Or, should that be My Dear August? Or, what about Dearest August? My Dearest August? I’m beginning to see why people don’t write love letters anymore. The only reason I’m even attempting to do so is because I thought it would please you. I remember that Christmas when Paul gave you that book of famous love letters and you went on and on about it over New Year’s, so I thought you’d like to receive a love letter yourself. A real one. In a proper envelope, with a stamp and everything.
(That bit was quite difficult, actually; Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve needed a stamp?)
Now, from what I’ve read, these letters normally go on for pages about how beautiful the recipient is. For all I know, that was fine in the fourteenth century or whenever, but it’s not exactly “PC” these days, is it? I’m not supposed to reduce a woman to her physical attractiveness, as though that’s the only thing that gives her value. Because it’s not, of course. You have value far beyond your beauty.
Not that you aren’t beautiful, because you are. I just don’t know if I’m supposed to write nine paragraphs about your eyes or your hair or your smile or whatever. I could, of course. It would be easy. I could write a graduate thesis about how beautiful you are, but I wouldn’t because you are more than just the single most gorgeous human I have ever met, seen or imagined. Though, as I say, you are that as well.
I don’t feel like I’m off to a very good start here.
Anyway, apart from being beautiful you’re also clever. Much cleverer than me, which I think is brilliant, by the way. All my life, I’ve felt like I was the cleverest person in the room. Which is deeply troubling because, when you get right down to it, I’m actually a bit thick. I mean, not the kind of thick where I would, I don’t know, eat a shoe by mistake or open all the cages at the zoo or vote conservative. No, just the sort of thick where I don’t really know all the things that a chap is supposed to know when he’s thirty-four. I can tell you about the works of Dickens or the last time we won the World Cup or which of the Marx Brothers never talked, but ask me something that matters? Like, about government or money or cars? I’d be at a loss.
What do you Americans call it? “Adulting?”
Not like you. You’re brilliant. Not only do you know about government and money and cars, but you also know about books and films and music and what you call that little monkey thing from Madagascar with the stripy tail.
It’s either a lemur or a lemming; I can never remember which.
And yet you never looked down your nose at me for being so thick. If there was something I didn’t know, you told me, and that was it. You’re always teaching me new things, but you never judged me for not knowing them. In fact, in all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never once heard you utter a harsh or judgmental word to anyone. Even when they deserved it.
Even when I deserved it.
Do you remember the first time we met? We were at that terrible pub, and you spilled a pint of lager all down my shirt. At the time, I remember thinking that it was most fitting as I’d been having the worst day ever. The sort of day where a hundred little things go wrong. No big things, like receiving a large tax bill or getting hit by a bus. Just little things like stepping in a puddle or being late for work. In real terms, you’re no worse off at the end of the day than you were at the start. But all those little things add up, and I was feeling so down that I did something I hardly ever do and went down the pub for a pint.
Then, out of nowhere, a strange, American woman spilled her drink all over me. I thought it was another dark cloud. But it turned out to be the silver lining. Or, rather, you were the silver lining. And just like that, the worst day of my life became the best.
You were kind to me. Kinder than I ever would have expected from a stranger in a pub. You were there with a group of work friends, but you left them to take care of me. You bought me a new shirt. You promised to take my old shirt home and wash it for me. We ended up at a different pub where we spent all night talking. You told me about your life and your job. Why you left Minnesota and how happy you were now that you were a television producer.
You kept saying “sorry,” like you thought you were boring me, but you weren’t. I was entranced, hearing you talk about the minutia of television production. I didn’t understand most of what you were saying, but you were so passionate about it, I couldn’t help but hang on your every word. And, even though it’s far too late to mean anything, I’d like to tell you what I wanted to tell you that night:
August, you are a strong, intelligent, extraordinary woman.
That’s what I mean when I say you’re beautiful.
When people say that beauty is only skin deep, they mean well, but they’re not quite right. I think of you as being a bit like one of those paper lanterns people hang up in their back gardens. Sure, the paper is painted a pretty color and has a nice pattern on it. But it’s the light inside, shining so brightly, that not only makes the lantern glow, but bathes everything around it in a kind of magical, colored light.
