Kaddish for Sarah BernhardtWeb del Sol 2000
I rang the doorbell and without waiting for a response walked into the Bernhardt's house holding my girlfriend Trixie's hand. I heard a growl and felt a tug on my pants. Instinctively I shook my leg and Sarah Bernhardt, their black mini-poodle darted away as Phyllis Bernhardt, the mistress of both the house and dog, grinned me that dogs-will-be-dogs grin. She kissed me hello and I introduced her and her husband Arthur to my date, Trixie. He led us to the kitchen where Butch and Dottie, my dentist and his hygienist wife, had gotten a head start on the wine.
Once again I made the intros. As we chatted Trixie busied herself picking the cashews out of the nut mix. Trixie wasn't her real name but I always introduced my dates to my friends as Trixie. The Trixies didn't complain--they thought it was cute. My friends were used to me.
The dog crouched cat-like in the doorway. She got up, trotted over to her water dish but a step away yipped and broke for Butch's ankle. He brought his foot back to kick her and Sarah Bernhardt wisely reversed course back to her water dish.
Phyllis gently admonished her to be a "good little Poochie" and left to answer the doorbell. Sarah Bernhardt followed. Arthur was beginning his,'I'm sorry about the dog' bit when Phyllis returned with Herb and Joan. Herb was our veterinarian. He had one strand of hair that he had been cultivating for years and wound it into as much of a pompadour as he could. Joan was the resident giggler.
The poodle came at Herb on the run and grabbed his shoelace. Herb lifted his foot and the growling dog came up off the floor still holding on.
This was not the Sarah Bernhardt that I remembered. The Sarah Bernhardt of my memories was gentle and loving. Arthur had taught her to cry, bow, and stand on her hind legs and throw a kiss with either paw. And, she was never called anything but Sarah Bernhardt. For some reason the Bernhardts were calling her Poochie now.
"What the hell is going on with the Sarah Bernhardt?" I asked. Just as Herb began to answer, Arthur yelled for someone to get the door for him. Trixie moved in on the grilled clams, oblivious to the goings-on. I pointed at the dog and shook my fist. Joan giggled. It appeared that I was the only one bothered by the dog.
Sarah Bernhardt faked my way and went for Herb's ankle, getting the sock and stretching it until she tore a hole. "Be a good little Poochie and leave these men alone," Phyllis begged. "Herb, I'm sorry about your sock. Let's go into the dining room. Dinner's ready."
Phyllis and her husband Arthur were old friends whom I had lost custody of after my first divorce. Although we saw each other around town or at parties this was the first time in ten years that we had actually socialized intentionally. "What's the deal with Sarah Bernhardt?" I asked Phyllis who was seated to my immediate left. She chewed several small thoughtful chews, swallowed, and with eyes downcast said, "She is not Sarah Bernhardt."
I watched Trixie eating the orange and onion salad and ate some in self-defense. I remembered the Berhardt's little poodle Sarah Bernhardt being such a nice little puppy. "Really? Not Sarah?" My wine took over. "What the hell happened to Sarah and just who is this little terrorist impostor? Sarah was so lovable. This one is despicable," I said in my best Sylvester imitation.
Phyllis dabbed at her eye with her napkin, quite delicately. Then, she sighed. A real honest-to-goodness sigh. A follow-up swoon would have not been inappropriate at that moment. Arthur walked around refilling our wine glasses. He put his hand on my shoulder as if to say either, "That's OK," or, "That's quite enough." I knew there was a message but I was damned if I could tell which message it was. Trixie stopped spooning hollandaise long enough to look up.
Phyllis put her hand on my arm. "When Sarah Bernhardt was ten," Phyllis said softly, "she got very sick and we didn't think she was going to make it-but she did."
"Isn't it such a helpless feeling when your pets get sick?" Butch joined in.
" A friend," Phyllis continued, " actually it was Herb, suggested that we consider getting a puppy as both a playmate for Sarah and as her eventual replacement."
"Oh Herb," interrupted Butch again. "How could you suggest such a thing? You are one sick puppy. . . Whoops . . . Sorry, Phyllis." "At first it sounded so calculating but Arthur and I talked it over with the children and decided it was probably best for all of us, including Sarah Bernhardt, and so we did it We got Poochie and they became good friends. Six months later Sarah Bernhardt went to Herb's hospital and never came home."
Arthur said, "Eventually we got her ashes and buried her in the back yard."
"Can we talk about something a little more uplifting?" Butch slurred.
