Cats and Dog
by Barbara Taylor
Some said the real trouble began with the ice storm. All agreed the swimming pool incident was the last straw. In any case, the neighbors had issues with Elwyn Brooks from the start.
The Birch Bark Condominiums were conveniently located near the college where Elwyn taught English Composition. He purchased the unit nearest the entrance and immediately began slipping out the one-way circle going about twenty feet in the wrong direction. If forced to drive around the entire circle at five miles per hour, he wasted precious minutes every morning braking for women walking in packs. Meanwhile, longtime resident Mr. Fisk practiced tai chi outdoors from 8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, in the small grassy area beside the Birch Bark sign. Elwyn always paused and looked to the left and to the right before setting out in the wrong direction, but Mr. Fisk took his picture anyway, in case he ever needed proof of this flagrant disregard for the safety of others.
“Elwyn Brooks is a rebel,” Mr. Fisk told everyone who would listen.
There were other red flags. Early on, Mrs. Thomas, the area’s most vocal resident, decided Elwyn was an unlikely fit for the community. If he cared about the environment, why was he driving an SUV? She made a point of taking a loaf of her spelt bread to new homeowners in order to get a glimpse of their decor and gather as much information about them as possible.
“What color are you painting the living room?” Mrs. Thomas asked Elwyn when he opened the front door, paint roller in hand. Ever-present plastic binoculars hung from her neck, and she breezed past him without waiting for an invitation to step inside.
“Terra cotta,” he said. “I’m Elwyn Brooks, by the way.”
“Frances Thomas. #23. This wall looks orange,” she said, squinting. “Where did you buy your couch?”
“Are you married?”
“Hmm. But you own a dog, I see.” Spike sat in a corner on the floor cloth, eyeing Mrs. Thomas and her loaf of spelt bread. “Most of us at Birch Bark have cats. We’re all cat lovers. Keep your dog on a leash–it’s in the by-laws. Now, about the Jeep. Does your conscience bother you?”
“I’m referring to that gas-guzzling vehicle out there in the carport. Consider your carbon footprint. Do you have something against public transportation?”
“No, not at all. But I’d better get back to work now. Nice meeting you. Thanks for stopping by.” Elwyn lifted the paint roller in a friendly salute. Mrs. Thomas handed over the spelt bread, solid as a brick, and left. She later described Elwyn as abrupt–a loner with garish taste and a dog. Spike wandered over to sniff the bread through the wrapper. He wasn’t interested, and Elwyn threw it away.
On trash day, a herd of cats overturned Elwyn’s garbage can, slit open the bag, and scattered its contents. Mrs. Thomas and the other visor-wearing walkers were appalled when they found her untouched spelt bread in the gutter. Although Elwyn nodded and waved whenever he saw Frances Thomas, she ignored him after that.
Another neighbor placed her business card under Elwyn’s windshield wiper: Dr. Biscuit Beasley, P.H.D., and a note. “Call me at the salon for a discount!” Baffled, Elwyn Brooks, Ph.D., did not call. Then Biscuit motioned to him one day from her balcony. Spike had just hopped into the Jeep, anticipating a romp in the dog park with Elwyn.
“I’m the one who left the card on your windshield!” Biscuit sounded like a football coach, yelling from the sidelines.
Elwyn strolled over, hands in his pockets. “Hello,” he said. Spike waited patiently in the passenger seat.
“You didn’t make an appointment. What’s the problem?”
“You’re a–hairdresser, is that right?” Elwyn remained confused by the “Dr.” and P.H.D. on Biscuit’s card and needed clarification of some kind.
Biscuit stopped leaning over the railing and stood. She was a mountain of a woman. Her fists clenched and her face turned to stone. Elwyn took a step back and fumbled for the car keys in his pocket. “I am a Professional Hair Designer. P.H.D.,” Biscuit bellowed. “Do you have any idea how much specialized training is required to achieve that level of distinction?”
