I’m about to take a walk around the lake. Then I remember that, when I walk around the lake, I am often threatened by angry geese. For a moment I think that maybe I shouldn’t take a walk around the lake, then I think, no, I should, and then the geese will attack me, and I can write about that experience. I take a walk around the lake, and the geese don’t attack me. So, I write about the experience of anticipating, but not experiencing, a goose attack.
The climbing rose bush was the last thing I planted at R—’s house before our separation. It lives next to the gate in the picket fence, which is always open. This year, it has grown enormous, arching across the opening where the gate would be, if the gate were closed. Effectively, it is the new gate. To enter R—’s home, I now must first brush aside its thorny beauty, for which I myself am entirely to blame.
My old friend Jay was dying and I went to see him at the hospital in my home town. I felt guilty, not only for neglecting our friendship over twenty-five years (though he’d ignored it too), but for almost deciding not to come see him. Of course, I did go to see him, but I wouldn’t have if I weren’t already visiting my home town for other reasons. Or perhaps I would have gone regardless. In any event, my prior hesitation seemed to justify the guilt, which I felt for the duration of the visit.
The nearness of death was palpable. Jay had been a big man, but he was cadaverous now, eaten away by cancer. He’d defied dire expectations for a couple of years, but had finally run out of luck. In his hospital room, against a backdrop of attentive nurses and humming machines, I reminisced about the old days with our mutual friend Jack; Jay tried to participate, but had little energy for it, and mostly listened. Beside me Jay’s girlfriend, an amiable woman clearly exhausted by the banality of impending death, quietly explored the features of her new phone.
On the way home, I came around a bend on a country two-lane highway and saw a low, upright white form standing on the pavement before me. As I drew closer I could see that it was a little girl of around two, standing barefoot in the road in her pajamas.
I pulled over, approached the child, and took her hand. Another baby, this one a year younger, was walking around in the grass in a nearby yard. I led the older child over to this one, implored her to stay put, then ran to the open door of the house. Inside, a television played a cartoon, and I could see, down a hall and through another doorway, a person asleep on a bed.
I leaned in and shouted, “Hello? Hello? Babies got out!”
The woman scrambled out of bed and ran for the door. Her panic quickly turned to relief that the children were fine, and then anger, at herself for neglecting them. “I worked the night shift!” she cried, clawing at her face and running out into the yard.
It was all right, I said. No harm done. But it was too early for her to accept that. I could have told her about the many times my own children had escaped from the house while I was distracted or asleep, but what she really wanted was for me, her work schedule, her character defects real or imagined, this whole situation, and the inescapable fact of the mortality of all human beings, to just disappear.
My mechanic, Dave, calls to tell me that his supplier sent the wrong part, and he can’t fix my car today after all. He offers to do it on Monday instead. I say, “That’s perfect,” even though it is not perfect. In fact, it’s very inconvenient. I have another appointment that day, to see the doctor about the weird patch of skin on my leg, and now I will have to borrow a car to get there. What I guess I meant was, it’s perfect in the sense that Monday will be the day things are fixed: my car, and my leg.
My grandmother wanted me to visit, and I wanted to visit, so I visited. But as soon as I got home from the visit, she called and asked me when I was going to visit. She had forgotten that I just visited, because of her age and the medication she was on. Similarly, whenever I called, she would ask me why I didn’t call more often. I didn’t call more often because when I called more often, she didn’t notice, and asked me why I didn’t call more often, and also why I never visited. I wanted to call, and I wanted to visit, but I wanted to call and visit the version of her, available just a year before, that could remember my calls and visits. Mostly, I just felt bad for not being able to be in a constant state of calling and visiting, which, even if it were possible, would probably not make her feel better, as her real problem was not my absence, but her decline.
