The event occurred on a beautiful, sunny day in late August in Tarzana, California. The sun arose as usual, the mud slides had abated, the fires had been extinguished, the dams were shored, and after heaving a collective sigh of relief, southern Californians went about their business of swearing at one another on 101 and trying not to spill their morning’s coffee.
Nadine Schitzle was not a commuter. A housewife by trade, Nadine lived with her husband Herman in a neat little cottage surrounded by other neat little cottages. It was a community of neat little cottages.
Mrs. Schitzle’s average day was to rise at 7:00 a.m., fix breakfast for herself and her husband, then spend the day working in the garden. Herman had been employed by a nearby Ford dealership selling second-hand cars until he’d retired the previous year. Since then, he’d been spending his time lying in the hammock drinking beer and watching TV. Lately, though, Herman had left the premises and, well, Nadine hadn’t seen him in days.
The front yard of the cottage had a bright green lawn, well manicured, with a white picket fence separating it and the worn sidewalk.
The backyard contained a flower garden packed with azaleas, roses, peonies and sunflowers all in neat little rows, well-cultivated and standing tall on this balmy Saturday afternoon. A hedgerow bordered the garden and ran headlong into a fence. The fence didn’t seem to care and seemed oblivious to the intrusion. It harbored a gate near the garden that led to the next door neighbor’s house.
There was a small patch of grass between the garden and a tall eucalyptus tree. One end of a hammock was tied to the tree, the other end to the side of Herman’s lately unused work shed. Near the tree sat a circular bricked patio with red tiles, a picnic table, and lawn chairs. A tall ladder rose out of sight under the tree and disappeared in the leaves, a receptacle rested comfortably near the tree holding a rake, hoe, and other garden tools, and one final item of note that seemed … out of place.
Nadine was, if anything, extremely neat. Therefore the fact that there were half a dozen empty beer cans lying under the tree seemed an anomaly.
Mrs. Schitzle didn’t seem to notice. She was happily at work trimming the hedge with garden shears. A small, petite woman of 61, Nadine was dressed in slacks, a loose floppy blouse, and wore a colorful bandana around her greying hair. She worked with admirable concentration and precision.
Elmira Bent, her next-door neighbor, was leaning on the gate not far from the eucalyptus tree staring at an object in the tree’s branches. Bent, a transplant from Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, was a big-boned woman with a dubious nature. She maintained the New Yorker’s suspicion of anything that moved.
Now, however, her usually bored defiance had been ruffled. She was craning her head around trying to see through the upper branches of the massive tree.
“What’s that beast doing in your tree?”
Schitzle was studying the hedge and didn’t seem to hear.
“Nadine,” Mrs. Bent persisted, “there’s a large animal up there, right there,” she said pointing, “hanging from a branch of your eucalyptus tree.”
“Mammal,” Nadine replied, “it’s a mammal.”
Bent stared hard at her neighbor. “Mammal, uh huh, okay, it’s a mammal.” She paused. “What kind of mammal is it?”
“A three-toed sloth,” Nadine replied casually.
Mrs. Bent nodded, not understanding. She looked at Nadine, then looked back at the mammal. “A three-toed sloth. How’d it get there?”
Nadine paused, looked thoughtfully at the sky, then replied. “I think it’s got something to do with Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.” She went back to trimming.
Mrs. Bent did a slow take to Nadine, then stared hard at her. Her face was blank. “I don’t get the connection.”
Schitzle made a final flurry of snipping with the shears, then said with a wide-eyed innocence that charmed, “Nothing’s been the same since that dress was discovered. My butcher got a hernia and I’m very bored with Tom Cruise.”
Early in life, Nadine had begun to make bizarre connections; by the time she’d reached her present age, the casual relationship between Monica Lewinsky’s dress and the finding of a sloth in her backyard seemed perfectly natural.
Nadine went back to trimming. Mrs. Bent stared at her for a moment, then looked away.
“Uh, huh,” Elvira said under her breath. She disappeared suddenly into her house, then reappeared wearing a pair of dark glasses. Meanwhile, Nadine had continued snipping away at the hedge.
