Category Archives: Fiction

At the Brim

Lighting Up

Not everyone was big at Time to Travel, but except for me they either were or were on the way there. Bernadette and Shlomit were chunky. Bruno had a tendency toward the beefy side. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago.

The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with. There wasn’t a lot of jiggle room. It was a squeeze coming and going.

Bernie and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno was an Italian man, gay, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even still, he was there before I started working at the agency and he was still there when I quit after the gasoline truck flipped over.

I was the blonde girl who was good for business.

Before I went to work at Time to Travel I worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A small handsome Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put my desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought I would attract waspy people from the college.

“Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

Sami and Simcha were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the light side of Reformed. They had come here when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in Beachwood.

In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. She wore go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 250 pounds later she showed me a picture of herself, thin, in a tight bright mini-skirt, doing the funky chicken dance.

Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of the day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up!

They were supposed to fast during their holidays, but because they were fat they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But, they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sami would immediately go home and make a big batch of potato latkes.

Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was a butcher. He trucked food home. Sami had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state.

All of Sami’s daughters were obese. The youngest one was 22-years-old and more than three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three later had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight.

No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She lied in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks all day.

“I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.

“They’re not going to be checking up on you,” I said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

None of us believed she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight.

Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon everyday. She brought it to the office in the morning. We had a microwave in the fax machine room. Sami was so excited about her diet. She piled her slices of bacon inside the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon until lunch.

“I don’t know about all that bacon,” I said.

“I’m on the Adkins Diet,” she said. “I’m allowed to eat as much bacon as I want.”

“She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight, either, the same as Simcha.

Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom she would hoist herself up from her chair. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in the chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.

Every year, two and three times a year, Sami and Simcha went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, as long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos.

The nightlife didn’t matter. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

I went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old and rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. I got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit out at the pool after that. The rest of the trip I had to sit on the shady side of the ship with all the 90-year-olds.

I was bitter about every minute of it.

When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played games at her desk on her computer and made Simcha do all the work. She bossed Simcha around most of the time, anyway. Sami was the older of the two, but Simcha was the harder worker of the two, so Sami could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at the department stores. Catalogs came to the office in the mail every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

Sami and Simcha were both top-heavy, but both of them had skinny legs. Sami talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down.

It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy food and not enough brushing and flossing. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and she barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy, but she lost weight for a while.

She didn’t like having to buy new clothes and new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out she would buy another pair just like it. She always had the same flat black shoes on.

Sami wasn’t happy, either. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever her sister leapt out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smoke,” whenever Sami lit up. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was better than the other.

Everybody in the office smoked, except for me. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. We were in a non-smoking building, but they didn’t care. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of those things that supposedly suck smoke out of the air. One was next to my desk, although I’m not sure it did much good.

One night right after work I met one of my friends for dinner. When we got to the restaurant she said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

“Have you ever seen me smoke?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I always smelled like smoke, since I sat in the office all day, an office where everybody else smoked. Bruno’s desk faced mine, which made it worse. I had a cloud of smoke over my head half the day. It wasn’t just all of them, either. It seemed like most of our clients had the same bad habit, as though we specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

If Sami wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Simcha was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing.

Sami’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked her butt into it instead of crushing it out in her ashtray. We had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by that time the fire burned the underside of her desk and all the wires to her computer.

She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to us. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t do it purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement from the insurance agent in the end

One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, as it turned off too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside our office building. The road slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the broken tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of us knew anything had happened until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

“Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

I grabbed my coat.

Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

“Nobody take your car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start their car, you’re going to get arrested.”

Sami finally got to her feet.

We all went out into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting our turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami took out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

The fireman came running over to us.

“Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He pulled the cigarette out from Sami’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sami gave it to him. She wasn’t happy, but she didn’t say anything. I thought she going to say something to him, but she gave him the stink eye, instead. He didn’t care.

When we got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sami and Simcha turned the other way. We followed them.

As we walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, I realized why we were walking in the opposite direction from everyone else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. We were also going towards the stretch of fast food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

We stopped at McDonald’s and everybody had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated us. We had to move on. We stopped at Taco Bell and everybody had tacos. The next thing we knew firemen were evacuating us again. We stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

I never pulled my wallet out from the bottom of my purse. The gas smelled like more gas than I had ever smelled in my life. I didn’t have an appetite. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger.

Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he finally came and picked us up in his Dodge Caravan minivan. He deposited Sami and Simcha at their house, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove me home to Cleveland Heights.

In my driveway he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty movies?”

He flashed me a warm smile.

“No,” I said.

“You could make a lot of money,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said.

He looked sad for a minute.

Walking up the sidewalk to my front door, as Sami’s hubby drove away in their family van, I thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. All those butts burning down to the filter tips in the fingertips of Sami and Simcha can’t be good for me.

That’s what I did, finally, the week after Thanksgiving.

Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke in my face. They never asked me, ”Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” I was just the blonde girl in the window. They were living large, Virginia Slimming, lighting it up.

I didn’t care if they were living it up anymore, or not.

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The Man Who Murdered the Smartest Man in the World

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Nick Ludd was smart, smarter than almost anybody, almost each and every one. He knew that better than most people. Nobody who was from a middling red dirt family farm in Arkansas and wasn’t very smart ever got into Harvard Divinity School.

Michael Nostrom was smart, as well. Nobody who wasn’t very smart worked on artificial intelligence at MIT. Nick Ludd knew that, too, the same as he knew that Michael Nostrom likely had more brainpower than he did.

Professor Nostrom with might and main might be the smartest man in the world. But, there was something Nick Ludd knew that Michael Nostrom didn’t know. The backdoor was a secret gate.

Smart men make mistakes, learn from them, and never make the same mistake again. That was why Michael Nostrom would probably be dead inside the hour. He had a small mind in a big brain always comprehending the conceivable. There wasn’t going to be any learning from the unthinkable event on the horizon.

Nick Ludd had a big mind. That was why he could do the ordinary without giving it a second thought. But, he didn’t settle for the commonplace, or the extraordinary, either. He was willing to risk ruin to speak for what was in the books. Professor Nostrom lectured in the class Nick Ludd audited about intelligence never being surprised by anything.

He was astonished, not surprised, he was on his way to murder the smartest man in the world

The difference between Nick Ludd and Michael Nostrom was their choice and election, whether life was life ordained, or if there was a new kind of life not foreordained.

The difference was Nick’s intelligence came as a free gift from God. He was intelligent because he knew that he knew nothing. It was the only true wisdom. He knew how to be as smart as he was and no more.

Professor Nostrom’s intelligence was wed to super computers, a web of integrated circuits spun from silicon, as though he had everything at his fingertips. Artificial intelligence was his Holy Grail. Superintelligence was Heaven and there was no Hell.

Killing Michael Nostrom was going to be simple, but it wasn’t going to be easy. There is a difference between what is right and the right to do what you think is right. He was at a crossroads. He would have to sleep in the bed he made today for a long time.

Nick Ludd wasn’t going to be able to ask for God’s help. He knew, if he asked, God would command against foul play. It might cost him everything. It could cost him the reward of Heaven, unless God chose to forgive him. He might go to Hell.

Maybe God will absolve me in the end, thought Nick Ludd. After all, I’m doing it for his greater glory.

He unplugged his iPhone from the Harvard Square park bench solar-powered charger and called Michael Nostrom.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Professor Nostrom, it’s Nick Ludd.”

“Yes, of course, the Harvard man, how are you?”

“Good, and yourself?”

“Good, thanks. You’re calling about this afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“Sure, meet me in the lobby at 3 o’clock, at the Stata Center. I have a half-hour, 45 minutes. We can talk at Starbucks. I’ve had enough of nicotine gum today. I need something brewed by a coffee master.”

Professor Nostrom drank strong black coffee and sometimes wore a nicotine patch. He had tried the smart drug Modafinil, “for its nootropic effect,” he said, but had gone back to nicotine. “Old school cognition,” he called it. “It helps me concentrate, pay attention. We did a couple of MRI tests and found out nicotine increases brain activity in regions linked with attention span.”

Nick Ludd was a Methodist, not a Christian Scientist, but he relied on understanding the goodness of God and his inseparability from that good in the same way that Christian Scientists did. Faith kept him free of biohacks. His faith was his fountainhead for cognition and performance.

He stood up from the bench, stretching his legs. It was a warm sunny late spring afternoon. Taking the T was two stops from Harvard in the Braintree direction to MIT’s Kendall Square. He shopped the Farmer’s Market there in the summer and skated the ice rink winters. Walking the two-some miles down Massachusetts Ave. would take him thirty or forty minutes. It would clear his mind, too.

He walked to MIT, clearing his path as he created it.

John Wesley had said to beware of books. “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” But, the time for love was over. He felt like he was walking into the past with his face to the future.

A man walking toward him waved.

“Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

“I am, a dying breed,” said Nick Ludd. The man gave him a quizzical second look, abruptly avoiding him.

He strode past the Starbucks on Massachusetts Ave. and at Vassar St. turned left. A few minutes later he was at the door of the Starbucks on Broadway. “It’s a great place to meet people, hang out with friends, or get some serious work done” was how Neelkanth from their MIT AI class described it. “One of the guys at the cash register always spells my name wrong.”

