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It's Nelly's World

Days of Independence

alec vanderboom

They were right. My friends were right. It does feel a little like freedom, standing now on the other side of this long bridge. When I was in the middle, it started swaying over the black chasm, and the slats underfoot creaked; some dropped down into space and it was so far down I couldn't hear them hit bottom. I was on the phone to my mother the night before the move, when I was in no way ready, either in detail or essence, for the truck to arrive. I sobbed, "I can't do it. And I don't want to. Mother, I don't want to go on." And I meant it. I have never wanted so badly to go into that good black oblivion. And the next morning, after three hours of sleep, I spent twelve straight hours doing what had to be done. Move. Into the future.

Then started the unpacking. I am so eager to begin again--and to get back to work, after so much time lost I could get lost in the weeping for it--I gave myself four days to completely settle into a new house. And this is a task, when you are the kind of person who has enough linens for six bedrooms, and apparently five tubes of hydrocortisone cream (I guess we packed the medicine chests so full we couldn't find what we needed, so we just went to the store and bought more. And now I have it all, here, enough to fill a house seven times this size. I am never buying anything ever again).

Of course, I've only been here four nights, but I've already had a party of sorts. Impromptu, the idea of some of these beautiful friends who have worked like drayhorses with me, steadily pulling this heavy wagon into a new life. The children dribbled watermelon juice everywhere, played up in the treehouse, waved sparklers, ran like banshees (wet and dirty banshees) through the house and outdoors and back, and at one memorable moment, right through a sliding screen door. The grownups, of course, drank wine and talked; of perfidies and hopes, of plans and stuff. I guess the way I will know I am dead is when I neglect to put out the cocktail napkins.

Nelly was up on the dining table, grazing like a horse from the plates of pizza crusts. She put her front legs on the low table and almost got a whole marbled cheesecake brownie. I couldn't get as lost in the conversation, or the mopping up of messes, as I'd liked, because she now must be watched as a hawk does a mouse. I knew my friends thought she was being bad, but I knew she was being good. Way too good. She seemed everywhere at once, an imp; one who now flies through the air toward whatever she wants, be it open car window, tabletop, lap at unsuspecting times, hapless squirrel. I got blank stares when I excitedly tried to explain how she was at that very moment expressing the basic notion behind the book I will be writing: a behavior that is consistently rewarded will be repeated. And one that is inconsistently rewarded will be repeated and strengthened. So, sometimes it's just yucky limes in empty glasses up on the table; but sometimes it's cheese on bread! Chocolate and cream cheese together!! You never know what's going to be up there!!! So I gotta get up there, I just do!!!!

That's the idea behind the jackpot reward. I love this one. It seems to drop down from heaven above, a whole mess of treats instead of just one. It's what life offers, too, if you're lucky (and I am; see above, reference to friends).

There's a little path cut through the tall grass, to a towering apple tree that should be heaven come fall, as well as relief from the twenty dollars' worth of organic apples my son goes through in a week. (You think I'm kidding; I'm not.) But Nelly, as always, cuts her own path. To the road.

We are now about to see the fruit of the work we invested in the past. (I said her name a certain way, she got a treat. I said it again, she got a treat.) Out in the field, panic in my soul, I said it again. Bless me, and she came running. What relief. And what sorrow, because my pockets were empty of treats. Before I could turn back to the house, she had done it again, and I had called her again, and she had responded. My happiness that she had was colored with dismay that I couldn't reinforce the recall: I must remember to ask Jolanta for the statistics (because everything in behaviorism is statistically backed up) on how long it is before performance drops off when it ceases to be rewarded. Pretty quickly, I think. Then we'll have to start the work all over again. This is the smell of dismay. Countered by the odor of joy: the jackpot, five treats delivered with alacrity to a happily surprised dog who has just turned quickly at the sound of your voice, streaking back to you with ears like pennants, smile wide, as fast as her legs can carry her. That's money in the bank, for future recalls when you need them.

And I needed one this morning. I looked out the window after emptying yet one more cardboard box of its essentially unnecessary contents, to see Nelly heading across the road. There is not much traffic here (am looking very much forward to the end of oil, so there will be none), but at night I hear the sound of gunning engines on the hill--teenagers returning from a party, perhaps--and go cold all over.

I did what I had to do. I called her to come. Not sure if it would work. A prayer in my heart.

She looked. Paused for a second, then ran straight for me.

A minute later, two cars passed. Nelly was already next to me, swallowing her chicken jerky with a smile. I must remember that the down-stay at a distance--Do not come; right now, lie still on the other side of the pavement from me, from the danger--vies with the Really Reliable Recall as a way to save your dog's life.

My friends are right, and I also hope my friends are right. They say this place has good karma. It has a bit of a hippie vibe, and that makes me feel at home: I am mostly, though not entirely, more of a food co-op type than a Balducci's sort. Though they did have awfully good French cheese . . . In this, my reclaimed youth, I'll burn some incense to good karma, for me, for Nelly and the road, for all.

Freedom feels good.

Happy birthday.