"Alvarez entices readers to see the town of Mayfield through the eyes of Benny as he creates a kinship with the dogs he walks for his neighbors and takes uncharted paths, twists and turns that give way to new adventures.”—Kirkus Reviews
If there are guardian angels among us, surely Benny is one of them. Gently challenged and benignly observant, he lives with his long-suffering mother in the quirky and charming town of Mayfield. Benny is qualified for only one job: walking dogs. At that task, he is without peer. But Benny is more than a simple friend to the town’s canines; he brings the same guileless compassion to the people around him. Sweet and honest, offering poignant loyalty, he changes their lives.
Life is not as simple as he seems.
AUTHOR: Corwyn Alvarez (aka Official Ball Thrower for the Dog) lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the proud recipient of the Walter Mitty Writing Award from Accidental College and aspires to someday be a worthy road man for the lords of karma. He is currently at work on his next novel.
"The Dog Walker is a book that manages to profoundly change a person while telling them a tragic story… it's a rare gem that deserves to be (forgive the pun) dog-eared." -- Tiffany Xie – Tiffany’s Reviews
"A truly inspirational book that will touch your heart….I was in awe at the masterful weaving of this tale and the way Alvarez was able to craft it in such a wonderful way. Animal lovers and dog lovers alike will surely enjoy this epic novel." -- No Author, Seriously Reviewed Blog
"Alvarez appealingly flaunts the charm, sincerity and. creates compelling parallels between.relationships. Alvarez expertly uses dark humor to mold Benny into an engaging character who works to save his employers and friends. A dark, whimsical adventure that dog-lovers will enjoy." -- Kirkus Indie; Kirkus Media
Love sometimes comes with a tail.
Benny turned up the volume on his iPod. He usually lulled himself to sleep by listening to some thunder-driven riff laced with a sinister rhythm and sharply tuned vocals. This always relaxed him. He reached for his stuffed dog and tucked it under his arm. The toy dog’s fur was worn, and the black threads on its nose were frayed. He had had it since he was a year old and couldn’t fall asleep without it. He had wanted a real dog for as long as he could remember. But his mother wouldn’t allow it. She said that she couldn’t afford to get one. This was a sacrifice for Benny, who believed he was part dog himself. He didn’t profess to have a wet nose or a wagging tail. He just meant that he loved dogs and they loved him. At nine months, he spoke his first word: doggie. He was precocious for a born dumb ass.
He could hear his mother’s footsteps outside his closed door. He didn’t bother getting up to kiss her good night. He’d just dropped out of high school, and she was so angry that she refused to speak to him. Originally, he had planned on not ever telling her. But someone from school was going to contact her anyway, so he decided to do the honorable thing.
Her silent treatment could last anywhere from a week to a month. And he would have preferred that she beat him to death than not speak to him. Still, he was glad that he had dropped out of school. He had been in "special needs” classes as long as he could remember, and he hated it. When he was very young, his mother tried explaining to him that he couldn’t be with regular kids because he learned more slowly, since he only had an IQ of seventy. Back then, he didn’t quite understand what she meant. As he got older, though, he figured out that this was her nice way of calling him a moron.
When she finally came around and began speaking to him again, she called him into the kitchen. In a serious tone that made him a bit nervous, she said, "Benjamin, we have to talk.”
He knew this tone, and nothing good ever came of it. The last time she used this tone with him he was five years old—thirty-five in human years. She forbade him from watching television for an entire month as punishment for some act of mischief he could no longer remember. This was hardly a punishment to him, even back then. He hated television, with the exception of old movies, especially the ones in black and white.
"What do you plan on doing with your life?” she asked calmly.
He could tell that she was restraining herself from flat-out yelling at him. At that moment, he wished more than anything that his brother Jerome was still living at home. Jerome usually could calm her down. Jerome was eight years older than Benny. They had never been close. Benny got the feeling that Jerome would have preferred to remain an only child from his frequent absence. This had bothered Benny when he was younger because he missed his father and hoped that Jerome would be there for him. But he eventually came to regard Jerome as a distant relative on the move, one who was too busy to be bothered with his family. Now, Jerome was away attending medical school in Boston.
Benny felt like saying to her, "What life?” But instead he replied, "I’ve been to a bunch of places in town advertising my new dog-walking business.”
"You’re going to walk dogs the rest of your life?” she said, sounding as if he’d just told her he was planning on robbing banks for a living.
"If you’re going to stop going to school, you’re going to have to help out around here.”
"Not a problem,” he said agreeably.
