Object Strange and High
The morning Clarabel is to fly to Des Moines for the biggest dog show of the season, the kitchen smells of slow baking liver dog treats. Arthur, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper horoscope, sees a two-star day for Libras: delay investments, avoid excitement, spend the evening quietly with a loved one, expect the unexpected. And Arthur, a Libra, looking out of the kitchen window sees the unexpected, huge, hideous, outrageous, right across the road, on the freshly mown grass of the empty lot opposite his house.
The lot belongs to a rich old widow living in Cluny Heights and is somehow protected legally from development or any other vandalism. Occasionally an old man on a tractor mows the grass, and Arthur collects the clippings in his wheel barrow to mulch his vegetables and roses; he looks out on the lot every day, he walks on the lot, he picks wild flowers for Clarabel on the lot. He thinks of the lot as his, and never so much as this moment, now that the thing that was not there last night is casting its shadow on the grass.
At his first shout, Clarabel, dressed in her loosely belted black and pink kimono, her wet hair wrapped in a towel, runs downstairs. She finds him leaning out of the kitchen window as if there has been a street accident or some such occurrence. "A lump of concrete? Is that all?" she says.
"They can't do this," Arthur says.
"They?" Clarabel takes the cookie sheets out of the oven and tests the liver tidbits with a skewer. She tells him not to be so silly. If he minds so much, he should call the owners, make a complaint. She doesn't want to hear about it. She pours the tidbits into a Tupperware container. There are more important things, she says, like coming upstairs to help her choose her clothes. No one does it like he does, she tells him.
In the bedroom, Arthur finds the ironing board up, dresses, pants, and underwear hanging, draped, dropped, scattered everywhere. Wisps of pink, beige, cream. In her vanity case Clarabel has already packed the streak-proof makeup that lasts under the television lights. Arthur feels superfluous, and the concrete lump sits on his mind like a cataract on the eye.
"Don't be silly," says Clarabel. Again.
The way Clarabel says "silly" makes his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth. She holds up this garment and that while he nods or shakes his head. Will the turquoise pants suit look good running along beside Florissant T-Bone Pookins, a honey-colored American cocker spaniel, best of show in seven states, soon to be eight? Arthur manages to say that it's too bright and frilly. Wear the Perry Ellis beige and apricot crepe with a jogging bra underneath. He hasn't lost his touch, she tells him in her kinder, softer voice. They make love right then and there on the bed strewn with flat heeled shoes and silky garments with the faint scent of baked liver in the air.
Tonight, in a huge Des Moines convention center, Clarabel will be arranging the crating, feeding, and bathing of several gorgeous dogs from the Chien-Do-Mor Kennels. Dressed in a rubber apron, she will bathe and powder Florissant T-Bone Pookins, clip the hairs between his toes, remove imaginary dirt from his ears with a Q-Tip. And right before Florissant T-Bone Pookins' first class, she will take the plastic bags off his ears, feather his coat with a baby brush, and clean his teeth with a special toothbrush and paste.
Arthur has been through this performance hundreds of times since he and Clarabel were married seven years ago and spent much of their honeymoon watching the Westminster Dog Show on a motel TV in Laguna Beach. Later, they borrowed Merlin, a basset/springer spaniel mix, from Arthur's friend Brody Walpole; Clarabel would try out various outfits and run up and down in the backyard with Merlin on a leash, while Arthur video taped her from every possible angle.
Arthur knows all about clothes that donít "run well", garments that bind and shift when a person runs with a dog, all about static cling, about not wearing black if one is showing a black dog, not wearing orange, chartreuse, or ochre if one is showing a yellow labrador, not wearing high heels, loose straps, or fussy trimmings. He has heard about Clarabel's friend Leila, a handler from Maine, who fell over her chow during Best in Show in San Francisco, under the gaze of five-thousand dog lovers and the television cameras. Clarabel has never fallen.
