The Dog Across the Street
August 27, 2020

The thing is, I expected the worst possible news. I was a little scared, I suppose, but I was ready for it and not at all ungrateful, given the life I’d lived. Now, this is a bit unfair, because until they actually tell you you’re dying, you haven’t heard it definitively and so the moment, the actual moment, never really came. My reaction might have been startling, or at least, not what I imagined. But I mean, it forces you to take account. I’d been married, had children who no longer had any contact with me; I had no pets or even friends, apart from the faces I’d see at the bar once a week. When you say it that way it sounds rather bleak, I know, but I hadn’t thought I was missing anything. I remember that last ten days or so, all I seemed to do was stare out of the window.

I lived on the corner of Wilford and Briney Place. Wilford was perhaps a bit busier than say, Maynard to the south and certainly Niles to the north, which really only ran three blocks. What I’m saying is, these are side streets. They’re not only side streets, they’re side streets in a not very interesting neighborhood in, well, a not very interesting place in the Midwest. That’s not true of course, but when you think, “this is the end,” it had begun to seem that way. And so it was the end of my days, or so I thought, and while nothing really took on any importance beyond just getting through the days, while waiting for the ominous test results, I became interested in this little visitation across the street.

I imagined the boy to be anywhere from say, ten, to maybe twelve. He could have been younger, but I doubted he was any older at all. My neighbor Ben, across the street, had a dog. I had lived in my home at least nine years and it seemed the dog, which he called Duke, was old when I moved in. Ben and I exchanged waves from time to time; shoveling our sidewalks in the winter, raking leaves in the fall, that sort of thing; nothing more, really. He let Duke out and usually the dog sniffed around for a minute or two and then just sat on the lawn in good weather and did nothing. He didn’t sleep or pay much attention to cars going by or anything. He just sort of breathed and looked out comfortably on the world, no leash necessary. Over those nine years I mentioned, most everyone going by just went by, and if they noticed Duke at all, they might nod or even say something, but the dog never responded.

But one day, this youngster came around the corner and it was as if he’d found a pot of gold. He immediately walked over and petted Duke and sat down next to him. The dog didn’t really acknowledge the boy at all. He kept breathing and just looking at nothing. That was fine with the boy, who began to pour his heart out to old Duke. You could tell his tale, whatever it was about, sometimes weighed heavily on him, but in general the substance of it was lightened by the dog, who listened patiently. I could hear his voice and a bit of inflection here and there, but not the words. It was for a good twenty minutes or so that he talked to Duke and sometimes he petted him during a natural break in his dialogue. The dog never wavered, not for a second, and I can tell you, this was a serious departure from his normal routine; a boy talking non-stop as if they’d both always been there and together. The boy finally got up on one knee, petted the dog once or twice more, then put his arms around Duke’s neck and gave him a little cheek to cheek hug. He then got up to leave, but after taking two or three steps, turned back; evidently he had forgotten to mention one or two things. After he was done, he waved again and said goodbye. The dog never moved. I got up and went into the kitchen for some reason, and when I came back, Duke was gone, so I assumed Ben, my neighbor, who may even have been watching as I had been, had waited for the child to leave and then came out and brought Duke in. I was wrong, and indeed we were both wrong, because as I sat back down, I saw that Duke had walked to the front edge of the property and was looking down Briney. I must tell you that, in all the years, this represented a significant departure in Duke’s life, because even as I watched the dog look after where the boy had gone down the street, Ben, who was absolutely confident in his dog’s demeanor or non-demeanor as the case may be, came out the back door and walked out onto the sidewalk, to see where Duke had gone. By this time his dog was walking back to his place, never once touching the sidewalk, as if knowing he was not to leave the property. Ben spoke to Duke, expressing something akin to concern to the dog, as they both walked back into the house together.

