The Dogs of Pacific Grove
The moment Richard Alabaster turned into the cul-de-sac he knew something was wrong. The yips and snarls, the yelps and growls that ordinarily greeted him in this canine-loving community were missing. He could see, hear and smell, the ocean just two blocks away--not always pacific off the coast of Pacific Grove--but the cul-de-sac itself was far too quiet. Aside from the sound of weeping.
Weeping? Dogs don't weep. They whine. When Richard thought of the neighborhood circle, he thought of dogs, even though his wife and children, the comely widow just next door, the cruel paramedic and his wife, and Mrs. Martin with her sons and husband--even though people lived there also. Only people wept as far as he knew. At least out loud.
He pulled up in his driveway and got out of the car.
"Is something wrong?" Richard Alabaster asked.
It was a stupid question, he knew, but the sight was a stupid sight. Richard also knew that, in spite of his elegant name, he was a clumsy man and not much good at coming to terms with the unexpected. He was also a wispy, waspish sort of man, and no one took notice of him. No one aside from his wife of many years who, extracting her face from her hands, glared at him and said, "They're gone!"
"Who?" Richard asked, forgetting that the first thing he'd noticed was the absence of dogs.
"Curmudgeon, for one," she cried.
"Oh." He had to think for a moment just who Curmudgeon was. It sounded like a name she might have given to one of their children.
"Curmudgeon is gone," his wife cried.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Richard said.
He wasn't. Curmudgeon was her dog, the name chosen by her in a spate of unaccustomed irony yet, for Richard's taste, painfully anticipative of the mutt's true character. In puphood the beast had cost them two legal suits involving Pacific Grove postal employees (he'd bit one right through his mace). From then on you could have decaled Curmudgeon's sides with emblems of his victims, the way fighter pilots did their planes during World War II. Now, in advanced age, the dog manifested his incivility by maintaining a twenty-four hour vigil on imaginary fleas: gnawing, nudging, licking himself with the alacrity of the demented, the house fragrant as a leper colony. Unfortunately, the animal slept with Richard and his wife, usurping more than his share of this nightly menage-a-trois, one that frequently found Richard clinging to the bed's brittle edge as if it were a two-by-four salvaged from shipwreck. And now, Curmudgeon--gone?
"Great!" he almost cried. Then, out of respect for his neighbors' collective grief (and what was the source of that?), he restrained his natural enthusiasm.
"What's wrong with them?" he asked, pointing to the others.
"Gone. All gone!" his wife responded.
Will you come off the Dame Edith bits," Richard said testily. "What's going on here?"
"P.J.'s gone too," the comely widow said, rising from her curb of grief, a genuine dish in purple shorts and a sweater so pink and pebbly it seemed made out of nipples. She strolled toward him with the delicious lanquidity of a woman who's just finished dancing "Swan Lake." P.J. was her dog, short for "Pajamas"--protection against a world that housed, in her case, a few too quick to assume and hungry males, like Richard. Now P.J. was gone, along with Curmudgeon.
So were the three Chihuahuas that belonged to Mrs. Martin, who also sat on the curb: dogs whose food she insisted on tasting before serving them for, if it wasn't good enough for her, she claimed, it certainly wasn't fit for them. When Mrs. Martin spoke she tended to bark, probably as a result of her diet. She lived with Mr. Martin, a man who seemed to earn his living by watching TV. The couple had named their home "El View," even though it didn't have one. They'd christened the place with a wooden sign nearly as large as their garage door, on which it was posted. The Martins had three monster sons, each rejected by the Marines. They spent hours in the front yard, dismantling motorcycles and pumping iron, preparing themselves anew for their next audition with the Corps.
"And what's with her?" Richard Alabaster asked, nodding towards a woman crying on the curb beside a geodesic dome, one built by the cruel paramedic.
"Her husband left her ..."
"Again?" So? I thought she was sick of him. Why's she crying?"
"This is no time for levity, Richard. The dog's gone too."
"He took their dog with him this time?"
"No need to," Mrs. Martin barked. "He's a dog of a man himself. Believe me, Dearie, you're much better off without 'im. But that wonderful animal, your Crazy Horse."
