Articles of a Personal Nature

[originally published in SCIFICTION 2-18-04]

Articles of a Personal Nature
by Deborah Coates

“Tracking is about communication, decision-making, and memory. Tracking is reading your dog. It’s recognizing your place and holding firmly to it. It’s totally and completely about trust and communication. The official objective of a tracking test is to demonstrate a dog’s ability to recognize and follow scent. But it is far more than that.”

· · · · ·

Sarah stands in front of a group of about ten students and talks about tracking, while I sit alone in the back of the room and watch her. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and nods at a woman with short salt-and-pepper hair who has a question. You can’t tell by looking at her that Sarah was gone for seven years, lost in some unknown alternate dimension. Though she has been back six months now, she never talks about it, never says word one about what it was like to be ripped out of her life—out of our life—into a completely different world. Sarah doesn’t want to talk about it. She thinks we should all just go on. But you don’t go on from seven years. Seven years brings a lifetime of change.

· · · · ·

“You need a certain amount of equipment for tracking: a forty-foot-long line, a harness, a dog, of course …” She pauses for a moment, and the students laugh politely. “… surveyor’s tape, clothespins, and flags to mark the corners. And, of course, you need articles.”

· · · · ·

Sarah has always tracked; since she was twenty years old, before I ever met her. She taught tracking classes like this one every fall. “What’s the point?” I asked her once. “Does it accomplish anything? I mean, it’s not search and rescue. You don’t save lives.”

“It accomplishes everything it needs to,” she told me then. “Pay attention.”

· · · · ·

“All dogs can track,” Sarah says. She leans casually against a long table and turns an orange fluorescent clothespin in her hands as she speaks. “Big dogs, little dogs. I’ve seen Yorkies track and Great Danes and Otterhounds. It’s something they can do that we can’t. But it’s a partnership, too. You can’t fight your way through. You can’t force a dog to track. You know the rules and what you want and when you get there. But they know how to do it.”

· · · · ·

Before the Great Disappearing Act, Sarah worked at GeoGen Industries as a systems analyst. “Sometimes I’m a lab rat,” she told me one night at supper just before she disappeared. But I’d had a bad day in court, and I was in a hurry to eat and get out to the park for a softball tournament, and I’d figured it was just one of those off-hand things people say to get the attention of the distracted person in front of them.

· · · · ·

“There are several different levels of tracking. TD or Tracking Dog, TDX—Tracking Dog Excellent, and VST—Variable Surface Tracking. VST and TDX are theoretically at the same level, but”—she tips her head and looks at her students as if she’s peering over the top of a pair of glasses—”VST is totally harder than TDX. A third to a half of a Variable Surface test is on ‘non-vegetative surfaces’ like asphalt and concrete and dirt. The passing rate is only about five percent. But when you see a great VST dog, it’s awesome!”

· · · · ·

Before she disappeared, Sarah never said words like “totally” or “awesome.” No one uses words like “totally” or “awesome.” Maybe California girls several decades ago, but no one we know, no one we’ve ever known, no one we hear on the streets or see on television in the evenings. No one says “totally.” No one says “awesome.” But when I ask her about it, ask her if those are the kinds of words they used in that other dimension she was in for seven years, she just looks at me with a slight frown, as if I have asked her something truly puzzling, and she never really answers.

· · · · ·

“In a TD test, you have one article—a glove. The tracklayer lays the track and leaves the glove at the end of the track for the dog to find. In TDX, there are four articles. Three of them—the one at the start and the two along the track—are items of a personal nature belonging to the tracklayer, like a scarf or a belt or socks or a shoe. The final article is usually a glove, given to the tracklayer the day before, just like in the TD test. The articles carry your scent; that’s how the dog can find them.”

· · · · ·

For a long time, I didn’t change anything. I washed the clothes she’d worn the week before and picked up the book she’d left lying cracked open on the coffee table, but I left her shirts and dresses and jackets hanging in the closet; I left her towel on the rack in the bathroom. When I got up in the morning I walked around her hiking boots, one upright and one on its side at the foot of the bed.

