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February 19, 2024

The Rented Pet, Part Four

By Ron Singer

Part Four

Often injured, slow to heal: this time Rex's convalescence took three months. Still, thanks to his eager spirit and strong constitution, and thanks also to the expert care of Eddie Mays and Dr. Brunn, the dog's torn body once again knit up. By late March, few signs of the subway attack remained: a slight limp in the right hind leg, the tendon of which had been grazed by a bullet, and four new scars, which the dog wore as unselfconsciously as many Generals and Admirals wear their ribbons and medals.

These months were also marked by other developments in the small circle of which Rex was center. Increasingly taken with the brave shepherd, Jerry Kaplan volunteered to aid in his rehabilitation by playing with, and walking him. To this end, Kaplan was seconded twice daily from the lumber mill to serve as a sort of unofficial assistant to Eddie Mays. There followed quite naturally a two-dog rental arrangement and an extension of the weekly lease to Monday mornings. Beginning in mid-March, each weekend thus saw a pair of humans with a pair of dogs making their way down and up the sloping street next to the Expressway, and through the other streets and parks of the neighborhood.

Since Julia's own injury had been to her left hind leg, when Jerry and Mildred would stroll with the dogs in tandem, the synchronized limping seemed to invite comments. Although most of these were interested or sympathetic, on occasion they could be droll, keen or even baldly hostile. In fact, it was one such unfriendly thrust which inspired Jerry to a notable mot.

On a Sunday morning when he and Mildred were with the dogs in a small pocket park on the fringe of the neighborhood, they came upon a young couple hurrying in the opposite direction.

Just as the couples drew abreast, the young man, who was tall and wore brown loafers without socks, remarked to Jerry out of the side of his mouth, "Whoa! TWO dogs! Say, fella, don't forget to scoop the poop!"

"Why?" was Kaplan's cool and slow reply, as he turned to fix the young man with a stare. "Don't you snoopy yuppies like our puppies' poopies?"

Another minor development concerned names. As long acquaintance ripened to fast friendship between the two rented pets, it seemed increasingly inappropriate to misdesignate the gender of the female, and so, at Kaplan's suggestion, she became known, after all, as "Julia."

Now it may be imagined that Rex and Julia would soon have produced an august brood of pups, but this, alas, was not to be. To put the matter bluntly, although the pair engaged in prodigious sniffing, they never progressed to the mounting stage. Since their compatibility was never in doubt, it occurred to people to wonder, "Is one or both of them too old?"

Once again it was Jerry Kaplan who took the lead, indelicately giving voice to this sensitive question on a Saturday afternoon in April at the guard dog store, where he, Mildred and Eddie were enjoying the ceremonial cup of coffee which now accompanied the weekly pick-up. But, if Eddie Mays knew the answer, he wasn't saying. He shrugged and smiled like the Sphinx, and neither did Mildred Schapp venture an opinion other than to shake her head and cast a sideways glance at the bumptious lumberman.

"Well," said Jerry, shaking off his slight embarrassment. "I guess I got to answer my own question, then." And, displaying what Mildred was coming to recognize as an unfortunate propensity for puns, he pronounced against the female: "Dogopause." The ritual groans of the other two ended this discussion, but the fact was, no pups.

As to human "pups," with the conventional preliminary of marriage, when Jerry raised this question after three glasses of wine at dinner that same night, Mildred's answer was decisive: "Oh, Jerome," she said, "how sweet of you! But why would we want to bother with all of that now?" And, as both dogs watched, she leaned across the table and gave Jerry a popping little kiss on the mouth.

Eight days later, on a Sunday evening, there assembled for the first time ever the complete circle of Rex. Present were: Jerry; Mildred; Eddie; Joe Bassano, the moving man; blind Charles Miller; Dr. Matt Brunn; and, naturally, Rex and his companion Julia. It was just a simple get-together -- coffee, danish, a few drinks -- in celebration of two sets of happy events. The first, of course, was Rex's recovery, and the other was Charles Miller's acquisition through the efforts of local politicians of a newsstand in an office building. This meant that the tall, thin, redheaded blind man and his mother could look forward to a higher standard of living, one which would include clothes bought new and even an occasional restaurant meal. And, as if that were not enough good fortune, a correspondence had just been started on Miller's behalf which might eventually put a permanent dog on the blind man's horizon.

