The Boy Walker – Chapters 1-3

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Dogs are way smarter than people. A dog sits up in front of a person, gives the big-eye look, collects a treat then contentedly goes off to play. A human sits up in front of a TV, crams down chips, dips and pizza with extra crust filled with extra cheese then wonders why he has to drop thirty pounds even though he only drinks diet soda. Dogs’ senses are more evolved, too. Like, dogs bark before an earthquake. Humans? They’re clueless that downing vodka like water, snorting blow or having affairs can bring the house down on top of them. And who is it that keeps Pookie’s food and water bowls filled, walks him in the rain and picks up his shit? — B.G.

1

The Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—seizes victims arbitrarily and inflicts on their survivors wounds both horrific and seemingly irreparable. Wait. This is heavy stuff. Maybe I should begin differently. But screw it. Humans sugarcoat too much of life. Not dogs. Dogs take the truth on its own terms. Therefore I will lay it all out for you—offer you the whole megillah. At my age, I withhold neither my opinions nor the words with wish to express them.

Know then that the Malach HaMavet weighed heavily on me for a long time. It pursues me still. Yet my dread began to lift over a period of several months beginning on a dank Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday morning. I arrived at Mountain Lake Park with the Rat Pack. And yes, the name for our quartet of close-knit canine companions—chosen by me—paid homage to that revered Hollywood/Vegas pantheon of the nineteen-sixties. I, Brute Greenbaum, naturally played the role of Frank. Being an English Bulldog, my outward appearance projected a fierce demeanor compelling respect. If you spell that much misconstrued word f-e-a-r. Sadly, even our nickname, Bullies, suggests a pejorative—one entirely misleading. The English Bulldog is mild-mannered and amicable. I embrace as well, distinguished. Hence I have always considered myself a lover, not a fighter.

In a manner of speaking.

Still, my fellows acknowledged me as a dog among dogs. Which is why Dean (Flash to his masters), Sammy (Sherlock) and Shirley (Princess) contentedly embraced subservient but hardly demeaning roles.

And so we cherished yet another hour of convivial exercise directed by our human leader, Abbie Greenbaum. Not that I intended to break a sweat. Bullies overheat easily.

And that is the least of it.

Having attained the age of twelve, I had far surpassed the breed’s average lifespan of eight to ten. Dismissing the outmoded algorithm that equates one canine year to seven human years, I was virtually a centenarian. As such, I was well aware that I would soon be gathered to my ancestors—a term the Hebrew Bible relates to the deaths of the Patriarchs and the ultimate journey to the unknown. On top of which I bore the Greenbaum family’s terribly familiar relationship with death.

Thus candor requires me to admit experiencing more than occasional bouts of anxiety.

As regards Abbie, my co-master—eschewing political correctness, I do not deem the word master to be derogatory in deference to the canine preference for hierarchy—the holiday represented just another workday. Or, more accurately, work half-day. Over the past several years, Abbie maintained payments on a used Toyota Corolla and provided himself with modest amusements as one of San Francisco’s numerous professional dog walkers. His income—limited by negligible ambition but all cash—enabled him both to escape the watchful eye of the IRS and maintain his distance from his father Morty, my other co-master. Still, Abbie lived at home and enjoyed kitchen privileges in return for nominal rent.

Independence so often is a state of mind.

Not long into our morning’s journey, we spotted a human compatriot, Hilary, approaching in the midst of half-a-dozen likewise high-spirited canines. Hilary walked with the unnaturally erect posture of the dancer she had once been. She wore her blond hair down to her waist, carried a dark, polished walking stick and exhibited a fondness for sandals even in the rain. She waved. “What’s shakin’, Abbie?” She looked up at the sky that had unfurled a rainy-season umbrella of pewter-gray and turned to me. “Gotta love the weather, hey, Brute?”

I grunted in return. Although not intending to do so, I passed gas.

“Your guys are looking good, Hilary,” said Abbie with a wave of his own. “Pray for sun.”

Our two groups mingled and sniffed each other’s posteriors. Humans text and tweet. Canines employ a more basic form of social media.

Whatever works.

Barking interrupted us.

“Barnaby, you can do better than that!” Hilary scolded.

Abbie approached Barnaby, a white Maltese terrier given to overexcitement. He squatted and rubbed the top of the offending canine’s head. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you, Barnaby? You know we all love you.”

The Rabbis condone small lies to promote peace. I praise their wisdom. I laud as well Abbie’s inevitable kindness towards dogs both familiar and not.

I confess to not always adhering to such generosity of spirit.

Barnaby, taken with Abbie’s flattering attentions, wagged his somewhat disheveled tail and slobbered.

The simple are easily accommodated.

“I’ll pray for sun if you will,” Hilary advised.

“Deal,” Abbie assented. “Be seeing you.”

We separated.

Give credit where due. Abbie consistently offered anyone walking one or more dogs a pleasant if brief greeting highlighted by an engaging smile that ignited a sparkle in his blue eyes. Dogs brought out his capacity for boyish charm and inherent gentleness.

Honesty nonetheless compels me to reveal that in most circumstances, Abbie withdrew from human contact. The tragedies he’d experienced had rendered his personality rather brittle. As to his father, “Good morning” and “good night” frequently represented the extent of his communications. Such behavior pained me. Yet do not doubt the love I bore for Abbie.

And he for me.

We continued our stroll flanked by towering eucalyptus trees. At nose-level beckoned an abundance of newly embedded native wetland and woodland plants. Do not ask me for names.

Not to dismiss the glory of nature, but I am an urban dog.

Abbie shared our joy. Physical activity often proved therapeutic. A confirmed inch-and-a-half above six feet with a head of thick, curly, dark hair adding the illusion of another two inches, he’d played basketball at Washington High School. I offer here a footnote. At birth, Abbie weighed nine pounds, eight ounces. Several family photos culled from acid-free boxes display a beaming Morty hefting his son at Abbie’s bris alongside the mohel, who performed the circumcision and intoned the appropriate blessings. The two men stand shoulder to shoulder like fishermen exhibiting a prize catch—the one that did not get away.

Abbie also remained an avid skateboarder. In my younger days, he graciously passed many of his skills on to me. Even now, my paws occasionally urge me to mount a board.

My hips warn me of my extremities’ folly.

At last, Abbie removed our leashes. Although the park’s eastern end offered a dog run and enhanced social opportunities for humans, we held course to the west to circuit the lake at my stately pace.

Pausing as necessary.

Sammy, the three year-old beagle among us, squatted to shit.

I abhor euphemisms.

Abbie withdrew one of several small plastic bags from his jacket pocket, deftly scooped up Sammy’s turd and deposited the bag in a nearby receptacle.

Abbie’s gracefulness again struck me. If only, I thought, he would put a little more flesh on his bones. Not that Abbie was in any way a frail man. At least, physically.

