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Astray In the Suburbs

ISSUE:  Summer 1986

The old dog, some kind of mongrel, strayed into the town of Clarks Green on a hot Sunday morning in August when nearly everybody was asleep except the children. With its black fur in rattails and its eyes thick with mucus, it did not look well as it stopped to sip at the fringe of each spacious watered lawn. Only because the front door of the Danderini’s was wide open did it actually go inside, drawn by the irresistible smell of meat.

“Who left the goddamn front door open?” asked Dr. Danderini, the urologist, wandering in from the deck in white silk pajamas. “All the money I put into screens and somebody leaves the door wide open.”

“James didn’t do it,” said Mrs. Danderini in a soft but clear voice that came across best on the telephone. She had once been her husband’s receptionist, and it was her phone voice that won his heart. She still called him several times a day at the office, aware that he treated her best over the telephone. “James is good about closing the door.”

James had what the child psychologist called “behavioral problems.” He was a depressed kid, overweight and reclusive, who did badly in school and had few friends. For several years, he had been collecting spiders, live and dead ones. The dead ones he pinned to huge pieces of cardboard and stuck to his bedroom walls. The live ones clamored over each other in old mayonaise jars and sometimes spilled out onto the carpet. It was not unusual for the ugliest of these creatures to find ther way into the parental bedroom, if not the parental bed. This drove Dr. Danderini crazy, of course, but he restrained himself, since the psychologist had urged them to “indulge their son’s interest,” hoping it might “lead to other interests.” James’ fascination with these eight-legged, wingless, predacious arachnids was a frequent topic of his parents’ daily telephone conversations.

“Goddam kid will drive me bazookas,” said Dr. Danderini, who was angry about the front door but not so angry that he wasn’t a little glad he lived in a neighborhood where if you left the door open you could be sure nobody would just wander in and make themselves at home in your kitchen. He always hated it when, as a kid in Scranton, you never knew who you’d find going through your refrigerator. The Italians in Scranton were like that. They had no respect for privacy.

Mrs. Danderini went into the kitchen to make breakfast while her husband read the The New York Times, beginning with the stock market quotations and proceeding, via the “About Men” column, to the sports page. He had trained himself to read the sports page last. His favorite team, the Yankees, were doing badly, and this added to the bad mood begun by the open screen door. He was also thinking about his father, who hovered near death only six miles away, at the State Hospital in Scranton. A wiry old man, Sam Danderini had shocked everyone when he took a stroke in early spring, just when everything else was coming back to life, including his son’s garden, which he had turned into the neighborhood showplace. For ten years, since the death of his wife, he had , spent every summer weekend in Clarks Green, meticulously edging the broad lawns, weeding the flowerbeds, and shaping hedges into hearts and angel wings, a technique he’d learned from his own father back in Calabria.

Sam Danderini sometimes regretted that he and his son didn’t have conversations like the ones he’d had with his father, but that was a long time ago and in another country. He was glad to have a son at all, especially one who was a urologist. Sam came and went quietly, occasionally leaving hunks of dry imported provolone or slices of prosciutto for James in the refrigerator, since James’ parents did not provide these foods. Twice a year he made several gallons of “dago red” wine, knowing that if he put them in his son’s three-car garage, they would always disappear well before he was ready to brew another batch.

Thinking about Sam, Dr. Danderini realized that now he would have to hire somebody to look after the grounds for the rest of the summer, since James had proven incapable of even mowing the lawn. “That kid can’t seem to do anything I ask him,” said Dr. Danderini to his wife, who knew better than to defend James when his father was upset.

It was midmorning when Mrs. Danderini discovered the stray dog at their kitchen table, his mouth full of the bologna that James had left out unwrapped. She was immensely glad that her husband hadn’t come upon this little scene first, since it would have ruined everybody’s weekend.

“Shoo!” she said, slapping the dog with a rolled up newspaper.

“Ouch,” said the old dog. “Not there, would you? My back, it’s a killing me. The arthritis . . . I got it, but so what you’d expect, an old dog like me?”

“You can talk?” said Mrs. Danderini.

“It don’t make my life easy, believe me,” said the dog. “Look at me, at my age and with no home, no respect.” He continued to chew the bologna.

Feeling inexplicably sorry for the dog, Mrs. Danderini said, “Listen, I’ll let you have the bologna, but you better get out before my husband finds you. He doesn’t like animals.”

“A man who don’t like animals?” the dog said. “What kind of a man that he don’t like animals?”

James, with his pockets full of spiders, came into the kitchen hungry, but the sight of his mother in conversation with a dog was enough to distract him from the refrigerator. “Hi, doggy,” he said.

The dog stared at James.

“The dog can talk,” Mrs. Danderini said.

James looked at her with unusual attention.

“Okay, so I talk,” the dog said. “There. You heard me. Now I can go? Where to, who knows?”

