“I love you.” The woman’s voice came from a distance, almost as if imagined, or dreamed. Eric Strohminger assumed he heard his wife, Rusti, calling down the basement stairs from the dining room as he was going out the back door to the driveway behind their house.
“I love you too!” he called back, more a perfunctory response than a heartfelt confession.
When he saw his neighbor Sharon McClatchey closing her own back door, he realized his mistake. Sharon was a single woman in her late fifties, a lifelong spinster who taught math in a private high school. A churchwoman – Sharon played piano and organ for the Episcopal church choir – she had recently acquired a poodle, Clarinda, and this had completely changed her personality. Before she had been a rather dour, fatalistic person, as if permanently recovering from a failed romance, but since Clarinda had come into her life she’d become downright affable and outgoing. A heavy person who certainly fell into the category of “obese,” Sharon had originally acquired Clarinda with a view toward losing weight by walking the dog. While this hadn’t happened, neighbors remarked on the change and what a positive effect Clarinda had made on Sharon’s outlook. Sharon practically gushed whenever she spoke to or about the animal.
“I hate it when she cries like that,” Sharon lamented to Strohminger, biting her lip. “She misses me when I’m not there.”
Strohminger murmured something indistinct, carrying his belongings – gym bag, lunch box and briefcase – to the car. He wondered if Sharon had heard him and what she’d made of it. Did she think he’d been making fun of her? Mocking her?
“I know, darling,” Sharon called to the yipping dog. “Mama will be home right after school.”
Too late Strohminger switched from the CD player to the radio, otherwise he might have heard about the backup on the Beltway and taken another way to work. Eric worked in the publicity department of the local public television station, writing press releases and on-air promos and managing a staff of volunteers.
Traffic ground to a halt in the pre-dawn November darkness. Up ahead, like the billboard for Doctor T.J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby, the red neon sign of The Men’s Wearhouse glowed, proclaiming:
The light wands that formed the W had burned out.
After the grim economic news and the stalemate in Congress, the wars in the Middle East, the local news announcer came on to read the traffic report, and Eric learned about the “accident activity” up ahead, just beyond his exit. It was going to be a long morning, it looked like. As always, that phrase, “accident activity,” annoyed the hell out of him. Why not simply say there had been an accident? Why call it “accident activity” instead, especially when so much of it was this paralysis of inactivity? Were they trying to suggest the accompanying rubbernecking that contributed to the slow-down? What did the cumbersome phrase add by way of information? Nothing. The weather forecasters were the same, speaking of “thunderstorm activity.” Did it make them feel more important? Did it seem to give an extra gravitas to their jobs?
Strohminger sighed and switched back from the radio to the Stokowski Bach Transcriptions he’d been listening to before he’d sought the information about the traffic back-up.
In the break room at the station, Strohminger poured himself a mug of hazelnut coffee. Arriving much later than he’d planned, he’d felt rushed, dropped his belongings at his desk in the office he shared with two others, sorted out his agenda, the meetings with producers, the promos for the morning exercise shows – Philippa’s Yoga, Breath: Mind and Body Control, Gregoire’s Balance and Strength Technique – the cooking and travel programs and NOVA – and fairly shot to the break room, that windowless fluorescent-lit room with the vending machines, microwave and folding tables like a prison refectory that nevertheless radiated a homey warmth Strohminger found comforting. His Antiques Roadshow mug brimful with life-giving coffee, he turned to the door to return to his desk and the telephone messages only to find himself face to face with Diana Andrews, the lithe pretty volunteer who helped him with the promos. She’d been campaigning for a full-time job since she started back in late August.
“Eric!” Diana sang out, as if his mere presence had brightened her day. He wanted to believe it had.
“Diana, hi. God, what a mess the traffic was this morning! I’m just getting in.”
“Lucky I missed it. I practically live around the corner,” she reminded him. “I don’t have to face that traffic, even though my husband has to drive all that way to the university.” Everything she said seemed to be part of the argument to hire her, to offer her a full-time position. She and her husband had moved down from New York that summer. He’d gotten a job on the faculty at Loyola College. Diana had worked in public television in New York, an internship while she was a college student. She had experience – and a degree in journalism from NYU. And she was attractive. And on top of that – well, she lived close to the station, didn’t she?
Only, Strohminger wasn’t in a position to hire anybody, and with the rotten economy having a perilous effect on public television’s bottom line as well as everybody else’s, the best he could do was change the subject.
“The most embarrassing thing happened to me when I was leaving the house this morning,” he confided, edging toward the door. Like a dancer following his lead, Diana stepped aside and trailed in his wake as he headed down the hallway to his office. As they went, he told Diana about his encounter with Sharon.
“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Diana murmured. Apparently she missed the part about Strohminger’s faux pas and focused on Sharon and Clarinda.
“It’s amazing how that dog’s transformed her,” Strohminger agreed, taking his cue from Diana’s comment. “Really given meaning to her life.”
At the gym after work as he trudged along on the elliptical, staring at the television monitors but not really focusing on ESPN’s countdown of the top ten sports plays of the week, Strohminger thought of cute, bubbly Diana and how lucky he was to have her on his staff and that she was doing all she did for free. She’d already picked the video clips for the exercise program promos before he’d even got there that morning, saving him time, marking the frames and timing the sequences for 20-, 30- and 60-second spots. She really needed to talk to one of the producers, Finnerty or Lipscomb, if she wanted to pursue a job at the station, he thought. What pure dumb luck, Strohminger marveled, to have her on his team. An accident of fate.
