When I was growing up our family spent summers in the cottage my Russian grandfather built by a lake in Ontario. My sister and I shared a room, rudimentary and beautiful, with its walls of rough-hewn lumber, its view of the stars reflected on the dark lapping water and that one persistent mosquito which returned faithfully to my ear every time I began to drift off to sleep. Being the youngest, I slept in a crib until I had to curl my legs up just to fit into it, while my sister got the big double bed. When I was too old to be read too, but still in the crib I had a bookshelf above me that contained my favorite bed-time story, which I read to myself again and again: A Sorely Trying Day. It had engaging line drawings of a family, who endured domestic trials and tribulations the nature of which I’ve long forgotten. I think the appeal was in that other people were suffering, not me, and in that otherness of the words ‘sorely’ and ‘trying’, since no one I knew would ever use either of them in actual conversation. It was a species of Brittishism that persists even today in Canada. I was also fascinated by the fact that this picture-book family reflected on the sorely trying-ness of their day, while my family’s motto was, largely, “get over it.”
Oddly, the memory of an overgrown me, lying in my crib, reading my cheerless book and swatting at mosquitoes gives a peculiar solace; I realize that that was the root of personality maladjustments in vibrant bloom today. So perhaps I can blame my Dostoyevskian past for my current inability to cope. Just the other day I had a day that made the picture-book family’s plight look like, well… child’s play. So much went wrong on that day. The challenges and learning experiences rained down on me with gale-force, and although the sun had definitely risen and the sky was blue and clear, the day was so sunless it may as well have been night. Fittingly, it began in the dark, when I woke up to a cold house, as the temperature outside had dipped below zero just when I was almost out of firewood, and when my furnace inexplicably stopped working. Slogging out through the snow to the wood pile in my bathrobe set the tone for the day.
After that shoelaces snapped, toast burned and then landed peanut butter-side down, computers failed to boot, supposedly waterproof boots weren’t, tradesmen who promised to show up didn’t, lights burned out, mortgage applications were denied, grapefruits squirted me in the eye, and I swear I saw out of the corner of my eye a malevolent gremlin brandishing a banana peel. Mercifully, it disappeared – as gremlins will – when I looked directly at it. But that was the only time the hand of Mercy was evident that day. By the end of it, I had an insurmountable urge – I imagine heroin addicts might feel compelled similarly – to curl up under a chair in the corner of the room, close my eyes and just fade into oblivion. I looked long and hard at that chair, perhaps because it reminded me of the crib, perhaps not. And I wasn’t the only one ducking the slings and arrows of disappointment, frustration, delay and confabulation that day.
They had us all diving for cover. I spoke to my friend Sharon who reports that long after the charms of babies ceased to captivate her, she might be saddled with one for a whole year, and whether she will or not depends on the hurry-up-and-wait dictatorship of the courts. Judy cried her eyes out after being beset by a pack of lawyers over her ailing mother’s estate. Kurt ran out of propane, Mary discovered she has medical lumps and spots which are possibly, probably benign, but subject nonetheless to the hurry-up-and-wait dictatorship of our failed health care system, while Vickie crashed into a deer, Amy got frostbite while lost hunting and even Mike Huckabee, I hear, got a hangnail. I don’t know how all of them coped, but I had a large glass of wine and headed straight to bed at about seven.
We all know what happens when one goes to bed too early: 1:30 a.m. rolls around with a fresh, steaming pile of utter wakefulness on a platter, which then runs out about a half an hour before its time to get up. So now it looks like Tomorrow’s coming around a hairpin curve in the road; she’s got a run in her stocking, and lost a heel on her shoe. I woke from a dead sleep about fifteen minutes after I had to, dragged myself out of bed and, stumbled into yet another Day. It was still below zero, so I bundled up and headed out to take Allie for her appointed pre-dawn rounds, jingling my keys in my pocket, trying desperately to strike that neutral ground between hope and despair. The Switzerland of my neutrality fell to the Nazis just about a quarter mile down the road as I fingered the keys in my pocket and noticed that the ring was suspiciously slight. Pulling it out, I saw that it was the wrong key ring. It was the ring that used to hold my house key, before I gave it to the realtor. Now it doesn’t. Back I go, to set about lurking around the shadows of my house, looking for a way to break in. My fortress, it must be said, is well-defended. All the doors and windows are smug and tight, except, perhaps, that upstairs door to the studio. The one that will lead onto the deck, whenever it is that it gets built, but currently opens onto one helluva doosy of a first step. It was my only chance.
I walked over to my neighbor Jim’s house, since I know the combination to his garage door, and I was pretty certain it was a garage equipped with a ladder or two. Jim’s the kind of guy who’s got the tools, and he’s generous with them. Unfortunately, his garage door is not that kind of guy. It wouldn’t open, possibly because it was minus 10 out. Speaking of which, I was starting to notice the cold, mostly because of the thought of being stuck outside for who knows how long. A north wind picked up, pushing a curtain of snow across my face and insinuating itself into that vulnerable space between scarf and top of coat. It was quiet but for the wind. Had a wolf howled just then, it would not be unexpected.
Well, at that point I hadn’t any more choices. I would just have to suck it up and ask someone for help, tacitly admitting the fact that I’m a half-wit. There was no way I’d quietly solve my own problems this time. I marched up to Kurt’s house, since he was up, waiting for the school bus and borrowed a ladder. I couldn’t help but wonder what the school bus driver thought as he passed me walking down the highway before dawn in a snowstorm with a ladder. He slowed down, and I’m relatively certain that his mouth dropped open, but he didn’t stop. Neither did any of the hunters who drove by while I was up on the ladder leaning against a dark house. Maybe my fortress isn’t as well-defended as I thought, if no one would interrupt a burglary-in-progress. Maybe they thought I was a love-struck Romeo, or maybe they just didn’t give a damn.