When We’re Gone

Hearing the key’s telltale ‘click’ Sawyer bolts from his resting place behind the kitchen table. Chairs teeter and paws slip and slide on hardwood floors as he rushes the kitchen door. He leaps up, pressing paws against glass. Through the door’s nine windowpanes we eye each other. On the other side of the glass he barks and prances, the sounds muffled. Then, as the door swings open, he retreats and falls swiftly to the floor, exposing a white underbelly.

As I enter the kitchen, the background hum of central air conditioning washes over me. As does the slightly artificial sensation of coolness upon my arms, neck and cheeks. Extending a right arm I watch as goosebumps emerge, steeled to hold their ground in defense of the AC’s unnatural onslaught.

The house smells of lasagna and wilting roses, a remnant from a 24th anniversary. Musical notes drift like bubbles from the living room to find me in the kitchen. They pop about my head and shoulders. I kick off shoes. Below stockinged feet, the polished floor reflects both afternoon light and the drifting sounds of Ella Fitzgerald.

The light leaps to catch my eye.

The sound hops and skips in search of ears.

And tucking the smells and the sounds and a lance of reflecting light into my pocket, I smile at a dog loved dearly by my wife and son, loved an amount just greater than like by my daughter, and almost loved by me. The dog moans, eager for attention. Reflexively, I shake my head; I can’t help but laugh as Sawyer rolls over and extends paws wide, prostrating himself across the floor.

“Hey, buddy. How ya doing?”

Dropping my bag and keys on the table I bend down to enjoy the moment.

“A boy and his dog,” I whisper.

Again I smile.

My dad used to say that. Any time we happened to see some kid and his dog my dad would jut his chin, squint eyes tight and simply state, ‘A boy and his dog.’ Sometimes he’d follow up with a story of time spent with his childhood dog, Spike. Most of the times, though, he’d simply nod, content with momentary access to the past.

Now, I wonder if my jaw jutted forward as I repeated those silly words.

Knees creak and pop as I find a comfortable kneeling position next to a prone Sawyer. Pressing my hand into his warm belly I trace small circles across soft fur. Goose bumps retreat. Leaning forward I whisper a secret, repeating it in a sing-song, so only Sawyer the almost loved dog, can hear.

And knowing my secret Sawyer paws the air between us, letting me know he’s momentarily pranced his way into heaven.

From the living room Liz gives a holler, “Hey, you’re home late. How’s it going?”

Eyeing the dog I shrug. Liz, of course, does not see or hear my shrug.

Her cadence slows as she repeats her greeting, “How’s it going? Everything OK?”

Though I can’t see my wife of 24 years from my position in the kitchen, I suspect she’s stopped working on her laptop and stretched her neck in an attempt to spy me.

With a front paw, the dog slaps my arm, prompting me to respond.

“Oh, sorry ‘bout that. I was having a moment with your dog and…”

She interrupts me, “our dog. He’s our dog. And you know you love him.”

I catch the dog’s eyes before responding. Eyebrows drift toward the ceiling. With an extended index finger, I tap the tip of Sawyer’s nose. “Right, our dog. But yea, everything’s fine. I just hit a lot of traffic getting outa Providence. I’ll join you in a sec.”

I give the dog’s belly a final stroke. Bending forward I touch my forehead to his nose. His fur is smooth, almost syrupy. He smells proud, like an animal should; not too clean or shampooed, but a bit musty and a bit like earth.

I offer Sawyer parting words. “If I could love you I would. But, I just don’t know if I wanna give you what I give Liz and Gee and DJ. Can you understand that?”

The dog stares blankly.

I rise from bent knee. From his back Sawyer stares, paws frozen in midair, as he digests the meaning of my message.

The dog’s head falls to rest upon the floor as I stand, turn, and approach the kitchen sink. I have dog fur all over my fingers.

“A boy and his dog,” I whisper.

From my position before the sink I stare through a trio of counter-to-ceiling windows into the backyard. From the far end of the yard swaying trees jockey for attention. In response I give them a collective nod, “Evening trees.”

In unison they respond with a lazy wave.

From on high, groping shadows plunge to earth. Inching across the yard they seek to cloak me in a world of grey.

The day’s last beams of sunlight slant though waving branches and large kitchen windows to set a stainless steel sink aglow. I crank open two of the windows above the sink. Anderson Window seals protest as rubber and plastic end their afternoon embrace.

“She’ll be back,” I explain to the window frame’s moaning seal.

