CHAPTER 1 – The Book of Barkley
In rough wool socks, in a cooling room, I read from the books of the Old Testament, dipping my finger in a glass of whiskey, salvaging all I can from myth and truth, as reality comes through the window like a tossed brick.
Outside there was nothing, the world outside the window, only a long, steady dusting of snow, the dark and constant presence of winter’s scorn. Somewhere in the distance, a snowplow scrapes the day’s history from the streets as I pull a sweater around me, small comfort in this empty house.
We find comfort in various ways. For some, it's food, human warmth, and need or the acquisition of possessions. For some, it's drugs or alcohol, a balm to the self we deceive ourselves into believing as being measurably containable. We're not, though; days come in which we're like a glass too full, barely preventing ourselves from spilling over through surface tension.
Our comforts can be our healing, but if left unchecked, they can be our curse, carried in an empty bag, a broken bottle, harsh words that scatter like empty containers, the hiss of a snake as we toss it away. They can also be our savior, keeping us from that isolating inward spiral, the soul’s needle that rips free the bindings, thus letting our wounds heal.
For me, my comfort this night is the written Word of God, of man, or a mere mortal woman, the thoughts in a journal that spring from my own day. Those words laid out unfolded, are my way of savoring what it means to be alive; and the most striking measure of life is the literal odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, humanity and nature have derived an infinite number of ways of not being here. Calamities of man and nature can wipe out entire civilizations even as the smallest of things can render us completely and totally undone, a meteorite and a microbe carrying the same weight. Statistics belittles our very existence; thermodynamics prohibits us, and gravity usually wins. That's if we're not taken out first by hurricane, flood, donkey accident, tainted food, terrorists or that offer of a ride home by that nice guy at the bar with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.
I spent much of my early adulthood as a jet pilot, learning very quickly that, not only can't you always save the world, sometimes you cannot even save yourself. But the effort is often worth it. If you're lucky, your brushes with life will only leave a few small physical scars. If I raise up my bangs, right at the hairline, there’s a tiny, faint scar from a tumble off my bike down a hill as a kid. There's a small ding in my forehead where the bungee cord of the J60-P-3 turbojet engine cover whacked me on the ramp at warp speed when I lost the wrestling contest with it. But for most people, like me, the bigger scars are internal, and you only touch them softly, with trepidation, not remorse, in the late night hours of "what if’s."
Pilots get that. So, usually, does anyone with scars. There are times when it seems as if all is falling apart around you, and there's a sense of this huge elemental power beyond your control. You think "what the #^@& am I doing, this is nuts!" As you squeak past the reaper one more time, you think well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? already planning on when you will go out and do it again. For you are drawn to the communion with the infinite, the bread of life on the tongue, tasting faintly of salt, the sweetness, just underneath. It's stretching your hand out to receive glory even as your world cranks up to red line with the knowledge that if you screw up, there will be no saving grace; you will die. But if you do not, then the world will, for that instant, have one moment of equilibrium, of order, of peace.
Those moments, precise moments of perfection, almost worthy of the price.
It's moments like this, like these here now, that are our way of saying, that, in the face of the impossible, life is worth savoring. It's acknowledging that when life lobs something our way like a grenade, shards of pain exploding across our world, that life still can be a gift, still a story to be told.
It is a story, not one of science, one that may not be remembered past this one lifetime. It is the story of someone that did not know his destiny but followed it with unfaltering step, bound to me, not by vows or paper, but in the name of the trust that was the best part of his nature. It is a story of the one that taught me to love even as he occasionally barfed on my carpet. It is simply the tale of a black Labrador retriever named Barkley.
It was the beginning I never anticipated--belief that there were no limits that made tragedy inevitable, a gentle nuzzle that made the walls fall away, and the pull of the leash into the day’s infinitude.
It was an ending I did not expect; a leash laid across the chair, an empty bed, a glass tipped over, spilling the blood of wine. The noise that empty rooms make is as clear as tears.
In between, there are the stories of friends, of joy and dog hair, of a small pink ball with feet known as Mr. Squeaky, which became my mortal enemy at dawn, as I tried to sleep. There are tales of the great "bacon incident" and how I know more about how to clean carpet than should be allowed by law. There are words that twist and turn in the shade of an ancient tree, a sonnet to an old dog, who lies between the bones of poets, to be unearthed as he releases me to remember.
A couch sits across from me, absent of a form that claimed it for ten years. Under the table, are a few favorite toys, sticks and stones that now break my bones, even as I cannot bear to part with them. I sit, the solitary dreamer, pulled to the perimeters of memory that can’t yet be mapped. I sit, a cowboy without his sidekick, my defense laid down on the bar, nursing the hurt with one part tears and two parts single malt. Barkley's things are stacked by the door, as ordered as rifle cartridges, a dog's length from the barrel of the bottle. That bottle is a place I do not want to lose myself, I think as small sounds come from my chest, as the rumble of thunder infinitely remote, the vibration of grief down deep inside, tremulous and impartial and waiting.
But grieving with memories is better than nothing without them and the only thing worse than not being alive is not having anything to remember.
So for tonight, I will simply pour a finger of warmth and put the bottle aside to sit, to wait for something I cannot name, but of which I can still remember. I'll remember the alone as a white shirt on the line, flapping in the hot wind. I'll remember the together as the sound of a puppy's whimper. I will remember it all as a forested night pouring down upon us every star ever perceived, as we learned to walk together, of fresh grass and soft ice cream, wood smoke, and black powder, of black fur and white knights and love unexpected. I'll remember it and write of it, as a discarding of pain, as a leap into unknown air, a dog, a moment, so worthy of the price.
Our wounds we wear like temporary garments until they are forgotten, but our stories, we don them as forever.
- LB Johnson
- LB Johnson