Love in New Jersey
The feelings that pass between man and man’s best friend are essentially unequal. Man loves his dog, but he is not in love with him; whereas dog is madly, passionately in love with man. Dog does not care how man earns his living, or if his nose is larger than Cyrano’s, or if he wears the same underwear three days in a row. Dog will forego food for affection. He becomes depressed when he hears the house keys that foreshadow man’s imminent departure. He has been known to sacrifice his own life to save man’s. Of course, where there is passion there is often jealousy, and dog is not immune from the darker emotions.
I believed Madison was in love with me and that the complex Brahms sonatas he played on the clarinet were some kind of serenade. The music floated out of his third-story Jersey City walk-up and in the open window of my second-floor apartment but didn’t change my feelings for him which were merely friendly. My yellow Lab Barker, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of Madison. Every evening when Barker looked out our window and saw Madison leave for work he let out a long soft whine which I could only interpret as a kind of love sickness. When we ran into Madison on the street, Barker strained at the leash until he was allowed to greet Madison, his large paws propped against Madison’s chest, his tongue cutting swaths across the man’s face. Now and then I found something of Madison’s—a worn Mets cap, a Beethoven coffee mug—in Barker’s toy basket. Since Madison had never been inside my apartment, it was a mystery how they got there.
“Madison!” I shouted as I banged on his door one frigid January morning. It was cruel to wake him. He had probably just gone to bed, having spent the night cleaning Manhattan office buildings. But my twenty-year-old Chevy Nova was dead and I couldn’t be late for work again. Besides, I didn’t know who else to call. He came to the door wearing a torn bathrobe, his shoulder-length grey hair uncombed. “Madison, I need a jump!”
“Give me a minute.” Five minutes later he was on the street, nosing his truck up to my car, clamping on the cables. The Nova turned over.
“I owe you.” I sped away, leaving him half asleep on the curb.
I worked as a receptionist in a Short Hills veterinary office. It paid some of the bills. The rest I put on an ever-growing number of credit cards. I hoped the doctor would notice me and train me to be his assistant or, better yet, marry me. Like a hunter setting traps, I rose early each morning. I spent an hour “putting on my face,” an elaborate ritual that included spackling my cheeks and torturing my eyelashes. I selected an outfit from a closet full of designer clothes. At five-foot-two and a hundred and fifty pounds, I needed all the help I could get.
If only Madison were twenty years younger and an investment banker. Since he wasn’t, and since the doctor had trouble remembering my name, Janelle, it looked like I’d be answering phones for awhile. Your dog ate a can of shoe polish? Yes, you should bring him in. I’m sure. Really, I’m sure. I don’t have to ask the doctor. Just bring him in, okay? Alright, I’ll ask. I put the caller on hold and stole a Pepsi out of the communal refrigerator. Then I picked up again. The doctor says to bring him in. Right away. No, I can’t tell you how long it’ll take. Maybe you should cancel your dinner reservation. No, I don’t think you should bring him in tomorrow morning.
When I got home that afternoon I baked a tray of brownies and brought them upstairs. “Thanks for the jump.”
Madison took a bite and then gazed at the ceiling shaking his head. “You ought to be a baker,” he said. “Have one.” He held them out but I was on my perennial diet. “You don’t need to watch your weight.”
I reconsidered him as a boyfriend. Looking around his apartment, though, I knew it wouldn’t work. The sofa had come out of a dumpster. Strange smells emanated from the cushions and stuffing poked out of the seams. The paint had worn off his dining room chairs leaving disturbing hints of color. The place was in disarray. Battered instrument cases were piled in a corner. Sheet music covered every surface—a desk, the top of the TV, a table. I wondered how many scores I would find on the toilet tank. Two music stands lay on the floor, one on top of the other, like wrestlers.
In the eighties, Madison had played clarinet with the New York Philharmonic. He could have joined the faculty of a music school. Instead he spent his evenings waxing floors and emptying waste paper baskets alongside Hispanic women who were half his age and spoke little English. “They’re teaching me Spanish,” he said, and then he laughed, that full laugh that he had, as if cleaning offices was the most fulfilling work he had ever done.
“Well, I gotta walk Barker.”
“I’ll come with you.”
I preferred to go alone—walking Barker was when I scoped out eligible men—but I didn’t say anything. He had rescued me after all.
Barker stopped every few feet to pee on one of the flimsy elms that hung on against the city’s pollution. His coat shined from the raw eggs I fed him three times a week and from daily brushings that he endured, sensing, I think, that they were the only therapy I could afford. His organic dog food cost more than my own erratic diet—wheatgrass shots one day, double baked potatoes with extra cheese the next. I had named him after Bob Barker, virtual shopping being one of the few pleasures I could afford.
