J.W. Kash lives in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Laurentian Magazine (St. Lawrence University’s literary magazine) and The Freeman. He has a finished novel and is attempting to find an agent. He lives in Staten Island. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Old Man and His Dog
By J.W. Kash
His wife was dead and the children were busy so all the old man had left was his dog. The mangy mutt was named Francisco. The old man’s wife had been named Francine. The day after his wife’s funeral, the old man cut down the noose that was hanging from the living room rafter and journeyed to an animal shelter. He hobbled with a cane up to the counter.
“I wanna dog that’s supposed to die today.” He was very eccentric.
“We just received a sickly litter of puppies this morning,” a young woman said. “We were going to euthanize them this afternoon.”
“Give me the sickest one. Give me the runt.” After grumpily filling out paperwork, muttering, “Just give me the goddamn dog, you were gonna kill him anyway,” the old man left the shelter with a palm-sized, gray, whimpering pup.
Over the next three years, the old man and the dog were inseparable. The master poured all his fading energy and tough love into his faithful and obedient pal. Here was a typical day:
At 9am the old man woke up and, first things first, he filled Francisco’s food bowl and water bowl up to their brims. Then, while half-listening to the dog gratefully munch his breakfast, the old man played classical music, leisurely bathed, and put on his clothes. He dressed impeccably. He wore a white dress shirt, black slacks, and a brown bowler hat. Once he was finished putting on a respectable appearance, the old man invariably said,
“Hey, Francisco! You ugly son-of-a-bitch! Ready to begin the day?” The dog would leap over furniture and run in ecstatic circles around the apartment. “C’mon, quit horsing around, you fool, let’s go.” The old man would hobble to the front door, retrieve his coat and cane from a closet, grab a book off a nearby shelf, put a lease around Francisco’s fidgeting neck, and step outside.
Once outside in the wide, noisy, and bustling world, the two of them would walk around the block. They always traveled the same route. Francisco would always relieve himself in the same place: halfway between the florist and the laundromat, two feet from the curb. After the disposal of the waste in a nearby trashcan, the two of them would enter a deli.
“Good morning, old man!” the Arab behind the counter would laugh and say,
“Old man yourself. When are we gonna arm wrestle? I’m not as weak as I look.”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be fun. The usual?”
The old man and the dog would walk to the back, where there were plastic chairs and folding tables, and sit in a corner. The Arab would bring the old man a steaming cup of black coffee, a daily newspaper, and five minutes later an egg-white sandwich. The old man would leisurely eat, sip, and read while Francisco would wait patiently at his feet. Every now and then the old man would creakily lean down, grunting and sighing, and give his dog a scratch behind the ears.
“Don’t worry, Francisco, if that fuckin’ cat comes near us I’m giving it a kick.” There was a fat, orange cat in the deli that would lurk and stalk behind the shelves. Francisco would acknowledge his master’s promise with a soft, guttural woof. The dog’s eyes would dart in different directions: on a look out for the enemy.
At 10:30am the old man would mutter, “Same old shit happening in the world, Francisco, different day, but just the same old shit.” Then he’d creakily stand up, pull on the leash, and hobble to the front.
“Two cigars, Muhammad.”
“You shouldn’t smoke, old man, why speed so fast to the grave?”
“I’m already at the grave. No speeding, just puffing. Only a matter of time. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy myself. Two cigars, please.”
“Your voice is hoarse and raspy. I can hardly hear you. Probably from all that smoke.”
“You’re lucky this deli is the only game I town. Cause you’re the worst salesman I ever met.” This conversation took place in various forms everyday. The mild, “ball busting,” or as the English call it, “chaffing,” was an anchoring little pleasure for the both of them. “So long, Muhammad. Odds are I won’t be back tomorrow. Tonight I’ll probably die in my sleep.”
“Don’t say that. Then who will I arm wrestle?”
“Your mother.” The door would ding as the old man and his dog departed. Muhammad would chuckle and shake his head. The old man was 91 years old.
Down the street from the deli was a dog park. Francisco would eagerly pull on the leash as they neared their destination.
“Easy there boy, eeeeasy. Chompin’ on the bit. You’re gonna pull me down and I won’t be able to stand back up! C’mon now.” But the old man enjoyed observing his dog’s excitement. The old man was excited, too.
