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The Neutral Love Object

ISSUE:  Winter 1975

On the way over to the Island they composed the kind of grouping commonly sought by fashion photographers. One of those faintly insolent, terribly insouciant family sets you see from time to time in Vogue magazine, Sue Swanson thought. The still-youthful mother and father, athletic and well-nourished; the married daughter who improves on them both in profile, with the wind lifting and tunneling through her long brown hair; the European son-in-law with his brief beard and ever so slightly down turning moustache. And of course the dog, the obligatory panting Golden retriever obediently sprawled at his master’s feet. The difference being, she noted silently, that we are pretenders in this glossy and our Golden is one-half ancestry unknown.

A few other late vacationers lounged at the rail lifting already tanned faces to the September sun, but they had the top deck of the ferry pretty much to themselves. After the Cranston had delivered its three right-of-way hoots and the ship had settled into a vigorous bobbing motion, Sue began unpacking the picnic basket Bertrand had carried up from the station wagon parked in its allotted slot below. Ham and cheese sandwiches for Douglas, her husband, and for Bertrand, her son-in-law, Bertrand’s with Dijon mustard. For Cindy and herself, the penitential yogurt. Potato chips for the men. Carrot sticks for the women. For the men, chocolate cupcakes. Apples for all. Biscuits for Agamemnon, who had been denied breakfast as a precaution against seasickness. He dispensed with these in one gluttonous swipe and waited slavishly for the sandwich crusts and cake crumbs that were also his birthright.

Once at a cocktail party a psychiatrist had told her that people make their dogs into neutral love objects, a repository for all the unspoken passion at work in the yeasty milieu of a family. And she had smiled passively, agreeing with him. So they had. They were, furthermore, the kind of family that gives its animals royal, heroic, mythological names. There had been Castor and Pollux, Cindy’s dapple gray ponies, Oedipus and Caesar, Peter’s pygmy goats of one summer. Melissa’s cat had been named Cleopatra, her one surviving kitten, Cassandra. And, in this case, fourteen years of Agamemnon, who had as a puppy slept in one child’s bed after another, transported from place to place’ with his wind-up clock wrapped in a towel, his teddy bear, and his teething bone. Cindy had been eight, Melissa six, and Peter four when he came into their world. The trouble was, he would not live long enough. The trouble with love was, it could be outlasted.

Someone else’s apricot poodle was loose on deck. Two children bounded after it, their matching suede jackets flapping. They called Heather, Heather! in angry little bursts. The dog was finally cornered piddling on an exhaust vent and borne away as it yipped piteously.

“Someone ought to put the laisse to them,” Bertrand remarked.

“Leash,” Cindy said. “On them.”

It was the fifth correction of the day. Sue thought, But why am I counting? I suppose he’s just as hard on her French. And then the Thurber cartoon came into her head: When did the magic go out of our marriage?

But the sun was soothing, the illusion of open sea restful. She dozed finally, tipped back in one chair, her feet braced on another, the thrum of the engines jarring her cheekbones, and woke with a mild headache.

“There’s Gardiner’s Light,” Douglas called from the rail. His hair blew forward from the crown, revealing a developing bald spot. “That’s where you throw a penny overboard if you want to come back.”

“On the way over?” Cindy was doubtful. “I thought only on the way back.” Her tone said plainly, if you’ve had a good time.

“On the way back seems logical,” Sue said. And then, for no reason, “I love islands.”

Douglas came over and put his arm around her. “The mind is an island.”

“Yours, maybe,” she told him. “Mine is nothing but a cranberry bog at this point.”

They were all so tired, after what was to have been a joyous summer. For Bertie had gotten his agrégation and Cindy had finished her provisional year teaching and they had agreed to forsake Geneva, beautiful in that season, to spend the summer in Boston. And then the phone call, Cindy, ashen calm, coming to find her in the garden squatting in the carrot row: Now, Mother, sit down a minute? Goggy fell down a flight of stairs and broke her hip? In Lake Forest? It’s her next-door neighbor, a somebody Ashendon?

Weekly flights to Chicago ensued. Her mother appeared to be cheerfully mending in a convalescent home. Sue brought her potted plants, needlework, magazines, pictures of the grandchildren. And then pneumonia. The double anniversary party—their twenty-fifth, Cindy and Bertie’s first—hastily called off. Bleak hours in the hospital, waiting to be allowed the thirty-minute visit. Bleaker ones in between in the airport. A stroke. Specialists. Dozens of telephone calls recklessly placed person-to-person at the peak hours. And finally, grudgingly, mercifully, death entered, imposing more responsibilities. Meanwhile in Boston Cindy bought Peter a suit for the funeral. Melissa came back from her American Friends’ sponsored summer on an Indian reservation. Bertie slept in her mother’s vacant house until Douglas, who had been in Panama supervising the installation of a power line, returned. Coward that she was, she would not stay in her childhood bedroom without him. Too many ghosts was all she said.

“Everybody’s mother has to die sometime,” Melissa said, meaning to be reasonable. “In the Navaho culture they celebrate the deaths of the parents. They rejoice that their spirits have gone to join the ancestors.”