She sat for a moment and didn’t say a word as she stared blankly into space and ate saltine crackers. She was always eating saltine crackers because she was always dieting. She wasn’t fat. In fact, she was rather thin. Tears filled her eyes and began to run down her cheeks.
"It’ll be fine, Ma,” he said and put his hand on hers to try and comfort her. But it didn’t do any good because she put her head down and cried harder.
He saw that it was beginning to get dark outside and rather than sit there and watch her be depressed, which he could do anytime, he went outside to smoke his corncob pipe. He used to chain-smoke cigarettes, but his mother disapproved. She said that smoking cigarettes was bad for him and made him look like a degenerate. He tried explaining to her that he looked like a degenerate anyway, but she wasn’t swayed.
He was surprised that she allowed him to smoke a pipe. He suspected, however, that it had something to do with the fact that his grandfather had smoked a pipe. A gold-framed photograph of his grandfather hung in their living room above the piano. His mother was always dusting it or straightening it, even though it wasn’t dusty or crooked. The picture showed his grandfather as a young man, wearing a suit and tie. His hair was slicked back like they did in those days.
Benny, on the other hand, had long dark rock star hair. He usually wore an oversized army jacket that required him to roll up the sleeves. It had belonged to his father, who was a sergeant in the army until he was dishonorably discharged for nearly beating a man to death in a drunken rage. Benny would also usually wear baggy pants and black combat boots that he never bothered to tie because his feet were so wide.
To relax, Benny would sometimes sit on his front porch and smoke his pipe as he watched his neighbors come and go. He was quite fond of a retired couple who lived next door. They always waved and smiled at him. The old man wore a herringbone jacket and a tie and smoked Chesterfields. His wife always looked like she had just come from the beauty parlor.
Benny had always assumed that the couple was as honorable as the Stars and Stripes, until one day he mistakenly received a box in the mail that belonged to them. The box was marked confidential and came from the Caligula Toy Company. Being the curious sort and having absolutely no self-control, he opened it. He was horrified when he saw a thirteen-inch vibrator, two whips (his and hers) and a dirty movie featuring legendary porn star Wally Wood.
His hands trembled as he retaped the box and dropped it in their mailbox. From that moment on, whenever he saw them, all he could imagine was the old man with his whip and his wife with her vibrator (or maybe it was the other way around). He was traumatized after the incident and convinced that it wasn’t dogs that belonged on leashes, but rather people. Somehow, though, he suspected that his neighbors might not mind that. He swore to himself that when he got married he wouldn’t be such a pervert.
Benny liked Mayfield and regarded it as picturesque. It was nestled in a valley surrounded by grassy hills that looked like a sea monster’s humps. Old-fashioned iron light posts lined the town streets. And its turn-of-the-century architecture inspired the feeling that Judy Garland was going to ride up the street in a trolley at any moment wearing an Easter bonnet. Of course nothing of the kind ever happened, although it might not have been a bad thing if it did.
There was one veterinarian, a post office, two grocery stores, an animal shelter, a clinic (everyone went to Baltimore if they needed to go to the hospital), a Baptist church, a Catholic church, a synagogue, an insane asylum (Pine View Lodge, where Benny’s Uncle Morty stayed a spell), and three gas stations.
Everyone went to Woo’s Filling Station because his was the only filling station with a quickie mart and his gas was always five cents cheaper than the competition. Truth be told, however, he got so much business because he sold cigarettes and beer to kids. When he was thirteen years old, Benny bought his first pack of cigarettes from old man Woo and felt indebted to him for starting him on his habit. As if this were not enough to entice people to come to Mayfield, it also offered a number of fine dining experiences such as Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s. Benny hated fast food and would rather have eaten kibble.
Benny was no stranger to Mayfield’s origins. In fact, it was part of the grade school curriculum for Mayfielders to learn how there fair town had come about. Mayfield was originally settled in 1790 by Horace Mayfield, a revolutionary soldier who was given one thousand square acres by General George Washington in reward for having saved Washington from choking on an undercooked piece of rabbit. As legend had it, shortly after the Battle of Lexington, Washington and his soldiers were sitting around a fire one night telling jokes, when Horace Mayfield began to tell one joke after another and had everyone in stitches, including the General. Mayfield noticed that Washington, who had stuffed his cheeks with food just prior to one of his outbursts, suddenly clenched his throat and couldn’t breathe. Mayfield recognized what was happening and applied a crude form of the Heimlich maneuver on him, causing the lodged piece of meat to shoot out of his mouth like a musket ball. Naturally, after this, the two men became great friends.
