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Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Lou
  1. Corinne pauses when she writes the date. The year could be anything, really. Two thousand whatever. Nineteen ninety-something. She takes her elderly mother to the doctor. One of the tests is, “What’s today’s date?” Her mother doesn’t have a clue. But really, Corinne wants to say, what does that prove?
  2. Two eggplants sit in the vegetable drawer, maudlin skins beginning to wrinkle. One is more wrinkled than the other. She feels the soft spots when she picks them up. As usual, she has waited too long. She returns the eggplants to the drawer. Discards a bag of slimy carrots. She will wait until the last possible moment, and then she will wait beyond that moment until there’s no longer any hope of salvage.
  3. Lately she’s been unable to finish reading novels. On the bedside table, cookbooks and travel guides. She’s not cooking anything or going anywhere, but it’s a comfort to flit from one possibility to the next. Always a happy ending!
  4. Fresh chervil, dried wood-ear mushrooms, epazote leaves, borlotti beans, kabocha squash. Verbs are her favorite. Mince, braise, sauté, chiffoner, pound, broil, chop, char, dice, poach, steam, grill, toast, roast, flambé, simmer, boil, blend, mix, season, beat, pour, divide, spread, cool, slice, taste.

Is it too late to learn how to clean a trout?

  1. She buys a book written by an old friend, poems about the wife he left, poems about his lover—now his new wife. Both women had once been her friends. She looks for the salacious bits, finds them, feels guilty, sympathizes with the ex-wife, even though she too has remarried. At what point do the laws of common decency kick in? Even poets should keep some things to themselves. Revealing intimate details seems a worse betrayal than the acts they describe. Does he want his ex-wife to know the extent of his loathing, the rapturous love he felt for his new wife? Well, not so new anymore. Maybe the man protests too much. If you leave one wife for another, Corinne knows, that second one damn well better work out.
  2. Corinne and Robert were at the farmers’ market when he mentioned the ratatouille. She hadn’t made ratatouille in a decade. Maybe a decade. Corinne has three frames of reference: last week, last year, a decade ago.
  3. Flushed from their morning in bed, they’d tumbled from the sheets (she liked to think of them as tumbling, though they were too old for that) and gotten dressed and headed to the market, as they had done most Saturdays during that promising summer, and she chose the (then) glossy and smooth and firm eggplants, because he said he loved ratatouille. “A dish you can serve at any temperature.”
  4. She sort of knew she wouldn’t make the ratatouille, that buying the eggplants was only about the hope of the ratatouille and not about any actual dish, ratatouille or otherwise. She has only seen Robert twice since that day. They’d talked on the phone a few times. His life was complicated. He was sorry. He sounded sad.

“A summer romance, then,” her friend Valerie says.

“It would appear so,” Corinne says.

  1. Perhaps the cost of the eggplants was worth it. Two dollars for the ingredients for a dish that she felt, at the time, eighty percent sure she would make (though if she pressed herself on this point, she’d drop it to sixty-five)—wasn’t it worth the two dollars to believe, even partially, that she would make the ratatouille? Two dollars well spent. Two dollars, the price of admission.

“I’ll look forward to it,” he’d said of the ratatouille. Kissing her just below her ear, causing her to melt—ridiculously. What more did she want for two bucks? Than to think that the ratatouille might be possible.

  1. She reads her students’ first essays of the school year, further and further from understanding what they are talking about. Is this what it is to get old? She goes to her mother’s and they watch DVDs of The Carol Burnett Show. It’s as if shag carpet grows underneath their feet, and they’re sitting on the horsehair couch in the old house. The walls of the room fall away to reveal what’s been there all this time.
  2. Checkup time. The familiar changing room in Mammography, hospital gown tied in the front, locker for her valuables.

As when her blood is drawn, Corinne can’t look. She might faint if she sees her flesh squashed between clear plates. She stands almost casually, hand on the bar as instructed, gaze over opposite shoulder as though posing for an artist. Hold still hold your breath exhale step back. The tech maneuvers her into a different position for another view, apologizing for her cold hands.

