Tonight, You're Mine
by Steven Schutzman
Bloated by worms and raw with several running sores, the dog lived like a fugitive on the campus of the inner city medical center and teaching hospital. One night, after having been on the streets for many weeks, she hugged to the walls behind the hedges of the main hospital building and crept down an alley opening onto an airshaft ripe with smells. There she made a den, below towering walls of transom windows from one of which a patient had tossed his food so he wouldn't have to answer questions about why he wasn't eating. The dog ate what reached the ground. The food came down for a few more days and, supplemented by what she could find on the street after dark, was enough to exist on though not to reverse the months of neglect that had sent her to live on her own in the first place. The dog's stomach remained bloated and her sores wouldn't heal. She wasn't yet a year old.Several large rats, too stupid to learn the hospital meal schedule or to know what a growl meant, sometimes got a share of her food. Dog and rats ate side by side, jostled each other for the meager pickings. The dog quickly learned that rats are oblivious to snaps and snarls and that she just better eat as fast as she could. The rats ground their teeth, snuffled and gave off bad smells. It was impossible to make any sort of connection, even a malign one, with their glowing red eyes.
As the days passed, the dog managed like a city fox to devise a surreptitious existence among people who did her good without intending to. But unlike a fox, she was as attracted to people as she was afraid of them and felt compelled to watch with mournful hope the students and patients, doctors and nurses, visitors and workers at the hospital and even start to approach a few before her memories of her owner made her slink away with her tail between her legs. She couldn't bear to look a person in the eye. Her owner had screamed and beaten her and starved her half to death. Standing opposed to her terrible memories was her instinct to have a master. She found a comfortable distance, halfway between dread and hope. Every step toward hope increased her dread. Every retreat into dread lessened her hope. All this kept her living parallel to people, among them but not of them, torn, watching.
The dog did more than watch. She collected things with human smells clinging to them like the forlorn hope for a master that clung to her heart. She had already collected in her den among other things a hooded jacket, a green dressing gown, several unmatched gloves, a scarf, a stethoscope, a middle school student's homework folder, a wig that dropped mysteriously down the airshaft, a pair of sneakers tied together, a leather bag, a ping pong paddle, a Frisbee, a cardboard mailing tube and stuffed toy rabbit.
The dog's two favorite possessions, the most interesting to smell, were a marble composition book filled with a professor's rapid trembling scrawl (a book he had tossed with a laugh down the airshaft before immediately starting another identical one), and a wallet that had fallen behind a bench during a furious make-out session, one balmy Indian summer's night, between a hospital administrator, on her first date in a long time, and the recently divorced man she met a few days before at a book fair, come for coffee with her at the neutral ground of the hospital cafeteria.
In the small garden pavilion dedicated to the memory of a wealthy donor to the hospital, this couple, with their separate untellable hungers, had at each other with lips and tongues and teeth, while their hands roamed over the clothes only, as agreed upon beforehand in the cafeteria, if they were to go to the pavilion at all, the administrator said. Knowing herself, she laid down the "over the clothes only" rule and drew a line at her belt, below which his hands were not to go. The recently divorced man, turned on by her forthrightness, didn't try to negotiate the line at table, and kept to it until she violated it on the bench, a woman's right. His chivalry won him trust even as he lost his cash and credit cards.
It was late. Attracted by the sounds and by a milky heat redolent of the litter, the dog, keeping close to the walls, trotted to the little park and watched these strange goings on from her normal distance in the bushes, wondering if the moans and sighs were calls of distress. Whatever they were, they won her the wallet dropped from the man's back pocket behind the bench. The dog brought it to her den to add to the cache of things among which she slept. She returned to the pavilion several nights then gave up when the new couple, crossing lines and breaking rules at the administrator's apartment, never returned.
Lying among the smells given off by these objects once handled so much by people, the dog felt something poets feel working with the words they use to try to understand dread and hope, a fierce harmony with all human joys and pains, lasting as long as the writing does. Just as poets put words together, the dog collected objects, and fell into dreams among them. She slept with her snout near the composition book and wallet, both ripe with a longing she understood in her wordless way, a poet of things.
After a few days in her new airshaft den, the dog started a relationship with the security guard stationed on the sidewalk outside the hospital. The two spent hours together, beginning at 11 PM five nights a week. The dog would come out of her alley, turn left at the hedges and slide along the hospital wall until she reached an opening from which she could observe the guard and listen to him sing songs from the 50's and 60's. When an exhausted resident doctor or worried relative was deposited onto the sidewalk by the hospital revolving door, the security guard would respectfully go quiet, greet the person or people good night and only resume singing when the others had disappeared like zombies into the half light of the quieted street. Sometimes they came too close to the hedges and the dog would slink back to her den.
That the guard had a nice falsetto helped sooth the dog. That the dog's eyes shined an emerald green from the bushes helped the guard notice her and taught him to keep his distance. He was glad for the company and the audience. He watched the dog make her rounds, watched how she avoided people, kept to the shadows, darted between parked cars. He had already observed her enough to reckon she was a bitch bloated by worms, and to figure out where her den was and that, in her way, she had chosen him. Her gave her two names, "Girl" and "Baby", words peppering the oldies he liked to sing.
