BY LYDIA MILLET
The dog was serious, always had been. No room for levity. Those around him might be lighthearted. Often they laughed, sometimes even at his expense—the miniature size, bouncing gait, flopping ears. He was a dachshund. Not his fault. You were what you were. He would have preferred the aspect of an Alsatian, possibly a Norwegian Elkhound. He viewed himself as one of these large and elegant breeds.
This much could be seen with the naked eye, and the dogwalker saw it. The dogwalker was also serious—a loner, except for dogs. He prided himself on his work. He had no patience for moonlighters, for the giddy girls talking on their cell phones as they tottered through Sheep Meadow with seven different-sized purebreds on as many leashes, jerking them this way and that and then screeching in indignation when the dogs became confused. He had once seen such a girl get two fingers ripped off. He called 911 himself. It was an ugly scene. The paramedics recovered the fingers, snarled up in leather and nylon, but the hand had been twisted so roughly they predicted it would never work right. The girl herself had passed out long before the ambulance got there. Turned out she was pre-med at Columbia.
Two of the dogs were also injured. Their mutual aggression had caused the accident in the first place; he had seen it coming all the way from the carousel—the dogs straining and nipping at each other, the girl on her phone with the leashes tangled around her left hand.
Himself he was a professional with exacting standards. He made an excellent living. He had subcontractors, yes, but all of them were vet techs, trainers or groomers at the very least. None were college girls who took the job literally, expecting it to be a simple walk in the park.
The dogwalker gave his charges respect as he saw fit. Some did not deserve it, and they did not receive it. To these frivolous or problem dogs he gave only the curt nod of discipline. His favorite dogs had a sense of dignity. Theirs was a mutual approbation. Sir Henry was one of these.
The owner traveled constantly, often in Europe, Asia or South America. All over. He was a performer of some kind, in show business. When he was in town he spent most of his time at the gym, maintaining his physique, tanning, shopping, or seeking photo opportunities. The dogwalker barely registered him. The dogwalker went to get Sir Henry three times a day, rain or shine. Henry seldom went out otherwise—the odd trip with one of the girls when they were home from school, or the wife on the rare occasion when she was not, like the entertainer, at the gym or shopping. Now and then, if he found himself at loose ends for twenty minutes or so, the entertainer paraded with Sir Henry personally, scoping the park for other celebs to do the meet and greet with. In the puppy days he had taken Sir Henry out frequently, but the puppy days passed.
There was an older dachshund, Precious, also owned by the entertainer, but Precious had been virtually adopted by one of the domestics, an illegal from Haiti if the dogwalker was not mistaken. The Haitian took Precious out on her cigarette breaks. But not Sir Henry.
The dogwalker walked Sir Henry alone or with one particular other dog, a small poodle belonging to a dying violinist. The poodle was stately, subtle and, like the dachshund, possessed of a poise that elevated it beyond its miniature stature. The two seemed to have an understanding. The poodle marked first and with great discretion; the dachshund marked second. They trotted happily beside each other at an identical pace, despite the fact that the poodle’s legs were almost twice as long. They listened to the dogwalker acutely and responded promptly to his commands. It was their pleasure to serve.
Did they serve him? No, and he would not have it so. They served decorum, the order of things.
At times the dogwalker enjoyed resting with them; he would settle down on a park bench and the dogs would sit at his feet, paws together neatly, looking forward with an appearance of vigilance. Their heads turned in unison as other dogs passed.
When it was morning, noon and night, of course, as it was with Sir Henry, it was no longer merely walking. The dogwalker was in loco parentis. It was he who had discovered the bladder infection, the flea eggs. It was he who recommended a vet, a diet, routine. In the economy of dogwalkers he was top tier; only the exceptionally wealthy could afford him, those who did not even notice that their dog-walking fees exceeded rents in Brooklyn. His personal service included a commitment of the heart, for which the mega-rich were willing to pay through the nose. About his special charges he was not workmanlike in the least. He was professional, operating from a mature code with set rules for all of his employees, but he was not slick. He did not cultivate in himself the distancing practiced by pediatric oncologists and emergency room surgeons. His clients sensed this and, where their pets were concerned, his fond touch soothed the conscience.