Mrs. Bent went back to studying the animal, uh, mammal, hanging in the eucalyptus tree. “You really think Monica had something to do with it? The sloth?” She said, pointing in the sloth’s direction.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Schitzle replied.
As Mrs. Bent stared up at the beast in the tree, Nadine finished trimming the hedge, had gotten a spray can from the patio area, and begun spraying the nasturtiums.
“What are you going to do about it? The sloth. How long’s he been there?”
Nadine stopped and thought a moment. “Since last Sunday. Monday. I think it was … Saturday …Or Tuesday. Wednesday, it was definitely … could have been Thursday …”
Mrs. Bent looked around the yard. “Where’s your husband?”
Nadine continued spraying. “Herman?” She had a far-away look. “Oh, he’s …”
Mrs. Bent leaned across the fence and addressed her neighbor confidentially. “I’ve never said anything, Nadine, but, honestly, the way you wait on him hand and foot, I’ve never seen him lift a finger to help you … and he always makes such a mess …” She looked over at the hammock. “Look at all the pretzel crumbs and beer cans under that tree, he drinks more beer than ten men!”
Nadine looked over at the mess in the yard. “I haven’t gotten to it yet …” Mrs. Bent was incensed. “That’s what I mean, you’re being treated like a hired hand!”
“Well,” Schitzle said, pausing to push a wisp of grey hair from her forehead, “Herman’s gotten very heavy lately and it’s hard for him to move … so I do things for him.” She looked around the yard. “’Course, it’s a big job, the yard, the house, and now the sloth …” Then brightly to Mrs. Bent with a smile. “Keeps me busy!” She went back to spraying with renewed vigor.
Elvira studied her for a beat. “You’ve been taking care of the sloth?”
Nadine nodded. “Oh, yes. I took an oath.” She went back to her spraying while Mrs. Bent thought about this for a moment.
“An oath. What kind of oath?”
Nadine was moving from flower to flower. “The marriage vows … ‘In sickness and in health, for better or for worse …’”
Bent was suddenly galvanized into action. “I’m coming over!” She unlatched the gate and hurried to Nadine who was observing a bee resting on her hand.
“Nadine,” Mrs. Bent said casually, “just now I mentioned taking care of the sloth … and you mentioned marriage vows. Could you explain it? The connection?”
Schitzle gently blew the bee away. “Certainly.” She remembered something and looked at her watch. “Excuse me.” Nadine hurried over to the TV sitting under the tree and turned it on. A rerun of “I Love Lucy” began playing. She returned to the flowers and continued spraying. “Now, where were we?”
Mrs. Bent was looking past her neighbor in the direction of the sound. “Why did you turn on the television?”
Nadine shrugged. “Herman never comes down now that he’s arboreal. And ‘I Love Lucy’ is one of his favorite shows.”
Elvira had a blank look. “Arboreal?”
“Tree dwelling,” Schitzle said as she continued spraying.
Mrs. Bent stared at Nadine, then her eyes traveled to the tree branches. After a beat, she looked back at Nadine. When she spoke, her voice was low and measured. “Nadine? Are you saying that …”
“I tried to warn him,” Nadine continued with great zeal. ‘Herman,’ I said, ’you’re overdoing this laziness thing, one of these days you’ll be sorry … ’ but he wouldn’t listen …” She stopped and gestured toward the sloth. “… and there’s the result.”
Mrs. Bent had been listening with a puzzled expression. She looked from Nadine to the sloth and back to Nadine. Then, slowly, “You are saying … that Herman Schitzle, your husband … has turned into a sloth? A real sloth? Is that what you’re saying?”
Nadine had picked up a rake and was raking leaves. “Yes,” she said. “He always was a slob and now he’s gone too far.”
Mrs. Bent studied Nadine a moment, then walked over to the tree and stood looking up at the sloth. Schitzle joined her. Together they stood studying the mammal.
After a moment Nadine said, “See how he moved just then? That’s the way Herman moved.”
Mrs. Bent’s head was inclined up as if staring at the beast, but instead she was secretly staring at Nadine out of the corner of her eye. She’d always considered Nadine to be a little off center. Now all doubt had been removed.