Healing Weintraub has lived in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California for his entire life and has been the manager of Good Groceries for the last twelve of his fifty-seven years. He was married briefly when he was in his late twenties, which marriage produced his daughter Tova who Healing raised with lots of help from his parents and no help from Tova’s mother who fled Mercy when Tova was eleven-months-old and has never been heard from again. Tova is now twenty-nine and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Healing’s parents, Naomi and Ezra, met in San Francisco, both having come from England to California to partake of the cultural renaissance known as The Sixties. Ezra lived in a Haight-Ashbury commune and worked as a gardener and dog walker. Naomi lived in a commune on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley and sold her jewelry and batik scarves on Telegraph Avenue. They met at a potluck in Golden Gate Park, fell in love before ever speaking to each other, and were astonished to discover they were both from Oxford, England, both were Jewish, and both wanted to live far from the madding crowd.
Six months later, Naomi and Ezra were married in a quasi-Buddhist ceremony on Mount Tamalpais, after which they drove north in Ezra’s Volkswagen van, broke down in Mercy, and stayed here for forty years until Naomi inherited her parents’ house in Oxford along with a tidy sum of money, which prompted their return to England where their daughter Jean, Healing’s older sister, lives in Devon with her archaeologist husband and two children and raises Schnauzers.
Healing stayed in Mercy because, as he said to his parents when they beseeched him to move with Tova back to England with them, “There is nowhere else on earth I would rather be than here. Yes, America has gone insane, but Mercy, thank goodness, is not America.”
The big (relative term) grocery store in Mercy is Walker’s, a fine store where most Mercy residents and most Mercy tourists get their groceries and booze and fish and meat and junk food. However, when it comes to organic produce, much of it locally grown, and organic bulk foods and the very best herbs and spices, Good Groceries is the place where locals who care about such things go shopping.
And though he enjoys his job at Good Groceries and loves his fellow employees, Healing would quit the job in a minute if he had a cool million in the bank. However, he doesn’t have even a tepid ten thousand in Mercy Savings and so has no intention of quitting his job.
“Crazy weekend,” says Brenda, standing next to Healing as they restock the vegetable shelves together on a cold Monday morning in September.
Brenda is one of the fifteen full-time employees of Good Groceries, a worker-owned co-op started in the 1970s by four escapees from Los Angeles. A beautiful Latina in her twenties, Brenda’s work outfit consists of a battered gray Boston Red Sox baseball cap, a dark blue T-shirt, baggy brown corduroy trousers, and red running shoes, her curly black hair tied in a ponytail.
“Do tell,” says Healing, dressed in faded blue overalls and a black San Francisco Giants sweatshirt, his British accent capricious.
“The moment I got here on Saturday morning, people started dropping things,” says Brenda, arraying gorgeous heads of butter lettuce from Middle Ridge Garden. “First it was customers dropping avocados and spilling rice from the bulk bin, and then that guy who makes those nut bars that always fall apart so people want their money back?”
“Arnold Bickerstaff,” says Healing, pleased with the zucchini they got in this morning from Lacewing Farm.
“Yeah, that guy,” says Brenda, rolling her eyes. “He came in for his weekly supply of nuts and the bottom fell out of one of his shopping bags and walnuts went everywhere, and when Magdalena came running to sweep them up she ran into Sara, not the Sara who teaches Pilates but the Sara who reads Tarot cards? And that Sara grabbed onto the honey shelf to keep from falling and she knocked down five big jars of honey and three broke and there was honey all over the floor and the walnuts.” Brenda gives Healing a look of retroactive dismay. “And that was just the beginning of what happened on Saturday, and Sunday was crazy, too.”
“Holy moly,” says Healing, glad he doesn’t work weekends anymore. “Thank goodness no one was hurt.”
“I mopped over there again this morning,” says Brenda, placing the last head of lettuce on the shelf. “And the floor was still a little sticky.”
