far too much writing, far too many photos

So. Stepped off the bus in Montpelier Monday night, drove home through the frigid Vermont darkness, the road winding between snow-covered fields, quiet and still.

Tuesday morning — the temperature outside the house: 10 below. Drove into town to take care of errands, walking along State Street I passed a guy wrapped up in cold weather gear, holding a large coffee in one hand, his face an intense beet red (providing as perfect an illustration of the expression ‘beet red’ as I’ve ever seen).

Wednesday morning — the temperature outside the house: 20 below. Chickadees came and went at the dining room window feeder as if impervious to the weather. (Now that I think about it, only chickadees have shown up at the feeder since my return. All the other regular customers — your purple finches, your goldfinches, your woodpeckers — have vanished.)

Yesterday morning: the temperature outside hovered between 15 and 20 above. Felt almost tropical compared with the previous two days. Went into town to do the manly gym thing, on the way back stopped in to visit my downhill neighbor, Mo. I hopped up the two or three steps to his front porch, knocked on the door, expecting the usual racket from the house’s two dogs. Nothing. Silence. Knocked again. More silence. A tabby cat sat at the other end of the porch staring at me, eyes half-closed. I stepped toward it, extending a friendly hand, it skidded backward, looking to stay clear. I got the message, let it alone. It recovered poise, sat down, resumed watching.

I pulled open the storm door, rapped on the inside door. Nothing. No dogs, no people. Stared at the two vehicles in the driveway, them usually a sure sign that Mo and his 70-something live-in sweetie, Barb, are home. Wondered if everything was all right or if maybe some of their numerous kids and grandkids had carted them off for yuletide fun and games.

Pulled open the door again, knocked at it with substantially more force. Now and then the third time really is the charm — the dogs came to, ran into the kitchen with the clatter of nails on wood flooring, barking out the usual loud, sustained intruder alert. A moment later, Barb appeared, peering out at me before grabbing the dogs so that I could enter without being knocked over by two canines looking for love. A couple of minutes passed calming the dogs down, especially Barb’s, an ancient, mid-sized mixed breed named Bismark who continued barking from excitement, leaning his tired body against our legs, gradually quieting.

Barb said a brief hello, walked with stiff legs toward the living room to let Mo know company had arrived. A moment later, there he was, hand extended for a hello shake, moving slowly but looking pretty good, reasonably hale. We sat down at the kitchen table, I filled him in on this last stay in Madrid (cue the construction story in far too much detail), him listening, head shaking slightly in disbelief at all the right places. As I talked, Bismark came over, put his head in my lap, eyes cloudy from cataracts. I petted him as Mo and I talked, the dog’s eyes half-closed with contentment, moans of pleasure starting up, growing louder, more frequent as the stroking continued. He tilted his head up at me, mouth open in panting happiness, old-dog breath strong enough to curdle milk. And as he began to relax, I heard the soft, unmistakeable sound of gas being released, the aroma reaching me a moment later, just about making my eyes water. Whoo-eee! I didn’t have the heart to push him away, settled for fanning the air with a hand, listening to Mo describe various procedures that various medical personnel wanted to inflict on his nearly 84-year-old body. If he had any idea why my hand flailed, Mo withheld comment, as did I.

The air cleared, Bismark looked to have entered an altered state, one in which his body no longer waged chemical warfare on nearby humans. And for some reason, I found myself remembering a Thanksgiving years back, one spent at my brother’s place in New Paltz, N.Y.

My sister-in-law had an aunt and uncle living in town, Charlie and Kathy — a fairly eccentric couple, him the head of the theater department at the town’s college, her a real estate impresario, tall, laconic, forcefully opinionated. I hadn’t seen either of them in several years, they showed up just as we all — me, my brother, my sister-in-law, niece and nephew — were sitting down to eat. Cheerful greetings were exchanged, plates got piled with food, the meal commenced, conversation flowing nicely. And at some point someone let loose with a fart, clear and classic in its sound. I looked around, no one acknowledged it, eating continued. A moment later, someone let loose again. And then again, each time the sound growing progressively louder, harder to ignore.

The perpetrator appeared to be Kathy, hunched over her plate, chatting as she worked on turkey and stuffing. And as the serenade continued, punctuating the conversation with random merry poots and fraps, it became clear that the additions to the soundtrack were indeed coming from her spot at the table, herself carrying on as if nothing out of the ordinary were underway, smile unwavering. No one else acknowledged it, decorum apparently dictating complete denial, leaving me all alone in staring about, smothering the goofy smile that wanted to take form on my face. I contained all impulses toward laughter and smart remarks, enjoyed the meal, said so long to Kathy and Charley when they took off, post-glut, and remained quiet about what had happened, waiting to see if anyone else would bring it up. No one did. Not then, not at any time since.

I returned to the present moment in Mo’s kitchen, Bismark still happily leaning up against my thigh, Mo describing a massive, radical shoulder reconstruction some sawbones wants to perform on him — a procedure that would apparently leave Mo unable to hold a rifle or pilot his ATV, eliminating two major sources of pleasure, shaving away important aspects of his existence. We talked about that, he acknowledged the narrowing down of life that the operation would produce and said he’d decided not to rush into anything, a sentiment I was glad to hear.

At some point during all that, Bismark tottered off to the living room to join Barb, Mo’s beagle filled the vacuum almost immediately, standing up on hind legs, big brown eyes boring into me, willing me to pet her. A look that works on pretty well on Mo, who responds to her wordless commands with pavlovian reliability. I was ready to go, so got to my feet, beagle eyes giving me the reproachful stare. Said good-bye to Mo, shouted Christmas wishes to Barb in the other room, stepped back out into cold, crisp air, headed home.

Three days before Christmas, in snowy northern Vermont.

~~~~~~~~~~~

December scarecrow — Adamant, Vermont:

Madrid, te echo de menos.

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