Dogs Welcome, the sign said, in yellow paint on an old piece of tin. Rusty wires at each end fastened it to the bars of the squat iron fence, which enclosed a tiny front yard, less than a dozen feet deep and twenty wide. The gate screeched when I pushed it. The grass, though scruffy brown, contributed a splash of vegetation to a neighborhood where most houses opened directly to the sidewalk.
The sign’s peculiarity didn’t dawn on me as I crept up the path, but I took it as a warning. As a suburban college kid I’d been cautious all day on these rundown city blocks, figuring some third-grade dropout might pound me just to exercise his knuckles. If the canine inhabitants were also getting dangerous, this job might not be worth the few dollars it paid. But I had a dog of my own, old Fred, who still lived with my parents, so I thought I knew how to handle furry natives. At worst, the yellow plastic bag containing a phone book could be swung like a club.
The doorbell button dangled by its wires, so I rapped on the door’s glass pane. The wood of the door and trim, painted in flaking yellowish-green, made an ugly contrast to the bluish-gray stone façade. The March wind chilled my butt as I waited. Hearing a TV inside, I thumped again, this time on the wood. In late afternoon, with only two addresses left on my list, I was bored and impatient, but the supervisor had been adamant about delivering to residents rather than doorsteps whenever possible.
This was the 1990s, a time when people still relied on phone books and when otherwise unemployable college students delivered them for a pittance. A time when an elderly woman, after peeking through dingy lace curtains, might open her door three inches for a 20-year-old as long as he looked no more disheveled or stoned than usual.
“Hello, phone book delivery,” I mumbled. “These are your new yellow pages.”
“Who?” she said. “Do I know you? The Mancarella boy?”
“No no,” I said, “that’s not me, I don’t live around here, I’m just bringing your new phone book.”
“Who?” she said again. From behind her the blaring TV tried to drown our conversation. A soap opera, it sounded like, the voices swollen with crisis and doom.
“Phone book!” I yelled, “here!”—and tried to hand it to her.
As she nudged the door further open, I noticed that she tilted heavily on a walker, one of those wheeled contraptions with a padded metal bar and handles. Tall and wide but emaciated, in a faded print housedress that bagged around her waist and threatened to tangle in the wheels, with skin that looked like splots of grape juice mixed with baking powder, she would have been alarming even without the bony nose and toothless grimace. She called up childhood images of the witches in Hansel and Gretel and The Wizard of Oz.
She recoiled when I pushed the plastic bag at her, and I realized it’d be difficult for her to carry. Every local business advertised in that one fat book. “Can I put this down somewhere for you?” I asked. “Where would you like it?”
“What is it?” she quavered, retreating from the door. Reluctantly I stepped inside. The ominous soap-opera music swelled to a deafening crescendo, followed by an even louder commercial for a toilet cleaner. I figured that my second knock must have come during a rare instant of silence from the screen; otherwise, she’d never have heard it.
All the shades were drawn, and the antiquated black-and-white TV provided the only light in the room. A radiator pumped out warmth, so much that I started sweating in my fleece-lined jacket. As I glanced around, trying to adjust my eyes enough to find a table, the old lady rolled her walker away, squawking, “Molly!! Molly!! It’s somebody!”
I quivered at the thought of being apprehended in the act of unauthorized entry with a phone book—or worse, being confronted by the dog(s) advertised on the fence. Still, hoping to find a person who understood me, I reasoned that “Molly” might be the M. Donahue on my list of telephone accounts. Early that morning the crabby supervisor had warned us half-asleep delivery boys—some of us as obviously hung over as the boss himself—“We’ll make random calls, up and down your list, to see customers got their books. You dump them somewheres, you’ll get nailed and we ain’t paying you a cent. Capiche?”
While banging my shins on furniture hidden in the gloom, I noticed a salty reek from the back of the house, toward which the dismayed old woman had pointed herself. Kitchen, I surmised, and wavered in that direction, calling out, “Hello? Hello? Phone book delivery, okay?” The crone, who hadn’t managed to move very far, continued to shriek for her Molly.
As I eased into the kitchen doorway I spotted a woman at the stove, outlined by pale light from a window. Stirring a pot with a large wooden spoon, she appeared oblivious until she blared, “Stop yelling, Mother! You want to say something, turn down the goddamn TV, I can’t hear myself think and I can’t stand it no more!” Without turning to look, she aimed her spoon at me like a weapon.
“Um,” I said, “excuse me?”
“And if you bug me while I’m cooking I’ll dump it out, you can starve for all I care! Work all day and can’t find a minute of peace and quiet in my own house. And don’t start telling me it’s your house ’cause it ain’t! Who pays the mortgage, tell me that! Fresh chicken I bought, why do I even bother?”
“Phone … Book … Delivery,” I emphasized.