Mayfield had come a long way since its founding, and as of the 2000 Census, the town had a population of 2,999, until the Baileys had their first child, a daughter they named Estelle. Most people in town worked either for Henderson’s paper mill or Casper’s cream soda factory. Ezekiel Casper started making cream soda in the basement of his farmhouse back in 1950, and it didn’t take long before half the town was working for him.
Benny’s mother, however, worked for old man Henderson as his personal secretary. She could type 180 words a minute without a single error. She could have worked for Casper’s cream soda factory, if she wanted. But she hated Ezekiel Casper because he had cheated her father out of his land. Casper had taken advantage of her father’s desperate need and only paid him a fraction of what the land was worth. Brokenhearted, her father died the following year. Benny was a kid when his grandfather died. But he remembered attending the wake and poking his grandfather’s hand and being spooked by the sensation that he wasn’t dead at all and might suddenly sit up.
The next day, Benny went to the shelter to post his dog-walker flyers on the corkboard between the two double glass doors and visit the animals. For the longest time, he had been eyeing one dog in particular. The dog was a tan-colored shepherd mix with front paws that looked like white booties and with big hazel eyes that reached out to him from behind the bars of cage number 156. His muzzle had some white fur, but it was mostly black and tan. He had one floppy ear. But his other ear stood almost erect, except for the tip, which folded over.
When the dog saw Benny, he stood on his hind legs. He leaped on the cage, bending the chain links forward, and began to wag his bushy tail and bark. Benny crouched down in front of him and said, "Don’t worry boy, I’ll get ya outta here.”
At that moment, someone walked up behind Benny and coldly said, "That dog’s gonna be put to sleep next week.”
Benny looked behind him. It was a tall, pimply young man. "What do ya mean?” Benny asked, knowing full well what he meant.
"He’s got a bad leg. Get a good one, like that one over there,” said the young man, pointing to a little black dog that was excitedly bouncing four feet off the ground.
"He’s nice, but I want this guy,” Benny said, putting his fingers through the chain link.
The dog began licking his fingers. The dog seemed to realize that if someone didn’t adopt him soon, he was a goner.
"You gotta be eighteen to adopt. You eighteen?” he asked Benny in a snide tone of voice.
"I’m twenty-one,” Benny replied, sounding as if the young man should have known better than to even ask that question.
"Then you can apply to adopt him today if you want. Let’s see some ID, squid.”
"Don’t got it on me.”
"Just like I thought, you’re lying,” said the young man, who turned his back on Benny and began writing on his clipboard.
"No, I’m not. I’ll prove it when I bring my ID tomorrow.” Benny was so angry that he wanted to punch him. But he thought it over and instead extended his hand like a perfect gentleman. "I’m Benny,” he said, with a forced grin that nearly made his face break out into hives.
"I’m Alex,” said the young man, who just stared at Benny’s hand as if it were a used diaper.
"I don’t remember seeing ya before. Worked here long?”
"Couple of weeks—it’s only temporary until I can find a real job.”
Benny got the feeling that Alex didn’t like animals much by the way he walked around them as if they were lampposts. He also got the feeling that Alex was a real asshole. He could always tell when someone was an asshole by the way they treated animals.
Alex reminded Benny of a guy he had once known in high school, named Jake Broder. Jake was also a special needs kid and had a bowl haircut that made him resemble Moe from the Three Stooges. At first, Benny thought that Jake was a riot because of the stupid things he did. He even began to like Jake, until one day during recess Benny saw him pick up a rock and throw it at a dog that happened to be meandering across the school grounds. Instinctively, the dog ran behind Benny for protection. Jake began to pursue the dog. And just as instinctively, Benny knocked Jake flat on his back, where he remained holding his bloody nose, until Benny and the dog had gone.
It took Benny three bus transfers to get to his friend, Zach, who lived in Baltimore. Whenever Benny needed a favor, he always went to see Zach, who was older. Benny wasn’t quite sure how much older Zach was. But his hair had begun to turn gray, and a few of his teeth were missing.
Benny had met Zach while he was attending middle school. He tried to sell Benny some pot one day after school. Zach wasn’t a student, rather he was the playground drug dealer. But at the time, Benny was more interested in Zach’s puppy. They became fast friends and remained friends, even after Zach moved to an apartment in Baltimore to expand his drug operation.
Baltimore was about twenty miles outside of Mayfield, and the sight of it always depressed Benny when he made the trip. The first thing he usually noticed was the smokestacks. Then he would look across the harbor and see the cargo ships docked beside the warehouses and the Domino Sugar plant. But what really got to him were the faded brick row houses with their boarded up and broken windows.
