Bethy Was Here

(From 2003, included in The World According To Chuck: Stories of daughters, dogs, preachers, baseball, and sponge puppets)

 

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Well, the girl is gone.  

Packages were shipped and suitcases were stuffed, and Beth and her mom headed to Texas last week.

This left a household of male inhabitants, begging the question: How many consecutive nights can you eat pizza for dinner?  We are heading into uncharted territory.

I’m including Strider, who also eats pizza, although he steals it.  He apparently has no ethical qualms about this.

Strider is the dog that lives in my house.  While I take some responsibility for the planning and conception of my children (my wife insists I was there), Strider is not my dog.  Strider was researched, sought, bred and bought over my objections.

I said we were too unorganized to take care of a dog.  I tried to explain this once to a lady I knew.  “We can’t even keep the bathroom clean,” I said.

She gave me a pitying look.  “You know, the dog won’t use the bathroom,” she said, and I knew I’d lost.

I feel sorry sometimes for Strider.  He’s a Sheltie, a Shetland sheepdog, and hundreds of years of breeding have left him looking for something to herd.  There are no sheep in my house, and my kids were already fairly independent by the time he arrived.

His job in life was over before it started, then, so he’s an unemployed dog.  For all I know, when he’s alone in the house he watches soap operas and drinks wine that comes in a box.

Sometimes, he’ll sit outside my office door and cry.  I know it’s probably just a howl, but it sounds like crying to me.  It’s a mournful sound, high and sustained.  I used to open the door and try to comfort him, but now I just tell him to shut up.  My sympathy has limits.

Strider wasn’t around 15 years ago when we bought this house.  In a picture I took back then, Beth is running like crazy down the driveway with a wild grin on her face.

Over the years, she gave that driveway a workout.  A tricycle, a wagon, a bike, then that 1986 Lynx we bought for $1000 when she got her driver’s license.  It was a good starter car with low mileage and a nice stereo, and she destroyed it.  Just drove it into the ground.  Now it sits in my garage, leaking transmission fluid and oil and something that sort of looks like blood.  But it got her where she was going.

So it’s a change.  Our household will be different.  We sent Texas a smart, funny, personable and talented young woman, and at Christmas I assume we’ll get her back, probably sunburned and talking funny.

“I know I’ll be fine,” Beth said on more than one occasion about leaving for college.  “It’s YOU I’m worried about.” 

This is different, though, less sentiment and more excitement.  True, I dropped her at the airport early in the morning, came home and went into her nearly empty bedroom.  I sat there for a few minutes, remembering.  Then I moved her TV into my room.

I’ve realized something, though.  It turns out that all these years, during my dumb choices and bad behavior and regrets and mistakes, running through my mind, just beneath the surface, was a constant imperative: Get the girl grown.

Let her do well in school, let her have good friends and enjoy her teenage years, let her be spared trauma, let there be enough money, and please God let her get grown before I mess something up and everyone figures out that I haven’t got a clue about how to be a parent.

See, your wife takes a test one day and the world changes.  You make her toast when she has morning sickness and drive her to the hospital late one night, you learn how to change diapers and heat formula, you sit on tiny plastic chairs for parent-teacher conferences and watch a lot of soccer games, you try to help with homework and attend orchestra concerts, and then she goes to Texas and the world changes again.

I should be relieved, and I guess I am.  And I have a son, of course, and bills to pay and a wife to apologize to and this dumb dog.  I have jobs; it’s just that one of them is done, and I’ve noticed an empty feeling that wasn’t there before.

The house seems awfully quiet.  That’s just my imagination, though; if I concentrate I can hear things.

My son’s tapping his foot upstairs, working his way through the mechanics of a computer game.  My neighbors are murmuring in their backyard, trucks rumble down the street, and the fan whirrs over my left shoulder.  And I hear the sound of Strider.

He’s a good dog, really he is, intelligent and loyal.  Right now, as I type these words, he’s crying outside my office door, and all of a sudden I think I know why.

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