“Pentimento for Grandfather” published. Click on my name.
“The Dog” by Karen Foster
This short story was originally published in Omaha’s The Reader and has since been published in Tower Journal and Muse Apprentice.
There is a fine lot to it all, how the day has become, and loneliness sets in. What a day. The rain came early in the morning, but the rainbow didn’t come till dusk. The family in 21 saw it first. They always do. They saw the one last week before their dog died, the wife talking about the rainbow she saw in a perfect circle around the sun. I never heard of such a thing, her husband said. Didn’t I tell you, she said. I look at the gray sky, the clouds calm after the rain, and wish I could have seen that perfect rainbow circle the sun.
Poor old room 20, no phone operating so I gave the money back. Tore up the American Express charge before his eyes. No one else to decide what to do, except me. The phone company’s closed for it’s 8 o’clock, but that’s the way it is. Just a fine day. What am I to do but watch the neighbor ride his pale horse down the highway. It whinnies. He pulls his cowboy hat down to shade his eyes. I sit in the lawn chair under the awning, smoke a cigarette in such a damn depressing mood. I go inside and watch the ceiling fan go round and round. The air conditioner makes such a racket. I can’t hear anything, not a single noise from the rooms, not even the words on this tv mystery.
Then there’s this dog, a golden retriever, and the strange smile from the woman tonight who let it die out in the grass last Thursday afternoon when it was so hot. What did it get into, her husband comes to the office after work to ask me. I look at him, his eyes red, his sunglasses in his hand. I didn’t know his dog was dead. He tells me. He leans on the counter. My dog’s dead, he says. What did you say, I ask him. He asks me, what there any poison. I said, the housekeeper said his wife wouldn’t let the exterminator in. I wasn’t there then.
I saw the dog at one when I drove in, panting in the sun, and I should have said something then, knocked at the door and warned her that the dog should have some shade, but like children, I thought, it’s their business. I wouldn’t keep a dog in the sun like that, heat that day not fit for man or beast, 102; even the skinny housekeeper feels it. She can’t take the heat, she said. We talked about how it’s better than 20 below and freezing to death in the afternoon when the wind whips as before a blizzard, our arms loaded with sheets and towels down the sidewalk, in and out of rooms.
I call the housekeeper. It’s 4 p.m. She says, no, the woman did let the exterminator in; she didn’t want to at first, but she did. I track down the guy. He’s in another room, talking to a buddy. Both of them here building tanks for this company outside of town. I tell him I called the housekeeper and she said your wife did let him in. I didn’t want you to get mad at your wife. I’m sorry I misunderstood her when she told me about this morning, what when on and such, before she left. It becomes quiet in that room, and I shut that door.
The phone’s dead in room 20 tonight. The guy wanted his money back, says he needed a room with a phone. Whoop tee do, I wanted to dance a jig in front of him in the rain puddles. I pounded nails today to replace a sash, scraped off paint, pulled nails, washed walls in one of the rooms, paid bills, checked the guy in room 20, a tall, nice-looking man from Omaha, who needed a phone, but I forgot to call the phone company to come over today. I knew it wasn’t working yesterday. I tried a different phone, but it’s something in the connection. I hear him saying, I need a phone.
It’s raining, all day on and off, on and off. How can one hang out towels on the line in the afternoon when it’s raining? Hell if I know. If there’s a vacant room, I can sleep in it and idle away the time, watching some movie channel, put my feet up and not go home to an empty house with no one to call me or put my feet in his lap. That’s the way it is; nothing but the best for me.
This dog was seven years old, his owner says. He wagged his tail at me when I saw them check in, the dog on a leash beside the owner. I looked at the dog and thought how quiet he seems. He was showing me the dog, saying how he never moves off a blanket they bring with them, won’t be any bother. Someone else who saw him said he was an old dog, but I can’t tell an old dog from a new dog. They’re all the same, young or old. They have this fur on them, and I can’t tell unless I open their mouth and count teeth or know when they were born or see the light in their eyes when they lick everything in sight, sniff around my feet and circle my skirt. If their gums are bad, how can anyone tell from that? Maybe they smell, or walk like I do with a shuffle, stiff as if cement has settled in my legs, then I can tell how old they are.