Mrs. Martin was exaggerating, but not by much. Attempting to save their limp marriage, the paramedic and his wife had put themselves through a series of extraordinary measures. First, they'd built the dome, a home completely out of place on the cul-de-sac. It was one more fit for the splendid hills of Big Sur, a house they'd covered--in honor of the sea's proximity it seemed--with all sorts of nautical gingerbread: stained glass portholes, an antenna shaped like a mast, a sea otter weathervane, and a giant birdbath made of abalone shells. Next they bought a cat--which ran away, the circle infested with dogs as it was. They purchased two expensive French racing bikes (rusting now beside the birdbath) and then they had a baby. That didn't help much either, so they got a dog. He was a monstrosity named Crazy Horse. They kept him in a pen outside, a pen whose Stalag 17 fence he periodically dug under, his quest for freedom landing him in the Alabaster's front yard.
"Who could have done it?" Richard's wife wailed.
He caressed her clumsily, attempting to console her, glancing over her shoulder at the comely widow--whose spectacular appearance prompted all the wrong thoughts. When he disengaged himself, his wife, unfazed, said, "Who could ever dream of taking our dogs?"
"We got some really neat bills today, eh Sweetheart?" Richard said, once they'd gone inside. He was trying to cheer up his wife. "I like them much better than the really neat bills we got yesterday."
She didn't answer. She was in the kitchen. She'd gone there directly, muttering something about insensitive curs. From time to time he heard a stifled sob, just as he did from the room to which his two daughters had retreated, home from school and their female self-defense lessons. They had been informed of the loss of Curmudgeon. Richard felt guilty, relaxed as he was amid the absence of constantly thumping, slurping, sucking arthritic (imaginary or otherwise) flea-infested dog. He poured himself a glass of wine. He filled a pipe with tobacco and settled back in his father's chair.
Richard opened a Mexican match container given them by a friend who'd managed to return with both Montezuma's Revenge and matches from his last Club Med cruise, but Richard found no matches left within the container. Going out to the kitchen, he twisted a paper napkin into a wick. He lit it at the stove, lit his pipe and returned to the father's chair. The pipe went out. Back in the kitchen, again, he twisted a fresh napkin into a wick, lit the pipe and returned to his chair. Again, the pipe went out.
"Those napkins cost money, you know," his wife said, when he returned to the kitchen.
"Don't be bitter, Dear," Richard said. "You haven't lost Curmudgeon. You've just sort of ... loaned him out. And remember, it's better to give than receive."
"How would you know?" she asked. The doorbell rang. His wife ran to the hallway and swung open the door.
"Curmudgeon!" she cried.
She's taught him how to ring the doorbell? thought Richard. No, thank goodness. The comely widow stood there.
"I've just got to talk with someone," she said. "I have to!"
"Is Curmudgeon with you?" Mrs. Alabaster asked.
"Nobody's with me," the woman replied. "That's the trouble."
"Come in, come in," Riachard said, fighting back, unsuccessfully, the more than closet chauvinist within himself. The comely widow was wearing an ultramarine robe that made her look like one of those sensuous ads for Macy's nightwear. She was smoking two cigarettes, one in each hand--oblivious to this, it seemed, even when she snuffed them both out, simultaneously, in Richard's wine glass.
"Do you have anything to drink?" she asked.
"I did," Richard said.
His wife gave him a quick harsh glance.
"Sit. Sit comfy, you two," he said.
"I'll get you each a glass of wine. In the meantime, help yourself to some of mine ..."
"I'm nervous as a cat," the comely widow said, as Richard left the room.
"Oh, don't mention cats," Mrs. Alabaster said.
They're the natural enemy of our loss, you know."
I just can't go on without him," the other woman said, hugging her arms in the ultramarine robe.
"Which one?" Richard asked, returning to the room with three glasses of wine. He thought she was speaking of one of the many men who queued up at her door.
P.J.!" she cried.
Oh! ... your dog."
Richard was saved by the bell again. His wife jumped up. The comely widow lit two more cigarettes.
"Mom's in pretty bad shape," one of the Martin boys said to Richard, who'd managed to outsprint his wife to the door.
"Is Curmudgeon with you?" Mrs. Alabaster asked.
