It’s a late winter morning, almost a year into the enforced isolation dictated by the pandemic. The alarm clock beeps in the twilight at 6 on the dot. Reaching my arm out from under the covers to shut it off reminds me how cold the room is. Wide awake, but still torpid, I hear running through my head the line, “It would have been in vain for Scrooge to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted for pedestrian purposes; that the bed was warm and the thermometer a long way below freezing.” Then, as I consider the next necessary and long-ingrained moves between bed and a hot shower, I wonder whether the little fur ball beneath the spread on the other side of the mattress will want to go out, or sleep in till she hears me chopping cheese. She answers by standing up and jingling her tags. “Oh, never shake thy gory locks at me!” I cry. “Thou canst not say I did it!” Utterly unimpressed by the beauties of iambic pentameter, Kiki leaps to the floor with a ka-thump (which itself is an iamb) and trots to the back door.
It’s the isolation that does it; liquor and weapons sales are up nationwide — as is the nation’s avoirdupois (notice the recent uptick in ads for weight-loss programs?). It also evokes our normally quiescent fantasies: Household objects — a lamp, a coffee brewer, even a shower curtain — take on animistic identities. I talk to mine in their native languages, so often that Kiki has quit peeking around the corner to see whom I’m talking to. I think she senses the mild, but nagging distress caused by our enforced immobility, and responds by perching closer to me than usual day and night (as I type, her rump is touching my left elbow).
Then for some folks, there’s the additional burden of a liberal education. From the moment my mother began giving me anthologies of chestnuts — “The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed,” “Christmas Day in the Workhouse” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” — my head, which, it happens, has a huge attic — began to stuff away bits of remembered verse. The college I went to prided itself on its “liberal education.” The atmosphere wasn’t all that liberal in the sense the word’s used these days — it was, after all, in central Ohio — but the note-taking young Presbyterians and I were exposed to everything from Geomorphology to “Paradise Lost” to great chunks of Shakespeare.
All that stuff in my cranial attic yearns to burst forth these days whenever a situation, even remotely, suggests it. I bought a long rack of barbecued ribs last week, set it on the drainboard of the sink, and cut it up into meal-sized chunks for freezing. When I’d finished, the sink looked like the scene of an ax murder. Turning toward my little companion, who was expressing great interest in what I was up to, I roared, “What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes! Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” I thought it rather well played, but the audience’s interest was fixed instead upon the barbecue sauce dripping from my bloody fingers.
That’s the major disappointment: the lack of an astute and appreciative audience. Though I can’t say my wife was ever very enthusiastic about, for example, “Father William” — “’In my youth,’ said his father, ‘I took up the law, and argued each case with my wife; and the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw has lasted the rest of my life.’” The occasional bits of Edward Lear limericks, as when it began raining far from home — “It is time to return to Dunluce” — fell upon ears deaf to the lyric genius of the ages. She did like “Ulysses,” though. Maybe once a year. She loved the line, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world …”
So I muggle about the house alone, feeding the wood boiler on cold days (while reciting the furnace scene from “The Cremation of Sam McGee”); doing an occasional wash (“Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”); and recall the sorrier plight of Robert Service’s lonely telegraph operator, in his cabin shrouded in silence and the winter snow: “I will not wash my face; I will not brush my hair; I ‘pig’ around the place. There’s nobody to care.” He wishes he had a pet.
If he had one, he could look forward to the daily prodding in mid-afternoon for a walk in the snowy woods, a second prod at 5 for a snack, another at 6 for supper. And he’d have someone to listen as he rummaged aloud through the attic of his mind. Oh, it’s an exciting life we have here!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.