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Bill Schillaci



     “Your dog bit me.”
     Most of the late afternoon sun was behind the house, casting a slanted shadow on the face on the other side of the screen door. It was the second time Jonas returned to house midway up the hill, the first bold knocks fruitless apart from triggering the inside yapping of his attacker. This time, he brought a note intended for the mail slot, informing the human occupant that the resident pet had left four puncture wounds in the back of his ankle when it dashed up behind him on his morning run. It happened so fast, so stealthily he didn’t realize what was behind him until he felt the bite. It was painful, but more than that, it sent a blinding shock through every organ in his body right up to the follicles of his scalp, unlike anything he’d ever felt. Later, he kept telling himself this is what being electrocuted must feel like, or close to it. Although he hadn’t seen it, he knew it had to be a dog and he swung around ready to fight back. But the culprit had completed its mission and was already retreating into the bushes along the side of the house. All he glimpsed was that it was fluffy, white with brown patches and no bigger than a house cat. The physical assault was compounded by how nonsensical it seemed, how a critter this diminutive could so traumatize his nerve endings. He considered chasing it, but what then, what if he caught up? Seize it? Strangle it? He liked dogs and had always agreed that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. 
     “Hello, Jonas.” 
     He retreated half a step, wary, and then, impulsively, leaned in. 
     “Do I know you?”
     There was the faint click of the door unlatched from within. It opened toward him and she eased into the sunlight. The face was the same and different. She always worried about the inexorability of genetics, what she told him about her mother, the thickening of her facial features even as her limbs and torso stayed taut and strong. And here it was, exactly as she’d predicted. She showed no surprise at his appearance.
     “Come in,” she said, moving aside.
     “Were you, like, expecting me?”
     “No. But I’ve seen you running. Do you live around here?”
     “On Terrace,” he said, waving distractedly down the hill. 
     Adel’s was one of a dozen or so homes dating to the thirties, built by FDR’s WPA for workers paving roads in the Bay Area. Most were demolished decades ago, but this particular row with breathtaking vista on a road climbing one of the highest hills in North Oakland was refurbished in the seventies by a developer into their current form, compact two-bedroom cottages prettied-up with rounded roofs, arched doorways and window shutters painted in forest hues to look like they’d been copied from a Grimm Brothers folk tale. They were intended to be small-family residences, but, walking or running or driving by the busy front yards on warm weekend days, he could see that some were occupied by families of five or more. Whether this was because of the economy or the migrant surge or Covid he didn’t know.
     The room he entered was very dim. She followed him in, gestured to one side and said, “Please sit.”
     From an impenetrably dark recess of the room, the same fluffy assailant from that morning darted, leaped and landed on a nebulous object that he guessed was a couch. 
     “That’s him,” Jonas said, nodding.
     “Her. Clare Danes.” 
     Adel sat, entirely surrounded Clare Danes body with her magical hands and gently pushed her to the other end of the couch. 
     “Make room for Jonas, darling,” she said.
     “Your dog sunk its canines into my ankle. If you don’t mind, I’d rather not sit next to her.”
     “She’s a rescue dog from Arizona, a little prone to fear biting, but she doesn’t mean it. Won’t you give her a second chance?” 
     A second chance? Had she given him that? He hadn’t asked for it but should have. It was a disarming line; it might have changed things. But, apparently, there was so much else that needed to be said, most of it useless, self-justifying rants he tried with mixed results not to dwell on, at least not every day. Dissolution happened suddenly, for him at least, and it shouldn’t have. If he’d paid more attention, he might have seen it coming. From the beginning, ever since they met in the Pilates class she led at the JCC on California Street, she spoke of symbols. She saw them in everything, from the obvious, heavy clouds over the ocean, to the inscrutable, the dates on coins she received from the self-checkout register in the South San Francisco Costco or the distribution of raisins in a muffin. It was there, all of it, early on, but he thought it was just a fad, like a new hair style. And then, one day, she had religion, his word; she called it trust in what is handed down. He said that sounded like the Bible and Christianity. She said it embraced Christianity, but it was so much bigger. She said she was not trying to convert him, only asking for his acceptance. He said they were both atheists when they met, and it was one reason they came together. She said there was room in what she believed for non-belief. He said that made no sense. He tried a different approach. Whenever it came up, he said nothing and smiled tolerantly. It wore here down more than the arguments. It was not what she meant by acceptance. Finally she told him she was tired of being insulted. Well, he said, then don’t turn yourself into an SNL skit. You just can’t make up your own religion and expect people to take you seriously. She said, It’s not a fucking religion. 
