Just Above Sunset
Old Dog













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OLD DOG

 

The traffic whined in the distance, like an insect that he couldn’t kill.  Milton had opened the living room windows because the damned air conditioning wasn’t working.  The blades of the ceiling fan churned the thick humid air, with very little effect.  Sarah said she’d called Sears, and asked them to send a contractor out to look at the compressor, but whether or not she’d really done that, well, who knew.  Sarah frequently complained about feeling cold, and was constantly goosing the heat up in the winter, and shutting the AC off in the summer.  They fought their silent battles over the thermostat settings, sometimes tip-toeing downstairs - from their respective rooms - at various times during the middle of the night to make an adjustment. 

The springs in the leather recliner screaked as Milton rose from the chair, pushing against the armrests.  He’d spent the afternoon plopped in front of the TV, watching the Red Sox; they were losing anyway, so what did it matter.  When he checked the time, he figured that the mail had probably arrived, and he might as well go out and get it, because Sarah was probably too busy doing something or other to be bothered.  He groaned when he tugged on the front door, which was swollen and sticky from the heat.  Another damned thing that doesn’t work around here, he moaned.  Once in the light, he squinted against the bright August haze.  He shuffled in a halting and unsteady gait - his knobby knees weary with arthritis, his bunions aching - until he reached the mailbox at the end of the private drive at the intersection of South Street - which was actually more like a highway than a street, since the town had widened it and installed traffic lights.

The mailbox was caved in on one side; the flag bent off.  In the summer, on those particularly ugly nights when the mercury rammed ninety, bored, disaffected teenagers terrorized the town in their screaming Mustangs, crashing wooden bats onto mailboxes - demolishing them in a feverish frenzy.  It was the third box he had bought in as many months, and Milton was sick of it.  His neighbor, Daniel Rose, had mounted an open steel tube - some kind of industrial pipe that was about a half inch thick - on top of a granite post.  If anyone were stupid enough to take a swing at Rose’s mailbox, he’d have a bleeding handful of splinters.  Rose was always thinking of things like that. 

Milton’s mail lay crumpled and wilted inside the smashed mailbox.  The letter carrier had crammed it into what tiny space remained after the previous night’s vandalism.  He yanked the envelopes free, fuming as he stood on the side of the road and the traffic whizzed by.  He shuffled through the envelopes.  He never expected to find a letter; just trash - that’s all that came - and it had been years since he had written any letters of his own.  “It’s because everyone has a computer now,” he’d complain to Sarah.  “They all have email, or some such foolishness.”  Sarah had frequently asked him to consider buying a computer for the house.  “This old dog isn’t about to learn any new tricks,” he grumbled, in response.  Then she’d pester him with remarks like, “It’d be easier to keep in touch with Jack and Katie.”  “Let them call,” he’d say. 

It was bad enough that the mailbox was wrecked again, but what steamed Milton even more than that, was the fact that the address printed on every piece of shit mail that came every day read: Milton Dunlap, 4 Daniel Rose Drive, Franklin, MA 02038.  The letter asking for a donation to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the electric bill, the phone bill, and the cable bill all had “Daniel Rose Drive” in the address window.  Newsweek and Sarah’s Good Housekeeping had the same bloody thing on them.  Rose’s name was on the damned checks in the checkbook and Milton and Sarah’s driver’s licenses.  Rose was on the mortgage statement, the car loan, and the doctor’s bill.  That’s because “Daniel Rose DR” was embossed on the street sign mounted on the steel pole at the corner.  That’s because Daniel Rose had pulled a fast one with the planning board, and had changed the name of Fayerweather Drive after he’d bought the last hundred acres of old Dunston’s dairy farm, and developed it. 

While Milton hobbled up the short drive to his house, breathing hard against the humidity, he scrutinized Rose’s house and lawn.  Five years earlier, Rose had plunked a McMansion with a three-car garage across the street from Milton’s home.  There was a fresh stone wall along the front of his property, with a wrought iron gate at the end of the driveway.  A large wooden deck attached to the house surrounded the pool in the backyard.  Rose’s property was impeccable; Milton knew some of the guys who did his landscaping.  He ordered precisely the same color mulch every spring, which usually arrived the week the May flies came out; then a half-dozen men wearing tank tops and bandanas spent the next day shoveling and spreading it around Rose’s trees and bushes, while they swatted at the insects that plagued them.  They planted scores of flowers in front of the house and along the stone wall.  They arranged various rocks, and trimmed bushes.  The topiary in the front yard was a work of art - just not Milton’s kind of art.  He’d asked Rose about one of the bushes, when they both happened to be outside, pointing to a plant with red teardrop flowers.  “It’s a Bleeding Heart,” Rose told him.  Milton nodded and said, “Oh,” then paused before finishing with, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those before.”

