Watching Guy and Lady
I’m no expert on canine behavior, but I do know a few things about dogs.
I make it a point to catch the Westminster Kennel Club finals each February on Animal Planet. I know my breeds and have my favorites: the spaniels, the poodles, the beagles, and the terriers. Each one carries its own singular message confidently around the ring—tail held high, a bounce in the step, a sly grin on soft black lips, as if to say, “Pick me. I’m the one.”
I say, “as if to say” because those dogs aren’t actually saying the words. They are putting ideas in our heads. Which is no small feat in itself.
When I was single, I had a cocker spaniel-poodle mix. Like most clever dogs, Jorge could tell me when he needed to go out, when there was a stranger in the yard, or when it was 5 p.m. and time to stop working. But he could also say, “this water is funky; please change it,” and “yes, I’d like some of that steak but a smaller piece,” and “let’s walk on the other side of the street where it’s shady,” all without speaking a word. Projecting mental pictures with those wide set brown eyes, using cockapoo telepathy alone, he commanded a remarkably precise vocabulary.
What’s more, he was such a good listener! As evolved and self-contained as any Bodhisattva, that suave little guy would proudly squire me around the park—an attentive witness to my innermost thoughts and a quiet, constant advocate in spite of all my failings. Adoring my every iota.
When Tom (then my fiancé) pointed at the pooch one day and said, “Him or me.” I didn’t know what to do. I begged him to reconsider but he was firm. Said he never liked dogs, that it was nothing against Jorge. But I think he was jealous of the doting little being who never left my side. That night I cried myself into a fitful sleep, and in the morning when I still couldn’t decide, I flipped a coin to let Fate make the call. Tails you lose, little fella.
I’ve often questioned that decision, wondering if I would have gladly broken my engagement to Tom the human if Jorge the canine could have somehow produced those “three little words” a girl longs to hear.
But that’s not the story I want to tell.
As talented and wise as Jorge may have been, even in his most artful moments, he remained firmly rooted in the realm of above average.
In the case of my neighbor Guy and his dog Lady, though, there is something entirely different going on. Something beyond average. Something unearthly.
My next-door neighbor is teaching his dog to speak.
I don’t mean in the way where the master commands, “Speak,” and the well-trained canine produces an energetic bark, then catches her treat on the fly. Nor is he training her to mimic human sounds in howls, ruffs, and whimpers, like some operatic soloist phonetically sounding out the Italian in an aria with no notion of the meaning. No. Guy, my neighbor, is teaching Lady, his red Vizsla, to use English words in the same way we do. Teaching her to use her teeth, tongue, and palate to form syllables. And as unlikely as this may seem, he appears to be making progress.
Our houses make a pair of twin model homes with mirrored floor plans and adjoining pie-shaped backyards, here at the end of a cul-de-sac, in the Willowbranch subdivision. The common layout of our houses and properties has made it easy for me to monitor the evolving state of things at the neighbors.
When we first moved in, back when I still worked those crazy hours at the hospital, I rarely saw Guy with Lady—except when I might catch a glimpse of them in the TV room, late at night, curled up together on the couch, cheek to jowl, limbs entwined. In contrast to such a sweet, almost romantic scene, I had observed Guy’s wife Millie on my rare days off, jerking the dog by her collar out the back door and into the yard, slapping the dog, scolding the dog for no apparent reason, ranting in her face: “I know what you’re up to. Do you take me for a fool?”
I was impressed by the way Lady endured the abuse without expression. She simply stared at the wall, just over the shoulder of the red-faced woman, until Millie exhausted herself and went back in the house to pour herself an afternoon highball.
The first time it happened, I told Tom about it. “I couldn’t tell if she was yelling at the dog or talking to herself.”
“What do you expect?” he waved me off, annoyed, as if he was stating the obvious. “She’s frustrated. She’s a red-hot woman with a beige husband.” As an RV salesman, it’s part of his job to be able to size up others in a heartbeat. And yet, Tom seemed to have virtually no interest in much more than the surfaces of things. If you ever tried to dig deep, you lost him.
The thing is, he was right about Millie and Guy. Maybe I should have suspected something in his remark, but at the time I was marveling at how uncharacteristically astute his observation was.
True. Millie was the more social of the two and liked to come around our house on Saturday afternoons to shoot the breeze with Tom and me. She was almost as tall as Tom, and lanky like him, and she had the same dark hair and flinty eyes as he did—they could’ve been siblings.
And Guy—well, besides the times when I spied him in his evening trysts with Lady, the only other proof of the man’s existence was when I would see him heading off to work, pulling out of his driveway in that beat-up Civic in the morning and pulling it back up the driveway at night.
Or as the butt of most of the caustic jokes in Millie’s beer-fueled comedy routines.