Hold still hold your breath exhale.
And again.

  1. She gnaws off the plastic bracelet and tosses it on the back seat. Mail, library books, hospital IDs, receipts, Robert’s pocketknife, empty prescription and water bottles, dry-cleaning tickets, a pair of pants that needs altering, a tennis ball, and under the driver’s seat, Lou’s red leash. A scrapbook of scraps from her scrappy life.
  2. The same drive to work as every other day—but suddenly, a house that didn’t used to be there. Trees have been cleared. Now, a house.

Or the other way around: a house she drives by twice a day, and then it’s just—gone. Razed. And she cannot cannot cannot remember even the color of it.

  1. She edits Robert’s contact information in her phone. His new name is DON’T ANSWER.
  2. When Corinne’s third husband left her, he came right out and said it, though it had taken years: “I want a divorce.” She didn’t miss a beat. “I get Lou.”

Lou the dog, named by her daughter, a die-hard Lou Reed fan. It’s stupid, how much she misses him. The dog, not the musician.

Though she misses him, too. Dead at seventy-one. Is that old? Not anymore.

  1. One college student to another: “What was the happiest time in your life?” Corinne moves ahead in the coffee shop line and doesn’t hear the answer. She gets stuck in her own calculations. She was happy sometimes as a child, but also filled with fear. She was happy as a young mother, but also flattened by fatigue. She was happy with Robert but there were complications—his rotten-at-the-core marriage, messy life, “trial separation”—and so she was also wildly unhappy, though she often still thinks of their brief time together as the best time.

All the ways I’m sad and made you sad.

  1. Corinne has an erotic dream about a coworker. The sex is more transactional than passionate. And yet, it does the trick. They agree it will be a one-time thing, but when the opportunity presents itself, he reaches for her hand under the table, and she is glad.

At work the next day, she finds it difficult to look at him.

  1. A phone call: follow-up tests are, once again, required. The right-side images—they need a better view. No need to be concerned!
  2. Corinne has been here before, this very room, this sheeted table. Lights dimmed for the show. The tech, who looks like she’s straight out of high school—Corinne always gets someone in training—rolls the gelled-up sensor over and over the troublesome spot. R Breast, Corinne reads on the monitor screen. Aureola. The landscape is familiar. Blurry white sand dunes, ridges and hollows, a lunar landscape, or maybe Wyoming—it looks the same whether it’s uterus or breast, or, she imagines, any of the other stops along the scenic route in Ultrasoundland.

Finally, the radiologist arrives and takes over, honing in on the spot. She places the “+” sign in four corners and snaps a picture.

  1. Corinne is more relaxed than she has been in months. A languorous position, gown open, right arm stretched overhead (“to flatten the tissue”). She closes her eyes and surrenders to the care of this serious person who is so concerned with the dunes and the valleys. She’s the type Corinne would’ve copied from in high school biology, hair pulled back messily from her small worried face.

“This is good news,” the radiologist says. Corinne smiles, nods back. She isn’t sure what pathology is indicated by the fact that she’d like to stay here on this padded table for just another minute, the women tending to her, the reassurance that comes so easily, at least for now.

Follow up in six months.

  1. Someone has to do it, though: get sick, or killed by a drunk driver, or shot in a parking garage. So far, Corinne has sidestepped what seems like an inevitable diagnosis. Others have run straight into it. The best friend with a rare form of breast cancer. The childhood friend with a rare form of brain cancer. The cousin with a rare form of lung cancer. None of it seems rare enough, in her opinion. They should check the definition of the word “rare” if they’re going to keep throwing it around like that.
  2. “Who’s that guy?” Valerie asks. She and Corinne are looking at a photograph from the old days. The whole gang.

“Which one?” Corinne says.

“This one. Fourth ex-husband from the left.” They laugh and laugh.

  1. When you share a story with someone else, it feels like you’re in the same story. But then you learn that you have one version of the story and the other person has another. You are in different stories, together. Even in love, even in marriage, even when you both claim “We are best friends,” one of you can still say “It’s over” when the other thinks it could never happen.

