Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: The Inner Person (09/09/10)
TITLE: Encounter on West Maple Street
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mr. Thatcher slowly hobbled along the sidewalk of West Maple Street holding a wooden cane in his right hand and Missy’s leather leash in his left. When Anthony approached from behind on his bicycle, Missy turned and lunged, barking a shrill chorus of Chihuahua yips. Mr. Thatcher’s slipper-shod feet came to a halt and he spun around like a wobbly, lethargic top ready to crash.
“Hi Mr. Thatcher!” Anthony straddled his stopped bike.
“Crazy Dog – hush now, you little rat!” A disoriented Mr. Thatcher growled at Missy, ignoring Anthony’s greeting.
“Can I pet Missy?”
Mr. Thatcher’s palsied hands shook until his cane wobbled and Missy’s leash danced like a charmed cobra. “What for?” His eyes glared at a crack in the concrete sidewalk. “Stupid dog.”
Anthony laid his bike on its side and approached the stooped old man and his miniature pet. “Because I like Missy.” He approached with his hand extended in greeting, and the little dog shook excitedly as she sniffed his fingers.
“See? She likes me, too.” Anthony sat cross-legged on the grass and Missy leapt into his lap with glowing, oversized eyes full of gratitude.
Mr. Thatcher didn’t know what to do. Wasn’t he taking his dog for a walk so she could do her elimination chores? Why did this boy have to butt in? Anthony lived in a house on the same block, but they had nothing in common – except Missy.
A grumble erupted from Mr. Thatcher’s mouth. His lips blubbered and saliva ran down his chin. “Grubble-bub, a-hem.”
Somewhere beyond Mr. Thatcher’s cold exterior, hidden in some deeply private spot, a memory churned. When he was about Anthony’s age he’d befriended an elderly neighbor, Charlie Witherspoon, and fallen in love with his frisky dachshund. Mr. Thatcher shook his head as if to rid his mind of the memory. That was a lifetime ago.
“How old is Missy?” Anthony asked.
The old man knew he was trapped. “She’s eight,” he muttered in a low monotone.
“Wow, that’s how old I am!” Anthony affectionately petted Missy’s tiny head. “What’s it like to own a dog? I’ve always wanted one.”
The question dangled invisibly in mid-air. Mr. Thatcher stepped back, carefully sat on a low limestone retaining wall that bordered a neighbor’s front yard, and pretended to study a tree growing on the other side of the street. “It’s a lot of trouble, son. A lot of work.” He scowled, avoiding eye contact with Anthony, and sneered beneath his breath. “Why don’t YOU just walk Missy so she can do her job?”
Anthony seemed preoccupied with Missy as she rested comfortably in his lap. He stroked her back as her sleepy, euphoric eyelids drooped lower and lower. “Mr. Thatcher, what you were like when you were my age?”
The cane in Mr. Thatcher’s hand shook with tremors as if electrified. Now what? Would this insolent child interrogate him? “Hur-umph,” he said, clearing his throat. Seconds crawled like snails. His lips quivered until foam gathered around their edges like that on the mouth of a nervous horse.
A squirrel ran to safety on the other side of West Maple Street as a car passed. Missy dreamily looked up at her master through half-asleep eyes. Mr. Thatcher was cornered.
“Did you live in a neighborhood like ours when you were a kid?” Anthony’s questioning eyes searched the old man’s face. “You haven’t always been so quiet, have you?” he persisted.
Mr. Thatcher choked back his common default emotions: anger and pain. He couldn’t explain to this accepting, expectant young boy that his heart had been fired repeatedly in the kiln of circumstances gone sour.
Instead he paused, and was again involuntarily overcome by the old childhood memory that featured his interaction with Charlie Witherspoon’s dachshund. In that memory he looked and acted a lot like Anthony.
“Anthony, let me tell you about the original Leon Thatcher who played with a neighbor’s dog when he was your age.” He managed a half-grin. “Then maybe together you and I can remind the old, crotchety Leon Thatcher what it’s like to be young - on the inside, at least.” He patted his chest, right over his heart. “Right here.”
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