Car after car swished past. A few trucks, a bus or two, people on the street in a hurry, going on with their lives. Busy people in a busy time. She sat like a queen bee at the window looking down, classic noble looks, erect posture, look of faint disinterest on her aristocratic face. The traffic was building up outside the window. More and more cars swished past, more honking. They honked more towards rush hour. More tension, more impatience. She wondered as she sipped tea, sitting distant and regal in her plush chair, if she would ever be part of that busy-ness. People going here and there. But she had never worked. She sighed. He would be home tonight, tired again. Budget time. She knew the office almost as well as he did from his constant talking, talking about all those boring people.
If she ever did go to work, it wouldn’t be to an office like him. Maybe she would like to be a labourer, dirt under her perfectly manicured nails. Something to break the perfection, tranquility and queenliness of her boring proper, idle life. Today she had to do: squash game, hairdresser, take the dog to the vet to get its delicate poodle nails clipped, pick up dry cleaning and some shopping of a minor nature. So why did she feel just like staying here, locked in a still picture of herself, looking at the building traffic, frozen? To break the frame, she rose to take her empty cup to the kitchen.
The kitchen was gleaming, bright white tiles on the walls, bright white surfaces on all the counter tops. He could afford a housekeeper and she never did care much for cleaning, so they hired it out. She cooked and did some minor things, like dishes and that sort of thing, but she really had no place even in the running of the house. She sighed again. She wondered if they took females in the Foreign Legion. That would be exciting. Life or death in the blazing heat of the desert. If you spelled it with two s’s then it was dessert, and that’s what her life had been always, like cake after the meal. Sweet and rich. Diabetic even. She was a pampered, useless thing, she realized, looking at her perfect manicured red nails as she put the cup and saucer in the sink. She had waited too long buried in a life most people would envy, a prisoner to him and the way things were.
She walked languidly, dreamily over to a kitchen drawer, removed scissors and cut the tips off all her nails. Clip, clip, clip they sounded as they were snipped and fell clacking like insect carapaces to the counter. She brushed the sharp red tips into the garbage. Then slowly walked to her dresser and sitting down in front of the mirror – which showed a bored, petulant and maybe even angry woman framed in the glass, thin, bony, like a long, extended insect – she methodically removed all the polish from her nails, the chemical smell strong and pungent in her nose.
Life was a drag. She heard the grocery boy say that. A drag. It dragged on and on, dragging her further and further every day. She had even lost words lately and was using the grocery boy’s old fashioned slang. She had nothing to say. Nothing that mattered. Nothing important. No interest. Nothing to look forward to except maybe the next vacation – in a tropical place usually. He liked hot places. She wilted in them, but after several years of going to the same kind of places, she had developed a sort of loathing tolerance of the heat. Things were prettier, though. Bigger than life flowers, strong bright colours in the tropics, big bugs. They ate and swam and danced and socialized with their friends, who all seemed so boring and unimaginative.
She did love him. He was sweet and kind and good to her. But boring. He was very boring. He talked work and office and didn’t do anything else. Because he worked so much. Boring to either not work at all like her or work too much like him. So they probably suited each other to a tee. She suspected he couldn’t take one of those boisterous type wives, with high expectations, endless energy and careers of their own. He wanted a wife waiting like a thin delicate butterfly, pinned to a board, who would mostly think and talk about him. And because she had nothing of her own, his life, his busy money-making life was more interesting than her own, for sure.
So they talked about his office, his work, his latest project, his holidays, his house and car and sometimes even her, “his wife.” She took up squash because he thought it would be good for her. She went on such and such a diet, because he had heard good things about it at the office. He was getting fat, but she mustn’t ever, ever get fat. She wasn’t as young as she once was, but he was faithful she knew because she was like some comfortable old easy chair or old stretched slippers that you have gotten used to having around. He was used to her. She did and said what was expected and he was satisfied. That was the basis for them staying together. He hadn’t the energy to change anything. So much for the “picture perfect marriage” they were accused of having by all his friends who themselves sported a new wife now and then like a new car or new house.
