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I set my sights on befriending Retrievers Couple. They live close and their yard is thick with the island’s native plants. Since I’m a biologist, I figure we’ll bond over sourcing hard-to-find rhodies and salmon berries for my developing garden. They’re into animals, too; both retrievers are Best-of-Show material: brushed-out coats, perfect gait, proud form. This late-September Tuesday afternoon, I time Noelle’s walk for 3:15, when Retrievers Couple promenade north-south along our road, hoping to meet at the crossroads.
I fasten the halter onto my Australian shepherd’s slender chest and imagine the conversation with Retrievers Couple. “You’re the woman who built the new house, aren’t you?” the reed-tall husband will ask. After I nod, his curly-haired wife will add, “Beautiful home, you certainly thought through every detail. It’s magnificent.” Well, maybe not this last bit, “magnificent” too fawning for first introductions, although I do hope they see my home as a work of art. Then the wife will say, “We’re so glad we’ve run into you, you must stop by. We’re just down the road.” She’ll pivot and point to their home, four doors down. And because having a glass of wine on the deck watching the sunset over the Puget Sound’s placid waters and the distant Olympic Mountains is what I see them do, the husband will say, “We can have a drink at sundown.”
My friend-making opportunities are few. Most of the homes on Bush Point are vacation rentals or second homes. They’re vacant now, partially because it’s fall and partially because Washington’s governor has told everyone to stay home, and their full-time residences are elsewhere. Of those hanging on, most keep to their pandemic pod, so my best shot of meeting anyone may be dog walking.
It’s a serious pastime here, elevated to a spectator sport with not much else to do these days: best groomed, best mannered, best gait; pure breeds alongside rescues. Any sign of malcontent – barking, lunging, even sniffing too long at one spot – is admonished. Poo removal, too, is a medaling event, with handlers folding at the waist and arm scooping with special bags, pick-up within seconds of steam’s first rise. The handlers are impeccable: sturdy shoes for inclement weather, pressed khakis, fluorescent-yellow jackets, wide-brim hats. Outdoorsy attire with matching pooch apparel: glow-in-the-dark collars and leads, and on brisk mornings, yellow fleece-lined rain jackets. Neighbors walk their dogs north-south along my street every day at nearly the same time. Major leaguers all, with Noelle and I at club level, free-style our specialty.
With our house perched upslope, I watch them with Ava, my teenage daughter, from our floor-to-ceiling windows and refer to them as Retrievers Couple, Hound-Beagle Lady, Fluffy-Poodle Man. If my neighbors do the same, I am called Spastic-Dog Woman.
“Hurry or you’ll miss Retrievers Couple,” Ava says, not looking up from her phone, “Meet them so you have somebody else to talk to.”
“I’ll change first.” In from the garden to take a work call, I dust leaves from my sweatshirt. “I’m a mess.”
“It’s not like you’re going on expedition to Mt. Everest, which is the only reason anyone should wear the clothes they wear. You’re walking the dog. Be who you are. Don’t change yourself to appease others.”
I hate it when Ava uses my advice to advise me. After clipping the leash onto Noelle’s halter, I scurry out the door.
Noelle does not like to be rushed. She raises her snout vertically and sniffs. Born blind and deaf, her sniffer is all she has to read the world. I tug on her leash. She takes a step left, then right, a zig and a zag, then halts. My anxiety pheromones scream danger to her. I breathe and slacken her leash; hopefully communicating everything is fine, just fine.
But it’s not. “Newbie” emotions percolate: loneliness, insignificance. I’m the new kid in class without anyone to sit with at lunch. I’m skilled, though, at making the first move, as I’ve had plenty of practice, attending nine schools before graduating high school.
After moving to the island, though, I’ve procrastinated on trying to connect with others. Beyond construction workers and our immediate neighbors – both women in homes so close I smell their dinners: stir-fry to the north from Lisa, Hamburger Helper to the south from Elsa – I haven’t met others. We normally live eighteen-hundred miles away in southern Arizona and only visited the island to check on the home’s progress. So caught up in the hubbub of construction, which took three years, I hadn’t the desire to try connecting. Friendships would come after the house was done, I figured as I finagled timelines with plumbers, electricians, and cabinet makers. Eventually, Ava would leave for college; I would graduate to empty-nester status and spend long summer days on the island making new friends. But the pandemic changed our circumstances.
