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Dazzle Speaks with the Dead

Dazzle was neither a mystical nor a metaphysical sort of dog. He didn’t believe in karma, redemption, the transcendental ego, or the immanence of Platonic forms. For Dazzle, the world was a meaningless and immutable mess—and the byproduct of entirely material insufficiencies. Not enough bones to go around, say. Or people with too many weapons living next door to people without any. So it came as something of a surprise when Dazzle developed, late in life, a gift for speaking with the dead. He had never sought out such a gift, but once it came his way, he lived with it the best that he could.

“I want to tell her that I’m sorry I didn’t clean the bowl more often, or show her enough attention, especially when I was working,” Mr. Lapidus confessed to Dazzle in the sandalwood-scented Comfort-Room of Madame Velma’s Spiritual Contact Center, the longest-functioning spiritual arts shop on the central coast. “I meant to clean it more often, but I never did. And I wish I’d been more affectionate. I don’t know how affectionate I could’ve been with a goldfish, but I should’ve at least made more of an effort. I’m just not the sort of person who develops healthy emotional connections with other creatures, probably because I didn’t know my father when I was little. Other little boys had fathers to play with but I never did.”

Dazzle was accustomed to the weeping, the frantic hand-wringing, and the physical convulsions that manifested human remorse. But if he lived to be a thousand, he would never grow accustomed to the preposterous get-up that Madame Velma insisted he wear each morning while “serving” customers: the multicolored scarves layering his forehead like the turban of some furry Sikh, or the silver-painted bracelets chiming loosely from his neck and ankles, making him feel like a cheap whore at a carnival.

Sitting on a rickety wooden stool behind an even ricketier card table, Dazzle took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and placed his callused paws against the sides of his gloaming, Taiwanese-manufactured crystal ball.

Shhhh,” Dazzle breathed softly. “Somebody’s trying to speak.”

Mr. Lapidus, wringing his large pale sweaty hands, hunched closer.

“Yes, I’m listening,” Dazzle whispered. “Speak louder, please. Your name’s Fishface and you’re lonely. Your name’s Fishface and you’re trying to find a path into the next world.”

Mr. Lapidus blew his nose into a moppy clump of Kleenex, his eyes round and wide.

“Have you found my beloved Fishface?” he asked. “How did you know her name? What’s she trying to say?”

Dazzle cautioned Mr. Lapidus with his half-lidded eyes.

“Life was hard,” Dazzle confirmed. The spectral presence appeared in Dazzle’s ambient perception like a blip on a sonar screen, a spiny blur of incoherency and loss. “It was cold and round and came up hard from every direction. It yielded nothing but the minimal reflections of yourself.”

Mr. Lapidus stopped crying and sat up straight. He could feel the presence too. Or maybe he could just feel Dazzle feeling it.

“And now all you’re looking for is peace,” Dazzle continued, trying not to look directly at Mr. Lapidus. “You aren’t interested in what this lonely man wants from you. You just want to get as far away from his big, emotionally obsessed moon-face as you can get.”

Since appointing Dazzle her Apprentice-Medium-in-Training, Madame Velma had departed to Club Med with a Dominican leaf-blower named Hymie Sanchez. But not before signing over the DBAs to her financial manager, and opening an online account at the downtown Albertsons, where Dazzle could purchase home-delivered dog food, fresh fruit and vegetables, and an occasional mixed-case of Côtes du Rhône or Beaujolais nouveau—which proved especially useful in helping Dazzle unwind after a long day communing with the cosmos.

“They don’t care one whit about their recently departed,” Madame Velma assured him during their weekly phone conference, her voice suffused with the immanent echoey rush of waves on what Dazzle envisioned as a white, shell-less beach framed by blue sky and bluer water. “They just can’t stand being disobeyed. People develop an unnatural attachment to pets, mainly on account of pets got no say in the matter. Go there, sit here, eat this, sleep on the floor, get in the cage, stop growling—people get what they want from the human-beast dynamic, and that’s extremely satisfying to the sorts of fragile egos that need pets. But when a pet dies, it issues the only independent statement it ever makes, as in: ‘Good riddance, pal! Take your catnip toys and doggy treats and shove ’em straight up your you-know-what!’ It’s like primal disobedience at the cellular level. For pet-lovers, it sends their self-images into a state of shock. Suddenly, their pets have become as indifferent to their happiness as everybody else.”