And what mistakes she had made, always hanging on too long, never wanting to let go, even when it was past the point of letting go. Far past.

  1. Backing out of a parking spot, she waits for the crunch of metal but it never, or rarely, comes.
  2. The doctor’s office calls for an updated address. They mailed her a lab report, but it was returned to sender. Two weeks later, the receptionist calls again; the lab report has done its boomerang trick. This happens twice more before Corinne drives to the doctor’s office to pick up the report, which says everything is fine, of course, otherwise the doctor would’ve called—she knows the protocol, has, on occasion, been called. When she points out the error on the envelope, the receptionist still can’t see it.
  3. Leaving the library or a store, she always thinks she’s going to set off the alarm. She’s guilty as hell, but for which thing?
  4. Thanksgiving. She flies to see her daughter. Elise’s boyfriend of three years has just broken up with her. She’s drinking too much, but who’s Corinne to judge? They go to martini bars and shop for boots. Snow is in her daughter’s forecast.
  5. People on the airplane talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk
  6. Corinne’s mother is better, for a while. She forgets that she was ever in pain. Or she refers to that time as if it is over and could never happen again, when in fact her condition is chronic. These are flare-ups, remissions. There will be more, again, worse. Corinne smiles at her. Yes, that was an awful time. “Who knows what happened to me,” her mother says. Though they do know. Though they have the diagnosis. Corinne doesn’t bother explaining. “I’m so glad that’s over,” her mother says. “I feel like myself again.” “Me too,” Corinne says. And clarifies—“Glad, I mean.”
  7. Outside, rain.
  8. Holiday party at Valerie’s sister’s. Corinne meets a nice guy. They agree to have coffee. He’s recently returned from Iceland, where he photographed ice elves in the ice caves. The first seventy-five photos he shows her on his iPad are, indeed, amazing. But he has another two hundred. Her face goes through all the expressions, like the emoji menu: happy! surprised! concerned! confused! Her face is tired. She realizes this is not the guy she thought he was when she met him at the party. Of course, he didn’t have his iPad with him then. She stifles a yawn. She looks over his shoulder and out the window to the wet street and then back to the ice elves that come and go with a swipe of his finger.
  9. Seasonal affective disorder. Running used to help. She flew down trails for eight, ten, twelve miles, Lou running ahead (her scout, her vanguard). What she counts as exercise now—walking from parking garage to office, the yoga classes, “taking the stairs instead of the elevator”—are the things she used to scoff at, when other people counted them.

Anyway, what’s the point, without Lou.

  1. Corinne asks her students to write about seashells. Concrete details and abstractions. She keeps the shells in her desk drawer for this assignment, though when she gathered them from their respective beaches—Maine, California, Mexico—she never guessed they’d end up here, in a sandy Ziploc in a basement office she shares with two other part-time adjuncts, pipes clanging above their heads, an eerie mold in the corners.

None of the students thinks to write: “An animal used to live here.”

  1. It turns out that many of her happiest moments were spent lying on the floor with that dumb dog! She didn’t realize it at the time, or she only partially realized it. She became doglike, pushing at his face with her face, forehead pressed against his, even gently biting his cheek, and he did the same, soft retriever mouth made for carrying dead birds—Lou never hurt her.
  2. She chose the time for him to go. She believed he’d want her to. Unable, sometimes, to stand, unable to wag his tail—but then he’d rally for a few weeks, a few days. The tumor growing, vicious, invincible. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t make him stay any longer. It was selfish. He’d stay if she wanted him to, yes. But he couldn’t lift his head or roll around scratching his back or spin in circles in anticipation of dinner. He couldn’t fetch his tennis ball or the paper, prancing, head held high, so proud of a job well done. Couldn’t run to the door when she got home, shoe in his mouth as a welcoming gift, running ahead of her, scrambling on the wood floor, banking off one wall, and scooting around the corner—Ha ha, catch me if you can, get the shoe if you can, ha ha, you’re home! At last! At last! I’ve been waiting here all day. I’ve been waiting here forever.
  3. How he’d go wild sometimes—that doggy brain had a few loose screws—and race from one end of the yard to the other, cutting sharply and zigzagging. He just had to run run run, couldn’t she see? Tearing around the yard, whipping around in circles, mouth open, laughing. You crazy! she’d say. Oh, how he made her laugh.

