At 10:15 on a clear cold Tuesday morning in February, the light exquisite, Healing Weintraub is walking his three dogs through the small town of Mercy – Carla enormous and black, Tarzan large and silvery gold, Benito small and brown. As they pass Mercy Savings, the only bank in town, Healing realizes that for the last fifteen years he never once walked his dogs on a Tuesday at this time because he was always working at Good Groceries at 10:15 on Tuesdays.
“But not anymore,” he says, smiling at his dogs. “Now we are free to walk around town any time on any day.”
“Who you talking to, Healing?” asks Arnold Bickerstaff coming out of the bank, Arnold one of Mercy’s most public and voluble eccentrics. “You know what they say about talking to yourself. It’s one of the early warning signs of probable dementia.”
“Thank you, Arnold, for this unfounded piece of nonsense,” says Healing, noting Arnold’s stiff gray hair going every which way, the fly of Arnold’s filthy trousers unzipped, socks comically mismatched, one old shoe without laces, a newer shoe laced with copper wire, one lens of his dark glasses missing, and a red plastic squirt gun in a little leather holster on the belt Arnold made by tying three shoelaces together.
“I miss seeing you at Gude Grockeries,” says Arnold, snickering as he always does when he refers to Good Groceries as Gude Grockeries, which he does multiple times whenever he encounters Healing. “Not the same without you. They’ve lost their collective sense of humor since you quit.”
“I’d love to chat,” says Healing, hurrying on to avoid an extended conversation with Arnold, “but I’m currently on a No Chatting diet. Supposed to do wonderful things for the adrenals.”
“You’re weird now,” says Arnold, calling after Healing. “You were never weird when you worked at Gude Grockeries.”
“Now he will snicker,” whispers Healing.
And Arnold snickers.
“I’ve been blissfully unemployed for three months now,” says Healing, talking to his dogs as they leave busy Gauntlet Avenue to amble down less-busy Berkshire Street. “True, I’m running out of money, but I’m not worried. I just have to survive another two years until I’m sixty-two, and then every month, assuming there’s still a functioning government, vast amounts of filthy lucre will flow into my checking account.”
Compelled by enormous Carla pulling in that direction, the quartet turns right off Berkshire Street onto Lisbon Avenue, which hardly deserves to be called an avenue – the narrow tar and gravel street just sixty yards long and home to three old buildings on the north side of the gravel, with fields of wild cabbage and coastal grasses on the south side stretching south and west to land’s end overlooking Mercy Bay and the mighty Pacific.
The last of the three buildings on Lisbon Avenue is a derelict two-story edifice known to locals as The Wreck. Long ago The Wreck housed a shop of one kind or another on the ground floor, while tenants wiling to live without a kitchen occupied the two small upstairs apartments. Few of those shops stayed in business for long, and few of those upstairs tenants stayed long either, and for the last twenty years The Wreck has been vacant, save for the occasional homeless person taking shelter there and teenagers meeting in the empty rooms to drink booze and smoke pot.
This morning, to Healing’s great surprise, a gang of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians are busy remaking the old building, and in the front window of the ground floor shop is a postcard-sized handwritten sign, elegant cursive announcing:
Coming Soon: The Letter Writer
Below this little sign is a square of pale blue paper not much larger than a postage stamp on which tiny block letters declare Help Wanted. Send Inquiries to Mercy P.O. Box 123.
“Hola Pablo,” says Healing, hailing one of the carpenters coming out of the shop.
“Hola Healing,” says Pablo Fernandez, a burly fellow with graying black hair. “Que paso?”
“Nada mucho,” says Healing, marveling at the beehive of activity. “I’m into my third month of not working at Good Groceries and having loads of fun. I see you’re resurrecting The Wreck before it crumbles to dust.”
Pablo nods. “Yeah. Total rebuild. New siding, new floors, new windows, new plumbing, new wiring, new roof. Making the upstairs one big apartment with a nice kitchen.” He lowers his voice. “They got endless money.”
“Who is they?”
“Big guy with a mustache,” says Pablo, petting Carla. “And his wife. We don’t know their names. I think maybe he’s from Germany or somewhere over there and his wife might be from India. Or maybe she’s part-Chinese. Esteban thinks she’s Malaysian. I don’t know. They’re in Europe now. A woman named Jahera is in charge until they get back. Miguel thinks she might be their daughter. I don’t know. Esteban thinks she’s French or something. We don’t know. Mike’s the contractor.”
“Mike around?” asks Healing, curious to find out more about The Letter Writer.