     After the split, they both fled the suffocating costs of San Francisco. For a time, he tracked her changes of address and read her posts on the web site she built for her physical therapy business. It was the ideal occupation for her hands such as hers. She would massage the knots out of his upper back, the pain, as she did so, intense and exquisite. Who knew hurting could feel so good? The next morning he’d be perfectly fine. Of course he wanted to know if she moved on to someone else, but he never searched deep enough to find out. The last he looked she was in Independence, the dry, sparsely populated seat of Inyo County, a stop for motorists on their way to Death Valley. It seemed the right place for such as she. Visionaries, he thought, gravitate to deserts. Now he had the sudden wild idea she had followed him to Oakland.
    His eyes adjusted to the dark. He saw a standing lamp sculpture of foot-long silver paper clips welded together at crazy angles and topped by a black shade, apparently switched on but producing almost no illumination. There was a debarked tree-stump table supporting a stone pedestal with a crystal cube the size of a grapefruit. There was an area rug with a galactic pattern and a golden fringe. On the wall there was a framed print of Circe emptying a ewer of Olympian venom into a stream to transform the naiad Scylla into a monster. He remembered only the print. Mythology, of course, was welcomed into Adel’s trust in the past. He couldn’t say for sure if anything anyone believed or didn’t was excluded. The sparse furnishings made the room appear larger than it was. Apart from the couch, there was nowhere to sit. 
     “I was running up the hill and Clare Danes caught me from behind. Perfect sneak attack, quite brilliant when you think about it. Has this happened before?”
     “There’s a swinging hatch in the back door that I forgot to lock. May I see it?”
     “See what?”
     “The bite,” she said, nodding at his feet.
     He saw now that she was barefoot and wore flared black yoga pants and a white tank. In their final months together, anticipating her need for additional income, she started teaching yoga at the JCC. There may have been a spot of perspiration on her temple, reflecting the room’s scant light. He wondered if she’d been exercising or conducting an online course. But her pants were soiled, streaked with grey. Her fragrance reached him, stirred up by body heat. Eucalyptus mint? Cherry blossom? She liked to toy with scents, but, to her dismay, he thought of all of them as one. The space she opened on the couch was narrow, and he had a choice, sit and contact either Clare Danes or Adel. Even though Clare Danes was observing him with no hard feelings, her short sharp tail wagging happily, he chose Adel. He sat, his hip grazing hers. He hiked up his pant leg and lowered his sock, exposing his ankle.  
     Adel said, “Well, I see a bandage.”
     “Do you think I’m faking this?”
     “Are you?”
     They watched each other, equally defiant. 
     He said, “See for yourself.”
     Without hesitation she secured a corner of the big bandage between her thumb and forefinger and peeled. He closed his eyes, the sting triggered memories, happy ones and he smiled despite the stupidity of the situation. Her fingertip gently caressed the wounds.
     “I don’t see anything, Jonas.”
     “How can you in this light?”
     “No matter. I believe you.” She re-secured the bandage. He felt the heat from her fingertips pressing against him, or imagined it. 
     “What would you like me to do?” she said.
     “Does Clare Danes look like she’s rabid?”
     “No, but her behavior was a little erratic.”
