Not everyone who came to the Epiphany Cafe that day was an eccentric human being. Several perfectly ordinary dogs patronized the place, accompanied by an eccentric human being. The Crazy Dog Lady of Kenilworth entered with her six dogs. In order of size: a snarling Dachshund, a baying Beagle, a hyperactive Setter with a feathery tail, two Labs with cold noses, and a drooling St Bernard.
No dogs were permitted in the cafe. There was a sign out front, but that didn’t stop the dogs, who couldn’t read, or the Crazy Dog Lady, who didn’t care. There was a leash ordinance in Kenilworth, but the dogs were unleashed. The dogs couldn’t read the ordinance, and the Crazy Dog Lady didn’t care. Let me re-phrase that. She did care. She cared very much about all those rules and made it a point to violate them whenever she could. You see, she was the Crazy Dog Lady and a dog had once saved her life.
The Crazy Dog Lady ordered six lattes with no espresso and, one, by one, bent down to serve them to the dogs, letting them lap from the cup as she held it. The St Bernard was first, because his mouth had the highest elevation. Then she served the rest in decreasing order of size. The Dachshund was always last. Maybe this was why he was always in a bad mood. The Crazy Dog Lady never got anything for herself. She was trying to economize.
After the St Bernard finished his latte, he went over to consult with the Therapist Emeritus, in session with a recovering depressive. The St Bernard lacked the requisite keg of brandy around his neck and he was not the dog who saved the Crazy Dog Lady’s life, but he did what he could to save the Recovering Depressive’s life by licking her hands and making her laugh. It was a nervous laugh, but it was a laugh just the same, and laughs have healing properties of which science is only beginning to appreciate. The Therapist Emeritus had to admit to herself that dogs have healing properties, as well. Even a mediocre dog was a better therapist than the best therapist, but the Therapist Emeritus would never admit it to anyone else.
When the first Lab, a chocolate one, was done with his latte, a vanilla one, he checked out the drug dealer. Chai tousled his ears and drummed his side. The Lab collapsed and showed him his belly. Chai scratched until he found the spot that made the dog kick his legs. I didn’t see whether any drugs were involved with the dog’s ecstatic experience. If they were, the two had made the exchange very stealthily.
The second Lab, who was white, and very hard working, offered to help the Lisping Barista behind the counter, but the space there was very small and they always seemed to get in each other’s way. The White Lab had an affinity for poking her nose up the back of the Lisping Barista’s shirt while she worked. All the rest of us in the cafe had wanted to go up under the Lisping Barista’s shirt ever since we first saw her, but only dogs have license to do what all the rest of us just dream.
The Setter made her rounds, sweeping over everyone at the cafe, dusting the tables with her tail, turning her head to every new thing, and never getting a solid pet from anyone. Rabbi ! rescued his mocha from the tail and watched her make her rounds, seeking G-d’s sparks with an efficiency he envied. The Setter, who was drawn to motion, seemed to overlook one Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker in the corner, frozen in terror, and Googling the route to the door.
The Beagle ignored the Crazy Dog Lady’s entreaties to come get his latte, stood just out of my reach, and bayed like I was a coon up a tree. Perhaps he sensed that I was fictional and wanted to alert the others. The Crazy Dog Lady had to go to him with the latte and interrupt his speech by putting it under his nose. He drank it while keeping one eye on me, in case I did anything fictional.
The Dachshund irritably followed the Crazy Dog Lady when she served the Beagle and, when she was done, padded after her back to the counter. When she bent down to give him his latte, he sniffed it suspiciously, like a cat. Perhaps the cream had just begun to turn or it was made from cows fed antibiotics. At any rate, the Dachshund pronounced it unfit for canine consumption. If only he’d been served first, he could have warned the rest. The Dachshund turned away from his cup and went to find something else that was wrong with the world.
The Crazy Dog Lady put the Dachshund’s cup on the floor in case he changed his mind. She went to talk to the people interacting with her dogs. By now the White Lab was done with her work behind the counter and was checking the tables. The White Lab had the Geeky Guy pinned in his chair and was burrowing his nose into his crotch. After the Geeky Guy had asked the Lisping Barista out on a date, and she astonishingly said yes, he had gone to work on some incomprehensible mathematics on an Excel spreadsheet. The mathematics was no help to him now. The Crazy Dog Lady didn’t grab the White Lab by the collar and pull her away, as anyone else might have done. Neither the White Lab, nor any of the other dogs, possessed a collar, or tags. Instead, seeing the White Lab sexually assaulting the Geeky Guy, she chose to give the man a long-winded lecture. She told him the story of how a dog had saved her life.
“I was a college student once,” said the Crazy Dog Lady to the Geeky Guy, “But, I didn’t know who I was.”
The Beagle, who had finished his latte, took a few minutes to lick his chops before he resumed his baying. This gave the Crazy Dog Lady a chance to begin her speech so that we could all hear it.
“I didn’t have a sense of direction, so I didn’t know where I was going. I decided to take a year off and find myself.”
By this time, the Setter had discovered the Dachshund’s discarded cup on the floor and was helping herself. The Dachshund, who didn’t want the latte, didn’t want anyone else to have it, either, or wanted to warn the Setter that the cream had turned bad, began to snarl.