My grandmother’s funeral was Jewish, though she was raised Catholic and died a Presbyterian. (Her religious convictions were protean and loosely held, and she liked to observe in whichever way her partners preferred—her first husband, second husband, and Bob, the Presbyterian, the great love of her later years.) Though the traditions associated with Jewish funerals were unfamiliar in practice to my Catholic extended family—the plain casket, the seven pauses on the way to the grave, the shoveling of the dirt, and so on—they were familiar to me from movies and books. They were ostensibly familiar to my wife S—, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, but she was surprised at some of the Reform rabbi’s eccentricities, such as singing “Climb Every Mountain”—a song performed in the film The Sound of Music by a nun—while accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. So, the service, for all of us, had a dreamlike quality, that of vague familiarity shot through with moments of strangeness.
(In addition, there had been some controversy about “Climb Every Mountain” before the funeral—the rabbi had suggested the song to my mother, who promptly rejected it, and requested instead that the rabbi play “On Angel’s Wings,” by which I think she meant a hymn called “On the Wings of an Angel.” The rabbi agreed to this, and so we were all surprised, and mildly scandalized, when she went ahead and played “Climb Every Mountain” in contravention of the agreement. But later, as she led us on a procession out of the temple, the rabbi played a recording of “On the Wings of an Angel” through the tiny speaker on her phone—holding it in her outstretched palm, regally, as though it were a miniature casket—and we realized that she had chosen “Climb Every Mountain” not specifically to honor my grandmother but because it was a vaguely inspiring song that was easy to play, and that she had probably looked up “On the Wings of an Angel” after making her promise and realized that it was beyond her ability to learn in time for the ceremony. The phone-bearing procession, then, was a sort of apology.)
The oddest moment came just a few minutes before the lowering of my grandmother into her grave. S— and I were standing at the foot of the casket as the prayers were read. She suddenly appeared startled, then nudged me, and made a scraping motion with her finger. I followed her gaze. A small clear-plastic sticker was affixed to the molding just below the lid. It bore the name of the manufacturer, Matthews Aurora Funeral Solutions, and the material the casket was made from: poplar.
Though S— had only known my grandmother for a short while, her insight was correct. My grandmother was famous in my family for the morbid persnicketiness that led her, among other things, to always paint her fingernails and toenails with the same color polish whenever she traveled by air, so that, in the event of a disastrous crash, her remains could more easily be reassembled for burial. She folded her dirty laundry before arranging it into discrete piles in the hamper, and her garage was furnished with wall-to-wall carpeting. She would no sooner have spent eternity in a coffin with the label still on it than she would in a dress with a price tag hanging off the neck. So I reached out, worked my fingernail under the sticker, and peeled it off. I have it here now, as I write, stuck to my laptop.
I think about how close I came to not doing it—to just ignoring the sticker and allowing it to be buried with my grandmother, out of pure cowardice—and I shiver. I would have thought about it every day for the rest of my life, not out of any real sense of guilt, but as a general symptom of my latent obsessive-compulsiveness, which I guess is my grandmother’s most potent legacy. With it here on my computer, I can rest in peace.
Right now, somebody in the neighborhood is operating a chainsaw. It’s a heavily wooded neighborhood, so noises like these are inevitable: the chainsaw, the wood chipper, the leaf blower. The neighborhood is otherwise quiet, so the noises stand out. They’re bothersome if you work at home or are trying to read or sleep.
That said, this block used to be even noisier. L—, across the street, had two small dogs. They were left at home unsupervised most days, and were given access to a fenced yard via a small pet door. They barked incessantly, at each other, at other dogs, and at passersby. The package delivery man once confessed to me that he brought chunks of meat with him to quiet them. He’d trained them to wait silently for the meat—perhaps the only training the dogs had ever received. The dogs are gone now, because L— was caught trying to cross the Canadian border with marijuana and was immediately deported. Presumably he’s back in Korea, his home country. He wasn’t even allowed to collect his things, including his many sculptures made from blinking lights and box fans. The dogs, I presume, have been adopted.