They had him staked out by the portable pool they set up for their children, splash, splash, filled with a hose attached to the bathtub, three towheads, and I can’t even see my grandchildren every other weekend. Every other weekend, mothers leave them off. Perhaps my son might bring them over. Swinging in the swings at the park, I see them when I drive over. At their house, the garage door open. I call and call, then guess the park. I watch them for a while, put my finger to my lips so my granddaughter doesn’t warn my son when I sneak up on him. My son says, how did you find us here, the kids going higher and higher in the swings, too high for them to jump off without getting help from their father. He lifts the boy down. The little one runs from swing to swing to try them out as if they were candy bars, a lick here a lick there. When I go behind the swing, I can’t push him higher and higher. He wants his dad to do it, daddy, do it, daddy, do it. He does. The boy soars in the air. He lifts down his daughter. She runs over to me and squeezes me tight, then runs back to the swings, to the one by my grandson. They sound like crows, daddy, push me, daddy, push me.
They run away from me when I try to hold a small hand or two, I want my daddy. One mother drops hers off on Friday evening in a small town half way between here and there, half way between there and here, half way. The other mother drops her son off on her way to the bar. Doesn’t pay attention, she says about him, but he watches tv on his father’s lap, lets my son read him a story, play catch with a big old softball. She’ll be in the bar, sipping beer in her skin-tight blue dress; there’s the three-year-old, sitting in his father’s lap like a prince, a little boy who lays his head down on the dog’s belly or lies next to him sleeping.
The dog vomited, 21 said; what did he get into? 21 asked; do you have poison? With the dandelions all over, I couldn’t have spread poison on the grass. But what about bugs, he asks? They use chrysanthemums, I said. I called the pest controller to ask them what did they use. I read him the invoice. Chrysanthemums, he says, as I thought. Even if he licked up all the residue in the container, he says, shouldn’t hurt him, he says. It was the heat, I said to the guy. Can’t leave a dog outside like that in this heat all day long. He was out only a short time, his owner says, so I called the housekeeper again. Was he in the room when the pest controller came? No, she says, no, outside at 10 a.m., outside at 1 p.m., then at 3 when a woman from Wisconsin with two big hairy dogs in the backseat stops by to rent a room. I didn’t have any vacancy, her dogs barking at something. I figured the dog from room 21.
The man’s crying, says he’s had that dog longer than he’s been married, seven years, that’s what he said. How old is the oldest of his three kids, I wonder, if the dog is that young? They take their kids on the road to jobs, a wife and three kids living in a motel room from one site to another, here for a month, there for six. Today the children roller skate in the parking lot. His wife sweeps away gravel from the asphalt that truck tires kick up, so roller blades can swirl around and around. When they’re exhausted, the three girls sink their butts in puddles of rainwater that reflect the clouds on this dismal afternoon. I see cheetoes sprinkled on the cement in front of their room. I watch them while standing in the rain. Couldn’t work today, the man said, rainy, can’t build tanks for this company they’re here for, so they went to a park. I waited until 10 p.m. for a guy to show up for a room he’s suppose to be in, but he doesn’t come and it’s getting late.
That dead dog lies in the grass by the road, his head nestled in the grass’s steamy smell. Wet alfalfa it must have been to his nose, his legs stiff to one side. I called the vet at home. Does a dog vomit when he has sunstroke? Sometimes when he’s drinking too much trying to cool down, sometimes. That night I went home and had a couple, then stayed up till 2 waiting for a storm to come. Suppose to rain, and it was a Thursday night. They left that next day for their home in Missouri to bury the dog, have an autopsy, he says, that’s why I called the vet. 102 degrees that noon, and no breeze, chained out in the sun.
The guy next to them tells me that night that the dog was there at noon. I kicked that guy and his girlfriend out the day after, so what does he say to another staying here when he bitches? I’m prejudiced to Mexicans. Can’t be, I tell the customer. Three rented the room next to the office for two months and we got along fine. Noise, I told him, noise at 1 a.m. in the morning, noise. The girlfriend says, that’s our business. Not when I pay the bills, I say. Noise and fighting and drinking, and buddies until 1 a.m. I get complaints on the telephone and then before you settle down, your boyfriend tells you he’s going to kill you. That’s our business, she says, her pert little self with her hands on her hips. Our business, she says. She’s in a white tank top with short shorts, something I could have worn when I was 20 too, I think to tell her. Not when I own the place is it your business, two days after the dog died while the people in 21 are in Missouri burying the dog and getting an autopsy.