One Saturday—the Saturday—one year to the day after Sarah disappeared, I was driving home from the office, listening to the news on the radio, and I suddenly realized that for the first time in a long, long time, I hadn’t heard GeoGen mentioned once the entire broadcast. Sarah wasn’t news anymore. Denial, where I’d been living, like an island in the ocean, shattered deep inside me. Not even I could sustain it any longer. Nothing would ever be the same again. I pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for almost half an hour and cried.

Three days later, I packed up all Sarah’s things and carted them away to U-Store EZ Find. It had seemed terrifically important to pack it all, every small piece of her, to establish the hole she’d left as a real, dimensional thing. Sarah, wherever she’d gone, whatever had happened, was never coming back here. And it was important that her absence be marked every moment of every day. Afterward, I found a few things I’d forgotten, consciously or subconsciously—a pair of reading glasses, a one-by-one-inch picture frame that I hadn’t even known she had, with a photograph of the two of us, Sarah’s chin resting lightly on my shoulder, a watch with a turquoise and leather band that I’d bought her for our first anniversary, and a tracking glove.

· · · · ·

“Very simply, this is tracking,” Sarah says. The students listen with rapt attention. “A tracklayer walks a ‘track’—a straight line with a certain number of turns—and leaves articles in appropriate places. After a certain amount of time, the dog and handler go out and the dog follows the track to the end—you hope—and finds all the articles along the way.”

· · · · ·

I don’t know if anyone really knows what happened at GeoGen seven and a half years ago, but I know now, after several inquiries, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, and federal intervention, why it happened … more or less. This is what GeoGen says (from their “official incident report”):

GeoGen has always walked a thin line between conventional product development and high-risk, cutting-edge research primarily in three distinct scientific arenas. GeoGen has at all times the highest commitment to becoming the world leader in quantum computing, space-time drive technology, and molecular machines. Not content with developing the first Completely Quantum isolation room, GeoGen also pioneered artificial black holes under controlled conditions allowing for greater mass and duration than ever before. In each and every project, GeoGen scientists follow elaborate safety precautions, undergo rigorous simulation testing, and subscribe at all times to a precautionary approach aimed at minimizing risk while maximizing GeoGen’s commitment to its employees and the environment.

Three years ago, GeoGen developed the first sustainable and revolutionary quantum computer and subsequently began a rigorous testing process. At the same time, in a completely separate building from the quantum computer isolation facilities, a small group of top GeoGen researchers in the area of molecular machines initiated beta-level scenario testing of feral bots for chemical clean-up. Project records show that it was also during this time frame that GeoGen’s artificial black hole research entered a completely new phase …

It gets technical from there, most of it not particularly comprehensible to someone without a couple of PhDs in physics who hasn’t also actually conducted research in quantum computers or nanobots. At the time, I listened to every word, took pages of notes, studied every transcript of every interview GeoGen did. Until I finally realized that it didn’t matter.

This is what happened: Thirty people went to work one day, and none of them came home.

· · · · ·

“I know it sounds complicated—yardage and turns and age—but your dog already knows how to track. Dogs have scenting skills you can’t even imagine. The best of them really can run a variable surface track that’s three to five hours old, six hundred to eight hundred yards long, crowded with people and laid around buildings. They can.” Sarah nods once, as if a nod is enough to convince anyone of anything. “Your job is to give them purpose and motivation, teach them the rules, and, in the end, trust them.”

· · · · ·

Two years after Sarah disappeared, I met Jody.

Jody is tiny and a little bit of a perfectionist, but in a good way. There’s never a hair out of place; her makeup is always just right. In many ways she is everything that Sarah is not. Sarah, I’ve realized in the few months she’s been back, is kind of casual, even a little sloppy. She doesn’t line her shoes up on the mat beside the back door; she leaves the glass in the sink when she gets a drink of water; she puts her feet on the coffee table, which is new since she’s been gone: It has a glass top, and Sarah’s socks leave little smudges like tracks across a frozen pond.

Jody always looks like she’s ready for anything, quick and bright and happy almost all the time. Sarah looks like she’s ready for long conversations or hikes in the woods or slow, languid sex on cool afternoons.

Jody is being wonderfully patient about Sarah. “Of course, you have to do this,” she says. “She has no one, really, except us.” And she pats me on the shoulder and says she’ll wait as long as she has to. But I can tell she’s growing impatient.

