Common Enemy

There is no dialogue in this story. We seldom articulate what we are thinking, what we are feeling, and it is not just that we don’t want to (though we usually don’t want to). Putting thoughts into words is very hard, a difficulty we rarely acknowledge, often deny. But the people who truly realize how tough this can be are the really old (who have garnered experience and often lost words) and the really young (for whom all experience is new learning and for whom learning from experience often runs far ahead of learned words), and – paradoxically – these are the voices that probably have the most to tell the rest of us. In this story, we have an old mind and a young one. They are connected by place, time, a certain amount of genetic material, and by a set of common boundaries – both the specific perimeters of said time, place, and heredity, and the general limitations of the human animal. Your author has tried to imagine their thought, to put their reflections into words. The result is inadequate, but the attempt has been its own reward. Try it yourself sometime. Meanwhile, you might listen to these voices.

I have to keep reminding myself that it only made sense to have them move in here. Charlie is my only child, and he will get the house in the end. It only made sense. But I felt I had to try to protect myself. I am no martyr. So, I kept the master bedroom and bath, and they are all sharing one bathroom. Which did not seem a lot to ask, but which makes me feel guilty – on a daily basis. So here I am giving them free housing – paying the taxes and all and even most of the utilities (I refuse to pay for their cable TV), and I feel bad. What sense does that make? Not that they’re not nice to me, but they more or less have to be if they want to stay here. And they’re hard up for money, of course. Annabel gave up teaching when Fiona was born – and they had to spend a fortune on fertility treatments to get a baby. Charlie apparently has a low sperm count (do we need to know these things about our children I wonder?), and maybe he got it from his father. We had trouble too, which is why we only had one and not until we were pretty old, which is also why Fiona has such an elderly grandmother. One child. But we never did anything about it, and now I’m glad to only have one. How many could I have invited to move in with me? And why did I ever agree to the idea of a new puppy?

But it’s not just a new puppy. Charlie and Annabel are going to have another baby – and no fertility treatments this time. They haven’t told me yet, but I hear the murmuring and see the smiles. They’ll probably tell me and Fiona at the same time. For me, it will only spawn more guilt about my bathroom. I am not sure what Fiona’s reaction will be. She seems to like other people’s babies, but she has been the main attraction around here for a long time. She’s not an outgoing child though, which is strange given the attention she gets. Very quiet. Even as a toddler. I certainly hope this new one is not a screamer. Earphones. I’ll get those fancy earphones that block out all the noise so I can read. Might be a good idea anyway, I hate hearing the sound of that television at night.

It’s too bad they keep reducing my hours at the library – ever since they got a new full-time position, they have used me less and less. Of course, no one asked me if I wanted to work full-time. And I probably don’t, but it’s a way of reminding me that I’m seventy-two and don’t count as a normal person. No, maybe the word is standard person – a person where normal standards and courtesies applies. Anyway, it would do me good to be out of the house more.

Why don’t I just leave it all to them? When I was young and working hard and Bill and I were still working out the kinks, I used to daydream about leaving it all behind. Getting in the car and starting new somewhere. When I was a teenager I had some friends that did it – got on the bus or the train and we never heard from them again. Left everything behind. I suppose that is something that you do when you are young. When you’re old the only way you leave it all behind to die. Meanwhile, I am afraid that my world is regressing back to times of babies and puppies – and not by choice.

We went to see the puppies today – they were all stuck on to the mother, sucking on her. Mummy said that’s how they get their milk but it looked like it hurt. And they all looked pretty much the same. I thought they might be different colors or something, but Mummy said that the kind of dog we are getting doesn’t come in different colors. Mummy and Da told me I could choose, but I don’t think it matters because they all look the same. Two of them did stop sucking and lick my fingers though, so I told them maybe I would like one of those. Puppies lick a lot wetter than Sophie.

