Essays - Summer 2017

Goodbye to Westbrook Acres

As a writer walks and muses, the world’s sorrows intrude upon the peaceful streets he will be leaving

By Andrew Hudgins | June 5, 2017
Ronald Saunders/ Flickr; David Herbick
Ronald Saunders/ Flickr; David Herbick


October 20, 2015: Tomorrow Erin is having foot surgery to repair a humped-up middle toe deformed by girlhood dreams of being a ballerina. Fifteen years ago, the doctor straightened the toe by driving a 10-inch-long pin through the end of it and down the length of her foot. For years, Erin kept the bent and slightly bloody wire on her desk, until it disappeared, probably tossed by a housesitter who did not recognize it as the memento mori it was.

Because Erin won’t be able to walk the dogs with me for about six weeks, I’ll use the time to look more closely at the neighborhood we’ll soon be leaving. In the spring, I’ll retire from Ohio State, Erin and I will sell our Ohio house, and we’ll move to Tennessee, close to my family in Alabama and Georgia. I’ve lived in Ohio for 30 years, the last 15 in the safe and friendly enough environs of Westbrook Acres, yet I’ve never felt like an Ohioan, a Buckeye, a son of the Midwest. I wonder if I’ll miss it. This short diary is a chance to hold on to this expanse of days for a future in which I might need an Auld Lang Syne for my last months as an Ohioan in the final years of the Obama presidency.

October 22: The Columbus Dispatch says that last month was the warmest September on record. Because of what global warming means for the planet, I am perturbed to love this Indian summer so much. Is this what it feels like to be enamored of a shockingly beautiful woman who is slipping arsenic in your food and so far you’ve been relishing it?

November 4: Today was trash day, and Sister, a 55-pound coonhound mix, has learned that paper, lots of it, blows out of the recycle bins. I hadn’t noticed she was eating paper until I saw twists of fiber in her feces. I had never known the world was so full of Kleenexes, napkins, and fast-food wrappers.

A lady sitting on her porch in her housecoat, smoking, called out to me that she used to love to watch Max, our 90-pound labradoodle, chase his lacrosse ball down the street.

I called back that Max is older and slower now, and I need the leash to keep him moving. Max will be 10 this month, and Erin and I have begun pondering how sad we’ll be when we have to put him down. Of course Erin and I are both older and slower too, with a bit of arthritis in our knees, like Max. I’m trying not to turn the dog into a symbol of my own age and occasional infirmities. When we were first married, Erin asked what I wanted done with me when I died, and I always said, “Double-bag and leave me out on the curb.” Now, I say, “Sure, cremate me,” because that’s what she wants for herself. I don’t care, she cares; therefore, she decides.

U.S. authorities are now saying the downing of the Russian plane over the Sinai last week was probably caused by a bomb. Wish I were surprised.

November 5: Today Sister sniffed around in the gutter and then reared her head, displaying what she’d found. After a moment’s puzzlement, I saw it was the wing of a bird, completely stripped of feathers and meat, and only slightly bloody. The elbow joint moved smoothly. Was the wing torn off by one of the many hawks patrolling our skies? The crows are busy here too, as are the raccoons, and we’ve seen a fox a couple of times. I returned Sister’s articulated bit of gruesomeness to the gutter.

Russian and Egyptian authorities are saying that the U.S. government’s assessment that a bomb caused the crash is “irresponsible speculation.” How many days will pass before they admit the obvious?

November 6: Erin is recovering nicely. The day after surgery, we went to the Giant Eagle, and on the knee-scooter, her knee propped up on the cushion, she zipped around the grocery store, laughing and having a good ole time. I was finally moving a little more easily myself, I noticed, as I limped along behind Zippy the Scooter Girl.

I’d hurt myself a couple of weeks ago, while I was out with the dogs. Sister caught sight of the mailman and began howling. Because he pets her, calls her “Pretty,” and gives her treats, she looks for him and yodels out her love from two blocks away. This time, though, he was also giving a treat to a collie, and Sister suddenly changed direction and launched herself at her competition. I jerked her back just as Max began surging toward the mailman. Pulled in two directions, I lunged forward to keep from falling and felt a searing tear in my right hamstring. I’ve been limping ever since.

