There’s a small reddish-brown dog at my white stucco house. The dog stands patiently behind a plastic white picket fence.. The dog belongs to me now and he’s my main pal. The house, stucco and porch and backyard and all, is something I rent, here in Miami on NE 62d Street.
He’s a rusty brown mutt about knee-high, with a small, flat head. He has weird yellow patches above his brown eyes almost like yellow eyebrows.
My girlfriend discovered this funny-looking dog in a pound, and she took him home to our place to save him from death in a gas chamber. She planned to romp with him, to have him around all the time, I guess. She gave him the name Pica because he was "not elite." Red-haired Ruth and her red-brown dog Pica. The dog is just as friendly now as the day Ruth saved him, but he’s not Ruth’s any more, he’s mine. He spends the day alone confined in a fenced-in space behind the house.
At night, when I come home mentally blunted from eight hours at the Public Library’s reference desk, the dog gets up stiffly and kind of staggers toward me. He’s as groggy as I am, but somehow eager as well, and he starts to bound around like crazy when I open the little gate and go inside the fenced-in area. He’s happy to see me–and his welcome is pure and unburdened by thought.
When the evening comes on, the white houses that line my street become gold in the sunset, then as night comes, they turn moon blue. The streetlight comes on, the bugs come out and dance in it if you want to watch, but I don’t watch anymore. I eat my supper of instant rice and canned meat and ice cream, leave the dish and fork and spoon in the sink, turn out the lights and sit there listening, I guess you’d call it, and fall asleep, and then wake up and call the dog in and lock the door.
The dog sleeps on the bedroom floor just like he used to when Ruth was here, and I sleep in the same old double bed. The mattress mountains and ridges we made are still there and I guess they’ll last a long time, I can’t sleep them down. Nor do I want to. I turn on the reading lamp and read sideways with the book held sideways, fighting off unconsciousness until it wins. Most nights I and the dog sleep lightly enough that even a passing airplane stirs us. It’s because the reading light is on.
The reading light used to bother her. She’d toss, and call "please!" from under the twisted sheets and the bed would seem too small for our bones even though we’re not big people, but I’d turn the lamp out and sleep deeply.
Ruth is gone now. She left the house–she left me, really–for some reason I can’t put my finger on. I let her take the car because I can take the bus to work. And two months later she was on the west coast, somewhere north of San Francisco, headed for a party, invited by some new friends, driving that little light-blue car, and there was an ugly accident and she didn’t make it. They brought her to the hospital but she didn’t survive. I don’t think much about her any more, really. It’s just when I see the dog I remember how she looked when she brought him in her arms, up the flagstone path, direct from the pound.
The dog, I talk to him sometimes, the way everyone talks to pets. "Okay, Pica, let’s go," as I open the door. When I do call out "Let’s go" to him, he lopes through expectantly as if this morning would be different, but I grab his collar, slip the catch of the leash onto it, and lead him out to his outdoor confinement zone. It is small I admit, only about eight by ten feet, but I remind myself he’s lucky to have that. I check the water and food dishes and say, "Stay." Pica’s face is odd because of those yellow eyebrows he’s got. He looks quizzical. It always looks like he’s asking a question. He can’t possibly be asking a question, because dogs don’t have that kind of mind, but it does seem as if his brown eyes are asking Why? Or maybe How come? Particularly when I am leaving in the morning.
The fence is more efficient than a word, and the fence makes him stay. He has not figured out how to escape. He’s not a digger, he’s a stayer. He watches me walk to the bus stop, never barks.
My work at the reference desk goes in spurts. Usually I’m busy, doing such hot-shit work as looking up price-earnings ratios for old guys who don’t trust the Internet, or putting on a patient tone as I tell another glossily tanned high-school bimbo that I cannot guess what her teacher wants in the reaction paper, not from what she has told me. "You should talk to one of your parents–sometimes they have good ideas." I don’t much believe it, but you’ve got to say that kind of thing.
