She was in the airport, waiting for her flight to be called, when a woman came to a phone near her chair. The woman stood there, dialing, and after a while began talking in a flat, aggrieved voice. Gloria couldn’t hear everything by any means, but she did hear her say, ‘If anything happens to this plane, I hope you’ll be satisfied.’ The woman spoke monotonously and without mercy. She was tall and disheveled and looked the very picture of someone who recently had ceased to be cherished. Nevertheless, she was still being mollified on the other end of the phone. Gloria heard with astounding clarity the part about the plane being repeated several times. The woman then slammed down the receiver and boarded Gloria’s flight, flinging herself down in a first-class seat. Gloria proceeded to the rear of the plane and sat quietly, thinking that every person is on the brink of eternity every moment, that the ways and means of leaving this world are innumerable and often inconceivable. She thought in this manner for a while, then ordered a drink.
The plane pushed through the sky and the drink made her think of the way, as a child, she had enjoyed chewing on the collars of her dresses. The first drink of the day did not always bring this to mind but frequently it did. Then she began thinking of the desert which she was leaving behind and how much she liked it. Once she had liked the sea and felt she could not live without it but now missed it almost not at all.
The plane continued. Gloria ordered another drink, no longer resigned to believing that the woman was going to blow it up. Now she began thinking of where she was going and what she was going to do. She was going to visit Jean, a friend of hers, who was having a hard time – a third divorce, after all, Jean had a lot of energy – but that was only for a day or two. Jean had a child named Gwendal. Gloria hadn’t seen them for over a year, she probably wouldn’t even recognize Gwendal, who would be almost ten by now. Then she would just keep moving around until it happened. She was thinking of looking for a dog to get. She’d had a number of dogs but hadn’t had very good luck with them. This was the thing about pets, of course, you knew that something dreadful was going to befall them, that it was not going to end well. Two of her dogs had been hit by cars, one had been epileptic and another was diagnosed early on as having hip dysplasia. That one she had bought from the same litter that Kafka’s great-niece had bought hers from. Kafka’s great-niece! Vets had never done very well by Gloria’s dogs, much as doctors weren’t doing very well by Gloria now. She thought frequently about doctors, though she wasn’t going to see them anymore. Under the circumstances, she probably shouldn’t acquire a dog, but she felt she wanted one. Let the dog get stuck for a change, she thought.
At the airport, Gloria rented a car. She decided to drive until just outside Jean’s town and check into a motel. Jean was a talker. A day with Jean would be enough. A day and a night would be too much. Just outside Jean’s town was a monastery where the monks raised dogs. Maybe she would find her dog there tomorrow. She would go over to the monastery early in the morning and spend the rest of the day with Jean. But that was it, other than that, there wasn’t much of a plan.
The day was cloudy and there was a great deal of traffic. The land falling back from the highway was green and still. It seemed to her
a slightly morbid landscape, obelisks and cemeteries, thick drooping forests, the evergreens dying from the top down. Of course there was hardly any place to live these days. A winding old road ran parallel to the highway and Gloria turned off and drove along it until she came to a group of cabins. The cabins were white with little porches but the office was in a structure built to resemble a tepee. There was a dilapidated miniature golf course and a wooden tower from the top of which you could see into three states. But the tower leaned and the handrail curving optimistically upward was splintered and warped, and only five steps from the ground a rusted chain prevented further ascension. Gloria liked places like this.
In the tepee, a woman in a housedress stood behind a pink formica counter. A glass hummingbird coated with greasy dust hung in one window. Gloria could smell meatloaf cooking. The woman had red cheeks and white hair, and she greeted Gloria extravagantly, but as soon as Gloria paid for her cabin she became morose. She gazed at Gloria glumly as though perceiving her as one who had already walked off with the blankets, the lamp and the painting of the waterfall.
The key Gloria had been given did not work. It fitted into the lock and turned, but did not do the job of opening the door. She walked back to the office and a small dog with short legs and a fluffy tail fell in step beside her. Back in the tepee, Gloria said, ‘I can’t seem to make this key work.’ The smell of the meatloaf was now clangorous. The woman was old, but she came around the counter fast.
The dog was standing in the middle of the turnabout in front of the cabins.
‘Is that your dog?’ Gloria asked.
‘I’ve never seen it before,’ the woman said. ‘It sure is not,’ she added. ‘Go home!’ she shrieked at the dog. She turned the key in the lock of Gloria’s cabin and then gave the door a sharp kick with her sneaker. The door flew open. She stomped back to the office. ‘Go home!’ she screamed again at the dog.
Gloria made herself an iceless drink in a paper cup and called Jean.
‘I can’t wait to see you,’ Jean said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m all right,’ Gloria said.
‘Really,’ Gloria said.
‘I can’t wait to see you,’ Jean said. ‘I’ve had the most god-awful time. I know it’s silly.’
