Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Pokey 

 

 

 

 

What time was it? Not morning. Not really. Some in-between time.

 

Something about leaving. Something about all of us out on the lawn in front of Commons House. Standing in a wide circle. People waving. Myself waving. We were all waving to each other. Until we looked up into the sky.

 

Then I must have awakened because now I saw the tinge of reddish light filling the open window beyond the bed.

 

So, in a while the sun would rise above the edge of the world.

 

Was it really morning?

 

I closed my eyes and tried to find it all again, where I had been, walking towards the green of the lawn, the people waving to each other, me waving, looking up to the sky.

 

But something held me back.

 

I opened my eyes and looked at the red tinge on the window and shifted my gaze to the hump of blankets beside me: Eileen.

 

"Good morning," I said.

 

No answer, of course.

 

On the floor beside the bed I made out my slippers. They lay there waiting for me.

 

Here was a fact: I hadn’t always owned those slippers. I didn't have them when I first came here a year ago. They had been a gift from her, Eileen. She gave them to me the day she decided to move down the hall from her room to my room. A sort of celebration gift, she said.

 

"Eileen, rise and shine."

 

Still, nothing.

 

Well, you see, life moved on. You moved on with it. You had to move with it. What choice did you have? That's what a place like this was for. To take us in. To hold us for a while. And now to let us go.

 

Outside the window the blush of red reached up further into the sky.

 

A sound of a toilet down the hall. Somebody using the one of the bathrooms. Then the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing and the sound of footsteps going down the hallway and another door closing.

 

So, I said to myself, time to rise and shine.

 

I pulled my legs out from under my blanket, sat up, slid my feet into the slippers, stood up and picked my way over to the closet around the suitcases and boxes we had packed the night before. One more look at Eileen as I put on my jeans and T-shirt and shoes.

 

"Fire!" I said.

 

No hope there.

 

So I opened the door of our room. There it was. It had waited overnight, the hallway. I had walked down it so many times this year, the light bulbs in the ceiling trailing away to the end where the stairs were.

 

Hundreds of times? Thousands of times? Surely thousands of times, this going back and forth along this hall, to and from my room, past the doors of all the people who had been taken in as I had been taken in, and were now going to be let go as I was going to be let go.

 

Today, a new day: The first day of the rest of my life. Isn't that the kind of thing people said? Especially people like Harrison? The doers and shakers? Isn't that the kind of thing they said?

 

So on this first day of the rest of my life, the one thousand and first time I had walked under those light bulbs, I walked down the hallway and at the end of the hallway down the stairs and at the bottom of the stairs to the door to the outside.

 

Pokey sat on top of the little mound just to one side.

 

"Hello, Pokey," I said. "Good morning, Pokey."

 

She was just the dog you saw around the campus. Maybe ten, eleven, twelve years old, parts of her fur turning white.

 

To my surprise she cocked up the one ear that still cocked.

 

“Come on, Pokey, come on.”

 

She made the effort to get her feet.

 

“That's right, Pokey. Good dog, Pokey.”

 

Finally she was up. She came toward me, her one leg trailing a little, and when she reached me she pushed her head into my trousers. I rubbed her behind the ears.

 

"What a nice morning, Pokey. It's spring. Don't you think it's spring, Pokey?"

 

Pokey shook herself, the movement going from the front to the back of her body.

 

"That's right, Pokey, that's right."

 

I started across the lawn towards Commons House and, to my surprise, Pokey followed me. She not only followed me, she actually trotted out ahead, doing that sort of off-center trot that dogs do, but with her one leg trailing a bit. We passed by the white chairs in the middle of the lawn between the dorm and Commons House and Pokey aimed over toward the pile of split wood where the oak tree had once been.

 

"Come on, Pokey, this way" I called, and she slanted back in my direction, stopping in front of the steps of the porch at Commons House.

 

I looked around the steps for wherever the morning newspaper might have been thrown and found it just behind a bush in its cellophane wrapper.

 

"Well, Pokey," I said, "you could have brought me the paper. Real dogs always bring the paper."

 

Pokey got something in her nose and sneezed.

 

"What is it, Pokey? Something going on?"

 

She sneezed again.

 

"It's spring. That's what it is, Pokey."

 

She sat down suddenly and started going after a flea with her one good hind leg. Only that leg didn’t quite reach her belly any more.

