Saturday, September 26, 2015

Winter Vacation

[This is a story about a teenage boy who desperately wants to try a different reality. He wants, like most teenagers (and adults!), to be popular. Feel free to print the Google document instead of reading the story as a blog post. Photo below by Michael ONeal.]

Florida beach

Arthur Bradford Sims’ parents had called him at least once a week all fall and carried on about what a great town they had moved to and how wonderful his furniture looked in his new room and how much they were missing him and looking forward to having him home for winter vacation; and now on his first full day at home, his father was going to lunch with the Rotarians and his mother was downstairs putting on her Pink Lady uniform. He was glad he had slept through breakfast so she couldn’t kiss him goodbye in her Pink Lady uniform. She hadn’t even come to the airport to meet him. “Your mother couldn’t get out of her day at the Gift Shop, the busy season, you know,” his father had said, giving him a firm handshake, a clap on the shoulder. “But she and Tena have everything shipshape for you.”

“Tena?” he had said but he knew, of course, that she would be the maid. His mother always had a maid, always black, and usually middle-aged. He had spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother’s maids. He would come home from school and spread his books out on the table and there would be a huge slice of apple pie waiting for him and whatever he wanted to drink. He blamed his mother and her maids for his tendency to overeat.

“You look like you’re getting enough to eat at that school,” his father had said as soon as they were on the freeway.

“Starches,” Arthur had replied, squirming under the seat belt and hitting his fist against the palm of the other hand, thinking food fights, hard rolls flying through the air, terror the first time one landed in his plate, his arm going up hesitantly (as if he were truly taking aim) and sending it flying back wherever it had come from. “The plane made me feel a little sick,” he had said. “There was a lot of turbulence.” “You’d never make a sailor,” his father had said.

“Damn right,” Arthur thought, waiting for the two of them to get out of the house. “I’ll never make a sailor.” He lay on his back staring at the ceiling, the initials his mother had embroidered on his pajama pocket, rising and falling with his steady breathing as he blotted out all objects that attempted to drift (his peripheral vision was extremely acute) into his consciousness—the braided rug, the walnut dresses, the Eye-Saver Study lamp—all objects so familiar and intimate that their very familiarity assaulted him. If furniture could be squeezed, his thoughts would drain from their atoms. The ceiling was new, blank, white and knew nothing about him, especially it did not know that he had never had a real girlfriend. It was a tabula rasa, the here and now, the numerical fact that preceded minus zero, that upon which nothing depends.

“Arthur, Arthur,” his mother called up the stairs. “Darling, we’re getting ready to go out now. Don’t forget about my stamps. I like the Madonna, but if they’re out, get the other kind.”

“Okay. Goodbye,” he called out, cheerfully. “Have a good time. See you later.” Still supine, he was not at all cheerful and he did not want to be called “Arthur” anymore and he did not want to walk downtown and get stamps for his mother. He didn’t even know where the Post Office was. The Courthouse is next to the Jailhouse and the Jailhouse is next to the Post Office, a mini-civic center, his mother had said, laughing as if anyone at all would be able to find the Post Office. But he didn’t know where any one of those buildings was. He didn’t know one person besides his parents in this stupid town and probably wouldn’t know any more when his vacation was over. For sure, he wouldn’t know any women. The thought of his roommates lying on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale watching the girls go by while he wandered around in this two-bit town looking for the P.O. gave him a rash.

He heaved a sigh and heard his Father’s confident, managerial voice booming through the hall, “Fix Arthur some hot tomato soup and a grilled cheese, Tena.” Arthur waited to hear what Tena (short for Wheatena, his father has said on the drive back from the airport) would reply; but if she spoke, her voice was too soft for him to hear. He hasn’t seen her yet and while his father had said she was an excellent maid, very industrious, never wastes a minute, he hadn’t said whether she was 18 or 80. Arthur was hoping to try out his powers of conjecture before his visual perception was called into play, but he needed a few minimal clues.

The front door closed and he concentrated on the ceiling again, his crystal ball. Now the two of them (Tena and the young master) were in the house alone. He listened intently; he lay very still and listened with his whole being. He hoped she would sing or talk to herself; but instead she was dialing a number. “Mary Beth, honey, tell your Daddy that I’m going to talk to Jason this afternoon and I’ll tell Jason what your Daddy said I was to tell him. And tell your Daddy I thank him very much. See you tomorrow.”

Then the vacuum began and went on humming steadily for fifteen minutes, preventing him from holding the sound of her voice in his power. He strained for a pause in the hum, but none came. He had wanted her to be carefree and untroubled and already he knew she was mixed up in something with Jason, although her voice had been calm and sweet talking to “Mary Beth, honey.” He wondered if she would call him “Arthur, honey” or if he would tell her straight out that he wanted to be “Brad, honey.”

The vacuum stopped and a closet door opened and shut. Fear and hunger gripped his stomach with twin pangs. Maybe she wouldn’t hang around if he didn’t come downstairs and show himself. With one motion he threw back the covers and grabbed for his clothes, looking out the window to see what the weather was like. It looked cold, but compared to New Haven it probably wasn’t. He had one leg in his jeans when he heard her going out the back door; and when he hobbled over to the window to be sure, half in and half out of his pants, the window was steamed up and he had to rub a circle before he could see a slightly-built young woman (yes, black) dressed in a short suede jacket and wearing a red cap, ear muffs, and red mittens walking away from the house.

