In the past year, whenever I return home to San Antonio, I’ve been having lunch with my grandmother and her friend, an elderly woman named Marian. Both suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Because I didn’t know Marian before she lost her memory, you could say my relationship to her is like that of a reader to a character: I’ve stepped into her life in medias res, unbeknownst to her and without prior knowledge of her history except what I’m told by others. (She’s limited in what she can tell me, after all.) One thing I learned quickly: Marian calls everyone Mama. Even when addressing the air in front of her, usually to complain about the weather, she speaks to Mama. “Mama,” she cries, “I’m freezing!” (Don’t worry. It’s summer in Texas. Marian isn’t freezing.) When I sit at Marian’s lunch table, I am Mama. She points to her plate. “Should I eat this, Mama?” Yes, I tell her, it looks delicious. Sometimes, though, when Marian gets an inadequately enthusiastic response, Mama turns into Mamacita. “Mamacita, over here! Mamacita, where are we going?” I like this. From where, I wonder, in Marian’s long-term memory does the nickname originate? I can only speculate, but it makes me think of her many years ago, far outside of the lunchroom—dancing, maybe.
One day, when Marian says “Mamacita!” at lunch, another Alzheimer’s patient, a tall man with a loud voice, says, “Hot dogs.” He is going to eat a hot dog for lunch. Marian nods, as if hearing confirmation of something she’s long suspected. In a low voice, she says, “Dogacita.”
The word makes me think of Joy Williams.
Williams once composed a list of “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way It Differs from the Novel.” It reads:
1. There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below.
2. An anagogical level.
3. Sentences that can stand strikingly alone.
4. An animal within to give its blessing.
5. Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior.
6. A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.
7. Control is necessary throughout. Constraints allow the short story to thrive.
8. The story’s effect should utterly transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language.
9. A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.
It’s the fourth item, “an animal within to give its blessing,” that I’m most interested in here. For Williams, whatever dogs, cats, or chickens appear in the text aren’t functioning merely as instruments of verisimilitude or “characters.” Williams’s “animal within” is also the unseen, ineffable life, or life force, inside a work of fiction: the conscience, perhaps, although that isn’t quite the right word. If the ineffable is a reminder of all we don’t know, then it is both a blessing and a warning. Mystery remains in the world, and what a gift! But also, how small is our definite knowledge, how vast is the unknowable.
In my favorite Williams story, “Taking Care,” a preacher called Jones is charged with caring for both his six-month-old granddaughter and his daughter’s dog while his daughter travels in Mexico and his wife fights cancer in the hospital. The needs of the dog and baby consume Jones while his suffering wife seems, as her disease progresses, to slip from his fingers. Williams delivers us to Jones’s despair as he preaches to his congregation: “Jones begins his sermon. He can’t remember when he wrote it, but here it is, typed, in front of him. There is nothing wrong with what one does but there is something wrong with what one becomes. He finds this questionable but goes on speaking. He has been preaching for thirty-four years. He is gaunt with belief. But his wife has a red cell count of only 2.3 million. It is not enough! She is not getting enough oxygen!”
Another day, driving home from the grocery store with the baby, Jones spots a snowshoe hare running through the snow:
The hare is splendid. So fast! It flows around invisible obstructions, something out of a kind dream. It flies across the ditch, its paws like paddles, faintly yellow, the color of raw wood. “Look, sweet,” cries Jones, “how big he is!” But suddenly the hare is curved and falling, round as a ball, its feet and head tucked closely against its body. It strikes the road and skids upside down for several yards. The car passes around and avoids it. Jones brakes and stops, amazed. He opens the door and trots back to the animal. The baby twists about in her seat as well as she can and peers after him. It is as though the animal had never been alive at all. Its head is broken in several places. Jones bends to touch its fur, but straightens again without doing so. A man emerges from the woods, swinging a shotgun. He nods at Jones and picks the hare up by the ears. As he walks away, the hare’s legs rub across the ground. There are small crystal stains on the snow.
The passage carries the reader from ecstatic wonder at the beauty of the hare leaping through the snow to up-close horror at its sudden death. Jones seems unable to interpret this moment of emotional polarity: “Jones returns to the car. He wants to apologize but does not know for what. His life has been devoted to apologetics. It is his profession. He is concerned with both justification and remorse. He has always acted rightly, but nothing has ever come of it. ‘Oh, sweet,’ he says to the baby. She smiles at him, exposing her tooth.”
What to make of the dead hare? A symbol for the world’s coldness, its cruelty? For the randomness of suffering and death? Perhaps. But its silence, its graceful journey over the ditch and, briefly, into Jones’ life, seems ambiguous. The baby’s ignorant delight, her curious smile, seems to reinforce that moral ambiguity. Jones is at a loss here, unable to interpret this event in any ordinary or even spiritual way. Instead, he thinks of how “he has always acted rightly, but nothing has ever come of it.” The hare confers its blessing thus: it sparks awe and delight in a man who knows he cannot understand it, and it reminds him that, ultimately, he does not know what he is doing, tramping through his life with this baby and dog in tow, doing his best to love despite a lack of visible results, despite the sickness and death encroaching upon his goodness.
I find it likely that Williams, an avid animal rights activist, was being literal when she advised writers to include animals in their fiction. Her capacity to depict animals in glorious, otherworldly tones is on display in the previous passage, and her nonfiction unpacks the moral concerns behind her love for animals. Her essay collection Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, includes this observation:
For centuries poets, some poets, have tried to give a voice to the animals, and readers, some readers, have felt empathy and sorrow. If animals did have voices, and they could speak with the tongues of angels⎯at the very least with the tongues of angels⎯they would be unable to save themselves from us. What good would language do? Their mysterious otherness has not saved them, nor have their beautiful songs and coats and skins and shells and eyes.
The “mysterious otherness” of voiceless creatures, then, might serve not just as a conduit for the messages that human characters cannot speak, but also as a means of accessing the ineffable. Consider what often happens when you are walking a dog: people are more likely to come speak to you. They may speak to the dog, but the dog cannot speak back, and you end up in conversation with a stranger that would otherwise not occur. The voiceless have the power to draw out reluctant voices; they also occasion interaction where before there was none.
The voiceless are not meaningless, of course, and blessings may be conferred without a word. Say you walk out of your anonymous office building after work, and a monarch butterfly making its way from Mexico to Canada pauses on the hood of your car as you idle at a red light. These gestures, or blessings, mean something—to the universe, probably not, but to our stories, absolutely.
Williams’ fifth essential attribute of the short story—“interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior”—returns us to Marian. In its way, it’s a beautiful definition of Alzheimer’s. I don’t kid myself: I hardly know Marian, and she does not know me at all. But one day at lunch, she reached for my shoulder and said, “Mama, stay with me here. I love you, Mama.” Despite her massive losses, she still has a voice, and thus a story. “Dogacita,” the animal within our story, may have been an accident of speech, a hiccup of a dying nervous system, but it reminds us of the dignified, mysterious interiority still present deep within Marian—one that, perhaps, confers a blessing.