The Puerto Rican women were arguing over a basket of wet clothes. It rolled beside them, as they stood in the aisle between the washing machines. That they were of identical height, with squat legs and stunted torsos, each with a faded tattoo on her flabby upper arm and jangling gold bracelets on her thick wrists, was less amusing than it was a marvel of symmetry. What I found amusing was that they both had with them a small daughter and these girls could have passed for twins, not only because they were same sized but because they wore denim shorts with flowers embroidered on the hem and someone had fashioned their hair in pigtails tied with ribbons. The girls sat on the floor sharing a coloring book, oblivious or indifferent to the conflict above them.
Though now it seemed as if the women weren’t arguing but complaining in unison about some unseen third party. This made more sense. What could two people with all that in common physically have to disagree about? Of course, I was speculating. I didn’t speak Spanish. When the women discovered I was staring at them, I looked to the newspaper in my lap just as we made eye contact. Then, to appear less of a snoop, I walked to my machine and conducted an ersatz inspection of my laundry’s progress, giving the water temperature dial a skeptical tap with my finger, peering through the fishbowl into my sudsy wash as though I was concerned I’d somehow left my watch in there. I turned around and saw the women had resumed their belligerent conversation.
I returned to my chair and found someone in it, reading my newspaper. He was a huge man with a complexion so blotchy his face looked like a patchwork of different sunburns. He crossed his legs and turned the page, shaking the paper in his hands to remove a crease. I watched his stubby fingers gripping my newspaper. They were pink like the ribbons in the girls’ hair, except the ribbons shone from their silkiness while his fingers glistened with sweat. I took for granted that he smelled like cured meat.
“Sorry, but that’s mine,” I said but then I thought if anyone should be sorry it was him. Now that I was closer I noticed his actual odor was one of baby powder and cigarettes and I felt less ill will toward him.
He closed the paper and laid it in the chair next to him. In the chair to his other side rested a canvas duffel bag.
“You’re also in my seat,” I told him. He put his hands on his knees and began shifting his weight forward. The Puerto Rican women were watching me and they didn’t look away when our eyes met. I lost the staring contest and with it went my resolve. Before the big man got to his feet, I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and I put myself in the chair next to his duffel bag. “Feel free to check out the paper. I’ve already skimmed it.”
Then he finally said something. “Doesn’t it seem as if more twins are being born than ever before?” He pointed at the girls with the coloring book.
“I haven’t noticed.”
“Everywhere I go I see a kid who looks exactly like the kid next to him. Last week, I saw triplets. I think children are afraid of coming into this world alone.”
“Those women look alike,” I said.
“I used to be married to a twin. We split up after a year. In court, the judge asked me why I wanted a divorce, so I said, ‘Your honor, from time to time my sister-in-law would visit and, because she looks so much like my wife, I sometimes ended up making love to her by mistake.’ The judge said, ‘Am I to believe that there’s no way to tell the two women apart?’ I said, ‘You better believe there is. That’s why I want a divorce.’” In between laughs, he said, “I’m Jay,” and extended his sweaty hand to me.
I’d washed my clothes here for years but Jay was the first person I’d spoken to, or who had spoken to me, outside the times I’d flagged down a staff member when the change machine was out of order. I shook his hand to be polite and because I’d heard worse jokes.
“I feel like a jerk for not introducing myself sooner,” he said.
“Don’t feel too bad, I just sat down.”
He shifted in his chair to look at me. “I know you, you know. I live across the street too.”
I found it hard to believe. There were eight apartments in the building I lived in and since I was on the first floor, near the mailboxes, no one could enter or leave without passing my door. Sometimes when I was bored I watched through the peephole their comings and goings: the takeout delivery guys, the couriers and, of course, the tenants. I had a deeper relationship with the building’s foot traffic than anyone else. It struck me as unlikely that an enormous and oddly hued man lived upstairs from me and that I had never seen him but he had seen me enough times to feel embarrassed for not introducing himself. “Did you just move in?”
“In March. So what’s that, going on five months now? We’re in 3R, my wife and I.”