He yanked the window up and called out, “Tena, Tena. Where’s my lunch?” but she didn’t look back. She didn’t walk any faster away from the house but she kept walking like she had a place she needed to get to by a certain time.

He closed the window and thought about getting back in bed, but changed his mind and buttoned his jeans, gazing out at the house next door, almost exactly like this one except for a high fence around the backyard. A brace of unexceptional abodes, he thought. “We found a lovely Dutch Colonial,” his mother had written, “And we have wonderful neighbors who have made us feel very welcome.”

So why didn’t she just have Christmas with her wonderful neighbors? How come she’d had to tell him in every letter how much she was looking forward to having him home for winter vacation.

“Hot damn,” he said, kicking his shoes under the bed and then getting down and pulling them out to put on. As long as he had got up he might as well go downstairs and eat thought he wasn’t as hungry now as he had thought he was. “Curses, foiled again,” he said and practiced a few of his Gene Kelly steps. For once they had bought a house that didn’t have carpeted stairs.

On the kitchen table there was a note in a very neat cursive hand, “Arthur, your mother said if you didn’t come downstairs by the time I finished my work that I could leave your lunch on the table. Tena.” The note was propped against a can of tomato soup and a cheese sandwich wrapped in saran. There was a can opener and a small sauce pan next to the soup and butter had been spread on top of the bread.

“Well, I can see you don’t believe in babying the young master,” he said and ate the cheese sandwich, turning the bread around so that the buttered part was on the inside. Then he opened cupboards until he found where the cans were kept in this new house and put the can back where it came from. They would never run out of tomato soup. His mother bought it by the case.

He sniffed for the faint perfume of Tena’s presence, held the note to his lips, and looked again at the neat handwriting. He wondered if she ever signed her name “Wheatena.”

“I had to put that down on the social security form,” his father had said. “Embarrassing.”

He folded the note and put it in his back pocket and then went to the refrigerator to see what kind of ice cream his mother had stocked up on. They never ran out of ice cream.

The back doorbell rang and he brightened thinking maybe Tena had forgotten something or felt sorry about not fixing his lunch and had come back but instead it was a kid (white) pressing her nose and mouth against the glass and crossing her eyes at him while she was waiting for him to figure out how to unlock the door. “Let me in,” she hollered. “I’m cold standing out here.”

When he got the door open, she came in and went right over to the register and let the warm air go up her pants legs.

“Arthur Bradford Simmons if your name,” she said, taking off her jacket and hanging it over a chair. “You sure don’t get up very early.”

“My vacation,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Mary Beth Jones,” she said. “You can call me Beth.”

“Okay,” he said. “You can call me Brad. Would you like some ice cream?”

“I’d rather go to the drugstore and get a banana split. Want to?”

He wondered if Tena was going to come back after a while and he wasn’t sure he wanted to walk downtown with this kid, but on the other hand she was bound to know the way to the Post Office and possibly she was the “Mary Beth” that Tena had been talking to in which case he could find out who Jason was.

“I’m kind of waiting around for my mother’s maid to come back,” he said.

“She’s gone?”

“How do you know?”

“Well, she works for your mama on Tuesday and Thursday and for my mama on Wednesday and Friday and I know what she does cause I live next door and I saw her leaving and what would she come back here for when nobody’s home but you.”

“Oh, yeah, do you know everything?”

“I know a lot,” she said. “What do you want to know?”

“Where’s the Post Office. I have to buy some stamps for my Mother. She’s got so much volunteer work to do that she doesn’t have time to buy her own stamps. She needs somebody with a college education to come home for Christmas and go to the Post Office for her.”

Mary Beth grinned at him and started to put her jacket back on. She was still wearing her galoshes. “Yeah,” she said. “Your papa and my papa are both Rotarians and your mama and my mama are like this.” She held up two fingers.

He wondered if this kid could possibly understand how much he hated it that fifteen minutes after his mother moved to a new town she did her old Esther Williams act, diving into the Junior League or the Pink Ladies or what have you.

He had been about the age of this kid the Thanksgiving his father had taken him to a restaurant because his mother was running a special Feast and Musical for the local nursing home.

“You mother is Admiral material, son,” his father had said. “She would have loved to have a big family, but it didn’t turn out that way.” His father had looked at him like he was at fault for being an only child and worse he had looked as if he were going to tell him that he was adopted or the product of artificial insemination or something like that. Instead they had gone home and built a fire in the fireplace; and he hadn’t had the nerves to ask if his father meant to say anything else and he didn’t. His father showed him how to arrange the kindling and always have three logs and don’t use but a wisp of paper. They never had lived in a house that hadn’t had at least one fireplace.

“Let’s get going,” he said to Mary Beth. “Do you need to tell anybody you’re going?”

“Naw,” she said. “I left my mama a note that I was coming over to see you.”

“How old are you anyway,” he said, breaking out in a sweat. If she was 13, he was calling it off.

“I’m ten and a half,” she said. “Look, my best friend is Jewish and she always goes to visit her Grandmother when everybody around here’s celebrating Christmas and television stinks in the daytime and I’m tired of reading.”

“Let’s go,” he said and pulled his coat off the hanger in the hall closet.

When they got to the front door, she said, “Your mama leaves the house key inside that pitcher.”

