In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
[p.115]Such questions. Sizzy had hers.
Such as, why did the damn milk thistle grow so thick on her mom and dad’s grave? And what (since Sizzy had gotten up every single morning for her fifty-one years and had done exactly what lay before her to do) would happen if there came a morning when she just didn’t haul out of bed?
And were there people on other planets—way out there, too far to see even the stars that would be a sun to those people—were there farmhouses out there, and were people born and raised up and died in those houses? And did thistles swallow up people’s yards, and did the older people there remember what it was like to swim in the cool of a ditch in the summer? Or to sit under a sycamore, salting and eating stalks of rhubarb even though a childhood like that was a million light years past?
And what was it that the dog on the highway wouldn’t forget, and would the dog love Sizzy eventually?
She must have gone past that dog half a dozen times, driving alongside the hayfields on her way to clean the junior high in Monroe and then on her way home, before she glimpsed it out of the corner of her eye, and even then she drove past the intersection another half dozen times before she realized: that dog had become a fixture. She [p.116]stopped the car and backed up. She pulled the car over into the weeds on the ditchbank and got out. Pooch, she said. She moved closer to the dog and squatted down. Come here, pooch. Its tail thumped twice but it stayed where it was. The dog looked a sight, with burrs all knotted into its coat.
Sizzy was watering the yard, but not concentrating, looking out west at the hills, thinking about how if you and your parents and brothers and sister took a picnic up there in August it was cool up in the aspen stands, when T. L. Long wandered over from his room at the back of the house and said, If, as you say, God is going to resurrect the dead, then just consider this. Let’s consider that dog on the highway for instance. Say that God has big plans at the last day to rebuild that dog’s dead body and bring him into heaven. But let’s just say that a big semi comes along and flattens the dog, and part of it, bits of hair and skin and blood, rolls down the highway on the tire of this semi, and then other tires collect other bits of it and go their way and very soon that dog is scattered to the four corners, not to mention ground into a paste between the cracks of asphalt. Then just tell me, even if God wants to do it, how is he going to put that dog back together? Sizzy made no answer but she swung the hose hard and hit T. L. across the face with the nozzle. Just then a semitruck barreled around the curve of the road and roared past.
It wasn’t the blood T. L. tasted so much as the curiosity. He drew a fist across his mouth and examined the bloodied skin of his knuckles. This was Sizzy who had injured him. Sizzy, who normally hardly dented the rim of people’s consciousness, who took in anything she ever found that was wounded.
She didn’t mean to do it—it just happened—and she was sorry about it, but she couldn’t listen to that talk. She came out of the house with a cloth and ice. Gingerly, she touched it to the swollen place.
T. L. Long nurtured questions of his own. In fact, if he had only one thing to say to life it was that nothing mattered more than the right questions. He had carefully crafted his, one by one, and never did he go to a place without carrying one across his shoulders. In T. L.’s mind, if a man knew the questions, then he far surpassed common people, who were content with answers, answers to questions they hadn’t even asked. You watch the billboards as they flash by, T. L. Long thought. Explanations on everyone. You listen to the radio, read the ad flyers that blow into corners in alleys, you watch the television.
[p.117]For Sizzy, wheeling the trash can every day through classrooms, a problem to solve on every blackboard: In the English room: Why does Holden distrust the world? or Diagram “For a long time, the girl with yellow braids sat in the back seat of the car, chewing her fingernail.“ In Social Studies: List the principal exports of Japan. In Health: In your journal, describe a time when you felt peer pressure. How did you react? What decision did you make? What were the consequences? Sizzy’s job was to erase the blackboards thoroughly unless the teacher left a note: Do not erase.
When Sizzy wanted to stop her brain, she looked across the valley at the hills. The hills had always been there. They looked like large drowsy animals to her or like mothers saying Come in now. She couldn’t explain that.
Sometimes, of an evening, the moon grew until it filled the sky, and that was when the voice of the dog at the crossroad carried into all the crevices of the valley. T. L., playing his concertina late into the night, tried to outsing the dog.
Cheeks as red as a blooming rose,
eyes of the deepest brown:
You are the darling of my heart.
Stay till the sun goes down.
These are the places where T. L. had been: on an aircraft carrier, behind the grill in a Nebraska truck stop, in jail, in a congregation of Methodists, on the tip of Patagonia, and now in Sizzy Miner’s spare room.
It got so that after work Sizzy would park her car at the junction and sit in the weeds beside the dog and watch the cars go by. Sometimes she touched him. He’d look her way in surprise, then he’d go back to looking down the highway. Sometimes cars came one after another, and pickups with rifles hung across the back window, and dumptrucks hauling fill dirt. Sometimes the road was clear for a quarter hour at a time.
