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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Swimming Lessons

It sounded, we later agreed, like a deer burrowing under the front porch. From the vegetable garden where I wrestled with deep-rooted dandelions, I could see just the edges of the struggle. I shouted for my father to come which, of course, drew the entire family along. From all edges of our property they headed toward the commotion at different speeds, each according to his disposition. My sister was the first to arrive, panting from a quick sprint, my little brother was second, his preferred locomotion a skip. My mother strode up next, removing her gardening gloves from her hands and tucking them into her belt. I fell in behind, shaking the dirt off my skirt and wiping my forehead with the back of my hand.
Our front porch had for years been the site of a pitched battle between Dad and the family of raccoons who thus far had dug through every barricade he'd erected. Today's havoc was wreaked by something much larger than a raccoon, though. The concrete pavers that leaned against the trellis which had been nailed to an old masonry board which had been dug several feet underground; all had been tossed around like toys in a kid's room.
We took turns lying on our stomachs to peek beyond the debris under the porch. Two round golden eyes glowed back at us from the dark.
My dad was last to arrive, limping a little from the wrench he'd dropped on his foot.
"What in hell?" He asked this question all the time, never expecting an answer. This time,  Mom supplied one.
"It's a dog, I think. Probably ran away from the hunt."
Fear didn't occur to us as we stood in the aftermath of the battle for the porch. No predatory animals had been spotted on the Island in decades. After a while Mom left, returning with a peeled boiled egg. She made kissing noises at the eyes. They blinked.
"Come on, boy," she said. "It's okay. Come on, look, a treat!" The eyes focused on her, and a gentle, rhythmic whining issued forth. Mom could wheedle milk from a turkey.
Slowly, the outline of a dog—full chest, tapered waist and hound-dog head blackened by dirt—emerged from under the porch. Formal introductions were made, during which, still shivering, he politely sniffed hands all around. Then he shook, methodically, starting in his shoulders and ending with his tail, spraying us with earth from his coat. Taking the egg delicately from my mother's fingers, he strolled without hesitation through the open door of our house. We followed him into the kitchen and watched him make his bed on the braided rug in front of the sink. This would be his favorite spot for the rest of his life.
Physically, Ranger was the Platonic Ideal of his breed. His brown velvet ears, the saddle on his speckled coat, his brisk, cropped tail, his earnest expression—all were positioned and proportioned as though from a blueprint issued by the American Kennel Club. And he wasn't just a perfect physical specimen; he embodied the German Shorthair Pointer spirit, as well. At the barest hint of a bird's presence, his muscular body formed a perfect point, aimed at the precise location of his prey, and readied itself to launch into action at his master's command.
But at the gun's bark, instead of fetching, he fled.
According to his breeder—a carefully dressed hunter who'd tracked Ranger to our door—the dog had shown great promise until today. His bloodlines were immaculate, his training comprehensive. It was obvious, from the way the hunter spoke, that Ranger had been destined to be top dog in the man's award-winning kennel; to become apex stud of a decades-long breeding program. And, moments before his headlong flight, Ranger seemed poised to fulfill his destiny. He had, the hunter said—with a clipped, bitter pride—quietly pointed to, then, on whistled command, flushed out a brace of pheasants in the confident manner of one born to the task. His owner took out two of the clutch in one shot—this was related in a way that was carefully not self-congratulatory—but the hunter's next command, “Fetch!” fell in empty air on the space where a dog used to be. At the rifle's crack, Ranger had run as though he himself had been shot from the gun. A few minutes and three miles later, he was cowering under our front porch, covered in dirt.
In the space of a single shotgun blast, Ranger had become a blight on his own ancestry.
"There's not much you can do when a dog's born gun shy," the man said. "I mean, when it happens by accident, like if someone stuck some birdshot in his butt, you might be able train it out of him." He lit the smoke he'd pulled from a silver cigarette case "But a dog like this—afraid his own shadow's going to bite him—well, there's not much you can do about that. Besides cull him."
My mother gasped aloud, giving voice to our collective concern. We all thought we'd heard "kill him", which may, in fact, have been implied, but we never knew because our parents volunteered immediately—as if under some hypnotic spell cast by the hunter—to keep Ranger as a pet. In short order, they'd also promised to have him fixed, and tell no one where we'd gotten him. And thus, preempting the negotiations we dog-starved kids had been opening for years, Ranger was invited to live in the sanctuary where his flight from the gun had ended.
Before he drove off in his oversized red pickup, the hunter asked Dad if he could have a last moment with the dog. Dad said yes, of course. As the man grabbed Ranger's collar and pulled him off a distance, we could all see it wasn't just guns the dog feared. The man seemed to be fondling Ranger's ear when the dog uttered two sharp yelps and pulled himself away to gallop back to the kitchen of our house.