“At the last house,” he said. “This was in the kitchen.”

She smiled at him. “My mama told your mama it’s an antique and that she ought to display it.”

“Does the pitcher therefore become what it was not before?” he said, “Or is it the same object it was when I knew it?” He sounded, he thought, a little like Hamlet holding “Poor Yorick’s” skull.

“The Post Office closes at five o’clock,” she said and reached inside the pitcher and handed him the key.

He locked the door and they walked out to the sidewalk. He wondered if there was a sex-linked characteristic that women have, are born with, for getting their own way.

“Do you like Tena?” she asked when they were waiting at the first corner for the light to change.

“I like her and she liked me,” the kid said. “Her boyfriend’s in the Jailhouse.”

He wished he hadn’t gotten up. “Did he do something serious?” The cheese sandwich felt like it had congealed in his gut.

“He was in a fight,” the kid said, reaching up and taking his hand. “Nobody was killed. Tena told my Daddy he had to fight back, but the police put him in jail anyway.”

“Will he get off? Did you make this story up?” He let go of her hand and stopped walking. “Are you putting me on?”

“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” she said, shaking her head as if he were a piece of hair that was getting in her way, “But you better be nice to Tena or I’ll sic my dog on you.”

What kind of place had he come to? He hadn’t done one blessed thing and already he was being threatened by a ten-year-old girl.

She reached for his hand again. “I don’t think you’re mean. Your mama said you were too nice; that’s why you hadn’t ever had a girlfriend.” She looked up at him like she would be his pal for at least the week her friend was gone to visit her grandmother but she wasn’t making any promises beyond that. He knew the look. When they got to the Post Office he told her to go in and ask for a sheet of Madonna stamps and gave her a five-dollar bill. He said he would buy her two banana splits if she would do that for him. He could see there was a line and only one window. It was going to take at least fifteen minutes and he could imagine the going-over from the local populace he would get if he was to stand in that line, either by himself or with her. It was probably just what his mama had in mind.

“Don’t go off anywhere,” the girl said, taking the bill. She pointed to a sign set outside the Post Office saying “Learn Electronics—Be a Naval Technician.” She instructed, “Wait right there.”

He looked at the three people on the poster for a while, a black man, a white woman, and a white man. They looked like they knew electronics backwards and forwards.

He turned around and saw that the Courthouse and the Jailhouse were directly across the street, one behind the other. Like the Post Office, they were built of yellow brick. He could see that there was a certain economy to having the Jailhouse next to the Courthouse. There was neatly trimmed shrubbery planted all around the Courthouse and a lawn of winter grass on three sides but the Jailhouse was surrounded by crushed granite and a ten-foot fence with three strands of barbed wire at the top. While he was counting the number of windows, somebody on the second floor waved a handkerchief between the bars, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Tena coming along the path that led from the Courthouse. She was still wearing the bright red hat and mittens but she had taken off the ear muffs and she was carrying a giant sack of popcorn. When she got up close to the fence, he saw a dark brown arm come through the bars and wave. There was a bandage around the wrist.

She stood in front of the window and listened to what the person inside (Jason, he assumed) was saying and she shook her head yes and no several times. Some other people came over and started talking to her and looking up at Jason. He couldn’t understand anything any of them said; but when they moved off and left her standing by herself, she called out, and the wind caught her sweet, clear voice and carried it to him like a gift, asking Jason, “Do you like popcorn? I brought you some popcorn.”

Tears formed in his eyes and he turned his back to the Jailhouse for fear she would look around and see him watching and listening.

The kid had finished at the window and was coming towards him. He wondered if he told her that Tena was talking to Jason at the Jail, what she would do. Leave him standing on the sidewalk while she ran off to be with Tena? Drag him along with her to talk to Tena? He felt like he was in some kind of “B” movie. Any minute he expected somebody to come over and say something insulting to him. He couldn’t think what it would be but something he would have to respond to with physical violence.

All the way to the Drugstore the kid talked a mile a minute, telling him everything he would ever need to know about this town—where the Seven-Eleven Store was, where he could get his hair cut and his shoes shined and what days the Library stayed open.

When they got to the Drugstore, she steered him to a booth and then sent him to the fountain for their order. He had finished his coke before she had barely started on the second scoop of ice cream. He watched the methodical way she dipped her spoon and wondered if she could actually eat two banana splits.

If just once in his life somebody (anybody) would ask him (not tell him) did he like popcorn, he would die content. A yearning took hold of him so overpowering he told her he had to make a phone call and went to the pay phone in the back by the prescription counter and called his roommates in Fort Lauderdale. They were about to walk out of the room to go to the beach and they let the girls they had with them say “Hello, Brad, hurry on down.” He said he’d be on the Silver Comet faster than ice cream could melt or tomato soup form a good skin on top and he would not even leave a note on the kitchen table.

“We’ll make a song about that,” one of the girls said and he could feel in his bones what a good time it would be.

He leaned over Mary Beth finishing up the cherry she had set aside for the last bite, “Tell my mama I’ll be calling her on the phone. I’m going to Florida for my vacation.”

The look on her face (he remembered that she had been counting on him for entertainment) reminded him of his mother and how he had studiously avoided giving her a good smack on the lips. Now that he was cutting out, he wished he had. Instead, he leaned forward and kissed Mary Beth on the cheek. “Thanks kid,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”

[Written by Virginia McKinnon Mann. Undated.]