Make no mistake. I had long conceded Abbie his manhood. Yet given the disparity in our life cycles and his emotional fragility, I also thought of him as a boy. And being a regular strolling companion also called upon for comforting cuddles and a patient ear, I inevitably considered one of my major tasks in life to be that of a boy walker. Truly, such a young man—and boy—as Abbie bore watching over lest he lose himself in one of life’s thickets like the ram Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac. Attention, to reference Willie Loman’s wife, must be paid.

If not by me, who? If not now, when?

We approached the meadow adjacent to the tennis courts. Two women played among a smattering of puddles. We approached the meadow adjacent to the tennis courts. Two women played among a smattering of puddles. Here a gangly Abbie learned the rudiments of the game from Morty, who had played in high school. This bestowal of athletic knowledge from father to son took place shortly before tragedy struck Abbie’s ten-year-old sister Sara and, the following year, his mother Lenore. Now, during the warmer months, Morty played singles with Rich Hoernerman. Rich battled the vastly superior Morty with unflagging determination but never won a single set. The gameness of his big heart succumbed to hauling around the court an even bigger tuchus.

A burst of friskiness overcame Shirley. For some weeks she had exhibited great fondness for running after a pink, tennis-size rubber ball whose once-smooth surface exhibited a near-moonscape of teeth marks. The ball brought out Shirley’s protective instincts. A sleek Chihuahua, she had born several litters before being spayed.

Sammy also displayed a fondness for chasing balls—when he was not wandering off to track a scent. To Sammy’s credit, he knew to leave Shirley’s ball alone. Usually.

Dean, part-Lab, part-golden retriever and nominally my second in command, found contentment in observing Shirley at play, as did I. My troubled hips condemned me to exhibit an exaggeration—often in slow motion—of the English Bulldog’s natural rolling gait. And like my predecessor with the family, Churchill, another of my breed whose tenure I briefly overlapped, I endured an agitated stomach, dimming eyesight and frequent failures of hearing in the upper register.

As such, I ran after nothing.

Abbie, ever seeking to provide my confreres with appropriate activity, tossed Shirley’s ball in the direction of a tree at the edge of the meadow.

Shirley sprinted off.

As the ball came to rest, a young girl of perhaps eight or nine popped out from behind that self-same tree. She wore a pink, fleece-lined jacket and pink jeans. Dark brown hair with reddish overtones peeked out from a pink wool cap topped by a fuzzy pom pom. Her ensemble, of which Shirley later approved after calming down, suggested a certain delicacy of nature. Her slightly off-kilter physical appearance confirmed that judgment.

Was she hiding from a playmate? Scoping out the lay of the land? Or spying, as children are wont to do when their imaginations wander off towards dark, mysterious places inhabited by elves, trolls, giants and virgins locked in bramble-protected towers? Whatever her reasons for being in that place at that time, she awkwardly but earnestly lunged towards the ball and snatched it up.

Shirley stopped short. Her back arched. Her ears pinned themselves flat against her head. Her tail wagged between her legs. She bared her teeth. And if all this wasn’t sufficient to demonstrate her displeasure, she emitted a high-pitched bark that could have shattered glass.

Shirley could be one tough bitch.

The girl, ball in hand, covered her eyes and screamed.

While the girl had no business disrupting Shirley’s play, I remonstrated with Shirley as demanded by my role as the Rat Pack’s alpha male. We adhered to the highest standards of decorum while strolling in the park.

Besides, the girl obviously meant no harm.

Regrettably, Shirley’s vociferous protestations, which prompted my reading her the riot act, further disturbed the girl. She stamped her feet like a wind-up toy soldier suffering from mechanical difficulty. Her screaming grew louder.

Abbie saved the day.

“Princess, you know better than that,” he called out with firmness, not anger.

Shirley lowered her head.

Abbie was our alpha male.

The girl dropped her hands.

Abbie coaxed her to release the ball.

Although the girl’s scent provided me with a great deal of information, I engrossed myself—in spite of the limits of my vision—in further study of her outer form.

She seemed short for the ten year-old she was. Her head sat upon an abbreviated neck connected to a rotund body from which sprouted undersized arms and legs. Small ears partly hidden by her cap and hair flanked a rounded face punctuated by a slightly upturned nose. This account being stated, she gave off a certain familiarity. At the same time, unusually narrow eyes implied something more than what I took to be an Asian component of her genetic makeup.

Maintaining a distance of some five or six feet, Abbie lowered himself to one knee like a prince in a fairytale seeking to comfort a comely-if-awkward damsel no longer in distress. “It’s all right. You’re all right.” He flipped the ball to Shirley, who clutched it in her jaws and retreated. “And Princess is okay, too. The thing is, she’s really attached to her ball.”

“It’s my ball. I want my ball!” the girl demanded. “My ball!”

I gave considered attention to her speech. While understandable, the girl’s diction fell a robust degree or two short of precise.

A smile suddenly brightened her hazel eyes. “It’s pretty,” she cooed. “It’s pink.”

Abbie smiled.

Curious, I drew closer.

The girl took full measure of me and, on the verge of tears, stepped back, stumbled then fell on her tush.

Abbie glanced at me then back at the girl. “Don’t be afraid of him.” He beckoned me.

I waddled up to Abbie’s leg.

He drew closer to the girl and assumed a full squat. “This is Brute. He’s really very gentle. Old and gentle.”

Way to rub it in, I thought. But what cogent argument could I offer in opposition?

The girl remained on her tush, her palms pressed into the grass behind her. She blinked several times as if reconsidering her circumstances. “Brute. That’s a funny name.”

I felt the urge to bare my teeth a la Shirley. Had the girl no respect for her elders?

She stared at me. Her face suddenly contorted like a drawing crumpled by unseen hands. Her throat released the suggestion of a growl.

My anger fled. The girl possessed a sense of humor.

“It wasn’t to start with,” Abbie explained. “His name, I mean. Brute. My dad named him Brutus. After a guy in a play. Well, and history, too.”

I can only speculate on Morty’s naming me as he did since he never revealed his reasoning, which I believe to be the only confidence we never shared. Perhaps Morty subconsciously feared that one day his beloved son might turn on him. Or, relative to Freud’s remark that sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, he found my inherent Bully dignity worthy of the name of a Roman patrician dedicated to liberty and willing to risk all to achieve it. Nonetheless, I could not fathom Morty’s assuming the prerogative of naming me. One hardly expects a father to select a name for the dog he presents to his young son as the successor to a rapidly declining pet, to wit Churchill. Not when he proposes to draw the boy’s mind away from the recent loss of his sister.

“I like Brute better,” Abbie said. “Brutus was an honored guy in Ancient Rome, but he also did something that wasn’t very nice.”

The girl stared blankly.

I gave thought to my name and concluded that, as always, things could have been worse. Abbie had merely altered it to something of a diminutive rather than choosing a different and tasteless appellation, such as Sparky or Wonder Boy.

I pause to ward off the urge to hurl.

