on the page magazine

issue no. 8, autumn 2002


On Our Own

by Edith Pearlman

A few months before my father's death my mother stopped dyeing her hair. My sister and I were used to seeing her honey page-boy next to his crest of silver at recitals, at plays, and in the car as they returned from an evening out. But his hair had dulled; and as for hers: the pewter strip surrounding the part got wider every day, as if she too had a disease fast reaching its conclusion.

He died in June. In July she bought a cocker spaniel. It was 1952, the season of the first Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign. We named the puppy Adlai and sent an announcement to the Stevenson-for-President people. "The Governor thanks you for your expression of support," they wrote back.

Adlai began life as a pale blond, but he darkened during his puppyhood to a deep gold, the color my mother had foresworn. He was slow to be housebroken, partly because my mother disregarded advice to spank his hindquarters with a rolled newspaper and instead flapped the comic pages in his general direction. Eventually he got trained; but he became, in the words of one of my tolerant uncles, a nipper.

Adlai's nips were not painful, just frequent. He nipped when he was hotly fussed; he also nipped coolly, after thinking things over. One evening I yanked my Capezios out of his mouth. He sulked for half an hour, then padded over to my chair and bit my ankle. He bit sixteen people outside the immediate family (our own wounds were too many to count); but two of those people (the mailman and our neighbor Mrs. Leon) he bit twice, muddling the statistics. "Much like," said my sister to a visiting functionary from the Office of Public Safety, "the non-consecutive administrations of Grover Cleveland. How do you count Cleveland—as two presidents or one?" The flustered man (unleashed upon us by Mrs. Leon, we believed) turned to my mother. "If this keeps up you'll have to get a muzzle."

"Oh, I couldn't," she told him; and that was that.

A melancholy expression often wrinkled the dog's high brow. He looked most grieved just before he bit someone. This air of concern, combined with silky ears as long as a Hollywood bob, seemed womanly. My grandmother—perhaps because her command of English was imperfect, perhaps because she sensed the feminine side of the dog—called him Adelaide.

When people came who really shouldn't be bitten—the pediatrician, the school headmistress—we urged Adlai into the downstairs bathroom, which we had furnished with a bowl of water and the Capezios I had finally surrendered. He would object at first, standing up on his hind legs and worrying the door knob; eventually he'd settle down with the shoes. One evening we discovered that his nose had flipped the latch beneath the knob; he was locked in. We called the fire department. "First time I've rescued a dog," grumbled the fireman as he began to take the door off its hinges. By the time he'd released Adlai—who bit him immediately—he was insisting on putting the door back. "It'll be a pleasure, Ma'am." (Sadness and gray hair had only intensified my mother's beauty.)

By the time Adlai was a year and a half old he had stopped biting; also, he had made friends. He spent afternoons in a woody area a few blocks from our house, in the company of larger dogs. On our way home from school my sister and I could spot his small golden form among those wolfish fellows. We sighed over the fate of the local wildlife. But my mother had taken a job as manager of a hospital gift shop; Adlai's day too needed structure.

We usually got home at four and my mother at five and Adlai at six. At six-thirty sharp the telephone rang—my grandmother, making rounds. "Are you there yet?" she'd ask my mother. "The girls? Adelaide?"

"We're all safe."

My grandmother hung up. She had five other children.

One Monday Adlai didn't arrive until six-twenty. The next night also. His expression both times was offended. This kept on all week. The following Monday Adlai still wasn't home by the six-thirty phone call. My mother told my grandmother that Adelaide was watching television. Then she put on her coat. "I'll pick him up," she said. "He's waiting for me."

He was. She reported on her return that she'd found him seated on the grass that sloped from woods to curbside, "patient as a lamb." She leaned over and opened the door, and he scrambled in.

"How did the other dogs get home?" I wondered aloud.

She sniffed. It was the sniff she produced whenever I noted that girls my age had curfews later than mine. "Other dogs are not my concern," she said.

So my mother left the house alone at six-fifteen each evening. Silently we set the table and waited for the car to return with two figures, silver-headed and gold, on its front seat; and for our grandmother to call; and for that day's measure of sadness to trickle away, which it did, more or less, by the time we went up to bed, all three of us at the same early hour.

The dog, posing as our protector, stretched himself out to his full inconsequence at the bottom of the stairs.

Edith Pearlman's recent collection of short stories, Love Among the Greats, won the Spokane Prize for fiction. It was published in October 2002 by Eastern Washington University Press.

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