Sizzy collected T. L. Long the same way she collected lost cats and hurt birds. At their first encounter he was sleeping with his back against a storefront—the very same storefront where her father used to have a variety store—with his legs across the sidewalk. She, lugging a bag of wild birdseed practically as big as herself, didn’t see him. Her sneaker [p.118]knocked against his ankle and she flipped forward and landed facedown on the bag. It split open. Tiny grains of millet rolled in all directions. What the? T. L. said. Sizzy looked at the birdseed and how it had rolled into every crevice in the sidewalk the asphalt the gutter and even her clothes, and she thought about that story where the peasant girl has to pick thousands of seeds out of a pile of dirt by sundown or lose her head. Let me help you there, T. L. said after he was awake for sure. Later, when she asked about him, he told her, I’m recovering. She had a spare room, she told him. He might as well sleep there as out on the sidewalk.
Sometimes when Sizzy was sitting by the dog, she would fall into daydreams. She would remember picking chokecherries along the dirt roads in the hills and in the winter pouring the dark syrup of them on pancakes. Sometimes somebody would slow down and yell out, Hey Sizzy, who are you waiting for? Sizzy worked burrs out of the dog’s coat. Sometimes in the heat of the afternoon everything all around her seemed to be dozing and there was nothing awake except her and the dog.
From the back stoop, T. L. could look up at the slope behind the house and its bristle of sage and scrub. The stoop had become comfortable to him. The wall he leaned up against had kind of adjusted itself to his imprint. How long would it take, he wondered, before just the weight of my body, added to all the wind and sun and snow, would make this old house collapse? One time, just at dusk, when birds all came around to Sizzy’s birdbath, he thought he saw a ringtail moving through the sage.
It almost broke her heart to see the dog sitting so still, looking down the road like that. If she could only see it frisking about, jumping and smiling like a dog was supposed to, she could sleep better at night. Once she lifted the dog into the car—it was such a little dog—and took it home, tied it up, and cooked it a steak. She told it stories. The dog sniffed at the steak and then ate it, taking precise bites. After he had eaten, he laid his head on his paws and looked out toward the highway.
These are the places where Sizzy had been: in the house where she and her little brothers grew up (the house where her mom canned all the vegetables and berries she could get her hands on, sewed overalls, darned socks, cooked up big pots of soup); in her dad’s store, where she liked to be but only after closing, because then she could [p.119]hide among the shelves and bins, she could rub lemon oil into the dark wood of the counter and make swirls with a wet mop on the dusty floor; inside Jefferson High School, once (long ago) as a young excitable girl, now as assistant janitor, and when she was steering that vacuum cleaner twice her size along empty hallways she felt like an absence.
T. L. told her that it was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, T. L. said, you’ll break down that No Trespassing sign he has hung around his heart and he’ll be devoted to you as he is to whoever the son of a bitch it was abandoned him. Sizzy was sitting on the porch with her arms clasped around her legs, watching the dog watch the road. She felt grateful to T. L. even though she knew he was lying. T. L. came and sat beside her with the dog between them. How’s your mouth, Sizzy said.
When Sizzy untied him, the dog never looked back. He threaded his way between the old wringer washer and bike frame that decorated Sizzy’s yard and trotted through the old skewed gate and on out to the highway. A car zoomed by, close enough to ruffle the coat that was probably once white, but the dog didn’t flinch. He kept trotting, steady and pale. He knew where he was heading.
T. L. strolled to town for a can of sardines and a box of crackers. The dog was sitting right where he always sat, in the weeds at the intersection of 49 and Bowden. Four big trailer rigs hauling gravel roared by, one after the other.
T. L. was working on the problem of immortality. He sat on Sizzy’s back stoop and stared at the sagebrush, playing his concertina. In his opinion, nobody had ever adequately thought this subject out and it was T. L.’s goal to examine one by one all the neglected subjects. Take Sizzy and her dog, for example. The dog, rather. There was a certain kind of immortality at work here, he thought, if only he could put his finger on it. Never mind Sizzy’s faith: He wasn’t talking about live-forever-on-clouds, but about a certain kind of joining that looped and looped as far back and forward as he could see. Something both visible and not.
Wish I had a big fine horse,
corn to feed him on,
Pretty little girl to stay at home,
feed him when I’m gone.
[p.120]The dog watched cars pass. One after the other they appeared at the top of the rise, bore down on him so that he could feel the heat of them, they passed in an instant and receded. He could hear the cars after they passed for a long time.