So that Sunday at nine they all gathered in the "conference room" of the van line company, to which Bassano, as foreman of the yard, had access. This medium-sized, rectangular room was carpeted, newly paneled and dominated by a formica table. Into one of the long walls had been cut a sliding window which looked out on the reception area. Against the other long wall stood two glass-fronted cases that contained plaques and trophies commemorating bowling victories and sponsorship of organizations for children. Covering both end walls and all available space on the long walls were clusters of photographs signed by eminent politicians and show-business personalities. Bassano's prize showed a younger version of himself, wearing a bowling shirt, his hair thick and black and his face fuller and unlined. Standing with his arm around the moving man was a celebrity of about the same age and height as Bassano. This person wore a checked sport coat and a porkpie hat tilted so far back you could have knocked it off with a straw. Although his identity would have been apparent to most people from these clothes and from his distinctive, huge, pockmarked nose, anyone still in doubt -- as no one tonight, other than Miller and the dogs, was -- need only have read the inscription:

          TO JOEY--

                    KEEP 'EM MOVIN', KID!

                              AS EVER,

                              JIMMY DURANTE

After the guests had admired the trophies, plaques and photographs, they gathered at a small bridge table set up in one corner to serve as the bar, and each helped themselves to their drink of preference. There were two sets of hosts tonight, for if Bassano was providing the hall, it was Mildred and Jerry who had proposed the event and paid for the refreshments.

Kaplan, in making the evening's first toast, also made clear his and Mildred's motive: "Here's to the dog of honor!" he cried, raising his plastic glass of rye. "To the wonderful dog who brought Millie and I together. Rex! Good health, boy!"

"Here, here," they all shouted, and, as they downed the evening's first drink, the object of the toast, hearing his name, looked up from the green carpeting on which he had stretched out.

Next to offer his own brief, but thoughtful, toast was Charles Miller: "To Julia," said the blind man warmly. "So her feelings aren't hurt." Although Julia was already asleep beneath the long formica table, her ears twitched.

Eddie Mays, in turn, raised a glass to Miller: "I just want to let you know, no hard feelings over the accident, Chuckie. And good luck with the new job."

Next with a brisk salutation was Dr. Matt Brunn. "Our hosts!" he called. "To you, Kaplan, and you, Miss Schapp!"

"Skol," "Cheers," "Here, here!" called Bassano, Miller and Mays, and now it was the moving man's turn to be mentioned. However, instead of being the object of a toast, he found himself the subject of a short speech.

"To our host, the capable Mr. Bassano," said Mildred Schapp. "Let me remind us all tonight that it was Mr. B. who, by teaching Jerry to call off an attacking dog, indirectly preserved the life of that unfortunate young drug addict last summer." Not surprisingly, most responses to this observation were weak and dubious. The single exception was the dog trainer's loud "Here, here!" accompanied by a vigorous nod.

Wanting to return Mildred's compliment, realizing also that Eddie Mays had not yet been honored, but forgetting the first two toasts, Joe Bassano now offered the most sweeping of the salutations. "To the lady," said the moving man with dignity, "to the dogs, and to my good friend, Mr. Ed Mays, Esquire."

After they had all cheered and once again sipped from their glasses, Doctor Brunn and "Doctor" Mays, in order to complete the round in style, toasted each other in time-honored fashion by locking right arms and simultaneously tossing off large, newly poured drinks. The onlookers applauded this feat with particular energy, and the first phase of the party thus concluded.

Next, the six friends settled around one end of the conference table. At Bassano's insistence, Eddie Mays was seated at the head, with the others ranged as follows: Mildred, then Jerry, on Eddie's right hand; Miller, Dr. Brunn and Bassano, on his left. As soon as the men were in their places, Mildred rose and circled the table twice, first to freshen the drinks and then to serve the coffee and danish, in order, as she put it, "to keep this happy occasion from turning into a drunken orgy."