Inside the park the old man would hobble to a corner where there was wooden bench. For the last three years he had sat on the same bench at the same time: rain, snow, or shine. Once comfortably situated, he’d observe Francisco running laps around the perimeter, muttering, “You crazy, ugly, son-of-a-bitch.” Then he’d pull out a cigar, a lighter, and a book from his pocket. For the next few hours he would leisurely smoke, read, and occasionally toss a chewed-up tennis ball for Francisco to fetch.
Often, the dog park regulars would show up. They would acknowledge one another with cordial glances and empathetic nods. These gestures were more pronounced and sometimes followed by a brief, facile conversation if the dogs played well together. Many of these conversations occurred with the old man because Francisco was a very sociable and energetic dog. Sometimes he was too social. Frequently, the old man would haul himself up off the bench, hobble over to Francisco, and say,
“Leave that dog alone! She doesn’t wanna play with you! Entertain yourself, for Christ sake.” Francisco would put his ears down and obey. He’d go off somewhere and dig a hole.
After the old man finished with his second cigar it was usually 2pm. The old man would creakily stand up and beckon Francisco over to the gate. The dog would bound over to his master.
“Well, looks like your work for the day is done. Time to go home.” They would walk back to their apartment.
Once inside and away from the wide, noisy, and bustling world, the old man would give his dog a bone to tide him over until dinner. Then he’d fix himself some lunch: typically a turkey sandwich. After eating the old man would clean the apartment, even though the place didn’t usually need much cleaning. Then the two of them would sit together on a couch. The old man would read while his dog cuddled up against his side. The old man would wrap his arm around his dog’s little, mangy back. Sometimes, a noise from the street would cause Francisco to prick his ears up and try to bark. But since he spent the beginning of his life as an abandoned, sickly, runt, Francisco’s vocal chords did not properly develop. The loudest noise he could make was his soft, guttural woof. At around 3pm, the afternoon siesta would occur.
The old man would wake up around 5pm and Francisco would jump off the couch. The dog would stare at his master: tongue out, tail wagging.
“I’m still alive, Francisco. Let’s roll.” They would leave the apartment and walk to a bar down the block. The owner was Irish and fond of dogs. They were allowed in.
The old man and his dog would walk to the back of the bar, where there were leather booths and glass tables, and sit in a corner. On the way, the old man would make eye contact with the bartender and nod.
“The usual?” The bartender would ask.
“Yes.” A few minutes later the bartender would approach the back of the table with a pint of stout and a bowl of water. The water was for the dog.
“Eating dinner tonight?”
“Sure, Liam. I’m feeling young. I’m feeling hungry. Bring me the fish of the day.”
“You got it, sir.” About half the time the old man would drink two or three pints and listlessly observe the crowd. Often, the regulars would show up. They’d exchange cordial glances and empathetic nods. Sometimes, the more outgoing regulars would smile and wave. The other half of the time the old man would eat his salmon or cod with steamed vegetables, ignoring the regulars, and give pieces to Francisco beneath the table.
If the bar wasn’t too crowded and the old man felt a kind an accepting atmosphere, he’d creakily lean down, grunting and sighing, and let Francisco off the leash.
“There you go, you goddamn social butterfly.” Francisco would acknowledge his freedom with a soft, guttural woof, and make the rounds. He would approach each group of people in hopes of a morsel of food or a pat on the head. But if the bar was crowded and the old man didn’t like the people he saw, he’d keep Francisco waiting patiently at his feet. This discretion occurred because Francisco would sometimes encounter an annoyed, pitying, or angry reaction.
“Look at that poor dog, he’s so mangy and ugly!”
“His teeth are all crooked and his hair patchy!”
“Ew! Gross! Get that thing away from me!”
The old man didn’t like hearing his companion insulted, so he usually kept him on the leash.
“You’re never gonna win a beauty contest, Francisco, but hell, neither am I.” He’d creakily lean down, grunting and sighing, and scratch the dog behind the ears.
After one or two hours, the bar would start to fill up, especially on the weekends, and the old man with his dog would prepare to leave.
“I never liked parties or the nightlife, Francisco. Same old boring shit.” As the old man hobbled past the bartender he’d invariably say,
“Left you a big tip, Liam. Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“Don’t worry old man, I won’t. Have a good night.” The two regulars would depart. The bartender would chuckle and shake his head. On the way home, Francisco would relieve himself in his usual spot.
Once inside the apartment, the old man would tidy up the place, even though it usually didn’t need much tidying, and Francisco would chew on a toy. After feeding Francisco, sometimes the old man would listen to classical music, sometimes he would read. But at eight o’clock the same thing always happened.
