On a warm Sunday morning in October in the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Tom Gustafson stands at the gate leading into Healing Weintraub’s backyard and calls, “Healing. It’s Tom. With Delmore.”
Delmore is a large friendly brown dog, seven-years-old, a mix of Lab, St. Bernard, and Norwegian Elkhound. Tom is a large fifty-eight-year-old human, a mix of Irish English Scots and Minnesota Swedes, a wearer of plaid shirts and brown dungarees, his graying red hair in a stubby ponytail.
Healing and his three dogs are at the pond in the center of the two-acre property, a good distance from the gate adjacent to the little old house on Nasturtium Road. Wearing a broad-brimmed sunhat and T-shirt and shorts, Healing is sitting on a bench and writing a letter to his parents in Oxford, England, the dogs sprawled about him – the surrounding Japanese maples changing from their various greens to burgundies and magentas.
And though Healing doesn’t hear Tom calling, the dogs hear Tom loud and clear, and two of them, Benito a Chihuahua Poodle, and Tarzan a Siberian Husky Golden Lab, race off to greet the visitors.
The third of Healing’s dogs, Carla, a big Black Lab Dane with glossy black fur, remains with Healing, which is her habit, and Healing completes his sentence about the woman he’s crazy about who is not so crazy about him before going to see what caused Benito and Tarzan to rush off to answer the door, so to speak.
“What brings you into town on this fine October morning?” asks Healing, serving Tom strong black tea and bran muffins on the back deck, while Benito, Carla, and Tarzan show Delmore around the property, notably the recently repaired section of fence where a bear broke through in a failed attempt to get at the chickens.
“Oh… various errands,” says Tom, fishing his little Nikon out of his shirt pocket and snapping pictures of Healing pouring tea. “Groceries.”
“Bosh,” says Healing, arching an eyebrow. “You shop for groceries on Mondays and Thursdays. I know because you shop at Good Groceries, thank you very much, and the bank and post office are closed today. So… what’s going on?”
“You know me better than I know myself,” says Tom, looking away in embarrassment.
“We met in kindergarten and have never ceased knowing each other,” says Healing, smiling at memories of Tom as a boy and teenager and young man, an avid photographer since the age of six. “What’s amiss?”
“Susan doesn’t want Delmore coming in the house anymore,” says Tom, grimacing. “Kitty attacked him a few days ago and Delmore jumped away and knocked over a table and broke a Tiffany vase Susan inherited from her grandmother.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Things are not good.”
Healing muses for a moment. “We are speaking of the same Kitty you immortalized in photographs chronicling her love affair with Delmore. Kitten and pup inseparable friends. Cat and dog sleeping entangled on the sofa. Delmore and Kitty calendars ubiquitous. And now dear Kitty is attacking him? Since when?”
“Since a few weeks ago,” says Tom, opening his eyes. “They haven’t been lovey-dovey for the last few years, but they were still sharing the sofa most evenings until about three months ago when Kitty started occasionally taking swipes at Delmore when he came in the kitchen while she was eating. So we stopped feeding them at the same time, and then she started whapping him sometimes when he’d come in the living room and get too close to her. Not all the time, but sometimes. And now she bristles and hisses when she sees him. Again not always, but enough so it’s a problem.”
“Any idea what precipitated this change in her?” asks Healing, sensing a crucial part of the story is missing.
“No,” says Tom, taking a picture of Healing sensing a crucial part of the story is missing. “Susan insists Delmore is the aggressor, not Kitty, and I think it’s more complicated than that.”
“So do I,” says Healing, consolingly. “Let’s have a chat with Delmore and then I’ll zip out to your place and see what’s up with Kitty.”
“I’m wrecking your Sunday,” says Tom, fighting his tears.
“Nonsense,” says Healing, replenishing Tom’s teacup. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than Sherlocking a dog and cat mystery.” He pauses. “Except romancing Desdemona Garcia, and she won’t have me.”
