The dog painter’s wife

(The following is an excerpt from a longer piece.)

 

1

“Amy, how can I tell if I’m in love?”

“I don’ think you can ever tell, Michael, because you always think you’re in love with everyone.”

“Okay, okay. But you say you’re in love with Donny Osmond.  How do you know?”

“Not Donny, Merrill!”

“Okay, Merrill.  How do you know you love him? “

“I know because Merrill is the only boy I love.  No one else.”

That was hard to argue with.  Because Amy has Down’s syndrome, when she talks, she sounds like her tongue is too big for her mouth, and her syntax is sometimes truncated, but she gets her point across. I didn’t like what she was implying about me, so I looked for a flaw in her reasoning.

“Merrill isn’t the only boy you love.  You love me, too, don’t you? And Patrick and Joe and Jimmy, and Dad, and Uncle Lester, and didn’t you used to love some boy in your class?” Amy was nine, and in the third grade, a special third grade at the public school.

‘Family don’ count.  An I used to love Andrew, but I don’t anymore. Now I only love Merrill.”

“So what if I say, I only love this one person, no one else?  Does that mean it’s true love?”

“Not for you.  You always fine someone else to change your mine.”

“Aw, Amy, maybe it’s different this time.  Maybe this time I will stay in love for a long time.”

“I will be surprised if you do.”

“Surprised and happy, right?”

“Surprised an very happy for you.”

“Thanks, Amy.  Now, brush your teeth; it’s time for bed.”

“I already brushed my teeth. Now you have to weed to me.”

I knew she wasn’t lying about her teeth. She never did.  I had explained to her what lying was once, and she didn’t like it. “Alright. You go get in bed, I’ll be there in a minute.  What are we reading?”

“Alice in Wonderland”

“Alice in Wonderland, again?”

“It’s a good book, Michael. Besides, I get to pick, not you.”

It was hard to argue with Amy—not only because she was the most stubborn person on the planet, but because she was almost always in the right.

I was back in the house I had grown up in, babysitting on a Thursday night, like I’d done for nine years, while Mom was out at Bingo and Dad was bowling with his league. The family bungalow, with three tiny bedrooms and a single bath, sat at the bottom of Miller Road in a run-down neighborhood where a highway cut though the north side of Milwaukee. Shopping centers and commercial buildings lined the highway, and we lived just one street back.  The house was pretty shabby, and Mom was always hounding Dad to paint the shutters and fix the screen door. But the garage in back had a basketball hoop, and there was a swath of grass behind the commercial strip along the highway that got mowed more regularly than our yard, and it made a pretty good football field.  For baseball we had to walk up to the public school, but it was only five blocks away, and if you just wanted to have a catch or play Whiffle Ball, Walgreen Field, as we called it, was fine. We played a ton of sports, my brothers and I. A little less after Amy came along, fourteen years after me, and five years after Jimmy, but still, a lot.

That night, after I got Amy tucked in, I went out back to the old picnic table Dad had built with wood he’d brought home from the phone company—old packing crates or pallets or something. I lay back on the rough planks and looked up at the gray night and thought about the direction my life—or lack of it—and about Faye, the new “love” I’d talked about with Amy.

I might have called myself a lost soul, but for the fact that I had a pretty good idea where my soul was. It was suspended between the gritty loyalties of a working class, Irish Catholic upbringing and a host of noble, if transitory, aspirations aroused by the study of, among other things, literature, history, psychology and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Maybe Mom was right, and I would have been better off aiming for something practical, like law school.

At the time, I would have been content to wander the streets of Milwaukee, watching and listening as the wheels of the world ground some people into dust and raised others up above their neighbors for reasons that I would never understand. I might have been happy to wander that way for the rest of my life, even if it meant living in a refrigerator box, but I am not so immune to the opinions of mankind that I could cast my lot with those nameless vagabonds whose highest aspiration is to be left alone with a bottle, harming no one but themselves. Nor could I bear the prospect of years given over to toil in management, sales, or accounting, so that some unprincipled lowlife masquerading as an honorable person could afford a luxury car and private school in Connecticut for his progeny. As a result of my ambivalence about money and success, I had spun my education into something of a career, dropping in and out of college over the years, my academic status dependent on how much money I’d been able to scrape together working odd jobs at labs and libraries on and off campus.

After 13 years in parochial school, the scales fell from my eyes in college.  I was introduced to ideas and ways of looking at the world that we never heard from the nuns: the real story of the Reformation, Papal complicity in the Holocaust, the other side of the birth control issue, the protest songs of Bob Dylan, and, on the lighter side, a drinking game called “Senior Cardinal Puff.” Life presented itself with renewed glory, opening a world beyond the Catholic Church, my family and my neighborhood.

One thing that didn’t change was my enthusiasm for the opposite sex—what Amy was talking about when she said I fell in love with everybody. I’m the kind of guy who gets bowled over by women. I might be sitting by myself in a library, or with friends at a bar, and I’ll be getting along okay, nothing special, when a woman walks in and my world-view changes.  My eyes, which might have been half-closed over a magazine or staring out the window, will regain their focus. I will sit up straight, run my fingers through my hair, maybe look down to see if my shoes need polish. I have been this way since I was 12 years old; it doesn’t matter how I’m  feeling, on top of the world or low down, when the right woman comes by, I come back to life, like Jesus rolling back the stone. Or maybe, as Amy would say, like getting “thmacked ina head with a two-by-four.”

That’s what happened when a certain Ms. Maler walked into the dingy office of the Cream City Review at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student union in 1973. The lights seemed to brighten a bit, like they always did down in the Rathskeller, when the sandwich press was shut off.

I’d been on the planet long enough to recognize how often I invented the people around me. I remember this girl in my sophomore class in high school. Sandy Bennett was her name. She was a skinny blonde with beautiful, delicate features, who always wore white blouses and plaid skirts, but hung around with a “hood” named J.D. I worshiped her, thought she was the Virgin Mary. Then she quit coming to school. Nobody said a word. She disappeared. Ten months later, I was hanging around down by the big drain pipe under the bridge where the road crosses over the Milwaukee River and teenagers went to smoke, and who is there but Sandy.  And she has a goddamn baby. She’s just standing there with a cigarette in one hand and the other hand on a stroller. I couldn’t believe it, but she said, yeah, and J.D. was the father, though he wouldn’t admit it.  She acted like it was no big deal, so I did, too. But I felt pretty shitty on my way home. Queezy. Confused. Like the world had been turned inside out.

So, looking at Faye Maler, I knew I was inventing her, projecting half-baked fantasies into the darkness behind her eyes. I figured her to be an aristocrat—unreachable by the likes of me.  That’s what I wanted her to be, anyway…Still, that rolling-back-the-stone feeling was hard to ignore. Amy’s two-by-four had hit me upside the head pretty hard, and I kind of liked the dizzy feeling I was left with.

 

 

By Lawrence Kessenich & Jay Weber