A long time ago in the city of New Orleans I got married to a woman I did not know. I had been living in increasingly creepy apartments for most of two years, out of work, down to rotting tennis shoes and two pairs of socks. The shoes smelled dead and I left them outside at night, where they would not interfere with the place’s ambience.
The last straw, somebody stole my shoes. Hearing of the theft, my friend, the famous newspaperman James Trotter, despaired at the end of civilization as we knew it. “If they would steal those shoes,” he said, “they will steal anything.”
I also had a dog, Harry, who smelled slightly better than the shoes and had never, as they say, been fixed. As a rule, when you are lowered to sitting on the front stoop mourning the loss of five-year-old tennis shoes, there is probably no spare change lying around to alter your dog’s undercarriage. Harry was named after my father-in-law, and I didn’t know him much at the time either. Just a brief interview before the wedding—“If I drive all the way up from Fort Lauderdale for a wedding, you are getting married.”—and after the wedding—“You have to promise to come down now and then to see us”—a man who loved his daughter.
Harry was a man I trusted instinctively, and instinctively loved. He was short and had thick arms like sides of beef. He owned a dump truck and had a dog—another mixed breed about Harry’s size that he called Biff—and took him along in the morning to work.
His truck was old and American-made. Like a lot of old things, parts break. For instance, the dumping part of the dump truck got stuck once in a while in the unloading position, and had to be driven home looking like a parade float. The distributor cap wouldn’t distribute, and the windshield got cracked and had to be replaced, etc., etc., and when the truck didn’t work Harry didn’t get paid. But more than any of those things, more often and more discouraging, were the flat tires. Twice a week he would come home from a 12-hour day, sweating through his T-shirt, still 90 degrees and the air in the truck cab so thick it was an effort to breathe, and without even walking into the house first he would pull out the jack and change the tire. Sweat pouring off his head. He would twist the lug nuts off, then pull off the tires themselves, and it was always an inside tire, so the outside tire had to be pulled off first. Together, a tire and its rim must have weighed 100 pounds, and as strong as he was, you could see the effort it took in the bulging veins in his neck and temple.
So he got the tire off and repaired the puncture—winding the rubber off the rim with a crowbar, gluing in the patch, filling the tire with air. And then he did the same procedure all over again but in reverse, and by 8:30 or so, about sunset that time of year, he and Biff would go inside, eat dinner and take a shower, and then fall asleep in his chair, the dog in his lap. This happened two, sometimes three times a week and in spite of this, Harry was not a frustrated man. Working near construction sites, there were always nails and screws lying around, and it made sense to him that now and then he would pick one up.
As mentioned, the tennis shoes were the last straw. My wife and I and Harry (the dog, not the truck man) packed up and left New Orleans for South Florida, where they don’t steal your shoes. The idea being to move in with her folks until we got jobs.
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It was one of those houses with assigned seating. Harry had his old soft chair with a footstool in front and my mother-in-law, a perfectly round little woman with runny eyes and a runny nose and a little beer belly—not as much of a beer belly as my own—would sit in her recliner in front of the television, sipping bourbon and RC Cola out of a sweating water glass all night, watching “her shows.”
A happy little house, constructed on a street of happy little houses, built after World War II for the home-coming veterans: three bedrooms, one bath, a fenced back yard where Biff stayed on days he couldn’t go to work with Harry. A small, single tree in the front yard. It was there in South Florida where my wife and I got to know each other and that was not good for the marriage. Her father probably saw the split coming but didn’t seem to hold it against me.
My wife worked at a terrible job and I worked at many terrible jobs, most of which Harry got for me through his friendships in the dump truck business. I dug holes one morning, trying not to let Harry down, and the boss came over twice advising me to slow down and maybe an hour later he was advising me not to throw up in his truck. It was only 9:30 in the morning and Harry was supposed to pick me up at 6, and his friend the boss left the job to drive me home.
These things and many more things like these happened all at once, or seemed to, and I think it must have even seemed faster to Harry. One week a comfortable man—a comfortable house, a comfortable job where he works his own hours, even if it takes 12 a day to keep him solvent. He comes home from work and changes the flat and reads the paper and has a beer before dinner. Sundays he goes fishing.
The next week, it’s all upside down.
But the dogs.
I am walking home with Harry (dog, not dump truck man) from the park. Harry (the man, not the dog) arrives home from work, and Biff is out of the truck almost before the door opens. I try to hold Harry but he slips the collar and they meet like two small trains just beneath the front yard tree. Their heads hit, well, head-on, and sound like coconuts. I try to grab Harry (dog, not man) but the other Harry stops me. “Let them go,” he says.
Fur floats in the air afterward, a terrible mismatch. Harry (the dog) has been in more fights than Archie Moore, and 15 seconds after this one starts it is over. I pick Harry up off the other dog, feeling the growling through his skinny ribs. Harry, my father-in-law, looks at Biff with something like disgust and says, “Sissy.” There is no blood, though. Nothing is hurt but everything.
Afterward, it’s different between the dogs. They sometimes growl, but they both know what they know.
As for Harry and me—Harry the man now, not the dog—we know what we know, too. And for as long as my wife and I and my dog were all there in his house, oblivious in the failing marriage to the obvious intrusion, Harry never let me see what was going on in his heart.