When the guests had chatted, laughed, eaten and drunk for a few minutes, the proprietor of the guard dog store leaned forward in his chair, cleared his throat and prepared to speak.

"Order, order, please," he said, tapping his spoon against his coffee cup. "I wish to say a few words tonight. In honor of Rex here." The guests quieted down and, hearing his name again, the dog, who now lay behind and to the right of Mays's chair, once again looked up.

"Good, a speech," said Mildred. "Just the thing."

"That's right, boy," Mays continued, turning in his chair. "You won't be embarrassed, will you, fellow?" Then, as Eddie reached back to scratch the dog's ears, the chair began to tip.

"Whoa, careful there," said Dr. Brunn, and Mays righted himself just in time.

"Take it easy, Ed," suggested Jerry Kaplan. "We're all ears."

"Thanks, Jerr, I will, I will. I'll do just that. Okay, let's see." Eddie squared his shoulders, licked his lips and took a deep breath. Then he made as if to tap his cup again, but realizing this was unnecessary, he stopped the spoon in mid-air and put it down. "Okay," he repeated, "let's see."

"Get on with it, Eddie, will you!" said Dr. Brunn. "You look like a sailboat waiting for the wind to come up."

"Okay, okay," said Mays. Once again he breathed deeply and opened his mouth. But nothing came out, and Eddie began to blush. He turned in his seat again, as if seeking help from Rex, and then, silent and mortified, looked helplessly at the other guests, whose faces expressed various combinations of sympathy and amusement.

It was Mildred Schapp who came to the rescue of the tongue-tied speaker just as the doom-laden silence he had created was starting to descend on the entire company. "Gentlemen, may I?" she said. Relief was palpable, and Bassano, springing to his feet, needlessly circled the table with the coffee pot. "I, for one," she continued, "find Eddie's silence . . . touching, although, of course, I would be the last to deny its amusing aspect."

Those few words did the job. One by one, finding their voices, the other guests agreed with Mildred and began to make comments of their own, so that, before she could proceed, everyone was talking at once, Mays as enthusiastically as the rest.

"Tell us about the dog," someone cried, and among the other questions and requests were: "Let's hear your life story, Ed" "You Italian on both sides, Joe?" "How'd you lose your sight, Charles?" "Where you from originally?" "Is it true you had some college?" "How come so many kids nowadays want to be vets?" "Where'd you find Julia, Ed?" "What's that?" "Who's he?"

Now the festive group needed to be steered past impending chaos, and it was Charles Miller, this time, who set them back on course.

"Excuse me," piped the blind man in his loud, high voice. "I have a suggestion."

"Good, good," people said, "a suggestion." They quieted right down, and Miller continued.

"Since it was Eddie who started to speak first, and since we all seem to have so much on our minds, why not go around the table and let each person ask Ed a single question? About Rex, of course."

When the guests had universally applauded the neat logic of the blind man, they cheerfully acceded to his procedure, with only three provisos: questions, no speeches; no compound or follow-up questions; all inquiries must pertain to the guest of honor. Should disputes arise, they further agreed, such would be adjudicated (without appeal) by the Honorable Joe Bassano who, in Jerry Kaplan's estimation, "talks the most like a lawyer."

Who would be first? The privilege, someone said, should belong to Miller, since it was he who had invented the plan. No, it should be Mildred, who, besides being the only (human) female present, had broken the deadly silence.

"A foolish dispute," declared the judge, and he decreed that it would be Mildred, then Miller --"first, and almost first."

"In that case," said Mildred Schapp, looking thoughtful and pleased, "why not begin with first causes? Mr. Mays, my question is, 'How did you get to know Rex initially?' I ask because something tells me that you two have a special relationship, that you must, as people say, 'go way back.'" This question, if predictable, was certainly legitimate, and Bassano directed Mays to reply, which he did with alacrity and thoroughness.