But he hadn’t run like that for a long time.

  1. End of January, and Valerie throws her a birthday party. It is, in every way, better than Corinne expected. The party goes late and everyone drinks just enough. One in the morning, the two of them curled up on the couch, red embers in the fireplace. Valerie’s sweet husband has cleaned up the kitchen, topped off their nightcaps, gone to bed.

“I adore you,” Corinne says, “and not just because of that insane chocolate cake.”

“Good thing,” Valerie says. “I’m too old for unrequited.”

  1. She has a recurring feeling of being jolted awake. Why is she so surprised? “Fifty? Impossible!” But what did she think was happening? This—this—her life. She’d managed to ignore so much. She was just getting started. There would be time—later. But when? Something had kept her from what felt like her true calling, her true love, her true self. And yet she had lived through the years and days—the hours—as this self, bringing up her daughter, working various part-time and full-time jobs, getting promoted, getting fired, falling in love and out again. Married, divorced. Sidetracked by accidents and incidents and crises. Everything had felt like she was doing it on a trial basis. She’d do this for a while, and later, the real thing would begin.
  2. (Oh but that dog could be such a pest. Such a nudge. Eating entire loaves of bread, or whole raw chicken breasts marinating on the counter. A bad dog. A good dog. Her dog. That soft doggy cheek, the little bump on top of his head. “That’s where your brain is,” she’d say, knocking the bony lump with her knuckle, and he’d bury his head in her lap.)
  3. Dead people, at least you can talk to. You can imagine their end of the conversation. Not so with Lou. His language was the language of dog-love, and all she can do is feel it, and in feeling it, all she can know is absence, not presence.
  4. She can’t possibly be hungry again! What does this mean?
  5. Corinne learns that her first husband’s sister has cancer. Stage IV. She emails the former sister-in-law but doesn’t hear back. Then, the sister-in-law is dead. Did she get Corinne’s message?

It doesn’t matter now, of course. But did she?

Too late, too late, too late.

  1. The ghosts. Where his water bowl used to be. Where his bed used to be. Where the leash used to hang. She kept his collar, faded red, on her dresser. After he died, it had taken her a month to bring herself to erase a muddy paw print by the back door.
  2. In the parking garage, she sits in her car. She needs to go to work. But getting out of the car doesn’t appeal. She’s not even sure she can get out of the car. It’s quiet here. Dark also. Dark-ish. Dim. And once she’s at work—well. Then there are all the work things. It’s stupid, she tells herself. There’s nothing wrong.

However. If she leaves the car, she will have to walk to her office, down the hall from the sex-dream co-worker, who is much younger than she is and probably thinks of her as, well, old. She does not feel old. She feels old. She feels the same as she has always felt.

  1. Eventually, of course. She does. Step into. The day. At night, she reads a book written by a Buddhist nun. Always a bad sign when that nun comes off the shelf.
  2. Valerie brings gifts. A HappyLight—10,000 lumens, whatever that means—and a jumbo bottle of vitamin D. She’s a good pal, that Valerie.
  3. Corinne wakes up from a dream about Robert. She hasn’t dreamed of him in weeks. “What are you doing back here?” she says to the empty room. Go away. Fuck’s sake. Please just leave me alone.

Still, it was good to see him. He looked well.

In the dream, he said he loved her.