Of course, I bear another name as well—my Jewish name. Not being born into the Greenbaum family, I considered myself a Jew by choice. A ger or proselyte adopts a Jewish name. In the absence of any such ceremony instituted by Morty or Abbie, I took the obligation upon myself within the privacy of my personal relationship with the God of Israel—following, of course, sufficient time to observe and learn. Since I’d been named Brutus then Brute, I chose a name beginning with the letter B. Baruch—Blessed—seemed appropriate. Most Jewish blessings begin with that word. Moreover, I felt blessed to have a family that despite the heartrending weight of its undue measure of catastrophe—or perhaps because of it—showered me with so much love and enabled me to provide so much love in return.

It’s a canine thing.

Thus I became Baruch ben Avraham v’ Sarah—Baruch son of Abraham and Sarah, Judaism’s founding patriarch and matriarch. In no way, of course, do I conceive of myself as a second-class Jew. The Talmud states that all future Jewish souls stood at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. And Maimonides in his letter to Obadiah declares that the proselyte is a full Jew, a child and disciple of Abraham.

Who am I to argue?

As far as Abbie’s renaming me Brute, this I have long considered to be more than a rejection of violence applied to matters of state. Anyone with a Yiddishe kopf—a Jewish head or, more to the point, smarts—could see that the renaming represented a small but significant act of passive aggression, a precursor to a pattern of periodically negative although rarely violent behavior—smoking pot, drinking and violating sundry speed limits.

Not praiseworthy, I admit, but not all that uncommon as relates to the maturation process of the human male.

My musings gave way to the exercise of natural bodily functions.

The girl’s facial muscles balled themselves into knots. “Brute’s making funny noises.”

Obviously, the girl displayed little familiarity with Bullies’ tendency to wheeze and gasp brought about by an elongated soft palate, undersized trachea and stenotic nares—better known as pinched nostrils. Breeders now seek to correct this and other “defects” such as deep facial wrinkles and pronounced jowls.

Whatever will we do when we are no longer cute?

“And he smells,” she added.

I shuffled in place, perhaps uncomfortable with her remark but scarcely apologetic for the workings of the English Bulldog’s gastrointestinal system.

I released another toot.

Just because I could.

Abbie, habituated to my inherited behaviors, wrapped an arm around me. “That’s okay. Brute’s a good dog. A great dog. Really. The greatest.”

I felt better both for his embrace and his words.

Abbie whistled.

Dean, Sammy and Shirley came running.

Abbie drew us close and gathered us in his arms.

We delighted in the warmth, strength and comfort of canines and humans sharing a timeless bond.

“You guys!” Abbie sighed. He appeared as carefree as I’d seen him in months. I suspected that Abbie’s display of lightheartedness had much to do with the girl’s impish presence. “You guys!” he repeated. He stood.

Having reached the limits of their attention spans, Sammy, Shirley and Dean scattered.

As Abbie pulled the girl to her feet, a shrill voice assailed us. “What the hell’s going on?” A slim woman approached. I took her to be somewhat north of forty yet attractive in a motherly sort of way. Her flashing eyes proclaimed the will of a warrior fully prepared to engage in mortal combat.

“The girl…” Abbie responded. He struggled for words as a man submerged in water gasps for air.

“My daughter!” the woman countered.

Abbie blinked once, twice, three times. “She…”

“I’m Sarah Leah O’Hara-Ohara-Horowitz-Chan,” the girl announced.

“Sarah!” the woman called, unwittingly repeating her daughter’s name while scolding the girl for revealing it to strangers. Something to be avoided by nice Jewish girls.

But let me not get ahead of myself.

Sensing an opportunity, Abbie called to Shirley.

Shirley paused for a brief moment, clamped her teeth on her ball and approached.

“This is Princess,” Abbie said. “She got a little excited when Sarah… when your daughter… picked up her ball.”

My ball!” Sarah protested. Her voice carried across the park.

The woman frowned. “It’s not your ball. You know that.”

My ball!” Sarah insisted.

Despite the woman’s ferocity, Abbie, having explained himself, staged a magnificent recovery. “It’s Princess’s mothering instinct.”

His newly calm and carefree demeanor failed to temper the woman’s fury.

“You want to know about mothering instinct?” she asked. Her voice suggested the abrasive chafing of two pieces of broken glass.

Abbie froze. Perhaps he pondered his own lack of a mother, although Lenore doubtless had imprinted on his earliest consciousness a firm sense of her own fierce protectiveness.

As to myself, I found the woman’s lack of gratitude deplorable. Abbie had handled the uncomfortable encounter between Shirley and Sarah with the deftness of an accomplished diplomat. And diplomatic—at least at home with his father—he was not.

The woman, firm in her rejection of Abbie’s innocent ministrations, seized Sarah’s coat at the shoulder and hauled her away like a prison guard hurrying an inmate tarrying too long in the exercise yard.

Plainly the woman, rather than Abbie, stood as the abusing party.

Head down, body leaning forward in expression of uncompromising purpose, the woman distanced herself and Sarah some fifty feet. Then, for no apparent reason, she turned and stared at us. Finally, having silently communicated the full measure of her disdain, she whirled about and strode off tugging the stumbling Sarah after her.

I rubbed up against Abbie’s leg. Shirley joined me followed by Dean and Sammy.

We are fiercely protective of our own.

Abbie squatted. Again he embraced us.

I watched the woman drag her daughter out of the park. If I never saw her again it would be soon enough.

Life is too short.

2

My appetite temporarily renewed despite my earlier encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West—aka Sarah’s mother—I lolled hopefully beneath the kitchen table. “I Can’t Begin to Tell You,” the 1946 hit by Bing Crosby with Carmen Cavallero drifted in from the living room. Morty owned a notable collection of big-band vinyls, including rare works by lesser-known bandleaders like Larry Clinton and Charlie Spivak as well as the afore-mentioned Mr. Cavallero, “the Poet of the Piano.” Moreover, he once led a popular faculty jazz band­ until retirements and more attractive job opportunities depleted its roster. He still played his clarinet at home from time to time.

I studied Morty standing at the counter draping slices of turkey over two pieces of fresh corn rye from the House of Bagels. His deliberativeness suggested the fabrication of a miniature sailing ship to be placed in a bottle.

The tapping feet of Rich Hoernerman, our next-door neighbor, kept me company. At sixty, barely more Barely Morty’s senior, he’d recently retired. While never enamored of being a stockbroker, he’d made a good deal of money. More to his credit, he’d held onto it. Rich also advised Morty on his own small portfolio, which someday would augment his pension after a career teaching American Popular Culture at San Francisco State.

“Maybe I should call for a pizza,” Rich commented.

“Maybe you should go home and make your own sandwich,” Morty returned.

Rich looked down at me. “Nobody likes a hard-ass.”

I snorted in agreement while acknowledging that Morty and Rich had developed a deep friendship to the exclusion of others over the decade since Lenore’s death. Not that Morty didn’t maintain amiable relationships with his colleagues on campus. He generated something of the gravitational pull associated with former athletes. At Brown, he’d set a school record for the 100-meter butterfly and medaled in the Maccabi Games—the Jewish Olympics held in Israel. Moreover, good fortune blessed him with a head full of dark brown hair.

Not that I wish to infer that Morty was perfect. Who is?

