A Short Story by Peter H. Green
Copyright © 2006-2019 by Peter H. Green. as previously published in Harvest: An Anthology of St. Louis Authors . Hulu Press, 2007.
Illustrated by the author
Most families merely tolerate turmoil. Our family thrives on it. Never was this clearer to me than one evening a few years back when things got a bit out of hand. Annie, my wife, often calls it the night we ruined the dog.
My wife’s sister Amanda had flown to St. Louis to help Annie coax their father to come live with us. Almost ninety and widowed these past ten years, Walter had begun to miss meals. His daily visits to the bank had resulted in secret stashes of bills on every closet shelf, in the back of dresser drawers, above the basement ceiling tiles and under the nightstand. It was time for a little loving help from the rest of us.
To get him into the spirit of moving in, we made quite a show of transporting Walter’s double bed over to our house. He didn’t really seem to understand, but, polite and helpful man that he was, he lent a hand in high spirits with the toting and lifting. He figured he was getting rid of his excess furniture while helping out his daughter. After the two sisters did some explaining and reasoning with him, they thought he was convinced he should stay with us for a while. We also brought his favorite chair, his bedroom dresser and a large suitcase with his best clothes. The switch seemed complete.
Since she would be staying a couple of weeks, Annie’s sister Amanda had carried her gray tomcat Snuggles on the plane with her in one of those little traveling kennels. After the trip the cat, who normally roamed outdoors, did not take kindly to sharing his new quarters, confined as he was with Cisco, our miniature poodle. On their first meeting, Snuggles hissed at the dog and peed on his dinner, getting his relations with rest of us off to a really bad start.
What Snuggles didn’t know was that Cisco was a member of the family. We were lucky to find this sweet and gentle pet. After our black and white cockapoo died, the attending vet himself suggested a way to repair this hole in our hearts. There was a stray dog living in the community building of a suburban apartment complex, kind of a mascot to all the residents. Annie, acting immediately on this tip, found him frolicking and playing with a few of the young men playing pool in the recreation center, and she immediately fell in love with the sweet-natured animal. Although she hated to take the dog away from these spirited guys, she couldn’t resist giving him a new home with us. When they returned from school that afternoon the children met their new confidant and playmate. After Walter moved in, he and Cisco quickly became the best of friends.
We had recently added to our older two story colonial house: a new family room and a second upstairs bathroom with a shower, a sunken bathtub, double sinks and an upstairs laundry. To prepare for of Walter’s arrival, we reshuffled beds. We placed in service an old four-poster for ourselves and moved our queen-sized bed into Bonnie’s room: the girls would double up in Belinda’s room and Aunt Amanda could use the queen bed during her stay. The fourth bedroom, which up to that time had been a guest room, was reserved for Walter.
On his third day with us, in the morning, Walter announced that he was going out. “I think I’ll take a walk,” he declared in a high-pitched, decisive tone. My wife froze in her tracks. I had just come home from shopping at the farmer’s market. Annie turned from her father and looked at me with a pleading expression. I knew I would have to postpone my golf game that afternoon. With not so much as a warning, I was on duty.
Walter, a man with a gaunt frame and short stature, headed for the door. “Daddy, where are you going?” cried Annie in panic.
“Oh, I think I’ll go home,” he said.
“Your home is here now,” Annie protested.
“Dammit, I’m going home.” Walter gripped the front doorknob, swung it open with remarkable strength for a man of his age, stepped out into the oppressive St. Louis summer and descended the front steps. Cisco barked at his heels in protest.
“Bill, do something.” Annie pushed me out the door behind him. I followed at a safe distance. Walter soon forgot about me as he stepped with authority down the street. He looked dapper in the brown suit, tie, vest and pork-pie hat he had always worn to his job at the uniform company. His gait was a bit rocky, but brisk: he steadied himself with his cane as he chugged along. He proceeded to the end of the block, turned left at the corner and turned right again on the next street, parallel to ours. Halfway up the next block he encountered a neighbor walking his dog. “Pardon me, sir. I am trying to get to the Bi State stop. Can you direct me?”
“Oh, sure,” the neighbor replied, preventing his sniffing chocolate lab from peeing on Walter’s shiny shoes. “Turn left at the next corner and go straight until you come to Delmar. There’s a stop on that corner.”