Zach usually wore jeans and a t-shirt and dark sunglasses, even at night. This time, he answered the door wearing a pair of striped boxer shorts and a tank top. He was eating chocolate chip cookies, which he baked himself. Benny had tried them, and they were easily the best chocolate chip cookies he had ever tasted in his life. After eating just one of Zach’s cookies, Benny would feel happy for hours even if he had good reason to feel depressed.
"Come on in,” Zach said. He immediately offered Benny a cookie. But Benny declined, saying that he wasn’t in the mood.
Whenever he went to Zach’s apartment, he was always stepping over piles of dirty laundry, empty beer bottles, and pizza boxes. He was careful about where he stepped because he never knew where Zach’s eight-foot python, Nesse, might be slithering.
Benny found a place to sit on the couch between a trash bag of marijuana and a stack of girly magazines. "What’s goin’ on?” he asked casually.
"Not much. So what brings you to the city?”
"I need a fake ID, to show that I’m twenty-one,” Benny said as he flipped through the pages of a dirty magazine.
"All right,” Zach said, smiling fiendishly. He flipped a chair around and rested his arms on the backrest. "What do you need it for? Bars, strip joints?”
"I need it to adopt a dog from the shelter. They have this stupid rule that says ya have to be eighteen to adopt a dog. The guy at the shelter pissed me off so bad that I told him I was twenty-one. The dog I want is a goner if I don’t get ’im soon.”
"That’s what I love about you. You’re always coming up with the craziest shit.”
"So, will ya do it?” Benny asked desperately. He noticed Nesse’s head emerging from beneath a heap of clothes. She slowly slithered over a folding metal chair that was tucked beneath a table with playing cards, poker chips and dirty ashtrays.
"Why don’t you just have your mom get you the dog?”
"I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t wanna do it. Besides, I told ya. I don’t have a lotta time to be dickin’ around. The dog’s counting on me.”
"Fifty bucks,” Zach said, running his bare foot along the snake’s tail.
"Forty,” Benny shot back, thinking he was being slick.
"Fifty bucks, and I’ll throw in a pinch of weed.”
"Forty-five, and keep your freakin’ weed,” Benny said coldly.
"You drive a hard bargain. When do you need it?”
"Not a problem... Would you like something to drink?”
"No, thanks,” Benny replied, even though he was dying of thirst. Zach’s kitchen was about as filthy as the rest of the place.
As Benny sat there, he began to wonder where he was going to get the money. He suddenly remembered Ms. Phebes’ gutters. The old lady had been after him for weeks to clean them. He’d been putting her off because they probably hadn’t been cleaned in a hundred years. What made it really bad was that they were about a thousand feet high, and he wasn’t particularly crazy about heights. Now, Ms. Phebes’ gutters and the prospect of breaking his neck were all that stood between him and his dog—assuming, of course, she paid him the money. He was pretty sure, though, that she would. He knew for a fact that no one else would touch the gutters for less than a hundred dollars.
Zach unlocked the drawer of his file cabinet and removed a cigar box where he kept his syringes, needles and crystal meth. He swabbed his arm with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. Benny had seen Zach shoot himself up before. Sometimes blood would run down Zach’s arm, and he wouldn’t bother wiping it. He would just let it drip onto the floor. After Zach took a hit, though, he always seemed like a changed man. It was no less than religion in a syringe. And he never missed a day of worship.
"I gotta go,” Benny said hastily and began to walk to the door.
"You just got here.”
"I know, but I just remembered there’s something I have to do.”
"Suit yourself... Come by tomorrow, anytime.”
"Yeah, sure. Will ya be okay?”
"Of course. I know what I’m doing.”
Benny wasn’t so sure though. Zach had confided in him and revealed the entire sordid story of how he had overdosed four times. And once he was even pronounced clinically dead by the attending paramedics who managed to revive him, but not before Zach had had an out-of-body experience and managed to peek over the hedge. Apparently, he liked what he saw. The only problem was that he couldn’t remember what he’d seen.
Beads of perspiration began to form on Zach’s forehead. His hand trembled as he tried to steady the needle long enough to find a vein.
"See ya, man,” Benny said and walked out, wondering if this was the last time he’d see Zach alive.
Every dog is worth his weight in ruined shoes.
