Been a strange few weeks here, portents of life’s inevitable ebb swirling through the days like the countless dead leaves I’ve been raking in two states. As you may recall, this time of year is now tinged with Dad’s fairly rapid passing a few years back. (Google my surname and “Blue Christmas” for that read. That’s a piece of writing I go back to every now and then to remind myself how strange those last days were. And I got the anger, sadness, confusion and thorny resolve down better than I thought I had at the time.)
There’s this woman I keep seeing when I’m out sweeping leaves in Astoria, and I’ve been doing that a lot lately. It seems like every week there’s a crushing load of newly-fallen leaves to be swept up and deposited in those sturdy brown paper eco-friendly bags. As I’ve stated before, I enjoy doing this, partially for the joy of seeing a finite job through to completion, partially because it makes me feel I’m part of nature in a small way, sweeping up after her, respecting the dead in an odd way, can’t just leave them lying all over the street.
She’s an old Indian woman – Hindu Indian, not American Indian. Wrapped from head to toe in swaddling white robes, her face covered with a white sheath. She moves slowly, shuffling, up and down the blocks around me, but never on my sidewalk as I’m sweeping. First saw her on that overcast Veterans Day, but I’ve seen her the last two times I’ve swept, including today. I take it this is just an old woman in the neighborhood stretching her legs. But with gray and windy late fall skies, her robes flapping in the wind, only seeing her eyes and hands … it fucking freaks me out! I expect her to pull a scythe from under her robes and beckon me with a bony brown finger, my time to leave. For all the pleasant, older dog walkers I’ve been meeting out there lately, people who stop and say hello, offering words of encouragement while they let me pet their feisty little terriers, she’s the one who sticks with me most.
When I was back home in PA for Thanksgiving, Brother J and I performed the inevitable big leaf rake in the yard, getting eight pick-up truck loads this time (and he’ll have that many more on his own in a few weeks). Andy S. mentioned awhile back that our adventures with the ill-defined dumping space between the local cemetery and township storage shed came off like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” with us fretting every passing car and stray glance. Well, Mom called up the township and found it was kosher for us to dump mounds of leaves in that craggy space, so this year was worry free.
Save that there was another strange vision this Thanksgiving afternoon. The weather was all over the place, like in Scotland, sunny and windy for an hour, then drizzly, back and forth all afternoon. We had to beat the possibility of rain and the certainty of sundown. We did, but as we did, we noticed while transporting each pick-up truck load that there was an old man sitting in a yoga pose by a grave about 30 yards from us at the cemetery’s edge. He looked like Howard Hughes: sixtyish, scraggly long gray hair and beard, sunglasses, and I’m not making this up, he appeared to be wearing a bath robe and slippers … in 40-degree weather. (We didn’t get close enough to see if his fingernails were a foot long.)
Having been raised by that cemetery, we knew to expect odd scenes from time to time. People blown out by emotion, weeping over graves, or hugging tombstones, or singing, or what have you when people visit graves and feel the full brunt of pain they can’t or won’t in their every-day lives. Nothing wrong with that – however you have to get that shit out, better to do so than not allow yourself to feel that way ever. This old man appeared to be meditating in that cold, intermittent drizzle. We thought it best to just leave him alone, go about our business, hope he wouldn’t get too strange, but we had business to do and went about it.
By the next-to-last load, we noticed he was lying down on his side and appeared to be slowly waving his left arm in a circle. At this point, we’re both thinking, what the fuck. Is this guy on acid? Is he preparing for the spirit world on his self-designated last day on earth? Again, I think our attitude was leave the guy alone. Wherever he was mentally, neither of us wanted to go there. If we came back for the last load and he was motionless, then we’d intervene to make sure he was alive.
The last load, he was still waving his arm. Luckily, we noticed an SUV pulling towards him as we pulled away, another (more sane looking) older man driving, wearing one of those natty old-man fur hats with a feather in the side flap. I’m hoping those two knew each other, otherwise, the guy driving was in for a memorable experience as he visited a near-by grave.
