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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Barbershop quartet

The stormy weather has hit. The coots are rafting together on the reservoir, the blue heron's hunching her narrow shoulders, and people are -- the word I'm looking for is scurrying -- about under a wide variety of umbrellas, some of which are blown inside out already.

I called the cat, Gracie, as I came home and unlocked the door, but she didn't come out from under the house. I built the fire and had dinner, and after awhile Beloved came home and had dinner as well. We just do our own when we are this low-energy. Mine, this time, was a wheat-tortilla burrito filled with diced tomato, bell pepper, tofu, Chinese cabbage and pepper jack, with salsa, made in four minutes on a George Foreman grill. Hers looked like oatmeal; I didn't feel nosy enough to ask. We gave each other the scant news of our lives -- which are so busy, we might as well "text" each other: ruok? imok, lol. ttyl. Or whatever it is the young people are saying to one another with their thumbs on the keyboards of their postage-stamp sized phones as they run from class to class.

"I think Gracie died today," I add.

She nods, almost absent-mindedly, then remembers to look sad. No, that's not fair. She is sad, but she's almost too tired to show it.

"I think," I said, glancing up at the clock and the calendar both, "that I will go look for her now and wrap her up in something nice, and do the funeral tomorrow after work when there's enough light to dig properly."

"OK. I won't be able to make it."

"That's all right. I don't think she's bothered about it one way or another."

I changed from my work dress into jeans and a jacket, tied a bandanna around my head, and walked around the outside of the house with a flashlight in one coat pocket and a lovely old shawl in the other. Kneeling in the wet grass, I pulled open the hatch to the crawl space and shone the light inside. Shreds of fiberglass hung everywhere; cobwebs covered everything; the height of the space was about eighteen inches throughout. A tighter squeeze than hands-and-knees. More like snake-on-belly. And Gracie would be on the other side of the partition, meaning it would be about sixty feet to her and sixty back again.

The last time I went in here I was a guy. I recognized a new feeling; as in yuck -- new to me in this kind of situation; I used to revel in crawl spaces and mucking about with plumbing and the like. Would have made a good sewer rat. Not any more.

I worked my way to the partition gap and shone the light around the corner. She was there, stretched out and very still, right where I expected her to be. It took me awhile to negotiate the corner and get to her body, which was unexpectedly long and heavy, after so much of her had melted away in the last month. I stroked the grey and white fur along her left side, and began crying ... such a beautiful cat ... who would start a universe and put such stunning creatures in it, only to let them shrivel away into nothingness?

The evangelicals deny a soul to cats, but Gracie had looked into my eyes, demanding an explanation. Only my equal before any gods that might be could do this as she did.

If we have souls, then so do the animals. If they do not, we do not.

I wrapped her in the shawl and crawled away with her from her last lonely hiding place.


Two days later, Beloved and I attended a gathering to which we had been invited in a very small town nearby. They had successfully raised quite a lot of money to relocate their all-volunteer library and hire a real librarian, and were celebrating with a community feed, concert and book talk.

I had a moment of alarm on entering the community hall; there were close to a hundred people, only about three of whom I knew, and they were almost all what might be called the Grange type. Beefy guys in NFL caps who drive tractors and trucks all day, and nervous, skinny wives trying to control their kids' desserts and laugh at their husbands' jokes at the same time.

We are a de facto lesbian couple, new enough at this not to be good at avoiding "public displays of affection," and we weren't about to sit apart, even in this roomful of Winchester® belt buckles and keepsake bracelets. And I'm still in the dark, a bit, as to how well I can pass in this kind of setting.

Not to worry.

The wives pulled me into line, chatted me up, filled my plate and Styrofoam cup, made room for me at the long tables, and traded admiring looks at pictures of children and grandchildren with me. Old Home Week. Beloved squeezed my hand under the table, pleased to see that it was working for me.

I went for a coffee refill for us both, and a huge jolly looking white-haired man, who clearly didn't see me, cut right in front of me at the urn, talking over my head to a man behind me. I waited patiently, and he almost backed over me as he turned, never skipping a conversational beat. I got my refill and then Beloved's -- she uses twice the sugar and cream that I do -- and as I stepped away to return to the tables, Mr. Big began to back over me again, from yet another direction. I was saved by the man he was talking to, who grabbed him and hauled him out of my path. In all this time, he never knew I was there.

I found a word rolling around in my mouth, as if I had never tasted it before: boorish.

So present to the wives, so invisible to the husbands! "Welcome to our world," I have been told more than once.

As I got back to our seats, miraculously not spilling, I heard the emcee introduce "the musical event of the evening, some sweet and crazy guys who need no introduction." To wild acclaim, four men, as unlike one another in looks and build as could be imagined, wearing red blazers, ascended to the stage. I recognized my heavy-set nemesis among them.

They were the local barbershop quartet, and I could see from the faces around me that they were highly regarded.

After regaling us with some doubtful but gently tolerated humor, they launched into "My Home Town," with marvelously tight harmonies. My Santa look-alike turned out to be the tenor, and a remarkably talented one at that. We all erupted into applause. The smallest of the four, the lead singer, with a boyish face and smooth, ruddy cheeks belying his sparse white hair, stepped forward.

"Now, all you ladies out there worked really hard to bring us all together this evening, and we fellas want to show our appreciation, so we are dedicating this next song to you."

He stepped back into line, and the baritone reached into his pocket, brought out a tuning pipe, and blew a short note. "Hmmmm ..." went the four of them. The lead began, and one line at a time, each of the others joined in, as when singing a round.

If you listen I'll sing you a sweet little song
Of a flower that's now dropt and dead,
Yet dearer to me, yes than all of its mates,
Though each holds aloft its proud head.
Twas given to me by a girl that I know,
Since we've met, faith I've known no repose.
She is dearer by far than the world's brightest star,
And I call her my wild Irish Rose.

My wild Irish Rose, the sweetest flower that grows.
You may search everywhere, but none can compare
with my wild Irish Rose.
My wild Irish Rose, the dearest flower that grows,
And some day for my sake, she may let me take
the bloom
from my wild Irish Rose.

They may sing of their roses, which by other names,
Would smell just as sweetly, they say.
But I know that my Rose would never consent
To have that sweet name taken away.
Her glances are shy when e'er I pass by
The bower where my true love grows,
And my one wish has been that some day I may win
The heart of my wild Irish Rose.

My wild Irish Rose, the sweetest flower that grows.
You may search everywhere, but none can compare
with my wild Irish Rose.
My wild Irish Rose, the dearest flower that grows,
And some day for my sake, she may let me take
the bloom
from my wild Irish Rose.

The effect, on me at least, was electric. I found myself sitting up straighter, proud to have a song dedicated to me, even if I did come late to the party. Around me were women who had made more than 40,000 beds; perhaps that had indeed taken the bloom from them, in a manner of speaking, but you could see they regarded it as having been, in a way that has been important for thousands of years, an honor.

I don't think I was the only lady present who reached for her handkerchief.

-- risa b


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