When I was growing up, nothing was certain. Would there be food in the fridge? Water in the faucet? Pants long enough to accommodate my gangly legs? Would the school secretary once again call me to the principal’s office and shake a finger at me because my lunch money check had bounced? I never knew. I was in a constant state of anxiety, and I envied the kids who weren’t concerned about these things. My mom did the best she could, but the reality is that nothing around me was stable, and I haven’t outgrown the expectation that everything could fall apart at any minute.
Let me back up. Nothing was stable….except television. TV was free, and the schedule stayed pretty much the same, so I glued myself to it. There was comfort in knowing that reruns of The Brady Bunch came on weekdays at 3 p.m., and 20/20 would air at 9 on Friday nights. The Cosby Show, thirtysomething, Family Ties, Growing Pains: recurrences of these shows gave me a sense of stability, not only because I knew exactly when they would come on, but also because the featured families were warm, clothed, fed, clean, close.
So—confession time—I didn’t really grow up reading. I wanted to read, and I was good at it, but it was rare that a story would come alive enough to successfully compete with the living rooms and voices and smiles of my favorite television characters. I was a slow reader, too, and I still am. Reading was too lonely, and I was too impatient with myself to tackle novels that my whip-smart friends zipped through. This, however, fueled my appreciation for short stories and poetry, which felt manageable and gave me instant satisfaction.
These days, I startle easily, I’m often late, I’m impulsive, I hate schedules. Embracing the unexpected feels a little too natural, but I can truly appreciate not knowing what’s coming next. A plethora of possibilities feels exciting; an itinerary feels stifling. Still, there’s something in me that requires some sort of structure, a safe place to be contained. I’m good at being a wild horse inside a fence.
There are lingering effects of growing up without a net. I freak out a little bit when our Costco-sized toilet paper supply dwindles down to—gasp!—four rolls. I buy back-ups of other essentials: toothpaste, deodorant, soap, cleaning supplies. I’m paranoid about my son going to preschool without enough food in his lunchbox, so I stuff it full. I overbuy groceries, because what if there’s a snowstorm (in Tennessee, in September), and my family has to survive alone for days? I am more than a little bit scared of running out of expendable things. I am hyper-aware. These things come to life, telling me to replace them, and I listen.
Things do that, you know. Or don’t you? Yes, they do. Because if they didn’t, there would be no premise for Mike Maggio’s masterpiece, “Suddenly, There Was Harold.” Can I tell you how much I love this story? How I was dragged in by a flower named Henry, because my tangential brain instantly conjured an image of Leopold Bloom’s alter-ego, Henry Flower? How I kept going so I could take in more of Maggio’s tender, sincere language that made every line plausible? This piece is a brilliant exercise in creating surprise sympathy for a character, and the message—if we were flies on the wall; if love were steady; if we really listened—is conveyed so sweetly that the weight of it ends up feeling more like zero gravity.
“Man and Dog” speaks to me because Alex Russell was able to convey something that’s not easy to express to people who have never owned a canine. I’ve loved quite a few of these creatures, and not one has thrived on chance. They like to know when they’re getting food; they like to know when they’ll be walked. My oldest pug even gets pissed if I don’t put him in the bed and turn out the lights by 9 p.m., because dammit, it’s bed time. The only time dogs usually embrace impulsivity is when—OMG! OMG!—an unexpected treat comes their way. The parallels Russell draws between the routines, reactions, pleasures, and logic of man and dog are restrained enough that the story shines beyond the trope, and the tone and pace are even and steady, like paws padding across hardwood floors.
Dave Newman washes everything down with “Sunday Afternoon Drunk,” a cocktail of chance, despair, hope, and predictability—worship on the rocks.
I predict you’ll dig this issue.