The stocky, fortyish Black man walked toward the elderly couple.
Regina Beckwith smiled neighborly at him. Checking her watch, she let out a hearty laugh.
“Ten-thirty on the nose,” she said.
Barton, her husband of fifty years, grinned placidly. “Yep. Right on schedule. I swear I can set my watch by you.”
Starling Coyle took great pleasure and pride in compartmentalizing every aspect of his life, beginning with his morning walk through the Dobbs Ferry Town Park.
Starling had no family and he liked it that way. His mother had been a bitter controlling wretch since the day she’d lost her husband to a sudden heart attack. She’d crippled Starling’s confidence with her criticism, treating him like her personal neurotic slave. The women Starling made the mistake of loving also seemed to take great pleasure in turning his orderly life into chaos, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his goal of having a family.
Starling generally saw the same people every day as he walked along the park’s oval path, starting with the fitness coach. The enterprising exercise guru would be instructing some grunting overweight soccer mom, bending her into a pretzel, or making her jog in place until her face turned crimson.
The trainer always greeted Starling with a New England accented “Yo, bro!” that seemed more condescending than polite.
His next encounter would be an energetic old man, who always said, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” even when it wasn’t. The spry septuagenarian stroller always gave Starling a thumbs up after his pronouncement.
Starling would then encounter a gaggle of retired blue-collar workers hanging out near the benches. They talked about their battles as dock workers, their escapades as cross-country truckers, or the aches and pains they’d endured during sweaty summers as laborers for the town of Dobbs Ferry. Their ringleader always wore opaque sunglasses that make him look like a mob boss ordering a hit. Whenever he spotted Starling, he’d turn to one of his cohorts, saying, “Cheese Louise! Every day! That’s dedication!” He also never failed to call Starling “buddy,” as he waved at him, further adding to his boss-of-the-park persona.
There was one particular person Starling looked forward to seeing every day. She was cute, sandy-haired, kinetic, and fit, and she never failed to greet Starling with a thick Brooklyn accent and a ready smile.
But there was an ever-present threat that can keep their relationship from advancing beyond a few hurried hellos. The German Shepherd that pulled her along was protective of its owner and itching to prove it. Whenever Starling moved toward her, the crazed canine lunged at him, barking at Starling as if he was a raw steak.
The personable pet owner always claimed the dog was friendly. “Apollo’s just spirited. Let him sniff you.”
Starling politely declined, but one morning Apollo gave him no choice. Jumping up on his hind legs, Apollo dropped his front paws on Starling’s shoulders. The man versus beast stare-down lasted until Apollo was convinced that Starling was petrified of him. He dropped back to the ground, pointing his nose in the air victoriously.
“I see you here a lot,” the woman said. “Are you preparing for a marathon?”
“No, I’m just trying to stay in shape. It’s a part of my daily routine.”
“Cool. I admire people who can make a plan and then stick to it. I’ve always been a little scattered.”
Apollo yanked on his leash, trying to pull his owner away from Starling.
“So, what’s next on your schedule?” she asked.
“Lunch, then a few calls with clients. I’m an accountant. You?”
“A photographer,” she said. “Mostly magazine work.”
Apollo yanked more aggressively on his leash, pulling the woman away.
“Nice meeting you!”
“Starling! Starling Coyle!”
“Leah Hunter. We’ll see you tomorrow!”
Starling’s cautious and orderly nature also helped to protect his sensitive stomach. It was Thursday when he met Leah. That meant Starling was going to go to Mardino’s for a slice of pizza with bacon. Monday, grocery day, meant a sandwich from the store’s deli, Tuesday, a pastrami sandwich from the store near the park, and Wednesday, a gyro from the Captain’s Café. On Fridays, he sampled the shrimp with lobster sauce lunch special from the Flower Garden Restaurant, and on weekends he managed to survive on what he had stashed in the refrigerator.
Starling was heinous in the kitchen. He’d only used the burners on top of the stove a half dozen times in the year since he’d moved to Dobbs Ferry, and fearing an explosion, had yet to ignite his gas oven. His dinners were pre-made and delivered religiously every Monday by UPS, leaving him free of the possibility of ruining his food. Besides, microwaving dinner allowed him to watch episodes of “The Virginian” every day at six o’clock.
Starling checked his watch.
2:45 p.m. Time to go to the hospital.
Dr. London Herbert and Nurse Grace Harum waited for Starling to walk down the hallway at three o’clock, just as he did every day.
The pair were a medical version of yin and yang. The white-haired, seen-it-all veteran physician played the role of the mistrusting cynic, while the shapely, blonde newbie nurse radiated innocence, hope, and trust.
“I’d love to know what makes him tick,” Dr. Herbert said, his thick eyebrows crinkling together. “I’ve been at this for thirty years, and I’ve never met anyone so obsessive. Something’s up with him.”
“What do you mean? He seems like a nice, shy guy.”
“He’s come here every day for a year without fail.”
“She’s his wife.”
“Her parents don’t even visit every day and they live closer than he does.”
“Maybe seeing her every day helps him keep his heart and soul together.”
