New tricks

Most of my best correspondents are machines, I was muttering to myself as I scanned through my latest e-mail messages: automatically forwarded comments from Haloscan (5); automatically generated, monthly listserv subscription information (3); weekly updates from online dating services to which I had never subscribed and from which I could not seem to withdraw my name (2); spam addressed to people whose e-mail handle resembled mine (8); and a barrage of action alerts from close to two dozen do-gooder organizations. My favorites are the ones where all you have to do is hit “reply” and “send” and they do the rest – including sending a fax on your behalf. I love the idea of my lobotomized senator having to pay for the privilege of receiving tens of thousands of identical faxes on some issue he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. The power of the people and all that.

Just then the phone rang. It was my mother. “Hey, you know that girl Joan you used to date? I just got the nicest letter from her! She mentioned she was doing a lot of driving for her new job, and said she’d be passing through in late September. It kind of sounded like she wants to stop in for a visit! Though she didn’t come right out and say so.”

“Huh,” I said. A letter?

“So this morning I called her up, and we had the nicest conversation! She said she was sorry now about the way things worked out – or didn’t work out, you know – but that she had always admired our family so much, because her own had been so dysfunctional and everything. She told me a few things that I can’t really share with you, but it was just, I don’t know, nice.

“So anyway, she’s going to drop in on the 28th and 29th – that’s when we’re all getting together for a late Labor Day celebration, and to see Tom and Crystal’s new baby, remember?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Well, I just thought, you’d be here anyway at that time . . . But with everyone else here too, there’d be less pressure on you to talk with her if you didn’t feel like it. And you remember what a great cook she was! She said she’d be glad to help out in the kitchen – she sounded really excited about it. I mean, you know, I just feel sorry for her.”

“Uh huh.”

I guess I didn’t really mind. Actually, I didn’t think much about it at all, until the very morning of the reunion. My car’s CD player wasn’t working, so I was more or less forced to do some thinking for a while on the drive over. I started wondering about the logistics. Where was Joan going to sleep?

“She can sleep in your old bedroom, can’t she? I figured you could just grab a sleeping bag from the attic and sleep on the living room floor,” Mom said cheerfully when I called her on the cell phone. “It can’t be much different from all that camping you do, right?”

You know those vivid dreams right before daybreak, where you feel as if you’re lucid, as if your conscious mind is fully in control? But then you wake up and realize that it wasn’t, and that you had had no more control over the way things turned out than in any other dream. That’s kind of the way that weekend felt.

Joan was completely different. It had only been twelve years since I’d last seen her – it seemed like yesterday. But in that time, evidently, she had worked at a half dozen different places, traveled all over the world, made (I think) quite a bit of money during the dot-com bubble, and when it burst, spent a couple years “getting her head together” at some ashram in Oregon or Washington state.

This last experience, she said, “totally changed my life,” and I believed her. The thing is, I didn’t much care for the change. The Joan I’d dated had been very opinionated, funny, decisive. She was the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted out of life, which always fascinated me because it was so alien to my own, more contemplative existence. We liked each other a lot, but ultimately had decided that our constant disgreements were wearing us out.

The new Joan was anything but pushy. Even her voice had changed; her sentences now tended to trail off into the ether, or else would end with that peculiar rising intonation so popular among the younger set these days. And it was almost impossible to pin her down about anything.

“So what are you up to these days?” I asked after the obligatory long hug and effusions of warm mutual regard.

“Oh, so many things, you know? I mean, I’m just sort of being, like in harmony with the universe? Living in the now . . . ”

“My mother said you were doing a lot of driving for your new job. You’re in sales?”

“Oh, I don’t know if I’d call it that . . . I mean, people do call it that . . . Like, you just did? But I don’t know if that’s my reality? . . . I drive . . . Sometimes I might get a sale . . . People in a rest area somewhere might read the side of my van and come over, you know, and talk for a while . . . If they don’t buy anything, that’s perfectly O.K.? Because I’m like in it for the whole journey?”

“Well, O.K., but what are you selling?”

She led me up to my old room and showed me what appeared to be an unpainted piece of lawn furniture. “I brought this one to give to your mother? I think they’re so beautiful . . . But maybe you don’t agree . . . ”

“Um, well, I guess it is kind of . . . compelling. It’s a garden ornament of some kind?”

