This is a message for the dachshund enthusiast that lives across the airshaft. It is the case, here in Manhattan, that we live in close quarters. That is why on any given muggy New York day, my window is open. As is yours. The only thing between us is a fraction of diluted sunlight, the whir of a giant fan below, and an occasional pigeon that has lost its way. We may as well be roommates. So, I am quite familiar with your dogs, Harpo and Marx, and I am very sorry about Charlie Chaplin; it is true, he was one of the family.
I know you spend hours on the phone as a volunteer for New York Dachshund Rescue. You listen to people’s stories and nod along and are silent until they are done. You then offer the kindest voice, a lilt that I had never heard before. I am amazed how many dogs go missing here in our city. Where do they go? You would think there would be packs of them, Pomeranians, terriers, dachshunds — compact urban dogs — roaming Central Park, chasing the rollerbladers or begging at the kabob trucks. But, I must say, it’s a wonderful service you provide; I don’t mean to make light of it.
Recently, when your daughter was coming to visit, you cleaned your apartment from the back corners of the closet to the butter section of the fridge. I’m sorry that I watched. I was eating one of those microwaved meals, something that Louisa, my late wife, would have been horrified with. I watched long after I had finished eating; the sauce congealing. I sat for such a time that I had grown hungry again. You swished around like I had never seen you. Your auburn hair bounced at your chin and you wore the apron with the cherries. You tangoed with the vacuum cleaner. The astringent lemony scent had wafted over and made me feel as though my place was a hovel in comparison, thick with dust and possibly cockroaches. Harpo and Marx could sense something was up. The roasted chicken smelled divine, even from here.
When she phoned to say she would be late, you were so gentle. You petted Harpo’s soft ears like they were a salve; it relaxed you, I could tell. When she phoned later, I could sense your irritation was growing. When she finally arrived and said she could only stay for twenty minutes because she had another engagement, your irritation turned to sadness. But I don’t think she noticed.
How are you mom? Really? She asked. You said things were fine and that you’d been attending lectures at the 92nd street Y. That you occasionally saw Alice, though I’ve never seen anyone else over at your house. Maybe that’s where you go on Wednesday mornings.
After your daughter left, you sat at the table with the burgundy tablecloth and ate your perfectly roasted chicken, the drumstick whole in your hand. I don’t blame you. That’s the best part of the bird. You picked prime pieces off and fed them to the dogs, bending low, for they are short animals. You didn’t drop the meat onto the floor, as so many others would have done. You waited for them to take it carefully in their teeth.
I also once had a dog. Bess. A corgi. Also a low and long animal, she had difficulty jumping onto the couch, like your Charlie Chaplin did. Although I’ve seen Harpo and Marx use each other for help to get up on the sofa. They’re impressive, these dogs of ours. Aside from the magnet from the health clinic, Bess’s photo is the only thing on my refrigerator. Memorialized in black and white, though in life, her coat was a terrific copper. She was my lucky penny. As a young man, I found her — just a puppy in an alley — and took her home, thinking nothing of where she had come from and marveling at my good fortune.
Bess was my first love and I loved her fiercely. I know you know about that. And then came Louisa, who then became my wife, and we became a magnificent trio. The three of us shared a small cottage on Lake George. It was entirely unlike life in the city. The square footage wasn’t all that different. But the way the sky and trees reflected off the lake, your world felt limitless. We moved to the city to be closer to Louisa’s parents and while I couldn’t say I loved the new pace of life, Bess flourished. Snowy walks in Central Park, thousands of people to greet, children to seduce in her ever-a-puppy way.
When the day came to put Bess down, I cried down Broadway as I carried her limp body in my arms. At the time, it was the most difficult moment of my life. We did what had to be done with the help of a kind veterinarian over on 74th willing to come in on a Sunday. After, Louisa had to carry my soul and spirit back up Broadway, up the steep and narrow stairs all the way to the fifth floor of our walk-up. She tended to my wounds, and slowly we continued with life, just the two of us.
Years later, I was unable to tend to Louisa as thoroughly as she tended to me through my grief, and she didn’t make it more than ten years after the day we lost Bess. I like to think of them together, bounding into the shallows of the lake. It is always summer and it is always dusk where they are. Maybe Charlie Chaplin is there too.
Listen to me going on and on. What I mean to say is, I’m sorry I was eavesdropping. I didn’t mean to be a voyeur, unwelcome, a Peeping Tom. But I felt invited in by our closeness. Our proximity, a gift of such a crowded city. Your fragrant roasted meat brought to mind my Louisa in the kitchen, delicately slicing a brisket as if it were a filet mignon. Since that very first day of sweltering summer when you opened your window, you allowed your spirit to drift out.
I feel like I am dancing with you when you play Tito Puente long into the evenings when the square of sky above is peach, then copper like my Bess, then passes into the indigo of night. What I really mean to say is that you are welcome to visit anytime. Please bring Harpo and Marx. I will make spaghetti — no TV dinners for you — and you, bring your records. The breeze from our airshaft will cool the humid night and we will laugh and dance and maybe sing, and the dachshunds — squat and fat and loving us always — will lay at our feet on the cool parquet floor. The hours will pass and you will forget entirely that I am a stranger.