November 7: Today I noticed the first Christmas decoration, a tentative small snowman, unilluminated on a windowsill. As I pulled Max along, I thought of our neighbor Betty pulling along her slow black dog, Charley, her arm stretched out behind her and her voice coaxing him cheerfully, “Come on, Charley, come on.” On Westbury Drive, a large pear tree dropped its fruit in the street, and in the fall, Charley was allowed to eat exactly one pear a day, seeds, stem, skin, and all. Betty had to yank him along before he snatched a second one.

November 8: Halloween’s faux tombstones (Barry D’Alive, Al B. Back, Ben Better) vanished almost overnight, and a few more Christmas lights have gone up.

Thinking about Charley yesterday reminded me that he was euthanized at seven when he developed a huge malignant mass in his abdomen, one that swung beneath him when he walked, like an udder. Charley’s fate reminded me, in turn, of the neighbor who, after a stint in Iraq as a military contractor, brought home a feral dog he’d taken a shine to. What a wonderful rescue story, we first thought, and then how sad, when after hundreds of dollars of training, the dog kept attacking other dogs and was put down. The man’s story was worse. He too apparently was violent, and after the divorce he moved to California to live with his parents and then shot himself. But before the divorce and the suicide, he replaced the Iraqi dog with a brace of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, and when they were puppies I lay down on his driveway, flung my hands out, and let the puppies crawl all over me, licking and nipping.

November 9: Walking big old slow Max, I must look like Betty, my arm stretched out behind me as I wheedle, “Come on, Big Slow. Pick up the pace, handsome boy.”

According to the paper, this is the longest Indian summer in memory, and the heat is tough on Max. The weather is still glorious but unnerving, even creepy, the gorgeous autumn hinting at insane summer heat, rising oceans, melting glaciers, droughts, and tornadoes.

November 10: The Halloween pumpkins are now Thanksgiving pumpkins, the larger ones deflated with rot.

Several years ago, I answered a knock at the door and said, “Hello, Betty.” She stood looking at me for few seconds and then, crying, blurted, “I have a brain tumor. I always said if this happened I’d just die, but I’m not going do that. I’m going to do everything I can.” She refused my invitation to come in for tea, pulled herself together, and marched off. As she was dying, another neighbor, knowing how much Betty loved her two-lap, twice-a-day walks, sometimes led her around the neighborhood, much like Betty herself had led be-tumored Charley. Now I too have a brain tumor, though a benign one, a meningioma, that lovely specimen of ironic melopoeia. The doctor has assured me that the tumor is “indolent.”

November 11: Yesterday afternoon, feeling a twinge in my back, I did some crunches on the bedroom floor and stalked around the house, trying to work out what I thought was a minor cramp. Suddenly, I was holding the kitchen counter and vomiting uncontrollably. I was still there vomiting when Erin returned from her errands and clumped into the kitchen on her protective boot. I spent the afternoon and evening in the ER, and after the nurses got the drugs going, I was fairly comfortable. Kidney stones.

November 12: Because Erin still cannot walk far on the protective boot, I slowly shuffled up to the corner to give the dogs a little exercise. Exhausted. Can do this only because of the oxy.

Toothpaste must be made of stronger, stickier stuff than it used to be. Each morning, after brushing, I look at my face in the mirror, and my lips and sometimes my chin are white. Thus every morning I unwillingly remember my mother in the hospital, not even 50, dying, her lips caked with the Maalox she took to hold down the nausea of chemo. I stared at that white crust instead of her eyes, and though she was my mother, I did not dampen a tissue and wipe it away. I did not want to treat her like the invalid, the dying woman, that I refused to understand she had become.

When I see her death on my lips, I cannot deny that I’m also seeing my own.

November 13: News of a terrorist attack in Paris. 130 dead, mostly young people at a rock concert, and all that sudden mortality was on my mind as I again shuffled to the corner with the dogs. In the afternoon, I went to the hospital and had my stones broken up with a sonic device.

