The Ring


      My memory doesn't serve me as well as it once did. I am still a quick wit but there are quicker ones around. Sometimes I pause, searching for a word that once rolled off my tongue. The incident was a long time ago, or at least seems that way. Time is like E=MC squared. It is directionally proportional to a person's state of mind. Sometimes something will trigger my memory and I will remember a joke or story I heard 20 years ago, but I never think about the incident now, except as I sit down to write this. I was not always a man who fit comfortably in his skin, although many of my current friends find that surprising. I don't have any friends from the past. It is funny how a small piece of metal could change ones life so drastically, but the ring certainly changed mine

     I live in Northern California now, in a small wooden frame two-bedroom cottage on an old quarry ground. It is a nondescript house, but shaded in a lovely way by a tall redwood and several mulberries. It is in the city but has a rural atmosphere. My neighbor, Bill comes down whenever I work on one of my vehicles. To help or advise. He also has better tools than I do. He is a hard worker, but does not have a delicate touch, which is sometimes required in auto mechanics. He is a simple man but I enjoy simple people. You know where you stand with them. He is a good man when sober and funny when he is drunk. In the spring, a crab apple tree shows its beautiful blossoms and I plant a vegetable garden for the neighbors and myself. In the winter there are enough oranges and lemons from my trees for everyone around. Sixty years ago, when the quarry ran, the cottage was the home of the foreman. It sits a stone's throw from the quarry itself. The quarry men are long since gone and the quarry has filled with water. The locals tell stories of many mysterious things at the bottom of the quarry, from dead bodies to an entire locomotive, but I suspect it is only legend. In the winter, egrets come to fish by the pond's edge and in late February, two pairs of geese come. I assume they are the same pairs. They raise their young and are gone by June and then the drabness of a California Valley summer sits in. My Brittany Spaniel patrols the small yard, watchful that other creatures keep their distance. He was a terrible child, but now is a great joy in my life. In the evening he sits at my feet as I read the newspaper. Usually he will go to bed with me, but if he is tired from an active day in the yard, he will put himself to bed early.

     I met Itsy in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the big army base that it is the home of the 82nd Airborne. Her name is Isabella, but as a small child, the best she could do was Itsy and the name stayed with her. She was a nurse at the Army hospital on base and I was a civilian mechanic teaching young soldiers to repair diesel engines. We met at the bowling alley on the base. Itsy was a good bowler. I was not. Itsy was not an especially attractive woman. She was of medium stature and slender although she grew plumper as the years passed. She was of French Canadian ancestry. Born in Canada in fact. She had dark brown hair and brown eyes with an oddly misshapen nose. Sometimes people asked her how she had broken her nose and then stammered in embarrassment when she told them she was born that way. My older brother has protruding ears and Itsy asked me one time why my brother did not have his ears fixed. ÒI guess the same reason you haven't had your nose fixed,Ó I replied. She had two sons when I met her. One, ten years old and the other a year older. Their father had died when they were babies, although Itsy told varying stories about the circumstances of his death.

     We were married in June, six months after we met. It was a simple civil ceremony with just a witness and the two of us. I did not tell my parents for three weeks. I shaved her pubic hair on our wedding night. I told her if she was not a virgin, perhaps a shaven pussy would make her feel more virginal. After dark, the electricity in the entire town went out and did not return for twenty-four hours. A fire had burnt a transformer station. I did not take it as an omen. Itsy had a glow about her that night anyhow.

    We left Kentucky in August and moved to Barstow, California close to her parents in Riverside. Barstow is a skunky, dirty town perched on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Its main reason for existence is military installations and the fact that it is approximately half way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The only thing Barstow is remarkable for is its incredible sandstorms with 50 MPH winds that can sandblast the exterior paint on a car. Itsy found a job at the Marine base hospital. Itsy was a good nurse. I worked for a Ford dealership in town. We bought a small three-bedroom house on a busy street in an older subdivision. Some houses are just houses no matter how much you try to make it a home. But this house was a home for the boys and us.