James understood the dog’s implication. “Can we keep him, Mommy?” he said. “Can we? Can we?”

“Your father wouldn’t tolerate it, James.”

“But it’s almost my birthday, isn’t it? Don’t get me nothing else, just this.”

Anything else, James.”

“Good! Oh, thanks, Mommy. I’ll keep him in my room and feed him and . . .everything!”

Mrs. Danderini could think of nothing to say as her happy son led the dog to his bedroom,

Dr. Danderini did not find out about the dog until lunchtime, and he behaved as expected, saying, “No way a goddam dog’s gonna live in my house, I don’t care if it talks or plays the fiddle.” Blithely, he sat down to a “lite” meal of Chinese chicken that had just come steaming from the microwave.

The fiddle reference upset Mrs. Danderini, who had been taking violin lessons for a year now. As a teenager, she had played with the Scranton Philharmonic, but her technique had suffered in the ten years since she met her husband. She had all but given up hope of picking up where she left off until last year, when her mother died and left her an antique violin, the very one she learned on as a child. Against all objections, she started lessons again with a young man oh the faculty of Keystone Junior College.

When Dr. Danderini had nearly finished his meal, he noticed that his wife was teary-eyed. Misreading the source of her sorrow, he said, “Okay, okay. The dog can stay, but only till we find somebody to take it. And we got to advertise.”

Mrs. Danderini stood behind her husband and kissed his balding head, causing the hairs on his thick forearms to rise. Though only 41, he looked 50, and people in Clarks Green often said behind his back that he looked more like a butcher than a urologist. This was one of those nasty stock comments that float around all communities like Clarks Green.

James, whose interest in arachnids had been secretly on the wane for some time, was thrilled to have a dog, especially one who could talk. He wanted to call the dog Charlie like a dog on television, but the animal insisted that his name was Lucaroni.

“What kind of dog goes by an Italian name?” Dr. Danderini asked, disgusted.

“An Italian dog,” Lucaroni said. “Use your brain, they say you got one.”

Dr. Danderini couldn’t accept that the dog was able to answer for itself. He would have kicked it out weeks ago if the change in James weren’t so obvious. The boy had never been better. He took the dog for long walks every day—the first regular exercise he’d ever gotten. James seemed happier, brighter. He even seemed to be losing weight.

“Listen up, Lucaroni. You better know your days here are numbered. I put that ad I warned you about in the Scranton Times last week: “Nice friendly dog wants a home. No charge.” Believe me, I was stretching it with that “nice.”“

Lucaroni ignored the doctor and went off with a slice of bologna.

“All he eats is bologna,” Dr. Danderini said. “Why can’t he eat scraps like any other dog? Bologna is expensive.”

“It’s not so expensive,” said his wife. “And besides, dog food is overpriced.” She wondered what her husband would say if he knew she often fed ground beef patties to Lucaroni.

Only one call came in about the free dog, this from an old lady who hung up when she found out Lucaroni wasn’t a puppy. Mrs. Danderini was secretly glad about this bad luck. The psychologist was so optimistic about James that he recommended changing his appointment schedule from once a week to once a month. If his improvement kept up, he said, James might well be cured of his depression in a few months. That would certainly lead to an improvement in his schoolwork.

Even Dr. Danderini noted with pleasure that James had accepted the responsibility of dog-ownership. He spent every waking hour with the mongrel, washing him on Saturdays with the garden hose and picking fleas from his fur each night, which he fed to the spiders. Lucaroni wouldn’t let him use soap or shampoo on him, which made it hard to control the fleas. “Soap I don’t need,” said the dog. “You get my age, it makes the skin worse.”

Of course Dr. Danderini complained that Lucaroni smelled bad.

“What do you expect?” the dog would say. “I eat a lot of bologna. It leaves a smell. So what do you think a urologist smells like?”

Dr. Danderini’s patience was strained. “You go on insulting me, you fleabag, and I’ll kick your ass out the back door.”

Lucaroni, as usual, walked off in a huff. He felt he did not have to put up with this abuse from a man who made his living from other people’s bladder infections.

The season turned, and James had to go to school. This left Lucaroni with little to do but eat and sleep, for which he was grateful. Nobody answered the continuing ad in the Scranton Times, which was running into money—a fact that did not escape the doctor, who had long since ceased to speak to the dog. It embarrassed him to have an ugly old dog without a pedigree as a housepet, one who furthermore stank, who ate bologna, and who talked back in a queer accent. He insisted that the dog be locked in James’s room whenever company came, and he never admitted to anyone that the dog his son walked through the neighborhood every morning was really theirs. It was too unbearable.

“I’m giving him till Thanksgiving,” the doctor said. “Then he can go sponge off somebody else.”