Pretty is only skin deep. Beauty can only come from within.
I could go on writing about all the wonderful things you are for another year at least, but I think I’d better wrap this up. I’ve only got about half an hour till the service is set to begin and I don’t want to be late.
Looking back over what I’ve written, I realize that this love letter is severely lacking in one important respect: I still haven’t told you that I love you. Not in those words, exactly. I like to think I’ve been saying it to you all along, in my own way. Like that chap in that film who just said “As you wish” all the time, but what he meant was “I love you.” Every word I’ve ever spoken to you has been a kind of an “I love you.”
Why didn’t I say it? Properly, I mean. Why did I never tell you what it’s meant to me just to have you in my life? Why did I never say how much joy you bring me just by being yourself? Why did I wait until now to write you this letter? Why didn’t I tell you all this when it might have mattered?
Extraordinary. Even after you’re gone, I’m still learning from you. Learning not to take things for granted. Not to put things off. To say what needs to be said to the people you care about today. Because there’s no guarantee any of us will see tomorrow.
After I’ve finished writing this, I’ll take it with me to your funeral. I’m sure no one will object if I slip it into the casket. I don’t know if I believe in a life after this one, but if there is such a place as Heaven, then perhaps you’re there right now, reading this pathetic attempt at a love letter. Are you smiling? Are you crying? Are you wishing I’d said something sooner? Or glad that I never spoiled our friendship? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure. Not until I find my way to wherever you are now.
Until then, know that you are loved. Have always been loved. Will always be loved. And that’s got to be a good thing.
Even coming from someone too thick to know the difference between a lemur and a lemming.
Too thick to tell you all this before it was too late, August.
With all the love I have to give,
PS—I’m now about 80% certain the monkey thing is a lemur…65 or 70 at least.
The snow blew from the north, shattered glass bit into cheeks, and the acid sting scoured Luke’s blue eyes and he lowered the camera resting on the sling across his neck. He lifted a frosty glove to wipe the snow that powdered his face, but as he focused on the snow in his eyes, he lost sight of the fox. Eventually, he looked up. Gone. Luke sighed and scanned the powdered sugar grassland that stretched out across the hollow. The curled brown fallen locks from the elms and maples peppered the undulating hills and he followed the misty horizon until the snow dipped along the creek at the far end of the hollow. The fog had writhed its way across the snowy rolling hills. It was hard to tell where the vapor rising from the creek ended and the fog and froth from the misanthropic snow and ice began. Further across the horizon, the slow groan of cars and trucks echoed from the highway a few miles away. It was still daytime, and the snow soaked up the brightness across the rolling hollow, but he could not find the fox. He turned his face into the snow blowing at his back, but in the heavy haze, he could not see his truck parked along the gravel road that wandered along the north side of the hollow. Snow pelted his cap, sifted under his collar. He sat in silence, listened to the droning whir of the trucks grinding along on eighteen wheels in low gear on the slick and snowy lanes of U.S. 54. He waited.
He thought about going back to the truck, but he wanted to get a picture for his daughter, Sara. She loved foxes. She loved the stony gaze of amber eyes alert, watchful. She loved watching them curled lazily in the small beds dug out from dry dirt at the zoo, on the nature documentaries; their auburn fur, bounding along on the miles and miles of snow, their alien bark accompanying them in dark of night, sounding the frigid dawn, the sharp shrill piercing the cold air and rattled frozen limbs of the tall elms.
The fog floated in and white flakes fell and played plastic bubble wrap snaps as the powder landed on the leaves. It continued to cover the tossed salad grass—the burgundies and ochres of sage and bluegrass fading to a blanket of white along the undulating hills of the hollow. He clutched the camera, gave the strap a light tug, and walked toward the creek. The flakes tapped along the outside of his hood and he lowered his head, lifting his eyes only to search for the fox. His boots pressed through powder; the snow crunched and melted on the black rubber soles. Through the heavy fog, he found a hollowed oak deadfall that lay along the creek. Luke noticed the writhing arm of the oak had split off and fallen perpendicular making a natural bridge to the other side. That’s when he finally found the fox.
