By Paul Silverman
Alf had just finished telling the two guests how he’d ordered the biggest cage in the dog catalog, “big enough for the Hound of the Baskervilles,” just so Fargo could be comfortable.
"Oh let him out," said Lali, still chewing her crab-dipped cracker. "He wants to come out, the poor thing."
"He can't come out," said Alf’s wife, Ginny. "If he comes out and jumps up he'll pop his pins and spoil the operation. His surgeon says it takes six weeks for bone to heal."
"Poor thing.” Lali swallowed and stifled a hiccup. "He's chocolate, isn't he. He looks like a piece of Godiva."
"A Chocolate Lab," said Ginny, jabbing toothpicks into two anchovy-stuffed olives and offering them to her guests.
Lali’s husband, Hank, tossed his down like a frog snarfing a fly. Licking his lips, he turned to Alf. "Have you ever had smoked turkey?"
"Hasn't everybody? I get it for lunch all the time, with honey mustard and alfalfa sprouts on a four-grain roll."
"No no," said Hank, pounding another handful of cashews and speaking with his mouth full. "I'm talking about a whole turkey, a twenty pounder, smoked all day in the smoker."
Hank swung jubilantly into a description of how expertly he smoked turkeys and how Alf and Ginny would have to come over next time he did one. Hank apparently had every gadget televised on the Food Network. He handled all the cooking in the Lali-Hank family—which only consisted of Lali and Hank—yet Lali had all the body fat. Ginny described Hank as living in permanent training mode, running over hell’s half acre each day at the crack of dawn, forever revving himself up for his next road race. Meanwhile, Lali spent the whole day plumped on a wicker sofa with her paints and sparkles, concocting her Lali Pops—whimsical glass flowers in popsicle colors. Alf thought the flowers looked like tail lights that had been run over by a food dye truck.
"They don't want to hear about your cooking, Hank," snapped Lali. "They invited us over to eat theirs."
"That's not the only reason," Alf said, remembering a choice moment from the pre-dinner briefing Ginny had given him. "We also invited you because you and Fargo had the very same operation. We wanted to compare notes."
Ginny, showing her fear of where this was going, gave Alf a sour look. "This must be a boom year for ACL injuries," Ginny said, coating her words in a bright, soothing lilt. "Why, everyone's going under the knife."
"That's not what Alf's saying," said Lali, her bosom heaving mountainously. "He's saying I'm a dog."
"Best in Show," said Hank. He snickered so zealously a piece of chewed cashew shot out of his mouth and landed in Lali's lap, smack in the middle of her voluminous costume, an arty mu-mu-like affair in flamboyant reds and browns.
"Divorce lawyer, Hank," said Lali. "See him?” She pointed out the window. “He's sitting up there on those rocks. Right now he's opening his briefcase."
Oh come on," said Hank, emitting a second cashew burst. "I think it's time for your Percocet."
"I think it's time I brained you with this crutch."
Hank reached his long, lean runner's arm over and patted Lali's mu-mu, squarely on the thigh. “Woof woof,” he said.
She pushed his hand away. "The briefcase is way open now, Hank. He's taking out the papers. Where I come from, heckling is grounds for divorce."
"Heckle and Jeckle, that's us," said Hank, winking at Alf.
"Hey I remember those two birds from the movies," said Alf. "A couple of crows."
"Everybody, it’s ready," chirped Ginny from the counter. "Belly up. I hope you like beans."
Lali leaned on her crutches and struggled to her feet. "A murder of crows," she said to Alf. "Ever hear of that? You may see one yet tonight."
Although he affected a poker face, Alf latched onto her comment and thought about it. But all he said was,"Go get yourself some of those spicy beans.” And with a gulp he drained his red wine down another two inches.
At the mention of spicy beans Hank popped up on his bouncy runner's feet and stepped out ahead of his hobbling wife. He made a beeline for Ginny's buffet, spread artfully across the counter and festooned with sprigs of this and that, looking for all the world like an entry in the annual church food fair.
Ahead of everyone else, he grabbed a plate and a big serving spoon.