“Thank you kindly, sir.” Walter set out again in the indicated direction.
I got an idea for ending this madness. It was crazy, but it just might work. I crossed to the other side of the residential street and walked at a rapid pace until I was half a block ahead of Walter. As yet unnoticed, I re-crossed and doubled back toward him.
As I approached, he stopped and faced me. “Pardon me, sir,” he asked, assuming I was just a helpful stranger, “Can you tell me how to catch the Hodiamont car? I’m trying to get back home.”
“Sir, the Hodiamont streetcar hasn’t run for twenty years. Now you’ll have to catch the bus, and it’s this way,” I said, pointing back the way he had come. “I’m going that way myself. Let me show you.” I led the way and he dutifully followed. We retraced the steps to our house.
“But I want to go home,” he complained, as soon as he realized where he was.
“Walter, you are home. Now come in with me.” I coaxed him gently but firmly back up the steps and into the house, where his concerned daughter waited.
“Oh, thank God you’re back, Daddy. We were afraid you had run away.”
“Goddammit, take me home!”
Annie looked at me with tears in her eyes.
At this point Bonnie and Belinda, our two school-age daughters, came downstairs to see what the ruckus was about. With all this fuss over Walter, Bonnie had been feeling neglected. She now needed help in finding her tailored jeans. Belinda fretted over the fit of her new dress for the junior high mixer that night. Torn by conflicting demands, Annie instructed me to deal with her father and dashed upstairs to help our daughters.
At this instant, Belinda reappeared with her hair in a fright. The cylindrical brush she had been using to tease her hair was so enmeshed and entangled that she now looked like an Australian aborigine, hair projecting in all directions, with a ritual bone planted in the center of her head. “Mom, I’m stuck,” she wailed. “I’ll never get this out in time for the dance.”
By now it was late afternoon, and the girls had evening plans. To save time, I started dinner. We were having roast chicken, which was easy enough for me to prepare, and I stuck it in the oven. I sat Walter in his favorite chair, where Cisco sidled up to him. The dog by this time was twelve years old, or eighty-four by canine reckoning, almost as old as Walter. Despite their forgetfulness, the pair seemed to share, through a sixth sense, the wisdom that age confers. Soon the loyal pet was on the old man’s lap, receiving Walter’s gentle pats. They were commiserating about their dog’s life.
“Oh, no problem,” my wife said. “I saw a tip on TV the other day that recommended putting peanut butter on it.” She began applying Skippy Super Chunk, the kind she happened to have in the house. Soon she admitted that the situation was hopeless. Now the hairy tangle was immersed in gravelly goo the consistency of setting concrete. Annie rushed next door to consult with Kathy, whose best friend Donna was a hairdresser in the tony suburb of Ladue. Kathy phoned and persuaded her to make an emergency house call. Presently Donna arrived with her bag of beauty tools. She sat Belinda on a stool at the kitchen sink, draped a dish towel around her and began extricating the brush, hair by hair, applying about a quart of conditioner. Her efforts were accompanied by Belinda’s cries of pain.
Annie rejoined me in the kitchen and set the dining table in the family room for our meal. In remodeling the house I had designed the family room addition so we would have an informal dining area next to the kitchen. To accomplish this I converted a window in the thick masonry wall to a doorway. This opening had one of those doors that swings both ways, the kind found in restaurant kitchens and in older homes between the kitchen and the dining room. Bonnie, calmed down for the moment by her mother’s attention, rejoined us in her jeans, dressy blouse and low heeled slip-ons. I prepared to put the dinner on the table.
Meanwhile, Bonnie was late for her party and we had to get dinner on the table. It smelled wonderful. The succulent chicken I had seasoned with pepper, garlic and herbs was stewing in its ambrosial juices. I removed it ceremoniously from the oven with pot holders and raised it chest high to carry it to the table. I eased open the swinging door with my foot. Walter, helpful as always, rose from his chair and hobbled stiff-legged in my direction. At this instant Snuggles, startled at Walter’s sudden motion, attacked him. The cat’s flying paws scratched furiously at his pant leg. In defense of his elderly companion, Cisco barked at the cat. Walter thoughtfully reached for the dish. Cisco lunged for Snuggles, bumping into Walter’s leg. Walter lurched forward, jarring the casserole. I lost my balance and the dish tilted sideways, spilling the sizzling fat. A yelp of pain issued from the dog, and he leapt backwards, almost knocking the old man down. I grabbed Walter’s arm and lost control of the chicken. It rolled out of the dish and narrowly missed the cat. Snuggles began to nibble on his sudden windfall.