On the phone the vet says, keep it iced to get an accurate autopsy, so I tell them, keep the dog cool, but they load it up in the trunk of the car, so it must have started to smell south of Omaha on the way to Missouri, the kids screaming in the backseat and him bitching her out for leaving the dog in the sun all day. How could you be so stupid? Maybe they plot to sue me, cause me grief. They come back today. Wasn’t up to the autopsy, he said, but there’s that strange smile she gives me when she and the kids follow him and me into room 20 to check the phone after the guy who needed a phone gets in his car to see why it won’t work. The man in 21 says his phone has trouble too, have to push the clicker all the way in. I say, I’ll get the phone company out here tomorrow and check them both, wonder if the other rooms are like that. Their two girls tromp in the room with their wet feet and muddy bottoms from plopping in puddles all afternoon.
They went to the park, the girls tell me all at once. They sound like whippoorwills. We saw four deer and three woodpeckers up in a tree, the oldest said. I can’t look the little girl in the eye and talk to her: she’s jumping up and down, telling me about the deer. The middle child pulls on my sleeve. The father who had the dog starts talking. Four deer, he says; we should have gone there now in the afternoon, when it’s stopping raining; the deer would be out grazing. They talk about the rainbow in the sky overhead, how last week it was complete. Tonight its tails end in the hills; the middle disappears in the clouds. The youngest girl twirls at my feet, round and round in her blue sundress. I look at the rainbow and watch the guy who wanted a working phone in room 20 turn on the highway. He said it’s a nice room and all, but I need a phone. I don’t suppose, I thought, I need a phone too. The room is nice, bathroom freshly painted, plush green carpet, halfway decent mattress and a tv repaired yesterday for 60 dollars.
My dog died out on the highway, a cross between a Sharpie and a Saint Bernard. How did that Saint Bernard do that, bend down so low, and she so high, or she on a box by the trash, but there was this puppy Rufus I fell in love with. This woman comes in, asks to use the phone. She’s holding this puppy, and he looks at me. I want that dog, I said to her. You do? she says. He’s the runt of the litter, last one left. You do? Here, and she gives him to me. He licks my face while I hold him in my arms. We sleep together and he messes on the carpet, eats like a stallion. In a snap he trains himself. He big feet plop up and down the cement in front of the rooms as he follows me from room to room. Woof, woof, he’d bark and shake his jaw until the wrinkles around his mouth bounce in abandon. He was spotted black and white, an ancestor probably a dalmatian, all fire, and no rain.
He died out on the road. The young man who hit him walked in the office with Rufus in his arms. Rufus, I said, crying already. I called the vet, at night. Bring him down. I’ll meet you. Rufus wouldn’t come to me that night, the neighbor dog Barney shook his bony self outside my door. Rufus went with him, wouldn’t come back when I called up the road after him. Barney took Rufus’s leash in his mouth and led him out of my lawn, across the neighbor’s to his farmhouse a quarter mile away. To teach him new tricks, I thought, an old dog and a young one. Rufus wouldn’t come back. A beautiful spring day, sun warming everything, and Rufus, a young one who wanted to run and chase dogs, bark at cars. I loved that dog, a mutt with an attitude. He loved everybody, would sit on the sofa, his tail wagging low, his Saint Bernard head staring out the office window, barking at Barney whose rear end would wiggle back and forth low to the ground as if someone was shaking his tail, only it was tucked between his legs. Barney saw me on guard with my hands on my hips behind Rufus who perched on the sofa, his paws like a bear’s spread a foot wide on the sofa’s back, barking at Barney. Barney looked at him then back at me through the glass pane, watching to see what I would do, chase him or throw stones. A customer comes in and Rufus springs for the door before it shuts, trailing his leash I kept on him to put my foot on before he could bolt out the door. The customer in the office trying to find a room and Rufus out the door. In my head later, I heard a voice say to me, go get Rufus. I didn’t, was watching news or Jeopardy or Roseanne. He’ll be all right, I thought; he’s been out before; he’ll come home. Then this young man comes in, dressed in a nice striped shirt with a tie, slacks, beige I remember, but blood on his shirt, dripping on his pants and Rufus in his arms, his head lopping off the guy’s arm. What happened; what happened? Is this your dog, he asked; the people down the road said this is your dog. I hit him with my car. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I call the vet; he meets me at the office. Rufus is in the back of the van, blood all over. I talk to him on the way over; you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine; we’ll get there in time; hang on, boy; hang on; but the vet looks at his eyes when I open the van’s door; blood covers the carpet. He says he’s dead, but you can bring him in if you like. I can’t see for the tears; they’re streaming down my face. The vet takes him in his arms. I go back to the motel, call my daughter and tell her. She tries to comfort me, and I can’t stop crying. For three days I cry. I see Rufus in my sleep and I feel him lying on my feet. He was a puppy, a big old mutt with rolls of skin around his mouth and neck, a mouth that dropped open as wide as the ocean, black white spots all over him, feet that could collapse a mountain, and could he run. He galloped down the sidewalk. In the wind I can still hear him.