It raised its orange cone ears from behind the large deadfall. Its auburn face blended with a blanket of snow across its chest. The fox leered, leaning its long snout into the cold breeze; amber eyes glowered across the rolling powder.
Luke tapped the camera, its plastic casing sweating snow into droplets along the short lens. The fog and snow made a filmy haze across the hollow and at this range, the fox was nothing more than a fuzzy ball of fur. It still stared at Luke, its head and neck undulating up and down, darting behind mounds of powder piling up along the blustery hills. He lowered the camera and sighed.
Luke sat against the base of a large elm. He waited. He had been waiting for six months now, ever since he had lost his construction job at the concrete factory. The company had lost a few contracts and Luke was one of hundreds they had to let go. He had planned to pay for Sara’s first semester of college—a manageable sum of in-state tuition and textbooks. He pictured her walking the concrete sidewalks, flanked by tulip beds and rolling patches of fresh fescue that awoke from its winter slumber just before spring break. He saw her in a new pair of jeans, and some baseball tee, walking briskly from hall to hall, her gingerbread smile warming faces, opening glass doors, and praying some would open for her. He pictured the move out of the two-bedroom apartment, its flat green carpeted hallways, the pool-hall haze of cigarette smoke that hung in the alcoves of the building, waiting for the wind from an open window to take it all away. But now, with the unemployment checks at seventy percent and bills pressing into his pockets, she might have to wait, like she waited on all those lonely nights for a tired truck driver along U.S. 54 west of Wichita. A dull-bearded face, gray haired, the web of lines like roads on a map, endless cups of coffee and plates of flapjacks and sausage, rolling down the highway making interminable tracks on the cold gray asphalt. The tired whirring of wheels that never seemed to take her father anywhere, but never seemed to stop.
The fox started up from behind the log. Long charcoal legs perched on the rotting trunk, orange cone ears erect. It stood, listening to the low growls of cars and trucks still jostling along on U.S. 54. Luke gripped the camera again, rose, and leaned against the trunk of the elm. He lifted the lens and rested his index finger on the shutter release. The fox bolted. It trotted along the rotting pine that lay across the creek, white powder rising in clouds of cold dust. Luke sighed. He slung the camera across his neck again and walked toward the creek. He stopped a few yards from the deadfall. It was a narrow maple that had already begun to bend under the ice and snow. He looked out across the hollow on the opposite side of the creek. The fox stood along the undulating drifts of snow. Its long black legs steady in the snow. Luke reached for the camera. But the fox didn’t wait. It darted across the soft snow into the foggy folds of rolling powder, leaving fine footprints in the interminable white of snow. He thought of his daughter, walking steady down streets and sidewalks of a bustling college town, her blue business suit pressed, purse slung across shoulder and chest, into the horizon until her blue suit blurred with the gray backdrop of office buildings and the smog rising from cold gray storm drains along the busy street.
Luke scanned the horizon again, the writhing gray fog had moved across the creek now, following the fox further into the cold and tired trees and fields of fallen leaves on the other side. The cold crawl of the creek rushed from under the deadfall. The snow reflected the gray glow of a cloudy winter night enveloping the hollow. He would go home, and wait for the phone to ring.Wait for the next time he would drive to work, clock in; wait for another day to see the smile on her face, for her final walk across the college campus—fresh flowers along gray sidewalks. He listened to the tired ticks of the snow pelt the back of his hood. He stared into the distance, listened to the low rumble of truck tires whirring along on the wet asphalt. He turned to face the blowing snow, and began another trek back across the hollow to his truck parked along the gravel road.
Peanut Butter Fluff lost its earthly name and assumed the title: The Immortal. This is after living approximately four years over the maximum guinea pig life expectancy—a feat that Mom never fails to remind us about every time It utters a squeak. And It squeaks constantly; with every month that passes, Its call gets shriller. More nasally. Further away from death. Why God created a creature that communicates by screaming, Mom says she’ll never know.
My brother and I, though—we don’t think it matters much. The point is that It’s still here. Still breathing. Still squeaking years after It should have been gone. Each time It squeaks, Mom raps on the bars of Its cage.