Your name’s Fishface and you’re lonely. Your name’s Fishface and you’re trying to find a path into the next world.

Since developing an evening regimen of lapping moderately priced wine from a plastic dog bowl, Dazzle had grown about as mellow as he was likely to get.

“I’m cool on the whole over-the-top emotional crisis deal,” he said, kicking back on Madame Velma’s corrugated blue sofa amongst the burbling lava lamps and steadily glimmering Hummels. “I’m even cool with the neediness, the endless litany of personal regret, and the desperate post-midnight pleading for emotional guidance when, jeez, you know me, Velma. I don’t care what happens to human beings—I really don’t. But the part that drives me most crazy is that here I sit, day after day, listening to one homo-sap after another begging me to contact their departed loved ones, and then, when I do make contact? They’re not interested in what their loved ones are trying to say. They just carry on whining about what they’re feeling, and their pain, as if the entire spiritual universe is all about them.”

Unlike Dazzle, who tended to worry too hard about things, Madame Velma was more the carpe-diem type personality. Which was probably why her voice faded away into the distant rush of waves whenever Dazzle’s voice grew most distraught.

Te amo, mamacita,” a swarthy-sounding Latin voice whispered in the staticky background, as rhythmic and self-sustaining as the tides of St. Tropez. “Te amo all the time.”

But if Dazzle waited long enough, Velma either hung up the phone, or reemerged from what sounded like a long kiss.

“You’ve got a gift, Daz,” Madame Velma would conclude, “whether you like it or not. Me, I was a total charlatan, with all those spooky hidden tape machines and wobbly floorboards hooked to remote controls and so forth. But I know a good soul when I meet one, and one of those good souls happens to be yours. So do what your gift tells you, honey, and always remember the most important part of spiritual-arts services: we take cash, money orders, and American Express, but never Visa. Those Visa pricks keep hitting us with surcharges, and if there’s one thing that pisses off Madame Velma, it’s lining pockets that aren’t hers.”

Sometimes the waiting room at Madame Velma’s grew so crowded with tearful comfort-seekers clutching hand-worn animal toys and framed photographs that Dazzle resorted to a crude fire-hydrant-red Take-a-Number dispenser at the front door.

“Okay, Number Seven-Six-Six, let’s cut to the chase. Your cat got crushed by a semi, and he’s been searching purgatory for months but can’t find his catnip bell anywhere. My advice, as per usual, is burn it. Help Sheba understand there’s nothing worth coming back for, and she’ll stop waking you in the night with her infernal mewling, and knocking over the rubbish bins. Oh, and by the way, she does sometimes miss you a tiny bit. She recalls you as the Bringer of Meat, and the Warmth That Lingers in Cushions, which is pretty good individuation for a cat. Those characters usually never think about anybody but themselves. Next!

Polly didn’t want a cracker—she just wanted you to stop clipping her wings.

“Rightie-oh, so we’re up to Seven-Six-Seven, and I can’t help you if you don’t listen, so listen good. Polly didn’t want a cracker—she just wanted you to stop clipping her wings long enough so she could fly out that window as far as she could get. She didn’t like your smell, she didn’t like your taste in music, and she definitely didn’t like your girlfriend, who, by the way, bludgeoned poor Polly to death with a meat tenderizer and carefully positioned the corpse in front of that carefully blood-smeared window so you’d think what she wanted you to think. My advice is to dump the broad, let Polly carry on her quest for non-being, and get on with your life while you still got one. Next!

“Which brings us to Number Seven-Six-Eight—jeez, what time is it, anyway? You’ve got exactly two minutes and here goes. You had a hamster and it died, big fucking wow. That’s what hamsters do, pal; get used to it. Believe me, Kiddo appreciated the little world you built for her with mazes and skytowers and tubal corridors and so forth. But now she’s roaming the stratosphere with all the other dead hamsters, and it’s time to let go. So please, fill that plastic bottle up for me with this budget-priced Cuernavaca, and hook the pipette to my collar—there’s a little clasp right there next to my license. Oh, and slip the Nachos into my shoulder flap, that’s the ticket. I’m off to the beach where I’m planning to get really, really drunk. And please turn off all the lights when you leave. If Madame Velma ever catches sight of our latest utility bill, she’ll kick my sorry ass into the Great Beyond her damn self.”

