Read The Dogs of Littlefield Online

Authors: Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield (3 page)

“What kind of person even
thinks
like that? I'd honestly like to know. Whoever it is needs help. That dog is going to give me nightmares for months.”

A gust of wind blew into the tree; acorns strafed the roof of their house and then rattled into the gutters. Binx stood up and began barking; Margaret called to him to stop. The smell was getting stronger.

He missed whatever she said next. “I should go back to school,” she was saying now, as Binx settled once more by her chair, panting. “Become a therapist. Everyone else around here is a therapist. You know, I bet if you ran out of the house yelling ‘Help!' doors would fly open and people would rush out with handfuls of Prozac.”

“Jesus.” His forehead was starting to perspire. “When is dinner?”

But once again he forgot to listen, belatedly recognizing that her comment about therapists had been a joke. Ever since they'd started seeing Dr. Vogel, Margaret had been making jokes about therapists.

“Anyway,” she said, stroking Binx's broad head with one hand, “it really was terrible telling that guy his dog was dead. He couldn't get over it. That's what he kept saying. George Wechsler. Know who he is?

“The novelist,” she said, when he didn't reply. “He won a prize. He comes to the park sometimes. I've seen him there once or twice.”

“Oh, right.” He had no idea who she was talking about.

“Also, I've been meaning to tell you, the Fischmans rented out their carriage house. Someone from Chicago, Hedy said.”

“That's nice.” He watched a bat swoop over the pool.

“Well,” she sighed. “That's my news. Julia,” she called out, raising her chin toward the house, “dinner's almost ready. Are you doing your homework?”

Julia did not answer.

He knew he was not making enough of an effort. Margaret, with her news, her reports and small jokes, her flying starts at conversation, was trying so much harder. Every evening she had some disastrous item to offer up. Tonight the dog, but often it was a story from the news online: “Did you hear about—?” a tornado carrying away a trailer park in Nebraska, pirates kidnapping a family off their sailboat, the stoning of schoolgirls in Kabul, as if to say, “See? What's happening to us is not so bad.” Then again she might offer something she'd heard on the radio while making dinner, a little mystery explained, how habits are formed or why people applaud after theater performances.

She was trying, he realized with a stab of grief, to be interesting.

Candles on the table, a vase of flowers, something baked for dessert. It was graceful of her, it was valiant. And all he wanted was for her to stop.

The lawn mower from down the street quit and he could hear the cricket again. Margaret was gazing up at the oak trees, leaves dark now but trunks banded with gold.

“You know”—he stood up to collect their glasses—“I was thinking I might mow the grass tonight. I might really enjoy something like that.”

“Oh, I wish I'd known, Bill. It's already done. The landscape guys were here yesterday. I got them to put more mulch around the hydrangeas.”

Mulch. That explained the smell.

Another fusillade of acorns hit car roofs along the street. This time Margaret had her hand on Binx's collar, holding him back as he lunged forward, toenails scratching the patio slates.

“Did we need more mulch?” he asked despairingly.

Margaret gave another sigh that for a moment he thought had come from him.

“Hear that cricket,” she said.

3.

O
ver the park floated white skyscrapers, every
few minutes blocking out the sun, which shone superbly as soon as it came out again, gilding rocks, blades of grass, plastic water bottles, scraps of foil, every head of clover. On the green hillside a bush had turned magenta: burning bush it was called, a vivid burst against the cloud-thronged sky.

From eight to ten on most weekday mornings the meadow between the soccer field and the community gardens fizzed and boiled with dogs—dogs chasing other dogs; dogs running in circles; dogs digging, barking, eating grass, sitting and staring, apparently at nothing. Today there were only the basset hound Lucky, Skittles the Labradoodle, and Boris the Old English sheepdog, all on their leashes, hanging their heads under the wide maple tree in the middle of the meadow. Their owners spoke in subdued voices, gazing at their sneakers. These were a few of the regulars, a small battalion who brought their dogs to the park in every kind of weather.

Already rumors of a poisoning had gotten out, and Naomi Melman was describing how Margaret Downing had discovered George Wechsler's dog by the woods. Margaret had recounted the story on the phone last night when Naomi called to talk about the soccer carpool.

“Poor George.”

“I can't even imagine it.”

They all knew George Wechsler from mornings when he brought his white bullmastiff, Feldman, to run with the other dogs. Not that Feldman did much running. He was too big and too afraid of the other dogs. He spent most of his time trundling gently around the edge of the woods like a small albino rhinoceros emerging from the jungle. But since last spring, George had begun hiring Wayne, the Happy Paws dog walker, to bring Feldman to the park. Wayne drove a rusty black van without a back bumper, but it was equipped with dog seat belts and was capable of seating eight. Occasionally Wayne lost track of one of his dogs; apparently he'd lost track of George's dog yesterday. No one blamed Wayne for trying to make money—he was a graduate student at BU who lived in his parents' basement; he was overweight and had psoriasis and kept scratching his beard; Naomi thought he might be clinically depressed—but he took on too many dogs. They were always running away, jumping the chicken-wire fence and getting into the community gardens, digging in the soccer field or wading in the creek and afterward shaking mud onto people. Several times his dogs had jumped on elderly residents from Avalon Towers, out walking, and nearly knocked them down. He wasn't always careful about cleaning up after them, either. It seemed pretty clear that Wayne and Happy Paws were a big reason why all those signs had been posted, why there was so much resistance to an official dog park.

