On this Sunday, Robert Benjamin sets out on his fav. activity: the morning dog walk. He has no idea what awaits.
When the sun next rises over Rexville, Robert is up, assembling his push-pot and coffee grinder to produce that first after-walk cup. He sips the creamy brew during backyard meditation. Spring brings the best moments. Male robins jousting over control of Robert’s real estate and the ultimate prize: a circa 1920s Oak. The gnarled behemoth advertises both low and high limbs for a nest, perfect for surveillance on any invading squirrels. The champion robin emits a high-pitch whistle to attract a female. The union made, she immediately shops for mud, grass, cellophane, animal hair, string—anything that will produce an expertly woven conoid.
Robert watches squawking mocking birds flashing their white-streaked wings, a dire warning. They don’t trust other birds, especially the highly emotional robin. More centered is a pair of cat birds who arrive the latest, in May. They are content in an unpretentious side-yard shrub.
One morning, the first migrating grackles blackened the Oak. Tail extended, Jet ran and barked and flushed them into a gloomy swarm over the neighborhood. In triumph, he trotted back to the porch. Then reinforcements swooped in, on tree and ground, broadcasting a loud primitive chatter. Jet sprung back into action and surveyed the enemy squadron. The grackles had surrounded him. He retreated to the porch, and, ears back, sat right next to Robert, who, when telling the adventure, called it, “Jet’s Tippy Hedren moment.”
In September, Robert hosts a backyard “Doggy Happy Hour.” The entrance gate has a few witty signs: “Two-for-One Bone Night” and “Males Must Wear Collars.” Robert fills two kiddie pools, tosses out stuffed animals and chew toys, and organizes a soccer game, humans on one team, dogs on the other. Humans score by kicking the ball between two fence posts; the canines by intercepting and securing the ball.
After an hour, it’s a loud, boozy party. Robert puts out wine and bar food. Harry Damson shakes martinis, including an “FDR Special.” Joyce brings some rock ’n’ roll CDs she bought off a TV commercial. Tamara takes Noodles in her arms and dances on the patio. Godfrey lays in the grass, Commander on his belly. Harry, further enlivened by two hubcap-portion vodkas, lifts Greta’s front paws, like a lady’s hands, and spins her once or twice until Joyce conducts a rescue.
Each morning, like this Sunday, the walk is sacred time for Robert. He loves Jet’s “good morning” tail whisk. He loves the stillness that lets him hear that male robin. He loves the solitude of being the first dog owner out the door. He loves the pace of two old friends together as he thinks about the day ahead.
“OK Jet. Keys, check. Bags, check. Treats, check. Cell phone, check. Paper towel. Collar on. License tag. Rabies tag. ID tag. Check. Check. Check.”
The two walk out the front door and pause on the porch. Robert looks around. No one in sight.
“A brilliant morning. Cool. Crisp. Ah, man and his dog,” he says.
“Good morning, Robert,” yells Ned, who suddenly appears from around the corner walking Chad the Beagle.
“Hello Ned. You’re out early. You and Chad are coming this way more often.”
“Yes, had to shrink the orbit. Bad prostate. It’s as big as a pumpkin. Can’t go 30 minutes without—”
“OK, sorry to hear that. We’ll just move out. Running late.”
“Gotten so bad I have to dehydrate. Chad, he can just lift a leg. I get so dry I’m dizzy.”
“See you later, Ned—”
“Don’t believe those supplement commercials. Took a thousand dollars worth. Nothing.”
“Jet, that was way too much information.”
Robert attempts to start a dog-walk rhythm. Thirty more steps and it’s Gladys Ridgeway and Princess Grace heading right at them. A fast pace. A power walk. Gladys, as a business woman who serves Rexville’s dog people, is always coiffed, and stylish, this time in designer jeans and cotton pullover.
“Gladys, good morning. Haven’t run into you for a while. With the longer days, I’m out earlier.”
Gladys pauses, eyeing Robert scornfully, anger building.
“Mr. Benjamin, I can assure you I do not sleep-in. I’m up as early as any other dog owner, including you.”
“No, no, Gladys. I wasn’t implying—”
“Mr. Benjamin, I know exactly what you were implying. You are the pluperfect dog owner. You’ve told us that a thousand times. You get up earlier than any of us. You only feed him all-natural food and filtered water, and use unscented dog shampoo. And you let us all know it.”
“Well, I like to compare notes. Exchange trade secrets. I was only saying I had not run into you for a while on a walk. That’s all I meant. Nothing more.”
“And doggy breath mints. Why? Mr. Benjamin. Why?”
“They’re dental mints, from an organic food shop in Idaho.”
“Good day Mr. Benjamin. Please do keep me abreast of the quote, ‘longer days.’"
The admonishment done, Gladys and the Princess rev back up.
“I hope she runs into Ned and his shrunken-orbit story,” Robert tells Jet.
“What did I say wrong? ‘Haven’t seen you in a while.’ Is that offensive? Is it better to say, ‘oh, it’s you again?’ and just keep walking. Or, not say a word. Pass in silence?”
Across the street, a woman appears with two dogs. A wire dangles from an ear, dropping to a smart phone. Her dogs see Jet and immediately go berserk. Barking. Growling. Lunging.
