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Dagwood

On a cold morning in March, Healing Weintraub wakes in his bed in the house he has lived in for all his sixty-two years on the planet. And because it is nine in the morning and he hasn’t slept past seven more than a few times in his life, he’s not sure where he is for a moment.

He reaches to his right to touch Jahera, but she is not there. And though he knows these six months of living with her were not a dream, he nevertheless gets out of bed and opens the closet door to gaze at Jahera’s shirts and pants and skirts and scarves to confirm their shared life.

And now he remembers the dream he had just before he woke.

He and his father Ezra are walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, his father middle-aged, not the old man he is now.

They watch the waves breaking on the shore and Ezra says with his strong British accent, “A few weeks before you were born, I met you in a dream and you told me your name was healing. When I told your mother my dream she said, ‘I would love for our child to be named Healing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think he meant Healing was his name. I think he meant his name is healing for those who hear it.’ And she said, ‘Then what was his name?’ and I said, ‘He didn’t say.’ And your mother said, “Even so I want to name our child Healing.’”

“I’m glad you did,” says Healing, putting his arm around his father.

“I am, too,” says his father, his eyes sparkling. “It’s just the right name for you.”

*

A note from Jahera awaits Healing on the kitchen table, her handwriting exquisite, for she is a calligrapher and forty years of such practice has made her handwriting calligraphic, each letter and word beautifully shaped.

Shafi,

In all our time together I have never woken before you until today. How beautiful you are sleeping. I must wake before you again and draw a picture of your face in slumber.

I’m taking Carla and Tabinda and Harriet with me to walk to my parents’ house for a Zoom meeting with Lucien to work on the new graphics for the shop. After lunch my mother will walk back with us and we’ll bring Kadan for a beach walk with the whole pack. Maybe you will be awake by then and want to walk with us.

your Jahera

Beneath her name is a sketch of the rose in the vase on the kitchen table, and Healing marvels at how deftly Jahera has captured the flower in the vase with just a few deft strokes of her pen.

He gazes around at the people sharing the house with him, people how Jahera refers to animals and birds. Three cats are sitting sphinx-like on the living room sofa, the parrots Bogart and Bacall are watching Healing from their big cage in the far corner of the kitchen, and Toulouse, an orange and white cat, is sitting on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, looking out on the garden as fog gives way to sunlight.

Now the kitchen door – always left slightly ajar during the day – swings open and Tarzan, an eight-year-old Malamute Golden Lab, and Benito, an eleven-year-old mongrel Chihuahua, enter the kitchen and come directly to Healing who they are concerned about because he didn’t get up early this morning and let them out to pee – Jahera did – which never happens unless Healing has gone out of town, which he almost never does.

“I’m fine,” says Healing, petting the dogs. “I have no idea why I slept so long. But I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

The dogs stay close to him until he gives each of them a chewy treat and tells them again he’s okay and not to worry. The treat mollifies Benito who trots out the door onto the deck to sit in the sun, while Tarzan stays in the kitchen and watches Healing make coffee.

Now the old landline phone on the kitchen counter rings and Healing has a feeling this is his mother Naomi calling from England, though she rarely calls except on Healing’s birthday on June seventeenth, just as he rarely calls her and his father except in October and November on their birthdays. Otherwise they communicate by sending letters, ten days the usual transit time for mail going from Mercy to Oxford and vice-versa.

“Healing,” says his mother, speaking more quietly than usual. “Your father died two hours ago. He hadn’t been feeling well for the last few days. He lay down for his nap before supper and I saw his body relax and I knew.”

“Oh Mum,” says Healing, crying. “I dreamt about him this morning. Shall I come to you?”

“No, dear. Your sister is here and she’s leapt into action as you can imagine and has everything well in hand. And after his body is cremated…” She hesitates.

“You’ll come here,” he says, knowing she wants to spend the last years of her life in Mercy.

“I will,” she says simply. “If that’s still okay with you.”

“Of course, Mum.”

“Your sister will make the trip with me and stay a while until I’m settled,” says Naomi, clearing his throat. “We’ll come in June if you’re sure you want me.”

“You know I do.”

“Jahera won’t mind?”

“She’ll love having you here.”

“Let’s not go overboard, dear. We’ll hope she likes me and proceed from there.”

“Is Sis with you?”

“She is.” Naomi partially muffles her phone and Healing hears her say, “Jean. Come speak to your brother. He’s terribly upset.”

*

A few hours later, Jahera and her mother Maahiah arrive at the little old house with the dogs and they find Healing in the vegetable garden, turning the soil to prepare a bed for the first lettuce seeds of the new growing season.

“My father died this morning,” he says to Jaher and Maahiah as they approach him. “Well… morning here, afternoon there. He loved turning the soil to make it ready for the seeds.”

Now he falls to his knees and touches his forehead to the ground and weeps.

*

Five days later, Jahera wakes a little after dawn, which is their usual waking time, and asks quietly with her lovely French Norwegian accent, “Shafi? Are you awake?”

“I am,” says Healing, who loves Jahera’s name for him, which means healer in Arabic.

“Shall we have Pablo and Esteban to put in new windows in the guest room before your mother comes?”

“Yes,” says Healing, part of him still in another dimension communing with his father’s spirit. “Those are the last two single-pane windows in the house. From when my folks rebuilt this place sixty-five years ago. We’ll ask Pablo to make wider sills for the new windows, for the cats to sit on.”

“Good idea,” says Jahera, snuggling with Healing. “I can’t wait to meet your mother and your sister.”

“They’ll love you,” he says, sighing. “Might not be obvious at first, but they will. They both can be a bit dry. The opposite of you and your mother. And Jean often sounds irritated when she’s not. From growing up in chaos and turning into someone who wants everything just so.” He chuckles. “She has five dogs, Schnauzers, and a husband who leaves clothing and books and plates and mugs wherever he goes, so she really doesn’t have a leg to stand on when she complains of the clutter here.”

“Our house is not cluttered,” says Jahera, trying not to laugh. “You keep it neat as a pin.”

This sends Healing into gales of laughter, which feels wonderful to him after five days of mourning.

*

That afternoon Healing walks into town with Tabinda on a leash, the beautiful one-year-old Lab Shepherd still learning there is nothing to be gained from tugging on her leash and much to be gained from not tugging – treats and pets and loving sounds from Healing.

They stop on the sidewalk in front of Darby’s Antiques and Healing looks through the window and waves to attract the attention of the proprietor Darby Riley, seventy-eight and Irish, an old friend of Healing’s parents and Healing’s dear friend.

“I’m glad you came by,” says Darby, full of his usual exuberance. “I’ve a dog situation underway and I’m at a loss.” He frowns. “But I don’t want to bother you with my problems right now. Maybe when your sorrow abates a bit you can give me counsel. I’m so sorry about your father, though eighty-nine is a fine run, and the man had a good deal of fun along the way now, didn’t he?”

“He certainly did,” says Healing, giving Tabinda’s leash a light tug to ask her to sit, which she does. “Please bother me. Dog situations are my elixir.”

“The situation is in here,” says Riley, beckoning Healing to enter the shop. “You can bring Tabinda. She’s better behaved than most of my customers, I can assure you.”

Healing and Tabinda enter the incredibly jam-packed shop and Tabinda goes a little wild at the exotic smells emanating from the many old books, vinyl record albums, pottery, lamps, racks of vintage clothing, old picture frames, and all manner of furniture – a narrow aisle relatively free of stuff leading to a counter behind which, on Darby’s high stool, sits a handsome young Jack-a-bee, a white and black and brown mix of a Jack Russell terrier and a Beagle, who upon seeing the beautiful Tabinda hops down from the stool and comes around the counter to greet her.

Healing gives Darby a big smile. “You trickster. I thought you weren’t going to get a dog or cat because you were afraid you’d die before them.”

“I didn’t get one,” says Darby, blushing like a boy whose mother discovers he’s got a sweetheart. “He’s not my dog. That is… I don’t think he’s my dog, and even if he is possibly, temporarily, my dog, I don’t want him.”

The Jack-a-bee gives Darby a look to say Now why wouldn’t you want me? I’m friendly and cute and smart as a whip and I fit you and your stinky old shop like a glove.

“Explain, please,” says Healing, who always starts to feel slightly insane after he’s been in Darby’s shop for more than a few minutes, each of the ten thousand things possessed of a soul wanting to share a story with Healing.

“So a woman came in five days ago,” says Darby, sighing heavily and giving Healing a look to say You know how certain women befuddle me. “On the day your dear father died.”

“I had a feeling a woman might be involved in this situation,” says Healing, arching an eyebrow. “She bewitched you?”

“In so many words,” says Darby, nodding. “She was fifty-something I’d say. One of those delicious fiftyish women with the joie de vivre of an exuberant teen, with one of those bodies,” – he describes with his hands an hourglass – “by which I am rendered incapable of rational thought. She wanted two of my very best antique evening gowns and two immaculate velour Parisian negligees from the Golden Age of Paris, meaning the 1920s, and she gave me a hundred dollars cash right then and said she would come back with another thousand dollars the next day, though the negligees alone are… were… worth at least five hundred each.”

“And the evening gowns? How much were they worth?”