On the corner, the large ginkgo has turned a uniform yellow-gold, and the leaves on the ground surrounding it are the same brilliant color. Who needs blossoms when the leaves are so dazzling? But returning home, approaching it from the west, I see the ginkgo foregrounded against an evergreen, and suddenly the drab evergreen is now beautiful too because the golden ginkgo draws my eyes to it in a new way, and I see it not just as green among other green. The golden leaves draw my eyes up the tiers of the evergreen’s narrowing branches as they climb heavenward, the blue sky bright between each pair of bracketing branches. And 130 young people are still dead in Paris.

November 14: The dogs got an abbreviated walk once again. I’ve been drinking glass after glass after glass of water, then pissing through a sieve and collecting the stones in a teacup.

The first big stone passed without drama. I felt it move through me and into the sieve, like an orgasm devoid of pleasure. I took it upstairs for Erin to ooh and ah over.

November 16: Shuffled around the block with the dogs. Forgot to look at the ginkgo. God bless oxycodone.

The teacup is filling up nicely with bits of teeny-tiny jagged brown bits of calcium. I sent pictures to my friends Juliana and Danny. Juliana thinks they just look like dirt. Danny says it looks like I’ve been pissing coffee grounds. Erin says smoked sea salt.

November 17: Today, nearly lost in the news from Paris, Russia has confirmed that a bomb brought down its airliner over the Sinai.

November 18: Thanks to modern opiates, I walked the whole mile and a half. On Parsons Drive, I found a jar of dill pickle spears in a glitter of crushed glass, and flashed on how when I was in college, I’d walk late at night, between midnight and three, antsy, striding up and down the streets of our suburban Alabama neighborhood. When I found a Coke bottle, I’d kick it skittering down the asphalt, kick after kick till 20 or 30 kicks along, it fell apart in jagged shards under the street light, and the shards always seemed to have a new life to them, an exploded existence more compelling than the sticky thick Coke bottles they no longer were.

I lived at home through college, working afternoon and night jobs, and freshman year, I worked in a dry-goods warehouse in downtown Montgomery. On breaks, the other workers and I drank Cokes out of the machine. The reusable bottles had the name of where they were made molded into the bottom, and we bet dimes on whose bottle had traveled the farthest. Any place outside Alabama beat Alabama. Spartanburg versus Atlanta? Spartanburg’s holder swept four or five dimes off the table. But Spartanburg versus Tampa? Probably Tampa, but who knew for sure? Bet dissolved. I loved the promise of distance, geography—the larger world that the scuffed and scratched bottles suggested. Their paths were small mysteries, like how in the devil a bottle of dill pickle spears came to be shattered and left on Parsons Drive this morning.

Throughout college, when I saw broken glass on asphalt, I thought of William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls,” a love song to improbable beauty in unpropitious places: the area between the wings of the hospital is barren, but in the cinders “… shine / the broken / pieces of a green / bottle.”

November 19: First day completely off oxy. Feel like a despondent 10-day-old dog turd. But once I got going, I made the whole route, though had to lie down when I got home. I encountered the man who owns the ginkgo, which has almost completely blown its leaves. He was turning the bed beside the tree to replant his irises.

“They were beautiful,” I said.

“But not beautiful enough,” he replied, and I thought again about how all work is ephemeral but gardens are especially forceful reminders of transience, going to weed and bramble, thistle and dandelion in a season. Walking on, I considered his garden and understood his reckoning was right. His irises, though lovely, were not as lovely as they had been the year before. He was right to pull them up, separate them, and replant.

Farther along, I saw, atop a long pile of leaves raked up in the gutter, a pink golf ball, as odd as an Easter egg at Thanksgiving.

November 20: The corner ginkgo is down to a few nearly white leaves motionless on bare branches, pale unto ghostly. The pile of gold leaves raked to the curb has a tire track rutted through them. In these diary entries, I seldom record the weather without thinking of haiku. Add a ginkgo and the resemblance becomes insistent—except for, you know, all the extra words.

