A homeless man piggybacks on a stray dog's rescue during a hailstorm in this story by Eeva Park.
Listen to Eeva Park read from "A Dog's Life" in the original Estonian.
The dog ran round the corner, his fur shaggy and matted, and stayed there, sheltering from the wind and panting heavily. From a distance it looked as if he was leaning his shoulder against the building, which made him look even more human. He was old and filthy and probably hadn’t eaten for some time, since when I got close he looked straight at me with his light-brown, gummy eyes and started wagging his tail. His whole body wriggled along with that one body part that expresses a dog’s feelings, which was horrible to see, since the tail movement clearly didn’t express pleasure, but rather a deeply ingrained submissive fear of people, whoever they may be. But he didn’t run away when I came up alongside him, he just huddled up closer to the wall of the building, his tail thudding against the yellowish-gray plaster, which came off in wide flat pieces, and tensely awaiting a kick or a blazing match; someone had already scorched his left flank and a suppurating scab was visible through the singed fur. The question flashed through my mind whether children could have done this, because I’d just been leafing through the papers over my morning coffee and read a story about some girls who burned a cat alive at a party.
Looking at the animal’s matted coat you couldn’t tell how scrawny he really was, and since I didn’t know what kind of hunger his eyes were expressing, whether a doggy yearning for affection or the torment of an empty stomach, I decided that he must be a typical beggar, just like the ones I had passed in the street a little earlier.
Those two, a youngish man and an older woman, had stunk so badly that, instead of stopping, people couldn’t help but quicken their pace; the pair was evidently drunk and they had sprawled out on the broad asphalt path leading through the park to the Viru shopping center. The cardboard sign hanging round the man’s neck, with writing in two languages which had started to run in the damp, asked for money to buy food for their children. But people had already seen too many of their sort, and the initial shock had long since worn off, now there were even rumors going around about how burly men in leather jackets could be seen driving from one beggar to another collecting the day’s takings. So even begging had turned into a business. For many years now there had been a bearded man begging by the wall opposite the newspaper stand near the Kaubamaja shopping center, kneeling on a flattened cardboard box with his hand outstretched. I am almost certain that I once came across him in Paris, at the Petit Palais, in front of the Giron painting depicting the Parisienne. I was backing away from the painting to get a better look at that most refined of ladies, and I bumped right into him. In any case the resemblance to that bearded man, into whose hand I was used to tossing the small change that accumulated in my pocket, was striking. As I apologized he seemed to recognize me too; despite the red and black dotted scarf tied foppishly under his jacket, he didn’t respond with the politeness typical of a Frenchman, but just gave a grunt instead.
The street I had come to following the dog seemed to be completely empty at that moment, and when anyone did appear, they would rush straight off, a little hunched, holding their hat with one hand and shielding their face with the other, then taking shelter from the wind under some arch, just like the dog. Whistling audaciously, a gust of wind whisked up the sand and dust which had gathered between the cobblestones, and I felt it rasping against my throat as I breathed in. A piece of metal roofing torn loose by the wind flew straight past me, slicing the air like a guillotine. It scratched a long furrow across the roof of a red car parked half on the pavement, and then hurtled on, rebounding against a wall with a clatter.
The first real storm of the autumn was getting underway. The sky, which had already turned dark, now looked as if it had caved in lopsidedly over the town, and in the distance behind the Lasnamäe tower blocks thunder was rumbling.
When I reached the café under the arch and tugged at the door, it didn’t open at first, and for a moment I even thought that the place must be shut, but then suddenly the door flew wide open, colliding with the trashcan next to the steps and taking me with it. A man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the steamed-up window looked up distractedly and glared out at the darkening street. It was nearly midday, but as I entered I saw that the man by the window was the only customer in that little café next to the city wall.
“Heavens almighty. . . like a nuclear bomb exploding,” said the primped woman in the pristine outfit as she leaned over the counter: “I hope that you pulled the door properly behind you? If it’s not shut it’ll fly right open again, and then the windows have had it. . . Maybe I’d better lock it. . .” She deliberated with her head cocked to one side as she looked out into the street to watch the chaotic thrashing of the sheet of metal as it kept being hurled into the air. “It’s just been fixed, but I can’t be going to check it after every single customer.”
“I pulled it properly shut. I actually had more trouble getting it open,” I explained as I inspected the goods laid out on the shelves in the glass display case. “Two meat pies, please. . . no not those ones, the yeasted ones. Those fourteen-kroon ones.”