Thinking that phrase, “accident of fate,” Strohminger remembered, with mild annoyance, the phrase “accident activity” from the traffic report, and the MEN’S EARHOUSE sign. His neighbor Sharon flitted in an out of his consciousness, and he remembered the talk he’d had with Diana about pets.
“Do you think she over-reacted?” she’d asked, sensing that Strohminger thought Sharon’s behavior mildly ridiculous.
“Oh, no. We get attached to our pets. I still remember a cat we used to have with a great deal of fondness, even though he’s been dead seven years.”
“We have two big labs,” Diana confided, which he’d already guessed from the sticky lint remover she rolled over her clothing when she got in in the mornings. “But I don’t think they particularly miss me when I leave the house.”
“Well, there’s your husband. Sharon’s a single woman.”
“They have each other,” Diana said. “The dogs, I mean. Your neighbor just has the one?”
“That’s true.” Strohminger thought for a moment. “I think she may be exaggerating the dog’s attachment to her,” he said, “but that’s just a guess.”
“Dogs are very devoted to their owners.”
“You’ve probably heard the joke that a dog regards its owner and observes that he feeds him, cleans him, cares for him, plays with him, and concludes, ‘he must be a god.’ A cat sees the same thing and concludes, ‘I must be a god.’”
“I think I’m more like a dog,” Diana said, in a moment of candor.
“There’s something wrong with Clarinda!”
Even as Strohminger was getting out of his car, Sharon was on him, her dog tucked under her arm. Clarinda was wearing a green plaid sweater against the cold and looked like a wrapped Christmas gift.
“What’s the matter?”
“She’s been coughing and coughing and coughing as though she has something stuck in her windpipe.”
“Have you called a vet?”
“Could you take us to the Pikesville Animal Hospital, Eric? She needs attention right away and I’m afraid to put her down.” The dog began to hack like a smoker. It did sound alarming.
“Sure, get in.” Strohminger sat back down in his car and opened the passenger door.
“She’s never acted this way before.” The strain in Sharon’s voice was almost palpable. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“It’s the terrible thing about pets and infants,” Strohminger observed. “They can’t tell you what’s wrong.”
“You’re my baby, aren’t you, Clarinda?” Sharon said to the dog, and then, as if she sensed that Strohminger found this ridiculous, she changed her tone. “Stokowski?” She nodded toward the CD player.
“I got it for a donation to our sister public radio station during the recent pledge drive.”
“The Chorale from the Easter Cantata. Bach. We performed that last spring.”
Strohminger reflected that Sharon was involved with her church and he wondered irrationally if she thought Clarinda would go to Heaven if she died. He wondered if Sharon believed in Heaven. Of course, this was not the time to ask. They drove in silence, listening to the music, Sharon comforting her dog with cooing noises. Clarinda continued to make intermittent choking noises, and Strohminger hoped she wasn’t leaving doggy spittle all over his car.
To get to the veterinarian’s, they had to pass the Earhouse sign, glowing in the November dusk like some sort of supernatural message, and again Strohminger thought of the phrase, “accident activity” and wondered if that’s what the phrase really meant: like Clarinda’s accident, all this activity surrounding it.
“She’s just had an allergic reaction to something, Ms. McClatchey,” Doctor Sherber said, gently stroking Clarinda’s neck. He’d examined her, given her a shot of something, and she’d calmed down. “Is there anything new you’ve introduced her to, something she may have been exposed to? Some kind of food? Some sort of household cleanser?”
Sharon shrugged. She had no idea.
“Is this garment she’s wearing new?”
“She hasn’t worn it before, but she started choking before I put it on her.”
“Well, keep an eye out for whatever may be causing her to react, and in the meantime I’ll write you a prescription for these,” Sherber said handing Sharon a pill bottle.
Strohminger drove past the glowing wands of the MEN’S EARHOUSE sign for what seemed like the ten thousandth time that day, Sharon beside him petting the sedated Clarinda, who dozed on her lap. On the CD player, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra played Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. He glanced over at his neighbor. The tension had gone out of her face; she radiated contentment.
“You must feel blessed,” Strohminger commented, using the argot of the religious types.
Sharon snorted, sensing she was being patronized. She continued to stroke Clarinda. “I don’t think this was a case of divine intervention,” she laughed sharply, and then she declared: “We make our own blessings.” Then, softening, she repeated, “We make our own blessings, don’t we, Clarinda? Don’t we, baby girl?”
All at once, Strohminger resolved to speak to Finnerty and Lipscomb tomorrow about finding a permanent position for Diana. We make our own blessings, indeed.
Charles Rammelkamp writes poetry and fiction and lives in Baltimore, MD. His most recent book is Castleman in the Academy (March Street Press 2008), a collection of stories about a reluctant English/writing professor in a community college. In 2012, Time Being Books will publish his poetry sequence, Fusen Bakudan, that deals with missionaries during the Vietnam War. A chapbook of poems, Mixed Signals, is also forthcoming from MuscleHead Press. He is the editor of the semi-annual/annual online literary journal, The Potomac. For additional information, visit his website: CharlesRammelkamp.com.