Noelle walks on. I gently nudge her forward. But she abruptly squats and pees in the middle of our gravel driveway. I side-step yellow rivulets as they flow downhill and spot Retrievers Couple briskly walking, fast approaching Lisa’s driveway entrance.
“Come on,” I say to my dog’s bladder. But my words don’t register.
Three years ago, when I bought the 1950s ranch-style home from Louise’s estate, both Lisa and Elsa asked if they could keep the house’s spare keys, keys Louise had given them for ‘just in case.’ “Might be helpful,” Lisa said, “since you live so far away.”
I took them up on their offer, thought what a caring community I had landed in, considering after fifteen years I’d never been inside most of my Tucson neighbors’ houses, let alone felt comfortable granting spare-key status. I also needed Lisa and Elsa to open doors to contractors.
A year in, after an inspector found the house riddled with black mold, after architectural plans had been developed and county permits obtained, I hardly saw Lisa and Elsa. It was my fault. I had told them I was renovating, and given the mold issue, they nodded in agreement. But I took “renovation” to the extreme and bulldozed Louise’s former home. After the earthmoving equipment left, our neighborly chitchats of shifting pewter-colored clouds and farmstand finds morphed to emails, “Would you tell your contractor to start later in the morning?” and “Your grass needs mowing,” and “Just to let you know…”
After we arrived this year in late June, driving this time because we couldn’t risk flying or leaving Noelle with a housesitter, Lisa and Elsa barely waved at our arrival.
Ava said, “You need to meet other people. These two want you to be like them, like Louise: quiet and into mowing her grass,” Ava said. “That’s not you.”
Noelle and I reach the bottom of the driveway as Retrievers Couple approaches. With no shoulder and an overgrown gully on our side of the lane, there will be an awkward moment when we meet and decide who walks in the road. So I cross the lane and turn Noelle toward them. She wants to stop and sniff this side’s mowed grass but there is no time. One step. Two steps. Three. At six we will be opposite Retrievers Couple, them at Lisa’s mailbox, Noelle and I at the turnoff heading down to the Point.
About to raise my hand to wave “hello” and introduce myself, I stop as abruptly as Noelle had when she peed.
Retrievers Couple had scuttled into Lisa’s driveway and turned away. They shove both shiny-coated dogs between calves. With backs to us, they shun Noelle and I as if we are an embarrassment.
Sometimes I am embarrassed. Not for Noelle’s lack of heeling or uncontrollable barking, for she can spread the news like the Point’s foghorn. I am embarrassed when she poops smack dab in the middle of the road without warning, and I trip over myself to escape dirtying tennies, my performance visible to all and certainly disqualifying us in medaling.
But she hadn’t pooped and her behavior is tip-top, walking nearly as straight as a regular dog, and no barking. So it’s not Noelle. Then what?
With no explanation or acknowledgement of us, Retrievers Couple backs still turned, I tug Noelle left and head downhill.
Is it our house? Our purple doors, when all other doors are natural dark wood? Or our front thigh-high grass when all other yards are cropped to an inch high? Or our whopper-sized mailbox with its faded painted smiley-face, dinged and listing sideways? A soldier marching to a different tune amongst the other boxes, regulation-sized and black, standing in formation.
Or, is it me?
