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Probably my tenth trip to the front window in an hour. I’m looking at the yard, cellphone in hand, getting footage of my neighbor’s German Shepherd. He crosses the street, trots up to my cherry tree, lifts his leg and takes a leak. Then he moves away, squats, and takes a huge dump in the grass. Not the first time, but now I have evidence. With no rain for two weeks, the grass in our sloping front yard is short, and the piles of dog shit look like the work of ambitious fire ants. Enough is enough, as my mother used to say. Time to have a few words with Dickson, my new neighbor.
In the living room, I turn off the TV, the friend that provides distraction and keeps me company, especially in the evening. The room is now dead quiet. For a minute I just stand here, listening for what I don’t know. I have to get out. Tina is still everywhere and very likely wouldn’t want me to do what I’m going to do.
From the shed in the backyard, I grab a square-blade shovel. I walk out front, scoop up four big piles, cross the street, and dump it all on Dickson’s lawn.
“Hey, man, what are you doing?”
Down the porch steps he comes. Younger than me, he’s got a bulby nose that sticks out between a brown mustache and blue framed glasses. His hair, pulled into a ponytail, is brown going gray. He’s wearing leather sandals and well-worn Levis with fashionable holes in the knees. With a nasal tone to his voice, he could be a comedian. His face is flexible and twists itself into various expressions.
“Down Fausto, down.”
The dog is big—maybe the size of Dickson’s ego. But I don’t really know. Since he recently moved in, I’ve only spoken to him a few times at our cluster mailbox units just up the street. One day he forgot his key and out came some funny curses, probably for my entertainment. I pet Fausto’s head. He’s wagging his tail—Mr. Friendly. Last dog Tina and I had was also a German Shepherd, Bruno. Got him when he was a puppy. Wonderful dog, easily trained. My son and daughter loved him.
“He must like you. Most people he barks at.”
“Well, I know he likes my cherry tree and front lawn.”
“What do you mean?”
“Here, check it out.” I take out my cellphone and show him footage of good old Fausto on his morning routine. I say, “Look, that’s Fausto, right?”
“And that’s your Ford 150 he’s moving toward after his daily dump. Right?”
“He pisses on the tree and shits on my lawn every morning. That’s why I’ve decided to return the shit,” I say. “Your dog, your shit.”
“No, you wait. This has been going on for weeks. You need to follow the rules.”
“The Home Owner Association has a leash rule. You’re not allowed to let your dog run free. And you’re supposed to get a green plastic bag from one of the dispensers to clean up his mess.” At this moment I’m lucky to see Mrs. Kirk walking up the hill with her little white dog on a leash. I point. “There’s our neighbor, Mrs. Kirk, following the rules. Notice she’s carrying a green plastic bag to pick up the poop. Every street in the neighborhood has a poop bag dispenser.”
He fixes me with a squint, his lips twitching, then a big toothy grin. “Well, she needs a bag. That dog is a Shih-tzu, and perfectly named because they shit all over the place!”
I had to laugh. “You’re unbelievable.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Why? What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m an art teacher.”
I was surprised he had no tattoos. “And you let your students run free, like Fausto?”
He laughs. “You’re good,” he says. “But, hey, shit happens.”
Shit happens. Oh my God. I fake a laugh. “Very funny, but when it does, I’ll either get out the shovel again, or I’ll bring up the issue at the next Home Owner Association meeting. You haven’t lived here very long, so I should warn you that you will be fined.”
“Do you dislike dogs?”
“No, of course not. We used to have one. A German Shepherd in fact. And a cat.”
“Ah, so you’re bi, you go both ways.”
“I guess I am. Are you normal, or just ab?”
He laughed. “You’re good. We should have a drink, talk this over. Do you like whiskey?”
I shouldn’t have said yes, but I did.
“How about bourbon, scotch, gin . . .”
“I’m okay with bourbon.”
He motioned toward his house. “C’mon, we’ll have a drink.” He let his eyelids droop and his mouth fall open to look like a drunk. I couldn’t tell whether he had already started drinking, or just prided himself on being a character.
“Sorry. It’s not five o’clock yet.”
“In France it is.”
“But I don’t speak French.”
“Well, London will work.”
“Sorry, I’m going to the gym, work out for a while.”
“Well, maybe when you get back?”
“We’ll see. Will your wife join us?”
“Joanie’s gone up to Maine for a few weeks. Her sister’s sick and needs some help with the kids.”
I tell him I’m sorry.
“Do you like movies?”
“Yesterday, the classic channel had on Wyatt Earp.”
“Tombstone also has Earp and it’s a better movie.”
“Costner is a better Earp and—”
“But Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is much better than Dennis Quaid’s.”
“Okay, okay, but in any case, you’re Wyatt Earp, the dog-shit enforcer.”
He got me laughing. “So I guess you’re Doc Holliday.”
“Right! Remember this? Doc says, ‘I know it’s not always easy being my friend, but I’ll be there when you need me’.”