People come in different colors. They have different color eyes. I have blue eyes and so does Da and Nana, but Mummy has green eyes. Well, she says they are green, but they look kind of brown to me. And the strange thing is she calls her hair brown when it looks black to me. We all have different hair. Mine is yellow and Da’s is light brown (he calls it sandy) and Nana’s is white. Nana says that Da used to have yellow hair like mine when he was a little boy, and she showed me pictures so I guess it’s true. People even come in different colors. My teacher at school has brown skin (Mummy says she is black – I think she is confused about colors), and my friend Lola has tan skin – and not from being out in the sun either. Mummy says that my teacher came from Africa, but I asked Miss Horton what it was like there and she said she didn’t know. And Lola hasn’t been to Africa – she’s never even been to Disney World.

Anyhow all the puppies were the same. They are the same kind of dog as Sophie though, and I love Sophie. She lets me lie right up against her when I watch my movies. We have always had Sophie. I guess she used to be Nana’s dog, but Nana said that she can be mine. She sleeps in my room, but Mummy says that she can’t sleep in my bed or I’ll get asthma like Nate. But Nate doesn’t even have a dog so I don’t really think she knows what she is talking about.

Mummy and Daddy told me that it would be good for Sophie to have another dog to play with, but since Sophie has me to play with, I knew that couldn’t be the real reason. Then I heard them talking in the kitchen about it. They think that I can’t hear what they say when they start talking really quiet, but that’s when I start to pay attention. They think that Sophie is going to die soon because she is old and this way there will be another dog right there. An extra. Nana keeps lots of extras of paper towels and toilet paper and light bulbs in the basement in case we run out and now we are going to have an extra dog in case we run out of our old dog. In case she dies before we do. Poor Sophie. I hope she didn’t hear them. Da says that Sophie doesn’t really understand what we are saying – she just gets the tone of voice. I’m not sure what that means. But I think if someone said I was going to die in any language, I would know. Maybe it would be from the tone of voice or whatever, but I would know.

I know what die is. My fish died. I saw a dead cat the other day on the side of the road. Squished. I used to think only old people died. Old Grandma died. She was really old. She was really Mummy’s Grandma. But then Henry’s baby brother died. He never even came home from the hospital – Mummy said that there was something wrong with him. And Mummy and Da were watching something on TV the other night about one of the students Mummy had when she was a teacher who had a car accident and died. So I guess it can happen to kids even. I was trying to think about dying, but I can’t. What would it be like? If Sophie died, what would happen to her? Some people say dead people and dogs go to heaven, but Mummy and Da never say that. And I don’t think they go anywhere. I don’t think that dead cat was going anywhere. What if Sophie was not here? What if I were not here? Would I remember Mummy and Da and Nana and Sophie? Would it hurt?

And what do they do with you when you are dead? I asked Henry what they did with his brother and he said that they put him in a box and burned him up and then threw the ashes away at the beach. If they burn me up, I hope they do it in the fireplace and just leave my ashes there to remember me when they built a fire. But they won’t, because every time we have fires, Da empties out the fireplace pretty soon. He puts it out back in a pile. So maybe that’s where I’ll end up.

It appears that we are going to have a lot of new life around here. The new puppy will be weaned and ready next week. This I knew about and had agreed to, although I have to admit that the discussion of Sophie’s age (and in dog years she’s even older than me, the poor thing) was disquieting. They are concerned that Fiona will be very upset when Sophie goes, so there should be another dog right there to divert her. I’m not sure what I think. Maybe we shouldn’t let the child be diverted and just let her mourn for her friend. I am certainly going to, even though the sweet dog has shifted her primary allegiance to my granddaughter. And the kids talked about her imminent demise in such a matter-of-fact way, as if they were replacing a car. No, not even a car. Something less important. A lawnmower, perhaps. I know they’re not as attached to the dog as Fiona and I are, but it made me think.