Unfortunately, Lucaroni took ill in mid-November, a few days before Thanksgiving. It started with dizzy spells that led to convulsions. Then the dog threw up on the blond living room carpet, wall to wall. The puke was everywhere. Mrs. Danderini had to call in a special cleaning agency, but the smell lingered well into December.

Dr. Danderini almost wept. “The dog is ruining us. We were going to have my office party here this year, weren’t we? I told the girls we’d do it, and now we can’t. The smell is terrible.”

Mrs. Danderini suggested that in a few weeks the odor would be gone, but her husband wouldn’t listen. He cancelled the Christmas party and stayed away from home as much as possible, knowing that Lucaroni would be sprawled on his leather chair in front of the TV. Had it not been for the improvement in James’s grades in math and science, Lucaroni would have been taken to the pound weeks before he got sick. But even now, with Lucaroni too ill to go for walks, James continued to improve. He seemed able to study better just having Lucaroni in the room. When the teacher called home to say how pleased she was with the boy’s performance, Dr. Danderini was really stuck.

“He’s going to be a doctor, after all. Just like his father,” Mrs. Danderini said. “We owe it to Lucaroni.”

This killed her husband, who had tried everything in the past: trips to Yankee Stadium, new bicycles, candy, threats of every imaginable kind. Nothing convinced James that the third grade was when you had to begin to think about medical school. Now the goddamn dog had worked some kind of magic, knowing it was his only chance for a warm house through winter.

The situation was, in itself, just bearable, but the veneer of Dr. Danderini’s patience had been worn thin by his father, Sam Danderini, who had been unable simply to die, though unaided by artificial supports. He slipped into a coma just after Christmas. The long illness had brought his son near to a breakdown, what with the hospital visits and phone calls. At least you don’t have to visit somebody in a coma, Dr. Danderini told his wife, who went to her father-in-law’s bedside two afternoons a week anyway, in case he was still conscious in some remote layer of his aged mind. The thought of his dying alone, away from home, seemed too awful to her. She could not convince her husband to go even on the old man’s 84th birthday, in mid-January.

The day Sam Danderini finally did die, in April, the urologist cancelled his office hours in mid-afternoon and came home to make funeral arrangements. He found nobody there at the time but Lucaroni, who was eating hamburger with a side of pickle relish from a dish on the kitchen table. It had been left out for the dog by Mrs. Danderini.

“Okay, you sponging big-mouth fleabag. You had it now,” the doctor said.

Lucaroni looked up in resignation, knowing it would come to this one day.

“You ain’t worth the bologna we fill you up with. Look at you, eating at our table. I told you before, one false step and you were finished here. Well, you’re done.” He grabbed Lucaroni by the scruff and dragged him, squealing, to the blue Mercedes parked in the garage. He put Lucaroni in the trunk and drove off, giddily, into the lush country opening up toward Binghamton. He drove for at least an hour before dropping the old dog by the roadside in a patch of purple fireweed. Dr. Danderini did not kick the dog, though Lucaroni, who remained silent throughout the ordeal, expected the kick and half imagined it had come.

When the doctor got home, his wife and son were talking to the funeral director. “Where in God’s name have you been?” his wife asked, having been told by his office that he had left for home ages ago. Everybody was in a panic. There was so much to be done. On top of which, Lucaroni was missing.

Dr. Danderini could hardly conceal a smile as he walked upstairs to the bedroom, ignoring everyone, and shut the door. Mrs. Danderini figured he was going upstairs to cry himself out, since this is what people generally do when a parent dies.

James, for his part, was hysterical. Since Lucaroni was obviously too sick to go anywhere on his own, he and his mother suspected foul play and reported such to the police, who put out an alert for the dog.

They didn’t for a moment suspect Dr. Danderini, who had locked himself in his room with the last case of his father’s dago red wine to watch reruns of old Yankee games on his VCR. Dr. Danderini was gruff, as Mrs. Danderini often said, but never cruel or unbalanced, though many people in Scranton and Clarks Green doubted this when he didn’t appear at his own father’s funeral. Day after day, he stayed in the bedroom, sipping the wine, watching the old ball games. Sometimes he could be heard to scream, “Joe, Joe, Joe Dimaggio!” in the middle of the night like a weird chant. Once or twice, Mrs. Danderini could have sworn she heard him singing in Italian.

It was fully a week before he came downstairs one day at sunrise to answer the front door. There had been a faint scratching at the screen for perhaps an hour, which neither James nor his mother—who now slept in a guest bedroom at the back of the house—seemed to hear. It was Lucaroni, whom the exhausted urologist welcomed uncharacteristically with a kiss on the dog’s cool nose.

“Lucaroni,” said the doctor. “I shouldn’t have done what I did.”

Lucaroni shook his head, slowly, and came in. Without hesitation, he resumed his old place on the leather chair once reserved for the urologist alone. From that day on he lived with the Danderinis, though he never spoke a word to anyone again.


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