The rented pet
by Ron Singer
[ fiction - april 08 ]
Jerry Kaplan dry-washed the sawdust from his hands and slowly walked toward the front of his shop. Through the open door, he saw cars flashing by in the sun. Jerry's Lumber stands on a wide, gently sloping one-way street which runs down past an expressway entrance, and the traffic on this particular early Saturday morning was moderately heavy, as it normally is there and then. Any minute now, business would start trickling in, and soon Jerry would be selling plywood, wall molding and pine planks, all cut to customers' 16th-of-an-inch specifications (which often turned out to be wrong). Perhaps he would even sell the odd board-with-hole-in-the-middle, a board destined for use as part of a home gas dryer window exhaust unit. That board, 28 to 32 inches by five inches of one-half-inch plywood, with its difficult to cut, four-inch, round hole, would cost you five dollars.
Jerry stood in the frame of the pulled-up garage door that served as the front entrance to his shop. He looked at nothing for perhaps a minute and then saw coming down the street a woman whom he immediately tagged as 'Frustrated Spinster'. Among the visible features which inspired this snap judgment were: straight, skinny, stick-like legs somehow dominated by the shins, and encased in black stockings with a bluish tinge; sadly inadequate breasts and chin; a thin plain face marked only by a gash of lipstick so red you could taste it; a shapeless black dress too warm for this June day and too long or short (hem cutting sticks at mid-shin); a small, square, red plastic pocketbook that looked silly; and the absence of an appreciable behind.
Jerry's face formed into a weak smile that would have seemed pitying rather than friendly to anyone who had noticed it, but the woman for whom it was half-intended was looking straight ahead as she pounded her way down the sloping sidewalk toward the avenue which crossed the street some seven or eight buildings beyond the lumber store.
"What's she doing around here?" Jerry wondered, as he turned and walked slowly back into the shop with the idea of heating some water for coffee on the coil in his office. The question occurred to him because that particular few-block area contained only garages, light industry, and retail and wholesale building, plumbing and automotive supply businesses, and none of the bakeries, five-and-tens, grocery stores, supermarkets, and flower, card and clothing shops which such a lady - a working lady from the look of her - would be likely to visit early on a Saturday morning.
"Huh?" wondered Joe Bassano, Personnel Supervisor of the Addeo Moving Company, which is three doors down from Jerry's Lumber, as he noticed the spinster through a plate glass window. He asked himself the question Jerry had asked some 25 seconds earlier, and then quickly forced his mind back to the business at hand, which was showing a new crew "the ropes."
"Uh, men, as I was saying," he continued, preoccupied, "legs is the sine qua non of our profession." The three of the seven novices who happened to be paying attention stared at Bassano oddly, but he did not notice, because he was once again looking out the window. By then the woman had passed, however - swallowed by the street.
Less than a minute later she made a right turn onto the avenue, caught her breath and went into a store the interior of which was hidden from the street by door and window Venetian blinds. The characters on the dusty plate glass door read:
2 1 8 4
Had the lumberman or the moving man learned that it was the guard dog store which had been the woman's destination, he would have nodded an "Ah Ha, surmising without hesitation that she wanted a dog to guard her apartment while she was away at work during the day. He would have deduced, furthermore, that the general deterioration of this neighborhood, or even a particular break-in, had prompted her desire to purchase a guard dog. But, assuming Jerry or Joe had somehow learned where the woman was headed, and assuming further that he had gone on to guess her intention, the guess would in fact have been mistaken. For it was not fear of crime which brought the pale thin woman to the guard dog store.
At the sound of the door opening, the fat unshaven proprietor looked up from the tabloid that was spread out upon his counter. Seeing the woman, he managed to suppress his surprise by telling himself with lightning speed: "It takes all kinds."
"Good morning," she said with a smile which asked, not unpersuasively, that he like her.
"Morn'," he replied, closing the paper and standing up.
She recited her lead question quickly and matter-of-factly, before irresolution could mis-word it or falsify the intended tone. "Do you rent dogs - or do you just train and sell them?"
The silence which followed seemed fairly long to the woman, but to the owner of the guard dog store it was but a moment, during which he experienced a "brainstorm" that set in motion rapid calculations as to the slow state of business, possible risks to dog and woman, feasible prices, and the insurance question.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
The woman clutched her purse and worked her lips. "Well, you see," she said in a businesslike manner, "I live here in the neighborhood, and I... uh... would like to rent a dog one day a week."
The proprietor watched her carefully as she spoke, as a guard dog would a person who has reached the very edge of the guarded area. Making a preliminary assessment that this was neither a madwoman nor a pervert or a criminal, he allowed his natural curiosity to assert itself, tempered of course by caution and by tact.
"Uh huh, I see. But what do you want a dog for? You got some valuables you have to move once a week or something? Is that it?"
"No, not exactly." Sensing the onset of amenability, she became precise - even prim - for she was that type of woman whose formality increases, at least in certain situations, with familiarity. "You see, I would enjoy having a pet as a companion. Living alone as I do, I thought that a dog might... cheer things up a bit."
The phrase dropped to the counter like spilled milk. They both eyed it for a second, then tacitly - and kindly, on his part - agreed to ignore it, as if it were an old stain made long ago by some forgotten party.
"But you see," she continued, "living alone as I do, and going to business - I'm a bookkeeper - I would be unable to care properly for a pet, or at least for the type of pet which I have in mind - a dog. It would be too cruel to the animal."
This made sense, and the proprietor of the guard dog store, now openly curious, sympathetic and enthusiastic, began nodding his head in vigorous agreement. In fact, a scenario was flashing through his head in which he and she would exchange the weekly dog loan for a weekly review of the store's books (scanty though the entries would prove in these hypothetical "books"). His imagination darted forward to the third Saturday morning and to their two heads, his round and bald, hers pale with dark, lankly hanging hair, bending together over the books, which were spread out on the counter.
"I see your point," he said quietly.
"Yes? Good. I tried a pet shop but..."
"Oh, I know they'd never do it," he interrupted. No percentage. It was smart of you to think of coming to a guard dog store. I don't see where else you'd have a chance of getting a part-time dog." He smiled at his phrase, and she too moved the corners of her lips back. "I think we can fix you up."
"Now, as to the time." She had this all worked out. "I would prefer to pick the dog up late Saturday afternoons, if possible. Say - four-ish? That way I could finish my marketing, straighten up the apartment, and so on, before calling for ... it. Ideally, the dog might be returned Sunday evening, but if you don't come in on Sunday I would be prepared to..."
"No, no, that ain't necessary," he chuckled. " 'Course I'm in on Sundays. The dogs got to eat and so on, don't they? Like a hospital, sort of. I'm here all the time. I stay in the back. These dogs are too valuable to be left alone for long."
She frowned. "Yes, I thought of that. Isn't there a problem, since they are valuable, of my renting..."
Again he interrupted, this time holding up a courtly hand. "That's what we're here for, ain't it? Anyways, I ain't about to rent you no Elka von Elkland or Foofy Schaefer - them's famous Shepherds."
She nodded, and just at that moment a huge, square brown head poked through the doorway behind the counter. Neither barking, nor baring his teeth, or even pricking up his ears, the big dog sized up the situation instantly and stood absolutely still in the doorway, ready to respond to his owner's least command.
"And who's this?" the woman asked politely.
"Oh, this is Buzzy. He's my own personal dog."
"Oh? My, he's big! A Great Dane, isn't he?"
"That's right." The proprietor turned and eyed the big dog affectionately. "Ain't it, boy?"
The dog's eyes sparkled, but he did not move.
"I don't think I should rent a Dane," the woman remarked matter-of-factly. "My place is far too small." Something occurred to her for the first time. "Why aren't the dogs barking?" she asked.
"Oh, their kennels are way out back. It ain't good to get them all excited every time someone comes in the store."
"But can't they hear us? I thought dogs had very keen hearing."
"True enough. But these are trained dogs," he said proudly. "Just go back in their area and enter the guarded territory by yourself, and you'll hear them do some barking!"
He smiled. His muted cruelty was not lost on her. She smiled, too, letting him have his little joke.
Then suddenly her smile began to widen. Quickly, it grew and grew until it had become a genuine beam. The dog owner was surprised. He knew that she could not be smiling like this at his little pleasantry, and he wondered what she was thinking, but he was too polite to ask. In fact, the lady was experiencing what can only be called an epiphany.
