THE VISITOR
1990

Mrs. Glenn poured milk over Butch's Cheerios, set the bowl down on the floor, and then moved painfully over to her own chair.  Tiger, her elderly black and gray cat, mostly gray now, sniffed briefly at the bowl and moved slowly away.  Margery smiled down at him; even as a kitten, Tiger had been very particular about his food, and now that he was fourteen, his investigations were more a matter of habit than anything else.  The clock over the stove chimed the hour, and Margery glanced anxiously at the screen door.  By four o'clock, Butch was usually pressing his face against that screen, staring impassively up at her and waiting to be invited in.  He never barked.  He never hurried in when she opened the door for him, but marched soberly past her toward his dish, looking for all the world like a small and serious banker in a chocolate-colored coat.  He even ate slowly and deliberately, pausing to look up at her while she told him what her married daughter, Deborah, had said to her on the telephone that morning, how her two grandchildren were doing in their new school, and how much she missed them now that they had moved too far away to visit.  Her daughter had begged her to come with them; her daughter had been worried about her diabetes.  Margery had been worried too, but she couldn't bear the thought of someone else in her garden.  Tiger's brother Sam was buried in that garden, in the corner by the fence, and she was afraid that other people might not respect her little "graveyard".  So she had stayed.

     Fifteen minutes later, Margery got up slowly and carried the soggy bowl of cereal over to the sink.  He wasn't coming.  She stood for a moment at the sink, staring down at the bowl, and was startled to find herself in tears.

     Butch wasn't even her dog.  She had no idea whom he belonged to or what his real name was.  He had just appeared one hot afternoon about a month ago, his flat face just reaching the screen, his slanted eyes watching her pour a cup of tea and take a few cookies from the breadbox.  She had always had tea with her grandchildren every day at four o'clock, and she had seen no sense in stopping a tradition that stretched back into her own childhood just because there was no one to share it with.  She had nearly dropped her cup when she had finally noticed him; he hadn't made a sound.  She had never seen quite so strange-looking a little dog before.  He had a short, brindled coat the color of dark chocolate, striped with shades of deeper brown.  Impossibly large ears stood bolt upright on his head, fanning gently at the August bugs that flickered around them.  When he had realized that Margery was looking at him, he pointed those enormous ears straight at her.  His head was large too, too big for the misshapen little body, and he had no muzzle to speak of and hardly any tail.  She had noted immediately his powerful shoulders and sleek, curved body and wondered if he would try to bite her if she opened the screen door to shoo him away.

     She had opened the door very cautiously, intending to shut it in his face if he made any move to attack her, but he was surprisingly quick, slipping like an eel around her ankles and trotting over to lie down on the braided rug underneath her kitchen table.  Once there, he had settled down with his chin between his paws and let out a sigh that was almost human.  The sight of his large head flattened between his paws and his slanted eyes gazing up at her was too comical for her to resist; she had laughed at him then and had poured him his first bowl of cereal and milk.

     Since that first visit, the little dog had arrived punctually every day at four o'clock.  Never a rude or a boisterous guest, he had eaten his milk and cereal and settled down on the braided rug while she had her own tea and told him stories.  He wore no collar, so Margery had chosen a name for him herself, to use in their conversations.  She called him "Butch", in deference to his solid build and unruffled demeanor.  Tiger had been very suspicious of him at first, but when he realized that Butch had absolutely no intention of moving from his braided rug, let alone getting up to chase an old cat, Tiger finally settled down next to him.  Every day, the three of them had gathered together in the kitchen, having their tea.

     Now, he was apparently gone.  The kitchen felt terribly empty without him; even Tiger paced anxiously back and forth across the rug beneath the table.  Margery moved away from the sink and headed toward a small pile of papers on the old desk in the corner of the kitchen and carefully searched through them until she extracted a photograph.  The snapshot showed Butch stretched out on his rug, his legs angled straight out behind him, with Tiger curled up against him, both of them asleep.  She hurriedly pushed the picture into her purse, pulled on her coat, and slipped quietly out the front door.

     "JEWETT" the mailbox proclaimed in freshly painted white letters.  After more than an hour of searching, Margery was grateful to shift her weight from her swollen feet, and she leaned heavily against the sturdy wooden upright that supported the mailbox.  She glanced up the neatly swept walk at the house beyond.  Her search for Butch had led her up countless walks looking much like this one, with its closely clipped lawn and tidy border of flowers.  She hated to admit that she was too tired to go on looking any longer, but she was hot and exhausted even with the light breeze, and her feet hurt her more than she cared to think about.  She sighed and looked at the little house at the end of the walk; it looked like her daughter Deborah's house, small but kept up, and the enormous pile of brush blocking the garage door put her in mind of Deborah and her son-in-law.  It was just like them to work hard all day and then come home to grub in the back garden half the night.  The two of them were always in the middle of some project or other.

     Margery had never met the couple who lived in this house, although she had known the previous occupants for years, before for their family had grown too large for the three small bedrooms and they had sold the house and moved away.  She hardly knew any of the new people in her neighborhood; the older residents often referred to all of them, and not too favorably either, as "those Yuppies, moving in and trying to take over" but to Margery they seemed very much like her daughter and her son-in-law:  ambitious, eager young couples, both working, trying to get ahead, and finding it increasingly difficult to find time in their busy schedules for raising families.  Quality time was all they ever talked about, and they never seemed to have enough of it.  Margery smiled, wondering what Deborah would think if she knew her mother was wandering all over the neighborhood, knocking on strangers' doors, and asking about a dog that wasn't even hers!

     She shifted her weight carefully back onto her sore feet and moved slowly up the walk.  There was enough time left for one more house.

     Susan Jewett had just lain down on the couch when the front doorbell rang.  She was in no hurry to get up to answer the door.  All morning and most of the afternoon, she had been clearing out the brush at the foot of her enormous back yard, and she had found one of the boards broken and pushed aside at the corner of the stockade fence behind the bushes.  She had suspected her mother's dog, Francois, from the start.  Her Pugs, Willie and Max, were not given to prying boards off fences, but Francois was perfectly capable of doing just that.  She put them all in the back yard for an hour or so every afternoon, while she tried to get done everything she had to do before her husband came home from work.  She shuddered to think that Francois had actually been wandering around the neighborhood, up to who knows what, when she had believed him to be safely tucked away behind the fence.  Willie and Max never wandered away; even with the gate open, they only came round to the front door and barked and scratched until she let them in.  She felt sorry for her mother's dog.  Even now, Francois lay sullenly on the braided rug that her mother had made for him, his bat ears pinned flat against his head, growling ominously at the Pugs whenever they came too close.  Susan felt suddenly sad; she had so much wanted to provide a good home for her mother's beloved little dog, but it was clear that, even after a year, Francois, Willie, and Max were barely on speaking terms.

     The doorbell rang again.  Wearily, Susan got up to answer it, two noisy Pugs following closely at her heels.  An elderly woman stood on the front steps, her face flushed from the unaccustomed exertion and, Susan suspected, from tears.  The woman hesitantly handed Susan a small photograph, but before Susan even had a chance to glance at it, she felt a small form slip past her ankles and watched as her mother's little French Bulldog trotted quickly down the steps and finally headed for home.

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