But now that I think of it, there are other loud sounds. X—, at the end of the block, is an angry man who often yells obscenities at his silent wife and child. Sometimes he drags a piece of old furniture out of his house and deposits it on the corner at the other end of the block, in the hope that someone will take it away. This corner is part of Y—’s yard, however, and at least once, the two had a screaming fight over the cast-off furniture. M—, next door to L—’s former home, owns a small house in a permanent state of renovation and repair. Half of the house is bare of clapboards and has been for decades; every now and then M— just replaces the exposed moisture-resistant wallboard that’s supposed to serve as an underlayer, but which lasts a surprisingly long time as ad-hoc exterior siding. M— is quiet, but his two teenaged sons sometimes come outside and apply an angle grinder to the surface of an old boat trailer. Their relationship to the boat trailer is similar to their father’s relationship to the house; they never quite finish the project, and the trailer rusts over again, and they have to start over. There’s a boat leaning up against the other side of the house, which never moves and is nearly obscured by weeds.
P—, my next-door neighbor, also has a small boat, and also an old car, and he often works on one or the other when the weather is fine. This happens directly outside my office window. This block, and the two directly north and south of it, are unusual in that they were built before current zoning laws were in effect, and so they are crowded with houses where, elsewhere in this area, backyards would be. So we all live in close proximity, like city dwellers. P— is a kind, diminutive man who cannot eat most red meat, due to a severe allergy transmitted to him via a tick bite. The one kind of red meat he’s able to eat is the meat of primates, and so sometimes, when I see him, I imagine him eating one—a monkey, typically. He, and sometimes his son, bang on the old boat and car, and occasionally take the latter out for a noisy ride.
Just now, as I write this, a loud pickup truck passes; it’s brutally, obnoxiously loud, aggressive and offensive. At every stop sign it jerks to a halt, then roars back to life. Its driver likes it this way. This is his way of inhabiting the world.
Behind P— lives Neighbor J—, who is the singer of a cover band and father of several cheerful, unruly children. Sometimes J— gets into a screaming fight with one of the children. J—’s words are usually unintelligible, but the child typically repeats “I hate you!” Sometimes J— will work in his very small yard while listening to death metal on headphones. I know what kind of music it is because he sings tunelessly along to it, and once I searched for the lyrics on the internet. Sometimes, for a few minutes, I listen, in my office, to what he’s listening to in the yard, just to create some continuity.
Next door, opposite from P—, in a rental house, lives a rotating bunch of music-performance students from one of the local colleges. When the weather is fine and the windows are open, or in the colder months when I stand near the closed window nearest the house, I can hear extraordinarily accomplished piano playing. I’ve never seen a piano moved into or out of the house, so I assume the one I hear belongs to the landlord, who must keep it tuned and maintained in order to continue enticing music students, who seem fairly placid by nature. Occasionally the music students throw a very mild party, then sheepishly apologize for it the next day.
Sometimes, a neighbor will play rock music over a stereo system. In the summertime, when the windows are open, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the sound. It’s music, someone is listening to music. But in the wintertime, the windows are closed, and the music is almost entirely inaudible. Only the bass guitar is evident, less its specific sound than the sound it engenders, that of the windows vibrating in a tightly repeating monotonic pattern. When we detect that pattern, we all reach for our phones.
Of course I’m the source of neighborhood sounds, now and then. I’ll drop something heavy, or injure myself and cry out. While recording music, I’ll loudly sing the same line over and over again, trying to get it right. It’s not unusual for the abstract noise of a synthesizer or the violent cacophony of a video game to emerge from my living room or office. When I’m alone, and I read something I strongly disagree with or that offends me from an aesthetic standpoint, you might hear me shout “Bullshit!” Or, if it happens to encounter something that makes noise when struck or knocked over during its flight across the room, a book, thrown by me in anger, might catch your attention as you walk by outside.
The chairs we sit in every morning face two windows that overlook the street. We drink coffee and watch people pass, and a lot of these people have dogs. But the angle of view is such that we can’t see the dogs—only the people, from the waist up. Invariably they look like they have lost their minds: pausing at random, turning around, looking this way and that, talking to the ground. It’s a very different neighborhood when you can’t see the dogs.