“Oh… Mary Coleman offered me six hundred for the one and three hundred for the other, and I stupidly said that was a bit low.” Darby closes his eyes and slowly shakes his head. “I’m an idiot.”

“Not at all,” says Healing, leaning down to scratch the friendly little dog’s head. “You’re just generous. So. The befuddling woman left with the dresses and negligees promising to return on the morrow, and now five days have gone by and she has yet to return or call you or send you some money or in any way indicate she plans to return. And where does this delightful dog come into the story?”

“The woman who swindled me swore this dog is worth five thousand dollars,” says Darby, smiling as the little dog stands on his hind legs and dances around in a circle. “And she would leave him as security.”

“Well he is worth five thousand dollars,” says Healing, rewarding the dancing dog with a treat. “At least.”

“Is he?” says Darby, giving Healing a wild look of hope. “Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” says Healing, looking at the little dog and thinking Lie down, which the dog does. Now Healing thinks Speak, and the dog barks twice. “He’s worth millions. He’s clairvoyant and might very well be the reincarnation of some great genius.”

“Ah you’re joking,” says Darby, gloomy again. “And I’m stuck with him until I can foist him on somebody else. I can’t have a dog, Healing. I’m seventy-eight. I could die at any minute, though I’m feeling fine. But no one in my line has ever lived much past eighty-five. Who’ll take care of him when I’m decrepit? Or if I suddenly drop dead?”

“We will,” says Healing, matter-of-factly. “Jahera and I. Benito is almost twelve and Carla’s nine. We’ll be wanting a new dog a few years from now. So if by some fluke of fate this chap outlives you, we’ll be happy to take him.”

“You will?” says Darby, scrunching up his cheeks to quell his tears.

“We’ll take him now if you don’t want him,” says Healing, growing serious. “Though he loves it here and he loves you.”

“How do you know he loves me?” asks Darby, who has been alone for many years.

“Call him,” says Healing, quietly. “Do you know his name?”

“The tag on his collar says Dagwood,” says Darby, looking at the dog, who upon hearing his name trots around behind the counter, jumps up onto the stool, stands on his hind legs, and rests his paws on Darby’s chest.

“Any other info on the collar?” asks Healing, smiling at the little dog gazing adoringly at Darby.

“Not a thing,” says Darby, rubbing noses with the little guy. “Only Dagwood.”  

*

Two mornings later, Darby and Dagwood come for pancakes at Healing and Jahera’s house, and Dagwood joins Carla and Benito and Tarzan and Tabinda for a tour of the acreage, after which Dagwood stands at the chicken-wire fence transfixed by the hens in the little yard adjacent to their coop.

 “Those are chickens, Dagwood,” says Healing, standing nearby. “We don’t bark at them or chase them, and they give us eggs, which we put in our pancakes, one of which has your name on it.”

Thus informed, Dagwood follows the other dogs into the house and waits patiently for Healing to fulfill his promise.

fin

The Goodly Fool a piano solo by Todd

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Kadan & Tabinda

On a cold Thursday morning in early October, Healing Weintraub is sitting in a comfortable armchair behind the counter of The Letter Writer, a spacious shop on the bottom floor of a recently restored old two-story building at the end of Lisbon Avenue in the small town of Mercy – the word shop a somewhat misleading descriptor for The Letter Writer.

Sixty-one-years-old and not quite six-feet-tall, sturdy and agile with longish brown hair going gray, a mild English accent coloring his speech, Healing is writing a letter to a friend describing The Letter Writer in great detail, which is the favorite kind of letter this particular friend likes to get.

Here is an excerpt from that letter.

*

The counter behind which I sit and stand from 10 AM to 2 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays is two-feet-wide and twelve-feet long, the varnished redwood top crowning a beautifully lit glass display case showing off an extensive collection of pens, colored pencils, and other tools of the letter-writing craft. This display case is the first thing to meet the eyes of those who enter the shop.

Arrayed on the shelves to my left are quantities of paper of various sizes and weights and colors and textures, along with notebooks, sketchpads, and an excellent selection of envelopes. We also sell scissors, tape, glue and many other things one might use for decorating envelopes.

For those who like wearable mementos, we sell organic cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts (black, red, and turquoise) with The Letter Writer writ in elegant cursive across their fronts. For collectors of unique teapots and mugs, we have several of each made by local ceramic artists. All of these items are only touchable by customers with the assistance of The Letter Writer employees, and we are happy to fetch anything a customer would like to scrutinize up close.

At one end of the counter sits a sleek computerized cash register with which my fellow employees and I ring up sales, and at the other end of the counter stands the machinery for boiling water and making coffee and tea and cocoa, along with teapots and mugs for holding hot beverages, and plates for holding cookies – refreshments for those who grow thirsty and esurient whilst penning missives.

Penning missives is what people are invited to do at any of the twelve medium-sized tables, each table partnered with two chairs and situated near one of several windows looking out onto the headlands and the ocean beyond. There is no fee for occupying a table, nor are patrons required to write a letter while enjoying the commodious space.

We also sell postage stamps, have an extremely accurate electronic scale for weighing letters, and just inside our front door stands an authentic replica of a red British pillar box where letters may be deposited, these letters taken to the post office by shop employees at least three times a day.

Our black and herbal teas are excellent, our coffee decent, our cocoa superb, and our lemonade not too sugary, all our beverages reasonably priced. The cookies, however, are expensive, coming as they do from Café Brava, and some of our regulars prefer to bring comestibles from elsewhere, which is fine with us. Some folks bring their own beverages, too, though I would say most of our patrons purchase their drinks from us to show support for the mission of The Letter Writer.

Though we do not offer to gift wrap items purchased here, our The Letter Writer bags, illustrated with beguiling drawings of cats, dogs, birds, flowers, and teapots, are themselves gift wrapping. Several of our craftier customers enjoy fashioning the bags into handsome envelopes at the assembly table located in the northwest corner of the shop, this large table sporting an excellent paper cutter, hole punch, staplers, tape, glue sticks, etcetera, all of which may be used gratis. I will mail this letter in such an envelope I made yesterday while demonstrating my envelope-making technique to an interested customer.

What is the mission of The Letter Writer? This is most easily explained by telling you a little about the creators of The Letter Writer, Caspar Dahl, his wife Maahiah, their daughter Jahera, and Jahera’s son Lucien.

Caspar is eighty-two, gregarious, Norwegian, tall, and mustachioed, his snow-white hair falling to his shoulders. He was a hydrologist before becoming a successful writer of essays and parables. He speaks excellent English, which is his third language after Norwegian and French, and he is an avid reader of Latin.

Maahiah is seventy-two, Algerian, petite with shoulder-length black hair mostly gray now. She is a translator – French and Norwegian into Arabic and sometimes the other way around. Trained as a scientific illustrator, she has illustrated ten of Caspar’s books as well as several children’s books. She loves to sing and joined the Mercy Community Choir two days after they moved to Mercy a year and a half ago.

Jahera is fifty-three, a beautiful amalgamation of her parents, her long black hair just starting to gray. She is a calligrapher, illustrator, and photographer, and she, too, loves to sing, though she has yet to join a choir. As I have told you in a previous missive, I am deeply infatuated with her, though I have no hope she will ever feel similarly about me.

Lucien is twenty-six, a computer whiz, graphic designer, and social activist. I have yet to meet him because he lives in Switzerland. However, I have seen pictures of him and he is strikingly beautiful. His father, who is no longer alive, was a handsome Catalonian.

Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera live most of the year in Mercy, and Caspar and Maahiah still maintain a home in France. They are wealthy as the result of Caspar publishing a phenomenally successful book twenty-five years ago when he was fifty-seven. Though not widely known in America, Caspar’s hundred-page book, illustrated with Maahiah’s exquisite pen and ink drawings, has been translated into virtually every language on earth and is a perennial international bestseller.

The book was originally published in French and is entitled Décollé, which translates as unstuck in English. The American edition is entitled Getting Unstuck, though the book is not about getting unstuck or getting anything. Caspar told me when he was discussing the title with the several American publishers bidding to bring out the American edition, all of them insisted the title had to have the word Getting in front of Unstuck, which Caspar thought was idiotic until he realized getting was a foundational American mania, so he surrendered to the cultural imperative and allowed Getting to appear in front of Unstuck, though he did not allow the internal text to be altered.

I have read the book twice, slowly, each reading taking about an hour, and both times I felt as if I were reading a good long letter from a friend full of intriguing anecdotes encouraging me to follow my heart, be kind and generous, and open myself to new ideas and new experiences. His style is poetic without being the least poetic, and I know you know what I mean.

With their riches, Caspar and Maahiah have done many wonderful things for people and communities around the world, and now as Caspar nears the end of his life, he wants to create some sort of institutional manifestation of the message of his little book, and that is how The Letter Writer came to be.

The upstairs of this building is a spacious apartment in which a person or related persons, as many as three, is/are granted a fellowship to live here for two or three months, and the small ground floor apartment behind the shop houses a person or couple, also for two or three months, all expenses paid, including the cost of traveling to and from Mercy.

In exchange for this largesse, fellowship winners are asked to tend the shop for two hours a day while they are living here. These residencies are awarded by Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera to people they select based on their feelings about the letters of introduction people send to The Letter Writer. At our most recent staff meeting, Jahera reported The Letter Writer is currently receiving about two dozen letters every day.