Though she turned and saw me, she continued her train of thought, gradually tapering off as understanding sank in. “Dollar off but it’s still fresh, I checked with … Stan. He’s the only … honest person in the whole shitty … Ex- … excuse me, who are you?” Green eyes goggled behind horn-rimmed glasses.
“Oh, I’m, uh, delivering the new phone books, yellow pages. See?” I nipped the book out of the bag. “Your, uh, mother didn’t understand, and I guess she can’t carry something this heavy, and I didn’t want to leave it by the door where somebody could trip on it, so if you just tell me where you’d like it, I’ll get out of your …”
“Don’t be so timid,” she snapped.
This seemed unfair, since I’d walked into the house uninvited, come all the way to the back and raised my voice to get her attention. But I guess my tone, or my darting looks to the side and behind me, betrayed my cowardice. “Um, is there a dog around? … Because your sign outside said …”
Her expression softened. “Sorry I went off on you, I get so—” She made a frustrated gesture with the spoon, sending a drop of liquid flying. “You can put the book on the table there. You need a signature?”
“No. Just if somebody calls to check, tell him you got the book.”
“What’s she doing now, did she calm down?”
“She? Oh.” I turned to look. “Um, it’s hard to see … I think she’s … sitting down. Near the TV.”
“Thank god for small mercies. Close the door then.”
“Right there, the kitchen door.”
I did that, and a comparative quiet spread through the room, along with the greasy smell from the stove. After a few seconds, I laid the book on the kitchen table and said, “Okay, there it is, I’ll be on my way then …”
“No need to rush. You wanta sit down a minute? Talkin’ to her’s like—she’s half-deaf is the reason I gotta yell, but it’s like screamin’ at the wind. I don’t bite, really. And no, there’s no dog. There used to be, it’s a long story.”
As I edged backward she went on, frowning, “Where you running to? You have a lot more deliveries to make?”
“Uh, a couple, next block I think, and I have to be back at the warehouse to sign out before six o’clock.”
“It’s only ten past four. Sit a minute.”
“Um …” Eager to escape, I nevertheless remembered the supervisor’s rant about politeness to the customers: “They think you’re representin’ the phone company,” he’d glared. “You’re not but you gotta act like you are. That means no dope, no slobby shit, no bad language, no frat-boy screwin’ around, am I makin’ myself clear?”
Reluctantly, then, I took a seat at the little Formica-topped table, which had two vinyl-covered chairs facing two plastic placemats with images of poodle puppies. The linoleum had a faded brown-tan-orange pattern of rectangles inside rectangles. A slim stream of cool air drifted from the inch of open window above the sink, making the kitchen more tolerable than the living room. Molly put a cover on the smelly pot, lowered the gas flame, wiped her hands on a towel and took the other chair, looking me up and down like I was the first ordinary human she’d encountered in a decade.
She was tall and wide and thin like her mother, but passable for someone who must’ve been in her fifties. A bit of curl in her reddish hair, a touch of lipstick, the green eyes wide and suddenly eager behind the glasses. Long arms and quick hands. Jeans and a pink top with puffy short sleeves.
“I make a soup special for her,” she nodded at the stove, “with chopped-up meat from the market, cooked real tender, ’cause she hardly eats, you know? Gotta get nutrition in her somehow, and Stan, that’s the meat manager where I work, he sets some aside for me when it’s on sale, the best cuts.”
“Yuh,” I said, concealing my opinion of the odor and of Stan’s judgment about meat.
“Every morning I leave her a sandwich, right on the top shelf of the fridge and I show it to her, but I come home and it’s still there and I ask her, ‘Mother, did you get lunch? Did you eat anything?’ and if she hears me at all she yaks about food the people have on her soap operas. One day they had lobster, she says. So I ask her, ‘If I get us some lobster, will you eat it?’ She makes a dreadful face. So that’s why, I mean, worryin’ about her all day, not knowin’ if I’ll find her dead on the rug, and I can’t call because she won’t pick up the phone even if she hears it, besides which I’m dog-tired from bein’ on my feet all day, so I get cranky and snap out sometimes. I’m embarrassed you had to hear it, you look like a nice kid.”
“That’s okay, I don’t—”
“My nephew delivered phone books once. It’s a lousy job, I know.”
“At least the TV keeps her quiet. When she starts complainin’ it drives me out of my gourd. She’s cold. Her toe hurts. Her pills’re too big to swallow. You want some oatmeal cookies?”
Not grasping the last sentence as a question, I gaped while she lurched to the dingy cabinets for a bag of cookies that she plopped on the table. “Soft ones, I thought she’d like ’em, she’s always begging for sweets, but she says they’re too crumbly. Have all you want.”
