Read The Dogs of Littlefield Online

Authors: Suzanne Berne

The Dogs of Littlefield (9 page)

Sybil found them seats to one side of the hall, next to a gentleman with scanty hair dyed the color of aged cordovan; he wore a red and white diamond-paned sweater over plaid slacks and a pair of sneakers.

“Steven,” cried Sybil. “Betsy, it's Steven Karpinski. Carolyn's husband.”

Carolyn Karpinski had been a member of the Littlefield Women's Club Executive Flower Committee, on which Mrs. Beale served for two years as president. An enthusiastic but lazy gardener. Fond of big, blowsy, sentimental flowers, peonies, cabbage roses, which in their pale, fatheaded way resembled Carolyn herself. Weedy garden. Aphid problems, Mrs. Beale recalled.

Clasping her hand between both of his, Steven Karpinski leaned over and bussed her damply on the cheek. “Ceci's dear friend! How she would have loved to be here.”

“Such a loss,” muttered Mrs. Beale, withdrawing her hand with difficulty. “Are
you
here tonight, Steven, because you have a dog? Or are you of the other persuasion?”

“Hah?” said Steven.

“We're talking about dogs,” shouted Sybil.

“It's a dog's life,” he agreed in a loud, triumphant voice. “We're all going to the dogs! You bet!”

Mrs. Beale looked at him with disapproval. “We are
not
going to the dogs,” she said, “if I can help it.”

A woman sat down on the other side of her. A black woman wearing an orange turban and a long greenish raincoat of some sort of iridescent material that gleamed like beetle wings.

Mrs. Beale greeted her cautiously. “Pro or anti dog?”

The woman fixed her with a brilliant smile. “Impartial observer.”

“Hah?” said Steven.

“We're talking about the hearing,” snapped Mrs. Beale.

“My hearing's fine! It's a dog's life, that's all I'm saying! I bet
you
agree with me.” He winked at the woman in the turban.

All the chairs were taken, and people lined the walls by the time six aldermen filed onto the dais from a side door. They settled into the padded swivel chairs, fiddling importantly with their red or blue striped ties, sipping coffee or nodding to people they knew. One of them grinned and cocked his finger at someone. Mrs. Beale eyed his expensively cut gray hair, large brown eyes, and long, straight nose; he resembled a lanky television actor she'd seen in truck commercials. While the other aldermen glanced through their notes, this one lounged in his swivel chair, chewing a toothpick, a small American flag pin affixed to the lapel of his dark suit.

Politicians, she thought, are an indulgence.

— —

By seven o'clock the doors
were shut. One of the aldermen, a dark, sorrowful-looking man with eyebrows like Leonid Brezhnev's, announced that the hearing was now under way and that the topic was Baldwin Park. After reading aloud a police report on the poisonings at the park, then a description of the proposed ban “on all canine visitors,” as well as the ordinance for a designated off-leash area, he invited residents to state their support or opposition to either one. Chair legs scraped against the floor as people left their seats and waded into the aisle, lining up for their turns at the microphone, Mrs. Beale last among them. She was startled to see George in line five or six people ahead of her.

The first speaker, a white-haired woman in a magenta, sequined sweater, identified herself as a resident of Avalon Towers and began by saying she loved dogs and was appalled by recent events, but that she felt the park should be for everyone and not just dogs. A few boos sounded from the audience.

“Dogs often don't come when they are called,” insisted the woman into the microphone and then described being knocked down by a Weimaraner. “They are out of control when off their leashes. They're frightening. I'm sorry about those poor dogs being killed, but I think it's their owners' fault.”

More booing from the hall. The chief alderman banged his coffee mug against the table for order. Mrs. Beale watched the woman stumble back to her seat, a crimson spot high on each cheekbone.

Next came a burly, bearded young man wearing an old green MIT sweatshirt that appeared to be covered with dog hair. What
he
thought was at fault were the mean-spirited signs posted in the park. “Put a muzzle on whoever's behind those signs,” he mumbled, scratching his beard. Several people shouted, “Hear, hear.” Mrs. Beale stiffened.

A spiky-haired woman in a potato-colored jacket approached the microphone. “Do
children
always come when they're called?” Her silver nose ring glinted under the fluorescent lights. “If you want dogs leashed, why not leash children, too?”