When there’s a lull I think of the dog. He spends his days bored and silent, I presume. The neighbors don’t complain of barking, and they would for sure if he barked. I picture him trying to sleep, eating fleas off his groin, lapping water. Things happen around him: the sharp yells of playing children on the street, the mother hanging laundry next door (for I live in a neighborhood where that happens), and I suppose the smell of female dogs or the smell of meat. I suspect he lies with his paws across his eyes, to exclude the world and make it through to sunset. I think he misses Ruth.
Besides Pica, I haven’t got many friends in the neighborhood. I don’t know the people on the street. It’s a rundown neighborhood, where lawns are rough and the white paint faded on many of the one-story stucco houses; front doors are banged up. Ruth found the house (as well as the dog) and we thought it a good deal for the rent. People here on 62d Street aren’t that mixy. There’s only the mailman, Nick, to deliver some neighborhood warmth and brio. He’s from the old days when mailmen were not too pressured, and somehow he’s kept that relaxed air, maybe from all the walking or because his supervisor cuts him slack. Recently, however, Nick has not been around. A much younger guy, not even in full uniform, filled in for him for weeks. I wondered where Nick had gone for a while. Finally one Saturday I came to the front door as the lanky kid stood stuffing catalogs in the mailbox, and I directly asked where Nick was, and was he sick?
"Got a heart problem," said the kid. "They’re going to do a bypass on him at Jackson, that’s what I heard."
I have not heard good things about Jackson Hospital, and I thought I ought to look in on the guy. That’s what Ruth would have done. He shouldn’t be in such an inner-city dump. She would have said something like that. I came home after lunch the next day, claiming a toothache, and went over to the postal substation. It was out of my comfort zone, but I got to a supervisor and became a little pushy, and got the details I needed. Nick was indeed at Jackson, and his last name was Galigian.
I went up to his hospital room on the way home from work. The dog would get his dinner an hour later than usual. Nick’s door was shut almost completely but I was able to peek in. The curtains were not drawn, and he was sleeping. Not alert anyway. There was a nurse in there, private duty I assume, and when she saw me looking like I didn’t belong she came over and stepped out into the corridor. She was a comely Irish-looking woman in her mid-forties, and calm which is probably good in her business.
"Are you the son?"
"I’m one of Nick’s customers, he brings my mail. Are you private duty?"
She smiled and nodded slightly.
"I guess the Post Office has good insurance these days. Can I see him?
"He’s sleeping now."
"I get that. When’s his bypass operation?"
"He had it this morning. They moved it up–they didn’t want to wait."
"I didn’t think he was that bad."
She smiled and nodded again.
"Look, let him know I was here. He probably won’t remember me–just say the guy with the red dog on 62d Street. I’ll try to make it again tomorrow."
She went back into his room and closed the door smoothly. It was strange to hang around in the crowded hospital corridor with Nick just on the other side of the door. I didn’t know what I was supposed to doing there. It’s pretty abnormal to just go see somebody like that. I sniffed the odd hospital air of bowels and urine and body smells that can’t even be named, mixed with disinfectants that do no real good, listened to voices near and far, heard the clanks and bangs and elevator sounds that you hear in hospitals. Nick certainly didn’t look like a heart patient most of the time I’d known him. Nick belonged on the sidewalk, mailbag on shoulder. He was pretty tan, naturally enough, delivering mail in Miami. We began talking, originally, because of Pica, mailmen being wary of dogs, and one particular day I had to take Pica into the back yard and chain him. When I came back, Nick began talking in a confiding tone about a dog he’d had when his daughter was little. "It was the same color as yours," he said. "He had the rusty coat and the yellow eyebrows and even the yellow streak down his back, though he was bigger than yours, probably a hand taller." So Nick and I had something in common. We both knew ugly dogs that looked like skunks done in rust-red and yellow.
It took me several days to get back in to see Nick. I had bad dreams that week. I dreamed about watching surgeons cutting patients open in order to get to the heart and fix it, but finding when they got there, after much work of cutting through bone and muscle, something smashed up and wrecked, something in no way able to be repaired or put back in order. Another bad dream night I seemed to be in a hospital myself as a patient. The front of me was very tender and all my wet bloody organs held in by a bulging membrane that just seemed too insubstantial to hold. I was frightened that I would fall and my innards would spill on the floor and be not recoverable because it seemed clear that the doctors had gone off duty and the nurses had left with them. I was alone in an empty moonlit building, shadowy with solitude, a former hospital.