She let out an irritatingly tinkly laugh. “It’s all hand-forged in the traditional way . . . No one makes them like this anymore . . . It’s kind of based on a design, or really several designs, that I found in an old catalogue from 1898 . . . ”

“You make them yourself?” I asked, remembering that her parents had been artists.

That laugh again. “Oh, it’s not like I have a forge in my backyard or anything . . . ”

Then, perhaps sensing my frustration, she knelt down and pointed out the outline of a dog sitting on its haunches. “They’re so popular with dog lovers . . . Anyone who’s ever had a companion animal knows what a deeply spiritual connection that can be . . . Like my Hermione here? Would you like to say hello to Dave? Dave, this is Hermione . . . ”

There was a dog on my bed. A brown and tan mongrel – a beagle-border collie mix, by the look of it. “Hello,” it said.

Joan let out another tinkle of laughter at my evident surprise. “Yes, she’s quite a talker, aren’t you Hermy?

“We met at the ashram?” Joan continued. “Sri Ramanujan – that’s the guru – he tried to teach her a little bit of the Vedas? But I guess she didn’t really care too much for that . . . She decided to start speaking English instead . . . ”

“I said to myself, fuck this! I want to be able to go into the kitchen and place my order with the cooks! ‘Hey, brother, how about forking over some of that sorry end of a sacred cow,'” the dog said in a gruff but perfectly intelligible voice, ending with a couple of short barks that were the closest she could come to laughing.

“We became, like, best friends?” Joan said.

“Nobody else wanted anything to do with me. ‘Who wants a dog that can talk? Besides, she’s so judgemental,‘” Hermione mimicked. “Idiots!”

I regarded her warily. “So what do you do?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from topics that might offend the newly sensitive Joan.

“What do I do? I’m a dog! I piss and shit, shed hair and scratch up the furniture. I live like a queen! And besides, let me tell you, it’s a full-time job just keeping an eye on this flako nut-job!” Bark bark. “I have to take her for a walk every morning, or she’d do nothing but sit around and gaze at her navel all day. Honey, I say, if anything ever happens with your navel, I’ll tell you! You’ll be the first to know!” Bark bark bark.

“She plays piano, too? It’s, like, so beautiful and spiritual,” Joan said demurely. “She says she taught herself, but I think she must’ve remembered it from a past life?” Hermione replied with what can only be described as a snort.

So the visit turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had expected. I figured the only way to find out what had really happened at the ashram, and what was happening in Joan’s life now, was to ask Hermione in private. Plus, I wanted to make sure she was really speaking on her own – I wouldn’t put it past Joan to have learned ventriloquism.

But the dog really was that vocal – and that smart. “No, Joan isn’t a ventriloquist!” she said as I pushed the bedroom door open.

Her words did sound a little muffled, though. She was lying on the bed as before, with one of my bathroom slippers between her teeth.

“Hey, that’s my slipper!” I protested.

“Well, I figured it belonged to somebody,” she said as she gave it a good shake. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell Joan to buy you a new pair before we leave.” Chew chew chew.

“But why . . . ”

“Look, Dave, do you have any idea what it’s like to be a carnivore? I mean a real carnivore with real canines that give you sharp jolts, unpleasant little reminders of their existence, if you go too long without ripping apart a rotting carcass. You know what I’m saying? Bad karma be damned! This isn’t a lifestyle choice!”

I laughed. “O.K., but why my slippers? If you have some issues, let’s talk them out. I mean, you can do that, right?”

“Dogs don’t have issues, Dave. They have problems. Look, I know there are such things as pet psychiatrists, but you’re not one of them, O.K.? I had no idea whose slipper this was. I’m sorry! You’ll get a new one!”

And she was sorry, too, I could tell that. She was, after all, a beagle-border collie mix – they have a gift for that sort of thing. I wondered whether her facility with human speech might have supressed her native capacity for empathy, though.

She let out a bark of laughter. “No, you don’t do it like that! If you want to learn how to tell what others are thinking, you can’t just look straight into their eyes – that’s no good,” she said.

I hadn’t even known that that was what I wanted to learn until she said so. It occurred to me that speech was perhaps the least of the tricks that Hermione had learned from hanging out with the guru at Joan’s ashram.

“The corners of the eyes,” she said, “and on human beings, the corners of their mouth – and the lines between the two. That’s where you look.”

I settled into the armchair next to the bed. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

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