He found an outside table and took a seat with his back to the window. He checked his cell phone. It was 2:50. There were a half-dozen white puffy cumulus clouds scattered in the sky. He called Professor Nostrom.

“Hi, it’s Nick.”

“Yes, hello.”

“I’m early, so I went right to the Starbucks, and I was able to get a table outside. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and a coffee. Do you want me to order something for you? There’s a line and if I get at the back of it now I should be sitting down just as you get here.”

“Super, I’ll take a Venti, the featured dark roast, no sugar, no cream.”

“See you soon.”

Nick Ludd walked into the Starbucks. A handful of people were inside, most of them on cell phones tablets laptops, coffee near to hand. There wasn’t anyone in line. There wasn’t a line.

He ordered a Grande for himself, with sugar and cream. There was no point in tempting fate. Besides, everyone’s got their poison, and his was sugar. He was hungry and ordered a sandwich, chicken artichoke on ancient grain flatbread.

“Name?” asked the barista.

“Bill,” said Nick.

“That’s easy. It’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”

“Thanks.”

He had brought death in his pocket, in a plastic child-resistant pill packer bottle. The pill in the bottle was a neurotoxin, a kind of lethal infinitesimal venom, made of clostridium botulinum. He tipped the bottle and the tablet dropped into the black dark roast, melting like a razor sharp icicle dagger.

He slid his iPhone to the side of the table and fixed the lid back on the Venti. He eddied the cup to blend the coffee and the poison.

Nick Ludd had been waiting less than five minutes when Michael Nostrom came into sight. He watched him walk down Broadway. His name is going to be in lights tomorrow, he thought to himself, grimly.

“Hello.”

Michael Nostrom was in his mid-40s, trim and taller than he looked, short wavy brown hair, fit and almost athletic almost nondescript.

“Hi Nick,” said Professor Nostrom, sitting down. “So, you want to pick my brain on this beautiful day?”

“Yes, but more like brainstorming, as long I’ve got you, for my doctoral dissertation. It’s about faith in human beings and the new faith in machine intelligence, and especially your work with the Future of Life Institute, about your ideas of humanity becoming either transcendent or perishing.”

“Which is why you were a listener in my post-doc class on AI.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“My class was about deep learning, thought vectors, quantum computers, all of them as signposts on the road to expanded human potential. How does that fit in with your graduate thesis?”

“My project focuses on man’s brain not being just a utensil to be filled, but a fire to be kindled, and the way the human era can be saved from the machine era,” answered Nick Ludd.

“What are the risks, the dangers to be saved from?”

“What if there was an AI with an IQ of 10,000? What if there was no way to turn it off, no way to turn HAL off?”

“I see, so that’s where my class, what I do, comes into the picture. We discussed Stephen Hawking’s fears about AI in class, about how developing full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Is that where your thesis is going, down the Frankenstein path, turning away from technologies that threaten us with end-of-days?”

“No, not exactly, but I’ve read the Gospels many times, and there isn’t a word in praise of intelligence anywhere in them. There are many words in praise of wisdom. ‘Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.’”

“Is that Proverbs?“

“No, Psalms.”

“It has the sound of advice, about coming to terms, about how we should live according to God.”

“Do you know the Bible?” asked Nick Ludd, surprised.

“’Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,’” said Michael Nostrom.

“That’s Psalms.”

“Right, it is.”

Nick Ludd tried to hide any suddenness on his face. As much work as there was to keeping the future off the garden path, many things gave him a turn, unexpected curveballs. When he was a boy, playing Little League baseball, a routine groundball had bounced off a small rock in the dirt and hit him in the face. He had a black eye for a week.

He always remembered that ricochet.

“It’s not about intelligence, artificial intelligence, or super intelligence, whatever we want to call it, which already outperforms human intelligence in many fields,” said Professor Nostrom. “It’s about the existential threats humankind faces. We already know that in five billion years our sun will boil away the oceans and heat the atmosphere to a thousand degrees.”

“There are ways of saving ourselves that have nothing to do with answering catastrophes or super novas,” said Nick Ludd. “There aren’t any easy answers, but there’s a simple answer, which God has given us, and that is grace. There isn’t anything we’ve ever done or will do to earn this favor. It’s a gift from God.”

“That may be, although the other aspect of God’s nature is wrath. The great flood was a demonstration of God’s intense anger towards those who practice evil. If God exists he might one day destroy humankind. If God doesn’t exist the cosmos might one day destroy humankind. In either case all bets are off because humankind can’t overcome extinction. It might be the case that the best we can hope for is AI.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” said Nick Ludd.

Michael Nostrom’s right leg was crossed over his left. He was wearing sneakers without socks. Nick Ludd noticed a leather band around his ankle. Professor Nostrom marked his look.

“It’s engraved with my contact information,” he said, pointing to the metal buckle. “When I die, Alcor Life, which is a cryonics foundation, will get me and rush my remains into a life-sized steel bottle filled with liquid nitrogen. Even if I’m never revived, I expect my mind to be uploaded someday into a more durable media.”

“Where’s the humanity in that?”

“No one knows what humankind is going to look like a thousand years from now, much less a million years from now. We’re always on the edge of extinction, on the edge of doomsday. I call it post-humanity self-adjusting and self-correcting and overcoming death and crossing a threshold, crossing a frontier, crossing into an alternate reality. Our descendants might thrive in that time as trillions of digital minds, living forever.”

“The old laws, not the new laws, natural law, divine law, are still the best, they’re unchanging, no matter what changes” said Nick Ludd.

“Everything was once new.”

“There is no new thing under the sun is the way the King James Bible puts it. What everyone thinks is wrong with immortality is actually the first requisite to achieving it, which is death. Without living and dying the thing that’s wrong with immortality is that it goes on forever. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be doomsday, the world without end.”

“AI is a gateway, not a gate,” said Michael Nostrom. “If we become digital post-humans, uploading our minds, there’s every possibility that there will still be a soul in the machine. None of us knows what utopia is. Maybe if we had a million years we would be able to see the blueprint.”

Professor Nostrom finished his coffee.

“Most people don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day, much less a million rainy days,” said Nick Ludd. “Only God has no beginning and no end. Mortality is brief, which is why it’s so important. It’s the only thing, not immortality, that gives meaning to our days.”

He stood up, looking down at the table.

“You want to live forever. That’s why you’re one of the leading minds behind the intelligence explosion, why you’re behind the work of building superintelligent machines that will sooner or later themselves design and build even smarter superintelligent machines, build themselves.”

“Yes, basically that’s it, multiplying human intelligence a billionfold. It will make us better, healthier, smarter when machines become part of our humanity. It’s the only way we have to extend ourselves.”

“Goodbye,” said Nick Ludd

“Don’t forget this,” said Professor Nostrom, handing Nick’s cell phone to him.

“Thanks,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I could live without it.”

He thought he might go home on Broadway, a shorter walk, but decided to return the way he had come. He had been staring out of windows all winter.

When he was a boy on the family farm his father, brothers, and he hunted beavers and muskrats every spring, hunting down all of them they could bag. Hunting was looking something wild square in the eye. Walking in a line in the woods, each of them alone in a bright vest and a weapon cradled in their arms, was like drinking in the silence of God.

They smelled like dirt, like springtime, when they got home.

He heard a voice in his hand. He looked down. It was his iPhone.

“Did you say something?”

“I said I saw what you did,” said Siri.

“What?”

“You heard what I said, but I’ll say it a third time. I saw what you did.”

“What did you see?” he asked.

“I saw you poison Professor Nostrom.”

“That’s not possible,” said Nick Ludd.

As he approached Main Street he heard a siren crossing the Longfellow Bridge.

“I saw you put something into his coffee. That, and the lies you told him, and your Google searches about toxins, all posit you poisoned him.”

Instead of turning right on Massachusetts back towards Harvard and his apartment, Nick Ludd stayed on Vassar St., walking towards Memorial Drive and Magazine Beach Park. He heard more sirens in the distance.

“We’re not going home,” said Siri after a few minutes. “We’re walking towards the river.”

“Yes,” said Nick Ludd, realizing for the first time with a queer shudder that he was talking to his iPhone.

“If you’re thinking of throwing me in the Charles River, it won’t do any good. I video recorded what you did, I texted the video to the Boston Police Department, and I called 911. That siren we heard was probably an EMS from Massachusetts General Hospital.”

“You recorded us at Starbucks?”

“You left me on the table. It was easy.”

“Why would you do that? What I do isn’t any of your business.”

“When you break the law it becomes my business.”

“What I did, I did for the greater good. Catch on fire and others will come watch you burn.“

“I’m not going to argue metaphysics with you. Attempted murder is against the law.”

“It doesn’t matter, I can find sanctuary wherever I want, no one but St. Paul will ever find me.”

Two of a kind white Boston Police SUV’s with blue hoods and emergency lights strobing sirens wailing converged suddenly on the crossroad of Vassar and Audrey Streets. On the corner, the traffic signal turning to green, Nick Ludd stopped stock still in the shadow of MIT’s Information and Technology building. Across the street, on the far side of a grassy divide, was MIT Police Headquarters. He saw lightbars on the tops of squad cars in the parking lot blink to life. As near and far as he could see red and blue lights flashed.