Still, one may reasonably boast of others’ impressive traits—and one’s own. My coat of red piebald, for example, ranks low on the color scale for my breed as determined by humans who hold such trivial traits to be of consequence. But it is a perfect piebald.

Rich, in spite of Morty’s prior comment about returning home, couldn’t contain himself. “Are we waiting to eat lunch on Hawaii time?”

I shuddered.

“Sorry,” Rich said. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Morty, accepting Rich’s apology, continued crafting the sandwiches in silence.

Friends cut friends slack.

After all, we three found great comfort in each other’s company. I delighted in dozing beneath a tree when Morty and Rich played tennis. I curled up at Morty’s feet when they sat in the living room listening to music or watching old television shows and classic films. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen, and loved, Casablanca. I even accompanied them to restaurants at which Rich inevitably praised Morty for discovering worthy yet reasonably priced wines. My status as a service dog—recognized by the City of San Francisco at the behest of Dr. MacKinnon for both Morty and Abbie’s emotional wellbeing—gained me that privilege.

They would have made a perfect gay couple if only they were gay.

My time with Morty and Rich even extended to Friday-evening services at the synagogue to which they belong in support of Jewish community and continuity and, truth be told, succor. One’s perspectives change as youth’s unshakable belief in immortality yields to the loss of loved ones and the relentless onrush of old age.

I could cite Ecclesiastes.

My thoughts return to the kitchen where I rose from my place and shambled towards Morty.

He let a piece of turkey fall to the floor.

I halted. My nose confirmed my suspicions.

Rich spoke for me. “What the hell is that? Some kind of processed crap? Mort, please. You always get the fresh roasted stuff from the Russian deli on Geary.”

Morty sighed. “I didn’t feel like walking that far.”

Rich’s eyes widened. “You coming down with something? Don’t tell me you didn’t get your flu shot. We’re not kids anymore.”

Although sharing Rich’s disappointment, I scooped the morsel up.

Morty smiled at me then turned to Rich. “I picked up one of those dark-chocolate bars you like.”

“Only one?”

Morty shook his head. “Actually, two.”

Rich pumped his fist. “You gotta love chocolate, Mort. Helps keep your cholesterol down. Or is it your blood pressure?”

I concealed my jealousy. Were it not that chocolate can cause dogs to experience increased urination, vomiting and diarrhea—not to mention death—I would have demanded my share. Knowing better, I refrained. Both Morty and Abbie, acknowledging my self-discipline, felt free to leave chocolate within my limited reach.

“So I was watching this comedy show on cable,” Rich said.

“Who was on?”

“Old Jewish guys.” Rich pointed towards the counter. “I’m not sure about tomatoes, but avocado, definitely.”

Rich was such a California Jew.

Morty tilted his head towards a wicker basket on the counter next to the fridge—a gift from an alumna once filled with cheeses and jams from Oregon.

Rich rose from his chair. Close to Abbie’s height, he topped Morty by a good three inches and easily outweighed him by fifty pounds as evidenced by the expanded midsection that hid his belt.

I edged closer, hoping that Rich might emulate Morty and provide me with another treat.

“Hey!” Morty called. His eyes displayed reproof.

Partially in protest, I released a gentle stream of gas.

Morty shook his head.

Rich fanned the air with his left hand and shot me a withering look.

As if I didn’t know he was just a big pussy.

Abandoning his efforts to establish dominance, Rich hefted an avocado in his palm like a carnival performer trying to guess an object’s weight. “You know the trouble with people like you, Mort?”

“People like me?”

Rich nodded. “Jews who move out here from New York. Even after all these years, you still don’t know an avocado from a light bulb.” He pressed the object of his affection lightly between his palms to determine its ripeness. “You’re not in the old country anymore.”

“I suppose not,” Morty replied.

Rich grinned with satisfaction. “God, I remember how Janice refused to eat sandwiches. Hated bread. The carbs. Go figure. You need carbs for energy, right?” He paused, lost in other thoughts. “Maybe if we’d had kids…”

Twelve years earlier, some ten weeks after the loss of Sara, Janice Hoernerman celebrated the summer solstice by gunning her treasured Mercedes C280 down Interstate 5 to the great Southland in search of her destiny. And what promise did her declaration of independence offer? A career in Hollywood? The writer’s life in the wooded confines of Laurel Canyon or at the beach in funky Venice? The role of prized sales associate at a hip Beverly Hills boutique? A month later a postcard featuring a photo of the Santa Monica Pier informed Rich that Janice had taken residence in a townhouse in Woodland Hills with a college friend now a real estate agent active in the pricier enclaves of the San Fernando Valley—a woman with whom she intended to spend the rest of her life.

Rich went through all the stages of grief beginning with shock and denial. In this he replicated the response to Sara’s death exhibited by Morty and Lenore, who also had to deal with the emotional tremors of Abbie’s pre-adolescence. With Janice gone and his manhood left in question, Rich distanced himself from Morty, although he always had a kind word for the shattered Lenore. Then, some time between Yom Kippur and Chanukah—this according to Churchill—Rich again sought out Morty’s companionship. The two maintained a tepid relationship for a year or so and then drew even closer.

Rich opened a drawer and withdrew a knife. “So the show with all these old Jewish guys telling jokes…” He dropped slices of avocado onto a plate. “Real old-timers. Guys who played Miami Beach, Atlantic City, Vegas… the Catskills.”

“What do you know about the Catskills?” Morty asked. “You’re a native San Franciscan. Yosemite, Tahoe, Reno. Those places you can talk about. The Catskills could be in Libya for all you know.”

Demonstrating my appreciation of a timely bon mot, I left Rich and nuzzled up against Morty’s leg.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Morty dropped another piece of turkey. “Your last,” he cautioned.

I shot Morty a glance that conveyed my gratitude while asking: Can one really overdo protein?

Rich retook his seat.

Morty added avocado to the sandwiches, then spread Dijon mustard on two additional pieces of rye like a Rembrandt applying an undercoating to a painting for which he had negotiated a considerable fee in advance.

Rich laughed softly. His belly jiggled.

Morty turned and stared. “So tell it already.”

Rich pursed his lips as if he were running the joke through his head one last time before the red light blinked on the camera. “So this hundred-year-old guy wonders what’s all this big fuss about medical marijuana. He’s never touched pot in his life. But he figures at his age something’s wrong with him, so he asks his doctor for a prescription.” He giggled like a schoolboy staring at his first Playmate of the Month.

I fled under the table.

“The doctor says he’ll write a prescription, only the old guy needs to know three things.” He started to giggle again but stilled himself. “First, after he lights up, he can’t drive. He might fall asleep at the wheel. No problem, the old guy says. He gave up driving when he turned eighty-five. Second, he can’t play golf. He might take a wild swing and suffer a massive coronary. No problem, the old guy says. He kept his club membership, but he gave up playing years ago.” Rich’s ample backside shifted. His chair groaned like the timbers of an old sailing ship struggling through rough seas. “I used to play golf. Before we met. Too frustrating. Did I ever tell you that?”