“Excuse me,” says a short plump woman wearing an expensive brown suit, yellow shirt, and burgundy tie, her gray hair cut in a boyish bob, her accent faintly German, her eyes obscured by enormous dark glasses. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m looking for Healing Weintraub.”
“You have found him,” says Healing, smiling at his twin reflections in the lenses of the woman’s dark glasses. “How may I assist you?”
“My name is Margaret Schlesinger. My friend Mitzi Goldsmith suggested I consult with you about my dog.”
Healing extracts a business card from his wallet and hands it to her. “Please give me a call. I’ll be home this evening and look forward to hearing from you.”
“Thank you,” says Margaret, frowning at the handmade card – Healing’s name written in uneven block letters, each letter a different color, each digit of his phone number a different color, too. “I apologize for disturbing you here, but Mitzi didn’t have your phone number with her. We were just at the bakery and she said you worked here. I’m quite desperate about my dog Lisa. The vets could do nothing for her. Please forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive,” says Healing, reassuringly. “I’m glad you found me.”
When Margaret is gone, Brenda says, “I wonder what kind of dog she has.”
“What kind do you imagine?” asks Healing, resuming his careful stacking of the zucchini.
“A fat little bulldog,” says Brenda, laughing. “I know that’s not nice, but that’s what I imagine.”
As it happens, Margaret’s dog Lisa is not fat or little or a bulldog, but a medium-sized shepherd mix with a dark gray coat splashed with black and white. Healing guesses Lisa is half Australian Shepherd, quarter German Shepherd, and quarter some sort of spaniel. He makes this guess as he comes down the four stairs from the front porch of his little old house on Nasturtium Road to greet Margaret and Lisa who have just arrived on this cold foggy Saturday morning in Margaret’s shiny green Volvo.
“Welcome,” says Healing, pleased to see Lisa wagging her tail as he approaches them. “How are you this morning, Margaret?”
“Not good,” she says, wearing her dark glasses despite the fog. “She didn’t eat a thing this morning. I’m so afraid I’ll lose her.”
“I understand,” says Healing, nodding sympathetically. “As I mentioned to you, I have three friendly dogs, and with your permission I’d like to see how Lisa interacts with them.”
“Yes, of course,” says Margaret, wearing a fine gray suit today, her shirt pale blue, her tie emerald green. “Mitzi told me a little about how you helped her dog Lucille.”
“Ah yes. Lucille who had the habit of nipping at the heels of delivery people,” says Healing, offering Lisa the back of his hand to sniff.
Lisa licks Healing’s hand and smiles at him, and Healing rewards her with a delicious little treat she happily gobbles.
“Mitzi said you cured Lucille in one visit,” says Margaret, clipping a leash to Lisa’s collar. “Oh if only you could do that for my Lisa.”
Healing squats beside the dog and whispers, “Don’t you worry, sweetheart. We’ll figure things out. Come meet my dogs.”
Keeping Lisa close, Margaret follows Healing to the gate leading into his deer-fenced backyard, and on the way Margaret espies two of Healing’s cats sitting on the inside ledge of the big picture window in the living room.
“I see you are a cat person, too,” says Margaret, disdainfully. “I don’t like cats. I find them diffident.”
“You would not find three of my four diffident,” says Healing, glancing at the window to see which ones are there — Mongo and Toulouse. “But one of the four, Justine, is extremely standoffish. She was feral for some years before coming to live with us and she may never trust anyone but me, and me only somewhat.”
“Do you have any other animals in your menagerie?” asks Margaret, sounding sarcastic, though Healing doubts she intends to sound that way.
“I do,” says Healing, pleased she used menagerie, which is one of his mother’s favorite words. “Three tortoises, two parrots, and seventeen chickens along with my four cats and three dogs.”
Healing opens the gate and reveals those three dogs sitting on their haunches some thirty feet away and waiting impatiently. They are Benito, a seven-year-old Chihuahua Poodle with pointy ears and light brown fur, Tarzan, a big four-year-old silver gray Siberian Husky Golden Lab, and Carla, a five-year-old Black Lab Dane with floppy ears and glossy black fur, by far the largest of the three.
