Bernie

We had been waiting for the couple to leave for thirty-five minutes. Thirty minutes before, Beth turned the open sign to closed on the glass door entrance. They had finished eating and had been sipping on decaf coffee for almost an hour. Beth continued to give them refills and even made another pot when the taller woman asked for her cup to be topped off. Beth explained that it would take a few minutes since she had to make a new pot. The woman simply replied, oh, I don’t mind the wait. If our manager was here today, she would know how to tell them to leave but instead it is just Beth and me, too polite to feel comfortable telling a pair of regulars that they need to scram so we can close up for the day. Two customers who should be able to discern when their supposedly favorite cafe is closed and that their favorite server, Beth, was doing everything she could do to make that point clear. I stayed in the back, doing all the dishes, including the plates and cups which are Beth’s responsibility. I did the breakfast prep for tomorrow, put in our produce and meat orders, and made a new batch of chocolate bread pudding. Beth occasionally came into the back to ask advice or report what they are talking about in low voices. Apparently a friend of theirs who was in hospice killed herself and now they were worried that the dead woman’s husband who was undergoing chemo would follow her lead. This information was both sad and frustrating because it meant that we really could not just toss them out. Instead Beth continued to bring them coffee and I worried about Bernie. 

I went into the dining room to help them get the hint. We were refilling the salt and pepper shakers when the shorter customer, the one who still dyed her hair jet black even though her eyebrows were pale silver, said, oh my goodness, you girls should have said something, and reached for the bill that Beth had put on their table an hour earlier. She held the bill at arm’s length and squinted. They had identical orders, as usual. Since it was a Sunday, there had been more food, mizuna salads and an olive plate, a roast fowl for each, and lemon souffle for dessert. They had been coming into the cafe since I first started working there but had never given their names, never used a cheque or credit card so we could suss out the information that way. Occasionally, one would come without the other. The short one would come with three or four other women while the tall one preferred solitude and the company of a thick book. I assumed that is how they managed to live together, by allowing the other one to exist as they pleased rather than moulding themselves into one awkward creature as some couples are wont to do. I admired them for this as I admired their anonymity. The short one pulled out her wallet and the tall one asked, do you have it? The short one, busy sorting dollar bills and change, nodded. Then, as was their policy, she pulled out a ten dollar bill and put it on the table. It was less than the recommended twenty percent but it was the same tip they left every visit, even if all they had was a cup of coffee and the tip was more than the bill. Averaged out over time, I suppose. They left the pile of cash on the check tray, thanked us, and left. We walked to the front door, waved them off through the glass, and once they were out of sight, pulled in the sandwich board that Beth had folded and leaned against the brick wall as well as the giant ceramic pot of pansies and rosemary that required both of us to move it. Locking the door behind me, Beth went to the register to calculate our profits and tips while I took the couple’s coffee cups and souffle plates to the kitchen. It only took us about fifteen minutes to close up but it was still long past our scheduled quitting time. Usually we lingered a bit in the parking lot to chat but Beth’s boyfriend was waiting for her and Bernie was waiting for me. 

I drove home through the warm but fading afternoon light that cut through the oaks and magnolia trees that lined the two-laned streets of the historic district, making a lace of light and shadow that I passed through without interruption. Sundays were quiet days. Despite the steeples that punctuated the neighborhood’s skyline, most people observed the day of rest without pews and hymns. Until recently, I had lived in a university town before where Sunday was the day you recovered from Saturday night. I preferred the silence to be intentional rather than a side effect of headaches and empty beer cans.  *She does not drive home because she lives and works in the 4th ward.