Late one afternoon, a janitor with a broom, rolling clean-up cart and tools went down the alley into the airshaft and came upon the dog's stash. Immediately, the goods lost their canine value and reclaimed their human one. While the dog cowered in the corner, the janitor tossed everything except the cash and stethoscope into the rolling garbage bin. To sooth his conscience over taking the cash, he handed the money-less wallet and stethoscope to the woman at the information desk in the lobby.
Thus the professor's journal was dropped unread into the garbage bin. Too bad he didn't know. It might have given him another laugh. The words he had written had already served their purpose in proving their own uselessness, a paradox he delighted in, illustrating the dilemma that a person can't be something and know it at the same time. All he wanted was to float away on a stream of pure being, yet he spent his time in endless self-observation, scrawling his words, trying to know being, impossible as it was, like the vaudeville act in which a clown with a broom tries to sweep a circle of stage-light off the floor.
At just past four in the morning, plagued by insomnia, a lifelong problem, the professor got out of bed, put a robe and some slippers on and went out of his private room. This time he didn't leave the door ajar but pulled it shut as if to say, The man in there will die in there but I will not. The bright light of the hall hurt his tired eyes. He ached everywhere and thus, as he had written, nowhere.
Is everything okay? asked the stout blonde nurse, leaning against the counter of the nurse's station. She took off her reading glasses and looked at him with intense blue eyes. She was one of the good ones who didn't give impression he was interrupting her at more important tasks, numbers, forms, charts, patients in the abstract, actual patients an annoyance. He had her attention.
Can't sleep, is all.
Rough. Would you like a pill?
There's no harm in it once in a while.
As if with all the things I'm ingesting to harm myself, one more little pill would bother me.
Lesser of two evils.
Looks like I've decided I don't want to miss a minute of what's happening to me and those pills come down like a hammer.
Some people like that. Out like a light.
Not me. I figure as long as I can hold onto the light, I might. . . .
Find something new out.
What would that be?
He smiled gently, as he used to do at a favored student who he knew he had directed to an answer without having to say it.
Right, because if you knew, it wouldn't be new, said the nurse.
She touched his shoulder. He stood up taller to meet her hand and her level gaze. Blue eyes, native goodness. This strong, stout woman would heave him onto her back and carry him across the river whether he wanted to go or not. Why couldn't he have married one like her, who generously gave her attention away, rather than his thin, angular, interesting wives whose dramas required far more attention than anyone had to give? As much as he valued mindfulness, he never let it interfere in important decisions. His body made those, ate little, tossed journals out windows with a laugh, walked, fell in love. It wouldn't have worked. He loved beauty too much and knew it was hypocritical to advocate reform now that beauty was beyond him.
We're going to get you better.
So I've been told.
You know what we call you? The nurses? A walker. He's a walker. You're a walker. And walkers have a better chance than most.
Keep walking, Professor.
You're a good person, he said and headed down the half-lit hall to the elevator.
Though it wasn't, it felt like an escape, a getaway with something that wasn't his, a sense of self. Promethean fire. Leaving on his own two feet and of his own free will.
He remembered well the revolving door that had first deposited him into the lobby of the hospital a few days before, a turning wheel in the human river making its selection, the first of the many mechanical processes he was to experience inside. He had had a hard time accepting this choice to surrender and become part of an irrevocable machinery, a childless, twice divorced man, his colleague and best friend Carl carrying his overnight bag in the door wedge behind him, wishing to do more, insisting on it.
I appreciate your kindness, Carl, really, he said talking in a charged whisper in the waiting room, but don't fret and hover over me like a wife. I can't stand it.
Proud as ever.
Whatever this is can hardly change the habits of a lifetime.
Everybody's got to go through the eye of the needle sometime and when it's my turn, feel free to fret and to hover.
You have a wife for that.
Exactly why I'm not averse to it. It's something I learned from her. I'm not too proud to let a woman change me.
For the better.
There are two kinds of sick people, the ones who retreat into themselves and the ones who go toward others.
Naturally, I'll respect that. Call me, if you need me.
Pride? Was it pride, not to be weak in relation to another man, even his best friend? Especially his best friend? To outlast bouts of panic? Not to have called? Pride or sense of self? Carl phoned every day to see how he was doing but hadn't visited since they watched the football game together after he checked in that Sunday.
The compacted air of the door pushed the professor outside. After tottering from the rude shove, he steadied himself on the welcome mat, felt its hard rubber ridges through the paper slippers, almost pleasurable to his aching feet.
Tonight, you're mine completely/You give your love so sweetly/Tonight the light of love is in your eyes/But will you love me tomorrow? the security guard sang to the dog in the bushes then abruptly stopped when he saw the robed patient the door had delivered into the night.
A rare bus roared by, close, carrying a single passenger, standing, talking to the driver. After it was gone, the professor saw a man sitting on the bus bench across the street and saw his own transparent figure reflected in bus shelter glass behind the man. Reminded him of Plato's cave and made him laugh. Yes, he imagined, even his reflection hurt.
