Dog Walker Blues

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

“My only regret,” Alex said defiantly, “Is that I wasn’t born independently wealthy.” He then sat back, cracked his knuckles, and waited for the young woman’s response.

Paul was sitting on the other side of the Bunker Bar, over near the jukebox, but he had a clear view. He knew what was about to happen. It was like witnessing a car crash in slow motion - horrific; shocking, yet morbidly entertaining. He couldn’t help himself.

Alex’s date was named Kristen. She offered Alex a sidelong glance, not quite sure if he was serious, while nervously tracing with a fingernail abstract designs in the condensation that had gathered on her 16 ounce can of watery domestic. She searched her internal Rolodex, swiftly recalled the litany of underwhelming bachelors she had dealt with since moving to Pittsburgh. Kristen had met some real oddballs. But none of them harbored the proclivities of this guy. He even had the nerve to admit never having wanted a job, but since he was living in the Corporate States of America, he had no choice. And that was why he walked dogs for a living.

“You walk dogs?”

“I do,” Alex replied proudly as he took a pull from his beer. “I’m the best.” This would be the highlight of his evening, what he lived for; why he even bothered going on dates anymore. He called Nora the bar manager over, not so much because he needed a beer, but just so she could be closer to the action.

“Your profile said you worked as a tech developer.”

“My profile says I work as a liaison for a tech-developer,” he corrected her.

“So in other words, you walk his dog.”

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Would you have shown up if I had told you what I actually do?”

She said nothing, glanced down at the counter with an increasingly dour recognition of her situation. Nora stood off to the side, taking in everything. She laughed to herself and shook her head.

Kristen worked as a headhunter for a staffing company. She had been excited at the prospect of going on a date with someone whose online profile identified himself as a member of the ever-increasing tech world in Pittsburgh. She had moved to the city a few months before and didn’t have many friends. Kristen inspected the beer can closely, as though it were some oracle or soothsayer. But the can offered nothing more than a tacky patriotic color scheme and ingredients that would only compromise her waistline. She glanced anxiously at the clock above the bar, calculating she had known this clown for exactly fourteen minutes. Kristen took another sip of beer and debated whether to cut things off now or see what was on the menu. She was hungry, after all.

“I like walking dogs,” he continued. “I find working with people rather annoying.”

“Oh, that’s great,” she said off-handedly, almost to herself, still fixated on the Pabst oracle. She traced the gashes on the counter with her finger. The dejected tone of a woman all too familiar to Alex.

The Bunker was in the midst of Happy Hour, offering cheap pitchers of domestic for $8.50 or bottles of craft beers for $3.00. Hot wings, pierogies, and cheeseburgers were the usual fare. The Bunker wasn’t the cleanest place, the hippest place, or the most romantic place, but Alex liked to take dates there because he felt comfortable among the surly patrons, safe amidst the ratty sports team pennants and posters. He had gone ahead and ordered a plate of onion rings before Kristen had arrived. The empty plate now sat before them specked with crumbs and smears of ketchup. He grinned like a convict who had successfully avoided extradition. In the background, the jukebox sang the closing refrain of Crowded House’s “Something So Strong”.

“Ask me what my favorite breed is,” Alex demanded.

“Excuse me?” Kristen said, startled.

“My favorite dog breed. Go on,” he implored. “Ask it. Ask me what my favorite dog is.”

“Ok…” she said pensively. “What’s your favorite dog breed?”

Alex let out a deep sigh, smiled, and said, “I thought you’d never ask.” He took another long pull from his bottle and motioned to Nora for another. The jukebox had finished its run of songs. The clattering of dishes in the kitchen and the intermittent buzz of the TV monitor hanging over the bar mirror cast an eerie aural dissonance.

There are many. So, so many,” he said shaking his head, looking off to the side as though he were recalling a long-ago romantic encounter. “But the fact is, there is no more charming canine than the pug.”

“Really?” she said, not in the least bit interested.

“Yep.” He paused for a moment, then burped. “And no more cursed, either. Take, for example, my favorite dog Marigold. Like most pugs, she has googly eyes and an omnipresent tongue that sticks out the side of her mouth giving her an asymmetrical countenance. Her stout little frame, sausage-like, sitting upon absurd stubby legs, furiously pumping away in spite of her genetic flaws, is truly something to behold.”