Just before Milton reached his own driveway, the motor that powered Rose’s garage doors began to whirr and grind.  Then, Rose appeared behind the wheel of his super duty pickup - with “Rose Excavation” painted on the side.  When the truck’s tires hit the gravel, and Rose accelerated, he lost traction for a moment, and some stones sprayed into the air.  Milton flinched, mumbling, “son of a bitch,” under his breath.  Milton finally escaped the glare of the afternoon sun, welcoming the cave-like darkness of his own home.

Milton found Sarah in the kitchen, quietly washing some dishes at the sink.  He stood for a moment, watching.  Her shoulders seemed tired and low; her long gray hair was pulled back in a frizzled bun.  She was wearing a pair of Katie’s old jeans and sandals - clothes she could never seem to part with.  Sarah was completely absorbed in a radio talk show.  The announcer had just bagged the caller for making an obvious mistake, and then the caller started hollering back, saying “Lemme tell you something…” but the announcer cut him off, and went to a car commercial. 

Milton humphed, and tossed the mail onto the kitchen table.  “I’m sick of this, Sarah,” he said.

Sarah turned, and wiped a few stray hairs from her forehead with the back of her knotted, soapy hand.

“What is it?” she asked. 

“This Daniel Rose shit,” he snapped. 

Sarah scowled at him, like an impatient mother, and then turned away, plunging her hands into the hot running water.

Milton’s temper swelled; but even he acknowledged to himself that blowing up at Sarah wasn’t going to accomplish anything.  “I’m watching the rest of the game,” he said, “and by the way, we need a new flip’n mailbox.”  He left, and Sarah leaned her arms against the sink, and stared at the drain. 

The following week, the weather stagnated - the thermometer barely fluctuated from its post in the mid-nineties.  The sky was a milky haze, and the air stank.  The only chance of relief was the sporadic afternoon thunderstorm - but they rarely made an appearance.  A large Bermuda high was parked in the Atlantic - with no better place to go for the summer - pumping tropical air into the northeast, and Milton boiled, fretted, and fussed.  Sarah did what she could to avoid him.  Several years earlier, he had retired from his work as a truck driver.  For over thirty years, he’d worked for the asphalt company in town.  It had been hard work, and he’d earned the respect of the other men - even some of the younger guys.  Now he was home with his wife - living on social security and savings.  Both kids - grown and married - lived on the opposite coast.  Katie was a social worker in Los Angeles, and Jack was a computer software engineer, whatever the hell that meant, and lived in Seattle.  He worked for Amazon, and Milton never knew what to make of that, with people buying stuff they never even saw - except for some picture of it on their computer screen.  If he needed something, he’d get in the car, drive to the store, and pay for it out of his wallet. 

It had been years since he’d seen the kids.  Sometimes they’d call.  There had been letters, once - back when they were in college and homesick.  Damned near wiped him out - even with the student loans and scholarships - sending them both to private universities.  Milton had never had the benefit of a college education.  He’d enlisted in the army right out of high school.  College wasn’t even an option for him back then; even if he’d wanted to go, which he hadn’t, his parents had made it clear that they weren’t about to foot the bill. 

Before he died from a heart attack at the age of forty-eight, Milton’s father was a respected local cop; but Lieutenant Dunlap carried his nightstick at home as well as on the beat.  And if father wasn’t home, Milton’s older brother, Frank, made up for it.  Frank relished any opportunity to report Milton’s various minor infractions; then he’d lean back, fold his arms across his chest, smirking, as he watched the delicious fallout between father and middle son.  When they were older, Frank would shove him around and tell him to “wise up.”  Then, Milton’s younger brother Joey would shadow him like a ghost, and Milton would turn and run at him screaming, “Get out!”

Late one chilly autumn afternoon, when Milton was fifteen, his friend Bobby drove up in his dad’s ’48 Packard, and honked the horn twice - their signal.  Milton’s father was working three to midnight, and his mother was out visiting with the neighbor, Mrs. Flaherty, so he escaped unnoticed from the house, and left Frank and Joey behind.  Three older boys were also in the car, smoking cigarettes, and fighting over the radio station.  The two boys in the back seat jostled around when Milton approached the car - pretending there wasn’t any room for him.  Nevertheless, Milton squeezed next to them, and asked Bobby for a smoke.  Bobby said he’d bribed his older brother to buy the beer, and it was stashed in the trunk - a whole case, minus the four that his brother had kept for himself.  It wasn’t the first time that Milton had sneaked off with the guys to drink, but the opportunity didn’t come often, and he was in the mood to relax. 