I buried my face in my paws.

Demonstrating something of a sixth sense, Rich bent over and peered down at me.

I raised my head and returned Rich’s look of disapproval. I love a good joke as much as the next dog, but that doesn’t mean I’ll laugh at anything.

Rich straightened. “So anyway, the old guy asks, What’s the third thing you want to warn me about?”

“Are we coming to the punch line?” Morty asked.

Rich rested his hands on his knees.

I did a double take. How does a Jew tell a joke without using his hands?

“The third thing, the doctor says, is that when a man your age smokes marijuana, sometimes he develops an incredible erection. If that happens, your wife’s gonna be all over you, and there won’t be anything you can do to get her off.” Rich paused for effect. “Shit, the old guy says. My wife’s a year older than me, scrawny as a nine iron, and she farts every time she gets worked up about something. So if I get one of those erections, I’ll take my vintage Harley right out of the garage, ride over to the club and play thirty-six holes.”

Morty gazed out the kitchen window.

Being as opinionated as the next dog, I farted loudly.

“It was funny when he told it,” Rich protested.

“I’m sure.”

“What? You can do better?”

“Maybe.”

“So? The stage is yours.”

“Some other time.”

“Rich shrugged. “Fuck it. I laughed.” His face brightened. “I bet Abbie could hook us up if we wanted to get high.”

Morty’s feet turn towards Rich. “Like in the old days?”

Morty skips down the stairs to the mirrored lobby just ahead of Lenore. Music greets them. Drums pound. Guitars wail. The apartment building vibrates. Do earthquakes feel like this? No question, no one does the free concert thing better than Bill Graham. The party’s started. But just.

The door swings open. Out the lobby. A glance at the white stucco exterior wall. Talk about a good deal. Rent’s modest. And the park’s across the street.

Blink. Blink again. On with shades purchased on Haight Street. The day’s unreal. Iris-shattering blue skies. A breeze caressing their cheeks like a mother’s kiss. Across the street, eucalyptus trees dance all the way to the ocean. A whole day of music lies ahead. And is everyone in Golden Gate Park high already? Is the Pope Polish?

Lenore’s hand feels sun-hot and moon-cool in his. Morty’s other hand steadies the canvas bag slung over his shoulder. Gouda cheese sandwiches with sun-dried tomato and Dijon mustard. A small jar of gherkins. Bosc pears. Local gourmet chocolate. A not-inexpensive bottle of Chardonnay.

His nostrils flare. Yes, the crowd’s already high. He squeezes Lenore’s hand. Expresses joy seasoned with self-congratulation. Moving to San Francisco? Brilliant. A fresh-minted Ph.D. from NYU. A coveted position at State. And Lenore, three years a junior editor at Random House after Hofstra now freelancing for a textbook publisher in Palo Alto. Less excitement but more money.

Morty’s feet kick up sand and pebbles. Snap twigs. Crush leaves. He hears laughter burst from behind trees like gunshots. “Fuck Reagan!” someone shouts. Cheers rise. Morty pulls Lenore onward. A woman’s high-pitched voice emits a siren song. Draws them on.

San Francisco rocks. Morty feels a karmic sense of belonging. And what’s all this shit about Yuppies? He and Lenore have earned their degrees. Earned their jobs. Are they supposed to work for free? Power to the people with real lives. Their wedding at Leonard’s of Great Neck? Kitschy but parents to please. Budding careers. Children? Someday. So many things to do first. 

Morty extracts a roach from his shirt pocket. Sees Lenore part the opening of a pink-and-black handbag. Designed to look like a ghetto blaster. More suggestive of a vagina.

Now matches. A spark. A flame. Nothing to get hung about. This is the end of the rainbow. The cops get it. No way they can keep tens of thousands of people from lighting up.

More guitar licks. More drums. All around, feet shuffle forward. Lips suck on joints. Mouths caress bottles. Trickles of free spirits coalesce into rivulets. Into streams. Old hippies. Bankers. Ad-agency types. Actors. Architects. Safeway clerks. Street people. A carefree river of humanity surges on.

Morty looks at Lenore, who throws her head back and laughs. He pulls her closer.

Morty sat.

I emerged from under the table.

“The pot thing,” said Morty. “Smoke gives you lung cancer. Even pot smoke. This research that says it doesn’t if you only light up once a week?” He shook his head. “And let’s not mention pot and Abbie in the same breath.”

As if on cue, a door opened down the hall in the back of the house.

Rich lowered his head. “Sorry, Mort. Just breakin’ your balls. Do they still say that?”

“Abbie?” Morty called out.

“A boy needs to eat,” said Rich. “And trust me, some day he’ll stop taking his food downstairs.”

“It’s not like he needs to live behind the garage,” Morty replied, making no attempt to restrain his voice. “If Abbie wants to be independent, he can take on more dogs or add an afternoon walk. Even two. The business is there.”

Morty’s words discomfited me. True, Abbie lived day to day. Yet I would have been keenly disappointed had he scheduled a group in the late afternoon when, my condition allowing, he walked me solo. Then again, Morty bore no little responsibility for enabling Abbie to coast through life by not charging him more than token room and board.

It takes two.

Abbie looked past Morty. “Hi, Mr. Hoernerman.”

I was not oblivious to Abbie’s slighting his father. For his part, Morty might have set the example and said hello. I could not help but believe that each wanted to heal their fractured relationship. Yet Morty—while loving Abbie as human parents do in spite of their disappointments—had become resigned to their mutual detachment. And Abbie—who I had to believe loved his father—continued to blame Morty for their sorry state lacking sister and mother, daughter and wife. Morty in turn condemned Abbie for failing to get on with his life. They resembled a pair of dancers with arms outstretched and hands gripping each other’s shoulders as much to push away as draw near while gliding endlessly to the rhythms of different orchestras.

Rich, who gave Abbie space for the sake of shalom bayit—peace in the home—asked, “What’s shakin’?” He scratched his head. “Do they still say that, Abs? I’m suddenly thinking they don’t.”

Abbie raised an eyebrow, kneeled and gave me a hug.

My spirits lifted.

Abbie stood and opened the fridge.

“Turkey sandwich?” Morty asked.

The overture heartened me.

“News flash,” Rich offered. “It’s not the good stuff from the Russian deli. But good enough.”

I seconded that with a soft grunt.

Morty held up his sandwich. “Take mine. I’ll make another.”

Abbie rummaged among an assortment of containers and bottles. “No worries.” He removed a wedge of mountain cheese—cheddar to those of us outside France—and a can of Dr. Pepper. From a cabinet above the sink he extracted a box of English water crackers. “I’m heading back out soon.”

Morty studied his sandwich. “So I was thinking that Grandpa Danny’s yarzheit is coming up.”

“It’s that time of the year again, huh?”

“Maybe you’ll come to the temple with me Friday night to say Kaddish.”

“I’ll pass. Nothing against Grandpa.”

“I hope you’ll say Kaddish for me when the time comes.”

I looked expectantly at Abbie, who grabbed a cheese knife.

