Cousin Al

At Bobby’s funeral, he told everyone what I said, which was “Al, you clean up good.” He told me not to tell his wife he wore the yellow alligator boots.

I don’t have enough stories about my own family, so I tell stories about Al, who isn’t my cousin, but my husband’s. It isn’t that we don’t have stories, but that no one wrote them down and what do you do when you have a photo of your grandfather as a child of the last wife of his father, among a cluster of relatives and the story of a farm, a snowstorm, a doctor, his horse and sleigh and a jealous husband who shoots his wife, your ancestor? The ancestor survives, he goes to prison. No details, even the names are lost. You make stuff up or you steal another family.

I knew Al through my husband’s stories before I knew Al. There was a VW bug, a pirogue, four dogs, two hunting rifles and December on the Bayou Gauche. There were no paddles. What would you expect two young men to do? Al said cut a bamboo cane and they could pole across. Six foot of cane only goes far enough for the dogs to catch the scent of the hunt on the other side, far enough to drift with no way forward or back. The dogs went forward without the boat until they hit cold water, then they tried to go back. Bob grabbed one over the bow and that’s when it all went down. Al yelled for him to grab the guns. From there to the bottom, a physics lesson – how fast can one sink twelve feet in a coat with a box of shotgun shells in each pocket, rubber boots and a gun in either hand? How fast can one shuck all of the above at thirty- three degrees before he drowns? When he reached the surface, Al was holding to the boat, hair dry, the dogs waiting on shore.

They stripped to their boxers and while all the drivers zipping by on the highway watched, they hoisted and strapped the pirogue to the roof of the car. Later that day, Al came back and dove for the guns. He said they stood, barrels down, two sentinels in the muck.


The Cattle Prod

I have two brothers and a sister. Between the four of us we have been married seven times. My younger brother has never married. I have two daughters, my parents’ only grandchildren. My father has always placed great importance on patrilineal descent. My parents did their part, then it all kind of went to hell. My father once said that arranged marriages might have worked out better. This from the man who couldn’t get our names straight. My younger brother grew up thinking his name was Bouncer. The dog didn’t care what he was called, he came to food, a beagle that weighed fifty pounds, thanks to my father whose favorite saying was “do as I say, not as I do.” We listened. He fed the dog openly, we slipped food under the table.

My father has meticulously saved pictures of every spouse, every wedding. It isn’t nostalgia. It’s the pictographic version of the cattle prod I once found in the front yard when I was married to my second husband. At the time I said it was a sign from God, intended for him. Even my husband, an Olympian in Procrastination, laughed and agreed.

Decades passed before I understood much about moving cattle or the subtler uses of electric shock. Anyone who has trained a herding dog knows it isn’t just about moving but where and how, about knowing when to remain still, how to control the impulse to rush through the gate, that sometimes the application of shock is used as a last resort to prevent mistakes like getting kicked in the head.

Two years ago, Dad showed “the wedding collection” to his granddaughters.

Warning: sappy dog story


My younger daughter thought it was the saddest thing when she learned at forty-five I had never owned a dog of my own. Nevertheless, I told her when she asked if we could volunteer at the local animal shelter that volunteering did  not mean we would take anything home – we already had one faux dog (hers) and two cats.

I am excellent at ignoring the hand that has written on the wall, at arm wrestling fate to a dead loss. She was the second dog I saw, less than ten minutes after we arrived. She was in an outside pen, running laps. I said to the director, that if I were to have a dog (not that I would), it would be a dog just like her. The director looked at me like I had lost my mind. Sunflower, she said, was the most obnoxious, hyperactive dog of the seventy they had.

I am almost embarrassed to say, not that that dog came home with me because everyone knows how the story ends, but that she came home after five months of thrice weekly visits. I think Sunflower knew where home would be after the first few visits, just as she knew within a week of coming home which shoes were made for walking. Ultimately, I think she brought me home and not the other way round.

When I first got her, she was afraid of hats and men and belt buckles. She was afraid of most other dogs and most people. I was told by vets and dog trainers that she would turn on me and would have to be destroyed by the time she was two. She was a year old by the time she came home. One of the first things I learned was that a herding dog needs a job to do.  Well, you always start with name, sit, lie down, come. We would go for a walk and she was afraid of everything – kids yelling, lawn mowers, other dogs barking, so, I would tell her to sit and she would be reassured because that was something she could do. Sit down, look around, think about it, go on. And so our walks went. Then I learned how to get her to come by running away from her. What a metaphor for, well, just about everything in life.

