The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
I stand on the end of the deck, my hand shielding my eyes from the sun. It’s morning still, but mosquito heat is heavy in the yard, and even the peppers suffer, limp on their stems.
I stare at the lawnmower, which is out of gas. The workers next door are pouring concrete, all noise with the white of the truck and its tires, their stereo cracking reception, the grey dust of their work, their cuticles caked in it, sticking to the lines in their foreheads, their thirst as their hands reach through the fence to pet my dog. The tall one nods a brief hello, his face broken up through the narrow slats.
“I had a beagle growing up,” he says over their music. He scratches behind her red ear and after a moment walks back to his work. She stands watching him.
I call her over, but she crawls under the porch, frantic with the smells. My father kept beagles on our farm, caged in chain-link three feet above the ground. I tried to make them sweet, pulling one out to hold occasionally, only for her to arch away. The men would shake their heads, “we don’t raise them for holding” they’d say. One spring, a whole pack was stolen from the pen, and we woke up to no barking, the chain dangling from the crates, and all that emptiness inside. My father, his fists clenched, said that hungry people sometimes come in the night to steal good hunting dogs, that they hunt with them out of season and usually half starve them into work since it’s new men with new commands. When they come, he said, they carry carrion with them, to quiet any barking. Miraculously, one female made her way back about two days later. When she trotted tiredly up the gravel driveway to us, my father let her sleep in the house from then on, and she was fat with love by winter, sitting between my two brothers on the couch, two boys who were finally allowed some softness after stacking firewood day after day. This dog had been through six litters and watched every puppy sold off, so her retirement to a fat house cat was acceptable. Years later, I showed my girls pictures of the farm with its dogs and tractors and the hungry obedience of those hunting dogs and wide-eyed, they asked for that, having not had anything that wild and good, running around suburbs instead of the drafty cabin at the end of the dirt road. And why couldn’t they have grown up there, they wanted to know. I wanted to tell them why I moved us. The schools, the vaccinations, the tick-borne illnesses to avoid, but they didn’t hear me, as we don’t ever hear over our want.
My younger girl, she weighed too little when she was born, and so I always gave her everything she asked for, like she’d always be two pink pounds forever, and she still is. When we visited the adjacent farm, and she found the hunting dogs, a litter newly born wet with blind bodies in the cedar warmth inches from their mother’s belly, who can say no to a little girl who has been dragging her doll around behind her since she could walk. But now she has left for college, and I’m left with her beagle, still hunt-wild, untrainable, a dawn-light dog, a dog bred for a man’s hands, a deer stand dog, whatever is in them always has been, and it will stay that way.
Standing in the heat, I can see the dark shadow of her fur moving below the slats of wood. I need to go for gas, so I call her again, but she won’t come. I hear her feral crawl after the rabbit, but she’s never caught one. Always too fast, they inch before her front paws before dashing a grey blur through a hole in the fence to safety. I decide she’s fine in the backyard by the stalled mower for just a few minutes, and with my keys in my pocket, I walk to my car next to the men working in the street.
I had met the tall one the day before. He was young, should have been in high school young. He stood out of a bend to stretch. I smiled in response to their stares, keeping my head down. He wiped his brow.
“100 degrees and hot as hell. A good day for concrete.”
Since yesterday, during every break, he comes to the fence to pet the dog. To chat. He still doesn’t pick up the clue when I don’t look up. And earlier today he asked if he could fill up his water from the side of my house. I said yes. So he did and thanked me. Because of this, I feel comfortable asking him to keep an eye on the dog.
“I’m going to fill up this gas. The dog, Molly is her name, is still out back. I’ll just be five minutes.” I don’t even know his name.
“Okay. Do you need one of us to go for you?” Then pausing. “Do you want to call your husband or something?”
“He’s not home,” I answer, truthfully. Hasn’t been home for six years.
“Do you need a can? For the gas?” He asks.