“I got a job house and pet sitting for the winter on Fisher’s Island, out in the middle of Long Island Sound.”
The White Lab, not finding what he was looking for in the Geeky Guy’s crotch, pulled it out, and noticed the Setter squaring off against the Dachshund. She decided to check for herself whether the cream in the Dachshund’s latte had turned bad. The Geeky Guy tried to go back to his spreadsheet, but now the Crazy Dog Lady was standing over him, telling her story.
“It was just me and Rex, the family’s border collie in the house. We were the only people on the island most of the winter, and it was cold.”
Chai Latte got a phone call, so he stopped scratching the belly of the Chocolate Lab. The Lab rolled to his feet, wagged his tail, and nosed Chai’s arm. “Go away,” said the drug dealer. “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” The dog nosed him again. “Go on,” said Chai, pushing him away. “Git!”
The Beagle began to curl his lip at me. I maneuvered my briefcase between us. Neither I nor the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker had a clear route to the door.
The Dachshund’s latte fell over on its side, and so did the White Lab, angling for a position to finish it. The Dachshund and the Setter continued to face off, although, by now the Setter had forgotten what she came for. The St Bernard had stopped licking the Recovering Depressive’s hand and had laid down on her feet. He rested his muzzle on the floor, his lips spread to each side, like the skirt of a curtsying courtier, and took a nap. Drool ran in rivulets under the table.
“It turned out that spending the winter with no other human beings on an island in the middle of the ocean is not a good thing for a young woman trying to find herself. I started to get lonely. I fell into despair. I was depressed. I questioned the meaning of my life. Then I decided there was no meaning. It was all pointless. I got suicidal. Nobody and nothing cared whether I lived or died. But Rex saved my life.”
Here’s where the Crazy Dog Lady’s voice began to break.
“I couldn’t kill myself.” She swallowed. “What would become of Rex?”
With all the commotion, no one had noticed that a weather-beaten man in a cowboy hat had strode through the doors of the cafe and stopped to take in the scene. The door swung shut behind him. He looked as though he’d seen a lot, but he had never seen anything like this.
“For the first time, I had meaning and a purpose in my life,” declared the Crazy Dog Lady. “Another person needed me. I had responsibilities.”
The St Bernard began to snore. The Chocolate Lab, getting no more petting from the busy drug dealer, looked for someone else to pet him. He settled on Rabbi ! who was delighted to do so. The Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker took a chance and bolted towards the door, in her haste running into the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. Chivalrous as only a man in a cowboy hat can be, he raised his hat, said excuse me, ma’am, but didn’t step aside nearly quick enough for her.
“I was able to last the winter on that island and, in the spring, when the people came to take over their home, I asked them for the dog. They wouldn’t give him to me, but when I took the ferry back, Rex got on with me. We were together for years, until he died.”
Here the Crazy Dog Lady wiped away a tear. Rabbi !, who had read Christian philosophers as well as Jewish mystics, pronounced her a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith, willing to put complete trust in herself and act independent of social norms. He was about to expound some more when the Setter, being a bird dog and attracted to motion, took off in pursuit of the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker. She began to flap her arms. She often flapped her arms when she got nervous. The setter saw the arms flapping and thought the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker was a wounded bird. She did what Setters do to wounded birds. The Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker began to scream in pain.
Seeing that the Setter had abandoned the fight for the latte, the Dachshund went to claim his prize and was deeply disturbed to find the White Lab had finished it. No Dachshund was going to take that from a White Lab, so he attacked, and a dog fight ensued.
Meanwhile, the Beagle had taken up his baying again. I must’ve given him the creeps. The St Bernhard awoke with all the commotion and gave a slow ruff. Never wanting to be left out, the Chocolate Lab joined the chorus. Chai Latte, who was trying to talk on the phone, screamed to everyone. “Shut the fuck up!” The Crazy Dog Lady continued to bend the Geeky Guy’s ear, who wasn’t listening. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I had heard her story before. She was talking about how, after this particular dog died, she’d devoted herself to the care and advocacy of all dogs.
By this time the Lisping Barista thought she should begin to enforce the rule of no dogs allowed in the cafe. She stepped from behind the counter, tried to get their attention, and asked the dogs to leave. She couldn’t make her voice heard over the din of the dogs and the screams of pain and anger. Besides, they may not have understood her lisp.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat came to the rescue. First, he separated the Setter from the Dog-Fearing iPhone Pecker, who bolted out the door without ever giving thanks, then he assisted the Lisping Barista, who was looking helpless and forlorn. With the aid of his hat and not inconsiderable cow poking skills earned in windy western corrals, and putting himself in perils of dog bites and unwanted licks, he herded the canines out the door while the Lisping Barista held it open. Seeing the purpose of her life leaving, the Crazy Dog Lady left, too, breaking off the end of her story in mid sentence.
If the Lisping Barista had not needed her job, and if she had not already said yes to the Geeky Guy, she might have ridden off with the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat right then. As it was, she gave him a large dark roasted Costa Rican, a chocolate chip cookie the size of a dinner plate, and a job application to complete. She promised she’d give a good word to the manager. A very good word.