Pablo laughs. “Before noon? Not since I been working for him.”
Healing and the dogs walk home via the post office where in his box, speaking of letter writers, Healing finds two letters from faithful correspondents and a yellow card announcing the arrival of a much-anticipated packet of books: a history of the Magyars, a collection of humorous mysteries entitled Boo! I Scared You, and the Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.
When his turn comes to do business at the counter with Robin Songbird, a Mae Westian blonde and Healing’s favorite postal person, Robin reaches over the counter and gives each of Healing’s well-behaved dogs a treat.
“Still not used to seeing you guys here in the morning,” says Robin, taking the yellow package notice from Healing and pressing it against her forehead. “Don’t tell me. Books.”
“Peaceful here in the morning,” says Healing, sighing contentedly. “What do we know about The Letter Writer? Box 123.”
Robin arches an eyebrow. “What do you know about them?”
“Absolutamente nada,” says Healing, smiling. “Merely intrigued by the miniature signs in the window of The Wreck, soon to be known as The Former Wreck.”
“We know they get a ton of mail,” says Robin, lowering her voice. “And we know a charming woman named Jahera Dahl comes to the counter every day around two to pick up their mail because their little box is always overfilled. They’re on a waiting list for a larger box. Jahera has a darling Golden Lab pup, not as darling as your dogs, of course, but darling, nonetheless. The first time I saw her I thought she might be Hungarian, and then I heard her speak and she sounded sort of French, so I asked her, of course, and she said her father is Norwegian and her mother is Algerian and she grew up in Norway and France. We know she’s tall with long black hair just starting to show some gray, she wears stylish short-sleeved shirts and mid-thigh skirts and has gorgeous gams. You haven’t seen her? She’s hard to miss.”
“We must walk disparate paths,” says Healing, shrugging in surrender to the exigencies of fate. “Name of dog?”
“Harriet,” says Robin, smiling at the thought of the little cutie pie.
“Has the fair Jahera revealed anything about what kind of shop The Letter Writer will be?”
“I asked,” says Robin, nodding. “Twice. The first time she said she’s not at liberty to say. The second time I said something like, ‘Will you sell things for writing letters? Stationery? Pens? Things like that?’ and she smiled and said, ‘One would think.’”
Two mornings later, home from a beach ramble with the dogs, his hens having provided seven eggs on this clear cold morning, Healing makes brunch for himself and his friend Darby Riley who is seventy-six and Irish and owns the longest running antique shop in town – going on fifty years.
Darby arrives at 10:30 with peach scones fresh from the ovens of Café Brava, and while Healing puts the finishing touches on their mushroom omelet, Darby stands at the parrot cage with a cup of coffee and tries to get one or both of Healing’s African Greys, a male and female named Bogart and Bacall, to say top of the morning to you, with little success – Bacall fixing Darby with an icy stare and saying nothing, Bogart occasionally trilling Tova, the name of Healing’s daughter who lives in Portland.
“I don’t know why I never got a parrot,” says Darby, sitting down at the kitchen table and smiling approvingly as Healing sets the splendid meal before him. “Any self-respecting elderly Irish antique shop owner would have one, don’t you think?”
“Or at least a small highly intelligent dog,” says Healing, sitting down across from Darby.
“I’ve had cats,” says Darby, wistfully. “As you know. But every time one dies I’m so traumatized, I don’t get another for years. Besides, any pet I got now would probably outlive me, so I’m reluctant, as I’ve told you way too many times now.” He gazes into the living room where Healing’s dogs are sprawled by the fire, various cats perched here and there. “Fortunately I get to come here and commune with your animals. Blessings upon you for inviting me.”
“You don’t ever need an invitation to come here,” says Healing, gazing fondly at Darby. “You’ve been coming here since I was a boy. My folks adored you and so do I.”
“Your father liked me,” says Darby, sipping his coffee. “I’m never sure about your mother.” He frowns. “Do you think they’ll ever make the trek across the pond again?”
“My mother wants to,” says Healing, who last saw his parents six years ago when he visited them in Oxford. “But my father says he’s too old now. Eighty-seven. I doubt Mum would come without him, so I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“They’re happy in England,” says Darby, nodding. “I’ll never go back to Ireland. I was miserable there. Didn’t know what happiness was till I came to Mercy.”
They eat in silence until Bacall says, “Carla,” which prompts Carla to leave her place by the fire and come into the kitchen to have her head scratched by Darby.
“So I’m working on my inquiry to The Letter Writer,” says Healing, getting up to fetch more coffee. “May I read you my rough draft?”
