Mongrel Politesse

Categories Absurdism

Sharon Baker was crouching to pick up two beets, a ham steak, and a packet of lemon drops that had fallen through the rain-soaked bottom of her paper bag from the market when, not for the first time, she saw the dog in the suit jacket walking on his hind legs toward apartment 343. More than anything else, the sight deepened the self-pity she felt; as hard and as many hours as she worked, all she could afford was to live in the type of hovel at which even a dog could afford to pay rent.

When a spotlight from a passing police helicopter shone in the window, resulting in a quick flash of light down the dimly-lit hallway, the well-dressed dog dropped to all fours and quickly pounced toward the end point of the illumination. As a result, once the spotlight had gone just as instantaneously as it had come, Sharon found that the canine in coattails was blinking at the non-illuminated carpet between his paws, mere feet from where she stood.

“Erhhm, excuse me,” he apologized, British.

Sharon darted her eyes away, then back. His ears stood up straight, and a white patch circled one of his eyes while the rest of his fur shone black. His body was short but stout and, Sharon realized, if one were to reverse his coloration, he’d look nearly identical to Spuds MacKenzie.

“I’m embarrassed to say — ha ha — that despite attending the best schools of etiquette, I do sometimes find myself a bit…distracted — ha ha.”

His laugh was deep and full, like a man with a beard and a cigar on the deck of a boat.

“Oh,” Sharon said, “Please, uh, don’t worry about it.”

She knelt still, clutching her groceries to her chest; dirt from the beets littered her cream-colored cardigan.

“Have you resided here for long?” the dog asked.

“Two years,” said Sharon.

“Ah, it’s a shame it’s taken us this long to meet,” the dog shook his head, “I must insist you come to dinner sometime. It really is so important to know one’s neighbors.”

“Oh, uh, I don’t… Um?”

“Thursday,” the dog said, “at seven in the evening. Would this be agreeable?” He tilted his head to the side, as dogs do when curious.

Later, as Sharon ate her dinner of beets and rice alone in her apartment, she replayed the conversation in her mind. Why had she agreed to go to dinner at the dog’s house? What would he serve? What could they possibly have to talk about? She wondered if she should bring a bottle of wine, or — she choked out a laugh — a tennis ball.

On Thursday, at about five minutes after seven, Sharon stood outside the dog’s door, holding a clearance-shelf chrysanthemum and feeling completely ridiculous. With an active attempt not to squinch up her face, she knocked on the door and scanned the hallway to make sure none of her other neighbors were around, not that they ever paid her any mind anyway. After a moment, the dog opened the door and, upon seeing Sharon’s floral gift, put a single paw to his chest.

“I’m touched,” he said, “please come in.”

The smell of a roast cooking filled the tidy apartment, sparsely populated with contemporary furnishings. The dog had hung a large framed painting of an American buffalo grazing on the plains, and on his coffee table were the latest issues of Scientific American and Harpers. Instead of the suit jacket she’d seen him wear on previous occasions, he wore a red sweater with a generous sheep-wool collar and wooden toggles.

“Wine?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Sharon, noticing the water dish on the floor near the hallway, “that would be nice.”

She watched with utter fascination as the dog walked to a low beverage cart and expertly pinched the delicate stem of a glass between his paws. He placed it upon a coaster made of woven rope which sat upon the coffee table near where she stood.

“Please, please, have a seat,” he said. “The roast needs just a few minutes more.”

He then returned to the beverage cart and selected a bottle of wine. He had no trouble manipulating the position of his paws to tilt up the bottom and stabilize the deep red liquid that, Sharon was beginning to realize, she would need to get through this evening.

The dog left the bottle on the coffee table and climbed into a boxy, cream-colored chair across from Sharon.

“Won’t you have some?” she asked.

The dog laughed his regal sailor’s laugh and tilted his head to the side. “Dogs don’t drink wine,” he said with an amused smile.

