Enigmatic Epigrams is the first chapter from my novel, BABY, IT’S YOU. It was published in September, 2020.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
By David Stone
Val named our chocolate lab, “Emily.”
Imagined Emily emerged as real Emily, warm and furry, after a weeks long conversation about pets.
Cat or dog?
Whatever, but fair though she was, I was sure Val preferred a dog.
She wanted one hanging around, humanizing domestic culture.
It was the right time.
“You have to have one because it’s too hard to stay human without one,” she philosophized.
We were in the kitchen — her kitchen — she leaning against the stove with a fresh coffee or tea, I don’t remember which, in a cup in her hand.
The way she held coffee was like she forgot about it.
Val’s all-American brown hair, natural and perfect for her tan complexion, was so full and curled it pioneered an idea of beauty all its own.
I wasn’t always happy waking up with my face in it — or, more often, awakened by my face in it, but otherwise… I loved losing my fingers between the tangles and having her hair shower down on me when she was on top.
“Why don’t we put her food dish right over there?” she said, pointing to a back corner near some shelves she called a pantry.
“Hm,” I nodded. “Okay.”
I was not on the lease and, therefore, had no official vote. She could discard it like scrap paper if it wasn’t right.
And there was no promise I’d be staying, anyway.
The naming came, maybe, a week before we carried Emily, still a pup, into our place in North Beach, a little brown ball with legs, shivering at the touch, gurgling and slobbering, bouncing with energy.
When I set the blue plastic carrier down and unlatched the door, he burst out of it and commenced a near frantic inspection of the immediate vicinity, looking up at Val every once in a while for orientation purposes.
“Emily’s mapping,” Val concluded, nodding wisely.
“Yeah.” she answered, eyes fixed on the puppy, angled smile. “I always wanted to name a dog after Emily Dickinson. Isn’t that funny?”
“Usually,” I said, “that would be a girl dog.”
“Imperfect world,” Val shrugged
Now, Emily rolled around in puppy glee while Val tickled his nearly hairless tummy, fingers dancing side to side, up and down.
“Zzzz, zzzz,” Val buzzed, like her fingers were electric prods.
“Besides,” Val continued, “who’s going to turn him over and check? It’ll just be us, right, Emily?”
“You’ve forgotten the side profile, and the vet might look. At least.”
“She won’t care… and we can always lie. Say his name is Emmett.”
“Emmett Dickinson, Emily’s unfortunate twin, the one that never got out of the attic?”
“Something like that. Zzzz…”
Emily was in canine heaven and decidedly name neutral.
Val had lived in San Francisco for a few years now, moving into the flat in North Beach with a girlfriend after a live-in relationship failed over in Castro. The girlfriend later moved out to take up residence with her new boyfriend for a trial marriage, and Val took over the lease. Sales were up, and she could afford it.
Enthusiasm for getting a dog — “better company than a man or a girlfriend,” in Val’s opinion — rolled into Emily.
A friend, already at risk of eviction after sneaking a dog into her apartment where she paid rent on time only now and then, had puppies to give away.
“My place, it’s so big, and it’s such a great deal,” the friend explained. “I can’t take a chance on barking puppies pissing off my neighbors. Or all over the floors… If I get caught, oh, my God, you know what renting’s like here?” she told Val. “Please, please take one. They’re so fucking cute.”
They kicked the decision around on the phone for fifteen minutes, Val pacing, occasionally nibbling a nail, around the kitchen table where I sat with a cup of green tea.
Passing, she pressed her hand into my shoulder and absentmindedly tapped a few times
After several minutes, I stopped swiveling to follow her and waited.
I was rooting for the dog, in fact, sight unseen.
And “We were due,” Val told me.
“Dogs have a two year gestation period… Roughly?”
Emily poked his semi-square brown head over the top of a cardboard box he recently bounded into. It was projected as his sleeping quarters, but he soon rejected that idea in favor of leaning off Val’s or my back in bed.
Val outfitted the box with a soft, worn towel from deep in her closet, to no avail.
“Are you sure he’s old enough to leave his litter?”
“I’m not sure, but we’ll manage.”
Val always managed. It was, I later concluded, her theme song.
“So, how did Jenny manage to let her dog get pregnant?”
My wife looked at me like I had a screw loose.
“Do I have to tell you… Did you skip that class?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Careless, I guess. Probably she gave in to begging at the door. You know how that goes.”
I didn’t, actually.
Val lifted the box and carried our new, destined to be great, chocolate lab off to our spare room.
Correction #1: Val was never my wife, not really.
My real wife, of the ex variety, survived without me back in snow-bedazzled Buffalo, and it was a lyrical kind of balancing mix and match. Alice and I divorced bitterly while Val and I never happily married.
Life’s merry mix up, and no, there’s no reason why any of it needs to make sense. Ever. That shit’s for the insecure.
There was certainly harmony in it because, for some reason beyond reason, Alice resented the divorce until after we had it, and Val saw no logic in a marriage license under any circumstance. Neither sentiment had much to do with the actual me, I believed, but who could ever be sure?
And I was, like Emily with his name, neutral on the topic. License or no license, I couldn’t care less. In the end, it was worth less than paper.
“We don’t need it,” Val told me, discouraging talk of riding a bus downtown to stand in line for a marriage license, but she was referring only to herself.
I was not asked. Hadn’t even brought it up. It was a soliloquy.
I didn’t need it either. I had her.
Both were infinitely temporary.
Actually, it’s hard to understand the case for a license for anything, except for driving and so forth. A liquor license? Sure. Hunting? Fuck you for asking.