Kristen stared at Alex as though he were an alien. She could hear his words and they made sense, but his tone of voice and mannerisms combined with the truly asinine subject matter gave her the impression that she was on a date with a lunatic.

“But these flaws do not inhibit Marigold’s unbridled energy, or her desire to be the life of the party,” Alex continued reverentially, oblivious to Kristen’s indifference to his favorite dog breed or her increasing concerns about his mental stability. “Pugs are great. In a way, they are the Toulouse-Lautrec of dogs.” Alex winked, downed his lager, let out another deep, baritone belch, hopped off the barstool, and walked to the restroom leaving a long, putrid scent of onion rings in his wake. Just before he turned the corner to the steps leading down to the men’s room, he raised his clenched fist and announced “Marigold!”

“Okay,” muttered Kristen to the now vacant bar stool next to her. Where to begin? She was shocked by his table manners. In addition to his loathsome flatulence, Alex swore, talked over her; insulted her favorite TV show; made fun of her taste in music; her job; where she lived; where she was raised. He said her shoes were too blue and that women should never wear high-top sneakers. (Kristen found this bit of information rather odd, as she was wearing flats from work, indigo in color, not blue. And so he was probably colorblind in addition to being an asshole.) But now after receiving a temporary stay of execution to regain her equilibrium, she was presented with an opening; she could finally escape. The jukebox was now playing “Love Ain’t Something (That You Get For Free)” by Wah Wah Watson, a tune far more appropriate for the occasion. Though Kristen had never heard the song before, she also wasn’t against the idea that greater forces were at play; that a woman must go with her intuition, especially when the negative vibes all too neatly coincided with the surrounding atmosphere as it applied in this particular situation. Clearly the stars were maligned. Kristen jumped off her barstool as though she were performing a dismount, yanked her coat from the hook beneath the bar counter, and scurried out the door. Paul saw this as his cue to get up and take his rightful place at the bar on the other side of where Alex had been sitting.

Alex returned moments later and looked around the room.

“Looks like you lost another one, Casanova,” said Nora, motioning to the front door as it closed with an arthritic creak.

“Yeah, that was painful to watch,” said Paul.

“I thought women liked guys who like dogs,” said Alex, as he let out a yawn and stretched.

“Women do like guys who like dogs,” replied Nora as she wiped down the counter. “But you are a jerk. And there’s a substantial gulf between thinking someone is a jerk,” she said, holding her left hand aloft with the palm up. “And wanting to have sex with them,” she continued, completing the same motion with her right hand. “Besides, you conducted that date as though it were some twisted sociological experiment.”

“She was terrible,” Alex said. “She was only interested in my theoretical tech job based on the belief that I made theoretically large amounts of money.”

“She had her own job,” said Nora. “She paid for her beer.”

“Yeah? And?”

“She offered to pay for your drink when she saw you didn’t have enough money. For an IC Light, no less. You didn’t even have enough money for an IC Light. And she knew you for what, fifteen minutes?”

“She’s right, y’know,” Paul agreed. “That is pretty pathetic.”

“I did laundry today!” Alex bellowed. “My wallet is in another pair of pants!”

“So let me get this straight,” Nora said, hands firmly on hips, the stance she always eventually took when having a conversation with Alex. “You haven’t denied that you were just messing with her. Am I not far off when I say that you conduct these sociological experiments under the pretext of an actual date?”

Alex paused for a moment. “I never thought of it that way. But sure, why not? Aren’t all relationships, regardless of intent, sociological?” Alex raised an eyebrow. Nora hated it when he acted smug.

“You’re a sociopath,” she said half-joking.

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe so,” Nora allowed. “But you are fucked up.” She shook her head, pausing for a moment to dispose of Kristen’s beer bottle and wipe the counter. “Anyway, women aren’t going to sleep with you just because you’re not a sociopath.”

“But you slept with me,” said Alex.

“Great,” Paul said. “I can see where this conversation is going.”

“And I’ve regretted it ever since, Alex,” she said. “Besides, that was years ago.”

“You seemed to enjoy yourself.”

