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Act of Humanity

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

It was in September, at the end of a long and perfectly placid summer, that Cara began to talk about getting a dog, or rather to behave as if she were dangerously on the verge of suggesting it. She had always been oblique; now she demonstrated what could only be called a positive genius for deviousness. She was careful not to do anything Charles could call her on, nothing that would give him the opportunity to put his foot down; the signs were there just the same.

Early in the month, the pages of magazines—they subscribed to several, mostly glossy—began to fall open to certain advertising spreads. A dog galloped across autumnal fields, tongue panting at the heels of a hunter; another leapt eagerly into the air, aiming for a frisbee tossed to it by a tanned youthful Californian; another slavered over the pulpy food being spooned into its bowl by a paunchy actor who, Charles vaguely recalled, had had a short-lived TV show in the mid-1970’s.

A sudden and unprecedented interest in reading was the first thing, but it was not the last. By the time the leaves on the oak behind the house took on the first faint blushes of red, coupons for dog food were being clipped, to give, Cara said, to her friend Elspeth down the block. This was a master stroke; Charles himself had heard Elspeth, who had for years been the devoted owner of an obnoxious Weimaraner, complaining about the high cost of pet maintenance. The plausibility of the coupon clipping had to be weighed, however, against the fact that, as far as Charles knew, Elspeth had so far failed to stop by and collect any of the glossy slips so carefully set aside for her. Despite this, Cara still, on Sunday, sat down with the papers, ignoring the comics and the book review, once her favorite sections, and set straight to work carefully scissoring out rectangles of slick paper, setting them aside in a neat stack and continuing her deliberate search through the ad supplements.

Taken by themselves, these were small things, and Charles succeeded at first in overlooking them. For a time he found it possible to act as though the delicate balance of their domestic routine was not in danger, as if he had no reason to suspect that Cara had any intention of disrupting the household peace he prized. He made allowances; he looked the other way; he pretended not to hear the small squeaks of admiration and delight she made when they went to the movies and something canine crossed the screen. (He couldn’t imagine how he had failed to notice, all these years, how fond Hollywood was of dogs.) Once, when he walked into the kitchen, he’d found Cara on the telephone, at the end of a seemingly animated exchange whose termination coincided with his arrival. “Elspeth?” he asked her as she replaced the phone on its hook, but she simply smiled, shook her head, and said, “Call your mother.” This he had no intention of doing. It seemed to him that patience was the best remedy; he tried to make the best of the situation—which meant ignoring it as long as possible. It was a phase, a mood, and phases and moods were things that passed, to be replaced by new desires. He had expected hints about rings, babies—the litany of a woman too long dated. He had not expected this.

In the second week of October, when the oak held out limbs draped in a magnificent monolithic red, Charles felt sure that Cara had pursued the idea as far as she might without broaching the subject directly, and that she was on the point of abandoning the scheme, if scheme it was, altogether. This was the season of apple picking, of expeditions to the mountains in search of displays of foliage; these things were like religion with Cara, rituals to be observed without fail on autumn weekends as long as the weather was fine. But she surprised him. No Saturdays in the countryside were suggested; she merely bought apples at the farmers’ market downtown, and would sit afterwards at the kitchen table with a tall glass of cider, gazing out the window at the red glory in the backyard, looking bemused and obscurely pleased with herself.

He could have indulged this, but she went further. She began, whenever she and Charles went out walking, which they liked to do on crisp clear evenings, to make a point of stopping to admire the dogs they met during their rambles through the neighborhood. This wasn’t coupons, or advertisements, or vicarious contact via celluloid; this was hands-on involvement, the real thing, and it was indiscriminate. No dog was beneath Cara’s interest. Though her enthusiasm seemed more sincere for the larger breeds, especially anything resembling a wolfhound or a mastiff, she demonstrated that she was not above stopping even for the small yappy dogs she had always claimed to hate. Charles became acutely aware that theirs was a pet-loving neighborhood, a dog person’s neighborhood, which meant that canine interruptions, once Cara initiated them, struck at all-too-regular intervals along the sidewalk that had once stretched so safely before them.