“Must be new in town, Jet. They don’t know you are a sweet guy. Let’s keep moving.”
Challenged, Jet scratches the ground. A claim of territory. The two dogs work themselves into a more intense frenzy. The woman is struggling to control them. Suddenly, the bigger of the two slips his collar and charges. Robert puts himself between the attacker and Jet. The dog tries to bite. It darts in and out. The owner catches up.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just rescued them. They can be unpredictable.”
“Just grab your dog by the collar. He’s trying to bite my dog.”
“That’s the problem,” she yells. “I’m holding his collar.”
The smaller dog’s leash gets tangled up in Robert’s leash and then his legs. The loose dog, frustrated it cannot get at Jet, chomps down on Robert’s leg.
“Damn it. Your dog bit me. Please, just grab him.”
Jet erupts into a loud growl and puts the offending dog on its back. It whimpers loudly. Robert pulls him off. The attacker retreats, his aggression replaced by fear. Robert inspects his leg. Two shallow puncture wounds.
“I take it he’s up to date on his shots.”
“Yes, I’m so sorry. I need a dog trainer. They’re too much to handle.”
“I'll leave it to you to report this to animal control. Andy Kershaw. He'll verify your vaccine record. I think your dog will have to stay on your property for observation.”
“Look at him now,” the woman says. “Calm as can be. Your dog gave him a scolding. Maybe he scared him straight.”
“Jet’s a gentleman. He knows how to discipline a bad dog. I’ll be on my way. Please, just do what you have to do. And one last thing. Don’t talk on the phone and walk your dogs at the same time. You need to stay aware of your surroundings so things like this don’t happen.”
“It was my mother. I don’t dare not answer.”
Robert, limping a bit, and Jet head toward city park. Their second favorite stop in town, a landscape of soccer and baseball fields, and tennis courts, laid out amid a thick tree line. He is glad to see Mrs. Jones, the town librarian, who, nearing retirement, rescued a mixed-breed she named Bessie. Both have a crush on Jet.
“What happened to you?”
“Jet got attacked. I ended up in the middle.”
They begin walking along the woods.
“Must be a new family in town. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I’ll go to the ER later.”
Just then, Jet darts right, into the woods, dragging his leash.
“Oh man. Jet! Jet! It’s a cat. A feral cat. It’s running through a thicket. Jet’s getting all tangled up.”
Jet is stopped by a mass of Rexville’s rich crop of invasive vines. His leash has snagged. He can’t move. He starts howling.
“I’m coming Jet. Hold on boy.”
Robert ducks low and fights his way through the thorny growth. It nicks his face, legs and arms.
“Calm down boy. I’ll set you free.”
He grabs the leash and carefully uses his bare hands to pull away the vines, stamping them into the ground.
“Are you OK Robert?” Mrs. Jones asks.
“Whatever you do, Mrs. Jones, please don’t throw me in this briar patch. You can roast me alive or hang me, anything but the briar patch.”
“Robert, you did not quote Brer Rabbit correctly. And besides, you’re already in the briar patch. Mr. Rabbit was outside. He tricked the fox. He wanted it to throw him in the briar patch for his escape.”
“I know Mrs. Jones. Just an attempt to lighten things up.”
“Do you need help?”
“I’ll get out. If only I can pull these thorns out of my wound—things will be even better.”
He and Jet emerge. Jet is happily panting, as if to say, “That was worth it.”
“I'm heading home, Mrs. Jones, cutting my losses and heading home.”
“I would do an Internet search on Brer Rabbit. Or I can drop the book off. Or I’ll bring it to the Dog Book Club.”
“That’s OK, Mrs. Jones. Was just a try at humor. That’s all.”
He crosses the field, stopping to blot the scratches with his now-in-demand one square of paper towel. As he reaches the street, dark clouds have formed. His pace quickens.
“Jet, this was not on Doppler. Must be a pop-up shower. Here it comes.”
Light rain turns heavy. The deluge conceals his home, a 200-yard sprint away. The two are running now, splashing toward their sanctuary. Robert thinks of poetry and rain drops and small hands, and concludes that this is a big-handed rain.
Harry Damson, in red pajamas dotted with white seagulls, stands on his porch, across the street from Robert’s, binoculars at his chest.
“Forgot to check the Doppler, Robert? Forecast said chance of a sudden shower. Should have taken an umbrella.”
“Thanks Harry. I did check the Doppler. But thank you.”
“You look horrible,” Harry shouts over the drubbing.
“Got insulted. Bitten. Thrown in a briar patch.”
“Who threw you in a briar patch?”
“I was talking to Mrs. Jones,” Robert shouts.
“Mrs. Jones? Why in the world would kindly Mrs. Jones do that?”
“I can barely hear you. I’m soaked.”
He and Jet reach the front door. He fiddles with the key. Steps inside. Jet unleashes a spray of water on the foyer and on his master.
This is too good, Harry thinks, as he rushes to tell Joyce about Robert’s comeuppance at the hands of the elderly Mrs. Jones.
Robert closes the door, leans his back against it and spreads his arms as if to reinforce the gate before any more calamities invade.
“We’re safe, Jet. Safe at last.”