It was a cold Sunday afternoon and the radio was on playing one of those songs Nick couldn’t stand, and which made him feel as if he was living in a different world from everyone else who enjoyed that kind of music. There was going to be rain later. It was in the forecast and the sky had some heavy clouds. He had a chicken breast thawing on the counter and he decided to put it back in the freezer. He didn’t want chicken tonight.
It was disgusting how crammed full of food his freezer was—meat and ice cream and frozen pierogis and French-fries and microwavable meals.
He turned off the radio and listened to the wind. Some people had Christmas lights up already. Maybe he should put some up, the next nice day. Maybe the rain they were expecting would turn to snow. More likely it would freeze slick on the roads and cause some accidents, cars in the ditch, or worse. People never slowed down. They never gave themselves the time they needed. If you were new to the weather then you would slow down and take care but if you’d lived here all your life you didn’t change a thing.
He had nothing to do this Sunday afternoon, or rather, nothing he could muster the energy to do—the inclination. He sat on the couch and held a book in his hands. He couldn’t be bothered to turn the pages.
Maybe he should have a drink. That might lift his mood. But he didn’t want to drink for the effect. Not on his own. He didn’t like the connotations the activity of drinking alone had, not that anyone would care or know. He was a man who judged himself more harshly than anyone else. That’s because I’m the only one who cares, he thought. It wasn’t a bitter thought, just an old one.
His kids didn’t talk to him. They’d had a falling out. He didn’t know why. They’d just stopped calling. He tried to keep up with their lives on the internet, their Facebook or what you call it, but he wasn’t good with computers. Not the ones they had today. Used to be that he knew his way around a computer. Now there were so many options and so many people doing things and asking for him to click here and click there, and half of them scams, and he didn’t know which half that was. He couldn’t be bothered to figure it all out. He didn’t want to. He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t want a drink.
He went and stood in front of his window and tried to see if the rain was turning to snow or was going to freeze on the pavement. He put on his coat and shoes and opened the door and stepped out into the drizzle. It was cold and clammy on his hands and face. The wind slewed garbage and dead leaves down the street.
He would walk down and get the mail from the community mailbox. The fresh air would invigorate him. Maybe he’d be hungry when he went back in. Maybe he’d pour himself that drink to warm up.
At the mailbox he realized he didn’t have his key. It was back inside on the hook by the door. He’d walked right passed it getting his coat. He stood in the rain without his key at the mailbox for a minute, then he went back down the street toward his front door.
As he walked by, he heard a yell from inside one of the houses. He didn’t know the people who lived there. A family of four, if he remembered right. He could hear a baby crying and the man and woman shouting.
When he got back inside he took off his coat and hung it up. He put his shoes in the closet. He went into his living room and sat down on the edge of the couch. He got up and switched on the radio for a little company. He stood going through each station one after the other, waiting to hear one that appealed to him. He stopped on a station that was playing Christmas songs. He turned it down so he could only just hear it. Then he went and took out the chicken breast and set it on a plate and put the plate in the microwave and hit the defrost button.
As the microwave hummed he fixed himself a drink. When it beeped he flipped the chicken breast and hit the button again.
Tomorrow was Monday, and the day after that would be Tuesday. It was like that every week. There wasn’t a thing you could do about the days of the week. You couldn’t have Tuesday before Monday. You couldn’t skip out Sunday altogether. You had to get through them in order, one after the other.
He ate the chicken with minute rice. He got halfway through a chapter in the book he was reading about the War of 1812. He went to bed and his body complained about being old. Eventually, he fell asleep. And in his dreams, he was happy. In his dreams people talked to him and they went out and did things together. He made love and rode a bicycle and bought a new suit. In his dreams, he had a long, good talk with his kids and told them that whatever he’d done, however he’d failed them, he was really sorry about it. And they forgave him and said good things. They cracked jokes, told him funny stories about what they were doing with their lives, all wonderful, impressive things. He was proud of them.
Then, he woke up. It was Monday. The memory of his dreams faded. But he was left with a sense of them, an imaginary sense of good will, of his own significance, of pride for what he had accomplished in his life. It was all just in his head, he told himself. You were just dreaming.
He made coffee. He put jam on his toast. He turned up the radio so he could hear the announcer as he washed his plate and knife.
"Be careful out there on your drive to work," said the announcer. "After last night’s freezing rain the roads will be slick. Please give yourself some extra time."
His doorbell rang and he put the plate and the knife on a tea towel spread over the counter and went to answer it. He hadn’t made it to the door before it opened. A white dog waddled inside. Its coat was coated in ice crystals. On the front mat it shook itself. It sat down and looked at him.
“Get out,” he said. “I don’t like dogs.” He looked out the front window to see who had rung his doorbell and opened the door. There was no one. The street was empty. All the trees and cars had a white gloss on them.
The dog shook itself again and its ears flapped and its collar rattled. It was a fairly large dog, not white, really, a kind of muddy brown. It just looked white because of the frost crystals. When he fingered its collar to see its tags, he felt how cold it was. How long had it been outside?
He must have gotten jam on his cheek because the dog licked his face. It was an odd sensation. He didn’t like it. “Bad dog,” he said. The dog wagged its tail. It thumped on the wall.
