McSweeney’s turned twenty-one this year, and, to celebrate, we put out a mammoth Twenty-first Anniversary Issue. This story appeared in said issue.
Georgia Schumager shoved open the window and aimed with both her not-so-little hands on the gun, like she’d seen in the movies, knowing that though she’d never fired a single shot in her life, she wasn’t going to miss. She didn’t. The woman shot my father’s dog. It’s become part of this town’s lore, told and lied about so many times that even people who moved here years later talk about the assassination as if they’d witnessed it. Now that my father, too, is dead, the story keeps bubbling up in my head, and here I am, like everybody else, getting my own kick out of it.
I don’t intend to set any records straight. Nor do I wish to exonerate anyone. Most people who tell it portray Georgia Schumager (also now deceased) as a nutjob and my father as megalomaniac. For the most part, this analysis is sound. Gretchen, of course, was innocent. And yet she barked like there was no tomorrow, and though she was a dog, a generally good dog, it is not unfair to ask whether she could have been wholly unconscious that she was driving the neighbors bat-shit crazy.
It began like any other outrage in the history of my family: with politics. At the time of my parents’ divorce, my father, Miles Yarmo, was at the tail end of his fifth two-year term as mayor. We’re talking about a northwest suburb of Chicago in the mid-1980s. The job was largely a ceremonial post. Morton Grove has a city manager. My father presided over (napped through) city council meetings; he snipped ribbons; he visited schools, year after year giving the same speech about community, duty, and the importance of proper footwear. Then he’d pass out some ancient buttons left over from his first campaign. My father had an apparently inexhaustible stash of those yellow yarmo ’74 buttons. And yarmo ’74 pens. Our house had yarmo ’74 pens by the thousands. I used to like to take them apart so that when he went to write with one, the nib wouldn’t pop out the little hole when you pressed the button. When my father wasn’t being mayor, he was, allegedly, a podiatrist. But politics had long ago supplanted any genuine interest he’d once had in the deformities of the feet. My father wasn’t a good or a bad mayor. How could anybody have judged? He’d always been mayor. His license plate (nearly) announced it: mayo 1. In the hip pocket of his jacket, he carried a copper-plated gavel and never hesitated to pound for order on restaurant tables, drugstore counters, our bedroom doors. He’d bang his gavel on the bathroom door if he thought you’d been in there too long. Even his fingers—I can’t explain this except to just say it: my father had fleshy, mayoral fingers.
My mother was a political animal of a different type. She was an operator, a strategist, Don King in a blouse, the ruthless brains of the operation. She’d been my father’s campaign manager and had a flawless record. Five wins, no losses, one TKO (in 1980, my father’s opponent dropped dead during the campaign). On the side, as a full-time job, my mother taught medieval history at the high school. She may have been a slightly more committed teacher than my father was a foot doctor, but the love of both their lives was electoral triumph. The thing about my mother is that though she was utterly zealous about campaigns, and though the closer it got to Election Day, the more ferocious she became, she had as little concern as my father did for what happened afterward. The morning after Election Day, Dr. Jekyll would welcome my sister and me to the kitchen in some recently unearthed apron and she’d shout: “How about some brunch, team!”
Even so, campaigns are tough on a marriage, any marriage. By 1984, my parents had not yet tired of politics, but they’d had more than enough of each other.
The last straw was my father running unopposed.
“What kind of pansy ass runs unopposed?” my mother said.
I won’t get into every unseemly detail of the divorce proceedings. It’s enough to say that they engaged each other in spirited combat over their respective and totally fictitious adulterous reputations. I remember being confused by this at the time. They each had as much interest in sleeping with other people as they did in sleeping with each other. Now I get it. Sex, like anything else, is a story we tell ourselves about the lives of other people. In the end, my father’s rumors prevailed. He’d come into the possession of some not-so-convincing photographic proof of my mother and a substitute PE teacher. It was a different time, and Illinois law still favored the idea that women’s purity was sacrosanct.
My father got the house and the dog, and my mother got my sister and me (except on Tuesday nights and every third weekend), a half-life interest in the house—and the cat.