I am seven again and anxious after a week of scrutiny from classmates at a new school in suburban Nashville. My younger self wants to dart home, wants to escape from judgmental eyes. Escape lunchroom evaluation of my brown paper sack with its sliced green peppers, grapefruit, and peanut butter with pickle-relish on whole-wheat, in a cafeteria replete with cartoon-character boxes filled with red delicious and bologna with mayonnaise on white. Escape kids circling, kids trying to figure me out. But I can’t avoid the pack of boys outside school. One asks, “What side of the war did your family fight on?” My younger self understands that whatever my ancestors did or didn’t do plays heavily in my belonging, even if I have no clue what war the boys speak of, for clearly they aren’t talking about the ongoing Vietnam War. After batting around my membership in “us” versus “them” as we leave school, one remembers that Oregon, where I’d moved from, was neutral in the Civil War, so they say I can walk with them and we can be friends.
Maybe it’s the entire kit-and-caboodle: Noelle, our house, me.
Maybe I don’t want to know Retrievers Couple.
At hill’s bottom, Noelle and I face into the wind. At the end of the taut three-foot lead, she zigzags, points a white snout skyward. Her nostrils flare and guzzle air. She’s processing duck poop, dried seaweed, saltiness, and stuff beyond my sniffer’s ability.
Ahead, the low-slung bleached boathouse, to our right the brackish pond with dabbling buffleheads, and further along, 1970s ranches platted cheek-to-jowl, worth a fortune though, as property lines encompass beachfront and tideland rights. Noelle veers right. Left. Right. I turn her in a circle to the left, passing her lead behind my back, from one palm to the next, like exercising a trotting pony.
She slows, finishes reading the news, and we walk on. A right zag, her paws hit grass and she corrects, repositions herself onto pavement. As she tacks left, I tug and she centers. We undulate forward, laying claim to lane’s middle. I hope all my neighbors see what a Good Dog she is.
Along this stretch last week, I missed a chance to befriend Trekking Couple. As Noelle ignored mailbox posts, grazing rabbits, a lone deer munching fallen apples, they passed on the lane’s other side. The woman in zipper-at-the-knees pants and wide-brimmed canvas hat said of my herding dog, “What amazing training,” to the man beside her, dressed in a matching outfit and presumably her husband. I started to explain why, then decided my words emphasized Noelle’s shortcomings, like an apology for who she is, and the couple scurried past before I could say that Noelle acted true to self, not because she had adapted to training.
We arrive at the cul-de-sac, our halfway point, and the end of the lonely ranches. The wind picks up as we plunge into a blackberry-bush-stinging-nettle-lined cut-through. Noelle stops when her paws discern the pathway’s woodchips. Though she has walked this exact route every day since late June and nothing untoward has happened, I must coax her, like Ava coaxes me to chat-up strangers.
By the time I return home, Ava will be done with her calculus class, and her nose will be buried in her phone, texting about problem sets. I’ll soon have my eyes on refrigerator shelves, parsing staples and figuring out dinner. Will Ava complain if I sauté kale and roast sweet potatoes again, as I’ve bought too much on the last farmstand run? Probably. She’ll ask if I met Retrievers Couple. Roll her eyes when I say they’re not friend material. She’ll suggest I stalk Hound-Beagle Lady, time my walk to hers.
Back onto pavement, Noelle takes the lead. The only noise is her padding feet and a cawing raven. We pass year-rounder homes: no view or beach-side barbeque. The cottages were built for fishermen in the 1940s, back when Bush Point was the place to fish on the island, maybe in the entire Puget Sound, back when it was more important to be on a boat then watching boats from a ranch-style deck, back when there were fish to fish.
Our mile-walk nearly done, we tackle a steep lane, an alley really. Noelle slows. Maybe it’s the acute grade, maybe the scents suddenly changed in the wind-free space between cottages ringed with lush red dahlias, maybe because it’s sprinkling. I tug. She sticks snout vertical.
Two gray-haired women gossip; one from over her fence and the other by her mailbox, their chatter lively, even in the soft rain. I nod as we approach, feeling envious of their fellowship. They fall silent and study Noelle and me.
I am back in sixth grade, attending a school in St. Louis, and at my first sleep-over. Everyone watches as I pick up a bagel slathered with cream cheese, thinly sliced fish, pickled onion, and capers. “I didn’t know shiksas liked lox,” my new buddy says after I take a bite.