Stepping back from the microphone, she plunged a hand into the satchel slung over her shoulder and brought up a handful of yellow buttons, which she passed around; they read,
KIDS ARE FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T HAVE DOGS.

Absurd, Mrs. Beale muttered to herself, shocked to see how many people reached for the buttons. It was getting very warm in the meeting hall; she loosened the knot of her Liberty scarf.

She had begun to lose track of the speakers when a small, knobby-faced man with a dark goatee introduced himself as Mr. Eric Dibler. He was wearing a teal-blue suit and had a strange look to him, both seedy and superior; he reminded her of a hillbilly preacher. In a mechanical voice, Mr. Dibler explained that he had a master's degree in environmental science and had conducted a study of dog waste in the park. After exhaustive calculations, he estimated that three tons of canine “sewage” was being deposited there every year based on the number of dogs per capita in Littlefield, at the moment roughly point six. He spoke of “contaminants.” He referred to dogs as “producers.” He frequently wet his lips with his tongue, his mechanical voice becoming strangely mesmerizing, so that Mrs. Beale found herself both embarrassed and enthralled, waiting to hear what he would say next.

At last he stopped speaking and gave a motoric twitch that shook his entire body before moving aside for the next speaker. Then he changed his mind and pitched back toward the microphone.

“And for your information,” he shrieked, almost knocking the microphone out of its stand, “KRAP is PARK spelled backwards.”

“All right, all right.” The chief alderman waggled his black eyebrows. “Thank you very much. Next.”

Mrs. Beale was really beginning to feel hot standing in the aisle under the fluorescent lights of the hall. Her feet hurt. She should never have worn her black shoes with the Cuban heels, but she had wanted to dress respectably for this evening. A shame that no one in line was well mannered enough to recognize that an elderly person should be allowed to move up to the front.

A woman testified that she would like to see a leash law for cats, to keep them from killing birds in her yard. Then it was George's turn. Like humans, he said, dogs needed a chance once in a while to be free. The pursuit of happiness should be a dog's right, too. George described how he had raised his dog, Feldman, from a puppy and how Feldman used to greet him whenever he came home, his whole body wriggling with joy. Happy to wait for him in the car, sitting behind the steering wheel. Happy to sit on the couch to watch TV. Happy just to be alive. That was what it was like to have a dog. They reminded you of the basic joy of being alive, which, God knows, was easy to forget.

“Dogs are dying out there,” he said. “For no other reason than somebody's sick fantasy of what a park should be like. Is this the kind of town we want for our children? Do we want to be driven by fear, not even knowing who we're afraid of?”

Several people stood to applaud. “Who's sick?” Steven Karpinski could be heard asking. Mrs. Beale felt light-headed and found herself squinting as if through smoke.

Alicia Rabb, her neighbor from two doors down, took command of the microphone. Alicia was small and sharp-featured, with black, spiky eyes and a blond pageboy; she was given to what Mrs. Beale thought of as “ethnic accessories.” Tonight she wore a white chinchilla vest over her turtleneck, tight denim pants, and long feather earrings. Alicia leaned too close to the microphone and, through a painful squeal of feedback, said that because of the poisonings,
her
children were afraid to visit the park, which was why, after a lot of soul-searching, she had decided to support the ban on dogs.

“Children have a right to their games.” Her quavering voice boomed through the microphone. “They have a right to feel safe in the world and to wonder at nature. Native Americans have a phrase for childhood, it's the Time of Awe.”

“Or the awful time,” said a disrespectful person, quite audibly, from near the front row.

It sounded like George. That was the sort of thing he would say. Mrs. Beale was sure it was George. What a boor. A narcissist. Tina was right. Perfectly understandable why she'd left him. At that moment Mrs. Beale was visited by an image of Tina splayed naked on a bed wearing her reading glasses, pointing instructively at the dark figure of a man poised above her. The nausea quivering in the pit of Mrs. Beale's stomach took a lurch.

“We are all children in this world.” Alicia turned and gave the hall a black, spiky look. “Please.” She turned back and took hold of the microphone with both hands. “Protect the park. Protect us all. Give our children back their childhoods.”