“I’ve got my own. It will just take a minute. I appreciate it. And help yourself to water if you need it.”
“I’ll keep old Molly company,” he says.
I drive to Oliver’s Shell at the end of Jamieson. In school, Angie and I would stop here for cigarettes after shifts at the restaurant. After a night of work, we noticed the cheap dish soap had torn apart our hands, but we liked how the job let us close up late with a key that Angie kept on a silver chain around her neck and drive around after, drinking cans of beer in her Thunderbird. At 16 years old, we could walk into Oliver’s and buy a twelve-pack of Budweiser with a warm palm of dollar bills and coins. Budweiser seemed like something maybe I’d be sent down to pick up for a father or someone, so that’s what I bought. Angie said I was the one who should go in to try to buy for the first time, I was taller, and that I should put the beer down and order cigarettes to distract him. “Still underage,” I protested. “Just try,” she urged. “What does it hurt to try?” What does it hurt to try. Maybe it doesn’t for the first few times, but after that maybe we’d rather not try at something we know might bite us. But it worked that summer day in 1991. Oliver stood behind the register and took my money as I looked over his shoulder and asked for cigarettes, “Marlboro Lights, please.”
“These things will kill you,” the old man would say, his watery eyes barely off the newspaper. “Mess up your skin. Your teeth too.”
“I know. Trying to quit,” I lied, and I took the paper bag and walked quickly out to the chime of the door. Oliver’s was gritty then, even more so now since then the asphalt has broken apart, and the old man is gone too.
Angie and I met the night I was hired to replace the girl she had worked with before who quit to go to college. Angie hated me immediately and steadily through the first spring. It wasn’t until she burned her hand bad on the stove that she started to trust. She couldn’t do anything that week but stand around and tell me what to do. She was expecting me to get angry, but I don’t get mad much, so soon after that, we settled into easy talk and nights sitting on the hood of her car, sharing cigarettes until curfew. And after that our drives. We kept our tip coins in a styrofoam cup in the front seat next to the small yellow jar of the Carmex lip balm that we shared, Angie and me, and in the summer heat, it would burn our fingers as we reached in. But that was twenty years ago, and the Thunderbird was wrecked, and Angie is dead, and Oliver is dead too, and the girl at the register probably doesn’t even know the old man or how after he came back from the war he bought the station, and still worked the pumps himself and kept it FULL SERVICE for the older women whose husbands didn’t come home like he did, or they came home in a box with a flag that she still has folded in her upstairs cedar chest. The girl at the register today has hair with the ends dyed blonde, and she’s probably never read a newspaper in her life, I think as I see her through the glass, sitting cool with a wall of lotto and condoms behind her. I buy seven dollars’ worth of gas, briefly noticing my reflection in the mirror before I replace the pump. I’m pretty much the same as I was 25 years ago, but like the station, a little grittier too. I do not go inside. I see the girl look up, scan the pumps in the lot, her eyes briefly settling on me. Just a stranger wiping her brow, the smell of gas on her hands. Just a woman wearing men’s clothes. Overalls. A ball cap on. I could be anyone.
I fill my tank and drive the mile back home. The workers are standing on my front porch, knocking on my door, though they saw me leave. I walk up. The boy is on my front porch, bleeding—a gash in his palm, a red line cutting through the white chalk on his hand, dropping red on the concrete, on his work boots. He stands, his mouth open in a grimace. The other man sees me and waves me over.
“He’s cut, I’ll be right back,” and pulls out his phone from his white work pants.
“It’s okay,” I say out loud. “Come with me,” and he does, to the hose on the side of my house.
“It was the rebar cutter,” he says to his hand. “Your dog is fine, chasing rabbits,” he stutters. “You have a nest in the backyard, she’s been digging at. You might want to check that out.”
There is a lot of blood.
“Okay, will you just stand here? I am going inside to get something to wrap it in.”