I haven’t mentioned Jody to Sarah yet. I meant to do it the first time I saw her—it seemed only fair—but she looked so lost. Just that one moment, when she first looked at me, and then it was gone, and I’ve wondered since if it was just a trick of light and not despair at all.

· · · · ·

Sarah takes a few questions, wrapping up her talk before moving everyone outside. “What happens if your dog just doesn’t get it?” asks the salt-and-pepper woman. “I mean, how do you know your dog is tracking?”

“Dogs track,” Sarah says, a cool confidence in her voice. “It’s what they do. Your dog already knows this. Your dog already knows it’s fun. What we have to do is teach your dog that this scent work, where it follows a track laid down some time before by someone else, is worth doing today or tomorrow or next week or whenever you ask. It’s all about motivation.” She shrugs. “That’s what everything’s about, really.”

· · · · ·

Sarah and I met in college. I was majoring in business, with every intention of entering law school—as a junior if I could manage it. I had a plan and a timeline and everything in place. Sarah wasn’t majoring in anything, really. She took physics and bio-chemistry and creative writing and comparative religion. The first time I saw her was in a frat bar on a Saturday night. She and her friend Tacy were surreptitiously trying to extinguish some guy’s shirt that Tacy had just set smoldering, waving a cigarette around in the crowded room. Finally, Sarah just threw her arm around him, pinching a fold of smoky fabric when she did. “Hey,” she said with a sloe-eyed smile. “Don’t I know you, like, from chem class or something?”

I didn’t actually meet her until two weeks later at a Homecoming party, but I knew her then, like a hum somewhere underneath my ribs. She had tangled hair and a voice made for laughter, and she always looked comfortable whenever I saw her, leaning against a pillar with her arms crossed, sitting on a table in the commons, waving to a friend clear on the other side of the quad.

Our whole time in college she never minded that I was ambitious and focused. If she didn’t have any papers or reading assignments, she’d sit and read one of my Business Law books, occasionally offering her own perspective. “Sometimes, you know, the law doesn’t matter,” she told me once. “Sometimes things are just wrong.”

“But that’s not what we’re concerned with,” I replied. “We’re concerned with the particular letter of a contract, what it means and what obligations it creates.”

“Sometimes wrong is just wrong,” she said. “You should remember that.”

· · · · ·

“What is an article of a personal nature? Can it be a butter dish?”

I wonder briefly if the salt-and-pepper woman has a bucket somewhere full of butter dishes that she’s been saving for just such an unexpected use.

Sarah frowns, but quickly, like a fleeting cloud across her brow. “Personal,” she says, “means personal. Things you’d use yourself; things that are specifically and uniquely yours. Not a butter dish or a salad plate or a garden hoe, which would be too big, anyway. Articles of a personal nature are hats or socks or belts or—”

“Underwear?” some sixteen-year-old kid in the second row pipes up.

Sarah looks at him and doesn’t blink. “If you want your underwear laying out in an open field for a couple hours, then, yes, underwear.” She leans against the table at the front of the room. You know,” she says to her students as if she’s confiding a casual secret to privileged insiders, “tracking doesn’t have a purpose, but if it did it would be to find you. The articles are a way to track you home.”

· · · · ·

The first present I ever gave Sarah was a CD player. I’d wanted to give her something bold and sentimental, something that could express all the things that I didn’t even know I wanted to say, the rush when I saw her unexpectedly on the sidewalk, the way she made my heart beat differently just by looking at me, the laughter she surprised out of me when I thought there was only room for studying and research. But somehow what I ended up with after three days of scouring every store in the city was a CD player.

“I already have a CD player,” she said, turning it over in her hands. “But, uhm, thanks.” And then she looked at me and smiled. A bright, open, happy smile as if the world had just promised to remake itself every night for her, a smile that, at the time, made me completely forget that anything else existed.

The first gift I gave Jody was a set of three bracelets made of ceramic and silver, blue and green with silver woven in and through. Each one was custom-made and fitted; each one was slightly different than the others. “Thank you,” Jody said, turning each of them on her wrist and watching them catch the light. “They were almost exactly what I wanted.”