“I’m afraid not. Ms., uh–”
“Dr. Beasley. I am in the upper echelon of the hair design field. And I offered you a discount as a gesture of good will, you thankless clod.”
“Excuse me, but–”
“I saw the college parking sticker on your car. You’re a professor or something, right? An academic genius, I suppose.”
“I’m afraid we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here–”
Biscuit made an obscene gesture, turned on her heel and disappeared into her condo. Elwyn and Spike left Birch Bark to clear their minds at the dog park.
Prior to home ownership, Elwyn rented an apartment downtown. In his experience, renters didn’t have the time to take anything personally. They were ships passing in the night. Apparently, condominium living was something else again. He felt the walls closing in. When he ventured out, there might be the odd man in a surgical mask demanding that Elwyn stop using fabric softener sheets because he was allergic to the air coming out of the dryer vent. Or Mr. Fisk with his camera and Mrs. Thomas with her binoculars. And cats regularly dropped dead birds or rodents on his welcome mat. Most disturbing of all was Biscuit on her balcony, giving him the finger. He hoped this wouldn’t become a regular thing. Elwyn realized he should have done more research prior to purchasing at Birch Bark, but the deed was done. And he was a mild-mannered man who would do anything to avoid a confrontation. Maybe time was the answer to blending in with these people.
Unfortunately, the first winter at Birch Bark, Spike ate the face off a miniature snowman.
“The animal is vicious,” Mr. Fisk said to Elwyn. “He’s a pit bull, isn’t he?”
“Spike’s mother was a beagle,” Elwyn said. “He likes to eat snow. He’s harmless.”
“Keep him away from my cat,” Mr. Fisk said.
“You know, a black and white cat is jumping on the hood of my car and scratching it up.”
“You’re accusing Hannibal?”
“Is that your cat? No. I mean–”
But Mr. Fisk wasn’t listening. He took a photo of Spike licking the faceless snowman, and then headed in the direction of #23 where he told his version of the story to Frances Thomas. Soon it was all over the complex that Elwyn was a liar and a cat hater and Spike bit someone.
Later, when the ice storm began, Elwyn asked his next door neighbor, Olivia, if she needed milk or bread as he was the only person in the complex with 4-wheel drive. “I’m on my way to the grocery before the roads become impossible,” Elwyn said, winding a scarf around his neck.
“My son is lactose intolerant,” she snapped. “And we don’t touch wheat flour. We like spelt bread. Frances told me you don’t.”
“You can bring me a quart of soy milk. And some kale. But not if it’s grown in California.”
“Sure–no problem.” Elwyn paused to see if cash would be offered for the purchase of the items, but Olivia closed the door in his face.
That night, power lines fell in curls like Christmas ribbon. Birch Bark went black, and Elwyn and Spike slept on the IKEA sofa in the glow of the gas logs. The electricity stayed off the following day, too. Elwyn took defrosted steaks out of the freezer and fired up the charcoal grill in the carport. No point in wasting perfectly good rib eyes.
“You’re sending particles of animal flesh into the atmosphere,” the man in the surgical mask called from the other side of the lane. “There are vegetarians here, you know. And vegans.”
“You’re welcome to use the grill if you’d like to cook some vegetables,” Elwyn offered. “You could seal them in aluminum foil.”
“And bring on a gall bladder attack? My ex-wife used aluminum cookware and that was the beginning of the end.”
Elwyn piled the steaks on a plate and slammed the lid on the Weber grill to trap the offending particles inside. He gained much needed strength from the overdose of red meat, as did Spike.
When spring rolled around and the pool opened, Elwyn happily swam solitary laps until Olivia showed up with her four-year-old, lactose intolerant son. The boy stood on the edge of the pool, lowered his swimming trunks, and peed into the water, narrowly missing Elwyn’s head.
“I think the little guy is peeing in the pool, Olivia,” Elwyn said as he climbed out and grabbed a towel.