He’d seen it in her before, of course, this excessive fondness for other people’s animals. He had been charmed by it, early on in their courtship, had even indulged it, taking pride in the fact that his girlfriend had a kind heart. It confirmed the wisdom of his choosing her. But those earlier demonstrations—the casual hello to a neighbor’s cat, the chats with Elspeth about the Weimaraner’s chronic lack of manners—had had a random nature, a sort of window-shopping casualness to them. This was something altogether different; it was methodical; it was, Charles felt sure, part of a plan whose devious workings were only beginning to manifest themselves.

He began to scrutinize Cara during their outings, watching how deliberately she knelt down to scratch a doggy ear, how resolutely she delivered the inevitable questions: name, breed, age—this rosary always concluding with a hearty thump on the animal’s ribcage. “Good dog!” she’d say, thump-thump, while Charles stuffed his hands in his pockets, waiting for the scene to end, smiling his there-she-goes-again smile in the general direction of the dog’s beguiled human companion. He kept on doing this even after he discovered that dog owners didn’t as a rule mind a complete stranger making a fool of herself over their pets; flush with pseudo-parental pride, they were as caught up in the whole disturbing spectacle as Cara was. Charles, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands in pockets, chose to take these encounters as a good opportunity to ponder the foibles of mankind, and be grateful that his weaknesses, such as they were, were rarely associated with any creature besides himself. Whatever he might have been, Charles was not by any stretch of the imagination what was known as an animal lover.

He could remember, when he cared to, a time long ago when this had not been the case. As a boy—like most boys, he supposed—he had had a dog, who had accompanied him on his rambles across the countryside, a big stupid loving yellow lab who chased cats and squirrels and sat next to his chair at the supper table, looking up at him with eyes full of admiration and hope. It made him uncomfortable, that look, and he was relieved when he discovered that food surreptitiously slipped onto the floor—his mother disapproved of feeding animals from the table—diverted the dog’s attention from himself. He imagined he had been fond of that dog—what was its name?—he had been used to it, at least, which was something like fondness. Had he cried when his mother told him the dog had gone away, that day after school when she sat him down at the kitchen table with an odd hard look on her face? He didn’t think so. No, he didn’t think there had been tears. Had she told him what had happened? He couldn’t remember, but guessed she had not. It would have been enough, in her eyes, to tell him simply that the dog had gone. It was the same phrase she had used about his father, and if it was good enough for him, it was surely good enough for a dumb animal.

After that there had been no pets, except for a few rangy hens his mother kept for the eggs and once in a while for the stewpot. Maybe they knew that and kept as much to themselves as they could; they certainly didn’t offer much in the way of companionship, though Charles liked the noise they made, the shrill squawking enthusiasm, when he went out in the mornings to feed them, slipping his hand into the cool heavy fullness of the old tin bucket and pulling out fistfuls of grain, letting them trickle slowly and deliberately between his fingers onto the ground, the chickens in a frenzy all around him. Sometimes, just to surprise them, he’d only pretend to toss the first handful, and laugh as they spun around looking for the morsels still clutched and hidden from them in his palm. Once, filled with a strange manic energy that scared and exhilarated him, he’d started leaping up and down, stamping his feet on the packed earth floor of the chicken pen, spinning himself dizzy, flinging feed in wide arcs all around him, a fertility god in a crazy old dance, grinning and whooping as the chickens went scattering and the grain came pelting down on the ground like a hard rain on a tin roof. And he’d looked up to find his mother standing just outside the wire fence, laughing with him, and he’d stopped and laughed too, the world reeling like a top around him and his mother’s laughter in his ears.

Since growing up and moving away—not so far away, really, but the city might as well have been on the other side of the world from the country landscape of his younger days—Charles hadn’t had much contact with species other than his own. Girl friends, some of them, had had pets: a cat who merely returned his indifference, a tank of fish, though in Charles’s view fish were more a part of the decor than a source of meaningful inter-species interaction. Once, after what he had cautiously decided was a promising first date, a woman had invited him back to her place, and he walked through the door of her apartment into one of the most nauseating smells he had ever encountered, a musky, feral curtain of scent that stifled and gagged him and sent him reeling back into the purer atmosphere of the hall. “What in the hell is that?” he had asked, choking, and the woman, embarrassed and trying to sound amused, explained that she had a ferret—de-scented, she said, and he burst out laughing. They hadn’t called each other again.

