A CHRISTMAS TALE FOR THE DISENCHANTED – Part II
Continued from Part I
Although Moira wanted to accept her uncle’s offer to drive her home, she was afraid it might offend Joad. “That’s alright. Don’t bother. Joad and I can make it home fine.”
The dog’s ears drooped.
“It’s snowing pretty hard out there,” said Uncle Charlie.
“That’s all the more reason why you shouldn’t have to move your car.”
Waiting in the lobby as Moira pulled on her gloves, Joad watched a sweetly scented woman enter the building and begin pinching snowflakes off her fur coat. The dog shuddered.
The trip home was a complete success. Enough snow had fallen so that the threat of ice was buried under a white powder of sure footing. The walk from Uncle Charlie’s had gone smoothly, but it took twice as long because of the snow. Moira had forgotten to add this extra time to her calculations.
She was nervous as the elevator lifted her and Joad up to their ninth-floor apartment. It was six minutes to twelve and she had to be in her apartment by midnight. Christmas would be ruined if she was a minute late.
A tradition is a tradition, even if it proved frustrating. Ever since her first Christmas with Joad, Moira clung to the belief that animals could be gifted with speech at midnight on Christmas Eve. It was her favorite Christmas legend and she prayed for it each year.
But for the past eleven years she was disappointed. Still, it was unthinkable not to try. The year she didn’t pray might be the year it would come true. Moira Essegian did not want to take that chance.
The young woman and her dog kneeled by the tiny nativity scene displayed on the living room coffee table. As Moira silently mouthed her words, she gently stroked the animals surrounding the manger scene.
Joad raised his head, sniffing the air. He was hoping to detect a different kind of smell. A smell of change. A smell of success.
“Smells the same to me,” said Joad.
Moira opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said Joad. “I don’t mean to be negative.”
“You spoke!” shouted Moira.
“I spoke!” Joad squealed.
What followed wasn’t an excited conversation. The young woman and old dog lapsed into an embarrassed silence. A silence of shyness.
Instead of speaking, they retreated into their familiar closeness of touch. Moira tugged at the back of Joad’s ear. Joad nuzzled his face into the crook of Moira’s arm. She always loved the burst of cold on her skin from his nose.
“Were you born blind?” asked Joad.
Moira shook her head.
“How did you lose your sight?”
“Mexican food,” answered Moira.
“Pardon me?” Joad responded. “Did you say Mexican food?”
Moira giggled. “That’s right. You see, when I was seventeen the state of New Jersey awarded me a driver’s license. I celebrated by inviting three of my closest friends to a Mexican feast in a tiny chili joint by the Jersey shore.”
Moira patted her stomach. “I think I’m still living off the calories from all the chimichangas and refried beans I ate that day!
“After the feast I took my friends for a moonlight drive to Wildwood Crest. But I felt so full the seat belt pressing against my belly irritated me. So I unbuckled it.”
“A harness is a good thing,” said Joad, proudly.
Moira tenderly patted her dog’s harness. “Is it, Joad?”
“As long as it can keep you safe,” whispered Joad. He began to feel uneasy.
“Well, driving at night is much harder than driving in daylight,” continued Moira. “Perhaps that contributed to my collision with the truck. I don’t remember too much about the accident, except for the sound of my head exploding through the windshield. And the darkness.”
Joad started to shake. He suddenly felt like an unbuckled automobile. Moira responded to Joad’s discomfort by rubbing the crest of his neck.
“But that’s not what I’d call a wonderful Christmas Eve story,” smiled Moira. “I’d much rather hear something about yourself before I met you.”
“You mean when I was young?” asked Joad.
“Sure. When you were a puppy.”
“I was born in Boise, Idaho,” said Joad.
“I know that,” laughed Moira.
“But did you know that my mother, Gwyndulyn, was a prize-winning Labrador Retriever?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s wonderful, Joad.”
“I was the friskiest puppy in my litter,” said Joad, proudly. “I inherited my mother’s shiny black coat and intelligence. What I didn’t inherit was her aloofness. I guess when my owners saw I didn’t have my mother’s regal bearing they decided I should go into something that was helpful.
“As a matter of fact, I was so friendly my owners weren’t sure whether to follow through on their plan to donate me to a 4-H family to begin training as a seeing eye dog. Overly friendly dogs don’t make good guide dogs because we’re too easily distracted.”
“You’re a splendid guide dog. The best,” insisted Moira.
“Well, after a year with my 4-H family, the Tedescos, I was given to the Guiding Eyes Foundation for intensive training. I guess I kept my friendliness in check.”
“That’s where we met,” Moira grinned. “Do you remember your other problem?”
“What problem?” asked Joad, rather defensively.
