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The Dogs In Renoir’s Garden

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

“There’s an extra charge each month if you don’t use their furniture.” May Elger put down the tortoise shell shoehorn and looked around her small room. She thought of her little collection of furniture as choices she might have made from a burning house. Not the most valuable things, but the first to come to mind. They had allowed her her little satinwood writing table with ormolu mounts and a graceful gilded cane chair. The chest that held her clothes—the few she needed—was Empire. On the chest was a Lowestoft armorial plate which her doctor insisted on using for an ashtray. Snuffing out his cigarettes was eroding the honey gold on the crest, but she never corrected him. He was the one who pronounced her sentences.

Only the bed belonged to the nursing home. They insisted on its remaining. Who could blame them for believing that she would need it as she grew older. The evidence was all around them. With its bulky mechanical contrivances that could manipulate your body into infinite angles, the bed looked like a small factory set down in the midst of the delicate furniture.

Her little Renoir painting which she missed most was not allowed her. The insurance company had pronounced the security at the nursing home inadequate. May considered that ironic. She had found the security so effective that in the year and ten months of her stay, and in spite of the unlocked doors, she had never ventured out of the home by herself. But then her daughter had placed her there, and May was always ready to accept the appraisal of others.

“Why wouldn’t it be less when you use your own furniture?” Ethyl grasped the slight conversational thread and held on. She saw that May had lost weight. The red and white silk dress hung on her waning frame like a large flag draped over a small casket. May’s daughter, Susan, obviously hadn’t bothered to buy anything new for her mother. But then she never bought clothes for herself. Or if she did, they all looked the same. Susan was a large bony creature, who carried a purse like a suitcase and had a habit of sitting with her legs apart and her feet planted firmly on the ground. She took after her father, who had died of a heart attack in one of the worst November storms on record after refusing to leave a duck blind until he had bagged his limit.

“They charge you because they have to store their own furniture.” May was standing in front of the mirror loosening her pearl earrings. She wasn’t used to wearing them and had forgotten the aggressive way they nipped into her ear lobes. Averting her eyes from the ghost in the mirror with the pale, blanched look of a weed working its way up through layers of mulch, she tried to recall her last outing from the nursing home. What a hateful word “outing” was, she thought, conjuring up images of helpless babies in prams and little old ladies being aired like musty sheets.

It must have been four or five months since Susan and Richard had taken her out for Easter dinner. An evening of disasters, all of them of her own making, as Susan had been quick to point out. She was surprised Susan had given Ethyl permission for this luncheon.

“The Mengles finally had that old privet hedge yanked out,” Ethyl said. It was pleasant to pretend they still had their suburban street in common. The two women had been next door neighbors for 30 years. Luckily May never asked about her own home. Susan and Richard had moved in, telling Ethyl over the brick wall that separated the two gardens, “We’re here to keep an eye on things until mother comes back.”

If that were true, why were so many of May’s things being carried out her front door? Ethyl had seen a well-known auctioneer leave with two large cartons, and one Saturday morning a half dozen antique dealers in full cry filled up their vans and drove triumphantly away. Worst of all had been picking up the New York Times and seeing in an auction notice on the art page a picture of the little Renoir painting of a garden that had hung in May’s living room. Over the years May had lovingly planted in her own garden all the flowers that appeared in the painting. Walking outdoors, you walked right into the Renoir. It seemed a sacrilege that someone else should own it.

Then there were the dogs. Susan raised German shepherds. You could see them through the windows careening around the rooms, skidding on May’s parquet floors, May’s priceless oriental rugs dangling from their muzzles. When Ethyl was in her yard, the dogs peered over the wall smiling their clown’s smile at her, their tongues lolling out between long pointed white teeth. The stench from their feces, which no one bothered to bury from one week to the next, was so strong it was impossible to open your windows.

The dogs had ravaged May’s garden, uprooting the lilies and irises. They jousted at one another with long stalks of May’s delphinium held between their teeth. They snapped off peony and poppy blossoms and gobbled them down whole.

Ethyl hadn’t signed the petition that had gone up and down the street asking for the dogs’ removal. For May’s sake she tried to remain friends with Susan. But Ethyl knew Susan would certainly be angry with her if she knew she was taking her mother out to lunch. Ethyl had implied to May that Susan knew all about the luncheon, but of course she didn’t.