My mother’s revenge should have been predictable. She recruited a candidate to run against my father in the next election. Our town has no primaries—all eggs are in the general—and that candidate was Chuck Wenkie. We resided in a great and proud democracy. Nobody can ever take this away from Morton Grove, Illinois. But the root of the problem was—and this is where things become as convoluted as only a story of small-town politics can be—Chuck Wenkie had recently moved next door to our house, now my father’s house. My father’s neighbors on the other side, just to complete this twisted circle or square or whatever it was, were Georgia and Ira Schumager, and they’d lived next door to us since the Paleolithic Period.
Chuck was, on the surface and most likely deeper down, an obscenely rich bachelor imbecile. He’d inherited a fortune from his father, a drugstore magnate. His passion: watching people clean his pool. “A candidate from heaven,” my mother said. “A guy like this only comes around once a generation.” We—my mother, my sister, and I—were sitting at the kitchen table of our new apartment, licking envelopes for a Wenkie mass mailing. Wenkie for a Change! My sister and I were my mother’s campaign staff. We were also my father’s campaign staff, but he didn’t work us as hard as my mother did. Actually, but for sending us with some leaflets to hand out at the Jewel, he didn’t work us at all. My father rested, slumbered, on fat incumbency.
In his single debate with Wenkie, at the League of Women Voters, my father’s pomposity reached some of its greatest heights. A mammoth-breasted woman in an enormous Bella Abzug hat stood and demanded to know his position on the ERA. “No bullshit, Yarmo. I want it straight. You’ve been dodging this for years. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down.” My father shrugged. He said women were all right as long as you weren’t married to any one of them for very long. He then proceeded, Hoover-like, to expound on the importance of continuity in representative government, of Miles Yarmo as an institution. “It’s almost,” my father said, “as if I’m less a man than a living embodiment of an ideal.” The ladies of the League of Women Voters hissed. When Chuck Wenkie was asked the same question, he read a note from my mother that said if he was elected, he’d appoint a woman fire chief, a woman commissioner of parks, a woman tax assessor, and—he added a tiny bit of unscripted brilliance of his own—“Hell, if I had a goddamn navy, I’d make one of you a five-star admiral.”
Wenkie trounced my father with 67 percent of the vote. My father came in a humiliating third to a write-in candidate, a deceased gardener named Henry Driskell, whom my mother had campaigned for on the sly. Mr. Driskell used to mow our lawn. Before he died, I remember, he walked with a limp. On election night my father sat in the wood-paneled den of the house that was once our house, staring at the returns on the cable access channel, dumbfounded. I watched him watch the numbers. He lost every precinct, including his own. Sitting there, stripped of his position, his identity, my father took on a certain gravity, as if in loss he suddenly had more solidity as a flesh-and-blood person. It scared the hell out of me. If I’d had it in me to comfort him, I might have.
“I feel like Barry Goldwater,” he said. “Hell, I feel like Alf Landon.” My sister brought him a Schlitz. I called my mother at Chuck’s to congratulate her. Then the three of us sat in the dark of Dad’s night and listened to the illegal fireworks exploding in the backyard next door.
My father, in the beginning, handled defeat with grace. At Mayor Wenkie’s swearing in, he handed over the sacred violet sash of Morton Grove with dignity, even aplomb, being careful not to drag it on the floor of the gym. For months my father didn’t mention the election. We thought he’d finally been cleansed of his addiction to statecraft. He began making appearances at his doctor’s office. My father had been vanquished; even my mother began to feel for him. She encouraged us to go see him even on non-court-appointed nights. “Go to him,” she said. “He’s your only father.”
A sudden bout of calm should always be alarming in people who aren’t calm. People used to say that, given his diminutive size, my father had a Napoleon complex. During the Wenkie race, my mother had quipped to the press, “The only Napoleon my ex-husband resembles is the third one, the one who couldn’t even conquer Acapulco.”
My father thundered back from Elba in February. The election had always been about him and my mother, but something in those few months of contemplation and renewed podiatry practice must have leached into my father’s brain, and he decided that if my mother was invincible, the least he could do was make life hell for other people. One frigid morning, while taking out the garbage in his red nightshirt, he had an inspiration. My father renamed Gretchen, our mostly ignored Scottish terrier, Wenkie.
“Wenkie,” he roared. “Wenkie! Wenkie! Wenkie!”