 

"That’s right, Pokey," I said, "you get that flea."

 

I went inside and in the commons room, took the paper out of its wrapper and laid it out on the big table, pushing aside the papers from other days. The room was still dark, lit only by the hanging lamp above the reading table.

 

Sometimes I wondered if anyone ever turned that lamp off. When I passed through that really bad time and couldn't sleep I used to come over to the commons room in the middle of the night and read from the stack of newspapers on the table. I always found the light on. I hadn't known whether to turn it off when I left or not. And, I thought, if I didn't do it, who would?

 

Anyway, now I skimmed the front page. I had just decided to concentrate on a story on the effects of the continued drought in sub-Saharan Africa when I heard heavy steps coming down the back stairs to the kitchen. That would be Hanna, of course. Considering her size and weight, it was just possible those stairs would break under her someday.

 

That’s when I heard the beginning of the banging sounds as she started the process of setting up breakfast.

 

"Well, you're the early bird," she said, coming through the door into the commons room. She was carrying all that stuff to make coffee and tea on a big tray.

 

"Somebody has to open the day," I said.

 

She went over to the coffee machines, fussed with them, and once they were all properly gurgling and growling, came over to the table and lowered her enormous weight down in a chair across from me. Probably some day that chair would break, too.

 

"Well, babe?" she said, most of her smile disappearing into the folds of her face. Like a lot of overweight women, she wore a man's shirt, in this case, one of those plaid flannel ones. “So, where you off to this morning?”

 

"Pittsburgh," I said. Then I added, "First stop before the coast. If I can get Eileen up and rolling."

 

"Babe," she said, "is Eileen going to live with you out there on the coast?"

 

"She's got her friends in Missouri. On a farm. New-age types. She's going to stay with them for a while."

 

"Yeah, but after that."

 

"I don't know."

 

"Well, babe, I wish the two of you all the luck in the world. You know. Whatever."

 

Just then I heard Pokey barking.

 

"Excuse me," I said.

 

"Yeah, babe, no problem."

 

I went out onto the porch. Pokey had stopped her barking, but was growling instead. The fur on her back even stood up a bit.

 

"Pokey! My goodness!"

 

Her growling turned to whining.

 

"Spring, Pokey, spring!"

 

I sat down on the steps next to her, and then saw what she had been growling at. A bus, one of those huge things that you think can't really fit on one side of a normal road, had actually turned into the grounds of the campus and was crawling up the lane towards Commons House, decked out with all those secondary amber lights.

 

Pokey started to growl again.

 

"It's all right Pokey," I said. "People are leaving today. Some people are going to take that bus, Pokey.”

 

The bus stopped half way between the dorm and Commons House, the air brakes hissing and the lights dimming, first the headlights and then all those amber running lights. The door swung open and two people got out. One of them was the driver, and the other was Harrison, the guru, sort of, of this place. He was easier to see than the driver because of his white tunic. And even from this distance I could make out his white beard and white hair.

 

Pokey began to bark.

 

"Pokey, it's Harrison. Shhh. My goodness. You can't bark at Harrison, Pokey."

 

I stroked her behind the ears. Over at the bus Harrison shook hands with the driver and then started up towards Commons House walking in that straight and upright way.

 

"See, Pokey, I told you so."

 

Even in the quarter-light Harrison looked like he ought to be heading this place. Or any other place. That was one of the amazing things about him. He always looked so distinguished, no matter what time of day or night.

 

"Pokey was growling at you," I said when Harrison got closer.

 

"Even Pokey? The dearest of all my friends?"

 

"Even Pokey."

 

"Father, they know not what they do."

 

Over at the dorm the lights were beginning to come on. Soon people would be coming down for morning worship.

 

"Spring," said Harrison.

 

"Yes, spring," I said.

 

"It’s always a surprise, you know. Each year it's a surprise."

 

"Yes."

 

"Now here's a question for you," said Harrison. "How many perfect days do we have in a year? Not good days. Perfect days. Twenty, thirty? Not thirty. Probably no, more like twenty."

 

"Thirty," I said.

 

"At most twenty. Maybe twenty-five."

 

"Twenty-eight?"

 

"Twenty-five. That's the limit."

 

"Twenty-seven," I said.

