Read Autumn — Chapter 9
The spring Milla was born, we decided to move to Portland. Living in Corvallis had worn thin for me. It was too small and too far from the activities we enjoyed. I liked bigger cities and had mainly stayed in Corvallis because first Dan, then Bjorn attended university there. Bjorn had grown up in a suburb of Portland, and during a visit shortly after Milla’s birth, we realized we could move.
I remember clearly the moment it occurred to me that we could leave Corvallis and live somewhere else. We were driving along in the car in Portland near Bjorn’s childhood home. I was a passenger in the back seat next to the baby (because I was always a passenger in the back seat next to the baby), and as we slid past orchards and neighborhoods, the idea we could actually leave where we were and go somewhere else popped into my head, and I said to Bjorn, “Let’s move. Let’s move up here now.”
Milla wasn’t even yet a month old, but I wanted a change, wanted out of Corvallis with its memories and limitations. Bjorn had one year left towards his engineering degree, and I was planning to apply to law school. We held a garage sale, packed a moving van, and headed north. Autumn was six years old.
We started out renting a room in Bjorn’s dad’s house, but this proved unsatisfactory nearly immediately. I had learned the hard way what living with family can do to a relationship, and within a month we had rented our own apartment on the third floor of a complex that had been, only months before, a filbert orchard. There were still filbert orchards across from our apartment, and we taught the dogs to run out the door, down three flights of stairs, and out across the median to the trees to do their business.
In spite of the fact the apartment was rather small, near Christmas the year we moved in, my brother Derek asked if he could stay with us for a short time while he looked for a place to live. He had been living with our parents in Jefferson, a town about sixty miles south of Portland.
For years, Derek had struggled with drug addiction. He would go to treatment, move out on his own and get a job, then for various reasons end up back living with our parents and near the people who always helped him get into trouble. This cycle had run through about four times at this point.
At the time Derek wanted to live with us, he had been back to our parent’s, and we all believed that if he could just get away from the area, he would have a better chance at success in beating his addictions.
Bjorn and I discussed whether to allow Derek to stay with us. Bjorn actually didn’t have any problems with it, but I was worried if we allowed him to stay, we would have a difficult time getting him to leave. Unless he did something awful, I didn’t want to have to call the police simply to get him to move on.
We finally decided that we would allow him to stay, but with certain limitations. Namely he had to get a job and he could not stay with us longer than two weeks. We also did not want his girlfriend to live there. Neither of us I liked her very much, but we did not tell Derek this. Even if we had loved her, we simply did not have the room.
Derek moved in. We let him sleep on the couch and keep his belongings in Milla’s room because she slept with us in our bed. Nearly immediately, he was able to secure a job during the swing shift, so we didn’t see him very much except in the late morning before he left for work. One afternoon when he did not have to work, I took him over to the management office to help him fill out an application for an apartment of his own.
For Christmas, I invited my parents and my sister and her family to our house for Christmas. The apartment was tiny, but I had decided after Milla’s birth that we were not going to do the usual holiday run-around anymore. On Christmases past, we would drive to my parent’s, then Bjorn’s dad’s, then his mom’s family, and often to my sister’s, or some other version of it. No one ever came our way. I did not want my baby to spend her holidays driving all over the place.
We pulled out the leaves to the table and made room for everyone. The kitchen was not large, but it served its purpose, helping us to serve dinner to eleven. Once the family was satiated, we all opened gifts, our families left for home, and I straightened up the mess.
For years I had gone to the movies on Christmas day, me and many others. Apparently Hollywood figured out this trick because movies started opening on Christmas, which was great since we saw a lot of movies and frequently needed new choices. During movies, I would breastfeed Milla and she would fall asleep in my arms. Derek was with us so we all bundled up and headed out to the car and off to see a show.
Three hours later when we arrived home, things were not in order. We had only opened gifts for my family and one another, but there were still many gifts left for Bjorn’s family and for our friends. The wrappings to most of these gifts were now spread throughout the house. Little pieces of ribbon, bows, wet wrapping paper, and tags lay everywhere, in the living room, across the rug in the dining room, down the hall, and in both bedrooms. The cork stopper to a jar of nuts was half shredded, bits of cork speckling the carpet. Pieces of candy cane were littered everywhere, the chunks obviously sucked on because they were coagulated in their plastic wrap. A thorough mess.
