There would be no sixty-fifth birthday party after all. To be fair it was not the dog’s fault. Bowser, oversized in limb as he was overzealous in tongue, could not entirely be blamed.
“He needs hip surgery!” Lindy announced as she fluttered into the kitchen, wringing her hands so that all her silver bracelets jangled nervously up and down her elegant arms. “Oh, and we took your car, honey. I’m afraid there’s a rip across the backseat, but that hardly matters now.”
Hardly? They (being Lindy and the dog) had just returned from the vet, and Hank could feel the back of his neck prickle. He was so distracted by the news of their chosen mode of transport and the subsequent backseat damage, that he had not fully processed what his wife was saying about the dog. He knew this would happen. To his consternation, he’d discovered his new car was not in the driveway when he’d gone out to retrieve the morning paper from the stoop. Only Lindy’s car remained—the dog car—aptly named for its age, its wear, and its accompanying odor. It was parked beside the rose bushes, its dented green fender reflecting the morning sun coming up over the house. He groaned.
Lindy had sworn not to let Bowser in the new car. Hank’s new
car: a sensible and pristinely kept Volvo wagon, his only splurge being the buttery leather interior he had no intention of marring with Great Dane toenails, and whose windows he would prefer not be shellacked in dog drool. He pictured Lindy zipping through town, Bowser’s head thrust out the back-left window, his tail sticking out the right. “How big is the rip?”
Lindy waved her hand in the air, her new focus on to the hulking espresso maker, which she jiggled and rattled impatiently. “How does this thing . . . ?”
“The lever on the right,” Hank began. “You have to pull the lever.” Unlike his car the coffee maker was not new, and yet they went through this every morning. But never mind—he was still picturing the backseat of his car.
Lindy tugged the lever twice, and Hank let out his breath as the steaming concoction coursed into her cup. She dumped in a heap of sugar, shaking her head as she spoke. “He was just neutered last month. And now he needs hip surgery. My poor baby.”
My poor wallet, is what Hank was thinking but did not dare say. First the Volvo seat and now the dog. Though he should’ve been used to it by now.
His wife was gifted, no—cursed—with an attraction for wayward animals. Stray cats who appeared at the back screen door. Baby birds fallen from nests. Just yesterday the slow-moving disc of a snapping turtle that needed to be ferried across a busy road, a move he later learned Lindy did all by herself as the two men, who had also pulled their cars over, stood warily aside verbally noting the dangerous size of its jagged mouth. Animals in distress always found Lindy Bailey. If anyone had bothered to ask Hank, he would’ve declared himself an animal lover as devout as the next. He’d had plenty of pets as a kid: a handful of hamsters, several cats; he couldn’t recall a dogless school year if pressed. But it paled against what Lindy had going on.
• • •
The fact of her boundless canine love was the second thing she’d told him on the night they met at the Squire. “I have three headstrong daughters. And we love dogs.” Whether it had been a confession or a warning, he had not been sure. Were the headstrong daughters the reason for the dog-loving requirement? Was it a condition they’d set forth for their single mother: the measuring stick against which all prospective suitors of their mother would be judged? Or were the dogs and daughters independent of one another—two equally imperative pieces of information that Hank needed to be made aware of? It didn’t matter. Lindy’s unblinking blue eyes had been so earnest it had gone to his heart. The second those words were uttered, she’d swept a lock of blonde hair girlishly behind her ear and tipped back the glass of bourbon that had shown up during her telling. In that moment, had she asked him to join the circus, he would have.
Now, fifteen years later in their Cape Cod kitchen, Hank’s adoration for Lindy Bailey had not thinned in its concentration. Her youthful frame still barely filled the kitchen doorway when she entered each morning, blinking, lured from bed by the scent of the espresso he brewed for her. These days there were creases that had etched their paths around her eyes, but they were still eyes that crinkled with easy laughter. What made him happiest was that Lindy now possessed an air of contentedness in her posture that had replaced the too-slow-to-empty recesses of worry she’d carried in her limbs when they’d first met. Back then she was an overwhelmed single mother to three preteen girls who not only needed but also demanded her attention like ravenous eaglets in a nest. Her devotion to them was something that had pulled Hank to her, a surprise since he had no children of his own and could not recall ever wanting any.
