The first official day of fall promised not to be unlike any other when Nick woke that fateful Friday morning. He was typically up by five, and today was no exception. Wearing a pair of Old Navy pajama bottoms and a worn sleep shirt, he opened the front door for a quick check of the weather. Another beautiful day was on tap—clear and mild.
He slept well despite a persistent dream that began in early adolescence. It was not frightening, but it was strange and confusing, and its repetitive nature made it annoying—perhaps a bit unsettling.
It always started with Nick sitting quietly on a single bed in a small room, wearing a long white flannel sleep gown. In addition to the bed, the room is sparsely furnished with only two wooden chairs and two bedside tables. A cream-colored porcelain washbowl, a matching pitcher, and a kerosene lamp all stand on the table nearest the door. Three extinguished candles are mounted to an adjacent wall. A vase filled with freshly cut wildflowers is positioned on the table nearest the solitary window, adding a splash of color to the otherwise drab room.
Nick slowly rises, walks over to the window, opens the sash, and gazes outside at the majestic view. He breathes in the fresh cool air, admiring the blue sky, mountainous landscape, and tranquil lake below.
The door opens, and a man of avuncular appearance passes through, topped in a white knee-length lab coat. Nick has the feeling he knows the man but isn’t quite sure. He walks over, places a firm hand on Nick’s shoulder––serenely ponders the scenery––and says, “I’ve always believed this place has immense therapeutic value.”
A rather severe-looking woman steps into the room, holding the door halfway open behind her. She is somewhere between forty and sixty years of age with graying hair pulled into a sanitary bun, glasses riding the tip of her nose, and dressed in the traditional garb of a nurse, complete with a heavily starched white dress, apron, and cap.
Her voice is hushed yet demanding. The man turns, and she invites him to the privacy of the hallway with a quick wave of the hand. All the while she holds Nick’s gaze through constricted pupils and narrowed eyes, regarding him with a seemingly menacing grimace.
The doctor takes a step in her direction, turns back to Nick and warns, “Careful with this mountain air, Nicholas. You certainly don’t need to contract lung fever.”
The spectral performance ends, and Nick awakens, feeling chilled with goosebumps and sweat crawling the length and breadth of his body.
Nick, once again, dismissed the dream and hurriedly dressed in a brightly colored jogging suit and his favorite sneakers. Then, as usual, he and BD walked the quiet morning streets, while his wife, Shelley, slept the extra hour or so.
BD, short for Black Dog, a three-year-old mixed black Lab with a healthy charcoal coat, weighed seventy-five pounds and stood twenty-two-inches measured from the withers. He inherited all the dominant traits that go along with a documented pedigree except for one—his front legs were a bit bowed.
BD’s mother, Blackie, belonged to Nick’s uncle, a life-long bachelor, recently retired to a Key West oceanfront condominium. Blackie, a purebred Labrador retriever, was a beautiful, talented bitch who had fared quite well in numerous dog shows and competitions over the years. However, BD’s father’s identity remained unknown. Uncle Jake had always suspected a street-smart, free-range neighborhood mutt with a sketchy background—everybody called him Doggy.
Regardless of paternity, BD was a kind, loving, and loyal friend. In fact, he was Nick’s proverbial best friend. Still, at times, BD could be quite difficult. Only within the past few months, he acquired two awful habits.
He had begun chewing Shelley’s leather shoes—every one he could find. Consequently, they always had to be put away in the master bedroom closet with the doors tightly closed. The dog regularly patrolled the area to determine whether any had been inadvertently left outside the protection of the closet doors or whether the doors were securely latched.
He had also started digging holes in the family’s fenced backyard. Nick’s only solution was to accompany him, whenever possible, on all backyard trips. Otherwise, BD would return to the house with a brown nose and guilty demeanor.
Nick had tried all the tips suggested in popular caninology books, manuals, and Internet articles. He even hired a professional trainer for a full month.
“Nick, don’t get me wrong,” the bald, stocky man had said, frowning apologetically, “but either your dog is a bit slow, you know, in the head, or else he’s really troubled about something. At least that’s my opinion. I couldn’t even teach him simple tricks.”