“Can’t beat this rain for our gardens,” I say to the two women, with the same exuberance as when I gobbled the lox on bagel and arrived on the other side of middle-school hazing.
Fence-Hugger asks, “How old is your dog?”
I stop. “Twelve,” which might explain her skinny ass, but because of Noelle’s sniffer, she’s a picky eater and often refuses what I’ve dished in her bowl, like Ava and sautéed kale.
Undeterred by the incoming storm, Mailbox asks where I live, says she’s seen us walking. It’s a small community, and with only a few year-rounders, everyone knows everyone. Except me, who hardly knows anyone, even after being here since late June.
“The house at the top of the hill.” But I haven’t given them enough information to place me. “The new one.”
“With all the windows? The one where Louise’s house was? The one with the tall grass?”
“That’s the one.”
They recoil, as if they touched nettles. Floor-to-ceiling glass, green roof with live succulents, recycled materials, solar. Grass let go for bee habitat. Modern. Not cottage. Progress-ive. Change. Say it ain’t so.
The two don’t know what to say to the woman, me, who they’ve surely talked about since I bulldozed dead Louise’s house, in a neighborhood where no one has built since the ranches sprouted on the beach like so many bits of washed-up plastic. Amazon deliveryman, postman, garbage man, Lisa, and Elsa, all have said something akin to, “You really did something different,” and not in a positive way from their tone, so surely other neighbors talk.
The women eye one another. Mailbox shuffles through delivered envelopes and Fence-Hugger mumbles about dead-heading dahlias. I have yet to learn to carry on in drizzle, like these year-rounders, and maybe I never will. We stand far enough apart to fall within CDC outdoor guidelines, yet close enough that not talking is awkward. Overhead, on Fence-Hugger’s deck, a well-groomed Golden Retriever barks, communicating my unwelcomeness.
Noelle zigs. Zags. Twists. Inhales, snorts, sneezes. Golden barks. Noelle snuffle-barks. Both women stare.
Fence-Hugger asks, “What happened to your dog’s eyes?”
“She was born without them.” Noelle’s orbits contain bits of vestigial eyes deeply buried. “I found her in Mexico on a sand bar.” I haven’t talked to someone who isn’t simultaneously staring at her phone for days, and these two lean in. “Somebody put her out so the tide would take her away.” With my left hand tightly holding her lead, Noelle whips sideways to catch the Golden’s scent. I stretch out my right arm. “She was a puppy and fit in the palm of my hand.”
“You’ve had her for twelve years?” Mailbox asks.
I nod. She and Fence-Hugger exchange glances again.
“Well, aren’t you a godsend.”
Fence-Hugger shouts to her Golden to shut up.
Gladys, formerly known as Fence-Hugger, sticks out her hand, then retracts it. “We’ll have to wait until the Current Situation passes, then have you over for a glass of wine.” She points upward, to her house, “On the deck, lovely place for the sunset, if it’s not raining.”
About Lisa Harris
Lisa K. Harris is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author who writes about growing-up, outdoor adventure, and coping with speed bumps. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Roanoke Review, Passages North, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children, among others, and has been anthologized in (M)othering (edited by Sorbie and Grogan, Inanna Press, 2022). Her writing has been workshopped at Bread Loaf Environmental Conference and she co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Lisa splits her time between Tucson, Arizona and Whidbey Island, Washington. She works as an environmental consultant and has two daughters, six cats, two desert tortoises, and a scruffy terrier named Lola. www.lisakharris.com.
Lisa K. Harris is a Pushcart Prize nominated author whose published more than 150 essays, short stories, and scientific articles about the environment, growing-up, outdoor adventure, and coping with speed bumps. Her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, Passages North, Highlights for Children, and has been anthologized in (M)othering (edited by Sorbie and Grogan, Inanna Press, 2022). Her writing has been shaped by attending Bread Loaf Environmental Conference and she co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Lisa migrates between the Sonoran Desert and the Pacific Northwest working as an environmental consultant. She has two daughters, six cats, two desert tortoises, and a scruffy terrier named Lola. www.lisakharris.com.