“Lissa,” Peter said, fingering his new haircut. “Do me a favor. Take a deep breath, okay? Now see how long you can hold it.”

And then the house was put on the market and Bertie and Peter, during a record heat wave, hauled away all the detritus of her mother’s long widowhood.

She grieved as quietly as possible. She had been an only child, a late arrival, and she was only ten when her father died. Her mother took over his real estate office and drew a vital energy from it. It was as if she had saved something of him by keeping his business alive. She had never encouraged intimacy between mother and daughter and they lived side by side inside their baggy sweaters with the thermostat set low. Explaining to Douglas, trying to keep the tears out of her voice, Sue said: “It was serene. Chilly, but serene. I never questioned it.”

Now she thought, But I left too soon.

The stresses had opened little cracks in everyone. Not the least in Agamemnon who had been kenneled for three days and had neither eaten nor drunk water the entire time. “You should have started when he was very young,” the vet said reproachfully. Now Melissa had returned to Oberlin with her sand paintings, Peter with his dufflebag and guitar had entered Reed, and the last four of them were on their way—”Look! there it is!” Sue said—to the magical island where they had never been.

The harbor town was determinedly quaint. An absence of gaudy store fronts, no billboards, gas lamps on the main, still cobbled street. The shingled houses, uniformly unpainted, weathered to a silvery gray. Fat and disdainful seagulls sat on pilings or followed the lobster boats in and out of port. And everywhere an air of restraint, of self-sufficiency, Yankee pride or pluck. Bertrand was enchanted; it could have been Denmark, or the Frisian Islands. “It’s so . . .un-American!” he congratulated.

The weather, miraculously, held. They were in the midst of a Bermuda high with spectacular sunsets and only thinly foggy mornings. The cottage boasted an immense, intricate television antenna, but no television set. The beds were predictably lumpy, the blankets flimsy. There were no decent reading lamps. Agamemnon, normally allotted a cushion on the kitchen floor, was happy with the living room couch. Such is the fate of the rented summer house. On the bulletin board in the kitchen, a formidable list of instructions and caveats loomed. They scrupulously observed them all.

Renting a sailboat that late in the season was difficult; Douglas finally borrowed a trailer hitch from the real estate agent and hauled a catamaran from a boatyard at the far end of the island. “As long as I don’t have to get in it,” Sue said on inspection. “Double ditto,” Cindy added. Tennis was available just across the way, provided they rolled the court themselves. The horses Cindy and Sue longed for seemed not to exist.

They were immediately segregated by their proclivities. Douglas and Bertrand played tennis in the morning; mother and daughter, mutually awkward at it, eschewed the game. Douglas played fiercely and competitively, serving overhand smashes that went wide of the mark while Bertrand lazed at the baseline, acknowledging what he did not wish to return. Agamemnon lolled in the shade, occasionally stirring to chase a seagull.

At noon when the sun was strongest and the wind steady the menfolk sailed bravely out of the harbor. Cindy and Sue swam, taking a martyred pleasure from the icy water. For the first few days the dog kept paddling out from ever-more-distant sand spits, always hoping that at this new launch the salt water would have mysteriously turned to fresh.

Sue and Cindy cycled. They pedaled for miles purposefully single file, dressed like twins in blue jeans and heavy white sweaters, each with her hair hidden under a bandanna tied gypsy style. They saved their breath for the hills, all attention riveted on the invented destination, for where, after all, was there to go?

Sue, always a little behind, driving her legs like pistons, made up the dialogues she did not dare to initiate: Do you still love him, your superior Swissman? Are the Alps as perfect as that? Have you left us forever? And received her wishful answers: We are thinking of a divorce. We are thinking of making a baby. Bertie has a mistress, Bertie has joined the Communist Party. We are thinking of coming back to the States forever.

Once, the little general store in Quinig was open; they bought ice cream cones and sat in a dusty booth eating them. Another time they passed a roadside farm stand, presided over by a gaunt elderly woman who assured them she would have fresh corn—the last of the crop—the next day. The next day she said the raccoons had gotten into it.

“Twelve miles for some mythical corn,” Cindy lamented.

“Never mind,” Sue said, the determined Puritan. “It’s good for us.”

By default they picked rose hips and beach plums and wild grapes and made an overabundance of jelly, filling all the cottage glasses and mayonnaise jars.

“It’s sick,” Cindy said, squeezing the cheesecloth bag with her purple hands. “Positively neurotic and sick.”

“I know,” Sue said miserably. “I can’t help it.” And they picked ticks off the dog after each expedition.

At night they worked by turns on an enormous irritating jigsaw puzzle which gradually pre-empted eating space at the dining room table. From time to time Douglas read them facts from an ancient edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Everyone wrote letters. “Oh God, you know what? I started to send a postcard to Goggy,” Cindy confessed.

The phone, of course, never rang. Of course, no one came to call. There were three outside edge pieces missing in the puzzle. One night they drove into town and had dinner at the Captain’s Table overlooking the ferry slip. Since neither of the men was wearing a jacket and tie, they were seated far from the view. Bertrand, sulking, ordered a twenty-dollar bottle of wine.

