Shelter

“Do you have any socks with holes?” Grandma asked, and he almost said no, because he was afraid she would offer to don them, and is there anything more uncomfortable than someone donning your socks? Well, your underwear. Not to mention his discomfort with the very word don; it was both casual and formal; it was used in the mafia and the home.

In actuality, the reason she asked was that the local animal shelter accepted donations of holey socks, and threadbare blankets, and fraying towels, which they would use in the cages of the animals; it reminded him of The Velveteen Rabbit for reasons both obvious and not. He had always felt guilty just throwing those things away, but even more guilty donating them to a homeless shelter, like a child being congratulated for pooping.

So he began collecting them for Grandma, who, in her in old age, had developed an appetite for errands. It became a regular occurrence, him giving bags of worn undershirts, disintegrating mittens, etc. to Grandma. It was on one such Saturday that she asked if he would like to accompany her to the animal shelter. Perhaps it was because his Grandma’s voice might be able to cancel the noise in his head – perhaps it was because his only plans were hours away and there was way too much room for trouble – perhaps both of those perhapses were a prelapse – or perhaps they were all because he had just finished his taxes and marked that once again there was no spouse, there were no dependents. Grandma’s husband, Grandpa, had been gone for two years. And her house was getting bigger by the day.

They went to the animal shelter.

There were dogs and cats and children and the adults overwhelmed with caring for them. It seemed to both him and Grandma that unless a parent was enthusiastic about supporting another life, visiting the animal shelter with children was the stupidest decision they could make. But it was an easy to understand stupid decision; everywhere children were smiling.

Observation rooms were designed to look like playrooms. One room had a wall of kennels with animals of varying degrees of scruffiness. He noticed a dog in particular; black and moppy and immobile, just the sort of disposition he understood. He momentarily considered rescuing it, though it clearly didn’t need rescuing, and perhaps that was the reason why he wanted to. A challenge always energized him, unless it was in an area where he lacked talent or there was a high chance of failure. So most of the time a challenge did not energize him. But when it did: look out, look sharp and don’t look down.

Grandma suggested a stop at the local coffee shop and he agreed as caffeine was the kind of personality supplement he needed. She had a full hand of gift cards and was ready to play all of them on him, but he just ordered a double espresso and she just ordered a peppermint tea and they split a chocolate peanut butter buckwheat cookie and he wondered how many people were aware that buckwheat doesn’t have gluten in it.

They sat by the window, then, to the right of the front door where you could stare at the people who entered without detection. Nearly every time someone came in, Grandma would whisper, “I don’t know them,” as if that were concerning.

“Do you think they’ll move?” Grandma asked, after awhile, referring to his parents.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Babies have that affect on people,” referring to his sister’s new – and first – dependent.

“You can’t live for your children,” Grandma declared, which he found amusing, since she always lived within four minutes of hers.

“I can’t imagine moving at this point in my life,” he said to the ceiling. Grandma nodded.

They sat there for quite some time.

Angela

The door bell rings, and my dogs explode into a cycle of agitation and pompousness: “Who could it be? Jeffrey Dahmer? Billy Graham? Gloria Estefan? Who cares! We love the sound of our own voices!” It is a pitiful yowling hysteria, though they think it a thunderously dignified display. My dogs love the sound of their own voice (like humans), although I suspect if I recorded it and played it back they wouldn’t love it any more (also like humans). ShuddUP! SHUDDUP! I gingerly wade through the furry waves of dog towards the front door and open it.

It’s my cousin Angela. Her sweatshirt, earrings and eyeshadow are all turquoise – a color made for tropical waters and fifth grade girls. Angela is not a fifth grade girl, though sometimes it seems like it. She’s twenty-two, but doesn’t learn at the same speed as others her age. The condition has some repugnantly polite name, nearly as repugnantly polite as calling it a condition. But I prefer to imagine all her blood deciding to stay home, in the heart, and not travel to the head. This is better, really, I believe it makes her a better person. And she’s so beautiful. She’s a beautiful men can’t quite fantasize about, because they’d feel guilty afterward.