Caspar has endowed The Letter Writer foundation with several million dollars along with all residuals arising from the sale of the many editions of Décollé. We are the first The Letter Writer shop in the world, and are definitely a work in progress. The plan is to tweak the ways and means of this shop for a couple years to create a model that can be replicated in other out-of-the-way places where letter writers would like to sojourn for a time.

As Caspar said to me yesterday when he stopped by to see how things were going, “I like knowing this will live beyond me, should the world last longer than I. But given the way things are going, it might not, eh?”

*

“What is this place?” asks a woman wearing a Dallas Cowboys baseball cap and a black down jacket over a light brown T-shirt with WORD spelled across the front in large Scrabble letters, her companion a man dressed similarly.

Healing closes his notebook and rises to greet them.

“Welcome to The Letter Writer,” he says warmly. “We are a shop selling everything one might need for writing letters. The tables you see” – he gestures to the tables standing along the outside walls of the public space, half the tables currently occupied – “are for people to sit at and write if they want to, or you may sit and gaze out the window and talk quietly. Anything you like, so long as it is not excessively rowdy. This is not a library, but neither are we a café, though we seem to be a café. I apologize for the confusion, which is amplified by the fact that we purvey coffee and tea and cocoa and lemonade, as well as a few tasty comestibles. That, in a nutshell, is what this place is. If you’d like to know more about the shop and The Letter Writer, we have a few sheets of information about our history and mission, which is essentially to encourage people to write and send letters.”

“You British?” asks the man, squinting at Healing. “Or Australian?”

“My parents are British,” says Healing, smiling at the thought of his folks in England. “And their accents do sometimes come through.”

“We were in London a couple years ago,” says the woman, wrinkling her nose. “What a zoo.”

“Crowded?” asks Healing, guessing they’re from Texas.

“Crazy crowded,” says the man, frowning at the pens in the display case. “Couldn’t understand anything anybody said, even the white people. We thought they spoke English over there. Mother tongue, my ass.”

“Herb,” says the woman, glowering at her husband. “Keep it down. People are writing.

“It’s not a library, Deb,” says Herb, rolling his eyes. “He said we can be here and not write a letter.”

“You certainly may,” says Healing, gesturing toward the tables. “Sit anywhere you’d like. And do let me know if you want something to eat or drink. We’ve only been open for five months, so we’re still figuring things out. Any suggestions you have for improving the goings on here would be greatly appreciated.”

“I’ll have a coffee,” says Deb, perusing the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. “You make lattes?”

“We do not,” says Healing, bowing to her. “But we do have cream and half-and-half, and the coffee is decent, the tea excellent.”

Herb glowers at the display case. “Am I reading that right? That black pen there is seven hundred dollars?”

“If you are you speaking of the Meisterstück Rose Gold-Coated Classique fountain pen,” says Healing, nodding pleasantly, “then yes. To the right of the Meisterstück you will see the Montegrappa Debonair Simplicity, the green resin, for four hundred. And we also have Pilots for four dollars and change, as well as all manner of pens ranging in price from the Pilots to the Meisterstück and beyond.”

“People pay that kind of money for a pen?” says Herb, incredulously. “Seven hundred dollars?”

“Yes, they do,” says Healing, giving Herb a look to say Isn’t it amazing? “I myself use a pencil or an extra-fine-tip Pilot, depending on my mood. Though I will say, having tried all the pens you see there, I now understand the appeal of a fine fountain pen. The flow of ink is…” He muses for a moment. “Really something special.”

“I’ll have a coffee and two of these chocolate chip cookies,” says Deb, frowning at Healing. “We wait for’em or you bring’em to us?”

“I will bring them to you,” says Healing, turning to Herb. “And you, sir?”

“Yeah, the same,” says Herb, grinning at Healing. “Nobody’s called me sir since I was in the Army and the guys below me had to.”

“We also want to get six of your turquoise sweatshirts and six of your red T-shirts,” says Deb, pointing at the display of The Letter Writer apparel. “Two extra-large, three larges, one small. For our Scrabble team. Those’ll be perfect to wear to the state championship in Austin, assuming we go again this year.”

“Oh we’ll go again this year,” says Herb, nodding confidently. “We’re pretty much unbeatable in our county.”

“You should sell white ones, too,” says Deb, winking at Healing. “And baseball caps. There’s a suggestion for you.”

*

Home at three to his little old house across town from The Letter Writer, Healing changes out of his dress shirt and sports jacket and slacks and walking shoes into work clothes and boots, and goes out into his fall garden, his dogs tagging along to help him harvest zucchinis and carrots and string beans for a big pot of minestrone soup he’s making for tonight’s potluck, several old friends coming over along with Caspar and Maahiah and Jahera and Jahera’s dog Harriet, a one-year-old Golden Lab who adores Healing’s three dogs – Carla an enormous Dane Lab, Tarzan a Golden Lab Malamute, and Benito a mongrel Chihuahua.

Healing has been in love with Jahera since the day he met her eight months ago, though not for a minute does he believe she could possibly be in love with him, when in truth she is profoundly in love with him.

Why doesn’t Healing believe Jahera is in love with him when it is so obvious to everyone else, including Healing’s daughter Tova, who recently visited from Portland and was flummoxed that her otherwise keenly observant father was blind to how Jahera feels about him?

The answer is complicated and has to do with Healing’s prior experiences with women, beginning when he was in his early thirties and Tova’s mother ended their three-year marriage by abruptly leaving Healing and Tova when Tova was eleven-months-old. This was a shattering experience for Healing, and in order to survive emotionally and continue being a good parent to Tova, he armored himself against future romantic entanglements and kept himself armored for years.

When he did enter into another relationship, he did so with his dear friend Magdalena who he loved with all his heart and soul, only to have Magdalena abruptly end their relationship after nine months, which further enforced Healing’s sense of being unworthy to be loved in this deeper way. Fifteen years later, he tried again with Magdalena, and again she ended their intimacy after nine months, and again Healing was shattered.

Most recently, two years ago, he embarked on a relationship with a marvelous woman named Vivienne, who seemed to love him every bit as much as he loved her. And this time – Healing’s first relationship in over a decade – as they were entering their ninth month together, Vivienne became bitter and vituperative toward Healing, and the relationship ended shortly thereafter.

Thus because his experiences with sexual romantic partnering have all ultimately been destructive of his self-esteem, Healing is now essentially unconscious of anyone being interested in him as a potential partner in the ways of love.

Jahera knows all this about Healing and is content to be his friend and colleague if that is how he is comfortable being with her. She hopes he will eventually awaken to her love and respond in a more intimate way, and in the meantime she is not closed to creating a relationship with someone else should an appealing someone else come along. She has many suitors, being a charming person, though for the last several years no one, until Healing, has appealed to her sufficiently to make her want to sleep with them, let alone embark on a relationship with them.

So you may well imagine their mutual surprise when Jahera arrives at Healing’s house a few hours before the potluck with her dog Harriet to go with Healing and his dogs for a beach walk, and Jahera comes out into the garden where Healing is pulling carrots, and Healing gets up from his knees to greet her, and their friendly Hello hug turns amorous and Healing allows passion to prevail and they go to Healing’s bed and become lovers in the way of loving friends long overdo for such.

*

As the potluck reaches its zenith – Healing battling his relationship demons ­– Maahiah, Jahera’s mother, says to Healing, “I would like to get a dog and I’m hoping you will help me find one.”

“Dog?” says Healing, returning from the battlefield unsure of what Maahiah just said. “You’re getting a dog? From the pound or…”

“I don’t know,” says Maahiah, who is thrilled Healing and her daughter are lovers now, though no one told her they are – it is simply obvious to her. “I would like a dog you might choose to be your dog. Caspar is not interested in having a dog, but I want one. We had a wonderful dog in Norway, Haady, and I loved him very much.”

“I love dogs,” says Caspar, smiling at his wife from across the table. “I love Jahera’s dog. But I don’t have to take care of her because she’s Jahera’s dog, and I’m not so keen on taking care of a dog anymore.”

“This will be my dog,” says Maahiah, looking at Healing. “I dreamt you brought me one. I think my dream was prophetic.”

“A puppy?” asks Healing, this talk of dogs so soothing to his psyche, he takes Jahera’s hand for all to see.

 “A young dog,” says Maahiah, smiling at Healing’s show of affection for Jahera. “Maybe he was a puppy. I’m not sure. You handed him to me and he gave me a kiss and made me laugh.”

*

Jahera stays after the party to help Healing do the dishes, and when they are alone they embrace and Healing says, “I’m terrified of wrecking our friendship.”

“Not possible,” she says, shaking her head. “If becoming lovers wrecks a friendship, I don’t think the friendship is real. You are still friends with Magdalena and she was your lover.”

“True,” says Healing, his fear dissolving. “Would you like to stay the night with me?”

“Yes,” she says, looking into his eyes. “I was hoping you’d ask me.”

*

A week later, mid-morning, Healing is shopping at Good Groceries, the organic food co-op where he used to work, when Harold Silverstein approaches him and says, “Healing. Got a minute?”

