I didn’t mean to lose the Levendosky’s dog, a cute little toy poodle named Tillie, but I did. I suppose I could claim as a reason my little problem with memory loss but I’m not going to because the fact of the matter is that the event had nothing to do with memory at all, but more to do with my general overall inattentiveness to detail. That, and the fact that I slowed to surreptitiously glance (well, gaze, actually) at Mrs. Jorgenson, the recently divorced fifty something neighbor a few blocks down who was sunbathing along the south side of her house as Tillie and I walked by – that also might have had something to do with it.
The thing was, though, her lying there all oiled and supple in the summer sun had suddenly reminded me of when my wife Alice and I had taken our kids on a driving trip to the U.P. of Michigan one hot, humid July many, many years ago and we had stopped at an out-of-the-way beach called, I think, White Sand Cove. We were on the north shore of Lake Michigan on our way to Mackinac Island and had taken a much needed break to let our young son and daughter wade in the water and cool off. Alice and I sat side by side in the sand watching the kids and holding hands, resting and talking quietly together. Oh my, she looked so young and fresh and happy sitting there in her blue shorts and white sleeveless blouse. After a while she looked up at me with her bright amber eyes and smiled. She laid her head on my shoulder in a gesture of pure joy and happiness and…
Anyway, by the time I had dragged my mind away from Alice on the shore of Lake Michigan, Tillie had slipped her collar and bounded off, leaving me holding her leash along with a memory of my lovely wife from so many years ago. Apparently my sun tanning neighbor had jumped started a journey into my past for longer than I thought.
Now please, I know what you’re thinking: This guy is obviously an addled old coot who should have learned by now to keep his eyes to himself and I don’t blame you. Hell, I’m seventy-eight and should have given up that ghost long ago and instead be preparing myself for a different journey – one to the great beyond, but there you have it. Sue me and take me to court if you want. The fact of the matter is that I’m still here, still alive and kicking and there’s not much I can do about it except make the best of things, which has less to do with taking an innocent, casual glance at my sun bathing neighbor and more to do with staying busy, which is what I was trying to do by volunteering to walk little Tillie.
“Arnie, do you mind terribly,” Janice Levendosky had asked a few weeks earlier, knocking on my door, interrupting my foray into the land of a thousand piece jig-saw puzzle of Monet’s water lilies that I was putting together on the card table in my living room, “I don’t want to be an inconvenience.”
I am by far and away the oldest person in the neighborhood, as well as the person who has lived the longest in what they call the Lake Heights section of Long Lake, a little town in western Hennepin County, twenty miles from downtown Minneapolis. I’ve always been responsible and neighbors often call on me to help out whenever they are in need of assistance (car won’t start, sink won’t drain, garage window was broken by little Johnny.) Or did, anyway, until I seemed to have suddenly gotten too old for anything other than sitting around by myself working on jig-saw puzzles. Is it a coincidence that this less than neighborly attitude occurred shortly after my beloved Alice, my wife of over fifty years (fifty-three, to be exact), died three years ago last May or is it just me? I think not, but then who’s around to argue the point?
Anyway, Janice and her husband and their three kids, all between the ages of nine and thirteen, were going on a driving vacation to the east coast and would be gone for two weeks and were wondering if I could watch their dog, the aforementioned little Tillie.
Even though I’d always been a cat person myself, I jumped at the opportunity to shake up the routine and do something different. “Sure,” I told her, trying not to sound as overly excited as I was, “Sure thing. Absolutely. No problem. You bet.” I’m not sure how well I succeeded, but Mrs. Levendosky apparently was happy with my effusive willingness to take care of the family’s precious pet, so that was all that mattered.
We worked out that while they were gone I would stop at their house, one block over and one block down, twice a day to feed and water Tillie and take her outside to do her business. If I felt like taking her for a walk that would be fine.
“Just make sure you keep her on her leash,” Janice told me a few days after our initial conversation when I’d gone over to meet Tillie in person and get the lay of the land, “She’s a bit of a scamp, aren’t you sweetheart.” She knelt down and made a kissy face at the little beast while I tried not to laugh. Really, I thought to myself, watching as Janice talked baby talk and made more kissy sounds, show a little dignity.
All at once, the tiny animal turned away from her owner and looked at me with big blue eyes all innocent and sweet. Then she rolled over on her back with her feet up in the air and began kicking them languidly, yawning a gapping yawn and showing me more than I cared to of the depths of her gullet, all the while looking at me, judging my interest, which was negligible at best.
Humph, I thought to myself, this should be a piece of cake.
“She looks like she’ll be no trouble at all,” I told Janice, and reached down to scratch the white, curly haired, little poodle behind her ears, something she seemed to like because her little tail started waging a mile a minute. Yep, no doubt in my mind, piece of cake.
A week later the Levendosky clan left on their driving trip to discover the wonders of civil war battlefields and to garner a peak into America’s past. Janice had told me before they left that they were, “Pretty excited.” Me, I just pictured a drive like that with three kids at the ages of hers and I could only shutter at the thought, picturing boredom raising its ugly head by the time they hit Wisconsin, if not sooner.
But, then again, who was I to be such a grumpy old man? At least they were a family and were doing something family orientated together – that was something – much more than I had going for myself. So I pleasantly wished them a bon voyage and for the next three days all was well between Tillie and me. It was the first week of August, the height of summer, and the days were warm and sunny and daylight seemed to last forever. The neighborhood was luxuriant with healthy green lawns and fragrant blooming flowers and just enough mature shade trees to offer relief from the intense sun – in short, a great time of year for me to be out of the house and walking around with a little doggy who seemed as happy to be out and about and doing something different as I was.
I’m pretty sure Mrs. Levendosky would have been pleased with how well I was taking care of her precious pooch. I did as I was told, feeding and watering her two times a day and, after the first day, I even took the initiative of deciding that taking the little doggy for a walk was a good idea. And if I spent more time with her than Janice expected me to well, hey, I figured that I wasn’t hurting anybody, Tillie included. Besides, I had a lot of free time on my hands so why not?
Now with her having run off there was a problem.
Before you think that this is a story about me wandering around the neighborhood, calling for a lost dog who’s really not lost at all, only sitting calmly by the front door of her owner’s home, patiently waiting for them to come back from their trip which wouldn’t be happening for another ten days, but the person responsible for taking care of the little dog (me) is being corralled by the cops because some busy-body nosey neighbor called the local police concerned that the said person (me, again) was aimlessly roaming around the streets of Long Lake looking perplexed and confused…well, it’s not.
The fact of the matter is that I did think to go and check the Levendosky’s house (I’m not that addled), and I did find little Tillie at the front door all safe and sound and happy to see me, so there, problem solved and end of story. Except that once I found Tillie I thought I’d take her back to my house for a little break in the routine, thinking maybe she’d like to sit out back and help me weed the hosta, and as I was on my way home I took a right on Grand Avenue when I should have taken a left on Lilac Way and ended up walking a little further than we intended, all the way down to the lake.
Our little town sits on the west shore of Long Lake, a relatively clean (by today’s standards) body of water, a mile and a half long and a quarter mile wide. My neighborhood is about a ten minute walk from it. I’ve lived in the same small bungalow on Lakeview Avenue since 1964. Alice and I moved in a year after we’d married and shortly after we’d both graduated from the University of Minnesota, me in engineering and Alice in early childhood education. I had just begun working for the nationally known controls company, Heartland Incorporated, as a systems engineer and Alice had started her long career working in nearby Wayzata at Anderson Elementary teaching third grade. Within five years our son John and daughter Linda had been born and our lives were set.
Fast forward to now and you’ll find me living by myself for the last three years, ever since Alice passed away after an heroic two year battle with ovarian cancer. I’ve done my best to adjust. I see John and his wife and kids and Linda and her husband and kids every two weeks or so. I stay busy with my projects around the house and yard, keeping everything neat and clean and tidy both inside and out, just like Alice would have wanted. In my spare time I do my jig-saw puzzles, and if I’m doing more and more of them as the months go by, well I can’t help it if I’m becoming so efficient at doing my house work and yard work that I have a lot of free time on my hands.
I also try not to let my loneliness get me down. Maybe that’s why I jumped at the chance to take care of Tillie, to give myself a chance to shake up my routine, even if it was with an energetic, seven pound, four-legged ball of fur with a propensity to wander.
With the little Tillie safely back on her leash, the two of us walked down Grand to Brown Road where we took a right and continued on across the bridge over the highway 12 by-pass and down the hill to the stoplight at county road 112, the two lane highway that runs through what is essentially the middle of downtown Long lake. We waited patiently to cross, watching the cars, trucks and the occasional semi stream by heading east toward Minneapolis or west out to the country and points beyond. I looked down at Tillie, sitting obediently beside me as she watched the traffic, her eyes missing nothing, and told her, “Good doggy.” She cocked her head to one side and looked at me with her bright, intelligent eyes and I swear she was thinking…well, I’m not sure what she was thinking, but I’ll bet it was pretty interesting.
