Dirt

We have a new coworker, dry as dirt, dry as bone meal, dry as the Santa Ana winds. Not good dry, not funny dry, but dry—voice a monotone worthy of emergency weather radio, choice of conversation so far yogurt and the weather. After two minutes in her company I start to think about cutting my toenails, washing base boards, counting grains of sand, about putting grains of sand into my eyes and making tiny pearls. Eye pearls, I’ll call them. I might go blind, but I’ll be rich. Wait, did she stop talking? Is she done? Thank God!

I heard recently that boredom is good for you, that somehow it leads to increased creativity. I don’t know if that’s true. If I get bored I get tired and anxious, as it usually means I’m stuck somewhere, like prison. Or jury duty, or the DMV, or work when I’m not busy. Boredom, apparently, goes hand in hand with bureaucracy in my experience. If I’m home, I’m never bored, so, to me, boredom always comes with an arbitrary physical restriction. I once had a temp job so boring—start over, I’ve had quite a few temp jobs that were so boring. In my boredom, I have: made sculptures out of paperclips and rubber bands; written short stories; fallen asleep; read books; played solitaire … and still I can’t recommend it as a creative experience.

Big Fish

“I thought you said you had competitive pricing.” Man, he wants to argue. Does he think he can get this sailfish stuffed before it rots? It already smells like a cat ate it and threw it back up.

“Fifteen dollars an inch.” It’s a little high, but it’s not crazy. Plus, how does he even know? I doubt he even caught this nasty fish, probably bought it from the boat captain, and the boat captain probably had it from three days ago. “It’s a big fish.” I’ll add that in, maybe that will make him feel better about the price. “You want it done right, don’t you?” I can see his eye twitch—and I’m going to say he don’t care.

“It’ll cost more to stuff it than it did to catch it.” He’s leaning in, getting crazy pig eyes at me.

“But it’ll preserve it forever.” You’d think people would remember this. You think this is easy, what I do? You think you can find this anywhere? “Forever costs money.”

“Forget it, I’ll find somebody on-line. Ever heard of the internet, man?”

The internet? That’s his comeback? Even broke has standards.

I close his cooler with the tip of my shoe. “Man, you go ahead and try.”

Macabre

His office is terrifying. The first deer’s head is positioned to look out the door, its head turned as if startled, its blank black eyes staring into you. A turkey fans its tail feathers by the end table. The boar with its six-inch tusks seems to peer around the desk, half-hidden by the blue recycle bin. Behind him, a bobcat plays with a bird. Another deer’s head, this trophy waiting to be hung, rests sideways on the couch, as if awaiting the shrink. “My whole world is gone,” he might say. “Also, my body.”

There’s probably more but I can’t take it all in, the incongruity of this dead menagerie in his office. I almost expect to see Snow White, waxen and stiff, posed in a corner, a bird on each finger. What sort of man does this? What is he trying to tell his employees, decorating his office with the animals he’s killed? Is he trying to flaunt his masculinity, his cunning, his wealth? God knows this freak show wasn’t cheap. I don’t linger outside that door, won’t let those dead eyes keep watching me. I even hold my breath when I pass, expecting the smell of decay and formaldehyde to curl out the door in a swirling green vapor, as if it were the laboratory of a mad scientist. The whole thing seems mad to me, creepy, disturbing, the product of an unstable mind. Of course, he is the boss.

Signs

Yesterday at lunch I spotted a dolphin, and then, this morning, heard and saw a bald eagle. Is this bragging? Is that what you thought you’d read about, when I started, “Yesterday at lunch …”? Am I still confined to a cafeteria, or a McDonald’s, and the confounding dolphin is stuck there too, waiting on line for Fillet-O-Fish?

It was a hard day, yesterday, and when I spotted the fin, I thought, It would mean something if I saw a dolphin. I had just thought that, had just finished thinking it, and not a heartbeat after my overly emphatic mean, the dolphin resurfaced in profile—nose, fin, tail, no mistaking. And I thought, well, this is awkward. Do I make it mean something, or do I accept the coincidence? I’ve eaten at that park several times over the course of the past year, and this is my first dolphin sighting. When I told my husband about the dolphin, he said, “Dolphins are good luck,” but I knew he was kidding. He’s an atheist.

