23
Jan
09

Night Walk

She was asleep again. Franklin could hear the snoring proof of this long before he reached the open bedroom door and took in her lolling head and flaccid limbs. Her mouth stretched wide to capture greedy gulps of air then snapped shut to keep them from escaping.

Franklin stood watching them, mother and child, for several minutes. This woman snoring before him had drunk and danced until early morning, but now fell asleep halfway through “Good Night, Moon.” Sometimes their daughter was still awake and she and Franklin would look at the mother and share a conspiratorial smile. Tonight, however, the girl snuffled gently and Franklin lacked even that companionable gesture.

“When did she become so exhausted?” he wondered. “When did she grow so tired of life and of me?” It was hard to recognize, in this nearly comatose figure, the girl so brimming with zest and lust that she had blown him in a restaurant, risking jail for both of them but especially him. It seemed as if years had passed since she made the first move never mind attempting a second act of that caliber.

She did not always spend the whole night with their child. Some nights she would awaken and stagger down the hall in a somnambulant stupor to collapse in their bed and begin filling the room with her snoring and night-breath.

“When did things change?” Franklin asked the door. There was the time she needed to recover from the pregnancy and delivery and Franklin felt he had been most patient about that. But it was hard to tell when the recovery period was over. It must have been when she stopped saying “It’s too soon” and started saying “No”.

“This doesn’t feel like my body anymore,” she said. “I’m not comfortable in it.”

“I could be very comfortable in it,” he said, only half-joking. She had not laughed.

Sometimes after she dragged herself down the hall and resettled, snoring, in their bed, he would have intercourse with her as she lay on her back with both openings gawping. But this was problematic and complicated. There was no longer the possibility of pregnancy, but there were issues of consent. Franklin had often discussed with his friends the concept of ongoing consent. If your wife said “It” was okay, then it was pretty much on the books. Some feminists had argued that a woman had to be able to give consent every time and that required at least consciousness, although Franklin could easily name several women who even conscious could not render a decision.

And where were the women marching on behalf of a husband’s right to sexual fulfillment? Franklin had given up on ever meeting any so, more often than not, he would lie beside his wife, masturbating silently, reaching out now and then to touch her while he fantasized that she was the girl she had been or at least someone who was awake and moderately interested.

Franklin considered waking her now but, deciding to let sleeping dogs lie, he turned away and resigned himself to another sexless night alone in this shell of a home.

A rhythmic thumping on the living room floor reminded him that he was not alone, just lacking in the company of other humans. The small, shaggy, gray dog danced with joy before the screened but open front door. His dark eyes glistened through the mop of hair which nearly covered them as he had, once again, lost the bow which held it in place. He scampered over to Franklin and yipped before returning to the door.

“No way,” Franklin said. “We’re in for the night.” Going to the door himself, he gave it a good shove.

“Yipe,” the small dog cried. Franklin realized the creature had wedged himself between the inside door and the screen. Franklin pulled the door open and the little dog raised one paw and cocked his head questioningly. Franklin glanced at the clock.

“It is only 9:32,” he said, dropping a pat on the dog’s head and reaching for the leash. “I guess I owe you a walk after nearly smashing your foot.” The dog performed a limping version of his happy dance and Franklin smiled in spite of himself.

“You’re a pretty good dog, Smokey,” he said, snapping the leash on and letting them both out. “Sorry she named you that.” If Smokey heard, he gave no indication and instead bounded down the steps and ran ahead until the leash and Franklin’s arm were at their limit and Franklin was trotting along behind him. Franklin started to reel him in then decided to give the dog his head and follow along. There was no need to hurry home, after all. No one would miss them until morning. They were two males outdoors on a gentle spring night looking for adventure. And why not?

Jogging along behind Smokey, Franklin felt he was seeing Rowland through new eyes. It wasn’t just that following a dog around had made him more aware of the trees. It was also being outside of a car and viewing things by the soft glow of the moonlight rather than the harsh glare of his headlights. He hadn’t realized how built up this area had become and he wondered what the people had given up or plowed under so they could fulfill their desire for more shopping opportunities.

He and Smokey were in a strip mall now, he noticed with a start. Smokey had led him through the night to a large pet store and was begging to be let in.

“What’s up, boy? You been here before?” Franklin searched his brain, but no memories tied to this pet store surfaced. Smokey whined and pulled on the leash. The light through the front windows only hinted at that within the store. Franklin opened the door and was momentarily blinded by the emergency room brightness.

“Why, in the name of God, would they need so much light?” he muttered. Smokey yanked him, unseeing, past towers of dog and cat crates until they reached a plastic bin full of free treats in which he buried his head until only his ears showed above the rim.

Franklin unsnapped the leash and slung it over one shoulder, pulling the clip through the loop so it hung like gold braid on a drum major. He plunged his hands into his pockets and nearly whistled. Because it was so late, the store was nearly empty of people. Franklin noticed a woman near the collars and leashes and a man arranging a display of vitamin supplements. Franklin walked up one aisle and down another. He felt as if the sun was shining down on him as he promenaded on the beach. He paused to toss some tasseled cat toys from hand to hand.

“I wonder if I can still juggle,” Franklin said, adding a stuffed mouse to the pile on his hand. He threw the toys into the air one at a time, slowly at first then faster as the old skills and confidence returned. He was standing on the sunlit grass outside his college dorm and the girls were watching and giggling.

“This is not that kind of establishment,” he heard someone nearby hiss. At once the girls disappeared and he was back in the overly bright pet store. “I suggest you take your nasty self somewhere else,” the voice continued.