From outside the scent of cut grass and the sounds of squabbling birds pour through open windows. From the edge of a stone path a lone firefly gives me a knowing wink. With sounds and smells joining light to fill the sink, I run cold water. The faucet hisses as cool water coils around reflecting light.

And with the scent of grass and the sounds of birds and hissing water all about, I close my eyes and rinse away clinging dog fur. Kindly, the water takes my hands; her grip not so tight as to demand control, not so loose as to let me go.

Holding my hand, water tugs me toward the next moment.

And the next.

I wonder if I’m already gone and just imagining this; just remembering this moment.

The world grows still as time rushes forward to catch up with tumbling water.

I can’t tell. So I’ll assume I’m still here and act accordingly.

Opening eyes wide I complete my task, rub wet hands through short grey hair and proceed from the kitchen through the dining room toward the living room. Through multiple French doors linking our home to the backyard, slanting sunlight and groping shadows and swaying trees and a winking firefly monitor my progression across the house.

I stop at the edge of the living room.

Under a large work of abstract art by our friend Josh Spivak, Liz reclines on the sofa. As is often the case, she’s lost in her work; charts, patient results, and surgical notes. She leans forward to better eye something on her laptop. Fingers type furiously as she tackles the task at hand.

And though I often lose myself standing before Josh’s art, I cannot help but stare at my wife of 24 years. Black rimmed reading glasses, framing large green eyes, teeter on the tip of her nose. At the edge of the room I mumble to myself, “Oh, I’m a sucker for you and those reading glasses, Liz.”

Brown hair is pulled tight to form a bouncing ponytail. Wisps of hair fall in slender coils around her ears.

To Liz’s left, sunlight reflects from polished floors with a splash of white. The light leaps to gather under high cheekbones. Along the lower edges of her glasses tiny white sparkles rock back and forth.

She wears a sleeveless white shirt, offering up tan arms and strong shoulders. The front of her blouse is unbuttoned just enough to draw my attention from squinting eyes. And as my gaze drifts in a sea of sentiment, I trace long dark legs as they extend from crisp summer shorts toward the end of the couch.

Delicate brown toes are tipped with the white lines of a French manicure. Every now and then, those toes wiggle. Then, as if frozen, they stop. Then they wiggle again.

Reflecting light bends toward my wife.

She shimmers, like a Caribbean princess.

I imagine, if someday in the future I am forced to remember Liz without the benefit of her presence, this woman before me will be the woman I recall; my beautiful, focused, professorial, long dark Liz.

I don’t know how long I stand there but I know the sun has slipped.

Shadows crawl across the lawn. Eager for bounty, they stretch forward, the tips of grey fingers reaching from tops of trees to the base of wide French doors.

The dog appears at my side. He bumps his head into my hanging hand. Reflexively, I rub the space between his ears. He whimpers softly as I find the perfect spot.

My wife’s fingers stop their typing. Manicured finger tips hover above a well-worn Mac. Then, with a satisfied assertion, she jabs a key and closes her laptop. She looks up to find me staring. She smiles, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I respond. “You look pretty there.”

She removes her glasses and absentmindedly taps them against her chin. She stretches arms high. Her back arches. She appears almost feline.

The dog leaves my side to approach Liz, his favorite among our family of four (five according to the dog, Liz and DJ).

As my wife finishes her stretch I jut my chin toward the reading glasses.

“I think you should put those back on. You look smok’n with them.”

She rolls her eyes. She pats the sofa’s empty space next to her. I wonder if she’s seeking the company of me or the dog.

Sawyer rushes forward and curls up next to Liz. From the couch he eyes me guiltily.

“A woman and her dog,” I whisper.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. Just admiring you and the dog.” Liz strokes Sawyer with her right hand. Manicured fingers are lost under thick brown fur.

I shrug before continuing, “I gotta tell ya, Liz, you really look beautiful sitting there all stretched out on the couch. I mean, really.” I nod toward Sawyer. “See even the dog thinks so.”

Sawyer relaxes as Liz works the back of his neck. My wife’s eyes narrow as she takes my measure. The dog follows suit, monitoring my position.

I nod toward the stereo, “Nice selection. Is that Ella Fitzgerald?”

Liz smiles, “Yea. I really like this album. Ella and what’s the guy’s name; the famous…”

From downstairs I hear laughter; the sharp cackles of my daughter and the staccato roar of my son. I interrupt my wife, “Huh? The kids are here? I thought they were meeting in Harvard Square for dinner tonight.”

Stepping back from Liz I ask excitedly, “They’re both down there?” She nods in the affirmative as I turn and prepare to take my leave.