We crossed the street and walked past the liquor store on the left and the Quik-Mart on the right and continued a half a block down a slight decline to the west end of the lake where the public park is located. Now believe me, the last thing I’d normally be doing on a sunny, warm, summer day would be what I did next, but what the heck. As long as I’d ended up at the lake, and as long as I had Tillie with me, and as long as she had been “Such a good little doggy,” I said to her as I leaned over and scratched her ears for about the tenth time that day, I figured, why not?
The city has maintained the park and adjacent public dock since the 1930’s. Earlier this summer they put up a chain-link fence in an area on the left side of the small parking lot as a place for people to exercise their dogs called, creatively enough, Lakeside Dog Park. Tillie and I walked up to the gate and let ourselves in. Other than Jerry Stevens who was strolling around on the far side with his mastiff Edgar (what a name for the poor dog!), we were the only people around.
“Hey there, Arnie,” Jerry called out, waving. Edgar barked his own greeting.
Jerry was a stocky, forty something man with a full, bushy beard who taught history and wrestling at the local high school. He was also a gregarious guy who liked to talk – to anyone about anything. He was off school for the summer and I’ll bet had a good amount of free time on his hands because every single time I’d driven by the park I’d seen him chit-chatting with anyone who happened by to exercise the family canine. I think that taking care of Tillie the past few days had started something paternal going inside me. I was enjoying the responsibly of taking care of the little dog and, on top of that, it had definitely gotten me out of my head and away from my somewhat morose thoughts. Having lost her earlier that morning had been slightly traumatic but at least I’d found her. I counted that as a win for the home team. It had also put me in a pretty good mood and I realized I was having a pretty decent day, way better than usual anyway. Why not be friendly with the bearded teacher?
I waved back at him. “What’ up, Jer?” I figured I’d just open up the conversation and let him talk while I watched Tillie and Edgar play together, something they were already doing, running around with each other and hassling beat up, multi-colored beach ball someone had left behind.
Jerry gave me a big smile and walked over and shook my hand. I tried not to grimace at his overly firm and enthusiastic grip.
“Not much,” Jerry said in response to my question, smiling through his bead. He had on tan cargo shorts, red flip-flops, a purple Minnesota Vikings tank top and a straw cowboy hat, a far cry from my clean shaven face, faded kakis, faded blue work shirt, work boots and old Twins cap covering my bald head. He was tan, brawny and fit, while I was pale, tall and skinny – not even remotely close to being athletic looking. If I didn’t already know he was a wrestling coach, Jerry’s stout, muscular build would point me in that direction – it being one of my top three choices if I had to guess his occupation (along with steel worker and brick layer.)
He took a long moment and looked past me out to the east over the length of the lake. I turned and followed his gaze. There were a few boats slowly put-putting along trolling way out in the middle, and a number of other boats were haphazardly scattered about at anchor, bobbing in a light breeze. There was a sailboat with an orange sail tacking back and forth, and two small kayaks, one red, one yellow, were being paddling along the far shore. It was actually quite a pretty scene, serene and bucolic, something an artist might paint if they wanted to represent an idealized summer day.
Most of the lake is surrounded by trees, with a few large homes and their subsequent green lawns cut into what was once forest land, but there are definitely more trees and forest than homes to look at. At the far end of the lake is a low swampy area where I sometimes see sandhill cranes nesting. People from the surrounding area enjoy coming to both the lake and our town because there’s an old time feel to be found despite us being only a twenty minute drive from downtown Minneapolis. So we’re a small town with a rural feel and a picturesque lake, a good enough reason that the people who move here tend to stay put, me and Jerry included.
“Nice looking day, isn’t it Arnie?” he asked.
With the light breeze out of the south rippling the water and the blue sky overhead with a few big, white clouds drifting by and some seagulls squawking from somewhere behind me, I had to admit the scene was almost idyllic.
“Sure is,” I agreed.
We nodded to each other knowingly and gazed some more over the water in companionable silence before Jerry broke the contemplative mood and asked, “What do you think about the new plan the city has to cut back the brush between the shore line and the highway over there?” He pointed off to the right where county road 112 ran close to the lake. It was a quarter of a mile away and easily seen from where we stood. “They’re thinking of putting in a walking and biking path along the highway. I’m personally all for it. It’ll bring more people into town and hopefully more business too.”
I was pondering Jerry’s question, wondering what I did, in fact, think about the city’s plan to destroy (to my way of thinking) the natural shoreline, all in the name of progress, but I never had the time to formulate my answer. He hesitated only a moment before moving on to another topic. The term ‘Put a quarter in the slot’ came to my mind as Jerry jumped from the path project to the Corn Day Celebration coming up later that month and whether or not the city would have enough money for fireworks. When his opinions on that topic ran their course, he moved on to what might happen if the city council approved a proposal to put up an apartment building across from the Quik-Mart where the old gas station used to be, then on to whether or not the potholes along Brown Road were deep enough by now and shouldn’t they be filled in before next winter, and on and on and on…
I just tuned him out, nodding occasionally and mumbling something unintelligible. I’m not kidding you, that man could talk. But I didn’t mind – it was nice to be with someone other than myself for a change so I stayed with him, enjoying his company and watching the dogs play, all the while looking out over the lake and taking in the sun, which by now indicated it was early afternoon.
Eventually Jerry moved away from the local happenings with our town and on to local sports and the ever interesting but always frustrating topic of the Minnesota Twins and then on to national politics, a subject I tend to shy away from, especially in public. In the past, over at the local bar the Black Rooster, I’d been known to get into some rather heated conversations of a political nature, usually after a beer or two, and especially concerning the idiot who happens to be our current president, but don’t me started. Lesson learned: as an old song that my son used to listen to once stated, “The man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” So instead of getting into anything political with Jerry and maybe ruining the pleasant mood set by the nice day and beautiful weather, I decided I’d better nip that little buzz kill (a phase my grandson taught me, which I rather like) right in the bud. Besides, by now I was feeling restless. It was time to move on.
“Ok, Jer…” I said, finally, putting my arms over my head and taking a big, long stretch before making a movement to signal my intention, “It was good to see you, but Tillie and I have to get going.” I turned and called to my little charge, “Come on, girl.” Tillie bounded over wagging her little tail and let me put her on her leash (Good dog!)
I went out the gate and then turned and waved. Jerry waved back before making his way over to talk to Cindy Anderson who a few minutes earlier had entered the area with her little boy and their Irish Setter, Max.
I have to say, it had been nice to have a long chat with Jerry, even though he did ninety-nine percent of the chatting. He wasn’t a bad guy. Besides, I don’t normally do much talking during my normal day except sometimes to myself (don’t tell anyone), living alone the way I do, and I kind of enjoyed our conversation. But the novelty of so much verbal communication was tiring, that was for sure, and I felt in need of some sustenance. I figured Tillie might also, what with all the running around and playing and chasing both the beach ball and their tails like she and Edgar had been doing. We made our way to the parking lot, took a right and walked back up to county 112.
The Quik-Mart is the most thriving of the about ten businesses in town. When I’m out running errands I stop in if I need gas or milk, and sometimes, to be honest, I stop in for nothing other than the diversion, just to browse around and kill time. It has pretty much anything a person could need, even an old guy walking around enjoying the sunshine on a bright, warm summer day with his dog. Tillie and I went inside and in a few minutes found just what I was looking for, a bottle water for us to share. On a whim, I also picked up some slim-jims to munch on.
The kid behind the counter was a skinny, local high school guy with floppy hair and a lot of pimples that I’ve seen before whose name tag said Lonny. I said, “Hi,” to him as I paid, and he gave me a nod back along with my change and a non-committal, “Hey,” and then went back to putting cigarettes in their slots above the counter. He seemed like an Ok kid – especially, when, after he noticed Tillie, he stopped sorting the cigarettes and leaned over the counter and said, “Hey, there, little poochie,” to her. She perked up her ears and stood up on her hind feet and danced around in a circle, showing off her athletic abilities, while I held the lease out of her way. The kid smiled and coughed out a laugh. So did I.
Lonny lightened up then and asked me what it was like outside and I told him it was getting hot and he said, “Yeah, no doubt,” and we chatted a few minutes about the weather and the heat (like all good Minnesotans can do) before a young couple who Lonny knew came in and they all started talking and playing with brightly colored objects they held in their hands and spun around with their fingers they called spinners, so I figured it was time to go.
Tillie and I walked back to the lake and to the right side of the park, as far away from the dog playing area as we could get. We found some shade under a huge cottonwood tree and sat down at a picnic table to rest and enjoy the afternoon. The beach was about fifty feet in front of us and I was surprised that it was deserted. But not the dock, which was to the left of the beach and stuck out into the lake thirty feet. There were a couple of boys maybe ten years old on it casting lures out into the water and reeling them back in. I watched the two of them for a while, almost mesmerized by the repetitive motion of the casting and reeling, casting and reeling. I didn’t see the kids catch anything but they didn’t seem to mind. They were just fishing and talking; mostly fishing.