By the time Benny boarded the third bus to go home, he ran into his friend Sam, a tall old black man with a snow-white beard and mustache, who liked Johnny Cash, hip-hop, and single malt scotch and seemed to know a little bit about everything. He was a lawyer by profession and dressed impeccably. Nearly every time Benny went into the city, he ran into Sam at the bus stop. Over the course of many one-sided conversations that Sam always monopolized, they had struck up an unlikely friendship. But it remained a mystery to Benny why Sam rode the bus instead of driving his own car. And Benny never dared to question him about this because he didn’t want to embarrass him.
"Hey, Sam,” Benny said and sat beside him.
"Hey, Mr. Benny.” Sam always addressed Benny in this curious manner. Benny wasn’t quite sure why he did it. But he had grown used to it and come to regard it as a term of endearment more than anything else.
"How’s it going?” Benny said, bracing himself for a long conversation that was likely to occur whether he felt like it or not.
He didn’t have to say much to Sam to get him going. Sam would talk to Benny about everything, including very personal matters such as his bitchy ex-wife. Usually, however, he would stick to his favorite subjects: architecture, history and current events. Benny sat and listened, nodding agreeably as if he were interested in every word he said. Some of the things Sam said did pique Benny’s interest, but only in a touristy sort of way.
Like most old people, Sam tended to repeat himself a lot. One subject Sam often raised was that he had wanted to become an architect instead of a lawyer. But when he was growing up, it was much more difficult for black people to become architects. This was something Benny found easy to relate to, since he had grown up hearing people tell him that he was too stupid to do much of anything. This particular conversation was usually coupled with the fact that Sam loved buildings. He confessed to Benny that if he saw a building that he liked, he’d walk up to it and put his hands on it so he could feel its personality. At first, Benny thought this was the craziest thing he’d ever heard. But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense to him. He even began putting his own hands on buildings he liked, hoping to feel their personality. But he never did. This didn’t stop him from trying, though.
After about a half hour of listening to Sam talk about himself, Benny came to his stop. He was about to get off the bus when Sam grabbed him by the arm and said, "Look here, you’re not going to see me for awhile. I’m getting an operation. It’s my heart... You take good care of yourself, Mr. Benny.” His voice cracked as he added, "Pray for me.”
Sam timed his disturbing news perfectly because he didn’t leave Benny any time to ask questions. If Benny stayed a minute longer, he’d miss his stop. And the next stop would add an extra half hour to his walk home.
"Absolutely, Sam, ya got it.” Benny felt terrible leaving Sam at that moment. He felt even worse telling Sam that he’d pray for him, since he didn’t really know how to pray. But he couldn’t let Sam face a thing like that thinking that he was depending on the prayers of a screw-up. As far as he was concerned, he had to lie. Benny stood there and watched Sam as the bus drove away. He wondered if he’d ever see Sam again. This got him to thinking about Zach and his dog at the pound, neither one of whom seemed long for this world.
He decided to stop by Ms. Phebes’ house to talk to her about cleaning her gutters. As he walked through the neighborhood, he suddenly forgot the unpleasantness of the city and felt a sense of calm return to him. Even the squirrels and birds seemed relaxed as they went about their business. Like Benny, they knew that at six a.m. Mrs. Garrison would fill her bird feeder and change the water in the birdbath. Then at six fifteen, Mrs. Dobbs across the street would emerge in her bathrobe and curlers to feed the stray cats who came from miles around for breakfast. Not to be outdone, Mr. Stevens, who lived next door, would toss a few handfuls of cracked corn onto his front lawn before retrieving the newspaper.
Ms. Phebes lived in a sprawling Queen Anne Victorian house with a gable roof and wraparound porch. It stood on a hill and overlooked the neighborhood. Benny was nine years old when Ms. Phebes’ husband left her for a young masseuse. She was devastated at first. But it didn’t take her long to get over it.
Benny overheard his mother talking to a girlfriend on the phone about Ms. Phebes and how she had begun going places with her girlfriends and having fun. They would have wild Tupperware parties and use the Ice Tups from the kid’s collection to make margarita ice pops as they listened to Tom Jones and compared notes on how best to stack their containers to save pantry space. They would also take bus trips to Atlantic City to play the slot machines and drink Manhattans until last call.