Ethyl had broached the subject to Susan, trying not to show her impatience at having to ask permission from someone half her age, “It’s been such a lovely summer, what would you think of my running your mother over to the club for the afternoon?”

Susan had immediately quashed the idea, “Isn’t that thoughtful of you. But you’d never be able to manage mother. Richard and I between the two of us could hardly handle her last Easter.”

That had not been reassuring. Ethyl had often looked out of her bedroom window into May’s yard while Susan yanked the big black and tan dogs about in their choke collars nearly throttling them. What was it about her frail 95-pound mother that made her so unmanageable? When Ethyl visited May in the nursing home each Thursday afternoon, she seemed perfectly clear-headed and sensible. Ethyl knew May had problems with drinking. But surely that could be handled? It was unconscionable that Susan should allow those great beasts of dogs in the house but not her own mother.

Ethyl looked at May standing doubtfully in front of the mirror and felt a surge of affection. What confidences had gone back and forth over the brick wall. The grieving over the bits and pieces the doctors had pruned from their aging bodies; Ethyl’s mastectomy and later May’s hysterectomy. Susan’s marriage to Richard, who had been the dog warden in their suburb. Ethyl’s son leaving his wife and four children to marry his tennis pro. And the deaths.

“You look very posh,” she said, envying May’s trim figure beneath the too large dress. “Yesterday a snotty saleslady at Saks tried to tell me I needed a size 16.” Ethyl looked at her watch. The nursing home made her claustrophobic. “I suppose we’d better go. Size 16 or not, I’ve been thinking about an avocado and crabmeat salad all morning. After one o’clock the ripe avocados are all gone and you get those stringy ones that are hard as a rock.”

On the way to the club May sat looking greedily out the car window. It was like watching an old movie. Just as you reconciled yourself to having forgotten it, something familiar would flash on the screen and you would set to work all over again trying to remember how the story went. They were only a few blocks from her home, but May saw that Ethyl was not going out of her way to pass it. Probably a kindness on her part, a desire not to rub salt in the wound. May contented herself with looking at other peoples’ homes. Even that was painful, suggesting as they did the exotic process of a daily life.

When they reached the country club, Eddie, the doorman, seemed genuinely glad to see May, “Mrs. Elger, you picked yourself a beautiful day. They’re serving on the terrace. You’d enjoy that.” May was grateful for his discretion in not mentioning how long it had been since he had last seen her there. He helped her out of the car and guided her attentively through the door. Servants had always tended to baby her, and she had encouraged the little game of appearing to be dependent on those who were dependent on her.

Ethyl would have preferred an obscure table in the grill to eating on the terrace, where they would be on display. Not that she expected to run into Susan. Susan despised the Country Club. She had not set foot there since her high school years when she captained the swim team. Only kennel clubs for her.

But once seated at one of the pink wrought iron tables, Ethyl put her misgivings aside. Perhaps it was atavistic, but she believed strongly that nothing unpleasant could happen when you were under the beneficence of the sun. And then eating outdoors, no matter how formal the service, was still a picnic. Still a childhood treat.

May looked past the red geraniums and neatly clipped boxwood to the large blue saucer of the swimming pool and the smaller blue circle of the children’s wading pool. In the days when their youngsters were growing up, nursemaids in crisp white uniforms watched over them. Now the mothers seemed to keep track of their own toddlers. She thought of how often she had left Susan in a nursemaid’s care, and now Susan was reciprocating. But it was foolish to feel guilty about nursemaids. Look at how the British nannies had produced Winston Churchill and Sir Kenneth Clark.

May sighed and turned her glance to the golf course with its alternating stretches of open lawn and thickets of trees. In the distance she could make out green clouds of willows lowering over a tiny creek. She and Ethyl had sat on the terrace in the summer twilight sipping long cool drinks and waiting for their husbands to stride across the course to their table. She remembered the sharp cries of the nighthawks as they plummeted from the sky, recovering themselves at the very moment you lost hope.

Ethyl glanced at the tables around them, relieved to find no one she knew. No one to come over and ask clumsily of May, “Where have you been keeping yourself?” It was a young crowd. “The girls all look naked,” she said to May. Their shirts were sleeveless and unbottoned half way down their chests. They were braless, and their nipples showed through the flimsy summer fabric. Even their skirts were slit up to their thighs.

“Nothing to cover them but their long hair,” May said, “like a bunch of Lady Godivas.”