“I think it’s horse meat,” Douglas said of the steak.

“The next one who complains gets to wash the dishes,” Sue said, trying.

The problem was, they had a checklist of forbidden topics and they had run out of comfortable small talk. Some of the things they could not talk about included: early marriages, particularly those that take place between foreign exchange students and the daughter of the host family; Cuba, China, or the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile; baptisms, bar mitzvahs, last rites, or circumcisions; America’s diminishing oil resources, America’s Indians, the American military establishment, Arab-Israeli attitudes, or the Palestinian guerrilla movement; Swiss neutrality in all wars; Swiss bank accounts; Swiss reluctance to grant women the vote. Even Watergate, which they all agreed on, had a way of edging them nastily over the abyss.

This left: pornography, pant suits, athletics, animals.

Agamemnon had taken to howling at night. They took turns getting up to beat him with a newspaper.

“There’s a bitch in heat somewhere on this island,” Cindy declared. “His glands get the message even if his legs are too old.”

“It’s the last thing that dies,” Douglas said, leering a little for effect.

“Tomorrow let’s take him to the clams,” Bertrand said. “It’s not too hot at the beach now, is it? I’ll bring the termos of drinking water.”

“Thermos,” Cindy said. “Clamming. You say, let’s take him clamming.”

“Please,” Sue began. She was going to say, please don’t correct his English every minute, but tomorrow was their last full day together. Until when? Forever? “Please do, Bertie, that’s a good idea. If he gets some real exercise, maybe it will take his mind off the call of the wild.”

The soft shells were plentiful and illegal. They lugged away two guilty bucketsful and gathered up their tools. Cindy and Bertrand took turns calling Aggie! Come on, Aggie, that’s a good dog! Douglas walked half a mile down the sand spit, but there was nothing. No blob of blond fur on the horizon.

“He knows his way back to the house,” Sue said matter-of-factly. “You’ll see, when he’s tired enough, he’ll show up.”

Although they managed to finish all the steamers laced with butter and Douglas drank the clam broth, proclaiming it the best part, the absence of Dog pervaded their farewell feast.

Over the dishes Sue said to Cindy, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t see how I can just leave tomorrow not knowing what’s happened to him.”

“Oh God, I know. I feel terrible. But if we don’t take the ten o’clock ferry, we won’t make our afternoon plane. And Bertie would have a fit, he starts at the University the day after. You know how the Swiss are. Punctual as their watches.”

The whole year loomed ahead like a perpetual twilight. “Well, we’ll have to wait and see,” Sue concluded. “Face the East and pray, or something.”

Nobody slept. She heard first Douglas, then Cindy slip out of the house; she heard the slip-slap of Cindy’s thongs on the macadam strip that divided their cottage from the beach-side; she heard their separate, unaccompanied returns, and the murmur of voices from Cindy and Bert’s room. With the first light she rose, dressed and half-trotted the mile to the clam beds. The wind had sharpened, a high gray cloud bank was billowing in from the open sea. No one.

They had coffee and toast, and packed the car. Bertrand hiked over to the open fields where she and Cindy had gone for beach plums. He came back shaking his head.

Cindy went along the strip of cottages that formed their little settlement. Most of them were boarded up for the winter, but she knocked at the inhabited ones and left their name and city phone number, in case. At nine o’clock, Douglas dialed the Island SPCA and gave them a description.

In their bedroom, facing each other over the stripped and sagging mattresses, Douglas said, “Be reasonable. You can’t just stay on here for days and days, waiting for a missing dog to show up.”

“But suppose he comes back? Suppose he comes back tonight and the house is closed up and there’s no one here?”

“Don’t you want to see your daughter off? It’s for a whole year. Sue, he was a very old dog. Get your priorities straight. He had a long and happy life. He never suffered. He probably just went off somewhere in the marshes to die.”

She noticed that he spoke in the past tense and hated him for it. Hypocrite. Liar. So much for allegiances!

At the ferry slip, Cindy and Bertrand stationed themselves like a pair of Ancient Mariners and stopped each boarding passenger. “Pardon me, but have you seen a big Golden retriever anywhere?” Douglas took a last turn through the village, cruising down the side streets, peering into backyards, while Sue called half-heartedly, “Aggie, Aggie! Come on, that’s a good dog!”

It was too cold to stand out on deck, so they huddled together as apathetic as refugees in the deserted salon where water sloshed underfoot. No one spoke. Bertrand, who had never had a dog of his own and had walked Agamemnon every morning of the year he had lived with them as a student, put his head in his hands and began quietly to weep.

Sue put her arm around him. He hugged her and cried against her neck.

“Don’t, son,” Douglas said in a strange and furry voice.

“It’s all right, Daddy,” Cindy told him, lifting her face. Tears shone on it. “Remember, in Shakespeare? “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings. ” It’s all right to cry for the end of an era.”

And thus together the family mourned Agamemnon.


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