Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.
Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids. The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.
“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”
I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.
She and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”
The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.
Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”
I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays.
He reminded me, “Grace has you as her model.”
I remembered that, at the end of April, I had found an unleashed dog in my backyard when I was out there gardening with Winston. Without a name-and-owner tag, the dog was untraceable, and it was unfamiliar to me. Lots of neighborhood dogs I could recognize, but not this one. After a couple of hours playing with and feeding it, plus a call to my town’s non-emergency police number for advice, I leashed and drove the lost dog to the local MSPCA shelter. Within a couple of hours, the dog was reunited with its owners: another family new to our neighborhood.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I replied to Jimmy and I pondered his observation. “Well, I don’t want us to make a habit of this.” Not all animals without collars and leashes who wander through backyards are strays.
At some other moment in our lives, and during the telling of some other anecdote, Jimmy had quoted Salman Rushdie to me: “Our lives teach us who we are.” I remember that he was aiming for wisdom when what I had really wanted was for him to get down in the dirt with me, so to speak, to relate, to say, “Yeah, it really sucks,” or “No kidding.”
In Loyalty, a story by Charles Baxter in the May 2013 Harper’s — and if you haven’t read this story or Charles Baxter, you are missing out and you should — a father goes to his son’s room during a moment of family crisis. Their exchange goes like this:
“I need to say something to you,” [the father says]. “I just can’t think of what.”
“Please, Dad. None of that wisdom shit, okay? I hate wisdom. I just fucking hate it.”
“Okay,” I say. “You’re in luck. I don’t have any.”
The son’s remark perfectly captures the impotent frustration I feel when I really want to connect with someone, and he or she takes a step back, reflects, and goes all wisdom on me. (Admittedly, I’m capable of the same wise detachment.) I remember feeling that way about something — parenting? career disappointments? work/life/self impossibilities? yeah, probably that — and Jimmy handing me the Salman Rushdie line for the first time. It totally irritated me — “I want sympathy, and you give me a famous quotation?!” — but later I thought about what Rushdie said and how it might apply to my life.
That’s the thing about the many conversations I have with Jimmy: they continue to play out in my head, for better and worse and better, even after they are over. I wish what is felt and what is said could be in alignment, all the time. Sometimes they are.
What is our true life? What we feel and dream? Or what we say and do? The Rushdie line is supposed to help me answer that. It seems to say that a person’s actions, and an accumulation of days, are who a person is.
I do not imagine or identify myself as a rescuer of strays, but here I am rescuing them, getting dirty with the demands of animals, carrying a laundry basket around the neighborhood in pursuit of a strange cat, driving a strange dog in my car to a shelter, and somehow setting an example that this is okay, this is what we do in our house.
And the days roll on. Many things, big and small, happen. Most of the time art does not get made.