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Emily Lime is walking up Bedford Avenue. She is wearing black jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt that just covers the blue zipper tattooed around her right wrist.
The tattoo is something she deeply regrets.
It doesn't seem right that because of a little Mexican weed and the incredible discount offered by Diane the Tattoo Monarch, she made a decision at age nineteen that resulted in a wrist zipper she will have to live with for the rest of her life. Someday she will be a doddering old crone in a nursing home with a zipper tattoo. Admittedly, it's a beautiful, deep blue zipper, the dainty tracks neatly done, the pull falling slightly to one side the way a real one might. No one would say Diane is not a genius. But hardly a day goes by when Emily doesn't wish it weren't there. On the subway, she always studies the ads for laser tattoo removal and wonders if having it taken off would be as painful as having it put on. She has decided it probably would, and instead has taken to wearing cuff bracelets over it. She has three—a beaded one she made herself, a leather one she found at a craft show in McCarren Park, and a silver one she bought when Dr. Demand gave her the check for her last BREAD photograph.
Today the sleeve of her T-shirt does the trick.
It's a warmish day at the end of October, as warm as June, but fall is in the air. Emily has just gotten over a bad cold, and it's her first day out. She still has the cough, but she finally feels normal after almost a week moping around her loft, drinking seltzer and looking out the window at the tugboats on the river and the puffy white clouds over Manhattan Island. The sky is brilliantly blue. Emily's dog Otto walks jauntily at the end of his red leash, his tags ringing like bells. They both love this walk up Bedford—a walk Emily has taken almost daily for eleven years and Otto for six.
They pass the sushi place, the Mexican restaurant, the video store, the Syrian deli, the Polish bakery (whose BREAD sign Emily has photographed a dozen times), the new baby shop that has a pair of studded black leather booties in the window, and Marta's Beauty Salon, whose faded pink-and-green sign has probably not been retouched since 1966. They pass Mr. Suarez, with his Chihuahua, Eddie, in his pocket and a shopping basket full of soda cans. They pass the Pink Pony Thrift Shop with the WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND sign on the door, and the used-book store and its new café, where they can smell the hot apple cider all the way out on the sidewalk. The smell seems exactly right, a perfect match to the brown leaves on the ground and the V of geese overhead and the signs in the drugstore window advertising Halloween candy.
Emily is on her way to the park, where Otto can be let off his leash to run freely in the dog enclosure. This is the best part of Otto's day, and Emily is glad she can take him herself. All the time she's been sick, she's had to have Marcus take Otto out at ten dollars a run. Her cold cost her over fifty dollars in dog-walking fees. Plus another hefty chunk for the long-distance bills she racked up when she began to feel well enough to talk on the phone but not to go out. And eighty dollars for the tweedy sweater she shouldn't have ordered off the Web from Eddie Bauer to cheer herself up, but did. All that is nothing, of course, compared to the debt of gratitude she now owes to Anstice, her landlady and friend, who is much too good to her, and who knocked on her door every day with various practical gifts: Nyquil, more seltzer, a New Yorker, a DVD of Watership Down, a pint of home-made applesauce from the Greenmarket, and a pot of chicken soup she made herself from her late grandmother's late cook's recipe.
Emily also owes Anstice the rent.
As she hoped, Marcus is at the park with his Saturday morning crew: Rumpy, Chipper, Elvis, and Reba. Marcus beams when he sees her. "You have risen!"
"Yes," she says. "Still coughing, still a little stuffy, but basically I am healed." She inhales deeply through her nose. "See?"
"Impressive. When did you get better?"
"I began to feel almost okay last night. I had the most wonderful day yesterday. I curled up with Otto, and Izzy perched on my foot and unraveled one of my socks, and we all watched Watership Down."
"Sounds like heaven."