Annie screamed, “Oh, no! Cisco’s scalded,” swooped down and cradled the whimpering, wounded dog in her arms. Bonnie, in fancy party jeans and blouse, dove for the chicken. She snatched it away from the cat and set it safely up on the table. Walter had had enough. “You’d better take me home. Right now!”
The doorbell chimed. It was Bonnie’s ride to the party. She was more than happy to escape the madhouse, dinner or not. We reclaimed, washed off and carved the remains of the chicken. The survivors of the chaos, including Donna, who had missed her own dinner, finally sat down to eat what was left of our meal. We were finishing our coffee when we noticed that Walter, who had gotten up to use the facilities, had been gone for quite a while. It seems he had been rooting around in his old dresser, now in our guest bedroom, and found an outfit whose origin Annie never could identify. At this moment Walter appeared at the door to the family room, dressed in a white jump suit with blue letters across the back: HOFFMAN FLYING SERVICE. “Take me to the airport,” he said. “It’s time for my flying lesson. Today I solo on the Stearman.”
It took the rest of the evening for us to calm the animals, clean up the floor and convince Walter that it was time to go up to his room. I also had to make an emergency visit to the vet. I applied salve he had given me to a huge, hairless red patch that the hot grease had seared across Cisco’s back. The doctor said there was nothing else we could do: the wound had permanently disfigured his beautiful poodle coat. By the time the family had reassembled from the night’s various diversions, we could retire to our rooms at last. After donning my pajamas, I slid, exhausted, under the covers. My legs felt an odd warm and wet sensation.
“Yikes!” I exclaimed. “The cat peed in my bed.” Leaping up, I rousted the girls from their bunks, led a search party throughout the house and found the hated animal cowering under Amanda’s bed. I banished him to the basement—where he belonged, all but Aunt Amanda agreed—and locked the door. Annie replaced the mattress pad, remade our bed and settled in on her side, utterly spent. Cisco took up his usual position under my side, with his head sticking out so he could keep watch on me. Peace at last, I thought, as I plunked heavily onto the mattress.
A crash and a blood-curdling howl rent the midnight calm. The dried and shrunken bed slats lost their bearings and gave way. I felt my body sink and jolt as the box spring landed on the floor. The dog scrambled to escape, but his tail was caught under the edge of the collapsed bedding. His hind feet spun wildly as he tried to gain traction. Freeing himself at last, the terrified animal bolted out of the bedroom in a flash of fur. Annie and I in hot pursuit hunted high and low for the unfortunate Cisco.
By now it was one a.m. We turned on lights and searched all rooms, awakening the whole house. We looked under beds, in closets and behind chairs. The animal was not to be found.
Just then came Annie’s cry from the new upstairs bathroom. “Come here, quick!”
The entire family assembled around my wife in the narrow space of the room. Looking over her shoulder in the gloom, we could just make out Cisco’s quivering muzzle as he peered over the edge of the sunken bathtub, trapped and trembling. He had fallen in at a dead run, but he was too confused, weakened and terrified to leap out. He cocked his head at an inquiring angle, looking puzzled. It was Walter who lifted him out and comforted him in his arms. Amanda and Snuggles returned to Houston, and the household regained a semblance of sanity.
A few months later Walter passed away. Every night Cisco sat in his corner, pining for his old friend. He poked his head into Walter’s room every morning to see if he hadn’t returned.
Within a year, Cisco also went to his eternal reward. We’re empty nesters now: the girls grew up and moved away. But for now, it’s the old pair we miss the most. It’s awfully quiet around the house without them. We go to bed early, sleep in blissful peace and wake up whenever we want. But Annie still looks back wistfully to those hectic days and the night we ruined the dog. She takes some consolation, however, from the fact that Walter had absolutely no recollection of that night’s events the following day.