The Old Man and the Dog
I read in a major newspaper that five dogs had received official recognition for their heroic feats and were inducted into a hall of fame. The article reminded me of another dog that I knew as a youngster, whose deed would most likely be unsurpassed. The story went that Manuel, his owner, after his retirement from his job at the Zona Franca harbor in Cadiz, had found himself alone and bored. Darkened by faded-green shades, his apartment was on the first floor of the five-story building where his former coworkers and their families resided. He spent most of his days in his family room in a rocking chair, falling asleep as he listened to the radio or moping his hours away. Hanging from the wall in his living room was a large picture of his late childless wife. She was dressed in black with a tight bun on the back of her head. Ten years had gone by since her death and looking at her still brought tears to his eyes. Sometimes he even confused the squeals of his rocking chair with the murmurs of his weeping. The place had a kitchen but he never cooked. His meals consisted of a can of soup or a sandwich with thin slices of mortadela, ham, or cheese. Sometimes he made coffee. His small bedroom was in disarray, with sheets and blanket lying crumpled over a plain mattress. A sagging pillow was perched at the edge at the head of the couch, and a couple of cushions sat untouched on a chair ever since his wife left them there. A strong reek of humanity hovered.
The building was located on the outskirts of Cadiz, Spain, in the middle of a desolate field. It was bound on the west and south by a high brick fence, on the east by a dusty path next to a railroad, and on the north by a large dry field. The open land extended for over a mile and ended at a small recess in the Bay of Cadiz. No building could be seen within half a mile. Early in the morning his tall lanky figure would leave the house, wood cane in hand, a little slouched over, long nose, stern face, and a brown hat on. He strolled around the solitary building like a ghost, limping with his arthritic right knee. There was nothing there but arid land. Thorny shrubs and a few green weeds clung to life by tenuous roots. An occasional small snake, mouse, or rabbit scurried about. Only once had he ventured to cross the railroad tracks to enjoy marshes, small ponds, and eucalyptus trees, which graced the wet meadow on the other side. He sat under a tree and took in its fresh scent. Trills and songs of colorful goldfinches filled the air amidst the happy hubbub of the sparrows, jumping, flitting, and flying between the ground and the trees. On his way back home he brooded over minor problems, ignoring an approaching train that almost hit him. The near-mishap put an end to his thoughts of extending his walks to greener pastures.
Manuel had been born in the countryside and had moved to Cadiz thirty years earlier when he could no longer survive in Chiclana, a nearby small agricultural town. Two years after his retirement the depression became unbearable. He decided to close his apartment for a while and move back to his hometown. He picked up a few belongings and stowed them away in a banged-up cardboard suitcase, which he had kept since his induction into the army as a youngster. A bus took him back home. It was only a 40-minute ride, but the last time he had made this trip was fifteen years earlier when he attended his sister’s funeral. His job had absorbed him completely. By now all his relatives had passed away except for his niece Micaela who lived abroad. Yet, nostalgia drove him to reclaim his past.
Manuel settled into a small inn near the river that divides his hometown in two. The stream had slowed to a trickle and the stink of stagnant water pervaded the surroundings. The town felt foreign to him. Buildings now sprawled far beyond the old boundaries and the bars and cafés that he used to patronize no longer existed. Even the fresh-food market had moved to a different location. A walk to the small farm where he had grown up revealed fallow fields and a herd of cattle grazing on sparse grass. A strong stench of manure irritated his eyes. His house was gone and those of his former neighbors were dilapidated and empty. Shrubs and brambles overran them. The sun still shone high over the faraway gray mountains as it always had. A sweltering heat cracked the terrain, baking the crisp air, and drying the spines and cones, which carpeted the ground beneath the surviving pine trees. Nearby, whitewashed small houses adorned with flowerpots faced lush orchards that brimmed with oranges, pears, and apples. He asked about his old neighbors’ whereabouts, but his inquiries failed to yield any results. The new tenants and landlords had never heard of them. He visited his parents’ and his older sister’s graves in one of the walls at the local cemetery. The weather-beaten inscriptions on their marble stones were effaced. Weeds grew and bloomed over the dusty edges. A feeling of impotency over the passage of time came upon him. He missed his apartment and a few days later he was back in Cadiz.
Routine set in again. Every morning he strolled toward the municipal slaughterhouse along the dusty path next to the railroad, and breathed in air tainted with the smell of the doomed cattle. The pungent odor brought back childhood memories.
“The world definitely spins around,” he once said to himself. “After so many years I’m right back where my life began ... walking the countryside, smelling the cattle.”
He sat down on a large square stone close to a bridge, which arched over the railroad tracks and then merged with the only road into the city. He enjoyed a cheese sandwich for breakfast. The place lay amidst prickly pears, but it was quiet. Silence was broken only by the clatter of the occasional car or truck passing over the bridge and the chugs of the passenger or freight trains marching along at their scheduled times down to the minute. He did not have any use for a wristwatch. Warning him of the approaching dawn, the express train rattled along past his window on its way to Madrid at six in the morning. When the Talgo arrived from Seville at ten, his daily walk began. At noon the Rapido sped through, and at 1:30 a regional from Jerez made its way into the town. He then headed back home.
One day in early May he set off for his usual ramble. Winds from the west had swept away most of the clouds leaving a pristine blue sky, and a bright sun began to warm the earth. He walked with the collar of his navy-blue jacket turned up and his scarf protecting his throat. Hunger pains struck him. He reached for the sandwich in his pocket. As he began to munch, he noticed a dog following him about twenty yards away. It was a medium-sized young male with a retriever’s profile, dark golden fur, and brown patches on its flanks. The dog had the face of a beagle, long droopy ears, big brown eyes, and a white line between his eyes that extended down to his muzzle and belly. Manuel stopped to see if the dog would pass him by. He didn’t. The animal paused, lifted his right leg against an electric pole by the railroad and peed. The old man turned around and proceeded along the path without realizing that the dog trotted after him with its tongue hanging down. As soon as he stopped, the dog sat down and stared at him from the distance of a few yards.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” Manuel clicked his tongue against his teeth after swallowing a bite and said, “Go away, dog! Go away.”
The dog sat, wagged his tail, and looked at him as if trying to understand.
“Oh! C’mon, go home! I don’t like dogs.” The old man was not in a good mood this day. He was never in a good mood.
The animal’s long and thin tongue quivered with his breathing as his eyes shifted back and forth from the small piece of sandwich to Manuel’s face.
“Oh, I see. You are hungry.”
He tossed the food to him. The animal jumped up, caught the morsel, and gulped it down, his shiny eyes gazing at his benefactor. Manuel ambled on but now and then he turned around, surveying the path to make sure the stray dog had gone away. The dog sat for a while, eyed him from a distance, licked his lips, and scratched his belly frenetically with his hind leg. The third time the old man searched the dog was gone.
Please, read the entire story on www.theclassicwriter.com; click on "The Silver Teacup."
Excerpted from "The Silver Teacup: Tales of Cadiz" by Louis Villalba. Copyright © 0 by Louis Villalba. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.