A Liar and a Thief

Last month, I went out to perform magic on the street.  Between shows, I noticed a guy standing on a crate about 30 feet to my right.

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“We’re having a trivia contest here and we’re giving away cash!” he said.  “Free cash if you can answer these trivia questions.”

That’s the kind of pitch that will gather you a crowd.  People lingered, wondering what the catch was, and then he would launch into the questions in a loud bark.

“What is money made out of?”

“Paper!” somebody would yell out.

“No!” he would answer.

“Plastic!” another person would yell out.

“No!”

“Fibers!”

“No!”

Audience members would fumble their way through all the possible responses, and then, after a couple minutes, somebody would yell out, “Cotton!”

And the guy would smile and hand out a $5 bill.  That attracted even more people.  The guy was giving out money! 

“What color is the sky?” the guy continued.

“Blue!” somebody would yell out.

“No!”

“White!”

“No!”

“Black!”

“No!”

After a few minutes, somebody would yell, “Clear!”

And the guy would give out another $5 bill.  The guy was giving out money!

After a few questions, the crowd had grown quite large.  At that point, the guy would change his tactics a bit.  He would address someone in the audience directly.

“Sir, are you a good person?”

“Yes.”

“If you can prove to me that you’re a good person, then I’ll give you a $20 bill.  Stand on that crate opposite me and answer my questions.  If you’re proven to not be a good person, I’ll still give you $5.  Is that fair?”

“Okay.”

And then the spectator would step onto the crate.

“Okay, first question: Have you ever told a lie in your entire life?”

There would usually be a pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, second question: Have you ever stolen anything in your entire life?”

“There would be another pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, so you’re a liar, right?  And you’re a thief, right?  Do you feel that you deserve this $20 bill?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve already confessed that you’re a liar and a thief.”

That’s when the guy would launch into his sales pitch, which turned out to be pure evangelism.

“But even though you’re not a good person,” the guy would continue, “Jesus was sent down from heaven to take away your sin….”

It was vicious.  First, he lured spectators with the promise of cash prizes.  Then he asked a representative spectator some personal questions.  Then he would twist their answers to imply that the spectator was an awful person.  (After all, just because somebody has lied a few times in his life doesn’t make him “a liar,” and the same applies to the thief appellation.)  Then he would sell his gospel as if he were selling soap–spiritual soap.

Sometimes, he would point to his golden retriever, which was a darling dog that lingered behind him.

“Isn’t he lovely?  Doesn’t he look happy?  He is, in fact.  Unfortunately, we brought him to the vet a few weeks ago, and it turns out he has a terminal illness.  Vet said he has only six months to live.  So he’s walking around happy as can be, but unfortunately, a death sentence is just around the corner for him.  And so it is with all of you.  You may be walking around happy as can be, but a death sentence is just around the corner for you.  Will you be ready?  Have you asked Jesus into your life?”

I was performing out there for a couple of hours, and the longer I listened to the pitch, the more it depressed me.  In fact, I became quite depressed, which certainly isn’t my way.  Each time he told the dog story, he would pronounce a different death sentence on the dog: sometimes it was six months, sometimes two months, sometimes nine months.

So, Mr. Soap Salesman, why do you think you deserve my trust when you’re a liar?

After listening to him for a couple hours, I cut short my magic performances.  I couldn’t take listening to his spiel any longer.  And on the drive home, I felt the weight of humanity weighing on me, disgusted at the lies and truth twisting that people would engage in just to prove that they were right and everyone else was wrong.  The only way I could dig myself out of the funk was to think of something lovely.

When I get home, I thought, I can put Lulu on my chest and pet her face.

And when I got home, there her furry white face was gazing at me behind the glass balcony door, gazing longingly in at me, hoping that I would bring her in and put her on my chest and pet her face.  And that’s just what I did.  It wasn’t a reasoned philological argument.  It wasn’t a spiritual accusation.  It wasn’t intellectual at all.  It was just petting Lulu’s face, which is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

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Be Strong

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My longtime companion Claire has many assets, but strength isn’t one of them.  She comes from a long line of quiet skinny people.  Skinny looks great in a short dress, but it doesn’t help much when you have to hang up on a telemarketer.  When we take our walk, I quickly leave her in the dust.  When we return home, I’m invigorated by the exercise, but she’s always depleted.

“I have to take a nap,” she says.

Once, a woman made overtures towards being her friend by inviting her to a party, and Claire responded happily.  Soon, however, it became clear that the woman was only interested in converting her to a Chinese cult religion.

“Call her up and tell her not to pick you up, that you’re not going,” I said.

Claire hesitated.  I could see the conflict in her eyes, which let me know what she was thinking: I don’t want to be mean to her.

“Do you want to become a member of that cult?” I said.

“No.”

“Then call her up and tell her you’re not going.”

So just before Claire’s father died in 2011, he made Claire promise something.

“Promise me you’ll be strong,” he said.

“I promise, Dad,” she said.

Although she’s not naturally a strong one, Claire has other assets.  Over the years, I have slowly discovered this.  Early on in the relationship, I was waffling on whether she was a good long-term partner, because strength is important.  I wondered whether she would be able to stand up to the challenges that face a couple.  I didn’t want somebody who would fold at every confrontation, either with a stranger or even with myself.