I guess I stood a little too close to the man drinking from the water fountain at the gym, because he turns his gaze upon me—maintaining, as he does so, his position over the fountain, his hand resting on the big plastic switch that releases the water, though no longer depressing it, his body bent protectively over the appliance so as to reinforce his momentary ownership—and says, “What’s your problem?”
The man—and he is, according to a private classification system of mine, which I don’t realize exists until later, after I’m exiting the gym, a man, which is any male adult who I regard as being categorically unlike me, as opposed to a guy, which is any male adult with whom I feel some affinity—this man ought to be a guy, as we’re visiting the gym at the same time and have been performing the same kind of exercise, which is to say cardio; but he looks like the kind of person—that is, man—who more usually spends his time on the floor below, which is to say the weight training area. He is heavy, and heavily muscled, while I am a bit scrawny by comparison. However, I suspect that he’s shorter than I am, though I’m not particularly tall, and this would further explain why he has maintained this bent-over posture at the fountain: he doesn’t want to lose any advantage in the ongoing confrontation by revealing his height to me.
Of course I don’t care how tall he is. I’m just waiting to take a drink. I’m quite happy to wait until he’s finished. I suppose I’ve been staring at him, or appeared to be doing so; but in truth I was paying attention not to his figure at the fountain, which I registered only as a temporary impediment and barely even recognized as belonging to a specific person; but rather I was lost in thought, probably about the breakfast I was going to eat when I got home.
He stares at me, and I realize that he isn’t going to leave the fountain until I’ve satisfied him by responding to his question, issued as more of a statement, really: “What’s your problem.” I could answer; but, if anything, I have been blessed on this morning only with good fortune. I feel good, I have the day off from work, my cardio is done, I’m looking forward to breakfast. So I can’t answer the question honestly; I can only refuse to accept its premise, a rhetorical gesture that, to a man like this, might very well represent an act of aggression demanding escalation, rather than one that defuses the situation, which would be my intention.
Then I remember that I do have a problem, a small one, that has necessitated my trip to this corner of the gym. Before I can stop myself, and under the influence of the personality flaw that renders me incapable of not answering any question directed at me, no matter how disingenuously it has been posed, I rest my hands on my hips, smile broadly, and reply, “Thirst.”
The winter before my marriage dissolved, a skunk took up residence, or at least refuge, in the crawlspace underneath the bedroom. We knew this because it sprayed its scent often, far more often than we’d later be told was normal. Sometimes it would happen multiple times in one night. Upstairs, the children were sometimes able to sleep through it, and would only notice what had happened in the morning, when they woke up. But the stink made sleep downstairs impossible. A skunk’s spray, at close range, is cataclysmically intense; near its epicenter, the smell of decay has a seared quality, like burning hair, almost as if the spray was a kind of explosion, a fiery blast that has incinerated its author. And powerful odor, arising suddenly in the night, almost makes a noise, the noise of the explosion, in the sleeping mind; it creates an invisible, searing light. Before you’re fully awake you think the house is burning down. But it’s just a skunk, a skunk right underneath your bed.
The infestation went on for weeks. We kept hoping the skunk would just go away: surely the animal didn’t feel safe where it was and would move on to a place where it didn’t have to defend itself all night long. We were wrong, though. So we called Jack Ryan, of Jack Ryan’s Wildlife Removal Service, aka the Skunk Whisperer.
It’s tempting to make a joke comparing Jack Ryan to the Jack Ryan character from movies and television, a virile superspy and action hero. The two men are quite different—that would be the joke. Animal control Jack is a diminutive elderly man who drives a decrepit pickup truck piled high with filthy animal cages, and who is prone to sentimental monologues about his family and about the creatures he is hired to control. His walk is tentative and he has a bit of a tremble, which may be the result of illness, but which I like to imagine is the physical expression of the strong emotion he seems to feel about all things.
But, in this intensity, the Skunk Whisperer Jack really does resemble the fictional spy. And though his body appears weak, he is capable of amazing physical feats. I’ve watched him use ropes to singlehandedly hoist a dead buck onto his truck. He also managed to wedge his slight frame into the space beneath our house and safely remove the skunk that had been bothering us.
