "What am I going to do?"

"John," Claire says, "don't make me think less of you by feeling sorry for yourself right now."

I sigh. "You're right. I won't."

"Maybe you should think about what you could do for her, rather than what you're going to do for yourself."

"Like what?" I say. "What can I do for her? What can my money buy her now? The finest casket? A nice, ornate, vandal-proof headstone? Should I bury her with coins under her tongue, Claire, so she'll have nothing but the best in the Hereafter?"

Claire presses her fingers to my lips. "You're not angry," she says. "You're afraid. You know what you should do, and it scares you."

"Should do," I say, "but can't."

"Can and will," Claire says.

"No."

"I'll arrange it."

"No, Claire."

"Yes," she says. "For your mother."

 

13.

That night he gets into the house, somehow. He scratches at my bedroom door with his cracked, overgrown claws. It sounds like bootheels on gravel. It sounds like an eternity spent toiling in vain.

 

14.

My mother calls and says, "Johnny, I'm so excited! I can't tell you how happy this makes me!"

When I get off the phone with her I call Claire, meaning to break up with her. But she doesn't give me a chance to speak.

"What's the worst that can happen?" Claire says, sounding tired, as if her patience has been used up. "She's already dying, John."

 

15.

I sleep better than I have since the first time I saw the black-eyed dog. The house is silent as a tomb all night. When I wake there are tufts of greasy, foul-smelling hair all over the comforter.

 

16.

I wait for my mother to pick me up to go to the beach. I didn't know what to wear and spent three quarters of an hour going through my closet. Finally I decided on khaki shorts and an old "Property Of University of Maine Athletic Department" T-shirt. This is casual enough attire. It makes me seem relaxed, I decide.

I'm expecting my mother to come inside, but I hear her pull up and, a minute later, yell to me from the driveway. I go to the door. I turn the handle. My palms are damp and my knees keep trying to buckle and send me to the ground. I open the door. Sunlight bursts into the kitchen. The air smells like... lilacs.

I step out onto the porch.

My mother is standing in the driveway, next to her Cadillac. She has on a light summer skirt and a floppy white hat with a big brim. She is smiling. She looks like she couldn't die even if she wanted to.

She waves extravagantly, holding the hat on her head with her other hand. Then she points to the tree beside the driveway and says, "Look what I found!"

Tied to the tree with a length of rope is the black-eyed dog. He is lying on his side in the shade. His fur is tousled and he's breathing hard. He looks like he just came out on the losing end of a fight.

"Johnny!" my mother calls. "Get the poor creature some water. Can't you see he's thirsty? And let's get going."

I do what she tells me, the dutiful son to the end.

When I get into the car and strap on the seatbelt, my mother says, "There. Will you relax now, and have a good time?"

 

17.

And I do relax. We drive the hundred or so miles to the coast with the windows down and the radio blasting a local oldies station. They play Elvis and ABBA and Neil Diamond, songs I remember my mother listening to while she washed dishes and scrubbed the floors when I was a boy. She had all the vinyl LPs—Don't Be Cruel; ABBA Gold; The Jazz Singer. I recall the big colorful square album covers as we drive. We know all the words, and both of us sing along until my mother asks me to please stop, and then she sings by herself.

The hair on my forearm tingles in the breeze. We pass in and out of the shade cast by trees on the side of the road. Sunlight is much brighter than I remember. The countryside along Route 201 is lush, verdant, the shades of green on display impossibly varied. Tony Orlando never sounded so good.

We stop at a lobster pound for lunch. Outside the restaurant, wood-fired kettles blow great columns of steam into the air. It smells as though the Atlantic is boiling. The dining area on the deck is populated mostly by out-of-state tourist types, upper-middle class professionals in pressed L.L. Bean slacks and Ray-Ban sunglasses, the men tall and well-fed, their wives self-possessed, clinging to the mediocre beauty of their prime with anti-aging creams and expensive hair.

My mother and I order twin one-pounders and eat with gleeful messiness while the other, more refined diners cast embarassed glances our way. Our fingers are smeared with butter and flecks of white meat. We wear plastic bibs with a big cartoon lobster on them. The cartoon lobster is holding a fork in one claw and a knife in the other. He is bright red, which means he has been cooked (live lobsters are greenish blue). In spite of this (the fact of his being boiled to death) he is striking a lively pose, balancing on the end of his tail and smiling. My mother suggests that he might be overjoyed at the prospect of eating himself. This gets us laughing so hard we have to stop what we're doing and let our hands rest in our laps until the laughter subsides.

Sometime during lunch my mother says, "Claire is the best girl you could ask for. Don't let her go. Do whatever you have to."

I say that I will.

Afterwards we drive down to the beach. A steady wind is blowing in off the water. This far north the Atlantic is too cold to swim in except for two weeks or so in August, so we sit down in the sand and watch the gulls ride the air currents above us. After a while I get up and hunt around for crab shells. As I find them I bring them back to where our blanket and parasol are and line the shells up along one side of the blanket. Satisfied with my collection, I sit down again and breathe the ocean air through my nose.

My mother says, "You know, you're not the only one who's missed your father."

"What?"

She's looking out at the water. "Don't play dumb, son," she says. "That's why you shut yourself away for so long. That's the real reason. Think about it. Tell me I'm wrong."

I don't say anything.

"When someone you love dies, it seems like the whole world should stop for a while and mourn with you. But it doesn't," she says. "So you tried to make it stop."

I look around the beach. Everything is in motion. Earth and Sun and Moon. The waves breaking in the surf are a billion years in the making. The salt breeze continues past us on its way around the Earth. I feel no connection to any of it, other than fear at the world's indifference to me and all that I love.

My mother stands and smooths her skirt down around her legs. She walks barefoot to the high tide line and writes in the wet sand with her toe. In a few minutes she finishes and takes a step back to consider what she's done. Then she comes and sits down next to me.

"What was that?" I ask. "What did you write?"

"Never mind," she says. "don't go down there til the tide comes in some."

 

18.

By the time we get back it is nearly dark. The air has turned cool, as it does on these late-summer evenings. Claire's car is in my driveway and the kitchen light is on. The black-eyed dog is still tied to the tree. My mother parks behind Claire and gets out of the car and goes over to the dog. He sits up at attention as she approaches, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth in the grass.

My mother fiddles with the knot around his neck. "Come here, Johnny," she says to me.

I do as she tells me. I stand beside her as she works the knot loose and slips the rope up and off the dog's neck.

"Here," she says, and she takes my hand and puts it on the dog's head. I am surprised to feel living heat radiating from under his fur.

The porch light comes on and Claire opens the front door. "How'd it go?" she calls to us. "Did you have a good time? Get in here, you two, where it's warm."

The dog sits still for a moment under my hand. He looks up. His eyes lock on mine, and something passes between us briefly. Then he gets to his feet, turns, and steps briskly away, his tail wagging with the movement of his hips. He rounds the corner of the house and is gone.

"See?" my mother asks, and I do.

 

19.

Three months later, she dies.

 

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