Off the Leash: Road Stories With My Dog

I’m taking my dog on a road trip. Not a short one, a long one. It’ll be about 8,400 miles, more or less, by the time we get back home. Lord knows what I’ll find when I return. I planted drought resistant flowers just to hedge my bets. I hope they make it, because we’re going. I’m quitting my job and Libby and I are going. I may run out of gas, fall on my ass and not even make it home, but we’re going.

It’s Libby’s fault. She started it. Her acceptance of the limitations on her life broke my heart and mocked me at the same time. I wrote about her Drive By Yelping , in A Woman With a Past, the way she gradually submitted to a meager car ride to the grocery store instead of her evening walk, when the day job started eating up my nights. The way she eventually stared straight ahead, like a horse with blinders on, not hanging out the window, straining for a sniff of all the old familiar places. Too many nights without her evening constitutional had silenced her barking protests to a mere whimper, and her  lack of will made me sad. And of course, there was the epiphany day, that sunny, Sunday in August, when Libby held up a mirror to my life. 

 Libby, The Replacement Dog

 On the day before my eldest brother died, I sat on the front porch, steeped in sadness over lost opportunities, when Libby pierced the muggy, early morning haze, barking like somebody was being murdered. Really all she wanted was to kill that devil cat next door, but she dared not to challenge the Invisible Fence, so frozen by the memory of shocks gone by. “Silly dog,” I thought, because the battery in her collar was dead. The comparison to the artificial choke hold on my life was just too rich.

In ten months, that memory has strengthened it’s hold on me. We’re going. The collar’s coming off and we’re going. It’s become a moral imperative.  If I don’t go, I might die. I mean this literally and figuratively.  Have you ever felt that way?  Like if you don’t do something, you might just die? I’ve lost too many already, two brothers and my mother in the past few years, and a long time friend just two months ago. Herein lies the source of my bittersweet wanderlust.  I meant to go and see them.  At least more often. They all lived more than 1,000 miles away, I went when I could, but it was never enough. I wanted to spend more time - free of demanding deadlines calling me back to work, incessant emails, conference calls in hospital corridors, weary plane rides back and forth, trying to straddle two realties, with the sad reality being now, they’re gone. They’re gone. I didn’t get to see them as much as I wanted. They’re gone. I wasn’t able to be fully present and I don’t get a do over.

But I might get the chance for a “do better” before it’s too late. I’ve been lost in the robotic allegiance to all things mainstream -- a nine to seven job, mortgage, car payment, kids in college, roof repairs, root canals, lawn care, elder care, health care premiums, scrimping on clothes, scrimping on groceries, saving for that precious two weeks of freedom a year, saving for retirement (what a joke) and hoping it will come before I’m 90.

It’s not looking so good. I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, that’s 40 years this summer. Forty years, in fact, today. My contribution to social security began on June 14,1971 at the Western Skies Motel on old Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Western Skies was quite a resort back in the day, on the eastern edge of the city, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, just west of Tijeras Canyon. It’s beautiful, up near the foothills. President Kennedy stayed there once in 1961, it was that nice. Not so much by the summer of ’71, when me and my buddy Sonja became charwomen at the good ol’ Western Skies. We’d tag team it, her list of rooms to clean and mine, with our carts parked next to each other in the hallway, the way cop cars and cockroaches slide up next to each other in the dark. This allowed us to horse around all day and take turns napping. The best thing about that job was the free lunch. There actually was such a thing as a free lunch in America back then if you were hotel or restaurant workers. Everybody got the same thing; sometimes a stuffed tomato with chicken salad, maybe roast beef or meatloaf, but the enchilada plate, now, that was something to come down to the kitchen for. And when you’re only making $66 a week, free lunch is a good thing. Demeaning as being a motel maid might sound, it paid for my gas, cigarettes, beer, and all the leather fringe purses and Allman Brothers 8-tracks money could buy. Yep, Western Skies ushered in 40 years of gainful employment for me, save for the four times I took maternity leave, and that brief period where I was a stay at-home-mom/freelance writer, during which time I had such scintillating assignments like writing the Bedding Column for Furniture Retailer Magazine. I’m sure you remember that. Wow, 40 years of steady employment. 40 years and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. Something doesn’t seem right here and lately, it’s gotten me down.

It’s not that I begrudge the working life to which I’ve been assigned. It’s just that I have lived the life of best laid plans gone to hell;  divorce, bankruptcy and breadwinners in prison tend to do that to a girl, despite her best intentions. I have been a single parent for the past fourteen years and in that time I’ve been laid off twice, grew a body sculpting franchise to $40M in sales inside 24 months based on the tag line, “it doesn’t suck,” only to watch the CEO bankrupt the company and flee to Fiji, which bankrupted me. All the while my former husband was doing time, like for seven years and there’s not much money in license plates these days, especially after postage stamps. Yet, somehow, through the grace of God, hard work, government loans, and NO government cheese, (there’s a first time for everything) we managed to survive and thrive; my four kids are all either out of college, or about to be, and in pursuit of all things non-penal. This gives me WAY too much time to now focus on my malaise.

