Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Gollum Upstairs

Sorry for the silence. The second half of my summer got jammed full of more trips, activities and stuff than a lifetime worth of Summers of George could dream of.

July 14-18, Lindsey and I went with a group from our church on short-term mission trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I helped plan/lead the trip with one of our pastors (I took on this responsibility shortly after I took over as the boys’ head basketball coach at Dayspring Christian, so I had lots of free time).

At any rate, I’ve decided that participating in a mission trip is easier than planning one. Over the next several days, I will be posting a multi-part series about the Pine Ridge trip. It was a very moving and memorable experience, and I want to share some of the thoughts and stories that shaped my journey.

Once we returned from Pine Ridge, it was time to pack up our apartment – our first home together – and move. Just down the road, actually. To a basement. Into the basement of an elderly lady’s house. For almost rent-free.

It’s a nice basement –about the same square footage as our two-bedroom apartment: Living room, dining room, bathroom, two bedrooms and a utility room. The only thing we share with the lady, Catherine, is her kitchen. She has a bad hip and can’t drive, so her two-car garage is ours to use, as well. And she has a huge backyard with maples and ashes and a place for a garden. It’s a great opportunity for me and Linds to save for a down payment. It’s not too shabby of a setup, either – that is, if you can tolerate living in a basement and fending off Catherine’s hell hound, a yippy, nippy little rat terrier: Jiminy Cricket. More on him in a minute.

Earlier in the summer, Lindsey came to know Catherine because she had volunteered to clean her bathrooms a couple times a month. Catherine and Lindsey hit it off well, and Lindsey enjoyed spending time with her when she went over to clean. The only thing that wasn’t enjoyable was Jiminy Cricket, or Jimmy, as Catherine usually calls him.

Catherine found so much promise in Lindsey, however, she thought it would be a great idea for us to live in her basement for practically nothing as long as we cooked, cleaned and took out the garbage. By the end of August, we were in – much to the consternation and constant disapproval of Jimmy.

Jimmy is a Katrina dog: he survived the hurricane and came to Colorado with other pets orphaned because of the storm. Somehow, Catherine found him. Orley, Catherine’s husband, had been dead a couple years by the time Jimmy arrived, so they took to each other right away. Catherine had someone to talk to again, and Jimmy also served as a home-security system. Jimmy adores Catherine, but he utterly despises every other creature on the planet that walks on two legs.

Especially those who live in his master’s basement. Every time we come up the stairs, every time we’re in the kitchen, every time we walk into the living room to talk to Catherine as she sits in her chair, the mongrel lashes out with a torrent of grating sound. He’s bitten my heels more than once and has nipped Lindsey’s on occasion. He is without a doubt the most loathsome, vile piece of flesh I have ever known.

It’s difficult to over state the hideousness of Jiminy Cricket. His legs, bony and knobby, support a fat, aging body of graying fur. The mass of his upper body is so disproportionate to his legs, that when he walks or runs, it appears that he moves sideways; it’s as if his legs are swaying his body from side to side, and he is incapable of walking in a straight line. His coat is course and very off-putting to touch; his ears resemble those of a jackrabbit; his nose is long and skinny. But his eyes – his bulging, black eyes – are the center of his disdainful repulsion. They are dark and putrid, thoroughly black and unmoving, like an orb that has no color or life. When you look into his eyes, your throat tenses with the sensation of disgust; every part of your being wants to shrink away from this foul, filthy animal. Jimmy’s ugliness is of the creepy sort. His tinny, high-pitched yelp pierces skin and shrivels ears, breeding contempt at every meeting.

So there he sits, on Catherine’s lap, raising all manner of hell as you try to have a conversation. There he charges, low and stooping, growling and foaming at the very scent of you. There he stands guard on the back of the sofa that looks across the front yard and driveway, always ready with a snarl and a shriek the moment you set foot on his master’s property. He is completely sold out to Catherine; anyone and everyone not of her is a threat to his peace and happiness.

But one day as we brought over a small load of boxes in mid August, Catherine was out, spending the day with her family. We were ready for whatever venom Jimmy would spit at us. Yet as the garage door slowly slid open and Jimmy appeared in the doorway into the kitchen (Catherine left it ajar so he could use the backyard), he let out not a single rumble, not one skin-curling bark. He even let us pick him up and take him back inside.