“Come on, Joad. Are you telling me you’ve forgotten already?”
“I’m afraid I’ve forgotten many things over the years, Moira.”
Moira jumped to her feet. “Your chewing! You had this constant need to chew that worried the instructors!”
Joad laughed at the memory. “I did have a rather fine bite, didn’t I?”
Moira nodded. “They didn’t want me to take you. They wanted to spend more time on your chewing problem before sending you out in the world. But I wouldn’t let them. I wanted you the moment I first touched you.”
“Your hand was like a mud puddle and a brush all in one,” recalled Joad.
“Thank you…I think,” grinned Moira.
The conversation waned. A nervousness overcame both speakers. Time was running out. The girl and the dog had not said what they really wanted to say. Moira squeezed her hands together and bit down on her knuckle.
“I’m sorry, Joad,” she murmured.
“Sorry? What could you possibly be apologizing to me for, Moira?”
“For the life I’ve forced you into.” There, she said it. Her heart pounded as she awaited his response.
Joad’s jaw dropped open with surprise. He tried to respond, but words stuck in his throat like a splintered bone.
“These past eleven years you’ve been on the job twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes at night I dream I let you loose in an open field. I love to imagine you running and jumping and playing. I wish I could let you play, Joad. I wish I could give you time all for yourself.”
Joad lowered his head into Moira’s lap. “But I’m not supposed to play. I have to take care of you.” When the dog noticed the pain in Moira’s eyes after saying this he quickly added, “I want to take care of you.”
“It hasn’t been fair. I know that,” said Moira.
“You’re wrong,” replied Joad. “You put too much value on play. Any stray can spend the day playing. But I’m different. I’m special.”
Moira nodded in agreement. “And I’m selfish.”
Joad, his tail firmly tucked underneath him, slowly made his way to the end of the room. He turned and faced his owner.
“No, Moira. I’m the selfish one. For the past few years, I’ve been letting you down. Whenever you’ve taken me out you’ve put yourself at risk. I’m too old to properly take care of you anymore. But I don’t want to leave. And that’s wrong. My whole life has been devoted to your welfare.
“I love you, Moira. But it’s been a selfish love. I’m afraid I love my life with you more than my concern about your safety. I feel great shame. If I were a true friend, I’d run away so you could get another dog, a better dog.”
“I don’t want another dog!” shouted Moira. “You’re as thick as the people at the Foundation! For two years now they’ve been pestering me to retire you and obtain a younger model.”
Joad lowered his head. “They’re right. I can’t do the job anymore.” His tail seemed to disappear from view.
Moira stretched out her arms. “Come here, Joad.” After a slight pause he stiffly walked over to her and into a hug.
Moira tightened her grip on her dog. “So, what if crossing a street has become more of an adventure. What’s wrong with adventure?”
Joad wanted to protest but his speech came out garbled.
“I’m tired of talking,” she said.
Joad licked Moira’s face.
“If you don’t mind continuing to look after me, let’s not ever part,” whispered Moira. “I trust in your heart, Joad. And you can trust in mine.”
The dog barked his approval; the Christmas gift was over.
Joad rolled over on his back and yelped like a puppy. Moira was thrilled. It had been a long time since she had heard her dog so happy.
She leaned over and rubbed Joad’s belly just the way he loved to have it rubbed. Moira’s hands traced a line from his stomach to his chest and back again. Her fingers moved up and down like a speedy typist. It was a delicious massage.
“I’m going to get you a special Christmas treat,” said Moira.
Once again Joad barked his approval.
Moira stood up and went into the kitchen. While she was fumbling inside a kitchen cabinet, trying to find the special holiday biscuits she had bought Joad, a strange thing occurred.
Moira felt a slight breeze at her ankles. This puzzled her. There were no windows open and no drafts. The landlord had recently insulated the apartment. But stranger than the breeze was the exquisite music accompanying it. It was a sweet hymn of joy, a song of thanksgiving.
Moira had heard the wind perform thousands of different sounds, but this one was totally new. It made her mouth wreath into a huge smile. She scratched her head and abandoned her search for dog biscuits.
She kneeled on the floor and lowered her head. The sweet breeze washed over her. Its music poured into her ears. Moira was tempted to track down the origin of this musical breeze, but decided to stay on the floor and just enjoy it.
If Moira hadn’t lost her sight, she could have solved the mystery by simply peeking into the living room. There, stretched out on the living room rug, was Joad. His forgotten and unused tail was snapping back and forth, wagging joyfully. It was stirring up a breeze of happiness that sailed into the kitchen.
Return to Part I.
About the Author
Mark Blickley grew up within walking distance of the Bronx Zoo. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Scholarship Award for Drama. His latest book is the text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, Dream Streams.