They all had children, these friends. But she did not. She did not even like children. And he, fortunately, was an only child and wanted it to stay like that in his marriage. She knew just how selfish he was. Very. Very, very selfish. And she let him get away with it even after she noticed, because by then it was too late for children or any of those late starting careers.
She looked at the hair. Coiffed beautifully. Dyed a sort of honey blond. He liked blond hair, and so did she. A transformation came over her. She was in some alternate reality. She didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror. That was not her. She was not in the mirror. She took the scissors to the front of the hair and snipped at the center of a curl. The hair fell suddenly to the tabletop and landed on top of a bottle – one of the beauty concoctions on the dresser. She slowly and purposefully snipped at another one, and then another, methodically cutting. The picture frame continued: who was that woman, cutting all that ugly perfect hair, cutting and cutting over and over again? She didn’t know and what’s more she couldn’t have cared leas. It was something to do, some energy to direct elsewhere. She didn’t see the change coming, the alternate reality expressing itself, the other world overtaking her, her boredom making it welcome. Anything, anything else. Someone, not her was talking in her head, the invitation strong, the resistance so small that it was easy to overcome, to remove, to change. After all, it had an open invitation didn’t it?
Finished with all the curls, she put on an old frumpy housecoat dress that the cleaning lady had left accidently one day. She had never thrown it out. She walked slowly to the bathroom and scrubbed her face at the sink. All the face paint came off and ran down the drain. She saw before her a perfectly ordinary woman. She had to do something more. She could feel the energy building. She got out a pail and the cleaner and a scrub brush. No easy modern conveniences for her like a sponge mop. Not today.
She got down on her hands and knees on the already clean, white kitchen floor, put plain unadorned hands in hot soapy water and started to scrub, pushing hard with wide, firm, sure circles. Ahh, that was better. She could even smell her own sweat after a while, something she had never experienced outside a gym. It felt good. Time melted away and in the transformation that was upon her, she imagined that she was some kind of cleaning woman, the faces of the many they had had flashed before her eyes, but she couldn’t decide on which one she was. She was a cleaning lady, though. Someone with a hard but good life. Someone who had tragedy and suffering, but who also could laugh. She hadn’t truly laughed or cried with any kind of feeling for years and years – as long as she could remember.
She imagined a family. She had a teenager in trouble with the law – someone she loved dearly, but who was going through a rough time with bad influences from bad friends. A husband, old, worn, loving that she could fight with. Someone who had her needs in mind sometimes. She scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, the transformation taking place in her almost without thought. The face sagged, the aging texture of her skin revealed without makeup. She was no longer thin, her body thickening as she scrubbed. Her hands became red and sore. She looked at them, covered with bubbles from the soap. Honest, working hands. Hands that had to go after things they needed. Hands that were useful. Hands that belonged to a real person, someone who worked for a living, did a good job and got an honest wage for it.
Then he came in. She didn’t notice him at first, standing by the door – watching her scrub. Then he spoke.
“Didn’t the agency tell you, all the work finished by 5:00, before I get home? Really, they send anyone don’t they. Where’s the missus?”
She was momentarily shocked. But then she recovered as she realized he didn’t recognize her. He wasn’t talking to her. She lowered her voice a register and answered. “Gone shopping.”
I’ll be in the family room when she comes in. Tell her, would you?”
“Yes…sir,” she added at the end. Might as well play the part.
She finished the floor and put some supper on. He liked to eat promptly at 6:00 p.m.
At 6:00 p.m. she set the table in the kitchen and served his dinner. She called “Supper ready” in the same voice she had used before, lower, huskier.
He came in. She had cooked her favourite meal. Only she cooked it like this. All those years. He should know.
He sat down and started without comment.
He finished without comment. She stood watching him. He did not even notice who she was or that she was watching him. She couldn’t be a cleaning woman, so he didn’t see her. She hadn’t existed much at all obviously if he couldn’t recognize her now. His meal was finished. He had a coffee and she stacked the dishwasher and came back for the cup.
“You can go if you want. She’ll be back soon, no doubt, and she can reheat her own supper.”