     John and Claire lived next door when we moved in. They were the only black couple in the neighborhood. We were friendly, if not friends. Claire was a beautiful woman and since I have an affinity for attractive women of color, it was always pleasant to find her outside, so that I might chat with her for a few minutes. She was smart with a bubbly personality, coffee colored skin and the physical features I find so attractive in African American women. But I was very much in love with Itsy. John was twenty years older and at times might be mistaken for Caucasian. This was John's second family. He had a son that was twenty-two, but was seldom seen and a son with Claire that was three years old and a precious little girl of four.  Claire was an accountant and left every morning for work about the same time that I did. I always enjoyed a cheerful wave from her as we walked to our cars in the morning. John was retired from the military and civil service and stayed home with the children. He was in his fifties, with a puffy, baby face that made him look younger than his age. He wore glasses and spoke with a soft lisp that also made him seem younger. He was a Mason, as my father had been and a Deacon of the Baptist Church that sat on the corner of our street and the next street to the north. It was always a delight to see Claire and John, and the children dressed in their finest clothes on their way to church on Sunday morning.

      Ten Years passed. I am sure there were many notable events, but I don't remember many of them. The boys grew up and went on their way. It was difficult. I am sure the absence of a father for the first ten years contributed to their problems, especially to the younger boy. But I tried and I hope that in some way I made them better people as adults. I am proud of them. They are not model citizens, but neither are they criminals. Itsy and I were never really happy together. She was a temperamental and unhappy woman. She threatened to leave me many times, but of course never did. Sometimes I would go into the mountains and camp for several days and fly fish for trout. Something I enjoyed but also a way to get away from my home life. I tried to make things better for her, but without much success. There was not much affection and our sex life was minimal. I never failed to be aroused when I saw her naked and she was easy to bring to climax, but seldom was she in the mood and eventually I lost interest. Once I met a pretty brunette with a curvaceous figure when she brought her car in for a repair. It was obvious we were attracted to each other even though she knew I was married. We had lunch together several times and one time I kissed her in the parking lot. It was my only unfaithfulness in my marriage. But I never pursued it for fear of losing Itsy.

     John either couldn't or wasn't interested in keeping up his property. Quite often I would mow his front yard as I mowed mine. He seemed to lead the life of a shut in, seldom leaving the house except to shuttle the children to school and back. Itsy would complain about John peeking through his window, watching her work in the garden in her shorts. Occasionally she referred to him as a pervert. I did not take it seriously. I did not find it surprising that a man confined to his home would find occasional voyeurism enjoyable.

          When Claire and John's house needed repairs, the boys and I would generally do it for them. We built a new fence, cleared a drain line, fixed a gate; we even put a new roof on their house. They paid generously and I would give the money to the boys to split and hope they had learned something that would help them later in life. Occasionally I would see John smoking his pipe and drinking a beer, standing outside of his garage. If I weren't busy I would walk over and chat with him awhile. One day he told me that his mother and grandmother in Los Angeles had died on the same day. The mother was the caretaker of the grandmother, who was in her 90's. The older lady had died of a stroke and his mother, stricken with grief, had a heart attack and died on the same bed. The police did not find their bodies for a week. Another night I awoke to see an ambulance, its lights flashing in their driveway. The next day I learned that John had chest pains and thought he was having a heart attack. However, he had eaten a whole bag of marshmallows before bedtime and was only suffering heartburn. One evening, Claire and John asked Itsy and myself to come over to their house and witness their will. I noticed the rich smell of cherry flavored tobacco in the house while we were signing the papers.

     When I met my wife she had a little black dog about two years old. It could only be described as a dog. There was not even an identifiable mix in her. She had come in heat once before my wife had her spayed and apparently was too homely to attract even a horny male dog. She was sweet though and quickly became attached to me. She sat with me in my office or out on the deck I had built, as I read the newspaper. Before I left the deck for bed in the evening, I would put her on my lap and stroke her belly. By the time the boys were gone she was twelve or thirteen years old and unable to jump on the bed anymore. I liked to take a nap after I came in from the workday and in her later years; she would stand at foot of the bed and bark. I would lift her up onto the bed where she would lay against me while we slept. Susie was her name.

