The Apartmentsitters

by Peter Gannon Crumlish

On their last day of staying at the apartment it rained, a mournful, sudden deluge that seemed to be flushing the streets of the city. She spent her day inside, therefore, watching t.v. and trying not to think about going home. She used the remote control to wander the many senseless channels in the small study with the plaid wallpaper and the cracked leather couch. She absorbed all that was foreign about the people and places on television, understanding little of what was said because everyone in New York, she felt, talks so fast.

At lunch time she took the faded leather collar and leash from the hook on the back of the front door and rattled it, which brought the little dog bounding from the bedroom. As if in a ritual, the dog sniffed the leash and then turned as if to walk away again, no longer interested in going outside. It had to be held while the collar was buckled around its furry neck. And yet, when the door was opened, it pushed its way through and ran into the elevator so that the girl had to drop the leash while she locked the front door.

At the door of the building, the little dog seemed daunted by the intensity of the rain, its eyes blinking at the splashing drops. The girl, seeing the dog hesitate, wondered if she ought to have put the miniature rain coat on the dog - one that straps around the belly and buckles on top to resemble a trench coat. She found it amusing and was tempted to, feeling that on her last day in the country she should experience everything to the fullest. But she was hungry and didn't feel like going back upstairs and struggling with the front door for the sake of a silly coat. She gave the dog a tap on its rear with her foot and the girl and the dog plunged into the rainy street.

She knew she was supposed to take the dog for a real walk. The boy usually was gone for an hour at a time and neighbors who recognized the terrier but not the walkers would comment on how much weight it had lost). He acted like the dog was in training for the day when its owners would come back and see how good it looked. The girl sometimes took pity on the dog and gave it a shorter walk at noon. But today her real motive was hunger. She wanted to get the special sandwich at the deli, and return home to eat in front of the t.v.

At the corner of Lexington the dog was prepared to continue across despite the traffic. It was eager to get to Third Avenue where the pet shop was, with all th helpless creatures. The dog loved to put its paws up against the glass and growl and bark, spooking the cats and birds inside until its would have to be hauled away by its leash. But the deli was on Lexington, so the girl turned left and kept up such a pace that the dog's legs were too busy fluttering to be able to guide it toward the pets.

In the front of the deli was the counter. The girl loved to marvel at the array of meats, each of which would have been a pricey imported delicacy back home. And the size. The large chrome-edged display counter filled the front of the store, its bulky presence stuffed with meats and smoked fish. When the man behind the counter asked her what she wanted, she ordered the special sandwich that the boy had introduced her to on the first day they stayed at the apartment. That had been a month ago when she had just arrived in New York, and it had not been raining. They had taken the dog for a walk around the neighborhood and stopped in at the deli. The boy knew that she'd find it interesting. Overwhelmed as she was by what to order he had suggested corned beef on rye with thousand island dressing, and cole slaw.

When they got back to the apartment and were eating their sandwishes, she'd said casually, "I was thinking, why don't we get married? That way we would not have to be apart all the time and worrying about visas." Just then the boy had discovered that the man had put celery soda in their bag instead of ginger ale. The cans looked similar, both green with gold, but the boy was convinced the man had done it on purpose to get rid of his stock of the less popular soda. He'd grunted about this for a while and said he couldn't drink it, so she drank them both.

She'd discovered that she actually liked celery soda and ordered it now along with the sandwich. She watched the oversized man in the stained apron prepare the two-inch high sandwich, slice one of the large sour pickles, and wrap them up in wax paper. She paid the woman at the cash register with the funny little money that all looked the same so that you had to be careful that you didn't give someone a twenty instead of a ten.

Outside the girl and the dog raced up the hill to the awning of the building and hurried inside. In the small marble-floored lobby she bent down and, putting her package on the floor, unbuckled the dog's collar. The dog sniffed at the bag and watched it rise up again in her hand. Then the dog shook the rain off its fur and scurried daintily into the elevator. Upstairs, the girl dried it off with the dog's towel and then wrapped a bath towel around her own head. They settled themselves in front of the t.v. and she spread the food out on the coffee table.

"Itadekimasu!" she said to the room, and bit into the huge sandwich. The little dog sat in front of her staring intently while she ate. The boy was very adamant about not feeding it scraps, and once became very angry when she'd done it. But when a line of drool began to drip from the corner of the dog's mouth, she gave in and began to toss her small pieces of corned beef.

After lunch she ran a bath in the large enameled tub and put in some bath salts that she'd brought as a gift for the owners. She climbed in and lay down in the very hot water, not moving so as not to burn her skin. She liked these New York bathtubs because she could stretch her legs out most of the way. Afterwards, she did some cleaning, to leave the place in good condition, and remarked to herself how at home she felt. It was as if she'd inherited not only a whole apartment but a whole life, with knicknacks, appliances, routines, and a pet. It was like playing house.

