With a strong, rich and uproariously funny voice, Joe Coomer resurrects the magic of his previous novels, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God and The Loop, and turns the utterly ordinary into the stunningly extra-ordinary. With a splendid cast of characters and the cleverest canine in comedy, Apologizing to Dogs is a hilarious, heartwarming and wonderfully human tale, proving that no matter how old you get, there's always something worth holding on to, fighting for and loving with all your might.
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Friday, October 3
8:17 Verda in her tight pants out to get her paper. She has a habit of pulling her dress out of her rear crack when she gets up out of a chair and I noticed she did the same with the pants after she'd bent over to pick up her paper. I was on my front porch watering my pot plants.
The bar was cool that day and he was thirsty and that was all he was thinking about, that and whether or not he'd remembered to tighten down the clamp on the condensation drain of unit number four. If it leaked they'd call. No, that wasn't right. He'd go back first thing in the morning and check on it. He'd spent the day installing six commercial air-conditioning units at a new business on Hulen Street. His elbows rested on the bar and his two front teeth sat on his lower lip like a washer and dryer, the washer having wobbled away on spin cycle leaving a gap between his teeth large enough to see a pink wad of lint which was his tongue. After each gulp of beer, he poked the lint back with the wing bone of a chicken. He'd sucked on a chicken bone for as long as he could remember, so long that some people called him Bone rather than Marshall. He didn't mind. He'd tried and failed to give up the bone, but the bone was stronger than he was. It wasn't such a bad habit. Chicken wings were cheap. His teeth were as white as a dog's. But he knew that the bone frightened women. They stared and then winced and acted as if the bone were in their own mouths. So he avoided people, installed air-conditioning units, heat pumps, ran the ductwork, and took all the solace and flavor he could from his bone. There had been this way of life since he'd graduated from high school seventeen years earlier. He'd scored eighteen points in his final game at Northside High. He was a six-foot-eight, 160-pound second-string center, and when the other boy broke his ankle at the beginning of the second half, Marshall bit through his own bone and went in. He could recall each of the nine baskets but never brought this up in conversation. Lots of people thought he was called Bone for his slender build, then they'd see the bone. The bone he sucked on that evening was relatively fresh. He could still taste the marrow leaching through the epiphysis.
The first thing he noticed that had anything to do with Aura was her drink. Down at the far end of the bar was a short, squat glass containing an aquamarine liquid protected by a little umbrella. It looked as if someone had slit open a blue freezer pack and drained it into a glass. Behind the drink, in shadow, something caught the light. It flashed again and once more. Something like a nickel spinning in midair. For a moment he forgot the bone and it tumbled between his two front teeth, slipped off his lower lip and bounced on the bar. He put it back in his mouth as carefully as he might reinsert a false eye. A hand came out of the shadows and took the cool drink, withdrew. It gave him a chill. The hand was all palm; its fingers hardly protruded from the thick, pumpkin-rind flesh. Marshall put his own hands beneath the bar and clasped them. That flash again. He almost recognized it. He rolled his bone across his teeth and touched the brim of his cap. He had the oddest sensation. He felt as if someone's ankle was on the verge of snapping. He picked up his beer and moved around the bar in three strides, his long legs always carrying him to places and events sooner than his eyes could interpret them.
"Have a seat with us," she said, and she reached out to pat the stool next to her but her arm was too short. In the half-light of the bar she resembled a malted milk ball, round and dark. Her skin was unusually tan for a fat woman. Her cleavage merged with the cleft in her chin. She wore a light cotton T-shirt dress with the distorted face of Felix the Cat suckling her breasts.
"Please sit down, Mr. Lennox," she said.
"Oh no, my name's Marshall. I install Lennox air conditioners." He sat down and his knees hammered the bar.
"Someday, perhaps," Aura said, "I'll be able to call you Marshall without feeling like I'm Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke."
He was unsure for a moment but then realized she was comparing him to Matt Dillon, a character he respected.
"Hello," Marshall said.
She rolled a mint across her tongue. That same flash.
"Right now," Aura said, "we're at a loss for words." The mint clacked against her teeth and this was when Marshall saw that the mint was no mint but a sliced white ring of ham bone. The translucent puck of marrow it once contained was still a glistening slick on her porcelain teeth.