The next time I visited, Nick was awake and I pushed into a room that felt totally different."Come on in, Tom" he called out happily.
"You remember my name?"
"Yeah, 62d Street. You have the red dog with the weird name and the cute girl with the red hair."
"How are you? I wish I could say Pica misses you. He does I suppose, but it’s not in a good way." He laughed but more grinned than laughed. He was on the mend, and almost gleeful. He was paler than I remembered. He must have been sick for quite a while. I told him I was glad he was better.
"I had good luck this time. My stitches are kind of tight, and I don’t feel a hundred per cent yet, but I’m walking a lot because they make me do it. I feel I’m back in the pink and I’m going to make it."
"Wow." I didn’t know what Ruth would have said, but I felt how stingy my response was. "That’s great."
"Don’t get me wrong. My chest is no picnic. Look at these stitches–impressive aren’t they? They hurt though."
He filled me in on his family, which was small. A daughter, a sister and a son. They came every day. How do you envy a sick man his tiny family? Well, you can.
"How’s that cute girl with the red hair treating you?" he said. He meant Ruth and I realized he hadn’t been on the street for a long time. "Everything okay there?"
"It’s not going well actually."
"I like the couple of times I saw her at the front door. She seemed like a good thing for you. Pretty too."
"Nick, I wish I could say good things are happening, but things are not okay. We broke up. She left."
"Maybe she’ll come back when she gets her head on right."
"They don’t do that now. They leave, they stay gone."
"Well that’s too bad."
It’s not my fault that she’s dead, but I couldn’t tell him how her story ended. Our blue car under a rolled-over tractor-trailer carrying logs and her in it alone. I looked around his room at a glass vase of mixed flowers and a couple of get-well cards probably from Post Office types. I thought of Pica in the backyard behind the fence, his weird burglar-mask doggy face–that’s what I think about to cover thoughts of the accident. I’m sorry he’s confined, but it could be so much worse.
Nick was gesturing to the nurse, and she began to adjust the blinds and in a minute a little daylight entered and actually hit the floor, painting sun-stuff in a hot trapezoid on the cream-colored vinyl tile, a reminder that the world was still out there.
"We miss you on the street."
"That’s a nice lie."
"It’s really not the same with you not on the route. The ladies on the street miss you. You coming back? "
"Maybe when I’m up to it. I don’t know about carrying the bag. Maybe I’ll take an inside job."
"You couldn’t be happy there, could you? Indoors all the time?"
"I can see the sunshine on the weekends. I think I can be happy anywhere now. If the pain stays gone. I’ll sit in the back of my daughter’s garden and watch the white butterflies and the moths."
"I’ll bring Pica over, too."
"Could be possible," he said, and I realized he’d never invited me and I’d overstepped.
"I’m going to have to go in a minute–don’t want to keep you from resting."
"That’s okay. Tom, I know you lost your little red-headed girl, and you’re down about it, but maybe she’ll come back. Or another good one will come along. Some other girl who’s decent and treats you right. Don’t be too glum. Every day above ground is a win, Tommy. Maybe you want to remember that. It’s stupid and stimple but it’s true. My daughter still misses her Mom, can’t stop thinking about her. She came in the other day and I had to tell her something useful–cause she’s afraid her dad’s going to leave, too–so I told her Susan, you can’t have a long face all your life. She cried and then she started laughing. It was something."
Just then something had taken my ability to talk. I smiled at him and waved as I edged toward the door. He knew I was leaving, I didn’t have to say anything. He smiled and waved. It was neat. I left very glad to see him coming back to life.
I didn’t take the elevator but for some reason dodged away from the hospital smells and into the stairwell and walked down the six flights of stairs to the ground floor. I was thinking of Pica back home, and my eyes were a little wet. I was wondering if what Nick said to his daughter applied to me. You can’t have a long face all your life. What did that mean? And if it did apply to me, what did it mean in application? What was I going to do?
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