It was then we realized that his depraved nature only surfaced when Catherine was around to “protect.” This was a puzzling revelation, one in which I failed to fully understand until a few weeks later.

We had been in Catherine’s basement (or should I say Jimmy’s?) for more than two weeks, and still he treated us like he had never seen or smelled us before. He hated us. And I hated him. I would plot how I would silence him with the spray bottle when he would come barreling into the kitchen spewing hate and envy to greet me as I came home from work. I relished the chance to bombard him with a loud and terrible “Tssst!” if he ever brought his snarling anger too close for my comfort. I was put out by the very thought of him. He was enough to make me move out. He was my nemesis, and I was his thief, coming to steal his master away in the night.

Then just the other day, one morning after Lindsey and I left for work, Catherine fell. They took her to the hospital for x-rays, and as of this writing, she’s still there, recovering and receiving physical therapy.

We knew Jimmy acted differently without Catherine around, and now we would see what he would do without his precious master around for days on end. He warmed to us to fairly well, actually: he sat at our feet during dinner as we fed him bits of food from our meals; he came when we called him to go to the bathroom outside. One afternoon over my lunch break, I sat in the backyard reading, and he ran up to me to sit for a minute, then ran off somewhere else and repeated this activity multiple times.

He even sat on my lap for a few minutes as I watched TV from Catherine’s chair. This, I thought, was unthinkable two weeks ago.

But it is painfully obvious that he misses Catherine. He seems lost and hopeless without her. He sits on the back of the sofa looking out the window, sure that at any moment she’ll be dropped off at the end of the driveway. Every time we open the garage door, he comes bursting into the daylight expecting to see his master coming up the drive.

We don’t know when Catherine will be back. So he waits, despondent and full of longing. And what is this feeling that’s coming over me? Could it be pity for the poor wretch?

Yes, pity. Last night as I did dishes in the kitchen, I heard a cry from the living room. I glanced up to see Jimmy facing Catherine’s empty chair. He let out a series of low, mournful howls – cries of desperation and loneliness. His scrawny head thrown back and his black, vapid eyes closed in sorrow as he wailed for his long, lost precious.

Yes, “precious.” I use the term knowingly. It was that afternoon in the back yard when I first realized that Jimmy is my Gollum and that Catherine is his “Precious.” Sitting in the backyard, watching him run up to me then scamper away again reminded me of Gollum’s interactions with his Hobbit masters, and it was then I knew that he wasn’t just a revolting, angry little dog.

Jimmy is Gollum and Catherine is the Ring. She poisons him with such a deep dependence that he rages whenever anyone threatens her attention. He can’t stand the thought of not having her. He is more than content to sit in the dark with her, to sit at her feet while she sleeps, like Gollum, deep in his cave below the Misty Mountains.

When she is gone, he is somewhat civil, and is even capable of befriending others and feigning sincerity – like Sam and Frodo experienced as Gollum guided them through Middle Earth. Jimmy is trapped within himself; he is Jimmy and he is Jiminy Cricket. Sméagol couldn’t overcome Gollum, and I’m afraid the Jiminy Cricket we’ve come to pet, feed and take care of the last few days will dissolve away into horrible Jimmy the minute Catherine returns.

And I, like Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo, feel pity for the lowly thing. I nearly choked as I witnessed his cries of loneliness in the thick of his grief. It was a completely different perspective of the natural world for me, and I learned more about Creation’s deep and fatal connection with Mankind, as well as its intense need to be repaired.

Gollum got to hold his Precious one last instant before he melted away. I don’t know what fate Jimmy has with Catherine, but I’m sure she’ll be back soon. I wonder if he’ll remember how he fell asleep on my lap like I’ll remember how he wept.

In the morning as I let Jimmy outside and fill his dish, I’ll look on him with the same dubious antagonism like Sam did with Gollum. But I’ll also see him through eyes softened by pity and grace, like Frodo, who knew the sad history of Sméagol and believed the poor creature was capable of being redeemed.

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