I never had a Sunday off since my boss was a devout Catholic but it was fine with me since the atmosphere was very different for brunch. Lunch could be stressful because of all the workers impatient to return to their desks and dinner was often infected with the anxiety of the romantics, trying to make a good impression with their scant knowledge of artisanal cheese and boutique wines. Brunch was packed with people who woke up late and were hungry for Belgian waffles and blue cheese frittata. Customers had nothing to lose at brunch, no one to impress, no time card that needed to be punched. They would wait on the benches that lined the brick walls in front of the entrance and read their newspapers, often sharing sections with strangers, or just talking to each other about everything that had happened in the world, at large or small, in the past few days. Our boss had a strict no-screens rule that customers followed without protest. A few would leave their phones on, keeping it on vibrate mode, but most would turn their phones completely off. Since most of the customers had grown up without smartphones or even computers, this policy relieved them of the burden of being connected to everyone and everything all at once. They could connect with fellow diners and that was all they needed. 

I had not owned a phone since I broke the last one in an argument with Peter. That had been over a year earlier, when I still thought I could finish my thesis. Peter’s interest in me had begun to wane for a while, ever since I revealed that I preferred baking banana breads to Nietzsche. Peter found the domestic arts to be too mundane, too corporal for attention. We were budding philosophers and should sustain ourselves on nothing but dry toast and coffee, according to him. I found that the further I went in my studies, the more I wished to escape the library for the kitchen. I thought there could be a balance between enjoying earthly pleasures and researching nihilism. Peter did not agree which I believed stemmed from his latent Calvinist tendencies; that despite the fact he considered himself an agnostic, he had failed to escape the dichotomic mindset of his Protestant upbringing. This assessment did not sit well with Peter and he called me a false intellectual, a petite bourgeoisie. I was still deeply immersed in academia at the time, despite my doubts, so this insult was brutal and in response I slammed down the phone on the table, an indignant response for an earlier age, when there were curling cords and receivers and cradles and wires that carried the dramatic declaration of a phone call cut short by rage. My screen shattered against the cherry wood dining table my grandfather, a professor of mathematics, had lent me when I moved out of the dorms and into my own place, needing peace and quiet by which I could analyze the thoughts of Descartes and Spinoza. Peter was a teaching assistant in one of my favorite seminars at the time and possessed both a beautiful mind and body, or a mess of flesh and bones as he described it. In hindsight, I realized we were infatuated less with each other than with the concept of no longer being lonely. The joy of having someone who would discuss simulism in bed with me, who also reached for their book instead of their phone upon waking. With Peter, I had someone who listened and debated with me, whose eyes did not glaze over when I quoted articles nor did his gaze wander when I made what I considered bold connections between concepts that had seemingly nothing to do with the other. My bookcase when we met contained mostly philosophy texts but also a few volumes of poems and collections of essays. When I was packing up to move, I realized that over half of my shelves held cookbooks and what was more, they were the first books I put into the boxes.

When I drove away, Peter stood in the driveway, neither smiling nor waving. He wore his usual black slacks and button down shirt and looked thin, not just structurally as that was something that had attracted me to him, but as if he was fading, like a ghost. And he did fade, from sight, from my days, from my mind. I had been accepted to culinary school but the term did not begin for over six months. I decided to move to the industrial city where the school was and get a job until then. My family was concerned about this sudden shift and did not like me being on my own in a strange city in a strange state. After much discussion, I agreed to audit a graduate seminar on altruism. This was how I came to be the owner of a twelve-year old balding dog with glaucoma. The course required that we partake in an altruistic project where we had to do something completely for someone or something else. I did not have complete the assignment as I was only auditing it but since I was still job-hunting at the time and found myself surprised by all the time I had now that I was no longer a graduate student, I decided to participate. My fellow students were putting coins in parking meters and volunteering at hospices and other human-centric acts of not-so-random kindness. It was better, I thought, to do something completely for something since humans were more likely to find a way to reciprocate and this might be subconsciously weaving expectations into the act. The area animal shelters were all no-kill shelters so there was not a chance of being a hero and rescuing a furry ‘something’ from death row. I drove to three different shelters with only one question: which animal will never be adopted? At the first shelter, it was a German Shepherd-Pitbull mix that had been surrendered after an alleged incident involving a seven year-old girl. The second shelter was home to a three-legged cat with obsessive-compulsive disorder who could not stop licking its left back leg, as if it was trying to reassure it that she would take better care of it than she had its partner. And then, at the third and last shelter, she was introduced to Bernie, part dachshund and part chihuahua and long-term resident. Bernie had been returned to the shelter four times after it was discovered what it was pretty obvious to see, that Bernie was not only old and ugly, his fur being both the color and texture of meatloaf, but absolutely indifferent. When a cat is indifferent, it is expected but dogs are our designated best friends. 

