Friday, January 17, 2014

We live in the valley of the moon

Charlotte Osborne and her two sons lived in the Spanish-style brown stucco at the end of the cul-de-sac, where the alley also ended.  Across the street and the cause for the cul-de-sac was a Lutheran Seminary.  In that neighborhood, people came and went, students, immigrants, missionaries.  In fact, her neighbor was a professor at the seminary as had been her husband.
Lately, both Charlotte and her neighbor, the professor’s wife, Marge, had been having a hard time managing their dogs and their teen age children.  The dogs ran wild and loose, biting people, and the kids walked through people's yards and spaces without thought, indifferently vandalizing cars during the spring when it was graduation or Prom.
I can't say much about Charlotte’s kids except that the two boys were blond-haired browned-eyed truants, hoodlums and generally unruly.  Her dog was vicious, as was Marge’s.  One day that dog even attacked my dog as we walked by.  Poor Angus would never go down that street again.  I remember the day her dog ran around in my yard chasing a cat. She was of course aghast when I chased her off.  Her son called my dog a pussy.   They were generally feared in the neighborhoods as freaks.
              The turn is this:  sometime in 1992, before we got to Saint Paul, there had been a huge raging fire in that neighborhood.  It was probably a colder day in early march Minnesota.  Lingering kids at home, you know, pre-school kids, snow and ice, temps in the 20s.  And there's not much on tv.  So you suit up the way you usually do, and you take your dog with you.  Dad’s building a fire for the kids to warm up.  There's the faint smell of eggs frying.
            Out in the hills it's a little colder than you expect, but you get through the town into the woods that run parallel to the freeway.  It takes about an hour:  the woods are grey, no green buds but signs of animals abound:  raccoon tracks. Deer droppings.  But the hard ice-free trail feels good and as you’re hitting your stride, there's that smell--like paper, like paper burning.
       2 miles away your husband is setting his library and his home office on fire, having piled a set of theological tracts and academic journals into pyramid of sorts.  He's taken a fire starter, that is, a greasy tar soaked piece of plywood, and set that on fire with a big green kitchen match:  strike anywhere.  The fires really getting along by the time you get home.  Not realizing it's your house on fire.   There's some screaming.  In what was your husband the professor’s office there's nothing but flame and destruction.  Like a movie but it's not.  Your two sons running down the stairs, slowly, slowly so slowly you hope they make it to the open front door.  Something about the dog.
       Sure there's dire fire engines everywhere and cops too.  Most of the south side destroyed by fire.  Tiny pieces of burnt book paper everywhere, and ashes.  The last thing you see before you faint is the sun rising and your two sons fighting with a fireman to get back into the house to look for your man and his dog.
*          *          *          *
Nobody really knows what goes through the suicidal mind, what processes drive one to self-immolation and familial destruction.  David was professor of New Testament Studies and Jesusology.  Not the most popular professor in at a small college, but dutiful, knowledgeable, and able.  Some students found his formalism and his traditional attitudes odd.  Others championed his conservatism outside of the class, and even wore bow-ties in his style.  For a long time he had tried to finish an extension of his dissertation, dealing with core of Jesus, how we believe in him, and under what circumstances, in what conceptual terms.  His evaluations had never been bad, and well, that one time he yelled the Dean had been long forgotten.  He did publish regularly in B+ academic journals like the Midwest Quarterly. 
Whether his sons knew him was another thing.  They’d been in Boy Scouts together and had climbed hills and dales all over Minnesota, they’d become expert with canoes, being able to trundle through northern Minnesota in the summer for fun in the vast systems of lakes and rivers that offered a natural peace anyone can love.   We just don’t know much about mom except that she loved to run.
No letter. No one had seen David’s suicide coming, at all. Not Charlotte, or the boys.  Or his colleagues.  What was most fierce-some was the act of his death:  the piling of specific books, tracts, and journals, the quick immolation of his stacks of papers, notes, essays, and journals, sheer walls of flame, the furniture gone, David and his dog somewhere in the middle of all of this.  After 2 days his sons stopped rooting though the burned out part of the house. 
Some days in late July you’d see Charlotte and her two boys cooking weenies and burgers on the grill, ketchup and mustard on the redwood table, bowls of salad, glasses of lemonade.  Other times, you’d find the boys in the alley tossing a ball back and forth to their new dog, who seemed to want to kill everything it bit or caught or even saw.  The house had been repaired, the room taken apart carefully, the house rebuilt in places.  But there was a big basement window and you could see stacks and closets full of what must have been David’s clothing.  The dog would bark and snarl through the night, madly.
The biggest mistake that Charlotte and Marge made was getting mean dogs.  For what ever reason.  Perhaps the need for comfort and safety drives some people to allowing their dogs to become mean.  Or maybe the meanness of life filters to the heart, anyway, all the time.    In the summer of 1999 Marge’s giant black poodle attacked my Wheaton Terrier, Angus.  The cops were involved.  Next year, Charlotte’s dog attacked my dog from across the street.  The cops also told me that they had to take Charlotte’s poodle away as it was deemed viscious and dangerous after attacking one of the officers.  The worst part:  the cops believed me, but as they pointed out, Charlotte’s family and Marge’s family felt entitled since they were homeowners and I was a renter.  “Just stay away, they’re crazy” Officer Friendly advised.  There was a short war, though.  My partner dumped at least a quart of honey on one of Marge’s dogs when she caught it in our yard chasing a squirrel.  Her kids then vandalized our car.
There are other incidents, mostly repetitive. 

*          *          *          *
            In the early summer of 2003, my partner and I stayed up late one night to burn paper.  Lots of paper.  Box loads.  We were moving and wanted to rid our lives of old bills, old papers, old evaluations, old writing.  Our landlord had a wonderful, cast-iron chimenea and gave us full permission to “burn away” as she exclaimed. 
It was warmer and dryer that early summer in Minnesota, and it would be out last.  The trees had all bloomed and blossomed, greenery grew like a song on the air.  Kay’s chiminea was large, wide, heavy gauge iron.  A true burning machine.
You know what it’s like.  The fire starts, the smell of paper is not like the smell of wood burning.  It is sharper, more acrid, bitter and white in substance, thick and unrelenting.  
            We had sacks of paper.  The fire reached out of the chiminea and tried to touch the sky.  Bolts of flame would leap as we tossed in old syllabi, useless textbooks, bills and letters, mass mailings, old student papers and evaluations.  We howled in drunken excitement.  We fucked on the hard concrete patio as the fire raged in the round tub of the chiminea, as the thick white smoke fumed over and into the neighborhood, missing no home or company of guests.   Our dog Angus ran in crazy circles up and down the hill and our young children slept the sleep of innocents. 
            The cry in the night.  Almost 3 in the morning.  The fire still hot and burning, with three phone-books and a whole box of student evaluations to burn.  We sat in out sandals and shorts, in t-shirts smoky as the air, with pokers, rods, and an actual pitchfork to control the fire.  Cigarettes and wine.  We had a hose and lots of water available.  The cry at night.  A shrill yelp, a horrifying shriek.  A ghost, or so I thought, wandering down the hill on the stairs the city built 30 years ago.  Charlotte, naked, her white breasts burning in the light of the fire, her pubis startling.  Charlotte crying.  “Is there a fire?  Is there a house on fire?” Her pale body fluttering in the wind as the fire rages.  Her dry bare feet on concrete, the sounds of summer birds.  The last papers, the hose and the water.  I still see her floating up the hill like the ghost she must be by now, almost chanting as Marge takes her home.

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