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F E B R U A R Y  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

The lapdog
LYLE was glad to find the house empty when he and the dog got home, empty and dim in the gray afternoon, with the glimmer of a coal fire in the sitting room. He threw away the shamrock, hung up his coat, and put the leash away. Mark would certainly die.

He jabbed at the fire with a small poker and put some more coal on, and then he sighed and sat down in his chair and watched the fire, listening to the coal whistling as it heated. He would die. She would stand as she had there on the sidewalk this morning and she would crumple, collapse in and down. Lyle rubbed his forehead with his fingertips.

The dog came and sat, alert, questioning, in front of him. "You're right," he said to her. "I forgot the treat. Come on." She followed him to the cupboard and gazed into his eyes as he gave her the little orange-colored biscuit.

Men would be lining up to take Mark's place, no doubt about it. The dog stayed in the kitchen to eat, as she always did, and Lyle went back to his chair. Poor bastard, knowing that. The idea of it was enough to send anybody out in shirtsleeves to grieve against the side of a building.

Then again. Maybe Laura would be one of those widows who didn't remarry. Maybe she'd dedicate herself to the children. Bring them back here in a year or two, show them where she and their father had spent these weeks. He would see her again, he thought, as the dog, her biscuit gone, trotted in; he lifted her into his lap, where she settled and fell immediately asleep. He'd see her, and she would be recovered from it.

He stroked the dog's smooth head. The wind was blowing across the chimney and making a low hooing sound; he had said before that sometimes he felt as if he were living in a jug, in this small room at the bottom of the chimney, but today he liked it. He relaxed into imagining Laura, in a few years, walking alone down by the Claddagh, and how he'd greet her, and how by then he'd have become, as he often did in dreams, younger and more attractive. Or he'd be in Idaho, somehow, and see her. At the edge of sleep, he imagined driving with her down the roads of his youth in rural Vermont, where small lanes branched off among the trees.

"Wrecked, are ye?" his wife said, chuckling, as his heart thudded two heavy strokes.

THE next day Laura looked tired, but as they met, she smiled, her eyes bright, and she reached out and gripped his upper arm for an instant. He felt again that guilty lurch of his heart. "We're going adventuring," she said, releasing his arm.

"Adventuring?" He looked at Mark, whose smile seemed tight.

Laura said, "We're going to rent a car and drive the Ring of Kerry!"

"Drive it?" Lyle said, still to Mark. "Driving's a bit of a challenge here." Even to himself he sounded gruff, a spoilsport.

"She'll be doing it," Mark said, and Lyle heard the injury in his voice.

"I figure, if the other tourists can manage it, so can I," she said.

"Tourists are bad drivers," Lyle said, "especially on those narrow roads."

"You've been there, then," Mark said.

"Just once," Lyle said, and told hurriedly, gruffly, about the bus tour along the narrow roads, the number of tour buses, the hordes of rude Americans and Germans.

"But the car-rental man said that wouldn't be true now, this early in the year," Laura said, her eyes strained but her voice still gay. "And it would still be worth it -- everybody says Kerry's beautiful."

You are beautiful, Lyle thought, before he could stop himself, and then his mouth went dry with the fear that he'd say it, make a fool of himself, and he lumbered on to say, "Oh, it is. It's very beautiful. The landscape."

LYLE'S wife took her baths at bedtime, and sometimes talked to him through the half-closed door to their bedroom. Only watery sounds came from the bathroom tonight as he got into his pajamas, trying to think where that map of Kerry might have ended up. At one time, he was sure, the maps had all been in a drawer in the kitchen, but he had looked there earlier and found playing cards and string instead. So she'd reorganized at some point, and the maps could be anywhere. He opened the wardrobe door quietly and stared up at the stacks of shoe boxes on the top shelf. Where did you put the maps? he could say, and she'd say, Maps -- and what'd you be wanting maps for and us with no car?

The bath water moved. "I've not seen that old dog outside Ward's shop all week," she said.

"No?" he said, to encourage her to go on, to cover the sound of the wardrobe door closing.

"John's had that dog for years on years, he has. A number of old dogs hereabout," she said. "Just past the school those two small dogs, the white one and the terrier, they're old. Judy down Canal Road, she's an old one, Maureen Ryder's dog. Oh -- I dreamt of dogs," she said.

"Dogs?" he said, though encouragement wasn't really necessary now: she always told her dreams in endless detail.

"I'd the job of feeding them -- big dogs on chains in a yard. I can still see two of them, these two bulldogs. The faces on them."

When he was a boy and something was lost, a shoe, say, or a hairbrush, his mother would stand in the kitchen and say, If I was a shoe, where would I be? So now Lyle stood beside the bed and closed his eyes and thought, If I was a road map, where would I be?