If you want an informal dividing line for growing older, you can safely say you’re older when you want to avoid graveyards like the plague, because you understand that one day, probably sooner than you think, you’re going to be in there. Whereas I can still recall kids, especially teenagers, craving the forbidden nature of hanging out in graveyards at night, think all those legendary rock-star graves where fans hang out getting high and pouring out the star’s share of Boone’s Farm on some moonlit night. Well, later for that shit! When you start putting family members and friends into the ground, you’re not going to find anything cool or romantic about these places any time of the day or night.
On my morning runs back there, I go up and down Spring Crest hill. Spring Crest is a small pond in a hollow off the top of the hill – you have to take a quarter-mile unpaved road to get there. I haven’t seen that pond in decades. The last time, it was being stocked with trout back when I was a kid in the 70s, my amazement at seeing all those big trout flopping around in the shallow water. On the side of Spring Crest hill I come down, there’s another small pond and a creek running from it that winds all along what used to be a deep woods area called the Milee, which has seen a fair share of single-family houses spring up over the past few decades.
As I was coming down the Spring Crest hill, I noticed color-copied pictures of a cat’s face, an average black-and-white dappled cat’s face, with the message of “Who Killed Jaxx????” written underneath it in big black letters.
In my mind, I immediately pictured a heart-broken little girl, and her angry mother, finding their dead cat by the side of the road at the bottom of the hill, so put out emotionally that someone would run over their family pet and leave it there to die that they went home, fired up the home computer, found the best picture of Jaxx, ran off a dozen color copies on the Ink Jet, and nailed them to trees and telephone poles in a 30-yard line leading up the hill from the small bridge at the bottom.
It seemed like overkill to me at first. I cynically thought, “Christ, cats get run over all the time, I know it sucks, but what’s someone driving a car going to do, stop there, phone the cops, tell them he just ran over a cat and wait for a shitload of recriminations once word reaches the cat’s owners? It’s a bad deal. Most cats in the country run free at night. They rarely die of old age. My family’s had a handful of dogs that have all died of old age, and about half a dozen cats over the years, nearly all of them checking out early.
The last morning though, I saw the main sign, which I hadn’t before, on a large tree by the bridge. It was on legal-size paper and had a more full explanation of Jaxx’s fate: “To whoever shot Jaxx on this spot and left him here to die, how do you live with yourself?”
I know the world is filled with people who are just no good, but reading that sign gave me a real twinge. I’d ask what kind of asshole shoots cats, but I know there are all kinds of assholes who shoot cats, and worse. Still, I put myself in the mind of a little girl who finds her pet cat with a bullet-hole in it by the side of the road, and now all the pictures on the trees make sense. The heartbreak over-shadowed by the rage. About 20 years ago, on a near-by hill, some kid (whose name I know but won’t use) killed the dog, a german shepherd, of a neighboring farming family with a few shots from a .22 rifle, simply because the dog, a farm dog that was known to wander, was on his family’s property. Causing some very bad blood between those families, which tends to happen when a simple angry phone call to the local cops would suffice instead of a bullet in a senseless animal’s brain.
But you live around farms, you sometimes see a very hard, senseless attitude in which “animal cruelty” doesn’t exist. I still recall one of the fathers of a friend out the road choosing to drown three kittens their cat had just given birth to instead of taking the minimal effort to give them to the local SPCA or find out if anyone would take them. Drowned them in a burlap bag in a wash tub, a day after my friend and I had been playing with them. Without a second thought. Looked at his eight-year-old son weird when he started crying over this news like the kid didn’t understand how the world worked.
To shoot a cat by the side of the road? That’s just Jeffrey Dahmer behavior. So to answer the wounded family’s question on the home-made sign, the only answer they’ll ever get: some cowardly asshole, one of millions in the world. I suspect they’ll never get a straighter answer than that, and that whoever shot Jaxx, and probably has seen the signs as this is a back road on which someone felt relaxed enough to shoot a gun, is too stupid to feel shame. The guy (kid?) is probably laughing when he sees the signs. But it always sucks to see a kid (I’m assuming there’s a kid involved here) be forced to recognize the inexplicable ugliness of the world a little too early.
Guy Clark’s “Queenie’s Song,” concerning his dog being gunned down by an anonymous jerk on a cold New Year’s Day in New Mexico, covers the same ground. So long, Jaxx, I suspect you will never be forgotten.