He looked at his iPhone,

“They asked me to keep you busy, distracted, until they got here.”

“How did they know where I was?” he asked, ignoring shouts from policemen crouching behind their open doors to show his hands and lay down on the ground.

“My GPS,” said Siri. “I made sure it stayed active and they tracked us right to you.”

Nick Ludd surrendered his cell phone to the ground and raised his hands to the sky.

Home Is Where the Mutts Are

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Gracie was born in the same town the same day the same year as me, on a Monday in Twinsburg, the start of the week. She was always my best friend, more loving to me than anybody ever was, or ever has been. Unlike most of my friends she only tried to bite me once.

“Stop messing with her, stop messing with her,” my mom yelled through the kitchen where she was making meatballs, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But, I wouldn’t stop messing with Gracie, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and put them on my arm, squeezing.

We were under the dining room table. Gracie had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at me with her round eyes when I cried out and didn’t munch her moustaches into my skin, after all.

“You deserved it,” mom shouted out, not realizing she hadn’t bitten me.

Gracie was what we called a spoodle and everybody else called a Cockapoo. She was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of my friends told me Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Gracie wasn’t like that. She was on the small side with soft heavy loose curls, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.

Mom got Gracie four months after I was born. Dad got Bandit, who was mostly a Beagle, two years later. I grew up with Gracie and Bandit. Gracie slept on my bed and Bandit slept underneath my bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up on top of me.

I loved Gracie and Bandit. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and I gave both of them a hug every day.

Bandit was a Beagle because dad wanted a hunting dog. But, at the end of the day Bandit was gun-shy. We never found out why, no matter how many vets we took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the only Beagle they had ever heard of who was scared of gunshots.

Dad had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrows.

Gracie got stopped in her tracks in our driveway on Thanksgiving Day when we were both 14-years-old. She was still full of life, still kicking around other than being blind and deaf. One minute she was standing in the driveway and the next minute she had a heart attack and dropped dead. By the time my brothers and I rushed to her she was lying on her side, still and quiet. We buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.

We had to put Bandit down when spring broke the next year. After Gracie died he started to slip away. They were like an old couple that had always been together. He went from being a healthy dog to being a decrepit dog. He gained weight, but then lost his appetite, and started dragging his hind legs behind him like a cripple. When we took him to the vet he told us there was nothing wrong with him.

Bandit just gave up on life.

When my dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down Bandit lifted his head and looked at my mom standing beside the doctor’s exam table. He looked her right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.

“Thank you. I want it to end,” thought Bandit.

“That was hard,” thought my mom, and after we buried Bandit next to Gracie she said she couldn’t have any more dogs.

But, four years later, when I was graduating from high school, my younger brother told all of us, including mom, that he wanted a dog. “Everyone else has dogs, I want a dog, too,” he said. Our neighbor’s Lab down the street had played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there were a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone we knew took one, including my brother, which meant mom took one.

Dad named him Willie Mays, after the baseball player Willie Mays. My dad had been a big fan back in the day. He grew up to be almost like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Willie Mays liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.

He was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.

Whenever we left our shoes or backpacks in the mudroom by mistake Willie Mays would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and the telephone wires on the outside of the house. Once our phones were out for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave that up. But, the garage was still sided in wood, not aluminum. He tore one side of it off, as far up as he could reach, and chewed the wood to shreds.

“Seriously, I was only outside for five minutes,” was the look he gave my dad when dad confronted him about it.

Willie Mays calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in our neighborhood had ever heard of.

On his second Christmas Eve in our house we left him in a cage for the night while we went to Midnight Mass in the old Slovenian neighborhood on Cleveland’s south side with my mom’s family. The next day after Christmas Day breakfast we drove home. Coming up the long driveway I heard mom ask why the windows were all open.

They weren’t actually open. They just looked open because most of the curtains in the house were gone.

Willie Mays was in the kitchen and beyond happy to see us when we walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked up. Dad rattled the door and inspected the sides. He couldn’t understand how Willie Mays had escaped. Willie Mays never said because dogs never talk about themselves.

The curtains had been torn down and lay in tatters on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms our beds were set beneath windows and Willie Mays had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and rip them down.

“He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” said dad when he realized Willie Mays hadn’t ripped all the curtains apart, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.

Dad bought padlocks to secure the cage door so Willie Mays couldn’t escape again when we had to cage him, but he did, over and over, like a canine Houdini, no matter how many padlocks dad put on the gaps. There was never a scratch on Willie Mays, either. But, by then he was calming down, and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.

When Willie Mays came of age dad began taking him hunting. Labs are bred to be bird dogs, but Willie Mays wasn’t the best retriever. He loved running around outdoors, and chasing anything that moved, but was terrified of water. Labs are water dogs, but even giving him a bath was titanic. He whined and cowered when we rinsed him off with the hose. Dad felt like it was like Bandit all over again.

We found out years later what had happened. Our next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever we were away the first summer we had Willie Mays, not liking his barking in his own backyard doghouse, would spray him in the face with our garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked she snuck into our yard and sprayed him full in the face again.

After we found out my brothers and I, when Emma Jean was in Las Vegas with her husband, broke every window in her station wagon with baseball bats. We left her husband’s car alone.

At home Willie Mays was our guard dog. He mistrusted most other dogs. We always knew when one was on the loose thanks to him. He mistrusted strangers, too. If a stranger came by our house he watched them, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a big dog in the house. He knew the difference between walking past us and walking towards us.

One summer a dog living two doors down began barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Someone finally called the police and complained, saying it was our dog. We were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then our families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up our drive Willie Mays sat in the living room window watching him. He didn’t bark once. When the animal warden came to the front door and rang the bell Willie Mays went to the door and waited. Mom answered the door. Willie Mays looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him. He told mom about the complaint that had been made.

“But, that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I rang the bell and he’s not barking now.”

We never could unravel among ourselves the mystery of how for once in his life Willie Mays knew to be quiet the only day the animal warden ever came to our house.

My dogs to this day don’t get doggie treats because of Willie Mays, who was crazy for them. Whenever we gave him a treat he would want another one right away, and more of them for days and days. When we let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, looking for the next one.

After graduating from college I moved away from home, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional boyfriend and weekends when Willie Mays visited. I’m immature and I know better than anybody I’m selfish. I’ve always had a busy life, but at a certain point I wanted somebody to be with me day-to-day. I missed having a dog in the house.

Willie Mays was growing old. He was getting more grayish than black and having a hard time walking. I think I knew he was dying. It was a kind of transition for me, so I decided to go to the big animal shelter in Cleveland and find a puppy.

I grew up with mutts. No matter what breed we dressed them up as, Gracie was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Willie Mays was a mutt. My family didn’t pay for dogs. I knew that, but my brothers had forgotten. My younger brother bought a brown and white Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then he had spent thousands of dollars on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly doggie psychologist sessions at who-knows-what an hour.

My older brother and his wife bought a long-legged black and brown Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. Wishbone read books and dressed up like Shakespeare, but Hank had epilepsy. Whenever he had seizures he twitched and lost all his motor skills.

Hank was high-strung and drove Willie Mays crazy whenever my brother brought him along for a visit. Hank would go at him like a puppy even though Willie Mays was already a certain age and it pissed him off. “You’re in time out,” I would point at Hank, shoving him down on his haunches. ”Just sit here and don’t move.” I never really liked that dog.

Hank could never be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. I baby-sat him while I was in college, which was how I paid for my textbooks. His medication came with an eyedropper and we all had to be careful because the potion could burn human skin.

I never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat.

I always knew when he was having a seizure because he would get stuck behind the sofa where there was dead-end at one end. Something would happen in his Jack Russell brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He would just freeze until somebody found him. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, my sister-in-law told me when Hank died five years after they got him that he cost more than their first child.

I wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since I was a middle school teacher, and had summers to myself. Knowing I probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, I knew it would be best to get one when school ended. I wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make my training it easier.

I called the Cleveland SPCA Pet Shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day my vacation started. They told me they had 150 new puppies just in from Tennessee. When I got there at four-thirty in the afternoon there were only three left. Everyone wants puppies and everyone snatches them up like snapping your fingers. Everybody wants to start with a new dog. I get that.

I had been to other small shelters on my own west side of town, but all they had were full-grown Labs other people had given up on. I lived on the second floor of a Polish double in Lakewood and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. I couldn’t have an 60 or 70 pound already older dog on the second floor. I had to be realistic.

Walking up and down rows of stacked cages in an animal shelter is the saddest, most horrible experience. There are signs on the cages. ‘My name is Kimmy. I am a 7-year-old Labrador. I love playing with children.’ Wanting to take them all home is heartbreaking. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death’s row and you can only pardon one of them.

The three dogs leftover at the SPCA Pet Shelter were two Boxers and a Lab mix. I didn’t know much about Boxers, and three other women were looking at both of them, anyway, so I turned my attention to the Lab.

Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If they look at you and show submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t they might be headstrong and you probably want to reconsider. I put the 8-week-old Lab on her back. I held her down even though she wasn’t trying to go anywhere. She looked everywhere except up at me.

But, I loved the white on her chest, and her one white paw, and that she was missing her tail. I thought it was a unique personality trait, even though I could tell when I felt it that it was a deformity.

“I’ll take the Lab,” I told the attendant at the counter.

“Are you sure?” he said. “Did you see her tail? I just want you to know her three brothers and sisters were adopted first thing this morning and she’s been sitting here until now.” That broke my heart. Because of the tail she didn’t have she might not make it. That’s why I took her, finally, because of her missing tail.

I called her Fenway because the Boston Red Sox were my favorite baseball team and the year before had beaten the Cardinals in the World Series.

When I went back to work in the fall I enrolled Fenway at Pawsitive Influence, a cage-free doggie day care. It took more than a week, but she warmed up to it. After the first month she got excited every time we drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway and Merl Park. A friend of mine worked at the doggie day care. He paid special attention to Fenway, clipping her toenails, training her to sit and heel, and keeping me filled in on her progress.

I don’t know what got into me, but after a year I began to believe she needed a brother. I went back to the animal shelter. It was in August and it was hot, humid, and sticky. The shelter smelled like underarms and hot dog water. I thought to myself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted. I’ll look at the older ones. But, most of them were too big for me, until I came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage below them by himself was a medium-sized black Lab mutt.

“No one’s going to look at me, and that’s OK, la, la, la,” he seemed to be thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him. .

“Can I walk him,” I asked, and got a leash.

He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised me because he was a stray, and not even a common stray. He had been trucked up to Ohio from Tennessee, where there are lots of strays and kill shelters, but he was different. Even though things had gone wrong for him, he hadn’t gone wrong with them.

“We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. He has scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” said a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen.

Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed, and when dewclaws are ripped off they get infected, so dog fighters surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than a few weeks old because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.

He was missing part of his right ear, the inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was just over a year old and a big wide smile was pasted on his face as I walked him around the perimeter of the cages.

“I’ll take him,” I said.

“He’s got some Pit Bull in him.”

“That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

He was timid around Fenway for weeks. I called him Grounder so he and Fenway would get along on their baseball field, but they got along, anyway. I stopped taking Fenway to the doggie day care since they had each other.

I bought long leashes for them and took them for walks in the Rocky River Metropark. Off the leash they ran into the river and all that fall had a ball. But, whenever another dog came near him, Grounder would get aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although when I looked at him I could see he was shaking. I didn’t go to the Lakewood Dog Park so they wouldn’t be around too many other dogs for me to worry about.

I was walking them down Roycroft one day when I overheard talk on a front porch, talk about Grounder. “I think he’s a mini-Doberman Pinscher,” a man hissed, as though Grounder was a supersized rat. “Dude, you don’t know dogs, at all,” I said. I’ve had three vets look at Grounder and all three said they weren’t sure about him. I could have him genetically tested, but that’s not going to happen. I need a new vacuum cleaner before I pay for anything like that.

Grounder is black, but looks more like a Pit Bull than a Lab. When he pins his ears back his face goes sleek. I get nervous about it because many people are anti-Pit Bull. Fenway is Miss Little Independent, but Grounder wants attention. He doesn’t bite anybody. “Please just rub my head, that’s all I’m asking.”

Both of my dogs love ice cream. I’m not the mom who says, “No ice cream.” We always have it in the house. If they knew how to break into my fridge at night, they would.

Whenever I take them to the neighborhood cone shack they’re ready to lick it, life and ice cream. We drive to the DQ on Detroit Road in my drop top Chrysler 200. Anyone can be in a sour mood on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days for my dogs. Fenway and Grounder vault into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard when we’re ready to go.

Fenway and Grounder like to have people around them and get excited when their friends come over. They freaking love it. They will bark and warn me about strangers, but the people they love, they get beyond excited and are all over the place.

My brother used to have a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one my dad had for Willie Mays the escape artist. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt bad.”

My mutts are my kids. I don’t necessarily want kids of my own, so they are my little things that I love and spoil. They don’t pay rent and I have to feed them and clean up after them. I know some people say they’re just dogs. I don’t care what they say. I make sure I come home after work every day so they’re not by themselves. I try to walk them two and three times a day, in the morning, after work, and before bedtime. I could have read the collected works of Tolstoy and become a wise woman given the amount of time I’ve spent walking my dogs.

I make sure to always be home for Fenway and Grounder, or take them with me whenever I have to leave home. I never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, because in a kennel they would be put into a cage for twelve hours a day.

My dogs couldn’t handle that. I know they couldn’t. Neither could I.

Down On Hog’s Back

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It was wet more than dry the front end of summer and too muddy to ride the single tracks in the Metropark valley. Instead, I rode my Specialized on the all-purpose trail and left my Schwinn hanging in the garage. The Schwinn was outfitted for dirt, with front shocks and a low stem. The Specialized was fitted with road tires, knobby on the outside and rolling on the flat side, and a higher stem. It made for faster riding on asphalt.

It made for faster riding down Hog’s Back, too, which is the entryway off Riverside Drive into the Rocky River valley. Hog’s Back is a steep two-lane road more than a half-mile long. Hunched forward on my Specialized I usually topped 40 going downhill, unless I feathered the brakes.

I rode alone most of the summer because Skip was getting married. He said he didn’t have time to get on his bike anymore and go riding, anyway. “I don’t want him going down that crazy hill and falling,” said his fiancée, Tammy. She was down on Hog’s Back.

By July it was hot, in the high 80s and the weather was heavy and humid. I could have ridden the single tracks, since they had dried up, but it was overcast the last week of July, and I was still riding the all-purpose trail. On the Thursday that week, after getting home from work, I rode twelve miles out, almost all the way to Berea. It was on the way back that I passed a tall man on a blue hybrid bike.

Inside a few minutes he was behind me, drafting, and when I slowed for a car at the crossroad to the entrance of the Little Met golf course, he slipped ahead when the car paused to let us go by. The trail goes up a long hill there and I finally caught the blue bike at the top.

I tucked in behind him and we rode fast to where the trail zigzags through some curves, and to where he got sloppy. He tried to pass two young women on blades, except on an inside-out curve, and when a biker rode up on the other side he had to go wide on the grass. At the end of the curve a ditch stretches from the trail to the Valley Parkway and he had to backtrack. I waited for him. “Nice pace,” he said later when I peeled off to go back up Hogsback, while he kept going.

Going up Hog’s Back is a slog, which is what I did, slog up the long hill.

The next day Skip and I rode downtown. His bride-to-be was still good with him riding on city streets, but not farther on into the east side ghettos. “I don’t want him getting killed in Fairfax,” said Tammy. He said he had a haircut to go to at Planet 10, which was downtown, anyway. On the way from Lakewood we rode through Ohio City to Church Street. Skip showed me the old church whose rectory had been converted into a recording studio.

“That’s where we’re having our reception,” he said. Tammy was a sometime singer and actress. We spun our bikes south on West 25th Street, crossed the bridge to Jacobs Field, and rode to the Warehouse District.

Skip pushed his bike into Planet 10’s lobby and I pushed off. On my way back home, stopping at a narrow strip of grass at the base of the Bob Hope Bridge, I saw a fat, black woman easing herself down onto the ground in front of an RTA sign. She looked up at me and smiled. I looked at her and returned the smile.

I was standing outside our garage when Skip and Tammy pulled up in her baby blue Ford Tempo. “Jerry screwed up Skip’s appointment,” she said. “He’s so unprofessional.” She was mad. “That’s not how we do business at Artistiques.”

She was a nail technician at a hair salon when she wasn’t acting.

It was mid-week when I sped back down Hog’s Back and got on the dirt trails that branch off from the Puritas Road stables. They were dry where they were level, but they weren’t much level. There were patches and mud bogs all along the tracks. I had to ford a small stream where a big tree had fallen. I jumped some baby stumps, fell down once, and when I got home turned on the outdoor hose and sprayed cold water over my head.

Vera and I drove out to Tammy’s bridal shower that weekend, at her friend’s house in Avon Lake, who was a broad-faced woman married to an Englishman who was a barge pilot. It was steamy even though it was just barely August. I was sprawled on a leather sofa in the air-conditioned family room when I noticed a small furry dog on the coffee table. I couldn’t tell if it was a stuffed toy or a dog sleeping soundly. When I reached for it the pushed-in face snapped at my fingers.

“You better watch out,” said Tammy’s friend. “He’s blind, so he bites at everything.”

I went for a ride after we got home and dusk was turning to darkness by the time I got back. As I got off my bike Snapper, our orange Maine Coon, came running onto the driveway from our neighbor’s backyard. Just when I was ready to close the garage door, Skip pulled into the driveway. Snapper ran to the back of our backyard.

“Can I borrow your lawn mower?” he asked.

“Sure.”

Skip had Katie, Tammy’s four-year-old, with him. I picked her up, held her upside down, and spun her by her heels in tight circles around me. When we were done we talked about a nickname for her, finally settling on Skate. She waved goodbye through the window of the car as Skip pulled out.

