Georgie Mathis leaned back against the Macy's building. It wasn't hot-- nothing like hot but he was sweating and weak. He spread out his legs and nearly kicked over his can.
"Help a brother out," he said to a passing black man.
Nothing. The man never even acknowledged him.
Georgie hadn't even the energy to curse.
His dog sat next to him. Black dog. Nice dog. Nicest dog Georgie ever saw. Didn't steal his food like the pigeons or the passing mutts.
Black dog, Georgie called him Porgie, he didn't know why, Porgie never stared at him when he ate. Didn't beg food and act hungry. With Porgie, Georgie came first. Georgie ate, then the dog. It seemed like the only reason Porgie ate when his master fed him was to please his master. A little food. A little water. Porgie was good to go.
But not Georgie. He couldn't even budge today. Wasn't for the old white lady with the sandwich and the five, Georgie likely would've starved.
He let his hand rest on the dog. Dog couldn't weigh more than 15 pounds, but his hand sunk into the fur and he stroked. "Best dog I ever had," he said. "Only dog I ever had."
Georgie closed his eyes and pulled in the warmth. Nothing like hot today, and not cold, but the sweat rolled down his face and Georgie shivered. San Francisco weather, cold and hot at the same time.
He spoke to the dog. "Wish you could hook me up, Porgie. I could use a little something you know. Lord knows, I can't even get up off my butt."
The man closed his eyes. He remembered the days in the projects. He remembered the mean-ass dogs all over and the mean-ass people. He tried to see his grandmother's face. If his grandma wouldn't have died so long ago, Georgie would've been okay. He hummed aloud to the church music he heard inside his head. Grandma took him to church. Lotta good it did him, or her. Old woman passed when she was 50, and he was just 13. No more church. That was it for him. His mama living anywhere she found a man. His dad who knew where.
Wait, Georgie stopped humming. He knew where the old man had been. He met him first time in the joint. When Georgie did five for drugs, he met the old man. Father hooked him up in the joint.
"You my boy," he said. "I'll take care of you."
Later the old man beat him up over a debt.
"I'll take care of you," the old man said.
Georgie came out of the joint worse than ever.
The dog stirred.
His master came around. "You're the softest thing," he said. "You're like the only one who sees me."
The dog stared into his master's eyes. "Man, it's like you read my mind," Georgie said.
The legs kept passing him by. He listened for the sound of coins dropping.
He'd owned the dog for a couple of weeks. The dog adopted him. Came up to him right at the very spot he sat, right up against the back of the Macy's building and sat down.
Georgie tried to shoo the dog off. Even tried once or twice to kick the mutt. But Porgie dodged the blows, not so much for himself, but seemingly so his new owner wouldn't feel bad about hurting him.
So George put up with him. Then he saw that people paid just a little more attention to him when the dog was there. The extra money in his can more than made up for the dog food. Porgie didn't eat much. It seemed as if he could've lived on air for all he asked.
The black dog crawled onto his master's lap.
"I'm so cold," Georgie said. "You be my blanket, dog."
The man felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up. It was Blowfly, the dealer. Everyone hated Blowfly.
"Hey there Georgie, long time. Where you been?" Blowfly said.
The dealer's nose was running. That's why the name.
"You need something Georgie boy?"
The old man thought of the five in his pocket. "I don't have much," he said. "I been off the stuff for a couple of weeks. But I'm suffering. What can you do for five?"
Blowfly scowled, then grinned. "Man, we old friends, you know. I fix you up with something. Let's see the color of your money."
Georgie dug into his pocket. Nothing. He dug into the other. Still nothing. He looked into the can, and around him. He shooed the dog off his lap, got up on his aching knees and searched the ground. Nothing. The five was gone.
"I had it," he said. "I think I got some holes in my pockets. I know it's here somewhere."
But the money couldn't be found.
Blowfly scowled again and wiped his nose with his shirt.
"How 'bout I pay you tomorrow?" Georgie asked.
"How 'bout you get hit by a car today then I don't see you again. This ain't the charity ward my man. I can't go around giving it away. I got expenses. Overhead."
Georgie grabbed the man's hand. He'd always hated to touch Blowfly or anything Blowfly touched, but he felt desperate. "I been a good customer in my time," he said.
"Let go of me!" Blowfly snatched his hand away and made as if he were going to club Georgie. "You're a shaky bag of bones. Look at you and that damn dog. Neither one of you worth a damn."
Then Blowfly smiled again. "Tell you what," he said, "You give me your dog and I'll fix you up."
Georgie closed his eyes and thought. Nobody ever loved him like that dog. Nobody.
"Come on," said Blowfly. "I ain't gonna hurt him."
"You're gonna feed him to a pit, aren't you."
Blowfly would make some points by handing over the dog to some gangster so the gangster could watch his pit tear Porgie apart.
"Nah, would I do that? I'd give it to my girlfriend."