Arthur loves Clarabel most as she looked when he first saw her, at the Sunflower Counties Show, in the Sporting Dogs class, showing a pale tan saluki called Kirlian Chasseur Goldenrod of Cedar Heights. She wore an apricot pleated skirt, tan silk blouse, and no brassiere. She bounced gloriously towards Arthur, in perfect flow and harmony with the dog, her hair the color of the dog's. He saw her take a liver treat from her pocket, bite it in half and reward the animal, saw her take a hairbrush from her belt to smooth out imaginary tangles in its long, silky coat.
Just before driving Clarabel and her suitcase, two garment bags, and vanity case to the airport, Arthur forces himself to walk across the road to inspect the thing more closely, braces himself to deal with it in one way or another. It is a chunk of cement about the size of a small refrigerator, studded all over with large pebbles, with part of an iron girder embedded in it. He walks around it, touches its surface cautiously. Then, as two small boys on tricycles stop and gape at him, he clutches the girder and pulls, swings on it with all his weight. Whoever left it there--and what kind of a mind would do such a thing?--must have pried, craned, manhandled it to this spot. And with such wicked stealth. Clarabel calls to him from the bedroom window, asks him what he's doing, says they should leave if she's to make her flight and could he please carry her luggage downstairs. Arthur closes his eyes and places his hand on his hot forehead.
That night, as Arthur sits on the front porch noticing how the sodium street lights bring out in relief different contours and shadows, making the thing more sinister than before, Clarabel telephones from Des Moines as she promised. Arthur can hear the background sounds of echo-amplified barking and yipping of massed dogs, the chat of owners and groomers, and the P.A. system announcements. He can almost smell the stench of baby powder, disinfectant, and dog waste.
The champion is off his food, Clarabel says, it must have been the journey. She has sent out to the hotel restaurant for some broiled liver and warm milk, but she expects the Pook will throw up as he usually does, and she has towels ready. She tells Arthur about the handlers that are there, the New York judges who don't speak to anyone, the inferior dogs who will be competing against the Pook and the other Chien-Do-Mor dogs. Arthur is silent when she has finished. Clarabel asks whether he is still brooding about that thing. When he doesn't reply, she says after the weekend he can find out who is responsible. Someone will have to be responsible. It's just a lump of cement, she says, one doesn't have to look at it.
Arthur tries not to. In his study, he bends his mind to reading the brainstorm lists his freshman English composition students have written for a descriptive essay. Some are written in the pudgy cursive hand of the pep squad types, others are written in soft smudged pencil scrawl or Bic Banana, a few in faded computer printout dot matrix, while only two or three cover more than half a page. Most are like Dwayne Schultz's, five or six scrawled items, a week's required work crammed into five minutes just before the class begins. His brainstorm for an essay about his childhood reads: house, field, stone, creek, barn, bird dog. Arthur thinks of Dwayne, gum-chewing minimalist thinker that he is, lounging in his back row seat, wearing a Mets cap on backwards. Despair seeps from Arthur's head down through his whole body, sapping his energy, making him slightly nauseous.
By Sunday, Arthur has seen the thing that ought not to be there in several moods: tinged pink in the sunset, misted pearl and mysterious at dawn, clearly defined with strong shadows at high noon, and steaming under a brief rainstorm. When he goes out of his front door to pick up the newspaper, he finds Brody Lee walking Merlin around the lump, all gray and offensive once more. Merlin lifts his leg against it, has a good sniff around the base, but all Brody can say is, "My!" He wants to know if it has been there long, and he just hasn't noticed it before. He tends not to notice things, even big things, when losing money is on his mind. His mutual fund has taken a nosedive, twenty-five points since close of business last Friday, and a company in which he has invested heavily is being investigated by the FDA. Things could not look worse, says Brody.
Arthur hardly hears what Brody is telling him. How does a person go about getting rid of such an item, he asks. Brody drags his mind from the financial page, looks at the object again. He asks why Arthur minds so much since it's just a chunk of cement and not even on his property. Sure, it looks bad, but Arthur will get used to it. Never, says Arthur. Well, Brodie suggests, try telling the city that it's a health hazard, that rats have been seen. Big rats always get their attention at City Hall, mutter something about filth and disease, thatíll do the trick.