“I mean,” said Morty, “it’s not about whether you believe in God or heaven or that kind of thing. It’s just, that’s what we do.”

I knew what was coming next.

“Maybe,” Morty added, “you’ll come with me this April to say Kaddish for Sara. And Mom.”

That his younger sister and mother had perished on the same date on the secular calendar—Sara a year before Lenore—had never been lost on Abbie.

Rich patted Morty on the forearm. “I’ll come.”

“You always do,” said Morty.

“Well, it’s like preparation for when my folks go.”

“They still live in that condo in Palm Springs, Mr. Hoernerman?” Abbie asked as if the matter of Kaddish hadn’t come up.

“Right by the pool with a view of Mount San Jacinto. They think they’re gonna live forever. And the way I set up their portfolio, they can afford to.”

My stomach, anticipating Abbie’s next remark, rumbled uncomfortably.

“I know,” Abbie replied to Rich, “you’d never turn your back on your family.”

* * *

Abbie and I—appropriately leashed—stood a wary three feet from the wooden railing at the end of Pier 39, an outdoor mall in the guise of a nineteenth-century New England fishing village that overlooked San Francisco Bay. Doobie Katz faced us. Familiar with the view and more than a little jaded, he reclined casually, elbows propped on the railing, his back turned on both Alcatraz and Treasure Island. He struck me as contemplating a carefree tumble into the water to overcome the ennui of yet another dull workday.

I gritted my teeth. Nothing against Doobie, whom I had known—and wondered about—all my life. Rather, I contemplated with distaste the scent of the sea lions barking like conventioneers at an open bar. They drew hordes of tourists intent on taking perfect photos and videos as if they were directing a Hollywood film. Or at least a beer commercial.

Doobie reached into the pocket of his beige barista’s shirt. His hand pushed against the illustrated and carefully stitched brown logo—three squiggly vertical lines representing steam rising from a stylized brown coffee mug. He withdrew half a joint.

“Here?” Abbie protested. “You’re crazy.”

I looked up into Doobie’s eyes.

Doobie studied the joint. “I’ll tell you what’s crazy, bro’,” he said acknowledging my gaze but ignoring my concern for the legal jeopardy he courted. “Spending the rest of my life making mocha-latte-macchiato-whipped-cream-you-betchas for tourists from Fresno and the wilds of Michigan. People who wear VFW and Pennzoil caps. That’s crazy.”

I looked down in resignation.

Abbie and Doobie’s friendship—established in elementary school—had always struck me as unlikely. For his part, Abbie served as protector for the smallish, physically unimposing but sharp-tongued Doobie. In high school, he even knocked down a football lineman—second-team, I admit—in the course of a skirmish instigated by Doobie’s verbal excesses. As to Doobie’s contributing anything of value to the relationship beyond loyalty, I remain unawares. Not that loyalty isn’t to be prized. It is as rare as a ruby in a costume jewelry shop. I suspect that the old saw that opposites attract held sway. Abbie played the role of Hamlet shackled by endless introspection. Doobie demonstrated all the attributes of a loose canon eager to embrace any whim that skittered across his mind heedless of the consequences. Dr. MacKinnon once observed that Doobie lacked impulse control.

Roger that.

As to Doobie’s newfound sense of ambition, I would have raised an eyebrow had I the capacity to do so. Doobie’s urge to better his position reminded me of gamblers, alcoholics and politicians who, faced with serving time for a felony conviction, suddenly discover Jesus.

On the positive end of the scale, why shouldn’t Doobie have sought to improve his lot? He’d held a number of ill-paying jobs since he and Abbie dropped out of City College following two semesters of uninspired academic achievement. Doobie’s failure to transition to higher education had not surprised me. He barely made it to graduation. Abbie’s lack of progress at City constituted another matter. Although an underachiever in high school, he had placed in the middle of their class. To his credit, he read voraciously. He went through Morty’s well-worn—I relate no fondness for the term dog-eared—copy of Catcher in the Rye half-a-dozen times. Abbie also was considerably versed in Tolkien and enjoyed browsing the used volumes displayed on the sidewalk in front of Green Apple Books on Clement Street. His found treasures filled a bookcase snagged from a throwaway pile on the street and refinished in the backyard. Even while distancing himself from his classes at City, Abbie developed a fascination with ancient Rome and read with great interest half-a-dozen biographies of Julius Caesar.

His time might better have been spent on his formal studies, but I have always appreciated the connection to Marcus Junius Brutus and hence to me.

Doobie interrupted my reflections by sending a stream of spittle towards my feet. “Sorry, Brute,” he said. “The wind took it.”

I drool a great deal but at least attempt to be careful with my saliva.

“So like the SFPD suddenly gives a shit about what anyone smokes?” Doobie continued. “This ain’t Dallas or Green Fucking Bay, Wisconsin, bro’.”

“You know I don’t do that shit so much anymore.”

“Your loss, bro’.”

Abbie tugged gently on my leash and took a step back. “Let’s go somewhere else. I don’t like it here.”

“My break’s only eight minutes. But here’s the thing, ‘bro. I got something coming up.”

“Something like what?”

“And I need your help, bro’,” said Doobie. “I didn’t want to ask you on the phone.”

“So like what?”

Doobie toked again. “Don’t sweat the details. Let’s just say… Remember when we started skateboarding when we were kids? And we had those lame boards, and we wanted to move up to pro models? Remember how we got the money?”

“We washed cars.”

“And we ripped off bottles and cans from people’s recycle bins.”

Unmentioned was the fact that Abbie and Doobie also searched the neighborhood for parked cars left unlocked in hopes of finding spare change strewn about. An irate homeowner willing to dismiss their activity as the folly of youth graciously chose to forego a call to the SFPD but brought that activity to a halt.

“We got the boards,” Doobie crowed. “And we didn’t have to go to our parents.”

“I guess.”

“So let’s just say I got my eye on a late-model BMW three-series. With an emphasis on late. And I know how to get it.”

Abbie shook his head. “More bottles and cans? Dude, you smoke too much. Besides, I make more than you, and I’m paying through the nose for my used Corolla and the insurance.”

“Walk more dogs.”

“That’s what my dad says.”

Doobie delicately stubbed out the joint. “Remember all the dreams we used to have. Don’t you have dreams anymore?”

“I guess. Everyone has bad dreams, right?”

Doobie stared down at his feet. “I mean other dreams, bro’.” He slipped the joint back into his shirt pocket. “I may need you later in the week. Friday night, probably. Not like it’s gonna be dangerous or anything like that, but we’re not talkin’ chump change. You in?”

3

Morning walks around Mountain Lake with the Rat Pack generally proved to be routine. On the other hand, afternoon walks—when not abandoned owing to frequent states of physical and emotional debilitation that left me capable of no more than a stroll to the corner at best—often brought surprises. So it was that Abbie and I set out for the lake the next day beneath a late-afternoon sky smeared by streaks of blue and gray that more hoarded light than dispensed it. In our favor, the unexpected company of Shirley brightened the moment. Abbie, whose work ethic was exemplary until noon, had granted a special favor to Shirley’s owners, advertising executives at rival firms tied up in their offices until mid-evening.

