Ruth’s mother leaned back in the rocker, her lipstick freshly applied, her purse on her lap, the tremor in her left hand constant. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
Ruth gripped the porch railing. The sky was drained of color, and the still, close air bore down on her. “After I begged you for a dog for years, you decide to get one now?”
“I was working full-time. I was raising you. Getting a dog then was too much.”
Too much. A lot of things then were too much.
“Ruthie, it’s supposed to rain, and I want to get back before we get sopping wet. Let’s go to the dog shelter.”
Ruth walked into the house and let the screen door slam. The blinds were tilted against the heat, and the living room was cool, the sofa and chairs sleeping in the dim light. In the kitchen, the smell of coffee hung in the air. The same percolator on the counter, the same toaster that only toasted in one slot, the same scrap paper by the telephone with its penciled list: sour cream, beets, shoe polish, ironing. Several shards of china were scattered beneath the baseboard, and an ache shot through Ruth at the sight of them. She was sweeping them into the dustpan when her mother parked her purse on the kitchen table.
“If you still want a dog, you can get one too.”
“Last time I was here, you dropped the butter dish.”
“Good riddance. I never liked that pattern.”
Ruth had to hand it to her mother. She had elevated denial to an art.
“Mom, what happened at the appointment with Dr. Berkowitz?”
“What happened with the doctor Debbie introduced you to?”
“We ate lunch.”
“What did Berkowitz say?”
Her mother took the dustpan from Ruth and put it back in the closet. “He says I have essential tremor. Nothing to worry about.”
“What’s essential tremor?”
“Did he call you again?”
“Did you tell him you were dropping things?”
“Did he call you?”
“He invited me to a horse show but I told him I was busy.”
Her mother sagged against the kitchen counter. “Why?”
“Because he was boring and I don’t like horse shows. What’s essential tremor?”
“Something that might get worse after a long time.”
“Did Berkowitz prescribe medication?”
Her mother drew herself up to her full five feet, one half inch. “Debbie went to high school with him. Evelyn knows his mother. You could have gone to the horse thing and given him a chance.”
“Is there anything preventative you can do?”
“It takes a high order of brains to be a periodontist.”
“Did he give you any advice?”
“He told me to stop drinking coffee. I told him coffee hasn’t killed me yet. I’m not stopping now.”
“He must have told you that for a reason.”
“I’ve had it with reasons.”
Silence fell between them. Her mother opened the refrigerator. “I got a nice babka at the bakery. You should have a slice and a glass of milk before we go. You’re too skinny.”
Ruth felt a headache bloom in the back of her head. “Mom, this is not the time for you to get a dog. Maybe you should think about that retirement community. Doctors right in the building. Hot meals every day. No cooking, no clean-up.”
“I like cooking. As for doctors, I have doctors. And Lakeview doesn’t allow pets.”
“So that’s why you want a dog. So you can’t go to Lakeview. So you won’t be like Aunt Evelyn.”
“Can’t a person just want a dog? With you it’s got to be ten other things.”
“Okay, fine,” Ruth said. “Everything’s simple. You get a dog. You take it for a walk. It sees a squirrel. It runs after it. Meanwhile you’re hanging onto the leash and breaking your leg.”
“Do you hear yourself? Are you like this at work? You’re a role model for those children.”
“Why don’t we just visit Lakeview? It’s twenty minutes from here.”
Her mother picked up her purse and strode into the living room, where she fluffed up the pillows and refolded the throw.
“Evelyn is older than I am, and she’s been dealing with Bernie’s condition for years. She needs help. I don’t.”
Ruth remembered when her mother did need help. In fifth grade, she would come home after school to find her father sleeping in his armchair while their neighbor, Mrs. Fennell, sat across from him, knitting and keeping an eye on him, the television on low. At first the chemo raised their hopes. Her father would joke the night before the treatments about going into the hospital for his chicken soup. A few days after each treatment, he would return to his study, taking notes for a new class he planned to teach the following year. But after a while the note-taking stopped. Her father spent most of the day in his armchair, clipping articles from The New York Times and dozing. As the weeks passed, the paper remained on the table beside him, unread. The tumor grew as her father shrank. The blanket across his knees couldn’t disguise his gaunt frame, and by the end, the chair towered over him. After his death, her mother moved the chair into the guest room. Now Ruth glanced at where it used to be, even as she forced herself to look away.