Brody then says he has to be going; he has a lecture on the International Monetary Fund to prepare. Merlin has one last sniff as though there really are rats, and Arthur scratches Merlin behind the ears. Brody enquires after Clarabel's health, then asks why she and Arthur don't have a dog of their own. Arthur says he's often wondered the same thing.
That evening, the setting sun burnishes the lump with a pinkish glow. It almost seems to glisten as if crammed with pyrites or obsidian. Arthur closes his eyes and looks again. There it is, still the same ugly concrete form that he wants removed. Several small boys are playing around it, swinging monkey-style along the steel strut. Arthur watches them for a while as they shout and push each other, thinking how easy it would be for one of them to fall and poke his eye out. Then the parents would hire lawyers to dig for information, for culprits, someone to nail. They might even lay the blame at his door; after all, the object sits on a piece of land that Arthur has been in the habit of thinking of as his. There will be fearful accusations, ugly courtroom scenes, and heads will roll. He feels like a victim already, can see the newspaper headlines, feel the axe fall. He thinks of Clarabel saying "silly," tells himself that it's just a small thing, and he must deal with it.
Later, Clarabel calls from Des Moines to report that the papillon, the miniature schnauzer, and the bichon frise did not win in their classes, and a rival bichon frise handler from Kansas brought with her a bigger cheering section for her dog than anyone else. Clarabel is very depressed because a Wisconsin judge chose another bichon frise. Clarabel can't talk long; she must break the news to the owners of the Chien-Do-Mor Kennels, who do not take failure lightly. She doesn't want to talk about Brody Lee's investments, or Dwayne Schultz, or Arthur's victimization-to-come. She has to go and sit with T-Bone Pookins, who's having an anxiety attack, and nothing else matters.
Arthur lets her go. He feels empty but sits down with the telephone book to prepare himself for tomorrow's campaign.
He can almost hear some spokesman from the city saying, What Lump of Cement? Or, Yes It Is Ours. Now, What Was Your Question Again? He imagines what he will say, what they will say, the scenarios that will unfold, the states of impasse. Trying to be calm, he looks out of the window at the object, soft, silvery, even benign under the sodium lights, with the nighthawks swooping and diving above it. He flips through the government listings in the telephone book for the numbers he needs.
The next morning at five o'clock, before the newspaper has been delivered, Arthur is awakened. He gets out of bed and goes to the window, tripping over shoes and garments that Clarabel has left on the bedroom floor. A van with the college name emblazoned on the side has pulled up alongside the curb next to the thing, that heap of conglomerate, still dimly there in the grey light. Nothing happens for a few minutes; then, out jumps an assistant coach of the football team, a man whom Arthur knows by sight, followed by eleven football players, dressed in their practice uniforms with towels tucked into their waistbands and carrying their battered helmets under their arms. At the whistle blast, the players put on their helmets and form two lines on either side of the stone. Arthur tries to wake himself up, but he feels the wind on his face, the hard window sill beneath his elbows and knows he is awake. The players carry out several offensive and defensive maneuvers, breathing hard, uttering grunts and muted war cries, tackling, evading, smashing into each other, falling and running, all of this around the lump of cement, as if it's part of a game plan. After about an hour, the coach blows his whistle, the squad, spent and sweaty, climb back into the van which drives off in the direction of the college. Arthur stays at the window for a long time, as the early sunlight steals along the girder, illuminating inch by inch the concrete mass. He decides not to tell anyone about this happening, not Brody, not Clarabel.
