The New York Times
But Not for Longby Michelle Wildgen
Hard-shelled, career-minded Greta is the newest and least likely member of a sustainable foods cooperative house in Madison, Wisconsin. Shortly after she joins Karin and Hal in their stately residence near campus, the husband Greta left appears on their porch, drunk, and the reason for her sudden appearance becomes clear. Yet the house members already have plenty to… See more details below
Hard-shelled, career-minded Greta is the newest and least likely member of a sustainable foods cooperative house in Madison, Wisconsin. Shortly after she joins Karin and Hal in their stately residence near campus, the husband Greta left appears on their porch, drunk, and the reason for her sudden appearance becomes clear. Yet the house members already have plenty to occupy them: a series of summer blackouts has unearthed a disquietude lurking just under the surface for each of the three residents. Gas is dwindling, electricity is unreliable, and the natural world around them is in upheaval. The uneasiness of the environ ment mirrors that of Greta, Hal, and Karin as they each make efforts to resolve their own personal crises. With subtle attunement to the hovering uncertainty affecting each of her characters, Wildgen crafts a story both terrifying and beautiful.
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But Not For Long
By Michelle Wildgen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Michelle Wildgen
All rights reserved.
The loose dock drifted into view on a Monday morning at the end of May. Hal had stationed himself at the kitchen window at six A.M. with a cup of coffee. This way he could wake up slowly as he gazed over the short stretch of his backyard, with its fallow mud square that was supposed to be a garden, and out onto the calm water of Lake Monona. Upstairs, he heard Greta and Karin begin to stir: two alarms going off, two sets of footsteps moving back and forth from their respective bedrooms to the bathroom. He tried to distinguish one from the other: Greta's brisk staccato even in bare feet; Karin's heavier tread.
A flock of geese was moving from his neighbor's yard through Hal's yard, chomping grass. Periodically one would pop up its head and cast a watchful eye at its surroundings, making Hal wonder if the geese could sense him there behind the glass.
The geese were fat and smooth as eggs, their undulant necks a wonder of engineering and sensitivity. They were beautiful, Hal reflected, and they were plentiful — that flock alone might feed fifty people or more. Goose meat, even wild goose, was dark and filling. Not to mention that in the arboretum across town were gangs of turkeys that often fanned out over the roads, intimidating the joggers. How far would a few of those birds go, if they were roasted and stuffed? Hal figured he could manage some meager dressing from whatever frozen bread and bottled spices he had in the warehouse at work.
It was spring, the wrong time of year to be thinking about serving turkey or goose, but since winter Hal had had a growing list of food pantries, soup kitchens, and families asking for increasing help from his employer, the Southern Wisconsin Food Initiative. The letterhead said "SWFI," but the workers had nicknamed the organization "The Swiffies" instead. Meanwhile, all the Swiffies' usual donors of surplus lunch meat or frozen pizzas or white rice were suddenly models of efficiency. Hal, whose job depended on the wanton largesse of corporations, hated a recession even more than most people. He wanted every CEO smoking cigars and tossing brandy snifters into their fireplaces if it meant they'd keep up their donations, but they were all getting lean and efficient, the bastards. So each morning that spring, Hal had been getting up earlier and earlier, and drinking his coffee while he looked out the window and ran numbers in his head. Seven hundred pounds of potatoes. Twenty cases of pretzels. One thousand pounds of star-shaped noodles. Seven hundred pounds of cherry-flavored candies half-melted into possum-sized blocks of wax. It all sounded like a huge amount until he reviewed how many orders had been placed for that week, how many food pantries and church groups came in to shop and wandered through the shelves, increasingly pissed off and disheartened, leaving with only a few gallons of ice cream and boxes of bread. Then Hal would head toward the Swiffies' own kitchens, where volunteers were stretching boxes of noodles and commodity ham into hot meals for delivery. His coworkers got a lot of mileage out of the daily spectacle of vegetarian Hal, who lived in a cooperative house devoted to sustainable eating and organic local food, being so relieved to get his hands on bins of dried veggies flavored with chicken solution and sodium chloride.
Thank God for the prison gardens. They were the Swiffies' best source of summer vegetables. If Hal could just hold out a couple months, there'd soon be truckloads of cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes, all carefully tended by hundreds of felonious hands. Amazing how quickly that aspect ceased to matter. The first year Hal had worked for Swiff and the prison veggies arrived, he'd been unable to stop himself from regarding the huge bins with suspicion, as if an inmate might be hidden among the zucchini. Now he was desperate for that donation, with inmate or without.
The thought of the prison gardens reminded him that he ought to have been planting his own garden. Even the prisoners were ahead of him.
Hal was still sipping, brooding in the direction of the lake, when the geese snapped to attention. The big one raised its head and issued an echoing call. There was a thunderous flapping of wings and alarmed cries as the gaggle rose into the cool May air and fled the bank of the lake.