“Come here, Francisco. Up on the couch. C’mon now. There you go.” Once the dog was situated comfortably on the couch, the old man would pick up a photo album that was on a table nearby. The album contained a lifetime of photos of the old man and Francine.
“She was beautiful Francisco, she really was. Inside and out. Even when she was old, she was beautiful.” While leafing through the pages the old man would tell his dog stories.
“Here’s when we went to Paris. What a trip we had! She wanted to visit every goddamn museum.” While going through the pictures the old man would wrap his arm around his dog’s little, mangy back.
“Oh yes, that destination wedding in the Dominican Republic. I remember Francine and I left the after-party and sat together on the beach, looking out at the ocean and up at the stars.” Most of the pictures were of the old man and Francine during their retirement. While they raised their children they were poor, busy, occupied, and didn’t take many pictures. When they were retired they used their meager savings and pensions to travel the world, like they had always dreamed.
“India! Why Francine wanted to visit that godforsaken country, I have no idea. But you’d have liked it Francisco. Wild dogs sleeping on the streets everywhere. You would have made many friends.”
Towards the end of the album, the old man would always say the same thing,
“You’d have liked her, Francisco, you really would have. She would have treated you like a king.” Francisco would reply with his soft, guttural woof. The old man knew that he was a little insane for telling stories to a dog. But he attributed this routine to senility and being an eccentric. Besides, he didn’t really care if he was insane: telling Francisco stories made him feel happy.
At 9pm the old man would creakily stand up off the couch. Francisco would jump off and scurry into his crate. He’d wag his tail and watch the old man as he left the room to get ready for bed. The old man would remove his dentures, put them in a glass of water, remove his clothes, hang them in a closet, and lie down.
The two companions would both fall asleep around 9:30pm.
Three years after being together, the old man woke up expecting it to be another, typical day. But then something happened which disrupted the routine. When the old man went into the kitchen in order to feed Francisco, there was no dog food left. There were only two, empty bags.
“Goddamn it, I must be losing my mind. I could have swore one of those bags was full.” The old man felt a streak of fear. He didn’t like the thought of Francisco being hungry.
“Hold on a minute.” Francisco was softly whimpering with his broken vocal chords. “I’ll run over to the pet store quick and you’ll be fed in no time. Just hold on a minute.” Indeed, the old man was losing his mind. His memory was faulty and hazy and the fear and the disruption were making things worse.
“Now where did I put my wallet?” The old man hobbled into the bedroom. He frantically scanned the night table and the shelves. On top of a bookshelf he thought he saw his wallet. He was wrong, but his desire to find money quickly was clouding his judgment.
“Now why the hell did I put the damn thing way up there? Oh well.” The old man dragged over a chair, climbed on top of it, and reached for the money. His arm was trembling as he creakily extended it. He grunted and sighed. But there wasn’t any wallet: it was something else. In anger at his stupidity and fear concerning the time passing while Francisco was hungry, the old man jerked to the side, slipped, and fell. He crashed into the chair and on to the hardwood floor. His spine was brittle. He immediately became paralyzed from the neck down.
The moment the old man was on the ground, helplessly limp and paralyzed, a part of him knew it was the end. At first he tried to call for help, but it was futile because his voice was too quiet and hoarse from decades of smoking. Besides, his bedroom was located at the back of the building, away from the street, and didn’t have any windows. Nobody would hear him. And even if they did, nobody would care. The old man was likely going to die from dehydration on his bedroom floor.
After calling for help, the greater part of the man accepted the fact that he was going to die. But when he saw Francisco timidly peek around the corner of the doorway (he wasn’t allowed in the bedroom) the old man became filled with inexpressible despair. It was all right that he was going to die, but not Francisco.
“No no no. Go away, you stupid dog. Go away. Try and bark! Bark for help!” But the old man knew that Francisco would not bark loud enough to attract attention. The old man’s eyes filled with tears that immediately streamed down his face. “Get out of here! I can’t help you! Leave!” Francisco trotted over and began licking the old man’s salty face. “Stop it! Stop! You can’t stay here! Go! Go! Git!” Francisco stopped licking and laid on all fours in front of his master. “I can’t move, Francisco, I’m finished. But you have to try and bark. You have to escape.” More tears flowed down his wrinkly, wasted cheeks. He couldn’t bear the thought of Francisco dying in this apartment. “I’m so sorry Francisco, I’m so sorry.” Francisco began softly whimpering. “You have to go. My time is over, but you’re still young. Go! Leave! Bark!” But Francisco continued lying in front of his master. Hours passed. The old man eventually became delirious in his grief.
