North-South Axis

“Luminous” by John Gardner

There was dog shit on the sidewalk, then it rained and there was not dog shit on the sidewalk. William was glad. The dog that produced this shit was not a dog that belonged to William, and yet he’d felt responsible for the mess when he considered its presence on the sidewalk directly in front of his apartment building. In this building, William lived on the second floor, upstairs from a pair of young women whom he liked, both teachers at a school for troubled boys, and downstairs from an older man whom he did not care for one bit and who owned a small dog capable of producing large shits.

But the rain. It had arrived unexpectedly. For all its cleansing properties, the rain was a disappointment. He had planned for a walk. It was a Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoons, William frequently took walks on the trail that skirted, north-south, the foot of the mountain at the eastern edge of town. The trail was once a railroad track that stretched the length of the river that crossed the county in which William, ill-advisedly, had lived now for several years. Decades before, this railroad serviced the mills and logging interests of the town, and others near it, bringing the goods that such operations produced to the large lake on the northern stretch of the western border of the state. Then, by means of canals and locks and a second, greater river to the north, these goods, this inventory of somewhat primitive natural resources—raw oak and maple planks and wool and gravel made from crushed granite quarried from deep scars in the land—was sent off to larger cities, more populous states, where it was packaged and traded and exchanged. Those days were long gone. And the houses that those fortunes built were all, as William’s was, far into a process of decay and rot. Most Tuesdays William spent his afternoons among the muck and bicyclists and weekday hikers and a group of seniors forever out on their daily excursions, who were always cheery and kind and did not, as best William could tell, resent even one bit that as they approached the ends of their lives all that was left for them was William to wave hello, meekly, on this muddy trail full of ghosts.

Upstairs, he prepared a meal. He made a marinade for tofu, cubed with a sharp knife. He chopped vegetables. He watched the rain. It was really coming down, a thick stream washing between the valley-like edges of the gabled roof. The roof intersected directly beside William’s kitchen window. At the bottom of the rush of rain water from the roof was a large pool of mud-darkened water that grew perceptibly outward from the nearest corner of the parking area. If the heat returned soon enough the water might dry and he may not lose the tulip bulbs that he’d recently planted in a patch of grassy soil that was now saturated as a result of this unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, storm. In the wok, peanut oil continued to hiss as it warmed.

Facts regarding William’s upstairs neighbor: the man’s name was James. He was fifty-seven years old. He owned a red convertible Mazda Miata, which William had never once seen moved from its spot in the shared parking area, but which James, according to no schedule or pattern that William could discern, covered and then uncovered with a blue tarp, held down carelessly by two bungee cables.

William placed the cubed tofu in the wok, quickly moving his hand to avoid the spittle of oil that jumped from the hot pan. He then poured the marinade over the tofu to a deeper, wetter sound. Finally, he carefully placed the vegetables in the wok and stirred the whole mixture with a large wooden spoon. The kitchen filled with a sweet smell. William whistled a little bit as he pushed the food about with his spoon.

What troubled William mostly about the tarp was the lack of causal relationship between the tarp and the weather. One day it might be, as it was the previous Friday, sunny and warm, and the car would be covered, the edges of the tarp worrying themselves beneath the bungee cables in a gentle wind. Today it was raining. And there in the parking area, the Miata sat uncovered and soaking wet. Concerning choice, specifically the freewill of others, William was not a rigid thinker. But why would James choose to leave his car exposed to a storm such as the one that currently lashed the northern part of the state, according to the weather radar app on William’s phone? Why would he likewise choose to cover the car when the sun might conceivably dry it out, prevent mildew and mold. There was no rational foundation behind these decisions, William was certain of this. While he did not much care whether the results of such decisions might fairly be evaluated as reasonable or unreasonable, William was discouraged by what he perceived to be a lack of even the slightest forethought. Surely James must have also observed that his car was wet when it needn’t be, or that his dog shit where it ought not to shit. Surely James’s subjective experience of the world could not be that far from William’s own. Was it possible, for instance, that James, watching his dog shit two feet from the front steps of the apartment building, might regard himself, were he to reflect long and thoughtfully enough, as a reasonable man, a responsible pet owner?

According to an article that William had once read on the internet, dogs tended to relieve themselves with their bodies aligned on a north-south axis. For the dog there was an evolutionary imperative, an explanation. William stirred the food in the wok, inspected the broccoli carefully before turning down the heat. Momentarily, William resigned himself to forces greater than himself. The dog shit where the dog shit not because there was something wrong with the dog. The dog was simply being its most dog-self. For reasons that were a mystery to William, dogs have a magnetic preference about where they are standing when they defecate. Like the rail trail, his front walkway was aligned along a north-south axis. That a dog shit there with some frequency was an annoyance, but it was also an inevitability. In this William found some comfort. Perhaps James operated according to a similar and equally mysterious bodily impulse with regards to his car. And if this were true, then it must also be true of William himself. He turned the stove off and served himself two heaping spoonfuls of the tofu and vegetables on an orange plate. He poured a glass of red wine and sat at the small kitchen table. Outside, the rain continued, but to the west the sun had dipped beneath the clouds along the horizon and a bright line of orange and deeply saturated yellow burned its way in through William’s front window and rested uncomfortably across his face. What, he wondered, as he rose to draw the blinds, was his own north-south axis?