“Your former sister-in-law?”
He laughed. “No, my wife’s no twin. She’s one of a kind.”
I supposed it was possible he lived upstairs. There was a reasonable amount of turnover in the building, on account of the landlord being a habitual liar who was almost certainly never available when the boiler would break in January and we’d go days without heat. I stayed because when I moved in I promised myself I would own my next home. I wasn’t quite there yet. Also my girlfriend’s place was nicer and by virtue of this fact she didn’t press the issue of cohabitation. “Welcome to the building, belatedly, I guess.”
“Do you know how I can get in the backyard?”
Jay was being generous calling the lot behind our building a backyard. It was a gravelly rectangle, maybe fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, that supported the most stubborn species of weeds, festooned with broken glass and the remnants of dilapidated appliances. As far as I knew, there were only two ways of accessing it. One was by going through the basement. Since the landlord padlocked the basement door that wasn’t an option. The other way was through my bedroom window. On the weekends or after work I relaxed back there on a lawn chair, drinking beer and cooking on a portable barbeque grill. It was how I’d planned to spend my afternoon after finishing the laundry. So while I didn’t own the gravel yard I thought of it as my own and I didn’t like the idea of sharing it. I told Jay he’d have to go through the basement. “Too bad neither of us have the key,” I said.
“But I’ve seen you out there. You and your wife. Don’t think I was spying. I was just hanging my head out the window, checking the weather report the old fashioned way.”
“I’m not married.”
“Whoever she is. The two of you sunbathing. I’m not looking to barge in on your good time but I really need to get in the backyard today. I’d consider it a personal favor if you told me how you do it. Just this one time.” He added, as if unsure he should, “My dog died and I have to bury him.”
He was serious. I could tell. He seemed to swallow his emotions and smile but doing so wreaked havoc on his complexion and he turned radish colored. “I’m only in this place because my wife won’t let me keep him in the house and the air conditioning here is freezing. I figure it’s probably best to keep him cold until I can sort it out.”
I flinched away from Jay’s duffel bag, which until then I assumed contained his dirty clothes.
“I’m not a freak,” he said, pulling the bag onto his lap. “I just don’t know what else to do. I can’t throw him out with the trash. My wife’s not insensitive but he was my dog, not hers.”
The way he wore his grief so plainly on his face alerted me to the necessity of treading lightly. Besides, I didn’t want him to think I was callous to his predicament. I’d had pets before and knew the sadness of losing one. “That’s awful. What kind of dog was he?”
“I’d show you but I think they’d ask me to leave.”
“Or call the cops,” I said.
“Or call the cops. Good point. He was a mutt.”
“What was his name?”
“Rosie, short for Roosevelt. I like to name my pets after presidents.”
“Do I look like a guy who’s impressed by cigarette holders and leg braces”?
“You strike me as a Mount Rushmore kind of guy.”
“You got that right,” said Jay, chuckling.
I sighed at what I considered a no-win situation. “I can appreciate that you’re in a bad spot but my clothes aren’t done and I don’t trust this place enough leaving them here.”
“I used to feel the same way but then I thought if somebody was desperate for size forty-six boxer shorts they could have them. I guess I’ll break the lock on the basement door. Just do me one favor and don’t tell anyone. I don’t know what the law says about burying animals on residential property but I bet it’s frowned upon.”
He held the duffel bag in his lap. There was that hideous, defeated smile of his again, discoloring his face. It was then I realized that, against my better judgment, I was going to help. Jay was a nice person, which isn’t the rarest thing in the world but still uncommon enough, especially if you consider that a lot of what passes for niceness is posturing from people trying to butter you up. “Let me get my stuff out of the machine. I’ll dry it later.”
He was still smiling when he stood up. “You’re a really good guy,” he said.
“I’ll remember that when we’re both evicted.”
“Hey man, you can share my refrigerator box any time.”