Today, I encountered the sad man who always asks, “What are your dogs’ names?” When I tell him, he repeats, “Max? Sister?” quizzically as they lean into his knees to accept the petting and rubbing he gives with complete focus on them, as if he is trying to absorb back into himself the pleasure he gives them. Soon his melancholy makes me sad too, and I wonder if he enjoys the gorgeous metallic blue vintage Maserati he drives so carefully, or if it too is merely something else to worry about.

We named Sister after my mother. “Sister” is what my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Buddy, my mother’s younger siblings, called her, as if her relation to them were her name.

“So,” my brother Mike said, “have you told Dad you named your dog after his dead wife and our dead mother?”

“Yeah, I was slow to see the problem.”

“And … ?” he said, making a rolling motion with his hand, urging me to keep talking.

“I made the mistake once of referring to Sister by name. Now when he asks about the dogs, I just say Max is moving a little slow but the other one is doing fine.”

Mike hooted. Did I think Dad was a moron? No, but maybe Dad thought we had dogs named Max and The Other One, and not Max and Your Dead Wife.

The time I spent talking to the sad man and then the mailman, who mocked me for wearing gloves in 37-degree weather, made me late getting home, so Erin came looking for me in the car. She was afraid I’d suffered another kidney-stone attack or had collapsed in the street. When she offered the dogs and me a ride back to the house, a walk of about half a block, I was so furious at her implicit assumption of my decrepitude that I stood on the sidewalk and glared silently until she shrugged and drove off. After about 20 enraged and self-justifying steps, I calmed down and spent the rest of the walk home framing an apology.

November 21: Yesterday, Islamic terrorists seized a hotel, a Radisson, in Mali. They took 170 hostages and killed at least 20 of them before commandos stormed the hotel.

I noticed long needles beneath the evergreen beside the ginkgo, so it must not be a fir but some sort of thick-barked northern pine.

November 22: “Myanmar Mudslide Kills 100.” Is it a relief to be reading about a hundred people dying if they are killed by an act of nature, instead of yesterday’s 20 killed by terrorists? But was it an act of nature? I’ll bet someone cleared the land and that caused the mudslide. Just checked. Jade mining.

Today snowflakes were in the air, fat drifty ones, and they reminded me of the house that exploded a couple of blocks away last spring. The homeowners, thank God, were visiting relatives in Japan when a gas leak turned their whole house into a bomb. Our house shook from the blast, which I at first thought might be the sonic boom from a low-flying jet or even a nearby plane crash. Erin and I raced outside to look. The entire neighborhood poured out of houses and moved toward the blast. Even as I was doing it, I was aware that walking toward a blast, rather than away, was proof we lived in a secure neighborhood and took our own safety as a given. The air was full of bits of charred paper, rising at first in a black cloud and then drifting down slowly as the black smoke dissipated. I plucked a canceled bank check from the ground, thinking I’d return it to the homeowners, but it lay on the kitchen island for almost a week before I threw it away. The now-homeless family had more to worry about than a canceled check from 2009.

November 23: Mudslide total up to 110, plus 100 missing. On the walk, I counted 81 pumpkins and four plastic snowmen.

November 25: Headline in the paper: “Apparent suicide attack on Tunisian presidential guard bus kills 12.” Locally, a neighbor burst into a house in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus and killed a family—husband, wife, and seven-year-old boy. The 12-year-old girl, though shot multiple times, somehow survived. “She had blood all over her,” a neighbor told the reporter. “Her hands were cherry red.” Barry Kirk, the murderer, was pursued by police and killed.

If that’s not enough to start the day with a hefty dose of horror, the Dispatch quoted the 911 call: “Please God. Please … My husband is shot. My husband is shot. Please come. Come now.” Later: “Barry, please. Please.” Then the line goes silent.

On true-crime shows, I’ve heard enough 911 calls to recognize the supplicatory incantation of “please,” the helpless abracadabra of it. I have myself, in moments of desperation or of what seemed at the time like desperation, been reduced to simply repeating please, please, please, as if the word alone were a complete prayer.