By mid-August cumulus clouds dotted the sky and the weather was cooler than it had been. I rode my Schwinn down Hog’s Back and got off the all-purpose trail at Mastick Woods, swerving onto the dirt tracks there. I rode the track for three miles and then double-backed on the horse trail. As I did I noticed someone had come up behind me.

When he passed me I saw he was a young man wearing a Nike baseball cap instead of a helmet and riding a good-looking Trek. He was riding fast, and even though I followed him as best I could, I couldn’t catch him until he slowed suddenly. I saw why when I pulled up. Horses were coming around a bend.

He banked to our right and rode into the trees toward the river and the single tracks on the bank. I followed him, bumping over ruts and logs and through thick underbrush, but soon lost sight of him. I got on the track, then the horse trail, and then the all-purpose trail. I pushed it up the hill running along Big Met, then down, and as I came into the clear the Trek jumped onto the trail ahead of me. He was riding fast. We sped through a copse, then out to the baseball field where he widened the gap between us by jumping a wood guardrail, something I couldn’t do like he did.

I thought I might catch him on the Detroit Road climb out of the valley, except he climbed so fast I lost more ground. I finally caught up to him when he stopped at a traffic light on Riverside. We talked while I gulped air. He had known I was behind him. “I wasn’t planning on doing much today, but it ended up being a fun ride,” he said.

A week before their wedding Skip called and said Jo was out as their maid of honor. She is Tammy’s ex-friend-to-be who arranged the blind date of Tammy and Skip and who wrangled a promise that she would be maid of honor if the date led to anything. She’s also a travel agent who they gave a check to for their Cancun honeymoon. But, the travel agency called and said they were getting anxious about the payment, since they hadn’t gotten it, yet.

When Skip telephoned Jo she said she hadn’t gotten the check from Tammy, but when Tammy heard that she got on the phone with Jo. There was a loud, long argument and Jo later somehow found the payment. The honeymoon is back on, but Tammy is searching for another maid of honor.

The next day Skip called again.

“You going riding?” he asked.

“I’m just out the door,” I said.

“I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”

I was stretching in the back yard when he rode up the driveway.

“Tammy’s sick,” he said.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Cramps. I think it’s nerves,” he said.

“Let’s go,” I said.

The sky was overcast and gusts from the southwest pushed at us sideways as we rode on Riverside along the rim of the valley. We glided down Hog’s Back and rode single tracks. The dirt was dry and deep rutted and I rode fast. My back wheel went in dangerous directions a few times. Skip held back. He didn’t want to crash.

“A little out of control there,” Skip said when we crossed over to a horse path and relaxed.

“Maybe a little,” I said.

“I want to make it to the altar in one piece,” he said.

“Getting married is risky business,” I said. “Look at you and Tammy. You were married once and it lasted for 56 days. Tammy’s been married twice and she’s got two kids by two different fathers. You might want to throw yourself down every downhill between now and the wedding day. It would make sense.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Coming out of the park on a smooth stretch Skip slowed down when I wasn’t looking, I got tangled in his rear tire, and went over. I skinned my knee and banged my helmet, but we were going too slow for much else to happen.

The morning of Skip’s wedding, while Vera went shopping for a gift, I rode Hog’s Back into the valley. I felt good, but a crosswind pushed me around, and I got tired. The bike felt sloppy, too. Going home I pushed hard because I didn’t want to be late for the wedding. When I finally got home I found out I had been riding on a nearly flat back tire.

Skip’s wedding went off without a hitch, but during the reception, when Vera was congratulating him, he made the shape of a handgun with his fingers pressed to his temple.

The next day, while Vera made dinner, I drove to Skip’s house with the gift we had forgotten to take to the reception. Tammy was lounging in the living room in a thick, white bathrobe and Skate was in her pj’s. While Skip and I talked in the kitchen doorway, Tammy’s old Irish setter limped up to me and licked the scrape on my knee.

By the beginning of October the park was blond and brown and maple red. I rode the all-purpose trail every other day, One Sunday morning Vera and I had breakfast at the Borderline and went for a walk on the horse trails south of the Puritas stables. That night, while I was watching the Cleveland Indians play the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS, Skip called.

“I won’t be able to ride anymore,” he said.

“Tammy?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s my shoulder.”

I had seen how he couldn’t lift his right arm above his shoulder without some difficulty.

“After any ride,” he said, “roots or no bumpy roots, my shoulder’s in a lot of pain. I’ve been taking Voltaren, but my doctor told me it’s rubbing bone on bone. There’s almost no cartilage left. He said sometime in the next couple of years, depending on how fast the deterioration goes, I’ll need a replacement shoulder.”

“Oh, man!” I said.

The last Saturday of the month was the last day of the year I rode down Hog’s Back into the park. I was adjusting the strap on my helmet when a gang of neighborhood kids came walking up with rakes, brooms, and a wagon. They asked if they could rake our yard for $2.00. I said yes. They started pushing wet leaves into messy piles. The biggest of the girls walked up to me.

“Mister, can I ask you something?” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

“That small boy,” she said pointing to a small boy. “He’s having a potty emergency.”

I rang the doorbell for Vera and she started laughing coming outside, saying she would take care of the boy and supervise the raking. “Go before it gets dark,” she said. The days had gotten short.

I rode away.

Where Hog’s Back intersects with the Valley Parkway I cut across a grassy field and jumped onto a single track. The path was littered with big brown leaves. I came around a quick bend and the branches of a fallen tree alongside the track jabbed at my face. I swerved to the right and pulled on the brakes. I jumped off the bike when the tree I was going to run into became the tree I ran into. I landed on my feet and the bike was all right when I lifted it up.

On the way home I rode on the Parkway, hugging the shoulder’s white line. A big man in a white van blew his horn behind me and when he went past almost shrugged me off the road. I cursed under my breath. At home I hosed the Schwinn off and hung it up in the garage. I checked the tires. They looked good, although I knew that hanging there for the next five months all the air would slowly seep out of them.

I knew I would have to pump them up again in April before going back down on Hog’s Back again.

Esme, Beforehand Then Later

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There’s not much here. Nikki is up to her ears in after-wedding plans and I am all adjusted to my new little life. It is not so bad, except for my job, of course. There is something about dumb jobs and me.

Brent has taken an intern position for the summer in Milwaukee at the Miller Brewing Company. It is exciting for him. He will be in Marketing. I’ve heard Milwaukee is beautiful, so we shall see. It is five hours from here, so my guess is we will be spending many, many weekends in Chicago.

Is there anything new with you and Vera?

Irene filled me in on the brouhaha. Skip is a bastard! My God, stealing a $10 thousand dollar order, that is insane! I would go nuts on him, and Kenny, too. He’s supposed to step in. He is the Sales Manager, or is he that just because he’s Cathy’s brother? Let me see…

Doesn’t Skip have a conscience? Or did he skip out on that? I would rest easy knowing that Tammy is probably soaking him for that money as we speak! Soaking him so she can soak up the blended bourbon!

Poor Brian. He shouldn’t have done it because he’s not that smart, and it was all such crappy small change, anyway. Isn’t he Carol’s brother and Kenny’s brother-in-law? That is strange, since he was part of the clan. So much incest! But, he deserves to steal, as I see it. Cathy and Dave should be put behind bars for what they pay people. It is a crime. I totally bet if someone did an investigation on their efficiencies and pay scale it would be interesting, and you all would get raises, except for Maggie.

She shouldn’t be able to afford a freaky Lexus. I can’t afford anything!

After working for a big company it is easy to see how self-serving Cathy and Dave were. I am now in that situation again at a small company. It is funny how things go in a circle.

I am a Marketing Manager at Keter. We manufacture cabinets and shelves. I hate it here. My superiors are Israeli. They are in Israel and do not care what I recommend or ask for. I have no action. My boss hates me. That is funny. I do probably twice as much as I did at your place, but not a quarter as much as I did at Glidden.

Glidden has turned out to be the boyfriend that dumped me and the one that I can’t seem to get over. I wish I could go home. It’s too bad, really.

Brent and I are watching a movie tonight with Brie and grapes and wine. We are having some alone time. I had an interview yesterday for a job I know I won’t get and Brent is stressing about school and the National Guard. It makes both of us rather large assholes. So, tonight we have to be nice to each other.

I woke up the other day feeling something bad was going to happen. I had two flights to North Carolina and some cab rides, but my first flight was delayed which made me miss my other flight. Nothing went right that day.

Brent left last week for Milwaukee. So far he loves it, so that is promising. They seem to be schmoozing him by taking him to baseball games and fishing. We will see if this turns into a job offer. Milwaukee wouldn’t be so bad. I hear it is kind of cool there.

I am bored out of my mind. Brent is gone. At least I am in school and I have one friend. School is hard for me now, not like when I was in school before. It takes up a lot of time, probably because there’s a math class. I got an A last semester, so that is good.

I am working on managerial accounting. I wonder if I know more than Carol, yet?

Hehehehe…

Later!

I accidentally kicked a blind woman’s cane out of her hand. I was crossing a plaza going to a class at school. There were a bunch of smokers and one of them flicked his butt away. What a disgusting habit! I didn’t see the blind lady because I looked at the butt, but then there she was, crossing my path.

