The Man With the Lapdog

He heard his wife lifting herself from the bath water, and he knew that when she came out she'd get into bed beside him, damp in a way he'd once found so erotic that it nearly choked him

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

ALMOST every morning, as Lyle was getting ready to take the dog for a walk along the bay, his wife would ask, "Are ye down the prom, then?" They had met and married thirty years before, in Vermont, when she was Mary Curtin and he'd thought her a happy combination of exotic and domestic. At sixty, after their life in the States, she still called herself a Galway girl; at sixty-seven, after two years of retirement in Galway, Lyle still considered a prom a high school dance, not two miles of sidewalk beside the water.

So he would say, "We're going to walk along the bay," and hope she'd leave it at that. When they had first come to Ireland, the exchange had had a bit of a joke to it, but he felt it now as unwelcome pressure. He had no intention of taking up Irish idioms -- he'd have felt foolish saying "half-five" instead of five-thirty, "Tuesday week" instead of next Tuesday, "ye" for you. "Toilet" instead of bathroom was unthinkable. He called things by their real names -- "pubs" bars, "shops" stores, "chips" French fries, and "gardai" police.

He didn't love the talk, and he didn't love the Irish people, who always stood too close and talked too fast, and he had trouble, still, understanding what they said. He had frightened and embarrassed himself trying to drive on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, and had given it up. He disliked the weight of pound coins in his pocket, and he didn't care for Guinness.

And yet, somewhat to his surprise, he liked a lot about Ireland. He liked keeping the small garden in front of their house, the way things simply grew and thrived in the steady cool dampness. He liked the stone walls that surrounded every yard and separated one person's place from another's. He liked the little coal-burning fireplace in the sitting room. After forty years as an accountant for a hardware chain, he liked living in a place where people went for walks, and he liked going for walks. He liked the dog, a long-haired dachshund, a pretty, girlish little thing. He liked the opinionated newspapers, and he liked being a foreigner.

One day in early March, walking along the bay, he saw a couple he probably wouldn't have noticed among the other tourists if it had been summer. They stood arm in arm looking out over the water, the woman dark-haired and attractive in an unglamorous way, the man thin and frail, apparently very ill. Lyle heard her say, "Yes, County Clare -- I'm sure of it," her American accent clear; he nodded as he passed, and they nodded in response. The next day their walks crossed at about the same place, and all three smiled in recognition. That evening something on television about pre-season tourists reminded him to say that he'd met an American couple.

"Have you?" his wife said. "Where are they from?"

"I don't know," he replied, sorry already that he'd said anything.

She tilted her head as if she was being playful and said, "So did ye talk about the weather, then?"

"Yes," he said. "We talked about the ugly weather."

On the third day, when they met again, Lyle gave the leash the small tug that told the dog to sit and said, "It's a beautiful day, isn't it? -- good to see the sun again."

Something rippled between the man and the woman and came out as a quick laugh in her answer. "It's glorious," she agreed. "And you're American!" she said.

"I am," he said.

The man, too, seemed amused as he put out his hand in introduction. "I'm Mark; this is my wife, Laura. And we, too, are Americans."

"Lyle," he said. He shook Mark's thin hand. "Are you here on vacation?"

"For three weeks," Laura said, as if three weeks were a long, luxurious season. "And you?"

The dog was sitting patiently. "I'm retired, and my wife is Irish, so we came back here to live a couple of years ago."

They said where they were from, and how old their children were, and that this was their first trip to Ireland, long dreamed about, and then Laura reached out and put her hand lightly and briefly on the sleeve of Lyle's coat. "I have to tell you: we'd seen you walking here, and we made up a life for you -- "

"We assumed you were Irish, of course," Mark said.

"I suppose it's because everything is so exactly as we expected it to be," Laura said. "The stone walls in the fields when we were coming over from Shannon, the pretty shops, the thatched roofs. We even saw a rainbow our first day here. So we just put you into the picture, the Galway gentleman, and when you turn out to be American, it's quite a joke on us." Her eyes sparkled.

Her eyes were very fine, her face strong, and Lyle admired even the simple way she held her dark hair in her fist to keep it from blowing across her face. She was coming into middle age with none of the artificiality of so many American women.

"So I've spoiled your postcard," he said, and all three of them laughed. When they parted, he kept the picture of himself her words had made: his overcoat and hat, his kindly aging face, the tidy small dog, obedient at the end of the leash. And he kept, too, the swift pleasure of her hand on his coat.

They met again the next day and the next, stopping to talk for a few minutes. Lyle would recognize them at some distance by Mark's brimmed hat and the bright shawl Laura wore over the shoulders of her coat. They walked in the mornings, she said, before the wind got too strong, because the wind tired Mark. He had lost his hair, and his face was swollen, but Lyle could see that in health he had been a handsome man. They always walked arm in arm, and she often seemed to be supporting him, more as a matter of balance than of strength, but something in the way they looked together led Lyle to believe that even before Mark's illness they had often walked this old-fashioned way, side by side, along streets or through parks. Lyle could almost remember the pleasure of that -- the hand a warm pressure in the bend of his elbow, the wrist between his arm and his ribs eloquent and secret, the publicness of the linking.

THE next evening his wife asked about his Americans, and he told her they were from Idaho, where Mark taught high school and Laura raised their four teenage children, who were with grandparents for these three weeks.

"A teacher," his wife said, wondering. "An expensive holiday for a teacher -- and during the term."

"They have those deals," he said. "Two-for-ones. Off season." They were eating spaghetti, and he watched how she poked around among the strands, looking for something in particular.