The next day, I had some more tests, and if anything happened I wasn’t around to see it. The day after that, I was just sort of standing in the living room looking out the window. I’ll confess I was thinking about the tests and if this was really going to be it for me. Just then, the same boy came around the corner and, I swear, started talking to Duke almost before he came within sight of the animal. The dog responded not at all as was normally the case, but as the boy sat down next to him, I thought I caught just the slightest wag of a tail behind them. Again, the boy talked non-stop to Duke for several minutes, and I began to wonder about them. The dog, as I said, had seemed old and for that matter, acted old, for the nine years I’d been living there. The boy was different. I imagined first, an only child as I had been; no brothers or sisters to talk to. Perhaps he lived in an apartment where they didn’t allow pets. Or maybe, I thought, he was a youngest, or lost middle child, who only wanted to be heard. To the boy, the exchange was very meaningful. He was animated and sincere. Maybe he’d been somehow dismissed by the other kids and had no one to play with. While I was enjoying the boy and the dog together, none of my speculation was helping me at all. It was sad, somehow, and there I was, wondering if these were maybe the last weeks or months of my life.

Growing up, I never had a dog, although when the children were growing up, we did have a dog. They wanted one and we set down some rules about taking care of the animal. Those rules went out the window in two weeks and so, it seemed, did the kids’ affection for the dog. He was a nice dog and eager to please; he wanted to be a part of everything, but the kids just treated him like a toy they’d gotten tired of. My wife wanted to get rid of the dog, since we were now the ones who had to clean up after him and take him for walks. I wouldn’t do it. I was selling aluminum siding then, and a family I’d signed up said something like, “Now all we need is a dog.” I told them I might be able to help. I brought the dog over to their house and their little girl seemed to like him and the dog seemed to like her. But in the end, I had no faith in these people. One poop on the carpet and I could see the mother dropping the dog off at the pound. The mother did call when I hadn’t called her back, but it was to tell me that they had decided against it, so my instinct was right. The dog became mine because, well, the marriage had started to deteriorate anyway, and the children… well, the dog was my only friend in the end. When I moved out, I got a small house so I could keep the dog. Within a week he ran away and turned up back with my wife and children. They didn’t want him. I didn’t know what to do but I was determined not to send the dog back to the animal shelter. The dog was unhappy and I wasn’t much better, but I met a woman, and, I don’t know, moving in with her was premature at best, and it naturally fell apart soon after. But she liked the dog and wound up keeping him.

That was it for me and dogs. I liked the dog, and like my wife and children, tried to do the best I could for them. It wasn’t enough. The sad part really is that I was the lucky one. My children were really a reflection of my wife. To be some part of me would’ve taken more work than any of them were willing to put in. In fact, after the divorce and the child support thing got worked out, I was to get the kids every other weekend. It was bad at first and then it got worse and finally I said, “Listen. Why don’t we just forget this? It’s interfering with your lives. You don’t like spending time with me and I don’t like being around people who don’t want to be around me.” They were agreeable to a point. My daughter asked if they could just have the money approximating to what I would spend on them those weekends, and not go with me. She said it in front of my ex-wife, who then looked at me like that was some kind of reasonable request. I just left, and for what it’s worth, never missed a child support payment. Three years later my ex-wife called and asked if I was going to my daughter’s graduation ceremony. I didn’t say “no.” I said “of course not.” She never called again. In all that time, these children, who I provided for and furnished with Christmas gifts and birthday presents, bicycles and all the accoutrements of childhood, never called me or sent me a card or anything. So as you can see, and I came to see as well, I was better off without those people.

From what I’ve told you, I’d suppose you’d imagine my life to have been a terrible disappointment, and why then should I be lamenting my possible demise? Of course, it was nothing of the kind. In fact, I’ve come to look upon my marriage as something to be proud of. After all, I provided for them and fulfilled all my obligations. I assure you that the rest of my life, though I suppose it didn’t amount to much in terms of seeking some kind of family utopia again, was a wonderful time. I had a fulfilling career, and I even made a great deal of money along the way. I had a few good friends and one terrific relationship. Nancy and I were together for twelve years. My God, a lot of marriages don’t last that long. I’d have continued, but well, sometimes it just ends because its time is up. She thought so and even though she changed her mind a half dozen times over the next few months, I finally put a stop to it and made her happy by being the one who ended it. That’s what she really wanted anyway; some responsibility for the relationship ending assigned to me rather than to her. My life slowed down a lot after that; everything did. I enjoyed that period too.