"I'd found this bright-blue plastic dish -- half scoop, half dish, it was -- and I'd filled it with dry dog food for the bulldogs." She gave a small laugh, and he heard the sound of dripping.

He bent and looked under the bed: four suitcases. If he were a road map, he might be in a suitcase, but he couldn't, certainly, get a suitcase out and open without her hearing, and he couldn't be sure the map was there, or if it was, that it would be in the first suitcase he opened.

"Pleased with myself, I was. And then your man comes up and he says, 'That's not enough,' he says, and then he says, 'Besides, they bite.'"

He stood up again, and knew that he was an aging man, with skinny legs inside the pajama pants that were snug around his bulging stomach, unfamiliar hair in his ears and nose. He stood still and heard his wife lifting herself from the bath water, and knew that the dream she was telling would go on in her rueful voice from behind the door until she'd finished it, and that when she came out, she'd get into bed behind him, damp in a way he'd once found so erotic that it nearly choked him. And maybe this would be one of the nights she'd put her moist hand on him.

"What the hell have you done with the damned road maps?" he said.

"Road maps?" she said. She pulled the bathroom door open and stood there in her worn nightgown, looking at him, the ends of her short gray hair dark and stringy with wet, dripping water down the sides of her neck. "And what'd you be wanting with road maps this time of night, cursing about it?"

"I wasn't cursing," he said.

"You were. You're cursing all the time now."

"I wouldn't be cursing if the damned maps had been where they belong."

"I'm not your housemaid," she said.

That was from an old, worn quarrel, almost a comfort, and he took up his part. "Just because I want to find things in my own God-damned house doesn't make me an ogre," he said.

"You should watch your language," she said. "And it wouldn't hurt to go to mass once in a while."

"Oh, mass! Sure -- that's the answer to everything, isn't it? Maybe the priest could tell me where you've hidden the God-damned maps." He turned away, ready for her to say it was his fault that neither of the boys went to mass and that Kevin would probably marry that Jewish girl, and he'd say he hoped so, better a whining Jew than a whining Catholic. While they were saying those things, he would put on his slippers and his robe, she would get into bed, and he'd go downstairs and have a drink. And when he came back up in half an hour, she'd be asleep.

But she didn't say that, and she didn't move toward the bed. "For your Americans, is it?" she said, so mildly that he stopped and turned to look at her. She took her robe from the hook on the door, and nodded as she pulled it on and tied the belt. "I may have them in the hall press," she said. "Will I look for them so?"

He nodded, still confused and suspicious, and he knew he should say thank you, but she was gone down the stairs, the dog trotting behind her, and then he heard her in the hall closet, and then he heard her talking to the dog. He stood beside the bed and tried to imagine what he could say to her if he went downstairs; he could imagine nothing. When he heard the television come on, he got into bed. For many years, maybe always, she had gone to bed first or they had gone to bed together, and he found the freedom of being the only body on the mattress so comfortable and novel that he fell asleep quickly.

When he woke in the morning, the first thing he knew was that he was still alone, and a quick jolt of fear made him thrust his hand onto her side of the bed. It was warm, and at the same moment he smelled the coffee and rashers, and so he was irritated with her before he was even out of bed. It was irrational, and he knew that: for thirty years he'd waked alone in bed to the smell of the breakfast she was cooking. And yet this morning it seemed to him that she had pretended a larger absence, and the charade had forced from him a reaction that he found embarrassing.

But maybe she'd found the maps, he thought as he went down the stairs and into the kitchen. There lay the maps, beside his plate.

"You found them," he said.

"Was it Donegal they were wanting?" she said. "That one's gone missing."

"No -- Kerry," he said.

"Grand, then -- Kerry's there," she said, sounding relieved and pleased.

After breakfast, as he was putting on his coat, she said, "I thought I'd walk along with ye this morning. I'm to meet Roisin at ten at the Franciscans, and a walk will just fill the time." She was putting on her coat as she spoke, so there was nothing he could say. "Don't forget your map," she said, and he pushed it into his coat pocket and went out the door ahead of her.

"It's a grand morning," she said approvingly as they crossed the street onto the prom, and it was -- nearly windless, a hint of sun. He didn't answer, and they walked on, she with her hands in her pockets, he with one hand in his pocket and the other holding the leash.

He had little hope that they wouldn't meet Mark and Laura, and when he saw them at a distance, Mark sitting on a bench and Laura standing beside him, looking out toward Mutton Island, he pulled the map from his pocket, half thinking to make a quick gift of it and be gone.

His wife took a sharp breath and murmured, "He's thin."

"He's sick," Lyle snapped, and then Laura turned and saw them, and they were too close to say more.

Mark stood, with obvious effort, and smiled, and Laura smiled, and as Mark took off his hat, Lyle realized that he couldn't look at either of them, so he smiled into the air between them and said, "Good morning. This is my wife, Mary -- Mark, Laura," his voice too hearty for the words.

