By Andrew Paul Grell
It is not, in fact, always darkest before the dawn. There’s a whole bunch of diffracting, reflecting, and refracting going on below that eastern horizon. Dogs can pick that up even behind shades, blinds, and curtains. Goldfish, too. The Rastusons’, Liza and Josiah, started out with goldfish. Two of them, in a little bowl on the night table farther away from the window. Yet every morning, twelve minutes before nautical dawn, Mime and Fafner would slap their tails on the surface of the water until one of the humans came across with some flakes. When they had cats, also at twelve minutes before nautical dawn, Fred and Barney would rake the blinds until the Fancy Feast made an appearance. Eventually they decided on a dog, a species more or less happy to follow a more or less human schedule. And now with the Plague at its peak, we will see what happens with schedules.
“Lend a hand, Liza?” Jossy was juggling five little pots of paint and a handful of pencil brushes on a well-worn palette while trying to keep from comingling his toothbrush and his work brushes.
“Gotta match, big boy?”
“Of course. Your face and the Taj Mahal. Hey! Falstaff! Knock it off, you little bastard. It’s just your girlfriend Lilly and her mommy from down the hall. And get off the rug with that thing, it’s an ABC carpet from the top floor. Liz?”
“Oh, sorry, my love. I was having too good a time watching a dog drag a snoutfull of dirty laundry across a room. He knows something’s up. Let me get the door for you, then I’ll hook up his breakfast.” The talented multi-tasking executive gracefully opened her husband’s studio door without incident. When they renovated the condo, New York City old-fashioned school room doorknobs were all the rage. We learn that installing used doorknobs eventually engenders a different type of rage with respect to those doorknobs.
“Any new commissions,” Liza asked from inside the “galley plus” little kitchen.
“You bet. The one I’m working on is new, and I have two sittings today; that’s about the most I can handle. We really lucked into something. That was a great idea you had. The dogs won’t sit still and pose, and most people can’t get a good shot of their pet.”
“And so now you pretend to have empathic powers, roll around on the floor with Fido, come back home and paint the mutt’s essence. In miniature. Good thinking. Save on paint, canvass, and framing… My magic man.” Liza blew her magician a kiss and the three of them had a rare moment of schedule synchronization, allowing them to break their fast together.
“You have the meeting with Peter Kolykithifage today, don’t you? Got everything together? I’ll take Fally down. Good luck!”
“Take your mask. Don’t get too close to people. Take good care of yourself, you belong to me! The meeting’s Three O’clock. Hopefully, luck has nothing to do with it. But good luck on the walk!”
Eventually Liza was alone in the condo except for Falstaff. She got out of her jammies, showered, did her hair, put together the short list for the meeting outfit, and went over her presentation. And over it. And over it again. And again. Then she went back to the outfit contenders, only to find Falstaff on top of her navy tailored skirt and cream blouse and mauve neckerchief. When she tried to get him off, he went for the kill and disassembled the pants suit. She issued the “Off, you muddy conger!” command again and this time he strode over slowly and settled in calmly on the seal gray dress with contrasting, yet complimenting, belt. The dog had some fashion sense Liza never picked up on before. Seal gray was rising in the polls. The incident of the body-less fashion show on the bed caused Liza to be late with a scheduled call to the guy under her. She was his boss, but still, Liza Rastuson could not abide being late.
“Dick. Sorry I’m late. Is the final spreadsheet up to date?”
“Hi, Liza. Yes. Peter underscore Final underscore Final underscore Version underscore Four is good to go. Tab five may need a little looking at; it’s the one in fuchsia.”
“What’s wrong with fuchsia?”
“There’s an issue with the exchange rate for…”
Falstaff let out 50,000-watt Wolfman Jack howl. All 12 pounds of him.
“Liza, you okay there?”
“Fine. That was Falstaff. I think the dog in the next terrace over is in heat.” She called up fuchsia in version four. She poked around in it. The dog came over with Mr. Bill in his mouth ad dropped it at his Mommy’s feet. He gave Mrs. Rastuson the “time to play” look. She picked it up and gave it a soft toss. Fally brought it back. The dog managed to get an “Oh, no!” out of the stuffed toy everyone thought was now mute. She gave it one more toss, kinda-sorta aiming toward under the couch. She turned back to the spreadsheet and saw the problem immediately. “Dick, someone has Turkish Lira instead of Italian Lira.” The correction brought the bottom line much closer to what Liza thought was the right amount.
“Dick, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Liza confessed. “Jossy is either at sittings or he’s painting. We can’t go to the office and the doggy daycare is closed ‘for the duration.’ They padlocked the dog runs. Falstaff can play fetch all day, but there’s only so many times I can throw a ball down the same narrow Manhattan hallway. Yesterday, when I was flowcharting a negotiation, he managed to get into the bathtub and apparently, he couldn’t get back out. I heard him yowling but I couldn’t find him; he’d never jumped in the tub before so I didn’t look there until I ran out of every other place he could be. Between the search and then comforting him, it was two hours of dead time. Although he did find an earing I’d lost somewhere in the bathroom.”