He nods, his eyes wince in the sun, his left hand holding his right, but the blood ribbons out, more black than red. Quiet blood. I run inside to the bedroom, tripping on the top stair in my boots, tracking mud on the floors, the dog following me, following the smell of it, and open the shirt drawer. I don’t have anything that’s not white. I pull out a thermal top, worn from washes, and return to him in my driveway. His blood is mixing into the rock and the grass and his partner is walking towards us, and I wrap the shirt around his hand, the callouses yellowed and cut into, easily a half of an inch in width.
“Hold it above your head,” I say. His face is pale.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Hey John,” the partner says dully not looking at me. “He’s calling the office now. I have to drive you to the ER. I guess that’s it for today,” he says all angry like.
“I’m John,” the boy says weakly, and he holds out his bleeding hand on instinct, but I say, “better keep that lifted.”
I watch him walk to the truck, tall, all angles. He turns around at the last minute, the mixing drum’s rotation slowing behind him and says, “better look in on that nest.” Then he uses his left hand to pull the door on his right side shut, and the sound of their talking stops. The day Angie died, she walked away not so unlike that. You watch someone, the back of her head, the way the strap of her bag kept slipping off her shoulder, not really able to hear what she was saying but that her face seemed happy and she gets into her car and starts the engine. And twenty years ago I yelled “wait” and leaned on the passenger side window looking in the back for my book, looking at my friend’s profile, her face always so pretty, and maybe because I’m talking to her about how I need my textbook back she forgets her seatbelt saying, “oh, right” as she reaches into the backseat her torso stretched long, that backseat where we had sat night after night, and she hands me the book, Spanish II, and the most immediate movement we all do, putting on our seatbelt, well she didn’t because I made her lean back for the book. And a few minutes later her hands are on the wheel, and she’s changing lanes on a Thursday afternoon on Highway 141, and her seatbelt isn’t on. The police who were at the scene told us she died instantly when she hit the windshield. She didn’t feel any pain, they said. “Are you sure? How do you know?” her mother had screamed. And I don’t tell her mom I don’t ever tell anyone about the book and I drop Spanish that semester even though my father doesn’t understand and I never talk about what I’ve done.
Sometimes when people walk away from us on an ordinary day, we don’t know that’s the last time we will ever see them.
I stand there for a minute after the concrete truck pulls away then turn to the hose to wash a stranger’s blood off of my hands. I notice some on the cuff of my pants, my boots, while I unscrew the cap of the mower and empty the can into the tank. I choke it three times, three pushes, and it starts up, the grasshoppers darting out of the way as I push out the neat rows, the darker green replacing the tips of the longer grass, making these lines, making order, making things right. They always say that if you do something over and over, it can lessen the gnaw of panic, that dark shadow in the hallway outside of your bedroom that won’t go away.
Walking the track, swimming laps, making something neat out of something wild, even if it doesn’t last, even if the grass grows back and the track closes because the sun goes down and the man with the mustache stands and waits, his arms crossed next to the big salt lights above the pool, “time to go” he says with some accent, and you have to walk home and there you can’t hide from yourself anymore. You have to think all the things you didn’t have time for when you were counting your steps on the track, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, one, the counting helps like a rosary helps, the words over and over, and the counting helps too with the physical stuff like stitches that boy will probably need.