“She’s nuts,” says Tom, smiling for the first time since his arrival. “You’re the greatest.”
When he is quite convinced that Delmore is the same sweetie pie he’s always been, Healing arranges to come to Tom’s place in an hour or so, bids Tom and Delmore fond farewell, and goes to find Toulouse, the one of his four cats who is most comfortable consorting with the resident dogs.
He finds Toulouse, a small orange and white cat, perched on the windowsill in the living room watching nothing much happening on Nasturtium Road.
“Toulouse, mon petit chou,” says Healing, sitting on the big gray sofa and bringing Toulouse onto his lap. “Help refresh my memory regarding your psycho-physical connection to the dogs.”
Toulouse purrs loudly as Healing massages her, and when she is deep in a trance of pleasure, Healing makes an airy whistling sound to summon his dogs.
A few moments later the dogs enter the house through the open kitchen door and trot en masse into the living room. Toulouse opens her eyes when the dogs enter, yet never ceases to purr, even when Benito and Carla come close to receive little treats from Healing.
“You are to these guys what Kitty has always been to Delmore,” says Healing to Toulouse, continuing to pet him. “I wonder what changed her.”
Carla and Benito soon wander away to resume their outdoor activities, and Tarzan is about to follow them when Healing says, “Oh stay, Tar. Come closer and I’ll pet you.”
Tar is still wary of the resident felines, never having known a cat until he joined the household seven months ago. And the cats are much less trusting of Tarzan than they are of Carla and Benito with whom they have been consorting since the dogs were pups and they were kittens.
“Come on, Tar,” says Healing, continuing to pet Toulouse. “Don’t be afraid.”
And because he wants to please Healing, Tarzan overcomes his trepidation about getting too near the cat and comes closer.
When Tarzan’s snout is within a few inches of Toulouse, Healing feels the cat stiffen for a moment and then relax as the petting continues and the dog shows no interest in the cat.
“Trust,” says Healing, petting both Toulouse and Tarzan. “You each trust me, and through me, each other.”
Tom and Susan live four miles north of Mercy in a beautiful home on the dunes overlooking Four Mile Beach and the Pacific Ocean. A renowned photographer, Tom and his first wife Helen, an architect, built the house, raised their two daughters there, and when the girls went off to college, Helen filed for divorce and moved to Santa Fe.
Helen’s withdrawal from their marriage was a terrible shock to Tom and he was quite depressed for three years until he met Susan at a Photography workshop at which Tom was the main attraction. He fell madly in love with Susan who is nearly thirty years his junior, and to his amazement she fell in love with him, and now they’ve been married for seven years.
After a lengthy honeymoon in Europe, they returned to Mercy, got the puppy Delmore and the kitten Kitty, and zealously resumed their photography careers, Tom ever successful, Susan ever aspiring to be.
“They are not exactly peas in a pod,” says Healing, speaking to Benito who is riding shotgun in Healing’s little white pickup as they head north on the coast highway, the deep blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. Benito always accompanies Healing when he goes places in his truck, which is not often since nearly everything Healing could ever want is within walking distance of their little old house on Nasturtium Road. “Yet I think they are quite happy together. Or they were. I haven’t seen much of them these last few years. They are frequent flyers, if you catch my drift.”
Benito looks at Healing and raises his right eyebrow, which he always does when he detects a trace of doubt in Healing’s voice.
Susan answers the gigantic front door of the spectacular house at the end of a short road intruding into the dunes. She is twenty-nine, the age of Healing’s daughter Tova who lives in Portland and is an actress and veterinarian’s assistant. Healing is rarely jealous of other people, nor is he inclined to pursue women vastly younger than he, but every time he encounters Susan, he experiences both a pang of jealousy and a gush of lust, for she is, as his British father likes to say of attractive women, one of your more glorious female types.
“Long time no see,” says Susan, her brown hair tumbling over her sleeveless red T-shirt and falling all the way to the unbelted waist of her faded blue jeans, her feet bare, her toenails painted red. “Stay for lunch?”