It was a drizzly Saturday night, in her imagination, and from below came the sounds of the teenage stoop loiterers laughing and talking. She saw herself in a robe, lying on a couch reading a magazine which rested on her knees, and eating a very red apple. Beside the couch, stretched out on the rug, was a large handsome German Shepherd. Its big paws pointed forward and its mouth was stretched into what appeared a serene smile. From time to time a white hand would absently reach down to touch the fluffy head.
"What about a Shepherd?" she asked, returning from her vision refreshed and easy. "Would that be a suitable type for me?"
"Just the thing. Reliable, friendly, tough - oh, I forgot, that wouldn't matter in this case - er, and smart enough to remember you even though he, uh, would only be staying with you the once a week."
"Do you have a suitable dog on hand?"
He did have a suitable one on hand, and terms were reached easily. The dog would be rented every Saturday to Sunday evening - or Monday morning, at no extra charge - for a minimum of three months. The fee would be 12 dollars a week, a deposit of 100 dollars would be required. Fee and deposit were low, the proprietor explained, because the dog was old - 14 - and while his ferocity and other faculties had in fact remained unimpaired, his grizzled appearance and calm demeanor might be perceived as flaws by the general run of (uninformed) customer.
"I like the idea of an older dog," she assured him.
A check was written for $124, identification was offered and refused, and a handshake sealed the bargain. The owner excused himself, walked back to the kennel area and returned a few minutes later with the Shepherd, whose name was Rex, on a slip chain. When he first saw the woman, Rex was alert, but absolutely silent. She had been instructed to make no move toward the proprietor, the dog or the door of the shop.
A half-hour of recognition and obedience training ensued. For the first 10 minutes, Rex was repeatedly led out and brought back in to the waiting woman - whose name was Mildred Schapp - by the proprietor, Eddie Mays. Eddie would bring Rex right up to Mildred Schapp and let him sniff her. After several repetitions he had her start to talk to the approaching dog, and finally she was told to stroke the grizzled head. As the 10 minutes ended, Eddie had Mildred offer the dog a biscuit, which was sniffed perfunctorily, then snapped in half and chewed down.
Next the chain was removed and Rex was left "on guard" in the shop. At first Mildred Schapp and Eddie Mays would go out into the street and come back in together. Rex was alert and growling the first four or five times, then simply alert.
Now came the acid test. Once again Mildred exited, closing the door behind her as she had been doing all along. This time, however, Eddie did not accompany her. Instead, he left Rex alone - lying down in the store, on guard - while he himself went into the back. As Mildred opened the door, Rex leapt to attention. Stiff-legged, ears pointed, the alert dog growled menacingly.
"Hello, Rex," Mildred said. Following instructions, she was careful to speak in a voice that was neither frightened nor falsely sugary. Slowly, then, she extended her hand, palm upwards, and carefully, even more slowly, sniffing constantly, the dog inched toward the hand. A breath away, he stopped, sniffed some more, and then flopped right down at Mildred's feet. Feeling a surge of friendship, but careful still to move with all deliberativeness, she reached down and once again stroked the noble head, softly saying "Good Dog" as she did so. At that moment Eddie came running in from the back, laughing jubilantly. As for Rex, he lay where he was and smiled.
"Perfect, perfect," Eddie said, bending to slap the dog's side and tossing him another biscuit." All finished. You did it perfect, nice going. That's all there is to it, he knows you now."
"See you at four?" She smiled with pride.
Mildred left, Rex was chained and led back to his kennel, and five minutes later Eddie Mays was once again resting his elbows on the counter and bending over the newspaper.
Just as people do, dogs come and go. Despite their deserved reputation for fidelity, and despite the stories one hears of dogs that gracefully age alongside their masters, sometimes reaching the equivalent of 90 or more, there are other dogs whose unsuitability becomes apparent almost as soon as one emerges from the shop with them; dogs that meet sudden, violent death; dogs that go berserk and have to be "put away." From time to time one even hears with alarm of a dog's suddenly turning vicious and attacking his own master, biting and rending.
The terms of Mildred Schapp's rental of Rex made the relationship both exciting and frighteningly insubstantial. She became more animated, and her change was sharp enough for even a casual observer like Jerry Kaplan to notice. Jerry would see the woman on her way down the sloping street every Saturday afternoon, and he might think, "There's that skinny broad again. Seems happy today, wonder if she's getting some!" Or, depending on his mood, "There goes that skinny creep. Looks scared shitless, as usual."
For several weeks Jerry never saw Mildred with Rex. Thus he neither knew about the dog nor understood Mildred's fear and joy, or had any chance to see the qualities that emerged when she took Rex's leash: the sweetness, tranquility and childlike excitement.
The cause of Jerry's ignorance was simple: Mildred and Rex never took the sloping street home. Even though it was longer, they took the avenue on which the guard dog establishment stood, proceeding towards the neighborhood's commercial and residential section several blocks ahead. This was the section with the bookstores and toy stores, the cleaners and fruit stores, the section crowded with shoppers and loungers, and with uniformed guards who watched impassively over great piles of inexpensive goods. Mildred's motive for taking the longer way home was simple: pride in displaying Rex.
When they reached her apartment building, Mildred would sometimes decide they should walk three more blocks to a small park. When they got there, she would sit down on a favorite shaded bench with Rex at her feet, half in and half out of the sunlight. Thus would she dream away an hour or so, until it became necessary to think about supper.
The summer days lengthened and Mildred enjoyed the time. She took pleasure in the sound of Rex's nails tapping along her linoleumed hallway, and she would watch with tender love the grizzled head bending over the new red bowl filled with the special food she bought. Perhaps the greatest pleasure was her unconscious awareness of the big dog resting in the next room, never bored, never angry or sad, while she went about the housework. Mildred's routine became threaded with joy, a cloth of gold.
Late in July came a terrific heat wave, and one Saturday when it reached its apogee, Mildred broke with habit. The result was that Jerry Kaplan, the lumberman, finally got to see her with Rex.
As usual, she picked up her rented pet just after three-thirty. Since the afternoon showed no signs of cooling off, it was not a day for extra walking. She would retrace her steps and get Rex home, where he could have a bowl of water and they could sit at, and under, the bridge table across from the window which caught the breeze.
Thus it happened that, having given Eddie Mays the weekly check and having suffered his quip about "dog days," Mildred emerged with Rex and turned left, instead of right. She rounded the corner and, despite the heat, strode with her usual briskness up the long slope, which veered slightly to the left in a way that would reduce their walk by perhaps a quarter of a mile.
Arriving at Jerry's Lumber just as the proprietor and a customer were carrying a load of two-by-fours to a station wagon at the curb, Mildred and Rex stopped to let the men pass. The lumberman muttered his thanks, looked over his shoulder and, seeing the dog with the woman, did a double take. Then, as he helped the customer tie the boards to the roof of the car, Jerry kept glancing after Mildred and Rex. He saw them cross the avenue at the top of the block and continue straight ahead.
Today Mildred was wearing her coolest dress, the sleeveless red rayon, and Jerry could follow its bright color beside the more muted form of the dog as the pair moved on, growing smaller and smaller.
In a minute the customer drove off and Jerry succumbed to impulse. Rushing back into the shop, he switched off the power for the machines. Then he snatched checks and paper money from the cash drawer, threw them in the safe, slammed the door and twirled the lock. Still hurrying, he set the alarm and secured windows and back door. Finally, he flipped the lights and ran out the front, garage door, pulling it down behind him. He stopped, then, and absent-mindedly jiggled the locked handle of the door while he stared in the direction the dog and woman had taken. Then he smiled, gave a tug at the waist of his overalls, and strode up the hill.
"It's okay, I made plenty today. Anyways, it's too hot to work all day. Who is that?" he wondered. "She never had no dog before. Where'd she get him, anyhow, AARF's? I got to see where she takes him."
This unlikely fascination with the old maid and her dog was born of boredom and a slow, summer sexual itch. And why shouldn't Jerry Kaplan take a little walk? His time was his own. "This is going to be a special Saturday. For once I ain't winding up at McGonegal's half-plastered on quarter beers."
But the sun was hot on his bare arms, and he must not push his bulk uphill too fast on a day like this. He was glad he was wearing his peaked cap. He felt sure he could maintain a pace slightly faster than that of the woman and dog, but less sure of what he would do when he caught up with them. Jerry peered ahead in vain and only hoped they would not turn a corner before he could spot them again...