‘How is Gwendal doing?’
‘She never liked Chuckie anyway. She’s Luke’s, you know. But she’s not a bit like Luke. You know Gwendal.’
Gloria barely remembered the child. She sipped from the paper cup and looked through the screen at the dog which was gazing over the ruined golf course to the valley beyond.
‘I don’t know how I manage to pick them,’ Jean was saying. She was talking about the last one.
‘I’ll be there by lunch tomorrow,’ Gloria said.
‘Not until then! Well, we’ll bring some lunch over to Bill’s and eat with him. You haven’t met him, have you? I want you to meet him.’
Bill was Jean’s first ex-husband. She had just bought a house in town where two of her old ex-husbands and her new ex-husband lived. Gloria knew she had quite a day cut out for herself tomorrow. Jean gave her directions and Gloria hung up and made herself a fresh drink in the paper cup. She stood out on the porch. Dark clouds had massed over the mountains. Traffic thundered invisibly past in the distance, beyond the trees. In the town in the valley below, there were tiny hard lights in the enlarging darkness. The light, which had changed, was disappearing, but there was still a lot of light. That’s the way it was with light. If you were out in it while it was going you could still see enough for longer. When it was completely dark, Gloria said, ‘Well, goodnight.’
She woke mid-morning with a terrible headache. She was not supposed to drink but what difference did it make, really. It didn’t make any difference. She took her pills. Sometimes she thought it had been useless for her to grow older. She was thirty-five. She lay in the musty cabin. Everything seemed perfectly clear. Then it seemed equivocal again. She dressed and went to the office where she paid for another night. The woman took the money and looked at Gloria worriedly as though she were already saying goodbye to those towels and that old willow chair with the cushion.
It began to rain. The road to the monastery was gravel and wound up the side of a mountain. There were orchards, fields of young corn . . . the rain fell upon it all in a fury. Gloria drove slowly, barely able to make out the road. She imagined it snowing out there, not rain but snow, filling everything up. She imagined thinking – it was dark now but still snowing – a line like that, as in a story. A line like that was lovely, she thought. When she was small they had lived in a place where the little winter came first. That’s what everyone called it. There was the little winter, then there were pleasant days, sometimes weeks. Then the big winter came. She felt dreamy and cold, a little disconnected from everything. She was on the monastery’s grounds now and there were wooden buildings with turreted roofs and minarets. Someone had planted birches. She parked in front of a sign that said information / gift shop and dashed from the car to the door. She was laughing and shaking the water from her hair as she entered.
The situation was that there were no dogs available, or rather that the brother whose duty was the dogs, who knew about the dogs, was away and would not return until tomorrow. She could come back tomorrow. The monk who told her this had a beard and wore a soiled apron. His interest in her questions did not seem intense. He had appeared from a back room, a room that seemed part smokehouse, part kitchen. This was the monk who smoked chickens, hams and cheese. There was always cheese in this life. The monastery had a substantial mail-order business; the monks smoked things, the nuns made cheesecakes. The monk seemed slightly impatient with Gloria and she was aware that her questions about the dogs seemed desultory. He had given up a great deal, no doubt, in order to be here. The gift shop was crowded with half-priced icons and dog beds. In a corner there was a glass case filled with the nuns’ cheesecakes. Gloria looked in there, at the white boxes, stacked.
‘The Deluxe is a standard favorite,’ the monk said. ‘The Kahlua is encased in a chocolate cookie-crumb crust, the rich liqueur from sunny Mexico blending naturally with the nuns’ original recipe.’ The monk droned on as though at matins. ‘The Chocolate is a must for chocolate-fanciers. The Chocolate Amaretto is considered by the nuns to be their pièce de résistance.’
Gloria bought the Chocolate Amaretto and left. How gloomy, she thought. The experience had seemed vaguely familiar as though she had surrendered passively to it in the past. She supposed it was a belief in appearances. She put the cheesecake in the car and walked around the grounds. It was raining less heavily now but even so her hair was plastered to her skull. She passed the chapel and then turned back and went inside. She picked up a candlestick and jammed it into her coat pocket. This place made her mad. Then she took the candlestick out and set it on the floor. Outside, she wandered around, hearing nothing but the highway which was humming like something in her head. She finally found the kennels and opened the door and went in. This is the way she thought it would be, nothing closed to her at all. There were four dogs, all young ones, maybe three months old, German shepherds. She watched them for a while. It would be easy to take one, she thought. She could just do it.
She drove back down the mountain into town, where she pulled into a shopping center that had a liquor store. She bought gin and some wine for Jean, then drove down to Jean’s house in the valley. She felt tired. There was something pounding behind her eyes. Jean’s house was a dirty peach color with a bush in front. Everything was pounding, the house, even the grass. Then the pounding stopped.