"You could've just brought her to my house," I chuckled. "I've got quite the little pet cemetery going." Ignoring Butch I continued. "My daughter keeps getting pets, they keep dying, she cries, then she goes off to her mother's house leaving me to bury the little critters."
"What's the latest count?" asked Herb.
"Two cats, a duck, a couple of parakeets, a guinea pig, a school of goldfish and who knows what else? I haven't been home yet today."
"Don't forget Fluffy." Joan reminded me.
"I bought my daughter a dwarf bunny for her birthday a couple of years ago and it just kept eating until it seemed to burst," I explained. "She took that real hard and cried for a week. Alicia, her best friend, asked if we had kept the rabbit's feet to make key chains. That didn't help."
Even Arthur and Phyllis smiled. Butch drained his wine glass and reached for the bottle. Then Herb said that it was six months before Phyllis picked up Sarah Bernhardt's ashes and buried her.
"Well you see," said Dottie. "I was at Herb's the following week with Spit and Rinse, our Siamese cats, and Herb told me that Sarah's ashes had just come back from the crematorium. Knowing how emotional Phyllis was about Sarah Bernhardt, and knowing that I would be seeing her that night, Herb asked if I would please tell her because he hated to do it over the phone."
"Why did you wait six months to tell her?" I asked.
"There never seemed to be the right moment to say, Phyllis, the cake is delicious and, oh by the way, your dead dog is at the vet's waiting to be picked up. I never got around to telling her."
Phyllis, now smiling, said, "I called Herb for an appointment for Poochie and as I was leaving his office he gave me a box with Sarah Bernhardt's urn and ashes. When I got home I set the box on the counter and we had dinner. Arthur and I talked it over with the children and we decided to bury Sarah Bernhardt in the back yard. After dinner, the children and I stood in the yard watching Arthur dig a grave. Then Arthur got a prayer book and his prayer shawl and led us in saying Kaddish for Sarah Bernhardt. After the memorial service we stood around the grave telling Sarah Bernhardt stories, covered her up, went inside and had dessert and a good cry.
"Herb, didn't you think it was strange that Phyllis hadn't picked up the ashes sooner?" I asked.
Phyllis answered for Herb. "He said he figured that when I was ready to deal with the remains I would call him. It's not unusual, he told me, for people to wait long periods of time to pick up the ashes of loved ones."
"You know," Trixie joined in, "I have some friends that own a funeral home and they have a whole closet full of urns that no one has picked up. Some have been there for years and . . ."
All eyes were on Trixie waiting for her to continue when Butch said, "That's hard to believe. Really hard."
"Maybe. But it's true," Trixie said. "I've seen the closet myself. In fact, he may be on his second closet by now. There were urns piled on urns."
Butch stared hard at Trixie. "That's bullshit," he said raising his voice. "Just bullshit!"
Dottie, who had been sitting rather detached throughout this discussion, finished her wine and slammed the glass down, breaking the stem. "Well don't you think it's a person's own business if they want to pick up the ashes promptly or not? Really now. Isn't there better dinner conversation?"
"Sure," said Trixie. "Why?"
"Why what?" asked Dottie.
Trixie, taking a forkful of my leftovers, looked bemused. "Why are you asking?"
"Let's just change the g.d. subject! OK! Let's talk about people who are new around here," she said, patting her husband's hand.
"What's the big deal?" I laughed, coming to Trixie's defense. "We're just talking about a bunch of cremated animals that people don't give a shit enough to pick up. Probably not just dogs and cats--probably birds and gerbils and snakes and . . ."
"Enough! Stop already!" Butch looked at me through tear-filled eyes. "What the fuck do you know? Huh? What the fuck do you know? Maybe a guy's too embarrassed to go pick up the ashes. One day it's a month and then all of a sudden it's three years. Did you ever think of that? No! Of course not! You're too busy laughing about dead animal graves and rabbits' feet. How does a guy explain the delay? Maybe. . . just maybe . . . it's not so fucking funny. Maybe a guy can't decide where he's supposed to put his mother's ashes. Bury her in the yard or leave her on the mantel . . or . . or what. Maybe. . . just maybe . . . it's not such an easy decision."
Butch dropped his head in his arms as Dottie rose and stood behind him stroking his head gently while looking angrily at the rest of us who sat around astonished and embarrassed.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Poochie scamper across the room and disappear under the dining room table. We heard a high-pitched growl and Butch jumped up from the table shaking his leg as tears streamed down his cheeks. A black ball of fur went flying across the room.