In and Out of the Dog House
March 5, 2012
To err is Human
To forgive, Canine
Alice was unhappy when I didn’t come to collect her for our Goodwill excursion exactly on time.
“I was so worried!” she said when I arrived. She sat next to the phone with her coat on and buttoned up. “I almost called one of your friends to go and look for you.”
My brother Michael had a knack for predicting the exact time he would arrive at her house when she lived in Ames. She’d call him and say, “Come over for some orts.” Orts was a word they’d learned from doing crossword puzzles together. It means leftovers. He lived ten minutes away. “I’ll be there at 1:08,” he might say. Or 9:17. Or 5: 22. He always kept his word.
But I am not my brother. Like the flesh on my body, my sense of time these days is loosening its grip on me. Before leaving the house, I’d had to take Brio out for a longer walk than expected, then traffic was unusually intense and I couldn’t call Alice from the road. Besides, before leaving home, I’d told her on the phone that I’d be there in fifteen minutes to half an hour.
One-fifteen or one-thirty, what’s the difference? We were going shopping at Goodwill and not to a medical appointment. (I’m always punctual for those.) All she’d heard, though, was that I’d be arriving in fifteen minutes.
She pulled her gold plastic rain hat over her hair to protect it from the breeze, grabbed her walker, and bustled out into the hallway ahead of me, leaving me to turn off the lights and lock the door.
This was the moment I realized I’d been dispatched to what she used to call “the dog house,” a term from the 1950s that wives used when husbands displeased them. “He’s in the dog house,” some woman would say about her mate.
I apologized, but she was having none of it, so I mentally pictured the dog house of my dreams, kind of like this one:
On our way to the car, we passed a young woman pushing an elder in a wheelchair toward the covered smoking area. “Why does that caretaker have to wheel Lorna all the way out here to smoke?” she asked me irritably.
“Maybe Lorna asked her to.”
“She shouldn’t do that. That’s not her job. Lorna doesn’t really have to smoke. She’s almost ninety years old.”
I got her settled into the passenger seat and heaved her walker into the back. She took off her rain hat and struggled with the seat belt. “Why do I have to wear this darned thing anyway?”
I helped her get secured into place and finally off we went with that old devil, Tardiness, as our back seat companion, puffing on his pipe that he didn’t really have to smoke, fouling the air between us. It was going to be a long afternoon.
“I suppose we won’t have time to get any hot chocolate after we shop,” she said. Without giving me time to answer that we didn’t have to be back at any specific hour, she added, “Have you seen Carmel’s hair? That new caretaker? It’s white in front and black in back. Now what’s the sense of that?”
I hadn’t yet met Carmel but, based on the colorful hair displays of a few other caretakers at The Place, I could imagine it.
“No sense,” I said loudly. It’s necessary to speak in a very big voice when in the car, and I felt like I was yelling, but it felt kind of good to yell, almost like barking. You have to have something you can do while in the dog house.
“And her jeans are too tight,” Alice said. “They all wear tight jeans. They shouldn’t wear jeans to work anyway.”
“No, they should not!”
She looked at me suspiciously. “You’re agreeing with me too much. Are you making fun of me?”
“Well, stop it.”
“You were late and I was so worried.”
“Really, you should have called the police.”
“The police!” I shouted. “You should have called them.”
She snapped her plastic rain hat against the sleeve of my coat, but I could sense a shift in mood. By the time we got to Goodwill, the complaints had died down, she’d smiled twice (once at some children crossing the street, once at a woman out running with her tiny dog), and she was eager to shop.
She loves clothes. Because she worked in the garment business for many years, she knows the markup in stores is high and the idea of getting a sweater or a pair of slacks for $5 thrills her.
I held things up for her to look at. Whenever she didn’t like one of my selections she’d say tactfully, “That’s nice but not for an old lady.”
She said she missed Meg.
Meg had joined us on our last shopping trip to Goodwill. “Meg’s off sailing around Puerto Rico,” I reminded her.
“Yes, I know,” she said, “but I wish she was here. She adds to the fun.”
And doesn’t waste time making me look at things not right for my age, she might have added.
Despite rejecting the sweaters not fit for an old lady, she selected a brightly colored fleece jacket like this one:
“Can I get away with this?” she asked.
“Of course you can,” I assured her. She dropped the jacket into our basket.
Next, we spent a long time in the shoe department, where she considered, and then rejected, several pairs of Nike and Adida walking shoes. Like all Midwesterners, she calls all shoes of this ilk “tennis shoes.”
She was delighted to find two strings of beads in the glass jewelry case, one red and one black.
Each little affordable discovery elevated her mood. By the time we got back to our car all signs of crankiness were gone. She looked at a convertible waiting at a stop sign. “That car,” she said, “looks like a tennis shoe.”
“You’re right,” I said.
She turned my way. “Are you making fun of me again?”
She waved her rain hat at me, just in case.
As we drove away from Starbuck’s with our hot chocolate, she recited this poem:
I love this little house because
It offers after dark
A pause for rest, a rest for paws,
A place to moor my bark.*
“That’s a poem about a dog house,” she said. “I wonder whatever made me think of a poem about a dog house.”
I sipped my cocoa and kept my silence.
That’s Louis Prima singing Jump, Jive, An’ Wail.
*The poem’s title is “Motto for a Dog.” It was written by Arthur Guiterman.