She smiles at him because she knows he means it literally: For Marcus, heaven is animals. Marcus looks not unlike a cute animal himself. He has just had his hair cut very short, and it's like soft suede against his narrow head. His ears, like his chin and his nose, are small and unassuming. Emily's friend Gene Rae once said, "There's something very woodland creature about Marcus," and she was right. Marcus has the face of a squirrel, or a chipmunk, including the luminous, watchful eyes, which are, however, the green of cats' eyes, and show a rim of white below the iris, giving him a misleadingly lazy, lustful look. Today he's wearing a T-shirt that was once olive but has faded so that his eyes and shirt almost match. Emily, who never tires of looking at people, regards him with delight.
"The world is a new and beautiful place." She means since her cold cleared up, but she also means that it just is, reliably, on a daily basis.
Marcus looks alternately at her and at the dogs in his charge. "Check out Elvis," he says. Elvis is leaping around friskily with a branch in his mouth. "Who would believe that dog is twelve years old?" Then he looks back at Emily. "Do you want to play Scrabble later?"
"I can't today. I really can't. It's so beautiful, I have to go out and shoot."
"I don't know exactly. I thought I might drive out to Long Island. Northport, maybe. Or Centerport."
Marcus nods approvingly. "As long as it's a port."
"Yes, or a fort."
"Or a court."
"No, I really mean it. There's a town called Fort Salonga right near there."
"There is? On Long Island? There's a park in Africa called Salonga." Marcus always knows things like this.
"Isn't there an actress or somebody, too?"
"I don't know." He never knows things like that.
When Emily takes Otto off his leash, he rushes over to Elvis and Reba, whom he loves, and the three of them run around together, barking crazily. Emily and Marcus lean against the fence and watch the dogs. Mrs. Buzik is sitting on the broken bench with her ancient poodle, Trix, at her feet, and a man Emily doesn't know is there with a big rottweiler who keeps nudging Rumpy with his nose.
"Go on, Trix," Mrs. Buzik says. "Go on and play with your little pals. Get some exercise."
"How's she doing, Mrs. B.?" Marcus asks.
"We take it one day at a time, Marcus. One day at a time. Both of us."
"She looks good, though."
"She's a poodle. It's her job to look good." Mrs. Buzik takes a flowered handkerchief out of her pocket and holds it in her hand. "But She's been okay. No incidents lately." Her mouth opens wide, and she sneezes loudly and wipes her nose. As always, Emily is impressed with the perfection of Mrs. Buzik's denturs, which look better than any real teeth she has ever seen. "There. I knew I was going to do that."
Emily has recently stopped saying "God bless you" when people sneeze, but often feels bad about the skipped beat it leaves in the rhythm of the conversation. So she says, "I hope you're not getting a cold. I'm just getting over a real killer."
"There's something going around, I hear," says Mrs. Buzik. "I'm praying I don't get it. That's all I need." She leans down to the dog. "Go on, Trix. Get out there and play. It'll do you good. Get the bowels moving." Mrs. Buzik lives alone in a particularly dingy fake-brick-fronted house on Driggs Avenue, which she owns but on which, according to her tenants, she hasn't done any maintenance in at least ten years. No one can figure out if she's very rich or very poor. She is an unfathomably old woman who, like her house, must have once been stunning: deep-set dark eyes, a fine long nose. She still gets up every morning and puts on eyeliner and mascara and blue shadow and red lipstick, and winds up her sparse hair in a colorful scarf. "I'm just waiting until Miss Priss here does her business, then I'm off home. My daughter is coming over to take me to the market. My neighbor told me they got canned salmon on sale, ninety-nine a can. I like to mix it up with mayonnaise and those Greek pickles."
Rumpy and Chipper have found a stick, and Rumpy is trying to get it from Chipper. Marcus looks vigilant: Rumpy is unpredictable. Their struggle takes them close to Trix, and she gets up, looking offended, and moves under the bench, but the activity has apparently given her the idea because she squats and starts to do her business.
"There she goes, Mrs. B.," says Marcus.
