The Grand Dame and Ishmael

The Great Siege of Nielsen Drive occurred in August 1986 and lasted five days. The Grand Dame and Ishmael ate up our groceries, guzzled my beer and pop, used an impressive quantity of toilet paper, and generally denuded the small apartment of resources. Never once did they ask to use the phone yet tied it up for two hours a time. On the first night of their stay, they fought bitterly, and in the middle of it all I finally excused myself and joined Susan in bed. The only circumstance working in our favor was that our dog would have killed their cat, and besides that Susan is allergic to cats, so they kept it in their truck. Naturally, on that first night, the cat escaped.

The advance warning of their visit had been a note with “See you soon!” written on the envelope’s lower left corner, not far from our Ann Arbor address. The Grand Dame’s message said she was on an extensive motor trip and heading our way around the first week of August. The only mention of her husband—whom we had never met—was implicit in the next paragraph: “If you don’t want me to show up unannounced, write me your phone #. Week after next, I’ll be at in-laws.” She included an address in Arroyo Grande, California. “Don’t worry,” she wrote, “I have my own accommodations + will only be in Michigan visiting relatives for a couple of days.”

God strike me dead if I actually sent her the phone number.

The accommodations she referred to were a pickup with a camper unit that was fully loaded with junk and cargo and therefore unaccommodating. In fact, the camper was so badly overloaded that the pickup had been blowing its tires at regular intervals. The Grand Dame and Ishmael set up on the sofa bed in our living room, making us hostages in our own home. Ishmael strewed things around—papers, sci-fi novels, dishes—so that it looked like the beach at low tide. He dispensed advice on what kind of computer to get, what motorcycle would be the best choice, what coffee was superior, and how to prepare one dish and another. A great bearded five-year-old, he spent a good hour in the bathroom in the morning, when the exhaust roared like a rocket.

They arrived on Thursday, announcing their departure for Saturday. Meanwhile, the top priority for Friday was an expected transfer of funds by wire. I remembered how the Grand Dame once needed fast cash for her project to excavate early Russian contact points in the Aleutians. She asked all her friends and relatives for a small donation. “They either get sore,” she said, “in which case one knows who one cannot count on in a pinch, or they’re excited about the prospect of getting cited as a donor in a write-up.”

I’m not the sort of person who gets excited about the prospect of being cited in a write-up. Call me sorehead.

The wire they expected didn’t come through on Friday, so the Grand Dame and Ishmael were ours for the weekend. Hearing this news, I dribbled my basketball down to the playground and worked on my jump shot.

I vaguely knew the Grand Dame from my year of graduate school in Fairbanks. We had exchanged two letters in the three years since my departure from Alaska. She was an Army veteran who had earned a master’s degree in English and was working on another in geoarcheology, after which she planned to pursue a Ph.D. in geophysics. When she finished with her doctorate, she wanted to become an astronaut. None of this made a bit of sense, and not just to me: one of my fellow graduate students had never been able to say her name without exclamatory derision. She was a know-it-all and evidently thought of herself as Pauline Bunyan. I was the first female soldier to receive combat mountaineering training. Early in graduate school, I established and funded a scholarship foundation for Middle Eastern women. I expanded my knowledge of Southwest Asian languages. I made many discoveries and a number of findings. I helped to rescue thousands of the Kara Kirghiz who were trapped in Afghanistan. I developed political connections in Washington. I helped to have millions of acres set aside as wilderness.

Her speaking of becoming an astronaut made me smirk. She was carrying a lot of extra weight and might’ve gotten herself stuck in a hatch. And her quirks would drive fellow astronauts crazy on a long journey. She drank Coke with her bacon and eggs. I would’ve bet that’s not allowed in space. She tossed her toenail clippings into her tennis shoes. The toenail filtration system on the International Space Station would have been inadequate for a gal like her. If she was so smart and accomplished, why had she married a goddamned loser like Ishmael? He leaned back on the teak chair at our table and cracked one of the legs. We hastened to assure him it had been broken before, but Ishmael had joined a select group of slobs who tipped rearward on the hind legs of our delicate chairs, destroying the furniture we had bought with our wedding money. Perhaps bent on humiliating him, I required his companionship the next time at the basketball court, and he gawked at the spheroid as if it had come from outer space. All he could dribble was saliva.


