Jerry Kaplan dry-washed the sawdust from his hands and slowly walked toward the front of his shop. Through the open door, he saw cars flashing by in the sun. Jerry's Lumber stands on a wide, gently sloping one-way street which runs down past an expressway entrance, and the traffic on this particular early Saturday morning was moderately heavy, as it normally is there and then. Any minute now, business would start trickling in, and soon Jerry would be selling plywood, wall molding and pine planks, all cut to customers' sixteenth-of-an-inch specifications (which often turned out to be wrong). Perhaps he would even sell the odd board-with-hole-in-the-middle, a board destined for use as part of a home gas dryer window exhaust unit. That board, twenty-eight to thirty-two inches by five inches of one-half-inch plywood, with its difficult to cut, four-inch, round hole, would cost you five dollars.
Jerry stood in the frame of the pulled-up garage door that served as the front entrance to his shop. He looked at nothing for perhaps a minute and then saw coming down the street a woman whom he immediately tagged as "Frustrated Spinster." Among the visible features which inspired this snap judgment were: straight, skinny, stick-like legs somehow dominated by the shins, and encased in black stockings with a bluish tinge; sadly inadequate breasts and chin; a thin plain face marked only by a gash of lipstick so red you could taste it; a shapeless black dress too warm for this June day and too long or short (hem cutting sticks at mid-shin); a small, square, red plastic pocketbook that looked silly; and the absence of an appreciable behind.
Jerry's face formed into a weak smile that would have seemed pitying rather than friendly to anyone who had noticed it, but the woman for whom it was half-intended was looking straight ahead as she pounded her way down the sloping sidewalk toward the avenue which crossed the street some seven or eight buildings beyond the lumber store.
"What's she doing around here?" Jerry wondered, as he turned and walked slowly back into the shop with the idea of heating some water for coffee on the coil in his office. The question occurred to him because that particular few-block area contained only garages, light industry, and retail and wholesale building, plumbing and automotive supply businesses, and none of the bakeries, five-and-tens, grocery stores, supermarkets, and flower, card and clothing shops which such a lady -- a working lady from the look of her -- would be likely to visit early on a Saturday morning.
"Huh?" wondered Joe Bassano, Personnel Supervisor of the Addeo Moving Company, which is three doors down from Jerry's Lumber, as he noticed the spinster through a plate glass window. He asked himself the question Jerry had asked some twenty-five seconds earlier, and then quickly forced his mind back to the business at hand, which was showing a new crew "the ropes."
"Uh, men, as I was saying," he continued, preoccupied, "legs is the sine qua non of our profession." The three of the seven novices who happened to be paying attention stared at Bassano oddly, but he did not notice, because he was once again looking out the window. By then the woman had passed, however -- swallowed by the street.
Less than a minute later she made a right turn onto the avenue, caught her breath and went into a store the interior of which was hidden from the street by door and window Venetian blinds. The characters on the dusty plate glass door read:
2 1 8 4
Had the lumberman or the moving man learned that it was the guard dog store which had been the woman's destination, he would have nodded an "Ah Ha," surmising without hesitation that she wanted a dog to guard her apartment while she was away at work during the day. He would have deduced, furthermore, that the general deterioration of this neighborhood, or even a particular break-in, had prompted her desire to purchase a guard dog. But, assuming Jerry or Joe had somehow learned where the woman was headed, and assuming further that he had gone on to guess her intention, the guess would in fact have been mistaken. For it was not fear of crime which brought the pale thin woman to the guard dog store.
At the sound of the door opening, the fat unshaven proprietor looked up from the tabloid that was spread out upon his counter. Seeing the woman, he managed to suppress his surprise by telling himself with lightning speed: "It takes all kinds."
"Good morning," she said with a smile which asked, not unpersuasively, that he like her.
"Morn'," he replied, closing the paper and standing up.
She recited her lead question quickly and matter-of-factly, before irresolution could misword it or falsify the intended tone. "Do you rent dogs -- or do you just train and sell them?"