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Dumbwaiter

[Feel free to print the Google document instead of reading the story as a blog post. Photo below by Elliot Margolies.]


When Mr. Hexter died, there was a lot of curiosity, morbid curiosity you might call it, about his artificial leg. Some people thought that it was like false teeth, that nobody would think of removing a person’s false teeth before burial, while others argued that he had died in bed with the leg off and it would be more natural not to strap it back on just for the show.

Actually the question was moot because no one knew where he kept the leg at night when he took it off and was resting in bed. The funeral director said he couldn’t find it.

The other mystery which puzzled people like my brother, who had read all the Sherlock Holmes books, was that Mr. Hexter’s house was supposed to have a dumbwaiter. It didn’t seem reasonable. The house was only one story with three rooms, barely large enough for a bachelor like Mr. Hexter who took his meals at the boarding house downtown and who had no relatives to entertain and never engaged in card parties or otherwise invited anyone save the minister to cross his threshold.

How could a one-story house have a dumbwaiter, my brother and I asked ourselves over and over. No other house in town had such a device. The grandest domestic arrangement we knew of was a backstairs in the home of a former congressman, a person far above Mr. Hexter’s station in life. Yet we had always known about the dumbwaiter the same as we had always known not to ask Mr. Hexter how he lost his leg or how it was he had no family.

“He came here a grown man,” our father said, severely, when my brother brought the matter up. “If he wanted folks to know his life story, he’d have told us.”

“Perhaps no one ever gave him a chance,” my brother said. Like myself he was rather fond of Mr. Hexter, who always seemed glad to see us when we were sent to his shop with our parents’ shoes.

After we had stood respectfully at the counter for a while, he would look up and stop his noisy machine. Then he would limp over and hold out his hands expectantly, fondling the leather at the points of pressure, pushing at the sides for stitching that might have loosened, and finally slipping his hand inside to see if the inner sole had been abused.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he would say and launch into a recital of the deficiencies which must be corrected, giving a financial accounting for each item. While he was making this examination and diagnosis, he would limp restlessly back and forth in the small space behind the counter and giant sewing machine, the stiff leg heaved along by the rest of him.

He limped that way into church too, taking the steps one leg at a time, settling into a pew towards the front, his stiff leg stretched straight out. Invited to rise and fall as the minister directed, most of the infirm and elderly remained seated; but not Mr. Hexter, no matter how awkward. He was a man of observance.

“Too bad he wasn’t more of a mixer,” our mother said after the funeral, helping the funeral director to arrange the flowers over the new mound.

“We could have asked him to Sunday dinner,” my brother said, as if there were something about Mr. Hexter he would like to know in particular.

“A shoemaker must stick to his last,” I said, eager to change the subject for I could not bear to hear it when my brother was being impertinent.

“And now he’s had his last chance,” my brother whispered in my ear, pulling me aside to tell me that the funeral director when he was accused of misplacing the artificial leg had sworn on Mr. Hexter’s Bible (lying open where he had read his last devotional) that he had looked in every nook and cranny and the leg was nowhere to be found. He told the minister that he had no thought but to fix Mr. Hexter up the same as if he were going to church.

Since Mr. Hexter never used crutches, there was no way he would have taken the leg off in one room and then gone into his bedroom and gotten into bed. A person would have to be extremely nimble to hop about like that on one leg and clearly old Mr. Hexter wasn’t, heaving his artificial leg along like a great stiff board, a burden if ever there was one, but still a great invention for a person deprived of the normal leg that most of us enjoy without giving it a second thought. My brother compared him to Long John Silver with his craggy visage and tapping peg leg and we were relieved that Mr. Hexter could wear a regular shoe and hide his maimed body under the long canvas apron which protected him from the grime and messiness of his trade.

On Sunday at church he was often accompanied by some lost soul he had badgered into coming with him. I came into his shop one day when he was after one of these poor sinners and heard Mr. Hexter meeting his protests. “You just get down there to the clothing store and buy yourself a suit of Sunday clothes. They’ll put it on my bill.” And when Sunday came, I saw the man, suitably clothed, sitting with Mr. Hexter. They never came twice these lost sheep, but Mr. Hexter made a rich man of the clothing store owner, my father said.

“Still, it beats the loneliness of sitting there by yourself week after week,” our mother said. “I’ll say amen to that,” our father said, smiling at my brother and me.

I felt at that moment what the Bible meant when it spoke of lying in the bosom of Abraham and I could feel my brother beside me grow tense with the desire to know some other way of life besides our own, to say to our father that not everyone was bon to marry and beget children, that Mr. Hexter might have chosen bachelorhood even if he had not lost a leg.

“For a long time I prayed that old Mr. Hexter would grow a new leg from his stump,” I said, wanting to veer the conversation in some safe direction, not caring that my father would look at me sharply and inquire how I knew anything about Mr. Hexter’s poor stump.

“The Bible wants us to believe in miracles and it says if you believe you can move mountains,” I said, grown heady with the knowledge that through my efforts my brother had relaxed and was smiling at the childish nature of my thought. I admired him too much and wanted his approval too much to sit still while he singlehandedly confronted our father with some idea which our father would find unspeakable and forbid us to hold to.

