In the Land of Karl

Simon, my neighbor across the street, was thrilled ten years ago when someone gave him a pure-bred puppy, with papers. All through his childhood, the family had owned one mutt after another. This dog was his and could prove he was not a mutt. Simon named him Spike, but as he grew larger and larger into this grey-coated mass of Irish Wolfhound, quiet and quick-moving, the neighborhood started calling him Karl. “Karl the Fog” is the nickname that people here in the western wilds of San Francisco call the infamous grey weather phenomenon that silently moves in on us so many afternoons.

Karl was well behaved, attached as if by a cord to Simon, except when Simon went surfing – we live only two blocks from the ocean. The dog would accompany his wetsuited owner down to the ocean’s edge, and wait there till Simon came back out, and then the two of them would run up to the apartment. They did this at sunrise every morning, or the time that would be sunrise if the fog were in. Then Simon, like the other surfers, would change into work clothes and head downtown. Surfers who were not fortunate enough to live so close drove up in their wetsuits, and had to change clothing afterward out in the parking lot by the seawall, standing barefoot on the pavement, stripping down, pouring a gallon of fresh water over themselves to get rid of the salt, and changing back into Clark Kent. They pretended to be unaware of the display they created for passersby, and also pretended that fifty degrees with a wind was not really cold.

In any case, Simon didn’t have that problem. He had managed to find two non-surfing women to share an apartment with so as to afford the place. The two women, Sally from China and Trish, American born of Chinese ancestry, had their own jobs downtown, so they would have left for work each day before Simon came back from the ocean. Karl was alone most of the day. Trish and Sally took turns walking him after work. They would often remark how good a bodyguard Karl was, and if they needed to go to Safeway, they never had to tie him up outside, because he was so solidly fixated on them that no person or animal could avert his gaze.

But sometimes one of the three would call me by phone during the day to tell me that no one would be home till late, and to ask me to walk Karl. It was good for me. I had just retired, so giving Karl exercise also kept me from vegetating as well. At first, he was standoffish, though always good-natured, but eventually, we became good buddies, and I could guarantee that he’d be waiting for me wagging his tail as soon as I opened the door. Even during the winter months, when it was dark, we could walk through the Park, or down to the beach, places I would not go alone at night.

My relationship with Trish and Sally was two-way: If I was house-bound by illness, then they’d do my shopping, or laundry. Sally was self-conscious about her command of English, so she usually let Trish speak for the two of them. No amount of assurance by Trish or myself would convince her that she was perfectly fluent herself.

Over the years, Simon often had to relocate to temp jobs elsewhere in California, sometimes to places nowhere near the ocean. Each time, he sublet his share of the apartment, not difficult to do in our city’s housing market, and the new tenant had to agree to take care of Karl. Simon usually came back in a year or less. Karl got used to having new caretakers, but became more attached to Sally, Trish, and myself as folks he could depend on, for food and companionship.

Then Danny moved in across the street last year, coming 3000 miles to get out from under the shadow of his famous family in Vermont. With a name like Horowitz, it was no surprise that he played his keyboard whenever he was alone in the apartment, and a real piano whenever he got a break from his job at a senior center. The piano there was barely in tune, but it could be played the way a piano is supposed to.

He was very good at it, though “no Horowitz,” as he often joked. When he sat down, instinct – and God knows how many hours of practice – took over. He played Schubert and Bach flawlessly, but really came alive when he was doing blues or jazz, where he didn’t have to compete with that long-dead great-uncle.

The arrangement seemed to work out well enough, as if Danny knew how to melt into any family, now that he had left the obligatory one.

I suppose that one of the attractions for him was that our part of town is as far west, as far from Vermont, as you can go, only five minutes’ walk from Ocean Beach. I’d meet him at the beach every so often, watching the sunset with Karl when there was one. And we’d meet coming or going to the Safeway down the street, and occasionally if I taught a class at the senior center.

When he first moved in, I told him the story of our neighborhood. “There are three languages spoken here, Chinese, Russian, and surfer.” He was already clued in to the Asian and surfer population, but he was glad to know about the Russian Jewish émigré population in the next block, glad because it warned him not to state his full name for them, lest he be begged to play.

Danny took over some of the Karl work, more than his share. He trained Karl to take the bus with him to the senior center. In reality, I think that Karl appreciated being around a family member all day. And I was pretty much relieved of Karl duty; in between sublets, after a tenant left and before Danny showed up, I would be the one to take Karl down to the ocean every morning, bring him back to ‘his’ apartment, and feed him. Sally and Trish just could not manage to get up early enough for that. Most of the young professionals out here are out on their way to work by 6:30. I get up when I want to, and I was able to walk Karl when no one else was around.

As he aged, Karl became even easier to handle. So, on the beach Danny or I can leave him off leash and know that his aging joints will not let him stray far. And he doesn’t eat food off the ground. Anyone who’s owned a dog knows how wonderful that is. In fact, for a dog he is very picky. One morning when I had not had enough sleep, I walked Karl and then took him back to my own apartment to sack out. Karl slept on the floor next to me, but eventually hunger drove him to silently drop his huge head on my chest to remind me. He wouldn’t eat the chicken and rice I prepared, though, so I took it back across the street, mixed it with his kibble and canned food in his bowl, and then he was happy.