I opened up the water and cupped my palm to make a little bowl and poured some in and offered it to Tillie who gratefully lapped it up. I poured out some more, which she drank, and then some more and then some more. After a few minutes her thirst finally seemed to be quenched. Then I had some (drank, not licked) and we shared the slim-jims. When we were finished, Tillie lay down in the grass at my feet in the cool of the shade and chewed on the pad of her paw. After a few minutes she yawned and fell asleep.
Sitting in the shade was pleasant and I felt myself relaxing. It was getting to be enjoyable for me to be with the little poodle who had now been under my care for the past three days. I’d never had a dog before but being with Tillie felt like I imaged it would feel like if I had been young and was the proud owner of my own canine friend, like a German Sheppard or something, my own companion to keep me company as a kid growing up like I did back in the forties and fifties in southwest Minneapolis. On such an idyllic summer day like we were having it was a nice image to be thinking about.
Well, who knows how things work, but one thought lead to another and for some reason my mind sent me back in time to when my grandparents had a rustic cabin they used as a summer getaway when I was young. It was on Big Sandy, a good sized lake in Aitkin County, smack dab in the middle of the big woods of north central Minnesota, about a three hour drive north of Minneapolis. I was the oldest of their daughter’s two boys and two girls and they enjoyed taking us kids up to the cabin to, as my grandfather put it, “Learn about living in the Wild.” I’m not sure how much of that we found out about or even did for that matter, but my younger brother and two younger sisters and I loved being up there.
Grandpa Quimby (we called him Grandpa Q) was an auditor and he and Grandma Helen lived in southern Minnesota in Fairmont, the farming based town where my mom was from. Grandpa Q taught us all (even my sisters – no sexism in our family!) to hunt and fish along with lots of other handy skills like how to tie knots so the bows and arrows we made out of ash saplings would hold together and the fishing boat we tied up to the dock wouldn’t float away. He bought me my first pocket knife when I was eight which I immediately used to start carving designs on the narrow willow tree I was making into a spear. It took me about two minutes to slice open my thumb prompting my Grandma to take the knife away from me from the rest of the summer, much to Grandpa Q’s chagrin. Mine, too.
Anyway, Grandpa Q filled in for my father who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge when I was six and Grandma Helen picked up any slack not filled by Grandpa. She was a short, rotund, sweet tempered lady who smoked Pall Mall red filter less cigarettes and had the patience of Job to teach me how to play solitaire when I was only seven years old. They were good people. What my mom did with her time when my grandparents had and my brother and sisters up at the cabin I have no idea, but I’m sure she enjoyed the peace and quiet while we were gone. She never did remarry.
One hot, windy, August afternoon when I was eleven Grandpa let my nine year old brother Eddie take the thirteen foot aluminum fishing boat for a spin up and down the shoreline, about a hundred feet out from the front of the cabin. It had a five horsepower Johnson motor on it and the rule was that he had to run it at half-throttle. However, my brother was a bit of a wild child and after only a few minutes of dutifully following instructions like he’d been told, Eddie cranked the throttle all the way up to full. I was playing with some water bugs along the shore next to the dock when I heard the whine of the engine as he jacked it. I casually looked up just in time to see him make a sharp turn into the huge wake coming up from behind. I remember the bow coming up high in the air, then smashing down hard on the water and seeing Eddie lose his balance just as another big wave hit, causing the boat to tilt dangerously to the side. It almost capsized but didn’t. It did, however, toss the small statured Eddie into the water. I stood up panicking, a sick feeling in my stomach, frightened for my brother, now struggling in the water (of course, he wasn’t wearing his life vest.) My mind raced as I tried to figure out what I should do before failing me completely and going totally blank. I ended up standing stock still and paralyzed with my mouth hanging open, unable to do anything.
Grandpa must have been watching from the cabin because he ran out the front door and down to the dock, yelling to me, “Arnold, go to the shed and grab a rope. I’m going in for Eddie.” He ran past me out to the end of the dock, jumped into the water and started swimming.
Glad that someone was finally taking charge, I did as told and ran as fast as I could back behind the cabin to the old shed where I found a coil of heavy rope like we used on the anchor and then ran back onto the dock. By this time Grandpa had made it to Eddie and was struggling with my brother, trying to hold him up above the waves. The motor was still running and the runaway boat was circling around and around Grandpa, who was having trouble trying to both rescue Eddie and dodge the boat at the same time.
Grandpa Q must have seen me come back on the dock because he yelled, “Arnold, get me the rope. Quick.” His call was weak. I could see he was losing his strength and becoming tired. Eddie was kicking feebly in his arms. I think Grandpa wanted me to swing the rope out to him, but it was way too short to reach. I quickly looked round, trying to figure out what I should do. Then I heard a scream and looked back to where they were floundering in the water. The boat had finally hit Grandpa Q a glancing blow. He stayed floating with my brother but I knew I had to act fast – they were starting to bob up and down, occasionally sinking under the water. I tried to figure what to do. I had an idea that I might swim the rope out to where they were struggling and then throw it to Grandpa and…and then what?
I frantically looked back on shore. A better idea came to me. Next to the dock, floating in the water on the shoreline, was one of the inner tubes we kids played with. Maybe I could use it. I ran and grabbed the black rubber tube and then ran back to the end of the dock and jumped in (still holding the rope) and began to work my way out to Grandpa and Eddie. By this time they were really struggling, sinking below the surface of the water more often than they were above it. I have to this day a vivid recollection of Eddie coughing up lake water and looking pale green. It’s not a pleasant picture.
I hurried through the water, stretched on the inner-tube, kicking as hard as I could, battling the waves, holding the rope in my right hand and swimming with my left arm. I was slowly making progress, but it seemed to be taking forever to reach them. Then the boat hit Grandpa again. I watched in horror, expecting the two of them to sink beneath the surface and never come up again, but fortunately they didn’t. Grandpa gave me a feeble wave and said, “I’m all right, Arnie, just hurry.” I thought I saw something red (blood it turned out) appear on his forehead.
He didn’t have to say anything more. I began kicking harder than I thought possible, my adrenalin pumping, my heart racing.
Finally I got close enough to toss the rope. Grandpa Q reached and grabbed it after the second try and then pulled me to him. In a few moments we were all holding on to the inner-tube, gasping for breath. Grandpa and Eddie were exhausted and winded, nearly drowned and I was only marginally better off. As we treaded water and rested I realized that, except for the cut on Grandpa’s forehead, we weren’t in too bad of shape. By now the boat had circled out further into the lake away from us and as it did, it dawned on me that we weren’t going to drown after all. In fact, we were safe.
We hung onto the inner-tube bouncing in the waves until we caught our breath. Nobody said much. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was really only a few minutes, Grandpa Q starting kicking and Eddie and I joined him. We began to slowly work our way back to shore. Close to the dock we could touch the bottom so we stood and made our way through the weeds and muck the rest of the way in before collapsing on the beach. Then Grandma was suddenly beside us, comforting Eddie and me, making sure we were all right, which we were. She gave Grandpa a handkerchief for the wound on his forehead. I found out later she’d been on the shore and the dock the entire time, I just must have blocked her out in my haste to do something to save Grandpa and my brother. My sisters were there too, huddled behind Grandma and crying. They were terrified over what had happened and when they got a chance they ran and hugged Eddie as tightly as Grandma had done, maybe more. Then they hugged me and Grandpa. It was quite the emotional scene, I’ll tell you.
“I’m taking Eddie up to the cabin,” Grandma finally said, helping my brother to his feet. “Q, you bring Arnold. And keep that wound covered,” she told Grandpa, giving him a look that at the time I didn’t understand, but later realized it was one of both anger and relief, if not a little thankfulness mixed in for good measure. She could have easily lost her husband and two grandsons that day.
Grandpa and I watched Grandma and Eddie and my sisters walk slowly away from us back to the cabin. Then we turned to look at the lake. The engine had run out of gas and the boat was floating about a hundred yards from shore, bobbing in the waves. Grandpa turned to me, put his arm around my shoulder and smiled and said, “That was quick thinking, Arnie, bringing that inner-tube like you did. I think you might even have saved our lives.”
I’m not kidding when I say that coming from this man I admired so much…well, his words made me feel good, I can tell you that, really good, like I was finally starting to grow up and on my way to becoming an adult. We sat on that beach together for a long time after that, watching the lake together and quietly talking. It was like a bond had formed between us that day, one that became stronger over the years. Many years later, on the day he died, I wept, something I rarely did, and had to be consoled by both my wife and my son and daughter. I’ve never met a man I admired more than him, good old Grandpa Q.
I was enjoying reliving the memory of that long ago summer day and all the other good times I’d had up at Big Sandy when suddenly Tillie let out a friendly little yip. I blinked myself back to the present and curiously glanced around. Off to the left the sun was lower in the sky, more toward mid afternoon. I must have been thinking and reminiscing for at least an hour.
Then I saw what Tillie was all excited about. She had recognized the Patel’s, the Pakistani family who had moved into the apartments down the street three years ago, just after Alice had passed away. Suny, Mrs. Patel, was a friendly lady who kept containers of plants on her deck during the summer where she grew prolific bunches of tomatoes, beans, herbs and all kinds of other produce. She was with her two kids and their little Chihuahua whose name I forgot, but who Tillie certainly recognized. Her husband Sam was a pharmacist who worked long hours at the Walgreens in Wayzata, the next town over east of us, closer to Minneapolis. The couple were in their late thirties and were nice people, good neighbors. I waved and Suny waved back.