I counted in labor too. I went into it at home, at 10:00 am on a Saturday, my tank top stretched by my pink belly, my feet sore and standing up to use the bathroom. Suddenly it came, the fluid, immediate in a warm rush, a can’t hold it in rush followed by a pain, otherworldly pain, ancient pain, God angry at Eve pain, and I was afraid to slip in it, so I grabbed the metal bedframe and I knew I was making noises that I hadn’t even heard before and I knew it was serious because when I looked at my husband whom I didn’t trust, oh God, to have to rely on a man you don’t trust, and he ran to pick me up I think, and he lifted me and I was counting on the bed as he pulled open the drawers for towels and clothes to put between my legs, anything to soak up all the wet that was coming, the person who was coming, the new life that was coming, God help us, and his face came closer and I raised my arms and he pulled clothes over my swollen breasts, my swollen belly like I was a child, and I counted one, two, three, four, five…
I use gloves when I mow. My hands have been raw red most of my life, but it means work and work is good. Angie and I would close up the diner and rub Bag Balm on our hands. If you haven’t used it, it’s really good. The workers could use some of that for their hands at the end of the week. Bites or scars the Bag Balm works really good for, but not the other. Things. Like a girl who dies in a car crash. Or a boy whose tools cut his hand nearly in half. The bag fills with grass. It has been two weeks since I’ve been out here. I kill the motor, sit on the back porch, and drink water with my gloves still on, the dog’s sniffing in front of the mower. “Molly,” I say. Her paw digs at the same spot. “Git,” I say, and walking over, she won’t move when I get there. “God dammit,” I say. And she’s at the hole, her paws and that bray and I know the boy was right about the nest. I move in slow motion time, and she bucks under me, something in her mouth. I hold her.
It looks like cotton in the ground, looks like clippings piled. There’s a hole filled with something. I touch it with my toe. I squint at the hole until the ground moves. The dog’s arching again. With my gloves on, I pull out one large clump to show slabs of grey, tiny thumbs of rabbits, pink and grey, their mouths little slashes, little wounds. The one on top has a cut. I lift it up. Its ears are tiny, slicked back against its head, almost dead, an adrenaline heart, pinprick life. There are more. The dog’s nose in the air, nostrils wide open breathing. I count four, five, more even. I am standing there holding the dog and a newborn bunny. What do I do? How many are there? Why would any animal build a nest in the middle of a yard? Was she frantic with labor? No better place? Who do I call? Angie is dead. Jesus. Still holding the bleeding rabbit, I grab the kicking dog and put her in and for the second time this morning, look for something to stop bleeding, anything, and find a blanket from the garage. It’s torn, ancient. My children would lay it on the ground of the kitchen and play with pans as I cooked, watching me from the floor. I would tell them, “stay on the raft, you’re in the ocean. You have to sail the raft to me. Don’t leave the raft!” Sometimes they would sit between my feet, mimicking my sounds with their own. The baby would hold a wooden spoon, her gums on the stained end, my four-year-old propping her up to sitting every time she rolled to her side. I wrapped the injured rabbit, then counted the others, one at a time, until seven lay in one wet mound. And grabbing my keys, heart racing, I drive to the veterinary clinic down the street, seven inches of life squirming on the seat beside me.
Drive to the Watson Vet. The girl behind the counter looks them over, reaching hesitantly with her small, impossibly small fingers holding the blanket I held my own daughter in. How does she do anything with such small hands? She stares at the little bodies, moving like caterpillars in her lap. The other workers at the clinic come look over her shoulder. One takes a picture with her phone. The first girl disappears in the back with the babies. I wait a long time. I see doctors hovering over a table with a white slab of antiseptic paper.
When we got the call about Angie, they told us to meet at the hospital. And we all sat in the waiting room, her parents standing, then sitting, then walking. We knew she was dead, but they had to identify the body, even though her wallet confirmed it, even though everyone knew it was her. But they make you, they make someone look. We sat in the waiting room, waiting to see a dead girl. I didn’t want to look, and I still don’t like looking now. I didn’t want to see her covered in blood, the key on the silver chain still around her neck, so I didn’t go in. I wanted to remember her body filled with the heat of life, not the life knocked out of her. Not her face broken by glass.
The girl returns from the back, her thighs in her baggy scrubs knees knocking. “We can’t help you. They’re too small,” the girl says, her face a little fallen.
“What do you mean? Don’t you have shots? Nutrition or something? Who can help me?”
“The Humane Society maybe. They’re too small for us. We don’t have the proper equipment.” I think of my little girl, too small. Her little chest that moved through my body, her impossibly hardworking heartbeat, the little pulse in her skull, tiny fists.