They drove to the state forest at the edge of town, and parked on the gravel road leading into the woods.  They hiked about a half mile into the forest - well away from the road - and made a small fire.  They passed beer and cigarettes around, and huddled closer to the flames as the afternoon light faded - hypnotized by the crackling blaze.  When they ran out of fuel and dry sticks, the fire fizzled and died, and the cold November darkness ambushed the intoxicated boys.  They stood and had a hurried conference about which way they’d come, but no one could agree.  In the blur of alcohol and obscurity, they couldn’t find their landmarks.  The other guys were cool about the whole thing, Milton thought; yet, he felt a rush of anxiety, despite the beer.  The other boys smashed beer bottles on the rocks, laughed, and stumbled through the dark - dead leaves crunching underfoot.  As he followed along, invisible branches stabbed Milton’s face, thorns and brambles pricked and scratched.  An hour or so later, they fell out onto the road, the others still giggling, about a mile south of where they’d left Bobby’s car.  When Milton got home, his brother was at the door, waiting for him. 

“Where the hell have you been?” he said, shoving Milton’s shoulder, “Mom’s been worried sick about you.”

“No business of yours,” Milton snapped, then turned and ran upstairs, slamming his bedroom door behind him. 

A driver passing through the state forest later that night smelled the smoke, and called the fire department from a pay phone at a nearby gas station.  The fire department wasn’t able to get the blaze under control until the following day, with the help from several neighboring towns.  Milton’s dad was involved in the investigation, and it wasn’t long before they tracked Bobby down, because someone had recognized his car.  Milton didn’t remember much of what happened to him, after Frank ratted him out.  Several days later, he gathered enough courage to complain to his mother about his arm, and she took him to the doctor.  He was in a cast for six weeks.  Bobby said he thought it looked cool, and Milton sort of thought so too, he said. 

******

It was nearly ten o’clock at night, and Rose’s Great Dane was in its kennel in the backyard, barking.  The AC was still busted, and the bedroom windows open.  Milton grabbed the curtain out of the way, and peered out the window.  Rose’s house was dark.  He’d gone out - probably to some party - and left the damn dog out there.  Milton found a pencil and a scrap of notepaper and wrote:

Please don’t leave your dog out when you are away.  It barks, and is a nuisance to the neighbors.  The dog officer will be notified if this happens again. 

He didn’t sign the note, but figured Rose would know who left it.  That didn’t matter, the Chapins didn’t like the dog either, and they might have complained.  Milton stepped into his slippers and paddled across the road and up the driveway to Rose’s house.  There was a lion’s head brass knocker on the door, with the name ‘Rose’ engraved on a plaque below it.  Milton taped the note to the door, and left, bellowing at the dog to “shut up.”

The next morning, Sarah announced over breakfast that she wanted to go to the grocery store and get the shopping out of the way before it got any later - implying, hotter.  She was wearing shorts.  There was a ribbon of perspiration on her upper lip.  Milton noticed that even she seemed a bit irritated by the unrelenting humidity and filthy air.  She started mumbling something about what she wanted to make for dinner, and making a list, but Milton didn’t care.  Rose had put the dog out again - or maybe he’d never bothered to bring it in - and the noise was driving him out of his mind.  He would have taken Sarah anywhere she wanted to go, just to get away. 

“Doesn’t that bother you?” he asked, meaning the dog.

“Yeah…a bit,” Sarah said. 

“Well, I left a note on his door last night.”

“Oh…I thought I heard you go out,” she said. 

They drove in silence, Sarah staring out her window - so far away.  Lately she preferred Milton to do the driving.  She said that the traffic made her nervous.  The roads hadn’t always been so congested and clogged.  When did it change?  He wondered.  He couldn’t put a precise date to it, but it was certainly no longer the same town he'd known as a boy.  He barely recognized it anymore.  Memories of the old town constantly jarred against the new reality.  What had once been countryside was now consumed by suburban sprawl.  New houses.  Big houses.  Malls.  Bigger roads.  Bigger cars.  Sometimes Sarah talked about moving - maybe out west, closer to the kids.  Milton didn’t want to listen to that.  He’d lived in Franklin his entire life.  He’d bought the house on Fayerweather Drive after he was discharged from the army.  There weren’t any other houses on the road back then; the rest of the land belonged to Dunston - at that time, the dairy farmer’s hay fields and placid cows had enclosed Milton’s domain in a fragrant, yet, protective embrace. 

“I’m going to fight it,” he announced to Sarah, as they sat at the traffic light at the entrance to the store. 

“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. 