“Great. Maybe later, Doc. I’ve got to get going, and you’ve got to get Fausto to stay off my lawn.”
When I cross the street and face the front lawn, I notice again the green algae and mold on my concrete drive. When Tina and I moved here more than two years ago, I gave away some of my tools to a friend, but fortunately I kept the electric power washer. After the gym, I’ll have to pull it out of the garage and plug it in. That algae is slippery to walk on. Somebody might fall, break a bone, and sue me.
On the way to the Fitness Center, there’s a stretch of road where orange ditch lilies are in full bloom, something Tina would love. Driving along the river, I think about Doc Holliday. I’m also listening to a CD with Paul Simon on his way to Graceland. Newly retired, with just a little volunteer work at the local food kitchen, I don’t do much but go to the gym, read, and watch old movies. I watched that Earp movie too. I’m thinking about the scene where his father gets him out of jail for stealing a horse and gives him a brief lecture about drinking himself to death and getting his life back on line. “You’re not the only one who’s ever lost someone,” the father says. He’s talking about Earp’s wife Urilla, love of his life, who died of typhoid back east. So Dickson is also into films. He has a good sense of humor and could be entertaining. God, the faces he can make. It’s interesting how women seem to make friends more easily than men. In the short time Tina and I were in this new town and neighborhood, she had three good friends. Not me. The friends I had were up on the coast where we lived for almost twenty years.
I stop at an intersection. Front Street is lined with bars and restaurants. A sloop with maroon sails drifts downriver on my right. I’m not watching the light. The guy behind me beeps, and I take off again. Be where you are, somebody said. Or wrote. Sliding by on the left is the Brass Rail, Paul’s Pub, The Knock Um Back, the Happy Room, and Gino’s Pizza. Tina and I used to go into Gino’s, get a booth in the back. Nice atmosphere, good beer, and great pizza, especially the sausage and mushroom. A guy named Tom I met at the Fitness Center tended bar at Gino’s. Great guy. Then for a while I didn’t see him at either the gym or the bar. I wondered if he was sick. One night, I asked Gino, the owner, where Tom was. “He left town, got a better job out in Charlotte.” That hurt. I’d only known Tom for about a year. We talked and joked about all kinds of things. Just before the Fitness Center, I pass the Salvation Army and realize I need to deal with Tina’s clothes, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
A loud cacophony used to be the trademark of all gyms, but cellphones have changed that. Things have quieted down. Everybody has ears plugged with buds, thin white wires dangling down to the cellphones that have them mesmerized. Well, not everybody. I’m on the leg press machine. Three guys are talking and taking turns on the seated arm curl machine next to me. They’re big weightlifter types, over 200 pounds. One guy is going on about his son, how the kid at age fifteen is six foot three, 230 pounds, and has no interest whatsoever. I’m thinking, Interest in what? Another guy asks what the deal is? Is the kid awkward? Can’t he run? No, the father says, he’s in good shape, strong, fast on his feet, throws and catches a ball with ease. So what’s the problem? asks the third guy, wiping sweat from his stubbly jaw. “Well,” says the father, “The kid likes music and wants to play flute in the high school band.”
“He don’t wanna do nuthin’ with that kinda size and speed?”
“Nope,” says the father. “But I told him he ain’t gone play no flute like no faggot. He can play trumpet or trombone, or he can play football.”
The guy with the stubble jaw says, “Don’t he know he can get a free collitch education outta football? Hell, I did.”
I feel like yelling bullshit! But I control myself. Dog shit is my problem, but bullshit is an even bigger problem; it’s everywhere.
Treadmills are all taken downstairs, so I climb the stairway to the balcony where there are also a few cross trainers and two treadmills, both free. I climb on one closest to the stairway bannister, away from the wall, and set the time for twenty minutes. Also turn on the TV. On MSNBC some talking heads are yakking it up about a political candidate who has “border issues,” touching women in ways that make them feel uncomfortable: hugs, shoulder touches, cheek kisses, and the like. I look up when a woman gets on the treadmill next to mine. She seems a bit younger. Pretty, long face, brown hair with blond streaks, nice derrière. White shorts and a blue T-shirt. Late 50s is my guess.
I turn back to the TV screen. I’m walking fast but soon I hear a thump-thumping from her machine. She’s running. Also glancing at her cellphone. The woman interviewed on TV says the politician’s touches don’t fall into the category of sexual harassment, but just made her feel uncomfortable. Maybe he was unaware that he was invading her space. We all need our own space. I’m thinking: the politician is just a toucher, like my father. Me too come to think of it. I often pat somebody on the back or shoulder, squeeze an arm.
A loud boom comes from the drywall wall on my left. She fell between the wall and the machine. Her right leg is still on the moving belt. I jump over to her machine and stab the OFF button. I ask if she is okay.
“My God, what did I do?”
She’s wedged between the machine and the wall.
“Don’t try to move,” I say. “Let me help you get up.”
I have a hard time getting behind her. The best lift would be to put my hands under her arms. For a split second I think about the politician touching women and making them feel uncomfortable. With my hands under her arms, I lift her to her feet and away from the treadmill, touching her breasts in the process. “Are you okay?”
