"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 eleven -- 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 eleven 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 thirty-seven 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 which 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.
Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-08-27