"It's very hot, don't you think?" she asked.
"I could keep you cool," Marshall said, "I install air conditioners," and he moved the shaft of chicken bone between his molars where he could lock it down.
"We hope you don't find anything more than you need here," Aura whispered.
He sniffed her bony breath.
"We should include ourselves," she said.
Marshall took her fingertips in his, afraid that she might melt in his hands. He felt an immense heat radiating from her body. But he knew that only a face as sharp as his own could reach her recessed lips. He bent lower, falling into the shadow of her tan, and touched her mouth, first with his chicken bone, then with his teeth and finally with his lips. She gave in to him with the same rubber refusal and release of a refrigerator door. It seemed the whole world was swallowed. The circle of pork slid over the shaft of bone, and Marshall, for the first time in his life, felt included, contained.
8:29 I forgot to mention yesterday that Mose washed his car yesterday but intentionally left his license plate dirty.
8:34 Aura and Marshall's car parked so I cannot see them load and unload it, unless I am in my backyard.
8:42 White Plymouth license 458-HCJ still in front of Nadine's. Two days now. Bumper sticker on car Reagan/Bush '84 and Lucky Me, I Twirl a Baton.
8:44 Tradio and his man friend sitting on their porch like a couple of VULCHERS, waiting to see what else they can get from Effie.
Mose switched off the vacuum cleaner, bent down and gave the roller a good rap with the pair of pliers he always kept in his back pocket. A small screw he'd lost a week earlier from an antique radio dropped out. He must have kicked it from the shop into the bedroom. Mose sold and repaired antique radios, fans, telephones, clocks, almost anything electrical, but his true passion was his search for the idea or invention that would make him rich. He picked up the screw, finished vacuuming in that corner, then backed up to appreciate a clean carpet. The many tracks of the vacuum were plainly visible. How about designing a rug with the pattern of the vacuum cleaner tracks molded into the pile? Your carpet would always look freshly vacuumed. He'd approach his next-door neighbor, Nadine, with this idea.
8:47 Mr. Haygood walking to the store. He was laughing as he passed my house and couldn't help but look my way even though he tried not to.
"What a fine idea, Mose. But your carpet would still be dirty, wouldn't it, even if it looked clean?"
"Well, yes, I suppose, but that's sort of the idea, the beauty of it, Nadine, honey."
"But, Mose, it's not honorable, it's not chivalrous, an invention that's, after all, a deceit."
Mose put his hands in his pockets. There was a washer, a wire tie and a penny there. "I didn't think about it that way, Nadine."
"I'm so sorry, Mose. You'll come up with something, sweetie. Now, Mose, have you ever considered the pure fact that if the first vowel in your name were simply another, your name would be Muse, rather than Mose? Why didn't your mother think of that? She had nine months to think of that, and I've only been thinking about it for a little while and came up with it."
"I don't know, Nadine."
"I love vowels. I wish there were more of them. Isn't it sad that W and Y are only sometimes vowels? And people just pass over vowels when they speak, without giving them their due consideration, without any remorse at all. I think there should be a polite law stating that all vowels should be at least three syllables long, don't you?"
"You speak so beautifully, Nadine," Mose said.
"My momma taught me, Mose."
"She was a good woman."
"I can't bear to think of her now, Mose. It just breaks my heart to think how beautiful she was, like a butterfly that's died on the grille of an automobile."
"Don't think about her, Nadine."
"Can I call you 'Muse,' Mose? Will you give me the pleasure of doing so?"
"But, Nadine, I've been living with 'Mose' for seventy-eight years now and I wouldn't know to come if you called me anything else."
"All right. Mose it will remain. And a fine respectable name it is too."
"What about edible rubber bands to hold thick sandwiches together? Have you ever accidentally bitten into one of those frilly toothpicks?"
"I want you to do something for me, Mose, honey. I want you to carry this petition to everyone on the avenue for me."
"It's a way of speaking, Mose. I want everyone on the Row to mow their lawns Friday evenings so they'll look their best Saturday when most of our customers arrive."
"OK, Nadine. Do I take the petition to the houses that aren't antique shops?"
"What about Mrs. Martin's house?"