“Love to,” says Healing, laughing at his pounding heart. “I’ve got a dog in the truck. Benito. My little one. May I loose him to run around outside? I am told there is a ban on canines in the house.”
“No problem,” says Susan, giving Healing a searching look. “Kitty doesn’t leave the house anymore now that Delmore wants to kill her.”
“Surely you exaggerate,” says Healing, returning to his truck to let Benito out. “Kitty and Delmore have been lovebirds from the get go.”
“Not anymore,” says Susan, coming with him. “I’ve saved her from death several times now.”
Healing opens the passenger door of his truck and says to Benito, “Stick around the house, okay? You can’t come inside. We’ll take a walk on the beach after lunch.”
Benito jumps down from the truck, takes a sniff of Susan’s toes, and rushes off to find Delmore.
On their way back to the house, Susan says, “Do you know as much about cats as you do about dogs?”
“I know dogs are far more emotional than cats, much more like us humans,” says Healing, watching Delmore and Benito disappear around the far side of the house. “Dogs want each other, and in lieu of other dogs, they want a human or humans to bond with. Cats want meat and warmth and safety more than they want each other or humans. Cats stay with us because we feed them. Dogs stay with us because they identify with us.”
“I think Kitty identifies with me,” says Susan, opening the front door. “Or I identify with her.”
Healing and Tom and Susan have sandwiches at a table on the deck overlooking the beach, only a few people strolling on the vast expanse of sand.
After catching up on the latest photography news – Tom putting the finishing touches on a large-format book of photos of flowers growing in unlikely places, Susan making frequent trips to the south of France to chronicle the changing seasons there for a calendar company – Healing asks Susan for her side of the Kitty-Delmore conflict.
“When they were four,” says Susan, gazing intently at Healing, “right after Tom published his book of photos of them, Delmore became… aloof. Didn’t want to have anything to do with Kitty.”
Tom shakes his head. “That’s not true. I photographed them being lovey-dovey for two years after the book came out. For all the follow-up articles and calendars.”
“Rare moments,” says Susan, giving Tom a disparaging look. “You were always in a panic about getting enough shots for the calendars because they were so rarely together.”
Tom shakes his head again and resists his impulse to argue with her.
“And when did the actual fighting begin?” asks Healing, remembering the arguments he had with his wife during their brief marriage that produced their daughter Tova, his view of reality and his wife’s view of reality so entirely different, they often had no idea what the other person was talking about.
“The fighting began a few months after he started growling at her,” says Susan, glancing at Tom. “At first she didn’t react to his growling, but then she started hissing when he’d growl, and that made him lunge at her and she’d defend herself or run away.”
“I understand,” says Healing, nodding. “And when did he start growling at her?”
“I don’t know exactly,” says Susan, shrugging. “Maybe six or seven months ago?”
“Why did I never see any of this?” asks Tom, frowning at Susan. “I was the one who was here most of the time while you were in France or New York or London or Los Angeles. They may not have been lovebirds anymore, but they tolerated each other and still shared the sofa most evenings.”
“Not when I was here,” says Susan, shaking her head. “She didn’t want to be in the same room with him.”
“Might I have a visit with Kitty?” asks Healing, finding the tension between Tom and Susan hard to bear.
“She’s in there somewhere,” says Susan, gesturing toward the house.
“Probably in the living room,” says Tom, getting up from the table. “Shall we come with you?”
“Yes, please,” says Healing, looking at Susan. “I just want to refresh my memory about her.”
“Fine,” says Susan, petulantly. “And you’ll see the problem is the dog, not the cat.”
Kitty, a large gray tabby, is in the living room sitting sphinxlike on a sofa next to a large picture window with a view of the dunes. She looks up as Healing approaches, reaches her paws out in front of her, extends her claws, and arches her back in anticipation of him petting her, which he always has in the past.