"What a relief," Mrs. Buzik says. "I thought we'd be sitting here all day." She stows her hanky in one pocket and takes a plastic bag from another.
"Here, I'll get it."
"Oh, Marcus, you don't have to do that."
In one graceful motion, he takes the bag from her and scoops up Trix's business. Then he ties the ends together, pivots, and tosses the whole thing, underhanded, into the trash can.
"You're a saint, Marcus." Mrs. Buzik gets up stiffly. Trix looks suddenly animated, sniffing amiably at Reba, who has flopped down near her. "See? She feels better. Come on, then, Trix. Let's get going."
"So long, Mrs. Buzik," Emily says. "Don't get that cold."
"Have you ever tried those Greek pickles? They're a lot cheaper than the Polish. I get them at that deli up on Manhattan, by the church. I take the bus up there to shop, or my daughter drives me. They got the bargains. A dollar fifty-nine for a big jar. They're good with the salmon."
"Sounds delicious," Marcus says. "Though I'm not much of a pickle man."
"Just like my husband, may he rest in peace. If he ate three pickles a year, I'd be surprised." Mrs. Buzik winks at Emily, exposing a wrinkly oval of lavender-blue shadow. "Men!"
They watch her hobble away, her bright scarf bobbing, the dog plodding along beside her. The man with the rottweiler snaps his dog's leash back on and, wordlessly, they leave.
"Jeez. Friendly," Emily says.
"He's a friend of Lamont's."
"Is he a Tragedy Club person?"
"No, he's the guy who's subletting Jeanette's loft. I think he's probably just shy."
"You say that because you're a saint, Marcus. He didn't even talk to his dog. He's probably one of those guys who buys cheap generic dog food and forgets to keep the water bowl filled."
"Nah, Lamont said he's okay. I forget his name. Ted or something. Bob. Jim." He pauses. "I wish I could remember. I hate forgetting people's names."
"You have such a thing about names."
Marcus nods soberly. "Yeah, I do."
Emily likes Marcus's obsessions because she shares so many of them—names, area codes, zip codes, anagrams, palindromes. She wonders if it can possibly be true that Marcus moved to Williamsburg for its palindromic 11211 zip code. She says, "Ask Lamont at the party tomorrow."
"I will." His face brightens. "I'm giving Lamont that picture of Daphne I took last summer when I was sitting for them. Remember? The one where she's curled up in the bathroom sink?"
"I put it in a frame."
"He'll love it." Emily jangles Otto's red leash. "Well, I should get cracking if I'm going to get to Fort Salonga." She has a brief coughing fit, during which Marcus looks at her with concern. She shakes her head and flaps her hand in the air the way coughing people do when they want to convey that they're all right even though they seem all wrong. Then she calls, a bit hoarsely, "Hey, Otto! Let's move on out of here."
"You sure you're okay?"
"I'm okay. I need a bottle of water."
"Good luck today. I hope they have a lot of bakeries and stuff. Watch repair shops."
"They will. It's amazing. Everyplace does. But of course they have to be right."
"Don't forget we have Trollope on Tuesday."
"As if I could forget. As if it's not the high point of my whole life. Come on, Otto! Let's beat it, boy." She coaxes Otto away from his friends and attaches his leash. "He's so in love with Reba."
"Too bad they're both fixed. They'd have cute puppies."
Emily looks dubious. Reba is a low-growing part-dachshund, Otto is a grayish-white mongrel mop with an underslung jaw. "Was that a joke?"
Marcus's mouth turns down into the little secret smile that Emily loves. She would like to hug him, but she just says, "Otto probably doesn't think it's funny."
"Otto needs to lighten up."