“You don’t have to need help to move into one of those places,” she said. “I’d still see you every weekend, but you’d have other people around. During the day you have no one to talk to except the librarian and the guy at the meat counter. Apart from me, everyone you’re close to is either in New York or Israel.”
“And your life is so different?”
“What are you talking about? I’m surrounded by twenty-three fourth graders all day long.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” her mother said. “On one hand I can count the dates you’ve gone on since you broke up with Russell. You’re punishing yourself over that ganef when you should forget about him. But you’re so mad at yourself that you don’t want me to get a dog.”
“I don’t think you should get a dog because I don’t think you should get a dog. Russell has nothing to do with it.”
Her mother marched to the hall closet, returning with the umbrella with pink flamingos that she brought to the winter concert when Ruth was twelve. For the rest of junior high school, Bobby Sankowsky called her Flamingo Schwartz. Unable to speak, she watched her mother fold three tissues and insert them into her purse.
“Are you taking me to the shelter or am I driving myself?”
So they went.
The shelter was set back from the street on a hill, although the traffic from the highway could still be heard. Cars crowded the parking lot, and it was all Ruth could do to edge her car into a space next to a pick-up truck. A man in a cowboy hat walked out of the shelter with a pit bull on a leash, and Ruth watched them climb into the truck beside her. Walking into a place where men in cowboy hats were accompanied by pit bulls did not appeal to her. This did not seem to put off her mother, however, who was already opening the car door. Dark clouds were rolling in, and Ruth wondered if she’d get back to her place before the thunderstorm hit. The radio had warned of heavy rain and flash flooding. Even now the breeze was turning cooler, and the leaves of a Japanese maple stirred, pale in the fading light. For a moment, Ruth imagined turning the key in the ignition and pulling away.
Instead she glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror and tried not to think about the gray coming in at her temples. She had broken up with Russell after two years, when she turned thirty-five. Now here she was a year later with no man in sight. Russell, Russell, Russell. He had looked so good on paper. Jewish. Lawyer. Witty. Owner of a condo in Center City. Real books on the shelves, not just thrillers.
But her cousin Debbie’s wedding had made it all too clear that her relationship with Russell was going nowhere. As soon as the ceremony was over, he proceeded to avoid her as much as possible, talking endlessly over dinner with a man to his left about his start-up company. When the dancing began, he did one perfunctory slow dance with her before vanishing to get a drink. He reappeared some time later doing an energetic fox trot with Aunt Evelyn, and for the rest of the night, he squired various women of her mother’s generation across the ballroom floor. She spent the evening pretending that she enjoyed talking with the bridesmaids and watching them jockey for the bouquet. Her conversation with him during the car ride home resulted in a discourse on the way marriage as an institution had outlived its relevance. She consoled herself that night by emptying her medicine cabinet of everything that was his and hurling each item into the wastebasket.
Now here she was, thirty-six, living in the same walk-up apartment she had moved into during graduate school. Debbie had a husband and a baby and a house in the suburbs, while she had twenty-three fourth graders and late-night TV. And when she hit the remote and the blue glare dimmed, what she had was her longing: a man beside her when she couldn’t sleep, his back a shield against the night.