"Hank wins another race," said Alf to the group.
From the oversized cage in the corner came a moan, even more pathetic than before.
"The poor thing is starving," said Lali, stopping on her crutches to rest. "Please, please give him something."
"If you had it your way he'd be too fat to play," said Hank.
Lali blinked. The way you blink when dust kicks up and stings you in the eye.
Picking up a plate, she tottered along the counter using just one crutch. With her crutchless arm and hand she alternately gripped and filled the plate. She loaded it with beans, with a hill of lamb, and with copious roast potatoes. For some reason, she skipped the red cabbage entirely. When they were all seated at the table, Alf looked to see if Ginny noticed. She returned the look with a strangely twisted smile. Family recipes, like her Aunt Dodie’s red cabbage with strudel spices, were serious business with Ginny.
Alf raised his latest glass of big red, and they all reached out and clinked. All except Lali, who said she was on too much Percocet and other goodies to drink wine.
"Here's to the two patients," said Alf, moving his raised glass so it pointed first at Lali, then at Fargo, who smelled the lamb and whined voraciously, nose pressed to the cage. Unfortunately, the table in the family room was not ten feet from the Fargo corner. Ginny had concluded the casual family room chairs would be kinder to Lali's injuries than the stiff dining room Chippendales. But now she clearly regretted her decision.
"Will you give him a piece of lamb for cry eye," Lali pleaded. "What's it to you?"
"Doctors orders," said Alf. "He still has seven pounds to go. As of two hours ago he's had all the Fit ‘n Trim he's allowed for one day."
"What do doctors know? A surgeon is nothing but a carpenter."
Hank chimed in on the side of fitness and fasting, slamming half the parents in the U.S. for what he called “the pandemic of juvenile obesity.”
As he ranted and raved about fat children who never walk, except to the vending machine, he fed himself monumental forkfuls. And soon he went back for seconds.
"Tell me some more about the cage," Hank said to Alf, wiping a smear of lamb grease off his chin. "That's the biggest damn dog cage I ever saw."
Alf puffed out his chest and said, "That's because it's the biggest dog cage made. Fargo may be a Labrador, but that doesn't mean he has to spend two months of his life in a Labrador cage. I said, 'I'm gonna get him a Great Dane cage, and I did.”
Ginny smiled at Alf approvingly.
"It was the least I could do," said Alf, looking squarely at Lali for more approval.
But Lali was off in a different world. Her gaze was glommed to her plate and she seemed weirdly contrite, as though she were a little girl being reprimanded for failing to say grace.
"I'm sorry about not eating your beets," she said. "I'm just someone who can't stand beets. Anyone's beets."
Except for Fargo and Ella Fitzgerald, there was a brief, deep silence in the room. Like one of those quick blackouts that last only long enough to knock out the clocks.
"But they're not beets.” Ginny’s face reddened and her voice suddenly swooped higher, as though she were subconsciously aping the siren of a fire truck.
"Why would you think they're beets?" Hank pointed his fork sternly at his own plate. "It's red cabbage, can't you see?"
"Compliments to the chef.” Alf raised his glass again. "She worked hard over this." Alf was not one to up and rave about his spouse’s culinary achievements. But he knew that any recipe from Aunt Dodie, if it happened to be attacked or ignored, could blow Ginny like a hand grenade.
"Well shoot me," said Lali. "It must be the Percocet."
She slumped in her chair and emitted a deflated, hissing sound— the hiss an inner tube might make when it springs a leak. "My knees are killing me," she said. "Life sucks."
"Here, let me get you some cabbage." Hank adopted the scoutmaster-ish tone of an eager personal trainer. "You could use the fiber."
"Could I?" Lali put the flat of her hand over her plate, blocking Hank's hand. "Look out the window. The divorce lawyer just left his rock. Now he’s walking our way."
By hook or by crook the meal moved along, and soon Ginny folded her napkin and cleared her throat, a sure signal she was preparing to announce they were at the poached-pear stage. But Fargo intervened with a new burst of whimpers, distinctly different in timbre and tone from the racket he had been making so far.