At least they think that Sophie is indispensable enough to need immediate replacement. I am not sure they think the same about me, particularly now that they are going to need an extra bedroom. Are they making such matter-of-fact plans for my demise? Reorganizing the house? Adding more televisions? Are they thinking in terms of how they will cope with my demise since I am almost as old as Sophie? Maybe they’ll console themselves for my loss with a bigger television and the master bedroom. I bet Annabel even puts a TV in the kitchen. Would they miss me? I do cook dinner, but I have often thought that they would just as soon have a fast food as my chicken pot pie. I will be replaced by Pizza Hut.

Do they wish me gone? They would certainly say not, so there is no use discussing it with them. And they probably don’t even think it consciously (at least I hope not), but I would bet you anything that Annabel has already decided what color to repaint my bedroom when I’m gone.

Of course, I gave a lot up to them when they moved in. I had to pack away my mother’s china (too fragile even for Annabel, never mind Fiona) and watch my lovely furniture be lounged and eaten upon in ways that it had never before experienced. Even Sophie was mournful about the house getting turned upside down – at least until she adopted Fiona. My old life, my things, my dog, seemed to call out to me for help at first, but the resentment took too much energy for an old person. I gave it up to Charles and Annabel, to the next generation. And now I’m beginning to feel that it is not just the house and the furniture, it is the whole world that I am giving up to them. Life. Life as I know it.

Life as I know it is changing in other ways. Someone is finally going to build on the field next to us. We always wished we could buy it. Should have borrowed the money and just done it I guess, but it’s too late now. It’s the only place I ever see Bob-whites anymore, but the meadow will soon be manicured into a lawn and the Bob-whites and I will be out of luck. How many more changes will I face – which, I suppose, is just another way of asking how long I will live. You would think it would get easier.

What would Fiona think if I died? She would miss me the most I think. We are allies in some ways – having the common enemy, of course. But how would she make sense of it? Well, even I can’t make sense of it, so that is a pretty stupid question. When I was her age I thought everyone went to heaven and lived with Jesus. I remember one time in Sunday school I drew a picture of God on a cloud and my dead grandma and canary up there with him, along with some other family members (like my brother Vinnie) whom weren’t dead, but I must have wished were up there with Jesus rather than down on earth with me. Anyway, I had very specific ideas about what it would be like. But Fiona knows almost nothing about God or Jesus, so I can’t imagine what it is she thinks. Once, when she was littler, she told me that dying was something that happened to you when you got “poked” too many times. Perhaps she just thinks dying is something that happens to you when you don’t hit the button fast enough on those video games they play. And then you hit reset and you are resurrected. The new religion. But hey, who am I to criticize? What do I think death is? Nothing, I guess. It is nothing. But a hard journey to get there nevertheless. I try not to ponder it too much, but I guess all the talk about Sophie and puppies and babies made the impermanence of my position overwhelmingly undeniable. Yes. Old age makes that which we denied all our lives overwhelmingly undeniable. We will be taught.

Mummy told me we are getting a new baby. A sister. She doesn’t have a name yet. She and Da were looking at me like I should be glad, but I’m not glad. I bet Sophie is not glad about the puppy either. I think they’re getting an extra in case I die. They told me that it was even another girl. Maybe they think that I will die. If I die before the new baby is born will they name her Fiona? I asked them what the new baby’s name was and they said that they didn’t know yet. If I died and they named the baby Fiona, would that be me come back?

There’s another reason that I think they are worried that I might die. There really isn’t room for another baby around here. I asked them where she was going to sleep and Mummy said that the baby would sleep in their room for a while and maybe someday would move in with me. But my room is full. There is no room for another girl. Especially for a baby. We visited Aunt Karen’s new baby and the whole house was full of baby stuff. I don’t think it will work. But it would work if I died.

When I went to bed last night I tried to pretend that I was dead. I shut my eyes and wrapped a pillow around my ears and did not move at all. But I could feel my heart beating and my tummy going up and down so I was definitely not close to dead. It was boring. Death must be more like sleeping except you don’t wake up. I would be afraid to go to sleep if I thought I wouldn’t wake up. Old people must be scared at night all the time.