On Saturday morning, besides the discovery that her cat had escaped the camper overnight, the Grand Dame informed everyone that she was constipated. This great veteran of mountain warfare training in Arctic conditions, and the future explorer of deep space, spent the forenoon in the bathroom. A laxative was provided, and the great drama of whether she could relieve her bowels had us on pins and needles. Maybe the sounds that emanated from her sequestration were in keeping with a full review of her Pushtu and Farsi language skills. Or could she have been acquiring an Athabaskan tongue? Ishmael lazed around with a book until she ordered him to go out in their truck and search for the cat.

Meanwhile, I took the dog for a walk in the nearby park and found a familiar bum passed out under a picnic table. Her name was Earlene. I’d encountered her many times. She loved to throw the ball to Bissell. She also could be counted upon to ask for money. Her boyfriend was a black man who always let her do the panhandling. Today, Earlene was soaking wet—her clothes and her hair—and I guessed she had been in the creek. I woke her and asked what had happened. She was blind drunk, could barely stand up, and smelled like a pig. Her knees kept buckling like a fat rag doll’s.

She started cussing her boyfriend. He had thrown her in the creek, apparently trying to drown her. I asked if she had a place to go, and she recited an address. I went back home and got Susan and the car. We covered the backseat with an old bedspread. Returning to the park, I picked up Earlene, who had passed out again. Susan had sent along some cookies, but Earlene only wanted a cigarette. I drove up Pontiac Trail to a housing project where she lived with the man and his niece. Before she crawled up the steps to the front door, I made her promise not to tell who’d brought her home.


The rest of Saturday passed quietly enough with our houseguests, and on Sunday I cleaned the brown splash marks from the underside of the toilet seat. By midmorning Monday we all could revel in the news that the wire transfer had come through. The Grand Dame and Ishmael would soon be on their way. Before leaving, though, she wanted to put out fliers offering a $100 reward for the cat, which somehow had escaped Ishmael’s pursuit on Saturday. Fliers were made up and distributed, and we bade our guests farewell.

About twenty minutes after they rolled off, the phone rang. Our nutty neighbor Barbara had noticed the flyer, and when she saw the cat run into the foyer of her building, she trapped it. I went over there with Bissell’s airline kennel and coaxed the kitty inside. It would stay there until the Grand Dame and Ishmael completed their 5000-mile return trip to Fairbanks, via Arroyo Grande.


In all the years since, I’ve only rarely thought of how the Grand Dame and Ishmael laid siege to our apartment. Usually, the thought was accompanied by a bit of snickering over the Grand Dame’s aspirations to complete her second master’s degree and get a doctorate and take off into space. She was thirty-three years old when she came to visit and had said the master’s program looked like a five-year deal, and I knew Ph.D. programs can stretch on for years. She might qualify for her AARP card and space travel at about the same time.

On a whim the other day I searched the Web and found copious documentation of the last twenty-three years. The Grand Dame and Ishmael have divorced and remarried other people. He is wed to a woman who grew blimpy fat and needed to have a biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch. To pay for the operation, her elderly mother mortgaged the house. Ishmael and his wife were still going to be left with a $25,000 bill, which was more than they had earned in all of the previous year. The couple reside just down the road from Arroyo Grande.

Meanwhile, the Grand Dame upgraded her driver’s license and became a trucker, carrying her doctoral dissertation materials in a milk crate beside the rig’s gear lever. She taught psychology, became a therapist, and managed a residential treatment center. She traveled to remote Russian outposts and carried out research concerning people who live and work together in extreme environments. Around the time she completed her doctorate—in her mid-40s, just as I’d predicted—she was accepted by NASA as a mission specialist candidate and remained four years in the active selection files. Marriage to another astronaut occurred. She settled in as a college professor and immersed herself in Democratic Party politics. And most recently she became embroiled in an extremely harrowing controversy in Afghanistan. While consulting at the Bagram base, she was targeted for sexual harassment and even received an oblique death threat, with someone including “Mata la vaca,” or “Kill the cow,” in a things-to-do list written on a dry-erase board.

The Grand Dame continueth as the Grand Dame.


We kept the cat in the kennel. Bissell’s aggressiveness and Susan’s allergies simply didn’t permit anything else. After about two weeks, Ishmael called up at 11.30 p.m.—we have always gone to bed by 10.00 p.m.—to say they had reached Fairbanks, no particular trouble with blowouts along the Alaska Highway, and could I ship the cat home? He expected me to see after all details. I told him to go ahead and make arrangements from his end and give a quick call to let me know the number of the departing flight. We could hardly have been happier to meet it at the Detroit airport. Susan and I both recall that I had to prepay the charges with our credit card. I do think I was repaid by the Grand Dame and Ishmael. But I don’t think Barbara ever received her $100 reward.

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