“Mr. Hexter is a mystery man,” my brother said, smiling at me. “A great saver of souls.”

We thought it a wonderful pun and even now I can never hear the word salvation without thinking of Mr. Hexter and his cobbler shop. Only now I think of him as free and mobile, enjoying forever the life of the spirit.

When he died there wasn’t much furniture in his little house, but what there was he left to the church along with the house. Even when the furniture and odds and ends were auctioned off, the artificial leg didn’t turn up. There was a lot of talk then, but by the time the house had stood empty for six months or more, most people had forgotten all about Mr. Hexter and his artificial leg.

I was sure, however, that my brother hadn’t forgotten, that he meant to investigate for himself the inside of Mr. Hexter’s house; and I watched all through the summer for signs of the irresistible itch that I had seen come over him before when a house stood empty for any length of time. Because I had proved my trustworthiness on several occasions, I hoped that he would take me with him when he decided to break into Mr. Hexter’s house. Even though it was church property under the terms of Mr. Hexter’s will and I knew well the penalty for violating church property with an unclean heart, I prayed nightly that my brother would invite me to go with him.

When the day came, he stood in front of our parents with his fingers crossed behind his back and said that he would take me swimming with him if they gave permission. It was late in August just before school started up again and right after lunch when we could be pretty sure that there would be nobody on the streets or busy in their yards. Any neighbors who hadn’t gone to the mountains for the worst of August were at least sensible enough to lie down and be still in the early afternoon.

We headed off in the direction of the ballast pits where we swam in the hot weather and cut through some vacant lots to come up onto the back of Mr. Hexter’s house.

There was a window where the latch had rusted loose, and since nothing of value was left inside the house, nobody had bothered to fix it. My brother carefully raised the window and we crawled into what appeared to be a kitchen; the next room was a small sitting or dining room and the next was a bedroom or so it seemed from the built-in cupboard and the faded wall paper where pictures or at least a calendar had been hung. We shone the flashlight in closets and cupboards, but not even a button or stray pin was left. We looked carefully about the paneling supposed that we would see immediately the place where the dumb waiter would be, but there was no sign of any opening. We felt about for a secret spring that would reveal an opening, but with no luck. Then we looked for stairs to go down to a cellar or maybe a trap door. Nothing. The house was too simple and beastly hot. There was no break in the flooring anywhere. Defeated and perspiring, we crawled outside again and looked around to see if there was some clue we had missed.

“Three chimneys,” my brother said, “and only two fireplaces in the house.”

We knew that there had to be a cellar door. Two old-fashioned rambling rose bushes had been planted in the back; and as we gingerly lifted back the long, intertwined canes, we could see a small wooden cover. My brother got out his jackknife and pried at the edge until it splintered and gave. We crawled backwards down five rotting steps. He shone his flashlight around the room and sure enough there was a fireplace, large enough for open-hearth cooking.

“It was the kitchen in slave times, for sure,” he said. “The poor devils.”

The flashlight beam lit on an open space in the brick; and even though I couldn’t see his face at all, I knew his eyes were shining.

“Look,” he said, pulling at the rope. “They put the food on a tray and there was another person upstairs who took it off and served it.” He tugged again at the rope. At first it didn’t budge; but when he tried harder, it pulled loose and we could hear the sound of the platform breaking loose overhead seconds before it landed with a plop and clatter, raising the dust of years.

When we opened our eyes and took our hands away from our mouths, the flashlight beam rested on Mr. Hexter’s leg. The dumb waiter must have been his hiding place; and what we had thought was the dining room was really his bedroom. Probably the panel was where he could reach it from his bed and along with the funeral director we had been too dumb to spot it.

For a minute we looked at the foot and the toes molded into terrible togetherness, then at the faint glow which came from the upper part of the leg, pink and smooth, the thigh shapely with an ankle as neat as a girl’s. How Mr. Hexter must have laughed with delight every time he strapped that beautiful leg onto the rest of him.

We closed the cellar door as if it had been a tomb, spreading the rose bushes back as best we could in a hurry.

[Undated short story by Virginia McKinnon Mann.]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Barking Dog Magna Cum Laude

[Feel free to print the Google document instead of reading the story as a blog post. Photo below by Bright Green Pants.]


“103 Brandywine Lane.” Penelope lovingly pronounced the bordering streets, “George Washington Drive, Benjamin Franklin Place, Alexander Hamilton Terrace.” After all the Embarcaderos, Divisideros, El Carmelos, and Loma Verdes they had spent their apartment days on, the names seemed rich in history, evocative, promising a solid future. The house was a mix of architectural styles—a bit of dental work, a patch of fish-scale shingles, and a miniature widow’s walk. Maybe they would take off the widow’s walk at some point, but now they wanted to unpack their boxes for good and settle down. By Sunday night, Penelope’s workroom was set up with her drafting table and paint pots; and Bernie’s closet was hung with his business suits and coordinating shirts and ties.

“I love it,” Penelope said, Monday morning, kissing Bernie goodbye. “If this house were a horse, it would be an Appaloosa.”

Bernie thought about Penelope all day, her sense of humor, her talent, how much she loved him and how much he loved her, how lucky they were to have found the house. It made up for his job, his tortured dealings with Morrison, his boss. Somehow he couldn’t find an area where he felt simpatico with Morrison. He couldn’t zoom onto the right wavelength. They were both talking about Countdown Clothes; but Bernie, who handled advertising, couldn’t connect somehow to Morrison’s concepts. Actually, it was Morrison who couldn’t connect to Bernie’s concepts; but Bernie could not say that to anyone but Penelope, who always was on the same wavelength.