Still trying to be polite, I took one cookie from the ripped bag. It was half-stale, and the thick white icing tasted like vanilla-flavored housepaint. Crumbs fell onto a poodle on the placemat. Too shy to look her in the face, I watched her skinny fingers thrum against her own set of poodles. She bent a corner of the mat back and forth, dug it under her nails, then leaned forward, back stiff, elbows planted on the table.
“You have a grandmother? Or two? Or nowadays, who knows, with all the second and third and fourth marriages you might have six.”
“None,” I said. “One I remember but she died, years ago.”
“That’s good,” she muttered. “Be thankful. I mean, that she’s not hangin’ on and addicted to soaps and losin’ her mind piece by piece.”
Shocked that she’d describe her mother this way, I jerked my chair back a couple of inches, making it screech on the linoleum.
“These are pretty puppies, aren’t they?” She circled a finger over the picture on her placemat. “The one we had, it was a mini, that’s not the twerpy toy kind but not real big either. He wouldn’ta bit you, he liked everybody.”
“I really have to be—”
“He sat with Mum every day, Chester did, head in her lap, watched TV with her, she talked to him more than any human. I kind of thought he’d keep her safe. I mean, that’s silly I guess, what could a little poodle do, but he’d yap if someone came to the door, and if she fell and couldn’t get up, maybe he’d howl till the neighbors came. Anyway, he got—did you know poodles are susceptible to cancer? Inbreeding, they say. I never knew that till we had Chester to the vet for a swollen stomach. He got so he wouldn’t eat much more’n Mum, and what he did, he’d vomit on the rug. He was so sick, and Mum wouldn’t hear of puttin’ him down, we nursed him till he couldn’t get himself outside to piddle. Even then she wouldn’t let me—oh shit, why’m I telling you this?”
“It’s okay,” I lied. Though my jacket was wide open with the sleeves pushed up, sweat rolled down my face, but I didn’t want to prolong my stay here by removing any gear. With the heat, the thick soup smell, the talk of cancer-ridden dogs and old people better off dead, this was the most unpleasant place in my experience since the boys’ restroom in middle school.
Her eyes were drilling in my direction as if she hoped for some meaningful response. I coughed and, dredging my brain for an appropriate remark, came out with, “Your sign outside, I guess it doesn’t say ‘Beware of Dog,’ does it? I just saw ‘Dog’ and I, you know …”
She gave a little laugh, her eyes shifting from green to hazel as they narrowed. “Mum’s idea. ‘Dogs Welcome.’ Wouldn’t let me rest till I put it up. I told her you’re invitin’ people to let their dogs crap here, but she says it means to play because it’s the only front yard around. She goes to the window and watches to see if somebody stops in, but neighbors aren’t gonna bring their dogs in somebody else’s yard. It’s insane. Last summer she sat out there sometimes and called to people with dogs goin’ by, ‘Come in and play.’ They thought she was barmy.”
“Huh.” I chuckled in sympathy, or pretend-sympathy, wondering if I had to eat another cookie to accomplish my quota of politeness. My toes were vibrating toward the exit.
“You don’t know what kinda companion a dog can be.”
Maybe that was a rhetorical statement, but I took it personally. “Yeah,” I said, “I do, I grew up with a dog and he still lives with my parents, I see him every few weeks.”
This admission led to multiple questions, and I ended up telling her my name and Fred’s and how he arrived when I was four, so I didn’t remember my family without him. I also explained where I lived at college (only 20 minutes by car from the family home), my plan to major in graphic design, etc.—kind of flattered by her interest but not sure I wanted her to know so much about me. “Well,” I rushed to wrap up, “thank you for the snack, I do have to get going and finish my deliveries.”
“Oh,” she said. She had rested her head on one palm, the elbow propped on the table, and now she started up as if broken from a reverie. “Oh.… So what was it you brung?”
“Your new yellow pages,” I pointed.
“Right. Of course. You want the old ones to take away, right?” She spun around and reached into a cabinet.
We had been told not to retrieve last year’s books—“We ain’t no disposal service,” the supervisor had grunted—but it would have taken longer to explain than to tuck the old directory under my arm, which I did. With a sense of relief I yanked the kitchen door open, letting the soap-opera music smash over us like foaming surf, and with my head down I started to wade in, but Molly caught my elbow from behind.
“Let me introduce you!” she yelled.
“Mum, look around! Turn that TV down, will you? This is Martin, he brought us a phone book, he’s told me about his dog that sounds a lot like Chester.”
I hadn’t made Fred sound anything like a mini poodle, and he would have been insulted at the comparison, but the old lady wobbled to her feet again, arranged herself between the handles of her wheeled contraption and walked/rolled toward me, blocking the exit.
“Who’s this?” she said.
“Martin!” bellowed Molly. “He has a dog!”
I winced, maybe just at the volume, maybe at hearing my name spoken in a way that implied a relationship with these people. All I wanted was to get out of there. But I have never liked being cruel—at least face to face.