A spokesperson for the law firm that administers the widow's property tells Arthur that they know nothing about a fragment of a highway bridge being dumped on their client's property--but, yes, they'll look into it. They thank Arthur for his interest as though his question has been about something quite different and hang up. Feeling foolish, Arthur tries the City offices and is passed from department to department, until a woman tells him that no demolition of building projects is happening anywhere closer than six miles from Arthur's street, referring to the main arterial road north of the city which has been lined with orange barrels for two years. No one would take the trouble to lift a large piece of bridge abutment, transport it six miles, and dump it opposite Arthur's house, the clerk says patiently, would they? The department has several workers off with the flu, but she will send someone out to look at the lump as soon as possible. She takes Arthur's name and address in case they need to contact him. Arthur feels he's being humored. When he tries to get transferred to Heavy Object Pick Up, the switchboard cuts him off. The second time he makes contact, he only gets as far as the words Cement and Steel and About the Size of a Very Large Wheelbarrow before a dull voice tells him that it is not the kind of object they deal with, they only do sofas, butane tanks, and trampolines; he should try Public Works. When he tries Public Works, there's no reply. We shall, we shall, we shall not be moved, thinks Arthur.
Clarabel doesn't call him as she promised she would after showing Florissant T-Bone Pookins in the Best of Breed class. In fact, Arthur doesn't hear from her until Wednesday midnight. She tells him she's decided to change her ticket and go to Washington a little early, so she can do a bit of shopping. There have been some changes in the dog shipping schedule for the next show, she says. She sounds a little vague. The Pomeranian, Littlechap Nonpareil Way-to-Go, did not make best of class. No treats for the pom, says Arthur. Poor little beggar, he thinks, life as Littlechap knows it is over. No more cushioned carriers and baby powder baths. He will probably be demoted to household pet, may even get his paws dirty and bring in dead mice, be a real dog. Clarabel asks Arthur if he's been listening. He says he has, but all he can think about is that the football squad now practice around the thing every morning, grey ghosts in the pre-dawn haze, and other people come to sketch and watercolor the object, and the students play their violins or flutes in its shade. And how frail old Mrs. Hartop tottered slowly up to the thing, steadied herself, let go of her walker, and embraced that cement ugliness; she leaned her head on its jagged, crumbling face for a long time, and then straightened up and walked away, a little shaky but quite sure, holding the walker in one hand. How luxuriant green grass has sprung up around the thing in the four days that Clarabel has been away, and wild flowers, species that Arthur has never seen before, have been blooming although there's only been the one rainstorm. Clarabel, who would never understand, tells Arthur that she can tell his mind seems to be on other things and she hangs up.
Arthur does think about Clarabel not coming home between the two dog shows. She's always come home before, he tells Brody, even if it's only a day's turnaround. Perhaps Grand Champion Florissant T-Bone Pookins cannot have his routine upset now with the biggest show of his career coming up, the Washington show. He only performs well if he sleeps on Clarabel's hotel bed, Arthur knows that. When Arthur, too, sleeps, his dreams are full of floating chunks of cement and steel. Monstrous groomed, powdered dogs and a tattered football player who looks like Dwayne Schultz drive him out of the dog show, condemn him to household pet status. Clarabel is not in Arthur's dream.
When Arthur wakes up, it's four-thirty, and his sheets are damp with sweat. The street lamp which is on the corner of the lot opposite usually shines into the bedroom if the curtains are drawn, but it seems much brighter than usual, as though there is a convergence of lamp and moon. A mass of winged insects are flying around in the bluish light, beating themselves against it, and the nighthawks are silhouetted against the sky. The thing is washed in silver light which touches its dents and studs, making it quite unlike the object he loathes. Then someone out there moves into the light. Arthur steps behind the curtain and reaches for his binoculars, which he has been keeping close at hand. He sees that it is Dwayne Schultz, wearing nothing more than a Mets cap on backwards and a pair of high-tops. In the back of his mind, Arthur knows that dancing naked in a residential area in the middle of the night must be illegal, but he finds himself quite incapable of finding the telephone and calling the police. Dwayne Schultz does a kind of Tai Chi, so slowly that he almost seems to stop moving, or moves as if in a trance. This is what Arthur remembers.
He wakes up to the sound of a heavy vehicle and voices outside. He lies there, his eyes closed, thinking that he really did see Dwayne Schultz, naked in the moonlight, and remembering that he woke up again later and there was no Dwayne Schultz; in his place, doing a Greek kind of dance, gently twirling, bending, and swooping, waving gauze scarves, were five girls, as naked as Dwight Schultz had been, their supple bodies lit by first light. He thought he recognized one of them as a girl who is in his night class, a quiet person who usually wears pastel shirtwaist dresses and loafers, and never utters a word. She had a garland of flowers on her head and a tattoo butterfly on her thigh. He tries hard to remember her name and forget how pretty she looked, or how supple her body was.