“Coffee or tea?" she asked, placing the pies on a plate and reaching out her hand to get a cup.
“Neither. Just the two pies.”
“I’ve got juice, water, wine. . .," she persisted. “There’s even kefir. How can you eat them dry like that?"
“I’m not going to eat them, they’re for the dog,” I said and gestured over my shoulder at the dog.
“Dogs aren’t allowed in here. I can’t understand why people don’t realize it’s not hygienic. A couple of days ago some crazy guy came and lectured me about how he always takes his dog to the restaurants in Holland, but this isn’t Holland. Let him go there if he wants and eat out of the same trough as his dog for all I care. Here we still make a clear distinction between animals and people, thank heavens.”
“No need to get worked up. I’m not bringing the dog in. It’s not even my dog anyway,” I said. But it was pretty pointless as the woman wasn’t listening, she just carried on talking:
“You get all sorts hanging about, sometimes with dogs, sometimes without. God’s zoo is really big. Just yesterday I had to call the police, someone had been sitting here the whole afternoon—over there at the table in the corner—and then it turned out, so help me, if you please, that he was dead, and now another one has dragged himself here. He’s an odd one.” The woman looked in the direction of the customer sitting at the table by the window. “He came in, ordered a cup of tea, and now he’s just slouched there. Everyone who comes in turns round and walks straight out as soon as they see him. But don’t you go thinking that I don’t know who’s foisting these types on us. They’ve basically been paid to come here.”
“Who?” I asked, but she just shook her head and carried on talking.
“Your average dead person is nothing compared to a stinking tramp like that, that dead one didn’t bother anybody, but this one sits there with his empty cup just to keep himself warm, and he stinks, so that—”
The woman handed me back my change, pushed the till shut with her chest, and then smiled a completely normal smile, not just with the corners of her mouth, but all the way to her eyes:
“The police don’t do anything at all, they just say that if the customer has paid, then it’s none of their business, the customer is king. I hope you understand, I don’t mean anything bad, but I really can’t let you into the café with a dog, even if I myself like dogs.”
“Actually, I don’t like them myself,” I answered as I took the pies and stuffed the money into my purse.
The dog was hunched just outside the door, in the same spot by the wall, and he gazed up at me with the same look in his eyes as before. Then when I knelt down and offered him a pie, he sniffed it very cautiously, like a silk-cassocked cardinal afraid of being poisoned. Very slowly and reluctantly he took the pie between yellow teeth that stuck out like Mother Hulda’s. He let half of it fall to the ground, but eventually ate it all up, swallowing with great difficulty. It looked like it was hard for him to get it down without the tea, coffee, or juice which the woman in the café had offered.
“Trying to make friends with that dog?” a hoarse voice asked directly overhead, and when I looked up I saw the man who had been sitting at the café table. His face bristled with several weeks' growth of yellowish-gray beard, his pale sherry-colored eyes were just as crusty as the dog’s, and seen from underneath the nostrils in his large nose were extremely hairy and produced a snuffling sound as he puffed air in and out through them. It seemed to be hard work for him just to stand upright, and when he teetered for a moment, I was scared he might fall on top of us, but he managed to steady himself against the wall with his hand just in time.
Outside in the whistling wind the man reeked less than inside, but there was still a sickly sickly sweet stench of refuse and dried sweat coming off him. There wasn’t an obvious smell of alcohol, although I detected a whiff of it hanging on the tails of the words as they flowed from his mouth.
“Is he with you?” I asked, cautiously touching the dog’s head with a gloved hand. “He ran here to shelter from the wind, and I started to feel sorry for him. . .”
“It will take more than a meat pie to make a house pet of that one. Give me the pie.”
“No,” I said, straightening up and backing away from his stench. “The pie’s for the dog, you can eat at home, when you eventually get there.”
“I haven’t eaten anything since the day before yesterday,” he said, grabbing the pie from my hand and stuffing it into his mouth.
“You smell like a sewer,” I said, watching how the wind tugged at the thinning, light-gray hair on the crown of his head. Some longer hairs had come loose from his greasy ponytail and were flapping across his face, crisscrossing and covering it in places, but he didn’t seem to notice. Another rumble of thunder rolled across the sky, making the dog and me hunch up, but he just laughed, revealing that one of his otherwise strong front teeth was missing, and the black hole in the middle of the row made him look even more like your average street person.
