On a cold clear afternoon in early November, Healing Weintraub, manager of Good Groceries, an organic food co-op in Mercy, is replenishing the banana bin when his co-manager Magdalena Cortez, looking especially lovely today with a red rose in her long black hair, hands Healing a note written on a scrap of yellow paper folded in half, and walks away.
For a fleeting moment, Healing imagines the note says Let us be lovers and live together for the rest of our lives.
He unfolds the note and reads Sheriff Higuera is at the loading dock and wants to talk to you.
“Ah well,” says Healing, placing the last bunch of bananas in the bin. “One can dream.”
Ruben Higuera has been a sheriff in Mercy for twenty-two of his forty-nine years. A graduate of Mercy High, Ruben served in the Army for seven years, three of those years in Afghanistan where he was twice wounded. Rakishly handsome and a former bodybuilder, Ruben is married and has two small children.
Healing finds Ruben standing at the loading dock at the back of the store, his hat off, his belt weighted down with various tools of his trade, notably an enormous gun and a long flashlight that doubles as a bludgeon.
“Sorry to bother you at work,” says Ruben, the child of Spanish speaking parents, “but I’ve got a quasi-emergency and I’m hoping you can help me defuse things until we solve the underlying problem.”
“You intrigue me, Ruben,” says Healing, doing his best imitation of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. “May I assume this is about a dog?”
“Yes,” says Ruben, who is one of the most unflappable people Healing has ever known. “A dog and the people the dog is driving crazy.”
“Who might those people be?” asks Healing, who knows just about every person and dog in Mercy.
“Marcus Pontiac and Sara Steinberg,” says Ruben, gesturing with his thumb toward the west end of town. “Will you come talk to them now? I’ll drive you over there.”
“I’ll meet you there in ten minutes,” says Healing, starting back into the store. “I have to clock out and get my things.”
“I’ll wait for you,” says Ruben, pointing to his squad car. “So I can brief you on the way over.”
Cruising slowly down the quiet streets of Mercy, Ruben says to Healing, “You know Marcus. Great guy. Poet. Retired from the post office a few years ago. Sara’s great, too. Also a poet. Retired social worker. They’ve been together forever, but only started living together at Marcus’s house seven years ago. He’s been in that place for thirty years. Maybe longer.”
“Longer,” says Healing, nodding. “I remember when he bought that house. I went to the housewarming party with my parents a few years before my daughter was born. So that would have been when I was… twenty-six? And I’m fifty-eight now, so…”
“Right. And Marcus’s next door neighbor the whole time was Maeve Franconi until Maeve died two years ago and her son left the place empty for a year and then sold it to a woman named Anne Pritchard. Remember that name.”
“Got it,” says Healing, enjoying his role as Ruben’s sidekick.
“Okay so Anne Pritchard moved in six months ago after having the place extensively remodeled,” says Ruben, pulling up in front of Marcus Pontiac’s small redwood house at the end of Thimbleberry Lane, a short stub of asphalt intruding onto the headlands, all the Thimbleberry houses situated on the north side of the street, the south side a field of wild grasses and coastal shrubs merging into Mercy Headlands State Park.
“Let me guess,” says Healing, smiling wryly at Ruben. “Anne Pritchard has a dog.”
“She does,” says Ruben, nodding wearily. “Half Pekinese, quarter poodle, and quarter Chihuahua. His name is something like Rahmbó. Named after a French poet I never heard of. She spells it R-i-m-b-a-u-d. Only she doesn’t say Rim-bowed. She says Rahmbó, with a little accent on the o.”
“Oui,” says Healing, who knows of Rimbaud because Ezra, Healing’s father, used to recite parts of a poem by Rimbaud entitled The Drunken Boat. “Rahm-bó.”
“Almost Rambo, but not quite,” says Ruben, laughing. “Anyway, Anne Pritchard is fifty-two, no criminal record, and she has an excellent credit rating. She’s super smart, a systems analyst, whatever that means, and she mostly works online from home, but occasionally goes to San Francisco to meet with clients. And thank God she takes the dog with her, although if she didn’t take the dog we might be able to grab him for neglect, but she doesn’t neglect him. And the last thing I’ll tell you about her, so you won’t be startled when you meet her, is that she’s very beautiful. Very. Okay?”