Then Hal saw why they'd left. Out on the shimmering water was a raft of some sort, floating into his view from the northeast. On the raft sat an empty chair, beside which was a small rectangular shape that might have been a crate or a bucket. But what had startled the geese was a dog — a huge, toast-colored, heavy-shouldered thing even from a distance — that was standing by the chair, gazing searchingly into the water. Hal watched the dog's jaws snap, its ears flopping toward the surface of the lake and twitching in communication. The dog's weight tipped the structure slightly downward, exposing the pontoons beneath the wooden planks. The lake splashed against the wood and then smoothed out again.
After a few seconds, the images began to order themselves for Hal, causing him to set down his mug, spilling coffee onto the counter. The empty chair, the drifting raft, the dog barking fiercely into the lake. It was not a raft, Hal realized. The dog was standing on the dock that was supposed to be anchored to the bank of Lake Monona, in a park three houses east of Hal's house. Someone must have unfastened the dock and set it adrift.
The rising sun illuminated the edges of the dog's fur, so that the fuzz seemed to glow at its haunch and skull, its belly and tail. The dog's tail stuck straight out behind it. Its barking was harsh and rhythmic. The chair was dark against the white pools of light on the water. Its fabric was pinholed with sunlight, sagging at the seat and backrest with the lost weight of its inhabitant.
The park near Hal's home was tiny, just a square of grass with a few climbing toys, a sandbox, a picnic table, and a small dock. The dock, part of which was now drifting in Lake Monona, was meant to be a two-part object, a small section anchored on the bank plus a detachable length of wood. In the winter the city removed the long section from the water and let it rest on the snow-covered bank till the thaw. This year, overwhelmed by the rising lakes and streets buckling from weather shifts, the city had not returned the Morrison Street dock back into the water until only a month earlier, at the end of April.
It was the long, buoyant section of the dock that had been unsecured and was now floating in the lake. When Hal ran over to the park, he found the metal pole, which was supposed to fasten the two sections together, in the grass beneath a tree. He decided not to touch it.
The neighbors had begun to gather, standing with their arms crossed against the breeze, which was still crisp even in May. They saw Hal on his cell phone and nodded, content to let him do the calling, content to assume he knew whom to call for an event like this. He didn't know — he just called 911. Once he finished, he joined six or seven people clustered at the edge of the bank, their row of feet braced in the sloping mud. They watched the dock float gently away from them — perhaps fifty feet out? forty? — and speculated on the breed of the dog. How long could the dog have been out there, if the dock was now moving toward shore — all night, or only minutes? No one knew enough about the movement of lake water to guess; no one was even sure if lakes had tides — Hal thought maybe they didn't.
"Anyone recognize the dog?" asked one man. Hal turned to look at him: the man was huge, maybe six six, with rimless glasses and a giant's mouth. He barely knew his neighbors, Hal realized. He'd lived on this street for years, waving politely, but he didn't know the names of any of the people around him.
"I don't think so," Hal said. He never noticed dogs, which made him feel guilty, as if he were single-handedly contributing to their unspayed plight. His roommate Karin adored them; she kept a dish of treats on the front porch for passing canines. She also kept trying to vote in a pet, but to no avail.
"I might," said a woman. "Maybe from the other side of the Yahara River? I feel like I've seen it somewhere."
Hal waited for someone to speculate on how the dog had come to be out on the lake by itself. Because clearly someone had brought it here. When no one else mentioned this, he finally raised his voice and asked, "Do you see anyone else out there?" The group was silenced. Now all of them shaded their eyes and peered out toward the placid water beyond the dog.
"Its owner might have fallen in," said a young man, protecting his shaved head from the sun with a hand held above the crown. For some reason, this suggestion prompted the group to turn to Hal, startling him. Their faces all shifted inquisitively in his direction.
"I told the dispatcher there might be a person in the lake," Hal offered. "I'm sure they're sending a boat."
"Or someone could have just put it out there for a joke," said another person. No one answered immediately, but this possibility seemed to calm them all, and they returned to debating the breed. Just as they had settled on a mix of retriever and possibly some shepherd in its dark face and low haunches, the dog raised its head, twice patrolled the length of the dock, and leaped into the water.
Now they all leaned out over the lake, taking turns holding on to a tree trunk at the edge of the bank, and observed the dog's progress. It swam in eager jerking motions in the direction of the shore. Hal felt the crowd around him becoming almost jolly, cheered by the dog's smiling jaws and the happy look of its bobbing head. He even began to enjoy the crispness of the breeze and the time with his neighbors.
"It's moving awfully slowly," a female voice observed.
The group quieted; all its lightness fled. The dog was indeed slowing down. Hal turned and saw Karin in her running gear, her long maple-colored hair in a ponytail, the muscles at the tops of her thighs standing out flat and smooth below her yellow shorts. She was twenty-four, twelve years younger than Hal and fifteen years younger than Greta. Much of the time the age differences didn't matter.