We tell Mom to quit it. We’d be screaming too if we ever got that old in people years.
She says she’s screaming on the inside raising us.
Each morning, Mom opens our bedroom door and pulls back our blinds to wake us. When we stir, she throws her head towards the far dresser and calls out, are You dead yet? She is answered with the shrieking, squealing complaints of The Immortal. So she gets us out the door for school, or on weekends, just out of the house. What all else she does, we don’t think we’ll ever know—but a chunk of every day is spent cleaning Its ribbed cage, replacing the Holy Water, refilling Its wafer dish. All the while, The Immortal hobbles around socked feet in a plastic purple ball. Sometimes, if Mom’s lucky, she’s thanked by a fresh pile of turds the minute those small, scrabbly feet hit new bedding.
At dinner, Mom tells us if a fire or flood ever floored the house, The Immortal would survive and come home just to spite her, an olive branch clenched between Its teeth. Her face is red and wild and funny to us. Our dad, especially. He laughs and motions with his thumb towards the backyard. Says, we could use more wood for the brush pile.
Mom says that the Immortal likes testing our faith. Every now and then, we come in from playing all dirty and scrappy and find the Immortal laying on Its side against the wall of Its cage. We stop dead in our tracks. Call out. But there’s nothing but silence. So we run to the top of the steps and whisper-scream for Dad, who follows with his eyebrows upturned and sharp.
He blinks at the Immortal, laying still in our room. Calls out to It, hey! And when there’s no response this crazy giggle bubbles up out of his throat. Mary! He laughs, running to the top of the steps, us bounding like dogs at his heels. Mary! Until she’s at the bottom at the steps staring up at us with that go play in traffic kind of look. Mary, It’s dead! Only took nine freaking years!
Her eyes widen and she climbs the staircase faster than we’ve ever seen. Then she’s past us and we’re following her back to our room where the Immortal waits. Only the moment Mom steps into our bedroom, the Immortal must hear the soft scuffle of her slipper socks—must smell that Vanilla bean perfume clinging to her like ghosts—because by then, It’s sitting upright.
Mom stops dead and the Immortal squeaks Its scolding.
Sometimes we let The Immortal out just to see what Mom’ll do. By now there’s this lump growing between Its shoulder blades and Its eyes are all bugged and milky. We try not to touch either feature as It freezes between our fingers. Dad sees as we lift It into the ball and stares. That thing on Its back… Did it calcify? We shrug. ‘S hard.
Then we cap the ball and roll it down to where Mom’s making pigs in a blanket for her Bible study tonight after our dinner. It scuttles towards her feet, and when she sees it, her eyes roll straight back in her skull. The Immortal doesn’t move within. It just squeaks at her from Its newfound throne on the floor. She rubs her temple; we’re surprised she can’t hear us giggling from the hallway. Then there’s a carrot in her hand, and the ball plus Immortal going up the stairs.
There’s no squeaking throughout dinner, but Mom still opens prayer saying, Lord, I don’t pretend to know your methods. But it seems that that Pig is planning to outlive us all.
It’s November when we come home to find The Immortal laying in Its cage one night. And not in that pretend kind of way that It had gotten good at doing, either. No, this time it looks cold and stiff, harder than the lump in Its back or the three-inch claws. Gnats circle still eyes.
We don’t quite know what to do but look at each other. Then we race down the stairs, nervously giddy and panting into the TV room. Mom’s the first one out of her chair. We follow Dad follow Mom up the steps and find her with a hand against the cage, reaching in. The room is too silent.
It’s almost eleven and Dad has a shovel. He’s chipping away, chipping away at the frozen Earth one chunk at a time. Mom stands on the back porch with her slippers and a nightgown on, the two of us beside her, quiet for once. The Immortal’s shoebox is a coffin in her hand; the Sketchers logo seems too bright for the occasion.
It’s by then we almost believe that there’s a guinea pig in there, once, distantly, named Peanut Butter Fluff. But once it’s all done and buried in the ground, and Mom has made us all cocoa around the dinner table, she pulls out a stone from her pocket and writes “Immortal” on it with black Sharpie. It will make a decent tombstone. Then she caps it, and sighs, Amen.