· · · · ·

Sarah is outside now, starting each of the students and their dogs on their first tracks. “See,” she says, “I always lay three tracks in a row the first time. They’re really short, and we use lots of treats. I lay three of them because this is how it works: the first track they pretty much have no idea what’s going on; the second track they realize that there are treats on the ground, and they start looking for them; the third track is when the light begins to dawn and they start to use their nose because it’s the most efficient way to find the glove at the end of the track.”

· · · · ·

The last gift I gave Sarah, three weeks before she disappeared, was a clip for her hair. I’d been on a trip to Chicago taking depositions and I’d seen it in a store window on my way to lunch. I hadn’t been in the mood for gifts, and I’d had an argument with Sarah not two weeks earlier about how she looked going to work every day in blue jeans and t-shirts and wild Hawaiian vests.

“Gee, Tommy,” she’d said, a habit I’d also tried to get her to break—calling me Tommy, a name I hadn’t gone by in years—”I’m sorry that the way I dress is holding you back at work.”

“It’s not insurmountable,” I said.

“That was my sarcasm-voice, Tommy,” she said. “I have no sympathy for you whatsoever. How I dress is who I am. You deal with it or not.”

The clip that attracted my attention was wide, a bold collection of fruit—pineapple, bananas, oranges, and nectarines—like a miniature Carmen Miranda headpiece, but instead of painting it in bold colors, yellows and oranges and reds, the artist had rendered it in a muted metallic blue just shading into a burnished gold. I bought it without thinking and brought it home and gave it to her. Sarah never said a word when she opened it, but she wore it every day until she disappeared.

· · · · ·

Forty-five minutes later the students are gone and Sarah is walking back into the building, smoothing her hair back and readjusting the clip at the nape of her neck. “I can be gone by Wednesday,” she says.

· · · · ·

This isn’t at all how things are supposed to go. I have everything laid out—what I will say, how I will offer to support her until she gets back on her feet, how I’ll help her deal with GeoGen, give her advice on the everyday world, make things comfortable for both of us. I have it all planned. And now, she will be out by Wednesday, just like that, like plans mean nothing to her. I feel as if I’m standing all alone at the edge of something that seemed to be a simple step but turns out to be a precipice.

She ticks off points on her fingers as she says them. “You have a job, a new house, a whole life that doesn’t include me.” She raises her head and looks me straight in the eye. “I know you have a girlfriend; I don’t know why you didn’t just tell me.” She pauses and takes a breath, the only sign that any of this is the least bit hard for her. “It’s been, you know, kind of you to put up with me for the past few months. I appreciate it. But I’ve got … stuff, myself. And I’ll be fine.”

She turns away from me and starts gathering the items on the table from her lecture—tracking leads and orange clothespins and marker flags. This is the way she’s been ever since she came back, like she’s the only one things happened to, like she gets to decide. “No. Damnit!” I grab her arm and make her face me. “You can’t just pretend nothing happened. You came back! You changed everything. Everything! And now you just expect to walk away, to be oh so generous to me? No, Sarah, it’s not going to work that way. Where were you? What happened? I have a right to know.”

She takes a step back so there’s breathing distance between us. “Nobody asked you, you know. Nobody asked you to wait for me. Nobody asked you for anything.” The skin around her eyes has a tight and hollow look that I know means she wants to cry and isn’t going to. I wonder for the very first time if she had lovers in that other dimension in the seven years she was gone. Did she train dogs there? Did she work and cash a paycheck and laugh in trendy restaurants with people I’ll never know? Did she teach tracking classes like this one?

I want to understand, but I don’t, not even a little. “Did GeoGen tell you not to talk about it?” I ask her. “Is that it?”

She sits in one of the folding chairs and rubs her hand across her eyes. “Why can’t we just go on? You have a life, Tommy. A whole life without me. Why isn’t that enough?”

“Because I don’t know who you are.”

She leans her head on her hand and looks over at me. “No,” she says. And she opens and closes her mouth several times as if she has something to say but doesn’t have the words to say it. She closes one hand tightly into a fist, then stares at it as if it’s going to tell her something that she desperately needs to know.