“Seeing her the way she is day in, and day out would drive any normal man crazy, but not him,” Dr. Herbert replied. “His devotion to her doesn’t make sense. Her mother said they weren’t getting along before this happened, that her daughter was seeking a divorce.”
Starling’s reluctant glance shifted between Dr. Herbert and Nurse Harum.
“No change,” Dr. Herbert reported.
Starling nodded, walking to his wife’s room.
“You know what’s really strange?” Dr. Herbert asked. “He’s never asked me if she’s going to recover.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to jinx it. Maybe he’s afraid that if he cares too much she’ll die.”
“That’s better than not caring at all.”
Starling sat in the chair next to his wife’s bed. The ventilator made a slight whooshing sound as it pushed air into her lungs.
Starling stroked his wife’s amber hair. “You’re going to have a birthday in a few days. What are you going to be, thirty-six? You’re heading into old hag territory. I told you we should have had a baby, but you wouldn’t listen. No, you wanted to play tennis. Stupid game. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you flaunted your affair with your coach. I begged you to come home to me and you laughed at me. Well, who’s laughing now? You look like something out of an episode of Star Trek.”
Dr. Herbert and Nurse Harum watched as Starling squeezed his wife’s hand.
“Such devotion,” Nurse Harum said. “You can see the hurt on his face.”
Dr. Herbert studied Starling’s expression. “Looks like anger to me, maybe even indigestion.”
“He refuses to give up. That’s love.”
“Maybe so,” Dr. Herbert replied. “I wish I had his confidence. A woman like her shouldn’t have had such a severe stroke. He said she collapsed after having her evening tea. Being in top shape may have saved her life.”
“It’s strange that he’s never mentioned she was a tennis pro,” Nurse Harum said. “If I were him, I’d brag about it. She was the twenty-third-ranked player in the world. They called her the ‘Austin Assassin.’ She was famous!”
“Well, I doubt she’ll be playing tennis again unless there’s an iron lung league.”
“You’re so jaded, doctor.”
“You know what else is odd? How’s a guy like that wind up with a beauty like her?”
“C’mon, doctor, you’re not talking race, are you?”
“No, of course not. I mean, he’s a bit flabby, isn’t he? And kind of nerdy looking, and certainly not a stimulating conversationalist.”
“I guess some girls find plain guys sexy.”
Starling’s sneakers tapped out a rhythm against the pavement. He said hello to the Beckwiths. Regina pointed at her watch, grinning. “Ten-thirty. Right on time.”
The trainer waved at him. “You, bro!” and the spry octogenarian passed by saying, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
The group of retirees waved at him, their ringleader commenting, “Cheese Louise! Every day! That’s dedication!”
Starling paused as he looked around the park.
Apollo yanked Leah onto the path in front of him.
“Good morning, Leah!”
Apollo moved in front of Leah, growling.
“Good morning! Are you on your way to lunch?” she asked. Yanking on Apollo’s chain, she scolded him.
“Yes, soon. I was hoping we could have lunch together today.”
“Sounds good. I don’t know if there are any dog-friendly restaurants in town though... I’ve got an idea. It’s a nice spring day, and there are a lot of benches here. Why don’t we grab something and eat here in the park?”
Starling gave Apollo a side glance as he nibbled at his shrimp with lobster sauce. Apollo licked his lips. Starling wasn’t sure if he wanted to take a bite out of him or his lunch.
Starling offered Apollo a shrimp. He eagerly attacked it.
Apollo yelped, spitting it out. He snorted at Starling, baring his teeth.
“Sorry, I forgot it was hot.”
“Nice try at peacemaking,” Leah said. “Hey, I’m not throwing you off your schedule, am I?”
“No, I’ve got time. I don’t have to be anywhere until three.”
“Oh, meeting with a client?”
“No, I’m visiting a friend in the hospital.”
“I’m sorry. Is it serious?”
“I’m afraid so. She’s in a coma.”
“She’s part of my past. An old friend.”
“But you still go to visit her. I think that’s so sweet,” Leah said. “Any other ladies in your life?”
“Afraid not. My mother died a few years ago, and she was my last living relative. When Alona had her heart attack, I sold the house and moved here to be closer to her.”
“You’re a really good friend. Alona, that’s an unusual name. There was a tennis player a few years ago named Alona. My friend follows tennis. She said there was a rumor about her having an affair with her trainer.”
Starling rolled his eyes. “It was her coach.”
“Sorry. She did you wrong and you still stand by her.”
“We weren’t romantically involved. What about you? Have you lived in Dobbs Ferry very long?”
“I grew up in Brooklyn, as you can tell by the sound of my sweet voice. There were a lot of apartment buildings, no trees, and some of the most pathetic parks I’ve ever seen. Mostly it was me and my yenta girlfriends hanging out, yearning to move to the open spaces. I’ve always loved this area because it’s near the Hudson River. So, I relocated when I turned eighteen and started out by taking pictures for real estate ads.”
Starling looked at Apollo. The dog snorted at him derisively.
“Looks like I’ve got a way to go before Apollo and I become friends. Speaking of which, any close friends in your life?”
“I was engaged to a sax player until I caught him mauling one of the backup singers.”