She turned to her children and said something I couldn’t hear. Then she walked over to me and Tillie, leaving her kids, a boy and girl, Rashid and Neha, around ten and seven on the beach, playing in the shallow water with their dog.
She walked up to the picnic table and greeted me with a smile, “Mr. Gans, how are you today?” She had the whitest, brightest teeth I’d ever seen and her smile seemed to light up her face. “Out for a walk with little Tillie I see,” she added, bending down and petting the dog’s back, “How’s my little girl doing?”
Tillie promptly flipped over, feet in the air and tongue lolling out the side of her mouth, imploring Suny to rub her tummy which the good natured woman gladly did.
“Tillie and I go way back,” she said, enthusiastically rubbing some more, while I swear Tillie groaned in pleasure.
My first rather selfish thought was that if they went back so far and were such good friends, then why wasn’t Suny doing the dog watching while the Levendosky’s vacationed on the east coast? My second thought, while watching Tillie roll back and forth in a fit of joy on the shady grass, clawing at nothing but thin air and eyes closed in pure ecstasy, was that the little white dog had no pride. My third thought: quit being such a grumpy old fart and be happy that I had gotten the chance to take care of the cute little rascal.
I looked over at the nearby beach and watched Rashid and Neha playing with…Rex. The name of their dog suddenly came to me. That was it: Rex, a tiny, black and tan, long hair Chihuahua – a ball of fur and fire that was racing in and out of the water, running along the sandy shoreline and back to the kids, yipping and yapping like little dogs do. I watched for a while. All three of them were having a great time, playing made up games in the water and cooling off in the water, the kid’s laughter carried to me on the warm breeze. Then I turned and watched as Suny fooled around in the shade next to me with Tillie, now making a spectacle of herself rolling around in pure delight, loosing herself in the adulation of Suny’s attention.
Taking it all in it suddenly dawned on me what a wonderful day I was having. I hadn’t minded talking to Jerry. In fact, our conversation had gotten me thinking about things I didn’t ordinarily think about (like that bike path project up on the highway), and even if I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, the companionship was actually kind of nice. I knew Suny well enough to be neighborly and say Hi in passing, so after a few minutes of me watching her kids and Rex, and Suny fooling around on the ground with Tillie, I asked her if she wanted to sit and join me. She said she did and took a seat at the picnic table across from me.
We started talking and she told me that the plants in her containers were doing exceptionally well this year; the tomatoes and cucumbers were especially healthy and productive.
“But I don’t have as much time for them as I’d like, working at the school now,” she said with a hint of regret, looking longingly at her children, now making a huge sandcastle on the edge of the shore. She had her head wrapped in a bright yellow scarf and was wearing long, loose fitting dark pants and a brightly colored tunic the color of beets when they are cut open; her apparel a compromise, she told me once, between the traditional Hindi sari and full blown, one-hundred percent western wear – like her kids wore. Today Rashid and Neha were dressed for the beach in American style swimming trunks and tee shirts, and I’d often seen them wearing jeans and other clothes, the kind easily purchased at any big box store.
Suny was in early childhood education and worked as an aid at the learning center at the elementary school where, ironically, Alice had taught. A year or two ago, when I found out that particular coincidence it occurred to me what a small world it really could be. The fact that Suny enjoyed plants and gardening like I did only added to the small word theme in my head. I liked her and her family so we had a lot to chat about as we took advantage of the welcome shade of the picnic table while listening to the joyful laughter of her kids who had given up on the sand castle and were now playing tag in the water. I even decided to let Tillie off her leash which she seemed to appreciate because she turned and gave me an expression like, ‘What took you so long.’ I guess I’m a bit of slow learner when it comes to wishes and desires of little puppy dogs, but at least I was learning. Once free, she happily ran to join the two kids and Rex on the beach.
With Alice having been gone these past three years, I will admit to you right now that I have become probably not been the most sociable person in the neighborhood. Maybe ‘withdrawn’ would be the better word. In the time since my wife’s passing my world has seemed to shrink in on itself, even though my kids have made it a point to stay in touch by phone and the occasional visit. But, you know, John and Linda have their own lives to lead and can’t be held responsible for me; that’s my responsibility – one I probably haven’t performed at optimum potential, preferring to be by myself and stay out of the social spotlight and close to home with my housework, outdoor projects and, of course, my ever growing collection of thousand piece jig-saw puzzles.
But on this warm August day, sitting down by the lake, having had a long conversation with Jerry and then a short little chat with Lonny, and now talking with Suny, I have to say that I was feeling better than I had in a long time about being out in public and around people – not to mention enjoying the park and the laugher of the children playing in the water, the dogs running around and romping on the beach, the sun shining on my face – well, now the shade, but you get my meaning – all in all, the simple pleasures of life in general.
Rashid ran up to us, interrupting a lively conversation concerning the pros and cons of heirloom tomatoes.
“Mom, can we go up to the Quik-Mart and get something to drink? Me and Neha are thirsty.” He was a tall, thin kid with bright green, baggy swim trunks and a soggy black tee-shirt that had the name of a band on the front that I’d never heard of. He was a trumpet player, his mom told me once, which she didn’t need to since I could hear him practice perfectly well if the wind was right and I was outside puttering around in the front garden. (He was actually quite good, in my estimation, if not overly loud.)
“Neha and I, dear,” Suny said as she reached into her shoulder bag and took out two bottles of water and gave them to her son, “Here’s some water for you, and one for your sister.”
Grinning good naturedly at his mother’s admonishment (and then repeating his question using the correct grammar), Rashid took the water and ran back to the beach, tossing both bottles in the air as he ran, juggling them for about five seconds before he dropped them both in the sand.
I laughed, remembering years ago back in the early sixties when John and Linda were young and I’d come down to this same beach and taken them swimming. The lake had fewer houses around it in those days and the water quality was certainly better. Back then the city had roped off a swimming area to the right of the public dock where the beach still is. Beyond the roped off area was a wooden raft on big fifty gallon drums out about one hundred and fifty feet from shore that adventurous kids could swim out to. I taught my children to swim right here at this very beach and remember well the first time each of them had made the solo trek out to the raft and back; a rite of passage some might say. They were so proud of themselves, and I was, too. John was nine and Linda was eight, if I remember correctly, around the same age as Rashid and Neha.
Now the raft is long gone. So is the guard station and snack stand that used to be set up during the summer months when school was out. Parents these days are responsible for watching their kids because the city hasn’t been able to afford a life guard in probably thirty years. Which, now that I think about it, maybe wasn’t such a bad thing. With the hectic pace of the world nowadays, it’s nice to see families making time to be together down at the lake on a sunny summer afternoon. And, no, I’m not waxing all nostalgic for the quote-un-quote good old days and living in my own little dream world wishing time could magically go back to the fifties or the sixties again. It just seemed like what I was seeing today at the lake with Suny’s kids playing in the water and the dogs running up and down the beach was a pretty good world to be living in – that’s all I’m saying – and it occurred to me how glad I was to be out of the house and down at the lake on this warm summer day to be a part of it.
Boisterous activity drew me away from my thoughts. I glanced over to where some friends had joined Rashid and Neha. There were now maybe ten young people playing in the water and sitting on the shore. Some of the older kids had taken out their phones and were snapping pictures of themselves and their friends goofing off and messing around, no doubt with the idea of posting the pictures on their Facebook or Myspace pages or other social media accounts. I shook my head in (mock) disapproval and glanced at Suny who smiled and said only, “Kids, what can you do?”
I smiled back and said nothing, preferring my own little world where there were no Selfies, only fun loving good times, simpler times, better times. Hell, maybe earlier I truly had been longing for the good old days. Then I had a more pressing thought; maybe the world was simply passing me by, which, I have to say, isn’t the first time such an idea has surfaced, especially since Alice’s passing. Then I shook myself, refusing to sink into a well of despair on this fine day. To hell with philosophic musings. Today was today and it was a good day to be alive and I was going to continue to make the most of it.
I turned to Suny and asked her which variety of pole-beans she was using this year, always an interesting discussion for gardeners to engage in. She grinned and told me that this year she favored Kentucky Wonder which, along with Monte Gusto, was one of my favorites, and soon we were deep a discussion concerning the benefits each.
After we’d talked for awhile Suny stood up and said, “I think I’ll go get Rex. I can tell he’s getting worn out. He’s not as young as he used to be, you know.” She looked at me, and I wondered if she was silently implying that I was in the same boat as the dog, a comparison I found a bit presumptuous, I have to say, but I was wrong. My kindly neighbor was just being helpful. “Should I bring Tillie, too?” she asked.
“No thanks, Suny,” I said, standing to join her, feeling suddenly energetic after my little rest in the shade and chat with my amiable neighbor, “I think I’ll get her myself and then head up to the store for some more water and something to eat.” Tillie and I had finished off our bottled water and slim-jims from earlier and I was thirsty and figured my little doggy friend was as well.