I didn’t see the boy the next day, and late that afternoon my doctor called and told me the usual stuff; don’t eat after such and such a time and no drinking and so on and so forth, and that while everything looked fine, he still wanted a couple of tests, only this time they would be at the hospital.

Some people hate hospitals. I never have, but of course I was concerned because as I said, perhaps this thing I was going through was the end. Well, at least a precursor to the end. Anyway, I went through a new battery of tests that always begins with blood and urine. It’s like your resume. I don’t see why these health care people can’t share their information. I keep assuring them my blood and urine haven’t changed since last week, but somehow they act like they might have. Naturally I know it’s about every lab getting their use out of everyone, in order to keep the flow of money moving along. After taking all the tests, they asked that I wait and the nurse told me that a specialist friend of my doctor wanted to have a word with me. She came back ten minutes later and said that the doctor couldn’t get away and would I mind asking for him at the desk on the third floor, where he was seeing patients? I said fine, and figured I’d be getting a look at where I’d be winding up if things turned out not to be okay. Indeed, on the way up, it occurred to me that that might be this doctor’s purpose in not coming down. After getting off the elevator, I looked for the desk; first to my right and then to my left. It wound up being on the left, but on the right, that little boy who visited the dog across the street, was sitting in the hallway. He looked at me and smiled slightly. I smiled back and wanted to say something, but of course my observation of him had been from my living room, so I just headed for the desk on the left.

“Can I help you?” the nurse asked.

“Yes,” I said. “That little boy down the hall there. He lives in my neighborhood. Can I ask what he might be doing here?”

She looked where I had pointed and said, “Yes, are you… well, I assume you’re not a family member but, well… his parents are patients here. His uncle brings him every day.”

“Both of his parents? Was there an accident or something?”

“No, sir,” she said. “This is the oncology wing. They’re cancer patients.”

“Both his parents! They both have cancer?”

“Yes, sir. Was there something else; someone you wanted to see?”

“Yes… ahh, Doctor Patel. I’m sorry, I, ah, I forgot the boy’s name; his last name?”

“Hansen,” she said. “He’s Edward.”

“Thank you.”

There had been no shortage; no attention deficit when dealing with my potential illness; at least not until that day. Doctor Patel found me and wasn’t really saying very much. In fact it seemed to me as though, not unlike the blood and urine thing, he was only meeting me as a courtesy to my doctor. He was saying something, I don’t know, something about any possible blood in my stools or something that my doctor had talked to me about, when I stopped him.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” I said. “Of course I’m very aware of those things, but I was wondering if you are acquainted with the Hansens and their situation? Their boy Edward; I see him in the neighborhood. I had no idea about his parents. I don’t mean to put you on the spot but, well, how are they doing?”

“They are not doing well, Mr. Graves. Not well at all, I’m sorry to say.”

“Isn’t, I mean, both of his parents… that’s odd, isn’t it?”

“I live in a world of cancer, Mr. Graves,” he said. “Nothing is very odd to me. Family members sharing the disease is not uncommon either, I’m afraid. I will tell you the prognosis for the Hansens is not promising. An uncle is taking care of Edward. He is quite elderly and it’s been difficult. There isn’t much family. May I ask what your interest is?”

“Just that I’ve seen the boy, Edward, in the neighborhood recently. He’s ah… well, he seems a nice boy and he’s taken a liking to a dog across the street from me. He comes and sits down and talks with the dog. It’s an old dog. He talks to it non-stop, really. I was surprised to see him here today. What… ah… so will Edward stay with the uncle, do you think? I mean, you said, they’re… you seem to say they might not recover?”

Just then Doctor Patel received a page and excused himself. When he came back he was smiling.

“You’re smiling,” I said.