Ms. Phebes and Benny’s mother were coworkers at Henderson’s paper mill. When she heard that Ms. Phebes needed help around her house because her husband had left her, his mother immediately offered Benny up as a slave. Every Saturday for an entire summer, Benny’s mother would leave him on Ms. Phebes’ front doorstep. His orders were to help Ms. Phebes in any way he could. Ms. Phebes paid him a few dollars for his trouble. But nothing could compensate him for the emotional trauma he suffered. He felt his childhood slipping away by the minute as he pulled weeds, mulched, dug up and transplanted the same plants until Ms. Phebes found the perfect spot. Not being too handy with tools, he banged his thumb with the hammer so many times that he lost all feeling in it for a month. He began to understand why Mr. Phebes had left her in the first place. He also grew to like the old lady because she had spunk.
Benny knocked on the door, and Ms. Phebes answered. "I’m here to clean your gutters,” he said.
"I’m so glad you’re here, Benjamin.”
She showed him in, and he sat on the couch, which still had the clear plastic on it. The air conditioner was turned off, and she had a fan going instead, which didn’t help much. This was one of the rare times in his life that he wore shorts. As he sat there sweating to death, he tried not to move around too much. He was afraid that he might make farting noises, and he didn’t want to give her the wrong impression.
"Would you like some lemonade, dear?” she asked.
Ms. Phebes’ lemonade was easily the best in Mayfield. She hand-squeezed three lemons for every glass she made. They had not yet discussed how much she would pay him for the job. And he didn’t quite know how to ask her for the forty-five dollars he needed.
When she came back with the lemonade, she sat down and began to ask him about his mother and Jerome and how he was getting along in school. He told her that everyone was fine and that he had dropped out of school. Suddenly, she didn’t seem to know what else to say. The humming sound of the fan loomed over the awkward silence, until Benny got up the courage to speak. "Ms. Phebes, I don’t want ya to think that I’m greedy or anything...”
"Oh, no dear, I would never think that,” she assured him.
He could tell that she was disturbed about his having dropped out of school. "I was wondering... This is really hard for me to ask...”
"Go on, dear.”
"Well, would ya mind paying me forty-five bucks for the job? I really need the money. But I can do extra stuff for ya if ya want...”
"That won’t be necessary, dear. I understand. I’ll pay you the forty-five dollars,” she said and patted him on the shoulder.
He was happy that she agreed to pay him. But he also got the feeling that she felt sorry for him. And he didn’t like that one bit.
The ladder weighed a ton and it nearly went through her window as he struggled to hoist it up and lean it against the house. He hated heights and felt weak in the legs as he climbed the ladder. As he had feared, the gutters turned out to be nose bleeders. He refused to look down—at first. Ms. Phebes would come outside every so often to check on him. Mostly, though, she wanted to make sure he was doing a good job.
Everything seemed to be going all right until her neighbor’s children came out to play. The mother was with the children. But this didn’t seem to make any difference. She was as swift as a dodo bird. Her children could have set the neighborhood on fire, and she probably wouldn’t have noticed. She was also pregnant again and looked like she was about to drop another kid at any minute.
The girl looked to be about five years old and clung to her mother. The boy, however, was an adorable monster of about two who ran around barefoot and showed the early signs of delinquency. Benny heard the mother address the children. The boy was named Moses and the girl was named Jezebel. Benny didn’t mind the girl too much. But the boy kept running under the ladder. Benny had to keep looking down to see where the hellion was to make sure he didn’t dump the slimy black guck he was plucking out of the gutters onto his little head. When Benny was finally done with the gutters, Ms. Phebes handed him fifty dollars in singles.
"I only asked for forty-five,” he said and tried to put the extra money back in her hand.
She wouldn’t take it. "No, dear, you need it more than I do.”
She was beginning to make him feel bad. But he didn’t want to risk insulting her. So he said, "You’re tops, Ms. Phebes. Ya really are. I’m going to take this money and buy my ma something nice, a steak dinner, maybe. She hasn’t eaten steak in years.” He smiled to himself because his mother was practically a vegetarian.
Now that Benny had the money, he had a bigger problem—asking his mother if he could have a dog. She didn’t exactly dislike dogs. But she wasn’t a dog nut like him either. He was the type who wouldn’t think twice about kissing a dog on the lips. His mother, on the other hand, would barely pet a dog’s head. And when she did, she acted as if she were doing the dog a great favor.
He walked home from Ms. Phebes’ house, which was only fifteen minutes away. He put on his headphones and bobbed his head to the rhythm of the music. He liked all kinds of music. But mostly he listened to AC/DC. In Mayfield, people were always stopping each other on the street just to chitchat, even if they didn’t have much to say. Benny would have preferred that they spit on him than try to make idle conversation. To avoid these cheerful encounters, he would goose-step down the street like a head case. And usually no one would bother him.