And tonight comes the rain again, a wild uncontrollable, summer storm. Lighting flashes in the office. Housekeeper called tonight. She left before I drove in so I didn’t talk to her. She had no trouble today, nothing to speak of, turned away a customer for the only room available was reserved tonight, but the reservation didn’t show up. A lack of dollars for tomorrow.
Something there is that sometimes loves a blizzard, that delights in frozen whiteouts, that longs for freezing rain. On a farm in the 50s, a blizzard often meant adventure, a rope from the front porch to the outhouse, another to the barn, and from there to the granary. Before meteorologists, a prognosticator of blizzards would note a shift in the air, witness cattle gathering towards shelters, dogs burrowing under the front porch; chickens ending their clucking and snoozing under folded wings. “You kids, get out there and fill the wood box,” a farmer would order like a harried prophet with God roaring at his heels. A blizzard during spring-calving season meant that warrior-farmer would trudge into the kitchen with a calf draped across his shoulders like the hide of a wolf. He would place the calf gently on blankets near the cookstove so that kids and their mother could break the ice from the calf’s nostrils and rub its legs and body to urge it to live.
A blizzard before corn-picking time often predicated economic stress to a farm family, especially if the corn-picker broke down in the howling wind. If it did, for me, the oldest, the lull before a blizzard meant that the last of the corn had to be hand-picked, my hands stiff in work gloves, snapping corn off stocks and throwing the ears one at a time into the wagon box until both my father and I turned into ice.
In Dickinson, two years ago, I woke up sweating from a dream in which my house was buried under a mountain of snow: doors blockaded, windows mirroring sheets of whiteness; the eaves bent, the roof groaned, nerves frayed. That winter my daughter’s and my backs ached from wielding grain shovels immense with heavy snow. This past year, nothing but a couple of dustings. This year, the winter’s breath, cold and icy with blankets of snow.
Blizzards meant that once the cows were milked, by hand then, eggs gathered, sows and boar down for a winter’s nap, the family huddled around the kitchen table, father and mother played pinochle–we children taking turns being partners with one or the other of our parents. I read Jack London and composed tales of my own. Blizzards with loved ones encased safely meant hope and renewal, a reaffirmation of values, that is if the family was built on solid ground. God forbid if an argument fractured the air, or as today, teenagers with cars and notions of invincibility venture forth on highways in search of girlfriends or parties.
Most of the time, even though my father was within walking distance, across a frozen field or a rutted cattle yard, I still ached to accompany him. I liked the way his stride moved thrice to mine, the way he shouldered stolid milk cows into stanchions, hitched up draft horses, loaded wood onto wagons.
When I was in kindergarten, a blizzard came on suddenly, one the country school teacher had no time to ring parents before they themselves were stomping their feet in the coat room. My father was one of the fathers who came to the country school in the swirl of a roaring blizzard. The wind blew like Odin warring on the prairie. At five I could not walk against that wind. Before leaving the warmth of the country school, my father tucked me underneath his jacket, his arms wrapping me tightly to his chest, and braved the winds, walking in front of the horse the miles back on the gravel road to my mother and safety radiating from the wood cook stove.
In April 2012, to prepare for my retirement move to Sioux Falls, I decided that I was going to throw or give away at least five things a day, not counting paper memorabilia. Paper memorabilia I examined and tossed almost all. My children’s school papers, notes to me, drawings, I put between plastic sheets and sent to them. Student evaluations from 1987, most all gone, as well as research material that I will never shape and form into anything. I put my creative writing still to be polished in the file cabinet.
