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I RACONTEUR (“Dexter’s Last Ride”)

It seemed days ago, not hours, that Mildred had entered her small downtown apartment and fussed around making tea and putting away her few grocery purchases. Nothing warned her of the tragic discovery she was about to make as she entered her bedroom and saw Dexter lying there, eyes glazed and staring. Dexter, who was Sancho Panzer to her Don Quixote, a companion through life’s vicissitudes, and the one in all the world faithful to the end.

Dexter was far more than a dog, he was a prince among the plebeians of his canine world. She felt a rush of tears, perhaps for herself because now she really was alone. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you, Dexter, when you needed me.”

She wrapped Dexter in one of her best sheets, and put him in a large brown fiberboard suitcase. It had pretensions to be a cabin trunk with imitation brass corner protectors. What could she do, where could she take Dexter? Ray would have known what to do, but if he were alive they would still have their big old house in Connecticut, and Dexter would be buried under the willow near the back fence – his favorite spot for a snooze.

Her son Adrian had the house now; he would know what to do. The case was too heavy for her to carry. Perhaps he and Cynthia would allow … she picked up the telephone and was relieved to hear Adrian’s rich warm voice. He made no comment as Mildred, near to tears, strove to keep her voice from quavering and her words matter-of-fact “ … and I thought it would be nice to bury him somewhere he knew, like under the old willow tree.”

Adrian interrupted “Mom, don’t even consider a pet cemetery. They are very expensive. And don’t keep him in your apartment in this warm weather. Get right on to the SPCA – you hear? I would drive down, but Cynthia will need the Volvo for Little League practice. We’ve got to tire the little tykes out.” Whenever Adrian was behaving badly he became bluff and jocose. Mildred flushed with embarrassment for him.

Mildred had no intention of consigning Dexter’s remains to an institution. She reached a decision. They would ride the subway down to Battery Park and take the Ferry to Staten Island; a burial at sea would be a fitting end, almost Wagnerian. If she waited until her Social Security Check came they could go to the pier by taxi, or she could save by economizing on meals; there were a dozen cans of dog food left, the juicy meaty kind that Dexter loved. But no; the check was not due for four days. It was a silly idea, especially for a woman of her age.

Her mind made up she headed for the subway, and put the suitcase down near a bench, gratefully resting her back, and inspecting her injuries. Her hands showed the deep grooves of the trunk’s handle – despite being wrapped in her lace handkerchief, a memento of more affluent times. More seriously, the top edge of the case had snagged her stockings as it swung and bumped against her leg during the punishing journey from her apartment. Bruises would be forming to attest to her personal Calvary, but Mildred felt somewhat secure on the bench.

The flow of preoccupied people trudged, darted, and sauntered past her, never once glancing her way – she was invisible. The cascade of humanity pouring down the subway steps from 110th Street slowed momentarily to a trickle. She was not invisible now. She looked up to meet the unfocussed stare of a large unshaven slovenly man who finished his inspection with a long thoughtful look at the suitcase. As he started across in her direction Mildred stood up. It was time to go. He fell in step alongside her but had difficulty keeping abreast with the buffeting from faster moving people who had now reappeared and were eddying around them.

“Haven’t eaten …, no work since …., can afford …. a dollar? “

Mildred gave a sigh of relief as he was borne away by travelers surging towards the Broadway exit. The case was now being dragged more than carried. If Mildred could get on this next escalator there will be another bench to rest on. There, there at last; but no room left on the bench. She stood swaying slightly, dizzy. At her elbow stood a very old lady her dusty black dress hanging in folds on her withered frame, head tilted back to balance a large pair of eyeglasses clumsily repaired at the hinges with black electrician’s tape. The old lady shuffled quickly, squatted in the middle of the row and began vigorously squirming to make room. Two youths displaced by her maneuvers left after bending over the old lady to deliver an obscene comment. She beamed. A smile that showed both gums innocent of teeth, and turning to Mildred, she made a gesture of invitation. Mildred groaned with pleasure as she sat down.

Mildred relaxed into reverie; she had first met Dexter when she was in hospital undergoing treatment for burns. Her husband, Ray, was given the puppy and had got permission to bring him in for Mildred to hold. It was Ray’s last gift, because he was to be in another wing of the same hospital within three months. “Look at his paws,” Ray had crowed, “He’s going to be a big fellow.”

“But you said his mother was a Dachshund,” Mildred had protested in delighted tones. By some improbable miscegenation the puppy was destined to grow to almost Great Dane proportions.

Mildred had cooed, “I just know he’s sensitive about his dubious lineage. We must pick a name that stresses his fine breeding.” When Mildred returned to their comfortable home at Darien, one evening she explained to Ray her choice of a name. “You know, the knights of old would have a diagonal bar across their shield. If it started from the upper left it was called the bar sinister, and denoted illegitimacy. For knights born on the right side of the blanket, the bar started from the right, or Dexter side. So we’ll call him Dexter.”

Mildred and the old lady were now alone on the bench. Across the passageway, in unthinking cruelty, someone had placed an advertisement with a silvered finish that reflected like a mirror. To Mildred it revealed a picture of an exhausted deep-lined face and of clothes a decade out-of-date. Her uncared-for appearance differed from her companion’s only in degree. It was at this moment that a young man appeared before the two ladies.

“May I join you?” He had an engaging smile, was neatly dressed in a brown three piece suit, and obviously must have good taste for he recognized Mildred’s quality immediately and treated her with respect. After some small talk Mildred confided that she had foolishly attempted to carry the suitcase; had overtaxed herself, and yes, she would very much appreciate some help. The young man hefted the case in his hand, agreed that it was very heavy, and hoped that Mildred had not robbed Fort Knox. Then without warning he lifted the case and ran a few steps, bent sharply sideways at the waist to keep the wildly swinging case away from his legs, its weight pivoting him at each step. Mildred jumped to her feet, caught up, and hung on to his free arm. They gyrated back towards the bench until the young man shook himself free and made for the exit. In a few more steps Dexter would be gone forever, a final parting with a faithful friend.

“Goodbye Dexter, I’ll always remember you, old friend” shouted Mildred; but he was gone. Mildred near to tears sank, spent, onto the bench. The old lady patted Mildred with her gnarled arthritic hand and grinned encouragingly. On an impulse Mildred wanted to give her something and noticing she still clutched the lace hankie, pressed it into her hand. It was whisked immediately into a string shopping bag to be examined later in more private and secure surroundings.

And then it struck her. What a shock that young man was in for when he opened the case! What effort went into the theft! She hooted with laughter. Tears came, she felt purged. Poor dear Dexter could never be hurt by the ignominy of his dispatch. Now she was free of all responsibility to serve others, even loved ones. She had been tested and was proud of her self-sufficiency. Tomorrow she would walk through the Columbia Campus and sit outside Furnald Hall. It should be a pleasant day.

 

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