I slowed down as I reached the circle at the edge of the cul-de-sac and started looking at the numbers. Number 37 was a ranch house at about 270 degrees, three quarters of the way around the circle. Blue vinyl siding capped off a flagstone foundation. A couple of fence posts in the corner, with the rails going down to the ground in an incomplete fence look. I was never sure what it was supposed to mean, what they were trying unsuccessfully to keep out or to keep in. The front lawn, a wedge of green to accommodate the circle, was Soysa beginning to brown for autumn. The curb had enough room for my car if I blocked the mailbox, which I did, because I was not going to be long.
Long enough to pick up a dog, the one advertised in the Post as being free to a good home. I’d been watching the want ads for a couple weeks. Sometime in the last month, I had developed a taste for having a dog again, a throwback to my teen years. Someone to meet me at the door of my small urban starter home, someone to whom I could enunciate my stream of consciousness voice-over, and a small, roving security system as my neighborhood-in-transition continued its slow pendulum swing back into gentrification. So I’d called the number in the ad this morning and got my chance to interview.
I knocked on the door of 37 Willowsound Court, favoring the sound and feel of my knuckles on the wood instead of the hit-or-miss doorbell. I imagined John, as he introduced himself on the phone, to be a man of fifty-something, paunchy and balding and something befitting the outer-ring suburb. The driveway ended in a garage, preventing me from seeing what he and his wife drove in his-and-her sport utility.
John, opening the door, dispelled the notions.
“Hello, Chris?” He asked. John was somewhere in his thirties, sporting a good Body Mass Index number and a full head of black hair. His eyes, wide blue and trusting, sized me up.
“Good afternoon, John,” I said. “How are you?”
“Not so bad. Come on in,” and he swept the door wide and let me in. The living room was done in patchwork, but the presence of the feminine guiding hand swept over the decor like a Borg conversion in process on a Federation outpost. No sconces on the walls, but knick knacks started to appear on the top shelf of the entertainment center, above the VCR and digital cable box. Only the store-bought, or Blockbuster pre-owned, videos on the second shelf. The videocassettes containing movies taped off of network TV, with the commercials clumsily omitted, probably his, were hidden behind the doors on the bottom. The couch, loveseat, and chair matched.
“First off,” he said, “I will be honest with you-the reason I am getting rid of Jessie is because she snapped at my wife. They’ve lived together with an understanding for two years-since I got Jessie. Tam and I have been married for three and a half, and I have known Jessie for ten-longer than I have known my wife, actually, so you’ll believe me when I tell you she doesn’t normally act like that. She’s a beagle, for crying out loud.”
“Is her bark worse than her bite?” I asked. I looked at the picture of John and Tam centered on the wall to my right. Tam was moderately attractive in white, and both of them were beaming on the happiest day of their lives. After that, they were sentenced to forty years of slow decline or blithe suburban existence.
“She doesn’t even bark all that much. Did you hear her when you knocked?”
“No,” I admitted.
“She’s lying in my office right now. Let me get her in here.” He stepped into the hallway to my left, which opened to a tasteful brown kitchen and extended to parts unknown. “Hey, Jessie!”
A short, rotund beagle probably mixed with something else twaddled into the room. I invented the word for its motion.
“She’s ten now, past her prime as a hunter, but she was something in her day,” John said. And a few pounds over game weight, I noted.
“I never took her hunting-I pretty much gave it up when I took on at the store I work at. I’m their buyer, which means I have to be there pretty much every day to keep an eye on the inventory and everything. It pays well enough, though, and it’s stable. Not too bad for thirty-two, but not where I pictured myself as a teenager. You know how it goes, most of life is plan B, right?”
“Sure,” I said. I wondered how much of this speech he had planned out. How much of it he said to himself every quiet, desperate morning, and if I should write it down for when I needed it. The dog poked a nose and sniffed me from across the room. John sat in the blue print chair, the dog parking at his feet, and I was polite enough to sit on the closest end of the love seat, facing him. I didn’t know how much of an interview this would take. I had sort of assumed that if the dog did not bite me, I would take it.
“As I was saying about Jessie, she was my father’s hunting dog. I can’t vouch for her, personally, because I never hunted with her. When my father and I went out to the lake, back when I was about seventeen, he had Tessie. Funny how no matter where we were going, whatever hunting spot my father had found-and he did have quite a string of them over the years-it was always ‘the lake.'”
“We called it ‘up north’ in Wisconsin, but I know what you mean,” I said. Even when the old man meant Fountain City, due west of Milwaukee, he said, “I’m going up north.”
John said, “I remember the thrill of packing up the trunk of the old Buick and struggling with him to get the canoe onto the black vinyl top. Then riding for four or five hours in the November grey, smelling the uneven engine heat and gun oil and talking. He did most of the talking, telling me stories of his expeditions with his father. Tessie lay in the back seat, and I listened with as much care as a seventeen-year-old could muster. I knew better, or thought I did, so I had that take on everything, and now most of the stories have faded to simple incidents that I can’t say much more than ‘Once my father did….’ He always let me use his old ten gauge for ducks. I never did get my own shotgun, but then again, after I was eighteen, I was out on my own, and I never did get vacations at the right time to go hunting again. I know, it’s not like duck season is spontaneous or anything. It’s always there at the same time, every year, beginning of November. It’s just that it was back-to-school every year, too, and the beginning of the Christmas season.”
“Tessie?” It suddenly struck me. “I thought her name was Jessie.”