He was neither affectionate nor standoffish. He simply existed without signs of gratitude or fear or anything else that make dogs emotionally relatable. He was absolutely impossible to anthropomorphize. And this meant that everyone who adopted him found themselves disturbed by his apparent apathy. Is he not eating? The shelter staff would ask. No, he’s eating, but it is the way he eats, as if he doesn’t care what is there or who gave it to him. Does he not like going outside? Yes, he goes outside without resistance but it is strictly utilitarian, there is no joy or reaction at all. He does his business and then turns back towards home, like a compass needle pointing due north. If he would have resisted it would have been something, a revelation of preference or dislike but there is none of that. Now that I have lived with Bernie for a few months, I can report that he is not a dog for someone needing a dog. I wrote a long paper on the human emotional dependency on dogs and the professor suggested I consider submitting it to a few journals but I am no longer interested in that world. The fact that I wrote my best paper after I quit academia is rather telling. 

Now that the project is over, I still have Bernie to take care of, whether he cares about it or not, though I knows he does not. Bernie is not heartless because that implies he is mean-spirited. It is not that he is heartless, it is more that he is absent a heart. I still treat him like a project and have continued to keep a journal about his behavior and my reaction to it, though it is not a very scientific journal as the margins are littered with recipes for pumpkin stew and sourdough starter. Bernie has given me something to do, an excuse to get outside even when I feel like hiding in my apartment most days after work. This was part of the thesis for my altruism project; even if Bernie was not giving me what dogs usually provide, even if I was giving him something without expectation of appreciation, I still was gaining more from our relationship than he was because the act of caring for someone else has benefits. 

So I returned home to my century-old brick apartment building with the clanking pipes and paint that fell to the floor in large flakes, shattering on the splintered pine floors like thin porcelain saucers, and found Bernie waiting by the door and though I knew he did not care if it was me or a dog murderer who crossed the threshold, it was good to see the creature, bald spots and all. Not only had Bernie become my motivation for going out but he was also my only companion these days. Carrying a log around with me might have been just as much companionship and less expensive but Bernie provided a social shield for me whereas a log would have only attracted attention. And at least Bernie had legs, and four of them at that. 

Bernie made no eye contact with me as I clipped the black nylon leash to his brown leather collar. He stood on his short legs and I on my own and we went out into the world. When I moved to this city, I wanted to be as near to the school as possible so I would not have to drive. I had been lucky to have a friend who needed someone to take over their place while they worked on their doctoral degree in Germany, choosing the place because of their fascination with neonazis. It would be a few years before he returned so the place was mine until then. His trust fund paid the rent so I was lucky that since my small paychecks from the cafe barely covered me and Bernie. Peter would have called me a hypocrite but Peter was no longer around. He had called twice since I moved but I did not feel like answering and had no intention of returning his call. He did not have a cell phone, considered them a plague upon humanity and did not have a landline since we had just relied on my cell phone, so the call had been from his tiny office on campus. 

When I backed out of his driveway, he called me an idiot. Perhaps it was a revelation of his hurt feelings but Peter was supposed to be beyond hurt feelings, considered emotional reactions to be weak. So that is what I thought when he called me an idiot, with his arms crossed: weak.