The silence which followed seemed fairly long to the woman, but to the owner of the guard dog store it was but a moment, during which he experienced a "brainstorm" that set in motion rapid calculations as to the slow state of business, possible risks to dog and woman, feasible prices, and the insurance question.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
The woman clutched her purse and worked her lips. "Well, you see," she said in a businesslike manner, "I live here in the neighborhood, and I ... uh ... would like to rent a dog one day a week."
The proprietor watched her carefully as she spoke, as a guard dog would a person who has reached the very edge of the guarded area. Making a preliminary assessment that this was neither a madwoman nor a pervert or a criminal, he allowed his natural curiosity to assert itself, tempered of course by caution and by tact.
"Uh huh, I see. But what do you want a dog for? You got some valuables you have to move once a week or something? Is that it?"
"No, not exactly." Sensing the onset of amenability, she became precise -- even prim -- for she was that type of woman whose formality increases, at least in certain situations, with familiarity. "You see, I would enjoy having a pet as a companion. Living alone as I do, I thought that a dog might ... cheer things up a bit."
The phrase dropped to the counter like spilled milk. They both eyed it for a second, then tacitly -- and kindly, on his part -- agreed to ignore it, as if it were an old stain made long ago by some forgotten party.
"But you see," she continued, "living alone as I do, and going to business -- I'm a bookkeeper -- I would be unable to care properly for a pet, or at least for the type of pet which I have in mind -- a dog. It would be too cruel to the animal."
This made sense, and the proprietor of the guard dog store, now openly curious, sympathetic and enthusiastic, began nodding his head in vigorous agreement. In fact, a scenario was flashing through his head in which he and she would exchange the weekly dog loan for a weekly review of the store's books (scanty though the entries would prove in these hypothetical "books.") His imagination darted forward to the third Saturday morning and to their two heads, his round and bald, hers pale with dark, lankly hanging hair, bending together over the books, which were spread out on the counter.
"I see your point," he said quietly.
"Yes? Good. I tried a pet shop but ..."
"Oh, I know they'd never do it," he interrupted. "No percentage. It was smart of you to think of coming to a guard dog store. I don't see where else you'd have a chance of getting a part-time dog." He smiled at his phrase, and she too moved the corners of her lips back. "I think we can fix you up."
"Now, as to the time." She had this all worked out. "I would prefer to pick the dog up late Saturday afternoons, if possible. Say -- four-ish? That way I could finish my marketing, straighten up the apartment, and so on, before calling for ... it. Ideally, the dog might be returned Sunday evening, but if you don't come in on Sunday I would be prepared to ..."
"No, no, that ain't necessary," he chuckled. "' Course I'm in on Sundays. The dogs got to eat and so on, don't they? Like a hospital, sort of. I'm here all the time. I stay in the back. These dogs are too valuable to be left alone for long."
She frowned. "Yes, I thought of that. Isn't there a problem, since they are valuable, of my renting ..."
Again he interrupted, this time holding up a courtly hand. "That's what we're here for, ain't it? Anyways, I ain't about to rent you no Elka von Elkland or Foofy Schaefer -- them's famous Shepherds."
She nodded, and just at that moment a huge, square brown head poked through the doorway behind the counter. Neither barking, nor baring his teeth, or even pricking up his ears, the big dog sized up the situation instantly and stood absolutely still in the doorway, ready to respond to his owner's least command.
"And who's this?" the woman asked politely.
"Oh, this is Buzzy. He's my own personal dog."
"Oh? My, he's big! A Great Dane, isn't he?"
"That's right." The proprietor turned and eyed the big dog affectionately. "Ain't it, boy?"
The dog's eyes sparkled, but he did not move.
"I don't think I should rent a Dane," the woman remarked matter-of-factly. "My place is far too small." Something occurred to her for the first time. "Why aren't the dogs barking?" she asked.
"Oh, their kennels are way out back. It ain't good to get them all excited every time someone comes in the store."
"But can't they hear us? I thought dogs had very keen hearing."
"True enough. But these are trained dogs," he said proudly. "Just go back in their area and enter the guarded territory by yourself, and you'll hear them do some barking!"