 

Pokey sneezed again.

 

"Well now," said Harrison, "so you'll forgive me. I forget. Where is it that you're heading out to today?"

 

I told him again about driving to Pittsburgh and staying the night and then dropping Eileen off at a farm in Missouri before I drove on. I also said that some of the people from here might visit me out in California.

 

"Will you and Eileen make anything of it?"

 

"I don't know. I'm not sure."

 

"Well," he said, "sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don't.”

 

"But a new life."

 

"Oh, yes, no doubt about that. A new life. For those of you who are moving on. And for those of us who are staying here, perhaps a bit of a new life."

 

The bell on top of Commons House began to ring out. That meant ten minutes to morning worship.

 

"You know, you could write me," said Harrison. "I'm not a very good correspondent, actually. But I'd try. I'd really try."

 

"Yes, why not? I certainly know the address."

 

"Yes, I guess you know the address, all right.”

 

"Well," said Harrison. "Maybe we won't have a proper opportunity later. Are you going on the bus?"

 

"No, I'm driving."

 

"Of course. You said that. Well . . ."

 

The bell rang again.

 

"Time for morning worship," he said.

 

Harrison put out his hand and I took it. I hoped he wouldn't try and hug me - which was his custom with most people. But thank goodness he didn't.

 

"You guys going over?" That was Hanna coming up behind us.

 

"Of course," said Harrison.

 

The two of them started off across the grass toward The Barn, Harrison tall and straight in his white tunic and Hanna almost waddling because of her weight. Of course, Harrison slowed down for her. I saw him turn toward her and smile.

 

Pokey was still in front of the porch.

 

"Pokey!" I called, snapping my fingers. "Pokey!"

 

Finally she cocked up one ear and looked in my direction.

 

"Pokey! It's morning worship!"

 

She got her feet under her, but then just stood there. I saw that she was looking at the bus, huge, massive, intruding, covering up our lane from the street. Now that the light was better I could see the lettering on the side of the bus. It said "Harold's Charters" in big yellow letters backed by blue.

 

"It's all right, Pokey. Come!"

 

I started off across the grass toward the white chairs and The Barn where morning worship was held. I turned and saw that Pokey was following me, sort of.

 

"Come!"

 

She actually began to trot again.

 

Harrison and Hanna had already gone inside The Barn. Pokey stayed outside. That was because she wasn't allowed in the worship room.

 

Most of the other people I had lived with this year were already inside, sitting, adjusting themselves. The benches were set up the same as always, three rows on four sides, everything facing the empty part of the room in the center. The normal Quaker thing.

 

Just as I took a seat in the back row I saw Eileen over across from me, her black hair lumping up over on one side of her head. So, she had made it. A minor triumph. The first time in a week. But without combing her hair.

 

She gave me a thumbs up sign.

 

Harrison sat in the center of the front row to the right. Although his eyes were closed, you could tell he was concentrating on something. Already. I often wondered what that something was. Whatever it was, he seemed to see it.

 

I closed my eyes, too, and, like Harrison, tried to concentrate. That is, I tried to concentrate not on something, but its opposite, nothing. Whatever that meant. The problem was, even though I had really tried this year, even though at times I had taken it really seriously, I never quite got the essence of it. How to concentrate on nothing. Stuff kept coming into my head. Once we had a weekend workshop led by Harrison where we tried to concentrate on nothing for two days. By Sunday all that came into my head were images of naked women.

 

Which got me to thinking about Eileen. I couldn't figure it out. Did I really want to drop her off at a farm in Missouri, or did I want her to come out to the coast with me? To share my new life?

 

 Because maybe those bad times would return. Those nights when I couldn’t sleep. And worse.

 

If that were to happen, then all this year had been for nothing. A waste.

 

"No, no," I heard Hanna whisper.

 

I looked up. You really weren't supposed to look up in morning worship, but I often did.

 

It was Pokey. She'd come into the worship room and was trying to find the best place to lie down.

 

"Pokey, go away." That was Hanna whispering again.

 

But Pokey didn't go away. She circled and circled, then, letting out a small groan, she half-eased herself and half-slid down onto the floor.

 

"Good dog, Pokey." That was Harrison.

 

Then we all ignored Pokey. That was what we were supposed to do. Ignore things like that. Like the fact that Pokey had come into the worship room when she wasn't supposed to. That she was breaking the rules.