“What equipment is necessary to feed a baby rabbit? Don’t you have bottle feeders or something? Is it something I can do on my own?”
“Dr. Weiss says the Humane Society has an intake that caters to wild animals. We just can’t do that here.”
And she hands me the rabbits piled in a mound in the blanket my kids sat on but my kids are grown, and now it is full of wet rabbits whose mother is worrying, and I know that worry.
“Fine,” I say, not kindly.
The waiting room is full of people, and I leave angry. I imagine myself feeding these rabbits on my own. I want to call my father for someone to help with what to do. I can’t put them back in the yard, the dog will eat them. Will their mother even want to touch them now that I have? I know my father is older now, so he might say something gentler, but when he was a younger father and a new father, he would have taken them outside, and we just wouldn’t have asked what happened when he came back in. But this isn’t the Ozarks, and I’m far away from that now, and I moved far away from that, and in the city we don’t feed babies of anything to our dogs. In the city, we will take our only afternoon off work saving things because we’ll need saving one day too. So I don’t pick up my phone and find myself driving to the Humane Society. And the waiting room is full of people shopping for castaway animals, the opposite of how we treated animals in the country, which was to shoot them and eat them. I say sorry and push to the counter, saying sorry again, but when I start talking, no one gets mad. Faces crowd around the blanket. We all want them to live.
The woman at the counter of the Humane Society says they have to weigh them before she can tell me whether or not they can treat them. “They are so small, and they have to weigh at least 40 grams each for us to save them.”
“Can you weigh them?”
“Yes. I’ll be right back,” and she walks away, cooing over the blanket.
“What if they aren’t 40 grams each?” I ask, but she’s around the corner.
“Bring them home, put them back in the hole. The mother might take care of them,” a woman next to me says. “But if she doesn’t, you should try and feed them.”
“I have a dog,” I tell her. “A hunting dog. They’ll be eaten.” Jesus, the indignity of dying that way. I see the worker through a window, handing a blanket to someone behind her. I sit down on a plastic chair away from the woman.
Hunting season means you chop wood and everyone has chores from the time they can print their names and mine was carrying the pine for the wood-burning stove while the boys learned to clean the deer, and I didn’t want to see that so I stuck to the wood. There is no dating in a small town, only fathers keeping men away from the house and the first boy I ever noticed all the way rode a tractor bigger than the one I learned how to drive on. He was tall and lean, and I forget his name now, and I never got closer than 100 yards to him. But when it’s right after hay season and you see each other in the high sun, both of you the only two people for miles maybe, separated by a two-lane rural highway and only the image of how we might look, how we could love each other, well, maybe I thought that was love at that moment. A boy who helps his mother pull from her small side garden, a boy who tolerates his too-quiet father, a boy who stays close to home so that they can afford to send the younger son to college and says “yes, dad, sure I want to stay.” His name I forget, but when I came back after college, I saw a man about my age on a tractor in that same field and asked my father about whatever happened to that boy across Highway 7. “Eisele’s boy?” he asked.
“Yeah, the one who stayed home to farm.”
His arm, my father told me, was pulled off by a combine. “Ripped it right off,’ he said. “At the shoulder.” And he had to walk into the house for his mother to call for an ambulance. And just so you know, the nearest hospital is forty-five minutes from Highway 7 on Lake Road 7-13, so how does a mother stop that kind of wound from killing her best boy? And does it take a man’s arm to be ripped off at the shoulder to be good? What makes us good anyway? “He’s married now, boys of his own,” my father said, turning off for bait at Mimosa Beach market. I wondered about his wife. A local girl probably. We leave town and leave the good ones. Smallish and quiet. She got to have him after he was humbled by a machine the size of my college dorm room.
The worker comes out and returns to her computer. I stand and ask if she weighed them yet.
“They’re checking them in back right now. I’m sorry, but they have to be 40 grams.”