Blowfly had no girlfriend Georgie bet.
"You'd feed him to a pit. I know it. Feed him to a pit for fun."
The dog nosed into Georgie. It didn't seem like a plea for mercy, he thought. It seemed like the dog would accept whatever was most important to Georgie. What he needed, the dog would give, even in sacrifice. The dog nosed him so he would make up his mind. So he wouldn't suffer over the decision.
"I'll find my five and take care of business later."
Blowfly smiled. "Whatever you say, Georgie. But the offer stands. I take the dog and fix you up."
Georgie sighed and waved the dealer off. He watched him stroll down the block, turn and go out of sight.
He pulled the dog close to him. Man, nothing ever felt as nice as his dog, except maybe a pipe. But the black dog warmed him almost as well.
Porgie rose, and the five dollar bill was on the ground where he'd sat.
Georgie felt a surge of anger and wanted to throw the dog into the traffic. But it quickly subsided and he laughed. Then collapsed on the ground, unconscious.
He awoke, shivering.
It was almost dark, apparently no one had thought him anything but drunk. He'd been there hours. Porgie lay across his stomach. Georgie's hand dropped onto the dog, and stroked.
The lights flashed. The black dog was the one fixed point in Georgie's life for those moments.
"Can you sit up?" someone asked.
He felt the dog pulled away from him. They pulled Georgie onto the stretcher.
"My dog!" Georgie said.
Porgie licked his hand. The old man let his hand rest onto the dog's neck. "What's going on, dog?" he said. "What are they doing to me?"
The last thing he felt was the warmth of the black dog. His hand sunk into the fur, into the warmth. The world about him swirled. The lights. The warmth. The sounds off in a distance now. And the lights in his head dimming. His hand clutched at Porgie.Then Georgie passed. His hand dropped, and the dog took off, avoiding any attempts to hold him.
The black dog ran down the street. He ran through the Tenderloin, avoiding traffic. Ran without stopping. Dodged the cars that never seemed to notice him. He ran and then turned on Van Ness. He kept running. Maybe two miles. Then he turned on Jackson. Past a couple of the foreign embassies. Then the black dog slipped through the metal bars of a gate and under a shrub in the well-kept yard. The black dog closed his eyes and waited.
In the morning the black dog heard a door open and close.
Voices. Female voices.
He stretched then shook off the dew off his fur.
The dog ran to the old woman with the cane and her Filipina helper.
He shook his tail so his whole back end swayed. The dog smiled.
"What's this?" The old white lady with the cane said.
"Stay away," said the Filipina, standing between the dog and the old woman. She threatened a kick.
The old lady smiled. "No, no. It's okay Consuelo. The dog isn't a threat."
Consuelo eyed the dog without easing back.
"Mrs. Connell, you don't know anything about this dog," she said. "Let's go inside and I'll call the pound."
Mrs. Connell waved her caretaker off. "This dog is just lost and hungry," she said. "I can tell."
Mrs. Connell never actually had a dog in her life. She grew up in San Francisco, born into a large family who lived modestly and without dogs.
When she married young, her husband hated dogs, so she never owned one ever. But something about this animal gave her confidence. It's friendliness seemed obvious to her.
The dog made its way around Consuelo and licked the old woman's hand.
"You are so sweet," said the old woman.
"Look out the dog doesn't knock you down," the younger Consuelo said.
"No, no. This dog understands. It is very well-behaved. It doesn't seem to have a collar."
"A runaway. Probably infested with bugs."
"No. It has been cared for. It seems healthy."
"Until your house is filled with fleas. I should call the pound."
The dog looked up at the old woman. It seemed to her as if the dog had an uncanny sort of knowledge of her. As if the dog knew more about her than most people.
The old woman, Mrs. Maria Connell had been beautiful once. She'd been an only child of a fine Spanish family-- devoutly Catholic. She married at 19. A man 20 years older than her. An Irishman-- very rich-- very ruthless. She quickly became pregnant. Her husband at first berated her, then he began to slap her.
Mrs. Connell took it. Even to the day of the birth, she took it. After the birth, she took the slapping. Even as it got more violent, she allowed it.
She prayed. When praying didn't stop the beatings, she went to see her priest. Mr. Connell hit her and hit her almost daily.
He hit her when the baby cried.
He hit her when she cried.
He hit her even though she prayed, and even though she visited the priest. Maria went to mass on Wednesdays and lit a candle, not for herself, but for her husband. She went to mass on Sundays and lit a candle. Sometimes she lit a candle for all of them, herself, her husband, and William, the baby.
When William began to toddle about the house, Mr. Connell screamed at the child and slapped him for knocking over a vase.
Maria came dashing out from the kitchen with a six-inch kitchen knife. She plowed into her husband and knocked him to the ground. With the knife at her husband's throat, she told him, "You need to leave here and never come back. I will kill you if you do. Do you understand? I will kill you. If you ever hurt my son again I will gouge out your eyes and leave you in the street to die. Now go."