“Certainly,” says Darby, scratching behind Carla’s ears, which elicits looks of love from her.
Healing refills their mugs, resumes his seat, and opens his notebook. “To Whom It May Concern. As we eagerly await the unveiling of whatever The Letter Writer turns out to be, I am inquiring about the possibility of a part-time position with you. My name is Healing Weintraub. I am sixty and recently concluded my tenure as the manager of Good Groceries here in Mercy. I have extensive experience as a gardener, write lots of letters on unlined paper with an extra-fine-tip black-ink pen, and enjoy helping people overcome difficulties with their dogs and/or cats. I am guessing your shop will have much to do with the art of writing and sending letters. I can imagine working in such a shop for twenty hours a week, though two to three hours every other day would be ideal.”
“Seems good,” says Darby, thoughtfully. “Doesn’t convey the full majesty of your being, but should suffice to get you an interview. I wonder why they don’t just come out and say what the shop is going to sell and say what they’re looking for in the way of employees.”
“Maybe they don’t know yet,” says Healing, closing his notebook, “and they’re hoping to pick the brains of those who inquire.”
“Tova,” says Bogart.
“Carla,” says Bacall.
At noon, Darby bids Healing adieu and goes to open his shop while Healing and the dogs take a leisurely stroll around their two-acre property. After their stroll, Healing rakes the old hay out of the chicken coop, throws it on the compost heap, and spreads fresh hay on the shelves and floor of the coop.
Having gratified the hens, Healing visits his large vegetable garden where most of the beds are dormant save for a few hearty stands of chard and parsley. Envisioning a verdant spring, he makes a list of vegetable and flower seeds to order from his favorite seed catalogues.
In from the cold, Healing does the dishes and makes a pot of tea to accompany writing letters, but only gets as far as Dear Mum and Dad, when the phone rings.
“Good morning,” he says, speaking into the old plastic yellow landline phone he’s had since those simpler times before the advent of mobile phones and digital everything.
“Is this Healing Weintraub?” asks a woman with an accent Healing can’t immediately identify.
“Tis I,” replies Healing, guessing the woman might be Swiss.
“Hi. My name is Jahera Dahl. I’m calling on Robin’s phone, Robin at the post office. I lost my dog and I’m just now putting up posters about her. Robin said you might be able to help me find her. She’s a Golden Lab. Five-months-old. Her name is Harriet and I’m desperate to find her.”
“Where and when did you lose her?”
“At the end of Lisbon Avenue. About eight o’clock this morning. She ran out of the building we’re renovating while I was upstairs, and when I came down and saw she’d gotten out, I ran out the door and called to her but…” She begins to cry. “If there’s anything you can do to help me, I would be happy to pay you whatever you charge.”
“Payment is not necessary,” says Healing, looking at his dogs, all of whom are gazing intently at him as they always do when he talks on the phone about dogs. “My bloodhounds and I can meet you at the end of Lisbon Avenue in twenty minutes.”
“Oh thank you. I’ll see you there.”
“One more thing. Have you contacted the sheriff?”
“Yes. Sheriff Higuera. He said he would look for her as he patrols the town.”
Before heading out, Healing calls Sheriff Higuera.
“Ruben. Healing. How’s the crime scene developing today in Mercy?”
“Slowly,” says Ruben, unflappable as ever. “Moon three days from full. The pubs will get wild. What’s up?”
“I may be letting my dogs off leash today to search for the missing pup. Wanted to forewarn you.”
“Not a problem. I shall ignore the many calls about unleashed dogs terrorizing the populous until I get the all clear from you.”
Fifteen minutes later, Healing and Carla and Tarzan and Benito arrive at the dead end of Lisbon Avenue just as Pablo and Esteban return from an unsuccessful search of the headlands.
“I think maybe she ran into town, not out there,” says Pablo, out of breath. “She likes people, you know. We didn’t see any people out there.”
“Somebody took her,” says Esteban, Pablo’s handsome nephew. “She’s a beautiful dog and she loves everybody. Too bad. But that’s life, you know.”
Now a little blue electric car pulls up and Jahera jumps out – tall and attractive, her long black hair in a ponytail, her skin olive brown.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she says, earnestly shaking Healing’s hand.
“Of course,” he says, impressed by the firmness of her grip.
Now she turns to Carla and Tarzan and Benito and says, “Who are these people?” – her use of the word people for his dogs causing Healing to instantly like her.