We strolled out of the shade, into the sun and over to the beach, where by now more families and children had showed up and were playing in the sand and wading in the water. Suny and I put our dogs on their leashes and I said a final good-bye to her and her kids, both of whom were polite enough to wave to me. Then Tillie and I walked across the beach through the parking lot and left the park.
Sitting down by the lake at the picnic table in the shade of the big cottonwood tree with a soft breeze blowing off the water, the day felt mild and pleasantly warm; in fact, the proverbial phrase “Perfect summer day” would come close to describing it. But now up on the highway with the August sun beating down unmercifully, cooking the concrete and asphalt to blast furnace intensity, well, the day was just plain hot. In fact scorching hot would be more apt, judging from the way Tillie pranced across the pavement. I hurried along with her, wanting to get her out of the heat as soon as possible.
It was a welcome change to walk into the air-conditioned Quik-Mart, and even though the cold air was a shock to my system it still felt refreshing. Tillie seemed to appreciate it too, and I had a momentary vision of her little feet soaking up the coolness of the floor like little furry sponges. We wandered around for a few minutes, cooling off while I browsed the aisles full of candy, junk food and automotives supplies. I picked up a can of WD-40, shook it and turning it over in my hand, toying with the idea of buying it before wondering what I was thinking. I certainly didn’t need a can right at that moment, especially considering that I had about five or six of them back home scattered in various places around the house, you know, just in case. I put the can down, and Tillie and I went to the back of the store where the water was kept. I selected two bottles this time, one for each of us, and on my way to the front to pay for them grabbed another, bigger, handful of slim-jims, plus an apple and a small box of raisins, thinking to myself that I couldn’t live on slim-jims alone, even if it appeared Tillie was more than happy to.
Steve, the manager’s son, had taken over for Lonny and was now working the cash register. He was maybe twenty five and went to college in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, the same school I had attended back in the late fifties. He’s pretty friendly with me. He knows I studied engineering there like he’s doing, so we usually have a lot to talk about and this time was no exception.
“Hey there, Arnie,” he greeted me with a smile as we came up to pay, “I see you’ve got the Levendowski’s little dog with you.” He leaned over the counter and said, “Hi, little girl,” to Tillie which she responded to by jumping straight up into the air three times, landing gracefully on her four paws each time, and giving out a cute little ‘yip-yip’ each time, to which Steve laughed and clapped, which encouraged her more and made me wonder at all the free time Janice Levendowsky must have to teach her little poodle to do the tricks she could perform. But then who was I to judge someone else, given the amount of time I put in to laboring over my jig-saw puzzles? To each their own, I guess, but I have to say, Tillie’s tricks and the happiness they brought Steve (and me, by the way) made the hours spent at my card table seem like a complete waste of time, if not just a little bit lonely and sad.
Tillie finally calmed down and I paid for my purchases. Steve put them in a plastic bag so it’d be easy for me to carry and I gave Tillie a slim-jim to gnaw on. He took the opportunity to tell me about something they were studying in class. (I like the fact that he keeps me informed on new advances in engineering.)
I stood quietly paying attention and listened to him explain about what was now being done in the field of optical resonating and fluid dynamics – topics that were far beyond my current range of understanding. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t interested – I was, and I liked hearing what he had to say even though I didn’t have much to add to the conversation. However, while he talked I accomplished something unknown to Steve and probably to his immense benefit; I made the decision to not bore him by telling him stories about life before the electronic age – before computers became a way of life and using computer aided design, so often used these days, was just in its infancy when I was first starting out. Part of getting old, I had found, was trying to be sensitive as to when to talk about my life and the things I’d done, and when to leave well enough alone. (Watching the lights dim in the eyes of the party you are talking to was usually a pretty good indication.) Plus, it was too nice a day out right now to rehash things that happened so long ago, even if I did remember them like it was only yesterday.
A woman and her two toddlers came in to pay for gas interrupting Steve’s explanation of lead free transparent ceramics, an area I actually knew something about, having worked with ceramics in my final years at Heartland. I glanced at a clock on the wall. It was after five in the afternoon. I glanced at Tillie. She seemed to be getting antsy to be moving on, probably tired of all the engineering jargon. Steve and I could talk another time – right now it was time to get on with the day.
I bid my young friend good-bye, took a firm grip of Tillie’s leash and went outside. The sun was moving further down in the west and it was shining brightly in my eyes. We found a place in the shade on the side of the building so Tillie’s feet wouldn’t burn. I wished I had my sunglasses and pictured them laying on the kitchen counter back home. I’d had no idea when I’d left this morning that I would be spending the entire day out and about, down at the lake with Tillie, chatting with acquaintances and reliving old memories. I have to say that it wasn’t a bad way to spend my time.
I pulled the brim of my Twins cap further down to shield my eyes and knelt down on the sidewalk. I put a hand gently on either side of Tillie’s head and looked at her carefully, judging how she was holding up. She looked up at me and squinted her eyes and let out an excited little yip which I took to be a sign that she was happy and content to be with me. I patted her on the head and stood up. Then she turned in a circle and yipped again, seeming to be ready to move on. I was in no rush to go home and I just bet Tillie wasn’t either, so we didn’t.
There was lots more traffic driving through town at this time of day with rush hour now in full force. Instead of taking a left at the stop light and returning to our neighborhood, I took a right and headed back down to the park. The kids who had been fishing were long gone so we went out onto the public dock and sat down, taking in the scene dominated by motor boats and sailboats on the water and raucous sea gulls flying by overhead. I opened my bag and fed some slim-jims to Tillie while I ate my apple and some raisins. We shared some more water, too. A lot more – it was really pretty hot out and I was glad the dock was now completely shaded by the big aspen and cottonwood trees behind us on the shore.
All the young kids and families had left the beach, too, probably having gone home for dinner. The breeze had shifted, blowing the traffic noise on the highway away from the lake – but it was pretty much drowned out anyway by the constant calling of seagulls soaring overhead, begging for snacks and diving into the water searching for minnows. I probably shouldn’t have fed them, but I did. It was fun. They seemed to like little pieces slim-jims as much as the raisins. Tillie sat and watched, occasionally looking at me like I was a little crazy. Maybe I was, but it was pure joy watching the birds dip and dive all around us, catching the pieces I threw to them. And entertaining, too, lots more so than watching some stupid television show, which is what I’d be doing if I were home right now, sitting by myself on the couch, that’s for sure.
I was hardly conscious of time slipping by. The early evening was so peaceful and relaxing that I almost fell asleep. But didn’t. I was suddenly moved to reach down and untie my work boots. I took off my socks. The breeze felt cool on my toes and I had a sudden urge to put my feet in the water, something I hadn’t done in maybe fifty years. But, what the heck, I thought to myself, I was having a good day, so why not be adventurous? I rolled up my trousers to my knees and, with only the briefest hesitation, plunged my feet into the lake, expecting a cold shock. I think I might have even gritted my teeth a little. However, as I watched my pale skin sink beneath the surface, I was pleasantly surprised by how warm the water was. It was more than refreshing – it was a soothing balm, like a present from Mother Nature – an unexpected gift of utter bliss. I sat back with a contented sigh, bracing myself with my hands on the warm wood of the dock and looked out over the lake, idly watching a sailboat tacking back and forth in the soft breeze. Little minnows came and nibbled at my white toes and they didn’t bother me at all – only tickled my skin and made me smile. Why didn’t I come down here and do this more often?
I don’t know how long I had been sitting on the dock, Tillie resting my side, both of us watching the lake and the sailboat and then a fishing boat which appeared out of nowhere, when all of a sudden I heard a commotion behind me. I turned and saw that some high school kids had came down to the beach and were starting to throw a Frisbee back and forth. I took my feet out of the lake and turned around, watching them from the dock. There were three guys and three girls, just goofing around having a good time. The guys reminded me when I was in high school. My friends and I all worked after classes were done for the day, so we didn’t have a lot of free time. I do remember that we used to make it to Friday night football games where we’d cheer for our team the Spartans. Our school colors of deep red and gold are still vivid in my mind. Such memories…
Apparently a gull looking for a handout had swooped low near the dock causing Tillie to let out a yelp. Startled, I looked around, surprised to see that not only had the kids with Frisbee left the beach, but the sun had now dropped below the western tree line leaving Tillie and I in deep shadow. How long had I been on the dock? An hour or so? I must have trailed off down some long forgotten path of memories. Maybe I had spent time reminiscing about working on my old ’47 pale green Chevy Coup, getting my pride and joy cleaned up and waxed, all ready to go driving with my girl friend Kathy to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis to go for a night time walk and maybe do a little necking if we were in the mood, which we usually were. Maybe I was thinking about Saturday morning pick-up basketball games with my friends, Steve and Dale and Dave, down at the local park, laughing and cutting up and blowing off steam. They were such good guys. I never had friends like them again. Ever. No wonder I had gone back for a visit.