He began with respect and often ended with love. When a dog was taken from him—a move, a change of fortune, or in one painful case a spontaneous gifting—he felt it deeply. His concern for a lost dog, as he thought of them, would keep him up for many nights after one of these incidents. When a young Weimaraner was lost to him with not even a chance for goodbye he remained deeply angry for weeks. The owner, a teenage heiress often featured in the local tabloids, had given his charge away on the spur of the moment to a Senegalese dancer she met at a restaurant. He had no doubt that drug use was involved. The dog, a timid, damaged animal of great gentleness and forbearance, was on a plane to Africa by the time he found out about it the next day.
The loss was hard for him. He was tormented by thoughts of the sweet-natured bitch cowering, subjected to the whims of an unkind owner or succumbing to malnutrition. Of course there was a chance the new owner was thoughtful, attentive, nurturing—but he had no reason to expect such a happy outcome. In his work he saw shockingly few people who were fit for their dogs.
Walking Sir Henry and the poodle up Cherry Hill he remembered the Weimaraner and a pang of grief and regret glanced through him. It was almost three years ago: where was the good creature now? He had looked up Senegal on the Internet after she was taken. “Senegal is a mainly low-lying country, with a semidesert area to the north…” He had never been to Africa and in his mind the Weimaraner lived alternately in the squalor of dusty famine, scrabbling for scraps of food among fly-eyed hungry children, or the cool white majesty of minarets. There were obdurate camels and palm trees near the Weimaraner, or there were UN cargo planes dropping crates of rice.
In less colorful moments he was quietly certain the Weimaraner was dead. The incident had taught him a valuable lesson, one he firmly believed he should have learned earlier: in the client-selection process people must be subjected to far greater scrutiny than their dogs. He no longer contracted with unreliable owners. If he had reason to suspect an owner or family was not prepared to keep a dog for its lifetime he did not take the job.
It could be difficult. Sometimes a dog owned by one of these irresponsible persons had powerful appeal—grace, sensitivity, an air of loneliness. But the risk was too great. He made himself walk away from these dogs.
Sir Henry emitted one short bark and he and the poodle stopped and stood, tails wagging, pointing to the left. The dogwalker stopped too. There was the violinist, wrapped in blankets, seated under a tree in his wheelchair with his attendant and an oxygen tank. The dogwalker was surprised. As far as he knew the violinist, who was at the end stage of a long cancer, never came out of his penthouse anymore. The place had a large wraparound terrace from which the East River could be seen; there were potted trees and even a small lawn on this terrace, where the poodle spent much of its time.
“Blackie,” said the violinist in his weak, rasping voice, and the dogwalker obediently let the two dogs approach.
“A surprise,” said the dogwalker. He was not skilled at small talk.
“Figured I should take one last stroll in the park,” said the violinist, and smiled. “Come here, Blackie.”
The dogwalker handed the poodle’s leash to the attendant and Blackie jumped up into his owner’s lap. The old man winced but petted the poodle with a bone-stiff hand.
“I need to know what will happen to her,” said the violinist. “When I die.”
The dogwalker felt embarrassed. Death was an intimate subject. Yet it was close, and the violinist was quite right to plan for his dog
“Difficult,” he offered.
“I wonder if, if I established a trust…ample provisions, of course, financially…would you consider—?”
The dogwalker, surprised again, looked to the attendant who was holding the leash. She had a beseeching look on her face, and for a minute he did not know how to take this. Finally he decided the look meant the violinist would not be able to bear a flat-out refusal
“Let me think,” he said, stalling
It was not in his code.
“Think fast,” said the violinist, though he was still smiling.
“I will think about it overnight,” said the dogwalker.
"You like Blackie,” said the violinist, a quaver in his voice. “Right? Don’t you like her?”
The dogwalker felt a terrible pity enfold him.
“Of course I do,” he said quickly. “She is among my favorites.”