A driver’s license held the predictable advantage of lessening the likelihood of people driving on the sidewalk in haste or simple convenience, but what advantage did a marriage license embrace?
Permission to fuck away without risk of community ostracism? No, people were doing that already anyway.
Val thought it was a way to keep women under lock and key.
“Holy padlock,” she said.
Experience taught most of us by then that marriage with a license wasn’t any ticket to paradise, in spite of the mountainous cost of weddings and receptions. At that price, you could travel almost anywhere but happy. The whole idea seemed archaic when held up to good light and magnified, although many held onto it like the future of the planet itself was in the balance.
You’d see these weddings promoted in the newspaper, and they consistently seemed more than a little fucked up. How much of your life, after all, can you spend gazing into even the loveliest person’s eyes underneath the shelter of an outrageously expensive rose petal covered trellis? And why would anyone want to? Like, what are you going through that rigmarole for? No better way to waste your money than faking stylized ecstasy?
Worst possibility was what Mick Jagger and/or Keith Richard surmised about their old friends from school: “They just get married ’cause there’s nothing else to do…”
And Correction #2: To be honest, we didn’t have a “spare room” either.
That term harked back to our childhoods, back when people actually sometimes had extra space in their homes, rooms emptied out as kids grew up or never burst from the womb to occupy them, for example.
Sometimes, a spare room just came along as part of a good deal. Not anymore. Property, like weddings and haircuts, had become ridiculously overpriced as the sizes answered in shrinkage.
Even accounting for the tasteless outbreak of McMansions filling up the winding lanes of suburbs across the nation.
Our spare room was where I disappeared behind a half-closed door to write — or, as of that day, used to — and Val, sometimes with her back to me, pieced together jewelry she sold online, mostly on Etsy. I believed the room would no longer be really good for either endeavor.
“We’ll manage,” Val reassured me, but that was in my mind, no need to say it out loud.
The weather was warm. No fog for a couple of days, and I could see the bridge, end to end, from just down the block.
Late afternoon, I walked Union down into the hollow. Making visual notes about the small shops and restaurants and the quiet streets leaking south inland and north toward the bay.
Union had a kind of muted festive feel, although it was spotty. It might one day become a great street slicing through a great city.
I tried disciplining myself to stay in the moment.
Terrible, overworked cliche, but it was exactly what I wanted.
To simply be.
And preserve it.
You stray into yesterday or tomorrow or start solving problems, immediacy diminishes instantly, like a magician taps it with a reverse wand, always fatal, and immediacy is what I relied on, the heat of a moment, distilled into words, swelled into verse like the lenses in a telescope, only pointed the other way.
You are violets with wind above them
It was rare, but you could see so much more. I was usually happy to get, maybe, three layers into that onion. That was, by now in my career, manageable for word bridges and plateaus.
One reviewer called my verses, “impenetrable,” was reluctant to concede that they were poems, insisted they were “enigmatic epigrams,” and I remember laughing when I read that.
“What the fuck is he talking about?” I asked my friend Jim.
“Critics,” he shrugged dismissively. “Insurance salesmen with better vocabularies.”
Could anything be less enigmatic than my work? It was completely nude. Was it enigmatic because it made you look away?
It shocked me enough that anyone was around to get paid for reviewing poetry, but also, this one had no idea what it was or where all the action came from…
And if not poems, what? Sure as shit not complete sentences you could diagram on a chalkboard for junior high English.
First time I came to San Francisco, a kid, sixteen, the intense greens grabbed my senses. Built out now, there was less, but it still contrasted with the bumpkin greens of my childhood, scraggily, incomplete, adjusted with radical seasons, inspiring, hinting insistently at more, more, more.
I discovered spring in a schoolyard lawn, single blades slicing out of softened soil. I sat there by myself, my ass on the damp earth, during a long recess, fingering them, curious only about what was above ground.
Roots didn’t grab me until later, I guess because I was a kid, more in common with the blade of grass than its origins.
So fucking wonderful after the cold, dark winter. Spring came to town that way.
But here in Northern Cal, you could barely pick a single blade out of the dense carpet.
Not saying I liked the Left Coast better. I liked the different, the change from what I knew, I liked my life with Val, her warm, moist body under the covers, explored in the hours where you stopped counting, I liked sitting on a bench on Columbus after dark, talking or not talking, coffee in the night, melody of our longtime continuum riding through things, the life I didn’t believe I’d keep.
But I did.
I hoped Val felt as lucky, but she never said so.
Conflicted with her style.
Things ricocheted off her, deflected by subtle armor.
She loved me, I think, as much as either of us still believed in romantic love, one man/one woman, but we’d tripped far past the ideas we were taught, growing up, so raw when we met, she an innocent with imagination, me already disappointed and expecting less. We kicked off the oddest romance, no romance at all really, and would’ve forgotten each other completely had I not remained obsessed.
Determined as I was to have her, she was equally inspired to escape my traps.
My traps were no match. Val could fly. Val could dance. Val laid out that musical laugh, like a pianist whisking fingers down a keyboard, high to low, swallowing the last notes in secret delight.
And there you are, I reminded myself.
Thinking again, you lost three full blocks.
Now, I could see all the way across the bay, a piece of ocean leaking under the bridge.
I was used it. You could reliably count on tuning in only when sitting calmly and alone somewhere or, of course, sleeping where records aren’t kept.
The riddles are vast and complex, and they keep at you and you at them.
It was my sincerest wish that I could explain something to Val one day, and she’d say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. I never thought of it like that.”
I’m happy when anyone says that, but Val was The One.