Old love letters from my second husband, I flung in the garbage, after tearing them up as if extracting a curse. The one from the first, I will keep for the kids so they can have a laugh. Besides it was written before he asked me to marry him. Not much romance after the wedding. I really should say, not any. I kept all the letters from my mom, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, nieces–don’t think there is one from a nephew. I didn’t throw away any pictures, except old high school classmates, for most of them I couldn’t recognize if they stood on my porch.
Every day for over a year, missing a few days here and there, I scanned the detritus that comprised my tangible goods. I sorted through furniture, knickknacks, dishes, clothes, old tools. At first it was easy. Now making choices is rather difficult.
First I tackled the double-stacked books in the eight seven-feet high bookshelves in my home and those in the four bookcases in my office. I separated the books I could live without from those I must have and those I hope to sell. A vision of mine was someday to own a bookstore slash coffee shop slash wine shop/dessert shop somewhere, but that dream has faded, for I find that I lack the energy and the desire to cater to anyone anymore.
I presented stacks of books to students as they wandered in and out of my office. One young theatre major received most of my drama books. I kept Pinter, O’Neill, Chekhov, Brecht, my collection of Shakespeare, and some other classics. I’m past directing any more; and if I ever act again it will be a final hurrah, for I really don’t want to spend five to six weeks rehearsing anything. There were two roles I wanted to do before I died–Medea in Medea and Mother in Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother. I’m way too old for Medea, but if someone I trusted and admired wanted to direct me in ‘Night, Mother before I get too old to wipe spittle off my chin, I might consider it. As far as directing, I concluded some time ago in Dickinson that the way I direct is not amenable to personalities here. Ideally I prefer that actors memorize their parts before blocking begins. That way the character develops as the play develops, and the actor/character becomes a collaborator in the process. But oh, well–Been there; done that.
I’ve had successes directing. One of my former high-school students obtained her MFA in theatre; she retired before I did. Another student I directed became Miss America 1974 and sang for my wedding. She played the chorus in Anouilh’s Antigone, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in Music Man, Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick, and Mrs. Wright in Trifles. When she came to Sioux Falls to see me during her Miss America tour, I met her with my three kids in tow. But I was in the middle of a disastrous marriage, and felt exposed for some reason and intimidated.
Books of poetry I kept most, except those poets with whom I still can’t connect. Fiction I gave most away, except Faulkner, Vonnegut, some books I haven’t read yet but hope to. Literary criticism, I kept most. Some history books–gone.
Boxes of books, three I think, I hauled to the library. They will be recycled or sent to those in need. Clothes I either tossed in the garbage or donated; some I snapped pictures and sold on Ebay along with the china and crockery and jewelry and shoes I no longer want or can wear.
Soon I will post an ad selling some furniture, a treadmill, a lawn mower, other garden stuff.
The problem is even though it’s becoming more difficult to find things to discard or give away, more stuff emerges hidden away in boxes, underneath steps, on shelves, things I have forgotten about. The newest piece of furniture I have is my bed, 2006. Prior to that my sofa and the entertainment center, 2002. The oldest piece of furniture I have is my bedroom set–1978. If it wasn’t for my mother’s bureau dresser and the cedar chest that I inherited and the hall table I bought in memory of my mother, I would get rid of every piece of furniture I have.
The more I discard, the freer I feel. It’s like a cloud of dissatisfaction lifts with each toss. My burdens lighten.
I don’t know from whom my mother heard “There but for the grace of God, go I.” But I do know that my mother said those words often. That statement, which I consider a prayer of thanks and one I originally thought came from the Bible, sometimes was accompanied with another of my mother’s saying, “Don’t judge another until you walk in their shoes.” I remember the exact time she said the latter to me. I had just stepped in the house after getting off the bus. That day I felt ostracized by, and probably jealous of, a female classmate, whose parents farmed less than two miles from us, saying something like the following to Mom, “She thinks she’s so hot.”
Mom often chided us not to become arrogant, not to think too much of ourselves. I think those injunctions were to protect us from the expectations and the cost of hubris, for she knew fortunes can turn on a dime.
My mother seldom shared wisdoms with us, much less anything about daily happenings. Understanding my mother required hanging on to every word other than requests for us to perform some task. Once during a visit with the folks, after my second divorce, after the children had all left home, in the midst of Ph.D. course work, after my father had gone to sleep, my mother was sitting on the couch and asked me to listen to the television. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, not taking her eyes off the set. Mom was listening to a young female violin player, Akiko Suwanai, playing a concerto.