The violinist, on the brink of tears, bent his head to his dog, petting her softly and rapidly as she patiently withstood the onslaught. His attendant shaded her own eyes and blinked into the distance.
“I am very attached to Blackie,” the dogwalker bumbled on. “But the adoption of dogs is against my policy. Please give me till tomorrow.”
“OK,” said the violinist, and attempted to smile again. “I’ll try not to kick the bucket before then.”
“I would take her,” explained the attendant, apologetic. “But I just can’t.”
She handed back the leash and Blackie jumped off the lap.
“We’ll see you back at the apartment,” called the attendant after him.
They had more than half an hour left on the circuit. As the dogs trotted in front of him he saw Sir Henry turn back to the violinist, checking up on him.
If he accepted the dog, in a clear violation of established protocol, would his principles erode? Would he end up an eccentric with an apartment full of abandoned pets? By preferring dogs to humans he put himself at risk—myopia on the part of his fellow citizens of course, since dogs were so clearly their moral superiors. Still, he did not wish to be stigmatized.
As they neared the 72nd Street entrance he saw children approaching, delighted. Children were a matter of policy also. He allowed only quiet ones to touch his charges, and he preferred the females. Males made sudden movements, capered foolishly and often taunted.
He stopped now, for these were two melancholy slips of girls with round eyes.
“May I pet him, please?” asked one of them, and suspended a hand in the air over Sir Henry’s head.
Sir Henry welcomed it. Girls reminded him of the entertainer’s daughters, the dogwalker thought, two blond girls who had caressed him constantly when he was only three months old but now seemed unaware of his existence.
Himself he was preoccupied; this was a critical decision. His mind wandered as the girls leaned down. He gazed in their direction but he did not see them clearly—bent pink forms with sunlight on wavy hair…if he owned the poodle himself he could walk the dogs like this every day, the dachshund and Blackie. Sir Henry was most contented in the poodle’s presence.
“You get away,” said a woman harshly to the girls. She wore tight leather pants and held a phone to her ear. “They could bite. They’re dirty.”
“They are cleaner than you are,” said the dogwalker softly. “And they never bite nice little girls. Only mean old witches.”
“Right now,” snapped the woman.
“Thanks, mister,” said the elder girl, and looked with longing at Sir Henry as the woman tugged at her arm.
He was often grateful that dogs had little use for language; still, they understood tone. The leather-pants woman had slightly offended them, he suspected—a telltale lowering of their heads as they made for the gate. Dogs had an ear for the meaning in voice.
“Oh my God,” said a fat man in front of them on the path, pointing, and laughed. “It’s David Hasselhoff.”
He turned to see the entertainer advancing, talking into his telephone and wearing what appeared to be gaudy jogging attire, a jacket with purple details that matched purple pants. No doubt he was on his way home from the gym.
Never before had the dogwalker run into two owners on a single walk.
“Yeah. Yeah,” said David Hasselhof on the phone. “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” As he passed them he winked at the dogwalker, then swooped down, not stopping, to chuck Sir Henry on the chin. “Hey there, little buddy.”
The dogwalker watched his back receding, ogled by various passersby. With his free hand the entertainer saluted them jauntily.
“The Hoff,” said one, smirking.
“They love him in Germany,” said another.
The dogwalker recalled hearing people on the sidewalk discuss the violinist also. “He did a recording for Deutsche Grammophon, the Tchaikovsky Concerto in D, that actually broke my heart.” It was rare that he considered the lives of owners beyond their animals. To him they were dog neglecters most of all. And yet where would he be without this neglect?
The violinist, of course, could not be blamed in the least. He had insisted on walking Blackie himself when he was submitting to a barrage of chemotherapy that would have felled lesser men. The dogwalker respected the violinist, though it was unpleasant to see him in his wretchedness. A dog in his state would have been euthanized long ago.
In fact that was how he had met the violinist; the violinist had not gone through the usual channels. The dogwalker had come upon him struggling to keep up with Blackie on a path near Turtle Pond. Two kids on skateboards had almost run them over, and the old man began to tremble violently. His bones were like porcelain. Worse, one of the kids called Blackie a “faggot dog” as he swooped away on his board. (At that time the poodle had sported an unfortunate Continental Clip With Hip Rosettes. Later the dogwalker had persuaded the violinist to switch to a basic Lamb.)
