Tom Grimes's "The Leash": Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature
Narrative Magazine: Tom Grimes, author of the newly released Mentor: A Memoir which traces his long friendship with legendary Iowa Writers' Workshop director Frank Conroy, is the author of five novels and director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Texas State University. In his essay, "The Leash," Grimes weaves together the stories of an old man, a young boy and the dog that connects them, forming a meditation on loyalty, friendship, and, at its core, stories themselves.
by Tom Grimes
The neighborhood knew him because he walked its streets every day, up to ten miles, unless a thunderstorm, a hurricane, or a blizzard had driven everyone indoors. As soon as the weather cleared, he was back on the pavement, ice or no ice, snow or no snow, his leash's collar slightly loose. The old man's hand held the leash's leather handle, which, over the course of a dozen sweltering New York summers and frigid winters, had been worn smooth and darkened until it was nearly black.
The slender old guy wore a floppy engineer's cap and a gray fishing jacket, the kind with a dozen pockets. He always had a walnut-colored leather pouch slung over one shoulder and a dented silver canteen hung on a twill strap draped over the other. His shirts were flannel or cotton, depending on the season, his pants never anything but beige chinos. His boots were ankle height with thick rubber soles and rawhide laces. A thin but bristly mustache straddled his upper lip, and I noticed, by the time I was ten, that he scratched it contemplatively, not because it itched. I lived around the corner from his house, and my curiosity about him led him, in a way, to adopt me. This earned me rare privileges, denied to the rest of my friends, such as the summer day he saw me having trouble spinning my wooden top on the street's soft tar. He tilted his head, as if to say come on, and I followed him to his garage, which was his sanctuary. There he placed my top in a vise clamped to his dusty workbench, took a file, and rounded the sharp metal point of my top so that it would spin longer, which it did.
He was Mr. Whalen. His dog, Charlie, a beagle, purebred, classic black, tan, and white coat, twenty-odd pounds, sweet tempered, which is a beagle's natural disposition, "merry," according to beagle experts and enthusiasts. He considered it his job to let people on the street stop him at any place and time to pet him while Mr. Whalen stood patiently by. One evening, as dusk settled and the streetlights came on, they seemed to me to fuse into a single spirit: one being split into two bodies, two species. Charlie wasn't Mr. Whalen's dog, and Mr. Whalen wasn't Charlie's owner. Afterward, I never thought of them any other way. When my friends and I stood on the street corner waiting for the local ice-cream truck to appear on its route through the neighborhood, I often watched them approach, familiar in the distance but barely visible. When they stopped, we petted Charlie, and he accepted our fondness nobly, neither eager, indifferent, nor short tempered, while Mr. Whalen told us where they'd walked in Queens that day.
Their hikes became a mystery to me, treks that in my boy's mind gradually took on the quality of myth. And hoping for an initiation into a secret world, I asked if, on my days off from school, I could come with them. "They" said yes. Afterward, when we tramped along Jamaica Avenue, the street below the elevated J-train tracks whose ties, in sunlight, laddered the pavement with alternating gold and black bands, we stopped in the usual places: the hardware store; Heinz's delicatessen; the butcher's shop; Dilbert's (the dim grocery store with its grimy tile floor); or Lewis's, owned by the madman Al Lewis. All the stores on Jamaica Avenue were one story high. Above them were two stories of small apartments. The top-floor apartments stood so close to the train tracks that during the summer kids standing between the stopped cars could spit out pearl-sized gobs of phlegm and watch them sail through one of the open windows.
Lewis's had maybe eighty feet of sidewalk selling space, and every morning in a maniacal rage, forty-going-on-a-coronary Al Lewis crammed into it cardboard bins he'd stuffed with bundles of brown, orange, and sky blue wool for the hordes of neighborhood women who knitted, some of whom made blankets for Mr. Whalen and Charlie's beds, and doilies for their living room armchairs. Inside, Lewis's was the demon seed of Wal-Mart, with everything from flathead nails by the pound to beef jerky at the cash register. No product was too lowly or obscure not to warrant space on the packed shelves--doll carriages, power drills, bow-and-arrow sets for real and for play, and, of course, cans and thirty-pound sacks of dog food. Braving the crowded aisles of Lewis's, Charlie cleared a path for us through people who said hello to him in varying tones, from happy, "Hi, Charlie!" to deferential, "Charlie, good dog, yeah, good boy," to hip, "Hey, Charlie, what's going on?" to the high-pitched, borderline hysterical screaming of four-to five-year-olds, "It's Charlie! Yay!"
