Book Excerpt from Death and the Dream ~ Short Stories by J.J.Brown
After Christmas my Aunt Muriel and I walk through the barren park on East Fifth Street in New York. It’s not much of a park. We have to stop every six feet or so beside one of the rotting wooden benches to let my Aunt Muriel catch her breath. She’s gotten a little bit heavier each year and it’s more difficult for her to walk than when I last saw her. A whole row of pigeons perch along the tall wire fence behind us and ruffle their feathers, cooing, probably trying to stay warm. It’s so cold that I wish I’d put on gloves before I met her here in front of her apartment building this morning. I shove my stiff hands deep into my coat pockets. I find a cough drop that I don’t need, but no cigarettes which I kind of really do need.
I pull my coat tighter around me and look up in the bare tree branches directly over us. I don’t see any pigeons, for which I’m thankful. Last year we walked so slowly that the pigeons deposited white droppings all over my coat. I’m a little hung over, to tell the truth, and fresh pigeon droppings, well, that would be the end of me.
The police station across the street is quiet this morning. Police cars are lined up idly, parked in a neat diagonal formation. Three officers stand in front of the station entryway and laugh together.
“I wish we didn’t have to walk by the police station,” I say.
Aunt Muriel says, “It’s just to be able to get to the park, Loretta; don’t you like the park?”
No, really, I don’t. The homeless park, I call it, but she doesn’t like that. A man sits motionless bundled up in gray blankets on one of the four benches. White wisps of hair frame his face. If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. The park has only two enormous trees and their branches rattle in the cold breeze now. Several empty planters line the fence that surrounds a parking lot and someone has tied brightly colored tinsel along the fence to decorate. It looks bizarre and I think it should be some kind of violation to hang tinsel in a park.
I’m surprised to see a young woman placing burning incense carefully in each planter. I think she might have hung the tinsel too. Aunt Muriel doesn’t seem to notice the woman at all. The smoke wafts toward us, fragrant in the wintry morning air.
I always visit Aunt Muriel around the holidays just to see how she’s doing, and I’ve brought her a small gift. A string of new white pearls that I hope she’ll like.
She’s lived alone here in the East Village some twenty years now, but who’s really alone in the city? She sometimes talks about the good neighbors when I call her on Sundays, so I know she still gets out from time to time. Maggie said this, she tells me, or Rosy did that. Shelby had a haircut or he wore a new coat, little things like that. Still, I expect that each of them, Maggie, Rosy and Shelby, might have gone away to see family for the holidays, which almost everyone does in this section of the city. It gets empty. It was time for a visit.
A heavy woman in a puffy down coat walks a large, long-haired, mixed-breed dog on a bright red leash down the sidewalk toward us. The dog must be eighty pounds, probably part golden retriever and part collie. It stops every two steps to sniff. It sees us coming, looks up at Aunt Muriel, lowers its head and wags its tail.
“Hello, Mindy, and how are you today?” Aunt Muriel coos to the dog and bends down to pet it. She turns to me and warns, “Mindy’s a puppy and she’s very playful. You’ll have to be careful of your coat. She jumps.”
I look down at my coat, secondhand but clean, and I want to keep it that way. Mindy sniffs in my direction, straining against her leash. I step back. “Big puppy! How old is she?” I ask, but no one answers me.
The neighbor who is walking Mindy smiles. She pulls the dog along gently but insistently—it’s time to go. Aunt Muriel follows them with her eyes as they walk away down the sidewalk. The three policemen standing just outside the station watch us all with equal indifference from across the street: Aunt Muriel, me, the woman and her dog.
“Mindy says she doesn’t remember you,” Aunt Muriel says and turns back to me.
“She said that?” I ask, and laugh self-consciously at her joke because yes, it’s been a while since I came by to visit. It’s been a year, actually.
“Well, I’m not sure why she would if she’s really a puppy. So who walks her?” I ask.
“I don’t know; Mindy’s human isn’t talkative.”