"Oh-oh," I think he's getting ready to go," said Alf.
Hank was mystified. "How do you know?" he asked.
"You just know. Right, Gin?"
"It's like a baby," said Ginny.
The whimpering intensified. At a certain point in the chorus, known only to Alf and Ginny, they both rose like soldiers.
Alf announced "sling time" and pulled a bright blue strip of heavy-duty fabric out of a basket by Fargo's cage. Meanwhile, Ginny slid the latch of the cage open and attached the leash. Alf worked the sling around Fargo's hind-quarters and off they went, the three of them, out to the yard.
When Fargo's "business" was over, Alf and Ginny maneuvered the sling-hobbled animal back inside the cage, which stood nearly as high as Ginny's shoulders, and sat down again at dinner.
"It's all in the line of duty," Alf said, inciting a new surge of junior high cackles from Hank.
Once again, Ginny began to proclaim they were at the pinnacle moment, the moment of the poached pears, but Lali wouldn't let her finish. Wheezing and groaning with each push, she levered herself up on her crutches and announced, "it's contagious."
"Right around the corner," said Ginny, heavily sugaring her tone. "The half bath. Can you manage?"
Lali threw a look at Hank - about as subtle as a switchblade. "At least I don't need anyone to help me with a sling.” She limped away to the john.
Ginny and Alf cleared the dinner plates. As they reached the sink they heard an awful thud in the hallway by the half-bath.
The two of them—and Hank behind them— found Lali heaped across the Oriental runner, a mass of moaning mu-mu, her crutches splayed to either side of her like broken wings.
Before anyone could give the usual first aid instruction—don't move—Lali moved. She heaved herself onto one elbow, then up into a seated position. She resembled a huge red and brown hen nesting on eggs.
"Stay right where you are," Ginny commanded. "This is absolutely terrible. Did your knees give out?"
Lali howled bitterly. "My knees had nothing to do with it." She lifted the mu-mu to expose a nasty shin gash.
"You tripped on something.” Hank finally knelt beside the victim, the last of them to do so.
"Obviously," snapped Lali. "It was this." She snatched up one of her crutches and smashed it across the corner of an ancient chest, one of Ginny's Pennsylvania Dutch antiques. The corner had a metal plate that was pure rust.
"Did you cut yourself on the rust?" Ginny demanded.
"I'd say the rust cut me. This chest makes the hallway kind of narrow, don't you think?”
Ginny dashed back to the pantry and returned with a first-aid kit and two pink tablets.
"Tomorrow morning you call your doctor and get a tetanus shot, that's an order," she said. "Right now you swallow these pills."
"What pills? What for?"
Ginny explained that the pills were Ceftin, an antibiotic, and that they would fight anything awful Lali might be exposed to from the rust coursing through her bloodstream.
"Hank, get me some water," Lali said. "Will you do something?"
Hank may have been the runner, but Ginny got to the water first. And Lali gulped down the pills.
"Poached pears will be served," Ginny declared, as soon as order was restored and all were seated again.
But Lali wanted to know more about those pink pills. "You are organized," she said. "Antibiotics right in the house, just like your house was a little hospital."
"Remember, she's a medical professional," Alf said proudly. “She still assists the school nurse three days a week.”
"Well, that's not why, not exactly," said Ginny. "Those pills are for Fargo. He had complications from the surgery."
"You gave me a dog antibiotic?" Lali rose and worked the crutches as fast as she could, pushing herself away from the table. She headed like a broken locomotive towards the darkness of the rest of the house.
"It's the same Ceftin they give to humans," Ginny pleaded as she chased after Lali. "It's even the same dose, I swear it. This is so silly. You come back this minute."
Lali escaped into the darkened dining room, the place with the formal chairs, and she refused to come out. "Just let me be," she said. "It's been a bad, bad day."
"We can have dessert right in here," Ginny said, in a forced, therapeutic voice, the voice psychiatric nurses use to mask utter exasperation and contempt. "Can I turn on the lights?"
"No," cried Lali. "No, no no."