The air was stiflingly moist and still. Arriving at her building, Mildred saw with despair that a crowd of teenagers covered the stoop, drinking beer and swaying to very loud radio music. So she abandoned her plans of home and, without even pausing, crossed the street and proceeded the three blocks to the park, where she sat down on her favorite, shaded bench. For several minutes, she sat perfectly still, trying to cool off, while Rex lay in front of her, tongue out and sides heaving.
Then she heard the flick of a switch. Almost directly across the path from their bench, no more than 15 feet away, stood a young man of unprepossessing appearance. He was tall, pale, towheaded and bony, and wore shiny brown pants and a dirty sleeveless undershirt. His shoulders were pink and freckled from the sun. He stared glassy-eyed at Mildred and at Rex, who had begun to growl and strain at the leash. Mildred sat up straight. She was very, very annoyed, for on the ground to the young man's right was a huge radio, which he had just turned on at full volume. The young man's head rolled on his neck. In his left hand he clutched a long object wrapped in a dishtowel. The radio was turned to the news station, and to each item the young man added a commentary.
"That's right," he said. "Bilk the taxpayer, John Q. Public. Give it to him good." He even had a remark about the weather. "Sure it's going to be cooler tonight. Sure it is."
Having restrained Rex for several minutes while they listened to this mad cacophony, Mildred finally stood up and said pointedly, "This is not pleasant. Not. At. All. Let's go home, Rex."
As they started to move, the young man quickly unwound the towel and let it drop to the ground, revealing a long rusty butcher knife. Using both hands, he raised it slowly to the level of his own forehead, smiled conspiratorially, and appeared to aim the point directly down at Rex. All the while the editorials continued.
"Homeowners, who else? Sure, give them the dough, anything to keep the homeowners from moving out of the city."
Mildred stared at the knife. Her mouth and the pale hand which had been clenched around Rex's leash both fell open. At the very moment Rex was flashing through the air at the young man's throat, a heavy, vaguely familiar figure in cap, T-shirt and overalls rushed into the park and up the path...
Jerry's presence may be credited to his determination and to the keen sense of intuition found in certain easygoing fat men. Sweating and panting, but trusting at any moment to regain sight of woman and dog, he had continued undaunted up the hill. On such a day, he had surmised, the park must be her destination. But where were they?
More than once had Kaplan nearly turned on his heel, more than once had he almost wavered and gone back down to McGonegal's. But time and again he persevered, until finally he reached the park entrance - only to see the violent confrontation unfolding some 80 feet in front of him.
Reacting perhaps one-fifth as fast as the dog, the lumberman rushed forward, shouting, "Hey! You! No! Hold it!" As Jerry moved toward the fray, Rex tore large pieces of skin from the assailant's neck and cheek, and began to savage the rest of his face. The knife dealt the big dog a superficial shoulder wound, and the combatants fell locked to the ground with Rex on top and the young man slowly drawing back his arm for a second thrust. All the while he kept muttering, as the radio emitted news and commercials.
During the first moments of the fight, Mildred Schapp had been paralyzed with fear, but now, recovering, she rushed across the path and kicked hard at the young man's drawn-up shins. "Let that dog alone, you pervert! Stop that!"
The knife was poised, but before it could descend Kaplan was on the scene. Grabbing the man's wrist in both hands, he slowly forced the weapon back down toward the ground. By now Rex had the assailant by the throat. Unfortunately, Eddie Mays had neglected to teach Mildred how to call Rex off once he attacked, and the madman's throat might well have been ripped out were it not for the fact that Jerry's friend and neighbor, Joe Bassano, the personnel supervisor, had once introduced Jerry to the huge Doberman who guarded the moving vans. Fascinated by this ferocious monster, Jerry had asked and been told how the creature was signaled to attack and stop. With great presence of mind, he now recalled the instructions and shouted them to Mildred: "Lady! Lady! Tell him, 'Down, Boy!' Quick, tell him! Quick! Quick!"
"What? Oh! Down, Rex!" Mildred ordered crisply. With reluctant obedience the big dog backed off a few feet, sat down and watched alertly, panting, blood trickling from his left shoulder, mouth opened in what looked like a compassionate smile. By this time, Jerry had plopped with a grunt on to the fallen assailant's chest, and he pressed one knee on to the man's knife hand, which began to open. In another moment the knife was in Jerry's hand, the point between the young man's eyes.
A frail old man walking a tiny dog at the far end of the park had seen the fight break out and hurried to an emergency call box on the corner. Now, across the grass ran this old man, his tiny dog on a slender red leash, and with them, a policeman, groping for his handcuffs. Very soon the assailant's hands were secured behind his back, the policeman was radioing for an ambulance, the flushed old man was smiling at the couple, and the dogs were circling and sniffing. The little dog tried to lick Rex's wounds, but was unsuccessful because of their relative heights and because Rex kept turning away the injured shoulder.
It was Mildred Schapp who finally thought to reach down and turn the radio off. As the news stopped, so did the editorials. Immediately, the young man began to groan and gnash his teeth.
"Drugs?" Kaplan asked the policeman.
Minutes later the ambulance arrived. The attendants kindly dressed the wound of the heroic dog as well as those of the attacker, who was locked into the back of the vehicle. Mildred was advised to take Rex to a vet for a tetanus shot and was told how to dress the wound without causing undue pain. After writing down brief statements from the three human witnesses, the policeman commended them and the dog, drove his car into the park and, red light blinking, followed the ambulance off. The old man accepted Mildred and Jerry's hearty thanks, tipped his hat, and pulled the little dog off in the direction from which they had come.
Mildred and Jerry looked at each other in silence. Jerry smiled at the thin woman.
"You know," he said, "I seen you go by my place - the lumber place - and I wondered why you had this dog with you. But I ain't wondering no more. Some dog, ain't he! Did you see him fly at the guy? Heck, these days a single lady ain't even safe in the daytime.
Mildred smiled and looked at her feet. "Well, actually, I don't keep Rex for protec..." She broke off because she had just noticed a piece of filthy notepaper where the assailant had fallen. Folded into quarters, it was covered with dark heavy pencil scrawl and smeared with blood, though whether its owner's or the dog's no one could have said.
"And what's this?" As she picked up and unfolded the sheet, Jerry came close so that he, too, could see. A single sentence, scribbled over and over in apparent furious haste, completely covered both sides of the paper:
DEATH TO EVERY GODANN FUCKING DOG IN NEW YOUR CITY
"How do you like that!" Jerry exclaimed. "A dog hater!" And I thought..."
"What a horrible person!" Mildred stooped to stroke Rex's grizzled head.
After a moment, Jerry blurted out a question: "Say, you think maybe I should see you home?"
"Oh, I don't see... " She changed her mind. "Well, actually, that would be kind of you, sir. I am shaken, and I imagine that, er, Rex is, too. Although he obviously has more presence of mind than I do." They smiled and left the park in the direction of her home.
The trio strolled along, Rex nearest the curb, Mildred in the middle. She and Jerry conversed happily, going over the incident and speculating about the young man. They prolonged the walk with a detour to a drug store, where Mildred bought a bottle of antiseptic. By the time they reached her building, there was no fresh blood on Rex's dressing.
By then the man and woman had become quite interested in one another. The trauma had torn away Mildred Schapp's reserve. Even in her wild and joyful state, as she answered Jerry's questions, Mildred spoke with precision. But she spoke more.
For some minutes the sky had been darkening and, as they stood at her stoop, both thinking about what they wanted to happen next, a wind came up, promising rain and perhaps relief. The stoop-loiterers had dispersed, so they were alone. Mildred blushed and Jerry, moved, extended a hand. But at that moment a honking car sped by, and Mildred turned to watch it. Jerry felt chastened and, contemplating the inadequate form in the bright dress, he sensed that a liaison with such a woman would not be a winning proposition. It would require, at the least, torrents of insincere rhetoric and preliminary alcoholic priming. And afterwards? God knew what would be required, then.
So it was down to McGonegal's, where he would wind up with "a package on, after all, and where, if he could find a way to tell his friends what had happened without exciting their ridicule, some of them might actually enjoy the little story. And why should there be a problem? "Can't a guy knock off early on such a hot day," he asked himself a second time," and go for a little walk?"
As for Mildred Schapp, all at once she felt pressed for time. She knew she must hurry upstairs to call a vet and a cab. Eddie Mays, too, would have to be informed. It was about to rain and she was anxious to get started. If the arrangements were made promptly, Mildred calculated, and then medical attention, dinner and dishes seen to, there might still be an hour for her to lie on the couch and read, in the company of her dear rented pet.