     She sighed. “I’ll have to look for the vaccination certificate,” she said and stood. He didn’t know what he was thinking, if he was thinking at all. He simply discovered his hand around her wrist. She stopped where she was, offering no resistance. In that moment, what he heard reminded him of himself snoring, a low, gravelly quiver, the sound he makes that wakes him up, but which on the final bridge out of sleep he is able to remember. He glanced down to where Clare Danes had raised her head between her tensed paws, baring her small, white fangs. He released Adel’s wrist, his hand frozen in midair. Adel bent and petted the raised fur on Clare Danes’ neck. 
     “It’s alright, darling,” she whispered. With each caress, Clare Danes untensed a little more until she rolled languidly to her side and closed her eyes. Those hands, bigger than his, fluid as a mountain stream and imbued with poetry and power. Adel rose and in the same smooth movement took Jonas’ hand. 
     “Come,” she said. 
    He knew they weren’t going for the vaccination certificate. It was how she asserted herself, the way he hated but could never summon the will to rebuff. Without warning, at the most improbable times, when dinner was in the oven, or the plumber was expected, she’d silently lead him to the bedroom. Dinner would get burnt and, after pounding at the door, the plumber would drive off and, later, send a bill for a service visit.  
     There was nothing to say, the years apart contracted into this moment, the old pattern resurrected as he followed her past two rooms on either side of a short corridor, the interiors even darker than the first room, and then into the kitchen, a place finally bright under a large central skylight.
     “There’s the hatch,” she said, nodding to a one-foot square entryway with a hook and eye latch securing a flat panel of wood at the bottom of the back door. “I built it myself.”
     He stared at the hatch. Was it a symbol? Did it have a meaning? 
     She heated water in a small electric pot and brewed two mugs of tea. He sipped. It was unlike any tea or anything else he’d ever tasted.
     “What is this?”
     “Genmaicha. Can I show you something?”
     He stopped the mug before his lips, watching her.  
     “Don’t worry, Jonas, it’s not a trap.”
     “I’m worried that it isn’t.”
     Her laugh was as he remembered it, spontaneous, real and very loud. 
     The back yard was surprisingly spacious given the size of her house. Squat, gnarly madrones, clearly very old, grew along the sides and a tall, rounded hump at the far end appeared to be a launching pad straight into the deep blue sky. There was a round rustic picnic table of cracked and varied-colored wood planks and two matching benches, the set looking as old as the trees. The center of the yard was an area of scraggly yellow grass and bare dirt and on it a small structure of red bricks, three sides and an open front absent a top. Nearby was a stack of loose bricks, a wheelbarrow, bags of concrete mix and several trowels and other hand tools. 
     “What’s this?” he said. 
     “It’s a pizza oven. Will be anyway.”
     “Cool. Who’s building it?”
     “I am.”
     He turned to her, surprised and then smiled. 
     “Of course you are. I don’t remember you liking pizza. Didn’t you call them overstuffed crackers?”
     “People change, Jonas.”
     She stepped into rubber rain boots and pulled on a pair of garden gloves. 
     “It’s been slow going,” she said, kneeling in front of the oven. 
     “I think I know why.”
     She turned to him, curious.
     “You’re using fast-setting mortar. You can mix only a little at a time before it becomes too hard to handle. And then you have to mix another batch. Too many steps. Plain old concrete mix stays workable a lot longer.”
     Her mouth dropped open.
     “How the fuck do you know that?”
     “When I was at Cal State, I worked construction four summers for my uncle. Remember?”
     She frowned, then said, “Now I do.”
     Jonas filled a metal watering can hand-painted with daffodils and lilacs at a spigot near the back door. He shook mortar into the wheelbarrow and sprinkled it with increments of water, continually working the mixture with the hoe. When the right viscosity was reached, he nodded at Adel, who scooped out a portion with her trowel and laid a brick. She was good at it. She applied just a little more mortar than was needed, tapped down each brick with the butt of the trowel, scooped away the excess and then used a small level to check for a uniform height. When she reached the elevation she wanted, he helped her place the heavy hearthstone slab. On top of it the brick building resumed. 