"Mom tried to commit suicide," the boy said.
"Good heavens!" Richard said.
"Oh, she's all right now, I guess. She tried to do it by holdin' her breath. That lasted a pretty good time. She even got blue some in the face. But you know Mom, how she loves to talk. That saved her."
"Please sit down," Richard said. "Would you care for a glass of wine?"
"With or without a twist of cigarettes?"
Reluctantly, Richard left the three of them alone. He knew how quickly they might dissolve again into canine-centered grief. Richard sloshed some wine into a glass and dashed back to the living room.
"Yeah, but we had three of them," the Martin boy was saying. "And you guys just lost one each."
"How's your father taking it?" Richard asked, handing the strapping lad his glass.
"Pretty hard. He turned off TV. Hey, this is white ..."
"You'd prefer red of course."
Richard decided it was time to suggest they phone the Pacific Grove police.
That night, the cul-de-sac was not a happy place. Even the wife of the cruel paramedic came calling, not long after the Martin boy had finished his sixth glass of Merlot. The paramedic's wife, like the comely widow before her, claimed she just had to talk with somebody, that--deprived of Crazy Horse, not her husband--she too was lost. And she also readily accepted a glass of wine, Pinot Chardonnay in her case. She accepted several, in fact, before the evening was over. Richard did broach the subject of phoning the police, a suggestion they all readily accepted, encouraged by his wife, who commended him for "thinking of everything"--a contention the others, knowing him at face value (which was closer to the truth), greeted with silence.
The policeman on duty, a Sergeant Westnose, turned out to be a dog lover himself.
"We'll find your pooches, sir; you can count on that," he proclaimed.
"They're not all mine," Richard protested. Then, thinking of Crazy Horse, "and one of them's as big as a truck."
"Any other distinctive features, sir? We can use them, you know. For purposes of identification."
How should he answer? Male? Black? Circumsized? Heavily shaven, scar on the left paw, wears a Masonic ring? The good sergeant was serious, Richard knew, as were the anxious people who hovered at his side. Richard gave as apt a description of the six dogs as he could, then hung up. The Martin boy was displeased.
"What'ya mean the Chihuahuas is no bigger than mice?" he complained. "They chase mice."
The sergeant phoned back within an hour. Nine stray dogs had been found down by the Monterey Coast Guard pier, setting up a cacophonous chorus with the harbor seals who bask there on the rocks. However, the policeman's description of the dogs did not match up and the Alabaster's guests were plunged, once again, into wine-sodden sorrow. The party grew futile, even a bit ugly. The Martin boy started doing handstands and sit-ups on the carpet. This was his way of taking his mind off the loss of the Chihuahuas. Richard secretly hoped the comely widow, too, might choose to expel her stress and join the boy in his athletic exertions on the floor. Toward this end, he offered her "one for the road," but she declined, and finally all of the Alabaster's guests were gone.
The building, though harbored in a clump of fairly healthy trees, was painted an off-white that resembled the droppings of sea gulls. The gate, waist high, was clamped shut with a device which, ironically, Richard had formerly used to fasten Curmudgeon's leash to his collar. Was this the place? Richard looked up and saw the name. Last Rights. It struck him as a singularly inappropriate choice for a convalescent home.
Early that morning the phone had rung. Richard had snatched it up. "Yes?" he'd whispered, not wishing to disturb his emotionally exhausted, sleeping wife.
"Mr. Alabaster? We found 'em, sir," the early morning voice of Sergeant Westnose said.
"Thank goodness," Richard sighed. "Where are they, Sergeant?"
"At the Last Rights Convalescent Home, sir,"the Sergeant said.
"Don't worry. It's Rights as in human rights, sir."
"Good heavens," Richard said. "Well, just tell me where the place is and I'll go get them. That'll be a nice early morning surprise for the wife and kids. For everyone on the cul-de-sac."
"I'm afraid it's not going to be that simple, sir," the Sergeant said in his most official voice. "The situation's a bit more complicated than we thought."
Indeed, Richard thought now, looking up at the sign again. He scanned a cement walkway, one used for "airing" the inmates no doubt, one surrounding the unprepossessing building located high in the Monterey hills. There was a splendid view of the Bay, but an old man wearing several layers of lumberjack shirts wasn't seeing it. He sat snoozing on a bench, his chin having grown right into his chest it seemed.