When we gathered around Ranger, lounging on the now filthy  braided rug, I saw that the AKC tattoo inside his ear had been replaced with a seeping burn; a fairly common approach for a kennel seeking to protect its reputation from a defective dog. There were worse ways, said Island lore, everyone knew someone who'd said they'd seen gun shy dogs being flung from the Island ferry ten miles from shore.
We were all murmuring sadly over Ranger's poor ear when Mom noticed the lump in the side of his cheek. Gently, she lifted the flap of his jowl to reveal the egg she'd given him two hours before. He dropped it into her hand. It was perfectly intact, without so much as a tooth scratch marring its rubbery surface.

For me, the year Ranger arrived was a complicated one. I was fifteen years old and had begun to find a new purpose for the boys in my small world. I may have been a late bloomer but I was also a practical one, so I took stock of the options available within the confines of our little island in the middle of Lake Erie. My future, contained as it was within the thirty four square miles of my world, seemed set in the island's bedrock.
That was the summer my chest, before then unobtrusively flat, burgeoned forth, making one boy awkward and shuffling, the next aggressive and forward, as though I'd grown breasts just to taunt them.
One night, to the lapping of the lake against the dock where we sat, I kissed Randy Jimson with a confused energy he mistook for invitation. An oddly polite, slow motion struggle ensued. When I finally writhed free, I was left with semen on my jeans and a lasting sense of chagrin.
My best friend Stan, who'd become awkward and shuffling when I grew breasts, became silent and angry after the kiss. Stan and I had spent many summers jumping into the hay in his uncles' barn, lounging around the Island's one general store, fishing in a borrowed boat, or, when we had money to buy ammunition, engaged in target practice in a field. After the kiss, Stan was always too busy or tired or abrupt to play.
After the kiss, Randy called me repeatedly, having the impression that we were now "going together," but I sent him off with a forced. Later, he would tell everyone he ditched me because, sexually, I was both voracious and odd. Rumor is the primary news source in a small community, and the entirety of the island's population—which peaked at 150 during tourist season—had heard the broadcast within a week. While there was no overt unkindness, I could guess what was going unsaid in their neutral tones; the false secret that dogged me in the potluck serving line; the raised eyebrows that made my one friend too busy to fish or swim or even, it seemed, smile.
As time passed, Ranger filled space left by Stan. He wasn't much of a conversationalist, but then, Stan hadn't been all that talkative either. We would walk for hours, up and down the hedge rows, following his nose wherever it led us, as long as it wasn't hunting season. The moment Ranger heard gunshot, though, he'd abandon me for his haven under the porch, running as though pursued by dog-eating demons.
Years of exposure never allayed Ranger's fear of the gun, and his webbed toes and waterproof coat had not averted his fear of water.
Every single time my siblings and I went swimming, from the moment a single one of us was knee deep in the lake until the moment we were all on dry land, Ranger would race back and forth along the length of the beach, barking continually, the length of our swim measured by the hoarseness of his voice. Whether we were in the water for five minutes or two hours, Ranger never lost one iota of conviction: We were willfully endangering ourselves, and he was duty-bound to sound the alarm every second we remained in peril.
"What in hell is he doing?" We watched Dad's head swivel, his face incredulous, as he tracked Ranger's hysterical progress up and down the beach. From our various spots in the water we burst into laughter. This was the first time our father had witnessed what we called Ranger's Erie-o-phobia. We’d grown accustomed to the dog’s tenacious panic, but the expression on Dad’s face renewed the hilarity. We enjoyed the dog's plight, and we'd egg him on every way we could think of. I would call him to me in my sweetest voice, my brother would throw sticks into the water for him to fetch; My sister would shriek and flail and pretend to be pulled under.
Really, it didn't matter what we did—he behaved the same whether we splashed or floated. Ranger's fear wasn't caused by water. It came from inside him.
One afternoon, my dad called me in from my seat between the trellised rows in the vegetable garden, where I was believed to be picking and shelling peas for supper. I'd finished with the peas an hour ago, though, and now Jane Austen was introducing me to Fitzwilliam Darcy's finer qualities. I closed my book and dawdled my way to the house. I had an idea of what was coming.
"Sit down, now," Dad said, indicating the kitchen table, his voice formal. We'd reached an awkward camaraderie over the years. He was a good father, patient and careful, and yet so unlike me it seemed we existed on different planes. He used to say I made him feel like a hen trying to raise a duckling. We loved each other well enough for us both to try to understand when the other talked.