I asked Nana if she was scared about dying. She said that she was a little, but she tried not to think about it too much. I was surprised, because if I was old, I would be thinking about it all the time. I asked her what she did with Grandpa when he died. I never knew him, but there are pictures of him and Da told me he died before I was born. She said that they buried him in a cemetery next to his parents. I asked if they buried him in a box and she said they did, but the box was called a coffin. I asked if she ever wished she could dig him up and look at him, but she said no, she preferred to remember him like he was.

I told her what Henry said about his brother and I asked her if she ever heard of burning people up. Nana said that she wants to be burned up (she told me there was a word for that but I forgot what it is) and that her ashes will be buried with Grandpa. But not in the same box – I asked her that, but she said that her ashes would probably be in some kind of jar.

I don’t know whether I would rather be in a box underground or burned up. How do they know that the fire doesn’t hurt dead people? How do they know that the people in the box won’t wake up? Jamie told me at Easter that Jesus woke up after three days dead, so you never know.

I asked Nana what happens to dead dogs, and she said that the last time that they had a dog die, they wrapped him in a blanket and buried him in the back yard. She said that dog was named Barkley and he was very old and they loved him very much. I asked her if they got Sophie in case Barkley died and she looked confused at first, but then she said that they did not get Sophie for a long time after that because she was still being so sad about Barkley.

Fiona certainly has death on her mind. She appears convinced that I will die soon – I wonder if she’s picking up on something she overheard her parents saying? She wanted to know what would happen to me when I died – we talked in the physical sense about the cemetery and coffins and cremation, pretty scary stuff for a little girl. No wonder someone came up with the idea of “flights of angels singing us to our rest” and pie in the sky when we die. It certainly beats being pulverized by fire or letting the worms and the groundwater getting you. I pulled out my old Dr. Spock and he said it was normal for children at Fiona’s age to become preoccupied and fearful about death and says we should tell them things like God takes dead people to heaven to take care of them or “Everybody has to die someday. Most people die when they get very old and tired and weak and they just stop being alive.” If Annabel and Charlie have been telling her such stuff, it’s no wonder that she’s curious about what will happen to my corpse. But somehow, I think she thinks that she is in danger of dying too. I get the impression that she thinks that we have that in common. With Sophie too. You would think that all this talk of babies and puppies would have the opposite effect, but both Fiona and I seem fixated on death in the face of all this new life. Well, the new puppy comes tomorrow, ready or not. That should distract us all for a while. It’s a boy, but they haven’t decided what to name it yet. I think they are hoping that Fiona will come up with an acceptable name, but she doesn’t seem all that interested.

The new puppy is here. They kept saying that I had to pick a name, so I decided that we should name him Barkley after the dead dog in the backyard. They looked confused, but Da said he loved his dog Barkley when he was a little boy and that was a very fine choice.

At first Sophie did not seem to like the puppy. She got upset when he peed in the house – she kept smelling the puddle and whining. We have a fence on the door so the puppy can’t go out of the kitchen, but that means that Sophie is stuck too since she can’t get over the fence. Mostly she wants to stay on the other side of the fence from Barkley, but her food is in the kitchen so she’s always stuck where she doesn’t want to be. The puppy runs around all the time and when he barks he looks up at you and backs up – this morning he backed up right into Sophie’s water bowl and made another puddle on the floor.

I feel bad for Sophie. Every time she tries to come up to me to cuddle, Barkley gets in the middle of things. And Mummy is all mad because Barkley goes pee in the house and chewed on one of the couch pillows. I reminded her that she was the one who wanted to get a new puppy, but she doesn’t seem to remember that. She said the puppy was for me. I told her I didn’t want it and Sophie didn’t want it either. Then she looked even more upset. Nana picked up the pee and sewed up the pillow and took Barkley out for a walk so I could spend some time alone with Sophie, but Sophie just kept looking out the window at the path where Nana and the puppy went. Things are so confused around here. Nobody is happy anymore. Well, Barkley is happy I think. But I am not happy, and I hope the new baby is not as much trouble as Barkley.