Nick was unwilling to consider the former. But what could possibly be troubling BD? He seemed so happy and carefree.
When they returned from their morning constitutional, Shelley was livid. During the night, BD had chewed her recently acquired red and silver Italian pumps, which by mistake—her mistake—had not been placed in the closet for safekeeping. As the big dog hid sheepishly in another room, Shelley went on and on about how ‘something must be done.’ Nick agreed BD’s conduct was reprehensible but reminded Shelley to be vigilant about storing her shoes in the closet.
The argument lingered until Nick had to leave for work. He was a claims adjuster for an insurance company and faced a demanding schedule.
For some reason, Nick had a vague yet persistent feeling for most of the day that something was terribly wrong—something other than the problem with BD and the fight with Shelley. It was a presentiment of impending doom, and he just couldn’t shake the dread and fear.
It was late in the day when Larry unexpectedly called. They had been pals in high school but didn’t have much in common anymore.
“How you doing man?”
Nick realized it was Larry, and at once, was on guard. Larry never called unless he wanted a favor.
“Great …what’s going on?”
“Listen, Nick, I have two front-row passes to the Regional Playhouse production of the Broadway play that every sucker in town has been lining up to see. They were hard to come by and cost me a damn fortune. The problem is these are tickets for tomorrow night’s performance, and Joyce has plans she can’t change. I want Shelley . . . I mean . . . I want you and Shelley to have them.”
Nick was momentarily taken aback. It wasn’t like Larry to give away anything. But, at the same time, he was pleased. Maybe this would put Shelley in a better mood. They desperately needed to share leisure time.
Nick knew Larry didn’t buy the tickets—they were probably gifted from his boss or a client. But that didn’t matter. It was still a nice gesture.
“Thanks, Larry. I appreciate it. We can sure use a night out.”
“No problem, man.”
They made plans for lunch the following day, a Saturday when Larry would deliver the passes.
“About tomorrow’s lunch—it’s on you, Nick.”
Neither had any notion that no such luncheon would take place.
Nick completed final reports on a couple of disputed claims his boss had requested, grabbed his navy sport coat, and decided it had been a pretty good day after all. He took the elevator down to the lobby and left by way of the building’s main revolving door. Still, those portentous feelings remained.
Traveling home on the ‘L,’ Chicago’s rapid transit system, Nick recalled that life had not always been so complicated. He and Shelley had lived in their western suburb for nearly three years and were happy the first year or so. He still loved her, but as time marched on, she had become emotionally detached. Constant criticism replaced meaningful conversation, and intimacy was a remnant of the past. Nonetheless, Nick, always the optimist, sincerely believed they would eventually resolve their problems.
Before the market collapsed, Shelley had enjoyed some degree of success as a part-time real estate agent but promptly spent her earnings on shoes, clothes, furniture, and whatever else happened to catch her eye. Her monetary settlement from a first marriage was exhausted, although the bulk had been used as a substantial down payment on their residential property.
Nick completed the trip from the local station in his Toyota Camry, which, as usual, waited in the parking lot. He’d worked up a degree of excitement by the time he arrived home. Shelley might be excited too, after hearing about the tickets.
BD met him in the living room where it adjoined a small foyer. The dog seemed sad as he stood in the unlit space. Nick suspected Shelley wasn’t home but called out regardless. No response. He reached for his cell phone and called her number. The call went unanswered, but after a minute or two, his phone beeped, indicating the arrival of a new text message. He hated those things.
“Out-of-town. Will return Tuesday,” the message from Shelley read.
“Out-of-town?” Nick doubtfully whispered. “Why is she doing this?”
A second message beeped. “I expect that dog to be gone by then.”
How could she say such a thing? Her words were so contemptuous and uncaring.He was stunned—unable to reply. Maybe no reply was warranted.
Shelley had previously visited out-of-town friends and relatives on planned visits but never anything like this. Nick suspected she was only a short distance away, perhaps staying with her mother. His whole world balanced on the verge of collapse, and now he faced a difficult choice—Shelley or BD.
Return To White Catcliff , Chapter Two. Sketch by Hannah K.