Then, this morning, first thing as I sit down at my desk, before I even sort out why my computer won’t turn on, I hear a bald eagle. They have this most incongruous, cheerful little chirp, quite out of place for such an imposing bird, and it’s unmistakable once you know it. “That’s a bald eagle!” I said, even though no one was around to congratulate me. I looked out the window and saw two flying away from me, and again I thought, I don’t know, maybe those aren’t eagles, when one cut straight across my field of vision, left to right, no mistaking. Later I told a coworker. She said she’d seen them, too, but I didn’t believe her.

I’ve seen bald eagles at work once or twice, over the past year, as they fly over our building towards the bay, so it wasn’t singular. All the same, I thought about that “lucky” dolphin, about seeing not one but three bald eagles out my window this morning, and I thought, maybe I’m just looking for a sign, because sometimes I do. And then I decided, maybe that means something.

Curve Ball

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. Or a curve knife—ha ha ha! Didn’t see that coming, that lethal throw out of (as it were) left field. Great joke! Maybe this explains the mythical figure of the trickster, Wily Coyote, the idea that there is a divinity whose job it is to Fuck You Up. Wouldn’t that be a great job description? “Go forth and fuck with people, for all eternity!” Sigh. At least that dill-hole is employed.

This is the third layoff in our little marital world, along with one “take this job and shove it” and one where the boss got to the shoving first. I’m not all that depressed, really—this not being the first, and the sky not having fallen. But it is, well—it’s always an adjustment, financially (duh) as well as in our relationship, renegotiating who does what and who gives whom a hard time about “pulling his weight.” All those conversations, the score-keeping, the usually running tally that goes on between husbands and wives—all that becomes verboten, too mean, too trenchant, too violent, too unnecessary. Not that I mourn the loss of the score sheet, but it’s an adjustment, nonetheless, and it takes time. I myself, unemployed, said many times, teary-eyed, “I’m doing my best!” Sometimes my best was watching TV and taking the dog for a walk, and I understood how that could be infuriating, but there were times when everything I was doing seemed so futile, so pointless, that I just couldn’t torture myself by doing it any more.

I think that’s the most infuriating thing for the One Who Is Employed—that you can’t control the other person, that it affects them more than it affects you, but that it does affect you, and you feel like that should Matter, and your partner feels like you should Shut the Fuck Up.

I have hope; I won’t despair. After the last time, I prayed—well, I’ll be honest with you. After the last time, it felt like a sin, all my despair, all the tears, the recriminations, the anger. Like a sin, to have wasted so many months of my life worrying, unhappy, when I was healthy, with every comfort, not starving, a good husband, friends who didn’t care that I was unemployed. It felt like a sin, all that despair, so I cried about that, and vowed to do better. I didn’t know there would be a test.

Senescence

I don’t like going to the gym. Not for the usual reasons, or at any rate what I imagine the usual reasons to be. I feel better if I exercise, enjoy feeling as though I am not just observing a slow decline into senescence and eventual death. It is boring, though. I’d rather be playing. Not sports, because I don’t like teams and I’m not competitive—but playing, an otter in a pool, a pig in shit, a dog chasing its own tail. I’d say “like a child” but children are exhausting. My niece is not yet two and she’s up, down, thither, hither, and yon. It’s as if everything is new to her (of course it is) and she can’t get enough. Sleep is repugnant to her, until it absolutely can’t be avoided, her eyes drooping, legs no longer working, head lolling. Of course puppies do that, too. It’s adorable, until it’s you chasing them around, feeling older, closer to death (blissful death), wondering how in the world anyone could have that much energy.

Maybe not everyone is like this—maybe Tom and Giselle chase their children around while maintaining their above-average looks, never getting winded, never wishing they could stop for a moment and drink their latte while sitting down. I turn pink when I exercise, down to my eyelids, as if I were going to pass out from heat stroke. I don’t understand all those mirrors at the gym, as if witnessing my own hideousness should encourage me. Instead I realize, for the umpteenth time, that in spite of all the classes, the instructor’s ass is a 10 and mine is—well, I won’t rate it. Suffice to say I think about stringy old chickens, tough old birds, every time I catch a glimpse of my red, sweating face. Stupid gym. Stupid old age.