Please please please just

  1. “I was feeling better so I stopped taking the pills,” her mother says. And then she wonders why she’s in pain. It’s inconceivable, but also not. Her mother is one of those old people who’ve never been sick.
  2. Seventeen worst plastic surgeries, ten worst foods to eat, eight wedding pictures you won’t believe. Lunch hour, over.
  3. A fragment in a little notebook reads, Find all the little notebooks and type up the fragments.
  4. The problem of being in a body and always being in that body, and that body being the way you experience the world and the other people in it, and that body being the only part of what other people know about you, or think they know.
  5. A letter from her past self arrives. It’s something she did with her students last year, and now it’s here: an email addressed to herself, from herself. Why would she ever have done this?

When she wrote the email, she’d imagined her future self reading it, so the tone is apologetic, mincing.

She skims, afraid of what she might find out—that last year’s self’s expectations hadn’t been met.

Yes, no.

In some ways, the letter has proven prescient enough. She has taken steps. Made progress. She goes to yoga twice a week. And so on.

The former students are all receiving their emails today too, poor dears. They, no doubt, overestimated.

At the end of the email, a donation is requested. So that the organization responsible for sending the email can continue providing this questionable service. She is also offered the chance to write another message, to another future self. She pictures them, dozens of future selves opening dozens of emails. Mise en abyme.

  1. She worries about saying the wrong thing. She doesn’t want to hurt her own feelings. If she makes some comment about her weight, for instance. Or her romantic situation. Dear self, I hope you’ve found a man by now! Ha ha! She doesn’t want to come across as pushy, or judgmental. What if she’d found a man, but then he’d died, or left her, on the very day her email arrived? Anything could happen. Dear self, how’s the apocalypse going? Did that ten-pound bag of rice you stored in the garage get you very far? What if she’d had her identity stolen, spent months in court battles and all her savings on legal fees? She once watched an IT guy log into his account, hands flying over the keyboard, hitting the shift key and a number and then letters and a number and then shifting again, and she knew she was sunk. The password must’ve been thirty characters long. Her passwords lack imagination. She has a hard time remembering her zip code, some days. Some days her street number eludes her for a full three seconds.

Of course, she’s moved around a lot. There are a lot of addresses stored in her memory bank, and the constant withdrawals have left her depleted.

  1. Maybe you should only write nice letters to future selves. But then it would all be bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans. Live your best life! This isn’t a dress rehearsal! Free to be you and me!
  2. A brisk March morning and she can’t find her thermal coffee cup. She recently cleaned out her car and the only thing under the seats is Lou’s leash. She goes to the coffee shop without her cup. The barista, the same one who waits on her every morning, says, “Has anyone spoken to you about our come-back cup?” Corinne says, “Mine must be at home.” The barista, tall and thin, arms thoroughly inked and a nose septum ring that reminds Corinne of a bull, nods without looking at her.

Corinne thinks, I mean—really? After all the mornings you’ve served me coffee, you don’t know me, or my come-back cup?

Always she feels chastised, like a child, even when she’s the oldest one in the room.

  1. In his last months, while he still could, she allowed Lou on the couch, on the bed. Of course. Whatever you want. Stay with me as long as you can. Stay.
  2. “I remember when he was your new boyfriend,” Valerie says, about Lou. “Besotted” was the word Corinne had used. And why? Why that dog? She’d had other dogs she’d loved. But that dog. He wasn’t even a good dog! She’d tell him that, in a loving growl that conveyed otherwise. You are such a bad dog.
  3. For years, she craved solitude. Now she has it. She is alone, all right.
  4. Dear self,

Read any good books lately? If not, maybe go to the library and find one.

Did you get a dog yet?

I hope the breath is moving in and out of your lungs with ease. I hope your legs still work, knees and hips and feet, and that you’re taking a walk every day.

And enjoying a meal out, now and then.

And using your hands. Gardening. Something with clay, or paint.

I hope you aren’t confused by this letter because you’re suffering from dementia or grieving such a monumental loss that the language of hope is incomprehensible to you.

I hope you are well, and if you are not, I hope you will get help this time.

She picks ten arbitrary future dates, hits send.

  1. Corinne says she won’t get another dog, but Valerie emails her links to adoptable dogs anyway. It’s no use. None of the dogs is Lou. She has no interest in falling in love again.
  2. In the end it was the end, and it was she who had to call it.