In the afternoons while he was still burrowed in his blanket, T. L. could hear Sizzy’s car start, the sputtery little Datsun, and he could hear it bounce down the drive and out to the shoulder of the highway. She would be on her way to work now. Beside her on the passenger seat would be a little wrapped package of bones, gristle, and one perfect chop. On the floor Sizzy’s old gallon thermos jug, filled with water, would careen and slosh as she lurched onto the highway. But the dog was no real concern of his.
Except for when she was little and thought that she might grow up to be somebody’s sweetheart and somebody’s mother or maybe a stewardess, there was nothing else that Sizzy had ever thought about being besides a janitor and she was glad for the job. She was in Mr. Godwin’s room, 323, Science, halfway down the 7th-grade wing, and her back already ached just a little, right above her right hip. She had a cart with a big trash bag that she pushed from room to room, emptying the wastebaskets, but she wasn’t very fast because sometimes she liked to see what was in the wastebaskets. Today: a couple of soda cans, a high-top canvas shoe, a hank of hair. And crumpled papers like always. She pulled one out and read. A car is like a living thing because it is highly prized use of energy, limited life span, and it responds to changes in the environment. A car is not like a living thing because it does not reproduce. definte form and limited size. It does not change over time. And the car is not made up of one or more cells. Sizzy didn’t like to look at the big glass jars that Mr. Godwin kept on the back shelf and what was inside them.
T. L. sat on Sizzy’s back step and thought about the dog and God. The dog as larger than life in its loyalty and endless patience; the dog as symptom of a desperate society; the nature of free will; the dog as human arrogance personified; hot dogs; the dog as victim of compassion; Stonehenge; why a person would even think to put on a tie. Sizzy had the sprinkler going, the kind that went ch-ch-ch-ch-shhhhhh, watering out back. Somebody’s sheep was bleating somewhere up in the hills. When the waterspray reached a certain angle, a rainbow flashed for an instant.
In the evening, as she yanked at the thistles out back, she [p.121]considered bringing the dog home again. She thought about brushing his coat and speaking to him in soothing tones. She thought about sitting with him on the front porch and stroking his head while the notes of T. L.’s concertina drifted around the house. The dog’s head in her lap. The dog asleep and warm beside her, making those little throaty noises that dogs make when they’re dreaming.
T. L. asked Sizzy about the graves out back. They were sitting on the back stoop together. It was dark almost. A couple of stars had shown themselves. T. L. had a bottle of wine, and they passed it back and forth. My dad had a variety store in town, Sizzy told him. My mother kept chickens. She had a garden like you wouldn’t believe. Also an older brother is buried back there, who died from measles when he was a baby. My dad had a shoe repair shop, T. L. said. He used to say, See this sole? This sole has walked maybe two thousand miles, but I bet you it’s never been more than five, ten miles from right here. Sizzy was getting a little tipsy. There was this lady, she said. Who every time she came into the store we had to watch her like a hawk because she used to slip little things into her purse, stuff like hair combs and little figurines. She was a respectable lady—she’d come in her hat and gloves, the wife of somebody important, I forget who. She handed T. L. the bottle. The trucks that passed were so big that sometimes they could almost feel the wind of them. The headlights severed the night. T. L. began to kind of hum. Also my dogs are back there, Sizzy said. Corky, Happy Jack, Curly, and Mimsy. Also my cats. She started to name them.
Shady Grove, my little love.
Shady Grove, my dear.
Shady Grove my little love.
I’m going to leave you here.
There was a time, like everyone else, when Sizzy had thought about how it would be to hear someone’s tread up the porch in the evening, and the door opening, and knowing that this someone was smelling the supper she was cooking and that he was coming home to her. She knew—she’d seen her parents and their forty-three years of marriage—that it sometimes happens that two people can sit on a porch swing, holding hands, during long summer twilights. But of course she hardly ever had those thoughts any more. If she could just[p.122] keep the high school in order, which was the job she was here to do, it was enough.
T. L. had lost track of the time at Sizzy’s. Where he had been before now was not present to him anymore.
One day T. L. stood in the front yard and considered the portents that lay in the highways that crisscrossed America and what their existence might mean to the survival or non-survival of humankind. A couple of sedans passed and T. L. thought about how if you were in one of those cars Sizzy’s house did not exist at all. It was while he was musing on the discrete and unforgiving nature of cars that he saw Sizzy’s gate was hanging by only one hinge. Sizzy was at work, or maybe she was sitting beside the dog in the weeds, so T. L. went into her kitchen to look for a screwdriver. He had never been in her part of the house before. Everything was in its place, furniture older than Sizzy was, photographs of what he guessed were her parents and grandparents, a crazy-quilt on the bed, and a little TV set in the corner of the living room.