Hank’s Japanese magnolia holds up next spring’s buds like candles. Pale green, a green that is nearly white, the closed blooms remind me of chrysalides, not just in shape and color but because of the hard covering that protects the soft incipient beauty forming inside. The buds look as if the tree were holding them up to the sun for its blessing, which, now that I think about it, is not exactly a metaphor.

November 26: Thanksgiving. I spent most of the walk thinking about Laquan McDonald, who was shot by a Chicago policeman more than a year ago. The dash-cam video was released the day before yesterday, prompting protests in Chicago. According to The New York Times, the cop shot McDonald 16 times. Some of the shots were apparently fired after he was on the ground. I have not seen the video. I do not want to look at it. But as I walked, I realized I had to.

Preoccupied with the place where ethical obligation trumps the compulsion to turn away from appalling realities, I did not notice until we were almost home the brown-red fruits on the crabapples lining our street. And I saw them only then because earlier I’d noticed bright red fruits on a different tree, one I didn’t recognize. A little time online revealed it to be a hawthorn. After that, I looked at the video of Laquan McDonald being killed.

Why does the world I have never seen dominate the one in which I live? Why do murders in Paris or Chicago, known only via reading or video, the media by which I ingest fiction, color the world I walk through? I know it’s simply right, inevitable, and therefore logical to embrace the idea that my life is contiguous with that of others, but I wish I had access to their joys as well as their suffering. That may be a failure of faith or imagination, or the smallness of my soul.

Erin and I spent a lovely Thanksgiving with my relatives in Westerville, a little north of Columbus, though this past year has not been a good one for many of us. My Aunt Bettis had a walnut-sized tumor removed from her “lady parts,” one cousin had a heart attack, and another suffered whiplash from an auto accident. My kidney stones finished a distant fourth in the competition, barely ahead of cousin’s wife’s current but small stone. The picture of my stones in the teacup did, though, garner a number of appreciative winces.

November 27: No leaves left on the ginkgo. I counted eight or nine illuminated snowmen and roughly the same number of reindeer, as well as three scarecrows—one male, two female; one concrete goose dressed as an Indian maiden, long black braids falling nearly to the ground; one concrete goose in a red Ohio State poncho; one concrete goose unclothed; one concrete bear dressed as a pilgrim, perhaps male; and five plastic flamingoes, four pink, one purple.

I did not sleep till six and woke at eight. I spent the night tossing from side to side, fighting the sheets, the pillows, and the blankets, and now I want to yank them all off the bed and burn them. Hot, cold, hot, cold, turn, kick—the insomniac’s Saint Vitus’ dance. Because I had a headache behind my left eye, more or less where the brain tumor is, I kept sitting up and testing myself for double vision, which the neurosurgeon told me to watch for. My vision is fine, but I had plenty of time to fret about Laquan McDonald, 130 dead in Paris, a family slaughtered eight miles from here, the daughter who survived covered by blood. What are the continuities between them, and between them and me? On the other hand, the Dispatch reported that November is National Novel Writing Month and a local woman is nearing 50,000 words about a unicorn barista named Lance.

Made myself watch the Laquan McDonald killing again. McDonald was clearly down and unthreatening as I assume bullets kept hitting his prone body. If that’s not murder, I don’t know what is.

November 30: I’ve been meditating on a picture of Presidents Obama and
François Hollande before a glorious wreck of flowers outside the Bataclan Concert Hall, where the Paris massacre took place. Obama’s head is bowed slightly, and I appreciate the sorrow he displays with such dignity and resolve. I’m glad he is there to do it for the nation and for me. The pictures of the many dead are in The New York Times, young and beautiful almost to a one. After 9/11, I made myself read every single goddamn one of the capsule biographies of the dead as the Times printed them. That was the second month we lived in this house, and 15 years later, I don’t have the heart to do that sort of reading again. Thus I deny them the individuality I would wish for myself and those I love, leaving them in my mind the beautiful undifferentiated dead.

All of this mortality was flying around in my head as, walking west with the dogs, I saw the ginkgo had not in fact lost all its leaves. Some had drifted down, yellow-white, onto a damp black pile of mulch, and as I circled the block, I thought of them. A lovely stark beauty—oversize stars in a dark and heavily textured sky. On the way back, walking east, I looked forward to seeing the pale fan-shaped leaves again bright against the rough darkness, but the light had shifted and they looked drab and ashy.