 

So I tried to ignore Pokey and ignore Harrison and ignore Hanna and Eileen and all the rest of my thoughts including, probably, naked women, and began to concentrate on nothing.

 

Although I knew it wouldn't work. It wouldn't work because it hadn't worked all year. Even when I had really tried. So why would it work now?

 

And since I knew it wouldn't work, I began to think about the trip. If we left here by eleven, if I could get Eileen rolling by then, we shouldn't have any problem making it to Pittsburgh by early evening. And my friends there were expecting me. They had written, hey, it will be great to see you again! Where have you been all this time? What have you been up to?

 

That would be nice. Seeing my friends again. After all this time. In another city. In another place.

 

Although, of course, I wasn't supposed to be thinking about my friends. Or other things. The new life. Leaving this place. I wasn't supposed to be thinking about anything. Certainly not about the future. Because the concept of the "future" was an illusion. The "future" didn't exist.

 

So I tried again, one more time, what? the thousandth and first time? to think of nothing. Or not to think of nothing. Or not to think. Because, you see, Harrison had explained it once, thinking is a form of ego consciousness. It is a trick to lock us into our illusions. Into our life of pain.

 

Again I opened my eyes (even though of course you weren't supposed to) and looked at Harrison over there on the first row to the right. Was it for real or not for Harrison? What I saw? The concentration? The focus? Out in front of him. It seemed real. Something he was seeing there.

 

Whatever that something was, I wanted it, too.

 

One more attempt.

 

I closed my eyes and heard the honking. At first I couldn't tell it was geese. The honking was so far away in the beginning it was just some kind of something else out there. Something to ignore with every other thing out there to ignore. But then the honking got louder and louder and I knew it had to be geese and I guess everyone else in the room had to know it was geese, too. And there had to be a lot of them.

 

I was just thinking, why wasn't Pokey out chasing them, full of joy, when Harrison held out his hands to those on either side of him, signaling the end to morning worship. And so all the rest of us reached out and held hands, until the person on my right squeezed my hand and I squeezed the hand of the person on my left. Then we all dropped our hands.

 

The honking of the geese had gone away.

 

"Well," said Harrison, and by the tone of his voice he let us know that we were back to day-to-day regular reality,although we were still in the worship room. "I just can't believe this. That this is the last day. That most of you will be leaving."

 

"But Pokey won't be leaving," said Hanna.

 

That got a small laugh. It was all right to laugh since we were back to regular day-to-day reality.

 

"No, Pokey won't be leaving," said Harrison. "I doubt very much if Pokey will be leaving. But seriously, what I want to say is - and this comes from the bottom of my heart - that you've been a wonderful group. You've been an absolutely wonderful group. Sometimes, you know, this isn't the easiest job in the world. The job I have. Having to say goodbye each year. But I can tell you that when I look out at all of you, I know that it has all been worthwhile. Absolutely worthwhile. And I say to you, well, what can I say? ‘God speed!’"

 

At that we all applauded. It was all right to applaud now, too.

 

"You know," continued Harrison, "that was a very moving meeting. For me. Knowing it will be the last time all of us will be together. Before we go on our separate ways. To continue our lives elsewhere. Some staying on the east coast. Some going to the west coast. And points in-between. And, of course, sitting here I couldn't help but hear the geese flying over. I'm sure you all heard them, too. And when you think about it, they are rather like us, really, you know, leaving one place and going to another. Birds migrate naturally. They know when it is time. It is a part of nature that we human beings have perhaps yet to learn."

 

"Pokey won't learn it," said Hanna.

 

"No, no," smiled Harrison, "perhaps not Pokey. And perhaps not most of us, either. Well, as they say . . . ."

 

For a moment Harrison seemed to have lost the train of his thought.

 

"But, as they say," Harrison started up again, "‘Life moves on.’ In this case, may I be so bold as to state, to breakfast. But, as most of you also know, it’s traditional on this our last day, really, our last morning together, because different people will be leaving at different times, indeed, some have already left, to gather outside beside the white chairs before breakfast and make a circle. As my last official pronouncement, I invite you all to that circle."

 

Harrison got up and then other people began to get up. As soon as the first people moved, Pokey got her feet under her, stood up and wagged her tail.