A commotion erupts in the parking lot behind the park. A short, young policewoman aggressively grabs hold of a tall, stooped teenager with long hair and she shakes him. She drags him along behind her by the collar of his rumpled, olive-colored jacket. She hauls him across the parking lot, past the police cars and toward the station. The boy stumbles. He’s drunk, he’s not resisting. He just seems confused. As they get closer to the park I see that his clothes are very dirty. He’s underdressed and must be terribly cold. I think about it being the day after Christmas, him being so young, and how he must have spent the night outside. Maybe he spent it alone.
“Your miserable butt is arrested! You got that? You can’t read? Look at this! See that? What does that say?” the policewoman yells at him and she points at a sign on the wire fence. The boy doesn’t answer, doesn’t pull away. He struggles to keep standing.
“It says ‘no trespassing.’ Know what that means? Means you! You’re going to jail, you miserable piece of garbage,” she shouts at him. “You’re going down now, you’re going down. You hear me?”
I whisper to Aunt Muriel as they pass by us, “So mean,” and she just shrugs.
A somber gentleman with short, gray hair in a green plaid wool coat crosses the street slowly, walking an old and stout white-haired Scottish terrier. The man recognizes Aunt Muriel. One of the good neighbors, I think, but I don’t remember him.
“Hello, Shelby. How’s Shelby today?” Aunt Muriel asks the dog sweetly. She bends down and starts to hum a little song as she rubs the short white curls on the Scotty’s head. He stops in front of her and sits down. He wags his tail ever so slowly. The dog and Aunt Muriel look at each other silently for a few minutes that seem forever in the cold. It feels as if they’re having some kind of conversation, which is weird. The man smiles at me patiently; he doesn’t mind at all. Of course, he has thick leather gloves, a wooly scarf and a cap.
“Come on, Shelby, let’s go,” the man says gently after a while. He waits for the Scotty to get up and it saunters off with him happily.
“What was that all about?” I ask Aunt Muriel.
“What was what all about?” she counters and gives me a frown.
Leaving the little park, the Scotty gathers its energy, taking little puffing breaths. It barks at the pigeons clustered by the park benches. They all fly off at once together in a chorus of iridescent, whirring wings. They fly past the colored tinsel blowing around on the fence. The incense smoke swirls wildly in their wake all around the man who still sits bundled up on one of the four benches. Even now, the man is so completely still that I begin to wonder if he is alive.
“Is he alright?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” Aunt Muriel answers. “Shelby always comes out this time of day for his walk.”
“No, no, I mean the guy in the blankets there,” I say. “Because, you know, he hasn’t moved at all in a while.”
“Why, yes, his granddaughter brings him here every day for the air,” she says.
“She just leaves him there, or what?” I ask.
Aunt Muriel looks at the man on the bench with a pained expression and then continues, “You remember your Great-Aunt Henrietta?”
I nod. Of course I remember Great-Aunt Henrietta. She lived with us for eight years until she broke her hip and we had to find a place for her. But that was a truly bad decision. She died a week after they moved her.
“Well, he’s in the same place they put her.”
“Here?” I ask.
“No, there,” she nods her head indicating down the street past the police station. “It’s on the corner, don’t you know? And she wasn’t very happy when she was there, Loretta, you know. No. Not one little bit. No one came to see her. But his granddaughter comes. She comes every day. Every day.”
Aunt Muriel and I slowly make our way back toward her apartment. My feet are getting increasingly cold in my thin boots and I wish I had woolen socks. I wish we were walking faster. I wish I was younger and stronger and not hung over.
A tall woman with glossy, auburn hair breezes by us in high heeled, knee-high boots and a fitted, brown leather jacket. She’s walking her dog. She rolls her hips and shoulders just like a supermodel as she walks. Her dog is sleek with short, chestnut hair and looks like a small greyhound. The dog is wearing a stylish red fleece jacket. I’m surprised when they turn into the entryway of Aunt Muriel’s building. The model unlocks the door quickly and holds the door for us, flashing a beautiful smile. We enter behind her. In the building hallway she suddenly unsnaps the dog’s leash. The dog bounds up the first-floor stairs ahead of her. The dog could be a model too, a dog model for advertisements of dog food or dog toys. Obedience training, maybe.