Harold is seventy-four, a small wiry fellow, a stockbroker and commodities trader married to Shirley, both Harold and Shirley from Chicago and both mainstays of the local Jewish community. When their son David was twelve, he took accordion lessons from Healing because Shirley wanted him to. After seven months of never practicing, David told Healing he had no interest in music and that taking accordion lessons was agony for him but he was afraid to tell his parents he wanted to quit. So Healing spoke to Harold and Shirley on David’s behalf, the lessons ended, and thirty years later Shirley and David and Harold still refer to Healing as the wonderful Healing.

“I have hours, days, weeks,” says Healing, who likes Harold despite Harold ending every one of their many brief interactions over the years with We should go for a beer, yet they never have gone for a beer because Harold always adds But not now. I’m up to my eyeballs with work.

“We have a dog problem,” says Harold, who knows Healing is good with dogs. “And before we call Animal Control, Shirley thought maybe you’d like to check out what she thinks is a wild dog den in the woods behind our house. A few days ago she thought she heard whimpering. She thinks there might be pups or cubs or something.” He frowns. “Could it be wolves?”

“Not impossible, but highly unlikely,” says Healing, his heart pounding at the prospect of finding a nest of feral pups. “The last time a wolf was seen in this watershed was over a hundred years ago, in the early 1900s, and that one might have been a coyote. Might this be a coyote den?”

“I have no idea,” says Harold, shrugging. “I know nothing about dogs or coyotes or anything that isn’t a person or a grain future, though we still have the poodles you helped us with when they were shredding the curtains. Thank God, and you, they no longer shred things. As you know, Shirley handles all the dog operations. If it was up to me we would only have humans at our house. Two of them. And every two weeks the cleaning lady. But the dogs make Shirley happy, so what am I gonna do? She’s afraid Animal Control will just shoot whatever these wild things turn out to be, which would be fine with me. Wild animals I don’t need. But Shirley loves animals.” He shrugs. “She’s like you. Searches the woods with binoculars. Watches videos about orangutans. She thinks the mother might be a German Shepherd. She didn’t mention a father. Anyway… want to come take a look?”

“I would love to,” says Healing, nodding eagerly. “In an hour?”

“I’m at the office until five,” says Harold, itching to get back to business. “Which means six. I’ll call Shirley and tell her you’re coming.”

*

An hour later, Healing and Jahera in Healing’s little old pickup truck, with Healing’s enormous dog Carla sitting between them, arrive at Harold and Shirley’s house five miles north of Mercy on the edge of a vast redwood forest.

Healing and Jahera are verging on inseparable these days, and Healing’s trepidation about embarking on a relationship with Jahera is fading fast. For her part, Jahera has no doubt she’s found her life partner in Healing.

*

“I wanted to bring Carla along because she’s female and loves pups,” explains Healing to Shirley, her frizzy white hair sporting magenta highlights. “And also because other female dogs are less intimidated by her than by male dogs.”

“This is as far as I’m comfortable going,” says Shirley, stopping with them on the edge of the forest where Carla sniffs the air and tugs gently at her leash. “The dog I saw through my binoculars looked like a giant wolf, though I did my research and there aren’t supposed to be any wolves around here.”

“Almost certainly not a wolf,” says Healing, reassuringly. “Where do you think the den is?”

Shirley points into the forest. “Right through there. You can just see the boulders at the bottom of a big granite outcropping. That’s where David used to go with his friends to play when they were little, and to smoke pot when they were in high school.”

“Carla and I will go explore the boulders,” says Healing, the back of his neck tingling. “You want to come Jahera?”

“Yes,” she says, following him without hesitation.

“You’re both braver than I am,” says Shirley, hurrying back to the house. “I haven’t let the poodles out for two weeks since this whole wolf thing began, though I know it’s not a wolf. I’ll be in the house if you need anything. Be careful.”

So Jahera and Healing and Carla proceed through the trees on the faint path David walked on long ago – David now in his forties and living in San Diego.

Fifty yards into the forest they come to a large granite outcropping fronted by a jumble of boulders.

“Feels so lifeless here,” says Jahera, gazing around. “Even the trees seem… I don’t have words for it. They’re alive but they seem empty of spirit.”

“That’s very astute of you,” says Healing, noticing Carla frowning. “The forest here has been clear-cut at least three times in the last hundred and fifty years, and then logged hard a time or two since the last clear-cutting. Not easy for the earth to revive after such relentless harvesting.”

Carla whines and gives Healing a look to say Let me off my leash. I want to explore those rocks.

“Okay,” says Healing, unleashing her.

Free of constraint, Carla does not hurry to the boulders, but approaches them with caution, stopping every few steps to listen and smell. Finally she makes her way through the boulders, surmounts the outcropping, and disappears behind a huge stone.

“Wouldn’t we hear the pups?” asks Jahera, taking Healing’s hand. “It’s so quiet.”

“Hard to say,” says Healing, listening intently for any sounds from Carla. “Their mother may have moved them or…”

Now Carla comes bounding out from behind the huge stone and gives Healing a wild-eyed look before disappearing again behind the stone.

“She wants us to come,” says Healing, hurrying with Jahera to see what Carla has found.

And what she has found are two barely alive pups in an abandoned den.

Jahera carries one of the pups, Healing the other, and they run back to the house where Shirley awaits them.

“Oh my God,” says Shirley, putting her hands over her mouth when she sees the tiny pups. “Are they dead?”

 “No,” says Healing, as he and Jahera and Carla run to the truck. “Call the vet, Shirley, and tell them we’re coming.”

*

On the way to town, Jahera holds the comatose pups in her lap and Carla gently licks them as she would have licked her own babies had she ever had a litter.

*

When the pups are three-months-old, their smooth brown and black fur and narrow snouts tell Healing they are a mix of Lab and German Shepherd.

Maahiah takes the male pup and names him Kadan, which means friend in Arabic, and Jahera and Healing take the female and name her Tabinda, which means bright and shining in Arabic – the pups to be raised with Healing and Jahera’s dogs until they are six-months-old, after which Maahiah will keep Kadan with her most of the time.

But among the dogs, the pups belong to Carla who loves them beyond telling.

fin

Hey Baby a song by Todd

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Harriet

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.

fin

How Perfect Is Life a poem by Todd

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Scooter

At dawn on a gloomy Friday in early October, Healing Weintraub wakes in his bed in his little old house on Nasturtium Road, and for the first time in fourteen years really really really doesn’t want to go to work today. He has woken on many other days, hundreds of them, and really really didn’t want to go work, but this is his first triple really, with the third really italicized.

The work in question is managing Good Groceries, a small worker-owned cooperative offering the best organic produce and bulk foods on the north coast of California. Healing loves his co-workers and loves providing excellent food to those who depend on Good Groceries for most of their comestibles. However, he is nearing sixty and feeling more mortal than usual these days, and he would really like to spend the rest of his life not working forty hours a week stocking shelves with bananas and cabbage and soup and mustard, and manning a cash register, and engaging in small talk with dozens of customers throughout the day, and so forth.

“The problem is money,” he says, getting out of bed and shedding his nightshirt and underwear as he walks down the hallway to his little living room where his three dogs await him – Carla, an enormous Black Lab Dane, Tarzan, a Siberian Husky Lab, and Benito, a Chihuahua Poodle.

Healing and his dogs go out into the backyard to pee, the cold rain causing the naked man to shiver in a pleasantly invigorating way, and while he shivers, Healing realizes that the recent end to his nine-month relationship with Vivienne and the resultant freedom from many things that were weighing heavily and painfully upon him, has cleared the boards of his consciousness to such a degree, his unhappiness with his Good Groceries gig can no longer be ignored.

“The problem is money,” he says again as he returns to his house and leaves the kitchen door ajar for his dogs to come inside whenever they wish to.

*

On his lunch break – the morning at Good Groceries featuring a heated exchange with a supplier trying to foist shoddy goods on them and a customer haranguing him for not carrying a particular brand of coconut oil – Healing meets Helen Tremblay at Café Brava to commiserate about the various ups and downs in their lives, mostly the downs.

Helen is fifty-eight with short silver gray hair, a massage therapist and saxophone player, and one of Healing’s best friends since high school. Helen’s mother Charlene is French and was between partners when Helen was born in Brooklyn. Helen spent the first nine years of her life in various boroughs of New York City, the next three years in Miami, the next four in Los Angeles, and at sixteen settled with her mother in Mercy where they both have lived ever since, save for the two years Helen spent at San Francisco State from nineteen to twenty. Helen has been married to Sheila Castro, an electrician and conga player, for seventeen years.

“Charge people for helping them with their dog and cat problems,” says Helen in response to Healing’s claim he would quit his job tomorrow if he could figure out how to replace the income. “And charge a good hourly wage for all the accordion playing you do on people’s recording projects. And write a book about dogs and cats. Then you’ll easily make as much money as you make running Good Groceries.”

“I won’t charge for helping dogs and cats,” says Healing, musing on Helen’s suggestions, “because when I was ten I made an agreement with the gods I never would. And I won’t take money for playing accordion on recording projects because if I did I would be tense and anxious and worried about playing badly, so I would play badly and hate myself for ruining things. As for writing a book about dogs and cats, I’m not against the idea except I’m not a writer, though I do enjoy writing letters, and most of what I know about dogs and cats defies description, except to say I’m good at noticing things and when I apply my noticing skills to problems having to do with dogs and cats, I’m often able to notice the cause of the problem, so then the problem at least has a chance of being resolved.”