His mother, free with advice about his love life despite being a failure at her own, had disliked most of the girls he dated in high school, not that there had been that many of them, and had positively hated the college girl friend he made the mistake of bringing home Thanksgiving of junior year. That relationship died a painful death halfway through the spring semester; Charles never knew how much of that was his mother’s doing and how much his own. He had an obscure feeling that somehow he was not to blame, but when he thought back on his mother’s behavior toward Susan that Thanksgiving, all he could recall was a series of polite and formal exchanges. After dinner, though, in the kitchen, she had been more forthcoming. “I always imagined you with someone more elegant,” she had said, wistfully. “Someone with breeding, someone from a good family.” He had tried to argue with her, keeping his voice low in case Susan should hear, but found himself angrily ladling the rest of the stuffing out of the turkey carcass instead, while his mother made her deliberate way through the dishes in the sink. Later he found himself unable to shake her judgment, found himself examining his girlfriend with a new critical eye, wondering whether he could do better, whether he deserved something more. It was true Susan came from humble beginnings, true also that her clothes and her looks were nothing special. She was pretty in a clean Midwestern way, not short and not tall, with hair that hovered in an indeterminate range between blonde and brown. She wore jeans and crewneck sweaters, often with a pink turtleneck underneath. (He had never known whether she owned many such turtlenecks or had simply worn the same one over and over again.)

He had seen more in her, liked her blue eyes and the quiet earnest way she talked about going to medical school and helping people. She was the first in her family to go to college. But so was he, and in his mother’s eyes this had always been something to be proud of. So how had she been able to say those things to him, after Thanksgiving dinner, Susan clearing the table and out of earshot, say that she was surprised he could be happy with someone like that? And why, in the spring, had he been able to say the same things to Susan, tell her that he didn’t think they were right for each other, that they needed to move on?

After that, he had made it a rule not to bring women home. He assumed that Cara understood and did not take it personally. She, an only child, was close to her family, spoke to her parents a couple of times a week, but it did not seem to trouble her that Charles’s familial feelings were strained. So he was not prepared for the Sunday morning in late October when, halfway through the supplement pages, a trophy stack of coupons already beginning to accumulate at the edge of her placemat, Cara said, evenly and without looking up, “You’ve never taken me to meet your mother.” Charles took a swallow of cold coffee from the half-empty mug he was holding, picked up the “Week in Review” section by the edges and flung it open in front of him like a firebreak. Invisible on the other side of the wall of newsprint, Cara sat, waiting for him to say something, her breathing keeping pace with the slow snip-snip of her scissors; he could hear the sound of metal sliding past metal as the blades tore their deliberate way through the paper, the gentle intake and exhalation of breath as steel met itself and parted again, each reunion a widening of the rift of destruction.

“She’s difficult,” said Charles at last. “You wouldn’t enjoy yourself.”

“She’s very nice on the phone,” Cara said. “She’s not going to eat me.”

“She might,” said Charles, remembering Susan, trying not to think what Cara and his mother had found to say to each other. “You don’t know what she’s like.”

“Don’t I?” said Cara, in a tone that made Charles wonder. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

And then, like a man in a dream or under a spell, Charles found himself on the telephone, dialing a number he never dialed and never forgot, telling his mother he was bringing someone home, and as he did so, the thought flashed across his brain, only to be discarded a second later, that Cara was exactly the sort of person his mother had been waiting for all these years.

They stopped for breakfast on the way out of town, Charles’s idea, Cara insisting she wasn’t hungry and that in any case Charles’s mother would expect them to eat something once they arrived. Charles said nothing, turned into the lot of the Tastee Diner on Grant Avenue, not far from the city limits, and pulled into one of the angled spaces out front. It was early on a Sunday morning, the first Sunday in November, and through the front window, already festooned with cut-out paper turkeys with fatalistic smiling beaks, he could see that the pancake-and-omelet crowd was out in force. Families, fat exasperated parents and multitudes of shrieking children, had squeezed themselves into the best booths, commanding a view of the parking lot and, beyond it, the deserted avenue. As he switched off the engine, he saw a small grubby child stand up on the seat of his family’s booth, holding the syrup jug in both hands as he turned it over his sister’s head and shook it up and down, but he couldn’t make the sliding top open and started to cry even before a rough adult hand reached up and forced him back down to table level, giving him a warning slap as it did so.