The shelter stank of air freshener and dogs. Although visitors could see into the cat room as soon as they entered the building, it was the rank smell of dogs that dominated the place, despite the rumbling of an air conditioner and the blasting of a fan. Incessant barking came from beyond a metal door at the far end of the lobby, and the whole building seemed to vibrate with their urgent appeals. A cluster of people around a counter were being assisted by employees in green tee shirts that read “Peace. Love. Pit Bull.” An employee was wiping up a suspicious-looking puddle, and Ruth took a good look at the tile around her feet. The speckled brown, black and beige design had obviously been chosen for its capacity to hide stains. The whole place made her wince, but her mother was oblivious. Plopping her purse down on the counter, her mother looked at the only employee who wasn’t busy with a customer, a man with his back turned who was writing in a notebook. There was an air of concentration about the man that even her mother seemed to respect. At least for thirty seconds. Then she picked up her purse and set it down again.
“Excuse me. I have a question.”
The man acknowledged her with a momentary turning of his head, his pen still moving.
“I’ll be right with you.”
The scribbling continued, and Ruth leaned sideways, trying to see the man’s face and what he was writing. Tall and lanky, with tousled hair shot with gray, the man seemed impervious to his surroundings, as if the barking dogs and the employee explaining the shelter’s no-kill policy to a teary woman were present in some alternate universe. When he turned around, slipping the notebook into the back pocket of his jeans, Ruth looked away.
“Can I help you?” he asked her.
“You can help me,” her mother said. “I’m Sylvia Schwartz, and I’d like a dog. Not a small yappie dog. A real dog.”
The man grinned, and a dimple in his left cheek caused a minor disturbance in Ruth’s heart.
“Mrs. Schwartz, you’re in the right place. We specialize in real dogs.” He turned to Ruth.
“And you are—?”
“Ruth,” she said, feeling the blood rush to her face. “Ruth Schwartz.”
“Tom Morgan. Nice to meet you.”
“Not too big, either,” her mother said. “I hope the dogs have a better set-up than this. That air conditioner is barely working.”
“It could be better. So what kind of dog are you looking for, Mrs. Schwartz?”
“A medium-size female who doesn’t shed. With good manners.”
The man considered this.
“I’m not sure you can speak of dogs as having good manners. Good disposition, definitely. But manners—”
“I don’t care what you call it. I want a good dog.”
“I think my mother means a dog that’s been trained,” Ruth said, hoping she was no longer blushing. “She hasn’t had a dog before, so she needs one that won’t get out of control.”
“Do the two of you live together, or do you—?”
“Separately,” Ruth said.
“Ah. Mrs. Schwartz, may I ask what kind of place you live in? Do you have a back yard?”
“I do. I even have a fence. I live in a house in Willowbrook. I brought my tax bill to prove it.”
“Great. A medium-size dog needs some space to run around in. Dig holes, chase squirrels. The basics.”
“I don’t want holes in my back yard.”
“You might have to negotiate that with your dog. Okay, one female, not too big, with manners—or something like that—coming up.”
Her mother collected her purse.
“Don’t forget no shedding.”
“I won’t. Follow me.”
Ruth followed, studying the line of his shoulders and his torso. Tom Morgan. Not Jewish. She hated the way she divided all men into Jewish and Not Jewish. It was as if a flashing neon sign appeared the moment she so much as looked at a man. Her boyfriend in high school hadn’t been Jewish, but she had always assumed that the man she would marry would be a Jewish atheist like herself. A Jew who occasionally went to synagogue on the High Holidays but mostly felt guilty for not going. A man she could feel guilty with would be perfect.
Of course Russell had been Jewish, and he had never felt guilty, even when he was stalling about marriage as her child-bearing years ticked by. Her college boyfriend, Sam Liebowitz, had a healthy dose of guilt, but he insisted that she go with him to the weekly shabbes services run by Hillel, where gefilte fish was eaten on paper plates stained pink by horseradish. Proposing to her at the end of senior year, he had discussed having four children and settling near his parents in Pittsburgh. She could see her entire life falling into place like a series of Russian dolls: Sam, Ruth, children one through four, Sam holding them all within his sturdy contours. It didn’t seem like he could ever disappear into the depths of an armchair, leaving her to raise her children without a father.
And yet his forecast of their life together—not to mention his assumption that what he wanted was what she wanted—set off a signal of despair deep within her. The night after he proposed, she had dinner alone at a cheap Chinese place on Lancaster Avenue. Afterwards, fueled by sesame chicken and MSG, she called him and broke up with him. She had never eaten sesame chicken again.