Mr. Whalen seemed to be a perpetual sixty-five, but he was lean and wiry and could haul a thirty-pound sack of dog food and still carry his canteen and leather pouch while holding on to Charlie's leash. I was eleven by then and could carry a case, or maybe two, of canned food on my shoulder. When we reached the house they shared with Mr. Whalen's retired sister, I'd get a quarter, good in the early 1960s for a bottle of Coke and a Snickers bar or a pack of baseball cards. Sometimes, if it was noon and lunchtime, which he and Charlie were punctual about, I'd be invited in for a sandwich.
In the spare living room, a hooked, oval, multicolored rug lay on the maple-stained wood floors. Around the rug stood three armchairs, Mr. Whalen's, his sister's, and Charlie's. Also a vintage radio, honey hued, about four feet tall and stout as a trash can. Two panels of mesh fabric ran from its pedestal to an inch below its wavelength band, a ruler-long piece of ivory-tinted plastic notched with black hash marks that indicated numbers from 94 to 108. When you turned the tuning knob, a red needle slid over them, finding music, voices, and recurring patches of static. The Whalens didn't own a television set, and since at home I watched TV before school, dinner, and bedtime, stepping into their house was like stepping into a world in which the clock had stopped ticking twenty years earlier. Next to each armchair was an oak table with a round coaster, on which they set their cups of tea and coffee. Beside the coasters were framed pictures of Charlie and Mr. Whalen either seated on the front porch or posing in Forest Park, a sprawling, heavily wooded green space laced with miles of hiking trails.
The Whalens had an immaculate, never-used dining room, its breakfront filled with perfectly nested china and crystal wineglasses lined up like cadets. The kitchen was snug, the life force of the house, its spotless white stove topped by three gas burners and one cast-iron griddle for making pancakes on. The white refrigerator was an older, single-door model with a silver latch handle. Charlie's dinnerware sat on the floor, two elegant silver bowls, one filled with fresh cold water, the other, at mealtime, with gelatinous meat-related canned food or dry, pebble-sized kibble. We ate at the Formica table beside the window overlooking the ten-by-fifteen plot of backyard grass and the garage. Lunch was usually tuna fish salad mixed with real mayonnaise; my parents were always broke, so at home we used Miracle Whip. Mr. Whalen's sister also chopped up celery and stirred C-shaped bits of it into the salad before she laid it between two slices of Wonder Bread.
Like a Zen monk, Mr. Whalen never had much to say. Weather talk was superfluous. He didn't follow sports teams, but because a copy of the New York Daily News turned up on his porch at seven each morning and a Long Island Press arrived each afternoon at four, I knew he read the paper. But the Cold War and the vague, far-off war in a country named Vietnam never seemed to interest him. Maybe years earlier someone he loved had died and afterward the world and nearly everyone in it seemed ghostly and diaphanous. I don't know. I do know that mainly he liked sawing wood in his garage, a place as tranquil as a church with only a few people kneeling in rows, praying silently. He had plenty of space for his tools because he didn't own a car. One time he built an airplane, with a wingspan of eighteen inches, for me and then whittled a figure of a pilot wearing a leather cap and goggles into its cockpit. He enjoyed repairing things and could sometimes reflect on the nature of a screw for up to a minute, as if he were testing not only its usefulness but also its reality. Meanwhile, Charlie sat at his feet, ready to spring into action if necessary but mainly watchful, as if he knew that the old man needed long stretches of solitary puttering. Then, at one o'clock sharp, they began their five-hour afternoon walk.