Mr. Connell left. He never entered the house again. And, like a good Catholic, he remained married to Maria.
After ten years, he died, leaving his wife and son with his fortune.
Though Mr. Connell never hit his son again, he did find fault with every thing the boy attempted. William Connell grew up disappointed and unsure of himself.
The dog lapped at the water Mrs. Connell set out in a bowl for him. She watched. This black dog seemed very well-behaved. She knew nothing about dogs, but could tell this one had arrived at her home for some reason. No dog had picked her before.
She wondered, would William have come out better if he'd had a dog. He always seemed afraid of them.
Ah, William, she sighed. Her only child and a troubled soul. Divorced since last year. A suicide attempt at college. A failed business. Loans and gifts from his mother never seemed to make a difference. He never could get over the hump.
Mrs. Connell seldom saw him now. If he called, he seemed preoccupied.
Could it be that he needed a dog as a child?
Mrs. Connell smiled as the dog ate some fish leftovers from a few days ago.
Consuelo hovered at the kitchen door, distrustful.
"I will call the pound now Mrs. Connell. You can't have a dog under your feet. What if he knocks you over?"
The dog finished the fish and looked up at Mrs. Connell.
"I like this dog," she said. "He'll be careful of me."
The dog wagged his tail.
At night, Mrs. Connell sat in her living room with the dog at her feet. She sat there humming. Ave Maria. Why that song, she wondered. Yet it would not leave her head.
The dog slept.
Consuelo was in Mrs. Connell's bedroom, preparing to leave for the night.
Mrs. Connell hummed and thought. She should call William. He never seemed to be home when she called, but she should call him.
She leaned over, grabbed the phone, then dialed.
It rang three times before he answered.
"Hello Mother," he said.
"William," she said and paused. "William, you know I haven't seen you in two months?"
"Has it been that long?"
"Yes, dear. And you know, I miss you terribly."
For 30 seconds, he did not respond.
"Is something wrong? Are you okay?"
"Of course. But I miss you. You have always been such a good son."
"What's going on?" He sounded frantic.
"Nothing, William. Nothing. Come home son. You need to come home."
Mrs. Connell hung up the phone and hummed the song.
"I will put the animal out now," she said.
"Where?" Asked Mrs. Connell.
"Where it's come from," said Consuelo.
"No, you won't put it out. I want him to stay."
Consuelo tried to lock the black dog out of the bedroom when she put Mrs. Connell in her bed. Mrs. Connell would have none of it.
The dog lay on the floor next to the bed.
The Filipina shook her head. "I don't like this dog."
The old woman waved her away.
After her helper left, Mrs. Connell let her hand fall over the bedside. The black dog licked her hand. "You are so sweet," she said. "What shall we call you? Sweetie? I like that, do you?"
The dog put it's paws on the bed and nuzzled the old woman. "So sweet," she said again.
Her eyes began to close. The dog lay on the floor again.
Some music played on the radio that Consuelo left on for Mrs. Connell every night before she left. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony played softly. Mrs. Connell drifted in and out of sleep, awaking now and again as the piece played. Once she sighed. Always the dog seemed in just the right place to touch its fur if the hand fell over the bed. Perhaps she imagined it. Perhaps the dog really was there to comfort her almost like a nurse, even in a manner that a lover might. She'd never had a real lover.
William came to the house in San Francisco the next morning. He came even before the mist had cleared. Mrs. Connell knew he'd never been an early riser, even as a child on Christmas morning. His face looked even redder than the last time she'd seen him-- his hair looked thinner. He fought to catch his breath after only a one block walk from his parking spot.
"Don't let me forget to move my car," he said to Consuelo.
His mother pretended she hadn't noticed his unhealthy demeanor. The black dog went immediately to William.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"Sweetie," she said, sitting at the dining room table.
William pretended to disapprove of the animal even though he immediately rubbed its head. "Just what you need," he said.
The dog licked his hand.
Consuelo poured him coffee. She shook her head for his benefit at the mention of the dog. "I told her she doesn't need any dog."
He shrugged. His hand sunk into the animal's fur. It comforted him. He'd never owned a dog. William closed his eyes. His heart jumped a beat. He gasped for breath.
"William?" his mother said. "Are you all right?"
Such softness. Such warmth. He missed the comfort of other creatures in his solitary existence.
He tried to refocus on his mother. He lifted his hand with great effort to indicate he was okay, though he wasn't.
"I'm-- all-- right," he said. "I'm all right."
The black dog sat next to him then leaned against his leg.
"I'd forgotten," William said more to himself than to the women. His thoughts went to his wife. What had he accomplished? What would they say about him after he'd left his life behind? Would they say he'd given comfort to others?
Reflexively his hand fell onto the dog's head. Surely he was supposed to outlive his mother, but he knew he would not. And he'd never felt anything so soft. Never ever in his life.