A long dry spell had followed, marked by blind dates with Jewish doctors set up by Aunt Evelyn and Debbie. There had been a mad crush on a drummer she met outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But as he always stumbled into her apartment reeking of cigarettes and beer in the hours before dawn, she began to wonder why she had been attracted to him in the first place.
Then there was Russell. The only single Jewish lawyer in the Philadelphia area who was allergic to the very mention of marriage. Now when she looked back on him, she was left with a feeling very much like the one she had when she climbed on the school bus and Bobby Sankowsky hollered from the back seat, “Flamingo, baby, talk to me.”
And there was Tom Morgan, his notebook in his back pocket, holding the door for her mother and turning to her with a steady gaze.
Cage after cage after cage—each one containing a dog desperate to get out. Barking wildly, they threw themselves against the cage doors, exposing their bellies and their scars. The smell was intense, a pungent, matted-hair smell that stuck to the back of her throat. A narrow walkway ran between the cages, and Ruth had to fight the urge to grip her elbows and walk sideways to put as much distance as possible between herself and the cages on either side of her. But her mother seemed completely at ease, walking down the aisle and studying the dogs. Some lifted their heads and howled as she passed; others pricked up their ears, their eyes hopeful, their tails thumping on the dingy floor. Tom Morgan stopped in front of a cage.
“Here’s a pretty mini poodle. Nice companion dog. Won’t shed much, if at all. She might chew with her mouth open, but her manners are okay. What do you think?”
Her mother moved closer, and the dog leapt into the air, bursting into a torrent of barking.
“Mr. Morgan, I want a dog, not a monster.”
“Tildy’s no monster. She’s just jumpy. Isn’t that right, Tildy? You’re a good girl.”
He stuck his fingers through the wire and scratched the dog’s head, and Ruth watched, transfixed, as the dog nuzzled his hand. What was it that soothed the dog so instantly? The man’s voice? His touch? The fact that the dog knew him? Not since her father had sung his lullaby to her when she couldn’t sleep had anything calmed her like that, and now the thought of her father sitting on the edge of her bed, singing the Hebrew words in that wavering voice of his, made misery coil in her gut.
Her mother walked right past the dog, unmoved. Tom Morgan gave Tildy one last scratch.
“Hold on, Mrs. Schwartz, not so fast. What about this puggle? We’ve got a real quiet one next to Tildy, abandoned outside a supermarket. Short hair, won’t shed much. Seems tailor-made for you.”
“What’s a puggle?”
“A cross between a beagle and a pug.”
“That’s a ridiculous name,” her mother said. “And that dog looks like its legs shrank in the wash.”
“Lots of people think they’re cute.”
“Mr. Morgan, I am not lots of people.”
“I see that. Well, we’ve got plenty of dogs in here. If you go down that aisle, you’ll be in the puppy wing. There are a few dogs there you might want to consider.”
With an eagerness that amazed Ruth, her mother disappeared around the corner. As soon as she was out of view, Tom Morgan turned to her.
“She has her opinions.”
“She does. You’ve been very good with her.”
“I like her. I always prefer people who know what kind of dog they want. The folks who come in here without a clue wander up and down the aisles, get the dogs excited, and then they leave. I think they depress the dogs. Or maybe they depress me.”
“I’d be depressed all the time if I worked here,” Ruth said, glancing at a dog curled in a corner of his cage.
“Yeah, I couldn’t be here every day. I just volunteer every other Saturday. This morning we had to put down a dog that was sick. I saw the owner leave after it was over. He was in bad shape.”
“Is that why you were writing in your notebook?”
She couldn’t believe she had asked such a pointed question, and she flushed.
“One of the reasons,” he said. “I’m a guidance counselor at Hamilton High School, and I’ve been talking with this boy lately. I suggested he write in a journal, and he basically told me off. Said I should try it first before telling him to pour his heart out in some notebook his parents could get their hands on. So I took him up on it. So what do you do when you’re not taking your mother to look for a dog?”