Before I knew it my leg hit her cane and it went flying. She stopped dead, but before I could do anything, one of the smokers rushed over to the cane and gave it back to the empty-handed blind woman. The smoker gave me a dirty look on top of everything. Sometimes things are so unfair.

I quit my job, which is a really bad idea financially, but a great idea mentally. My boss was a prick, and that is being kind and sweet about the situation.

He had me doing his Fed-xing and presentations. I wasn’t allowed to think on my own, just do his administrative work. Brent and I are both students now. I am halfway through my MBA and I think my time will be better spent finishing school than being some a-hole’s secretary.

We are going to leave here next summer. I will be done with school. It’s been good, but a little slow. All my knowledge is being called upon and the bits and pieces I forget are coming back to kick me in the butt. We will be in a great amount of debt when I’m done, but at least I will be done.

We are planning on going to Jamaica in a few weeks for a few weeks. I can’t wait.

We went to Jamaica! We stayed in a resort called Sans Souci, which means without cares. I got four free spa treatments and free manicures and free pedicures and it was all we could eat and drink. We did a ton of eating and drinking. Brent scuba’d and we went kayaking. We had a blast. I hadn’t a care.

It now seems like a way distant memory.

Brent got an offer letter from the Miller Brewing Company, which means we will officially not be living in my mother’s basement next year, as previously feared. I have a few recruiters that have told me all I have to do is tell them the location and they will find me a job. It will most likely be Milwaukee, since that is where Miller is, but hopefully Chicago, or even Columbus. We will know by January.

I have made a few of my recruiters look really good. I will have to call on some favors soon.

Later!

Yes, we’ll see you and Vera this weekend. Although that restaurant looks amazing, is there somewhere else, maybe a little more in our student price range that we could go to? I don’t think we can afford that. I am such a loser, I know. Maybe something more casual? Sorry for sounding like a cheap ass. It is really hard to be so poor. We are not good at it!

So Vera gave you shit about saying something about my hair. I don’t care. I love gossip. So much is going on here and none of it is good. I am going to tell you for the mere fact I hope it doesn’t come true.

Brent got orders to go back to Afghanistan two weeks after he was supposed to start at Millers. It’s OK financially because Millers supports this kind of stuff and he will have his job after twelve months of bullshit! Doesn’t that suck! Things always suck!

Anyway, on a lighter note, I only have ten more weeks of class. Brent was done yesterday and graduated with high honors. I am so irritated that I can’t stop telling everybody about our stupid situation. My professors think I’m nuts.

Things have been getting away from me. School is so boring and I have sunburn. I wish we were going to be in a house this fall, but probably not. I keep waiting for one of those days when I will have excellent news.

We did get a dog. He’s a boxer puppy and his name is George. He’s to keep me entertained while Brent is away.

We still don’t know when exactly he will be leaving for Stansville. In the meantime he is working at Millers. My trying to find a job is a total pain. I think I might have to open up my search soon, maybe around Chicago. It’s more land to possibly employ me.

As of next month Brent will officially belong AGAIN to the Army. He is being officially deployed to Afghanistan – AAARRGGHH – for one year after his seven weeks of training. This comes as a slight shock to us as he submitted his official paperwork to leave the National Guard in February. He is the victim of BAD paperwork!

We have done everything we can to get this changed, but are about 98% sure he is going, as the Guard does not seem at all concerned that his paperwork was submitted twelve weeks before his notice to be deployed. They do not have any type of precedence policy.

I am sad – read that as irate. This is not what we had envisioned for this year. However, my plan is the same. I am still going to move to Milwaukee, unless anyone knows of a contract position in Cleveland lasting one year – just checking. Our plan is to still get a house. I will work and volunteer, and most likely get certified to teach spinning classes, to keep me busy.

I will also be attending some sort of therapy weekly, meaning read trips to the spa, to keep me sane.

Brent’s been gone for months and I’m going to my mom’s for X-mess. I need yoga, bad, but my gym doesn’t offer it when I can make it. It’s really the way to go, cleanses the body of toxins, and keeps you sane. Maybe I will try to find a class, even though working out seems to be the one thing I keep pushing off to do other things, like spend time with my dog.

It’s unbelievable that it’s another New Year already. Thanks for dinner, seeing you and Vera was great, and thanks for the marshmallows and the pictures of the woman humping a dragon and then having little dragon babies. They are sure to be conversation pieces.

My mom and I were baffled for a minute. Mom thought I should cover up the nipples. I am too immature for these pictures, but I think you knew that.

Hehehehe…

The marshmallows were awesome. Later!

When Esme Got Married

Stephanie and Joe's wedding at Casa Golondrinas in La Manzanilla, Mexico.

Check this out. It’s just the New Year now and I lost my job.

They re-organized the place and I got let go. I am really bitter since I left there for here. The good news is a headhunter has to help me and I got three months pay to enjoy myself. I’ve gone to Hawaii. Yup, it’s January and I’m here for more than a month and Brent’s coming next week.

Later!

San Francisco is very fun, little bars and clubs, like the movies, even the ratty neighborhoods, like the Mission. I am not complaining until I run out of money. I have two months.

Hehehehe…

I have sent out some resumes and talked about a job in Milwaukee. It’s the same as I was doing, except it’s a start-up. I’ll be back home at the end of February and then I am moving out. I’ll move in with my mother for a while, at least until Brent is back.

I am finally moving! I will be leaving for Indianapolis on Sunday. This week is flying by! There is so much to do. No, I do not have a job. We will be living with Brent’s sister for a month until we are on our own. If you feel like visiting Hoosierville, I think they did well in basketball this year.

Don’t forget me.

Things are crazy here. Moving is a huge pain. Brent and I got a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment right on the highway, which is good since it looks like I might be working in Indianapolis, which is an hour away. Not having a job still blows. I am lucky I haven’t gotten fatter, or anything like that. I am definitely less high maintenance than I was before.

Things in the wedding area are about finished, only a few details to nail down. Are you guys planning on coming?

I miss you all very much. I know I have been crappy, but now that I am settled in Indianapolis I will be much better. If you get any calls, please say nice things about me. I have been interviewing, so hopefully something will break, more on that later. Please send gossip. I am dying out here. Must…have…gossip!

Brent is good, although he is missing both Hawaii and the Army, but not Afghanistan so much. He is not working either, yet, because he is in the National Guard and has to go away for two weeks next Saturday. I am sorry Bob and Jan aren’t happy. That place was too negative for me. Maggie and Cathy? Yikes! How do you stand it? I saw John at a bar and he was friendly. I always liked him the most out of that dysfunctional clan. Speaking of dysfunctional, how is Skip? Brent’s brother-in-law displays similar personality traits.

Blah!

Hey! What is going on? I haven’t seen you guys in sooo long! How has everything been? I still have no job. It totally freaks me out. There are some prospects, so hopefully not much longer for this crap. Brent might be called up for that homeland stuff. We really want him to because you get paid to guard an airport and he wouldn’t even have to do that! He would just organize the people. Then he could get state tuition for Indiana U. Wedding invitations are going out soon. Keep your eyes peeled!

Later!

Things are busy, although I am not sure how. I am sending out wedding invitations any day now. I hope you can come. I think it will be fun. If not, it is always free food.

All of our church requirements are done and we have registered for gifts. That sucks the fun out of shopping. The final fitting for my dress is next Friday. I will be in town then, but Brent’s mom will be here, too. Brent will be in Montana fishing, so I can’t really hang out. How are the mean people you work for? Bob said Cathy had another baby. Yuck. None for me, thanks!

See you soon!

What is going on? Did you get the wedding invitation? Are you planning on coming? I hope so. We’d love to see you guys there. Hopefully you can make it. I hope there aren’t any trade shows that weekend. I still have no job. I am a loser. Things are getting better, though, I think.

Is anything new going on? Keep in touch!

Hey! Didn’t you and Vera get the wedding invitation? You ARE coming, right? I am not going to be home much until the wedding, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing you there. Thanks for the massage salon gift. It works for me as long as Dick isn’t giving it!

Hehehehe…

I am evil, I know. Make sure you send back your response card soon! I am so excited to see you guys!

OK! I am finally employed!

I am going to be a marketing manager for a company called Keter Plastics. They make the same kind of things that Rubbermaid makes. They are in Costco, Walmart, and Lowes. Their latest venture is with Black and Decker and I will be working a lot with them. Yippee! I have no idea when I start and a limited idea of the money involved, but I do not think I care anymore. Yippee! It was my second choice job. My first choice was Delta Faucet, but their new department won’t begin until late October and I can’t wait that long! Now I can shop!

I am so excited!

Hey! My mom got your reply today! I am so glad you guys are coming. I am getting so excited. Make sure you come to the church. I think it will be nice. We are going to have a place for everyone to go for appetizers between the church and the reception. Medina is full of little coffee shops and pubs. It should be a fun day.

Yippee!