Each outing was a zigzagging, semi-Homeric journey. One afternoon we changed direction to avoid a gang of local teenagers who wandered through the woods of Forest Park carrying switchblades and drinking three-dollar strawberry wine or green schnapps until they were delirious. Another day we walked past the mansions of Forest Hills, its streets car free and quiet except for the sound of an electric or gas-powered clipper trimming hedgerows along the leaf-swept sidewalks. Charlie dictated our route, it seemed, as much as Mr. Whalen did. Charlie had minor interests, like standing on an overpass and watching traffic on the narrow and serpentine Interborough Parkway, known for its stupendous car wrecks. He also seemed obsessed by kites. In the park he'd watch them circle overhead, his snout in the air as he pranced beneath them. If one drifted away or sailed toward the ground, Mr. Whalen might let go of his leash. Then Charlie would bolt in the direction of the kite, mesmerized, creeping toward a downed kite as he would a dead rabbit but respectfully keeping his distance from the owner, usually a boy though sometimes a man with too much time on his hands. Charlie would sit ten feet away to prove his benign interest, and after a while Mr. Whalen would call him and we'd move on.
Mr. Whalen scheduled our market stops. We started at the butcher's place, which, like Mr. Whalen's garage, had a floor covered with sawdust. Blood from raw meat dripped onto it, dried, and then stuck to the shoe soles of the butchers as they moved around behind the counter plucking pork chops, shell steaks, and necklaces of linked sausages from glass coolers. The butchers, three cleaver-wielding, relentlessly cheerful men in bloodied white shirts, pants, and aprons, seemed to enjoy hacking apart raw meat every day. They treated Charlie like a prince, making a game of skill out of feeding him. They'd toss scraps of prime-cut beef over the counter so he had to leap to snare them between his teeth, and they kept lobbing them until he missed one and lost his right to more. If he didn't catch the first one, he got pity scraps and was told he'd do better next time. When he was on a streak, they said, "Okay, that's enough."
Next stop was the German delicatessen, a glacially air-conditioned place owned by a chubby-faced man named Heinz who ran it with fascist ardor and precision. Heinz was a legendarily cheap bastard who disliked me because one night my mother sent me to buy an overpriced quart of milk and loaf of bread from him, since we'd run out at dinnertime and his was the only open market. When I stood on my toes and laid the items on his chrome countertop he yelled, "Is that all?" I mumbled yes and then paid him with nickels and pennies, which he glared at as if they were diseased. Yet as soon as Charlie set paw on the deli's black-and-white ceramic-tiled floor, even before he passed the Ring-Ding and Devil Dogs stand, the exotic Pepperidge Farm cookies, and the trays filled with cold coleslaw and potato salad, Heinz, the miser, stood at his slicing machine with a torpedo-size log of bologna, shaving off tissue-thin slivers of it, and then limped around the counter. (I was shamefully but secretly glad he limped, although in my more empathic moments I considered that his limp might be the root of his bitterness.) He bent forward, dangling a slice of bologna centimeters from Charlie's nose, and said, "Und how are ve today?" Charlie's good manners restrained him from lunging at the treat. Instead he took it politely, almost reverentially, allowing Heinz to place it in his mouth like a priest laying a communion wafer on a believer's tongue. At our final stop, the bakery, Charlie was treated to sweets, a chocolate chip cookie or a chunk of napoleon. But he never got fat. The daily ten-mile hikes kept him and Mr. Whalen fit until, unexpectedly, Mr. Whalen died while walking alongside a busy eight-lane road in ninety-degree heat, returning from the hardware store.