“Did I tell you how she got her name? My father was a Mike Hammer fan from way back in the sixties, when Spillaine first started in with them. He hadn’t read any in a while, and he got it in his head that Mike Hammer’s gun was named Jessie. So he named his third dog Jessie, mainly because it rhymed with Tessie and he’d only have to call one to get both of them. Even when I came across a Mike Hammer novel in a used book store, and he called his gun old Bess, I brought it home to show to my father. He kept calling her Jessie. She was six months old, and it was a little late to change our minds, he said.”
“Named after a gun? She is a hunting dog,” I said. John sounded like a telemarketer on his second day, when the words were getting memorized and right before the inflection nosedived. I held my hand down to draw Jessie’s interest, but she was more interested in the scratching John was delivering to her ears. Of course, he would know all the good spots.
“She’s a good dog, too, trained to heel, stay, and all the standard obedience school things. She can flush, too-he always said that was the sign of a good dog: house-broken and flushed, too. She never had an obedience class. My father did all the training himself. Of course, he took Tessie to obedience school, so when the next dog came around, he already knew what to do. As if he didn’t know how to do everything, right? Everybody’s father can, when you’re five and later when you’re older.”
“Yeah,” I said. My father would know about dogs, too. Just like he’d know about wainscoting and rewiring. And what I was supposed to ask about a dog.
“At any rate, I got her when my father died, five years ago,” John said. “A little heart attack or something while he slept-my mother never shared the medical details with me. My mother couldn’t bear the thought of keeping the dog-she only tolerated Tessie and Jessie because of my father’s bad habit-hunting. Maybe she only tolerated that. Maybe she only tolerated my father. At any rate, we buried him on a Friday, and I took possession of one beagle that Saturday. He didn’t will her to me or anything-he didn’t leave a will at all. I just figured it would be best to keep her in the family. To keep something in the family, anyway. Seems my mother saw fit to sell the house soon thereafter. Sold all of his guns and memorabilia and even his tools-his radial saw, his hammers, and his drawers of nails and screws marked with numbers he understood. She asked me if I wanted them, politely, but I am not good with my hands and, like I said, I don’t hunt.”
“So you took Jessie?” I asked.
He stroked the dog. “Someone had to.”
“And your wife did not approve?” I asked. Had the dog come before the wife? I could not remember. Hell, I felt myself falling into the role of therapist, and I was trying desperately to draw the dog’s attention. I was holding my hand down at the base of the love seat, wiggling my fingers. John had even stopped petting her now.
“Well, Jessie and Tam got along well enough, I guess. It was quite an adjustment for Tam to have a beagle dropping bits of dog food on her kitchen floor and moving our shoes around. Both of them were amicable to each other, but like a cat and a dog-sort of stilted, like their hackles were prickling around each other, you know? ‘Course, don’t tell my wife I put her and the dog on even terms like that. She should know that she is more important, that I am getting rid of Jessie for her, but you know how women are.”
“Jealous?” I asked, hoping I picked the right adjective between envious and jealous. I wondered if John knew the difference.
“I think you’re right.” He became thoughtful, and I wondered how I could be the only one with that insight. Women, or at least girls, often became envious (or jealous?) of the attention men give to things other than them, such as careers, tools, or visions of years in the future. “I don’t know why Tam’d be jealous of a dog, but she might be.”
A couple of thumping steps preceded the jealous Tam’s appearance in the living room. She was about ten pounds over the wedding photo, but still an attractive woman, with a round, pleasant face and thick eyebrows. She looked at me evenly, without any surprise at seeing me. I stopped wiggling my fingers and straightened a bit. “Oh, hello,” she said to me. “Johnny, do you have any stamps?”
“Hmm, yes, in the pencil drawer of my desk. Honey, this is Chris.” She stuck a hand out. “Hi, are you here about Jessie?”
“Yes.” I stood, shook her warm hand, and let go promptly.
“She’s a good dog, but a little much for us to handle. We work all day, and she spends too much time at home, I think.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I think you’ll like her.” She turned and walked back down the hallway. I wondered if her appearance was the sum of her defense to the charge of canine jealousy.
John was silent for a moment, scratching the dog.
I shifted on the edge of the loveseat. “To be honest, I am not sure what sort of questions I should be asking.”
“You’re doing all right, I think. Most of the guys that have come in here have asked the same things. ‘Is she house broken?’ ‘Does she bite?’ ‘Why are you getting rid of her?’ ‘Does she hunt?'”
“Have you had many people call?”
“Yeah, a fair number. This is the second week she’s been in the paper. We got one of those two week specials, and Sunday was the last week. So far, no one has taken her.” He stroked the dog underneath her chin. “We can’t even give you away.”
“You going to advertise her again?”
“I figure if nobody takes her in two weeks, nobody will. No sense in throwing good money after bad.”
“Is that going to be all right with your wife? Or will you take her to the pound?”
His eyes tightened, and I saw the line in the dirt, and it would hold. Or something like that. “No, that’s not going to happen.” The dog shifted to its other haunch.
“How old is she?” I asked. He had already said it, sort of, but I had to build to the denouement.
“She’s ten, almost eleven.”
I looked at the short, overweight dog. She probably only had a year or two left, and that’s all he had left of his old man. “She seems a little old for what I am looking for, I’m sorry.” I stood quickly.
He stood, too, and the dog followed us up. “I know. Thanks for coming by.”
As I walked to my car, I decided to get a puppy and raise it from infancy. Not a lot of damage a puppy could do to a floor already stripped of its linoleum and needing a polishing. It’s what my old man would do.