“You don’t have to approve,” a woman’s voice answered. “I wouldn’t expect you to. All I want is for you to fix the machine so I can engrave the tag. If you’d prefer, you can run it yourself.”

“I don’t want any part of it,” the man said. “If you or your imaginary friend want to play sick little collar and leash games, go somewhere else for help.”

Franklin dropped a mouse and bent to retrieve it. Turning his head a touch to the right, he glimpsed the most attractive pair of legs he’d ever seen. He had an involuntary urge to run a key or a pencil eraser up one calf to see if the owner would squirm.

“Oh God,” he thought, “Please don’t let it be the man.” In a moment the conversation continued and he knew his prayer had been heard.

“Look,” the woman said. “You have the machine for customers to use and I’m a customer. It’s none of your business if my friend is a dog. Or a man.” Her voice had the slight hoarseness of a light smoker or a sinusitis sufferer.

“Or you, right?” The man asked. “I’ve read enough Dear Abby to know that when someone says ‘my friend’ it really means them not a dog. No dog means no collar and no name tag. Now get out.”

Franklin could bear the tension no longer and he stepped around the end of the aisle. He was immediately reminded of the saying that crewcuts are worn by Cub Scouts and psychopaths. Since Cub Scouts were unlikely to wear bowties and frequent pet stores at 10 p.m., this man was clearly in the latter camp. He stood with his hands on his hips, legs akimbo, facing down the owner of the legs Franklin had so admired. She folded her arms and glared. At Franklin.

“I suppose I’m butting in here,” he said. They nodded almost in unison.

“I couldn’t help feeling there was a problem and maybe I could help.” She rolled her eyes at him. The hazel irises were all but swallowed up by their lids. The salesman cleared his throat.

“This is none of your beeswax,” he said. “If you know this woman, please take her and go.”

“No one is taking me anywhere,” the woman said. “All I am trying to do is buy a dog collar and a name tag which last I checked was not against the law.”

“There are community standards to be upheld,” the salesman said, fiercely.

“What kind of standards?” asked Franklin.

“Decency standards,” said the salesman. “We don’t want Rowland being over run by freaks.” He had fogged up his glasses and he removed a handkerchief from his right hip pocket to clean them.

“What kind of freaks?” asked Franklin. The salesman huffed on his glasses and polished them briskly before replacing them and the handkerchief.

“The kind who buy dog collars and don’t have dogs,” he said. “I refuse to sell a collar to a kinky dogless freak. It’s just not right.” Franklin winked at the woman.

“I have a dog. Suppose I buy the collar,” he said.

“You really don’t need to do that,” the woman said. She glared at Franklin.

“But I want to,” Franklin said. “Smokey needs a new collar. Smokey? Here, Smoke.”

“I suppose he needs a new tag that says ‘White Sugar’ on it, too. Right?” The salesman said.

“Sure. That’s what we call him at home,” Franklin answered.

“Seriously,” said the woman. “I don’t want you to do this.”

“It’s a good deed,” Franklin said. “My chance to help a damsel in distress.” Smokey arrived, dragging his belly behind him, after being called another four times. It was clear he had eaten enough free doggie treats to last in his memory long after they had left his stomach. The woman reluctantly handed Franklin the collar she had chosen. They supervised the salesman’s engraving of the name tag then he bustled Franklin off to the register to pay for it. They saw the man lock the door behind them then sag against it in relief.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked as Franklin handed her the bag. Franklin thought for a moment. He hated his name. Always had. His grandmother had insisted he be named Franklin after her favorite president not knowing a Peanuts character of a different color would bear the same name. This had worked to his advantage only once. A scholarship committee had awarded him a full ride and when they discovered their mistake they were too afraid of litigation to take it back. Now, here he stood…

“My name is Fra-fra-frank,” he said.

“Really?” she said. “With a ‘ph”?”

“Maybe. What’s yours?”

“Tiara,” she said.

“Sierra? Like ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’?”

“No, Mr. Can’t-Spell-My-Own-Name. Tiara like the crown.”

“Is that your real name?”

“What do you think? You think I’d give my real name to some asshole stranger outside a pet store in the middle of the night?” Franklin felt as if he’d been slapped.

“Why are you so mad at me? What did I do wrong? I was trying to help you,” he said.

“Who asked you? Me?”

“Look,” Franklin said softly. “It looks like we got off on the wrong foot. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

“Where?”

“A real quiet place. Good coffee served up plain. Have you ever been to Mike’s diner?” he asked.

“No, she said, backing up. “A friend of mine got stabbed there. She died right on the floor by the front door.”

“The Metropolitan then. It’s a really nice place. An old subway car,” he explained. She was still backing up.

“I’m not really into fancy,” she said. “Look, why don’t you just go home?”

“Why?” Franklin asked. They heard the salesman’s car pull away from the side of the store, leaving them alone.

“It’s where you belong,” she said. She nodded at Smokey who was pulling Franklin’s arm in the direction they had come. “Your friend’s ready to go.”

“Do you have a friend?” asked Franklin.

“What do you think?” she said, laughing. “Go home to your lame-ass wife and be happy.”

“Will you be okay?” Franklin asked. “Will I see you again?”

“What do you think?” she said again, over her shoulder.

Franklin watched her walk into the darkness beyond the streetlight. An hour later as he mounted the stairs, and then his wife, he answered his own question.

“Every night,” he panted. “I’ll see you every night.” Below him his wife murmured, but slept on.

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