She still holds my arm. “I think I am,” she says.
“The belt gave you a bad scrape on the back of your thigh.”
She looks. “It’s not bleeding though.”
“Well, not yet. Try walking a little bit,” I say. She continues to hold my arm as we walk. We stop, and she does some bending.
“I think I’m okay,” she says. “I’m really grateful to you. And lucky you were here. Please tell me your name.”
“I’m Cindy.” She squeezes my arm, then lets go. “It’s my fault. I should have been paying attention to what I was doing, not looking at my cellphone. Now I’ve got to find the damn thing. It must have bounced off the wall and slid under the treadmill.”
There is no room on the floor, so I kneel on the machine’s belt and try to look under, but it’s too dark. “Can’t see,” I say. “Too dark underneath.”
“Use the light on your cellphone,” she says.
A bit embarrassed, I say, “It’s in my car.” I almost never carry the thing, much to the annoyance of my son and daughter. I tell her I’ll go to the front desk and get a light, and that she might want to come downstairs with me. Her scraped leg is now oozing a few small drops of blood. “Rob, one of the trainers, can put something on that,” I say.
At the front desk, I leave Cindy and head back to the treadmill upstairs. With the light, I can see her cellphone but my arm can’t reach it. A wire coat hanger quickly comes to mind. Twist it into a hook. I go back downstairs to the locker room where I know I’ll find one. That does the trick. Cellphone retrieved.
Cindy decides she’s done for the day. I walk her to the door that opens on the parking lot. We talk for a few minutes. She puts her arm around me and thanks me again.
“Please, I did nothing.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“My accent gives me away.”
“It tells me you’re not from South Carolina.”
“But you are,” I say.
She laughs. I tell her I grew up in New England. First Rhode Island, then Maine.
“I owe you,” she says. “Let me buy you a drink.”
I know she sees my wedding band, but that doesn’t stop her. She wears one too. I jokingly say it isn’t yet five o’clock.
“Okay, let’s meet somewhere at six. Lots of good places along the waterfront.”
“How about tomorrow?” I look at my watch and tell her about the likelihood of a face-to-face with my dog-shit neighbor. She laughs. I tell her the whole story, describe him, and she can’t stop laughing. She asks me if I own any animals. What kind of schools did I go to? Turns out we both had crazy nuns in grammar school. We talk, and trade anecdotes for a few more minutes. She has a good sense of humor and makes conversation easy.
She takes out a little pad from her shoulder bag and hands it to me with a ballpoint. “Please let me have your name and phone number,” she says. When I return the pad, she looks at my name for a minute. “Is that a Russian name?”
“No, Slovak,” I say, “but close.”
She takes a minute to write her name and number.
I tell her that her penmanship is A+. Much better than mine. Again we talk about grammar school, the Palmer method, the blackboard, and laugh some more. “And lots of kids today can’t write cursive anymore.”
“Okay,” she says. “You give me a call or I’ll call you tomorrow.” Then she gives me a hug. “Thanks so much,” she says.
I stand there and watch her move across the parking lot. She has long legs and holds her body erect, seeming to glide with a slight swing to her walk. She ducks into a blue SUV on the far side of the lot and disappears.
What now? Being able to help somebody makes me feel useful, good for a change. Cindy Albright. I fold the paper and put it in my pocket.
Turning into my driveway, I expect to see another pile of dog shit on the front lawn, but there is none. Dickson’s truck is gone. Good. I back down the drive and park my car in the street, plug in the power washer, and get to work. The lowering orange sun is blazing and before long I’m soaked. With the washer drone my mind goes blank. I think of nothing and enjoy watching the dirty green disappear under the nozzle and the concrete reveal its original color. Back and forth goes the nozzle with powerful spray, dirt going, white returning. I enjoy not thinking and becoming absorbed in the process. It takes me almost an hour to reach the street. My back is aching, my chin dripping sweat.
After a shower, I’m sitting in my study, Chopin in the background, Cindy Albright in the foreground. Something about the way she moved across the parking lot, her voice, and laugh. I look at my wall of books, thinking about what to read next. But Cindy takes over again. I wonder if she is still married, divorced, or a widow. It would be an interesting coincidence if she too has had to deal with what I have. Tomorrow, about noon, I decide, would be the best time to phone her. I’m not going to wait and make her call me.
The doorbell rings. I’m upstairs and it takes me a minute or so to get to the door and, tra-la, there is Dickson. He holds up a big bottle of Maker’s Mark and says, “Okay if I come in, Wyatt?”
What the hell. I play along. “Sure, Doc, come on in.”
In the kitchen, he holds up the bottle again. “I think this here firewater gonna help us figure out how to deal with all the dog shit in Tombstone.”
We both start laughing, as if this moment can go on forever and nothing will ever change.
Copyright 2022 Peter Makuck
Peter Makuck’s many books include Wins and Losses: Stories (Syracuse, 2016).