I’m working twice as hard for half what I was making five years ago. I’ve done every conceivable job on the communications spectrum known to man, well, except for maybe sending teletype messages.  I’ve been a switchboard operator, studio camera operator, TV reporter, anchor, producer, executive producer, chief marketing officer, (it eventually DID suck) press secretary, speech writer, magazine writer, ghost writer for a gossip columnist, radio talk show host and infomercial producer. Most recently, I write and produce videos extolling the virtues of everything from concierge health clubs to fried chicken. I feel more like a hamster everyday. I’m like someone who’s signed up for a treadmill at the gym, but I have to keep the pace of the guy who used the machine before me. At first, you know, you’re all smiles, like, “no prob, I’ve got this” but after a while you find yourself slipping, slipping, slipping, grabbing at the handles. You’re running so fast you can’t even lift your feet off the rubber onto the side rails to slow the fucking thing down!  You slip and fall and bust your lip, and look up-- bloody, sore, tired-- just in time to greet your new boss, who’s 25, all chippy and willing to work for half of the half you’re working for. OMG.  Good luck on that, dude. Just let me crawl back into my office, so I can hide. Hopefully they won’t ask me to think outside the box for a while.

And then I close the door on my glass tomb, with my name painted on the window and it feels like a coffin. The sunshiny sidewalk, not twenty feet away, I can see it, but I can’t touch it, like Libby and the cat. I mark the hours by the annoying rattle of the air conditioning vent above my head; on-off-on-off, reminding me of a death rattle, which sadly I know the sound of. Off, on, off, on, warm air in the winter, cold air in the summer. On, off, on-off. I may be losing my sense of humor.

I  laugh when I write. Sometimes I cry. Mostly I just feel alive. I’ve had a few boyfriends who made me feel this good. On the days when I get up a six o’clock in the morning to pound out a few paragraphs, I feel peaceful. I lean in on this feeing, to get closer, to try to capture the essence of that transitive span of time after I’ve clicked “save”’ and  before I close the door on my sensory deprivation chamber, (a.k.a the office), this fleeting state of grace when I feel satisfied.  And then, when I share something, thanks to the immediacy of the internet, we have instant validation or dismissal, I’ll take the praise and the scorn. But when a reader tells me that something I’ve written has touched them, or made them feel like they’re not alone, well, forgive me for being maudlin, it gives me a sense of purpose.

Life’s too short to not be doing what you were meant to do. Hell, life’s too short period.  And if I had a nickel for every great idea I’ve had, but didn’t go after, I’d have thirty-five cents. But here’s what I’ve found out. If you wait for the perfect time to pursue your dreams, that time will never come. I delude myself in thinking I’ll find time to fully focus on my writing once the weeds are pulled, the dog hair vacuumed, the closets cleaned, the tub caulked, the kids all settled, fan blades dusted and money in the bank. It ain’t gonna happen,

Here’s one other thing I’ve figured out.  I am happy when I write. I am happy when I’m with my dog. Oprah’s been telling us to follow our joy for years and hells bells, man, look where it got her! Sometimes, you’ve got to be willing to risk it all, full throttle, balls to the wall, give it all you’ve got, pedal to the metal ! See? It was meant to be because there’s already a cliche’!

I’m going. It’s become a moral imperative. I’ve lost two big brothers and my two younger ones aren’t doing so great; one is recovering from an alcohol induced stroke, the other lives in a garage in his meth buddy’s back yard.  Don’t think this doesn’t hurt me, it pains me to the core, but there’s nothing I can do, except love them. We were all just kids once, together, under one roof. There is no other intimacy quite like being a brother or a sister. We were just a pack of plain ol’ kids, thrown together by a force of nature named Beverly, a remarkably smart and strong willed woman with high ideals and occasional weak morals. A passle of kids, all from one mother, but three different fathers. Five kids, four of whom were given to drink or drugs. I don’t know why I dodged that bullet, the only one who suffers no much affliction. Out of the five, I’m only one left who can tell our stories. And therein lies my addiction. I’m a writer.

I’m going, come hell or high water. My mother would be saying, “now sissy, let’s think about this” while my brothers Don and Garrett would be saying, “hurry the hell up!" Okay then. I’m slappin’ your picture on the dashboard to keep me honest, bros and Mom, I’ll tie your cotton bandana around my neck, cause I’m going. Me and Libby are going. I’m going to revisit every important place and person I’ve ever known, from St. Louis to New York, all the way to California and back again. And Libby, my muse, my hero, my pet, gets to run and rip, off the leash, in every dog park we find along the way. And somewhere, I’m hoping to find, the half-brother who hasn’t seen me since I was three. That Lester boy, the only other child from my real father, Tommy. Tommy, the Irishman. 

I’m going, the open road, an open vein. Open her up and let it flow. I’m going, because to observe, one must be present, to reflect, one must be present, to record, one must be present. I’m going and ol’ Lib’s going with me. We’ll look up my buddy Sonja, take my little bro for a spin in my new car, and buy the other one a hamburger.

I’m going before I lose my heart, lose my nerve, lose my sense of humor, or they repossess the car. I’m going. The rest of you can ride shotgun cause, we’re going.

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