I had lived alone before Ed, on even less than I earned now. But I didn’t have a house then, and a car, and two hungry dogs.
“You could sell the house,” said my mother in one of her daily phone calls. “That would give you plenty of money to get back on your feet.”
“—Where would I live?”
“—Well, you could stay in our house while we’re in Florida, then by spring you’d be able to find an apartment, or something.”
Would it happen? Would I have my furniture in storage and drive around with a car full of suitcases? I swallowed back bile. “I thought widows weren’t supposed to make any changes for a year.”
“That’s if you can afford it.”
She was right. Make no changes for a year was starting to sound very middle class. But my renegotiated mortgage was probably comparable to any rent I’d pay for a habitable place around here, one that allowed dogs. On the other hand, I needed heating oil for the winter and Ed had totaled our “good” car, the one with only 60,000 miles on it; mine had 120. I made a round of calls to the people I freelanced for.
“Yes, the annual report is on schedule,” said John. “Look for it the first week in November.”
October stretched ahead, vast and uncharted.
“I meant to call you,” said Lois. “That book’s been postponed. Why don’t you get back in touch”—she sighed—“after the first of the year. Maybe by then I’ll know the new schedule. Everything’s hell around here, waiting to see what happens with the election. How’re things with you?”
“—Ed died,” I said. I had to get used to telling people. “Car crash."
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. Do you have anything else for me?”
“I’ll see. I’m so sorry. Maybe some proofreading. Oh, Annie, what are you going to do?”
It went on like that, as I called people and spoiled their day. I said yes to writing the chapters on African American history for a textbook, a project I knew I’d end up paying for—the fee would cover the writing but not the research—and yes to a young adult biography of Irving Berlin, even though the advance was stingy and the royalties probably wouldn’t come through. Everyone else said they would keep me in mind.
I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. I had always been good at short-term solutions. I dug out the last couple of issues of the local newspaper, an invisible Ed scoffing at me: You’ll never find anything there. I shook open the paper and sharpened a red pencil.
Three different restaurants needed wait staff, but I had been a waitress during college and hated it. Bartender, short order cook; not me. Plenty of social work positions for which I wasn’t remotely qualified; carpenter, cabinetmaker, nope, but here, Camphill Village needed an office assistant. I did not have a “minimum of one year’s experience in a secretarial position dealing with the public,” and I did have a momentary twinge about taking the job away from a young person who had a “high school diploma or GED,” but I needed a job too, so I circled the ad.
And here, Blue Ribbon Chèvre had openings for full-time workers, either taking care of their 100 dairy goats or helping in the creamery. They even offered benefits—vacation, life and health insurance, a 401K. What luxury! Maybe I’d be outdoors sometimes, maybe I could wear jeans. I would write about the experience. “Call for an interview,” you bet.
Under part-time, a dentist, a lawyer, and an insurance agency each needed office help. It wouldn’t pay enough, but I would apply anyway, just to get something going.
I felt better than I had in days. I wrote myself a new resumé, leaving out my master’s degree in creative writing, remembering all the secretarial kinds of experience I had ever had, back through high school. I got into the theater aspect of the project, responding to each ad exactly as instructed, to show I was a team player who could follow instructions. The exception was the law office, which had given only its street address. I piled the dogs into the car and drove to Schuyler to take down the name of the firm at that address, to show that I was a team player who could do her own research.
Back home I sat quietly for five minutes, thinking about goats and my experience in farm work. I had picked cotton for two weeks in Cuscutlan, on a volunteer brigade during the contra war, and I had done trail work in Wyoming, which mostly consisted of digging trenches and moving rocks. That was before we moved to the country and started digging our own trenches and moving our own rocks. And there was hiking, bicycling, canoeing. I called Blue Ribbon Chèvre.
“Starting pay is minimum wage and you have to work some weekends,” said a woman who didn’t sound at all happy about spending her days with a hundred goats. “The health insurance starts after three months and the rest of the benefits after you’ve been with us for a year. Do you still want an interview?”
“Yes,” I said firmly in my role of job seeker. I could use the practice pitching myself.
“Come at 10 o’clock tomorrow.”
The next morning I brought the dogs along for the ride and arrived at 9:30 so we could take a walk and check out the place. Three huge barns—red, white, and blue—were set well off the road and below it, down a little hill. I wondered if they had trouble with run-off, the way we did.