One day she told me, “He’s happy to be a mousy, invisible man. All he cares about is the TV, the First National Bank, and that damned dog.” Then she reached in the fridge and snapped open a can of Budweiser before ranting on. The fact was she had become bored with her own list of complaints. In a nutshell, nothing else was going to happen here. “I’ve got to go where there’s a little life churning around in the old cosmic Petri dish,” she said, stirring the air with an upraised index finger, making the “whoopee” gesture, then picked up her beer, raised it in a quick little toast, and took a gulp. That was last month, just before she quit her receptionist job at the Wild Hair salon and took off for good, leaving Guy and Lady behind.
It must have been pure spite that drove Millie to clean out the house, to take with her every last stick of furniture or adornment. In those first evenings after she left him, I pitied Guy as I watched him through our perfectly aligned living room windows, stretched out in the now utterly spare TV room, spooning with Lady on a cheap lawn chair, the screen images from a portable TV dancing around the bare walls like reflections off a motel pool lit up at night. “Poor Guy,” I thought to myself back then. “At least he has Lady.”
But I no longer pity the man. Millie’s leaving was his new beginning, I see that now. Clearly, it was the catalyst for this great experiment: teaching Lady to express herself in speech. And it’s been good for me too. Gives me a reason to get up in the morning ever since I stopped going to my job at the hospital.
Though it seems like a lifetime, that was only eighteen days ago, the first time I saw Guy tutoring Lady. The way the whole thing started, I thought it was a dream:
All through the night before, I’d wandered the house, punished with insomnia. Just before the sun came up, I lay down on the bed and finally drifted off. In that dusky hypnagogic hour, I dreamed I was forced to give up my left leg.
Naturally, I balked when the authorities first arrived at my door to collect my leg—“But I’m still alive! I’m still using it!” I told them—but there were official-looking documents and threats of incarceration. So I removed it myself and marveled at how heavy and awkward it was, that separated appendage. As he took the leg from me, the official began to bow mechanically like a novelty bowing bird, repeating rhythmically, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, good Lady. Th. Ang. Kew. Thang. Kew. Th. Ank. Yu. Good, Lady,” until I woke up to the realization that those strange syllables were floating in my window on a clammy morning breeze.
“Th. Th. Th. Thang. Kew. Like this Lady, Th. Th. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, like this, see? Now blow a little puff of air. Th. Th. Keep going. Ang. Ang. Ang. Kew. Kew. Kew. Now put it all together. Thang. Kew. C’mon, girl. Just try it one time. Good, Lady. Thang. Kew. Thank you.”
That was the first time I heard the sound of Guy’s phlegmatic monotone advancing that syllabic repetition. I sat up in bed and looked out the window, but that unruly forsythia bush obstructed my view. Tom left it untrimmed intentionally, to add privacy to the bedroom. (“You know, they can see right in,” he’d said.) With curiosity driving me, I dragged my headache to the chair by the kitchen window and looked out.
There was Guy, dressed in a short-sleeved dress shirt, tie, and wrinkled khakis—but taller and leaner than I remembered. He’d slicked back his hair with a side part and might have had shaving nicks beading up on his neck—but there was a kind of grace in his movements as he presided over a rickety card table arranged with a child’s abacus, two plastic dolls, a pile of colored silk scarves, and a stack of flash cards—enunciating and demonstrating to his rapt audience of one.
And regally perched on a plywood box, that beautiful and attentive red dog, born for long stretch-out runs along the Russian steppes—Lady—would let out the occasional whine or whimper, exciting Guy who, in turn, became more and more effusive in his praise. As this scene played out, my neighbor seemed to stand up straighter, seemed more commanding than I’d ever imagined he could be, and Lady became ever more elegant in my eyes.
Until that gray, humid morning, there had been no evidence that Guy was the slightest bit interesting. Now I found myself intrigued.
I watched it all from my a front row seat, watched as he ran through a color exercise, holding up one of the scarves saying, “Yel. O. Yel. O. Yellow.” Then holding up the next one, “Bluuuuuuu. Buh. L. Uuuuuuu. Blue.” Then the red one. Then the green one. Now a drill, a quiz for Lady. He’d say, “Yellow,” and she’d jump off her box and trot over to the table and rut out the yellow hanky. Then she’d do the same for all the other colors.
How did Lady know?
And didn’t Guy know dogs were color-blind?
And how was it Lady wasn’t fooled when Guy said, “Pur. Pul. Purple”? Instead, she just sat there like the Sphinx, because there was no purple scarf. Guy ran over to kiss and hug her, ecstatic with pride: She had not fallen for his clever trick. In spite of myself, I found myself proud of her too.
As the curriculum on that first day drew to a close, I watched them move on to the most difficult part of the lesson: It was Lady’s turn to speak. Guy held up the yellow scarf, and Lady let out a sharp bark, and Guy said, “No, Lady. Yel. Lo. Yel. Lo. Yellow. Let’s try it again.” Lady failed. Again and again. Guy finally gave up, looked at his watch, and stepped up onto the stoop and in the back door, with Lady on his heels. It was nearly 8:30 a.m.