Bernie led the way slowly down the stairs. Mrs. Cruz opened her door and looked at us as we passed, saying nothing as usual. My friend who owned the place had warned me about her, saying that she was more like a human security system than a crank. Living alone, it did feel nice to have at least one person in the world aware of my comings and goings.

Out on the sidewalk, we turned right as we always did to head to the neighborhood park. It was not a grand park but it was big enough for us.The entire district had been renovated recently so most people when they came to the cafe made a point of mentioning their surprise that they were not being mugged or stabbed. Imagine being able to eat brunch uptown or to walk around unmolested on wine tours or art gallery tours or visit the 7th Street Public Market, they would murmur as they decided between the muffin basket and the omelette platter. Yes, there was still the issue of homelessness, they would say, but the panhandling is nothing compared to what it once was, they would add. You could not walk five feet without being harassed. Yes, yes, the place is definitely changing for the better.

In the park, we followed the narrow brick path, always clockwise, always staying on the right side in case of runners or people with dogs who moved quicker than snails. Walking with Bernie was not a means of burning calories. The park was pleasant, with tall oaks and grassy stretches that provided a reprieve from the surrounding concrete. I did not care about the occasional person sleeping in the bushes, especially after I learned that the city had banned sleeping on benches, going so far as to remove them from public areas. Life was already bad enough if you had to sleep on a bench to begin with, let alone getting in trouble for doing so.
There were three points around the park that Bernie paused at, not to rest so much as to stop moving. I would watch the runners and speed walkers and new mothers with jogging strollers while Bernie would stare straight ahead into the void of this wretched existence. I would think about cake recipes I wanted to try and remember tasks at work left undone. And wait for Favorite Runner to go past. 

When I first noticed Favorite Runner, he was running with a blond girl who I assumed was his girlfriend. They were both covered in tattoos and she had a nose ring, an emerald that sparkled in the sun. They were the type of people who took running so seriously that it seemed effortless; they were always chatting and laughing while going at full trot, their breathing not compromising their conversation at all. I had tried to take up running, before I ended up with Bernie, and had been so out of breath after a block that a kind stranger asked me if I was having an asthma attack and offered to let me use their son’s inhaler. 

Favorite Runner was tall and bearded with longish curly hair that he wore in a top-knot while he ran. He did not wear short-shorts like some of the runners, just loose track pants and a grey sleeveless tee-shirt. His running partner, who I assumed was his girlfriend, wore dark pink spandex shorts and a white sports bra, which always reminded me of raspberry pavlova. Her body was on display for everyone to appreciate, thin and fit with a well-defined six pack. She made me feel like Santa’s sack, enormous and lumpy, as I sat with my weird grandpa dog. 

For the past few weeks though, Favorite Runner had been doing the course solo. Now I wore lipstick every time I took Bernie out. Today was no exception except in my haste to get to the park, I grabbed my lip gloss instead of the usual cherry red tube. I did not really expect to see him because I was later than usual but all the same, I wanted to be ready.

We stopped at the first point, just ten feet from the entrance. Bernie would do his business unabashedly right next to the sidewalk and I would clean up after him. Then we would stand for a few minutes more until Bernie was ready to move to the second point. Trying to tug him along before he was ready was not possible nor was the idea of picking him up and walking on. I only picked up Bernie when we visited the vet and even on those rare occasions, it felt invasive. The vet told me that some dogs were like that, and I replied, what, dead inside? and the vet only laughed. I am sure that the vet talks about me and Bernie to her cheerful labrador Angel and they laugh together as they play frisbee in the dog park. I looked down at Bernie, are you ready to go? He just looked straight ahead. The vet said he was not deaf, he just did not seem to want to respond to my voice. 

Finally, Bernie walked along, his pace so slow that it felt like I was moving backward. If I had walked my normal pace, I would have ended up dragging him behind me, which happened a few times after I adopted him. I liked the second point because there was a bench. At the third point, I sat on the grass while Bernie stood next to me. The third point was the longest pause; Bernie was preparing himself for the eternity of the ten minutes it took to return to our building. 