“I am indeed,” he said. “Doctor Kane’s concern was well-founded, but it turns out that you’re fine. Naturally, we want you to continue to be vigilant, given your age and family history, but your tests show no malignancy at all. You’re fine.”

“Thank you. So, that’s it? No more testing or anything?”

“For the moment, no. We’ll see you again in six months and probably every six months from then on, just to be safe.”

I didn’t feel at all like I would have imagined. I expected the worst for one thing. Suddenly, something else seemed to take up that share of importance to me.

“I’m sorry to be a pest about this, but the boy, Edward. I asked if he’d be staying with the uncle? Do you know if he will?

“No,” he said. “I’m afraid they’re not looking at that. Some sort of search within their church parish for a foster parent is in the process. Why?”

My life had been pretty straightforward up to that point, I guess. I went to school, grew up and went into the service. I met my wife and we were married and had two children. When they were in their early teens, the marriage seemed beyond repair and we divorced, and have been estranged ever since. The rest of it; work, friends, Nancy, and that brush with some final resolution had left me, or probably would have left me, at a loose end. But to make a rather simple short story a little longer, when I left the hospital that day, I went right to the church that Doctor Patel had spoken about and sort of verbally offered myself as a solution to Edward’s situation. A meeting was arranged and I began to bring Edward down to the hospital so that his Uncle Albert could take a few days off. I actually met both Henry and Alice Hansen and told them my story. Henry was in pretty bad shape, but Alice was still able to communicate. I assured them both that if they approved, and the church and everyone went along with it, that I’d keep Edward’s life as close to normal as I could; seeing that he went to church and so forth. I asked if they had any pets and Alice said that they didn’t, but that Edward had always wanted a dog. The week they died, what with only Uncle Albert to see to everything, I helped out as much as I could. It was terribly sad all the way round, but at least Edward had a home, an uncle within walking distance and a dog he liked across the street.

I don’t know, but it seemed my failed marriage and estrangement from our children took more out of me than I realized, with respect to my expectations about Edward and me. I just wanted to be sure he was cared for and had everything he needed. But he really placed so much more emphasis on who I was and the things that I had done, that our relationship developed so that we really became a father and son in ways I hadn’t hoped for. We did all the things that I could never seem to interest my own children in; going to ball games, concerts, and just walking up to the store for an ice cream cone. After six months or so, I adopted Edward. A few weeks later we shared another tragedy as Duke took ill and my neighbor Ben had to have him put to sleep. The next week, Edward and I rescued a middle-aged lab from the animal shelter where someone had abandoned him. We called him Bill, and he’s been with us ever since. It’ll end soon, as Edward will graduate next year and go off to college; soon thereafter, he’ll begin a life of his own. And when he does, it’ll just be me and Bill, and Tony and Elsa; two cats who joined us along the way and Pretty Boy, our parakeet. Now and then I’ll look out the front window and remember staring out at that little scene between a boy and a old dog. As I said earlier, I was not at all ungrateful for the life I led up to that point, and yes, it was sad to think it might be ending. But life is strange and has always seemed so to me. Just when you think it’s the end, it’s only the beginning. It was in my case. Nothing that ever came before was nearly as fulfilling as all these years with Edward. When they asked me why I wanted to be Edward’s foster father, I just said I wanted to help. I lived in the vicinity and had the means and the desire to help a boy who was losing both his parents and had little family to help out. If they had any misgivings, and I’m sure they must have, they were overlooked in the seriousness and immediacy of the situation. And I kept all my promises; an important thing to me. And what I didn’t get back the first time, in terms of love, I sure did the second. My only question is this; what if I hadn’t had that cancer scare? Had I not thought I might be dying, I wouldn’t have been at that hospital. I’d never have known Edward’s parents were dying. He’d have simply stopped coming to have heartfelt conversations with the dog across the street. Questions like that can drive you crazy. As I was telling Bill the other day, it’s a damn good thing I take things as they come.


Photo by Pavel Anoshin on Unsplash

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