“Liza, if you want my two cents,” Dick started.
“Oh, I do, that’s what I pay you for. Shoot.”
“The dog is happy just getting to be with you all day, you and your husband aren’t sick, and you have jobs. Just get your negotiating points in order so we’ll all have jobs!”
“Maybe you can send someone from the mailroom to make sure Falstaff doesn’t eat any more pillows… How am I supposed to get ping pong balls without risking getting sick? They’re the only thing that calms him down when he gets hyper, but he crushed the last of them. I have a little gun that shoots them. A six-shooter.”
“Are you talking about Falstaff or Josiah? Seriously, have you tried Anything”
“Very funny. Dick, I’ve tried everything!”
“No, Anything the store. They’re old school. Call them up, tell them what you want, they’ll get it for you.”
“Worth a try, I guess. Thanks.”
See you on the video call.”
“10-4 good buddy.”
The order came right on time. It was a no-contact delivery, but even behind the door she could detect a smell from home. But ping pong balls don’t have any smell. She opened the containers and found the biggest prairie oysters she had ever seen, along with little cups of ranch dressing, horseradish, and 5-alarm. There was even an order of fries.
“Hi, this is Liza Rastuson on Wannamaker Place, I just ordered ping pong balls from you but I got a plate of prairie oysters instead.”
“Ma’am, I am so sorry. I thought you said King Kong’s balls. Those are the extra-large ones from Tombstone over on Bleeker. I’ll cancel the order and the credit card charge and get you three dozen regulation ping pong balls toot sweet. I know it could be awkward getting served bull testicles for the first time and I apology.”
“No need to charge it back. I’m from Boulder originally. Time for lunch, anyway I think. The best part of the Plague is that I don’t have to feel guilty about eating what I want or ordering take-out!”
“Fally! Come! Treat!” Liza separated the breading from one of the testicles, cut it in pieces, and fed the bits to the dog. Liza ate two plus the fries. She put the other three back in the aluminum container, clear lid up, and put it on the counter to see what Jossy would make of them. Test his mettle.
Falstaff finally curled up in his Fortress of Solitude, a doggie bed under the dining table. The executive took the time to go over the PowerPoint deck and also printed out a paper backup, just in case. She said a sincere prayer to St. Isidore of Seville in hopes that the PowerPoint presentation would not be needed. The printer startled the dog who ran, not to mommy, not to the printer, but into the kitchen, of course. Got his muzzle stuck under the sink cabinet door. Another twenty minutes of comforting him, then shooting ping pong balls at him when he got too comfortable making trouble. Dodging a ball, he ran to the terrace door. When his mistress got there, she saw Ben Philpot on Claudia Pisacano’s catty-corner terrace. Were they making time? That would be a delightful bit of dish served around a Mahjong table. If she played Mahjong. Still, it would be dish in the bank. She stopped sticking her virtual nose into other people’s business, allowing said olfactory organ to pick up the bad smell haunting the kitchen, which no amount of orange AirSense could dispel, in the dining room.
“Fally, drop it! Drop it immediately! She spotted it by the long, skinny tail hanging out of her dog’s mouth. Sir John Falstaff! Put that dead mouse down!” The puppy kindergarten teacher suggested that puppies should be trained to recognize a full name plus a command as a thing the dog had to do without fail. Liza knew from the research that dogs only process the first syllable of something a human says, yet the teacher’s advice seemed to be operational. Another fifteen minutes brushing the little nudnick’s teeth. Naturally, the dog gave his mommy the ‘I need a walk’ signal, left paw on left arm, dash to the door.
“Good boy, Fally. At least you’re not going to need a wee-wee during the meeting. Let’s take a little spin. Little and fast.” The local gendarmerie turned a blind eye to dog parents getting some play time in the parks that had the dog run sections padlocked, as long as everyone was masked and maintained plague distance. The muddy conger gave hellos to Xenon and Hendrix, wrestled with Omar, did five fetches with Liza and did his duty on the way back home. He gave Liza extra-wet, extra-sloppy love kissie when they got upstairs. Liza was glowing, and not from the dog spit.
It was time. The Senior VP enrobed, went for a final farding, sat down at the giant screen Mac, and logged into the conference. Liza was the fifth to join. Dick and Jane were already online along with two online from the other party. She couldn’t help noticing the two women from Barr and Fletcher, universally known as Tar & Feather, processing her seal gray dress. It was business attire gray, but a better gray than regular gray, a new gray thrown into the mix. A score before word one was uttered.
“Did you see what my dipshit cousin did the other day?” Herman Epstein-Barr, scion of the firm, liked to make an entrance, frequently of late at the expense of his idiot cousin, the Attorney General. Too late, Herman realized that all the little particles of grand entrance appreciation had dropped down to their respective minimum energy states. The crumb his cousin had dropped about Snowden would have to wait.