Of Camels

I never aspired to be a starving artist, or a starving anything, for that matter. Maybe that’s my problem, that I should have wanted to Suffer for my Art, and instead I only wanted to be able to pay for things, like shelter, and food, and clothing, and health insurance—the list goes on, really. Turns out, I like to spend money. But maybe like turned into love, want turned into need, and I became a bloated camel, unable to fit through anything.

Of course I’m making it sound like a choice when sometimes it isn’t, when sometimes you don’t get an option marked: “Don’t starve.” Here in the U.S., I sometimes feel like the only real safety net is a credit card. In some states, even incarceration incurs an IOU. And if you didn’t start out with something, enough of a something to get that card, then, heaven help you, because no one else will. Food stamps come with drug tests, lest you come to the mistaken conclusion that everyone is entitled to eat. Not so fast! Maybe you deserved your destitution, your starvation, the whole misery that can be human existence when you go without.

On the other hand … how much do you really need? I’m reminded of something I read, read long enough ago that I could just be making it up, that some of happiest people live in Africa. Not war-torn Africa, but nonetheless poor Africa: grass huts, dirt trails, no toilets. Maybe they don’t live as long, but they were happy as long as they lived. And also reminded me of some story about Native Americans, some long time ago, when Manifest Destiny was just getting started, when some Indian, somewhere, apparently said: We don’t understand the white men. We think they are all crazy.

Have we been made crazy, then—insane, depressed, unhappy with our generous lots in life, wanting, ever, always, perpetually wanting, shit we don’t need? Maybe I should have chosen starvation, lilies of the field. Maybe it would have meant choosing happiness.

Dog Walking In Suburbia

Sometimes I don’t like walking the dog. It can be a very repetitive activity, walking the same circle around our little subdivision, seeing the same bit of scenery. And our neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, so we trot down the middle of the street, like drunkards. But then there are days, like yesterday, where we get some excitement—for suburbia. As soon as we step outside I realize (belatedly) that the neighbors’ pug is in our yard. It’s an ugly little turd of a dog, and I don’t even think its owners like it anymore. They let it wander outside, as if hoping for a car strike, or a ravenous bald eagle. The pug crosses back to its own turf before commencing to bark at us. It’s so small, so brachycephalic, its face so tortured into flatness, that you can’t really hear it from far away. Ruby (my dog) mostly ignores it, and while she is hardly a bloodthirsty killer, she is, as the trainer put it, blessed with “self-assurance.” So I try to keep her away from this evidence of doggy sass.

The pug avoided, I now realize the neighbors—the nice ones, the ones we talk to, from two houses down—are out walking their three dogs—two Dobermans and a toy poodle. Ruby doesn’t know what to make of that toy poodle, who weighs all of eight pounds, but she’s fine with the Dobermans. One is a beautiful dog, the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen. Mine is the cutest, of course, but this is the super-model of dogs, the Cindy Crawford, twenty years ago. She’s a gorgeous purple-brown, deep chest, well-formed head. The other, a recent rescue, is a neglected seven-month old, ungainly, unsocialized, underfed, a big boney head and ears that would look better pinsched. He, Loki, the puppy, won’t let Ruby sniff his bum. She circles, relentless, while he turns, scared, until finally hiding behind Dad.

Should one narrate the actions of one’s dogs? I always do, and feel ridiculous, but can’t seem to stop myself. “She just wants to sniff your butt!” I announce to the Doberman, as if that will make him feel better about it. “She sniffed the poodle’s, and the poodle only weighs eight pounds!” And yes, I talk in just these exclamatory sentences, incapable of actually holding a conversation with the nice neighbors, as I’m so preoccupied with narrating our dogs’ interactions. This is a shame, because I think the wife just told me a story about our neighbor, a woman we jointly dislike because she’s maligned both our dogs while remaining steadfastly oblivious to the destructiveness of her own. Hers, a goofy golden retriever-lab mix, has twenty pounds on my mutt, but they can no longer play together, because Ruby might “hurt” him. You can imagine how she feels about the Dobermans. I think the punch line of the story was that the lab was so frightened by the sight of two Dobermans that he wouldn’t do anything, just sat and drooled and eyed the pair of them. Somehow, I know her take on this story is that this is further proof of our neighbor’s abject stupidity. Look, she tells me, Loki is scared of the poodle.