“The name of the road,” Milton said, slamming the steering wheel with the palm of his hand, “he never should’ve gotten away with changing it.”

“Let’s just do the shopping,” she scolded, then opened her purse and began to hunt in various pockets for the list. 

“I’ve got to do something,” he persisted.  “I just don’t know what.”

“You do as you like,” Sarah retorted, and snapped her purse shut.  She folded the grocery list into a precise, small square, creasing it with her fingernails.

Milton wiped stagnant beads of perspiration from his forehead with the palm of his hand, then turned into the parking lot when the light finally changed; he found an open spot near the carriage return.  He felt a headache coming on. 

*******

The following week, not a single meteorologist in the region held out any hope for a break in the maddening weather.  It had been the hottest August on record, with only a trace amount of rainfall - most of it evaporating before it even hit the ground.  Plants and people alike were wilting across the northeast.  Many communities were strictly enforcing their water bans; anyone caught watering their lawn, or washing their car would be fined.  Rose had a sign in front of his house: “Well Water in Use,” while sprinklers showered his glistening green lawn; Milton’s shriveled brown grass felt like porcupine quills.

The AC at the house was still out - the necessary parts were on back order.  There was no telling when they’d come in, the contractor apologized, and said that it was the best he could do, given the situation.  Then they lost electricity one day, when the power grid was overloaded, and the cold cuts and dairy spoiled in the refrigerator, while Rose’s generator growled across the street, and his wife and kids splashed in the pool. 

Milton prowled around his house - wearing a tee shirt with yellow underarm stains, and red Bermuda shorts - preoccupied with his thoughts.  He was beginning to formulate a plan - a strategy.  He wrote little notes to himself.  He rummaged through the yellow pages, and started making phone calls - but no one seemed to be able to help him.  He steered clear of Sarah - which was easy enough to do - because he didn’t want to rouse her suspicions.

The next afternoon, Sarah asked if he’d mind returning her library books and picking up the ones that she had on hold.  She’d always been an avid reader; she read the paper every morning, and her magazines and books the rest of the day.  She read the tags on clothes.  She read the ingredients on food packages.  She’d practically read the entire grocery store.  Milton never knew it was possible for one person to read so much.  By the time that he told her he that he wouldn’t mind running out to the library, an idea had crystallized in his mind.

Milton backed out of the driveway in his rusty Plymouth Reliant, and when he reached the main road, he felt a burst of nervous - practically juvenile - energy.  Sarah’s books were in a plastic grocery bag on the vinyl seat next to him.  He patted them with his gnarled hand, and the plastic crinkled in response.  This is perfect, he thought, perfect. 

Milton arrived at entrance to the library, and pulled hard on the heavy glass door; he was surprised by a refreshing blast of cool, dry air that welcomed him into the building's refrigerated space.  He delivered the books to the circulation desk, and stacked them neatly on the counter.  He explained that he was picking up the books on hold for Sarah Dunlap.

The librarian searched through the books stacked on the shelf behind her - the patron’s names written on yellow slips of paper stuck between the pages of each book.  “Yes, right here,” she said.  “Can I help you with anything else today?”

“Yes, actually,” Milton replied, his anticipation growing, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to look something up,” he said, “about street signs.”

For the next hour or so, Priscilla Conrad sat next to Milton at the computer desk, and introduced him to the World Wide Web.  She explained that the Internet could provide the answer to just about any question - no matter how obscure.  She patiently explained what a search engine was and how to use it.  Milton found her quiet competence refreshing and stimulating.  He admired the way her fingers flew over the keyboard, her fingernails delicately clicking over the keys.  He’d done some typing in his day - but that was ancient history.  He’d taught himself the keyboard on an old Royal typewriter he’d owned years ago - back when he wrote to Nellie.  There was something visceral about the impact of the keys through the ribbon onto the paper.  He had once composed a handwritten note to Nellie, but ripped it up, and began again on the Royal.  Rat-a-tat-tat-tat, ching, grrrrt.  Now, he felt the energy of his desire, his mission fueling his quest for knowledge.  So what if I’m seventy years old.  I can do this, he thought, as he placed his hands in position over the keyboard.  Priscilla left him, and returned to the main desk. 

Milton typed his query into Google.  He was amazed.  He’d never seen anything like it.  Within a second, the results were displayed on the screen in front of him.  The name of a company that made street signs appeared at the top of the list.  He clicked on the link - with what he now knew was called a mouse - and he watched as the company’s colorful homepage materialized in fits and starts on the monitor.  He read about the sign making process, and learned about the materials: “18 gauge steel, with baked enamel finish.” Then, the colors and sizes, fonts, and vinyl lettering.  The holes for mounting.  The brackets.  It was a rush. 