“I would think Marcus and Sara would be thrilled to have a lovely woman with a dog named Rimbaud living next door to them.” Healing frowns at Ruben. “Though that wouldn’t constitute a quasi-emergency, would it?”
“No,” says Ruben, shaking his head. “The quasi-emergency is… and I’m cutting to the chase here, okay, because the situation is more nuanced than I have time to explain.”
“I have reason to believe Marcus is going to try to kill Anne Pritchard’s little dog, because according to Marcus and Sara, the dog never stops yapping. From morning until night and often into the night. And this has been going on now for six months.”
“Have you confirmed the dog yaps constantly?” asks Healing, guessing Ruben has.
“Yes I have,” says Ruben, closing his eyes. “I’ve come by in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Several times. And he’s always yapping.”
“What does the super smart and very beautiful Anne Pritchard have to say about all this?”
“I will let you hear what she has to say.” Ruben brings forth his phone, taps a few buttons, and a woman’s voice fills the car – husky and warm and appealing.
“He’s a dog,” she says, stretching out the word dog. “He barks occasionally, but not all the time. He’s just being a dog. And he’s a sweetie pie. And you know as well as I do, Ruben, there are no laws against a dog barking now and then. And the way Marcus is behaving, calling me several times a day and late at night to complain about my dog is, as I’m sure you also know, a form of harassment. And I will not put up with this much longer before I seek a restraining order against him. So deal with Marcus, not me. I have broken no laws and I will not be intimidated by someone who thinks he owns the entire street because he’s been here since the Pleistocene.”
“You know,” says Healing, looking at Ruben, “when I first heard her voice I liked her very much. But by the end of her speech I didn’t like her anymore. Does she have a partner?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” says Ruben as they get out of the squad car – a cold wind blowing in from Mercy Bay.
“Why am I not surprised?” says Healing, following Ruben to Marcus’s door.
“Oh you’ll be surprised when you meet her,” says Ruben, turning to Healing. “Because even if you don’t like her, I’ll bet you would put up with her, if only she would let you.”
Marcus Pontiac, stocky and somewhat stooped at seventy-two, his white hair short and spiky, opens the door and takes off his sound-blocking headphones.
“Healing,” says Marcus, his Chicago accent muted after fifty years in California. “I should have called you five months ago. What was I thinking? Well… I wasn’t thinking because I couldn’t think. Because that fucking dog never…”
Marcus stops talking and holds up an index finger to draw their attention to the high-pitched yapping of a little dog, a yapping Healing recognizes as a cry of alarm.
“Come in,” says Marcus, beckoning Healing and Ruben to enter. “Sara just made cookies. We’ll have coffee and I’ll regale you with the latest about my demonic neighbor and her putrescent little dog.”
“I have to go,” says Ruben, checking his phone. “School is about to get out and I must make an appearance at the high school parking lot to impede would-be speeders and so forth. Let me know what you think, Healing.”
“I shall give you a full report,” says Healing, bowing to Ruben.
“So shall I,” says Marcus, holding up his index finger again to bring their attention to more yapping.
“Most annoying,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with Marcus.
“Incessant,” says Marcus, leading Healing to the kitchen where Sara Steinberg, her white hair in a long braid, is transferring oatmeal cookies from a cookie sheet onto a large blue dish, her ears covered by sound-blocking headphones identical to Marcus’s.
Sara removes her headphones and says with her New York Jewish accent, “Hi Healing. Welcome to hell. I never should have sold my place, but we needed the money.” She shrugs. “And life was good here until the horror descended upon us.”
“Do you happen to know if the dog’s owner is home right now?” asks Healing, looking out the window at the neighboring house some fifty feet away.
“Oh she’s home,” says Marcus, going to the window and glaring at Anne Pritchard’s house. “With those little white speaker turds in her ears listening to music, loud, so she won’t hear the little monster yapping.”
“Coffee, Healing?” asks Sara, bringing the cookies to the kitchen table. “I just made a fresh pot.”
“Love some,” says Healing, going to the door that opens onto a small deck. “May I?”
“Sure,” says Marcus, putting his headphones on. “Forgive me for not accompanying you.”
“Be back in a few,” says Healing, going out onto the deck from where he has a partial view of the neighboring backyard, though not of the yapping dog behind the seven-feet-tall redwood fence that separates Marcus’s property from Anne Pritchard’s property – the fence around the rest of Marcus’s property only four-feet-tall, while the rest of Anne’s property is enclosed by a fence eight-feet-tall.