“You say they are friendly?” asks Margaret, her voice shaking. “I got Lisa from the pound when she was ten-months-old. She was starving and terrified of other dogs. Now she is three and has had virtually nothing to do with other dogs since then.”
“My pooches are exceedingly friendly,” says Healing, holding up a hand to tell his dogs not to approach yet. “May I handle Lisa now?”
“Yes, of course,” says Margaret, surrendering the leash to him.
“Those are my dogs,” says Healing, touching the top of Lisa’s head as he speaks to her. “They are very much looking forward to meeting you, and I gather the feeling is mutual.”
Lisa gives a little shiver to say Yes.
“Go meet your new friends,” he says, unleashing her.
Lisa walks slowly toward the waiting dogs and Healing gestures for them to approach her — Carla the first to touch noses with Lisa, Benito second, Tarzan last, after which the requisite sniffing begins.
When the dogs are comfortable with each other, Healing says to Margaret, “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea and some chocolate chip cookies I made this morning? Get out of the cold?”
“Can Lisa come in with us?” asks Margaret, alarmed by the invitation.
“Of course,” says Healing, leading the way to the deck on the east side of his house. “My dogs love being by the fire after our first walk of the day.”
“How many times a day do you walk them?” asks Margaret, watching Lisa follow Tarzan into Healing’s big vegetable garden.
“At least twice,” says Healing, going up the two steps onto the spacious deck. “And one of those is usually a beach walk.”
“Lisa, come here,” says Margaret with a touch of hysteria in her voice. “We’re going inside to get warm.”
“Oh they’ll come in on their own,” says Healing, opening the kitchen door. “We’ll leave the door open for them.”
“Lisa!” shouts Margaret, ignoring Healing’s suggestion. “Come here. Now! You’re not well. We don’t want you catching a chill.”
And seeing how distraught Margaret is, Healing makes an airy whistling sound and the dogs come running.
With Carla and Benito and Tarzan and Lisa happily ensconced on the living room rug, the fire crackling, Margaret sits stiffly on the edge of an armchair and watches Healing set a tray on the coffee table in front of her, a tray laden with a pot of strong black tea, two teacups on saucers, and a plate piled high with cookies.
“What do you take in your tea?” asks Healing, his British accent always more pronounced at teatime. “Milk? Cream? Sugar? Honey?”
“Sugar and cream,” says Margaret, eating three cookies in quick succession. “Forgive me for being so anxious, but I’ve been terribly worried about Lisa and haven’t been sleeping well, and… anyway, thank you for meeting with us today.”
Healing fetches a little pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar. “Of course you’re anxious. You’re worried about your friend.”
Margaret puts four heaping spoonsful of sugar into her tea and adds a splash of cream. “So you are a baker, too.” She gobbles three more cookies, takes another cookie, and settles in the armchair with her tea. “Delicious. Thank you.”
“Tell me about Lisa,” says Healing, who doubts Margaret is aware she just ate six cookies and is now swallowing her seventh.
Margaret gulps her tea as if dying of thirst and leans forward to refill her cup. “May I?” she asks, pouring the tea without waiting for an answer. “Such good tea. You must tell me where you got it. And these cookies are fantastic.”
When she is settled in the armchair again, three more cookies eaten, her second cup of tea nearly gone, Margaret says, “I got Lisa two years ago, just two months after my partner Denise died. We were together for twenty-seven years. I’m sixty-four.” She takes off her dark glasses and Healing sees her whole face for the first time, her eyes light blue. “We always had a dog, sometimes two, but when the last one died the year before Denise died we didn’t get another one because she was too ill and I was consumed with taking care of her.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” says Healing, bowing his head.
“Thank you,” says Margaret, fighting her tears. “Might I trouble you for some more tea? This is so delicious.”
“I will make a fresh pot,” says Healing, carrying the tray of tea things to the kitchen and leaving behind the cookie plate with a solitary cookie remaining. “Please continue. I can hear you perfectly well from the kitchen.”