I walk with them back to their house and Ruby and I continue along. A bit later on I see that one of our neighbors is moving out—not so exciting, maybe. I don’t know them very well, but it’s a small neighborhood and everyone knows they’re the only black family. I wonder why—too many Romney signs in the last election?—but there’s no one around to ask, just the movers and three moving trucks. As I cross the street to go around the trucks, Ruby freezes. Amazing how oblivious I am, how attuned she is. It’s a turkey vulture, hunkered down in someone’s green, TruGreen, weed-free, St. Augustine grass, eating a bunny. I assume it’s a rabbit—we have a plethora of them here, running around, breeding like, well, you know. I see a tuft of white fur that seems as though it could be—could have been—Peter’s cottontail. I suppose it could be a cat, but if so, a small one.

I’m surprised there’s only one vulture. Usually good carrion will attract four or five, at least. I once saw a dead gator surrounded by—I’m not kidding—probably thirty of them. It was a big gator. The vulture hisses at us, steps away from the dead rabbit, shrugs its shoulders the way vultures do, the way you might shake rain off an umbrella. Ruby wants to investigate, but I pull her away. Vultures vomit when frightened, as a defense—ghastly, super-acidic, bacteria-laden vomit that consists of half-digested carrion. This vulture, solo, may back off, rather than vomit, but I don’t fancy taking the risk. I love the dog, but she’s about as smart as most canines—i.e., not Lassie. And Lassie had all her lines written for her, so.

The walk ends with a near run-in with one of Ruby’s doggie enemies. She doesn’t have any people enemies, thankfully, but there are two dogs in our neighborhood that must have somehow insulted her—peed on the wrong weed, so to speak. This one is walked by a teenage girl, the dog on a retractable leash and her ear glued to her cell phone. She was blissfully unaware of the dog war going on until my husband announced to her one day: “My dog hates that dog! Every time you let it pee in my yard, the feud escalates!” That’s what we dog-owners do—narrate the obvious for the oblivious.

Fast Food

It’s that time of year again. I went to the Publix at lunch and feared for my life—retirees who can’t see, backing up cars bigger than hearses. Also, there were five cars in line at the Starbucks drive-through, so I didn’t have time to get a latte. I ran into the grocery store and some guy in an SUV almost ran me over on my way in.

Fortunately, they had every check-out lane open, although the cashier seemed offended that I was interrupting his conversation with the bagger to pay for my food. I feel like in other places, these jobs—cashier, grocery bagger—are filled by teenagers, but here they are just as likely to be retirees, or just adults, and these are their final, dead-end, low-paying jobs. I never really thought about it, but now that I have, it’s depressed me. I was there, once—when the economy tanked and the best job I could get was a receptionist at a title company for $11/hour, this with a master’s degree and a professional certification. My paychecks were so small it felt like an insult, as if they had included a small note with each, reading: You suck.

All the same, I don’t know how I feel about fast-food workers, striking for $15/hour. If you had wanted to make more money, shouldn’t you have—I don’t know—gotten an education, pursued a career, and not taken a job that involved a polyester uniform and hot grease? Does this make me naïve, or a conservative? (if I’m not, to paraphrase Mark Twain, repeating myself). I’m not against a living wage—well, maybe I am. I’d rather we all decided—collectively, in a show of national unity and good will—that no American should live in a slum. Slums should not exist! Even with the exclamation point. And then we did something about that, rather than forcing McDonald’s to pay $15/hour for employees to put eggs in a microwave and frozen chicken into a deep fat fryer. And am I the only one who thinks she knows where this is going, anyway? Toward automation, that is—cut out 70% of the workforce and then maybe they’ll pay the rest $15/hour. Or not. But in the end they’ll be less of them to complain.