The yapping continues unabated, sharp and piercing, until Healing gets to within a few feet of the fence and says in a low gentle voice, “Hello Bo. What’s wrong? What do you need?”
The yapping stops for a moment, and now resumes with slightly less gusto.
“Oh Bo,” says Healing, speaking gently. “There’s no need to bark. Are you lonely? Tell me what’s going on.”
The yapping stops again, and Healing steps up onto the bottom rail of the fence, which allows him to look over at a small brown and gray dog standing about ten feet from the fence.
Seeing Healing, the dog begins to yap furiously.
“Hey Bo,” says Healing in a low quiet voice. “Aren’t you a good dog. I’m Healing. You don’t have to bark at me. I like you. And I think you’ll like me.”
Rimbaud stops barking and walks a little closer to the fence.
“Look how smart you are,” says Healing, smiling down at the dog. “You just wanted someone to talk to, didn’t you? Someone to listen to you so you could tell them what you need.”
Now Rimbaud comes so close to the fence, Healing loses sight of him, and a moment later Rimbaud starts scratching at a plank in the fence.
Healing steps down from the bottom rail and sees the dog is pawing at a knothole the size of a silver dollar.
“There you are,” says Healing, going down on his knees and putting his face close to the knothole. “How nice to meet you. Oh my goodness. We need to trim that hair away from your eyes, don’t we? Must be an awful bother.”
Now Healing reaches two of his fingers through the knothole and Rimbaud sniffs them before giving them a lick.
“If you’ll stop barking, I’ll talk to Anne,” says Healing, handing a tasty treat through the knothole and smiling as Rimbaud gently takes the treat from his fingers. “We’ll get things straightened out. Don’t you worry, Bo. This is all just a misunderstanding. Nothing to worry about.”
Returning to the kitchen, Healing is greeted by Marcus and Sara as if he just slew Goliath.
“What did you do?” asks Marcus, incredulously. “He stopped barking.”
“A temporary fix,” says Healing, sitting down to have coffee and a cookie. “And I must to talk to Anne. Do you think it would be okay if I just went over and knocked on her door?”
“Not a good idea,” says Marcus, grimacing and shaking his head. “Damnit. I should have called you way back at the beginning. Now she hates me and I hate her, though she’s not a horrible person. She’s just… she’s got this fucking dog who won’t stop yapping.”
“It would really be helpful,” says Healing, gazing intently at Marcus, “if you would think more kindly of the dog. He’s essentially blind because he’s got hair in his eyes all the time. The curse of his genetics. And because his eyes are not properly cared for, they are chronically inflamed. And because he hasn’t had a chance to explore the area and learn it by smell, as these partially blind dogs need to do, he doesn’t really know where he is. And he can feel your enmity, Marcus. I know that may sound farfetched to you, but it’s true. And now I will go introduce myself to your neighbor.”
“I’ll come with you,” says Sara, leaving her headphones on the table. “I’ve acted as intermediary a couple times before and she’s at least civil to me, so…”
A few minutes later, Anne Pritchard, barefoot in a flimsy green dress, her auburn hair in a ponytail, a quizzical look on her exquisite face, opens her front door and beholds Sara accompanied by a handsome man with brown hair going gray.
“Hello Sara,” says Anne, her eyes fixed on Healing. “What’s up?”
“Sorry to bother you,” says Sara, smiling obsequiously, “but I wanted to introduce you to Healing Weintraub, who is something of a savant with dogs. Ruben… Sheriff Higuera… thought Healing might be able to help us with the dog situation.”
Anne takes a deep breath to quell her anger and asks, “What makes you a dog expert, Mr. Weintraub?”
“A lifetime of consorting with dogs,” says Healing, dazzled by Anne despite her barely concealed contempt for him. “I’ve already made the acquaintance of your charming dog through the fence. We had a lovely conversation, and if I might spend another few minutes with him in-person, I think I could… help.”
“Are you British?” asks Anne, squinting at Healing. “Or are you affecting an accent to try to impress me?”
“My parents are British and sometimes the accent comes through.”
“I apologize,” she says tersely. “This whole dog thing has put me on edge. To say the least. Please come in.”
Healing and Sara follow Anne into her spacious living room where Anne opens a sliding glass door and she and Healing step out onto a spacious redwood deck where Rimbaud, his tail wagging furiously, rushes up to Healing and shimmies in ecstasy as Healing bends down to scratch the little dog’s head.