Chaos reigns around here. Fiona was such a quiet child they moved in that I had forgotten what babies can be like – a baby dog, in this case. If it’s doing nothing else, it’s giving us a glimpse of what life will be like with a new child in the house. Noisy, smelly, and lively. Strangely enough though, I kind of like the new puppy. Annabel is having regrets, and if I didn’t know better I would say that Fiona is afraid of it. So I’ve been taking it for walks to get it out of the house and damp down its enthusiasm a little. Walking Sophie is restful, but for the puppy, everything is new and exciting. He jumps up on his hind legs and dances whenever he gets really stimulated and I can’t help laughing.

And I think it is sweet that Fiona named him Barkley. I wasn’t glad at first – I thought our old dead dog deserved full possession of his family name, but it seems right somehow. Would I have liked it if Fiona had been named after me? Well, no one is going to name a child Ethel these days, I suppose. But I think I would have liked it. Yes, the thought of it is comforting somehow. But, for Fiona’s sake, I’m glad she isn’t saddled with Ethel.

And they told Fiona about the new baby the other day, but she seems afraid of that too. She doesn’t want to talk about, except to keep asking where we are going to put it. When she asks it that way, it reminds me the way she asked me where I put her grandfather after he died. Of course, I am also concerned about where they are going to put it. This house is going to seem awful crowded with five people and two dogs.

Annabel does seem grateful for my help with the puppy, but I must say that the hubbub in the house is just making me more and more sure that she must be coveting my bedroom. I don’t know what Charlie is thinking. It’s a little like life insurance I guess. Bill never carried much insurance, but if he had I still wouldn’t be counting the days until he keeled over. But I probably would have been glad to get it when he did keel over.

On the other hand this is all starting to make me think that they are going to need me around here when the new baby comes.

Da picked me up from school. I was amazed because he never picks me up – if Mummy can’t come, then Nana comes. He looked very sad but he didn’t say anything until we got in the car and even when I was in my booster seat and the belts were buckled he just sat there. I could see that he was trying not to cry and that made me cry and then he really did start to cry. I only saw my Da cry one time before. He was crying in the kitchen, but I never found out why. But this time he told me.

Da talked very slowly and said that Sophie was playing with Barkley and they got out of the yard and down the driveway and into the street and a car hit Sophie. She was hurt bad and Mummy and Nana took her to the doctor, but she was hurt too bad to be fixed. He said that the doctor had to put Sophie to sleep. I asked when she would wake up, but Da said she would never wake up. She was too hurt to live anymore.

I asked where Sophie was and Da said that she was at the animal hospital and that they would have her cremated and then we would get the ashes and bury them in the yard if that was okay with me. I told him that Nana said that they just wrapped Barkley in a blanket and he said that if I wanted to do that he would call the animal hospital and see if we could pick up Sophie.

I thought about it for a while and then said that I guessed it was fine with me. I told him that Nana wanted to be cremated and Sophie had been Nana’s dog so that seemed right. I asked him if we could have a funeral and he said we certainly could. Then we just sat for a while.

I asked him if Barkley was okay. He said that Barkley was fine, and that Barkley was too stupid to know what was going on. He sounded mad that they had ever gotten Barkley. He told me that he was hoping that we would have Sophie for a long, long time so that the puppy could learn from Sophie how to be a good dog. I told Da that I would teach Barkley because I knew all of Sophie’s habits, but that it would probably take a while. I was glad I said it, because then Da laughed and hugged me and said he didn’t know how they would live without me.