"All right, then. Yes. Well, what more can I say? Goodbye."
Mildred Schapp laid the receiver in its cradle and sat for a moment, her lips pursed, her red fingernails drumming on the black plastic. Then she took a deep breath, let it out with a whoosh and stood up. "How tiresome!" Her high-heeled shoes tapped on the linoleum floor and she began unscrewing an earring as she made her way to the bedroom to change back into her "around the house" clothes.
Bad news. It had been Eddie, calling to tell her not to come for Rex today. He was glad he had reached her in time to save her the walk down to the store. Apologizing several times, he explained that he had just signed a long-term lease for Rex. A man he knew slightly had come in asking to rent a dog with seeing-eye experience for a blind friend until the first of the year. Six weeks. Since Rex was the only eligible dog, could she do without him for that long?
Eddie did not say as much, but Mildred supposed he needed the extra dollars and, being herself the equivalent of a gentleman, she did not try to hold him to the informal agreement they had relied on from the start. Eddie's expressions of gratitude were so lengthy that she, too, was grateful when he finally said goodbye.
In a few minutes Mildred emerged from the bedroom wearing gray rayon slacks and a blue sweatshirt. Sighing once more, she went to the refrigerator and looked in at its contents in the same way she might have watched a television set that happened to be on when she was at a relative's house for a holiday meal. She closed the door, shook her head briskly to clear off incipient melancholy and, returning to the couch, picked up the phone and dialed a well-known number.
"Is that you, Jerome? The saw? Right."
She waited while Jerry Kaplan went to the work area to turn it off. When he was back she said, "Eddie called. No Rex," and explained.
"Ah, what a shame," Kaplan replied. "Look, I'll be closing up around four. Shall I?"
At four, having completed the marketing, the laundry and the vacuuming, Mildred was once again wearing her dress, stockings and so forth as she waited on the couch for the consoling Mr. Kaplan. Ten minutes later it was he who sat on the couch, neat and scrubbed in his clean overalls and white shirt, alert with pleasure as he watched Mildred cross the kitchenette and pause at the doorway to the bedroom.
Looking back over her shoulder, she smiled coyly. Then she bent at the knees and, still watching him, she grabbed with both hands the hem of the black dress and slowly wriggled it up to waist level. The surprisingly white globes of a small backside glowed at Jerry.
"Hah! hah! hah!" gasped Kaplan. He was hunched over on the very edge of the couch, his face bright red, his hands clasped tightly. "Finally!" he shouted, leaping to his feet.
"Hurry!" said Mildred. "I can't wait." And she disappeared around the corner into the bedroom.
An hour later, when they were sitting up in bed holding hands, with the covers pulled to their chins, the phone rang again.
"Ha!" said Mildred. "This is what I call an eventful day." And Jerry got another nice look at the glowing behind as she hurried to the closet for the silk peignoir she had bought a week after the incident in the park. Three months, and then the shock of losing Rex, it had taken the couple to bring the events of that hot August day to fruition.
For several minutes Mildred talked on the telephone while Jerry leaned against the upturned pillow, hands folded behind his head, trying lazily to guess, first, who it was and, then, what was being discussed.
"Yes," he heard, "mm hmm. Same price? Well, perhaps. That's right, you still have it from the first time. Mm hmm. I think we - em, that is, I - can. Yes, plenty. One more thing: you do understand that I reserve the right of refusal on sight. Yes, of course. But that may turn out to be months, mayn't it, Mr. Mays? Certainly. Until then."
"Did you hear enough to guess, Jerome?" She stood in the doorway wearing a small, bright smile. The orange parrots on her bright green robe stared cross-eyed at each other from breast to breast.
"Good news," he said. "Say, do we have time for a little more you-know-what first?"
She shook her head up and down. "His name is 'Caesar', isn't that nice?" A chasm yawned between the parrots.
She was sure Caesar would be very nice. While Jerry waited in the apartment - the silly boy needed a "cat nap" - Mildred Schapp pounded down the sloping sidewalk just as she had on that first memorable Saturday and so many times since. The lumber mill was closed - oh, she knew where that one was! - but from behind the moving company headquarters came a loud, low growl, and she guessed it might be Jerry's nice friend, Mr. Bassano, teaching a new man how to work the complicated gears on one of the enormous orange trucks.
As soon as she saw the dog, Mildred knew that, yes, Caesar would do very well, indeed. Heeding Kaplan's advice to avoid mental comparisons, Mildred took to the new dog instantly. And the feeling was mutual. For Caesar, a black and tan part-Collie bitch, and a reclaimed stray who still limped from the time she had been hit by a large rusty car with no muffler, unfailingly knew and appreciated kindness.
Mays shrugged. "A kid named her. What do kids know?"
Since Caesar was not a watchdog, there was no need for any but the most perfunctory get-acquainted session, but Mildred liked the idea of keeping Kaplan waiting, so instead of hurrying home she stayed to chat.
"Hmm, well, I suppose it's too late to change the name now."
"Why bother? Oh, but she's a real smart one," Mays beamed. "Yup, unusual. You know what one of the kids brung her in told me? See, last winter they was feeding her on their block, out on the street, and one day when it got too cold she opened the door to one of the apartment houses all by herself. With her paws. And a kid found her there in the vestibule when he come home from school. Ain't that a cute story?"
"Do you suppose it really happened?" asked Mildred.
"Ah, hey! Christmas is almost here, Mrs Schapp, ain't it?"
"What has that got to do with it, Mr Mays?"
"Well, Santa Claus is coming, and elves, and all them reindeer, right? And little kids never lie, neither, right?" He winked and, seeing his meaning, she laughed. "Just the weekends, like with Rex? Wouldn't want her full-time now, would you?"
"Just the weekends, I'm afraid."
Terms, too, were the same. At this time of the approaching holiday season, and today in particular, Mildred would not quarrel over a few pennies, although she realized that Caesar should come cheaper, lacking, as she did, Rex's specialized education. What Caesar did have, Eddie explained, was extensive life-experience. And that, too, could come in handy.
"Sophistry, sir!" she exclaimed.
"Never mind. Dog to be returned tomorrow evening, as usual?"
"Agreed. Want me to write it all up for you, Mrs Schapp?"
She did want that, so Eddie wrote it up. Then they shook hands, and she left with the dog on a new red leash which he provided free of charge, because she had been such a good sport about Rex.
For Jerry, a widower, and Mildred, who had "seen" few men over the years, this was a holiday season worth the name. She cooked good meals and they ate them with wine. They spent time at the movies and, locked together in her excellent old bed, they saw each Saturday become a Sunday. Then, on cold bright Sunday mornings, they would walk hand in hand down the street which ran alongside the expressway, while trucks bounced past like skipping children.
"Anybody home?" Jerry would call to the pulled-down garage door of his shop, and they would continue all the way to the harbor, where they gazed across the decks of the boats from South America at the skyline of the city. Sometimes they stayed so long that just before leaving they could see the large orange sun peering through the timbers of the burnt warehouse on the wharf.
"It looks like a big face in jail," Jerry once remarked.
When they reached her house again, he would make up his mind whether to spend another hour or two with her at table and in bed, or to hurry back down the hill to catch the subway home, where he would gather his dirty clothes and trudge off to the Laundromat.
"Why do you always wait until the last minute to decide?" asked Mildred on the fourth Sunday night, as they stood hugging in her vestibule. "Are you trying to excite me, Jerome? You don't have to, you know."
"Oh, no, that's not it," he explained. A car horn sounded. "Nah, I just like the suspense myself. Of not knowing 'til the last minute. Actually, I think I will stay a little longer tonight."
"Good." The keys had been in her hand while they were talking, and she quickly unlocked the inner door.
Christmas arrived. Gifts were exchanged, dinner eaten, and they continued. Since they had agreed to spend only weekends and holidays together, at least until they knew each other better, almost all of Mildred Schapp and Jerry Kaplan's good times were shared with, witnessed by, or enjoyed in proximity to the good Caesar. As for the dog herself, the second of Mildred's rented pets, the times were possibly as happy as they were for the human pair. As Mildred and Jerry walked hand in hand down the hill, Caesar would limp easily after on the leash, looking up with her perpetual expression of playful, loving expectation. When they strolled she would stroll, and when they trudged back up she would limp at a pace which pulled the leash neither forward nor back. Then Caesar's head would be lowered, in harmony with the tranquil evening mood of Jerry and Mildred.