She peered over her sunglasses. “It’s only urine. Urine’s medicinal, you know. I’m a massage therapist, and some of my clients like to be massaged with their own urine. We have a little poem on our bathroom wall. ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.’ Do you know how many gallons of water it takes for one flush? If we all went around flushing all day long, just think of the waste. Water is a precious resource.”
Elwyn gathered his paperback book and aluminum water bottle, wondering what had become of his rubber flip-flops.
“Your dog killed Frosty the snowman!” Elwyn turned around to see twin girls, aged five or six, hands on hips, with their pony-tailed mother carrying a picnic hamper.
“Careful. Elwyn Brooks doesn’t like children,” Olivia called from her lounge chair to Pony Tail. “He thinks they’re unsanitary.”
Elwyn opened his mouth and closed it again. It was useless to argue. The mother of twins dropped the hamper on a metal umbrella table and glared.
“It’s Kerry and Kelly’s birthday today,” she hissed. “We’re having a Pretty Kitty party here in ten minutes, and now look at the state they’re in. You remind them of the trauma. That poor, defenseless snowman. Lucky for you my husband has a certificate in anger management.” The girls adjusted their headbands with black cat ears attached and showed Elwyn their claws.
“I’m sorry. Really.” As Elwyn turned and made a weary move for the gate, the boy tossed the missing flip flops over the low chain link fence. After retrieving them, all Elwyn wanted was to go home and take a long hot shower. A nap on his sunny balcony sounded good, but Biscuit Beasley might be out, too close for comfort. In any case, he needed to give some serious thought to his and Spike’s situation at Birch Bark. He had tried everything he knew, even going so far as driving completely around the circle; a true sacrifice. Now his only wish was to be left alone in peace.
“Mr. Fisk showed me the picture! We have documentation!” These were Pony Tail’s last words, shouted at Elwyn’s back as he retreated.
When Mrs. Thomas arrived for the Pretty Kitty party, she heard about that day’s drama. After sampling the punch and kitty cookies, she marched over to Mr. Fisk’s condo.
The following day, Elwyn’s left eye began to throb and turn red. His ophthalmologist put him on eye drops, ordered him to wear a patch for two weeks, and added a few unnecessary words of caution. “For God’s sake, stay out of that pool. It’s teeming with bacteria.”
When Elwyn arrived back at the condo, he found an official-looking envelope taped to his door. With one good eye, he saw it was from the Birch Bark Board of Directors. He went inside, took out the letter, and read the list of infractions aloud to Spike: endangering the lives of residents and guests by driving recklessly; owning a menacing dog; polluting the environment; an acrimonious attitude. This was not the Birch Bark way, they warned. Due to the volume of complaints, Elwyn could consider himself banned from the pool for a month. And, finally, if he didn’t get with the program, there was danger of alienating his fellow Birch Barkians and forfeiting their fellowship forevermore.
Elwyn heard hammering. Now what, he thought. He and Spike went outside to investigate and saw Mr. Fisk and Frances Thomas moving down the lane with armloads of materials. Stuck in the shrub bed was a wooden stake with a piece of cardboard attached low to the ground. Spike sniffed the hand-lettered sign while Elwyn read:
COME JOIN US THIS SATURDAY FOR BIRCH BARK’S ANNUAL POOL FEST!
FREE FUN FOR THE WHOLE BIRCH BARK FAMILY!
PETTING ZOO (CATS ONLY!), FACE PAINTING, KAZOO BAND & MORE!
VEGGIE BURGERS WILL BE SERVED!
The stabbing sensation in Elwyn’s eye started up again, but when Spike lifted his leg and soaked the sign, a deep feeling of satisfaction washed over Elwyn Brooks and he smiled through the pain. It seemed to him that Spike was smiling, too, as Elwyn unsnapped his leash.
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Barbara Taylor is a winner of the Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Competition. She is currently at work on a novel and lives in North Carolina.
KJ Hannah Greenberg new book, Friends and Rabid Hedgehogs, just launched. This collection of short fiction includes a work initially published in Flash Fiction Press; “A Line Producer’s Beneficent Notes”. It is available at Amazon in Kindle and print.