Alf remained mute, but stood three steps behind Ginny on the dining room threshold. Hank was considerably farther back, closer to his seat at the table than to the deep shadows where his wife had fled.
Shrill as a factory whistle, Hank piped up, "Hey, what about that dessert?" At that moment it was unclear whether Hank was desperately hungry or desperate to move the evening along. But Ginny seized the opportunity. With her hand sliding up and down Lali's mu-mu sleeve, she announced that coffee and dessert would be served on the other side of the house, in the living room. "You join us anytime you want," she said, "and I hope it's soon."
But Lali did not join them. Not when they turned from her, walked off and took their seats in the stuffed living room chairs. Not when Ginny marched from the kitchen to the living room - and purposely passed right by the dining room - with the pungent, fresh-brewed coffee. Not even when Ginny spoke a very voluble voila presenting the much-heralded poached pears, and then announced a surprise second dessert, a chocolate mousse that Alf and Hank devoured once and promptly devoured once more.
Towards the end of his second helping Hank piped up again - same shrieking, steamwhistle voice. "Honey, we're eating your dessert," he yelled, but he stayed seated and kept his spoon going. Even for Hank he ate at buzz-bomb speed.
Ginny kept them away from the last of the pears and the last of the mousse, just in case there was a change of heart in the dining room. But time passed; more coffee got poured; Alf brought out his arsenal of brandies and liqueurs, and the snifters clinked. Over and above the clinking sound they heard something metallic. It could have been the shutting of a rattly gate.
Then Fargo sounded out too. Once again, it was not the usual bark or moan.
"Better see what that is," said Ginny.
Alf set his Grand Marnier down on a coaster and left to investigate. He came to a screeching halt at the doorway to the family room, stunned by what was before him."You better see what it is."
Ginny and Hank turned the family room corner and stopped alongside Alf. All three of them stood speechless, gawking at Fargo's roomy cage, which now contained a second occupant. Like some Greco-Roman empress, Lali lay the full length of the cage floor. She lay regally propped up on one elbow, the folds of mu-mu fabric flowing over her like a grand toga, her chin poised over the buffet platter that held the rest of the lamb. With her fingers she picked off morsels of meat and fat and fed them to Fargo and herself.
In between bites, Fargo slurped at the lamb grease on Lali's lips.
"You're so yummy," she cooed to the dog. "My big piece of chocolate. My Chocolate Lab."
Every three bites or so, Lali looked up at her audience of humans, but said nothing.
Alf stood dumbfounded. He couldn't make up his mind whether the scene before him was pitiful, decadent or outright depraved.
Ginny was more resolute. She had the grim face of a schoolmarm about to take out the ruler.
And Hank bounced up and down in his Saucony sneakers, as if ready to take off at the sound of some starting gun cocked in his own head. Ready to run the longest marathon of his life, and never stop.
After a time, Alf retreated to the living room for another brandy. He quaffed it, had a refill and his mind spooled back like an old movie house projector, replaying all the Heckle and Jeckle cartoons he had watched as a boy. He grabbed a dictionary encyclopedia and looked up a murder of crows, but found nothing exciting. Murder was no more than the official name for a flock of crows. Like a brace of quail, a pride of lions. But as Alf sat and let his mind ride the surging alcohol he realized he’d actually witnessed the murder of Heckle and Jeckle, and right under his very own roof. In a burst of remorse, he went back to the cage to say a few words to Lali. Something kind, to get her to snap out of it; to become her old self again, snipping about the divorce lawyer and such. But no one, not even the swat team of ambulance-borne paramedics eventually summoned by Ginny, could get her to pay a whit of attention to anyone.
Only to Fargo.
Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, sandwich man, olive packer and advertising creative director. His stories have appeared in South Dakota Review, The North Atlantic Review, In Posse, The Pedestal Magazine, The Timber Creek Review, The Front Range Review, The Adirondack Review, The Paumanok Review, The Summerset Review and others. Byline Magazine and The Worcester Review have nominated recent stories to the Pushcart Committee. New work has been accepted by Tampa Review, The Jabberwock Review and Jewish Currents.
Paul's story Getaway also is available in VerbSap.
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