On Christmas Day, after controlling her frenzy at the smells for what
seemed an eternity, Caesar feasted on a ham bone. Later she lay outside the closed bedroom door and listened to the breathing, jangling and laughter, herself panting from the big meal, her pink tongue lolling, and on her face what looked to be a wise, happy smile. Seeing this expression, a human observer would have been sure Caesar had no premonitory regrets about returning to the quiet pen the next morning. For, like Rex, Caesar was patient and mature - she was almost 11 - and the kindly Eddie Mays never let too much time elapse between visits to the kennels, during which visits every animal was assured of at least some individual attention. Thus, for the dog whom Jerry Kaplan affectionately called "Julia", life was rich.
Rich, perhaps, but uneven in its gifts.
"I wonder," said Mildred, "how Rex is making out with that blind person." It was 11 o'clock on the night of December 29th, and Mildred was sitting on the couch eating an apple while Jerry, in an armchair with his feet up on the poof, read the paper. That he was there on a weekday, and that he wore new brown vinyl slippers bought specifically for use at Mildred's apartment, suggested the couple had entered a second, more domestic stage.
"Hmm," he said, looking over the edge of the paper. "That's right. The blind guy must be making a bundle."
"Yes, I imagine he is. I do hope he's treating Rex well."
"Don't worry, honey. Didn't you say Mays knew the guy or something? Anyhow," Jerry smiled, "Rex can take pretty good care of himself, can't he? Remember?"
She, too, smiled. "How could I ever forget?"
Of course there are limits to the ability of any of us to take care of ourselves, and at that moment Rex lay on his side on a damp, almost deserted subway platform. The body of the grizzled Shepherd was rigid, his brow furrowed. Blood ran from several bullet wounds, and the dog whined softly, but he neither grimaced nor flinched from the careful hand with which the kneeling blind man stroked his face. Except for a bump on his forehead, suffered when the muggers threw him to the platform, the blind man was himself unhurt. Before knocking him down, they had ripped from his coat pocket the paper bag containing the day's proceeds, some 37 dollars.
"Rex, oh, Rex," said the man. "I'm so sorry. I was greedy. We stayed out too late. I'm so sorry."
Meanwhile, after hearing shots and then ducking from sight as the two men ran past, the token vendor wasted no time before calling the police. Five minutes later eight officers raced down the steps to the platform, their footsteps echoing, their equipment clanking and jingling.
"Which way they go?" shouted the sergeant, a tall fat man with auburn hair.
"You okay? What'd they look like?" asked a cop with drawn revolver.
"Good Christ!" exclaimed a third. "The guy's blind."
"Look! The fuckers shot his dog."
"Eddie Mays," said the blind man weakly. "The dog's hurt, get Eddie Mays." And he managed to give them clear, concise directions to the guard dog store, although for all his presence of mind he was unable to recall Eddie's phone number.
So for several hours on this cold, clear night the noisy daytime bustle of the holiday season was prolonged. Since morning, people had been eating, drinking, laughing, pushing, returning unwanted presents and selecting new ones. Some had even stood with their children in front of the display windows, belatedly keeping a promise they had hoped would be forgotten. Then, just when this activity was subsiding - when the bus lines were growing shorter and the bright filthy subway trains carried fewer passengers as they inched or raced through the tunnels - there was a burst of noise in one of the stations. Harsh commands. A man pleaded, a dog barked. Harsher commands. Four gunshots echoed down the tunnel. The noises became blurred: yelping, laughter, running footsteps. After that, silence, broken only by the urgent voice of the token vendor on the phone. Then, very soon, squad cars raced into this neighborhood, their sirens and red lights piercing the night sky.
Noise and movement accelerate: sirens, flashing lights, screeching tires. Men rap at a door, lights go on and a startled Eddie Mays appears, dressed in sweater and baggy slacks, still clutching the paperback he has been reading. He listens to the news, runs inside for his coat, then leaves with the police. Car doors slam, people shout. Typewriters clack, statements are signed, cold red hands are rubbed and blown upon. Cigarettes are lit, then either forgotten or smoked and stubbed out. The interrogations are tedious, the expressions of regret awkward and formulaic. For hours the squad cars swarm relentlessly over the area. The search is thorough: block by block, building by building. But the perpetrators have long since disappeared into... cars? buses? the sanctuary of apartments? And with no single witness to the crime who can both see and speak, arrests seem improbable.
As soon as the police give him a minute, Eddie Mays telephones to one Dr Matt Brunn, the vet used by AARF. He tells him the news: a dog has been shot. Luckily this old man and his wife are still up watching the late movie, and now he dresses quickly, grabs his bag, and is driven by squad car to the subway station. Meanwhile Mays is back at the guard dog store, making hasty preparations to receive the wounded animal.
"Good Lord," says the vet when he sees who it is. "Not again!" And the doctor, a medium-sized, dignified old man with straight white hair and clear-rimmed plastic glasses, stands for a moment shaking his head and staring down at Rex, who still lies on the dirty platform. Then the vet rouses himself, sedates the dog and, hastily examining the blind man's forehead, declares him to be in no danger. So the man, Charles Miller by name, is driven home in the squad car that brought the doctor. Considerately, the young officer drives right up to Miller's door, helps him out, walks him up the two flights and refuses to leave until Miller's aged mother, herself nearly blind, has been convinced that her son is safe and basically unharmed.
Meanwhile, the old vet supervises the wounded animal's transportation. A city ambulance carries Rex to the guard dog store, where he is placed on a long table beneath an unshaded bulb in a room directly behind the one in which he first met, and was rented by, Mildred Schapp. While the doctor washes his hands, Eddie slips away to telephone Jerry and Mildred, asking that they "come by to lend a little moral support". The couple bundle into warm clothes and rush down the hill.
By the time they arrive, it is well after midnight and finally quiet. The police having just left, the ministrations of the vet are carried out in silence, except for an occasional whispered remark, or a low groan from the drugged patient. As Dr Brunn works on into the night, the onlookers stand across the table from him, Mildred and Jerry holding hands, Jerry reaching over once or twice to squeeze Mays's shoulder. All three witnesses wear pained expressions as the old man cleanses, stitches and bandages the sedated dog's wounds. Fortunately, none of the four bullets has struck muscle, bone or organ, but there is a great deal of blood.
"Will he need a transfusion?" asks Mildred.
"Nope," says the doctor, wrapping a paw. "Red meat should do the trick. Going to be some big butcher bills, eh, Ed?" he adds with a wink at Jerry and Mildred.
"Lucky I kept up the insurance," Mays rejoins. "With what your bill's going to be."
It was one-thirty when the old vet finally sighed, straightened up and said, "As usual Rex will be all right."
Once the others had finished expressing their relief and gratitude, there was little left to say or do. A taxi was called, which the vet shared with the couple, and soon Kaplan was brushing his teeth while Mildred Schapp got into her nightgown. Meanwhile, in his living room, Dr Brunn quietly undressed down to his underwear. Then he crept trembling into the dark bedroom and slipped into bed without waking his wife.
As for Eddie Mays, he carried the still unconscious Rex to the small room used as an infirmary. He lowered the dog onto a thin mattress in a large basket and covered him with a worn pink blanket. Relying on the vet's assurance that Rex would sleep until morning, Mays returned wearily to his own room where, without undressing or even turning on the light, he sank into the armchair next to the bed. On the rug on the other side of the bed, peacefully asleep and completely forgotten, lay Buzzy, the Great Dane, Mays's own "personal dog".
For more than an hour, Eddie sat in the dark, going over the night's events, picturing the confrontation and recalling the aftermath. Then, he thought back to the incident in the park the previous August and to other, earlier events that had also involved Rex. As he sat in thought, from time to time Eddie would smile, sigh, shake his head or drum his fingers on the soft round arms of the chair. At last, after three, his round head slumped down on to his chest and Eddie Mays's memories turned to dreams.
Often injured, slow to heal: this time Rex's convalescence took three months. Still, thanks to his eager spirit and strong constitution, and thanks also to the expert care of Eddie Mays and Dr Brunn, the dog's torn body once again knit up. By late March, few signs of the subway attack remained: a slight limp in the right hind leg, the tendon of which had been grazed by a bullet, and four new scars, which the dog wore as unselfconsciously as many Generals and Admirals wear their ribbons and medals.