“Could you get by on your social security?” asks Helen, who can relate to Healing’s dilemma, having grown weary of giving massages, though she does charge two hundred dollars an hour for playing saxophone on recording projects and is writing a book about holistic body nourishing.

“That has been my plan for many years,” says Healing, sipping his blackberry smoothie. “Work at Good Groceries until I’m sixty-two, take early social security despite the dramatic diminution in the government largesse for going in early, and somehow make do. But the prospect of working for two more years at Good Groceries…” He closes his eyes. “I’ll go mad.”

“You need a massage,” says Helen, pouting sympathetically. “I know someone really good.”

“I can’t afford you,” says Healing, laughing. “Unless you’ll trade for vegetables and flowers and can wait until next summer to get paid.”

“How about I trade you seven massages for solving a dog problem?”

Seven massages? Must be something serious. What’s the problem?”

“And you agree to make the trade?” asks Helen, arching an eyebrow.

“If I solve the problem, yes.”

“Okay. Good. So over the course of the last five months, my mother’s dog Scooter has gone from being an ideal pet to being a royal pain in the ass, and my mother and her new beau are distraught to the point of wanting to end dear Scooter’s life. This emotional upheaval resounds into my life because, as you know, I am entwined and enmeshed and ensnarled with my mother, otherwise known as The Queen of the World.”

“New beau?” says Healing, frowning. “What happened to Jack?”

“He moved to Cabo with a woman named Dusty. My mother’s new man is Victor Montrose. A venture capitalist. Drives a car worth more than my house.”

“Well maybe Victor’s the problem,” says Healing, who already has an odd feeling about the case. “Scooter is a prince among dogs and Jack was his primary human, so…”

“I don’t think Victor is the problem. He’s not the most pleasant person, and after four in the afternoon he drinks like a fish and becomes a most unpleasant person, but he seems to genuinely like Scooter and vice-versa.” Helen sighs heavily. “My mother is desperate to wed Victor. She’s eighty-three, feeling fragile of late, and Victor is rich as Croesus and adores her.” Helen frowns. “Who was Croesus anyway?”

“King of Lydia,” says Healing, who reads books about such things. “In Greece. Five hundred something B.C. Famously and incredibly wealthy until his army was defeated by the Persians. Something of a watershed in Greek history, and not a good moment for the Greeks or Croesus.”

“Victor is Italian on his father’s side, German on his mother’s,” says Helen, sipping her latte. “Which he frequently proclaims after his third gin and tonic.” She sighs again. “In any case, Scooter was very sad when Jack went away, not only because, as you say, Jack was his primary human, but he was also the only human who took Scooter for runs every day, and now poor Scooter is lucky to get a few not-very-long walks a week, and most of those are when Sheila and I go over there expressly to take him for a walk, which is highly inconvenient for us, but we hate to see him suffer so.”

“Not much of a gap between Jack leaving for Cabo and the coming of Victor,” says Healing, trying to think of when he last saw Jack. “Didn’t Jack preside over a barbecue there in April? It’s only just starting to be October.”

“Oh there’s never much of a gap,” says Helen, drolly. “I’m fairly certain Victor was waiting in the wings for the last year or so, and maybe not waiting all that much.” She gives Healing a look to say You know how my mother is and adds, “The Queen of the World cannot bear to be alone for a moment, and she’s still catnip to many of the older ones of your kind. Even still.”

*

Charlene, Helen’s mother, has lived in America for sixty-five years, forty-two of those in Mercy, yet if anything her French accent is stronger than it was when she fled from France to America all those decades ago.

A waitress turned paramour to a series of moneyed men, Charlene lives in a spacious home a few blocks from the Southport Tennis and Golf Club, three miles south of downtown Mercy. Charlene is the empress of the clubhouse lounge and a frequent diner at the clubhouse restaurant, currently a steakhouse called Flambé.

Healing will never ever forget the first time he met Charlene. He was a senior in high school with a leading role in the Mercy High production of Life With Father, and Helen, a junior newly arrived in Mercy, had a part in the play, too. Charlene and her partner at the time, Rex Cartwright who smoked cigars and drove a Bentley, attended opening night and stole the show by simply walking into the high school multi-purpose room and taking their seats in the front row.

Few people in Mercy, and certainly not Healing, had ever seen a woman so attractive and so well endowed and dressed so provocatively, except in the movies – think Hedy Lamarr wearing a glittering strapless red dress and sparkling red stiletto heels, her dark brown hair tumbling over glorious bare shoulders.

After the play, Charlene rushed backstage, proclaimed for all to hear that Healing was destined to be the next Olivier, and then kissed young Healing as if he was the love of her life. And Healing was so aroused by Charlene’s rapturous embrace he had to race away to the bathroom lest anyone see the undeniable evidence of his arousal.

At eighty-three, with the help of girdle and torso harness, Charlene still presents to the world a statuesque figure, her shoulder-length hair currently auburn and wavy, her complexion rosy – the result of what she calls “my special cream from Paris.”

*

The next afternoon, Saturday, the fog unrelenting, Healing and his dog Tarzan arrive at Charlene’s house in Southport, formerly sand dunes and coastal pines and a few humble redwood homes, now a development of large houses built around the one and only golf course in the Mercy watershed.

Charlene, wearing a peach butterfly-print blouse and high-waisted beige slacks in the style of Claudette Colbert, and Victor, a thickset man in his seventies with a pompadour of white hair dyed black, wearing a loud blue Hawaiian shirt and white pants, come out the front door of Charlene’s house just as Healing with Tarzan on a leash come up the front walk.

“Ealing! Come quickly,” cries Charlene, beckoning urgently. “Scoo-tare has gone mad again and is digging up the backyard. Come see.” And as an afterthought, “Oh I’m so sorry. This is Victor Montrose. My fiancé. Victor, Ealing Weintraub, a grocer who was a gifted actor and gave up the stage for reasons I will never understand and now plays accordion in a band with Helen.”

“Pleased to meet you,” says Victor, gripping Healing’s hand as if trying to break all of Healing’s fingers. “The dog is psychotic.”

“Speaking of dogs,” says Healing, touching the top of Tarzan’s head. “This is Tarzan. I’m curious to see how Scooter relates to him now. They’ve met a few times before and always liked each other.”

*

Scooter, an eight-year-old medium-sized Chocolate Lab Border Collie, stops his frantic digging and comes to greet Tarzan, the dogs remembering each other and still feeling kindly toward one another.

 “Just look what he’s done,” says Charlene, gesturing dramatically to the large backyard – a formerly manicured garden of small trees and decorative shrubs and granite boulders surrounding three large patches of lawn connected by wide pathways of lawn, much of it now destroyed by the dog.

“Stunning,” says Healing, awestruck by the scale of the destruction.

“Oh it was so beautiful,” says Charlene, giving Victor a sad smile. “Victor himself designed this putting-green garden, and Madame Wildflower directed her people to put in the trees and rocks and putting greens, and they were just making the koi pond where two bridges would arch across in the Japanese style when Victor took me to Santa Barbara to visit his daughter Gloria in her fabulous home in Montecito, and while we were gone Scoo-tare destroyed everything.”

“I’ve been here several times over the twenty years you’ve lived here,” says Healing, walking out into the wrecked garden. “The first time was right after you moved here. There were native coastal pines and wild grasses and a few remnants of the original sand dunes with some of the original dune grass. Am I remembering correctly?”

“Oui,” says Charlene, nodding. “I liked it very much. I’m not a gardener and it only required a man to come a few times a year to do a little trimming and raking. There was a brick patio and a barbecue. Nothing elegant, but a good place to entertain so… I liked it.”

“So did I,” says Healing, sharing a smile with her. “And so did your dogs Gaston and Philippe. Gaston a big shaggy brown mutt, Philippe some sort of poodle chow?”

“Oh yes. Dear Gaston and sweet Philippe. They loved it here,” says Charlene, gesturing toward the east. “Gaston liked to sit under a pine tree and smell what was on the wind. So we buried him, Helen and I, under that pine tree when he died. He was fourteen. The pine tree is gone now, but Gaston is still out there somewhere.”

“Then,” says Healing, bending down and picking up a clump of the wrecked putting-green grass, “the trees were cut down and the yard was terraced for Jack’s vegetable garden. Or am I misremembering?”

“No, no. Your memory is good. Eight years ago,” says Charlene, smiling contritely at Victor. “Forgive me for speaking of him, but Jack was crazy for growing vegetables and flowers, everything organic, and so the yard was his little farm, you know.” She rolls her eyes. “Such a mess. The dirt in the house. Oh my God. But the vegetables and flowers were very good, so…”

“How did Scoo-tare like the yard that way?” asks Healing, thinking of all the dirt he and his dogs track into their little old house on Nasturtium Road.

“He liked it,” says Charlene, shrugging complacently. “There was not much room for him to run, but at least he didn’t dig everything up. He was never a digger until they put in Victor’s magnificent garden.”