It turned out Rex had been "kennel-bred" in New Jersey by none other than Eddie himself and his own father, Buddy Mays. Furthermore, Eddie had not only trained Rex single-handedly, "up from a pup," but the very first dog in whose breeding Eddie had assisted, when he had himself been a teenager, was Rex's father, the show dog Mack. Swept away by memory, Eddie began to expostulate on Rex's unique qualities as a pup -- his size, color, proportions, unusual hind-quarter strength, intelligence (he could bark arithmetically at six weeks) and so forth. This topic might well have swallowed the rest of the evening had not Judge Bassano invoked, at Dr. Brunn's whispered behest, "the gag rule."

"And that don't mean you tell gags now, neither, Ed. Next question: Robert Miller."

" 'Charles,'" said the blind man. "My question: How did Rex come to be trained as a guide dog?"

"Excellent question," commented Jerry Kaplan. "I was wondering about that one, myself. Way to go, Chuck!"

"Silence!" ordered Bassano. "Mr. Mays. Please."

Once again Eddie eagerly obliged. He began by repeating the fact that he, himself, had been in charge of Rex's earliest, general education -- the "up-down stop-go sit-heel" phase. Then he told how, at the suggestion of Buddy Mays, they had brought the eager young dog to the Blind Dog Institute, which was only a few miles down the road from Mays Breeders. It was here, at the famed Institute, that Rex breezed through the three-month course in obedience and leadership.

"The last part was the hard part," Eddie concluded. "DISobedience training. See, they . . . "

"'DISobedience?'" interrupted the judge, forgetting himself. "You mean to tell me, first they . . ."

"Just shut up and let him explain, Joe," said Kaplan, and he received an angry look from Bassano, who did, however, shut up.

Eddie Mays then described that most demanding phase of a Seeing Eye Dog's education during which the animal is, in effect, taught to act against its own nature. For, if a vehicle or other menace should suddenly fly or fall toward the blind person, the dog must disobey the beloved master even to the extent, perhaps, of knocking him down.

"Interesting, Eddie, very good," said Dr. Brunn. "Who's next, Joe?"

"But I ain't . . ." Mays protested.

"Why don't you ask the next one yourself, Matt?" Bassano suggested, and the doctor obliged, surprising the other guests, however, by not asking a medical question.

"What's a young dog's most common failing?" asked Brunn, and from the readiness with which the question was put, it was clear that premeditation was involved.

Preparation was also suggested by the reply, for, when Mays began once again to speak, with a promptitude which answered that of the doctor, some among the guests began to suspect that Eddie must have spent years mentally rehearsing just such a performance as he was now giving. And their sense was accurate, for what Eddie Mays was in fact doing on this memorable evening was disburdening himself of the silent memories of decades. And, although not all the questions may have been exactly the ones he would have chosen to answer, Eddie was so eager that, not only did he find it easy to satisfy the questioners, but he spoke with a fluency which was, for him, uncanny. ("It must be the rye," Kaplan theorized at one point.)

"Good question, Doc," Mays commented. "That one fault you ask of is friskiness -- young dogs are all frisky. Dukey, too! Oh, whoops, uh oh!" He smiled. "Anyone catch that? I ain't told you that yet, did I? Rexie used to be named 'Duke.' But I better not go on about that now or Judge Joey here's going to cut me off again, right? So if you want to know about the name someone is going to have to ask it specifically.

"Friskiness. That was his only fault as a scholar. See, at our place he used to run along the fence in the grass, chasing the chickens from the farm across the road."

"Did he now?" asked Dr. Brunn, catching the judge napping with this interruption, a clear violation of the rule against follow-up questions. "Let me ask you, Ed, why did those chickens come across the road in the first place?" The vet winked across at Jerry and Mildred, who both smiled. Mays was momentarily puzzled.

"What do you mean, why did . . ." Then he understood. "For Christ's sake!" Before continuing, he raised an arm as if to strike the doctor. "Anyways, it's easy to get them to stop. When a dog starts chasing, you just throw a chain across his hind legs a couple times. That stops them right away."

"Hmm" pondered Mildred. "Some might find that cruel." As Bassano again failed to curtail the interruption, she continued. "But perhaps it isn't. After all, Eddie, you've already explained that these dogs are bred as workers. They must take great pleasure in doing things properly, mustn't they?"

"Exactly," Eddie replied. "You give a dog like Duke a job to do, feed him right, tell him 'Good Boy' when he does the job, and he's going to be one happy dog. A little pain don't bother a good dog."