But now was now and I was feeling stiff from sitting on the hard wooden boards for so long. I put my boots on and Tillie and I got up and walked off the dock and jumped down to the sand. The park was virtually deserted, long shadows of the trees were stretching out along the ground. I saw only a few people wandering around in the dog area. It appeared Jerry had finally gone home with Edgar only to (no doubt) turn around tomorrow and come back to spend time by the lake, chatting with people. At one point in my life I might have thought he was wasting his time, killing day after day in a dog park with his pooch, but hell, now that I thought about it, there were probably lots worse ways to spend the summer and get recharged for starting the fall season of teaching and coaching. Being with his dog in the summertime was certainly an innocent enough pastime. I knew how challenging and exhausting it could be dealing with kids all day long since Alice had been a teacher for nearly thirty-five years. So…more power to him.
There were a couple of boats fishing over along the far shore, nearly a half a mile away. The afterglow of the setting sun was brushing a few low, wispy clouds on the horizon, coloring them soft pink, the color of Alice’s favorite peony. I suddenly felt the weight of day’s end closing in, a feeling I didn’t like. I wasn’t ready for this remarkable time Tillie and I had been having to be over. Besides, there was still plenty of daylight left. I remembered what Jerry had said about the city maybe putting in a new walking trail over by the highway a quarter of a mile away, so I decided to go and check out the location. There hadn’t been much rain this summer and the lake level was down so we started walking along the shore toward the highway instead of going back to the Quik-Mart, taking a left and walking along the highway itself. Tillie enjoyed playing in the water as we made our way and I made sure to keep her on the leash so she wouldn’t decide to go for a swim into deeper water or chase the ducks that were paddling nearby keeping us company.
As we walked, we left our foot prints in the sand and when I turned around and saw them, they made me think of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ one my favorite books to read when I was a kid. Just for the fun of it I started pretending Tillie and I were actually on a desert island, searching for signs of civilization or turtle eggs to eat and before too long I realized we had walked far enough to get past where the highway ran near the shore where the trail would be built. In fact we had walked the shore line far to the east to where a steep hill rose up a hundred feet to my right. Time, once again, had somehow slipped away from me.
I tugged up on the leash to hold Tillie back. She seemed to have gotten a new burst of energy and was straining to go after a young raccoon running along the sand just ahead. We stopped and watched for a while until the young animal scurried into the underbrush. Then I looked around. I was near the far end of the lake in a secluded wooded cove, about one mile outside of town.
Well, that’s Ok, I thought to myself and bent down and petted Tillie sitting patiently at my feet. Then I looked out over the lake and up at the sky. Twilight was fading fast and soon it would be dark and I had a decision to make: one, turn around and do what many would consider the smart thing which would be to take the easy route and walk back the way we’d come. But that was too easy. Why not do something different? I looked at the steep hill so thick with undergrowth I could barely see the ground and made my decision.”I think we can make that climb, can’t we girl?” I asked her. I hadn’t climbed a hill, let alone a forested one, in I couldn’t remember how long, but I was up for anything new on this day of new experiences.
Tillie looked at me expectantly and then yipped, letting me know that she was as game to try a new adventure as I was. I got a firm grip on her leash and we started out, fighting our way through tangled underbrush of chokecherry and blackberry and saplings and low growing shrubs. It was thick stuff and all of it under a forest of birch and elm and oak. I was sweating by the time we made it to the top. And when we did and when we popped out into the open, guess what I found? Gravestones. Tombstones. I looked around and realized I’d come all the way along the shoreline to the lake side of the small local cemetery. The same cemetery that Alice’s ashes were buried in.
I immediately collapsed in the long grass under a canopy of trees to catch my breath. Tillie plopped down next to me, panting. After a few moments we both recovered and I sat up. I scratched Tillie behind the ears and told her, “Good dog.” She looked at me momentarily, thinking god only knew what, and then suddenly licked my face. I have to say, it felt pretty nice, though certainly much wetter than I imagined it to be.
I scooted around so I was facing the lake, pulled Tillie close to me and opened my bag from the Quik-Mart. “Here you go, girl,” I said, giving her one handful of water after another which she thirstily lapped up. Then we proceeded to have ourselves a little picnic of more shared water and slim-jims. They tasted better than they had all day, and believe me, they had certainly hit the spot earlier. Best picnic in a long time, was my way of thinking.
The clouds to the west had changed from soft pink to deep red and orange. There was very little light left. As I sat and watched, the colors faded and the sky turned deep purple and then dark indigo. There was a peaceful quietude all around and the scent of fresh mown grass wafting in from somewhere. The thought that jumped to the forefront of my mind was this: What a perfect ending to a perfect day. And then, as we gazed out over the calm waters of the lake, watching the darkness deepen and listening to the final song of a nearby robin, just like that, the last light of day left the sky completely and the first stars began to appear.
Now I know that I should have gotten to my feet right then and there and made my way through the cemetery out to the county road, taken a right and hiked back into town. It would have been the right thing to do, the expected thing to do. Heck, I could have been to my house in less than an hour. But my day had given me a new lease on life and I felt that Tillie and I were now far removed from doing something so…well, something so normal and expected. I wasn’t going to let a little darkness, let alone some misplaced nod to conventionality, hold us back. No sir. Besides, an idea had suddenly occurred to me.
I stood up and gave the leash a little tug, “Come on, girl,” I said to Tillie and she immediately jumped to her feet. Off we went. In spite of it being difficult to see clearly, I was able to make my way carefully through the cemetery until a few minutes later I found what I was looking for – Alice’s gravestone marking where her ashes were buried. I squatted down and caressed the marble marker, thinking of my dear wife and how much I missed her and how much she would have enjoyed being with me on this rare day, the first good day I’d had in I didn’t know how long. I took more than a few minutes talking with her and telling her what the day had been like, and how nice it had been to be at the lake, talking with people and reliving old memories.
Then I changed subjects and told her how the kids and grandchildren were doing, telling my sweet Alice about this life that was now so much more empty with her not in it anymore. I suddenly found myself overwhelmed and a little teary-eyed, remembering the wonderful times we’d had together and the very full life we had led – raising our children, working at our jobs, working in our garden, going on family vacations (like the one to the UP in Michigan), all the ups and downs we’d experienced in our long and fulfilling marriage, the good times and the bad. In short, the shared life of two people immensely in love with each other. Then I surprised myself by breaking down completely. I sank to my knees in the dewy grass, tears streaming down my cheeks. Oh, the intensity of those memories. Sometimes they can be emotionally dangerous and this was obviously one of those times. I was overcome. I finally stretched out prostrate in the grass, sobbing uncontrollably like a child or, more to the point, like a lonely old man.
Tillie’s soft tongue on the side of my face startled me back to reality.
“Hey there, girl,” I said to her, rolling over and sitting up. I looked at the little white dog who had been my faithful company on this day of simple yet extraordinary events and scratched her ears, feeling a sense of security in her comforting presence. She stood up at attention and quivered in excitement, enjoying the attention. “Good girl,” I said, sniffling a little.
I took a minute to collect myself, petting Tillie and appreciating the soft feel of her fur, the closeness of this little living creature. Then I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, finally getting myself back together. I stood up, “Real good, doggy,” I told her.
Was it me, or did Tillie give me a little poodle grin in response? It was so dark, I probably just imagined it.
I stood in the darkness, the air still warm from the heat of the day, and listened to a chorus of frogs coming from nearby. They mingled with the low, sustained hum of toads calling and crickets chirping. There were other night sounds, too, that were somehow comforting to hear even though I had no idea what they were. My enjoyment was overwhelming and I think I lost track of time for awhile.
A big splash near the shore startled me back to reality. A fish must have jumped, leaping out of the calm water before falling back into it again. Next to me Tillie stood up and put her front paws on my leg. I reached down and scratched her ears and she moved up next to me and licked my hand. I could have stayed in this peaceful place forever, but I knew I couldn’t. Hadn’t I procrastinated long enough? Probably. I really should be getting home and I told myself, Get off your butt and walk yourself and Tillie back to town, drop her off and go home to your nice soft bed, climb in an pull up the covers and go to sleep.
But I knew I was only kidding myself – my little pep talk fell on my own deaf ears. I wasn’t ready yet to leave yet and really, when I thought about it, why should I? Tillie and I weren’t hurting anyone. The night was warm and mild. What was the rush? Plus, all I had to look forward to back home was an empty house and a half finished jig-saw puzzle. They’d be there when I got back but I wasn’t ready to go back to them just yet. Maybe in a little while.
We made our way through the grave markers back to the far edge of the cemetery where we’d come up from our climb and sat down in the grass so we could look out over the lake. Even though it was now completely dark, I could see a few boats on the mirror calm water with their running lights on, trolling quietly back and forth, probably fishing for walleyes. About a hundred yards behind us was the highway. I listened past the swish, swish of the traffic and was rewarded with night sounds of crickets, toads and frogs, plus the haunting hooting of an owl and the occasional quacking of a duck out on the water. It was all so peaceful and relaxing that I sat for a long time, enjoying the languid reverie of thinking about nothing at all, just enjoying the nighttime and the comforting companionship of Tillie. I hadn’t felt so at ease in many months, certainly not since I’d lost Alice. It was a good feeling to have, like something sacred was taking over my spirit, revitalizing my soul with hope and happiness. But then I laughed, chiding myself, realizing that I didn’t normally think those kinds of thoughts. Maybe I really was just being a foolish old man, slowly losing touch with reality, quietly going crazy.