This time he had been missing for almost three weeks, and his trousers seemed to be the only surviving item from the clothes he had been wearing when he had gone to that business lunch with the Swedes and never returned. The yellowish-brown dog was lying on the street between the two of us like a hairy carpet. I started to walk away, but when I glanced back I saw the man prod the dog with his foot, at which he obediently got to his feet and started to follow us.
“So he is with you then? Where did you pick him up?” I asked, but a whistling gust of wind snatched my words away.
We headed along the same road that I had come down, but the man and the dog crossed over to the other side, and as I watched him I noticed that he reached out to the wall for support at least twice. The pedestrians who occasionally came in the opposite direction all tried to steer clear of him, to keep their distance by stepping onto the road or hopping onto the high steps of the old townhouses. Two rows of children, wearing familiar Reaal School hats, were being guided through the storm by their teacher, probably in the direction of the Natural History Museum, and the man and the dog briefly disappeared under an archway to make way for them, but then they came back into sight again.
The dog walking along beside him didn’t seem to notice the wind any more, but it was tearing at the beast’s fur and the man’s loosely flapping coattails with the same fury as before, and soon the first fierce hailstorm was hurling beads of water from the clouds like a shower of bullets. The children took off yelling, while the teacher who had been trying to keep them in order lifted her bag over her head and dashed onward. The hailstones covered the street, instantly turning it snowy white, but a quarter of an hour later when we arrived home the shower had already turned into blustery rain, and by the time we got to the third floor both the wet man and the dog stank to high heaven. As soon as we got into the flat I opened the bathroom door and ordered them both inside. The dog stretched out on his belly on the dark red carpet in the corridor, shivering, but I dragged him by the scruff of his neck through the bathroom door, straight onto the heated black-and-white tile floor.
As soon as he entered the flat Markus sat down on the chair in the hall looking like he was going to doze off right there and then.
“Don’t even think of going to sleep there! Take off those rags and get in the bath straight away. God knows, you must both be completely lice-infested,” I ordered, but Markus just snarled something indistinct, and I had to hoist him up off the chair and help him into the bathroom. The dog was slipping and sliding on the smooth floor trying to get onto his feet. He was whining in fear, and before I had managed to pull the bathroom carpet away it was soaked in piss.
“I’m definitely not going to wash that. . . He’s all mangy, as well. . . Where did you find him?” I asked, but Markus just groaned in response:
“Somewhere. . . no. . . he just latched onto me.”
“You’ve got just two and a half hours to get yourself in order before the children get here.”
“Don’t worry. . .” he said, and without opening his eyes he started fumbling at his rags.
“Surely you don’t want them to see you like this?" I threatened him, as I knew it was the only way of getting him moving.
“What did you tell them?” he asked, managing to half open his eyes, slowly surveying himself in the misted-over mirror.
“What I always do. . . that you were traveling. . . that you went to pitch ideas to some new business partners. . . making some big deal. . . meeting people and signing contracts. . . I can’t be bothered to think up anything new anymore, and the children aren’t interested anyway,” I answered as I pulled on my yellow rubber gloves and helped him tug off his clothes. His skin twitched when the gloves touched it, and his legs were clearly not able to bear his heavy stinking frame any longer.
“And what else?” he inquired, supporting himself on the edge of the bath and breathing the stench from his burnt-out digestive system straight into my face.
“It would be good if you could be up and about by tomorrow. . . I’ve signed some things on your behalf, but now we need to make some final decisions on the harbor sites. I didn’t dare set a meeting time, but we have to hurry with the attorneys now as well. Did you hear what happened to Simberg? That business has probably already ended up in court. . . And some serious problems have come up with transit. . . Oh yes, there’s been a change of minister in the meantime as well. . . Actually the whole government. . . Don’t you know that either?”
“No,” he mumbled as he lifted up his arms and let me pull his absolutely worn-out sweater off over his head. He was wearing nothing else under it, and once it was removed I could see that his body was a strange yellow color. He had clearly been beaten up, and judging by his groaning at least one of his ribs was broken. The water was pouring from the tap and quickly filled the tub. I chucked in a double helping of bubble bath, and Markus slowly clambered over the edge, dangling one foot in the water to test the temperature. He lowered himself into the bath with a sigh, and as he did so the water surged up and sloshed over the edge onto the floor.