Mom was already sitting at the table, her eyes cast downward—guiltily, I decided—her finger idly tracing the lines in the butcher block.
"Your mother says you only applied to that one college. I thought you'd put down three."
"Well, I'm not really interested in going away to college, Dad." Now I was the one staring hard at the table, "it's just not something I see myself spending four years with."
"Sarah," he said, pausing until I looked up at him. "Not everyone gets a chance to get a higher education. Me and your mum, for example, neither of us could of gotten in if we'd applied. But you've got a real chance to get your bachelors degree. That's an important thing."
"But you don't need to study the Liberal Arts to know how to plan crop rotations, Dad.
You can always read, for fun. But college isn't supposed to be fun. We can't afford to pay tuition for you to read when you're supposed to be managing the harvest." I risked a glance at his face, and he was staring directly into my eyes. Dad was never one for analogy.

Ranger's terror on the beach routine was an almost daily occurrence that summer. Our favorite swimming spot was two minutes from our house, and the heat was setting new records, so we were there every second our days would allow. Freed both from the heat and from gravity, I'd float on my back, slowly kicking back and forth, while Ranger, trapped onshore, kept up the alarm regardless of the temperature.
Oddly, Ranger always enjoyed the walk to the beach, never anticipating its purpose. He would bounce happily along, occasionally stopping to point at a pheasant peering out from behind a bush, then rushing at the bird with an innate efficiency that belied his sensitive side. Not once did he associate the bathing suits under our clothes, the towels over our arms—even the rubber dingy Dad carried occasionally on his head—with the terror of our immersion in the lake. He'd lope along, oblivious, until the moment one of us was in the water, and that was it. Up and down the beach he'd run, back and forth, never breaking stride, bellowing hysterically all the while.
"He's a total mental case. That's all there is to it." My brother's assessment may have been unkind, but it wasn't untrue. No one had ever heard of a dog who was afraid of the lake. On the Island, water was half of every landscape. Besides, dogs were expected to hold down more than one job. To be a companion, that was an important thing, but you still had to earn your keep. Ranger’s only side project was killing the neighbor’s chickens, a fact which did not endear him to Joe, the antique curmudgeon who owned the farm next to ours. Joe made Mom pay top dollar for every mangled hen Ranger dropped so devotedly at her feet.
On a rainy day that July, as I walked down the hallway between our rooms, my sister Kelly reached out of her room and caught me by the arm. She looked both ways down the hall, then pulled me into her room. Placing a finger over her mouth, she peeked one last time out the door of her room, then closed it and pulled me down to sit beside her on the frilly pink coverlet of her bed. I waited. She smiled broadly, gave a little squeal, and started flapping both arms at the elbows, her blonde curls bouncing in time.
"He asked me!" She finally released in an almost silent, hissing squeal.
Kelly was my favorite person in the world and we'd been communicating in shorthand since she was five and I was three. Things that took me ten minutes to relate to Dad I could tell her in three words.
In the three words she'd uttered that day, she conveyed that John, her boyfriend of four years, had finally proposed and that she had accepted. They'd set a date, they were planning four kids. She likely had ferry tickets in her purse, for her and I to go the mainland to pick out her dress.
Seeing the expression on my face, she put both hands on her hips.
"Oh, stop it, Sarah! You be happy for me, starting right now!"
I didn't say anything. There was no point.
"I know, I know. You think I should move away; maybe live on the mainland for a while first. Explore all the options before I decide. But I don’t need to do that. I just know."
"But how can you possibly 'just know'?" I said. "You've never been off the Island more than a week in your life." My protest was uttered by rote; there was no chance she'd listen, but someone in her life had to suggest investigating other options. And it wouldn't occur to anyone else.
The truth was, though, that I'd always been able to picture her as a farmer's wife; her waist getting thicker, her cheeks rosier, her curls a little tighter with each sensible haircut. The truth also was that she'd be content that way.
All of this was in her quiet eyes as we sat there on the bed that day. So I recanted.
"I'm sorry," I said, fighting for sincerity. "John's a good guy. I know you'll be great together." She laughed, and her eyes grew moist, and I hugged her so she couldn't see that mine remained dry.
She held both my hands in hers and squeezed them for emphasis.
"Don't worry," she said. "You'll meet someone, too, I just know it! I hear John's cousin is thinking of moving back to the Island. He's really cute. Trust me, no-one in John's family would pay attention to anything coming out of Randy Jimson's mouth."
And that's how Randy's rumor circled back to roost. My family had been watching me with an odd, new knowledge in their eyes for at least a week, and that was the moment I noticed it. Now, my father's throat clearing, my brother's sidelong eye, my mother's pointed glance, my sister's worried smile; all had the same meaning as Stan's granite silence.