What Dazzle most appreciated about the beach was the way it scrubbed the air clean of implications—concepts like identity, meaning, specificity, and permanence didn’t mean much out here, where everything that ever was was continually being eroded into everything it wasn’t and back again: driftwood and condoms, broken sea shells and pop-bottles, seagull poop and cigarette butts, jetsam and flotsam, forth and so forth. The sensory freedom was exhilarating, Dazzle thought, gazing up at the heavy moon and fractal stars. Every smell and sound and texture seemed to be wrapped up in everything else, like some Dionysian schiz-bath of pure undifferentiated sensation.

“It’s the only place where I can hear myself think anymore,” Dazzle confessed to his friend Harry Canfield, a publicly disgraced family-investment adviser who had recently begun sleeping under the pier in a moldy goose-down mummy-bag, “and escape all that endless wittering of dead pets yearning for the crappy plastic doodads they left behind. Like rubber chew toys. Or hamster wheels. Or, jeez, their filthy litter boxes—if that isn’t a metaphor for enslavement by material crap, I don’t know what is. It makes me wonder, Harry. What’s it gonna be for me when I’m dead and almost gone—diminishing in the stellar radiance like some dissipating radio signal from What’s My Line? What will I be endlessly desiring back on this increasingly perilous and desperate ball of dirt and stupidity and grief? My comfy sofa cushions? My sweet spot in the Big Sur cave next to Edwina? Or will it be my emerging fondness for alcohol, which is the only thing that makes me relax anymore? Is that all I’ve got to look forward to when I cash in my chips? Because if that’s what living is all about, Harry, then maybe we should just call an end to the whole shabby shebang right now.”

Harry was crouched over a thinly blazing can of Sterno with a pair of hotdogs skewered on a twisted coat hanger. It was one of Harry’s endearing qualities, Dazzle had come to realize: his ability to appreciate life’s simplest pleasures.

“As I get older, you know what I think about, more and more? That old Toyota Corolla my parents gave me when I graduated college,” Harry reflected softly. “Palomino white with white sidewall tires; it never broke down once in five years. And an eight-track tape deck back before eight-track tape decks were funny. Sometimes, I miss that damn car more than my kids, my house, my wife, or even—and I hope you pardon the expression—or even my stupid dog. It was certainly more dependable than the rest of them put together.”

Dazzle usually woke to the pre-dawn clamor of beeping garbage trucks along the boardwalk, and the exhortations of Mad Alice walking her shaggy, muttish dogs along the thinning bright shoreline in her baggy gray Mexican wool sweater and leather sandals.

“Six ayem, boys!” Mad Alice shouted, striking each of them three metronomic beats on the butt with her varnished redwood walking stick. “The shore patrol hits these sands at six thirty, and you need to kick sand over this campfire, and move your legs long enough so you don’t qualify as loiterers!”

With dawn came more than recollection, Dazzle thought. As the pinkish morning glow diminished into the flat blue horizon, the voices of departed entities regained focus and resolution in little bursts of static, like Russian or Chinese broadcasts hitting the dashboard radio in the post-midnight resonance. “I want my squeaky ball under the sofa in the den,” whispered an expired Pomeranian named Dodo, somewhere off Grover Beach. Or: “Those breadcrumbs look delicious”—emanating from a forlorn spectral pigeon fluttering eternally over the 101 overpass in Goleta. Departed spirits popped and sparked in the air around Dazzle’s brain like tiny fireworks or little blizzards of sentience. “Give me bring me get me need need need. I want want want must must must must. Help me help me find me help me.”

“After I lost Frankie Avalon the Third,” Alice confessed later, sharing charity donuts and coffee on the greatest beachfront bench in the history of civilization (or so Dazzle figured), “I thought my life was over. I went to bed thinking about that stupid dog and woke up thinking about him. For months, I’d jump out of bed and head straight to the kitchen and start fixing his breakfast before I stopped and thought, ‘Hey. What the hell am I doing? Frankie’s dead as a doornail. He got a tumor on his liver and the chemotherapy never took.’ He was dead for months and wouldn’t go away, and something in me wouldn’t let him go away, it was like we were bound together in some diminishing spiral of being and nothingness all at once. The carpets were still brown with his damn dog hairs. There were still these round ovular stains where he’d throw up on the corduroy sofa after eating crap off the beach. And then the voice of that dog would start buzzing around in my head. ‘Go for walkies!’ he kept saying. ‘Give me treat and go for walkies!’ It was like I could hear his voice bouncing around the house in the places he used be. Near the front door, in the kitchen near his doggy bowl, out back near the gate. ‘Go for walkies! Beach beach beach! Run on sand. Eat crap off beach!’ It was like that crazy dog had a one-track mind and that one-track mind was circulating endlessly through my house like those automatic floor sweepers, you know the kind I mean? They look like little silver robo-dogs but they do the vacuuming. The kind that were invented by the Japanese.”