“You want me to go, sir?” she said, walking up close to him. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, he looked up and then looked away.
“My wife will talk to you tomorrow about what you duties should be. You haven’t made a good start, but the supper was fine. You can go.”
She went to the closet and took out her purse. She looked in it, credit cards, saving account book – no point in being stupid, then she put on an older coat she had, one she went for walks in, comfortable, useful, not too pretty.
“Goodbye,” she said tentatively but clearly and distinctly in her own voice so he could hear in the next room. No answer. She stood still and quiet for a moment, frozen in time, waiting. The air in the room was still and she felt a little tense in a disconnected way, waiting to see what would happen. It was clearly her voice.
Maybe he didn’t hear her. She walked to the door and turned a moment, saying it again, more clearly, loudly now.
“Goodbye.” He still did not answer. It was not his intention to be polite to the help.
So she left. The door clicked shut behind her and the frame was empty.
Charity was walking down the street looking for her dog. “Pug, Pug.” She called. She would be at this all day, asking everyone she met if they had seen her dog. The dog was not a Pug, it was a non-descript, smallish brownish dog that she had shaved, leaving the gangly, straggly tail and the ears and top notch alone, which made it smooth in the center of its body but gave it a slightly mad look because of the out of control hair on both ends. It was not the brightest thing that ever walked about, but it had a certain sense of its own importance which gave it a proud, self-centered sort of walk – a prance sort of. It was out to see what it could see, and hadn’t a care in the world. Maybe it was because it didn’t look guilty that no one took note. Pug didn’t behave like she was on the lamb.
It would be an interesting fact that everyone Charity spoke to that day had seen the dog at some point though most did not admit it. Mr. Dennis, the hardware owner had been out on a smoke break when he saw Pug, the light amusing gaiety of her step, the wacky haircut and he thought on the silliness of women who trimmed their dogs like that. No dignity to it. He had a black lab, a solid citizen, with a dignity and a sense of dog that this one never had. No, he didn’t like Pug.
“Have you seen my dog Mr. Dennis?” Charity asked, the red leash in her hands, sliding up and down the strap, anxious, worried. “No, sorry I haven’t,” he lied, thinking this morning’s sighting wouldn’t do her any good. The dog would be long gone by now.
Ed, the mechanic at the gas station had actually given the little thing a drink of water. No one thought much about a dog loose in a small town. As long as it didn’t go into the prairie where a coyote would get it, wandering around was perfectly acceptable in Ed’s mind. So he put out a hubcap of water for her, thinking and rightly so, that on a warm day like today, a dog could use a little drink. He kept a little daschund in the garage, a friend of Pug’s so he felt neighbourly towards the little dog when she came to visit. Didn’t last long, however, a little slurp, a little smell of his dog, and she was off again. To Ed she always looked as though she had places to go and didn’t want to interrupt her itinerary too much, so he didn’t expect her visit to last very long. And it didn’t.
“Ahh, no.” He knew better than to say the dog had been around. His little fella had been accused more than once of being too amorous around hers and she just plain didn’t approve of that. She’d give him a lecture if he’d had a visit.
“No, can’t say I have.” said Gretta from the dress shop. She had taken her scissors out and evened the tail a little, since it was developing straggly bits, something Pug let her do, since she was feeding Pug snacks from her left over lunch. She didn’t want Charity to trace the missing hair. Better to answer in the negative, much better.
Alice was watering her garden when Charity came by. Pug was resting in the shadow of one of her trees unbeknownst to either of them. She was tucked away in the shade, enjoying a nap. “What, what are you asking?” Alice shouted over the water. “Your dog? No. I haven’t seen her. Did she get away again?” The only one to tell the truth, though 10 minutes later when rested, Pug arose from her little nap, and Alice watching her suddenly appear from behind the tree and trot down the street thought “Well, I’ll be damned.” The watering finished, she went into the house to make a cup of tea.
Jimmy chased her, but wouldn’t admit it. Cassie had tied a pink bow around her, but knowing how adults just don’t like kids to treat dogs like toys, said no. Arnold had thrown stones, watched one hit, making a mark on the smooth light skin next to the ribs, thought oops and so of course had shaken his head no.