Indeed, Richard thought, starting up the main walk to the building's entrance, a ramp flanked by several railings designed to accomodate peripatetic failings of various heights. He had won permission from Sergeant Westnose to check out the convalescent home alone. So doing, he'd snuck out of his own house before anyone else was up.
Once he was inside the convalescent home, Richard was accosted by the first person he saw: an old woman who stared with scorn at his shoes.
"Go away, Charles," she said. "Just go away."
"She thinks you're her ungrateful brother," another voice, materializing at Richard's side, said. "He never comes to see her ..."
Richard turned and nearly collided with a man dressed in white.
"I'm not Charles," he said by way of apology. "I'm Richard Alabaster."
"I assumed as much," the man, who Richard assumed was a doctor, said.
"Just go away!" the woman who'd mistaken Richard for her ingrate brother screeched, suddenly.
"Now now, Helen, it's all right," the doctor said to her. "This man is a friend."
"Oh," the woman reconsidered, "then I love you."
She stroked Richard's cheek with a hand that, while it had turned cordial, was also cold as ice.
"I'll take you to your dogs," the doctor said to Richard, starting down a corridor.
"They're here then. It's true."
"Oh yes, they're here. They've been assigned to individual rooms," the doctor said, waxing official. "You see, state laws that once prohibited resident pets have recently been relaxed. Officials now realize that the affection and enthusiasm inspired are good for patients. The pets boost their morale, considerably."
"But they're our pets," Richard said. "They're our dogs."
"Yes, we know that now," the doctor responded, "but we didn't when they were first brought in. Sergeant Westnose has acquainted me, fully, with the situation. The problem."
"Who brought them here?"
"Some kid. He's about eighteen. Calls himself 'Robin Good.' Or, sometimes, 'Super Samaritan.' He's delivered a total of thirty-six dogs to four institutions in the last twenty-four hours. How's that for brotherly love?"
"It's also called stealing, isn't it?"
"Oh yes, but not by Robin Good," the doctor replied. "Nor these old ladies."
"Well, it's better to give than receive, I guess," Richard said, swallowing his words of the previous day.
"That's what they tell me. He's crazy as a loon, this kid. But well-intentioned, if misled. The police have him in custody."
Another old woman hobbled up to Richard, shaking a hand the color of a bruise in his face.
"They give me the same food every day," she whined. "You know why?"
"Why?" Richard said, prodded by the doctor to respond.
"'Cause they know I can't chew, that's why," she said. "I'd just as soon have dog food!"
"I'm terribly sorry about that," Richard said. He noticed an ageless crone, inside a laundry room, slowly extracting clothing from a drier.
"Good morning," Richard said to her, hoping to be as open, as cordial with the inmates as possible.
"Hello yourself," the woman snapped back, slamming the drier door with a vigor, a vengeance he'd not thought the aged capable of.
"She works here," the doctor said. "She's an aide, not a patient. And a very good aide. Not one of those who lifts stuff off the nearly comatose."
"The aides steal? Here?"
"Bracelets. Rings. Necklaces. Flowers. Candy. Anything not nailed down. And nothing's nailed down here--except the patients."
"How in the name of human decency can they do that?" Richard asked.
"They don't do it in the name of human decency," the doctor replied. "They do it for themselves. They figure these folks don't need that stuff anymore and that, because of low wages, they do ... ah, hello, Martha!"
They stopped before the open door of a room that contained two beds. Beside one, a woman with skin more white than the snow of her hair sat in a wheelchair. She was writing a letter, but the pad kept slipping from her lap and she was scrawling hieroglyphics all over her smock. In a far corner another aged woman was curled up in bed with--Curmudgeon!
"Martha, this is Mr. Alabaster," the doctor said, leading a somewhat reluctant Richard to her side.
"Halloo, Mister Bas-tard," the old woman jawed, half asleep, but suddenly giving Curmudgeon a soggy kiss.
"She's been teaching him how to read the Bible," the doctor said, without the slightest trace of irony. Then, nearly shouting, "How far along are you now, Martha?"