“You’re right,” said Charles, “we ought to wait,” and turned the engine over, edging his way out of the tight space and back onto Grant, bound west for the highway that led to the country road that, followed long enough, found its way to the muddy track connecting his family’s 20 acres with the rest of the world, such as it was in those parts. Every morning of his school life Charles had made his way down the half-mile of dirt lane, down to the junction with the highway where the school bus would stop to collect him. And each afternoon he’d retrace every step after the bus dropped him off, only this time clutching whatever mail had been left in the box in the interim—his mother said it didn’t make sense for her to walk out to the highway to get it herself, not when he’d be passing by the box anyway. He resented this, not so much the chore itself, but the fact that each day’s mail gave him fresh reasons to be disappointed. He had nothing to expect; he was not yet of the age when he might reasonably anticipate mail of his own, and none of his friends from school were the kind to write, not even during summer vacations. Not so much as a postcard ever turned up in the box with his name on it.

But there were days when, stepping eagerly out of the bus, he raced toward the mailbox, aiming right for the metal flag that drooped expectantly along the metal cylinder with its now-full belly, and at those moments he was convinced that some wonderful thing had arrived for him, perhaps an oddly sized, dog-eared envelope crusted with stamps from foreign places like barnacles clinging to the hull of a ship, sails tattered with adventuring, just put in from the Indies. (As a boy he had been especially fond of books about adventure on the high seas.) Carefully working the flap loose, he knew he would look inside and discover a map, on which his father—his father!—had marked with a black X the treasure he had left them so long ago to win and then, mortally wounded at last by the enemy who had tracked him all these years, had buried on the remote island that had been the scene of his triumph and his defeat and, with strength enough left just to set pen to paper for the first and last time, had made a map and given it with his dying breath to a trusted friend to send home to the young son he barely remembered.

That time and that envelope had never arrived, though Charles always searched the box for it, hoping that the postman might have hidden it for safekeeping behind his mother’s Reader’s Digest and the bills he had already, thanks to her, learned to resent. But there wasn’t anything behind them, behind those ominous rectangular missives from faceless people far away, people who had nothing better to do than send reminders that they knew, oh how they knew, had counted and recounted, every dollar and cent owing.

The first thing Charles saw as he nosed the car over the brow of the hill was the mailbox, its steel mouth agape, stupid and empty like the face of a witless child. He switched on the turn signal and slowed to a standstill, waiting for oncoming traffic though there was none, not this early on a Sunday with everyone in church or quiet at home. Cara did not look over at him, and she said nothing, though usually she was free with commentary, always gently presented, about his driving. His hesitation, it seemed, was not unexpected. He waited a couple of seconds longer before making the turn.

The drive up to the house was shorter than he remembered, or perhaps shorter than he wished, but in the rearview mirror he saw that the dust hanging over the roadbed in the wake of their passing was the same thick red airless substance that had come choking in through the windows of his mother’s car all the years of his youth. Once he learned to drive, he had fought back, trying to beat the dust by keeping the car at a crawl from highway to house, but no matter how slowly he went, the red cloud pursued him, clawing its way up the sides of the station wagon and in through the open windows, settling in his lungs and his hair and drawing a red roadmap along the creases of his jeans. Finally he had given up, rolling up the windows until just a crack showed at the top of the glass, no matter how hot the weather, and made a habit of gunning the engine so that the wagon bounced crazily over the ruts of the road, the dust drifting after him in indifferent pursuit.

This time, he felt but did not give in to the old impulse to floor the gas pedal, and still the car moved all too quickly down the dirt track until before he knew it they had arrived, and simultaneously he saw his mother on the front porch steps, holding something, the house white and gleaming behind her and reflecting back at him through the windshield, and Cara’s hand poised over the inside handle of the passenger door, waiting for the moment when motion ceased. Before he could even set the parking brake—it made Cara nervous when he didn’t use it, even when the car was on a perfect level—Cara was out of the car, moving quickly toward his mother where she stood on the steps, arms outstretched to take the thing from her, the thing that squirmed and howled, and before he even heard it he knew, saw in a flash the whole conspiracy, knew that the three of them had come together without his knowledge or his permission, knew too that it would be futile to resist. He sat in the car, hands on the steering wheel, horror in his heart, waiting for them to call him inside.


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