Normally if we had arrived to a scene like this, Autumn would be standing happily in the middle of it, tongue out with some incriminating evidence on her muzzle, and Molly would be hiding, but both dogs just stood there, looking at us.
“What in the world is going on?” I asked them sternly, knowing of course there would be no response. “Did you eat our gifts?”
Looking further, we discovered several food items in the hall and in our bedroom. It did not look like much was eaten, but they had certainly seemed to have had a party opening all the presents and spreading them all over the place.
“What in the world were you thinking?” I hollered? “Why did you do this? Do you really think I want to clean up a mess like this on Christmas?” They ignored me. Neither of them seemed in any way concerned, which for Molly was completely strange.
I began picking up the pieces and pulling the presents together to rewrap. Bjorn and Derek took the dogs out on our patio to keep them from getting into anything else.
It wasn’t until years later, after Derek had been to rehab a couple of more times, and long after Bjorn and I were no longer a couple, that I learned the real truth of what happened that night.
Apparently my brother had hidden in his backpack a rather large, brownie-sized cake of hashish. When the four of us returned home to the mini Christmas disaster that night, Derek quickly realized what was up. His bag was askew, the pocket in the front of the bag where the hashish had been stashed wide open. The hashish had been wrapped in aluminum foil with a sticker on the front that read Acapulco Gold! This foil was lying smashed and spitty in a pile on the cream-colored carpet, the Acapulco Gold! label torn in half.
Derek immediately pulled Bjorn aside and told him he thought the dogs had eaten his hashish. The two of them dragged the dogs to the patio to confirm their suspicions. Apparently what I failed to notice was that our dogs’ pupils were the size of platters and rimmed in red. The reason neither dog had reacted in any way to my tirade was that they were both completely stoned.
When I heard the story, so long into the future, I laughed, recalling the picture of both dogs baked and confused. I can only imagine how it must have been from their perspective, discovering Christmas goodies while they were high on hashish.
Yet Derek and Bjorn were right that I would have blown a gasket if I had known at the time. Even later, the implications were not lost on me. Derek had kept drugs in our apartment, and had done so with our small daughter there. She was mobile by then, crawling about and getting into things. He assured me the stuff had been zipped up tight in his bag, and that Milla would never have been able to find them, but his concealment had not been enough to keep our dogs from making their discovery. They were very lucky they didn’t get sick.
Ultimately, Derek fulfilled his end of the bargain. He moved into his own apartment in the complex and got a job. His story then continued on its own trajectory.
Meanwhile, Bjorn and I were both ready to move less than a year later. The apartment was so tiny and located in a suburb that seemed designed to stop all drivers at every traffic signal, which drove me crazy. It was also too far from the university where Bjorn attended classes and the law school where I planned to attend classes a year later. I wanted more than an apartment. I wanted a yard where the dogs and baby could play. I wanted space, and not to be able to hear our neighbors arguing. Bjorn, nearly 6’7″ in height, wanted room to stretch his legs without banging them on another wall. And so, less than a year after moving north to Portland, we moved again into a high-ceilinged duplex with a rambling yard. An ancient oak shaded half the yard and kept our home cool.
I loved that duplex. Too bad there were drug dealers in the park next to it. We could hear shouts and shots and all sorts of unmentionables there, at all hours of the day and night, which frightened me somewhat, considering the blonde, curly sprite living with us. The dogs also barked at all hours, warning off interlopers, causing us all to jump as we studied and played.
Finally, after witnessing a police officer throw a half naked woman and several baggies filled with white powder across the hood of his patrol car, cuffing her and tossing her carelessly into his backseat, we decided that it might be best to move on yet again. During the years Bjorn and I were together, we had a knack for moving into places that suited one need and not another.