Compassion and gentleness, though, she’s got that market cornered.  It was pointed out to me most clearly in 2008, when Claire and I visited an animal shelter, looking for a bunny to use in my magic shows.  There were many to choose from, but one stood out above all others.  He was ash grey and a year old.  When Claire put her hand near his face, he turned his face into it.  That settled it. That was the bunny for us.

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We called him Quesadilla.  He was another in a long line of bunnies that I had had since 1990, when I first started doing magic.  There was Snowball, my first bunny, who was white.

Then I started giving them funny names so that the kids would laugh.  I named the next one Count Chocula, and he lasted an amazing 14 years.  A vet once told me that he had never heard of a bunny living that long.  He didn’t seem creaky in his old age, only grumpy.  When he passed on, we wrapped him in a plastic bag and buried him in the backyard, placing a cross on top.  But it wasn’t deep enough for the coyotes, who dug him up that night.

So when it came to this bunny in 2008, I named him Quesadilla.  The name made the kids laugh, but Claire could call him a serious name, Casey, for short.

“Because he deserves a serious name,” she said.

I used him in all my shows and all the kids loved him, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

“Are all rabbits this calm?” they would say, petting him.

“No, there are good ones and bad ones, just like people,” I said.  “This is a good one.”

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When you petted his cheek, he would close his eyes and get into it like it was a piece of lovely music.  In fact, it was like a piece of music, in that it was a melody that was being played between the two of us.  Rabbits are simple creatures, and since they’re so far down on the food chain, they’re always a little bit scared.  But it seemed that while we were petting his cheek, or between his ears, or his shoulders, that he wasn’t scared for just a little while.

But Casey tended to flee from me, even after I got to know him.  Perhaps it was because I treated him straightforwardly.  I grabbed him whenever I needed him for a show.  When he bit me territorially, I gave him a rap on the nose.  When he didn’t seem to want to be with me, I walked away.  Perhaps it was also because Claire, for the most part, was the one who fed him.

That’s when I started noticing how Claire’s gentleness could accomplish things that my straightforwardness could not.  First thing In the morning, Casey would be waiting by the balcony sliding-glass door for her.  She would feed him baby carrots and cilantro, or whatever green leafy vegetable was in season.  She would kneel down on the floor and coax him inside, waiting as long as ten minutes, if that’s what it took.  Then she would stroke his face, his head, his body, in a gentle and loving manner.  She discovered the love within him and nurtured it.

In the evenings, Claire would come back from teaching an English composition class at the college, and first thing, she would ask me.

“Have you fed Casey yet?”

And if I hadn’t, she would go out there with another bowl and her gentle ways.  Every night, she would spent ten minutes saying goodnight to him.

Claire believed that Casey had feelings.  When we went away on vacation, she would get down on her hands and knees and talk with him.

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“David and Claire are going away,” she would say.  “Katherine will take care of you.”

Claire believed that he understood the word away.  

I would sometimes make fun of her.

“David and Claire are going to Humboldt County,” I would say to Casey.  “We’re going to visit some old friends, one who’s a retired Special Ed teacher and the other who’s a retired landscape architect.”

And Claire would give me a crooked smile.  But it never discouraged her from her task of talking with animals, Doolittle-like.

Maybe it’s because Claire never had children.  As a child, she had been saddled with much of the job of raising her two younger siblings, and so she realized that it wasn’t all roses and I love yous.  Not only that, but her first husband didn’t want children.  When she got to me, the decision had already been made.

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A couple weeks ago, Casey got sick.  It was the heat.  Bunnies don’t withstand the heat well.  He had been out in the sun too long, and when he got into the shade, he was lethargic and unwell.  We both tended to him.  Claire waited for him to indicate what he wanted, but I knew that you had to force some things on him, so I placed the water dish directly under his mouth and prodded him to drink.  He responded, drinking more than I’ve ever seen him drink.

We were worried.  We had never seen him like this.  Not having kids, he had become an important part of our household.  We tried to feed him fresh carrots and cilantro, but for three days, he wasn’t interested.

On the Tuesday, I flew to Kansas to chase down my ancestors, which has been covered in this blog.

Tuesday night, Claire had a dream.  She was talking with her father, who had died two years ago.

“Armstrong,” Dad said.  “Armstrong, Armstrong, Armstrong.”

When she woke up, she knew what her father had meant.  When her Dad was on his deathbed, he had asked Claire something very important.  It seemed to be one of those moments of crystal clarity for him.

“Be strong for me,” he had said.

He knew she had to work at it.  She had lost so many people, her brother, her boyfriend, and her stepdaughter among them.

“I will,” Claire had said.

In the morning, when Claire came out to see Casey with a bowl of carrots and cilantro–three days’ worth had already been refused–it turned out that Casey had passed away during the night.  His small body was laid out on the balcony, still warm. I’m sure she gasped.

Claire promptly left a voicemail message for me in a shaky voice.

“Call me right away.”

When I heard it, I was hoping that my mother or sister hadn’t died.  But Casey was a part of our family, too.

“Can you put him in a plastic bag?” I asked.  “Can you call the city to pick him up?”

And that’s when she told me about the dream.  Yes, she would be strong.  She had promised her father that she would.  But I love her all the more because she wasn’t.