And so it went through the town. One fellow almost said something, but he was going to say the damned thing ran right in front of me and I almost ran it over, but then reason prevailed and he thought it’s so stupid someone will run over it and she’ll find it, dead on the street, remember what I said and be coming back to accuse me, so he shook his head. Pub hadn’t been the least concerned about the honking monster. She thought it was just a lack of manners, which she would not encourage by acknowledging all that shouting. No one shouted at Pug. She saw the vehicle later, parked and peed right behind where the tires would have to go to backup in order to get back on the road. And he never knew, but the kids complained of a urine smell in the back seat for a few days. The smell was strong since he squealed tires when he left and sprayed the undercarriage. More vengeance than Pug could have wished for in her wildest dreams. He was a jerk.
Then Pug actually went home for a while, but finding no one home to let her in after barking at the door for a while, she started to chase a squirrel which ran out of the yard and down the street, so soon she was off again.
Charity was quite discouraged. She went to the bank to flirt with one of the tellers there that she had a crush on. He sang in the church choir as she did, and being 35 she was always interested in any men that were interested in her, but he had only glimpsed the dog going by a few hours earlier and thought not to mention it, just in case Charity wanted him to help her look. He was off in a short while, but had a fishing trip planned with a buddy and at that time, was not interested in anything but a sunny riverbank and fish. She was ok, but not today.
Old lady Anderson was creeping down the walk, her thick support stockings sagging, wearing her black shoes that were not so good to walk in, and a brown handbag that didn’t match hanging from her arm, when Pug streamed past after the squirrel. She spun a little, toddled, did not fall, but did frighten herself. She hated sudden noises and sudden movements and hated that little dog with a vengeance, it startled her all the time so she’d be damned if she’d help the owner find her. Let a big dog chew her up, she thought. Old lady Anderson was not the kindest old person in town, that’s for sure.
Angela had a beautiful white Persian cat who loved to sun itself on the front porch, and Pug had a thing about beautiful white cats, so Angela wasn’t about to tell Charity that she put the hose to Pug who ran about the garden, getting muddier and muddier, until it penetrated that dull brain that she wouldn’t be getting to the cat and that she was wet. At that point, long past the time for any other dog to wise up, Pug gave up and ran, filthy and wet down the street. Angela, knowing the upkeep on her white Persian, wouldn’t think of taking the blame for the inevitable muddy front door and bath that would need to follow. She saw Pug rolling in dog excrement on the boulevard, trying to get some of the mud and water off. She sighed and for the millionth time, was so glad she was a cat person. Of course she hadn’t seen Pug.
And then, as was inevitable, Charity spotted Pug. At least she thought it was Pug, A very dirty looking Pug, but Pug nevertheless. She called. “Pug, Pug. Here girl. Come on.” Pug stopped dead in the street and looked around. Finally she narrowed in on the voice. She wagged her tail, but then saw another squirrel just up ahead, near the lake, so she took off again. The squirrel swerved and bobbed and finally leapt up a tree, just on the edge of the lake. Pug was going such a speed at that point that she couldn’t stop and plunged into the lake. It was actually quite pleasant once she was over the shock at finding herself in water. Some ancient primal urge overtook her and whatever ancestor in her genetic past that was a water dog, kicked into gear and she began to swim, out to the center of the lake.
At the shore, Charity began to call. “Pug, Pug, come back. Come back.” But the dog, what with the splashing and her ears full of water and weighted down by the wet hair that wouldn’t hold up the ear, did not hear her. She was impressed with herself at the swimming. She had never supposed she could do this, but it was obvious she had quite a talent. She was proud and excited. But then she got tired. She got so tired. Every time she stopped, though, she sank. Then she would fight her way up and start to paddle again. Luckily there was a diving dock in the middle of the lake, and she could climb ladders. And so she did, and after shaking off the worst of it, she plopped down and fell fast asleep. She was used to at least 3 naps a day and she was down two yet.