As she and Otto are crossing the park, Emily sees Susan Skolnick sitting on her usual bench. Susan Skolnick is given to taking long walks through the neighborhood after which she always ends up sitting on a bench by the dog run, silent and alone—a pariah—watching the dogs at play. She's a park regular, but she doesn't come with a dog. Susan is notorious for an incident involving her six-year-old daughter and the family dog, a border collie named Glenda, who had never shown a hint of bad behavior. In fact, Glenda never even barked except when someone sneezed—an endearing habit Susan and her husband, Murray, used to brag about at the park. But on a summer day just over a year ago, during some boisterous romping in their backyard, Glenda leapt up and bit the daughter, Vanna, on the lip. Within minutes, Murray was hustling Vanna in a car service to the emergency room (where she got two stitches), while Susan tossed the dog into the backseat of their Toyota, took her to the big animal hospital on Long Island, and demanded that she be put to sleep. The Skolnicks were regarded with contempt by the other park regulars. The sight of Susan, sitting stone-faced on a bench, watching the dogs play, only hardened their hearts further, though no one could figure out what she got out of sitting there.
And since no one ever talked to her, no one would ever know.
"As long as she suffers," Marcus always says. "I don't care why or how, I just want her to suffer. I want her to be eaten away with remorse. I want her to have nightmares about dogs."
Emily finds Susan's presence disturbing, even ominous, and she turns away from the woman's mysterious pain and continues back to Bedford Avenue. When she makes a brief stop at the Syrian deli for a bottle of water and a bag of chips for the car, Otto sits outside and whines. She knows he's tired; Elvis and Reba have worn him out. He's not a young dog; he wasn't young when she got him, and she's had him since her dog Harry died just before she split with Hart—more than six years. Otto wants his biscuit and a nap now as much as he wanted to play half an hour ago. But when they come to the corner of North Third Street—home—he gets a second wind and trots joyfully toward the sparkling river with its long gray strip of skyline and the bright blue sky above, pulling Emily along behind him.CHAPTER 2
Pa's a sap
Marcus is having Sunday brunch with his father, Tab Hartwell, known to everyone—except Marcus—as Hart.
Marcus insists on calling him Dad, because he knows Hart hates it.
Father and son are in SoHo at a sidewalk café on Wooster Street. Marcus dislikes sidewalk cafés. Why is it considered fun to eat food in the midst of exhaust fumes from traffic and stares from tourists? Tourism was down, but now it's up again, up higher than any city should have to tolerate. On a sunny autumn Sunday, the walk from the subway to the Bistro du Sud requires superior navigational skills, plus more rudeness and aggression than Marcus feels comfortable with, so he's feeling stressed by the time he gets there. Hart is hunched over the Arts and Leisure section, smoking. Hart likes sidewalk cafés because he can smoke, one more thing Marcus has against them.
"So, Dad," Marcus asks, sitting. "Who was I named after?"
"Why was I named Marcus?" He waves away the cigarette smoke. "It's something I forgot to ask Summer."
Hart folds up his newspaper, looking disgusted. To Marcus's relief, he also butts out his cigarette. "She named you."
"Well, do you know where she got Marcus? I know Summer liked things to have resonance. She was very conscious of what things mean. So, like—Neiman Marcus? Marcus Garvey? Marcus Aurelius? Marcus Tullius Cicero? Marcus, Stanley, Dallas, & Polk?"
"A law firm in Honesdale. I used to deliver their paper."
"You had a paper route?"
"After you left." We needed the dough, asshole, of course I had a paper route, he wants to say, but knows it would make Hart angry. He doesn't want to make Hart angry because he is hoping Hart will give him some money. "What I'm saying is, even that would be cool, to be named after some lawyer. I just want my name to mean something."
"It means your mother liked the sound of it. Who knows why? You're lucky she didn't name you Zeus, or Apollo."
"I wouldn't have minded."
"Or Fettuccine Alfredo. Or Compost Heap." Hart raises one hand as if hailing a cab and keeps it imperiously in the air until the waitress arrives. Without looking at the menu, they both order avocado omelettes.
Excerpted from Solos by Kitty Burns Florey. Copyright © 2004 Kitty Burns Florey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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