These months were also marked by other developments in the small circle of which Rex was center. Increasingly taken with the brave Shepherd, Jerry Kaplan volunteered to aid in his rehabilitation by playing with, and walking him. To this end, Kaplan was seconded twice daily from the lumber mill to serve as a sort of unofficial assistant to Eddie Mays. There followed quite naturally a two-dog rental arrangement and an extension of the weekly lease to Monday mornings. Beginning in mid-March, each weekend thus saw a pair of humans with a pair of dogs making their way down and up the sloping street next to the Expressway, and through the other streets and parks of the neighborhood.
Since Julia's own injury had been to her left hind leg, when Jerry and Mildred would stroll with the dogs in tandem, the synchronized limping seemed to invite comments. Although most of these were interested or sympathetic, on occasion they could be droll, keen or even baldly hostile. In fact, it was one such unfriendly thrust which inspired Jerry to a notable mot.
On a Sunday morning when he and Mildred were with the dogs in a small pocket park on the fringe of the neighborhood, they came upon a young couple hurrying in the opposite direction. Just as the couples drew abreast, the young man, who was tall and wore brown loafers without socks, remarked to Jerry out of the side of his mouth, "Whoa! TWO dogs! Say, fella, don't forget to scoop the poop!"
"Why?" was Kaplan's cool and slow reply, as he turned to fix the young man with a stare. "Don't you snoopy yuppies like our puppies' poopies?"
Another minor development concerned names. As long acquaintance ripened to fast friendship between the two rented pets, it seemed increasingly inappropriate to mis-designate the gender of the female, and so, at Kaplan's suggestion, she became known, after all, as "Julia".
Now it may be imagined that Rex and Julia would soon have produced an august brood of pups, but this, alas, was not to be. To put the matter bluntly, although the pair engaged in prodigious sniffing, they never progressed to the mounting stage. Since their compatibility was never in doubt, it occurred to people to wonder, "Is one or both of them too old?"
Once again it was Jerry Kaplan who took the lead, indelicately giving voice to this sensitive question on a Saturday afternoon in April at the guard dog store, where he, Mildred and Eddie were enjoying the ceremonial cup of coffee which now accompanied the weekly pick-up. But, if Eddie Mays knew the answer, he wasn't saying. He shrugged and smiled like the Sphinx, and neither did Mildred Schapp venture an opinion other than to shake her head and cast a sideways glance at the bumptious lumberman.
"Well," said Jerry, shaking off his slight embarrassment. "I guess I got to answer my own question, then." And, displaying what Mildred was coming to recognize as an unfortunate propensity for puns, he pronounced against the female: "Dogopause." The ritual groans of the other two ended this discussion, but the fact was, no pups.
As to human "pups," with the conventional preliminary of marriage, when Jerry raised this question after three glasses of wine at dinner that same night, Mildred's answer was decisive: "Oh, Jerome," she said, "how sweet of you! But why would we want to bother with all of that now?" And, as both dogs watched, she leaned across the table and gave Jerry a popping little kiss on the mouth.
Eight days later, on a Sunday evening, there assembled for the first time ever the complete circle of Rex. Present were: Jerry; Mildred; Eddie; Joe Bassano, the moving man; blind Charles Miller; Dr Matt Brunn; and, naturally, Rex and his companion Julia. It was just a simple get-together - coffee, danish, a few drinks - in celebration of two sets of happy events. The first, of course, was Rex's recovery, and the other was Charles Miller's acquisition through the efforts of local politicians of a newsstand in an office building. This meant that the tall, thin, redheaded blind man and his mother could look forward to a higher standard of living, one which would include clothes bought new and even an occasional restaurant meal. And, as if that were not enough good fortune, a correspondence had just been started on Miller's behalf which might eventually put a permanent dog on the blind man's horizon.
So that Sunday at nine they all gathered in the "conference room" of the van line company, to which Bassano, as foreman of the yard, had access. This medium-sized, rectangular room was carpeted, newly paneled, and dominated by a Formica table. Into one of the long walls had been cut a sliding window which looked out on the reception area. Against the other long wall stood two glass-fronted cases that contained plaques and trophies commemorating bowling victories and sponsorship of organizations for children. Covering both end walls and all available space on the long walls were clusters of photographs signed by eminent politicians and show-business personalities. Bassano's prize showed a younger version of himself, wearing a bowling shirt, his hair thick and black, and his face fuller and unlined. Standing with his arm around the moving man was a celebrity of about the same age and height as Bassano. This person wore a checked sport coat and a porkpie hat tilted so far back you could have knocked it off with a straw. Although his identity would have been apparent to most people from these clothes and from his distinctive, huge, pockmarked nose, anyone still in doubt - as no one tonight, other than Miller and the dogs, was - need only have read the inscription:
TO JOEY -
KEEP 'EM MOVIN', KID!
After the guests had admired the trophies, plaques and photographs, they gathered at a small bridge table set up in one corner to serve as the bar, and each helped themselves to their drink of preference. There were two sets of hosts tonight, for if Bassano was providing the hall, it was Mildred and Jerry who had proposed the event and paid for the refreshments.
Kaplan, in making the evening's first toast, also made clear his and Mildred's motive: "Here's to the dog of honor!" he cried, raising his plastic glass of rye. "To the wonderful dog who brought Millie and I together. Rex! Good health, boy!"
"Here, here," they all shouted, and, as they downed the evening's first drink, the object of the toast, hearing his name, looked up from the green carpeting on which he had stretched out.
Next to offer his own brief, but thoughtful, toast was Charles Miller: "To Julia," said the blind man warmly. "So her feelings aren't hurt." Although Julia was already asleep beneath the long table, her ears twitched.
Eddie Mays, in turn, raised a glass to Miller: "I just want to let you know, no hard feelings over the accident, Chuckie. And good luck with the new job."
Next with a brisk salutation was Dr Matt Brunn. "Our hosts!" he called. "To you, Kaplan, and you, Miss Schapp!"
"Skol," "Cheers," "Here, here!" called Bassano, Miller and Mays, and now it was the moving man's turn to be mentioned. However, instead of being the object of a toast, he found himself the subject of a short speech.
"To our host, the capable Mr Bassano," said Mildred Schapp. "Let me remind us all tonight that it was Mr. B who, by teaching Jerry to call off an attacking dog, indirectly preserved the life of that unfortunate young drug addict last summer." Not surprisingly, most responses to this observation were weak and dubious. The single exception was the dog trainer's loud "Here, here!" accompanied by a vigorous nod.
Wanting to return Mildred's compliment, realizing also that Eddie Mays had not yet been honored, but forgetting the first two toasts, Joe Bassano now offered the most sweeping of the salutations. "To the lady," said the moving man with dignity, "to the dogs, and to my good friend, Mr Ed Mays, Esquire."
After they had all cheered and once again sipped from their glasses, Doctor Brunn and "Doctor" Mays, in order to complete the round in style, toasted each other in time-honored fashion by locking right arms and simultaneously tossing off large, newly poured drinks. The onlookers applauded this feat with particular energy, and the first phase of the party thus concluded.
Next, the six friends settled around one end of the conference table. At Bassano's insistence, Eddie Mays was seated at the head, with the others ranged as follows: Mildred, then Jerry, on Eddie's right hand; Miller, Dr Brunn and Bassano, on his left. As soon as the men were in their places, Mildred rose and circled the table twice, first to freshen the drinks and then to serve the coffee and Danish, in order, as she put it, "to keep this happy occasion from turning into a drunken orgy.
When the guests had chatted, laughed, eaten and drunk for a few minutes, the proprietor of the guard dog store leaned forward in his chair, cleared his throat and prepared to speak.
"Order, order, please," he said, tapping his spoon against his coffee cup. "I wish to say a few words tonight. In honor of Rex here." The guests quieted down and, hearing his name again, the dog, who now lay behind and to the right of Mays's chair, once again looked up.
"Good, a speech," said Mildred. "Just the thing."
"That's right, boy," Mays continued, turning in his chair. "You won't be embarrassed, will you, fellow?" Then, as Eddie reached back to scratch the dog's ears, the chair began to tip.
"Whoa, careful there," said Dr Brunn, and Mays righted himself just in time.
"Take it easy, Ed," suggested Jerry Kaplan. "We're all ears."