“Listen,” says Victor, pointing at Healing. “I don’t want you getting the wrong idea here. I love the dog. We get along great. I sit on the sofa and he puts his head on my leg. We’re good buddies when he’s not in one of his manic phases. He’ll go for days without digging and be just as sweet as can be. And then… bam, he’s back to this maniacal digging and destroying everything. It’s untenable. A living nightmare. And the digging isn’t the only thing he does when he’s in one of his psycho phases. When we take him for walks…” He glances at Charlene. “You want to tell him or should I?”

“He shits on the sidewalk,” says Charlene, shrugging hopelessly. “He always used to go on the dirt beside. But now… plop. Right on the cement. And when we try to pick it up because we are responsible dog owners, the shit smears on the pavement. And then what can we do?” She looks away. “Disgusting.”

“He does it on purpose, too,” says Victor, glaring at Scooter who is happily romping around in the wreckage with Tarzan. “No doubt about it.”

“Any other out-of-the-ordinary behavior?” asks Healing, watching Tarzan chase Scooter to a far corner of the yard where an old wooden shed is festooned with red passionflower vines.

“You see where the dogs are going?” says Charlene, pointing toward the shed. “Scoo-tare dug a hole under the fence there into the Winthrops’ backyard, which is completely overgrown with weeds and dead trees and snakes and ticks and God knows what else. So he goes through his tunnel over there and the Winthrops call me and say, ‘Your dog is here. We don’t mind, but we thought you would like to know.’” She rolls her eyes. “They are nice people, I suppose, but they are hippies and don’t care how they look, you know, so… they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them. We have the Wildflower people fill in the tunnel with rocks and cement, but then some days later Scoo-tare has dug another tunnel and is going into the Winthrops’ weeds again.”

“So we’re gonna get that whole section of the yard cemented and build a high stone wall there,” says Victor, pointing in the direction of the shed. “Want a drink?”

“I’d love some tea,” says Healing, nodding politely. “But first I’ll look around a bit more and see if I can find anything that might be inciting dear Scooter to riot. Or do you prefer Scoo-tare?”

“Scooter,” says Victor, going inside. “Char’s French, you know.”

“Aha,” says Healing, winking at Charlene. “Helen coming over? She said she would.”

“Yes, soon,” says Charlene, whispering to Healing, “Victor wants to have the dog put to sleep, but I love my Scoo-tare. I can’t bear to have him put down. Maybe you can find for him a home if we can’t solve the problem. But Victor must have his putting-green garden. He’s been so very good to me.”

*

Healing wanders though the ruined garden to the old shed in the northeast corner of the yard and examines the ground where Scooter has three times now tunneled under the wooden fence – no easy feat in soil as hard as rock.

Going up on his toes to look over the fence, Healing smiles at the Winthrops’ yard, a gently sloping half-acre of wild grasses and blackberry brambles and nasturtiums and calla lilies and coastal pines, the wild land home to many birds and insects and lizards and snakes and rodents and a skunk or two.

He admires the big deck on the south-facing side of the Winthrop’s old redwood house where hundreds of ceramic pots of various sizes surround an old wooden picnic table, some of the pots growing succulents, some mint, some flowers, some weeds.

Healing turns at the sound of Scooter starting to dig a new hole a few feet from the last one the Wildflower people filled in with gravel and then capped with cement – Tarzan joining Scooter in digging.

“You know,” says Healing, speaking to the dogs, “one of my first jobs after I graduated from high school was working for Zella Wildflower, and I can assure you the last thing she would want to do is fill in your tunnel, unless a client asks her to, and then she will.”

Now Sue Winthrop, her long white hair in a ponytail, her blouse a faded paisley relic from the previous century, comes out onto her deck to snip some mint leaves for tea, and she sees Healing and recognizes him from Good Groceries.

She waves to him, and he waves to her, and his waving becomes a beckoning, so Sue takes the little trail through dry brown grass to meet Healing at the fence.

*

A half-hour later, Healing and Tarzan and Scooter are sitting in Charlene’s living room with Victor and Charlene and Helen – Healing and Helen drinking tea, Victor and Charlene drinking gin and tonics.

“I have thoroughly examined Scooter,” says Healing, looking around at everyone, “and I’m happy to report he’s in fine fettle. I’m also happy to say I can explain why he’s been tunneling into the Winthrops’ yard, and why he so frantically digs up your garden and poops on the cement when he’s in one of his crazy phases. And I also have a solution to this situation that has become, as Victor said, untenable.”

“If you can do all that,” says Victor, who has already had three large gin and tonics and is nearly done with his fourth, “I will give you…” He pauses dramatically. “Ten thousand dollars.”

Helen shoots Healing a look to say Take it. The guy has millions.

“I will do so,” says Healing, looking from Helen to Charlene to Victor, “by telling you the story of Scooter’s life from puppyhood to now.”

“But how do you know his story?” asks Charlene, pursing her lips and frowning at Healing. “You’ve only met him a handful of times.”

“He told me his story just now,” says Healing, looking at Scooter and Tarzan sprawled on the floor together, “as we wandered around the yard following our noses.”

“This I gotta hear,” says Victor, laughing a grunting kind of laugh. “I don’t gotta believe it, but I gotta hear it.”

 *

“When Scooter was a puppy eight years ago,” begins Healing, “Charlene and Jack brought him home to a yard that was being transformed from a fragment of the original coastal vegetation to a terraced vegetable and flower garden. Thus as Scooter was first learning to live on the earth, he briefly experienced a bit of the wild world, if you will, as it was being transformed into a small organic farm, and the word organic is an important word in this narrative.”

“Why is organic important?” asks Victor, giving Healing a disparaging look as he makes himself a fifth gin and tonic. “What does organic even mean anymore? Organic this, organic that. You put the word organic in front of something we’re supposed to what? Get a hard on?”

“Victor,” says Charlene, coquettishly. “Don’t be nasty. Let Ealing tell his story.”

“The word organic is key,” says Healing, enjoying Victor and Charlene’s repartee, “because until five months ago, Scooter was never subjected to the smell or taste of chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any such toxic substances. Jack was a purist and would use no chemicals in his garden. Scooter was also taken for daily walks and runs, sometimes by Helen and Sheila when they came to visit, sometimes by Jack who had an electric bicycle on which he rode with Scooter running along beside him, and often by Charlene who has long been a champion of walking for an hour or so every day.”

“You got that right,” says Victor, sitting down beside Charlene and putting his hand on her knee. “She walks my butt off.”

“Not so much anymore,” says Charlene, batting her eyelashes at Victor. “Only sometimes.”

“Then some months ago,” continues Healing, “the backyard underwent a radical transformation as it was being me into a Japanese garden with bonsai pines and boulders and a koi pond and lawns, the totality of which was to be a fanciful putting green.”

“And at first Scooter didn’t mind at all,” says Victor, frowning at the dog. “But then he just flipped out and became a digging fiend.”

“He did,” says Healing, nodding in agreement. “Only we’ve left out a few important steps that precede Scooter flipping out, and those steps are the precipitous events.”

“Now how would you know that?” asks Victor, squinting suspiciously at Healing. “You weren’t here for any of this.”

“I know because I suspected these parts of the plot and subsequently confirmed them,” says Healing, gazing steadfastly at Victor.

“I’m listening,” says Victor, scrunching up his cheeks. “I’m not liking this, but I’m listening.”

“So…” says Healing, exchanging looks with Helen to gain courage, “when the transformation of the yard began, a number of chemicals heretofore not present in the yard were introduced. The sod used for putting greens is highly dependent on chemical fertilizers and insecticides to maintain the carpet-like nature of such greens, and Scooter, gifted with a sense of smell many times more sensitive than ours, found these chemicals highly unpleasant to inhale. So what did he do?”

“He attacked the garden?” says Helen, making a Yikes face.

“Not at first,” says Healing, shaking his head. “No, the first thing he did after they installed the putting-green sod was to resist ever going in the backyard.”

“That’s true,” says Charlene, nodding. “But we thought it was just because he didn’t like the people putting in the garden.”

“That was not the reason,” says Healing, continuing quickly before Victor can interrupt him. “When you shooed him out into the transformed backyard, he got as far away from the source of his suffering as he could by going to the northeast corner of the yard that was left somewhat wild around the old tool shed, and he made a nest in the grass behind the shed, the remnants of which are still there. And he was somewhat content there until the putting-green garden came closer and closer to his nest, and that is when he first tunneled under the fence into the yard belonging to Sue and Phil Winthrop, where, next to the trunk of a fallen pine tree, he made another nest.”

“You’re making all this up,” says Victor, shaking his head. “This is bullshit.”

“I’m not making any of this up,” says Healing, looking out the sliding glass door at the ruined garden. “And I just now confirmed everything I’ve told you with Sue Winthrop. She remembers very well the day when Scooter first appeared in their yard, and she and Phil went to investigate how he’d gotten in, thinking they’d find a hole in the fence. When they looked over the fence and saw your putting-green garden, they understood why Scooter had sought refuge in their more dog-friendly backyard.”

“That must have been when she first called me,” says Charlene, eagerly supplying the next part of the story. “To tell me Scoo-tare was in their yard. So then we had the Wildflower people fill in the tunnel.”