"Exo-dust Two," the old woman said, hugging the dog who, whining softly, having succumbed to a near hammerlock, seemed not to recognize Richard at all. "The part where Fart-off's daughter finds the kid in the bull Russians ..."
When Richard pulled back into the cul-de-sac, they were all waiting for him: his wife and daughters, Mrs.Martin and sons, the comely widow, the woman from the geodesic dome. Even Sergeant Westnose was there, a large man who, in spite of his formidable blue clothing, his black helmet and gloves, resembled a Saint Bernard.
"Well?," Richard's wife said, after he parked. "Where are they?"
"At the Last Rights Convalescent Home," Richard said, realizing--sadly--just how inappropriately appropriate the truth is in this life.
"We know that," his wife barked. "Sergeant Westnose has already told us where they are. But where are they?"
Later, when Richard's wife and two daughters had stopped speaking to him because of his failure to return with Curmudgeon, the good Sergeant and he sat down and agreed that it should be left to each person to retrieve his or her own dog. Richard's wife and girls went off, rapacious to return the mutt to his and their rightful home--to do all that Richard had failed to do, which was fine with him, if they could do it.
When they returned, however, it was with long but saintly faces. Curmudgeon was not with them. Richard's wife slumped into the father's chair. The Sergeant had left.
"I just couldn't do it," she said. "As much as I love him, I just couldn't do it! That old bag actually thinks she'd teaching him to read the Bible!"
"Maybe she is," Richard said, thinking of Curmudgeon's single-minded devotion to, his simplistic obsession with, imaginary fleas. "He always was something of a fundamentalist, you know."
"I just couldn't take him away from her," his wife wailed, overlooking his remark.
"Neither could the girls."
Mercifully, once again, the doorbell rang. Mrs. Martin stood there, dogless, with her three sons.
"She thinks the Chihuahuas are cats!" Mrs. Martin complained.
"The lady over at that place what's got 'em. She thinks they're cats."
"You didn't bring your dogs home?" Richard's wife asked.
"We couldn't," the oldest boy said, the one who'd been doing handstands and sit-ups on the Alabaster's carpet the previous evening. "That old lady was deaf and blind and everything, but she'd fixed up a box with kitty litter and she'd got the Chihuahuas some catnip and even a rubber mouse ..."
"She's given them new names already," one of his brothers broke in. "She's named 'em after the Marx Brothers!"
Mercifully again, the doorbell rang. It was the comely widow. She was dressed in shorts and a halter about as big as a midget's handkerchief. She looked great, but Richard didn't stare for long, having recently been exposed to so much truly perishable flesh.
"I've got a date tonight," she said, smoking a cigarette--just one.
"Really? With whom?" Richard asked.
"Your dog?" Richard's wife said. "You actually got your dog back?"
"P.J. Bates," the comely widow said. "He's a lawyer. With a Maserati. I don't own a dog anymore. My old lady was actually trying to nurse that cocker. Can you believe that? Not with much success, I'll admit, but P.J. seemed to love it. He wet all over her bed. And she seemed to love that too. Thank God he's spayed. I think he's got the hots for the old girl. When I left she was trying to teach him how to crochet."
The doorbell rang again. It was the wife of the cruel paramedic. Her husband was with her.
"Well at least somebody around here's still got a dog," tactless Mrs. Martin said.
"Now now, Mrs. M.," Richard said. "Be neighborly."
"We might as well give her all our leftover dog food," that model of decorum persisted.
The paramedic just shrugged his shoulders.
His wife circled his waist. "Crazy Horse is so big," she said, hugging the man who'd left her but returned, "they gave him his very own room at that home. All the old folks come in and take turns petting him. A couple of them even tried to ride him. That's so cute. The doctor said he was the greatest thing to happen there since Pac-Man. One old gal told me that Crazy was the one thing in the world that keeps her going. That it was love at first sight. Isn't that sweet?"
She gave her husband another big hug.
Richard looked at the comely widow, who looked at the oldest Martin boy, who looked at his mother, who looked at Richard's wife. Outside, incessant, the surf fell, percussively, on the shores of the small town of Pacific Grove. But tonight, it was not accompanied by the customary sound of barking dogs.