Then the woman behind me, “Lady, there has to be something you can do. Feed them a few grams? You’re a hospital after all.”
“We need to weigh them first.”
“What else could I do with them if I don’t want to put them back where I found them?”
“If they aren’t 40 grams, we can euthanize them for you,” she said, as though it was a favor. The woman behind me exhaled sharply.
So this is the punishment for being born. Being pulled from a hole and shot with poison to die under fluorescents. Or being shoved back into the cold ground and being eaten by another animal.
I sit down next to the woman. “You could build a hutch,” she says, patting my arm. My husband did that years ago. We bottle fed them, and they stayed there for a few years. Kept having babies.”
I imagine my backyard full of rabbits, their little twitchings, my dog chasing them everywhere. I wonder if the library has any books on building a hutch. I sit and tap my foot the whole time, thinking about how big a rabbit hutch needs to be I don’t care how small the rabbits are. We have to take care of one another, especially the smaller ones. We wait in silence for at least a half hour, the worker’s voice shocking me out of the silence.
The girl behind the counter stands up from her computer screen.
“It’s good news. We can take them.” My chest ungrips with relief.
“45 grams each,” she says. And the vet comes in from around the corner, my blanket in her hand, a tiny dropper in the other hand, full of a milky substance. The woman and I walk over to see little paws in the air, a tiny mouth sucking on the dropper. That little reflex from God. Survive, it says. Survive. The same prayer I said over my little girl, two pounds of bones and skin under a lamp in the NICU. Two pounds of life. What weighs two pounds?
I drive home alone in the car, the blanket left at the Humane Society, Angie’s key on the chain hanging from the rearview mirror, reflecting the sun, reflecting heat. It’s been over twenty years since she died. “45 grams. They’re still alive,” I say out loud to maybe her, maybe to myself. Back home in my yard, the mother rabbit is hopping around, frantically. I want to tell her it’s going to be okay, but I don’t know that for sure. Sometimes people die too soon. My best friend died from a head injury from hitting the windshield because a car rear-ended her because she had forgotten her seatbelt because I asked her for my Spanish book back. I can’t kill anything else. But sometimes things don’t die too. My daughter’s small body when she was born. Two pounds, and she grew and grew by grams per day. And that mother rabbit had given one last early morning feeding that saved her babies’ lives by 5 grams. The weight of a penny.
I’m at the hose washing the blood off my hands for the second time today. It’s nearly sunset.
I hear the truck pull up and park. I am drying my hands on my pants when the boy walks up, his arm a halo of bandages.
“Feeling okay?” I ask.
He looks embarrassed. “70 stitches,” he says. “My mom was worried.”
“You live with your mom still?”
“Yeah. She wanted me to tell you thanks.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. Anyone would have helped.”
“I don’t think you’ll get your shirt back.”
“That’s okay.” His red fingers swell out of the bandage.
“I don’t think I’ll be back to work for a while.”
“That’s a good thing. You’ll want to keep it clean and heal up completely.”
“You found them, right?” he asks. I look up at him, both of us finally done squinting. “The rabbits.”
“I found seven of them after you told me. I just dropped them at the Humane Society. They only weigh 45 grams.”
“Yeah, that’s small,” he says.
“Thanks for telling me. I wouldn’t have found them before mowing. You saved them.”
“You took them in, though. I think we both saved them.”
And as he turns to walk away, “Seven of them,” he says over his shoulder. “All those little lives.”
The ‘It Girl’ of Boca Raton
I was slowly approaching sixty, and all the signs pointed southward. My 38C breasts, which had been stalwart advocates for male attention, now required more strategic support. On the last night of my husband’s shiva, Marcia Bloom told me that my chances for remarriage and financial solvency would improve if I relocated to Florida.