They shook hands and said the things people say -- I've heard so much about you, a pleasure, how do you do, hello, Lyle smiling stupidly, helplessly, at the hotel across the road. Then his wife said, "How do ye find Galway?" and he could feel them hesitate and translate before Mark said, "It's a very friendly town. We'll be sorry to leave."

"But ye'll be back, then, after your trip to Kerry?"

Again a hesitation, in which Lyle heard the crying of the gulls, before Mark said, "Well -- ," and then Laura said, "Actually, we've been thinking about not going to Kerry after all. Given the roads."

Lyle looked down at the dog. Laura's voice was soft but strained. He wondered how obvious the map in his hand was, whether he could slide it back into his pocket without drawing attention.

"Ah, they're terrible, they are," his wife agreed, dismissing Kerry the Kingdom with a quick sigh as she sat on the bench. Mark sat beside her, his hat in his hand. "The thing ye might try is the Arans -- have ye thought of that? There's a bus from town to Rossaveal, right to the ferry over, and then on the island there's the pony traps or the little buses, and back the same day." She laughed, comfortable, eager, sitting there with her purse on her lap as if this were a visit. "And, oh, the island's lovely, 'tis -- it'll be gray here and the sun bright as Arizona over there."

"It sounds nice," Mark said.

"Ye might think of it," she went on. Lyle could see her thumbs on the purse, hidden from Mark and Laura, making rapid hard circles against the leather. "And Dublin, too -- have ye been to Dublin?" She looked at Laura, who shook her head. "Oh, it's not to be missed, Dublin -- just for a day, take the train over and back, the three museums and the Book of Kells. Of course, not all in a day, that'd be too much for anyone, it would, but just the National Museum, say, and they've a nice little tea shop there for your lunch." She stood up as if she'd settled something, but then she went on, hardly a breath between. "No, there's Ireland to see without Kerry, there is. Even right here in Galway. How much longer is your holiday?"

"Ten days?" Mark said, glancing at Laura.

"Or less," Laura said, "depending." She shrugged and drove her hands deep into her pockets. "The children," she said.

"I miss them," Mark said. His voice was quiet, but Lyle knew he was speaking to Laura. "I'd like to spend more time with them." His voice was like Mary's was when they fought about Jimmy -- that soft tone, thinning with the threat of tears.

"Why, of course you would," Mary said. "Of course you would. But it takes a bit to change the tickets, doesn't it?" The sympathy in her voice seemed all for the difficulty of ticket changes.

"Yes," Laura said. She turned her face to the bay for a second and let the breeze push her hair back, and then she took a step closer to Mark and touched his cheek with the backs of her fingers. "It may take some doing." Mark closed his eyes for a second, and when Laura took her hand away, he put his hat back on.

So this was the end of what he'd seen on the street: Laura and Ireland had failed, and had surrendered. Mark would die, and Laura would not. They would not go together in joy to the edge of life.

"Well, then," Mary said, holding her purse over her stomach, smiling at Laura, "ye must come to tea, mustn't they, Lyle? Come to tea -- let's see, could ye come today? No, wait -- that won't work, will it? Maybe tomorrow?"

"That's very kind of you," Laura said.

Mark nodded to Lyle and said, "We'll meet again before then."

"Yes, of course -- of course ye will, and you can tell Lyle, and we'll see about it, will we? It's grand by the fire on some of these days, it is, and ye should be in an Irish house before ye go back. It's lovely to have met ye so," she said, and shook Mark's hand again. Then she stepped in front of Lyle and put her arms around Laura and hugged her. Laura closed her eyes and for a second let her head touch Mary's.

Then they were apart, and the dog was up and ready to go, and Lyle found that he'd gotten the map back into his pocket somehow and had a hand free to shake Mark's. Then he and his wife were walking on, the dog trotting beside them, and after a few steps his wife slid her hand under his arm and his arm bent up to hold it, and so they walked on toward the Claddagh, the wind picking up at their backs.

"Coffee as well as tea, of course," she said, "since they're Americans, and tomorrow would be fine, it would, or Saturday."

"Let's make it Saturday," he said, because she was crying, and this was a decision they could make, although he didn't believe he'd ever see Mark or Laura again.

"Such lovely people," his wife said. "Such lovely people."

Lyle knew they were, and because his wife had said it, he wanted to say to her, So are we. He wanted to say that he wasn't a young man, but he wasn't dying, and that this hand on his arm was hers -- that for them the end was still far off, with difficulties and complications still to come.

Instead he pressed her wrist against his side and said, "They are so. And it's a sad thing, it is."

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Beth Lordan is the director of the creative-writing program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her first collection of stories, And Both Shall Row, was published last fall.

Illustrations by David Johnson

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; The Man With the Lapdog; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 78 - 85.

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