“Well,” says Margaret, smiling at Lisa sprawled on the rug next to Tarzan, “when I got Lisa from the pound she was so skinny you could see her ribs, and oh my God you should have seen her eat those first few months. And she grew strong and healthy again, and her recovery was my recovery, if you understand what I mean.”
“I do,” says Healing, returning with a fresh pot of tea and another plate of cookies, the first plate empty now. “Dogs heal us and we heal them. I believe dogs and humans evolved together for that purpose.”
Margaret fills her cup with tea, adds four heaping spoonsful of sugar and a splash of cream, eats two more cookies, and takes another cookie with her as she resettles in the armchair.
“But after a year of so,” she says sadly, “most of the time when I would go to feed her there would still be food left in her bowl, which never happened during the first year. No. Never. That first year when I ate, she ate. I thought she might be tired of the food I was giving her, so I got a different kind, and for a few days she went back to eating all her food, but soon again she would leave some. And then…” She pauses momentously. “Then she stopped eating any food in the morning and I knew something must be wrong with her, so I took her to the vet. They did a blood analysis and said she had low iron, so I switched to an iron-rich food, but it didn’t help. And now…” She pauses again. “Now she only eats once a day in the evening, and even then not very much for a dog her size.”
“Extraordinary,” says Healing, looking at Lisa and thinking Come here, cutie.
Lisa looks up at Healing and he says aloud, “Come here, darling.”
She comes to him and he picks her up and cradles her in his arms and smiles down at her as she smiles up at him.
“That’s amazing,” says Margaret, making herself another cup of tea with heaps of sugar. “She would never let me hold her like that even if I could, but I’m not nearly as strong as you are.”
Healing sets Lisa on the sofa beside him and she jumps down to resume her closeness with Tarzan, wrestling with him a little before shutting her eyes to take a little snooze.
“So… what is your assessment of her?” asks Margaret, eating two more cookies and settling back with her tea.
“I think she is a marvelous dog,” says Healing, choosing his words carefully. “Healthy and happy. You’ve taken wonderful care of her. I think what is going on springs from your misunderstanding of the kind of dog she is. I don’t know if your previous dogs were shepherds, and if they were perhaps Denise took care of them more than you did. In any case, once this kind of dog is full grown, they tend to be very self-regulating when it comes to eating, and they only need to eat once a day, not counting the occasional little doggy treat, and by little I mean a single nugget once or twice in the course of a day. But because Lisa was starving when you first got her, and because she was still growing, she ate voraciously until she attained her healthy weight, after which she began eating only enough to maintain her weight, and that is what she continues to do now that she is full grown. This is what I think is going on.”
Margaret gazes open-mouthed at Healing. “Are you telling me there’s nothing wrong with her?”
“Nothing at all. Except…”
“Yes?” says Margaret, expectantly.
“I think she could use more exercise, perhaps more than you are prepared to give her.” Healing waits a moment for this to sink in. “Where do you live, Margaret?”
“In Southport,” she says, breathlessly.
“And you come into town how often each week?”
“Three or four times.”
“Then I propose you bring Lisa here on days you come to town and she can join my dogs for our longest walk of the day, which during the week will either be before I go to work in the morning or after I get home in the afternoon. On weekends we usually take our big walks mid-morning. She’ll get good exercise and get to socialize, too, which is what dogs need in order to stay physically and emotionally healthy. And of course you are welcome to join us.”
“Are you sure?” says Margaret, trembling. “That seems a great imposition on you.”
“Not at all,” says Healing, loving the sight of Tarzan and Lisa resting side by side. “Tar joined our family six months ago and has been longing for a special friend. He and Lisa are obviously smitten with each other, so you would be doing us a great favor if you brought Lisa to walk with us a few times a week.”
And that is how Lisa and Margaret came to be regular visitors at the little old house on Nasturtium Road, and why Carla and Benito and Tarzan think of Lisa as a member of the pack, especially Tarzan who is in love with her, as she is in love with him.