At first Gretchen didn’t get it. She peeped a cold nose out of the doghouse, totally confused. Who’s Wenkie? But eventually she got the gist and accepted this apparent invitation to speak her own mind. After many years of neglect (my sister and I hadn’t given Gretchen much thought since she was a puppy and we taught her to stand on her head), the dog took on a lead role. Reenter Georgia Schumager, eastern neighbor, dog-run side. Georgia was a priggish, mean-spirited gossip, but nearly pretty in her way, with thick, luscious, always-coifed auburn hair. Georgia Schumager had always despised my mother—who was tall, effortlessly beautiful, dismissive of makeup and manicures, and especially careless about her hair—with one of those festering, obscure, Balkan-like hatreds born of living next door too long. Mrs. Schumager (Dr. Schumager—like my father, she was apparently a doctor of something) also worked at the high school, as a guidance counselor. I remember her telling me that all I had in my future was trading on the family name, which wasn’t going to be much. During the divorce, Georgia had been one of my father’s key allies. It was she who’d fed him the story about my mother and the substitute gym teacher, along with the blurry Polaroid she said proved it.
In an election year, though, all—all—is always forgivable. During the campaign, my mother sent my sister over to try and recruit Georgia for Chuck. What made her switch sides, I’ve never known. Maybe it had something to do with my father’s position on the ERA, or maybe, like everyone else, she had simply tired of Mayor Yarmo toodling around town, blowing off stop signs. She agreed to stick a wenkie yard sign on her front lawn. Ours was a dead-end street. The only people who ever saw the sign were the two candidates: my father and Wenkie. And at the time my father believed himself so far ahead in the polls (my sister was his pollster) that he didn’t give it much thought. “Let the upstart have a few votes,” my father said, magnanimous. “I might even pull the lever for the poor schmuck myself.” But when he lost (“Not lost, drubbed,” he’d shouted, “drubbed!”), he began to fixate on the sign on Georgia Schumager’s lawn. She had left it there long after Election Day, long after the late-fall rains had sent it sagging halfway to the ground. During that brief interval of quiet, my father would watch the sign with a pair of binoculars as if it was some rare bird that might fly away at any moment. For my father, the wenkie sign became a physical embodiment of his defeat, the flap of the enemy colors.
I wonder if recounting the sins of our fathers is simply another way of committing those sins all over again. Where’s the comfort in setting a record straight? In not setting a record straight? Because here’s the part where the record becomes, what, serious?
Consequential? How else to put it?
An ex-friend of mine, a fitness guru, once said to me: “There comes a moment, a single moment, when you realize you’re alive. Watch for it.”
Georgia Schumager’s husband, Ira, tended to be forgotten, even more forgotten than the dog, but throughout the 1984 election and its aftermath, he was quietly sick—quietly terminally sick. Mild-mannered Ira, neighborhood wanderer Ira, picker-up of litter Ira, unofficial ranger of the tiny sliver of forest preserve at the end of our block Ira. While he was mayor, my father said Ira could be a bit of a thorn in the side of Morton Grove’s development, but as a nearly silent environmental yahoo of one, he’d never been able to stop any new parking garages. “Government by the people, for the people!” Ira Schumager was a kind man on a street of ill will, and there he was, that year, dying. The hospital had sent him home. I remember, before he got sick, how my sister and I used to meet him in the forest preserve. Once my sister yanked up a dandelion and shouted, “Off with your head, you Anne Boleyn!”
“Why, child?” Ira had said.
“Murder the weed,” my sister said.
“Oh, I’d call that herbage, a flower spikelet.”
Ira always spoke with his head lowered, so that even now when I think of him I don’t see his face, only a patch of round, bare head, like a crop circle in a field of otherwise-normal hair.
The man was sick, so sick, as sick as you can be and still be alive, and Georgia was grieving, and after a few weeks of Gretchen’s incessant barking, she became convinced that the noise was making his condition worse. At first she only shouted at Gretchen from her side of the dog-run fence. “Shut up, dog!” My father would saunter out the back door and lift the lid of the trash can. “His name, Georgia, is Wenkie.” It went on like this. My father would take out the garbage more and more times a day and wind up the dog, and Georgia would leave her kitchen and go stand there with her nose in the chain-link fence, chanting, “Shut up, dog. Shut up, dog. Shut up, dog.” I don’t think either Georgia or my father was bothering to go to work at all at this point. Between them stood Gretchen, trying to figure out what this was all about, barking. By the way, my father’s other neighbor, as if already practicing what would become his signature administrative style over the next decade, was laissez-faire. As far as Chuck Wenkie was concerned, the dog could bark as much as it wanted; her new name was an honor.