"Hmm," said Miller, 'a little pain.'"

"Who's next?" asked Bassano. "Jerry?"

As only two questioners remained, the others were disappointed when Kaplan, inert from food, drink and laziness, stuck to the subject of training. "Do they train the blind people, too?" he asked.

Even Miller failed to look interested. Sensing their disappointment, Mays hurried over the obvious -- the stages during which the blind man gets acquainted with his dog and learns to move with it, first alone, then in crowds and traffic. When Eddie did arrive at a detail he thought might interest the others, he lingered a moment.

"They even teach them to wear their clothes right and eat nice."

"Whoa, just a minute," objected Bassano, "you're jerking us off there, right, Ed? Whoops, excuse me, Mrs. Schapp. Sorry, Jerr."

"No, Joey, honest, I'm not," Mays replied. "See, no offense, Chuck, but lots of the blind been living alone for years, they get like animals. So when they first come to the school, the teachers show them how to eat nice. They set their plates up like clocks: vegetables at four, meat at eight, potatoes at midnight. And they sew different length threads on the inside of their clothes so's they'll wear the right colors together: no red with orange, for instance." Several of the listeners glanced down at their own clothes. "See, the Institute relies on public support, they got an image to keep up, so they don't want the graduates going around with their dogs and looking like --sorry, Miz Schapp -- like assholes."

To this, the second such apology, Mildred protested, explaining that she "had not been born yesterday," that she "knew all the naughty words." After a wave-like grin had rolled around the table, it was time for the final question, that of the judge and host, himself.

"Let's see." Bassano bit his lip, searching hard for the one question which would best satisfy what he perceived as a large, still unsatisfied hunger among the guests. "Ah ha," he finally said, and he asked his question with great care: "When Mrs. Schapp rented Rex from you, Ed, had he been with you all along? From when he was a pup, I mean."

"Excellent," said Charles Miller, expressing the pleasure of the group that biography would not, after all, be stinted in favor of education.

Mays smiled. "Thanks, Joe." Then he coyly looked at his watch and said, "But wait, look how late it is, almost ten-thirty already, people got to go to work tomorrow. Maybe we better can the rest of this until . . . " Their faces ended the teasing right there. "Okay, okay," Eddie said, "but I will try to keep to just the main facts." He sipped his coffee, which was now tepid, the way he liked it. "In a word, Joe, 'No.' By no means. No. The truth is, there was a break of many years, many years. See, when my old man died -- mom had already passed on when I was in my teens. Lung cancer, it was."

"Gee, I'm sorry to hear that, Ed," said Bassano.

"Shit, Joe, it was over twenty-five years ago." After this, no one interrupted again. "Anyways, when dad died I sold the place. Business was slow, and it was too quiet a life for a young guy. So I went in the service, and after the war -- Korea -- I knocked around, did this and that, mostly with dogs, of course. I was even with the Police Canine Unit down in Philly when they started it.

"Then, after a while, I landed a real good job here with A A R F. My title was Chief Trainer and Caretaker. Business was great in those days -- you guys can remember, can't you? -- all the factories and yards was open, most of them utilizing dogs. Yep, Doc here used to be on a fat retainer, didn't you, Doc? Of course, by then I had pretty much forgot about Duke, you know.

"It was years and years later before I found out what was happening to him during this same time period. By a big coincidence, a blind guy right here in the neighborhood had got him. Oh, I'm not sure if that happened straight from the Institute or if Duke done some other stuff first. So the guy keeps him a while, and then -- what was the guy's name again, Doc?" Brunn shrugged. "Shit, it's gone. Anyways, after a while the guy passed away. Then Duke disappeared, or at least no one I spoke to later knew where he was, where he been. And then one day, just like that, some kids brung him in. Here. To A A R F. In a red wagon, no less. Kids!"

"It's always kids, ain't it?" said Kaplan.