Without warning, the sky seemed to darken.

We found our peaceful outing intersected by the matron we had encountered the previous morning regarding the matter of Shirley’s wayward ball. I speak of the Wicked Witch of the West who, jaw clenched and clutching the hand of her stumbling daughter, hurriedly approached as if seeking out the last lifeboat on the sinking Titanic.

If a smidgen of sarcasm seasons my observation of the woman, it is because I expect from others—both human and canine—the same unimpeachable standard of civility to which I hold myself.

The woman stopped. Her jaw slackened. She draped an arm over Sarah’s shoulder. Her face radiated a winning smile that caused me to do a double take. The woman obviously was capable of ingratiating herself to strangers by displaying the emotions of her choosing with no more difficulty than humans turn on tap water.

“I owe you an apology,” she said. “We all know what mothers are like, don’t we?”

I pawed at the grass, fresh-cut and sweet smelling.

Abbie made no reply. More than that, he looked a bit crestfallen. The mention of mothers struck a place inside him unreachable by a physical blow.

The woman appeared to intuit his status as an adult-but-motherless soul who had not, after all these years, recovered from his loss. “Oh shit, I’m really sorry.”

Her recognition of Abbie’s plight surprised me. It also unnerved me. I expelled gas.

Neither Abbie nor Shirley reacted.

The woman, clearly lacking familiarity with English Bulldogs, frowned.

Sarah held her nose.

If the woman believed I felt some obligation to slink away burdened by remorse, she was badly mistaken. Shakespeare has Marc Antony lament of the dead Caesar’s rule, “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.” Bullies are made of sterner stuff indeed. I found the maturity to dismiss Sarah’s gesture—she was still a child—and gazed up into her mother’s face to register my displeasure with her unwarranted agitation. I noticed for the first time that like Sarah, she bore something of an Asian appearance although not fully so. Her red hair—while more chemical than natural—suggested an additional heritage.

She flashed Abbie another now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t smile. “No, really. I am sorry.”

“And I’m Abbie.”

I could feel my eyes widen in astonishment at Abbie’s attempt at wit.

“Abbie Greenbaum,” he said.

“Hah!” the woman bellowed. “A landsman!”

Abbie stared. While I knew what the woman meant, he was clueless.

The woman betrayed a frown. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you anything? About being Jewish? Landsman. It’s Yiddish for countryman. A fellow Jew.”

Abbie shrugged. “I was bar mitzvahed.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Rivka. Rivka Horowitz Chan. I use Rivka Chan professionally.”

Rivka’s father, she related, was American-born Chinese with a degree in engineering from the University of Texas. However, Halakha—Jewish law—declared Rivka to be as Jewish as Abbie, given that her mother and her mothers before her were Jews. Also like her, they were redheads.

Despite the uninspiring first impression she’d made on me, Rivka struck me as attractive. Somewhat on the short side—although all humans are giants to me—her stature no doubt reflected the Chinese contribution to her gene pool. She nonetheless appeared anything but tiny or fragile, although her genetically disorienting eyes betrayed a mirthful world-weariness. Her nose, unlike Sarah’s, was long and straight although not pronounced and flared gently at the nostrils. Full lips registered the same Chinese-New-Year red as her nails. In all, Rivka displayed a noticeable natural beauty augmented by a fiery spirit.

“Really, I’m sorry I jumped all over you yesterday,” Rivka declared to Abbie.

Too old to hold a grudge unless absolutely necessary, I let her ill-mannered behavior of the previous day roll off my muscled back.

Shirley, impatient to be on our way, drifted off and began licking her left-hind leg.

Rivka drew Sarah closer. “Look, we don’t have any secrets. We’re not ashamed of Sarah’s… well… condition. You know, like gays hiding in the closet, which they probably love if it’s got women’s clothes hanging there.” She shook her head. “That’s not politically correct, but it always gets a laugh. Trust me.”

Abbie’s eyebrows rose in puzzlement.

“I’m a stand-up comic.”

Abbie’s face expressed fascination.

I confess to being taken aback myself.

Rivka kissed Sarah on the forehead. “So look, Sarah has Down syndrome. Not that she isn’t bright and loving. But some people just don’t know how to act around her. We like to say that Sarah’s not disabled, just differently abled.”

Abbie ran his right hand over Sarah’s cap. “Sarah’s cool. Really.”

Rivka brought her arms up to her face, covered her cheeks with her hands then crossed her arms over her chest. “Differently abled. God, I hate political correctness. You know how those TV commercials call a used car ‘pre-owned’?” She clapped her hands over Sarah’s ears. “Is a street hooker really a mobile intimate-relations manager?”

Abbie laughed. “That’s funny.”

Rivka removed her hands. “Funny’s what I do.”

“I walk dogs. Brute. And Princess here. They’re great. Loving and loyal. A dog will never abandon you.”

I looked up at Abbie. Did he think he had entered a session with Dr. MacKinnon?

Abbie dismissed any connection to darker thoughts and smiled at Sarah. “How’d you like to learn to skateboard?”

Sarah bent her knees then straightened her legs. I believe she had attempted to jump up and down but could not quite manage to grab air.

“I don’t think so,” Rivka responded.

Sarah wrapped her short arms around Rivka’s hips in an obvious but still clever bid for a reversal of her mother’s ruling.

“Not that kids like Sarah can’t do things,” said Rivka. “Hell yes, they can do things.”

As to Sarah’s potential, Down syndrome impacted her both physically and intellectually. Fortunately, she occupied the lighter end of the bell curve. One size does not fit all. Thus she was an earnest if attention-challenged fifth-grader mainstreamed in a nearby public school. Left to sink or swim by the school district’s paucity of resources, she remained afloat. Barely.

Perhaps uncomfortable with the conversation’s direction, Sarah pointed to Abbie. “There’s a seagull on your head.”

Abbie raised a hand to check. “A seagull! I hope he doesn’t… You know what.”

“Poop!” Sarah answered then projected a hearty laugh bordering on a witch’s cackle.

“Sarah!” Rivka scolded again.

Sarah stared at her feet.

I noticed that one of Sarah’s shoelaces was untied.

“Yanking your chain,” Sarah said.

“I was worried,” Abbie responded. He crossed his heart.

Sarah laughed again—loudly but this time not unpleasantly.

“So what do you say?” Abbie asked Rivka. “Can I can teach Sarah to skate. She’ll be fine.”

Abbie’s pursuit of the matter took me aback. Not his desire to inspire in others his love of skateboarding. That I could understand. We shared that passion. But while capable of responding pleasantly to people, Abbie generally refrained from reaching out to anyone beyond Doobie and two other compatriots who played in his garage band. And while the conversation centered on Sarah, I couldn’t help but feel that Abbie showed at least as much interest in Rivka. Perhaps he saw in her a mother figure.

Rivka ran a hand through her thick, gently waved hair. “We’ll see. That’s the best I can do.” She shook her head in self-reproach. “Look, it’s been a tough morning. No school.”