One morning Sizzy was opening cans of tuna fish for the cats when a blue car, rusted bad, veered off the highway and bounced down her driveway. The door popped open and a young man jumped out, scratching at his back and looking around impatiently. He kicked at a bottle and walked through the gate that T. L. had thought about straightening. When Sizzy came to the door, he said, You the lady that takes care of the dog? Sizzy looked at him as though she had no idea what sort of a creature a dog might be. The dog out at the junction, the reporter said. That little dog, Sizzy finally said. Yeah that’s what I mean, the reporter said. So would you mind answering some questions? Sizzy said she supposed she didn’t know anything he didn’t know, or anybody else in the county.
How did you react?
What decision did you make?
What were the consequences?
Listen, said the reporter. Don’t take this personally, but it’s not my choice to do a human interest story. A murder over in Pocatello and who gets the assignment? Not me. My editor says I better do the damn human interest story or not have a job so I hope it’s convenient for you but I really need to talk to you. Can you tell me why … ? Have [p.123]you thought about …? Do you think it will ever …? Sizzy said I have to go to work now.
It occurred to T. L. walking past that he might pause and speak to the dog. Just a word. The dog glanced up.
The questions. Stuck up on the blackboards in the neat little writing of teachers. Sometimes when she came into a classroom, a teacher would be sitting at her desk, thinking. It seemed to Sizzy that the questions meant to say that if you could come up with one perfect answer you could be done with it, meaning you wouldn’t have to consider any more. The Spanish teacher’s garbage can was jammed full of unwanted papers, some of them stuck together by gum. ¿Cómo se llama? ¿Cuántos años tiene Usted?
It was mid-afternoon and T. L. Long had just got up and had a breakfast of leftover hot dog and Coke. He walked outside and looked up at the hill behind the house. A couple of cats were dozing like dead carcasses up in the sage. The hill was beginning to green up like it meant it, not in the tentative, spring-green kind of way. The thistles out back were tall and vigorous. The sun was hot on the back of his neck. T. L. stretched and yawned and decided that Sizzy’s thistles weren’t long for this world. He went to the shed. The shed was dim and crisscrossed with the handles of tools, old rope, a sloppy coil of barbed wire. When T. L. put his hand on what he guessed was a hoe, everything shifted and clattered and he couldn’t work the hoe loose without untangling everything and setting everything up neatly against the wall of the shed. By the time he got out to the graves, sweat had pasted his shirt against his shoulder blades and he had to quit. He flopped down on the front porch steps and got his breath back.
Sizzy, out back, heard the back screen slam. She stood and leaned on the hoe and put her left hand up to shade her eyes. T. L., just now up for the day, was facing the highway. He put his two thumbs against the small of his back and arched his shoulders and neck. Then he stood and yawned and rubbed his eyes and his last-night’s beard. The sun or the heat of it made him seem all wavery. Sizzy decided to quit for a while. She went in to lie down in the cool of the house.
The dog had become still as a statue.
It was one of those days when thunderclouds were piling up in the western half of the sky. The wind swirled around Sizzy’s knees as she walked over to the dog. Everything was getting dark: the air, the dog, the sounds around her. The dog looked up the road. Sizzy sat down [p.124]on the ground beside the dog, but it wasn’t easy because her back was still sore from trying to pull thistles. The weeds were bobbing about in the wind. There was the smell of the storm coming. Sometimes when she was little and tucked into bed, Sizzy could catch through the open window the taste of weather coming in from the west, from over the hills, and then she knew that wind would keep her awake. But she was in her own bed, with her parents asleep in the next room, so it didn’t matter.
Over across the valley, the hills had turned all dusky and bruised looking in the clouds’ shadow. The dog whined a little. Sizzy lay down with her back against the ground and looked up at the sky that seemed to be coming down at her with the clouds all swelling and rolling. A car passed. The sound of it was like someone hurrying to get anywhere but here.
T. L. sat on the back step and watched grasshoppers bouncing through the weeds and the sky growing more and more grim. What am I recovering from? he asked himself. It seemed a question for ethics to answer. Sizzy’s gate was flapping about crazily in the wind.
The pigweed above her head fidgeted and tossed. She put out her hand and touched the dog on the nape of his neck. He turned and licked her wrist, once.
KRISTEN ROGERS writes, edits, works, plays, and goes to church in Alpine, Utah.