We left the laundromat with our bags. Jay hugged his against his chest. With his free hand he smoked a cigarette and, as we waited on the corner for the light to change, he periodically spat and shook his head. I wondered what he would have done had he not recognized me or if I had decided to do laundry two hours earlier. How long would he have sat in the air conditioning hoping to get into the backyard? It made me think of coincidences and the notion of meeting specific people at specific times.
Once we were in the building he said he was going to get his shovel. He rested the duffel bag in the hallway. “Keep an eye on Rosie?” Before I could protest, he disappeared around the corner to the elevator. He was sweating through his shirt when he came back a few minutes later, a shovel over his shoulder and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. We went into my apartment. He looked around and said, “I’m on the other side of the building. Everything in your place is the opposite of mine. I’m looking right when I should be looking left.”
There was that symmetry thing again and I wondered how much was lost or gained in a mirror image. He tossed the shovel out my bedroom window and crawled through after it, carrying Rosie with him, showing more grace than I expected. He speared the shovel head into the rocky ground and leaned on the handle. He lit his cigarette and glanced nervously around the yard. “Oh, you know what? My wife wanted me to tell you she’s sorry. She thinks I suckered you.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said, even though his comment made me question my earlier assessment of his niceness. Until then I considered him as guileless as an oak tree. Of course, it was too late to do anything about it.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” he said, “she’s very grateful for your help but she thinks it’s bad business to impose on a stranger. I told her we’re neighbors so even if we don’t know each other we’re not strangers. I guess I’m in trouble if you guys are of one mind.”
“Is she coming down?”
“No. She’s upset. She just shows it differently. She loved Rosie because he was such a sweet animal but she was less hands on always. One time she said I cared more about the dog than her. I told her I’d known him longer. She didn’t get a kick out of that. Between you and me, I was half-kidding.”
He lifted the shovel out of the ground and scanned the yard for a good gravesite. I said I would give him privacy, out of respect. The truth was I didn’t want to see his dead dog. I didn’t need a visual memory of a furry carcass in an unzipped duffel bag, although that didn’t seem as bad, I thought, as a visual memory of Jay in mourning. I didn’t want to have to reconcile that image every time I saw him getting his mail. “I’m going to watch TV. Give me a shout if you need anything.”
“But shouldn’t there be a witness?” he said. “I’m not religious but shouldn’t someone else see it, to prove it happened?”
“Why don’t you dig and then call for me?” I said, hoping that by the time he negotiated the hard ground he would have forgotten about me in the other room. I’d no sooner opened a beer and put my feet on my coffee table when I heard him shouting.
“It’s tougher than I thought,” he said.
“I don’t even know if there’s dirt under there. It might be concrete.”
“I don’t mean the digging.” He stepped aside to show me his work. Jay was excavating the hole rather well. “I got Rosie when I was in college. He’s my last link to who I was then. Does that make sense?”
“Maybe but, I don’t know, not exactly,” I said and sipped my beer.
“I threw shot put in college. Junior year, I got kicked off the team. Fighting.” He ducked his head between his shoulders, remorseful and embarrassed years later. “I put our best two hundred meter sprinter in the hospital. I’m lucky I didn’t go to jail.”
“What did you fight about?”
“A girl, what else? All my friends were on the team so they went bye-bye after that. I got Rosie because I was lonely. This was during winter session and I had no classes, nothing to do all day. Rosie was full of energy so I took him to the park. I’d freeze my considerable ass off on a bench while he ran wild. The winter of my discontent and all that.” He shrugged as if to say, What can you do? “I know, I’m starting to annoy you.”
The thing was he wasn’t annoying me. I sympathized with his story because I had one also. “I used to have a dog. She was a big Irish Wolfhound. Pearl,” I said, omitting the part of the story in which I adopted her to assuage a broken heart. Then she died from intestinal torsion less than a year later. Jay would have appreciated the unabridged version but I was a different kind of person from him and couldn’t bring myself to be as open.
“You name your pets after presidents, I name mine after eighty year old women. Want a beer?”