He smiled. His muted cruelty was not lost on her. She smiled, too, letting him have his little joke.
Then suddenly her smile began to widen. Quickly, it grew and grew until it had become a genuine beam. The dog owner was surprised. He knew that she could not be smiling like this at his little pleasantry, and he wondered what she was thinking, but he was too polite to ask. In fact, the lady was experiencing what can only be called an epiphany.
It was a drizzly Saturday night, in her imagination, and from below came the sounds of the teen-age stoop loiterers laughing and talking. She saw herself in a robe, lying on a couch reading a magazine which rested on her knees, and eating a very red apple. Beside the couch, stretched out on the rug, was a large handsome German Shepherd. Its big paws pointed forward and its mouth was stretched into what appeared a serene smile. From time to time a white hand would absently reach down to touch the fluffy head.
"What about a Shepherd?" she asked, returning from her vision refreshed and easy. "Would that be a suitable type for me?"
"Just the thing. Reliable, friendly, tough -- oh, I forgot, that wouldn't matter in this case -- er, and smart enough to remember you even though he, uh, would only be staying with you the once a week."
"Do you have a suitable dog on hand?"
He did have a suitable one on hand, and terms were reached easily. The dog would be rented every Saturday to Sunday evening -- or Monday morning, at no extra charge -- for a minimum of three months. The fee would be twelve dollars a week, a deposit of one-hundred dollars would be required. Fee and deposit were low, the proprietor explained, because the dog was old -- fourteen -- and while his ferocity and other faculties had in fact remained unimpaired, his grizzled appearance and calm demeanor might be perceived as flaws by the general run of (uninformed) customer.
"I like the idea of an older dog," she assured him.
A check was written for $124, identification was offered and refused, and a handshake sealed the bargain. The owner excused himself, walked back to the kennel area and returned a few minutes later with the Shepherd, whose name was Rex, on a slip chain. When he first saw the woman, Rex was alert, but absolutely silent. She had been instructed to make no move toward the proprietor, the dog or the door of the shop.
A half-hour of recognition and obedience training ensued. For the first ten minutes, Rex was repeatedly led out and brought back in to the waiting woman --whose name was Mildred Schapp -- by the proprietor, Eddie Mays. Eddie would bring Rex right up to Mildred Schapp and let him sniff her. After several repetitions he had her start to talk to the approaching dog, and finally she was told to stroke the grizzled head. As the ten minutes ended, Eddie had Mildred offer the dog a biscuit, which was sniffed perfunctorily, then snapped in half and chewed down.
Next the chain was removed and Rex was left "on guard" in the shop. At first Mildred Schapp and Eddie Mays would go out into the street and come back in together. Rex was alert and growling the first four or five times, then simply alert.
Now came the acid test. Once again Mildred exited, closing the door behind her as she had been doing all along. This time, however, Eddie did not accompany her. Instead, he left Rex alone -- lying down in the store -- on guard -- while he himself went into the back. As Mildred opened the door, Rex leapt to attention. Stiff-legged, ears pointed, the alert dog growled menacingly.
"Hello, Rex," Mildred said. Following instructions, she was careful to speak in a voice that was neither frightened nor falsely sugary. Slowly, then, she extended her hand, palm upwards, and carefully, even more slowly, sniffing constantly, the dog inched toward the hand. A breath away, he stopped, sniffed some more, and then flopped right down at Mildred's feet. Feeling a surge of friendship, but careful still to move with all deliberativeness, she reached down and once again stroked the noble head, softly saying "Good Dog" as she did so. At that moment Eddie came running in from the back, laughing jubilantly. As for Rex, he lay where he was and smiled.
"Perfect, perfect," Eddie said, bending to slap the dog's side and tossing him another biscuit. "All finished. You did it perfect, nice going. That's all there is to it, he knows you now."
"See you at four?" She smiled with pride.
Mildred left, Rex was chained and led back to his kennel, and five minutes later Eddie Mays was once again resting his elbows on the counter and bending over the newspaper.
To be continued ...
The Rented Pet was originally published by nth position.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.