The sky was overcast, a purplish grey, and starless. After the bus, silence, a hush. The street had a crackling energy, something bracing to him, like the rustling of brittle leaves in the first winds of fall, like the wildness he had sometimes felt on the first day of classes when, forgetting everything he had ever learned or thought to teach, he became a blank slate, with no idea what he would say. He would simply react to his students' words and faces, to the weather, his words would chart the undiscovered territories of his mind because, in truth, everything was intimately connected to everything else and he would trust that. What a feeling. You couldn't will it. It just came. Pure being. If you were lucky.
Good morning, said the guard, coming up. Out for a stroll?
I really like that song, Sir.
Written by the great Carole King.
I don't know her.
A white woman which may seem like an awkward comment for me to make, not knowing you, but I don't care.
Out for a nighttime stroll, my man?
People don't sing enough, in public.
No, they don't. Except in church where they can't stop singing.
I've never had the privilege.
Well, you know, they get the feeling and can't stop.
Of the Lord?
Of togetherness in the Lord.
My experience is of people in the street and on campus listening to music through headphones, shut off from everyone else. One should go out in the public square to see and be seen, to listen and be heard. But now it's as if everyone's a car without being in a car so the sidewalk becomes as alienating as the highway. Shut off, insulated from each other. The world didn't have to turn out this way.
I suppose not. You out for a stroll at this hour?
Sure. Why not?
Nice night for it but I wouldn't go too far. The neighborhood gets bad quick.
How far is too far?
Well, the guard paused, looking at the professor more closely. Bath-robed, paper-shod, grey-skinned, with wild wisps of hair looking windblown though there wasn't a breath of wind, he had a bed-bound, sour odor. Maybe disoriented, maybe not quite in his right mind, in such a condition at this hour. If so, there were procedures to follow. That depends, sir.
The man returned the guard's steady gaze.
Things always do.
On what the person's after, the guard said.
I couldn't agree more. Desire changes every equation.
Now if a person's after drugs or wants to do other harm to himself, two blocks in any direction should just about do it.
I'll remember that.
What floor are you on?
With this question, the professor understood that he was being grilled, however gently, for reasons having to do with his appearance or demeanor, and he wondered for a moment if he was actually free to go. But of course he was.
I can come and go as I please, Sir, he said. I'm not a prisoner. No but like I said, the neighborhood's bad, real bad, so instead of walking, why don't you and me just stand here and enjoy the night air before you go back upstairs.
But will you love me tomorrow? the professor sang hoarsely and it felt good to him to have sung, to have rebelled and resisted surrender with his singing, felt so good he didn't feel he had to walk away anymore, that he had recovered his sense of self. Where was he going anyway, with what he had left? He liked it right here and wanted to talk to the guard some more.
Now that must've seemed very strange, me singing like that. You can think what you want about me. I really don't care.
Say, you're all right.
Since the new man's arrival, the dog in the bushes had straightened up, perked her ears and been paying close attention because here, close to the singing guard, was the source of the smells of one of her lost objects, the journal trailed with his sweat and dusted by his skin. Her tail wagged slightly as she watched and listened to the conversation and then, forgetting all grievances, decided, she crawled, low, out of the bushes toward the men until she was just a few feet away looking at them.
Hey, Girl. Hey, Girl. Hey, pretty girl, the guard said. Come here. Come here to me. Now, that is strange. Hey, Baby. Hey, Baby Girl. I been watchin' this dog for a week. She's afraid of everyone, won't get close to people, including me, just watches, just hides, but here you are and she comes out. Hey, Baby Girl.
I doubt it's me.
It's you. Nothing else is different.
The guard squatted down.
Come here, Baby. Come here, Girl, he said in his falsetto but the dog looked at him, still ducking her head, still furrowing her brow, and didn't move.
Kneel down. Go ahead. See if she'll come over to you.
She wants you. Come on down here.
What you're asking is not easy for a man with bones like mine.
I'm worried about her, just a pup really. There are lots of bad people driving around this neighborhood after strays to feed 'em to their fighting dogs.
They'll catch one like this one just so their fighting dogs can tear it apart. I know about 'em. I've seen 'em. Now come on. Hold onto my shoulder and kneel down low here.
As a boy I always loved dogs but as a man I married women who would only keep cats, the professor said. That should've told me something. I should've known better.
He put a trembling hand to the guard's shoulder and lowered himself down. The dog came over, her whole back end wagging and licked his face and buried her snout in his armpit as he petted her.
See how her belly's blown up, that's worms, and all the sores, she needs to see a vet, get de-wormed, those sores to heal and to eat regular for a while.
He could do that, if he could do anything. Yes. He could surely do that.
Carl, the professor said into the guard's cell phone. I know it's late but can you drive over here? I need you now.
Steven Schutzman is a fiction writer and playwright, the author of seven published books and of numerous stories and plays in literary journals including The Pushcart Prize, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Post Road, Cafe Irreal, The Eclectica Magazine, and Painted Bride Quarterly with work forthcoming in Third Coast and Gargoyle. He is the recipient of five Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Grant Awards. See http://mysite.verizon.net/stevenschutzman/ for more details. [email protected]