His head in her lap. The bright yellow band around the catheter in his arm. Leg. His leg. This made it easier to inject the overdose of anesthesia. The vet explained, in a gentle voice, what would happen. One breath, maybe two. Oh, it was quick.

No need for that stethoscope, she wanted to say. You can put that away now.

Goodbye, Lou. Thank you for being such a good friend.

“Stay as long as you need to,” the vet said, closing the door quietly behind him.

But what was the point in staying? Lou was no longer there.

  1. They ask you to pay ahead of time. “Then you can just leave when you’re ready,” they say. They show you the back exit. They’ve done this before. But it’s her first time at this particular death scene. Her other dogs have 1) been hit by a car, 2) died in their sleep, 3) her mother or a husband did this part.
  2. Freedom! She can come and go as she pleases. Is what she told herself.
  3. The days are getting longer. Like some kind of miracle, it’s seven p.m. and still light out. She begins to wean herself off the Buddhist nun, the lip-syncing comedians on YouTube, canned frosting.
  4. Crocuses, purple and yellow, have appeared overnight. She walks around the backyard, gauzy sunlight delicately draped over everything, hazy shadows and blurry buds on the trees. (She’s not wearing her glasses.) And under a bush, a neon-green tennis ball. She thought she’d already found, and discarded, all of Lou’s tennis balls. Okay. The last tennis ball, then. She picks it up, carries it to the garage. Drops it in the trash bin.
  5. Tufts of insulation appear on her front lawn, the yard littered with cottony clumps.

“What the hell?” Valerie asks.

Corinne explains that the birds have found a crack somewhere. They’re picking and plucking at the innards of her house, building nests beneath the rafters.

“They’re turning your house inside out,” Valerie says.

“It would appear so,” Corinne agrees.

  1. Corinne is making a rhubarb pie for her daughter, who’s coming to visit for Memorial Day. Laurie Anderson is playing on the stereo. The kitchen is full of sun and the smell of butter. She’s feeling nicely aligned from yoga class, loose and light, lithe, even. Bare feet on clean wood floors. Soft yoga pants and her favorite T-shirt, made of bamboo. They make clothes out of bamboo now! And cutting boards and cradles and forks and floors and beer and combs and, yes, coffins too.
  2. She’s musing about the beach house she and Val will rent in July, and a grant application she’s almost finished, and the annuals she will plant later, when her phone rings. Or rather, chirps. She’s using a new ringtone and it always takes a moment for her to realize what that noise is. She brushes flour from her hands, turns down the music, looks at the caller’s name.

DON’T ANSWER

  1. Intake of breath. When was the last time he called? Months ago. She takes a moment to observe her reaction. Does her heart leap, or sink? Yes.

They met almost exactly a year ago now—right after Lou died. Robert was kind. He understood, how it wasn’t just about the dog.

Red: decline. Green: accept.

  1. Oh but she thought they were done. She doesn’t want to go through all that again. She can’t go through all that again. How dare he wander back this way. How dare he take so long to come back to her. Her heart, her poor old heart.
  1. Though maybe he is just calling to...say hello.
    Or maybe there’s a
    or he forgot that
    or he’s missing his
    or he’s just wondering whether
    wondering if
    or he was just thinking about her and
    or something reminded him that
    or he doesn’t want to bother her, but

DON’T ANSWER

She ponders the self who typed that imperative, who made a special point to use uppercase. She looks out her kitchen window at the flats of impatiens and nasturtiums, waiting for her in their little plastic cups, and the grass—so green from all the rain!

See what's inside AGNI 91

Susan Jackson Rodgers is the author of the novel This Must Be the Place (Switchgrass Books, 2017) and two story collections: The Trouble With You Is (Mid-List Press, 2004) and Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 (Press 53, 2012). Her writing has appeared in New England Review, Colorado Review, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is professor of creative writing and literature at Oregon State University. (updated 4/2020)

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