The animal was very cute and appeared extremely distressed. Jack enlisted me to steady the cage as he transferred the animal into it, an operation I was certain would result in both of us being sprayed with skunk musk. This didn’t happen, though—it seems that there’s a fairly high threshold of anxiety that must be crossed in order to trigger a spray. “She don’t want to do it,” is how Jack put it. “She don’t like it neither.”
Once the skunk was safely locked away, Jack leaned close and spoke to it in a low voice for a long time, as though I weren’t standing there. After a minute or so of this, I wandered off—it seemed too intimate and personal.
A few weeks later, after I had paid Jack and bid him and the skunk farewell, he called me on the phone to update me on how the animal was doing. As it happened, the two had formed a bond and Jack had decided to keep it as a pet, in his home. Initially he’d believed it to be a female, and that its frequent spraying was the result of its gestating a litter of kits. But he’d since realized that the skunk was male, and that it was suffering some illness. “He’s got a, I guess you’d say a partial paralysis,” Jack told me. “He seems okay for a while and then his whole back legs don’t work.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“I’m worried about him. I might take him up to Cornell, see if they can take a look,” he went on. He was referring to the clinic at the local college’s veterinary school. “Though I don’t know if they want a skunk in there.”
After the call, I forgot about the skunk until Jack called me again, months later. At this point, my marriage had imploded and I was no longer living in the house the skunk had fouled. Jack wanted me to know that the skunk had died. He was very sad and expected me to be sad, too—expected that I should also have developed an attachment to the skunk under the house.
I hadn’t, but I did now. I became sad too. We mourned our loss together, and I hung up.
In the years that followed, before I remarried, I lived in a condo at the edge of town, overlooking some hiking paths and the reservoir. I would often wake suddenly in the night to the smell of burning—an intense, pervasive sear. I’d jump out of bed, turn on the lights, and stalk through the rooms, seeking its source.
The stovetop in this place was electric, with a flat glass surface, underneath which the heating elements would glow red, then orange, when switched on. But I could never really convince myself that it was turned off. I feared that it was secretly hot, and that something would fall onto it—a dishcloth or cookbook—and catch fire. So, when the smell woke me, I always suspected the stove; I ran downstairs and slapped my palms down on the burners, as though daring it to hurt me.
But the stove was never on; in fact, by the time I reached it, I couldn’t even smell the smell anymore. The smell could only be detected in the bedroom. That’s because it didn’t exist—or, rather, it existed but had no source. It was an olfactory hallucination. It was the smell of the skunk, but with the skunk removed, leaving behind only the illusion of a house on fire.
I have a memory of R—. She was about to give birth to one of our children, was waiting for labor to begin, and took a walk around the hospital. Somehow she ended up trapped in the concrete stairwell. I was asleep somewhere while this was happening, although I also seem to remember that I was in the stairwell with her, looking down at her from the floor above, even though the memory does not include me also being trapped. She got out of the stairwell, I recall, by finding an emergency phone and calling for help.
None of this makes any sense. Stairwell doors in hospitals don’t lock from the outside. There aren’t emergency phones in stairwells, either. I can’t have been both awake in, and asleep not in, the stairwell; and if I was in the stairwell, I was either trapped there with R—, or both of us were not trapped. I must have dreamed the entire thing.
Between writing the previous paragraph and this one, I send R— a text message. Do you remember this? I ask. Did it actually happen, or did I dream it? She replies, “I don’t think this happened but it seems deeply familiar—I think I dreamed this, but maybe it’s in a story you wrote?”
So, the story is known to her, but is probably fiction, though whose fiction and what kind—conscious or unconscious—neither of us knows. If I ever did put it in a story, I don’t think it’s one I published, or even finished writing. Perhaps she’s the one who put it in a story, not me.
Anyway, it’s in a story now.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise, and eight novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Broken River. A new novel and story collection are forthcoming in 2021.
read next: Krystyna Dąbrowska, “Judith“
“Ten Short Essays” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)