“Carla is the gorgeous Dane Lab. Tarzan is the handsome wolfish fellow. And Benito es el guapo pequeño.”
“We don’t think Harriet is out there,” says Pablo to Jahera as he points to the south and west. “We went on all the trails calling her name, but we found nothing.”
“Somebody probably picked her up, you know,” says Esteban, nodding. “That’s a very nice dog. People love golden dogs like that.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” says Jahera, her eyes full of tears.
“Do you have any of her toys in your car?” asks Healing, resisting his impulse to put his arm around Jahera and give her a reassuring squeeze. “A blanket or something she chews on?”
“I have her car blanket,” says Jahera, hurrying to her car. “And her squeaky ball.”
“The blanket should suffice,” says Healing, something telling him the pup ran out onto the headlands, not into town. As for Esteban’s surmise that someone nabbed her, this seems highly unlikely to Healing, especially in February when Mercy is largely free of out-of-towners.
“Good luck,” says Pablo, waving to Jahera as he and Esteban go back to work on The Wreck.
“Gracias, Pablo. Gracias Esteban,” says Jahera, bringing Healing a small gray blanket.
Healing takes the blanket from her and is pleased to see it has not been recently laundered, golden hairs abounding.
“I’m inclined to search the headlands first,” says Healing to Jahera. “You’re welcome to join us.”
“I’ve been up and down all those trails two times today,” says Jahera, shaking her head. “I called her and called her and heard nothing. She always comes when I call her.”
“Loud out there,” says Healing, nodding in sympathy with her despair. “The wind blowing and the ocean roaring. She might not have heard you, and you might not have heard her. If you’d rather not come with us, I understand. If we don’t find her out there, we’ll do a town search.”
“Thank you,” she says, smiling bravely. “I’m going to go put up more posters and keep looking around town.”
“She might be trying to get home,” says Healing, frowning at Carla who is uncharacteristically straining at her leash. “Are you living in town?”
“No,” says Jahera, shaking her head. “We are two miles inland on Road Seventeen.”
“Ah. So do you always drive Harriet into town?”
“No. We walk sometimes,” says Jahera, crying again. “And she gets tired on the uphill going home, so I carry her.”
With blanket in hand, Healing and his dogs take the trail that begins at the end of Lisbon Avenue, a wide path heading due west, and once they are clear of the town vapors, Healing presents Carla and Tarzan and Benito with the little blanket on which Harriet has lain for the last several weeks. Carla and Tarzan avidly sniff the fabric, while Benito snorts at the puppy smell and looks away.
“This is a Golden Lab pup about five-months old,” says Healing, believing his dogs understand him. “You’re part Golden Lab, Tarzan, and you’ve got Lab in you, Carla, so I’m going to let you off your leashes to go find her. I will not let you off your leash, Benito, because you are indifferent that breed, and I need your superior ears and nose to guide us.”
Now Healing releases the two big dogs and they race away to the west.
“And we follow,” says Healing, as he and Benito trot after them.
About a quarter-mile along this wide westerly path – Tarzan and Carla no longer in sight – Benito tugs Healing down a lesser trail heading north through high brown grass, and Healing does not dispute Benito’s change of direction.
A hundred yards further along, they come to a fork in the trail and Benito stops to sniff the air and listen for a moment before choosing the fork heading west, their path now barely discernible.
A few minutes later, Healing and Benito come to a stop where the faint trail ends at the edge of a cliff overlooking a small rocky beach sandwiched between huge gray rock formations – the rocky shore seventy feet straight down from the cliff top – the roar of crashing waves obliterating all other sounds.
“Did we make a wrong turn?” asks Healing, speaking loudly to Benito.
Benito gazes out to sea, looks to the south, and moves that way into the high grass through which there is no trail. And though Healing’s intellect is shouting This can’t be right! he does not dispute Benito’s decision.
“Tick country,” says Healing, as he and the little dog make their way through the brittle waist-high grass, a strong wind blowing from north to south.
Some fifty yards along, they come upon recently trampled grass, and Healing guesses Carla and Tarzan came this way.
Again they arrive at the top of a cliff, and Benito cautiously approaches the edge and barks sharply, while Healing stands back a few feet, his fear of heights profound.
And on this precipice, over the ocean’s roar, Healing hears the faint sounds of Carla and Tarzan baying from the rocky shore below.
“How in the world did they get down there?” asks Healing of Benito.
The little dog moves away from the edge and exhales audibly to say I don’t know and I’m not going any further.