I never learned whether Mr. Whalen fell facedown on the sidewalk, crumpled to the pavement after his knees buckled like a pair of snapped drinking straws, or, after dropping the two gallons of house paint he'd been carrying, sat down, reached inside his fishing jacket, which he wore regardless of the temperature, and placed one hand over his quivering heart. I also don't know if he asked Charlie to bark for help or if he searched his expression for a sign that he understood what was happening. Still, I always pictured Charlie as the hero of the event, circling Mr. Whalen's body, nudging his face with his snout and pawing his shoulder, trying to revive him, and then dashing into traffic, dodging it as he barked, imploring some driver to stop. When one finally did, Charlie patiently let the person examine the old man's body, feeling for a pulse as Charlie looked on, pacing, or perhaps sitting quietly, hoping his world wouldn't end. When the police and paramedics arrived, their vehicle lights whirling as their sirens whooped, Charlie backed away, giving them room to work. He even permitted one of the officers to pet him because this was still his purpose, to make people who were nice to him feel good about themselves. Then he allowed the ambulance to carry away Mr. Whalen, and he rode home in the back of the police car with Mr. Whalen's leather pouch, dented canteen, and the two gallons of paint beside him. The officer in the passenger seat studied the contents of the old man's wallet, looking for an address, and found it on Mr. Whalen's library card. Charlie waited to be asked questions. What happened? Did your owner show any signs of a heart attack? Shortness of breath, chest pains? Why didn't he take the bus? In my childhood fantasy, Charlie could feel human emotions and think human thoughts; he simply needed a chance to prove it. But the questions were never asked.
And Mr. Whalen's funeral was never announced. He seemed to have simply disappeared. Briefly, Charlie's whereabouts were also unknown, as if he too had vanished. Then Mr. Whalen's house was put up for sale. His sister planned to move in with relatives. Yet one summer evening Charlie returned, being walked by a cousin in the family. I was in front of our house with my parents. My younger sister and brother called Charlie's name when they saw him, and for their sake he stopped to be adored. Mrs. Whalen's relatives, we were told, wouldn't take Charlie in, essentially orphaning him and condemning him to the pound. My brother and sister shouted, with glee, not moral outrage, that we should let him live with us. I said, "I think we ought to do it." My father said it was all right with him, but my mother balked. She liked Charlie in the abstract, as a passerby on the sidewalk, not as a member of the family. She kept a neat house and didn't want it ruined. We pleaded, and she caved, but with strict limitations. Charlie wasn't allowed on the furniture, he'd sleep in the kitchen, and she wasn't walking him, I was.
We took him in that night, my father and I carrying from Mr. Whalen's house to ours Charlie's dinnerware and dog food, but not his armchair or bed because my mother said they were too hairy. Then, as if it needed his approval, Charlie inspected the downstairs floor of the house. Upstairs, my mother warned him, was off-limits. He seemed satisfied and wagged his tail. At bedtime I lured him into the kitchen with a treat and asked him to lie down and stay there. Standing in the kitchen archway, my mother said, "You don't come past this line, understand?" Five minutes after we'd gone upstairs, she was back downstairs. The rest of us had followed, and I saw Charlie curled up on my mother's armchair, his head raised, looking puzzled. My mother dragged him into the kitchen and then sent me to the basement to fetch a three-foot high wooden gate that opened laterally, like an accordion. She lodged it snugly between the archway's molding and said, "Stay. I don't want to see you out here again." Within five minutes Charlie had pushed aside the gate and returned to her armchair. My mother, who'd been spying from the staircase, marched into the living room, turned on the light, and with the rest of us hovering behind her like a Greek chorus, said, "What did I say? What did I tell you? I said stay in the kitchen. Did you stay in the kitchen? No. You want to be out on the street? Huh? You want to live by yourself?" Rather than hanging his head during her tirade, Charlie seemed genuinely concerned, almost worried about her. My mother yanked his collar and dragged him off the chair. As she led him back to the kitchen, I volunteered to spend the night beside him on the floor. "Just until he gets used to us," I said. I also looked forward to comforting Charlie during his period of mourning. But he never seemed to have one. He didn't sulk, pine, or plague us with grief-stricken sighs. Secretly this disappointed me. Then I refashioned my disappointment into appreciation. It was obvious. He was sparing us months of canine lamentation, a woeful hunger strike, endless midnight howls and sorrowful whimpering. For our sake he was pretending to be content to eat, be walked, be petted, and, every evening, to lie at the foot of the couch, my father's territory, therefore his call, and watch television with us. If Charlie missed Mr. Whalen and his radio, he was kind enough not to burden us with his anguish.