Today, being late, I did not expect to see Favorite Runner so I was surprised when he raced past the second point, on his own as was apparently the new norm. He usually passed us about four times so I pulled my lip gloss out of my pocket and redid my ponytail. I realized as I was doing so that I had not taken a shower after work and that my entire being was slightly greasy from being in the kitchen since eight. I ferventantly tried to wipe my face with the hem of my tee-shirt and in doing this, I was struck by the fact that I was still in my work shirt. All the while, I could hear Peter lecturing me on the trappings of superficiality that time he had caught me putting on eyeliner before we went to a concert. Beauty is a social construct and we are just surrendering to a corrupt capitalistic scheme when we doctor our natural looks with chemicals and dyes, all of which contributes to both moral and environmental decay. It was early days then and I had yet to even make my first batch of almond biscotti. The only cookbook I had then was the coffee-stained Julia Child’s that my grandmother had passed on to me. I only kept it out of sentimentality and thought of it as a good heavy bookend. The first time I opened it was during a blizzard when the power was out and we needed to figured out how to combine the random cans of beans and tomatoes into something edible. I became so enthralled by the recipes and notes that my grandmother had made in the margins that I forgot about lunch until Peter came into the kitchen, curious about the quiet. Seeing what I was reading, he dismissed Child as being bourgeois and declared that he was going to try and make it to the university, where surely their generators were keeping the internet running and he could get some work done. Piecing together various soup recipes and a withered eggplant, I ended up with a bowl of steaming bean ratatouille in front of me. Before that moment, my recipe for soup had been one can of water for one can of concentrated goo. Additional attention to such a humble meal seemed pointless but sitting there, eating spoonful after spoonful of my first soup, I thought about how ridiculous it was that we spent so much time focusing on the mind but not the body as if one did not affect the other. The pale winter light came through the kitchen window and the cherry wood of my grandfather’s table glowed amber. I ate all of the soup, saving not even a bowl for Peter. And as I ate, I read The French Chef Cookbook. My grandmother had been famous in the family for her culinary skills but reading her first cookbook, which in turn had become my first cookbook, I saw in her notes a lot of failure and frustration in the kitchen. She herself was a professor of economics and was even rather famous in her field but despite her remarkable strides in academia, she had a determination to be a good homemaker. She wanted to host parties without hiring caterers, wanted to impress her guests with her secret talent, but at first, every attempt ended up in the garbage can. The secret, she wrote on the back page with a hand that must have been older and shakier, is to think about the food, not about those who will dine on the food. It is very simple: know all of your ingredients, care for everything equally, respect the time and temperature restraints, and you will have dishes worth eating. Surrender your entire self to the recipe, heart and soul, and you will have a successful meal. I sat there on that February afternoon, staring at that page, at those words, until Peter returned. It was as if I had been given a sack of gold and had thrown it in the back of the closet without looking to see what was inside. I could not contain my enthusiasm and tried to share some of what I had discovered with Peter. He barely listened as I spoke, his mind still absorbed by his afternoon of comparing post-renaissance  English philosophy against the policies of the Bush administration. When I finished reading my grandmother’s advice to him, he started rambling about the pedestrian insights of Francis Bacon, which only served to remind me of a quiche recipe I had just read in the book. 

This reflection did nothing to change the fact that I was still in my work shirt. I tried to hurry Bernie along but he only looked at me once as if to say Seriously? and continued at his normal dripping pace. Finally we made it to the third point but at that same moment I heard the confident galloping Nike-clad footsteps of Favorite Runner behind me. I pretended to be looking for a dry spot on the grass to look for, despite the fact it had not rained in days. I was very slow and deliberate, waiting for him to pass but when I did not hear him rushing past, I looked up to see what became of him, expecting him to have turned right at the fork in the path. 

I was surprised to see that he had instead come to a stop just a few feet behind me. 