Very moving, thought Mrs. Beale faintly. She began to feel sorry for the Rabb children, until she remembered who they were: a pack of skinny, blue-eyed youngsters with chaff-colored hair and scabby legs, who were often barefoot, regardless of the weather, and wore expressions of malevolent innocence that frightened even the postman. They threw pine cones at bicyclists and squirted them with squirt guns, and one of them, the oldest boy, had been sent to counseling for something to do with a gerbil. Neighborhood cats avoided their yard. In September two of the Rabb girls ran through the neighborhood stealing flowers and ferns from people's gardens, then tied them into sloppy bouquets to sell for five dollars each at the Harvest Fair—in some cases hawking flowers to the very people from whom they had stolen them—before being apprehended by Sybil, whose entire bed of dahlias had been decimated.

Alicia sat down, looking proud and saddened in her chinchilla vest. The two people in line ahead of Mrs. Beale, both members of the Off-Leash Advisory Group, each spoke, but she was too preoccupied with her own increasing physical discomfort to listen.

“Have we had dinner?” Steven Karpinski was asking.

Mrs. Beale was the final speaker.

She gazed at the microphone with distaste. A long, thrusting metal thing with a dark, globular foam knob.

“Littlefield is being overrun by dogs,” she heard herself say in a thready, amplified voice, “and we seem to feel there is nothing we can do about it. That is why this terrible person is acting in such a dreadful fashion. But we
can
do something.”

A good start. The crowd, which had grown restive after Alicia Rabb's speech, now settled down and seemed to be listening. Her energy returning, Mrs. Beale went on to outline her proposal for a general ban on dogs in the park, enumerating the various ways in which dogs had not behaved like good citizens in the past, pointing in particular to several occasions when the community gardens had been ravaged. “The latest offense”—her voice was getting raspy—“is a large hole that was dug in a gardener's pumpkin patch.”

She caught sight of Mr. Dibler's stern, knobby face; he was looking at his watch.

“But I'll tell you what I really mind,” she said, and paused to breathe into the microphone. Her heart was thumping. What did she really mind? Aphids. Tina's unwashed wineglass. The mothball smell of Sybil's raccoon coat. Those unopened packages of her husband's shirts and the thought of moving someplace smaller one of these days.

George's great pale, slavering dog appeared before her: that dog, sitting in the front seat of George's car behind the steering wheel.

“What I
really
mind”—she grasped the microphone stand with a trembling hand—“is the way
dogs
are being allowed to run things. A lot of very
high and mighty
people around here would tell you that dogs have as much right to the park as we do.” She turned to glare at where she imagined George to be sitting. “But let me ask you, do
dogs
pay taxes?”

Someone began to shout from the audience. Other people shouted back. She touched the knot of her scarf. Her feet ached in her Cuban heels and she really was very hot. She had said what needed to be said. Nothing more could be expected of her. She must sit down, and yet her chair was so far away. A roaring reached her as the combined voices of the audience swelled fiercely and incoherently, and out of nowhere that dog came leaping, white and enormous, its great red jaws opening wider and wider so that she could see all the way into its black gullet, where there was nothing left for her in the world.

The alderman with Brezhnevian eyebrows banged on his desk with his coffee mug, banging so hard the mug broke and flew into pieces. George had appeared beside her and now offered his arm.

“Allow me,” he said, his breath wreathing her ear, smelling of olives. She clutched gratefully at his arm with both hands and let herself be conducted back to her seat.

Sybil was waving as if hailing a taxi. The black woman in the turban had moved over to give Mrs. Beale her seat on the aisle; George said something friendly to the woman as he helped Mrs. Beale sit down.

“Are
you
sick?” Steven Karpinski bellowed from the other side of Sybil. “You look like you ate a mouse.”

“No, no,” she said gruffly. “I am quite all right. Thank you,” she tried to say to George, but he had already moved away and was heading back down the aisle.

The hearing ended with the chief alderman declaring that they would consider both proposals, for a dog park and for a dog ban, at their next meeting. Everyone gathered their coats. At the front of the room the tall, actorish alderman was speaking to Alicia Rabb, his hand on his chest as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

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