After breakfast, Alice drove Dazzle back to SLO in her ’86 Ford Ranger S. Otherwise he might miss his first appointments at Madame Velma’s, which started heating up around nine or nine-thirty.

“You can’t spend your life living for the dead, hon,” she told Dazzle one morning. Her face was as wrinkled as the underlay of a cardboard box. “You may not have noticed, but you aren’t looking so good since you started drinking and working weekends. Maybe it’s time to hang up your crystal ball and get your butt back to planet Earth.”

At Madame Velma’s, they were already in the waiting room, holding up their yellow number-tags like overeager suitors at a flash-date. There was Mr. Lapidus, of course, with his mineral-streaked goldfish bowl, and Mrs. Judson, with her rhinestone-studded dog collar. Or the Burley Brothers, carrying the rusty cage of their departed ferret, Sparky, between them like pallbearers at a children’s zoo; or Miss Muñoz, weeping into the faded flannel scarf of her dead burro, Maximilian Buonaparte IV. Some days, entering Madame Velma’s anteroom felt like entering a flea-market in hell. Everybody had something to sell but nobody in their right mind wanted to buy it.

“Mr. Dazzle? Are you in contact with Fishface? You’ve got that faraway look in your eyes—like you’re looking at me and you’re not looking at me. It’s the sort of look I’ve been getting all my life. It’s me, Mr. Lapidus. Look, I’m first in line, and I been waiting since four a.m. I just remembered something important to tell Fishface. It’s about the noise from my television, all those gunshots and torture sounds from CSI and so forth. I can’t stop thinking about how terrified she must have been with all that high-volume violence echoing around her fishbowl. It kept me up all last night. So much to be scared about and so little time to understand—isn’t that what life’s really about, Mr. Dazzle? And then, just when we start to understand a tiny bit of it? We’re suddenly dragged off to some other meaningless form of nonexistence altogether.”

Then, one night when he least expected it, Dazzle was visited by a spirit from his own half-forgotten life—and not, as usual, a spirit from the half-forgotten life of others.

“Dazzle, honey? Can you hear me? It’s Mom. It’s very dark out here, and I’m having trouble finding you and your sisters. I can smell you, but I can’t see you. Is that our garbage bin over there? It’s even darker and scarier-looking than usual. Can you help me find my way? This is a lot more complicated than it should be. After all, I’m just looking for our silly old garbage bin. I’m just looking for my babies.”

Now Dazzle was not a sentimental sort of creature; in fact, he considered “sentiment” to be one of those bourgeois illusions that bound animals up in fantasies of individual plenitude and fulfillment. But when he heard that unmistakable voice—and smelled that unmistakable smell—a surge of emotion rose from his chest as swift and disorienting as one of the legendary riptides off the Pacific Coast. When first it takes your ankle, it feels almost flirtatious. But then, before you know it, it wraps you up in stronger arms than yours, and drags you into dimensions you can’t control.

“Mom?” Dazzle said. It was one of those words he never expected to use again and somehow, in the simple act of using of it, he felt something round and pliable burst inside him, and wetness spilling out of his face and heart like an overflowing of the world he had always secretly and profoundly loved. “Mom?” The tears were like a physical convulsion; they shook Dazzle to his core—and then shook him again.

Like many precocious children, Dazzle suffered from conflicted memories of his mother, who had raised him the best she could behind a Ralph’s Market in Encino, and then went off on a wander, got hit by a bus, and unknowingly relegated him to the dubious patronage of the Los Angeles SPCA. In his earliest, most intensely remembered days and nights of existence, she had been pure surfeit and totality, dispensing milk and love and indulgence and marveling at every aspect and expression of him. “You’re so handsome,” she told him. “You’re so smart. You’re so much better than your father. You’re my baby, you’re my lover, you’re my honey, you’re my all all all. I’ll hold you close forever, baby. Your mommy loves you more than anything.”