"Of course you can skip her house, Mose. The bank owns it now and I've already written them to ask why they don't think it's in their best interest to maintain their property."
"Mr. Haygood won't give me a good reception."
"Mr. Haygood is a businessman, Mose. He'll see the advantage we'll gain. We're all in this together. We've got to be proud of the Row ourselves before our customers will come back home."
"Mr. Haygood says he might take a booth at that new antique mall."
"That's just traitorous. How can he even consider it, Mose?
A complete lack of atmosphere, of neighborhood, of history. How can a customer build trust with a dealer who throws his merchandise in a booth in a warehouse and lets some anonymous clerk sell it?"
"I do like to watch over my things," Mose said.
"Exactly. Now, you go on. I want signatures in ink, not promises. Pick up everyone's contribution toward this month's Star-Telegram ad too. One hundred and twelve-fifty each, no excuses."
8:51 Mose coming back from Nadine's with a clipboard in his hands. Something to do with me, I'll warrant. I don't know yet who told a lie on me. More infernal hammering down at that carpenter's shop. I think he builds coffins.
Mose knocked three times but Verda didn't answer her door because she was dying on the cypress floor of her shop, dying among a hundred broken figurines: shattered Hummels, shards of Heubachs, limbless piano babies, dancers without feet, dogs without tails, a New Martinsville squirrel who now chewed on the nose of a bisque colonial soldier rather than a crystal acorn. In her fall, Verda swept a shelf clean of chalk salt and pepper shakers, tipped over a small showcase of Occupied Japan, swooned into the cabinet of figurines and finally dropped into the graveyard of her showroom herself, clutching her chest and a single Stangl bird she'd caught in midair with her free hand. She groaned a bit when she realized the jagged edges of a dozen knickknacks had punctured her body, then she tried to remember Jesus' name, then she passed out. Across the room a porcelain nodder in the form of a French gleaner bowed, "oui," every time Mose knocked.
9:02 Mazelle's husband mowing their front yard. As I turned around my Open sign on the porch, Tradio and his man friend acted as if I wasn't even alive. I am alive.
9:08 Weather fair and mild.
9:10 Mr. Postlethwaite watering his flowers.
9:11 Mose, still with his big important clipboard, is now talking to Mazelle's husband in his front yard. I distinctly saw them look toward my house as they talked. I am sure I heard Mazelle's breath when I picked up my phone yesterday after one ring and nobody spoke back. I said then, my line is tapped and you will be caught so stay right there, and someone said OK. Mazelle probably.
9:16 Car came up street, real fast, turned around at the dead end and left without stopping at anyone's shop.
9:18 That Big Indian has his wash on the line. Sure doesn't try to keep his underwear a secret. Stains and all.
9:22 I was standing at my window. I was not looking at him but could not keep from seeing him (Tradio's man friend) when he jumped up on his car hood and waved his arms and looked at me. I wished I had my camera ready.
9:25 Mrs. Haygood keeps busy peeping out to see every move I make.
9:26 Aura seems to have a customer. It's sure no one I know. She probably won't send her down to my shop, knowing I have better things.
Mazelle ran the shop, and Mazelle's husband, retired now, took care of the yard and garden. He signed Nadine's petition because he mowed almost every day anyway. The Saint Augustine had to be contained. It was almost his only occupation now, after forty years of driving a truck for three different meatpacking firms. He'd carried eight million pounds of steaks, chops, hamburger and chili to the restaurants of Fort Worth during his career. He knew which restaurants bought certified Angus and which gristle and sinew. Not once had he stolen as much as a single hamburger patty, even though there were times when he borrowed a few pounds, when his kids were hungry. Four children, the youngest now getting her master's degree at the University of Texas. Her mother had made her into a librarian. Books, books. All those years carrying beef and now there'd been another ten years carrying boxes of books. His wife sold books, and he moved them from the car to the house, from one room to another. He never worked the cash register and rarely answered any customer's question. He'd been allotted the heavy things in life. Four children. Good kids but burdensome. Never a real vacation, never a good car, never steak. He and Mazelle lived in their kitchen, the back room in their three-room home. Where most of their neighbors had a kitchen table and hutch, they had a three-quarter bed and a nightstand. Books lived in the two front rooms.