“I went to work one day, Sarah,” I say after a short silence. “It was a regular day; everything was ordinary. Then I got a phone call and you were gone. Just like that. Gone.” I shake my head and realize I’m looking at my hands while I talk. “I didn’t do anything for the first year. I just went to work and waited for you to come back. I was sure you would come back because I couldn’t imagine anything else. Then I realized that nothing happens just because you want it to, that you were gone and I had to learn to live with it. And I did. I went on. For seven years I went on without you. I learned how to live and I went on.” I take a deep breath. “That’s what it was like for me,” I tell her. “All I want to know is what it was like for you.”

There’s an evenness about her stare as she looks at me, like she doesn’t care if this moment lasts forever, like it somehow counts too much and not enough. Finally, she says, “This.” She snaps her fingers. “That’s what it was like for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

She’s still looking at me in that slow and even way. When she speaks, her voice is low and she enunciates each word very clearly. “Nothing happened to me. I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t do anything. There was nothing in between. Everything changed. Except me.”

“No. Your look … your hair … you say words that …” Words fail me. She is different. She is not the Sarah I remember.

“You don’t remember me,” she says. “You think you do and you wish you did. But you don’t.”

And then I realize—there is no resolution. There is a gap between us of seven years and no way to bridge that gap. I am not who I was that day. And she is. And so, do we choose the quick break, heartache and regret, but done and over with and—for me, at least—back to my life? Or do we choose the slow disaster, knowing it can’t work, knowing we don’t even know each other anymore, knowing that it will be recriminations and heartbreak and shouting and a long, slow, painful pulling away?

“When you go tracking,” she says, in a voice that seems too rich and deep to be hers, but which is, irrefutably; it’s my memory, has always been, that’s been false. “When you go tracking, all you know is where the track begins, that there really is a track out there, and that maybe, if you’re lucky and you’ve trained well, and the weather’s right, your dog can follow it. All you have is a flag and a dog and the idea that it can be done. And you know, when it’s test time, that you’ve done everything you can do, that the only choice from the moment you leave the start flag is to trust your dog. You can’t run that track. You can’t sniff that scent. But … you get out in that field and your brain starts to work and you become convinced that the track can’t possibly go right, that the turn has to be right here, at the cedar tree or the broken fence post or one particular tall clump of grass. And you stand when you should have gone. You pull your dog off when you should have let it go; you hold when you should have walked and walk when you should have held. You fail out there in the middle of an open field with no one to blame but yourself because in the end you didn’t do the one thing that mattered—you didn’t trust your dog.”

I look at her, watch shadows from a tree outside the window play across the contoured angles of her face, and then, finally, I say the only honest thing I’ve said in a long time. “I don’t know what that means.”

She pulls the clip from her hair and puts it in my hand, closing my fingers around it with her own. “Six months ago I loved you, Tommy. I was mad at you most of the time, but I loved you. And then, between the time I went to work one day and the time I came home, you moved seven years away from me. Everybody moved seven years away from me. You keep thinking this is all about me, about how I’ve changed and what it’s meant to you. But really, Tommy, it’s all about you.”

“Sarah—” I begin, but she interrupts me.

“I don’t know what it means either, Tommy.” Her voice is quick and sharp and a little bit desperate. “When I track. I’m all alone out there, just me and the dog and what the dog knows. But I stand out there and I watch my dog and I let the line play out and I reel it back in and sometimes it all comes together—the dog and the day and the track and me—and I know that what I do and what my dog does and where we go are exactly right, that the world has come together somewhere inside us.” I can feel the warmth of her fingers laid over mine, feel the coolness of the hair clip, with my fingers laid over it and her fingers over mine. “What happened to me doesn’t matter. What happened to you doesn’t matter. We can talk about it and think about it and cry about it if we want, but I can’t have lived those seven years and you can’t unlive them. Ever.”

She sits up, pulling her hand away from mine as she does it. “I have to find my place in the world, Tommy,” she says. “I would … I guess … I mean, there’s still something for you here.” She taps her chest with the fingers of both hands. “And I would try. I would. But you can’t stay out of pity. You can’t stay out of guilt. And you can’t … you really can’t, Tommy … worry about how it affects your job or what people think of you …” Her voice runs down slowly as if she knows there’s more to say, but can’t think how to say it.