“I was a theatre major at CMU.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it could mean that I was just faking it. But instead, I’ll say that I should’ve joined that off-Broadway musical back in ’95 instead of staying here in Pittsburgh.” She stood stone-faced for a moment, then smirked. “See what I just did there? That’s called diplomacy. You should try it.”

“But that’s my point,” said Alex. “Pretty much every woman, at one time or another, has slept with a guy without that guy having to do anything so much as be at the right place at the right time.”

“I’m sorry,” said Nora. “You said there was a point?”

“This has all the makings of a Hallmark moment,” Paul interjected again.

“My point is,” said Alex. “What’s the point of the whole dating ritual, the idea of acting nice and spending money on a woman when she’s already given it up for free to someone else?”

“You are kidding, right?” said Nora. Alex could sense the tension in her voice. But he went barreling ahead anyway.

“No, I’m not kidding.”

“Yep,” said Paul, pretending to look at his watch. “I could set my watch to this conversation.”

“I don’t know, Alex,” Nora said in the same exasperated tone she used when her ex-husband Mike was late with support payments or skipped out on their daughter’s ballet recitals. She turned to Paul for help. But he just shrugged and made that don’t look at me look that caused her so much frustration with men. “Maybe people just don’t want to be alone. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re in love. Most people aren’t strong and independent as you are.”

“There’s no need to get bitchy,” said Alex, making a dismissive motion with his hand. This always set Nora off. Paul tried to ease the situation with a half-hearted, “Are the Pirates playing tonight?” to no one in particular.

“But there is a need to get bitchy,” said Nora, deftly ignoring Paul while taking the bait that Alex had laid. “Because you always ask the same questions hoping to somehow get a different answer that will validate your view of the world. What do you want to hear? That people are weak? That they’re terrified of being alone? Even if it means settling with someone they kinda sorta don’t really like? Or they’re not really attracted to? Does it make you feel better? Does it make you feel superior?”

Alex appeared to think about it for a moment. “Actually yeah, it does,” he said.

“Well, that’s great,” said Nora as she slammed her fist down on the counter startling Alex, Paul, and several other patrons. “But it still doesn’t change the fact you owe fifty-two bucks on your bar tab. It’s a shame things didn’t work out on your date. She looked like the kind of girl who had a stable, good-paying job. Maybe you could’ve conned her into paying up.”

“I don’t understand why you’re being so mean,” said Alex. “You know I walk dogs for a living.”

“And you wonder why you never get past the first date,” she said.

“I had no interest in getting past the first date,” he shot back.

Nora looked at Alex and shook her head in disapproval. “You’re something else,” she said as she flung the bar towel over her shoulder and strolled through the double doors to the kitchen. She returned with a case of beer and began placing bottles in the cooler beneath the bar counter. She suddenly looked up as though having forgotten something, checked her watch, muttered dammit, then hurried back through the double doors to the kitchen. She returned a few moments later with two baskets of cheese fries and a plate of halushski.

“It wasn’t always this way,” he said as Nora briskly walked by. She maneuvered past him without acknowledgment, food precariously balanced, weaving her way around the scrum of chairs and tables to an elderly couple sitting in the far corner away from the jukebox. She delicately laid the plates on the table, feigned a smile at the couple, rubbed her hands on her jeans, and took a deep breath before returning to her post behind the bar. She then pulled clean silverware from the dishwasher and began wrapping the spoons, forks, and knives in napkins.

“It wasn’t always this way because you’re old now,” Nora said, finishing his thought. “We’ve talked about this before. I get it…I’ve seen you play music. You were great. It’s the main reason why I went to bed with you. Why else would I? Because of your personality? The fact is, playing in bands has infinitely more currency when you’re in your teens and twenties than your thirties - and definitely more so than your forties. Unless you’re Elvis Costello. He’s what? Sixty? He looks better now than he did when he was starting out.”

“Well yeah,” said Alex. “He’s also famous.”

“Again, you’re missing the point.”

“But that’s what you’re implying, right?”

Nora just shook her head solemnly; she didn’t say anything. The two had known each other for a long time, and so she knew that Alex knew to shut up and listen to what she had to say when she went into a cold silence. Alex eased back on his bar stool. “Please,” he said with a tone that was the closest he ever got to sincerity. “Enlighten me.”