But…be that as it may and putting thoughts of senility aside, after a while I started to get a chill. I guess I’d been out long enough on this wonderfully different, yet increasingly memorable day. It was finally time to go home. I looked up through the overhanging tree branches. Numerous stars had come out and were filling the sky with a fairyland of twinkling light. Looking to the east a bright, clear, yellow moon was starting to rise over the tree line on the far end of the lake. I looked at my wrist, thinking to check the time, but remembered that I didn’t wear a watch anymore; hadn’t, in fact, for thirteen years, ever since I’d retired from Heartland back in 2004. My goodness, how the time had flown.
I stood up to stretch and get ready for the walk back to town, but as soon as I did I got a little dizzy. I stumbled a bit and took a few steps to the trunk of a tree to catch my balance. I suddenly felt very tired. Maybe I’d rest a bit before leaving the cemetery. I walked a few yards along the edge of the overlook until I found some soft, long grass. When I sat down a sense of relief flowed in my legs. My long day was catching up to me.
“Just for a moment,” I said to Tillie, who moved right up to my side, patiently watching me, “We’ll rest just for a minute and then we’ll head home, Ok girl?”
Tillie seemed to understand because she put her paws in from of her and arched her backside into the air, stretching. Then she shook herself, gave up a big yawn and shook herself again. I lay down in the grass facing the lake using my arm for a pillow and she lay down next to me. I pulled her close to my chest. Next to me her little body felt warm and comforting. I began to relax. “We’ll just rest a minute,” I told her, “Then we’ll go home.” Tillie sighed a heavy sigh and snuggled closer. I closed my eyes and gave myself up to images of the day, the people I’d seen and talked with, and the memories I’d relived, all floating through my brain like big, white, fluffy clouds on a bright, blue sky summer day. It was as good way as any to fall asleep and I did.
I awoke to the song of a robin and the sun peeking over the tree line to the east. What the hell? I couldn’t believe I had slept all night long. Tillie lay peacefully right next to me and when I scratched her behind her ears and she quickly came awake. Then I stood up; well, struggled to my feet was more like it. Man, I was stiff, but when I finally got myself upright and was able to look around I stood transfixed. Diffuse sunlight filtered through the trees filling the woodland with a golden glow. Where light found its way to the ground wisps of steam were rising only to then drift ethereally away in the softest of breezes. In addition to the chorus of more and more robins joining their solitary friend in song, there was a freshness in the air that bespoke of the promise of the coming of a brand new day. Nearby on the grass sunlight glistened jewel like off the strands of a spider web. A woodpecker’s drumming echoed through the trees. And then, like magic, a mother turkey with about ten young ones silently appeared off to my left and ran across the grass in front of me before disappearing into the edge of the forest fifty feet away.
I was damp with morning dew but no matter. Once on my feet I discovered that I was perfectly fine standing in this cemetery that was suddenly transformed from a plot of land for the dead and departed into a forest glade of the alive and living. A sense of peace filled my soul and renewed my spirit, like I was in Nature’s own sanctuary. If this was what religion was all about, I was all on board.
Tillie was up now, too, standing beside me with her little head tilted to one side, looking at me curiously, less excited about the wonders of the natural world and more concerned with food. I liked how she was keeping me grounded in reality. After a moment’s contemplation I realized that I, too, was hungry.
“Let’s get ourselves something to eat,” I told her and she wagged her tail and quivered with excitement. I smiled, happy that my new little friend was with me to join in this brand new day.
I was reaching in my Quik-Mart bag to check on the slim-jims supply when Tillie’s ears perked up. She turned in the direction of the highway and started barking. I grabbed her leash so she wouldn’t run off and a moment later heard what was upsetting her – the high-pitched scream of a siren. Then another one, both of them screeching through the stillness of the early morning like a classroom of kindergartener’s fingernails on a chalk board.
Curious as to what was happening, I hurried through the wet grass and tombstones toward the parking lot and saw one, then another, squad car speed by on the highway. I quickened my pace and by the time I made to the road I was just in time to see their red break lights come on. The squads each slammed to a stop, made quick U-turns and sped back to me. They turned into the packing area, tires skidding on the gravel, and pulled up right in front of where I stood (rather aggressively, I thought), sirens winding down but those red and yellow lights still flashing. I have to say that they completely destroyed the mellow mood of the tranquil morning.
I reached down and picked up Tillie who by now was barking non-stop. I petted her and talked softly to her, comforting her and telling her to calm down. “Everything’s going to be Ok,” I told her, even though I had no idea if that statement was true or not. One thing was certain, I had no idea what was going on.
Tillie finally relaxed, quit barking and nestled in my arms. I could feel her little body shaking. I watched as a cop got out of each car. One was a guy about fifty years old who was short, thin and had a bushy, black moustache. The other was a young woman about thirty who had a couple of inches and maybe twenty pounds on the guy. Neither of them were looking too happy.
“Hi, there officers,” I said, trying to be friendly as they approached, “Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Are you Arnold Gans, “Mr. Moustache asked without preamble, stalking right up to me, not acting friendly at all, I might add.
“Why, yes I am,” I said, courteously, wondering what the sudden interest in me was. Then it dawned on me. Of course. I’d spent the night in the cemetery. Maybe someone had seen me and reported me as a vagrant or something.
“Mr. Gans,” the lady cop said, “We had a call come in this morning that you were missing. You haven’t been heard from in a day.” She stopped and gave me a pointed look, the kind of look my mother used to give me when I was a kid and mis-behaved. A look that to this day the memory of still makes me shutter. I felt myself cowing under her gaze. “You’re not being very responsible, Mr. Gans. Are you aware that people are concerned for you and are very worried about you? We’re here to take you home.”
Ops. So, not a vagrant, then. Plus I’d made the lady cop mad. Not a good way to kick off what a few minutes ago looked like it’d be a really good day.
Much later, when I thought back to how I handled the next minute or so, I probably could have done things differently. For sure, I would have kept my mouth shut. But I had been having a really good day the day before, and frankly last night in the cemetery hadn’t been so bad either. In fact, right up until the point when the police had made their noisy and assertive appearance, the morning was looking awfully darn promising as well.
“I’m not missing,” I said, to the lady cop, making a little joke, “I’m right here.”
Well, I thought it was funny, even if she didn’t. Not one little bit.
What happened was that Mrs. Levendosky had tried to call several times yesterday to check on how things were going with me and the dog sitting job. Of course I wasn’t home, out as I had been with Tillie on our own little escapade. Her final call came last night, and when I didn’t answer her worry level when from slight to extreme. When she called early this morning and I still didn’t answer she called John who drove to my home from where he lived in Apple Valley – a forty-five minute drive in morning rush hour. After a quick search and finding I wasn’t anywhere in the house he called the police to report me missing. The two police officers who found me in the cemetery were responding to the call and on the way to meet with John and organize a search party.
In retrospect, they should have been happy that I saved them the time and effort it would have taken to look for me, having me stumble out of the cemetery almost into their laps like I did. But they were more annoyed than anything else at wasting time over a false alarm and the inconvenience of having to baby-sit an old man. I was pretty much told to keep my mouth shut after my little joke about not being lost (even though to this day I will still insist I wasn’t, not to mention that I thought it was funny.) In the end, I should have been grateful the police took their jobs as seriously as they did. And I was but, man, everybody sure made a big deal out me being “Missing,” as they put it.
I was brought home and placed in the custody of John who insisted on taking me to the local clinic for a checkup. Of course, I was fine. (Tillie was, too, I might add.) When we got back to my place John spent the day with me, which was quite nice. He called Linda and she came over in the middle of the afternoon after she got off work with her twin girls Kala and Marie and take-out from Subway.
“Well, Dad,” John finally said after we had eaten and we were sitting at the kitchen table drinking ice tea that Linda had made, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson and that you won’t go traipsing off again.”
He and Linda suggested that if my wandering away from home started to become a habit, “Next steps,” as they called it, would have to be taken. And those next steps were clearly spelled out.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to consider some sort of Memory Care facility or nursing home,” Linda said, shaking her head and looking less regretful than I hoped she would.
“Or something along those lines,” John added. He, too, didn’t look very happy with the whole situation.
I didn’t have to think but a microsecond to agree with them. I liked my freedom too much to make a bit deal and argue and try to prove some ridiculous point. Plus, between you and me, I really didn’t do anything all that awful, did I? Just went out for a little walk and stayed out longer than I’d planed. I hadn’t really hurt anybody.
“I really do appreciate your concern,” I told them both, making sure I came across both contrite and sincere, “I promise I won’t wander off again. I’ll be good.”
After talking back and forth some more, and me continuing to assure them I would be conscientious and change my behavior, more just to keep my kids from worrying about me than anything else, I was able to finally convince them that didn’t have to worry. Whew. Then with my immediate future out of the way we moved on and chatted about John and Linda’s lives and how things were going with them and their jobs and how the grandkids were doing, you know, just catching up. It was nice.