"Thanks, Jerr, I will, I will. I'll do just that. Okay, let's see." Eddie squared his shoulders, licked his lips and took a deep breath. Then he made as if to tap his cup again, but realizing this was unnecessary, he stopped the spoon in mid-air and put it down. "Okay," he repeated, "let's see."
"Get on with it, Eddie, will you!" said Dr Brunn. "You look like a sailboat waiting for the wind to come up."
"Okay, okay," said Mays. Once again he breathed deeply and opened his mouth. But nothing came out, and Eddie began to blush. He turned in his seat again, as if seeking help from Rex, and then, silent and mortified, looked helplessly at the other guests, whose faces expressed various combinations of sympathy and amusement.
It was Mildred Schapp who came to the rescue of the tongue-tied speaker just as the doom-laden silence he had created was starting to descend on the entire company. "Gentlemen, may I?" she said. Relief was palpable, and Bassano, springing to his feet, needlessly circled the table with the coffee pot. "I, for one," she continued, "find Eddie's silence... touching, although, of course, I would be the last to deny its amusing aspect."
Those few words did the job. One by one, finding their voices, the other guests agreed with Mildred and began to make comments of their own, so that, before she could proceed, everyone was talking at once, Mays as enthusiastically as the rest.
"Tell us about the dog," someone cried, and among the other questions and requests were: "Let's hear your life story, Ed" "You Italian on both sides, Joe?" "How'd you lose your sight, Charles?" "Where you from originally?" "Is it true you had some college?" "How come so many kids nowadays want to be vets?" "Where'd you find Julia, Ed?" "What's that?" "Who's he?"
Now the festive group needed to be steered past impending chaos, and it was Charles Miller, this time, who set them back on course.
"Excuse me," piped the blind man in his loud, high voice. "I have a suggestion."
"Good, good," people said, "a suggestion." They quieted right down, and Miller continued.
"Since it was Eddie who started to speak first, and since we all seem to have so much on our minds, why not go around the table and let each person ask Ed a single question? About Rex, of course."
When the guests had universally applauded the neat logic of the blind man, they cheerfully acceded to his procedure, with only three provisos: questions, no speeches; no compound or follow-up questions; all inquiries must pertain to the guest of honor. Should disputes arise, they further agreed, such would be adjudicated (without appeal) by the Honorable Joe Bassano who, in Jerry Kaplan's estimation, "talks the most like a lawyer."
Who would be first? The privilege, someone said, should belong to Miller, since it was he who had invented the plan. No, it should be Mildred, who, besides being the only (human) female present, had broken the deadly silence.
"A foolish dispute," declared the judge, and he decreed that it would be Mildred, then Miller - "first, and almost first."
"In that case," said Mildred Schapp, looking thoughtful and pleased, "why not begin with first causes? Mr Mays, my question is, 'How did you get to know Rex initially?' I ask because something tells me that you two have a special relationship, that you must, as people say, 'go way back.' " This question, if predictable, was certainly legitimate, and Bassano directed Mays to reply, which he did with alacrity and thoroughness.
It turned out Rex had been "kennel-bred" in New Jersey by none other than Eddie himself and his own father, Buddy Mays. Furthermore, Eddie had not only trained Rex single-handedly, "up from a pup," but the very first dog in whose breeding Eddie had assisted, when he had himself been a teenager, was Rex's father, the show dog Mack. Swept away by memory, Eddie began to expostulate on Rex's unique qualities as a pup - his size, color, proportions, unusual hind quarter strength, intelligence (he could bark arithmetically at six weeks), and so forth. This topic might well have swallowed the rest of the evening had not Judge Bassano invoked, at Dr Brunn's whispered behest, "the gag rule".
"And that don't mean you tell gags now, neither, Ed. Next question: Robert Miller."
" 'Charles,'" said the blind man. "My question: How did Rex come to be trained as a guide dog?"
"Excellent question," commented Jerry Kaplan. "I was wondering about that one, myself. Way to go, Chuck!"
"Silence!" ordered Bassano. "Mr Mays. Please."
Once again Eddie eagerly obliged. He began by repeating the fact that he, himself, had been in charge of Rex's earliest, general education - the "up-down stop-go sit-heel" phase. Then he told how, at the suggestion of Buddy Mays, they had brought the eager young dog to the Blind Dog Institute, which was only a few miles down the road from Mays Breeders. It was here, at the famed Institute, that Rex breezed through the three-month course in obedience and leadership.
"The last part was the hard part," Eddie concluded. "DISobedience training. See, they..."
"'DISobedience?' " interrupted the judge, forgetting himself. "You mean to tell me, first they..."
"Just shut up and let him explain, Joe," said Kaplan, and he received an angry look from Bassano, who did, however, shut up.
Eddie Mays then described that most demanding phase of a Seeing Eye Dog's education, during which the animal is, in effect, taught to act against its own nature. For, if a vehicle or other menace should suddenly fly or fall toward the blind person, the dog must disobey the beloved master even to the extent, perhaps, of knocking him down.
"Interesting, Eddie, very good," said Dr. Brunn. "Who's next, Joe?"
"But I ain't..." Mays protested.
"Why don't you ask the next one yourself, Matt?" Bassano suggested, and the doctor obliged, surprising the other guests, however, by not asking a medical question.
"What's a young dog's most common failing?" asked Brunn, and from the readiness with which the question was put, it was clear that premeditation was involved.
Preparation was also suggested by the reply, for, when Mays began once again to speak, with a promptitude which answered that of the doctor, some among the guests began to suspect that Eddie must have spent years mentally rehearsing just such a performance as he was now giving. And their sense was accurate, for what Eddie Mays was in fact doing on this memorable evening was disburdening himself of the silent memories of decades. And, although not all the questions may have been exactly the ones he would have chosen to answer, Eddie was so eager that, not only did he find it easy to satisfy the questioners, but he spoke with a fluency which was, for him, uncanny. ("It must be the rye," Kaplan theorized at one point.)
"Good question, Doc," Mays commented. "That one fault you ask of is friskiness - young dogs are all frisky. Dukey, too! Oh, whoops, uh oh!" He smiled. "Anyone catch that? I ain't told you that yet, did I? Rexie used to be named 'Duke'. But I better not go on about that now or Judge Joey here's going to cut me off again, right? So if you want to know about the name someone is going to have to ask it specifically.
"Friskiness. That was his only fault as a scholar. See, at our place he used to run along the fence in the grass, chasing the chickens from the farm across the road."
"Did he now?" asked Dr Brunn, catching the judge napping with this interruption, a clear violation of the rule against follow-up questions. "Let me ask you, Ed, why did those chickens come across the road in the first place?" The vet winked across at Jerry and Mildred, who both smiled. Mays was momentarily puzzled.
"What do you mean, why did..." Then he understood. "For Christ's sake!" Before continuing, he raised an arm as if to strike the doctor. "Anyways, it's easy to get them to stop. When a dog starts chasing, you just throw a chain across his hind legs a couple times. That stops them right away."
"Hmm," pondered Mildred. "Some might find that cruel." As Bassano again failed to curtail the interruption, she continued. "But perhaps it isn't. After all, Eddie, you've already explained that these dogs are bred as workers. They must take great pleasure in doing things properly, mustn't they?"
"Exactly," Eddie replied. "You give a dog like Duke a job to do, feed him right, tell him 'Good Boy' when he does the job, and he's going to be one happy dog. A little pain don't bother a good dog."
"Hmm," said Miller, "'a little pain'."
"Who's next?" asked Bassano. "Jerry?"
As only two questioners remained, the others were disappointed when Kaplan, inert from food, drink and laziness, stuck to the subject of training. "Do they train the blind people, too?" he asked.
Even Miller failed to look interested. Sensing their disappointment, Mays hurried over the obvious - the stages during which the blind man gets acquainted with his dog and learns to move with it, first alone, then in crowds and traffic. When Eddie did arrive at a detail he thought might interest the others, he lingered a moment.
"They even teach them to wear their clothes right and eat nice."
"Whoa, just a minute," objected Bassano, "you're jerking us off there, right, Ed? Whoops, excuse me, Mrs Schapp. Sorry, Jerr."
"No, Joey, honest, I'm not," Mays replied. "See, no offense, Chuck, but lots of the blind been living alone for years, they get like animals. So when they first come to the school, the teachers show them how to eat nice. They set their plates up like clocks: vegetables at four, meat at eight, potatoes at midnight. And they sew different length threads on the inside of their clothes so's they'll wear the right colors together: no red with orange, for instance." Several of the listeners glanced down at their own clothes. "See, the Institute relies on public support, they got an image to keep up, so they don't want the graduates going around with their dogs and looking like - sorry, Miz Schapp - like assholes."