“You walk dogs. For a living. You don’t even own the business. It would be one thing if you were a retiree, but you’re what, 38 years old?”

“He’s thirty-nine,” said Paul.

“You’re not helping,” said Alex.

“Well, you’re a year closer to retirement at least,” she said, dropping a perfectly wrapped trio of utensils into the bucket with a loud clang. “Of which walking dogs would then be a great job. You might actually even pick up an old widow at the retirement home. But you know what it really is? You’re scared. Just like the rest of us. That’s all. You make fun of everyone for their relationships, but you’re just as terrified. Actually, you’re more terrified. And until you come to terms with that, well…” she made her point by dropping another napkin-cloaked batch of silverware into the basket.

“You are a cruel woman,” he said, pausing for a moment. “That’s bullshit, by the way.”

“How so?” asked Nora.

“First of all,” said Alex. “I choose to be alone. Second of all, I’ve spent maybe $25 total on all the women I’ve ever slept with.”

“Is that supposed to impress me?” Nora said.

“Whoa,” Paul snickered in the background. “He’s a biiiiig spender, ladies.”

“No,” Alex said, ignoring Paul. “My point is that I never had to work at getting laid. And I’m sure as hell not going to start now. I mean, is this how most men live?”

“You mean where they actually take a girl out, spend money on her, listen to what she has to say - y’know, make an effort? Yes, Alex, for most men it’s not easy getting a woman into bed. And you know what? Some men want companionship. And some men actually like women.”

“I like women.”

“You like having sex with women,” Nora quickly replied. “There’s a difference.”

“So men are to blame,” he said in a low volume almost to himself, ignoring her last comment. “Loser men, anyway. Which means most of them.”

“What?” asked Nora. “How did you come to that conclusion? You’re insane.”

“I’m just saying that in my particular case, there have been too many times where women have given it away for free,” said Alex. “And so for me to start essentially paying for it - which, let’s be honest, is basically what a date is - is ridiculous. Only suckers pay.”

“You really are something else.” Nora shook her head.

“Look at it this way,” countered Alex. “If your ex-husband Mike hadn’t bought that engagement ring for you, would you have married him?”

“Oh, man,” Paul said, casting a glance at the exit. “Here we go.”

“I know what you’re getting at,” she glared at Alex. “Don’t even start.”

“I see I’ve touched a nerve,” he said. “But you just proved my point.”

“I don’t need to justify my decisions to you.”

“Then you’ll answer my question,” Alex said in a slow, steady tone. “Truthfully.”

Neither of them said anything. They just stood there staring at each other, as though they were in a standoff.

“Uh, guys,” Paul said meekly. “I definitely think the Pirates are playing tonight.”

Alex asked again, though this time it was more like a demand: “If he hadn’t showered you with gifts or taken you out to dinner - if he hadn’t spent money on you, would you still have stayed with him? Would you even have slept with him?”

Nora stood silent. She didn’t have to say anything. She was too busy boring a hole through Alex’s head with her eyes. Paul, who had remained silent for most of the conversation, let out a whistle, much like one of those old black and white war movies where a bomb is released from a plane’s cargo bay.

“It’s okay, Nora. You’re not the only one,” said Alex. “A man pays a sex worker money in exchange for goods and services, meaning: sex. The typical romantic boy/girl relationship is no different. A man pays for drinks and dinner with the hope of sleeping with her. Sure, there are exceptions - some people do fall in love, I’ll grant you. But many guys just want sex and most people are simply afraid of being alone. Ergo, while it’s not exactly the same, most relationships are initially based on premises no different than a man paying a prostitute for sex. In effect, I give you this, and in return, you give me that. They are, like any other relationship, transactional.”

“Is that so?” said Nora.

“All I know is that love disappears real quick once the guy loses his job or stops footing the bill or doesn’t eventually show up one day with an engagement ring. It’s all currency in exchange for goods and services.”

“My god, you are depressing,” said Nora, who then looked at Paul. “How do you put up with this?”

“Believe it or not,” said Paul. “It actually works on some women.”