I couldn’t help thinking about Sophie getting burned up though. I hope that they are really sure that she is dead. I hope they really know that dead dogs can’t feel anything. I wish dead dogs could know things, because then dead Sophie would know how much I love her and how I will never forget her. I started thinking about where we should bury her and maybe I could make a marker out of clay with her name on it. And her picture. But I will never forget what Sophie looked like.

I asked Da if Sophie’s accident was Barkley’s fault. He said that it was nobody’s fault – the latch on the gate had been loose and he hadn’t gotten a chance to fix it. It must have swung open. Da looked like he thought it was his fault, so I said that it was just an accident. That’s what they tell me when I spill something, but sometimes I still feel bad and Da looks like he feels really bad. Besides, I said, the person driving the car is really the bad person and maybe we should call the police about them. Da said that it probably wasn’t their fault either, and they had stopped and rang the doorbell and felt very, very bad about it. I wish I had been there to see the guy who killed Sophie. I said that maybe we should invite them to Sophie’s funeral, but Da did not think that was a good idea since it would just make them feel bad all over again. It’s fine with me if they feel bad all over again.

Poor Sophie! And poor Charlie – he feels so responsible that the gate hadn’t latched, but – really – I think I might have been the last one to use it. It did need fixing, but – of course – Sophie never tried to go anywhere and Fiona doesn’t need to be fenced in anymore. Poor Fiona – I watched her get out of the car with Charlie and she looked very brave until she got into the house. Sophie used to welcome her home with wiggles and squeals on both sides. Barkley ran over, but Fiona just cried all over the poor little animal and he soon lost interest. He is a fickle little thing, but Fiona is surely not a fickle little thing. There is a lot to that girl.

And here’s a surprise. The most miserable of all is Annabel. She can’t stop crying. I’ve been making honey tea for her all day, tea which seems to be evaporating in the atmosphere of her sorrow and almost immediately condensing into tears. Maybe it’s her pregnancy, but she is clearly struggling. She keeps telling me stories about Sophie as if she were her dog and as if Sophie had lived with her all her life. I’ve started to think that she got that puppy for her own sake, but if she did, it didn’t work. She is wretched. In a strange way, it has been nice to be sad together. Yes. Very nice.

We are going to have a funeral when the ashes come back – and thank God for cremation. Every since we buried Barkley in the back yard, I have been afraid that someone is inadvertently going to dig him up someday when they tried to plant a bush. Fiona is planning the ceremony, taking it very seriously, and enjoying it immensely (although she would never admit it). Probably good practice as she will no doubt attend my memorial service someday and watch another set of ashes laid to rest. Laid to rest. Yes. I like that better than the idea of scattering them. If there is anything nice about death it is that you are laid to rest. Sophie had been resting more and more lately, and now that’s the only thing she will do.

Death has certainly been on Fiona’s mind. She asked me if I thought she would die soon. I told her certainly not. She wanted to know how I could be so sure, since lots of people died. I told her that very smart mathematicians had calculated how likely it was that people would die, and that they were almost positive that a little girl who was now five years old would live until she was eighty or ninety – much older than I am even now. Fiona was fascinated by this. She wanted to know who these “magicians” were. I explained that they weren’t magicians, but scientists – statisticians really – who had looked at all the evidence and come up with very good predictions. She wants to know if they were like the weatherman. Oh, to be five years old again! But she is right – they are like the weatherman rolling out the probabilities. But not always correct in any particular instance. In any case, it would appear that if Fiona has no God to protect her, she is satisfied with the testimonial of “magicians.” I’m satisfied too, now that I think about it. They give me about ten more years. What they can’t tell me is what to do with it.

I’m thinking of offering up the master bedroom to Annabel and Charlie and using the money that I put aside for traveling into a small bathroom off the kitchen and turning the den into a bedroom for myself. They’d have to move the TV into the living room, but that might not be so bad. Of course, I’d be even closer to it, so I really am thinking about investing in those earphones. But would I be able to hear the new baby with earphones on? I really think they are going to need some help.