Madison took Barker’s leash from my hand. It was the kind of proprietary gesture I hated in a man and I almost grabbed the leash back. But Barker was happy. His step grew light despite his hundred pounds. His tail beat double time against my leg. Madison bent to scratch him behind the ear and Barker lay on the cold concrete sidewalk exposing his vast belly.
“You really ought to replace that battery and the cables, too. They’re rusted out. If you buy the stuff, I’ll put it in for you. No charge.” Madison rubbed Barker’s belly.
“As soon as I have the money, which will be, let’s see, maybe next January. Sorry I woke you. I don’t know how you do it, sleeping during the day.”
“It’s always nighttime somewhere.” I had to think about that one.
We walked on. Madison’s presence—especially holding the leash—sent a disastrous message to guys I saw every evening, guys I imagined hooking up with but had yet to talk to. The blond Harry Potter walking the beagle. The guy in Bruno Maglis being dragged by a Corgi. Surely he would want to date a short woman who wore designer clothes. BUT NOT IF SHE HAD A DECREPIT BOYFRIEND. I would have to move.
Barker, on the other hand, kept looking up at Madison to confirm his good fortune. When I walked him, he sniffed other dog’s piles, pawed at the grass, and ate a few sticks. It was like I wasn’t there. And to think I was the one vacuuming yards of hair off the couch and reaching into his cavernous, slobber-filled mouth to place heartworm pills on the back of his tongue.
Madison was going on about birds. Long before Barker and I moved in he’d hung a feeder from a tree outside his window. When it was warm out, Madison would sit on the fire escape, his feet dangling over the side. Birds would land on his shoulder and head. A few would take food from his hand. The last place I lived I hung my laundry from the fire escape. I tried that once during the time I lived below Madison. When I brought in the clothes, they were covered with bird shit and the shells of sunflower seeds. I hooked up a line over the tub.
“They talk to me,” he said.
“Yes, the birds.”
“Like chirp, chirp, or like, what’s happening, Madison?”
“Like, don’t get the Wal-Mart seeds they’re stale. But sometimes other stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Philosophical stuff, about the planet. It’s private.” I could see he regretted telling me. “Did you see the red-breasted nuthatch that was hanging around this weekend?”
I wouldn’t have known a nuthatch from an eagle. “Sure.”
“It’s my new familiar.” I looked over to see if he was joking, but he wasn’t smiling. He said a crow had been his familiar but they’d had a falling out, something about the crow raiding other birds’ nests. The funny thing was I remembered a crow staring in my window the one time I had a man over. While Madison talked about the nuthatch, Barker’s ears twitched violently. His tail stood straight up.
I wondered what use Madison had for a familiar other than for spying on me. Maybe the nuthatch turned into a skinny fifty-year-old and vacuumed offices while Madison slept in his truck. I could have used a familiar to answer the phones at the vet’s office. A nuthatch might have known what to say.
When I got back to my apartment, Barker was restless. While I lay on the couch watching reruns of The Bachelor, Barker kept going over to the window and peering out. When he saw a bird he jumped up, pawing the glass and barking. I’d never seen him like that. He attacked his toy basket, destroying the wicker with his teeth.
That night, I dreamed I was in the arctic, on a small exploratory outpost with a handsome scientist who liked his women with a little meat on them. It was pretty cold but I was happy. When I woke up, I discovered the window to my apartment was wide open.
Madison came down a little later. He stood in the hallway shaking and rubbing his neck. I’d never seen him so upset. I invited him in and made coffee. He said during the night the bird feeder had disappeared. The thick wire it was hanging from had been chewed through. The feeder wasn’t just knocked down; it was completely gone. The nuthatch was gone too. As Madison told the story, Barker lay on the carpet, his head resting on his paw, his gaze empty. I sat with Madison as long as I could and left for work still wearing the jeans and sweatshirt I pulled on when I first heard him at the door.
I’m pretty sure the window was locked when I went to bed. It was definitely closed. The feeder had been hanging thirty feet off the ground and at least three feet from the fire escape. Madison had to stretch to fill it. Barker was pretty smart. He’d unzipped my purse one time to get a package of liver treats. Still, I couldn’t see how he managed to reach the feeder. If there hadn’t been a dozen cuts on his gums that looked like they were made by a sharp wire I wouldn’t have believed it was him.
It wasn’t until weeks later, when I moved the couch to vacuum, that I discovered the feathers. I never did tell Madison. I didn’t have the heart.