The Dog Walker
Nina had to see Daniel. She was going to take the bulls by their horns, or more aptly, the dogs by their leashes, and get his complete attention, even if she had to make a total fool of herself, which was, most assuredly, inevitable.
So she planned a special dog-walking event. Today, instead of mixing it up the way she usually did, with dogs of all kinds, she arranged to hold a little white Yuppie-dog fest. It took some juggling of her schedule and some finagling with Suki, another dog walker she knew from the dog run whose clientele seemed to be dogs of the cutesy, little variety and who owed Nina from that time when she went to Hawaii on a last-minute whim and asked Nina to fill in for her.
Nina could never tell the difference between these dogs unless they had unusual markings, like Stella’s missing left ear, or Jedi’s bald patch on his left hip. To her, they were all little white dogs, except for Cockapoos, which really were cute and smart, but what else do you expect from mutts, which is what Cockapoos really are. Purebred little white dogs tend to be owned by idiots who think of them as cute accessories because they’re tiny and you can take them on an airplane or to a restaurant. (She didn’t, however, judge those who owned one because it was hypo-allergenic. That was a medical reason, the only acceptable reason to own such a dog.)
But scratch any owner of a little white dog and you’ll find a psychotic parent who believes that their breed is special and unique, and bore you with the difference, in detail, between a Bichon and a Maltese, about which, of course, Nina could give a shit.
But, visually speaking, as a pack, they were a sight. She had taken them to the reservoir, hoping they’d run into Daniel. She knew he ran every morning and just the way he went. This morning it was crowded, even on the horse path that she used for the dogs. Everybody was looking at her, smiling, pointing, at the adorable sight. But God forbid she use the jogging trail up at the fence. Joggers were mean motherfuckers when it came to dogs, baby strollers, walkers, or even wheelchairs, and she didn’t have the energy to contend with that this morning, especially wearing these cute new sandals which were killing her.
As they neared the tunnel at the southern tip of the reservoir, a familiar dog sprang out of the darkness. It was Sid. Oh Shit, thought Nina, as he bounded straight for her, here he comes. For where there was Sid, there was Daniel. And her heart began to beat a hundred thumps a second, and a spontaneous smile found its way onto her face, as her hand went up to smooth her hair, and then pull down her shirt, wipe the sweat from her face.
Then she saw him. In a t-shirt and shorts, hair like he had just rolled out of bed, jogging with headphones and an MP3 player in his left hand, his mind clearly on the music. He ran toward her without seeing her.
Until he did. And then, a smile broke out across his face, making his eyes crinkle, his cheeks dimple. She was hard to miss. She was surrounded by eleven little white dogs, the kind people tend to carry and coddle. She looked like the good witch of the north, surrounded by bichons instead of munchkins. And she was wearing a very short skirt instead of her usual shorts and a kind of flimsy peasanty blouse instead of her usual torn university of t-shirt and god damn uncomfortable sandals instead of her boots.
“Daniel!” she waved to him.
He headed toward her because at that moment she wasn’t going anywhere. Those little dogs were literally running circles around her. Maybe she’d fall (not that she was hoping to get hurt) and he’d have to pick her up (but this wouldn’t be bad).
“Hey, Nina.” And as if by will, he became serious, almost stern. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought he was pissed. Did he know she had been in his apartment in places she shouldn’t have? As he approached her, he took his headphones off, letting them hang around his neck. He clicked off the MP3 player.
“Like your entourage. What do you have there, ten bichon frises?” asked Daniel. He smiled, as he got as close to her as he could, given the surrounding forces.
“I’m impressed. But actually, I have here one bichon, this one here, Stella. That’s Zardoz, a bichon/yorkie mix, over there peeing on the rock. I have two chi-poos, Sam and Dave, right there with the little pink bows, Jedi, the cockapoo, Jackie O. and John F., the two coton de tulears. Also, Annie, a lhasa apso, the dog from hell. You know what? She wears a doggie diaper when she’s at home. Not kidding. And those three malteses? That’s Larry, Curly and Moe. Eleven yuppie dogs all in a row.”
“How can you tell? Who’s who, I mean. They all look alike to me.”
“You doggist you! And don’t say ësome of your best friends are’Ö”
He laughed, as he looked down. Her toenails were painted a faint pink and though her feet were a little gnarly and arched, she looked delicate and lovely compared to her usual look of biker-girl-with-dogs. He wasn’t sure which look he liked better.
Nina was so surprised and pleased, she could barely contain herself. “You noticed. I mean–“
“No University t-shirt.”
It worked, Nina thought to herself. She felt a tug on her leashes. ‘stay everybody. Just stay one minute, please.”
“You look nice.”