William returned to his meal. He raised his glass to his lips to take a sip of his wine, which was good, earthy for its variety, but drinkable. Indeed, the sun did not rise nor fall. The fact of its visibility on the horizon, the light now slightly deeper in hue, had nothing whatsoever to do with the sun itself, but rather with the rotation of the earth rushing into the darkness. Also the clouds had moved off toward the east at precisely the time to allow the sun to be seen on the horizon, something to do with convection and the mountain. Who really knew? These were modest observations, of course. Still, the thoughts settled into him. The sun did not set, the clouds would not always obscure the coming night. The earth rotated and from our fixed position on this earth, the sun gradually became not visible, and in that way another day passed and then another. The immaturity of this thinking embarrassed William as if there were someone else present to hear it, and he quickly finished what wine was left in his glass before pouring himself a second. He took a mouthful, opened his lips to let in some air, let the wine roll over his tongue, read the copy on the wine’s label. He might have after all tasted a nutty undertone peculiar to this appellation. But who could honestly tell such things?

Another thought occurred to William. Assuming this observation regarding dogs’ preferences was correct, the east-west axis had no bearing on where dogs chose to relieve themselves. All that mattered was that the animal’s face and, accordingly, its backside was facing either north or south. The fact, that is, of William’s front step was negligible. One hundred yards due west and the dog might have found an equally suitable place. James could have crossed the street to the lot that was since the demolition of the Bed and Breakfast that burned last year under mysterious circumstances empty and overflowing with tall grass and the last remaining bits of the house’s stone foundation. The solution was simple. What irritated William was that James surrendered to this instinct in his dog. The dog only needed to be allowed to face due north, or due south, whatever its preference. There was, William surmised as he found his irritation with James inching its way out of his thoughts and into his body, into his fingers as they gripped the glass of wine, no particular reason the dog should have been allowed to shit where it did. The only explanation was that James was inconsiderate and selfish.

It was an unusual time of year for a thunderstorm. Outside one seethed.

Further facts regarding James: he was English, raised, William thought he remembered, in the Lake District, a beautiful place in the north of England William had himself once visited. It reminded him a little bit of the town where he and James now lived, but more barren, fewer trees, though equally as lush and verdant in other ways. James was a musician. He had had some success in a minor rock and roll band in the 1980s. He dressed accordingly, a black leather motorcycle jacket, thinning hair kept long and swept to the sides of his head with too much hairspray.

William finished his second glass of wine and poured a third. He speared a final piece of broccoli with his fork, placed this in his mouth and arranged the knife and fork on his plate to indicate that he was finished. Then he sat as the light changed in the room about him, and he drank his wine until he had almost forgotten about James and the dog.

In their place, he thought for a while about a play by Henrik Ibsen. He couldn’t recall the title but remembered that its main character had shot herself with pistol. It was his sophomore year in college when he’d first read the play and all of its details apart from the pistol were lost to him, but he remembered the feeling of arriving at the play’s end, an unnamable sensation of both recognizing and being shocked by the character’s actions. Then he wondered if that was a part of growing old, remembering what was complicated and impossible to define while losing simple facts. Now that it was dark, he opened the blinds to the impatient view of the street and beyond that the empty lot, its grass beneath the streetlight trampled by the storm.

About the rain: as the evening progressed, the rain tapered off west to east. William determined this direction first by the regularity of weather patterns and second by the visibility of stars from the window on the west-facing wall and then, roughly two hours later, the east. By his fourth glass of wine William was drunk. All that was left of the storm was the steady trickle of water from the gutter. Lately, he’d been letting the dishes sit until morning.

He was watching the news on low volume, a story about a woman in Louisiana who had rescued seven dogs from what the reporter kept calling an unfortunate situation. She said this over and over. William watched the report. They showed nearly a minute of a clip of the dogs, healthy and rehabilitated now, playing together on a bright green lawn. The woman looked on proudly with crossed arms as the dogs tackled one another, barked, nipped at scruff. It was probably the wine, but William teared up at the thought and sight of these dogs.

He heard the front door of the apartment building open two days into the week’s weather forecast. His favorite meteorologist was delivering the weather report from the scene of a fundraiser at the ecology museum located on the shore of the lake. Phosphate levels were too high. Farmers to blame. William first heard James’s dog’s claws on the wooden staircase, then James’s voice, deep, muffled by the stairs and walls, the front door slamming shut, James’s heavy steps on the stairs and in the hall as they passed William’s door. Here James must have overtaken the dog because William heard James scold the dog, tell it to go upstairs. “Get,” James said. Soon William heard the sound of James’s door closing, then more steps, shuffling, kitchen sounds. William poured another glass of wine and listened. He watched the digital clock on his cable box to see if he could catch it change the minute. Even a minute required enormous concentration. Three minutes passed before he was able to hold his attention to the clock long enough to see a six become a seven.

At first, he thought it was the dog barking. But gradually, the sound became clear. A deep, rumbling peel of laughter grew louder and louder from a spot directly above where William sat on his couch. He turned his face toward the ceiling as if it were possible to see James up there, doubled over, hands on his knees. He expected the laughter would stop soon, just something funny on television, but it kept going and William couldn’t decide even after a few minutes if it was laughter or sobbing. Though he was interested in the topic, he muted a special report on a wind turbine project proposed to be built on a nearby mountaintop and tried as best he could to reconcile what he was hearing.

By Jensen Beach