Georgia called the cops. One early morning, Stu Bortz, the chief my father had hired in 1975, came over and pleaded for sanity. Bortz, a gentle, shaggy-nostriled giant who walked with a limp from, it was said, accidentally shooting himself (don’t laugh; the man lost three toes), plodded up the walk. My father in his trademark red nightshirt shot out of the house and met him at the front gate. The chief spoke in the gentle voice he used to cajole sad drunks. “Come now, Mayor, how about a little kumbaya around here?” My father then did a strange thing, even for him. In front of his gate, he did a short little dance, something like his own personal war dance. Holding out his arms, he spun around, his red nightshirt rising above his hairy thighs in the wind like a baton twirler’s skirt. My father, fleetingly, exposed himself to the chief of police.
He went all-mayoral after, booming that in all his years of public stewardship, he’d never once heard of an ordinance that prohibited animals from acting according to their natural, God-given inclinations. “Order sparrows to cease twittering? Termites hereby forbidden under law to chew our foundations? Hey there, Pepé Le Pew, unleash that stink one more time and you’re looking at thirty days. And don’t call me Mayor.” He pointed to Gretchen, who was barking. “She’s Mayor.”
“A pet under your control, Miles. Municipal code five section thirty-nine. You pushed through a revision to the subsection yourself, remember? When Tony Bernardi’s iguana bit that three-year-old—”
In April 1984, Georgia filed a private-nuisance action at the Circuit Court of Skokie. After a weeklong trial (my father represented himself ), he lost. The judge ordered him to change Gretchen’s name back to Gretchen and to keep her indoors for at least eight hours a day. My father appealed. And through it all, inside, outside, Gretchen barked. She barked at sunrise like an illegal suburban rooster. Her endurance was remarkable. She loved to bark and so she barked. She stopped eating. It got to the point where my father didn’t have to shout her up anymore. She went at it alone. I still hear her sometimes, echoes of her late-afternoon bark, somewhere between a croak and a moan, when it was almost too painful to bark anymore, and yet she did. She barked.
We’re moving out of the realm of politics and into the realm of love, where we have no business being. We Yarmos leave love to other people. The exhaustion of all legitimate avenues makes this a legitimate avenue. But now it has become more than a means to an end. It’s ecstasy. Georgia had no idea how wonderful and simple it is, in the name of love, to murder an innocent to make the guilty pay. She stands before her open parlor window and aims. The kickback that knocked her over was nothing. Most of what happened next is well known, as I’ve said. The papers told most of it, about my parents’ divorce, the election, Wenkie, Georgia and Ira. Much of the attention was, understandably, on Gretchen. A lot of letters of sympathy came in for Gretchen. What people don’t know is this: that at the moment Georgia fired, Ira Schumager was still alive. The papers reported that he was dead, and when the police arrived he was, but the fact is that the coroner’s report remains inconclusive about the time of decease. I’ve read it. It lists the time as anywhere between 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Gretchen was shot at approximately 2:27.
Silence, she thought, if only to give the man a few minutes of silence.
Ira was leaving. Ira was fading away. At that moment he was saying goodbye, goodbye to his encyclopedias of flora and fauna, goodbye to his drawerful of extinct prairie grass taped to index cards, goodbye to the texture of bark, goodbye to the crunchy fragility of caked mud after a long sun, when a shot didn’t ring out, it cracked, like a perfect stick snapping, and he recognized the sound of his own Colt Woodsman, a gun he’d inherited from his father, and he thought of dead-leafed October Sundays and his father teaching him to shoot. His father’s meaty breath. Like a woman, hold it, grip it, don’t let it go. And him firing and missing. He never once hit a target. He missed rabbits. He missed trees. He missed telephone poles. Once, he missed a pheasant, a beautifully moronic bird, hysterically squawking, its voice like his hectoring aunt Lorraine. And he thought, Oh my lord, Gerogia. Just before he closed his eyes, he saw her standing in the doorway of his room, the old Colt dangling from her limp right hand. Her flushed cheeks pink as the inside of a pomegranate. In love and loved but also perplexed. Whom on earth did you shoot? The question never made it out of his mouth. His lips looked like he was about to whistle. She watched them loosen. Outside, she could already hear the squalor of fresh rage, except that it was different that day, oddly higher-pitched, so that to Georgia the sounds my father was making could almost have passed for sorrow.
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