“Okay, I’m impressed,” says Anne, dumbfounded by Rimbaud’s show of affection for Healing. “That’s never happened before.”
“I’m blown away by your remodel,” says Sara, lingering in the living room. “This is so beautiful. It was always so cramped in here before. Did you design this?”
“With the help of an architect, yes,” says Anne, flustered by Sara’s praise. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Like it?” says Sara, joining them on the deck. “It’s genius.”
Healing kneels on the deck to give Rimbaud a thorough massage. “He seems very healthy and strong,” says Healing to Anne. “Is he about four?”
“Yes, four,” says Anne, wringing her hands. “And he’s in excellent health except for the eye thing. I’m terrible about keeping up with trimming the hair away from his eyes. My hands shake and I’m afraid I’ll stab him, so… I think the infection these kinds of dogs get has come back. I need to take him to a vet, but I’ve just been swamped.”
Healing pushes the hair away from Rimbaud’s eyes. “If you have the requisite scissors, I’d be happy to do this for you now.”
“Oh fantastic,” says Anne, hurrying away. “I’ll go get them.”
“You’re amazing,” whispers Sara, grinning down at Healing.
Anne returns with special scissors with which Healing carefully snips away the invasive hair that has been wreaking havoc on Rimbaud’s eyes.
“And now,” says Healing, standing up, “with your permission I will go with Rimbaud on an exploratory stroll around your yard.”
“May we come with you?” asks Anne, contritely. “I don’t want to intrude on your process, but I’d love to watch.”
“Please,” says Healing, crossing the deck and stepping down onto a scraggly lawn, Rimbaud at his heels.
“I’m going to have all this landscaped,” says Anne, gesturing expansively to her yard as she and Sara follow Healing and Rimbaud. “Drought resistant grasses and herbs and the kinds of plants that attract butterflies.”
“We have a butterfly garden,” says Sara, smiling at Anne. “Brings the hummingbirds, too. And you know what they say about hummingbirds.”
“No,” says Anne, frowning at Sara. “What do they say about hummingbirds?”
“They are bringers of joy,” says Sara, thinking of Marcus’s poem about hummingbirds called Bringers of Joy.
Now they come to the place where Rimbaud has been standing and yapping for the last six months, and because it has become his habit to do so, the little dog faces the fence and begins to yap as if confronting a menacing stranger.
“Oh Bo why are you barking?” asks Healing in his gentle way. “What do you think is over there? That’s just Marcus and Sara’s yard. They’ve got a vegetable garden and a pond with big rocks around it, and a low fence between the rest of their yard and the headlands.”
Rimbaud stops barking and comes to Healing,
“You see? There’s no need to bark,” says Healing, scratching behind Rimbaud’s ears and slipping him a tasty treat. “Nothing to fear over there.”
Now Healing turns to Anne and says, “You probably know this, but sight-challenged dogs like Rimbaud learn the lay of the land by smell, and unless they can explore their surroundings and make sense of what their acute sense of smell is telling them, they will be perpetually uneasy. And there’s something about this particular spot that Rimbaud can’t figure out, and it distresses him no end. Now if it was up to me, I’d make an opening in the fence here and allow him to wander to and from Sara and Marcus’s yard so he’ll know what’s going on over there, and I’d also take him for walks on the headlands trails so he can get a deeper sense of where he is and what’s going on in his world.”
“Is that something you could help me with?” asks Anne, moved by Healing’s speech. “I’d be happy to pay you whatever you charge.”
“No need to pay me. I go walking with my dogs twice a day and we’ll come by here every few days and Rimbaud can come with us, and you can join us, too, if you like. In the meantime, I will be happy, with everyone’s permission, to remove a plank or two from this old fence and make an attractive gap here for Rimbaud’s transits between your properties.”
“Fine with us,” says Sara, knowing Marcus will be thrilled with Healing’s solution. “We always had a dog until Auden died two years ago, so it will be nice to have Rimbaud come visit.”
“Wonderful,” says Anne, impulsively taking Sara’s hand. “And we can be friends now.”
“I’m sure you know,” says Healing, smiling at Anne, “that Sara and Marcus are both fine poets and always name their cats and dogs after poets, just as you named your dog after one.”
“I didn’t know you were poets,” says Anne, gazing in wonder at Sara. “So am I.”