But the minute he walked into the house, he saw that she was close to tears.

“I’m ready to tear out my hair,” she said. “The dog next door barked nonstop all day. I nearly went bonkers.”

Bernie rubbed his hands back and forth over her shoulders until he felt her relax, go soft against his body. How could he have known the neighbors’ dog would bark like a maniac. When they looked at the house, the dog, a beautiful Irish Setter, was sitting quietly on the neighbors’ patio, looking as if he didn’t have a bark in his head.

“As soon as we can, we’ll move, sweetheart.” Bernie would have said anything to make Penelope feel better, anything that would cheer her up.

They both knew that moving was not an option. Their finances were already stretched. It was a double bind. If Penelope weren’t freelancing at home, saving the money that a studio would have cost, they couldn’t afford the monthly payments; and it was because she was working at home that the barking dog was driving her crazy.

“Surely we can solve this problem,” Bernie said. The idea that an Irish Setter was going to dictate their lives seemed ridiculous. Irish Setters were supposed to be even-tempered, good with children. This one seemed singularly dedicated to full-time barking.

Like Morrison. “Orders” he barked. “That’s why we’re here. Never forget it. Orders, orders, orders.”
Bernie wished he could work at home like Penelope. Together outsmart this barking dog and he would not have to hear Morrison barking every minute.

Penelope’s workroom, next to the neighbor’s patio where the dog was left all day, had excellent natural light; and if she could leave the window open, excellent cross ventilation. Their bedroom was on the dark side of the house.

“I felt so irritated today I didn’t get a lick of work done. First I tried ear plugs but they made my ears hurt and then I moved to our bedroom but the light was no good. I can’t meet my deadline if I miss another day of work.”

Bernie did the washing up so that she could get back to her drawing board. “I feel much better,” she said, kissing him goodnight; but she tossed and turned for hours and once she woke him up saying, “Stupid dog.” When he put his arm out, she snuggled against him and sighed in her sleep.

The responsibility! What if she weren’t a “liberated” woman with her own business and her own business card. How had men stood it before women took charge of their lives.

He wondered if Morrison’s wife snuggled up to him in bed. Miss McFadden, the secretary, said she bred dogs. He wondered what breed and Miss McFadden said, “Something like miniature long-haired dachshunds. The next time he was in Morrison’s office, he noticed a picture of his wife holding two puppies. They looked as if they were yapping at the top of their lungs and he told Miss McFadden she should type “Yap, Yap” and tape it to the picture like the subtitles in old movies.

“You are not bucking for a promotion, buster,” she said.

When he described his problem with the Irish Setter, she said, “Make a tape and play it back when they’re at home. Give them a dose of their own medicine.”

“I love it,” Penelope said. “Would it be possible that dog owners enjoy dog barking the way opera lovers love opera singing? Perhaps he’s an Irish tenor and we are simply not tuned into dog arias.”
The worst of it was that they didn’t know the neighbors at all. How could you complain to people you had never met.

ESP didn’t help. They both concentrated like crazy when the dog was let out for the day and the neighbors went off to work. “Don’t bark, don’t bark, don’t bark.” He concentrated so hard that he jumped when the dog started up. “What have we done to you?” No matter what the dog meant to express, his barking sounded to Bernie as if he wanted to chew them to bits, just the way he felt when Morrison spit out, “Orders! Orders!” All day he thought about the problem. He called his friend in the Legal Department and got suggestions Formidable. First they would have to make polite requests, give the neighbors adequate time to comply, etc.

“Get a dog yourself and let them bark at each other,” the friend said. For that he needed a law degree? He was so upset thinking how upset Penelope was, he was sure that Morrison would notice; but Morrison was having an off day.

Miss McFadden whispered, “He’s in conference, having a little nappy on his sofa.”
Bernie wondered if Morrison’s wife’s dogs barked all night and kept Morrison awake. Could he be an ally? It was hard to imagine.

Just before five Morrison called him into his office. Bernie made a point of staring at the picture of Mrs. Morrison with the dogs, but he didn’t say anything. There was a report he and Morrison were supposed to go over.

“Your wife work?” Morrison asked.

“She works at home—freelance artist. Or she did until the neighbor’s dog started driving her crazy.”

“My wife breeds dogs,” Morrison said. “Damnedest hobby a person could have.”

Bernie smiled in the direction of Mrs. Morrison’s photograph and held on hard to the chair in front of him. He would be able to recall this conversation for Penelope with no strain. He felt his brain recording it for all eternity. Lately he had felt his brain whirring on and off with the slight sound a computer makes in action, little starts and stops, wait, saving file, etc. Barks at home, bites in the office.

“They’re a noisy bunch—dogs.” He was trying to look neutral, but he wasn’t sure he was doing a good job.

“An Irish Setter I think. Would you be able to tell by the bark? Do breeds have different barks? I could bring in a tape.”

Morrison laughed and stuffed the report in his briefcase. “You’re the sly one.”

“My wife says I have hidden depths, but I’m not sure what she means.”

Morrison frowned. “God knows what it is they want—women, I mean.”