I walked to the front of my house at the same pace he and Lady walked through theirs. I watched him in the kitchen as his head bobbed down to put food in Lady’s bowl and then up again as he filled up her water bowl at the faucet. His head going up, then down and up again, the three of us moving through our respective houses, arriving at our tandem living room windows simultaneously, in time for me to watch Lady, seen from the side view, propped up in the street-facing picture window, paws on the ledge, watching him exit the front door, head down the walk and climb into his ancient green Civic with the smashed in side and back down the driveway. Off again to his middle-management job at the nearby branch of the First National Bank.
Once he was gone, Lady pushed away and disappeared into the house, presumably for her first of many naps. And I, still exhausted from the sleeplessness of night before, called in sick and headed back to bed.
Since then, watching Guy and Lady has become my own ritual. Opening a can of peaches for my breakfast, I pull the chair over to the kitchen window and observe man and dog, measuring their progress day by day. Guy still doesn’t know that I watch them, but I’m pretty sure Lady does. Every so often, just for a split second, she shoots me a knowing sidelong glance. It’s our little secret. If I haven’t come right out and said it already, she is a very smart dog. Maybe even Lassie smart. I’ll bet she and Guy could make good money in show business. Maybe she could do commercials, with the right agent of course. I mean she’s got the smarts and the looks. Come to think of it, maybe that’s been Guy’s plan from the start. Maybe he’s working on an act for Vegas, practicing so diligently every morning. Maybe he wants to get out of Dodge; but unlike the rest of us, he has an exit strategy.
Or maybe I’ve had the wrong idea all along. I’ve been fooled before, God knows. My eyes, my ears, even my heart can be deceived.
Like when, in the old days, on those Saturday afternoons, Millie would say about men, “Ya can’t live with ’em, and ya can’t shoot ’em,” and I would laugh at the joke every time. I believed she meant it, and that she was right. We didn’t really need them anyway, we cheerfully agreed many times. But as it turns out, that wasn’t really true in Millie’s case after all. Wouldn’t you know it: The Tuesday after she left Guy for good, Tom left me without a word or a note and hooked up with her in Reno.
Here’s how I found out where they were: Nineteen days ago, I’d stopped at the market on my way home from work and, while standing in the produce aisle of the Safeway, looking over the quality of the first spring peaches, casually eavesdropping on a pair of shoppers, I learned the whole story —
“Did you hear about that Millie Vincent? She came into some money when her mother died and just up and left her husband. That little vixen took off and got herself a condo out West, in Reno. Then she sent for him.”
“Sent for who?”
“Tom Harden. Stole him right from under the nose of his wife. They were neighbors, you know.”
I left my grocery basket where it stood, walked out of the store, across the parking lot, and didn’t start crying until I’d put on my seat belt and had started the car. I turned up the radio full blast so it would drown out all the yelling I was doing. I pounded the steering wheel with my fists as hard as I could until—failing to break it or my hands—the car ran completely out of gas. Which made me stop my wailing and start laughing.
Finally, when all my emotions were spent, I left the car where it sat and walked all the way back to Willowbranch and up our cul-de-sac, and I haven’t been out of the house since. When I ran out of food, I began working my way through the canned goods, the Vicodin, and the “medicinal” whiskey Tom had stored in the basement—the emergency supplies left over from the Y2K scare.
But there’s no need to worry about me now. It isn’t such a bad occupation, watching Guy and Lady. This morning, it’s an easy drill. He’s running the “ooo” words. You know, “tooth” and “chew” and “food.” Each word precipitating an elaborate charade performed by Guy, sometimes with props and a corresponding response by Lady, as if to say, “I’m trying my best.” For her, these are easiest lessons because she can just utter a small low “oooo” of a howl and still be rewarded as if she’d made a full pronunciation.
Look at the time; it’s almost 8:30 a.m. Time for Guy to fold up the card table, to feed and water the dog. Time for Lady to follow him in the back door and through the house. Time for me to follow along.
As usual, Guy pulls on his sport jacket and walks out the front door. Lady stands on her hind legs and supports herself with her forepaws leaning on the sill of the street-facing picture window. Guy climbs into his Civic. Lady stoically looks on. But now today, something new: Guy sticks his head out the window and blows Lady a kiss, Dating Game-style, then looks away, over his shoulder to back down the driveway. A new twist. Sweet.
I think I’ll go back to bed...but wait! What’s with Lady? She’s changed positions. Now she’s standing in the side view window directly across from me. She locks me in a stare, and as soon as I sense it, her golden eyes roll up slightly. She spreads her soft black lips in a distinctively human smile and, with a touch of playful irony, mouths the words, “Isn’t he dreamy?” before pushing away from the sill and disappearing into the house.