Our next choice was the perfect little farmhouse. Charming and comfortable, the house was yellow with white trim, and sat on two acres in the middle of one of Oregon’s wealthiest suburbs. The acreage was grandfathered, allowing us to keep livestock, so we fenced it and brought home my old childhood pony, as well as some ducks. We could have stayed there forever. Unfortunately, the little house was a rental and the manager a son who was waiting with bated breath for his mother to pass so he could develop the property, which he did not long after we moved out. There was a five-story cherry tree in the front yard, which was promptly chopped down, along with the house, in his zealous desire to destroy the land and fill his greedy hands with cash.
Our next place was our first purchase and horribly ill-suited for us, too far from town, and too much suburban sameness, block after block. In purchasing this house, Bjorn and I took the advice of a well-meaning, but misguided friend who assisted us in making the purchase. It was only years later after Bjorn and I broke up that I finally bought a house that was suitable to me. We learn with age that which we will no longer tolerate.
However, at the time we chose the duplex, we were a long way from buying our own home. Bjorn was in his last year of school and I was in my first of law school. We both worked and studied and parented our child. The duplex was spacious and shared only a small wall with our quiet neighbors. Built in the sixties, it had sloping, vaulted ceilings and two bathrooms. After the dinky, third-floor walk-up, this was paradise!
During our move from the apartment to the duplex, I saw a sign over the mailboxes at the apartment complex advertising a free cat. According to the sign, the cat liked children and other pets.
Milla and I headed over to visit the prospective cat. The apartment was on the third floor. The people who owned the cat ran a daycare service out of their home. The lady of the house wanted to find the cat a new home because her husband would not allow the cat to come into the house, and he had therefore been living on the balcony for his entire short life. She had gotten him from the humane society when he was a kitten. Except for a few visits with the daycare children where he was dressed in doll clothes and pushed around in a stroller, he had spent eleven months living on a 3 by 6 balcony with one other cat. His name was Friday and we fell in love with him on the spot.
For the rest of his life, Friday adored us. I swear he was grateful to his bones we had released him from the prison of that godforsaken balcony and the daycare children dressing him up in baby clothes.
Autumn had never been a big cat chaser. There had been cats living at the apartment complex in Tennessee and in every neighborhood we had lived in since. She and Molly were both nonplussed by the newest member of the family. After some initial sniffing, the three all ignored one another.
I suppose after Milla, as far as the dogs were concerned, any new family members were acceptable. The two of them had both settled into life with a tiny person running around. First she was a lump they could sniff and mostly ignore, but then she began moving about and carrying food with her, and suddenly she was a much more interesting prospect.
They also relished her diapers. Their’s was a disgusting and foul habit, this desire to eat diapers. No matter what steps we took to keep used diapers away from them, they would somehow manage to get into them and eat them. This would be followed by yellowish turds filled with chewed up plastic and diaper innards.
We had purchased for Milla’s room a widget called a Diaper Genie. The thing had a weird hole in its top through which one placed a used diaper. The diaper would slide through a convoluted plastic contraption and into the bowels of the Genie. A door on the front of the Genie allowed access into the bag which held the diapers. Its point was to ensure that the smell of the diapers did not escape into the room where the Genie was placed.
Both our dogs could open that Diaper Genie and get the diapers out. We would come home from wherever we had been to discover diaper shreds, baby shit, and pieces of soiled diaper spread from one end of Milla’s room to the other. Molly, of course, would be hiding in our bedroom under the bed because, in spite of her biological urge to eat diapers, she knew that our discovery of them would result in lots of hollering and hand-wringing, and this terrified her half to death. Autumn would sit among the diapers, her tongue lolling, breath smelling foul and wrong, wondering where she could find some more.
We attempted to avoid this problem by placing the Diaper Genie into the closet in Milla’s room. To no avail. Autumn was always a clever getter into things, and she would simply open the closet and proceed to dismantle the Genie in there instead.
Finally, I went and purchased an industrial strength, outdoor garbage can, the kind with a lid and bungee cords for closing. We put the Diaper Genie in this, put the whole contraption in the closet and, as long as we remembered to keep Milla’s bedroom door shut, the closet door shut, and the lid on the industrial garbage can securely fastened, we could avoid diaper catastrophes. It was also imperative that we remove the filled bag from the diaper genie to the outdoor garbage can once it was full. On a couple of occasions Bjorn left the full bag on the floor in the bedroom, which may as well have been a giant, flashing invitation to the dogs to come in and have a diaper smorgasbord at their pleasure. It only took a couple of misses on this one for Bjorn never to make that mistake again.
