Read The Dogs of Littlefield Online

Authors: Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield (4 page)

But the coyotes were what people minded, and not just because of the cats. It was their howling, demonic and miserable, and their eyes that shone yellow if your headlights caught them at night, and how they seemed to appear and disappear right as you were looking at them. They were said to be multiplying. People were afraid one day they might snatch a child, or maul a jogger, and periodically letters were printed in the
Gazette
proposing ways to get rid of them.

Today the woods seemed quiet and unremarkable, wide leaves barely stirring as Margaret stood at the edge of the trees. Three geese flew overhead honking, wings spread like boomerangs.

A man's voice said, “Hi.”

It was George Wechsler, in a red baseball cap, standing in the shade by the clump of sumac where yesterday she had discovered his dog.

The animal control officer must have described for George the exact location where the dog had been discovered. Yes, look—a strip of yellow caution tape was tied to a sumac branch.

“You're George, aren't you?”

She introduced herself as the person who had called him yesterday and said how sorry she was. They established that they had met once or twice at the dog park, where Margaret and Binx had only recently become regulars and where George no longer came very often.

He tipped up the bill of his baseball cap. His face was puffy, but perhaps that was how it always looked. He was holding something in his other hand.

“I don't want to bother you,” she said, after apologizing again. “I was just walking by.”

“Visiting the scene of the crime?”

He was shorter than she was. Green T-shirt, tight enough to emphasize his biceps, denim pants, cowboy boots. There was a stolid pugnacity about him, an exaggerated maleness enhanced by the burnish of dark stubble on his cheeks and his way of sticking out his chin when he spoke. His voice was peculiar: light but sandpapery, bordering on derisive.

Binx was sitting at her feet panting, his pink tongue lolling.

“I'm really sorry,” she said again.

“What do you have to be sorry about?” George crossed his arms. He was holding a brown paper bag, patchy with grease. When he saw her looking at the bag, he opened it and pulled out an enormous blood-streaked bone.

“Beef shank. I got it at the meat counter at Whole Foods.”

“Were you planning to bury it?” she asked politely.

“I don't know what the hell I was planning.” He stared at the bone for several moments. Then he made a disgusted noise and tossed it under the sumac bush.

To restrain Binx from lunging after the bone, Margaret began walking backward toward the trail that led into the woods. George followed, asking businesslike questions about how exactly the dog had been positioned when she found him and whether she had noticed anything nearby, a container of some kind, any evidence that he might have eaten something.

“No. Nothing.”

They arrived at the opening to the trail. Actually, two trails, one leading right and one left. She stopped, thinking that George would say good-bye and head back to the meadow, but he took a step or two into the woods, and then turned to look at her. “Going this way?”

They took the trail to the right, and for several minutes they walked along in silence, Binx as usual pulling hard at his leash, forging ahead and gagging.

“You can't let him off?” George said finally.

“I'm afraid he'll run away.”

But she bent down and unclipped the leash from Binx's collar. Off he went, bounding down the trail ahead of them. Amber light filtered through the trees, and from somewhere a bird cried out. How cool the woods were after the heat of the meadow. She felt herself appreciate the leafy privacy and the subversive sense of being, for a few minutes, where no one would look for her or expect her to be.

They walked on, George trudging beside her with his fists cocked backwards. She wondered if he got into fights easily—or if he only wanted to look like someone who got into fights easily.

“So,” she said at last, “this probably isn't the best time to mention it, but my book club is planning to read your novel. And we were hoping maybe you'd come talk to us? Maybe about how you get your ideas and what you're working on now?”

“Sure,” he said, hardly moving his jaw. “Be glad to.”

Binx had returned to amble beside them.

“It's so amazing, what you do, making stuff out of nothing.” She was embarrassed to find herself blushing. “Sort of like being a wizard.”

George gave a snort and kept staring straight ahead, stumping along in his cowboy boots. They had come to a narrow part of the trail, where the trees grew closer together and the underbrush was a tangle of saplings struggling through briar and creeper. A dead tree had fallen across the path; they had to take turns stepping over it.

“So what do you do?”

She pushed aside a whiplike branch and held it for George. “Me?”

“Husband? Kids? Job?”

“I used to be a teacher before I had a family. Then, you know, I took time off, and then it's hard to get back in once you've been out for a while.”

She listened to the squeak of her leather sandals. The breeze had stopped and the leaves were still. From deep within the woods came a low insect vibration.

“My husband keeps telling me to develop some outside interests.”

George was walking behind her now, twigs cracking and popping under his boots. In her imagination, she continued to talk about Bill, hearing even the timbre of her voice—pitched at a reasonable middle register—describing in detail their marriage counseling: Bill saying that he loved her but that something was missing, and that for now they were following Dr. Vogel's advice to be honest but kind to each other, in six months they would see where that landed them. It was the uncertainty of everything that was so difficult. Bill wasn't a big talker, lately he hardly talked at all, so she found herself reverberating to every change of mood, every shift in tone. Any disturbance affected her. It had gotten habitual. She couldn't stop herself, even when she wasn't with Bill. It was like being a human tuning fork.

“He suggested tennis,” she said. “Or squash.”

“Sounds exhausting,” said George.

“You have no idea,” said Margaret.

But he did. When she asked if he had a family he revealed that his wife had left him last spring. “For two months,” he said, “I had a heart attack every morning.”