He began to daydream what it would be like to have his own dog. He saw himself giving the dog a bath every week. He also knew that he would have to trap the dog in the bathroom and brush his teeth every so often. And while the dog was trapped, he would go ahead and clean the dog’s ears, no matter how much the dog protested. To economize, he would probably whip out the electric clippers and groom the dog himself. But in the winter, he would let the dog’s coat grow out and just brush him. Mostly, he looked forward to just sitting around with his dog and eating popcorn and chips. Of course, none of this would come to pass if his mother didn’t allow him to have a dog. So he did his best not to get his hopes up too much.
When he got home, his mother was in her room. She usually went directly to her room after supper. They hardly ever ate dinner together because she ate as soon as she got home from work and didn’t wait for Benny. Afterward, she’d go to her room and listen to classical music on the radio.
In fact, whenever Benny kept her company, he’d usually have to listen to her music. After a while, though, he developed a knack for identifying certain pieces of music. Sometimes, he even knew who the composer was. One of his favorite composers was Schumann. Every time he listened to Schumann’s music, though, he felt like killing himself because the music was so sad. No one’s music, however, gave him the urge to kill himself more than Karen Carpenter’s. As much as he loved her voice, it made him so depressed that he could hardly stand it.
Her bedroom door was open a crack, and Benny could hear Chopin playing on the radio. There was still some daylight coming in through the open curtains. And he could see her lying in bed with her eyes wide open. She was wearing a raggedy old bathrobe that he supposed she’d had since she was a kid. He hated it. He even bought her a new one for her birthday the previous year. But she still wore the old one. He knocked gently on the door, and she turned her head.
"How’s the dog-walking business?” she asked.
"I’m sure I’ll be getting lots of calls soon. Everybody will want me to walk their dog, you’ll see. Say, Ma. Now that I’m gonna be working and helping out around here...” He paused a moment and removed his hands from his pockets and lifted his eyes from the floor to look her straight in the eye. "Can I have a dog?”
"Ohhhh, I don’t know,” she said with some hesitation.
"Please Ma, ya won’t even know he’s here. I promise... scout’s honor,” he said and held up two fingers, not sure if he was doing the oath correctly because he had only been a Cub Scout.
"I’ll make you a deal, Benjamin. I’ll let you have a dog. But you have to promise me that if your dog-walking scheme doesn’t work, you’ll go back to school. Deal?”
He didn’t say anything at first and thought about it. He knew that when everyone saw how well he handled their dogs, they’d keep coming back to him. It suddenly dawned on him that his mother didn’t really know him like he thought she did. Otherwise, she never would have made a bet she was sure to lose. "Deal!” he said.
He was in such a good mood that night that he smoked four bowls of tobacco and snuck in one shot of Wild Turkey from his mother’s secret stash. She kept a bottle hidden in a kitchen cabinet behind the Bisquick. As he sat on the porch blowing smoke rings, he thought about how perfectly everything seemed to be working out for him. But there was one thing that sort of bothered him. He’d never had a girlfriend and always wondered what it would be like. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as important to him as owning a dog. But still, he did wonder.
The closest he ever came to having a girlfriend was Verna Kadinsky. He took her to the only high school dance he ever went to. She was an exchange student from Estonia and was new in school. She wasn’t a bad looking girl beneath her oily complexion and glasses. In fact, he saw great potential in her face. The poor girl had only been in school a week when some of the kids began to tease her and called her "stinky Kadinsky.” The funny thing, however, was that there was nothing stinky about her. In fact, she smelled like apricots.
The entire night of the dance, he kept bumping into her white pumps with his clunky boots, especially during the slow dancing. He felt badly about scuffing up her shoes, so he gave her his lawn cutting money to buy a new pair of shoes.
They became friends. And she even sat at the retard table with him during lunch. One day, though, she stopped talking to him entirely. When he tried going near her, she’d just walk away, as if she were embarrassed to be seen with him. He wasn’t too upset, however, because she had started becoming demanding. She asked him to walk her home one day and ordered him to carry her books. He complied, just to be polite. But he thought it was very nervy of her.
Not long afterward, she got a complete makeover and bought a whole new wardrobe. She eventually began to hang out with the cool kids and didn’t have time for Benny. After Verna, he lost interest in girls for a while. But now he felt ready to commit and suspected that women would gravitate to him since he was a self-made man with his own business.
The following day Benny got up early to go to Zach’s apartment. He was so excited about the prospect of getting his dog that he was out the door before his mother got up for work.
Zach answered the door wearing boxer shorts, a Nirvana t-shirt and dark sunglasses. His apartment was cloudy with smoke.