The thing I want to do right now is the one thing I seem unable to do: to reach out and pull her close, to say that none of it matters, to say that seven years was like nothing to me, too, that what I know and what I remember are the same. I don’t know how things can work out; I have no plan for this contingency. Worse, I see no path at all in front of me, as if this moment swallows light and allows nothing to leak out the other side.

“Do you remember Giles, my first tracking dog?”

The question seems to come from nowhere, and it’s a moment before I can parse the words. “Yes,” I say cautiously, “I remember.” Sarah’s first dog, acquired when she was in college, was a half-wild Rottweiler bitch incongruously named Giles, that she’d rescued from the center median of a busy intersection downtown. Giles was seven years old when I met Sarah, and she died a year and a half later. She was intense and affectionate, and there was always something wary in her interactions with me, as if she knew somehow that I thought the world would be more ordered if she were gone.

“She was awesome at tracking,” Sarah says now, “but she was my first dog, and we had a lot to figure out. She passed her TD test pretty easily, but we failed three TDX tests in a row, all for different reasons. I entered one more test that year, late in the fall, almost December.” Sarah speaks slowly, the words emerging one after the other in a careful way, as if she doesn’t yet understand the point of her own story and she’s not certain that I will either. “I got to the test site early. The judges and the tracklayers were out on the tracks, and it was quiet, just barely light, the sky full of low, gray clouds. I sat in my car and I thought about all the tracks we’d failed. Then I pushed all that away and tried to just see the perfect track, perfectly laid, perfectly run. I watched myself standing calmly at each corner, letting the line run out through my hands, reeling it back in as Giles circled behind me and came back, her nose snagging on the scent as if pulled on a string. On the perfect track, I would be the perfect handler. I would scan the field; I would read my dog; I would always know where we’d been, where we were, and where we were going. And Giles would do what Giles did: never stop, never quit, never fail.”

Sarah pauses and looks at something high up on the wall. I don’t look where she looks. I try not to look at anything at all. If I could hold my breath forever, I would do it. If I could create a world where all things changed according to the weight of the moment as I lived it, I would create it. If I could stop right now and never go forward and back … Well, I don’t know. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I don’t know what I’d choose.

After a moment, Sarah continues, “But you know what? When we finally got out there on the track, none of it went like the picture in my head. My shoe came untied. I almost dropped the first article. Giles couldn’t find the corner at the top of a windy hill, and she worked and worked and worked so long that I gave up. I prayed for the whistle, for her to stop tracking, for anything that would end the agony of standing there and trying and not getting anywhere.

“But Giles wouldn’t quit.” Sarah shakes her head as if the idea still surprises her. “She wouldn’t quit. She kept working and working and finally she found it. And we went on. And we passed. It took forever. It was frustrating and scary, and the way we did it wasn’t at all pretty, not like the tracks people boast about—’my dog passed in five minutes,’ ‘my dog passed the first time.’ But it was awesome, you know.” She looks at me. “It was absolutely the most awesome, perfect thing ever.”

I feel as if, with that look, she has nailed my heart to the wall. Before Sarah disappeared, I had a plan. I knew where my life would go, how I would get there. My hand closes on the hair clip, squeezes it so tightly I can feel the metal edges bite into my palm.

All tracks go somewhere.

“I can’t promise—”

“Don’t promise,” she says.

Decisions are made every step of the way—go straight, turn here, pass/fail—and you can’t tell until you’ve made them if they’re the right ones or not.

“I don’t know if—”

“Don’t know. Just—”

Perfect isn’t what you think.

“I could try.”

“Yes.” Sarah breathes out, long and slow. “Just try, Tommy.”

She smiles. And that, suddenly, is something I remember. I remember her smile.

The End

3 thoughts on “Articles of a Personal Nature

  1. Thank you!!

    What I love most about this story (aside from the fact that I was finally able to work tracking into a story ) is that it’s the story where I finally figured out endings. THAT was a breakthrough! 🙂

  2. Pingback: First Gem: “Articles of a Personal Nature” by Deborah Coates | necwrites

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