Ethyl was beginning to think the afternoon would be possible after all when a waitress, neat in a green uniform with a pink apron, stood at their table, smiling pleasantly. “May I bring you a cocktail?”

It was a moment Ethyl had rehearsed. She couldn’t refuse May a drink. That would be too obvious. What she had decided to do was to order a glass of wine for herself. It was rude to order before her guest, but she hoped May would take the hint and have something light.

May smiled innocently up at the waitress and said brightly, “I’ll have a double martini, straight up.” Probably there would be only the one drink. Perhaps her only drink for several more months. Even if Ethyl gave her the opportunity, she resolved not to order a second one. If all went well today, Ethyl might take her to luncheon another time. There might be many afternoons like this one. Ethyl might tell Susan how well she behaved. Or she might say something to someone in the trust department of the bank or to her lawyer who no longer answered her letters, even though he had been a life-long friend and had gone trout fishing with her husband every spring.

“They’ve turned one of the private dining rooms into a backgammon room.” Ethyl told her.

“Which one?” She was concentrating on the waitress coming slowly across the terrace with two glasses balanced on a silver tray, a tall goblet and a shorter one. The drinks were certainly theirs. She turned her attention to Ethyl.

“The room that had the blue toile wallpaper with the cross-eyed cupids all over it. Conway Studios did it. Remember? And the fake Limoges ashtrays with the gold bees that looked like seagulls.”

The waitress put the frosty glasses down on pink paper coasters with the club emblem imprinted in green. May curled her fingers around the stem of her glass like a baby grasping her mother’s finger.

Ethyl studied her menu. When she looked up, May had emptied her drink. “What are you going to have?” she asked hastily. “They have those stuffed mushrooms you always liked.”

May was appalled at her empty glass. For a moment she thought someone else had emptied it. But, no, she felt the door opening. With it came the feeling things were possible, all kinds of things, one day different from another. Other rooms. Other streets. Other cities and countries.

She had begun drinking too much after her husband’s death. Unable to eat dinner alone in the large empty house where 40 years of conversations lay about unextinguished like hundreds of small ruinous fires, she took to eating out. Alone, night after night in restaurants and clubs, she felt peripheral. It required so much effort to keep your glance from intruding on that of another diner’s. Then there were the salad bars. Even some of the very good restaurants had them. She hated the coarse chunks of iceberg lettuce, the fake bacon bits that tasted like minced shoe leather, the slimy semen-like bean sprouts and the messy ladles you dredged up from the dressing pits. She hated the way they pretended to give you choices.

After three or four drinks, waiters and waitresses seemed kindly. Other diners returned her friendly nods. The food, when she remembered to eat it, was appetizing. Possibilities suggested themselves to her: friends she might call, an exhibition at the museum she wanted to see.

But after her dinner, there was the difficulty of getting herself home. When her driver’s license had been suspended, Susan had insisted she see her doctor. The doctor had patiently explained that as one grew older liquor was not as easy to tolerate. She had replied that the same could be said for life and what else did he have to offer. Then she had driven without her license and had had the accident and the parents of the boy on the bicycle had sued her. Susan had consulted with the doctor and her attorney. When they had advised the nursing home “as a temporary measure,” she had agreed.

When the waitress arrived with their food, May looked toward her glass, giving it a subtle nudge with one finger. The waitress checked Ethyl’s still nearly full wine goblet and left the table before Ethyl could telegraph a warning look to her. Ethyl began eating with little noises of pleasure as one eats in front of a small child to encourage him to eat his own food.

May felt Ethyl’s anxiety and tried to nibble at the food but the salad Nicoise she had ordered turned out to be nothing more than tuna with a scattering of black beetle-looking olives. She saw that she must make an attempt to enter the world in which Ethyl still lived and look around a little, remark on something. “Do you remember the time the house committee at the museum spent an hour arguing over how the Lukes’ sculpture ought to be cleaned?” The sculpture was an enormous piece of commercial felt, a sort of giant fly swatter whose fringes trailed onto the gallery floor and tended to get stepped on.

Ethyl grinned, “And they wrote to Lukes and he said he had planned on the dust and the footprints as part of the effect.”

“So they couldn’t touch it.”

“Ethyl,” May put her hand across the table, upsetting a water glass but not noticing. “Do you think we could go to the art institute some afternoon? Just to see my little Renoir. Susan said she lent it to the museum because she was afraid to have the responsibility of it at the house.”

“Yes, of course,” Ethyl assured her, thinking of the ad in the New York Times.