To this, the second such apology, Mildred protested, explaining that she "had not been born yesterday," that she "knew all the naughty words." After a wave-like grin had rolled around the table, it was time for the final question, that of the judge and host, himself.
"Let's see." Bassano bit his lip, searching hard for the one question which would best satisfy what he perceived as a large, still unsatisfied hunger among the guests. "Ah ha," he finally said, and he asked his question with great care: "When Mrs Schapp rented Rex from you, Ed, had he been with you all along? From when he was a pup, I mean."
"Excellent," said Charles Miller, expressing the pleasure of the group that biography would not, after all, be stinted in favor of education.
Mays smiled. "Thanks, Joe." Then he coyly looked at his watch and said, "But wait, look how late it is, almost 10.30 already, people got to go to work tomorrow. Maybe we better can the rest of this until..." Their faces ended the teasing right there. "Okay, okay," Eddie said, "but I will try to keep to just the main facts." He sipped his coffee, which was now tepid, the way he liked it. "In a word, Joe, 'No'. By no means. No. The truth is, there was a break of many years, many years. See, when my old man died - mom had already passed on when I was in my teens. Lung cancer, it was."
"Gee, I'm sorry to hear that, Ed," said Bassano.
"Shit, Joe, it was over 25 years ago." After this, no one interrupted again. "Anyways, when dad died I sold the place. Business was slow, and it was too quiet a life for a young guy. So I went in the service, and after the war - Korea - I knocked around, did this and that, mostly with dogs, of course. I was even with the Police Canine Unit down in Philly when they started it.
"Then, after a while, I landed a real good job here with A A R F. My title was Chief Trainer and Caretaker. Business was great in those days - you guys can remember, can't you? - all the factories and yards was open, most of them utilizing dogs. Yep, Doc here used to be on a fat retainer, didn't you, Doc? Of course, by then I had pretty much forgot about Duke, you know.
"It was years and years later before I found out what was happening to him during this same time period. By a big coincidence, a blind guy right here in the neighborhood had got him. Oh, I'm not sure if that happened straight from the Institute or if Duke done some other stuff first. So the guy keeps him a while, and then - what was the guy's name again, Doc?" Brunn shrugged. "Shit, it's gone. Anyways, after a while the guy passed away. Then Duke disappeared, or at least no one I spoke to later knew where he was, where he been. And then one day, just like that, some kids brung him in. Here. To A A R F. In a red wagon, no less. Kids!"
"It's always kids, ain't it?" said Kaplan.
"Yep. Now you got to understand, my friends, these kids couldn't of had no idea what Dukey meant to me. See, they was just giving it a try - they knew me for a kind-heart - before they called the meat wagon, the SPCA. Well, maybe you can guess my reaction. At first I didn't even recognize him. I mean it was years and years, and here was this poor mutt, filthy, full of vermin of many varieties, injured, a total mess. The poor dog must of had some kind of working over, he didn't even know where he was. So. What did I do? I called Matt, naturally. Remember, Matt? And he give him a shot just so's we could even begin to clean him up. And then when we started washing him, it hit me who he was. I can tell you, friends, I almost fainted right there and then. Remember, Matt? And soon I started crying, and I couldn't stop." Mays paused now to wipe his eyes. "You'll have to excuse me, folks, if I don't go into too much of the details of what happened after that. To be honest, it's too painful, still too painful, to recall certain details. Just remember one thing: this was Duke, my number one boy. Now try to picture him in the red wagon. Get it? Well, okay, enough of that.
"Anyway, the point is, this special dog had suffered a serious trauma, so I had to go right back to the drawing board, start him out again like he was just born. And, folks, you know what? I did it. I slowly retrained the boy.
"That was when he got his new name. 'Rex.' Hell, why not? A fresh start. He was still only seven, eight. I could see long rich years ahead, even though he looked old from his hardships: fur gone gray, a teensy bit withered in the quarters, nothing so terrible when you stop and think about it.
"Anyways, within a couple years, so help me if Rex don't seem good as new. Well, then, I was just starting to think, 'What next?' when you come in that day, Miz Schapp. So help me, I may not of showed it, but you was an angel from heaven to me. And now - I'm almost done - I got to make a confession and an apology. It was a big risk I took, very unprofessional, too. Renting him, I mean. He could of attacked you, Miz Schapp. And another thing: I even lied about his age, he wasn't really all that old. It would have scared you, I thought, if I told you the real facts. I apologize, Miz Schapp, I really do." Eddie looked down.
"Really, Mr Mays, no need at all," said Mildred handsomely. "In light of subsequent events, I must say I wish more people these days would take such risks."
"Here, here, Madam!" cried Dr Brunn.
"Thanks," said Eddie. "Very kind of you, I'm touched. Of course the point of my taking the risk was obvious, wasn't it? I seen that you and the job you were offering was just the thing for Rex, a new life, the part-time aspect to ease him back into working, make the boy feel useful again. And it worked, Miz Schapp, 100 per cent."
Mays was finished now, and the group sat quietly for a moment, after which it was Charles Miller who spoke first. "Rex," he said simply, "has a beautiful spirit. And what a lovely story of friendship, Ed. After all those years."
"What impresses me," said Dr Brunn, "is the dog's recuperative powers. Does everyone realize what he's been through in his lifetime?"
"It's his fighting heart, Doc," suggested Jerry. "Plus he ain't as old as we thought, right?"
"Jerry," said Bassano. "There I agree with you 100 per cent."
And with those words the party ended. Refusing all offers of assistance, and assuring everyone that he knew "where everything goes," Bassano showed his guests to the door, shook hands with each of them, and locked them out. Then Dr Brunn suggested he might drive Charles Miller home, and after more "Good nights" the vet took the blind man by the elbow and guided him up the street to his car.
Since it was late and things would be rushed in the morning, and since they were right around the corner from the guard dog store, Mildred and Jerry decided to return Rex and Julia now, rather than keep them overnight. As the weather was clear and mild and they wanted to work off the effects of the party, they also offered to stroll back to the store with Eddie and the dogs.
Accordingly, a few minutes later Eddie Mays unlocked the plate glass door to his shop. Turning on the lights, he removed the leashes and left them behind the counter. They all proceeded to the edge of the kennel area, where Eddie suggested Mildred and Jerry turn back, so as not to waken those dogs which were already sleeping.
It was time. Mildred and Jerry quietly wished the dog trainer a good night. Kaplan solemnly offered his hand, and Mildred took Eddie by the shoulders and kissed his cheek. Finally, after giving Rex and Julia a few lingering pats, the couple watched as Eddie Mays and his limping dogs crossed the moonlit yard to the kennels.
Of course, the dogs did finally age and die. Rex went off on a March night and, like the survivor in many old human couples, a few days later, Julia hurried after. It was Jerry Kaplan who tearfully made the four-by-four double coffin of pre-treated two-inch yellow pine, and Joe Bassano who, in a small company van on a rainy Friday, drove the deceased and their survivors to a small cottage owned by Dr Matt Brunn in the Catskill Mountains. There, in a grove behind the cottage, the animals were laid to rest in a grave which Dr Brunn had called ahead to order dug by local workmen.
After a moment of silence, Eddie Mays took Charles Miller by the arm and guided him around to the far side of the grave. (Miller had judged it best to leave his own dog, Bob, home today.) Facing the grave, the blind man stood with the rain falling on his red hair and dark glasses, and listened to the footsteps of Mays as he rejoined the group. Then, clasping the lapel of his flannel suit coat with one hand and gesticulating with the other, Miller recited without preamble the elegy he had composed in his room the previous night
Let men be bold, let truth be told,
These two were a king and his queen
Of noble scions, their hearts like lions',
No bone in their bodies, mean.
To the lonely and the blind, ever were they kind,
These paragons of canine race.
They came, they saw, they overcame,
Leaving Earth a worthier place.
So let's raise a cup, drink it all up,
Here's afterlife to Rex and to Julia,
Let's hope where they are, whether near or far far,
There's food, water and sex, hallelujah
"Amen!" and "Here, here!" the people cry softly, then, and Mays walks back across to Miller. He takes him by the arm, returns him to the group, and, in a silent row, the six humans stand with bowed heads, as the rain thumps down on the dogs' new coffin.