I’m fully recovered from the kidney stones, if not the irksome pulled hamstring, and I’m feeling pretty good. Paris and Laquan McDonald linger in my mind far more than the other sorrows and atrocities, even the family murdered in the Hilltop or the jerk that this morning’s paper tells me shot up some paintings at the Wexner Center for the Arts and then shot himself. The Wex is about a quarter of a mile from my office.

December 1: The dogs got a short walk in drizzle. Though it is bad of me, a moral deficiency, I’m more concerned about the damaged paintings at the Wex than I am about the asshole who shot himself there.

December 2: The sun is just a blur in the white-gray sky, the southeast sky. No rain. Just counted: yep, that’s 17 syllables.

A few streets over, one neighbor—perhaps with a sense of humor, perhaps not—has hung a Christmas-tree ball from the top limb of a four-foot-tall Japanese maple still scraggly with leaves. The dusty red ornament is about the size of a basketball, and the poor tree is bent not-quite-double from the weight. It was so ridiculous that I drove Erin over to look at it, and she immediately sang out, “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree” before collapsing in laughter.

The horrors of Paris, Laquan McDonald, and now a Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado continue to fill my thoughts. I have repeated “Laquan McDonald” over and over, pondering the l’s and n’s, the short a’s, the k-sounds that knit the dead man’s name together. As the murders in Mali, the mudslide deaths in Myanmar, and the slaughtered family in the Hilltop fade in memory, I am both relieved and some form of sorry that I can’t maintain the remembrance. Now there’s today’s horror—people shot at a social services center in San Bernardino, where I lived for three years as a boy, ages 11 to 14. Erin just came downstairs to tell me about this one, crying.

I forgot to mention the downy patch of hawk-plucked pigeon in the back yard. It has finally blown away. The hawk must have picked the pigeon off the power line that runs the edge of the property.

The news reports now say 14 dead. I can’t stop checking.

December 3: Late last night, I read that authorities had identified one of the killers by an Arabic name, so I went to bed even sicker at heart at the certainty of anti-Muslim backlash, but still I slept well and dreamed a voice that said, “I am the cheese,” and then ordered me to repeat it, which I did. “How does that sound to you?” the voice asked. I admitted that it felt good to say, “I am the cheese.” On waking, I wondered if this were old individuality asserting itself against all my moaning after connectedness. As we all know, the cheese stands alone. Pakistani-American killers, the paper reports.

I’m reeling from the shooting, if one can be reeling and still go through one’s day more or less efficiently and not weeping in bed in a darkened room. The latest reports indicate it is in fact jihadi terrorism. The creep who shot up the Wex is, though, a perv, a security guard who was fired for groping students.

The more I think about it, the surer I am that I regret the vandalized art more than the shooter’s suicide. I should value life over art, and of course I do, I do, I do. But the self-destroyers who destroy other people and other people’s pleasures are more contemptible than sympathetic. I fret about the Warhols, the Jasper Johns, the Lichtensteins, and feel small for doing so.

December 6: In counterpoint to the nut who shot up the Wex and vandalized the art, at Art Basel in Miami Beach, two women got into a fight, and one stabbed the other. “I thought I saw a performance, and I thought it was fake blood, but it was real blood,” some guy said. He assumed he was witnessing a commentary on American violence. He was.

December 7: I taught my last class on Pearl Harbor Day—coincidence or fate, you decide. Yesterday, the urologist said, “As a stone-former you’ll need to drink 2.2 liters of water a day.” So I began this diary with several identities I’m relinquishing—professor, teacher, wage-earner—and gained a new one: stone-former.

Erin is now completely recovered, and on the walk this morning, she and I stopped to look at a hawk perched on a maple branch in fog. I couldn’t make out what kind of hawk it was, so to amuse Erin, I said, “Hey bird, what kind of hawk are you? Fly so I can see.”

Answering for the hawk, Erin said, “I’m a hawk. Screw you.”

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