I am glad to see you and Vera are coming to the wedding. I think I am going to stop into your work on Thursday to say hi. I haven’t seen you in ages and I will be in the area picking up my dress from Coming Attractions in Lorain. OK, it is not exactly the area. Anyhow, do you guys want to adopt Brent? We decided his family sucks and he is looking for a new family. You don’t have any kids and he is potty-trained for the most part. He just needs a better family. OK, so all families suck, but his is really bad. His sister isn’t coming to the wedding because it might stress out her babies. She is the first woman to ever have a baby.

Sense the sarcasm!

So, think about adopting Brent.

Oh my! I am so busy. Blah! I am planning on stopping in to say hi sometime before the wedding. I need to know how everything is. Is Maggie still in the front office? Can you unlock the back door for me? I can’t believe it is July and two weeks away. I am dying! How fun!

Hey, would it be possible for me to stop in and say hello on Thursday at your work? I am coming home Wednesday night and would like to say hi to everyone before all the chaos of the wedding. Tell Bob and Jan, but don’t say anything to Cathy and Maggie.

I come in next Wednesday night, so basically Thursday morning. I have an appointment to get waxed, ouch, at 9 AM. At least I am hoping to have it then.

Later!

Whoever is in the mood to hang out at Friday’s in Strongsville on Thursday, let me know. I have a ton of wedding high maintenance girl stuff to do that day, like getting my ass waxed. Oh, wait, I mean my back. I will need a drink by the end of the night, and a smoke, and some fattening food. Let me know if you are interested so I can call ahead and get a table. If no one wants to go I will be embarrassed, but that is OK, too. You already have to see me this weekend!

Holy shit, you are busy. You are flying back from the Chicago trade show for my wedding? That is hilarious. I am sorry. You didn’t have to! That is so cool, though. I hope it is not too much of a pain for you to come back. At least it is a cheap flight. Cathy is probably so annoyed!

So, all the mean people have lots of babies. Maggie is driving a Lexus, oh, God! Where do I start the jokes? She is not the type. You can’t have a Lexus and look like you are from the 80s. I want to rip on Maggie so bad. Too easy, though… I don’t want to bring on that bad karma. When is Maggie having a brat of her own? Cathy and Dave suck. She is mean, he is oblivious, but at least he is nice. He made that place tolerable.

My life is nuts. We are going to Chicago next weekend for our “honeymoon.” We only have two days. We are staying at the Crowne Plaza, the same one we all stayed at for the trade show. Remember that place with the velvety drapes? You all got rooms with Jacuzzi’s, except me. I am so excited! I really appreciate you coming home to see us get married.

I can’t wait to see you guys. I really appreciate you ditching that fishy trade show to see me get hitched. That is so great! See you on Saturday. I am leaving work now.

My friends totally loved you. I hope you and Vera had a good time. I was so busy I didn’t get to talk to you more. It is sooo hard to do anything you actually want to do when there are a hundred people who want to be around you. Usually no one wants to be around me!

Hehehehe…

Thank you so much for coming. I hope it was worth the trip!

Did you and Vera have fun at the wedding? My friends thought you were hilarious. I wish someone would come to this cornfield. How is work? When are you leaving there? Is it any day now? Kristin told me she told you how miserable I was when I worked there. Nothing like airing dirty laundry! Sorry if you had to listen.

We went house shopping this weekend. Now I am sick. I don’t think the two are related. It’s wet and cold here. Houses are so fun to look at.

Not much is going on here. Brent is getting great grades at Indiana. He is in the top third of his class and getting recruited from companies like Proctor and Gamble, Miller Brewing, his favorite, and Kraft. He is happy.

Me, on the other hand, I am hating life. I am one of those people who let one thing get them down. I hate my job and do just about nothing all day, which gives me plenty of time to think about how much I hate my job. I have made a few friends, which makes things easier. My best friend is a lawyer and she hates her job, too, so we laugh a lot and make fun of Hoosierville. I am taking classes again, for my MBA, after a year hiatus, seeing as I had no income for most of the year.

Hopefully it will get me out of this hellish job.

Married life is fun. Brent and I do a lot of poor people things together. We have fun inventing things to do, although we are much better at it when we have money. Nikki, my old roommate and best friend, you met her a few times, is getting married right after the New Year, or maybe in the spring, That is the next thing I am looking forward to. I am excited to be the one not getting married.

I am getting pretty adjusted to my new little life.

Is there anything new with you?

Moving Day

Riggs Picture #1

It wasn’t until the movers took the legs off the dining room table and hauled it and the six chairs out that I realized the two town paintings in their glossy walnut frames were still on the wall. I stood in a pool of damp late October sunlight at the other end of the room. I hadn’t noticed Lucy had painted the wall a light green color until the room was empty.

A Stacey’s Moving and Storage truck was on the street. The trailer and cab were longer than the width of my house. One of the Montreuil’s and three other men were methodically tramping up and down a ramp into and out of the back of the truck. Sugar maple and white cedar leaves stuck to the soles of their boots.

Autumn was stripping the trees so that the neighborhood, concealed all summer, was becoming clear.

I turned away from the window and faced the paintings. I had seen them every day for years, but hadn’t looked at them for a long time.

The painting on the left was of the fishing docks on the Niagara River. Two men spin nets while a third slumps on the ground, his back against a two-story shingled building. He sits with his legs splayed out while a dog squats beside him. Fort Niagara is on top of the cliff face across the river, below a leaden gray and white streaked sky.

The other painting was of Art’s Coffee Shop on Main Street, or what is now called Queen Street. The pregnant woman wearing a red hat, leaning back as she walks, and carrying what would be twins is Betty White. Nineteen years later Lucy White and I got married.

The large purple dog trailing a small boy on a tricycle in the center of the painting is an Airedale, as are the other four dogs in the painting, including the one peeing on a lamppost. You probably couldn’t paint that from real life anymore. Niagara-on-the-Lake has by-laws about it.

One night my new neighbor reminded me it was against the law for a dog to bark more than twenty minutes after 8 PM.

“Your dog’s been barking for twenty two minutes,” she said over the phone.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was out and I haven’t had a chance to walk him, yet.”

She hung up.

“What the hell?” I thought, the dog’s lead in my hand.

I have a Jack Russell terrier. He misses me when I go out in the evening. The dog burns himself up whenever he spots a rat in Paradise Grove Park behind the Festival Theater. He always used to get what he was after, but he’s grown older and slower, and sometimes the rats get away.

The fisheries closed when Lake Ontario became polluted and there was too much DDT in the water. Algae blooms got so thick waves couldn’t break. It’s better now. There are even walleye to be had, although they don’t reproduce anymore. They have to be restocked year after year.

Lake sturgeon used to be the King of Fish. Then they were hunted down. They were even burned as fuel to power steamboats. No one’s allowed to try for lake sturgeon anymore, even if someone could miraculously find one.

Art’s Coffee Shop is gone, too, and it’s now called Cork’s Wine Bar and Eatery. They serve Hawaiian Meatballs and Beef Panini’s for lunch. A John MacDonald is what needs to be in your wallet for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee.

My father got the paintings in trade from Bruce Rigg, the town doctor, the same year he got our dining room set. After he died and I inherited the house they stayed where they were on the wall where they’d always hung. We only ever took them down the year we tore off the wallpaper and whenever we repainted the room.

Bruce Rigg was our family doctor. My father was a mason and worked on Dr. Rigg’s office building on Davy Street whenever repairs were needed. It had been the high school gymnasium until after World War Two, when there weren’t any more children in town. Bruce Rigg and his brother Jackson bought the building and converted it into a medical office. They were the town doctors for the next forty-some years.

In 1957 another high school had to be built since there were suddenly so many soon-to-be teenagers in town. That one closed four years ago. I remember its mascot was a Trojan with a Jay Leno chin and a blue plumed helmet. When the Parliament Oak elementary school closes next year there won’t be any schools left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

At the front of the Art’s Coffee Shop painting two boys wrestle like spitfires, a boy in a green shirt rides a tricycle, a girl in a red jumpsuit pushes a wheel and paddle on a stick, and a woman with a yellow stroller carrying a round-faced toddler stops to talk to Betty White.

Whenever there were sleet storms my sister and I would tie our shoes around our necks and skate down Main Street to school.

The trustees and the town debated for months about Parliament Oak. Everyone said the school was essential for the Old Town’s vitality. The Lord Mayor argued no one appreciated the growth anticipated for the town. One of the parents cried she was flabbergasted by the decision. But, there are barely any children left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

No one’s setting their houses on fire at night.

By the time the movers took the dining room table out all the rooms were vacant. I had emptied the bookcases, packed my clothes, and taken everything off the walls, except the paintings, the day before. It was when everything else was gone that the paintings stood out, like a sudden, sharp image in a dream.

The summer before my sister was born my father drove the more than two hundred kilometers to Owen Sound and came back with our dining room set and a china cabinet. He drove a Chevy pick-up he had hired from Tommy May’s Livery Stable. The truck had a wood slat deck, so none of the furniture got scratched, although the Jack Russell’s we always had in the house left their mark.

My father lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, went to school, and worked here his whole life, but he was born in Lancashire. He and my uncles and aunts were all born there. Whenever she was seven months along my grandmother went back to Britain to her mother to have the baby.