“Do I have to watch so you don’t fall asleep?” I asked, but I saw that he was incapable of perceiving anything other than the warm scented water flowing around his body. The foam surrounded his protruding head with a white fluffy halo, restoring his famous aquiline profile and powerful jawline.
The dog had been trying to crawl out of the bathroom, but when I shut the door he scrabbled to hide among Markus’ clothes, which were lying on the floor where they had fallen. When I grabbed hold of him he nipped at me, but I pushed him through the sliding door of the shower and washed him down.
When he was wet the dog lost all of his previous matted shagginess, and with it any last will to resist, so I was able to lather him up with shampoo and get his trembling body clean. As soon as I let him loose he tried to get dry, shaking his body from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, and then he skulked off to the corner of the cabinet under the sink, his nails scraping the stone tiles. I had turned the air conditioning on full and as it whirred away the stench was gradually replaced with the familiar scents of a clean bathroom.
“Bring me a whisky,” Markus said, and I didn’t argue, I just went and poured him a finger of Blue Label. He drank it slowly, almost reluctantly, then heaved himself into a sitting position, filled the glass to the brim with tap water, and drained that as well. Then he gave a deep sigh and said:
I gathered up Markus’s clothes and shoved them into the fireplace, put on some of the cardboard winebox and curly shavings for kindling, added some firewood, and struck a match. The fire caught straight away, but the stench of disintegrating boots wafted from the flames.
A little later the two of them, the man and the dog, were sitting in our kitchen, which was twice its former size since the renovation. I laid the table for Markus, and threw some leftover grilled chicken to the dog.
Just as before, he sniffed it for a long time before sneaking off behind the table with a leg bone.
“Is he allowed to eat chicken bones, won’t they puncture his stomach? Looks like he could be a purebred collie? His fur is all tangled and he’s prick-eared, but all the same. . .” I suggested to Markus as I listened to the sound of chewing, but I got no reply. Markus was sitting in his dark-blue dressing gown with his shoulders hunched, and his long, slightly wispy hair was now clean and reached down to his shoulders. The autumn storm was still thundering and roaring outside the window.
I watched how he ate, his jowls moving slowly backward and forward, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down as he drank the kefir. When the phone rang I pushed it across the table toward him.
He took the phone in his hand, looked at the name which had flashed up on the screen, and pressed the answer button.
“Yes, I’m back. Just now,” he said, getting up and walking over to the window. “On the morning flight . . . yes, direct. . . no problems. . . just a bit shaky. . . as you know yourself, New York is on a completely different scale. . . exactly. . . me too. . . ” I sat and watched him speak, seeing how he changed more and more as he did so, and outside the half-bare tree tops were swaying in the wind.
The dog crunched away at his last chicken bone under the table.
Once he’s washed and combed, been given some ringworm tablets and a rabies injection, he could be just like any other dog, I thought to myself. We can take him out to the island on weekends. He’ll chase seagulls on the beach, and when we skim stones on the water he’ll run into the water after them.
Markus had finished the call, and was standing with his coffee cup in his hand, looking out the window at the town.
“What’s his name?” I asked, as I tried to work out the distance in miles from the gaps between the peals of thunder and the flashes of lightning. The storm was getting farther away, I was able to count to six. “Looks like he could be a purebreed.”
“His name? How should I know. Feed him and shove him outside before the children get here,” Markus ordered.
“But why did you get him to come with you?” I couldn’t help asking. “I washed him. . . We’ll have to buy a new bathroom carpet.”
“Who told you to wash him. . . ”
“But he was dirty. . .”
“I didn’t bring him with me, he came himself, of his own free will,” Markus answered, heading for his office and starting a new telephone conversation. I took a beefsteak from the fridge, a long dark-red piece of meat with no sinews, packed in film. At first I cut only a thin slice, but then two fat ones as well, and I leaned down under the table and let the dog sniff them. The smell of the fresh, blood-red meat made him perk up, and a lively look came to his eyes. When he got to his feet it seemed as if he had new energy in his muscles, and as I started walking in the direction of the door I heard the scraping of nails hot on my heels. When I opened the door he stopped and hesitated for a moment, and I had to let him have a sniff of one of the pieces of meat, but once we started down the stairs he was already rushing ahead of me, waiting impatiently on every landing, and once we reached the front door he grabbed the meat in his teeth and disappeared down the street with it, in the direction of the sea.
© Eeva Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Matthew Hyde. All rights reserved.