Leah pointed at Apollo. “He’s my baby.”
“Well, I’m not burping him,” Starling replied.
“I’m sensing you have a fear of dogs.”
“Not all dogs, just German Shepherds. When I was a teenager there was a kid in the neighborhood, Tinky, who had a German Shepherd named Smokey. Smokey was the meanest, most vicious creature I ever saw, but I pitied him. Tinky was a sadistic, wanna-be thug. He kept Smokey chained up outside, even in the winter. He turned Smokey into a killer. He’d give everybody who passed by a thousand-yard stare…”
Starling looked down at Apollo. “Kinda like that.”
Leah handed Apollo a few pieces of her chicken, patting him affectionately on the head.
“…One day I took a shortcut through Tinky’s yard. By the time I realized that Smokey was loose, he’d jumped me and was tearing at my clothes. Tinky had to chase him off with a bat. If I hadn’t been wearing a long sleeve shirt, I might be eating my shrimp with stumps.”
Starling rolled up one of his sleeves, showing Leah the gnarled scars on his arm.
Apollo huffed at the sight of the scars.
“Sounds like he’s admiring Smokey’s work,” Starling said.
“No, that’s not it, Starling. He’s upset because I’m paying more attention to you than him. He’s just going to have to get used to that.”
Starling was watching the Virginian and Trampas gun down a band of desperados when his phone rang.
Part of him was angry that someone was barging in on his routine. He wanted to finish his dinner and watch “The Virginian,” just like he did every day.
He picked up the phone. Listening to Dr. Herbert, Starling realized his comfortable daily routine would never be the same.
“The machines could only do so much,” Dr. Herbert said. “They could keep her medicated, help her breathe, but they couldn’t prevent her from having another heart attack.”
Weeks after Alona died, Starling still found himself getting into his car at 2:45 p.m. every afternoon, ready to drive to the hospital.
The mornings were still the same. He was at the park at 10:30 a.m. in time for the Beckwiths to marvel at his punctuality. Then it was a cry of “Yo, bro!” from the trainer, thumps up and “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” from the old man, and “Cheese Louise!” and shocked approval from the retirees who admired him for his dedication to exercising every day.
When Starling told Leah that his friend had died, she held him close. That led to their first kiss.
Apollo looked away, huffing.
Eight months and many walks later, Starling and Leah were married.
Starling and Leah began a ritual of taking their morning trek together with Apollo still pulling rebelliously at his leash. Starling’s point of view about the people he encountered every day changed…Hello, old couple – don’t be surprised if you don’t see me at ten-thirty anymore… Yo, bro!, stop checking out my wife… Yes, it’s a beautiful day, and that smirk and thumbs-up signal you just gave me has now taken on new and slimy meaning… And cheese Louise, blue-collar boys, now you’ve really got something to talk about…
Apollo never got used to sharing space with Starling, barking, and growling whenever he put his arm around Leah or kissed her. Starling finally suggested to Leah that Apollo might enjoy spending more time alone in the backyard.
“He’s family,” Leah pleaded.
“Your family. He acts like he doesn’t want to be part of our family.”
“You’ll get used to each other.”
“We’ve been together two years, Leah. If anything, he’s become more onery. It’s nice outside. Let Apollo terrorize the neighbor’s cat or chase after the robins. Besides, it’s impossible to be intimate when he’s sitting at the end of the bed staring at us.”
Apollo looked bewildered and betrayed when Leah yanked him out into the backyard. He sat on his haunches in the grass, his ears pointed upward, as if listening to the birds and bugs make fun of him. When Starling took a bowl of water out to him, he lapped at it a few times, then knocked over in disgust.
After a while, Apollo plopped to the ground. His expression turned sullen as he stared at the house.
Apollo was in the same position when Leah called for him and he didn’t move.
The vet said he’d had a heart attack.
“Let’s get another dog,” Leah said.
Starling hugged his wife, hoping a kiss on the cheek would assuage her. “I was hoping the next addition to the family would cry rather than bark.”
“Why not? I think you’ll make a great mom. You’re funny, upbeat, and inquisitive. Kids love that.”
“Wow, let me think about that. The wear and tear on my body alone…And I’d be out of work for months…”
“And since we’re starting a family, I think we ought to make sure if something happens to one of us that the other one can take care of themself and the kids,” Starling said.
Leah looked at him wide-eyed. “Not kid, but kids? More life insurance? Where is this coming from?”
“I’m sorry. Maybe I’m moving along too fast. I was thinking about my friend Alona last night. When she died there was nothing for her mother, and she needed long-term health care.”
Taking a deep, nervous breath, Leah said, “Wow, babies, life insurance. All I really want is another dog,”
“Let me make you some tea and we’ll talk this out.”
Dr. Herbert and Nurse Harum looked up at the clock.
“Any second now,” Dr. Herbert muttered.
Starling walked down the hallway toward them.
“How is she?” he asked.
“No change,” Dr. Herbert responded as Starling walked past him.
Dr. Herbert and Nurse Harum watched Starling reach for Leah’s hand.
“Such a caring, loving person,” Nurse Harum said. “That poor man. Two wives, two heart attacks.”