Resistance, repeated Emily Orlov, and now maybe worse.

“That's a little paranoid,” said Naomi.

The sun vanished behind another metropolis of clouds. The burning bush faded. Everyone under the old maple shivered. It was that unpredictable time of year when the sun was warm, but the air was cool.

“I'm just glad I have a fenced-in yard,” said Sharon Saltonstall. “That's what I'm glad of.”

All this time the dogs had been whimpering and groaning, straining at their leashes. Naomi's Skittles was growling at Sharon's Lucky. Now there was an explosion of snarling.

“Skittles!” cried Naomi. “No!” She pulled Skittles against her legs and made him sit while Lucky hung his head, long, flat brown ears trailing on the ground.

“They're so jumpy today,” observed Emily.

“They know something's up,” said Sharon.

The conversation returned to George. Before he quit teaching, George had taught Freshman English to Naomi's son, Matthew, at the high school. Impatient, sardonic, unexpectedly emotional: that was George's classroom reputation. Lobbed chalk at his students when they fell asleep but wept while reading aloud from
Of Mice and Men
. Naomi herself found George complicated, “a good-enough guy” but also “arrogant.” She had read parts of his novel on the Amazon website: a mystical Jewish baseball novel. Talmudic references mixed with meditations on the aerodynamics of the knuckleball.

“Wow,” said Sharon.

George and his wife had recently separated. Last week Naomi had spotted him in Starbucks with a blonde in biking shorts and a white Spandex top with no bra. But she suggested now that they propose George's novel to their book club. In light of what had just happened, it would be a nice thing to do. She'd mentioned this idea last night on the phone to Margaret, who agreed.

A figure had appeared near the community gardens while they were talking, a short, wide figure, a black woman accompanied by an old yellow Lab on a leash. Instead of the shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers favored by most dog walkers in the park, the woman wore a striped caftan, white and green and shot through with a glittering metallic thread. A dress that seemed out of season despite the warm sun. Even more noticeably, she wore a red turban.

“Who is
that
?” Emily planed a hand over her eyes.

“She looks like a fortune-teller,” said Naomi.

“I think she's wearing heels.”

The woman in the turban moved closer to the community gardens, unattended this morning.

She appeared to be examining a patch of staked cherry tomatoes bordered by orange marigolds. They watched as she bent down and murmured something to her dog, her hand a dark starfish on its yellow head. The dog wagged its tail.

“Anyway,” Emily lowered her voice, “what else did George say?”

“That was it. He was shocked.”

“What a shock for Margaret, too.” Sharon extracted three liver treats from a pocket of her cargo shorts. “Sit,” she told the dogs, then fed each one a treat. “Where is Margaret, anyway? I haven't seen her here much lately.”

Naomi slowly shook her head.

“What is it?” said Sharon. “She's not sick?”

“No.”

“Husband—?” asked Emily.

“I haven't said anything,” said Naomi.

“Midlife crisis.”

“God, the world's a hard place. Does she work?”

Naomi shook her head again.

“Poor Margaret,” said Sharon.

“They're in counseling, so here's hoping.” Naomi lowered her voice. “But she says she can't eat, can't sleep. I saw her last week at a soccer game and she looked like a ghost.”

Emily said a ghost was exactly what she'd call a middle-aged divorced woman with no job. “Especially,” she added, “in this economy.” Emily's husband was an economist. She herself was a professor of Russian studies. The other women sometimes called her the Pessimist.

“Well, she's not divorced,” said Sharon, who was a social worker.

Out in the meadow the grass shuddered in a sudden breeze.

The woman in the turban was walking slowly around the perimeter of the community gardens' chicken-wire fence. She stooped to examine a row of club-size zucchinis, and then moved on to a pumpkin patch, the yellow dog lumbering beside her.

“I know I shouldn't hold it against George,” Sharon said, returning to their earlier subject, “but I really think he should have walked that dog himself, instead of hiring Wayne.”

“It was an accident,” said Naomi.

“But if someone did it on purpose?”

“Who would do such a thing?”

“A monster,” said Emily.

The dogs began barking at a squirrel in the tree. Out in the soccer field, the woman's striped caftan rippled as she wandered toward the blazing stand of aluminum bleachers and then slowly passed out of sight.

4.

T
he towering clouds from earlier that morning
were gone and the sky was a brilliant, vacant blue above the park as Margaret walked Binx across the footbridge. After arriving late on purpose to avoid Naomi, to whom she'd confided too much on the phone the night before, Margaret had then felt ridiculous standing alone in the meadow and decided to take a short walk in the woods. Binx couldn't get into trouble if she kept him on his leash, and anyway Bill had convinced her that whatever had happened to that poor dog yesterday must have been an accident. Coyotes, he thought, were the answer. If it was poison at all, someone had been trying to poison the coyotes.

The woods of Baldwin Park were full of coyotes. Occasionally they materialized at the edges of people's backyards during evening barbecues, dark and bony, skulking behind rhododendrons and swing sets. Whenever someone's cat disappeared, posters would be thumbtacked to telephone poles with grainy photocopied pictures:
Have you seen me?
No one ever had. Deer also lived in the woods and flocks of wild turkeys, which sometimes bobbled down Brooks Street, like an official delegation with their dark feathers and bald-looking heads. Someone last winter saw a black bear, though the bear turned out to be Mrs. Beale, head of the Baldwin Park Garden Collective, examining the chicken-wire fencing in her old mink coat.

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