Finally John looked at his watch, “Ok, Dad, I should get going. It’s been a long day. I’m sure you’re tired, I know I am.”
“Thanks for everything, son,” I said, “I appreciate your concern.” I looked at Linda, “You, too, sweetheart.”
She came to me and gave me a hug, saying, “I love you, Dad, and just want the best for you, you know that, right?” I nodded and told her that I did.
“I do too, Dad,” John said, and joined us and hugged us both and it was all a very nice, very family kind of feeling. I actually got teary eyed again, like back at Alice’s grave last night, what with all the concern and affection.
Finally John said, “Ok, Dad,” and patted me on the back, “We should get going.”
I walked he and Linda and Kala and Marie, out to their respective cars.
After another round of hugs I said, “Ok, good-bye, now.”
I stood back and waved as they pulled out of the driveway, honking their horns and making more of a racket than necessary. “Sorry to have caused so much trouble,” I added under my breath, as I looked down at Tillie, who, except for playing with my granddaughters, had stayed near me the entire day, “But it was sure fun, wasn’t it, girl?”
She perked up her little ears and barked her assent. Yes, there was no doubt in either of our minds. It had been fun.
Earlier that day, after I got back from the doctor, I had called Mrs. Levendosky to let her know that Tillie was just fine. She was relieved, but I could tell she was concerned that maybe I was losing my marbles even though I tried to assure her I wasn’t. Let me tell you, that’s one interesting conversation to have. At one point John finally got on the line and helped convince her I was mentally fit enough to care for her family’s pet. His words seemed to help convince her because when she came back on the line she seemed calmer. She even told me about how well their east coast trip had been going.
“Seeing Gettysburg was really fantastic, Arnie,” she told me enthusiastically, putting thoughts of my ability to care for Tillie aside, “It’s been an amazing learning experience.”
“That’s great, Janice,” I told her, trying to sound just as enthusiastic, “I’m glad you’re having a wonderful time.” We talked some more before I asked what was really on my mind, “Are you still planning to be home in nine or ten days?”
“Yes, nine days. Are you and Tillie going to be alright until then?”
Tillie was right next to me. I reached down and picked her up and held her under my arm. She licked the side of my face and gave a contented little sigh. In my mind I said, Good doggy. To Janice I said, “Yes, Janice, we’ll be just fine.”
After I hung up and hours later, after my family had driven home, Tillie and finally I had the house to ourselves. The sun was started it’s decent to the west and in an hour or so twilight would be settling in. I poured myself some ice tea and we went outside and sat on a comfortable old Adirondack chair in the front yard to watch the world go by. Tillie climbed up in my lap and I gave her a slim-jim from my shirt pocket for her to chew on. I looked out over my small but tidy yard, most of which Alice and I had turned into flower gardens or the last twenty years or so. What a sight they were. The annuals and perennials were in full bloom, the terra-cotta colored Echinacea was looking especially pretty against the purple of the heliotrope. My hanging baskets were overflowing with healthy geraniums loaded with lush red and pink flowers and entwining vines of variegated ivy. Everywhere I looked there was color and life and exuberance; the yard looked as lush and vibrant as I’d ever seen it. It made me feel happy. It was as good a legacy for Alice to have left behind as were the thousands of children whose lives she impacted as their teacher. In some ways even better.
I thought back to the discussions I’d had that day with John and Linda and Mr. Moustache and the Lady Cop. The police suggested (in fact, strongly encouraged) that I get a cell phone of some sort to carry with me at all times, so I could stay “In touch” with my kids, as they called it. I pictured hourly phone calls from John and Linda checking up on me, making sure I was safe and sound and, especially, that I hadn’t wandered off again. I had agreed to their wishes mainly so my kids wouldn’t have to worry.
Plus, who needed the local police driving by every now and then to check on me? I certainly didn’t. I was also banking on the fact that for John and Linda the newness of checking up with their dad by phone would wear off after a while and things would go back to normal. I hoped so anyway and was keeping my fingers crossed, figuring I could easily prove to everyone I was responsible for my own life and that no one had to worry. But whatever the case, agreeing to their wishes was a small price to pay for having the freedom to live in my own home. I’d get a cell phone first thing in the morning.
Tillie made a move next to me and jumped down into the grass. I blinked my eyes and came back from pondering my future. Out on the street Suny and her husband were walking by, Rex leading them on his leash. They each waved and I waved back. Rex gave a friendly little yip which Tillie returned.
“We heard about your big adventure,” Suny called out. I immediately thought how quickly news travels in a small town – blazingly fast, would be an apt description. I just smiled and waved, not really in the mood to elaborate, just now, on the adventure Tillie and I had been on. “How’s little Tillie doing?” Suny asked. Was it me or was that a knowing grin I saw on my neighbor’s face?
The dog in question was sitting obediently next to my chair. I reached over and scratched her ears and petted her along her back. Tillie quivered in excitement.
“She’s just fine,” I called back. “How’s Rex?”
“He’s good,” she smiled, continuing to walk by, dutifully following the fireball of a Chihuahua straining at his leash, “Maybe the children and I will see you at the beach tomorrow.”
I patted Tillie on the head and she licked my hand, “Sounds like a plan,” I called back to Suny. “Sounds like a really good plan,” I said added under my breath to myself, smiling.
Suny waved once more and I waved back. I watched as they continued down the street and took a right at the corner. Twilight was beginning and the air was warm and moist, still holding on to the heat of the day. Most of the yard was in shadow. The sky was washed in soft reds and oranges behind me to the west. Down the street some kids were playing on skate boards, enjoying the evening’s calm and the last light of day. The street lights were just coming on.
I probably should have mentioned to Mrs. Levendowsky when I was talking to her that I had decided keeping Tillie with me at my home instead of at her place for the duration of the vacation would be the easiest way of caring for the little poodle. I personally thought it was a brilliant idea but was aware there might still be some lingering concerns about my mental stability floating around in Janice’s mind so why do anything to rock the boat and tell her? I’d just wait a few days to do that or maybe even until they returned home. Hell, when you thought about it, did it really matter when I told her? No, probably not. I reached down and scratched Tillie’s head again and she spun around in a circle and gave out an excited yip. Then she started rolling around on her back, feet kicking in the air like she was running a race. I had to laugh. She was a fun companion to have around. More than fun. She was making my loneliness go away.
Suddenly I had an idea. I stood up and took a hold of Tillie’s leash.
“Come on, girl,” I said, looking at her. She responded by jumping to her feet and happily wagging her tail – exactly as if she know what was going to happen next. She was right. “Let’s go for a little stroll and check out the neighborhood,” I told her, “How’s that sound?” She gave a short bark in agreement and off we went.
It was a nice evening for a walk so we went for a long one. We spent time looking at the variety yards and flower gardens in the area, some more cared for and pampered than others, but all unique and interesting in their own ways. We waved at friendly neighbors out enjoying the evening. We listened to the final chorus of the robins singing the day to a close, and, especially, we enjoyed each other’s company – this old man and this little white dog.
A little while later we turned onto my block just as the first stars were starting to appear, dotting the night time sky, twinkling in own magical way. And we made it home just fine, too, my little companion and I. This time we didn’t get lost.
“Come on inside,” I told Tillie, leading her around to the back, “I’ve got something to show you.” I took her off her leash and let her in the back door which entered into my little kitchen. She immediately started sniffing around the edges of the cupboards, the stove and the refrigerator. I followed along as she went into the living room where my jig-saw puzzle was set up. I took a look at it, half finished, just the water lilies below the bridge were what I had to complete. I figured it’d take me at least two days.
Tillie jumped up onto my easy chair and circled around and around, making herself comfortable. Then she lay down with her head on her paws and looked at me, as if to ask, “Well, are you going to join me or not?”
I know it sounds crazy, but I have to tell you that I answered her. “Just a minute,” I said, “I’ve got something to do, first.”
Then I did what I’d been thinking about doing ever since John had brought me home that morning. I went to the card table, took apart Monet’s water lilies, scraped the pieces into their box and put it away in the closet along with all the other jig-saw puzzles I done over the last three years. I’d done enough thousand piece puzzles to last a lifetime and certainly didn’t need to do this one. Monet’s water lilies would just have to wait. Maybe for a long, long time. Maybe forever. I put the card table away, too.
Then I went to my chair and picked up Tillie. I sat down and held her in my lap. “What do you think, girl? I asked, scratching her ears, “Shall we go down to the lake tomorrow?
She yipped once and licked my face and I laughed. “Good doggy,” I said and she licked my face again.
In the back of my mind I knew Mrs. Levendosky and her family would be home in nine days. Tillie and I would have to make the most of our time together until they returned and I’d have to give her back. Going down to the lake like we’d done the day before sounded like the best plan I’d had in a long time. Who knew, maybe we’d even have another remarkable day. As far as I was concerned the chances were pretty good.
“All right,” I said, gently petting her little head,” Let’s do it.”
And the next day, we did.