When I turned fourteen, I ran for my school's track team, and each fall was cross-country season. I was expected each summer to run three to five miles a day to train for it, so I began to take Charlie with me to keep him in shape. Whenever I appeared in my tank top, shorts, and running shoes, Charlie worked himself into a frenzy while I attached his leash. Then we'd bolt out the screen door and run flat out until we reached the road where Mr. Whalen had died, stopping if the light was against us, sprinting across the eight lanes if it wasn't. Once we were in the park, I'd let go of his leash and we'd race across the meadow where kids flew their kites. Then we were into the woods, streaking along a rutted dirt path, the air cool under the trees, a quilt of bright sunlight and shade ahead of us, the world silent except for the scuffle of leaves beneath our feet and our breathing. Charlie grew winded faster than I did, and after a mile he'd slow down, look at me, and raise his eyebrows, suggesting a breather. But I kept going. It never occurred to me that he was getting old. His Charlieness was a fixed point in my tiny universe, as stable as true north. I'd known Charlie before I knew that each of us, all of us, would one day die. So to me Charlie was immortal. But as he aged, it became clear why he hadn't mourned Mr. Whalen's death. Charlie's fate was to allow us to practice our mourning on him. To prepare us for unbridled desolation and grief without end. We had it backward. We weren't here to take care of him, he was here to take care of us. To be our guide and our consolation.
I didn't understand this the day my father and I took him walking in the snow. Half a mile from our house was a bleak, deserted field where, during the week, factory workers parked their cars. But it was a Saturday, and the late-afternoon light was graying into dusk, the world stilled and weirdly quiet. When we reached the field, I dropped Charlie's leash so he could wander off while my father and I plodded along, our noses dripping, talking of things I can't recall. As the snow fell harder, we kept our heads down. Ready to start home, we turned to look for Charlie. He stood fifty yards from us, amid whorls of snow.
"Come on!" we yelled, but he hardly moved. We called his name, and he barked at us. Again we called come on, and again he barked, ignoring our arm waves, maybe defying us or maybe playing. My father said, "Let's hide," and the two of us slipped behind the factory wall, pressed our backs against its red bricks, and listened to Charlie's barking. His tone had grown earnest, even a bit worried, possibly terrified. My father peeked around the wall. "He's still standing there," he said, pleased with our mischief. We waited a while longer. "Is he coming?" I said. My father poked his head out. "No."
Charlie barked intermittently now, his voice softer, as if he'd given up hope of being heard. The silences became longer, and I finally stepped past my father. Charlie hadn't moved. I started toward him, and he barked, making sure I could track him in the dusk. When we were halfway across the field, I said to my father, "He's stuck." Charlie's leash was caught on a fallen branch too heavy for him to drag. I heard his high-pitched whines and he danced frantically from side to side as I knelt down to free him. "It's okay," I said, letting him lick my face and feeling ignorant and ashamed for frightening him.
At times I lie awake now and recall my disgrace, and I'm inclined, because Lassie books, Old Yeller, and Walt Disney movies have taught me, to trace childhood's end to the day my dog died. But it's a syrupy, maudlin cliché, and so I don't. Childhood ends, of course, although in ways too complicated and fluid to explain, and yes, our dogs die when we're children.
One year we gave Charlie a gift-wrapped Christmas present with a snowman sticker on it that said, "To Charlie, with love from everyone." Inside was a tartan plaid coat, which we draped over him and secured with a matching belt below his chest. "It'll keep you warm," we told him. Then we put a Santa Claus hat with a white pompom on his head, took his picture, and slipped it into our family photo album, which naturally, over time, yellowed and will one day disintegrate into ash. Such a day will come for me too, and although I'd like to be a lot further from death than I am now, I don't want to return to childhood either. I imagine that I'd like to live outside of time. Maybe that's how dogs live. Complete. Egoless. The moment and the infinite undifferentiated.
But this too is a fiction, this is romance. Charlie felt abandoned that day on the field. He was frightened, a creature no more or less unbound by time than I am. The story was never about Charlie or me or time or mortality or the ashes we're all destined to become. The story is about the leash, the leash worn smooth and darkened until it was nearly black. The leash Mr. Whalen attached to Charlie's collar when he walked him, the leash I inherited. The connection between us. That's the story. And in the universe of stories, this is the only story worth telling.
To read more, visit NarrativeMagazine.com. Bringing great literature to the world. Online. Free.