But the skateboarder had infuriated him. Not the words but what was behind them—malice directed at the dog. A senseless meanness of spirit. The poodle had never done anything to hurt the kid.
He had guided the frail old man to a ledge where he could sit, and from then on the poodle was one of his charges.
He imagined telling the violinist he could not take Blackie. In his mind he went over the conversation, as he stood with the dogs waiting for a walk signal.
“I am sorry,” he would say. “But if I took in all the dogs, even all the dogs I like best, I would be a pet shelter, not a dogwalker.”
The violinist would gaze at him sadly with his watery blue eyes. In his youth, the attendant had said once, the violinist had been quite handsome, and she showed him a black-and-white photograph. The violinist survived a death camp, Stalin. Now his skin was like paper, his teeth yellow.
“Can’t you make an exception?” the violinist might ask.
“I would like nothing more than to take Blackie in,” he could say. “But all I can do is help find a new family for him. Allow me to do that, at least.”
What bothered him was that the violinist had been so good to his dog. Such goodness should be rewarded.
If he did not take the poodle, chances were he would never see him again, once the violinist was out of the picture. The poodle would live out the rest of his days with someone who did not care for him as the violinist had. Blackie would be broken-hearted and Sir Henry would be bereft.
Of course even he, the dogwalker, could not promise to bestow upon the poodle the violinist’s brand of solitary, desperate cherishing. But with him at least the poodle would be assured of a dignified life, a steady stream of affection.
At his feet the poodle looked up at him.
“I should be talking to you about this,” said the dogwalker. “It’s not right, is it? You don’t have a say in the matter at all.”
No, he did not. Dogs were the martyrs of the human race.
The light turned and the three of them stepped into the crosswalk. Forward. The brightness of the day was upon them…he was lucky, he thought, with a sudden soar of hope. Here he was with his two favorite dogs, walking them at a perfect pace for all three. Neatly they jumped up onto the curb. They did not pull him and he did not pull them. Could you go forward forever, with your dogs at your side? What if he just kept going? Across the city, over the bridge, walking perfectly until darkness fell over the country. Sometimes he wished he could gather all the dogs he loved most and walk off the end of the world with them.
When a dog was put to sleep its chin simply dropped softly onto its paws. It looked up at you with the same trusting eyes it had fixed on you since it was very young.
At the violinist’s building he nodded at the doorman. There was a noisy crowd in the elevator, a birthday party of children with conical hats and clownish facepaint. He let them cluster and hug the dogs; the dogs licked them.
The attendant opened the penthouse door for him.
“You beat me here,” he told her. Usually he did not attempt these minor exchanges, but he was nervous and needed to fill the space.
“Poor Blackie,” she said, as he unclipped the leash and hung it. She knelt down and leaned her face against the dog’s curly flank. “My husband’s allergic to dogs. It’s really bad, I mean he breaks out in rashes, he gets asthma attacks, nothing helps. Otherwise…I feel so bad I can’t keep Blackie in the family.”
The dogwalker stared at her, a realization dawning. It was almost two years now that he had worked for them, and it had never occurred to him that she was the violinist’s daughter.
He had assumed she was paid for her services.
“What’s wrong?” asked the daughter. “Is something the matter?”
“Oh no,” he said, and shook his head. “Nothing. I am going to sleep on it.”
This time the elevator was empty. It had mirrors on every wall and he watched the long line of reflections as they descended, he and Sir Henry. In the mirror he saw infinite dogs lie down.
Lydia Millet is the author of seven books, most recently a story collection called Love in Infant Monkeys (2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a novel, How the Dead Dream, named an L.A. Times Best Book of 2008. An earlier novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN-USA Award for Fiction. Her next two books, Ghost Lights and Magnificence, are coming out from W.W. Norton in late 2011 and 2012. Millet lives in the Arizona desert with her family.