 

"You're a bad dog," I heard Hanna say to Pokey.

 

"Well, not so bad," said Harrison.

 

I felt someone come up from behind and take my hand. It was Eileen.

 

"Nice," she said. "Morning worship."

 

"See!"

 

"I said I'd come."

 

She reached up and gave me a peck on the cheek, looked around and saw that people were leaving the room.

 

She put her arms around me and really kissed me.

 

"Let's do it right on the floor," she said.

 

"Not now,” I said.

 

Outside it was quite light, the red having turned to yellow. The huge bus with its huge lettering didn't seem quite so intruding now. Somehow more normal. The driver had managed to assemble suitcases and boxes along the side of the bus.

 

Out on the grass by the white chairs people had already made a big circle. Everyone stretched around taking hands so that the circle evened out.

 

"All right," called out Harrison when the circle was complete, "All right, now."

 

Just then Hanna and the two cooks came out of Commons House trailing lots of balloons of different colors behind them.

 

Eileen said, "Oh, look!"

 

She squeezed my hand.

 

Harrison and the woman next to him made a space in their part of the circle and Hanna and the cooks entered, pulling all the balloons after them. Once inside the circle, they started around, giving each of us a balloon. I took one of the strings from Hanna and the balloon I got turned out to be yellow. It pulled up gently on its string. Eileen got a red one. As I looked around the circle I could see that there were three colors-- red, yellow and blue -- and all the balloons pulled up at the end of their strings. By now Hanna and the cooks had joined the circle and held the strings of their balloons, too.

 

"This is neat!" said Eileen next to me.

 

The whole circle heard what she said and everyone laughed.

 

So she said louder, "Well, it is neat!"

 

People laughed again and Harrison's laughter carried especially.

 

Then we heard the honking of geese and we turned in the direction of the garden out past the dorm and saw them coming in their "V" beyond the trees. Actually, it was more like two "V"s, a large one and a smaller one, the smaller one slightly lower and veering in a different direction. Three or four geese from the larger "V" broke off and flew toward the smaller "V", and the honking of all the geese picked up in intensity. When they flew over us, the smaller "V" was well formed with only the two or three geese out of place at the end of the line, but the larger "V" seemed to be breaking apart with no one bird in the lead. More of the geese in the back of the larger group turned and dropped in altitude, heading for the smaller "V." Now all the geese in the larger group began to turn and drop, and the result was that all the geese in both groups changed directions and headed back over us, but honking and shifting and trying to form two trailing lines.

 

As the geese got closer Eileen shouted, "Let 'em go!"

 

She released her balloon and its redness trailed upwards against the now blue sky. Other people were shouting, "Let 'em go!" and releasing theirs and I released mine and its yellow followed the others up against the blue sky. The honking of the geese got louder and the balloons got smaller and it was getting harder to see the balloons’ colors. Then it seemed that the geese and the balloons might actually mix or even collide. The geese were right overhead, honking and honking and the balloons went right on up between the geese. Although it was hard to tell because the geese acted as if the balloons weren't there and by the time the geese had gone past us they were in one big "V" again with the two lines trailing off from the leader and I couldn't see the balloons anymore at all. The geese grew smaller and disappeared to where they had come from - over the trees beyond the garden.

 

Then we heard Pokey back at The Barn barking. Maybe she had been barking all the time and we just hadn't heard her because of the honking of the geese.

 

"Hey," called out Hanna.

 

But Pokey kept right on barking. I had never heard her bark like that. Frenetic. A little insane.

 

"Pokey!" called out Hanna again.

 

I broke from the circle and ran towards The Barn. I found her and took Pokey up in my arms and walked back to the circle and stepped in next to Eileen.

 

"I think she wants to say goodbye, too," I said.

 

First Eileen, and then everybody came over and reached out for Pokey. Even Hanna and Harrison.

 

“Such a bad dog,” said Hanna smiling.

 

“Such a good dog,” said Harrison, somehow reaching out and circling his arms around Hanna, Eileen and me.

 

The four of us, Harrison, Hanna, Eileen and myself, leaned in against each other, Pokey right there in the middle.

 

"May God be with you always," said Harrison pulling his arms around us even tighter.

 

Yes, I thought, life moves on.

  

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 100 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.