I knew in those summer months when my heart was no longer mine and every day was given to thoughts of Cracker. He had come for food again round dinnertime, and I had squirreled away some chicken and one slice of boysenberry pie. Cracks was one of those kids not tied to parents though he had four at that point – both parents remarried. No one ever calling him home. And Cracker fell through every crack. He declared love by the side of my house that night in late June as he put the food into his old dirty knapsack that he was never without. My father called my name from the front door – that it was getting late. Then Cracker asked me if I felt the same, and leaned toward me with my first kiss I remember to this day. It lasted until a second warning from my father – a good two minutes. I couldn’t say the words. Instead, I said, “I gotta go.” We walked to the front of my house where my father said, “Good night, Howard.” And every day around 7pm, I’m twelve and speechless just like when word came that the car didn’t swerve fast enough, and Cracker never made it home.
On Rue Madeleine, there’s a marvelous shop that’s only open two days each week through the summer. Young and old come to order various ice cream flavors made with edible flowers and with the honey from bees that pollinate magnolias. I’ve heard tell, the secret of these treats comes from the milk of tranquil French cows who listen to jazz in the night. All I know for sure is that the long line of eager customers waits patiently – inching through the heat toward their favorite flavor – Affaire de Coeur.
The town dogs gather in tired shade of the square to sleep off lunchtime pizza crusts tossed in back of Tony’s Ristorante on Main. Because of Tony, they make it through every winter – Dirko, Chazzy, Lumpy, Sailor and Blue Eyes. In midsummer this year on a Friday night, my guy Ben and I bought a pizza from Tony’s and these five dogs started following us. Now the seven of us are regulars around 7pm on Fridays. You’d be surprised how dogs can tell time. So we walk to the square and everybody gets a slice. Tony cuts it special for us. Nobody steals anybody else’s. Then they head back to Tony’s to mooch off someone else – except for Lumpy who always liked the way Ben scratched his ears. Then Ben would give him a Styrofoam bowl of fresh water after the others had gone. Lumpy is old, see, and started spending weekend nights with us. Finally, Lumpy gave in and has stayed every night this last month of summer. We call him Lumpy, but really he’s wrinkly. Only a name like Wrinkly just doesn’t carry the same cachet as a name like Lumpy. So Lumpy and his name stayed. We don’t know how long we have with him because his muzzle is white. We keep him full of pizza, a muffin now and then, and canned dog food. Lumps knew it was his time to retire from the streets. He was just lookin’ for the right home. Seems Ben and I pass muster.
Sunrise stretched under the curtains across the carpet, and my cat Misha pawed at it knowing it was Saturday and I wanted to doze late. Every afternoon, Misha battles the shadows of tree leaves fluttering on the carpet. She always wins for the shadows go away. And Misha is fatigued because vanquishing is a particularly demanding art. Today was a supreme success. The leaves didn’t come at all – thinking better of it, I feel. I didn’t tell Misha about the clouds and the storm approaching. But she took her place under the bed where no storm has ever appeared. Forever wise, Misha knew. Just as she knows the best place to protect me from intruders in the night is my vulnerable abdomen. From this perch, Misha stays awake watching darkness. Ready to attack. Ready for Armageddon. And if imperative, ready to take command from under the bed.
I think nothing of waking at 3am when my mother is still mine, when there are so many things to be said, while there is time. At daybreak, I hear that she passed on in the night. At one time, I believed she had taken all our shared tomorrows with her. We each are the call that will not come now. One month after, tears still take the shape of folded frailty. In the turn and turn of autumn, I read a happy sigh of her old letters found within a book. She is not far – only in the next room, tucked gently within the light of dreams, finding sleep between remembrance and beginning.
In late August, the tree was bursting with so many cherries that pies were crying to be made. My father had tended the tree through hardships we couldn’t keep him from. High blood pressure, open heart surgery and a pacemaker. So on that fortuitous day, my mother and I gathered at the kitchen table and began pitting cherries. My father’s eyes danced with pride as he carried more cherries through the door until the tree was spent. And once pitted, the cherries couldn’t wait. Three pies were built and baked. We three ate our bubbling pie in summer’s last heat. You would have thought you smelled the scent of man’s victory over nature filling the house. You would have believed my father would live forever. You’d have thought anything when my father forgot himself for those hours, and we were three birds flying.
Dottie believed she owned a Cairn terrier, but that terrier owned her. Dottie would do anything for her little pumpkin. She quickly learned race walking when Dumpling would take off still on his leash after everything that moved and some things that didn’t. Dottie discovered she would meet new people when racing through the park. People wanted to meet her tiny munchkin. Even young children would shout, “Toto, Mommy!” And adults would say, “This brings back memories of sitting around the television once a year, watching Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion.” Then Dottie would be hurriedly drawn away, leaving her saying, “Awfully nice to have met you. We seem to have spotted a tree that may not be there in two minutes. You know how trees are apt to run off.” And when Dottie and Dumpling returned home, Dottie would always say, “You were counting, right? I’d hate to think we missed a tree.” And Dumpling would look romantically up at Dottie as if she was every bit a tree while Dottie looked down at her little kumquat. Life wasn’t dull for either of them. It’s just that Dottie believed she owned a Cairn terrier, but that terrier owned her.