“You can get a mansion with a heated pool for $600,000! You’ll be one of the younger women, instead of just another sunburned dyed blonde in a caftan, drinking too much Chardonnay during the day and chasing men on the golf course. If you migrate early enough, those guys will be speeding after you in their carts!”
I imagined myself being handed a billet-doux by a long line of caddies in Lacoste shirts and conjured a midnight rendezvous at the clubhouse card room. Did I believe that playing shuffleboard encouraged the preservation of eye-hand coordination? Was bingo really a thing? I’d have to ask Marcia.
When it came to the hearts and whims of retired menfolk, Marcia Bloom had a solid track record of research, capture, release, and, if suitable, retaining. Her sprawling sunlit Aventura condo, peppered with signed Picassos, gifts from an adoring, deceased lover, had become the site of what passed for literary soirées. She had embraced widowhood with gusto, acquiring a fluffy white dog named “Yorkie” a sparkling clean cream-colored SUV, (vanity plate “#1YRKEYMOM”) and a collection of Viagra energized admirers, who felt eighteen again while in her company. Marcia had a generous heart and introduced me to her many new and stylish friends – male and female – during my February visit. She was amused when I wound up watching the Super Bowl in the company of a stately WASP octogenarian who collected Latin American art. Neither of us had seen that proposition coming. The poolside gossip of gold diggers promptly informed Marcia that I was a fool to have passed on an affair with Drew Davenport, despite his diabetes and early-stage dementia. Didn’t I know that all the good Jewish septuagenarian snowbirds were spoken for? Why didn’t I appreciate a multi-millionaire who wore freshly pressed khakis with striped button-down Oxford shirts and could still drive his Mercedes at night?
Contrary to Marcia’s recommendations, I resisted the siren song of the sunny skies and swaying palms of “Peyton Place South.” It didn’t seem right to make a new life in an outlaw state known for a lack of income tax, mushrooming corruption laden charter schools, Nixon’s Key Biscayne, and now Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Surely all those Carl Hiaasen tales of decadent Disneyfication, aquatic excess, and ravenous alligators were true…For many single men, divorced or widowed, moving to Florida meant shedding the past and reinventing themselves on the basis of robust pensions and stock dividends. Retired school teachers became “Nautical Consultants.” Former police officers launched acting careers. The warm weather generated a happy hedonism and a documented public health crisis – a trail of STDs winding from the gated communities of Boca Raton, through the assisted living facilities of Boynton Beach and Lake Worth…Weren’t there other ways to be a successful widow and survive the frigid winters? Hadn’t Joyce Maynard just returned to Yale as a sophomore, using the proceeds of her late husband’s estate to reclaim her youth? Wasn’t there more to this stage of life than blind brunch dates at Moe’s or steak dinners at the Fontainebleau? Did I, like Joyce Maynard, also want to go back to school? Maybe apply to the playwriting program at Yale School of Drama? Was the town of New Haven big enough for me and Joyce Maynard?
To be honest, I had never paid close attention to the writings and literary career of Joyce Maynard. To me, she had successfully monetized being anointed as a literary “It Girl,” a type of fame akin to Cornelia Guest, Edie Sedgwick, Tatum O’Neal, and Drew Barrymore. Such a frothy granting of early success and significance was not something that appeared possible on my radar. Even in my younger days, acne and extra pounds had conspired against dancing atop tables in a psychedelic or leopard print mini skirt. No great male writer was going to sleep with me. I was neither predator nor prey.
My early marriage to a matrimonial lawyer, which produced Josh and Lila, two marvelous (now grown and gainfully employed children, partners in a suburban dental practice), had been a source of stability and strength. Given the drama and discontent of his warring clients, Mike Schwartz knew the value of what he had and cherished me accordingly. He cheered me on through all the rejections and took us all out to dinner when the literary victories (An agent! A novel! A screenplay! A prize!) finally came. During the past ten years, I’d carved out a small but good name for myself – another bittersweet, funny Jewish lady from New York who saw the glass as half full and saluted male genitalia at half-staff. There are lots of us, with and without an MFA who, like Gypsy Rose Lee, know that we have “gotta get a gimmick.” Unfortunately, my literary tricks were getting old. Honestly, my literary tricks were stale. Nora Ephron was dead, Wendy Wasserstein was dead, and I had no game – just life on a fixed income, an empty house in need of de-cluttering, and a queen-sized bed growing ever colder.