“Yes, you did,” says Healing, taking a deep breath. “So Scooter dug another tunnel. And as long as he could escape into the Winthrops’ yard, he did not try to dig up your putting-green garden, and remained, as you described him, Victor, as sweet as could be. But when his second tunnel was filled in, this time with gravel and cement, he flipped out. And that is when he began digging up your garden because he was, as far as he was concerned, fighting for his life.”

“You’re sure an alien didn’t come from outer space and make him do it?” says Victor, leering at Healing. “You can’t be serious.”

“You see, Victor,” says Healing, with great sincerity, “when Charlene fell madly in love with you, and when going on long walks became a rarity for Scooter, long walks he depended on for his sanity, and when he no longer had access to any place outside where he could feel safe and comfortable, he had no choice but to take action. Having owned many dogs over the course of my life, I can assure you that the difference between a well-exercised dog and an unexercised dog is the difference between a demon and an angel. And so Scooter became a lawn destroyer, a sidewalk pooper, and a frantic tunnel digger, his toenails warn away to nothing in his desperate labors to escape the fumes of death, and I do not consider the expression fumes of death hyperbole.”

“Let’s say some of this is true,” says Victor, getting up to make himself another drink. “I still want my putting-green garden and I’m not gonna let some over-sensitive dog stop me from getting it. Now you said you had a solution, and as a solution-oriented venture capitalist, solutions are what I’m interested in, not some sob story about a dog fighting for his life to get away from a putting green. That’s ridiculous.”

“I hear you, Victor,” says Healing, nodding earnestly. “You’re passionate about putting. And assuming one of the solutions is not ending Scooter’s life, and another solution is not abandoning your plan to make the yard into a miniature golf course, then the most obvious solution is to create a way for Scooter to move with ease to and from the Winthrops’ backyard. Sue assured me that she and Phil would be happy to have Scooter as a regular visitor. However, if you are uncomfortable with a tunnel under, or a gate through, the fence or wall separating your property from theirs – and I imagine you would be – another solution is to give Scooter to the Winthrops, and I have also confirmed they would love to have him.”

*

On the Monday following his solving of The Case of the Frantically Digging Dog, Healing announces to the executive board of Good Groceries that he is hereby giving one month’s notice as prelude to embarking on the next phase of his life, whatever that turns out to be.

*

The day before Thanksgiving, with several of his colleagues looking on, Healing performs his final act as a professional grocer by filling the banana bin with unblemished medium-sized bananas still a few days away from optimal ripeness.

fin

La Entrada piano solo by Todd

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Mitzi

On a warm Thursday night in September on the far north coast of California, in a splendid two-story house off Kingston Road in the redwood forest three miles from the town of Mercy, Healing Weintraub and Vivienne Malone lie entangled in Vivienne’s bed, while Vivienne’s nine-year-old daughter Meera slumbers peacefully in her bedroom down the hall.

Healing and Vivienne have been lovers for nine months now. They spend two or three nights a week together, sometimes at Healing’s little old house in Mercy, sometimes in Vivienne’s gigantic newer home in the forest. Healing loves being Vivienne’s lover and friend, and Vivienne seemed to be happily in love with Healing until a month ago when she started expressing dissatisfaction with their relationship.

*

“What are we doing, Healing?” asks Vivienne, her Irish accent aphrodisiac to Healing, especially when she speaks quietly.

“I am floating down a river of bliss,” Healing murmurs. “Otherwise known as a post-coital haze. How about you?”

“I was not asking about the present moment. I meant where are we going with our relationship?”

“We are going where our relationship takes us,” he says, sighing at the too-soon cessation of his blissful floating feeling. “And though I know you may think I’m being flippant and avoidant, I honestly mean our relationship will go where it goes. As for a concrete vision of what our relationship will be a few months from now, I have no idea.”

“So you’ve said before,” says Vivienne, disentangling her body from his. “And I do think you’re being flippant and avoidant because you’re afraid of the deeper intimacy a real marriage would require of you.”

“What do you base your thinking on?” asks Healing, marveling at how quickly his state of rapture has changed to feeling verbally assaulted for no good reason.

“You’re fifty-nine,” says Vivienne, getting out of bed. “Soon to be sixty, and you’ve never been in a lasting relationship.”

“And you’re fifty-two,” says Healing, telling himself not to trade accusations with her yet finding himself doing just that. “Married twice, three years each time. Does this mean you’re afraid of the deeper intimacy of a real marriage? I don’t think so. I think you and I are both capable of fantastically deep intimacy as the last hour just proved.”

“Do you want to marry me and make a life with me?” she says angrily. “Or do you just want to fuck me a few times a week?”

“Those are my choices?” says Healing, laughing as he kicks off the sheets. “And by the way, you’re incredibly sexy in nothing but a T-shirt being angry and defiant.”

“You should go,” says Vivienne, stepping into her pajama bottoms. “I have a seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“As you wish, my darling,” says Healing, getting out of bed and putting on his underwear.

“I don’t think we’ll come to your potluck tomorrow night,” says Vivienne, loving the sight of Healing naked despite being furious with him. “I’ll call you.”

“Shall we kiss goodbye?” asks Healing, approaching her. “Or is that not where you see our relationship going right now?”

They kiss and hold each other and Vivienne softens and says, “Lust clouds my thinking. We need some time apart. Two weeks would be good, I think.”

*

Fifteen minutes later, a little after nine-thirty, Healing arrives at his little old house on Nasturtium Road, his three dogs glad he’s home.

Feeling restless and angry, Healing takes the pooches for a walk around the property – two acres at the south end of Mercy – after which he strolls into town and cajoles Darby Riley into leaving the comfort of his cozy apartment to join him at Big Goose for a beer or two.

 They sit at a small table on the periphery of the general hubbub in this largest of Mercy’s three pubs, and Darby, seventy-five and Irish asks, “Don’t you have to go to work tomorrow morning?”

“I do,” says Healing, finding all the women in the pub, waitresses and bartenders and customers alike, enchanting. “And though I’ll be a bit sleep-deprived on the morrow, I crave the largesse of your wisdom more than I crave sleep.”

“You know, since you’ve been sleeping with the goddess Vivienne,” says Darby, grinning at Healing, “your subtle British accent has morphed into a not so subtle Irish brogue, and authentic sounding, too. Takes me back, as they say, though Vivienne is upper crust Killarney and I’m middle class Dublin. Still, I love hearing the lilt.”

“Speaking of Vivienne,” says Healing, smiling at the approach of Gladys Weatherstone, one of the lovely sirens tending tables at Big Goose, her red hair in pigtails, her round cheeks ablaze. “To be continued.”

 “Be still my heart,” says Gladys, putting her hand on Healing’s shoulder. “Haven’t seen you in eons.” She winks at Darby. “Unless I’m shopping at Good Groceries and then the rogue can’t keep his hands off me.” She laughs a high happy laugh. “I wish. What can I get you guys?”

“A half-pint of something dark and bitter,” says Healing, who rarely drinks alcohol.

“I’ll have the same,” says Darby, smiling sweetly at Gladys. “How’s the vase working out for you, dear?”

“Magnificent,” says Gladys, sauntering away. “Star of my kitchen table.”

“She bought a big round cobalt blue vase from me a few days ago. She said it was especially for sunflowers. ‘I’m deep into another van Gogh phase’ she said. I was asking forty dollars, though the thing is a bona fide antique from England and worth seventy at least, and I let her talk me down to twenty. I’m defenseless against women of her stature.” He sighs. “So… troubles with Vivienne? Don’t tell me. She wants you to sell your place and move in with her. Wedding bells and so forth.”

Healing gapes at Darby. “How in God’s name did you know that?”

“I’ve dined with her several times now at your little house,” says Darby, nodding knowingly. “And I’ve attended a few parties at her palace. When she’s at your humble abode she’s a fish out of water, the funk quotient way above her comfort zone, whereas at her mansion she’s a diva. You see, Healing, your Vivienne, and I love her dearly, is what those who study wolves call an alpha, and alphas want to be in control. Of everything.”

Gladys returns with two half-pints of Guinness, flirts a moment more, and departs.

“Here’s to the inevitable demise of your relationship with Vivienne,” says Darby, raising his glass. “I gave it five months when it began, and you’ve nearly doubled that, no doubt because the sex is so good. Am I right?”

Healing sips his beer and says, “We’ve nearly doubled it because we love each other and because Meera loves me and I love her, and Meera loves my place and my dogs and cats and the dirt and all the fun she’s not allowed to have at home.”

“You know there’s nothing wrong with a good nine-month relationship,” says Darby, thoughtfully sipping his beer. “What’s wrong is keeping things around much past their due dates.”

*

The next morning at Good Groceries, Healing is stacking ears of corn on the produce shelf a few feet away from Brenda Ontiveros who is replenishing the Cremini mushroom tray.

A beauty in her twenties wearing a battered black San Francisco Giants baseball cap, a purple T-shirt, baggy brown corduroy trousers, and orange running shoes, her curly black hair in a ponytail, Brenda says to Healing in the delightful way she has of melding English and Spanish, “I think mi tia Luisa could use your help. She got a new dog, a Chihuahua who kinda looks like a miniature Australian shepherd? Gets suddenly afraid and hides under the sofa or the bed and won’t come out for hours. Tia can’t figure out what the dog is afraid of. There’s nothing obvious. It’s a mystery.”