She tosses glasses on the desk next to the sofa. “Yeah, they’re down there. Playing GTO or whatever that car game is.”

“Grand Theft Auto?”

Liz shrugs tan shoulders. “Whatever it is; I don’t know.”

She looks to her left.

Through glass doors she absentmindedly watches birds and chipmunks and rabbits scoot across the backyard. A butterfly flits about as if drunkenly finding its way home. A dragonfly – followed by a companion – darts across the patio. Silently, Liz stares. She draws a long breath. And seeing my wife lost in thought, I turn toward the sound of our children.

From my rear I hear Liz sigh. She speaks to my back as I cross the living room, “I gotta tell you, I’m a little annoyed at those two.”

I stop and draw a long breath. Eager to see Gee and DJ I frown. And keeping my frown in place I turn to share it with Liz, “Why? What’s up? Why are you annoyed?”

Liz pushes a piece of wayward hair behind her ear. Her chest rises and falls before speaking. “I don’t know. With the apartment in Portland Gee’s never at home anymore, and she’s not the best at calling or texting us, and I mean …”

I interrupt, “That’s an understatement.”

Liz cocks her head before I continue my interruption. I shrug. “I dunno. I mean, she’s a senior at a hard school and she works every weekend at the coffee shop. And she’s in love.” I look toward the backyard, now draped in shadows. “She’s just busy.”

Liz frowns; perhaps at my words or perhaps at my interruption. “Well, what I was trying to say is when she comes home she goes and hangs out with DJ and then we barely get to see her. I mean, even when she’s here we still don’t see her much. You know what I mean?”

I nod as Liz finishes, “She’s hanging with DJ and that’s great but in two weeks DJ moves to LA and then we won’t see either of them.”

I step toward my wife.

She’s right.

From deep within I feel a stabbing at my heart. The attack is sharp and swift.

Liz watches as I approach the couch. Squeezing between Liz and the dog I find a spot on the sofa. The cushions hold firm under my weight. Grudgingly, the dog shifts to accommodate my intrusion.

I rub Liz’s thigh. My movements are tender and cautious. Just above the knee, I give her leg a gentle squeeze. “I don’t know. I gotta say I think it’s great they’re hanging out together. I like that she comes home and wants to spend time with her not-so-little brother. And I like that he doesn’t make plans with his friends or go into Boston to see Tia when he knows Gee’s visiting. And you know how crazy he is about Tia.”

Liz purses lips as I continue, “I mean, think about it. He chooses to hang with Gee; he chooses to spend time with his sister. And she chooses to spend her time with him. And, well, I guess it’s OK if we come in second.”

Liz places her hand on mine, “I know but…”

She doesn’t finish her sentence.

She doesn’t have to.

She looks away, out into the yard.

Into our future.

And following my wife’s lead I look there too.

I lower my voice as shadows find us on the couch. “I dunno. I think of all the years I missed spending time with my brother and sisters because I wanting to drink or go into the city with high school friends to get all F-ed up. And I think of how I had to become friends with them all over again, after I stopped being such a selfish prick.” Liz winces at the crassness of my tumbling words. “ I cheated myself and I guess I don’t want Gee or DJ to have to start over like I had to.”

I wipe my eye. “I want those two to be friends. I want them to be closer to each other than they are with us. Think about it. They’re 22 and 18 years old. And they’re probably gonna live to be over 100. That means they have 80 more years of friendship together.” I shake my head. “Jesus Christ on a crutch. 80 frigg’n years.”

I squeeze my wife’s hand. “Maybe they’ve got 15 or 20 years with me tops (I bump Liz’s shoulder, teasingly with mine before continuing) and 30 or 40 with the healthy likes of you. But man, if they’re friends now they’re gonna have each other for almost a century.”

Stretching my neck, I look toward the ceiling. My gaze settles on a reflection of the day’s last beam of light. Hiding from looming shadows it hovers above my head, shimmering in an ever shrinking slash of white.

Outside, shadows have asserted control over the yard. The room grows dark.

On the other side of French doors birds and chipmunks and rabbits and fireflies and butterflies and dragonflies have taken their leave.

Liz and I are left behind.

The album ends as Ella ceases her serenade. With a ‘click’, needle withdraws from scratched vinyl.

Beside me, the dog sighs.

Goosebumps return to arms as the white noise of air conditioning washes over us.

Then, howling laughter from downstairs.

Tenderly, Liz squeezes my hand.

We both turn and look outside, toward an empty backyard.

 

 

 

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