     It was after work one day in early fall. I came home from the stifling heat of Southern California that I had never become accustomed to. Air conditioning was the only thing that made Barstow livable. I took off my shirt and made my way to the bedroom and lay down. Susie barked and I went to pick her up and noticed a smoking pipe lying on the carpet next to my bed. I picked it up and examined it. It had a long black stem and an ornately carved wooden bowl. The bowl, made of walnut was shaped in the face of an old man, a sailor perhaps. I sniffed the bowl and my nose took in the pungent smell of burnt cherry flavored tobacco. I put the pipe in the drawer of the desk in my office and Susie and I lay on the bed, but I could not sleep. I did not mention the pipe to Itsy.  

     In October, I noticed Susie struggling to climb up the steps of the deck. She was a tough little dog and not a complainer. I picked her up and put her on my lap, noticing a swollen, hard belly. The veterinarian confirmed what I had feared. She had pancreatic cancer and her belly was swollen with fluid. The veterinarian drained the fluid but three days later her belly was just as swollen as before. I made the decision to end her life on Saturday when my wife would be out of town to attend a wedding. Friday night was a long and miserable night. I got up many times during the night to stroke her head. I thought about taking her out and shooting her and then burying her body, as I was afraid I could not make it through the veterinary process. In the morning I called a friend and asked her to accompany me to the vet's office. I patted the dog on the head and watched her pass from this life. I held up better than I expected.

        Itsy returned on Tuesday. She was always the type of person to take out her grief and anger on other people. She hardly talked to me the following week and when she did, it was not pleasant. In February, we brought home another dog from the animal shelter. It was Super Bowl weekend. I named her Penny and she quickly became my companion. Today, I could complain about many things in Itsy's nature, but she was always very kind and caring with the dogs. Penny was no exception.

       In the spring, I came home from work and glanced at the newspaper and then went to take a nap. Penny had become accustomed to the routine by now and followed me into the bedroom to rest with me. Itsy and I had a large California King waterbed long after they were fashionable. I enjoyed sleeping in it but did not enjoy moving it. However it had been in the same place for more than ten years. I lay down on the bed. Penny nestled in beside me and I stroked her for a minute and then placed my hand in the space between the water mattress and the railing. I felt something unusual. It was a ring. A man's wedding band. Not my own. It was of heavy gold with rivulets on the sides and five small diamonds in a diagonal line across the top. It was a very pretty ring. Again, I did not tell Itsy, but placed the ring in the drawer in my desk.

     In early summer, John asked me to build a new gate for him. On a Saturday morning, I mixed concrete and dug a hole for a gatepost. In the afternoon I built a six-foot gate from redwood planks and two by fours. Sunday morning after the concrete had set; I hung the gate from the post and attached a latch to it. Before I went to tell John, I went into my office and retrieved the wedding band from my desk.

    I knocked on the door and John answered, wearing sweats and Mickey Mouse house slippers. I stammered a bit as I looked down at his shoes. "I finished the gate for you" I said, "I think it will work out fine." "Oh, thank you," he replied, "How much can I pay you?" "Oh, nothing," I said. "It is the thing neighbors should do for one another." I reached in my pocket and produced the wedding band, "Oh by the way, I found this ring by the fence when I was working. Could it be yours?" John's eyes lit up when he saw the ring. "Yes, Claire will be so happy, it is the ring she bought for me when we were married. Thank you so much. Please let me pay you something." "No, I am just glad you have it back," I said. I left John and Claire's house and walked to where my car sat in the driveway. I stood with my back leaning against the car and stroked my chin as I am wont to do when I am contemplating something. I then got in my car and drove away.

     I never returned to my home and I never spoke to Itsy about the incident. We were divorced two years later and I have not spoken to her in many years. Today I walked with my spaniel out past the quarry into the pasture. It is spring and nature is coming to life. The egrets have left the pond for the winter, but several random ducks are floating on the water. A young boy from across the street is fishing. A camellia bush that the previous owner planted for his wife is showing its beautiful flowers. In the corner of the pasture one of the ganders is guarding the goose as she sits on the nest in the tall grass. My dog is a sweet natured dog, but he is a hunting dog and will kill anything smaller than him. He keeps his distance from the gander though. I admire the gander's determination and then walk back to the house, but stop on my way to appreciate the blossoms on the crab apple tree.



Kevin D. Burgess