“Puppy?” asks Healing, his curiosity piqued.

“Two-years-old. Tia got her at the pound. Sweet. Smart. Happy most of the time. Then for no reason she starts shivering and runs to hide. Maybe you can go see about her after work.”

“Better tomorrow,” says Healing, tired and hung over. “I’m free all day.”

“I’ll call you,” says Brenda, getting out her phone and sending herself a reminder to set things up with her aunt and then call Healing.

“What’s the dog’s name?”

“Mitzi,” says Brenda, smiling at the thought of the little dog. “Tia tried to change her name to Chica, but she only comes to Mitzi.”

*

The potluck that night at Healing’s, minus Vivienne and Meera, is a fun affair composed of Buster Gomez, a parole officer and bass player, Buster’s wife Carmen, a high school Spanish teacher and singer, Helen Tremblay, a massage therapist and saxophonist, Helen’s partner Sheila Castro, an electrician and conga player, and Healing, manager of Good Groceries and an accordion player.

When Healing confides in his pals that he and Vivienne are taking a two-week hiatus from each other, the subject turns to relationships. Much is said about relationships in general, much is recounted about specific relationships, and the final word on the subject comes from Carmen who declares, “What you can never do is force the other person to be someone they’re not. You can maybe get them to fake being someone they’re not for a while, but that’s a living death for everyone involved.”

*

Early the next morning, Healing takes his three dogs to the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the vast expanse of sand void of other dogs and people, so Healing lets the pooches off their leashes to race around and gambol in the waves – Tarzan, a Siberian Husky Lab who loves to swim, Carla, an enormous Black Lab Dane who enjoys going in up to her chest, and Benito, a Chihuahua Poodle, who will venture onto wet sand but never into actual water.

*

After a hearty breakfast, Healing leashes Benito and walks with the little dog across town to a neighborhood where nearly everyone is Hispanic.

Luisa, Brenda’s aunt, a baker at Café Brava, lives in a small pink house she shares with her daughter and her daughter’s two teenaged children. A short pretty woman with shoulder-length black hair going gray, Luisa is pruning rose bushes in her front yard when Healing and Benito arrive.

“Hola Healing,” she says, waving when she sees him. “Oh you bring your little dog.” She turns to her open front door and calls, “Mitzi. Come see your compadre.”

Now a Chihuahua mix somewhat resembling a miniature Australian shepherd with very short legs comes to the doorway and wags her tail but does not venture out onto the front porch.

“She shy,” says Luisa, smiling shyly at Healing. “Gracias mucho for coming. Es misterioso. I don’t know. Everything is fine and then she look up like she hear fireworks or someone shooting a gun, you know, and she start to shiver and then she run and hide under the bed. But we never hear no sound.”

“May I bring my dog into your yard?” asks Healing, standing at the gate of the low picket fence.

“Por supuesto,” says Luisa, hurrying to open the gate. “Is very nice you come over. Quiero café?”

“Por supuesto,” says Healing, leading Benito into the yard, the little dog eager to make the acquaintance of the doggy in the doorway. “I brought you a jar of spicy plum jam we made last week when Tova was down from Portland.”

“Oh Tova,” says Luisa, smiling sweetly as she takes the jar from him. “Gracias mucho. Maybe you bring Tova next time she visit you. Veronica would love to see her. They were on the volleyball team together in high school. Te acuerdas?”

“I’ll never forget,” says Healing, remembering that valiant team of young women who almost never won a game and celebrated every rare point they scored as if they had just won the league championship.

*

Sitting at the kitchen table, Healing gazes around the neat little house and tries to imagine what could be triggering such a reaction in Mitzi who seems perfectly healthy, alert and affectionate and highly intelligent.

Luisa remains standing until Healing beseeches her to sit, and when she finally does sit down, she laughs and says, “When I was a girl, mi madre and my sisters and me, you know, we serve the men and don’t sit down.” She laughs again. “And when my husband was here, you know, I stand all the time and serve him, and now I stand and serve my daughter and my grandchildren. I think they would be very surprised if I sat down with them.”

“We are such creatures of habit,” says Healing, gazing at the refrigerator crowded with photos of Luisa’s family and friends. “How old are your grandchildren now?”

“Cynthia es fourteen, Diego es twelve.” She lowers her voice. “Diego es muy difícil ahora. Still a boy but want to be a man. You know? He get in lot of fights. He need a father, but… Veronica’s boyfriend es no father for Diego.”

“How do the kids get along with Mitzi?”

“Good,” says Luisa, nodding. “Mitzi sit on the sofa with Cynthia when she doing her homework. Yeah. They get along good.”

“With Diego, too?”

“Yeah okay,” says Luisa, nodding. “He gone at school all day or on his bike with his friends, and at night he close the door to his room and has his phone and listen to music. Is very difficult right now. I worry he might get in trouble. He just so angry.”

“Is he home now?”

“He still in bed,” says Luisa, shrugging. “He stay up late when he don’t have school the next day, so… Cynthia has a job now at the café. She doing good, y Veronica, you know, cashier at the lumberyard. So…”

“When Mitzi starts to shiver and runs to hide, is that usually in the daytime or at night?”

Luisa thinks for a moment. “All different times. In the day. In the night. Es like she hear something, you know? Her ears go up and she look around, and then she run and hide like she hearing thunder. You know how some dogs don’t like thunder?”

“I do,” says Healing, turning at the sound of Diego coming out of his room – the short burly young man stopping abruptly when he sees Healing.

“Hola,” says Healing, greeting Diego who is wearing a ripped black T-shirt and black jeans, his head shaved on the sides, a tassel of raven black hair on top, expensive headphones covering his ears.

“Tengo hambre,” says Diego, his voice very deep for a twelve-year-old. “Hay comida?”

“Sí,” says Luisa, getting up and gesturing for Diego to remove his headphones, which he does. “This is Healing. He work with Brenda at Good Groceries and know all about dogs.”

“I remember you,” says Diego, sitting down at the table to wait for his breakfast. “You brought your dogs to our school every year. I remember one was muy grande y negro. Beautiful. I’d like to get a dog like that some day.”

“That would be Carla,” says Healing, smiling at Diego. “A mix of Great Dane and Black Lab.”

“Quiero huevos?” asks Luisa, standing at the stove.

Diego nods and is about to put his headphones back on when Healing says, “Those are very nice headphones. I’ve seen ads for them. Not cheap.”

“These are the best,” says Diego, with a proud little sneer. “I saved a long time and my grandmother gave me the rest for Christmas so I could get them.”

“Well we connoisseurs want to hear the music we love sounding as good as it can, don’t we?” says Healing, giving Diego a thumbs up.

Now Benito and Mitzi come into the kitchen and Diego says of Benito, “I remember this one. You brought him to our class, too. But I like the big one better. These little ones…” He shrugs. “They’re okay. But I like a big dog who can fight.”

“Have you ever been here when Mitzi gets scared and goes to hide?” asks Healing, watching Diego lean down and pick up the little dog and hold her on his lap.

“Oh yeah,” he says, scratching behind Mitzi’s ears. “Lots of times. She’ll be just normal, you know, and then something freaks her out, man, and she shivers all over, you know, and cries like a baby and runs to hide. It’s very sad. I try to calm her down, but she stays freaked out for a long time and we don’t know what it is.”

“May I ask what kind of music you like to listen to?” asks Healing, looking at the headphones around Diego’s neck and their extreme proximity to Mitzi’s ears.

“All kinds,” says Diego, nodding. “I like hip hop and rap and metal and… you know. Loud.” He turns and smiles at his grandmother. “Even some mariachi and canciones de Mexico.”

“Do you listen to anything with really heavy bass?” asks Healing, clenching his fist when he says the word bass.

“Claro,” says Diego, nodding and grinning. “Lotsa shit with heavy bass.”

“Hijo, por favor,” says Luisa, frowning and shaking her head at his obscenity.

“Lo siento,” he says glancing at Healing. “Sorry.”

“Anything with insanely deep powerful bass that shakes your whole body?” asks Healing, curling both hands into fists and gritting his teeth.

“Oh I got something,” says Diego, his eyes widening as he gets out his phone to choose a song. “This one called Cañón del infierno. The bass and drums on this one will blow your mind, man.”

“Don’t play it just yet,” says Healing, holding up his hand to stay Diego. “May I listen on your fantastic headphones? Only please turn it way down, would you? I’m an old fart with sensitive ears.”

Diego hands Healing his headphones, and Healing puts them on with great care.

“These feel fantastic,” he says to Diego. “Amazing. Okay now, start the song. Cañón del infierno. The canyon of hell. Sí?”

Diego nods and presses Play, and though the volume is not a quarter as loud as when Diego listens to this music, Mitzi goes mad with fear.

*

When Healing and Benito get home from solving the mystery of Mitzi’s terror, Healing finds a message on his answering machine from Vivienne saying she’s changed her mind and doesn’t want to wait two weeks to see him again, or even two days.

“But maybe I want to wait two weeks now,” says Healing, walking out the kitchen door onto his deck, his dogs snuffling around in the garden, the world a cornucopia of wonders.

fin

One Fell Swoop piano solo by Todd