Read The Dogs of Littlefield Online

Authors: Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield (6 page)

Just an hour before, she had attended a Littlefield girls' soccer game, borrowing a fleece lap blanket and a folding nylon chair from her neighbors the Downings, who, when she'd expressed interest in local youth sports, had invited her to watch their daughter Julia's team play a team from Walpole. She sat on the sidelines cheering with the Downings and other families at the park as pink-cheeked girls with muddy knees thudded past, ponytails wagging. Julia Downing was on defense and hung back, often contriving to be elsewhere when the ball hurtled toward her. She was smaller than the other girls. Thin brown hair straggled from her ponytail and stuck to her pale neck. Her expression was tense, wary, at the same time disbelieving, as if she were baffled by everyone else's urgency as they rushed across the field.

“Come on, Julia,” shouted Bill Downing, less encouragingly as the game went on.

Margaret Downing said, “Don't yell at her. She doesn't like it.”

Halfway through the game, as Littlefield tied the score, Bill said, “Look at that Hannah. She's amazing. Three goals.”

And Margaret said, “You're always watching Hannah.”

Dr. Watkins noted down these comments on a steno pad, along with typical exhortations:

“Good hustle, Annie!”

“Get up there, Katie!”

“Go, Rachel, go!”

Only when a pair of gray F-15s from Hanscom Field streaked low overhead, like a pair of flung darts, did the encouraging cries cease for a minute or two until the shattering noise receded.

With three minutes left in the game, a Littlefield forward charged Walpole's goal. “Shoot! Shoot!” screamed the crowd. The ball circumscribed an exquisite arc to land just behind the leaping goalie, her gloved hands reaching, as clouds rushed across the bright blue sky.

“Great game,” called Bill Downing a little while later, when Julia and another girl trudged across the field. “Give me five, Hannah. You were on fire!”

“You played well, honey,” Margaret told Julia.

“No, I didn't,” said Julia. “Did you hear those planes?”

In the café, after ordering a cup of coffee, Dr. Watkins opened her laptop to read the news online. She subscribed to four newspapers and scrolled now through each of them, clicking first on an article about a Libyan militia attacking a school with rocketpropelled grenades, then on an account of hearings on Afghan war atrocities. In the past hour, the sky to the east had turned a bruised, purplish color above Brooks Street while the sun continued to shine in the west. Behind the glowing red and yellow leaves, the shining telephone poles and chimneys and rooftops, the sullen sky hung like a flat scrim, as if the village were a stage set illuminated by klieg lights.

Outside the café's window, beyond the soccer-playing ghosts, a red-faced young father in a plaid flannel shirt held a crying toddler on a bench in front of the Dairy Barn as a thin, dark-haired boy pedaled furiously past on a green bicycle. Several yards away two young girls were texting on their cell phones under a crimson maple tree, both frowning, sunlight patchy on their shoulders.

As she sat watching this mildly absorbing scene, it came to Dr. Watkins that behind the young father, behind the crying toddler, the texting girls—behind even the boy on the bicycle, that blank-faced boy, with the wind in his face, eyes narrowed, bike chain rattling, brown and orange leaves flying up from the gutters in his wake—behind all of them trailed shadows of previous citizens, previous lengthening, restless autumn Saturday afternoons.

She opened a new document and began typing:

For nearly three hundred years this village, like Sleeping Beauty's castle, has remained largely undisturbed by events consuming the rest of the world . . .

Littlefield had come to her attention one morning six months earlier, when it appeared on a
Wall Street Journal
list of the Twenty Best Places to Live in America. Each was a small city or large town, most around fifty thousand residents, all boasting “natural beauty” and excellent public schools. “Good quality of life” was the general descriptor, along with “Quiet and safe.”

As she read through the
Wall Street Journal
list at breakfast, she reflected that all around the world sociocultural anthropologists like herself were embedded in traumatized places, examining the effects of violence, oppression, need, fear. Why, she wondered, at first idly, then with quickening interest, was no one studying good quality of life?

Three years ago Dr. Watkins had received high praise, and tenure, for her study of the effects of global destabilization on urban matriarchal structures, based on her fieldwork in Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods and in the labyrinthine
vecindades
of Azcapotzalco, in Mexico City. (“A thoughtful new voice,” read a review in
American Anthropologist
.) But she'd published little since, engulfed by her teaching duties and by her students, who e-mailed her day and night with questions and pleas for extensions, visited her office to complain about their grades, then stayed to talk about demanding parents, drunken boyfriends, suicidal roommates—all of this so distracting that she had not been able to settle on a subject for another book. Recently several faculty members younger than she had published second books, and in one case, a third.

Littlefield was sixth on the list. Leafy streets, old Victorian houses, fine public schools and a small university, and a pond in the middle of town, with a bathhouse and lifeguards in the summer. Littlefield was also, she discovered, home to roughly one percent of the nation's psychotherapists.

How did global destabilization, she wondered, register among what must be the world's most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population?

Over the next months, she held lengthy discussions with Dr. Awolowo, her department chair, who, after some hesitation, approved a sabbatical and helped her obtain a fellowship at Warren College. It had been hard to leave her mother, who was getting old and melodramatic, and who had objected strenuously to that year in Azcapotzalco. Still harder had been leaving Dr. Awolowo, whom she loved silently and hopelessly (not even her mother knew how she felt about Dr. Awolowo) but with dignity, allowing herself a single expression of her feelings: adopting a turban headdress after overhearing the department secretary mention that Mrs. Awolowo wore a turban. But by the beginning of August she had sublet her apartment, packed two boxes of books, along with a set of curtains and several embroidered throw pillows to re-create a homelike atmosphere, also a rubber plant she had nursed through two blights, said farewell to her mother (who turned up the volume on her TV and pretended not to hear over a rerun of
America's Most Wante
d
), and drove east with Aggie the dog to Littlefield.