"From the States to Ireland, do you think?" she said, doubtful.

"I don't know."

She chewed, and he could almost see her mind shifting. "If they did, Jimmy might be looking into it so."

Jimmy was their younger son, twenty-five years old without a dollar or a plan to his name. "He might," Lyle said cautiously.

She went on about fares and connections, and then safely into a story her sister Roisin had told her of a trip somebody had taken by bus from somewhere in Kerry to somewhere in Clare that sped along, if you counted all the time, at a rate of about six miles an hour. Lyle was relieved: they wouldn't have to talk about buying Jimmy a ticket, or how they weren't exactly rich themselves, or about his life-hating caution and how he'd always favored Kevin, and on and on. He finished his supper and waited for the end of the story, the ritual shake of her head, the "It's a terrible country." Back home she had told different stories about Ireland, ending them with "It's a grand country." Sometimes, now, he'd point this out to her, and ask why she had wanted to come back here if it was so damned terrible. But tonight, as he waited, in the noise of the long details of her telling, he thought of how simply Laura had spoken that morning.

She had asked about Saint Patrick's Day, how it would be celebrated, while Mark walked alone at a little distance, stooping unsteadily to pick up small shells. Lyle told her that the parade would be small compared with American parades, the day a quiet family holiday, more like Labor Day than Mardi Gras.

"Maybe we'll try the parade, then," she said, watching Mark's slow progress back. "If it's not likely to be a big crowd. He gets tired."

"Is his recovery expected to be long?" Lyle had wondered for days how to ask, and was pleased at how naturally the question came out.

"Oh, he won't recover," she said. "He's dying."

She put no drama into it at all, not into the words, not into the tone, not into the way she raised her hand against the sudden emergence of the sun. "I'm sorry," Lyle said.

She nodded. "So are we." And then they had stood there quiet, waiting for Mark to come back and for their walks in opposite directions to continue.

He hadn't told his wife any of that, and now she had passed the end of the bus story and had come to something else. "It's not the traveling, I told her, it's the staying that's so dear, and she was saying that that's where the money is, in B-and-Bs. Why, the people in Kerry, half of them, in the summer move into caravans in their own back gardens and let all their rooms to the tourists. I couldn't do that, I told her -- you know how I am about motels, sleeping in other people's beds, and it'd be the same thing but worse, having strangers in your bed and then going back to it in October so, knowing they'd been there. I'd be thinking I could feel the heat of those bodies in the mattress." She stood and gathered up the plates and silverware.

There, in something that wasn't quite his mind and wasn't quite his body, he felt the sweet warmth a woman left in a bed, and knew that the shape and smell of the warmth were Laura's. So when his wife asked, "They're at a B-and-B, I'd think, your Americans?" he responded, "Why -- are you going to go ask what their damned tickets cost?"

She stopped in her work and stared at him. "That was nasty," she said, but he saw that her eyes were only alert, not wounded.

"Oh, give it a rest," he said, and went into the sitting room and turned on the television and called the dog to his lap.

HE discovered where they were staying by accident. The day before Saint Patrick's the rain was heavy, so he and the dog were trapped inside with the smell of damp coal ash and his wife's endless talk about the rain -- lashing, she said, coming down in rods, she said, bucketing down, and how she hated rain in her face, she said, and, now, a soft day she didn't mind. But by midmorning the next day the rain had stopped, and he said he was going out. As he was putting on his overcoat, she came with a limp hank of shamrock and knelt on the kitchen floor to tie it to the dog's collar. "That looks pretty stupid," he said.

She patted the dog's head and stood up. "It looks lovely." She had two more bits, and he allowed her to pin one to the lapel of his coat. "Are you thinking of going to the parade, then?" she asked.

"It's not until noon." He hooked the leash onto the dog's collar. "Did you want to go?"

She made a wry face and pushed her hand in the air between them. "It's a poor excuse for a parade," she said. "Roisin's calling by for me to help her with her new curtains. I'll be back before tea."

Out of sight of the house, he stooped and adjusted the dog's greenery. The air was clean and cool. As he passed one of the schools, he could hear a few horns behind the building -- kids preparing for the parade. Small family groups were slowly walking toward the parade route. Many people had small bunches of shamrock pinned to their coats. Children carried tricolors, and a few older boys had their faces painted green. He headed for the Salmon Weir Bridge, meaning to walk around the college and then circle back and maybe see the parade, maybe run into Mark and Laura. As he was waiting for the traffic to pass, he glanced down one of the side streets and saw Mark.

He was standing on the sidewalk, bareheaded, in jeans and a T-shirt, alone. Lyle had known he was thin, but there, coatless in the street, he was shockingly gaunt. As Lyle watched, Mark turned away, took two steps, and stopped. He put his arms up over his face and leaned against the building, like a child counting in a game of hide-and-seek. Farther up the street a door opened, and Laura came out. She hurried to Mark and put her hands on his shoulders. They spoke; Lyle could see that, and that Laura's hair was in a braid, and that her dark-green skirt rose and fell around her calves in the breeze, and that she was barefoot on the cold concrete. Then, slowly, she drew Mark from the wall and turned him to her. Still speaking, she took his hands and stepped backward, back toward the door she'd come out. He went with her a step, another step, and then she turned, pulling his arm around her waist. They walked together back inside, through the door of the Salmon Weir Hostel.

The rain began again.

is the director of the creative-writing program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her first collection of stories, was published last fall.

Illustrations by David Johnson

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; The Man With the Lapdog; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 78 - 85.