“I teach fourth grade at Sweet Briar Elementary.”
He shook his head and a wistful look crossed his face. “Fourth grade. Sometimes I visit Hamilton Elementary to remind myself of what the kids in my office used to be like. Running around at recess. Hanging upside down on the monkey bars. Did you choose fourth grade, or was it assigned to you?”
“I chose it. I had a choice between fourth and fifth, and I chose fourth.”
No one had ever asked her this question. She knew the answer all right. For a moment she considered coming up with a pat response, but she realized that she wanted to tell him. “Because my father died when I was in fifth grade.”
The words hovered in the air between them.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She avoided his eyes, grateful that the door to the lobby swung inward and an employee came in, followed by a middle-aged couple headed for the puppy wing. Ruth stepped aside to let them walk past her, and Tom Morgan moved down the aisle, greeting the dogs on either side as they whimpered and bayed, their noses pressed against the cages, their worn-out bodies quivering for attention. It broke her heart. Tom Morgan seemed to be the only unbroken body in the whole room. He seemed about her age, and since all the good men were taken, he was probably gay or living with a girlfriend, or one of those married guys who didn’t wear a ring. He stopped and crouched before a cage as the dog inside poked her nose through the wire.
“Hey, Lucy. Hey lady-loo.” He scratched the dog’s ear and looked up at Ruth.
“If I were getting a dog, I’d get this one.”
“She’s gorgeous. What kind of dog is she?”
“A mutt. Part lab. Some shepherd in there.” He stopped petting the dog and moved away. “But I can’t get a dog right now.”
“Because a new dog needs a lot of attention, and I want to spend more time with my daughter. She’s thirteen. Her mother and I divorced a year ago. So do you have a dog? Or an ex?”
“No to the first question. Yes to the second. But we never married.”
The mutt whined, and with one motion she and Tom Morgan crouched down. Sniffing their hands, the dog set to work licking Tom’s fingers, and Ruth couldn’t help it—she watched, conscious of the nearness of his blue-jeaned leg, the curve of his forearm, the smell of his sweat.
“Maybe your daughter would like her. You should bring her with you when you come here.”
“I’m only here on the Saturdays when she’s at her mother’s. But maybe I should bring her out here sometime when she’s home with me. I started volunteering so I wouldn’t rattle around the house when she was gone.”
Ruth remembered that feeling. After her father died, her mother didn’t want her coming home after school to an empty house, so she hired Mrs. Fennell for the late afternoons. But the sight of the living room without her father—only Mrs. Fennell knitting the same sweater, as if nothing had happened—made her rush into her room and slam the door. Her mother relented, arranging for her to attend an after-school program until she was thirteen, when she was allowed to be home by herself. She would flick on all the downstairs lights, turn the radio up high. Her father’s armchair was in the guest room. She never went in there.
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
“That’s a beautiful name.”
“She’s a beautiful girl. A bit lonely right now. This past year she outgrew most of her friends from elementary school. She made a few new ones, but she’s kind of in-between cliques.”
“She’s going into eighth grade?”
He nodded. “I’m just hoping it’ll be better than seventh.”
Ruth pictured a girl who wasn’t sure where to sit in the lunchroom. It all came back: the roar of voices echoing off the cinderblock walls, the clatter of plastic trays, the smell of overcooked food. Unwrapping her sandwich, keeping her eyes on her lunch. Afraid that people thought of her as the girl whose father had died.
Tom Morgan seemed on the verge of saying something, when there was a rumble of thunder followed by the drumming of rain on the roof. Her mother emerged from the puppy wing.
“Mr. Morgan, I’m shvitzing in here. If you don’t find me a dog soon, I’m going to platz.”
As if punctuating her remark, a bark split the air. All three of them turned to the dog in question, a collie sitting at attention, ears alert, looking directly at Ruth’s mother. Her mother looked right back.
The dog barked and pressed its nose against the cage. Her mother rushed forward.