"Yep. Now you got to understand, my friends, these kids couldn't of had no idea what Dukey meant to me. See, they was just giving it a try -- they knew me for a kind-heart -- before they called the meat wagon, the S.P.C.A. Well, maybe you can guess my reaction. At first I didn't even recognize him. I mean it was years and years, and here was this poor mutt, filthy, full of vermin of many varieties, injured, a total mess. The poor dog must of had some kind of working over, he didn't even know where he was. So. What did I do? I called Matt, naturally. Remember, Matt? And he give him a shot just so's we could even begin to clean him up. And then when we started washing him, it hit me who he was. I can tell you, friends, I almost fainted right there and then. Remember, Matt? And soon I started crying, and I couldn't stop." Mays paused now to wipe his eyes. "You'll have to excuse me, folks, if I don't go into too much of the details of what happened after that. To be honest, it's too painful, still too painful, to recall certain details. Just remember one thing: this was Duke, my number one boy. Now try to picture him in the red wagon. Get it? Well, okay, enough of that.

"Anyway, the point is, this special dog had suffered a serious trauma, so I had to go right back to the drawing board, start him out again like he was just born. And, folks, you know what? I did it. I slowly retrained the boy.

"That was when he got his new name. 'Rex.' Hell, why not? A fresh start. He was still only seven, eight. I could see long rich years ahead, even though he looked old from his hardships: fur gone gray, a teensy bit withered in the quarters, nothing so terrible when you stop and think about it.

"Anyways, within a couple years, so help me if Rex don't seem good as new. Well, then, I was just starting to think, 'What next?' when you come in that day, Miz Schapp. So help me, I may not of showed it, but you was an angel from heaven to me. And now -- I'm almost done -- I got to make a confession and an apology. It was a big risk I took, very unprofessional, too. Renting him, I mean. He could of attacked you, Miz Schapp. And another thing: I even lied about his age, he wasn't really all that old. It would have scared you, I thought, if I told you the real facts. I apologize, Miz Schapp, I really do." Eddie looked down.

"Really, Mr. Mays, no need at all," said Mildred handsomely. "In light of subsequent events, I must say I wish more people these days would take such risks."

"Here, here, Madam!" cried Dr. Brunn.

"Thanks," said Eddie. "Very kind of you, I'm touched. Of course the point of my taking the risk was obvious, wasn't it? I seen that you and the job you were offering was just the thing for Rex, a new life, the part-time aspect to ease him back into working, make the boy feel useful again. And it worked, Miz Schapp, one-hundred per cent."

Mays was finished now, and the group sat quietly for a moment, after which it was Charles Miller who spoke first. "Rex," he said simply, "has a beautiful spirit. And what a lovely story of friendship, Ed. After all those years."

"What impresses me," said Dr. Brunn, "is the dog's recuperative powers. Does everyone realize what he's been through in his lifetime?"

"It's his fighting heart, Doc," suggested Jerry. "Plus he ain't as old as we thought, right?"

"Jerry," said Bassano. "There I agree with you one hundred per cent."

And with those words the party ended. Refusing all offers of assistance, and assuring everyone that he knew "where everything goes," Bassano showed his guests to the door, shook hands with each of them, and locked them out. Then Dr. Brunn suggested he might drive Charles Miller home, and after more "Good nights" the vet took the blind man by the elbow and guided him up the street to his car.

Since it was late and things would be rushed in the morning, and since they were right around the corner from the guard dog store, Mildred and Jerry decided to return Rex and Julia now, rather than keep them overnight. As the weather was clear and mild and they wanted to work off the effects of the party, they also offered to stroll back to the store with Eddie and the dogs.

Accordingly, a few minutes later Eddie Mays unlocked the plate glass door to his shop. Turning on the lights, he removed the leashes and left them behind the counter. They all proceeded to the edge of the kennel area, where Eddie suggested Mildred and Jerry turn back, so as not to waken those dogs which were already sleeping.

It was time. Mildred and Jerry quietly wished the dog trainer a good night. Kaplan solemnly offered his hand, and Mildred took Eddie by the shoulders and kissed his cheek. Finally, after giving Rex and Julia a few lingering pats, the couple watched as Eddie Mays and his limping dogs crossed the moonlit yard to the kennels.

Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-09-03
Image(s) © Elizabeth Yamin. All rights reserved.
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