Ben nodded. He hoped the telephone would ring. Where was Miss McFadden? Why didn’t she interrupt?

“I’ll take this home tonight and we’ll go over it tomorrow,” Morrison said finally.


Penelope held her hands over her ears. She felt as if her auditory sense had taken over her whole life.

The noise ordinance was confusing. It specifically referred to leaf-blowers, so many decibels allowed. She liked the word decibel. It made her think of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

“You might as well try to prevent conversation,” the woman at City Hall said when Penelope described the situation. “Try Small Claims Court.” Do dogs have free speech rights, Penelope wondered. Is speech a survival instinct? The dog only barked when the owners were not there, which was most of the waking day. He must be experiencing loneliness, but why did his vocal chords collapse. Did the constant exercise of the bark increase capacity and strength to bark.

At first she thought it was the garbage truck the dog was barking at, but that would explain only one morning of the week. Dogs were dominated by their sense of smell just as she was dominated by her auditory sense. It was imperative that she develop a strategy.


Together Bernie and Penelope worked on a formal letter of complaint, trying to achieve just the right tone. After all, they were going to be living next to these people for a long time. Just as they were putting the finishing touches on the letter and were ready to run it off on their printer, using Penelope’s letterhead to emphasize her professional need for peace and quiet, the phone rang. It was Flora, next door, who introduced herself and invited them over for drinks on Friday.

“Thank you, we’d love to,” Bernie said. “Flora and Lance. And we are Bernie and Penelope. Oh yes, you also have Rusty. We will look forward to getting acquainted.”

“That’s a break,” he said, turning to Penelope. “Now we can address them by their names. If we can’t negotiate something, we can still send the letter.”

“I’ll make a tape of that damn dog barking his head off.”

“They may not believe you, but it’s worth a try.”

The next morning as soon as the dog started, Penelope plugged in their tape recorder and ran the microphone out the window. She filled one side with continuous barking. She listened for nuances of barking. When he stopped for a minute, she assumed he had gone to his water bowl. Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. She thought of the other Irish Setters she had known. All she could remember was how beautiful they were, nothing at all about barking. Lassie, who of course was a collie, never barked except in extremis. Lassie was so thoughtful and caring and capable that a mere child was his master [sic]. Was she incompetent, at fault in this matter of the barking dog. She put the tape and tape recorder by her handbag.


On Friday when Bernie came home from work they went into conference. “What should we do first? How should we go about this?” Planning was essential. He had seen too many sweet deals fall through because somebody had forgotten to take care of the details, decide who was going to say what.

Bernie would bring up the subject of barking, diplomatically. Penelope would play the tape if they needed evidence.

“Never assume anything,” Morrison said and although he hated to agree with Morrison he had to admit he was right on that assumption. When he went into conference with Morrison he felt the carpet had found inches of foam underneath. Unnerving.

“Everything’s soft until it’s firm,” was one of Morrison’s favorite sayings.

Penelope decided she would wear slacks and sandals for their visit to the neighbors; Bernie changed into his suntans and his Hawaiian shirt. “If you were a dog,” he said, “You would never have to change your clothes.”

“You would have more time to devote to your barking,” Penelope said. “Your output.”

Flora opened the door and led them through the living room to the side yard. Rusty was sitting quietly next to Lance, who said “Stay” and walked towards Bernie and Penelope with one hand behind him.

“Glad you could come over,” he said and extended his other hand. “We’re training Rusty by the Barbara Woodhouse method, but sometimes the hand signals get in the way of other uses you want to make of your hands. Sit down, please.”

Flora appeared with the leash and attached it to Rusty’s collar. She held her hand at waist height, slightly cupped with the leash strap over two fingers and then slapped one hand against her leg as she said, “Walk, Rusty,” and made a quick circle around the patio. “Barbara Woodhouse calls this walkies,” she said. She leaned down and praised Rusty, “Good dog.”

Penelope thought, we’ve lost.

Bernie said, “Is there a command for ‘don’t bark’?”

Penelope pointed to the window of their house where her workroom was. “You see, I work at home and Rusty barks a lot. It’s hard to concentrate.”

“I’m so sorry,” Flora said. “I had no idea. I do hope it won’t happen again. Let him get acquainted.” She stopped stroking Rusty and gave him a push in Penelope’s direction.

He leaped across the patch of grass and sniffed at Penelope’s sandals. She could feel Flora watching for signs that she was flinching. She remembered her English professor explaining how the poet achieves his purpose in a poem by throwing the dog a juicy piece of meat while he gets on with ransacking the house. It was an idea she had intellectually accepted, but never realized emotionally before. It had seemed so vague—though presented by the professor in such a spellbinding way—she felt struck dumb with the clarity of it while Rusty slobbered on her big toe. She reached for one of the cocktail napkins and dried her toe. Then she ran her hand over Rusty’s head. She felt his response and repeated the stroke. He moved closer and rested his head on her knee. “Rusty,” she said without meaning to, or had she said ‘precious’? She looked at Flora, who was smiling proudly.

Lance came out with a tray of wine glasses and a bottle of wine. Flora followed with a tray of cheese and crackers. Tucked under her arm was a folder. She showed them a photograph of Rusty wearing a Mortar Board. “It was a package deal. There’s a fancy certificate with a gold seal. We decided not to frame it. After he graduated from obedience school, we saw the Woodhouse method on television and decided to give him a postgraduate course.”