Three months after I got her, we demonstrated her level of dangerousness to my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She shook their hands, crawled on command, turned in clockwise and counter clockwise circles and of course, heeled and sat up and begged for cookies. She is so dangerous today that my younger daughter has just adopted a mixed breed herding dog of her own. Against my advice, she picked the most hyperactive and difficult pup in the bunch. Two days and he already knows his name. Yes, I am a proud grandma. Just wait until I have human grandchildren.

The last time I wasn’t even moving

I was standing, thigh deep, mid stream and hadn’t noticed I had slowly been sinking. You can’t lift your feet and leave your waders behind to compensate for changes in balance and so, when my arm and fly rod went back, the rest of me just naturally followed. The next time the mistake was wading through fast water. I could say I thought it was only ankle deep or that by the time I knew it wasn’t I was in the middle and couldn’t turn back, I could say I was focused on my destination and the quickest route, that I had lost my fly to a hungry trout and my husband, who had the box of flies, had abandoned me to move upriver for a sweeter spot. I couldn’t say I didn’t know it was fast because any fool could see the water roiling over the rocks. This fool had the opportunity to consider all this, that removing waders in rushing water is better in theory than fact, that drowning was less likely than freezing and two feet from shore becomes eight then twenty if you aren’t moving faster than the current. I wish I could say that once on shore reviewing my decision that I had reason behind me but all I can say is that my father used to tell us to look both ways before crossing the street. He never mentioned rivers. If he did, I missed it.

Of course, my husband didn’t drop his fishing pole and rush to my side. When he saw me go down, he looked over and figured I could get out on my own. Oh, eventually he ambled my way, we talked about it and laughed, then he went back to fishing. I never did get the fly I wanted. I tried to drip dry in the sun and wind. Mostly, I thought about lost flies. While I have never understood how you could lose a needle in a haystack, simply because why would you take your darning there in the first place, I  understand losing flies in the river.  I asked my husband how much a fly costs. He said about two bucks. We fished for about an hour, hour and a half. Between the two of us we lost three or four flies to nibblers and snags, so something less than minimum wage. There were, maybe, eight or ten people fishing that stretch of river, multiply that by three flies lost per hour, fourteen hours of good fishing on a good day, that’s…calculator…let’s say, something on the order of 280 flies a day on that one stretch of river, which is pretty good business, but more importantly, where do all those flies go, bringing to mind a certain poem about a large rainbow trout by Bishop.

In that proverbial haystack the needle must be found before it ends in one of the many stomachs of that proverbial cow. We never seem to find our own lost flies, but on our fishing trips we see the flies of those who come before us looped by spider web fine monofilament caught in the branches of trees or draped over shrubbery or less often than you might think, caught in the lip of a trout. Still, they must end somewhere, where is the garbage patch for lost fishing hooks? On the bed of the river, in the belly of the vultures who circle endlessly overhead or the crows perched on the banks? Or more likely, the eagles I’ve been told are here but never see. Is this why there are so many more vultures and crows than there are eagles, because the eagles who feed on the fish who swallow the flies are like that old lady in the children’s story?

My curiosity may be environmental, but it isn’t idle or intellectually distant. When we order stuffed trout for dinner, I poke through the capers and pinyon nuts, looking for a hook.

Give me hollow bones

I read loons sometimes mistake parking lots for lakes. Once landed they can’t hit reverse, needing a wide spread of water to take off. I can’t get this vision of a large, perplexed sort-of-duck wandering among cars and busy shoppers out of my head.

In school we were taught that humans became bipedal to run on the savannah and never looked back to the trees. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of apocalyptic fantasy. After the dust has settled and the survivors encamp, they are found in watchtowers, highrises or caves in cliffs facing rivers. Often planes are featured. The losers bleed out in deserts or grasslands, crows pick over their bones, which eventually bleach in the sun.

I’m terrified of heights and my daughters capitalize on this, hang over safety fences on mountain lookouts, talk of bungee jumping, show off photos of themselves on high, narrow ledges. After my mother died there was talk of throwing her ashes out of a hot air balloon. Dad asked me to join him, presumably so we could both cower in the bottom of the basket and throw the canister with an overhead, Hail Mary pass. A combination of 9/11 and a cancelled flight back to Minnesota and, later, unfavorable winds prevented a sky burial and, so, she is marked by a white oak that faces the spot where the eaglets fledge.

My fear isn’t of height, it is of my desire to leave solid ground. In spite of what we have been taught, we always look higher and envy the birds for their wings not the centipedes for their feet. Like the loon who alone among birds has solid bones, more than desire, air currents and proper landing gear are required and, like the loon, I constantly look around, bewildered, wondering where I took the wrong turn and ended in the fool’s paradise of sun glinting on asphalt.