“You remember me,” says Healing, speaking quietly as he pets Kitty before sitting down next to her, which prompts her to climb onto his lap and roll onto her back exposing her tummy, which Healing gently rubs.
“Hold that pose,” says Tom, going to get his camera.
Susan watches Tom depart and says with mild disdain, “He who takes pictures of everything.”
“You don’t?” asks Healing, innocently.
Susan shakes her head. “As Tom likes to say, there are two kinds of photographers. Those who take pictures wherever they are, and those who go places to take pictures of things they’ve decided in advance to take pictures of. He is the former, I am the latter.”
Tom returns with a camera and gets lost in shooting pictures of Healing and Kitty.
“Join me?” says Healing, bouncing his eyebrows at Susan.
“Must I?” she says, pleased he asked.
“You must,” he says, nodding.
So she sits next to him, puts her arms around him, and gazes seductively into the lens of Tom’s camera.
“Fabulous,” says Tom, clicking away.
“And now with your permission,” says Healing, growing serious, “may we bring Delmore in?”
Susan stiffens and pulls away. “Absolutely not.”
“But honey,” begins Tom, “we need…”
“I will not have that dog in the house ever again.” She gets up from the sofa and glares at Healing. “He terrorizes the cat. What’s the point?”
“The point,” says Healing, speaking quietly, “is for me to see how the cat and dog relate to each other.”
“They will fight,” says Susan, clenching her fists. “And she will run away.”
“I promise they won’t fight,” says Healing, calmly. “I promise.”
“You’re insane,” says Susan, walking out of the living room and down the hall to her studio. “And I won’t help you torture sweet Kitty.”
When Susan’s studio door slams, Tom says, “Maybe you should go, Healing. This isn’t helping.”
“Tom, please,” says Healing, feeling sure they’re on the verge of solving the mystery. “Bring Delmore in. Not Benito. Just your dog.”
Tom gazes forlornly in the direction of Susan’s studio and says, “Okay.”
Alone with Kitty, Healing whispers to her, “Your old friend Delmore is coming to see you now. Good old Delmore.”
Now Tom returns with Delmore on a short leash. “Here we are.”
“Release him, please,” says Healing, and Tom does so.
“Now what?” asks Tom, fearing the worst.
“Take pictures,” says Healing, continuing to caress Kitty.
“Will do,” says Tom, raising his camera to his eye.
“Come here, Del,” says Healing to the dog. “Come say hi to Kitty.”
Delmore approaches cautiously, his last interaction with Kitty catastrophic, and Healing feels Kitty stiffen as the dog comes closer, though not nearly as much as Healing thought she might. And while Healing continues to pet Kitty, she raises her face to Delmore as she has a thousand times before, and the sweet dog oh so delicately touches his nose to hers, and never does she stop purring.
Susan returns to the living room as Tom is shepherding Delmore to the front door and Healing is following with Kitty cradled in his arms; and when Delmore sees Susan, he gives her a baleful look and growls, to which Kitty responds by hissing.
Two months later, on a cold clear morning in mid-December, Healing and his dogs are walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River, the dogs off leash, when who should they meet but Tom and Delmore.
The dogs greet Delmore by frolicking around him, and when Tom falls in with Healing, the four dogs run off in pursuit of gulls.
“What news?” asks Healing, bumping shoulders with his old friend. “How go things between Kitty and Delmore these days?”
“They are pals again,” says Tom, taking a deep breath. “And Susan is now settled in her new digs in Los Angeles, divorce proceedings underway.”
“I’m sad,” says Tom, nodding. “But I’m also relieved.” He scrunches up his cheeks. “I don’t want to make Susan the villain, which she’s not, but…” He struggles to find the words.
“She’s someone who goes places to take pictures of things she decided in advance to take pictures of,” says Healing, raising his arms to the sky. “Which is not at all the kind of person you are.”
“Indeed,” says Tom, taking pictures of Healing and the crashing waves and the marvelous dogs racing across the sand.