The old wrecker truck, covered with peeling and rusted red and blue patches of paint and rust, is mounted with a winch and chain. Two man are standing in deep discussion near the object, which glistens with dew, every now and then gesturing towards it. The younger of the two men drags a stout chain to the stone, and the other helps him to attach it under the iron bar. Arthur crosses the road to ask them if they're from the widow's estate management company. Well, then, who? asks Arthur. The men look at each other. They tell him to stand back. From the City, then? Arthur says. One of them grunts, the other says, Yeah, thatís right, the City. The men look at each other again; then the older man climbs into the cab of the truck and starts the engine, a noisy thing. As the truck moves off slowly, the chain pulls taut. There is a straining pause, revving, and grinding; the man on the ground shouts; then the chain snaps. After the truck jerks to a stand-still, the driver jumps down from the cab. Both men inspect the winch machinery, the broken link, and shake their heads. The stone hasn't moved, not a millimeter. After more discussion, the men climb into the cab of the truck, not giving Arthur a look, and drive away. Hidden in the grass around the base of the stone, He finds several crystals, a beaded suede bag containing he knows not what, and a blue stone scarab. Arthur stands for a while next to the thing. He leans against it. We shall not be moved, he hums.
Brody arrives at 9 o'clock to walk to the college with Arthur as he usually does. Has Arthur heard about the football team, winning their first game in a year and a half, he asks. Fifty-eight nothing against Tulsa, the best team in the play-offs. Brody says everyone's talking about it, even made the national news. Sports reporters are calling it a miracle. And just at the moment when the state board of regents is about to abolish the football program to save money. To Arthur, football players are confused scholar athletes whose essays he doesn't look forward to, the ones he slips to the bottom of the pile. He tells Brody about the men and the snapped chain. Brody can't understand why since the stone doesn't look that big. Arthur says the stone is that big. Arthur also doesn't understand why any of these things are happening, any more than he understands why Dwayne Schultz's depressing six-word brainstorm turned into an essay that is almost publishable, full of fresh, original imagery, about his grandmother's home in Great Bend.
Clarabel doesn't call Thursday or Friday. It's not until Saturday morning that Arthur realizes that he hasn't given her or the Pook any thought for days. People continue to visit the stone, people Arthur has never seen before. Runners stretch their legs and backs on the stone, scholars sit and eat their sandwiches or write, children play, and dogs sleep in its shade. Some people hold hands and sit in silence or play music on guitars, dulcimers, and drums. Others kneel and pray, roll out rugs and salaam in front of the thing, or embrace it. One day, the old man mows the field, but he leaves an uncut circle around the object. He will not talk to Arthur but this is nothing new. Despite the food that Arthur finds in front of the stone, carved fruit, spun sugar baskets, sushi, and other decorative dishes that people seem to like to leave there, he has never seen a single rat. Baltimore Orioles, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, and eastern king birds perch on the steel strut, but there's not a rat to be seen. He has half a mind to call the city and report rats anyway, but somehow he never does.
At two o'clock Saturday morning, an airless, silent morning when there is no wind, he hears something that isn't just the buzz of the sodium lamp or the late summer crickets. It's the small, thin sound of a man's voice droning a mantra. Through the bedroom window he sees the stone, mysterious, shimmering, almost lovely in the same spill of silver light. There, to the right of the stone, seated in the lotus position is a man, his face in shadow. He's naked, and completely still. Then Arthur sees there is a black and white dog lying at his feet. Merlin. By Brody's right knee, a thin skein of smoke rises from a tiny pinpoint of glowing light. Arthur never would have believed that Brody owned any incense. He wants to call to Brody, but Brody's eyes are closed. Arthur watches for half an hour, an hour perhaps, but Brody never moves, and Arthur will not break the spell.