Danny’s shift started late in the morning, so it was no problem for him to take Karl out. And I would either go with him or not. The evening walks, around sunset, I’d do only when called, or if one of the roommates wanted company. Most often, the original Karl would be rolling in by then, under a wind, but the dog was just fine with that. On the other hand, on the sunny but truly windy days, when beach sand blew everywhere, he made his outings much shorter, doing his job on the beach and then signaling time to head back.

Danny was ecstatic that he could get Karl to come to work with him. At first he thought that Karl, with his easygoing demeanor, would be a good therapy dog, but he had misjudged him. Yes, you could pet Karl as long as you want, but if you were not part of his family he would not acknowledge the attention at all, not budging a muscle. He preferred to park his monster carcass under Danny’s desk until break time, when he would follow Danny to the piano and lie down next to it as Danny played. If I came by, either at the senior center or the apartment, Karl made a point of coming to greet me, and insisted that I pet him until he was sated, putting that head in my lap for as long as it took.

It took me some time to realize that Danny’s acceptance of this regimented life might be due to how much more constrained it had been with his extended family back East. He did get to go out on the town fairly often, too. He’s straight, as far as I know, so living in San Francisco was probably good for his chances for connecting with women. I didn’t know of any time he’d brought someone back out to this edge of the galaxy, but I was pretty busy with my own life. Even I got to go out on the town occasionally, and I had certainly brought men back to my apartment. Only once was Karl at my place when that happened; he lumbered into the bedroom to check out the visitor. Though my man took a little time to get over my huge guardian’s presence, Karl seemed just bored with it all, went back to the living room, and sacked out. So Karl didn’t get in the way of Danny’s love life. Trish had a boyfriend out of town, and I suspected that Sally was so riveted on work that she hadn’t made time for much of a social life, though the two of them did go down to San José to visit Trish’s family every Chinese New Year.


So that’s been the story for the past year. Then yesterday Trish gets a call from Simon, who has spent the year unhappily in Fresno, far from the ocean. Simon now has a permanent job in San Diego, and wants to come back to pick up all his surfing gear. And to pick up the dog. Trish is adamantt: “We’ve fed him, picked up his poop, given him his shots; he’s our dog now!” I’m there when she tells the others, and they are in agreement, they will not let Karl go. He’s in his declining years, and he deserves to be treated nicely. Danny calls up Simon at night to tell him about their resolve, but Simon has “the papers,” and will be by sometime the next day – today – to get what’s rightfully his.

And he comes by today while everyone is at work. I go over, nominally to say hello, and he’s packing his VW Beetle (the new version). Several surfboards are on the roof and gear in the back seat. Karl is on the sidewalk. He’s wagging his tail, happy to see his old friend, but he’s not willing to get into the car. It would be hard enough for this huge dog to get in even without all of Simon’s junk; I can’t see how he could fit in the already jam-filled car. But something is clear beyond that: Karl does not want to get into the car. Simon is trying his best to shove him in, but Karl is using non-violent civil disobedience, simply refusing to move. Simon gets out the leash and walks Karl down to the beach, and Karl cooperates gladly, but when they come back, Karl puts on the brakes and sits down.

While they’re walking, I’ve called Trish and Danny, and Trish calls Sally, so by this time, the three roommates have come in from work; Trish has actually taken a cab from the Financial District to make sure she gets here in time. Simon is angry, but he notices that whenever he raises his voice, Karl’s ears go flat with pain, so the discussion calms down. Danny calls “Karl,” and the dog meekly trots over to him, looking for some comfort in this very uncomfortable moment. Danny sits on the sidewalk, and Karl’s head almost disappears into Danny’s lap. He lets out one howl, and everyone shuts up.

Danny stands up, his hand still on Karl, and says, “Dude, if the dog is willing to go, then fine. But I don’t think he is. And one thing we are not going to do is to let you take him away when he wants to stay here. It’s not just that we love him. He loves us, and he loves this place.” And Sally, who has always been so meek and quiet, throws in an anticlimactic, “And we bathed him, we washed all that hair! You never did that, even when you lived here!”

Just then, Karen happens to come around the corner. She is the mother of teenagers, and tends to treat anyone who isn’t married as just another kid to monitor. Once when Karl got sick, Karen took him and me to the vet in their SUV. She picks up on what’s going on, and says, “How much time does the poor guy have left, anyway? Irish Wolfhounds don’t usually live even this long, so these kids must have been doing a good job with him. Give the guy a break!”

Simon is speechless. He goes over to the dog and caresses his ears and scratches his chest, which the dog accepts with pleasure, wagging his tail and licking Simon. But when Simon goes to get into the car himself, Karl just sits there as if to wave goodbye. So Simon does get into the car and, not having conceded a word verbally, he drives off. Karl goes to one after another of us as if to make sure that we are not also leaving, and then walks to the entrance of the apartment building.

About In a Former Time

This blog is meant as a vehicle to publish my literary work.
This entry was posted in Short fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In the Land of Karl

  1. Abby Haughness says:

    Loved the Karl story! Well written, I breezed right through it wanting to find out what was going to happen to Karl. Having a dog myself, I see the loyalty and love my dog has for our family by his behavior every day. I do think they understand it better than humans often do.

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