Milla celebrated her first birthday at the duplex. I invited our family and our closest friends to a little garden party. I baked a cake that looked like a caterpillar and covered it with fondant. I sat up half the night stringing together green and yellow, construction paper, daisy chains, which I hung all over the kitchen and living room. Clearly, Autumn’s birthday parties were just a warmup.
Within weeks of her first birthday, Milla walked across the living room. She had been cruising for a while, walking everywhere as long as her hands held a couch, the wall, or some other support. Then one afternoon while holding a marbly green, plastic ball, she took off and walked twelve steps across the room. It was as if the ball were her support.
Once she began walking, she kept going, and only became faster. Up to this point, the dogs were interested in her usually only when she sat in her high chair. Both Milla and the dogs had discovered that the high chair could be quite fun. Milla would toss whatever food item she happened to be consuming, and then laugh hysterically as the dogs pounced on it like starving lunatics. Occasionally this would cause arguments between the dogs, which only made Milla laugh more. First lessons in cause and effect.
During her crawling phase, when things became a little too silent, I would often discover her on all fours, both hands in the dog water dish. She was also quite fond of making dog food soup, mixing together whatever food stuffs were left in the dogs’ dish with their water. I kept the dishes on a place mat in the kitchen, and after these escapades, the floor around and under the mat would usually be a watery mess. Autumn especially loved eating the soupy mixture, and would wait to one side while Milla mixed it for her, then dive in as soon as the baby crawled off to explore elsewhere.
When Milla began to walk, she also began to carry different food items with her. I usually put her in her high chair to eat, but sometimes, especially if I was busy trying to study or straighten the house, I would pour some cereal in a little dish for her to carry around, or give her a cracker.
One night I sat at the kitchen table studying. Milla had finished her dinner, but was wandering around with a sandwich in her hand. Molly was hiding under the dining room table, doing her best to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Autumn, of course, was following Milla, trying to get the sandwich she held in her hand. Milla kept telling her “No!” and holding the sandwich up, trying to keep it out of Autumn’s reach.
Finally, frustrated at her inability to get the food, Autumn jumped up and tried to grab the sandwich, snapping at it, shoving Milla backward into the cupboard. Autumn tried again to snatch the sandwich, but she got Milla’s cheek instead, high up, underneath her eye.
Milla cried out in pain. I jumped up and raced over to her, shouting, “Autumn!” Autumn ducked and backed up as I gathered Milla into my arms, sobbing. Bjorn raced into the kitchen, screaming “Autumn” in a loud and ferocious voice. He grabbed her by the ruff of her neck and threw her across the room.
“I could kill that dog!” he shouted.
“Leave her alone,” I screamed. Milla wailed. “She was trying to get the sandwich. It was an accident.”
“I don’t care if it was a fucking accident,” Bjorn raged. “She bit my daughter in the face!”
“It wasn’t on purpose. She just wanted the sandwich,” I answered. Milla hugged me and sobbed in my arms. I grabbed a washcloth and set her on the counter to investigate the damage.
“Go get some antiseptic cream,” I instructed Bjorn, hoping that a project would separate him from his anger. He stalked out of the room to go search for the medicine.
I wet the washcloth and gently rinsed Milla’s face. She had suffered a small scratch under her right eye. Thank goodness the bite was on her cheek and not her eye.
I looked around to see where Autumn was at. She was cowering in the corner near the glass back door.
“Autumn, it’s okay,” I cooed to her. “I know it was an accident.” She was trembling. I opened the back door and let her out. From wherever she had been hiding, Molly came running and scooted out past me as well. Neither dog was comfortable with yelling and violence.
Milla calmed down. I swabbed some ointment on her small wound and then took her into the bedroom to nurse. She was none the worse for wear, but Bjorn was still quite angry, and never forgave Autumn for this bite. For days he told anyone who would listen that he should have killed my dog. Eventually his anger wore down, but I made took extra care with Milla and food to ensure nothing like this event ever happened again.
Read Autumn — Chapter 11