When we were young she was the only one with the mad imagination, farcical tendencies and preference for all forms of exaggerated feminity that matched my own. We wanted to be Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (She’s so thin because she’s always dancing. We must always keep dancing.) or Ariel in The Little Mermaid (Ways I Am Like Ariel: 1. Red hair! 2. Female-fish anatomy?) Within two minutes together, our jog pants and T-shirts would be converted to whorish hyperbole, including pink plastic heels and feather boas. Then we’d get out her tea set and promise to be careful with every intention not to be. Cups were filled with water (her mother’s idea) then tipped over/thrown/dropped as quickly as possible, then refilled again. We seemed to fall out of chairs more than we sat in them. We called it “crazy tea party,” adding an unwitting anti-British element to playtime.

This was all before Love blew a spitwad in her eye, which slid down her cheek, impersonating tears in a way that was vicious, not funny. You would think Love would pick a little man to be the pilot of that spitwad. She didn’t. He was tall. Taahll. Tuawwl. In any accent he was tall. A man who was much older than her. That much had a mouth full of years, a potbelly of years, pockets stuffed with years. The years were a dare; a do-it-now-or-you’re-not-alive dare. The years were a functional alcoholic:

  • I can do this.
  • I’m in control.
  • I feel fabulous.
  • I feel fucking fabulous.
  • I’m God.
  • No, I’m David Bowie.

I don’t know if that’s how she felt, but I know that’s how I felt, the first time I met him. Not her former him, my former him. He respected our age difference, respected me, respected himself. Respect is such a good strategy it doesn’t need a strategy. “I’m a lot older than you,” he said. “No you’re not,” I said.

Angela met her former him for coffee the other day, which made her father’s red face get even redder. So red that looking at it makes your heart beat faster, makes you want to eat more vegetables. Why so red, father? Because I’m Italian, and I have high blood pressure, and MY DAUGHTER TRIED TO KILL HERSELF OVER THIS MAN.

She tried to kill herself.

It was fantastically ineffective.

Thank God’s nose hairs, his eyelashes, his toenails for that.

It was phenomenally unsuccessful because of Angela’s boating accident in the birth canal. Her skull was hurt, so the skull took it out on the brain, and the brain took it out on logic. Anyway, when the time had come for trying to kill herself, she opted for drinking laundry detergent. Isn’t she spectacular? If she hadn’ t had that pre-birth business, she would have done something more logical and conclusive – perhaps leaning too far over a ledge…and I do appreciate her picking something outside of social acceptability, not to mention the determination. Her taste buds must have cringed with courteous disgust through the introductions: Oh, hi, Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols, It’s nice to meet you, Xylene sulfonate. Ultimately, though, anything’s preferable to lying in front of a lawnmower (“What are you doing?” “Oh hi.” “Yes, hi. Could you move? I don’t want to run over you.” “You know it’s really fine. Just go ahead, you’ve got to get this lawn mowed.” “Your life is more important than grass. Anyway, it’s not that long.” “Well, it is. You almost didn’t see me. You almost didn’t stop.” “Uh, okay. Actually there’s a good twenty feet – were you trying to kill yourself or not?”).

Angela formed a business partnership with prescription medication, and they got through it together, ended up in the black. So she asked her former him to meet her for coffee. He treated her with an unfeeling friendliness, like you would a postal worker. Angela braved the pleasantries. They said goodbye, he indifferently, she intensely. This is how things end, she thought, with nothing at all. She came home to her mother. Her mother, who raised Angela like she was a full bowl of tomato soup being carried across white carpeting, careful, I can do this, carefully.

We do not talk about any of this, standing in the front hallway. My dogs are loving her now, with their tongues, paws, ears, tails. She is smiling at them, and at me, with big eyes that are even brighter than her eyeshadow.