I protected them all by feigning oblivion, but the knowledge that they'd been affected by the rumor themselves made me very angry; gave me furious dreams of shrinking rooms and steel tunnels and laughing crows.
As much as I couldn't imagine being trapped in the Island's endless cycle of gossip, seed, tractor and combine, Kelly couldn't imagine anything else. So she pulled out the ferry schedule and we planned a trip to pick out dresses and flowers, while I forced myself to smile for her happiness.
Ranger never lost his fear of guns, but his fear of water was cured in about three minutes one very hot day that August. It was a typical afternoon and we were heading for our usual swimming spot. This time, though, we were accompanied by Spanks, an oversized, lumbering Black Lab, lumpy and skinny in all the wrong spots. He wasn’t a pretty dog, but he was as sweet as any you’d ever met. He was gentle and quiet, even with little kids and yappy dogs. And he was an excellent hunter, everyone said. He'd crash through a crust of ice in duck season without hesitation, the moment the bird fell from the sky. He always came back with his prize, dropping it gently at his owner's feet, never leaving so much as a drop of saliva on the bird’s unruffled feathers. He would have been horrified at the idea of killing a defenseless chicken.
One of Spanks' primary responsibilities was to take lunch out to the fields where Bob, his owner, worked long hours to get the crops in. Bob's wife would say, “Take this to Daddy, Spanks; take it to Daddy,” and she'd put the bag—containing all sorts of dog delicacies like cold cuts and cheese, along with the can of Pabst—on the floor. Spanks would just pick it up and let himself out, the screen door banging behind him. Brenda  never even bothered to watch him leave. It didn’t occur to her to worry that Spanks would steal "Daddy's" lunch for himself. He wouldn’t.
This was the paragon of canine virtue who accompanied us the day Ranger learned to swim. If I were a dog, I would have resented Spanks for setting the bar so impossibly high. As a human, I grew tired of hearing how easy Spanks was to train, how fearless and tireless and gentle he was. Every bit of carefully earned praise felt like an insult to my dog. And yet Spanks, for all his eager perfection, could not be less to blame.
Arriving at the shoreline that day, we lay our beach towels on some rocks in the sun and started mincing our way into the water. When Ranger loosed his first volley of hysterical barking. Spanks jumped to his feet and scanned the horizon, trying to determine where the menace from the water originated. No threat became apparent, so he joined Ranger's back and forth flight, barking at random intervals with the expression of one unsure whether it was time to applaud or if this was just a short pause in a long-winded aria. Ranger gave him no notice, just kept up the sound and fury, and eventually Spanks stopped following, sank his haunches to the sand and simply observed. As he watched, panting, his head moving back and forth like the audience at a slow-motion tennis match, Spanks' tongue hung long out the side of his mouth. It was obvious he was thinking, "What in hell?"
The big dog seemed content to observe for a while, but I guess he soon grew tired of the racket and it was an especially hot day for someone in a thick black coat, so, casual as could be, he leapt into the water and swam toward us.
Ranger, observing this momentous act, cut off the alarm abruptly as one beheaded. He froze in place, his body rigid, watching Spanks with something like terrified awe. I think it had never before occurred to him that dogs, like humans, could be suicidal maniacs. Ranger stood there, transfixed, his eyes following Spanks as the big dog pushed himself determinedly through the water, stopping at each person to be patted and praised. Eventually, Spanks circled back to shore. He wasn't more than three feet from Ranger when he stopped and gave several mighty shakes, showering my dog in the droplets flying from his thick black coat. But Ranger didn't flinch. He just waited until the Spanks was done, and then sniffed him all over; the Lab lifting limbs obligingly as Ranger contemplated the meaning of each scent.
Satisfied with his investigations, Ranger trotted to the water's edge, his gaze leveled on me. I called him. He stood very still for a quiet moment, and then, gathering himself, leapt into the lake as though tearing himself from the land. He bounded through the water until it was deep enough to swim and then kept coming, his expression patient, unchanging. When he reached me, he paused long enough to wet my cheek with his nose, then turned and headed back to shore.
Later, when I ran shivering out of the water to throw a towel over my goose-pimpled shoulders, Ranger was lying on a rock, snoozing in the sun.
For the rest of his life, that's what he did whenever we swam.
When we returned to the house that afternoon, my mom was running toward us through the corn, waving an embossed envelope over her head. My father walked behind her, a strained smile pinching his face.
I'd won a scholarship to the college of my choice; a full ride, half a country away.

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