As I walked the dogs up the road, a herd of goats started out a door at the end of the blue barn into the yard. The goats didn’t trot so much as flow, a school of white, four-legged fish, all moving in the same direction, parallel to us. At least 50, they just keep coming out of that door, following the goat in front of them, or maybe following what they saw in the distance, a human with two small, curly-tailed goats who in turn were wildly excited, pulling at their leads, whining, wishing to play with or snack upon these bearded dogs. I put up with this for a minute, then turned around and started back to the car. The goats all turned around then too, the lead goats first, bumping into the later ones, who pushed into the last ones, until they had all gradually reoriented themselves to head in the opposite direction. “Cute but dumb,” I told the dogs.
I parked the car exactly where I had been instructed, in the lot across from the blue barn. A heavyset woman strode out of it, shaking her head.
“We can’t have dogs on the property.”
“—They’ll stay in the car. I’ve locked it.”
She shook her head again. “No. We can’t have it.”
“I'm sorry. I’ll park up on the road.”
“No. It’s still too close, and it’s dangerous to park there.”
“—What do you suggest I do?”
“That’s up to you. Dogs are not allowed on this property.” Her broad face, her whole body stood guard for the goats.
“All right. I’ll park in the lot for the town hall down the road and walk back.” I looked at my watch. “I’ll still be on time.”
She was appraising me, my brown corduroy pants, my one pair of tie shoes, brown suede, my red sweater and blue waterproof shell, all carefully chosen to combine respect for the interview with common sense and practicality.
“Why do you want this job?”
She already disliked me, so I might as well be honest. “My husband died,” I said. “I need a job. I like animals.”
“Ever done farm work?”
“I picked cotton in 100-degree temperatures. I moved rocks in Wyoming in the rain. I take care of five acres. I’m strong, and I’m patient. I can learn goats.”
“This isn’t a lark,” she said, and the word, lark, was so odd coming from her thin, unpainted lips that I knew she must have heard it from the Blue Ribbon bosses. “City people think goats are cute,” she said, “but they’re a business here.”
“I’ve lived in Smokey Hollow for seven years. My husband died in an automobile accident. I need a job. That’s not going to change.”
We have had this conversation eye to eye. Now her gaze flickered as she thought. “The one a couple of weeks ago? On the parkway?”
“—Sorry.” She was single too. Her husband had left her, or he drank and she left him. “I’ll call you if we need you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said to the back of her faded red sweatshirt.
“You don’t want that job,” Jaime said that afternoon. She had stopped by on her way to Schuyler, where she worked part-time as a graphic designer for the county’s one printing company. She had a harvest soup for me, filled with vegetables from her garden.
“There was something appealing about goats, instead of paper,” I said. “If only I hadn’t brought the dogs, I would have at least got into the barn.”
“They run that ad all the time. The turnover there is like a hundred percent a year. Maybe you should take a course in graphic design, on the computer. There’ll be enough business around here for the two of us—we could open a studio together!”
“No, Jaime. I know how things should read, or sound, but I never know how anything should look.”
“Your house looks great.”
“That was Ed.” I followed her eye to the framed T-shirt hanging by the staircase. “OK, I had his SoHo Weekly News T-shirt framed, but he knew where to hang it.”
“And this is your fabric sculpture, Satin Manhattan, right?”
“A friend made it for us. But Ed realized these two fabric paintings from Cuscutlan went with it, and he hung the three of them as a group.”
“Who hung this mirror?” She cast a critical eye at the Mexican pressed-tin mirror by the door, which Ed had hung vertically.
“He did. . . . I always thought it should be horizontal.”
“It should be.” She was taking it off the wall. “Got a hammer?”
We rehung the mirror, horizontally, at just the right level for my face. Immediately the whole house felt tidier.
“This must be how people feel after they’ve been to a chiropractor,” I said.
“Exactly!” said Jaime. “Write that down. I gotta go.”
“Let me pay you something.”
“Get a job.” She hugged me good-bye. “Then we’ll talk.”
I went back to work on my latest idea, which was a mailing to all the colleges within a 50-mile radius of my house, pitching myself to their communications offices. There were a surprising number, if I went north as far as Albany; too many, really, and the writing of yet another resume, to show that I was the perfectly experienced staff member for an academic setting, the crispness of my best white paper underneath my best grade of printing, the confident hopefulness of my cover letters, made me unbearably tired. I should take a run, get the endorphins moving. Instead I found the dogs, curled like Cheerios on the bed, and wrapped myself around them. Jethro moved away, but Chloe stayed with me, as needy for shelter as I.
It was dark when I woke, the dogs staring balefully at me from the floor, late for their walk, their dinner. Ed had always walked them at four, fed them at six, summer and winter. I was inadequate even to them.
Copyright © Debby Mayer