Milton continued clicking through the pages on the site until he found what he was looking for: an order form that he could print and mail away. 

He needed more help from Priscilla to print the page.  Once done, he removed the sheet of paper from the tray, folded it into quarters, and stuffed it into his back pocket.  “That should do it,” he said, and scooped up Sarah’s books from the desk.  “Thanks.”

When he returned home, he delivered the books to Sarah - she was sitting at the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle with a stubby pencil - but didn’t mention anything about the library, except to say that they had a nice computer there. 

“Really?” Sarah said, meeting his gaze. 

“Yeah…well…” he stammered, and then left the room with his hands in his pockets. 

Milton slinked up the creaky stairs to his room, unfolded the paper from his back pocket, and carefully considered the questions on the form.  The beginning was easy enough: Name, Address, (that would be different soon enough!), and phone number.  The specific questions about the sign, however, required careful consideration and thought.  Street Name: Fayerweather DR.  Size: 12 inch, flat reflective.  Background color: green.  Letter color: white.  Pole bracket.  He calculated the total cost, with taxes, wrote out a check, and signed it.  He crept into Sarah’s room and swiped an envelope and stamp from her top desk drawer.  When he walked out to the mailbox later that afternoon, he deposited his own letter there, and raised the red flag. 

Three weeks later, after breakfast - while Sarah was in the shower - the FedEx driver dropped a small rectangular package at the end of Milton’s driveway, honked twice, and sped away.  Milton retrieved the package before Sarah noticed, brought it to his workbench, and tore it open.  The green and white sign gleamed in the light of the bare bulb suspended from the floor joist.  It was perfect.  Just the way he’d remembered it: “Fayerweather DR.”

Later that day, the weather became acutely unstable and violent.  A potent Canadian high-pressure system slammed into the stubbornly stagnant summer air, sparking powerful thunderstorms with torrential hail and lightening that swept across the state.  Behind the intensely fierce storms, however, the skies brightened, with wispy cirrus clouds, and crisp northwesterly breezes.  Along with the shortening days, it was the first sign that summer was relinquishing its grip.  That evening, Milton suggested that they barbecue some steaks for dinner, and Sarah thought that it sounded like a nice idea. 

*****


Milton picked his day carefully, spying on Rose’s house through the kitchen window.  The Great Dane was in the kennel, having a conniption fit over some birds swinging on the feeder near the house.  After Rose drove off to work in his pickup, Milton kept a close eye on the driveway.  Dan’s wife usually went out every morning soon after her husband left.  I wonder if he knows what she does, he thought.  Yes, there she goes. 

Sarah was safely secured in the kitchen, listening to the morning news on the radio, while she read the paper.  Milton quietly padded down the basement stairs to his workbench, gathered the sign and some tools, and exited through the bulkhead door into the backyard.  He didn’t want Sarah to catch him just yet.  Later, after the deed was done, he’d confess.  But not now, not before I finish this, he thought. 

Milton walked to the front of the house and lifted the garage door, the rollers groaning in their rusty tracks.  He found his old aluminum stepladder leaning against the wall, near the window - full of cobwebs, and dead moths.  He balanced it in his hand and carried it to the end of the road - stopping several times to catch his breath.  Then he returned for the sign, and the tools.  He spread the ladder open, testing it for any wobble, and balanced on the second rung. 

It was tougher going than he’d anticipated.  The bolts were in tight, and he strained and grunted as he tried to loosen the sign from its bracket.  He wiped the trickling sweat from his brow, then let his arms dangle at his side for a moment, to rest.  Automobiles on the road behind him slowed while the drivers tried to figure out what the old man was doing.  Milton realized how exposed he was.  The cops could drive by - he might be arrested, put in handcuffs, even.  Then, the bolts finally released, and he was nearly done.  The worst of it was over.  He attached “Fayerweather DR” to the bracket, and climbed down the ladder to admire his work, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hands.  He dropped the old sign in the gutter, marched back to his garage, replaced the ladder and shut the door. 

“Ha!” he barked, standing in the driveway, facing Rose’s house. 

When he returned to the kitchen, he found Sarah standing by the counter, pouring a fresh cup of coffee. 

“The weather’s definitely changed for the better, don’t you think?” he asked, pulling a chair away from the table.  “Do you mind if I join you for a cup of coffee?”

 

 

_______________________________

 

 

Deborah Vatcher is a physician who practices near Boston, and the publisher of the web log GRITTYBITS.COM

 

 

 

Copyright 2004 – Deborah A. Vatcher, MD   [ used with permission ]































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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