And then you went away, Dazzle thought, the tears pouring out of him like water from a faucet. You loved me and promised me and then you went away.

It was so selfish to hate her for her mortality, he thought. But it was the only thing he could hate her for. And it was the only way he could get her back.

It took him several minutes to catch his breath. He sat up on the living room couch. He gazed into the empty air.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Mom. But you’re dead. You don’t exist. You’re like this reflection that keeps reflecting after the mirror is broken, or this echo of a voice that has gone away but keeps echoing. You don’t have any more substance than that, Mom. And you’ll never have any more substance than that ever again.”

There were other voices out there, Dazzle realized. Ducks, walruses, ostriches, ocelots, kangaroos, pandas—even human beings.

There were other voices out there, Dazzle realized. Ducks, walruses, ostriches, ocelots, kangaroos, pandas—even human beings. A discordant continually accumulating cacophony of intentions and desires and memories and misfortunes. It was like stumbling into a huge subterranean vault filled with the newspapers of a dead civilization, bristling with an infinity of DOW forecasts, midnight TV schedules, astrological horoscopes, crossword puzzles and op-ed features about elections, weather-paradigms, international treaties, and scientific discoveries that no longer mattered because everybody who once pretended to care about them was dead. And in the midst of all that black-and-white hieroglyphic unreadability, a small spark of color flashed. It called out to Dazzle’s peculiar and unwanted extra-sensitivity. It had a name.

“You have seven sisters,” Mom said, “but I love you best. You’re my big boy. We keep each other warm behind the garbage bin, Dazzle. Please don’t send me away.”

It didn’t seem fair, Dazzle thought. All this unwanted emotion spilling out of him, tracking his gray chest hair with tiny sand-speckled rivulets. How could he send her away?

Because he couldn’t send her away until he knew how much he wanted her back.

He wanted her back.

And then he could send her away.

It’s never easy to tell who’s holding onto whom, or why we can’t let go,” Dazzle explained a few nights later to his assembled soon-to-be-former clients at a pre-announced “Going Out of Business Spiritualist Confab” on the post-midnight Avila shore. “Even when we know better, we try to hold onto what we can’t keep. That’s because the most horrible realization any self-reflective creature can suffer is that this whole crazy universe doesn’t make sense, even on a good day. It doesn’t make sense that what we love can’t last; and that, in the long run, we can’t ourselves last for those we love. What sort of fucking asshole universe is that? It’s a fucking asshole universe, that’s what it is. And I’m sick of it.”

Gathered together on the darkling beach, Dazzle’s clients represented every conceivable shape, size, and ethnicity, brightly adorned in dashikis and fezzes and Native American headdresses and mandala-earrings and peacock-emblazoned Indian saris. And, like most New Agers of the late baby-boom generation, they seemed mutually ill-fitted to their exterior manifestations. It’s like they’re dressing to be somebody they’ve never met, Dazzle often thought. Someone infinitely wise with all the answers. Someone who will live forever.

“What does that even mean?” Mr. Lapidus whined miserably, clutching his mildewy ceramic castle as if it were the only safety bar on a vertiginously careening roller coaster. “What do you mean the universe doesn’t make sense—what sort of comfort is that? And of course we can hold onto the ones we love—you help us do it every day. Why are you trying to confuse us just when we’re starting to find a little peace in this terrible world where everybody’s always dying, even me?”

Mr. Lapidus’s big, red, tear-streaked face was like a worm on a picnic table. Everybody had to look at it, and as soon as they looked at it, they looked away. Mrs. Beasley with her squeaky rubber dinosaur. Mrs. Cha with a blue corrugated Kong. Freddy Watson with a mouse-shaped catnip toy. Louisa Merchant with a heavily scored cuttlebone. Too often, Dazzle thought, our lives record the passage from one piece of meaningless crap to another. And there’s no end to the things we can’t throw away.

“What I’m trying to tell you, Mr. Lapidus—and all you fine, bereaved people—is that I’ve been going about this whole sixth-sense nonsense the wrong way. I tried to give everybody what they asked for—contact with the lost friends who left them. I tried to help you adjust to their departures with this one-step-at-a-time approach. But, as I’m finally learning, the one-step-at-a-time approach never works. If you want to actually change your life, it’s gotta be cold turkey.”