So now Charity knew where her dog was. She called and called, but the little head did not perk up and hear her. She was sleeping, and when Pug slept, she slept like the dead. You could pull her tail, hold up her head and drop it and she would continue to sleep. Sometimes the little tongue fell out and on her back, feet up, tummy exposed, those big floppy hairy ears fell open and she looked dead. She wondered if dogs could get sunburn on their tummies or inside their ears. She had never had to wonder about that. It was bothersome.
She had to find someone with a boat and go get the dog. Charity didn’t swim much and certainly couldn’t swim that far and even if she did, how did she bring back a dog and swim too? The boathouse was deserted and the lock on the doors. She walked along the dock, looking for a boat of some kind moored there, and she saw it. A small rowboat with a little outboard motor on the back. She looked around for an owner, didn’t see anyone and thought. “Well, I’ll just be out there for a minute. No one would mind. After all, I am on a mission of mercy, rescuing a poor little dog stranded out there on the swimming dock.” So she rationalized theft.
But the owner of the boat did not. Allan Black, the owner unfortunately showed up just as she was pulling out and began to scream at her. “What the @#$ do you think you are doing, lady. You bring my boat back here now.”
She eyed him and sensing the sort of man who would have no interest in rescuing a poor little dog, she pointed to the dog and kept on going. He kept on shouting and she could actually still hear him when she got to the swimming dock. My how sound carries over water, she thought. She tied up to the dock and climbed the little ladder, slipped and fell into the water. His shouts turned into squeals of laughter and as she surfaced, sputtering and choking, she looked back to shore and could just make out the teller she was fond of, holding fishing gear, slapping his legs, doubled over with laughter. She did have a rather puffy hairdo, or rather had a rather puffy hairdo, which was now draped over her wet skull like a bad wig. She was a bit panicked and thrashed in the water a little before she could settle down and tread water. They continued to howl with increased laughter and now the teller’s fishing friend had joined them. She was miffed.
The dog she noticed continued to sleep on her back, legs in the air, ears fallen back onto the deck. Charity got up the ladder, dripping and she suspected see through from the blouse she was wearing under her sweater. “Pug,” she snarled, “Pug damned you, wake up!” The little dog stirred and opened sleepy eyes to look at her. Delighted to see her at last, the little dog did a small dance and licked her wet legs. “Ok, ok, down girl.” She fastened the red leash on the dog and dropped her unceremoniously into the boat. Trying to recoup whatever dignity she had left, she nervously descended the ladder and plopped herself awkwardly into the boat. She pushed the wet hair back as best she could, knowing she looked like a drowned rat, pulled the sweater around her, started the engine and slowly made her way back to the dock.
They were still laughing when she docked and even more when they got a close look at the smeared mascara that was running down her face, the rat’s nest of wet hair and the stupid little dog, barking at them, so happy to see people. They helped her out of the boat. She took the leash off the dog and called her to her side, where the little dog obediently, stood nearby.
I am so sorry Allan, for taking your boat, but I had to rescue my little dog. She was stranded out there on the swimming dock and I had to get her.”
“Charity,” said the teller. “You’ve been looking all day for that mutt?”
“Well why didn’t you just wait for her to come home. It’s a small town, girl, she can’t get lost, she’d find her way back.”
“I was worried about coyotes and those big mean dogs around town.” Charity was huffy now, which she couldn’t pull off, not with what she looked like. It was even funnier to them. That ended the start up of any romance between Charity and the teller. He thought she was hilarious and ridiculous and she, well, she just plain couldn’t forgive him for laughing at her so heartily.
And this is why people don’t find their dogs, because they don’t stay home and wait, and if the dog has any smarts at all, it will find its way home. Charity learned her lesson, patched up the holes in the fence and put an end to Pug’s wandering days. Pug really didn’t notice, except that now she gave up her chase of squirrels at the gate. She couldn’t go any further. She would hrumph to herself with satisfaction, having cleared them out of the yard yet again, saving the day for her owner and possibly saving the entire world.
To tell the truth, Charity thought a lot less of her dog after that episode and never quite forgave her for the loss of the teller. And she did wonder if a coyote had been chewing on her tail.