Nina looked down at her toes then back up to Daniel. “Thank you. So do you. I meanÖ”
“But it’s got to be hard to walk in those shoes.” He looked at her feet in their strappy sandals and then at her bare legs and then into her eyes. She had seen him see her, and he blushed.
“Well, I better get these dogs walked and home.” Was she a total idiot? Why did she remind him of her work? The purpose of this event was to get him to think of her, not as her.
“That’s right. You’re working.”
She blew it. So she sighed and she went with it.
“I’m picking Sid up later, right?”
He nodded. “I have a meeting. So, thanks.”
“Sure, it’s my job.” I’d pay you to let me pick up Sid.
Then Daniel said, “It’s amazing that people like these dogs. They’re cute, but they don’t fetch. They’re like having dolls.”
“Yeah, well, people are sick,” said Nina.
He straightened up and looked at her. “They are,” he said, as his eyes squinted as if trying to see her closer. “They trespass.”
She was taken aback. “They visit,” she said, defensively.
“Oh do they?” She raised her eyebrows, thinking of him at Mr. Chandler’s, of her name on his computer.
“They lie,” said Nina, thinking about why he, a lawyer, would be investigating Mrs. Chandler in the first place.
“They invade people’s privacy.”
“Exactly,” Nina agreed.
They eyed each other. The dogs were getting nervous. Annie was sniffing Sid’s butt and Moe was sniffing Annie’s butt but Sid had no interest in sniffing anybody’s butt. He just wanted to get the hell away from these little white ratdogs as soon as possible.
“You better go,” Nina said. “Sid doesn’t look too happy.”
Sid was bearing his teeth and growling, his hackles up, his tail at a standstill.
“He’s fine. Walk with me,” said Daniel. “Come on.”
“Come on!” He was adamant.
And so they walked, around the reservoir together with the dozen dogs, Daniel holding Sid with his outside hand.
“Tell me,” he said. “Why do you walk dogs?”
“Why not? What should I be doing? A real job? Is that what you mean?”
He ignored her defensiveness. “Well, have you always been a dog walker?”
“Why, something wrong with being a dog walker?” Why did everyone assume that dog walking is what you do while failing at what you want to be doing.
“No, I”m just curious. Isn’t that okay?”
“Just for about a year. Sorry. My friend, Claire, had to go to L.A. temporarily, so I took over for her, temporarily.
“Not so temporary, this year-long job. Where did you work before?”
“Random House. Copywriter.”
“You gave it up for this?”
“Wasn’t much to give up. Except for my mom. I took away her bragging rights.”
“You’re a terrible daughter.”
She had to look at him to find out if he was kidding or not. He was. She smiled back at him.
“You must make some good money. Considering what I pay you, and multiply that by how many? You’ve got lots of dogs, right? And it’s all cash, right?”
“I do okay.”
“An all-cash business. That’s something no taxpayer should be without.”
“And what about you? You’re a lawyer–?” She tried to stop herself but it was too late.
His eyes became thin slits and he smiled. “You can say it. It’s not a bad word. Repeat after me: lawyer. Come on.”
“Lawyer,” she said and they both laughed.
“How’d you know?” he asked, though, he knew very well how she knew.
“Well, um, I, just a guess. You look like a lawyer. Sid is the kind of dog a lawyer would have. Your apartment, well, from what I’ve seen of it, looks like the kind of place where a lawyer would live.”
“From what you’ve seen is the relevant clause of that sentence.”
‘donët forget my bathroom, and the–“
“That was it! I did not see–“
“The hallway from the foyer to the bathroom, oh, and the bedroom you had to walk through to get to the bathroom.”
She had to stop him. To divert him. “Yeah, it was the bathtub, shower, and toilet. They were dead giveaways. They said ‘lawyer’ all over them.” She laughed again. “I had forgotten about the bathroom.”
“Hmmm. Not me,” he said smiling.
Now up the east side and near the turn to the west, the dogs happily on their way home, Nina and Daniel had fallen into a walking groove. It was minutes before either of them spoke.
“And my trombone,” said Daniel.
“My trombone, I said.”
Nina could feel her heart beating like a drum in a jazz quartet. “You, um, play trombone?”
He looked at her for a minute and said nothing. Then, after what seemed like hours, he asked, “You like jazz?” asked Daniel.
“Sure, yes. I guess.” Her heart had gone from snare to bass. He was either going to ask her out or find her out.
“You think you’d like to go with me to hear Slide Hampton? He’s at the Vanguard and plays a strong trombone. You like a trombone, don’t you.”
He didn’t ask it as a question, so she didn’t answer. “I had no idea there were star jazz trombonists.”