Sharon raised her eyebrows and returned a weak smile; she reached for her glass, took a large gulp, and looked at the carpet near her feet.

“SO,” she tried again, too loudly, “YOU’RE A BULL TERRIER?”

At work earlier in the day, she’d typed What kind of dog is Spuds MacKenzie? into her search bar.

“Half,” the dog replied, “My father was a bull terrier, and my mother was a pit bull.”

“Oh,” Sharon tightened. “I see.”

“Is something the matter?” the dog asked.

“No!” Sharon exclaimed too effusively. “Well, I mean, I guess I just thought pit bulls weren’t allowed in this building.”

The dog’s jaw tightened.

“No offense,” Sharon quickly uttered, putting her hands up in front of her in an apologetic and protective stance.

The dog sighed.

“Let me ask you, Ms. Baker,” the dog began slowly, his paws tented thoughtfully in front of his nose, “about your own origins?”

“Well,” she said, “My father’s family came from Germany, and my mother’s from England.”

“Yes,” said the dog, saying no more than that.

He climbed down from the chair and Sharon leaned back in her seat a bit, instinctively.

“I’ll just check on the roast,” he said over his shoulder.

Sharon had nearly cleared her plate of pork roast, honey-glazed carrots, and garlic whipped potatoes. This, after a lovely spinach salad with pear, goat cheese, and curried pumpkin seeds. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten such a nice meal; she and the dog ate largely in silence as she savored bite after delicious bite.

“Did your mother teach you to cook?” Sharon finally asked.

The dog looked at her with another amused smile.

“No,” he said, “I was actually removed from my parents and siblings at a young age. I was taken in by a man in Cornwall, who was not unkind, though he did not have much time to spare. I spent a great deal of my childhood in a big, stone kitchen with our handmaid, Beatrix.”

“Oh,” said Sharon.

The dog continued.

“When I grew to be an adolescent, I had developed some bad habits. Pies from windowsills, things like that…”

He winked at her and laughed the sailor’s laugh.

“My adoptive father, he understood he’d failed to give me the guidance a young boy needs. A powerful man, he contacted an old friend, and the next thing I knew I was attending the finest schools of etiquette in Connecticut. It took me a while to come to terms with my new existence and, the other boys, it took them some time to get used to a different ‘kind’ of boy, but they warmed up, and it was from them that I learned the art and balance of bipedalism.”

“Bi…?” Sharon asked.

“Bipedalism,” the dog repeated. “Or, walking on two feet.”

“Oh,” said Sharon again.

The dog continued.

“When I completed my schooling with honors, my adoptive father did not attend the graduation ceremony, but sent along some financial provisions to get me started here. I had trouble finding an apartment because, as you said, pit bulls are generally not looked upon kindly, but, in fact, this is the first of perhaps a hundred buildings at which I applied that would take me.”

Silence filled the space between them, and continued a touch too long.

“Though I suspect it likely had to do with Mrs. Cotter’s terrible eyesight!” the dog laughed.

Sharon laughed, too, and in doing so, threw her head back so that her eyesight aligned with the Felix-the-cat clock in the dining room, its wagging tail ticking out the seconds. The dog had a sense of humor, she had to admit.

“Dinner was very nice,” she said, “a real treat.”

The dog’s ears instinctively perked up at her word choice, and the two of them laughed together once more.

“But, I’m afraid I must be going soon. Work calls in the morning,” Sharon sighed. “May I help with the dishes?”

“No, no, no,” he said. “You go get some rest; thank you for a lovely evening, and do feel welcome at any time.”

Sharon smiled and moved back her chair; then, because she didn’t know what else to do, she shook the dog’s paw, and made her way back to her home down the hall.

Alone, then, in his apartment, the dog gathered up the dishes, and smiled as he reached Sharon’s spot: her salad fork sat unused, the linen napkin never removed from its place to be unfolded in her lap.

Brandi Cornelius feeds birds, wears cardigans, and is thinking about buying a Buick. She is 33, and working on her debut novel.