The old lady started to beam, an expression that began with a bend in her long lips, spread to her pouchy eye sockets and then tilted the grape-juice blotches on her cheeks into weird polygons. “Who?” she said.
“Martin!” yelled Molly.
“He’s a dog?”
“No,” I shouted, “the dog is Fred. Fred! He’s a big lab!”
“Is Fred coming to play?”
“No, no, he doesn’t live here, he’s out in the suburbs and I don’t see him much, so—”
A hand caught my arm once more—Molly again, with a soft sweep of fingers, almost seductive.
“It’d be so wonderful if you could,” she said directly into my ear, her lips brushing my lobe. I jumped, my eyes widening.
She didn’t seem bothered that I’d flinched away from her. “Bring Fred to play, I’m talking about. We’d both love to meet him. You can see how much it’d mean to Mum. It’d be”—she looked around in the murk and sighed—“something different.”
“Oh, um, I guess, maybe, on the weekend?” I babbled, searching out my escape.
The old lady clapped her hands and then seized my face with her long fingernails.
“Mum, let him go, he has to finish his work. Martin, let me give you our phone number, I’ll get a piece of—”
“No, I have it, I have it, on the log sheet—the number for every address. Excuse me, I have to—”
“Fred!” screamed the old lady, digging her nails into my temples.
“Let him go, Mum, he’s gonna bring Fred to visit you. Martin, I’ll just write down—”
“I have the number, I do, I’ll call—sometime, Saturday—I promise!”
“Mum, let go. Let go!”
At last the old woman released me, and then she grinned, an enormous looping smile.
I angled past and found my way to the door, uttering more assurances to Molly as she tailed close behind me. As I scooted through the narrow brown yard that now seemed even more desolate than before, the sweat bubbles chilled on my neck and spine.
Of course I didn’t go back on Saturday. In fact, having dreamed of scary old women caressing my cheeks and some of my other parts and calling me pet names, I applied a valuable lesson I had learned from academic life: the therapeutic value of a six-pack.
About six weeks later, as finals loomed at the end of my sophomore year, I was in a down time. Faced with officially declaring a major for next term, I had sharp doubts, fueled in part by my struggles in an introductory illustration course. If I my still lifes resembled alien beings (my instructor had compared my cucumbers to pickled space worms), did it make sense to major in design? Halfway through college, was I at a dead end? Obviously I couldn’t go backwards in my life, and it seemed there was no way forward. It didn’t help that my semester-long efforts to speak to a girl who fascinated me had produced exactly three conversations totaling 32 words.
I remember thinking that the whole campus looked sludge-brown in those weeks, and the walls of my lonely dorm room a purplish gray. This was in spring, when new color must have been rampant. No doubt I was majorly depressed. And just at that time, my mother called one night with news: Fred had not come in from the porch that evening. Why? Delicately she explained how they’d found him lying lifeless on the boards.
My dad had wrapped him in a blanket and left him outside till they could drive to the vet in the morning. I insisted, insisted, that they wait for me to get home. Early the next day, I carried him myself to Mom’s van, slid him gently onto the backseat, got in beside him. I was too glum to cry, but I hated my parents for not noticing he was in trouble, just as I detested the soft-spoken, white-coated vet for pretending to care.
A couple of days later, after handing in my inadequate final illustration project and taking the first of my exams, I lay on my crummy college mattress around noon and stared at the purple-gray ceiling. From my dresser I grabbed a handful of old snapshots Mom had given me—Fred as a puppy, Fred and me in a park. There was one I particularly liked: Fred sitting alert, head cocked, on his fleece bed like he was posing for an L. L. Bean catalog photo shoot.
At that point I rushed out to my car and headed downtown. Having turned in the log sheet, I no longer had the address, but I knew the unpleasant memory would guide me.
So I snuck in, past the corroded iron fence and the ugly bare yard, now showing a few weedy specks of green. I slid Fred’s fleece-bed photo through the mail slot as quietly as I could—an unnecessary precaution, since one of the occupants was deaf and the other most likely at work. With equal stealth I crept away.
An obscure shame heated my face, but what the hell, I told myself, if dogs were welcome there, then pictures of dogs should serve as well. At any rate the young Fred was far handsomer than the ladies’ placemat poodles—he’d give them a real dog to look at.
I have no idea what Molly and her mother made of the photo. Nor do I know what I meant by my oddball gift. Something profound about memory and loss, perhaps—because at age 20 profundity still seemed possible.
Now it all sounds ridiculous.
Not that it matters. My dog Chester snoozes at my feet as I finish typing this. Except when I pause for a snack, he’s indifferent to the workaday computer routine. Because he knows that the tasks with which humans busy themselves, and the affairs they typically fret about, don’t count for much in the great scheme of things.
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website http://gridleyville.wordpress.com/.