Josh and Lila had joined forces with my magic circle of women friends, and within six months of Mike’s fatal bicycle accident, all traces of him had been removed from the master bedroom and his office in the den. Instead of a “License to Kill” akin to James Bond, I had tacit permission to expand my work into every room of the house and found myself experimenting with new forms of writing. There were essays and poetry, scripts and screenplays, a cornucopia of literary confections…Mike was dead, and I was even more alive and creatively fertile, and, thus, guilt-ridden. While I missed Mike, I wasn’t miserable about no longer being married. That theme had been played out, for better and for worse, and I was the one left behind. We’d rolled the dice and fate had dispatched a verdict. I never approved of the mid-life embrace of cycling but Mike, who was proud of still having six-pack abs and being able to properly rock tight black bicycle shorts, had insisted on it. It was one thing to traverse the Cape Cod trails while on vacation and quite another to navigate the busy suburban roadways of Nassau County after a long day at the office. The bus driver swore he hadn’t seen Mike while pulling into a crowded bus stop on Community Drive. There were no charges to bring.
Mike’s funeral was the unanticipated social and Schadenfreude event of the season. How often does a handsome, healthy, happily married man riding his bicycle home from work die from head injuries directly across the street from North Shore University Hospital? While I’d worn large dark glasses and duly taken Xanax, this didn’t stop me from realizing that my husband’s glamorous, well-heeled (Jimmy Choo) female clients, who spanned three continents, were looking me up and down, their envy slowly turning to abject pity. In my size sixteen black dress from Talbots, I was fat, plain, and wrinkled. Surely, I was going to be alone for the rest of my life. What had Mike seen in me? Why had he been impervious to their attempts at seduction? They wondered…and I did too.
I wandered through the rooms of my still messy house, wondering about Joyce Maynard’s decision to resume her studies at Yale. Could I, a cum laude graduate of humble Queens College, walk into a class full of students young enough to be my grandchildren? How would I handle the company of classmates who could easily afford Ivy League tuition, suitable clothing, and enlightened travel, while securing non-paying, prestigious internships? Was the “ear for dialogue” I’d developed as a struggling midlife writer finally on a par with those of the next generation slated for literary and theatrical stardom?
A specter of inferiority haunted me. It was the last article I’d read by Joyce Maynard many years ago, about her upcoming second marriage to what was then a new and wonderful man. Her essay had appeared in either “MORE” Magazine, MORE.com or both, and had dug its claws deep into my vulnerable psyche. I’d taken her words as inspiration and a warning about a reckoning to come. She was preparing for a glorious outdoor wedding and desperately wanted to wear a certain short-sleeved dress. Her flabby upper arms, however, were not cooperating with the plan she had in mind. But Joyce Maynard was determined to wear that particular flowing bridal gown. After six feverish months of working out, she had won her battle against the scourge of aging and donned the dress of her dreams. What goal would I stick to in hopes of happiness? Applying to Yale? Renting a condo for three months a year in Boca Raton and cultivating a retinue of seersucker-clad Romeos? Or, would I remain a lonely Long Island widow, clipping coupons, walking laps in the town pool, teaching creative writing classes at the Adult Education Program, and perennially upgrading my vibrator?
Wiping away tears, I lit a rosebud scented candle and whispered:
“Dearest Muse, my once overstuffed closets have been completely de-cluttered. Modest charitable donations have been made in my late husband’s memory. I still want to write the ‘Great American Feminist Novel’ that’s haunted my dreams for decades. Please, please, help me make this mid-life wish come true….”