— —

She'd begun visiting the Forge
Café after the first dog was poisoned, deducing that she might listen discreetly to conversations in such a central location. Earlier she had attempted to eavesdrop on a small group at the park and felt herself observed. The goal was to blend in with the local population, difficult in her case. Aside from a scattering of black faculty and students at the college, the only black people she had encountered in Littlefield so far had been a cashier at Walgreens, a bagger at Whole Foods, a small covey of Metco children descending from a school bus in front of the elementary school, and two young men in coats and ties who were going door to door with copies of
The Watchtower
.

According to a brass plaque beside the cash register, the Forge Café had been owned and operated by the Jentsch family since 1953). Coffee was served in thick white china mugs; hamburgers and club sandwiches came on thick white china plates, with a side of potato chips, whether you wanted them or not, and a pickle spear. In a Lucite container on the counter sat thick hand-cut doughnuts, glaze hardening throughout the day. The Forge Café was neither as clean nor as efficient as Starbucks across the street, and some people said the coffee tasted like scorched bicycle tires, yet older businessmen and even a few of the aldermen considered it necessary to spend half an hour or so every week perched on the rounded stools at the gold-flecked linoleum counter, eating Mrs. Jentsch's hand-cut doughnuts. Though the doughnuts were no longer made by Mrs. Jentsch, who now lived in Boca Raton, but by a Pakistani law student who came in at five in the morning.

Equilibrium was what Dr. Watkins was hoping to investigate, so by the second dog poisoning, which prompted a torrent of outraged and worried letters to the
Gazette,
she was concerned about her fieldwork. After the third dog, which elicited so many letters to the
Gazette
that an extra page was added to that edition, she e-mailed Dr. Awolowo asking for advice.

I am afraid,
she wrote,
that the population, which I was counting on to be contented, is instead becoming frightened.

Fear and doubt may elevate the quality of your work,
he wrote back. He advised her to follow the inhabitants around, not ask questions but simply listen to them talk about themselves. He also reminded her that anxiety manifests itself differently in different populations.
Consider this a lucky stroke
. The village was under an assault of some kind and she was ideally positioned to study its coping mechanisms and apparent laws.

It was another stroke of luck, she now realized, to have moved in next door to the Downings, whom she could monitor unobtrusively at close range, especially Margaret Downing, who was so often at home.

Margaret played the piano for an hour every morning in the living room of her yellow Victorian house. Something classical and melancholy. Afterward she moved back and forth past the tall, uncurtained downstairs windows, picking up books, dishes, clothing, whatever her daughter and husband had left behind in their rush to school or work. She walked her big black dog, got in and out of her silver station wagon. Her clothes were loose-fitting, tasteful, middle-aged: beige, gray, or black, brightened by a patterned scarf or an arty hand-knitted cardigan. In the afternoons, when it was time for Julia to return home from school, Margaret stood at the living room windows looking out toward the street until her daughter turtled up the sidewalk under her enormous red backpack.

Almost always, Margaret opened the front door even before Julia gained the steps, each time smiling and saying something that did not arrest Julia's passage, or even cause her to look up. Sometimes Margaret continued to stand in the doorway for another moment or two after Julia had disappeared inside, still smiling, looking into the street.

An ordinary yet oddly disquieting woman. That alert posture, the air of determined grace, like a retired member of a corps de ballet. Her eyes widened whenever anyone spoke to her, even children; often she clasped her hands together against her breastbone as if accepting compliments. Yet whenever Margaret felt herself unobserved, her expression became tremulous, ambiguous, but also attentive. She appeared . . . besieged. But by what? The Downings had money; Bill was a kindly-looking man (too interested in adolescent girls?); Margaret was slender and attractive, an ash blonde with lightly freckled skin, only faintly lined. But there was something about her anxiety, if that's what it was, that was unsettling. She seemed to be attending to something just beyond the range of human hearing, something normally audible only to dogs, or bats.

For Halloween the Downings had studded their lawn with plastic tombstones and hung a six-foot glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton in the dogwood tree by their driveway. Margaret was in charge of most family activities (she had offered the fleece lap robe and folding nylon chair, for instance, and knew the correct time of the soccer game), but it was Bill who insisted on decorating for Halloween. Usually they didn't do much beyond carving a pumpkin, he'd informed Dr. Watkins last week as he was stringing up the skeleton on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but Julia wouldn't care about Halloween much longer and it was time to make the most of what they had left. The skeleton swayed in the breeze above their leaf-scattered yard, casting a long, narrow shadow.

7.

J
ulia was playing her oboe upstairs. She
had a band concert in two weeks, in which she had a short solo, and Margaret had been hounding her about practicing. No trick-or-treating on Friday, she'd finally threatened, if Julia didn't practice half an hour a day. Julia and Hannah Melman were going trick-or-treating together. Supermodels this year. Feather boas and lip gloss and skirts the size of cocktail napkins. Margaret was insisting on pants. Why couldn't they be Gypsies or a pair of dice?

Margaret had just said all this to George Wechsler.

She and George had been in touch by e-mail since their walk in the woods so that Margaret could schedule his visit to her book club in March. But after the third dog had been poisoned, Margaret had e-mailed George:
I don't think this is about getting rid of coyotes
.

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