Abbie glanced at Sarah. “No school’s not all that bad, is it?”

Sarah wrinkled her nose in what I assumed was a gesture of agreement.

“It’s my ex,” Rivka continued. “Sarah’s dad.”

Abbie cocked his head. “Ex?”

Rivka explained that she had been married to Kevin O’Hara-Ohara. Irish father. Japanese mother. “Kind of a match.”

The moment offered Rivka an opportunity to learn more about Abbie’s parents and what had happened to Lenore, but she declined it. While I found her to be interesting and even amiable after her fashion, I acknowledged her self-focus.

“Kevin can be difficult,” she continued. “And people think stand-ups are nuts.”

Abbie smiled—and quite warmly. “What’s the problem with stand-ups?” he asked in what struck me as a preemptive effort to comfort Rivka lest the balance of her own emotions suddenly tip and bring forth an onset of curses or tears or both.

“Show me a stand-up who isn’t a little off, and I’ll show you someone who can’t get past doing open mics in the suburbs. But Kevin…”

Kevin as it happened was a classically trained cellist, who played with an avant-garde chamber group devoted to the purity of art and soul. Because making a living did not represent a priority, Rivka long had assumed the role of family provider. “Now his goddam lawyer is wrangling with mine.”

Abbie’s teeth clenched, despite the unpleasantness of our previous encounter. His fingers curled into loose fists. Had Kevin been present, I believe Abbie would have taken a swing at him. “Does that mean he wants money?”

“The judge… The guy’s a misogynistic schmuck. He’s already given Kevin a chunk of change from me. And I pay alimony.” She clapped her hands to her head. “God, why am I telling this to a stranger?” She shrugged. “So the judge… It was like telling investors to keep paying poor Bernie Madoff so he’d have cigarette and candy-bar money in prison.”

“That’s funny,” Abbie declaimed.

“Sad,” said Rivka. “That’s what that is.”

Indeed, Kevin seemed not to think the money provided by his ex-wife to be nearly enough. And he had girlfriends. “Weird chicks, believe me,” Rivka pointed out. “And on top of that, he wants to extend his visitation rights.”

Abbie nodded sympathetically.

“All this tsuris,” said Rivka.

“That means trouble right?”

“And Sarah’s going to get her period soon.”

Sarah lowered her chin to her chest.

The term too much information exploded in my mind.

“Adolescence,” Rivka offered as if she were performing. “I don’t know how my mother survived it. And I haven’t even thought about a bat mitzvah. And year after next there’s middle school. Then high school. I hated high school. Where did you go?”

“Washington.”

“And they keep cutting the public schools’ budgets.” She fussed with Sarah’s collar.

“What about private school?”

“I’d have to go on the road again.” She made a face as if she’d swallowed a frog.

Rivka had played clubs all over the country and across Canada. England several times. Scotland once, although she couldn’t understand what anyone there was saying and didn’t know how they understood her. “Maybe they’re used to American movies and TV,” she posited. She’d also performed on all the cable channels.

“My dad watches all kinds of comedy on TV,” Abbie remarked. “He says he does it for school. He teaches at State.”

“Anyway,” said Rivka as if ignoring a heckler—although given the jagged-edged nature of her personality, I deemed that to be an unlikely first option—“I do the mother thing. The Jewish-Chinese shtick? A given. Hey, I was eating pot stickers for years before I found out they weren’t kreplach. You know kreplach?”

“One of my grandmothers used to make them.”

“And Kevin!” Again she placed her hands over Sarah’s tiny ears. “The whole band is into bondage. Don’t ask me about ball gags!”

Abbie, like a good straight man, leaned forward. “Ball gags?”

I confess to being drawn further into Rivka’s narrative. Self-focused she might have been but not uninteresting. She could make good money on the road, she explained, but she’d have to be away from home at least eight months a year. And she’d long burned out on noisy motels, fast food and the loneliness neither alcohol nor drugs could relieve.

“Can’t your… Kevin? He’s Sarah’s father. Can’t he help?”

Rivka threw her head back and laughed. “Not every father is the kind of man you can rely on.”

Abbie bit his lip.

I brushed up against Abbie’s leg.

Abbie’s face brightened. “You could walk dogs.”

You walk dogs. I teach classes at Laugh University. Downtown. Nights. You can’t believe how many people want to learn stand-up.”

“Who stays with Sarah?”

“Sarah’s old enough to stay in the apartment by herself for a few hours. We have a neighbor, a Russian woman. She looks in on her.”

“Mrs. Brodsky loves vodka,” Sarah piped in. “She’s a shikker.”

Rivka’s eyes opened as wide as shot glasses. “That’s Yiddish for a drunk.”

Sarah looked up at Rivka and laughed. “Just yanking your chain.”

Shirley, not one to be inactive let alone ignored for any length of time, interrupted with a piercing yip.

I myself felt rather stiff.

Abbie took Shirley’s ball and held it out to Sarah. “Want to?”

Sarah backed away.

“She hasn’t been around dogs much,” said Rivka.

“We have a cat,” Sarah volunteered. “Phyllis. She’s a girl.”

“We named her after Phyllis Diller,” Rivka explained.

Abbie gave off the blank stare of the uneducated.

I was aghast. True, I never attended college on the degree track. I had, however, audited a vast number of lectures and seminars on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. As to Abbie, had his father’s vast corpus of work on comedy in American culture not touched him? At least by osmosis? Morty held a Ph.D. with a published thesis on Depression, War Clouds and Laughter: Profit and Propaganda in Hollywood’s Screwball Comedies from the Crash to Pearl Harbor. Abbie should have known that Phyllis Diller, one of America’s great comics, got her big break in San Francisco playing the Blue Pumpkin in North Beach.

“Phyllis poops in a box,” Sarah announced. Flashing an impish grin, she snatched the ball from Abbie’s hand.

Shirley growled.

Undaunted, Sarah threw the ball. It landed almost within arm’s reach and some forty-five degrees off its intended trajectory.

Shirley gave chase—brief as it was—returned to Sarah with her prize and dropped the ball at the girl’s feet.

Sarah picked the ball up and threw again. Her arm described another awkward but more effective arc.

Shirley ran off.

I rubbed my head against Abbie’s leg. Time had passed. A resumption of our walk was called for. And I needed a nap.

Abbie patted Sarah gently on the shoulder. “Maybe Sarah would like to come walking with Brute and me sometime. When there’s no school.”

Rivka made no effort to answer.

“Really,” said Abbie. “We’d all like that.”

Shirley again approached and released the ball.

Sarah picked it up and made a throwing motion.

Like a centerfielder anticipating the trajectory of a fly ball based solely on the sound coming from the hitter’s bat, Shirley sprinted off across the meadow.

Sarah raised her hand. There, clutched in her stubby fingers, I saw the ball. “Just yanking your chain, Princess,” she called out. Grinning, she looked down at me, dropped to her knees and gave me a bear hug.

I feared a rib would crack. I wondered as well if this was a portent of the famous curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

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