He finished and pushed the mower back to the shed behind the house. There were more books here, but a corner was his, filled with gardening tools, a box of gimme caps from restaurants and his collection. It was hard for him to understand Mazelle's obsession with books, or the passionate collecting of china monkeys, old clocks and swizzle sticks that his street relied upon to survive. He felt some pride in his collection of four children, all different, all unique. They visited often and kept the phone ringing. But here in his corner of the shed was another collection. Mazelle's husband had saved every object that had given him a flat tire since he began driving: every nail, tack, mesquite thorn, rabbit bone, every screw and rivet. He had mounted them on a board, embedding each specimen in a drop of rubber cement: a collection of happenstance, the infrequent moments when a round object was impaled by a sharp one and everything came to a halt. It was a collection he could never add to at his own whim. Each piece arrived at sixty miles an hour with the urgency and thrill of possible accident or death. He once ran over a belt buckle that impaled his front tire, forcing him to run off the highway. His truck rolled and twelve pig carcasses broke free through the rear door. If his flat tires were ordained by God, Mazelle's husband thought, He had very little to do, but you never could tell what made some people happy. It gave him a cold shiver, like the rise and peak of music, when a mechanic pulled the shiny ground-off intruder from the clutching hot rubber of the tire with his needle-nose pliers. Eighty-five flat tires in fifty years of driving: he could remember where and when he picked up each one of them, just as if they were his children.
His mood changed abruptly when he saw Mrs. Haygood (her first name was Dorothy, but Mr. Haygood insisted Mazelle's husband call her Mrs. Haygood) in the garden. The houses of Worth Row were built on small lots. Only twelve feet separated them. In order to make room for a productive garden, Mrs. Haygood and Mazelle's husband had taken down the fence between their houses. They'd been neighbors for thirty-four years now and had produced thirty-three successful gardens. Mazelle and Mr. Haygood had participated initially, but for the past thirty seasons Mazelle's husband and Mrs. Haygood alone worked the vegetables and the decorative border of flowers. By careful planning and hard work they were able to provide food for not only their families but most of the neighbors. The soil was remarkably fertile, and they'd added much loam and fertilizer to sustain the productivity. The garden was, in fact, their greatest joy.
Mazelle's husband picked up a cucumber, cradled it in his hands like an infant. "Look here, Mrs. Haygood," he said.
She stepped across a row of beans, their second planting of the year, and parted two okra plants to squat by his side. "Why, it was no bigger than a mouse two days ago." She put her hand on the dark green nubbly skin, felt its warmth and suppleness. She let her wrist rest on his. He looked down in the dirt at Mrs. Haygood's bare feet. Soil oozed between her brown paper bag toes. But then, something. He took one hand off the cucumber and reached under her cotton dress. Mrs. Haygood closed her eyes. Mazelle's husband bent lower, squinted. A marble? Between Mrs. Haygood's feet. No, it was an eye, looking up her skirt.
"Move back, Mrs. Haygood."
"There's something in the dirt."
Mazelle's husband brushed back a clod, then dug his finger into the soil and flipped out the glass eye.
"Look at that," he said.
"It's horrible," Mrs. Haygood whispered.
"The corner is cracked. A blue eye. Do you suppose someone lost it? It's concave on the backside. I always thought they'd be round. Gosh, Mrs. Haygood, if we could only see the things this eye has seen."
"It hasn't seen anything," Mrs. Haygood said flatly.
"I'm going to clean it up and show it to Mazelle."
"I'll finish watering."
Mazelle's husband carried the glass eye into the kitchen and rinsed it off. Then he held it in his open palm and walked into the bookstore. "Look what I found in the garden."
Mazelle looked down into his palm, at the blue eye there, the discolored white with its bloodshot crackling. She lost her balance but caught herself on a bookcase. "Why are you showing it to me?"
"I don't know. I just found it," Mazelle's husband explained.
"Well, get it away. I don't know why you'd want to show a thing like that to me." And she rolled away, pushed herself along the shelving on a wheeled ladder.
Mazelle's husband looked into the eye himself and in the darkened pupil saw his own reflection. Then he twisted the eye in his fingertips to make the reflection spin, but it remained steadfastly detached. So he wagged his head and found the result he was looking for.
Copyright © 1999 by Joe Coomer