Keeping a tight hold on Benito’s leash, Healing cups his hands together and shouts down at the rocky shore, “Car-la! Tar-zan!”
To which those two reply, their barking barely audible over the crashing waves.
“So…” says Healing, sighing with relief, “now that we know where they are, several questions arise. How did they get down there? Can they get back up? Did they find Harriet or did they just fall over the cliff and are now stuck down there?”
Benito responds by gazing expectantly at Healing to say Don’t you think I deserve a treat for bringing you here?
“Of course you do,” says Healing, getting a little bag of delicious chewies out of his pocket and giving one to Benito.
Now Tarzan emerges from the high grass festooned with burs and panting from the exertion of climbing up from the shore.
“Good dog,” says Healing, falling to his knees and unclipping the canteen from his belt to fill the palm of his hand with water for Tarzan.
When Tarzan finishes lapping the water, he looks into Healing’s eyes, and Healing asks, “Can you show me the way down?”
Tarzan makes a little sound in his throat to ask for a bit more water, drinks again from Healing’s hand, and leads Healing and Benito through the high grass for about twenty yards to the edge of yet another drop of a seventy feet to the rocky shore below.
Healing studies what he perceives to be a sheer cliff and says to Tarzan, “Methinks it would be wiser to enlist a person with a rope. Not so much because I’m afraid, though truth be told I’m terrified, but because without some sort of rope-like assistance I think if I tried to go down this way, I would fall and die.”
While Tarzan waits on the cliff’s edge for them to return, Healing and Benito jog back to The Wreck where Healing borrows Pablo’s phone to call Lance Reddish of the Mercy Volunteer Fire Department, Lance a legendary surfer and rock climber who has several times scaled El Capitan.
A half-hour later, Lance, slender and muscular, and Curly Feldman, another climber and surfer who is marvelously strong, stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the very edge of the cliff as casually as they would stand in the middle of a room, discussing how best to lower Healing down to the rocky shore where he hopes to find Carla and Harriet. Lance will go down, too, to help Healing bring the dog or dogs back up.
“Carla doesn’t know you very well,” explains Healing as Lance secures a bright red climbing rope around Healing’s waist. “And though she would probably be fine with you appearing on the beach, she might be feeling protective of the pup, so that’s why I want to go down with you.”
“You’re a wise man, Healing,” says Lance, looking down the face off the cliff. “I don’t need ropes for this, but you’re good to go now and I’ll scoot down beside you.”
“And we’ve got the rescue sled for the dogs if we need it,” says Curly, sitting several feet back from the edge with his legs out in front of him and his heels dug into the ground as he prepares to lower Healing down to the rocky shore.
“Okay,” says Healing, breathing slowly and deeply to calm himself. “Here goes nothing.”
Carla is thrilled when Healing and Lance arrive on the rocky shore, and Harriet, her back left leg broken, is thrilled, too, the wounded pup frantically licking Healing’s face when he picks her up and carries her to the rescue sled to which Lance expertly secures her before climbing along beside her as Curly pulls the sled up the cliff face.
“That leaves you and me, Carla,” says Healing, gazing fondly at his dog. “Can you get back up there by yourself?”
To which Carla responds by sitting down to wait for Lance to return with the sled.
Later that afternoon, Jahera arrives at Mercy’s one and only veterinary clinic where she is ushered into the room where Healing is watching the good vet Isabella Cisneros and her able assistant Gwyneth Cumberland put the finishing touches on the cast on Harriet’s broken leg.
In her joy at seeing her beloved Harriet alive and well, Jahera throws her arms around Healing and hugs him as if she never wants to let him go.
The next morning, Healing is sitting at his kitchen table writing to his parents about the rescue of Harriet, when Jahera and Harriet arrive with edible gifts for the dogs.
After much celebratory tail wagging and treat eating, Juliette sits on the sofa in the living room having a cup of tea while Harriet lies on the rug by the fire with Carla and Tarzan having a wonderful time hanging out with the two big dogs who rescued her, and Healing sits in his rocking chair with Benito on his lap.
“I can never thank you enough for rescuing Harriet,” says Jahera with her lovely Norwegian French accent. “If there’s ever anything I can do to repay you, anything, I hope you’ll tell me.”
To which Healing replies, “Oh there is something you can do, Jahera.”
“What?” she asks urgently.
“Tell me everything you know about The Letter Writer. What kind of shop it will be, what you’ll sell there… everything.”
So Jahera tells him, and when she can think of nothing more to say, Healing hands her his letter of inquiry, feeling quite confident he has a leg up now on the competition.