Margaret stopped walking so abruptly that George almost walked into her. She had been staring at the ground, but now out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed something large and white flickering through the trees.

“What was that?”

“What was what?” said George in his peculiar, harsh voice.

“I thought I saw something.”

George squinted and then turned to look at her, his hands at the back of his belt, hitching up his denim pants.

She smiled apologetically and said she was very sorry to hear about his wife, waiting for him to say more about their separation, but he only made a small, open-palmed after-you gesture with one hand.

As they resumed walking she thought how surprising it was that he had confided something so personal to a near stranger and again imagined herself confiding in him, being as frank as he had just been. Well, for Bill it's mostly about sex, she would say coolly. He says he doesn't feel anything. He says he feels dead. His father died in March and, according to our couples therapist, death makes men think about sex. He probably wishes he could be with someone younger. That's what I'm afraid of, anyway. But I'm trying to give him some space, I want to help him go through whatever he needs to go through.

What a remarkable person you are, George would say to her.

Once more she found herself blushing and called for Binx. He came trotting back to the trail to stand by her legs while she fastened the leash onto his collar again.

“A miracle,” she said. “He never comes when I call.” The trail was now wide enough that George could walk next to her, Binx trotting ahead.

“He's kind of an anarchist,” she said.

“All dogs are anarchists,” George said, “at heart.”

“Well, some dogs hide it better than others.”

George laughed and said it was a miracle that any dog ever listened to human beings, given that dogs were the ones with big teeth. Then he reached over and rested a hand on her shoulder.

The trail was again stippled by sunlight, a complicated pattern that shifted with the tree branches. She felt the warmth of George's hand against her bare skin, a mild but insistent pressure. And then it was gone; the shade of the woods drew back, and together they walked out into the ordinary humming light of day.

5.

T
he morning after her walk in the
woods with George Wechsler, Margaret looked out of her kitchen window to see the door to the Fischmans' carriage house propped open with a battered-looking blue canvas suitcase. On the front stoop were woven baskets of varying size—each filled with books or colored scarves or embroidered pillows alight with tiny mirrors—along with a glossy jade plant in a red glazed pot.

Every fall for the past decade the Fischmans had rented their furnished carriage house to a visiting professor at Warren College, a mile to the south. Mulberry-colored and gabled, a smaller version of the Fischmans' house, the carriage house was separated from the Downings' driveway by a privet hedge, though a gap in the hedge allowed for foot traffic. The carriage house had once been divided into two home offices—both Fischmans were psychoanalysts—but since their retirement they'd put in a kitchen and an upstairs bedroom. Rental income was nothing to sneeze at, and they liked the idea of having someone to call on in an emergency, especially since Marv's stroke, which had left him with a palsied hand and slurred speech. Generally their tenants had not mixed much with the neighbors on Rutherford Road. Last year's tenant was a tall, gaunt man from Brussels with grayish teeth who wore dark suits, even on weekends, and never opened his window blinds; his subject was the dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment. Not exactly a guy to invite over to watch the Super Bowl, Bill had said to Margaret.

That afternoon she and Julia walked across the driveway with a paper plate of chocolate chip cookies, as they always did when a new person moved into the carriage house. Even the man from Brussels got a plate of cookies. Julia had not wanted to go and had to be persuaded.

“It's neighborly,” said Margaret.

“People don't do that stuff anymore.”

“Of course they do.”

“No,” said Julia. “Only you do.”

A plump black woman, hardly taller than Julia, met them at the door wearing a green turban, feathery pink mules, and a peach-colored silk robe embroidered with dragons. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. She smiled broadly, revealing large front teeth with a gap between them, and introduced herself in a supple, gravelly voice as Clarice. Then she thanked them for the cookies and said that they'd have to excuse her, as she was just about to have her bath, thanked them again, and shut the door. Margaret and Julia walked back through the hedge.

“Well,” Margaret said as they reached their back steps. “She seems interesting. I feel like I've met her before.”

“She's black,” noted Julia.

“African-American.”

But Julia wanted to know what if she wasn't: what if she wasn't American
or
African? What should she be called then?

Margaret opened the back door to the kitchen. “I suppose you'd say person of color.”

“But who
says
that?” Julia loitered in the doorway, voice rising. “Who says, ‘Hey, guess what, today I met a person of color'?”

“Let's talk about this inside,” said her mother.

The Downings had since learned that Dr. Clarice Watkins was an associate professor at the University of Chicago. Hedy Fischman wasn't sure, but she believed Dr. Watkins might be a friend of the Obamas. Dr. Watkins had said she was from Hyde Park—where the Obamas used to live, Hedy knew—and had revealed that her mother lived in Hyde Park, as well. Obama had been mentioned several times in the conversation. Hedy was slightly hard of hearing, a difficulty compounded by her tendency to talk over other people during conversations, so Margaret thought it was possible that Dr. Watkins had said “Mama” at those moments, not Obama. What Hedy knew for certain was that Dr. Watkins was this year's Talbot Scholar at Warren College, where she was scheduled to deliver a series of lectures on something, and was also conducting some kind of study. Hedy couldn't remember on what.

Bill wondered aloud if they might invite Dr. Watkins to dinner one evening. It would be interesting, he said, to meet someone who knew the Obamas.

“She
might
know the Obamas. It's not clear. She wears a turban.”

“Is she Muslim?”

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