The waitress was at the table again to clear Ethyl’s luncheon plate. She had another drink for May. Ethyl had no idea when it was ordered. Then she saw with a sinking heart that May was pressing money into the waitress’s hand. “I guess I’ll have one more,” May said, “the sun is making me thirsty.”

Ethyl fixed an icy eye on the waitress. The club had a strict rule against tipping. “May we have our check,” she ordered. The check appeared with a fourth martini. Ethyl hastily signed her name and rose. Too late. May had emptied her glass and seemed unable to get up from her chair. The women at the other tables looked pointedly away. Ethyl tried to lift May, but for someone so slight, she was surprisingly unwieldy, like a poorly packed grocery bag.

May tried to help, using the edge of the table as a lever to raise herself but the table began to tilt toward her, the dishes sliding and clattering. May sank helplessly down in her chair. She saw that Ethyl had disappeared. Perhaps they would let her remain there. It would be very pleasant in the evening when everyone had left the club and the empty tables and chairs stood under the black sky and the moon shone on the dark water of the pool. Ever since she had entered the nursing home, May had longed to be alone at night. Although it was considered one of the best homes in the city, the construction was poor, and various snores came vibrating through the walls to destroy her sleep.

Ethyl returned with Eddie. “Mrs. Elger, you just lean on me now. I should never have suggested eatin’ out here. Sun’s unmercifully hot.” They hoisted her awkwardly from the chair and half dragged her across the terrace. Ethyl looked straight ahead.

Eddie gently closed the car door and raised his hand in a smart salute. May was crying, the tears making pale rivulets in her foundation. Her nose needed wiping. Ethyl reached for a Kleenex from the box on the dashboard and handed it to her.

May pushed it aside. “I hate Kleenex.” She fumbled in her purse and brought out a linen handkerchief with a wide band of lace. “I wash out seven handkerchiefs each week in my washbasin,” she said. “I iron them with my travel iron. They won’t do them for me at the nursing home.” The rhythm of the car soothed her. Her head began to nod. As a child driving through strange and dark countryside, she had loved falling asleep in the car, knowing her parents were no farther away than the front seat.

Ethyl drove cautiously, husbanding May’s sleep. She would continue to see May, but she wouldn’t allow herself to become involved again. Their lives were different. She, herself, still had some time left.

When they arrived at the nursing home, Ethyl hurried into the lobby and pushed out one of the wheelchairs that always stood ready. It took a minute or two to awaken May and extract her from the car. An elderly gentleman resident watched but made no effort to help. Evidently he was hoarding his strength.

Ethyl wheeled May hastily down the corridor. May giggled, “You’re pushing me too fast. Like a tea wagon.”

When they reached May’s room, Ethyl quickly shut the door behind them and, leaving May in the wheelchair, she kicked off her shoes and sank down exhausted on the bed, trying not to look up at the blank white ceiling.

“You won’t tell Susan?” May asked.

“I won’t tell her, but she may hear about it from someone at the club.”

“Does she keep up my garden?”

“Yes, it looks lovely, Your delphiniums were gorgeous this June.”

“I was worried. She mentioned having dogs.”

“Just one. It’s very well behaved.”

“I’m sorry about the lunch. I don’t suppose you’ll want to take me out again?”

Ethyl was silent, her small store of lies depleted.

“But you’ll come to see me?”

“Every week. Just like I always have.” When the time came, would someone come and visit her? Ethyl swung her legs over the edge of the bed and rocked her swollen feet into her shoes,

“I do it to open the door,” May risked.

Ethyl gave her a strange look.

May decided after all it was best to keep these things to yourself. She saw with a sinking heart that Ethyl believed in will power.

In the late August afternoon the suburban roads were tunnels of light. Sun lay trapped under arching branches that met in the middle of the streets. Ethyl felt she was swimming through gold. Water from sprinklers arched over the spacious lawns looking like Atget’s photograph of the fountains at Versailles. She was buoyant, almost euphoric, and then guilty like someone who has ceased mourning much too soon and knows it.

As she pulled into her driveway, she looked into May’s garden and saw the dogs stretched out on a bed of crushed daisies warming themselves in the sun. Right out of Rousseau’s Peaceable Kingdom, Ethyl thought. It was a painting Ethyl considered full of artful deceit. Rousseau had composed a handful of tame animals to distract you, while the wild ones waited invisible and menacing just behind the trees.


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