     They finished by centering the roof, a second, bigger slab. Adel went inside and returned with two uncapped Guinnesses. Clare Danes followed her out, again apparently delighted by the presence of Jonas, sniffing excitedly at his running shoes. They tapped their bottles. Jonas snapped a photo of Adel standing tall beside the oven. Clare Danes prowled the madrones, depositing small amounts of pee against the exposed roots. 
     Sitting across from her at the table, Jonas said, “Is the house yours?”
     Adel rolled her brown eyes and snorted. “Well, I have a mortgage. You?”
     The word pinged in Jonas’s chest. They were planning to buy a house in Oakland and were well along on a downpayment. A nurse at Kaiser Permanente, Jonas earned more and his portion was larger, but after he moved out he emailed her that he wanted her to keep half. After weeks of not talking, she called to thank him and it was last time they spoke. 
     “When did you take up running?” Adel said.
     “Couple of months into Covid. I was doing twenty-hour shifts or twenty-six. I didn’t count. Hours lost meaning. If you could stand and speak without drooling, you worked. I’d come home and couldn’t sleep or eat or read. I just sat at the table looking at the wall, waiting to go back. Covid was more than a disease; it was a spell. One night, two in the morning, I was nearly hallucinating when I got off the bus and it started pouring. I’m no runner but I so didn’t want to get sick. It felt good, doing something just for me.”
     “I’ve seen you.”
     “Yeah, you said.”
     “No, I mean I wait for you. You’re pretty regular. About six on work days, eight on weekends. Just up the hill here. You come down a different way, right?”
     It was dusk, almost. She was probably telling him something she wouldn’t or couldn’t simply say. It was how she wanted it, to be a symbol herself. And, as with all the other symbols, he just wasn’t able to understand. 
     “How long have you been watching?”
     “First time I saw you go by about a year ago. I look forward to it. I take my Genmaicha to the window. You’ve gotten faster.”
     He nodded. “Ah, that’s it.”
     “Something kicks me in the ass when I go by. Feels great.”
     Again, her big laugh. She seemed to be shedding years as night descended.
     From the one car garage she rolled out the same twenty-year-old Camry Jonas remembered and they drove to the Whole Foods on MLK for pizza ingredients and a couple of packs of oak to fire the oven. While the dough was rising, Adel leashed Clare Danes and they walked up the hill. He asked about her PT practice. She said it was intensely competitive so close to Berkeley, but she had loyal clients.
     “Because you’re so good.”
     “Thank you, Jonas.”
     They read online that the oven had to be hot, very hot. Jonas kept squeezing more oak into the fire until there was nothing left and said it was now or never. Together they slid the pizza off a baking sheet. They watched the crust brown and the toppings sizzle. More photos were snapped. Adel brought out plates and candles and more Guinness. 
      “Oh, yes,” sighed Jonas before even swallowing the first bite.
     They finished off the pie, which was way too small, and so they started another with the remaining dough. Adel was a little drunk, but her hands did not fail her as she rolled and slapped the dough into a perfect flat-earth circle with a jewel-like puff along the edge. Jonas used a flashlight to roam the backyard for scraps of madrone for the oven. Hours passed. Darkness was thick. They spoke about everything but themselves. 
     There was a long silence. 
     “I should go,” Jonas said.
     He stood and Adel followed him through her small home to the front door. They hugged amicably. When Jonas lowered his head to her, she raised her palm, a formidable wall, between their lips.
     “I haven’t changed, Jonas,” she said softly.
     “You told me you have.”
     “Not in a way that would matter with us.”
     Their arms slid from each other. Jonas looked to where Clare Danes was seated a few feet away, watching them carefully. 
     “Loved you in Homeland, Clare Danes,” said Jonas. 
     He walked down her path, over the same colored bricks they’d used to build the oven, then turned. 
     “If you ever want to run, I could use the company,” he said.
     Through the night he spotted a hint of a grin. This time he knew what it meant, that he could never keep up with her. Even if it wasn’t true, he thought he would love the chance to let her believe it. 

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