Karin patted his shoulder in greeting, then observed the others: the huge man in glasses; the bald young man who was now wrapping an arm around a woman; two bearded graduate students from the crumbling house across the park; a tall silverhaired man in khakis and a polo shirt whom Hal had once helped ease a canoe onto a Volvo; a woman dressed for work in dark pants, heels, and a glinting silver ring; and two women in jeans, bright T-shirts, and leather sandals.
"It's having a hard time," one of the graduate students said. "It's farther away than I thought." The dog seemed to be treading water about twenty feet out, several houses down from where they stood. Now they began to move as a troop, heading through backyards, which they normally would not have done, to the spot on the bank closest to the dog.
As they moved through Hal and Karin's yard, Hal saw Greta's shape in the upstairs window; then she darted out of the frame. He saw Karin glance in Greta's direction as well and then turn back toward the dog. The dock, with its empty chair, was now heading toward the capitol.
"Was Greta on her way?" Hal asked.
Karin squinted at him in the sunlight. "What's she going to do?" Hal shrugged. "I have no idea," he said. "But probably something we haven't thought of." Greta had an air of frightening efficiency.
At that, Karin frowned. "Did it have a leash?" she asked. She began to remove her running shoes, dropping them casually to the dirt. She peeled off one sock, then the other.
"I can't remember," Hal said. He closed his eyes and pictured the silhouette of the dog, the sun, the nimbus of fur standing on end. "I don't think so."
"Well," she said, "if anyone has one at home, they might run and get it." She peered into the water's edge to judge its depth and then hopped in and began to swim.
The two women in jeans and T-shirts ran off down the street, hopefully in search of a leash, and Hal watched Karin do a neat, strong crawl in the direction of the dog. As she neared it, she switched to a breaststroke. She didn't want to frighten it, Hal decided. Next to him the woman in heels murmured appreciatively.
Karin had reached the dog now and seemed to hook a hand inside its collar. The two began to move in rhythmic surges, powered by kicks, toward the shore. Karin was on her side, an arm wrapped beneath the dog's chest.
Hal was feeling relieved now. He had forgotten for the moment about whoever had brought the dog out there in the first place and was simply enjoying a satisfying rescue. He had often had the feeling his neighbors regarded their house with amusement or even suspicion; kids rarely came to the co-op to sell candy bars or cookies for the marching band, and after one unsuccessful block party to which Hal and his roommates had brought baba ghanoush and homemade pita chips and everyone else brought bratwurst, they'd given up on making friends on their street. But with Karin out there saving the day, his house might take on a new aura.
A tranquil silence occupied the group until the second the dog showed its teeth. The dog and Karin were a few feet from the shore when it seemed to recover itself: its head pivoted toward Karin and its jaws snapped at her face. Hal saw her flinch backward, splashing water. The dog broke away, jerking toward the edge of the dirt and clambering up the bank. The group drew back as the dog's head and shoulders appeared over the edge of the grass. Suddenly the dog was a real creature, huge and frantic. Its paws and belly were black with mud, its face darkened and golden-eyed. It darted in their direction and Hal, along with everyone else, feinted backward. Hal collided with the huge man he'd talked to earlier. He caught a whiff of coffee, cinnamon, and pine from his neighhor's chest.
Now Karin had reached the bank and had begun to climb out of the lake. Hal skirted the barking dog to lean down and offer a hand, hauling her up the muddy slope. Her clothes clung to her in streaming ripples and her legs and arms were cross-hatched vividly from the dog's claws.
The dog was darting in arcs, first away from the lake and then from the people, and now it bolted, disappearing between houses. No one followed. Most of the group was still scanning for a police boat, and so the arrival of two uniformed cops from the sidewalk behind them took them all by surprise. The cops strode toward them, boots shining and picking up grass. They looked each person over in turn. Their arrival only made Hal more nervous, their grave expressions confirming what they had all managed to forget while chatting about breeds and lake tides. Yet Hal noticed the police were relaxed. The park was now the cops': any place that experienced an upheaval immediately belonged to them.
Hal felt a cold wet hand on his shoulder. Karin was catching her breath next to him. The claw marks on her arms looked as purposeful as tribal scars. She smelled of algae and water, something vegetal and fermenting, and her bare feet seemed huge in the earth. She was breathing hard, wiping water from her face. Hal had lived with Karin for nearly a year, had watched her head out for her run each morning of the week, and somehow had never equated that discipline with practical physical strength. He wanted to get her a brandy and a towel, a giant breakfast, and watch her move furniture. He looked closely at her, relieved to see that the dog hadn't actually bitten her. Her face was unmarked, but reddened at the nostrils and cheeks, her pupils huge, her lips the color of clay.
Now Greta came jogging from around the corner, her hair still in a towel. She wore an elegant little silk skirt, blown against her legs by the breeze, and a huge Bucky Badger T-shirt. She must have just gotten out of the shower; wet patches showed at the small of her back and chest. She nodded at Hal but went straight for Karin, took the damp towel off her head, and wrapped it over Karin's shoulders. Then she took a quick step backward, as if the gesture had been too intimate, and folded her arms.
Excerpted from But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen. Copyright © 2009 Michelle Wildgen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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