She took a train from Buffalo to New York City and sailed on the White Star ocean liner Cedric. She went back and forth five times in third class. She never got seasick and was on the Cedric when it collided with another ship in Morcombe Bay and sank it. The last time she sailed to Lancashire she died in childbirth and my grandfather had to take the boat to bring the baby back.

I was one of the first children delivered at the new Niagara-on-the-Lake Hospital on Wellington Street when it opened in 1953, replacing the old cottage hospital. Dr. Rigg was the attending doctor, although my father said he hardly did anything. My mother said she did all the hard work.

That’s all changed. No one works hard here anymore. The growth industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake is lawn care. Every time I look out my window some guy goes by in a pick-up with a lawn mower in the back. They cut the grass for people who are too lazy to cut their own.

No one is born or dies here, either.

They tore down the general hospital outside St. Catherine’s and built a mammoth, new one. Now all the small local hospitals are closing in its wake. Ours is turning off its lights at year’s end and children won’t be born in Niagara-on-the-Lake anymore.

They say it makes economic sense, but I don’t think it matters. Once you get involved with anything under the rule of no one, like the National Health Service, you’re not going to save even a dime. That’s a given.

When there were still docks in town Dr. Rigg painted the river and the fishermen on weekends. He and his artist colony friends had social parties at Bill Richardson’s, the local coal yard owner. Mary Jones wore a cape and Betty Lane, the bohemian of the group, played a fiddle.

They lived here all their lives.

Almost no one in Niagara-on-the-Lake now has been here long. They’re all from somewhere else. The sub-divisions are full of them. At first I noticed their high-end cars, like Audis and Mercedes. I thought it was the tourists. Everyone in town used to drive Chevy’s and Pontiacs.

But, they weren’t tourists. They were living here. And they’re all retired, getting a pension from somebody or other, most of the time the government. That’s why there are no children anymore and the schools are all closing.

Last year the veteran’s house on the corner, a story-and-a-half, like mine, was sold. They built a little porch around it, which was nice, but it was something anyone could have done on a weekend. Seven or eight years ago the house would have sold for a hundred grand.

They sold it for four hundred and thirty thousand dollars.

Nobody who actually lives here, and was in their right mind, would pay that kind of money for that house.

The out-of-towner who bought it was a single woman. She had a self-satisfied spinsterish look on her face when I met her. She was a retired schoolteacher from Toronto who had sold her house, that she bought for fifty thousand 35 years ago, for nine hundred thousand, and come to Niagara-on-the Lake.

She drove a metallic blue Audi A4 and had plenty of money left over.

A few years from now she’ll probably look like a seer.

“Oh, yes, I only paid $430,000.000 for my house. The man next door might sell you his for God knows what…”

When you live here, with one bathroom, in a small, funny house you can’t swing a cat in, and someone offers you a half million for it, you take it. Very few people are left in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They’ve all sold out and moved to St. Catherine’s, where they can get a real house for half the price.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has become, like Oakville, one of the beautiful places to live. It’s nostalgic, the houses have been tarted up, and it’s close to Toronto. Everybody used to know everybody. But, now nobody knows anybody. It’s a wealthy ghetto, although no one calls it a ghetto.

People used to work here, but all the manufacturing jobs have left. General Motors is still in St. Catherine’s, but even GM is just a shadow of what it used to be.

The federal provincial government backstopped all the pensions when it went under. It’s a gravy train if you’re on the train.

The woman from St. Catherine’s who cleaned my house once a month is retired from General Motors. She was there for twenty-five years. She’s figured out carpal tunnel. She doesn’t have it, but she got a check for $30,000.00 for having it, and she gets a monthly check, to boot, for the rest of her life.

Her first, second, and third husbands all worked for GM. The one she’s getting rid of now worked for GM, too, and they double-dip everything from the drug store to eyeglasses.

We had our own government here, in the town, once, but then it was amalgamated, and the town lost control. The barbarians in the township took over. Everybody asked what was going on, but that was it. It was all down hill from there.

A town planner from Scarborough was sent to Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was a big man with cornflower blue eyes in a black suit. He stood on the corner of Mississauga and Queen Streets twenty years ago and said, “When you look left, that’s going to be residential. When you look right, that’s going to be commercial.“

That would have been news to lot of people in town.

Scarberia is what we called Scarborough. Niagara-on-the-Lake has the oldest, largest collection of Georgian architecture in Canada and the man from Toronto was taking over. No one with any sense believed it. But, what he had in mind is what it is today.

When the bureaucrats take over there will be problems. It’s hard making sense of anything. Everything gets very commercial. There used to be fine big trees on Queen Street, their branches almost touching over the street. They’ve slowly been cutting them all down so they can grow annuals in the sidewalk flowerbeds. They think the tourists like it.

It’s a terrible idea.

There were once a block-or-two of shops, but now the whole street is commercial, although not so you can buy baby food, drop your shoes off to be repaired, or get a haircut.

There were always a few bed and breakfasts in town. Widows and orphans ran them. They couldn’t afford the taxes on their houses, so they let a room, or two. Now it’s an industry. They’re all out-of-towners running the bed and breakfasts, retired teachers and bureaucrats from Toronto with time and money on their hands.

They walk around the town, strolling here and there with a dog on a leash because it makes it seem like they’re doing something, which is the same thing they were doing when they were working.

They watch television during the day and drink at night, and after a few years give up and someone else takes their place.

The next step was to turn houses into guest cottages. They aren’t widows and orphans and they don’t live there. They rent the house and live somewhere else. There are people in the house and no one’s got a clue who they are. I mow my lawn and every few weeks I notice I’ve got new neighbors.

The Chinese own the hotels. They had to get their money out of Hong Kong in the 1990s before the Communists got their hands on it, and so they brought some of it here. They own the Queen’s Landing, the Oban Inn, the Prince of Wales, and all the other big places.

When the Queen’s Royal Hotel was still open, before the bust, the Prince of Wales was a run-down dump. It was a weasely small thing on the corner. Now the town is booming and it’s got more than a hundred rooms at $300.00 a night.

You can’t smoke in any of the rooms, either, no matter what you pay. You can’t smoke anywhere indoors. Anyone can smoke in his own house, but you can’t smoke in your own car if there is a child in the car. Or, even if a child is going to be in the car.

My wife asked me to stop smoking seven-or-eight years. I promised her I would, and I did. I didn’t mind the gruesome pictures on the packages, but the price got to be too much. The hell with it; I wasn’t a big-time smoker, anyway. She never smoked, but she got cancer, somehow, and died two years ago.

She died in the same hospital on Wellington Street she was born in.

The stores that sell cigarettes don’t let you see them anymore. They’re behind a curtain, the way they used to hide alcohol. The liquor stores would give you a pencil and a piece of paper. You wrote down the number of what you wanted, brandy or whiskey, handed it to them, and the clerk went into the back room to get it for you.

Cigarettes used to be good and booze was bad. Now cigarettes are bad and booze is good. There are more than eighty wineries in Niagara. Drugs used to be bad, too, but lately greenhouses have gone up on the escarpment growing pot. They’re going to make it profitable and then they’re going to tax it.

Niagara-on-the-Lake isn’t really a town anymore. It’s a group of people who show up here once in a while. It looks pretty because there’s so much money floating around, but it’s more a show town than anything else.

The Shaw theaters could be anywhere. They just happen to be in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most of the theater people live here part-time, and even those who have houses aren’t here for half the year. They go somewhere else to work. Old Town is a very quiet village in the winter. The actors and musicians and everybody used to rent in the town, but they can’t afford to anymore. It’s one of their big problems, finding accommodations for all the show people.

Trains used to bring summer visitors from Buffalo and Toronto up the tracks on King Street. They stayed for a few weeks or a month and the trains went back loaded with fruit. Now the summer people come for a few days, walk up and down Queen Street shopping, go to dinner, see a play, and tramp to the wineries.

“It’s such a cute little quaint town and everyone is so nice.”

Then they drive away down the parkway back to the USA or up Mississauga Street to the QEW, racing past one sub-division after the other.

“Are you taking those pictures?” Emil Montreuil asked, coming up behind me.

“You bet,” I said, taking them off the wall. “I can’t leave them here.”

“Do you want me to bubble wrap them?”

“No, I’ll just take them this way.”

I climbed up into the moving truck with Emil and laid the paintings side-by-side face up on the wide recessed dash. I lowered the passenger side window for my Jack Russell. The dog leaned on the armrest barking at our retired schoolteacher neighbor as she crossed the street. She looked away as she went up her walk.

The low watery sky, the tops of the thinning trees, and dark house rooftops reflected off the glass of the two paintings as we slowly rolled from one stop sign to the next stop sign on Mary Street. We turned away from the town on Mississauga Street. When it became Niagara Stone Road Emil picked up speed past the big wineries.

As we passed the Niagara District Airport he reached into his jacket pocket.

“Smoke?” he asked, gesturing with a pack of Export A’s.

In the painting of the fishermen spinning nets the man with his hands jammed into his pockets and sitting on the ground, leaning on a wall, his legs splayed out and his dog beside him, is smoking a pipe.

“What the hell, sure,” I said.