“There are stellar trombonists but, no stars. Trumpets, saxes, of course, but trombones have never gotten their due. The trombone is the overlooked horn. Sure, French horns have classical music, tubas have marching bands, and of course trumpets and saxes everywhere, all the time. But the trombone? It’s the forgotten horn, the quiet, soulful, spiritual brother of the trumpet.”
She was mesmerized by his passion.
“So, you want to go hear one? Actually five? Hampton’s put together a trombone quintet. It’s going to be something. And I thought since you had such an interest, well, you might want to come.”
“Well, yeah, sure, but, I mean I don’t really haveÖ”
“Tonight?” She thought for a minute and remembered something. She hit herself on her hip. “Aw, no, I can’t tonight.” Claire was coming over and she’d never cancel a friend for a guy. Even this guy.
“Okay, how about tomorrow? They’ll be around a few days. The first set is at nine. We could eat first.”
Oh god. Oh jeez. Oh yes! The sun had just risen over the treetops and she could feel its warmth on her face. The dogs were happily sniffing the fresh morning air and if she didn’t know better, this was the life! This was a perfect morning. Look! See! Life turns in an instant.
“Well,” was all she could say.
They had reached the east side.
“Is that a ‘well, yes’?”
“Well, okay,” she answered articulately.
“I’ll take that for a yes. Shall I pick you up?”
She had to think fast, so wanting to avoid the usual ‘date’ procedures that were the kiss, so to speak, of death. “Can I meet you there?”
“Sure, you know where it is? Seventh and eleventh, north side, tiny place. Seven-thirty okay?”
“seventh and eleventh?” She flushed with embarrassment at not knowing the village.
“Seventh Avenue and Eleventh Street.” He smiled.
She nodded to show him she was following. “At seven-thirty,” she repeated, in an excited, fearful, overwhelmed stupor.
“Good. Now I got to go. Some of us work for a living, you know.” He smiled, teasing. “Just kidding!” Then he touched her forearm with his hand. “See you tomorrow, right? A night of trombones.”
She touched the spot he had just touched, and said, “Yeah.” She had become a date-o-moron, a date-a-phobe, date challenged. She had put the date with Daniel on the highest pedestal known to mankind, almost as high as Mount Everest, and it’s hard to breathe in the thin air up there. It can even be life-threatening. One reckless step and you could find yourself falling. In love and/or to your death.
And he turned downtown with Sid and started to run and was quickly out of sight. But Nina had time enough to turn, and watch his body move in his shorts, with his muscular legs and shoulders, and take a breath in and let it out, closing her eyes, seeing him holding her and kissing her and ñ
But her white doggie battalion pulled her back to consciousness with all their might, and they were on their way home.
He ran like the wind as if he hadn’t already run his five miles. He felt high, though he hardly knew what that felt like, it had been in college since he partook. And he felt excited, though he hardly knew what that felt like, it had been so long since he let himself feel. And she’s such a strange woman, Billy was thinking. But magnificent, there with those white dogs. Something about her, her strong hands, her lovely eyes, the mouth on her, the unexpected vulnerability, the openness, something knocked him out. Oh boy, this was not happening, was it? Not right now, not as Daniel, not with this nutty girl who was a veritable Peeping Tom and a tax evader, to boot. He was either going to fall in love with her or have to arrest her or both. And the last time that happenedóthe falling in love thing, not the arresting thingóit all ended very badly. And that was as himself. Wait until she learns, if it gets that far, who he really is and what he really does. A lawyer is bad enough. But an IRS agent? From experience, he knew that knowing in advance is something that a woman could get accustomed to, but being surprised by it is something she would never get over.
Maybe she was going out with him just because she thinks he’s Daniel! he wondered. The Daniel in the photos, with the slick apartment, the perfect dog?
And how did she know Daniel was a lawyer, anyway? Maybe that bigmouth doorman Pete told her. Or else she had read some of his reports or mail or a number of things in the apartment that would’ve given it away. Good thing he was so careful to hide his real profession and identity. She had been in the closet. She had opened the trombone case. She had blown into his mouthpiece. She had bathed in his tub. Who knew what this Nina was capable of? Did she have no limits?
All he knew was that the next time, he wanted to be in that bathtub with her.
By the time Nina had walked the dogs and then gotten them home, her feet were bleeding from seven different places. Three on the right foot and four on the left. She sat on the edge of her bed, thinking what an idiot she was while applying hydrogen peroxide and band-aids, as Sam dutifully licked the bottoms of her feet. Yeah, Daniel had noticed heróyou’d have to be Helen Keller not toóbut he knew about the bath. He knew about the trombone.
But he had actually asked her out. And she had made that happen. Now don’t blow it, she said critically as if she were her own mother, referring to the date, not the trombone.
She took a deep breath in, trying to recall that t-shirt in his closet with its musky scent.