The next day, when Brody is exercising Merlin around the lot as he often does, he says nothing to Arthur about the incident, talks instead of the sudden upswing in investment figures, and the last minute withdrawal of FDA scrutiny, quite unexpected, says Brody. Impatient, Arthur points out that the thing is still there. So it is, says Brody, so it is. Well. He does not let Merlin lift his leg on the object, Arthur notices.
The Washington dog show is televised on Saturday evening and Arthur settles in for an evening of Clarabel, he hopes, on camera most of the time. Arthur sits up as she first appears in her toy dog class, showing the fairy-like papillon, Ditchling Dagobert Boniface III. As she always does, Clarabel stands out among the other handlers, poised, the most beautiful, the best dressed. It's her turn before the judge; she walks at first, then runs as gracefully as anyone can run with a dog. Arthur is seeing her as if for the first time, swooping, turning, then standing among the planters of chrysanthemums, biting off pieces of liver reward between her teeth to feed to the tiny bouncing dog, and, with a special smile on her lips, brushing its silky coat with the tiny brush she keeps tucked in her belt.
It's not until the sporting dog class that Arthur understands. Florissant T-Bone Pookins has been brushed and burnished until his coat glows, and he glides along on his neat feathered paws, like a Russian folk dancer. He wins a hum of excited approval and loud applause when he performs, his turns and response perfection, his eyes bright and intelligent.
The camera is still on Clarabel when she looks across at another dog handler, one whom Arthur does not know, the man showing a German pointer. Arthur sees the special smile, the look between them, the attitude of their bodies, as they stand side by side with their dogs in the finalists' line up before the judge. To Arthur it's like a blow between the eyes, ice cubes in the stomach. The man is one of those East Coast types, well-groomed hair, slightly greying at the temples, healthy reddish complexion, straight nose. He wears a double-vented dark pinstriped suit, British style, but Arthur is delighted to see that it doesn't "run well;" he holds his jacket closed with one hand, but it flaps and strains, and his hair unravels in a satisfactory way. The man completes his final turn with the pointer, and moves back in line next to Clarabel. Again the look that's more, almost a caress, a lingering kiss.
The judge, after a long thoughtful pause, hands the blue ribbon to the handler of Mount Vernon Attagirl Sapphire III, a black labrador from Colorado. There's cheering, a shout of applause, and flashbulb explosions. The Florissant T-Bone Pookins is second, the pointer third. All attention is on the labrador, and Arthur can no longer see Clarabel.
Arthur switches off the television, then all the lights in the house. He walks out of the front door, and crosses the street to the object. He sits down in the grass beside it, hunched over his knees and stays there for a long time. He wishes he could be turned to stone. Then he stands, grabs the post with both hands, and wrenches it with all his strength, thinking about Clarabel, about the pin-striped son-of-a-bitch, about the special smile and the look. A rage like nothing he has ever known, an explosion shudders through his whole being. He shoves himself against the concrete with all his might, rocking back and forth, until the thing moves very slightly. Arthur can hear his sinews crack, the roar in his ears; he feels the pain in his chest as his feet plough into the turf. He yanks the steel bar so hard it crushes his hands, until he manages to withdraw it slowly, almost soundlessly from the conglomerate. He looks at the bar, which he grips with both hands, in amazement, then throws it on the road, where it clangs and bounces; then he drags the rest of the heap across the grass to the gutter. His head feels as though it is bursting, centipedes and whorls of light splash and pulse inside his tightly closed eyelids. He can almost believe that he's dreaming again, but there are the moths, night hawks, the moon, the catalpa trees; he feels the damp wind on his face, the burn of his hands. He falls to his knees right there in the gutter, his arms raised above his head.
Arthur looks around quickly to see if anyone is there. Merlin is lying on his stomach, his front paws crossed, his gentle basset eyes watching him. Across the field someone is coming towards him, moving slowly into the silver light, a woman in a pale dress. And just before she reaches him, he remembers her name. Sally. From inside the house comes the faint sound of the telephone ringing and ringing.