“Hello, Liza,” Herman intoned, at perhaps a seven percent sneer. Are we all set?”
“Ready on the right, ready on the left, ready on the firing line, Herm. I’m sure you’ve gone over our settlement proposal. I drew it up to be fair to your client and avoid any hardships. The least I could do considering that we’re operating in the middle of a Plague. Whaddaya say?”
“I say ‘Stuff it,’ is what I say.” Herman filliped to Sharmaine and she beat Liza to the PowerPoint punch. Good for her.
“As you can see,” the young associate pointed out, flipping through the deck, “Our side’s sales policies increase your side’s revenue. This should be a business decision. Isn’t your side’s Board bound to maximize investor value?” Liza counted the number of times ‘differential’ was used in place of the correct word, “difference.” The opposing side also seemed to have a problem with ‘Delta’ as well.
“Of course, Sharm. But the Board’s value is precisely how to maximize investor value. And my side’s Board think’s maintaining the price of the Class-A units is the way to maximize value. Our side’s Board also believes that licensing agreements should be adhered to. This is why we allow Class-B and Class-C units. We simply can’t have the good stuff sold with coupons or at outlet centers. The agreement was negotiated fairly by both sides. You always had the option of withdrawing from the agreement and not sell our side’s products. For settlement and negotiation purposes only, we’ve increased the allowable discount to 15% for any three non-sequential months in a give year. And...”
“Who’s that on the floor?” Connie, her side’s in-house distribution counsel, asked. Liza saw in her send-screen that Fally was doing his hat trick. He had Liza’s Mets cap, field regulation and signed by Wilmer Flores, by the brim and kept flipping it up and over his head. Eventually it landed right side up, balanced on his skull and muzzle. Everyone, including Herman, applauded. The hat fell off but the sartorial young dog came back on screen with a black, ultra-sheer brassiere. Wolf whistles from Dick and Herman. Then more applause when Fallstaff got his forepaws into the straps and started parading around in the undergarment. Liza adjusted her contrast so no one would see how red she turned. The meeting, of course, degenerated into what kind of dog he was—a Rat Terrier, and how old—two and a half. Nobody seemed to care about Class-A units, especially after Fally, still attached to the bra, walked around on is hind legs. Both sides agreed to a three-year adjustment of the license agreement with 17.5% discounting for any four months. It shaved half a million off the claim and gave Liza an understanding of how seriously some people take pots and pans.
“So let me get this straight. You’re complaining that you’re shut up inside here and that Sir John keeps interrupting you. But he picked out the killer outfit, found the earring, got rid of the dead mouse, got you some fresh dish, and entertained the video call to the point where the other side settled. Is that about right?” Josiah had a way of stating the obvious. Liza took advantage of her husband’s return and decided to go out for a smoke and to see if any open stores had any interesting stuff. She went downstairs with the clever little bastard canine, lit up an American Spirit Black and watched the street, nearly empty save for the bicycle semi-trailers keeping the city alive by delivering food. Falstaff jumped into the open carrier, Liza undocked a Citibike, put the carrier in the front basket and set off. A place she had never noticed, Porto Rico Importing, had six people in line, each six feet apart, each with six reusable bags. How many were going to Porto Rico?
“So, what’ve they got here,” she asked the guy ahead of her.
“Paradise. Ambrosia and Nectar of the Gods. Coffee and chocolate.”
It was one customer at a time. Liza saw something called chocolate covered orange peel and had to order a pound, it promised to taste so good. Then two pounds of organic from a Kibbutz in Uganda.
Her next stop was a little store with the unlikely name of Westside Market East. The Rastuson’s already had pretty much anything they would have needed from the little grocery, but a Jimmy Dean box in the freezer caught her eye. No Sausage! No Bacon! Just eggs and cheese inside a buttery biscuit. It would be an incredible time saver over her usual protracted ritual of preparing her signature cheesy eggs. A successful trip. She was happy, the dog was happy. Josiah was happy to see them back home and safe.
“What are these?” It was a very rare happening that Jossy and Liza were synchronized for breakfast and Falstaff was walked and fed.
“Egg and cheese biscuits. I hope they’re good, this could be a real time saver for a busy executive such as myself. Ninety seconds and done.” Falstaff came over and began his extortion routine. Dog rules involve a strict food sharing protocol. The dog made good use of the extra eye muscle that evolved in Canis familiaralis to make them better beggars. Liza split open one of her biscuits and started to finger out some of the egg and cheese.
“What happened, sweetie?” Falstaff lost all concentration on the food and ran to Liza, licking her finger.
“Thanks, Fally. Jossy, Sorry. Either I forgot about the microwave cool-down part of the instructions. Or I forgot the specific heats of eggs and cheese.” She waited for the other biscuit to cool down and gave her little buddy the whole inside of one.
“Good boy, Fally.”