“You look very intelligent,” Penelope said to Rusty. She struggled to keep a straight face.
“What about the tape?” Bernie asked when Lance went back for ice and Flora took Rusty into the kitchen for his feeding.

“There’s no plug out here and I forgot to get batteries. Somehow it didn’t dawn on me that we’d be outside.”

“No matter, we can save it for later. He’s a beautiful dog. He doesn’t look like a barker.”

“They seem very pleasant, but it’s clear that they don’t believe me since the dog doesn’t bark when they are home. ‘She hopes it won’t happen again.’ She thinks I’m referring to an isolated incident.”

Bernie felt hopeless. He remembered a line Miss McFadden used a lot, especially when he complained to her about Morrison. “Sometimes you can’t win for losing.”


The next morning Penelope thought Rusty wouldn’t bark. Now he would know that he had a friend next door. As soon as Flora and Lance drove out of their driveway, the barking began.

“Maybe you could talk to him a little and he would shut up,” Bernie said. He felt guilty leaving Penelope, but Morrison was a bear about tardiness.

“I’ll try,” Penelope said. “I can’t take another day of racket, no matter how educated.”

When she went outside, Rusty was running back and forth along the fence barking as if his life depended on it.

“Rusty, good boy, don’t be upset. I’m here all day. I’ll be your friend.”

He stopped and looked at her. Then he pushed his nose against the fence.

“No, don’t do that,” Penelope said. “You’ll get your nose caught. Wait a minute.” She went into the kitchen and cut up a turkey hot dog. Would he care if it were heated or not? She doubted it. She tossed the pieces over the fence and thought maybe he barks because they don’t feed him enough. She ran back into the house and telephoned Bernie.

“Did it keep him quiet?”

“I don’t know yet, but I just wanted to report.”

“Could you go over to their patio and work on their picnic table?”

“I don’t feel right about doing that. Suppose one of them got sick and came home unexpectedly from work. Or suppose the meter reader came by or who knows what. It sounds too much like a Raymond Carver story, you know the one where the couple tried on the other couple’s clothes.”

“Well, you’ll work it out somehow,” Bernie said. He could see Morrison coming down the hall towards his office. “You can’t let a stupid dog ruin your life, our life.”

“He’s not stupid. He’s like a child being left along all day.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that. I’ve got to go. Morrison’s on his way to bark at me.”

“He’s a very smart dog.”

“Right. Right. Goodbye.”


As soon as she hung up she could hear that the barking had started again. Maybe it was squirrels he was barking at. That would be only instinct. She raced around to the gate and opened the latch. “Rusty, old barker. Quiet down.”

Rusty came towards her and waited to be petted. His leash was hanging by the back door. She said, “Sit.” He sat. “Good dog.” She snapped the leash on and said, “Walkies.” Rusty followed alongside her and she brought him into her yard. “What a good dog.”

Shouldn’t she reward Rusty for being a good dog. She picked out the meat from some left-overs and put it on a plate. She found a bowl for water and stroked his beautiful, silky coat. “Just a tidbit, you wouldn’t want to lose your appetite.” She stroked his head again and thought what a wonderful color his coat was. She brought him into her workroom and closed the door. He lay down very calmly on the rug. Penelope thought she heard a sigh of relief. “That makes two of us.” She did a quick sketch of Rusty curled up on her rug, then she settled into her job.

At four o’clock she led Rusty back to his yard, petting and praising him. The minute she closed the gate, he started barking.


When Morrison called him into his office, Bernie told him about the photograph of Rusty wearing a Mortar Board.

He waited for Morrison to have the idea. He was sure it would emerge. “You mean barking dog magna cum laude.”

Bernie laughed. Morrison laughed.

Miss McFadden said, “Good boy, Bernie. Good boy.”


The next morning Penelope opened a can of roast beef hash and poached an egg to go on top. “I don’t think you’re eating a proper lunch,” she said to Bernie. “You’d better have a good breakfast.”

She set aside half the can for Rusty and put it in a pie tin. It looked a lot like dog food anyway, she thought.

Bernie poured ketchup over his hash and broke the egg. “I’m afraid to eat lunch because I’ll get sleepy in the afternoon and I don’t have a sofa in my office like Morrison.”

Penelope wondered what other things she could cook that Rusty would like. Probably she should get dog biscuits. They were supposed to help keep the teeth lean.

As soon as Bernie left she turned on the TV and flipped channels until she found a commercial for dog food. The dogs were not nearly as intelligent-looking as Rusty.

When she went to the grocery store, she looked in the pet section at the flea collars and toys. A woman stopped and picked up a flea collar. “These are really good,” she said. “What breed of dog do you have?”

“Irish Setter,” Penelope said.

“I like little dogs,” the woman said. “Mine’s a Boston.”


When she got home, she didn’t feel like settling down to work. Rusty would probably like a walk. Maybe it was exercise instead of food that would keep him from barking. Maybe it would calm her nerves as well. She has never done a sneaky thing in her life before. She wonders if people who steal babies from buggies feel as excited as she feels now. She attaches Rusty’s leash and starts down the street. Who would know it’s not her dog? She looks like a dog owner, she knows the commands.

[Undated short story by Virginia McKinnon Mann.]