My mother’s entire life has been one of hard work, working for room and board in order to feed herself after her first husband died from tuberculosis. After her first husband’s death, Mom let his parents keep my older sister until she was about the age of five. The reason, my older sister today at 81 still cannot understand. It was necessary for impoverished women then, unless one wanted both yourself and the child to starve. I know from reading about women’s lives in the 30s that Mom’s experience was not unusual. For those who desire, please read Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing.”
Mom worked endless hours on the farm, morning until exhaustion–helping Dad seed, milking cows, cooking, canning, gardening. After they quit farming for themselves, they were asked to manage the Shelby County Farm. Even though my father and mother put the County Farm in the black by raising crops and growing an extensive garden, Osha regulations said that managers had to have master’s degrees. My father with his eighth-grade education and my mother with her education up through her sophomore year didn’t cut the mustard, so once again after seven years, they left a farm and moved back to Manilla. Even then in their late 60s, both Mom and Dad worked. Mom cooked for the Manilla Depot and Rusty’s; Dad monitored dryers at night for Gruhn Seedcorn.
As I sat down beside her, I never thought my mother listened to music, much less appreciated it, for whenever I sang, I was told not to. The folks rented an oboe for me to play in high school, or else its use was donated. I could practice if it didn’t take away from chores.
I learned once again about Mom’s softness that day we watched Suwanai. I was surprised that my mother was aware that this violinist was better than most. My mother’s interior world, which often was forbidden to us, she sometimes revealed with a slight act, as she did with that request.
One of the other times I glimpsed Mom’s interior world occurred when she reached out to hold my hand as we walked around a few blocks in Manilla. During that walk, she told me that in her 20s, someone had offered her a position to work clerical at the state capital in Des Moines, but she said no, she wanted to be with Dad, and thus gave birth to four more children. She took my hand when we stopped to admire this immense flowering plant growing in someone’s front yard. Its pink blossoms, higher than us. I don’t remember ever holding my mother’s hand prior to that day. Her hand was so soft, its weight like a whisper.
As my mother aged, she became even more silent, but it was not the result of diminished capacity. It was the result of her retreating into her interior world where her thoughts and memories were safe.
The first five years after her death, hardly an hour went by that I didn’t think about Mom. Those times were accompanied with tears. Today, tears happen sometimes. I do know one thing, that as I become closer to the age that my mother was when she died, I now know the meaning of “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Before I moved to Dickinson, ND, I lived in Omaha on Northwest Radial Hwy., a thoroughfare that screeches in a curvy diagonal from 72nd St. to 46th St. where it splits–one leg Military Ave, the other straight south until Radial becomes North Saddle Creek Road. From there, Dodge and head east to downtown Omaha and Old Market. The triple-paned windows and the steel door of my condo insulated the interior enough that traffic on that Hwy. outside didn’t bother me much. Not even a hum. In fact much quieter than the ringing in my ears that I endure constantly–I’m waiting until I go deaf.
I’ve heard accidents. I even had one on Radial when I was stupid enough to park in front of my condo, even though parking was allowed. Around midnight, one drunk woman rammed into the back of my Diamante and smashed its rear end. Not totaled, but it should have been. Someone witnessed the accident, wrote down her license number, and she was arrested within a half hour at her home by the Omaha police. Yes, she paid my deductible.
One of the benefits of living in a big city is that most people who drive know the rules, or else. You merge by matching your speed to the cars in the adjacent lane of the highway, you signal, you come to a stop at stop signs when you’re suppose to, mainly because not doing so often does lead to accidents.
This morning I took my daughter to work in downtown Dickinson, a mere mile and a half of driving. On the way there, two women, each in an SUV, broke traffic rules. I’ve read somewhere that a driver breaks a traffic rule on the average every 20 minutes. It took me five minutes at the most to drive that mile and a half and five minutes back. Not 20. The first woman in the blue SUV was a half block away heading north on 3rd Ave. from 1st St. when the light at 2nd St. and 3rd Ave. turned yellow. All other traffic had crossed the intersection. Normally when that occurs the driver in the passing lane miraculously gets to turn left. (There’s no left turn signal at that intersection and there should be.) But I didn’t turn left for the woman in blue did not slow down. In fact she speeded up in an attempt to cross the intersection in the yellow, but she did not, forcing me to turn left when the light was red. I know that she was thinking she’s late for work for maybe she was employed at one of the companies north of Wal-Mart. Who knows what her reason was, but she had one, or else it was complete arrogance and a howdareyoustopme on her part.