Around six the boy came home from his other job and said he really needed a drink. Still in his blue pants and shirt, with his name sewn across the pocket in red cursive, he stood in the small tiled kitchen and mixed a pitcher of martinis. He pulled down two martini glasses, dusted them off, and put them on a tray with the bottle of gin, the vermouth, the pitcher, and a bucket of ice. The girl sliced some cheese and arranged it on a plate with crackers and some cornichons that she found in the door of the refrigerator. They sat down in front of the t.v. and carefully clinked their glasses. After the first tremulous sip, the boy put the glass down on the coffee table and began to untie his boots. He kicked them off and stretched his legs out on the table. He flipped through the channels, looking briefly at the news and Jeopardy. When she asked him how his day had been, he told her it had been fine. "Mostly I had to mop up the lobby because of all the muddy rain people tracked in. I had to stay late because, after tracking down the Super all over the building, I finally asked him if I could have the day off tomorrow so I can take you to the airport. The guy told me I'd have to work late to cover for a guy who'd be coming late. No overtime, but I got tomorrow off." She nodded and placed a piece of cheese on a cracker, which she held out to him. He bit it with his teeth, his eyes still on Jeopardy.

He drank steadily, mixing the cocktails in the pitcher, and pouring them into his glass. He asked her what she'd had for lunch, and she said she got a sandwich at the Jew. He said, "I told you before not to say that. Say, 'at the deli' or 'the Jewish deli.' Not 'at the Jew.'" She shrugged and sipped her martini. "Anyway," he said, "I was just wondering what you'd like to have for dinner on your last night."

She looked at him and tried to read his face. "Whatever you'd like, " she said. He began mixing his third martini when the dog whimpered and batted its stubby tail on the carpet. The boy looked at his watch. "Not yet, Asta," he said. "Soon." The dog continued watching him.

They discussed food. He didn't want to go out anywhere because of the rain. They could order in, he said. She nodded. A program came on that he liked and he slouched down in the couch to watch. The martinis were taking effect and he was enjoying a nice sensation of being carried away. When the dog stood up and, walking over to the boy, placed its chin on the boy's thigh, he said, a little impatiently, "Not yet, Asta. Just wait a bit."

Halfway through his fourth martini, the dog began to whine and the boy realized it was urgent. "Alright!" he said, angrily. "Let's go." Then to the girl he said, "have you decided?" She blinked and shook her head. "Well, there are some menus in the drawer in the kitchen. Why don't you look at them, and I can pick it up when I'm out." He carried his glass to the front hall and placed it on th floor while he put put the dog into its trench coat. He then put on the collar and buckled it at the well worn groove. When he picked up the umbrella and shook it, the dog jumped with fright and tried to get away. "What's the matter?" said the boy. "You afraid of the umbrella?" He bent over, picked up his glass, and drained it. He placed it on the table near the door and let the dog out.

The girl came from the kitchen with the menus. "Have you decided?" he asked. She held them out uncertainly, so he said, "How about Chinese?" "Okay," she said. "Order what you like," he said, "and I'll pick it up." He circled some things he wanted and told her to order the rest. Then he went downstairs with the dog. As soon as they were outside, the dog squatted but peed very little. The boy hoped it wouldn't take a long time to do its business. As they headed down the hill toward Lexington, he thought of all the walks they'd taken over the month, and how quickly the time had gone.

He remembered walking down the street one afternoon when a tall, elegant woman had stopped to pet the dog. She'd asked him what kind it was, and he'd said, "a wire-haired fox terrier." "Oh," she said. "Just like the movies.... I think I've seen him around, but a woman was walking him." "A Japanese woman?" he'd asked. It thrilled him to say that. It sounded exotic and grown up. He wondered if the woman had thought they were married.

By the time they got to Third, the boy remembered the pet shop and tried to hustle the dog along without stopping. But the dog didn't like missing out on its game and did stop, planting its feet firmly, lowering its little bull neck, and tugging against him. The boy yanked on the leash with one hand and held the umbrella with the other. He had to jerk it several times before he got the dog moving, but every time he paused, the dog turned around and faced the shop. He dragged it across the street and hoped that when it was on the other side, the spell would be broken.

At the next corner the dog tricked him. It squatted as though about to do its business and then suddenly got up and made for the pet store again. The boy gave the leash a vicious double yank which caused the old leather to break with an audible "bink!" The dog looked up in surprise and tried to tip-toe away. The boy, angry and panicked, went after her and gave her a hard slap on her rear, and when he felt her little body give under the blow, he did it again.

The second strike made the dog sit down, and it looked up at him sadly in the rain. The boy held the umbrella at his side while the rain streamed down his head and into the collar of his shirt. The dog no longer looked fluffy and the boy cut see that under its fur it was rather insubstantial.

He picked up the dog and carried it in his arms all the way up the hill to the Chinese restaurant. As he waited for the food, he sat holding the dog, even when he reached in his pockets for the money.

At the apartment, he put the dog down and said to the girl sadly, "the leash broke."

They ate their Chinese food in silence, sitting before the television. The boy drank some more, so that not long after eating he was heavy with tiredness, and went to bed. The girl continued watching television for a while. Some time in the middle of the night he woke from a deep sleep and watched the reflection of rain running across the ceiling and walls of the room. He turned and saw the girl was awake. Tears were streaming down her face as she looked at him. "What is it?" he asked. She said nothing. He sat up and held her, feeling her warm tears on his skin. After a while, he was too tired to hold her, and, burying his head in the thick pillow, he slept.

Copyright © 1998
episode 15