“A goldener hunt. A sheyner hunt. Aza metsieh.”
The words tore through Ruth, leaving her stunned, almost dizzy. She hadn’t heard her mother speak so much Yiddish since before her father died. Now the words swirled inside her, pooling in the hollows behind her eyes. Phrase after phrase after phrase while the dog licked her mother’s trembling hand and something inside Ruth shattered.
“Mom, that dog is way too big for you.”
Tom Morgan made a gesture to stop her.
“Give them a chance.”
“You met my mother ten minutes ago. How do you know what’s a good dog for her?”
“I don’t. But give them a chance, Ruth.”
It was hearing him say her name that did it. That and her mother speaking Yiddish while homeless dogs howled without anybody to talk to them in any language at all. She was fed up with her mother, fed up with herself, fed up with the fantasy that a dog could make life whole.
“Mom, that dog’s going to shed all over your house.”
“This dog knows Yiddish.”
“You’re imagining that.”
“Can we go home and talk about this?”
“She’s everything you don’t want her to be. She’s big, she’ll shed, and you won’t be able to manage her.”
“If I could interject here,” Tom Morgan said. “It’s true the dog’s big and she’ll shed. But she’s getting on in years, and she’s very gentle.”
“Plus she knows Yiddish,” her mother said.
He grinned. “I always knew that dog was a smartie.”
“Did you hear that, Ruthie? Mr. Morgan knew she was special. And he knows from dogs.”
“Okay, fine. Get that dog. Get whatever dog you want. I’m getting some fresh air.”
She spun around, headed for the door to the lobby, but Tom Morgan was in her path, offering her his handkerchief. She grabbed it and fled down the aisle.
“Ruthie, turn on the air conditioner. It’s too hot for Goldie.”
Ruth sat at the wheel, unable to start the car, staring at the sheets of rain sweeping her windshield. Leaves torn from the Japanese maple scattered in the wind as water swept down the driveway, rushing toward the street. People dashed out of the shelter, their umbrellas springing inside out as they struggled to close them and flung themselves into their cars. Everything around her was in motion but she was stuck, strapped in her seat belt, while her mother ran her hands through the collie’s thick coat, murmuring in Yiddish.
Already she could see what the dog would mean to her mother: a companion in the mornings while she drank her coffee, a presence in the evenings when she listened to the radio, a living soul keeping watch at the foot of the bed when she woke in the middle of the night, disturbed by the creaking of the old house. Yes, her mother had done the right thing.
And what had she done? She had tried to return Tom Morgan’s handkerchief. He had shaken his head. Keep it.
Everything that followed had happened as if in a sped-up home movie that she wasn’t in. Tom Morgan filling out the paperwork. Tom Morgan telling her mother about feeding and walking schedules. Tom Morgan demonstrating how to make the dog heel. He tried to have a word with her while her mother walked the dog in the lobby, but Ruth said as little as possible, afraid her nose was red, self-conscious in front of the people pressing against the counter, intent on finding the dogs of their dreams. People pouring out their stories to employees in green tee shirts with their peace and love. She felt neither.
Once she had wanted a dog so much. She had imagined it barking when she came home, filling up the empty house. She had imagined throwing down her schoolbooks and grabbing the dog’s leash, the two of them taking long walks. But she didn’t want a dog now.
She opened the car door.
“Ruthie, what are you doing? It’s time to go home.”
“I’ll be right back.”
“Wait! Take the umbrella!”
But she didn’t want the umbrella, and she didn’t want to wait. She ran for the shelter, the rain drenching her hair and soaking her clothes, the air electric, thunder coming fast upon the lightning.
Image by Robert Minkler
Raima Evan has an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in Calyx, Philadelphia Stories, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, and her creative nonfiction in Women & Performance and Referential Magazine. Her one-act play was produced at Actors Theatre of Louisville and published in Dramatics Magazine. She is an assistant dean at Bryn Mawr College. “Shelter” first appeared in Jewish Fiction .net.