Now, I can handle one incident like that every 20 minutes, and not get riled, for shit happens and people make mistakes, but two?
The one in between the first and the second I’m not going to count because it’s a North Dakota law I think for all small towns, at least for this one, for I’ve seen the yellow signs in the middle of intersections to remind drivers that pedestrians have the right of way, no matter if there is a stop sign or not, no matter if they are jaywalking or not. Two young women jabbering did not even look at the traffic to the right or to the left before they crossed the street going south down from the library. I saw them and stopped, which I was supposed to do. But considering that Dickinson now has a critical mass of drivers not from around here and a highly critical increase in traffic, that law needs to be rethought. Of course after the second boom, there will be plenty of space to cross any street.
Then at the intersection one block east of Gate City Bank, a woman in a red SUV south of the intersection but heading north turned left right in front of me, causing my daughter to brace herself. I screeched to a stop. I swore. The man driving the delivery truck in the line after her moved up and I crossed the intersection for I had the right of way.
Ok, I get it, defensive driving is a must here in Dickinson, especially on 2nd Street going east off 3rd. Last summer a woman in a grey SUV zoomed across the 2nd Ave and 2nd St. intersection going south, and I screeched to a stop going west–I had the right of way again. There have been many, many other incidents that I alone have witnessed.
You can’t tell me that those three drivers were not from Dickinson. The odds are not in your favor–I’ve almost done reading The Hunger Games. One at the most from out of town, considering statistical odds. So what to do?
One of the essays in the Composition 110 textbook is “What is Poverty?” the text of a speech delivered in 1965 by Jo Goodwin Parker. The persona who’s speaking says that she is poor, but whether the writer was or not is debatable. More than likely the speech was written by someone who knew the conditions of poverty but did not live them herself. I asked the question in the online class, “Do you think an essay is really an essay if it is falsely written, as perhaps this essay is? What should an essay be? Should there be honesty or could it be written by someone not poor but whose words describe a situation honestly? Why?”
That essay resounded with me, not because, even though we were poor, we were not as poverty-stricken as the woman and her family, but because of one tiny detail: “Poverty is hoping it never rains because diapers won’t dry when it rains and soon you are using newspapers.” That detail instantaneously brought a memory of me folding newspaper after newspaper into diapers–two to three sheets together, the elongated diamond and then the folding. Funny though, the first ones folded were Sunday paper cartoons. They folded nicely and stacked nicely. Perhaps Pampers should stamp their diapers to look like newsprint.
I know we were poor, but we always had diapers, I thought; but maybe it was one of those times in which rain fell for days and everything in the house was soggy in spite of the wood cooking stove. I don’t think so. I think it was because my older brother was sick, and we couldn’t keep up with the washing. Someone was ill and I was old enough to fold diapers from newspapers, so I had to be at least five or so.
The woman who describes her poverty said that she had no “proper” underwear and that her rotting teeth stunk. We had underwear, even if we had to wash it out every night in the sink. I remember that we girls were given days of the week underwear that did not mean that we had to wear Monday’s on Monday, Tuesday’s on Tuesday, but that we had seven pair, which to us was like gold.
We did have rotting teeth, all of us. Mom and Dad lost theirs when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. Up until that time, I never saw a dentist; but after the folks’ teeth were pulled–all at once it seems to me–and they gummed their food for a while before being fitted with dentures, in the spring the folks took us kids for the first time to see Dr. Soe.I don’t remember his face, except that he was tall and thin and that one of his fingers on his right hand had been cut off at the knuckle. His office was on the top floor of his gray stucco house on the north side of Main Street, a block up from the blacksmith and right east of the band shell. The dentist chair, which leaned back only a little, overlooked the after-school traffic on the street, the kids on their bikes, children taunting one another. The many scenes of inclusion sprouted little comfort. He often went into a little room to the right, a carved out private space where he mixed concoctions. He didn’t talk much and I couldn’t, for I was scared to death. The needles that went in and out of my mouth for a month or more to numb one tooth after another caused more pain the longer the visits went. But he never had to pull a tooth–filled almost all of them though, but never had to pull a one. I brushed my teeth diligently after with Gold Bond tooth-powder or baking soda.