“I’m a realist,” said Alex. “All I know is that my date’s interest in me tanked exponentially once she found out what I actually did for a living.” Alex took another sip from his beer. “It’s depressing only if the foundation of your happiness is based on the belief that Disney movies and harlequin novels are representations of real life and not an elaborate scam to separate you from the money in your pocket.”

“No wonder you’re alone.”

“Again,” Alex reminded her. “I choose to be alone. Though if it makes you feel any better, we are all whores to something. Every last one of us. Even me.”

Before Nora could reply, the front door opened. Charles walked in, surveyed the room, and made his way over to the trio.

“Is this seat taken?” he asked, pointing to the barstool where Alex’s date had previously sat. Nora cackled loudly as she cleared off several empty pint glasses from the bar.

“Fuck off,” said Alex.

“What’s his problem?” Charles thumbed in the direction of Alex. Charles reached over and shook Paul’s hand, then gave Nora a good, strong hug.

“Alex’s date took off the minute he started on his dog walking spiel,” said Paul.

“Ah, another one bites the dust,” laughed Charles. “Women are harsh, man. They develop high expectations once they hit a certain age.”

Alex’s face lit up with acknowledgment. “That’s what Nora and I have been talking about!”

“Of course she did,” Charles scoffed. “Women don’t want some 40-year-old dog walker.”

“He’s 39,” someone blurted from a table behind them.

“Eavesdropper!” Alex yelled.

“Dogwalker!” the table yelled back. Alex grew angry for a moment but knew he had more mouth than muscle. He muttered a half-hearted piss-ants under his breath.

“Or maybe she wanted someone who could actually pay their bar tab,” Charles said.

“What the fuck, Nora!” Alex barked. “You’re telling everyone about my bar tab?”

“Goddammit, Charles,” said Nora. “I told you not to say anything.”

“Oops,” he said. “My bad.”

“I get paid on Friday,” said Alex. “I promise I’ll have something by then.”

“Fifty-two bucks?” said Nora.

“Yes. Fifty-two bucks.”

“Okay then,” she said.

Alex crumbled up a wet napkin and tossed it with a sure hand into the wastebasket behind the bar. “So Charles, did you come over here to make light of my financial and romantic penury?”

“He probably figured you’d be here,” said Paul. “I know I wanted to get in early enough to see the pre-show extravaganza. Nothing starts my evening off better than watching you make an ass of yourself in front of women.”

“He has a way of doing that, huh?” said Charles.

Nora and Paul both nodded.

Charles turned to Alex. “So man, tell us about this date.”

“It wasn’t a date. More like a job interview.”

“She had every right to leave,” said Nora. “You made her feel uncomfortable.”

“Oh christ,” said Charles. “You didn’t do that thing where you compare dog breeds to French philosophers, did you?”

“Toulouse Lautrec was an artist, you vulgarian.”

“Listen,” Charles warned. “We’ve talked about this before. I spent a summer at the Conservatory in Paris studying with Wynton Marsalis when you were still hiking up your short pants. I know culture.”

Alex mumbled something under his breath.

“Say what?” Charles shot back. “Don’t make me rap your ass.”

Nora stifled another laugh, said “Be good, boys” turned and upended the tip jar, then proceeded to count her gratuity, replacing the coins with bills from the cash register.

“How’s Marion doing?” Charles asked Paul.

“She’s hanging in there,” he replied. “They’re not sure when she’s going to get out.”

“Is she holding up all right?” inquired Alex.

“Yeah. You should stop in,” said Paul. “She asked for you.”

“I know,” said Alex, turning in on himself. “I just can’t stand hospitals.”

“Seriously, man,” said Charles. “You need to quit being a bitch. That woman made you sound good.”

Alex opened his mouth as if to say something. But he quickly had second thoughts and remained silent.

Charles finished off the last of his pint and got Nora’s attention. “I’d like another beer, please.” Then he paused for a moment and nodded to Alex. “And get one for this broke-ass motherfucker sitting next to me.”

Submitted: May 03, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Kurt Garrison. All rights reserved.

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This was a really well-written tale. Nice social observations and some great character interactions.

Sun, May 3rd, 2020 6:34pm

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