By Antsy McLain
It had been a rough couple of weeks.
I had just buried my father, and began joylessly exploring the prospects of life as an orphan. Mom had passed away the year before. I recalled Dad’s last days and the final, numb march of his funeral as if looking through thick, gray gauze. Pieces of that day still hung around me like stale air freshener. I could hear the voice of the pastor from the little country church Dad called home, his words blank and void of passion until the eulogy turned abruptly to an alter call. My blood still rises a good twenty degrees hotter when I think about it, especially after he mispronounced Dad’s name. Twice.
“How long do you have to be a sheep around here before the shepherd remembers your name,” I whispered to my wife as he plowed carelessly through my father’s identity.
I can still hear the three distinct gun blasts of his military send off, the triggers pulled by two middle aged reservists in uniforms three sizes past snug. The blasts rang in the air, followed by a flutter of birds and a burst of sobs from my uncle Sonny. He had held up well until then, laying to rest the brother with whom he had climbed these trees, plowed this farmland, chased girls, raced cars, and buried loved ones of their own together. When a person dies, they take a part of you with them, a part of you no one else on earth knows. Sonny was letting it go with all that gunpowder.
All of this kept flooding into my heart and washing back out, taking grains of me with the tide, and bringing back untold questions from the mysterious deep. I was caught up in a tide of discovery, of new and old being swept away and washed back up on my empty shores until I didn’t know what was me, what was God, what was real or what was counterfeit.
As they say in times like this, when it rains it pours. Life had decided, for whatever reason, to make me its student in an intense crash course that would change me forever.
When I had come home late from work around 10 PM one night, the last thing I needed to see was the lifeless body of our family pet, Moo Moo, in the cul de sac in front of our house.
I knew it was her immediately. I stopped the car in the middle of the road with the lights on, and ran to her. As perfect a dog as she was — and she was a gem — she had one fatal flaw: she chased cars. She had apparently caught one.
Moo Moo was named by our kids because she had spots akin to a Holstein cow. Black and white, part Jack Russell, part Blue Heeler, Moo Moo was a herding dog. If you’ve had a herder, you’ll know that often equates to the dangerous practice of chasing things, including cars. Two years of training did nothing to curtail the deep, innate urgings of her DNA. This was who she was.
Moo Moo and I were soul mates. She swooned when she saw me. When I would come home from work, no one else existed. She would hop up on the back of our sofa, where she could be closer to eye level, and she would wag and whine until I acknowledged her shameless treatise for attention. When we hugged, all was well with the world. Every shirt I owned at the time was speckled with short, wiry white dog hair. I did nothing special to woo her. One day as a wiggly puppy, she just looked me in the eye and latched on, as if to say, “I choose you.” We were buddies from that day forth. The kids had picked her out, had fed her, even named her, but it was clear to everyone, Moo Moo was Dad’s dog.
So, there I was, awash in the white, hot light of my car’s headlamps, sobbing over Moo Moo’s lifeless body. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said, over and over, wanting to turn back time, not only 30 minutes or an hour where she could be on the back of the sofa to greet me, but a year, or two years before when I had parents, when I had a tangible guiding force in my life, a voice on the other end of the phone that could tell me I was doing the right thing, or that I was screwing up – anything at all. This was just too hard to endure on my own, without those familiar, comforting voices. And now, it would be harder without the unconditional hug of this beautiful dog.
I carried her past the flower garden behind the house, past the swing set, past the tall elm tree where I had built a crude but functional fort with my kids. I set her gently down on the ground behind the shed. And then I went inside to tell the family. Their moans and cries broke my heart, and made me cry even harder. We held each other, pulled ourselves together and buried her together under the moonlight.
My wife took the kids inside and tucked them in, and stayed with them until they fell off to sleep. I finished the burial duties, cleaned up, and went to move my neglected car. It had shined its lights as long as it could, and now sat dark and still in the cul de sac out front. I groaned a “now what,” and went to the garage where I had a new battery. Rather than deal with it in the morning, I decided to do it then, before I went to bed. Sleep probably wasn’t going to come for hours anyway.
I took a flashlight, the battery, and the tools I’d need, and walked back to the car. I took the old battery out and installed the new one, making sure all the connections were tight. I tried to start it. Nothing. Not even a spark. I checked the connections. Nothing. I went into the house, got the keys to my wife’s car, and drove it to the front, and hooked up jumper cables. Still nothing. I checked the connections a third time. It was now around midnight, and my patience, historically short anyway, was wearing very thin.
After checking the connections a fourth and fifth time, I got in the driver’s seat, shut the door, made sure the windows were rolled up tight, and I turned the key over.
The sounds that came out of my mouth over the next 5 minutes were unlike anything I have ever heard before or since, and I’ve seen a lot of Martin Scorsese movies. I cussed myself out, calling me every name in the book; I cussed God, telling him where he could shove this life, and this earth and everything on it; I cussed out my father for leaving, and my mother for dying, and anyone else I could think of who had a hand in my immediate misery. I pounded the dashboard, slammed the steering wheel, and screamed until my voice was a raspy whisper.
Then, as the last echo of my screaming faded away, I quietly, resolutely shut the door of my car, and drove my wife’s car back into the driveway. I left the hood up to my car with the cables still attached, and went inside. I checked on the kids, who were fitful but sleeping. I collapsed next to my wife and whispered a gravelly “Goodnight,” as we held each other under a blanket still speckled with Moo Moo’s hair.
I called a tow truck to haul my car to the garage, telling them “It’s a brand new battery, and it wasn’t turning over at all, so it must be the alternator.” I expected to hear from them later that day with an invoice I couldn’t afford.
I was barely at work 20 minutes when the garage called. “Your car’s ready.”
I was dumfounded. “Already?” I asked.
“Yep. You can pick it up anytime.”
“But, I mean, I – what was wrong?”
“Who installed your battery?” the mechanic asked drily.
I weighed my options. I could blame this on someone else. I could tell this was not going to put me in a good light. “Me,” I said, flinching, waiting.
“Well, you know those little plastic caps that come on the posts of new batteries?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
Well, you have to take those off before you hook up the cables or you won’t get a charge.”
“We won’t charge you for anything,” said the mechanic, fighting a chuckle, “We found it right away. Just come by the office before 6 to get your keys.”
I thanked him numbly, and gently set the phone down on its cradle. I leaned forward and placed my head in my hands. I sat that way for a long time before I moved again.
How often I do this: blame the world around me – anything else around me – for what I have done to myself out of ignorance or pride, or simply by just being in the dark. We’re all in the dark sometimes, trying with whatever tools we have to fix something better left for the light of another day.
I picked up my keys, and the mechanic showed me the little black plastic cover, like a top hat for a little bird, and I took it from his grease-creased hands. I held the little culprit – this source of my great and horrible frustration the night before – and couldn’t believe how such a small, lightweight thing could cause so much trouble. But then again, I knew it wasn’t the cap. It was me. I put the cap in my pocket, and drove home. It sat on my dashboard for months, an amulet of sorts to remind me of the magnitude of little things. It now sits on some bookshelves in my studio at just about eye level. Beside it is a little jewelry box holding a black and white collar once worn by a herder who chose me to be her soul mate.
I apologized to God by the way, for all the things I called him. I haven’t heard back, necessarily, but I reckon he had a good laugh over it.