The Man Who Carried His Dog
Down The Stairs

by Paul Kahn


He often passed the man who carried his dog down the stairs. They would be entering the building, the man and the dog. The man might be in the inner foyer holding the door open while the dog stood in the outer foyer, his head cocked to one side, his eye looking up at his master. He would stop before going out the door, offering to let the dog enter first, and the man would insist that he pass, holding the door for him as well.

Then after he passed, he would turn to see the dog waddle on its short legs, navigating through the glass and wooden doorframe. The man would bend over to take the dog in his arms and, cradling the animal, step slowly and deliberately down the stairwell to their unseen apartment on the lower floors.

He was walking up the street in the late afternoon when he saw her, the woman who lived in her ground floor window. Madam, he called her, often saying, hello Madam or good evening Madam when he passed her. Now she was speaking to a woman with three children, one in a stroller and another in her arms, while a third stood by and listened to the conversation. He didn't hear their discourse but as he approached she shifted her attention towards him and walking along beside him, quickly asked, And how are you feeling?

Oh, I'm okay, he said, shifting the bags of groceries to the other hand, but my nose, he gestured with his free hand towards his face, is stuffed. A cold. The weather had turned from hot to cool and the daylight was failing early in the evening. He had seen her, the woman who lived in the window, that morning when he left his apartment. She was singing, seated on the windowsill overlooking the stairway that led to the lower street, staring at a small notebook she held in her hand, singing not the words recorded there but some song present in her memory. Her voice was very lovely as it passed down the stairway towards the car and bus traffic below.

That evening as they approached the building, there were children playing on the sidewalk outside her window. Have you been on holidays, she asked. Sometimes when you return from holidays, you get sick.

I had a dream last night, he began. But now he was speaking to no one in particular, as she had moved away from him to join the children and was asking each of them about their first days in school. He recognized a young girl who lived in the building balancing on the pattern of grids made with chalk on the sidewalk.

I dreamed I was walking on a beach with my dog. He was a very old dog, small and stupid, and as we passed an old abandoned car I thought the car was too close to the sea. The car was sitting on a road made from cobblestones and sand. Its windows were gone and most of its iron rusted, but it still had tires on the wheels. I walked along the beach with the dog following me, running ahead and coming back, and then I turned back as I saw the tide was coming up. The waves were moving up the slope and the beach was disappearing. As we approached the car again from the other direction, I saw the waves had reached it. A wave was pushing the car towards us. The force of a wave would make it roll along the cobblestones, and as the wave receded, the gravity of the slope would pull it back to where it started.

The dog saw the car as it rolled away and started to run at it, barking loudly, chasing it away, as stupid dogs will do. I remembered thinking - that's a dangerous thing to do - the waves will return in a moment. And even as I was listening to the barking and thinking it, the next wave came up the beach and struck the car, pushing it into the dog. I saw the fender of the rusty car strike the dog, and the dog went under the car, as if it were in slow motion. His body caught on some exposed metal part and was dragged along as the car rolled back the other way.

Immediately I ran over and pulled the dog out from under the car. He was whimpering and broken, but still alive. I felt him twitching in my arms as I picked him up. I knew I needed to get the dog to a doctor as quickly as possible.

He walked to the nearest house. He had stayed in this house once, he knew it. But now there was another family staying there for the summer holiday. There were two cars parked under the overhanging roof by the front door. They were parked tightly together, parallel to the wall of the house. He could not imagine how to get them out. Then he realized he didn't have a key to either car. He was thinking about the wrong problem. He had to find someone to take him to a doctor.

Shifting the dog in his arms, he knocked on the door. He explained to the man who came to the door what had happened. The man's wife stood behind him. Beyond the doorway he could see two children in the room. They were fighting with each other. The man invited him inside and he stood in the living room, holding the twitching dog, as the children ran around and the man and woman tried to control them. No one offered to drive him into town to find a doctor. The woman gave him a clear plastic bag to cover the dog, to prevent the blood from getting on the rug and the furniture. They all could see the dog's tail moving.

A teenage girl appeared at the door. The man and woman continued to be distracted by their children, who were racing from room to room, taunting each other. He was giving up hope of getting the help he needed, when he realized the teenage girl standing in the doorway understood the situation. She offered to drive him into town right away. Right now. She had a car key in her hand. It was time to leave.

As he started to move towards the door, he realized he was no longer holding the dog. His arms were empty. He looked around the room, at the rug on the floor and at the couch, at the chairs and small tables with magazines and candy dishes. He couldn't remember putting down the dog, but he couldn't see it anywhere. He hadn't been in any other room in the house. The girl was standing in the doorway, waiting to leave. His eyes went repeatedly over the same empty surfaces. The most difficult thing to find, he said out loud, is something in plain sight. But he couldn't find his dog. It was then that he woke up, pulling himself up to a sitting position in the bed.

She was sitting on the window ledge, her knees up and her feet pressed against one edge of the window. She held a bowl in both her hands, sipping from it as she continued her conversation with a man standing on the sidewalk. He was coming up the steps, having passed her a few minutes before on his way to the bakery to get fresh bread for breakfast. And do you know who built the highways, who built the roads of France, she shouted to him as he approached. She saw the puzzled look on his face and quickly repeated her question in a language he understood. Do you know who built the highways, who built the roads of France?

No, I don't know, he said as he approached the window. He knew he appeared solemn, even severe to people who saw him, his mouth pursed and twisted as if in thought, his eyes tired and downcast. He carried a burden of anxiety, centered between his chest and eyebrows. This burden would occasionally dissolve into a warm flood of well-being as he turned a corner or crossed a street and saw the light filtering through the leaves of a tree or a shadow cast against the surface of a building.

The Algerians, she said, her voice a mixture of triumph and indignation, gesturing with one hand towards the cobblestone street and beyond to suggest the invisible highways that led from one city to the next. The Algerians, she repeated and returned her hand to the bowl, sipping from one side as she looked down at the two men standing on the sidewalk below her.