“You’re only three years old, Francisco. You can’t die here. I’m so sorry. Please don’t die here. You’re young. I’m old. I’m supposed to die. I’m useless. But not you. Not you, Francisco. You have more life to live. You still have more time to wander around the bar. You still have more time to run around the dog park. You still have to bite that fat, orange cat in the deli. Go away, please. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right. I’m ready to go. I’ve been ready to go for the past three years. But not you. There’s so much of the world you haven’t seen.” Francisco nudged his snout against the old man’s arm. “I can’t move it, Francisco, I’m paralyzed, for Christ sake. Don’t do that. Stop. Go away. Please, Francisco. Leave.” The old man passed out from so much sorrow and spiritual exhaustion and awoke the next day. He felt himself fading. He knew the end was near. Francisco was still lying in front of him, wagging his tail more vigorously when he saw his master’s eyes open.
“No no no. Bark, Francisco. Bark for help. Go near the door. Scratch the door. Do something. Don’t just sit there.” Francisco softly whimpered and nudged the old man’s limp arm again. “This is all my fault. Go outside! Go! I’m so sorry.” He tried, for the thousandth time, to spit at Francisco, but his mouth was too dry. “I’m almost dead Francisco. Please go away. Look! Look! The day is beautiful! It’s so beautiful! I can see sunlight near the doorway. It’s sunny outside, I know it. You have to escape this place. You have to find a new home.” The old man felt himself on the brink of oblivion. “Francisco, please. You have at least a few years left, I know it. I took good care of you, didn’t I? You’ll find someone else to take of you. (But the old man wasn’t sure because Francisco was so ugly, that anyone would adopt him, but he couldn’t say that out loud.) I hope you find a family with loving kids. Not an old, boring man like me. I hope they’re kind to you and give you a bone to tide you over until dinner, just like I did. (During this monologue Francisco was wagging his tail and kept nudging the old man’s arm.) Please, Francisco. Please don’t do that. Go away. I love you, but soon I wont be able to love you anymore. You saved my life, Francisco. Did I ever tell you that? You really did. But now you have to survive on your own. You have to go out into the world. You could survive on your own, couldn’t you? I’m so sorry, Francisco. Don’t stay here.” The old man’s eyesight was fading. “I’ll be with Francine soon, Francisco. I know I will. I’ve missed her unbearably these past three years. You’ll meet her someday, too, but not yet. Not yet, Francisco. Don’t die here. Go outside. Please. I loved you so much Francisco. I never told you this, but I named you after Francine. I really did. Sometimes, I wondered if she was inside of you, somehow. I tried to take care of you the best I could. But now I’m leaving this place. You have to leave too. Goodbye Francisco. I love you Francisco. I love…” The old man’s eyes closed and he slipped into unconsciousness. Francisco nudged the old man’s arm and let out his soft, guttural woof. An hour later the old man was dead. He did not die from dehydration.
For the next week the Arab at the deli wondered where the funny, old man and his ugly dog had gone. But he was busy with his business and didn’t waste too much thought on one of this many, regular customers.
For the next week the regulars at the dog park wondered if the old man who smoked his cigars and his energetic dog had moved to a different city. Some of them, with unsocial dogs, were glad that Francisco wasn’t around anymore to pester their pets to play.
For the next week, the bartender wondered why the old man wasn’t around anymore to leave him a big tip, but there were other customers who left big tips who needed attention. The regulars at the bar would glance at the back corner and wonder why the old man and his dog had disappeared. Some of them were glad there wasn’t that bothersome dog begging for food anymore. Most of the regulars assumed the old man and his dog had found a different, drinking establishment. They forgot about the old man and his dog and got drunk to forget their own worries and personal pains.
The old man’s children were still very busy.
One week later, the landlord broke down the door, angry that one of his most reliable tenants was late with a rent payment. The living room was eerily quiet and immaculately clean. A shaft of sunlight slanted over one of the rafters and across a doorway. A rancid smell hung in the air. The landlord grumpily walked into the bedroom. There he found the old man’s rotting carcass lying sprawled out on the hardwood floor. He approached him and saw something strange. There was a dead dog curled up snugly against the dead man’s side. The old man’s arm was wrapped around the mutt’s little, mangy back.