As a pup, Dazzle had been briefly enamored of sixties rock music, especially the Woodstock-types such as Carlos Santana and Stephen Stills. It had all seemed so simple back then: just take off your clothes, roll around in the dewy grass, smoke a little doobage, and love whoever you were with. For decades, public media had dismissed those brief muddy years as a sort of bizarre, Manson-like orgy of crime, freaky sunglasses, and a pathological disregard for the achievements of supply-side economics. But Dazzle remembered them fondly as a fragrant period of benign inattention. Love the one you’re with, Dazzle thought now. Ignore all the bullshit and politicians and stupidity and guns and bombs. If you can’t be with the one you love, baby—then just love the one you’re with.

“We’ve all got our crosses to bear,” Dazzle told his spiritually distraught customers. “We’ve all got things we want back, and voices we don’t want to lose, and a faith in ourselves that we’ll never have again. Which is why I want us to do this together. It’s time for everybody to let go, especially me. It’s time to take what was never ours and set it free. So I want you all to grab hold of whatever it is you want back, and feel what it feels like one more time. That paltry little object, or that memory, or that still-resonant voice in your head. Then I want you to turn to whoever’s standing next to you and do the only thing left to do for any sane, rational individual in a totally insane, irrational universe.”

Dazzle paused for healthy dramatic effect.

“Swap,” he said.

It was so obvious, he thought. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

So what happened then?” Mad Alice asked, turning over three pasty-colored tofu-patties on a tinily blazing Walgreens brand Hibachi with a long metal fork. She had recently done something dreadlocky to her whitish-gray hair that made her look like an inverted mop.

Lying on his favorite green khaki blanket, Dazzle gazed at the glowing coals with a pleasant sense of inanition. When things get hot enough, all things turn into something else, he thought. Even something as unpalatable-looking as a tofu-patty.

“What else could they do?” Dazzle shrugged. “It’s hard to ignore somebody who speaks with this voice of authority I’ve developed. It’s a voice I plan to jettison the first chance I get.”

Harry poured three paper cups full of fruit smoothies from a large glass pitcher—a concoction of icily whipped bananas, mangoes, granola, kiwi, and lemon zest that Mad Alice had dubbed the Banana Wow. Ever since releasing his clients three days ago, Dazzle had submitted to Alice’s most stringent self-purging program—nothing but fresh fruit, vegetables, and, every night before bed, a large glass of pure unfiltered lemon juice.

“So,” Dazzle continued, “Mrs. Chen dutifully swapped her costume-jewelry encrusted kitty collar for Mr. Jorgensen’s hamster-car. And Phil Hatland swapped his budgie bell for Harriet’s well-chewed sweat-sock. And rubber balls got swapped with squeaky toys and doggy treats got swapped with fish-flakes and one sense of loss got swapped with another sense of loss and one memory got swapped with another memory and, before you knew it, everybody was talking and chattering about these terribly insignificant items and dead beasts and crying and hugging and feeling some reasonable measure of catharsis in the arms of one another. It was like this really embarrassing group hug and, to be totally frank, I indulged in some of the ‘good vibes’ myself. I mean, there we were, sharing in this really awkward sense of togetherness and well-being, and suddenly I look up from this great scratch I’m receiving between the ears from a hand I can’t recognize to find the one lonely soldier on the shore, looking like a wallflower at the orgy. Poor, rubbery-red-faced Mr. Lapidus, clutching that stupid ceramic castle and looking like he’s about to burst. And nobody wants to go near him, right, since he’s a walking exemplification of everything we’ve left behind—that sense of solitary loss we feel cringing alone in the dark. And I don’t know what happened, but I just stared Mr. Solitary Loss straight in the eye, walked up to him, and took that silly ceramic castle from his white-clenched fingers with my teeth. He wanted to let go; he wanted to give it to me; but his fingers took some convincing. And when I finally flung that stupid ceramic castle into the campfire where it belonged, neither of us turned to watch it burn. Instead, I stood as tall as I could on these old gray hind legs and gave Mr. Lapidus the last thing Mom gave me before we parted material company forever. And Mr. Lapidus thanked me in just the way I expected.

“‘Ewwwww,’ he said, wiping his mouth as if he had just tasted mandrill-poop. ‘I got licked on the mouth by a dog!’

“Frankly, it was a lot less thanks than I deserved. And at the same time, considering the fundamental ungenerosity of human beings? It was all the thanks I could ever expect.”