The model shouts sharply, “Wait!”
Her small dog stops and stands alert on the second-floor landing. It watches her, motionless. Its back left leg starts to twitch and shiver.
“Best behaved dog I know,” Aunt Muriel says in a loud sing-song voice.
The model turns back to look at us. She beams at Aunt Muriel and then she trots up the stairs. Her dog bounds ahead of her, its nails clicking on the wide slate steps.
After I hear a door close upstairs and the key turn in the lock, I ask, “Who was that?”
“Rosy,” Aunt Muriel says as she climbs the stairs one at a time, resting in between every other step.
“That’s Rosy?” I ask.
“Miniature pincer. She’s very well trained—impressive,” she says.
“I meant the woman,” I say, laughing.
“Rosy’s human? I don’t know, Loretta. I haven’t really spoken with her.” Aunt Muriel’s breathing is labored now. “But I’m so glad you got to meet them.”
“Who?” I ask.
“The neighbors,” she says, and gives me an odd look.
“The dogs,” I say.
Well, she’s just like that now, my Aunt Muriel. I follow behind her up the last flight of stairs.
“You’ll come in and have coffee, won’t you?” she asks me, smiling.
I step up beside her and hold her arm to help support her. She pulls herself up using the railing. She’s breathing too hard. “We should get you something on the first floor,” I say. “Aren’t you afraid of falling down the stairs?”
She shakes her head no. “I hold on.”
When we get to the third floor and enter her apartment, I’ve forgotten how small it actually is. I could extend my hands and touch both walls at the same time if I wanted to, but I don’t. A group of cooing pigeons sits clustered outside her window ledge for the warmth. The entryway smells of recently baked yeast bread, of butter and potatoes. Even though it’s still early in the day, I’m suddenly ravenously hungry. Aunt Muriel’s place? Yes, of course I’m hungry. We sit at the narrow kitchen table together. It’s covered with a clean lace tablecloth and she’s put out a little bowl of fresh, dark red cherries. Yesterday’s paper with Christmas headlines lies unopened beside a stack of colorful junk mail. Yes, I can tell she was alone yesterday, like I was.
“I brought you something,” I say, and hand her my small, neatly wrapped gift.
She takes it, holds it a moment and places it on the table.
“You shouldn’t have. You coming to see me today, Loretta, that was my gift,” she says happily. At the small stove beside us she lights a fire for coffee.
Walking past the police station on my way back to the subway, the young policewoman who had arrested the teenager stops me.
“Hey, your mom alright?” the policewoman asks.
“She’s not my mom,” I say and keep walking.
“A very nice woman. Very nice. She likes the dogs around here. I like dogs. Some of the nicest people around here are dogs. That sounded funny. I don’t mean people are dogs, I mean the dogs are nicer. Nicer than the people. Sometimes anyway, to some people. If the dogs like you. You know, I got a dog. Big Doberman,” she continues speaking to my back.
“Hey! I’m talking to you,” she yells, sounding hurt.
I turn back around.
“You know what I’m saying? Dogs are basically good. A dog ever lie to you? No. I like dogs,” she stares at me, lost in thought for a moment.
I shrug and turn to go.
“So, your mom, don’t you think you should move her out of here?”
“Not my mom.”
“Like upstate? Like me? I moved upstate. New Rochelle. I used to live around here. A long time ago. I’m telling you, this place, it’s no place for her,” she continues.
I shake my head no.
“I watch out for her, don’t worry,” the policewoman says. “But you should move her out of here. You think about it. And you get home safe.”
“Merry Christmas,” I say and laugh.
The policewoman laughs lightly and in her smile I am surprised to see the beauty in her. She’s a person who is one of the good neighbors in a different way than I’d been looking for here. Yes, her lips are like red cherries and her small teeth like white pearls. And she’s watching over my Aunt Muriel.