He got the dog a drink of water in an old pot. He called the county to ask them what he should do. The lady on the phone told him to call animal control and gave him a number.
“What will they do?” He asked.
“They will look after it for 72 hours so the owners have a chance to collect it,” she said.
“Then what do you do with them? If no one collects them.”
“The animals are impounded at the local shelter.”
“Okay. For how long?”
“How long will they be at the shelter?”
“It depends on the animal,” she said. “How likely it is that someone will adopt it. How many animals the shelter has taken in. The shelter takes in quite a few animals, you understand. Unfortunately, if no one claims them, the animals must be euthanized.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you for the information.”
The dog had left the door mat and followed him into the kitchen. “Do you have owners who will come and get you from the shelter?” he asked it.
The dog looked at him. It shook itself again and he heard the jingle of its collar. He reached down and patted the dog’s wet fur. His hand moved to the collar and he gently worked it off the dog. In the light above the kitchen table he saw that there was a tag on the collar after all. It had been hidden from him in the fur on the dog’s throat. There was a phone number on the tag.
The dog put its head against his leg. “All right,” he said. “Now we’re in business.”
He dialed the number and listened to it ring. Maybe he should feed the dog, he thought. If it had been out wandering all night, it might be hungry. He would need to mop the floor.
He heard a recorded message, a woman’s voice. “Hello, you have reached…” she recited the number. “No one is home right now but please leave us a message. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Have a merry Christmas.” There was a beep. He cleared his throat. The dog looked at him.
He said into the phone, “Good morning. I believe I might have your dog.” He gave his address. “I’ll be here all day,” he said. “If you want to come by and pick him up. You can feel free to do so. Any time works for me.” He repeated his address and hung up the phone.
The dog was sniffing around his garbage can. “Don’t do that,” he said. “I can make you some oatmeal if you’re hungry.”
The dog liked the oatmeal. He didn’t give it any sugar or milk. Just oats. It thought that was the best meal of its life. He wondered what its name was.
Watching the dog lick out the old pot gave him a strange sense of satisfaction. He held the pot on the floor to keep it from sliding. He patted the dog’s back.
The phone rang and he answered it.
“Hello,” she said.
“Did you call here saying you’d found a dog?”
The dog had a boney head. He scratched behind it’s ears. The dog had finished licking the pot.
“What’s his name?”
“Charly,” said the woman. “His name is Charley. Have you got him?”
The dog’s ears pricked. Could it hear her voice on the phone?
“Yes,” he said. “Yes I do.”
“What a relief. We were out all last night looking. My husband is headed out the door right now. Thank you so much for calling.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
There was an awkward pause. He thought he heard a radio in the background. He thought it was tuned to the same station as his radio. It was playing Christmas songs. “Goodbye,” said the woman. “My husband will be there right away.”
“Goodbye,” he said and hung up the phone.
Charley was nosing at the garbage can again. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Charley? Charley, is that your name?” The dog came to him and sat down. It stuck out a paw to shake. He reached down and held the paw for a minute.
“Well,” he said. “You’ll soon be on your way. Don’t get too comfortable.”
It was about fifteen minutes until the doorbell rang again. He wondered how on Earth the doorbell had rung the first time. There was no way that the dog could have pressed it, no way that the dog could have opened the door. He wondered if he’d imagined it. Maybe he had become more than a little bit senile.
Charley’s owner was an overweight bald man in a t-shirt.
“Looks cold,” Nick said.
“Nope,” the man said. Charley came to the door. “Hi, dog,.
“His name is Charley,” Nick said and immediately felt ridiculous. Of course, the man knew the name of his own dog.
“Come on, you,” the man said to the dog. Charley wagged his tail and walked out the door.
“Goodbye, Charly,” Nick said and closed the door.
He watched the man open up the back of his car. Charly jumped in. The man walked around and got into the car and drove off too fast. He saw the car try to turn at the end of the block. It skidded out of control, fishtailing before the driver regained control. The tires found purchase and the car sailed away.
“Goodbye, Charley,” he said again to himself. Then he wondered if he’d dreamt the entire episode. It had been so much more like his dreams than his real life. But there were the paw prints on his floor. There was the pot. There was the open bag of oats on the counter.
He put the pot in the sink, put the oats in the cupboard, got down the mop and cleaned the pawprints from his floor.
He made another call to the woman with the county.
“It’s me again,” he said.
“All right,” she said. “What can I do for you.”
“We were discussing dogs that weren’t claimed by their owners, earlier this morning,” he explained.
“Oh, yes. I remember your voice now, sir. Do you need the number for animal control again?”
“I was wondering,” he said, “if a dog’s owners don’t show up, is there a procedure for someone else to collect them? Adopt them, I guess is what I’m asking.”
“You can go to the animal shelter and adopt a dog. Absolutely you can do that. Do you need the address?”
“Yes I do,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
He penciled down the address and left it on his counter and poured himself more coffee. He changed the station on the radio because he was sick and tired of sleighbells. Tomorrow was Tuesday, he thought, then Wednesday, then Thursday and Friday. Then it would be the weekend. Then it would be Sunday, Christmas day. Perhaps one of his kids would call. If they didn’t call, maybe he should go to the shelter and wait with the dogs.