“I’m not much of a drinker,” Jay said and resumed digging. He was exacting in his work. The hole grew larger and I could see that, at a depth of a foot, the earth was soft and brown and then got moister and darker in color. Sweat covered his face and neck, which was now the deep red of the flesh of a black plum.
“Maybe you should take a break. I don’t want to end up digging a hole for you.”
“I might look in terrible shape but I’m going to live forever.”
“You made a deal with the devil?”
“I promised my wife I wouldn’t die before her. I don’t have a choice in the matter.” He turned his attention to the duffel bag. “Okay, Rosie, it’s showtime.”
Jay got on one knee and unzipped the bag. I couldn’t see anything with his huge body in the way. I’m sure for a while he had occupied himself with getting into the backyard and was then able to distract himself with the task of digging the hole. If he was ever going to lose it I knew it would happen now. He lifted a bundle wrapped in a blanket. I drained my beer in anticipation. “How did he die?” I said, hoping to forestall the finality of the burial.
Jay looked relieved that I asked. “That’s what old dogs do. He was blind with cataracts and he’d been senile forever. But a happy senile, you know. Then a few days ago he couldn’t walk. I had to carry him outside otherwise he’d piss all over himself. When he stopped drinking water, I knew what that meant. I didn’t see a reason to put him down as long as he wasn’t in pain. I made a bed for him out of pillows and blankets on the floor. I’m glad it happened on the weekend so that I was with him all the way.”
He unwrapped the blanket and I caught my first glimpse of Rosie. The dog was a shaggy thing, with brown and black fur on the body, white on his stomach and legs. Though his eyes were closed, he didn’t look asleep. His lips had tightened over his teeth and his tail had been bent so that it was parallel to his hind legs. Jay petted his head. “Hey pal. I don’t want to do this but what’s my other option?” It seemed as if he wished Rosie would offer a last minute alternative. The dog lay on the blanket and Jay kneeled over him, scratching him behind his ear and then ran a hand over the length of his body. “Alright buddy, this is it,” and he gathered Rosie in his arms and transferred him from the blanket to the hole.
I watched from my bedroom window with a feeling that my presence was a great and heavy intrusion. As Jay stood over the grave, he continued talking to Rosie. “So, I’m going to get started now and, after that, we won’t see each other anymore. But I’ll check in on you from time to time. I can look out my bedroom window and see that you’re alright.” He took up the shovel in his hands. “Are you ready?” he said, and I didn’t know if he was asking Rosie, me, or himself.
He dropped the first shovelful in the hole. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “When the dirt hit him, it jarred his fur a little. It looked like he moved. For a second I thought he was alive.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He went back to work. I couldn’t see what happened to the dirt once it fell into the hole but it seemed he was taking care to fill the end where Rosie’s tail was, as if he was avoiding burying the dog’s head. He kept talking. “I was going to keep you wrapped in the blanket and let you have it. It’s your blanket, after all. I hope you don’t mind that I’m keeping it.” Jay’s face was a shade of red I’d only seen on baboon’s asses but I didn’t dare interrupt. “You’ve got your fur to keep you warm and I think the dirt will help also.” He was about halfway done, probably to the point where another few shovelfuls would completely cover Rosie. He took a knee and put his hand into the hole. He said goodbye to the dog and then stood up and filled the rest of the hole without another word.
When he finished, he walked back to the open window where I was leaning. He lit a cigarette. “How are you doing?” I said.
“Once I catch my breath I’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t what I meant but I let it go. He stubbed out his cigarette and crawled back inside with his shovel and the duffel bag. I offered him my bathroom to clean up. He said he preferred to do it in his home. He thanked me again and invited me over for dinner some night in the coming week. We never had that dinner and I can’t say I was disappointed. In the days after Rosie’s funeral, I remember hoping I wouldn’t run into Jay. I suppose I’m the sort of person who would have found it strange if he and I had become friends. I’d see him in the hall sometimes and we would talk about problems in the building or things going on in the neighborhood. He never mentioned his dog. Soon we no longer stopped to talk but only to say hello. Eventually, whenever we saw each other, we just nodded and went on our way.
Photo Source: Razapoodle