In that vein he’d had to learn how to navigate around Lindy, and later, her girls. Like everyone else who crossed their paths, he was helpless in the wake of their glossy hair, their urgent chatter, the beguiling flood of laughter that erupted as easily as their tempers. The Bailey women had that effect on people, and despite his thinking otherwise, his years of worldly travel and education during his quiet bachelor life had been no match for them.
Lindy sipped her espresso and stared absently out the window overlooking the green stretch of backyard and the salt pond beyond it. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cancel our trip.”
Hank blinked. “Tuscany?”
“I’m sorry, dear. But don’t worry, we’ll still have a party.”
Hank was not an extravagant man. The idea of the birthday party thrown in his honor was not something he relished. That he’d agreed to a party at all had been cause for celebration. Lindy and Shannon had seized upon it, and since then the party had taken on a life of its own, morphing from an intimate backyard gathering into an event. His September birthday was still three months away! And yet a caterer had been sought. A tent had been mentioned. Hank cringed at every turn; he hated being the focus of attention. He hated getting older. He hated, most of all, a fuss.
But the real cause for celebration—the sole saving grace of this party—was the trip! He and Lindy would finally be going to Tuscany. The planning for which was as long and winding as the years he’d spent acclimating to family life with the Bailey girls.
The seed for the trip had also been planted that first fabled night they met at the Squire, just after mention of the daughters and the dogs. The third thing she’d told him that night was that she’d never been to Italy. He’d lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug; many people had not been to Italy. But she’d turned to him then, leaning in close and lowering her voice, as in confession. He’d mirrored her, their noses almost touching. He was so engrossed
by the lingering smell of bourbon on her lips—fuller lips he’d not seen—that he almost missed what she said next. That she longed to eat wild boar pappardelle and sip Vin Santo in a trattoria. That she could not imagine her life without biking along a village road and finding a field of sunflowers beside which to set up her art easel. The images that took root in Hank’s mind had caused him to steady himself on his barstool. This woman, who so far had spoken only of wild boar and even wilder children, was unlike any person he had ever met. He’d decided right then they would go together.
No matter that that decision had taken a backseat to fifteen years of ballet lessons and soccer carpools and, later, college tuitions. To leaving Boston and getting married and moving in together in the sleepy seaside hamlet of Chatham. To walking the ever-quivering wire that was stepparenting three children who on some days clung to him like lovestruck monkeys and on others could wither his insides with their passing glares. On occasions of particular struggle, like the time Piper ran away from Girl Scout camp in upstate Maine to find a boy she’d met at the camp across the lake, or when Shannon and five classmates handcuffed themselves to the band teacher’s desk to protest the board of education’s defunding of the district arts program, Hank had wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself into by marrying into a full-fledged family. By what stroke of madness had he given up his quiet Brookline apartment with its leather wingback chair overlooking the cityscape? In those moments of doubt he’d drawn strength from the gauzy memory of that first meeting with his wife at the pub: the burn of bourbon on her lips, the fearless glint in her gaze, and the promise of a Tuscan voyage, just the two of them. And so with that sole reason to steel himself by, Hank had weathered it all, eventually finding himself so bewitched by each of the three Bailey girls that he committed to seeing them through their complicated adolescences into adulthood year after year. Until this year, with all
three finally sprung from the family house, when he and Lindy had booked their tickets for his birthday trip to Italy. They had made it. They would, after all, embrace in slumber in some faraway hotel under a Tuscan moon.
Hank stared back at his wife. “We’re canceling Tuscany?”
Lindy set her empty mug in the sink and ran the tap. “You poor thing.”
But she was not referring to Hank. “I knew hip dysplasia was common in large breeds, but Bowser’s so young. The vet quoted the surgery at five thousand dollars. And then there’s the physical therapy afterward: at least eight weeks. But I think we can do some of that here at home.” She turned to look at Hank, a soapy dish in her hand. “We can’t not do it, honey.”
As if on cue, Bowser ambled into the kitchen and collapsed on the antique pine floor to nap. Lindy beamed. “Look. Look at that face.”
Hank did as he was told, but Bowser did not return the gaze. He was too busy staring back at Lindy with the singular and abiding love a dog holds for its person. Hank was not that person.
Hank sighed and looked instead at his feet that were tucked into worn sheepskin slippers. He needed new slippers. The dog needed a new hip.
Behind him Lindy clattered a pan in the farmhouse sink. “Don’t worry, darling. Tuscany will still be there.”