"Setting fire to your fleabag?” Benny said, craning his head inside the doorway.
"No, dumb ass, I burned my breakfast.”
Benny walked over to his oven and opened it. Thick smoke rushed out at him. He put on an oven mitt that was lying nearby and pulled out what looked like a burnt pizza. It was stuck to the cardboard.
"Hey, Einstein, ya bake this thing without the cardboard.”
"Fuck you,” shot back Zach, and threw himself on his couch, kicking up a thin cloud of dust.
"Fuck you very much,” Benny said and tossed the flat briquette into his sink along with the pile of unwashed dishes. "Ya got my ID?”
"You got my money?”
Benny took the money from his jacket and threw it on the kitchen counter. The wad of cash just missed landing in the sink on the smoldering pizza.
Zach pointed at the end table. Benny walked over and nearly tripped over Nesse’s fat head, which had just emerged from beneath the couch.
"Hey! My picture’s missing.”
"Relax, I’m gonna take it right now, and you’ll be good to go.”
"Hey. I’m not five foot two, jackass. I’m five foot four and I don’t weigh one hundred and forty, try one hundred and thirty. I just look big ’cause of my jacket.”
"Easy enough to fix,” Zach said coolly. He led Benny to his bedroom where he had his camera set up on a tripod and a stool for Benny to sit on. Benny had never been in his bedroom. There were posters of scantily clad women with large breasts everywhere. On his dresser was a framed photograph of a young couple. The man had a thick bushy mustache and wore a tight-fitting t-shirt that showed off his muscles. He had his arm around the woman, who had a perfect tan and long, shiny blond hair.
Benny supposed that they were his parents. Zach was the spitting image of the woman. He remembered having asked Zach about his folks once. But Zach refused to talk about them. He would only tell Benny that they had both died in a car accident and that his grandmother had raised him.
"Who’s that?” Benny asked, pointing to the photograph.
"My folks,” mumbled Zach.
"Just sit still and shut up,” Zach said as he stared through the camera lens.
Benny could tell that he didn’t want to talk about his gorgeous dead parents. So he didn’t press the matter.
When Zach handed him the ID, it was still hot from the laminating machine. Benny put it on Zach’s dusty end table next to his dusty couch. He hated having his picture taken because the camera always went out of its way to make him look stupid. And his ID photograph was no exception.
Nesse slithered over the back of the couch looking from side to side. Benny thought she was cute for a python. He even tried petting her head like a dog, but it wasn’t the same.
Zach sat on the opposite end of the couch, with his feet up. The bottoms of his feet were practically black. He broke into a sinister grin and said, "Take your money back. I just sold half a key of blow, and I’m feelin’ generous.”
"What?” Benny said, looking miffed. He couldn’t believe it. He felt like punching Zach and telling him that he’d nearly broken his neck earning that money. But he knew that if he told Zach the whole story, Zach would just laugh at him. So he didn’t bother.
"You’re a peach, Zach, a rotten peach.”
"It must be Christmas ’cause I got something else for you,” Zach said, holding fast to his queer expression. He handed Benny a piece of paper with an address on it.
"What’s this?” Benny asked.
"That’s the address of a place in Mayfield where they take care of pathetic bastards like you.”
"I don’t get it.”
"It’s a whorehouse, knucklehead.”
Benny threw the piece of paper down on the couch. "No way! I’m savin’ myself for marriage.”
Zach looked at him as if he were crazy. "You mean to tell me that you’re a virgin?”
"Yeah. So what?”
"Benny, that’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard. I came along just in time to save your sorry ass. Besides, it’s already paid for. You can go anytime.”
Benny knew that he meant well. "Thanks,” he said. He felt strange taking back the money. But he felt even stranger taking the piece of paper with the address.
"Can I get you something? Some homemade cookies and milk?” Zach offered.
"Nah, I gotta get goin’.”
"You really need a girlfriend,” Zach said, as he reached under the couch and began pulling out stacks of money wrapped in rubber bands.
"Yeah, OK,” Benny said. He saw that Nesse had begun wrapping herself firmly around Zach’s legs as he gleefully counted the money. He thought about staying a little longer, just in case Zach couldn’t loosen himself from Nesse’s grip, but then realized that he would not always be able to protect Zach from his own stupidity. Just before he left, he took one final look at his friend, who was by now beginning to realize that he couldn’t move his legs at all. He couldn’t be bothered though, at least not this time. His dog was waiting for him at the pound, and he couldn’t wait to see him.