Hey, he said.

Hey yourself, I said.

So you work at Dixie’s? 

Yeah, but only for a few months now.

I haven’t been up there since I quit. 

Oh, you used to work there too?

Yeah, but when I started school, I thought it was better to just concentrate on my studies. So how is Dixie, anyway? 

She’s good. A little eccentric but good. She wants to start serving sushi.

Yeah, Dixie can be a little over the top sometimes. Is Trisha still working there?

Trisha? No, I have never met her if she does.

Oh, you couldn’t miss Trisha. She was the main cook when I was there. A complete card.

I might have been her replacement then. I am the main cook now. Besides for Dixie, of course.

What? I assumed you were front of house. Maybe because that was my position. Wow, a cook.

Yeah, though I did apply for as a server. It just happened that Dixie needed a new cook asap so I mentioned my own amateur efforts. 

You had never worked in a kitchen before?

Nope, so Dixie gave me a few recipes to cook for her as a test. 

And you obviously aced that test. Congrats. 

Thanks. I was really nervous, of course, but it made me feel like I was headed in the right direction. I start over at Johnson and Wales in the fall. 

Really? Johnson and Wales, huh? So you are like really committed to being a cook. That’s pretty awesome.

What about you? Where do you go to school?

Oh, I am up at UNC. Only one more year.

That’s good. What’s your major?

The lifetime unemployment major: philosophy.

Oh, wow. That is interesting.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I will probably end up in law school but right now I am just trying to learn, you know, really learn about this human experience. 

Then he bent down to do something that would never occur to me- he petted Bernie’s greasy head, scratched behind his tattered ears. 

Hey there, buddy, he said in a soft voice. What’s his name, he asked, looking up at me.

Um, Bernie. But I wouldn’t touch him if I were you. I mean, he’s had a bath and all but he’s always kinda grimey.

What? No, it is just his fur type. He’s got some terrier in him, right?

Terrier? I don’t know, I mean, it is possible. 

Yeah, terriers have a shiny, wiry coat that can look a little greasy, as you said. 

Oh, I see. 

Right, Bernie? He continued talking to Bernie in cooing tones. Bernie looked away. 

I think it is interesting how people always somehow choose dogs that look like them. Like they are psychologically seeking to be friends with themselves.

Huh? Wait, are you saying that Bernie and I look alike?

 Yeah. You don’t see it? You are both small with reddish brown hair, serious looking but, if I may, very cute.

You think Bernie is cute?

Yeah, of course! Look at his sweet mug! Here he cupped Bernie’s chin and pulled it towards him. Bernie continue to look off into space.

I have seen you guys out here every day for months now and I have wanted to stop and talk for months now, to pet this little guy. My sister was always with me so it felt a little awkward. Especially since she is the one who first pointed you and Bernie out. She has a major crush on Bernie.

The whole family is crazy.

Hey, would you like to hang out sometime? Get some coffee? Oh, we could go to that new dog park across town. I don’t mind driving.

Um, I am not sure. I am busy with work most days.

But you are closed on Mondays and I don’t have class on Mondays, strategic scheduling on my part, eh?

Ha, yeah, I guess Mondays are fine. Yeah, sure.

Okay, what’s your number, actually, first, what’s your name?

It’s Julia, I lied. Jules, for short.

Okay, Jules, nice to meet you. I’m Freddy.

So what are your digits, he asked, phone ready. 

I gave him the string of numbers, careful to exchange the order of the last two digits.

Okay, Jules, well, I will be calling you soon. I am so glad that I finally got the courage to talk to you and Bernie today.

Yeah, um, me too. I look forward to hearing from you. Have a nice run.

Oh, yes, my run. My time is going to be way off today. Okay, talk to you soon.

After he left, Bernie stood and we walked back home. 

Well, Bernie, I said as we climbed the stairs, it looks like we’ll have to find a new park.

Mrs. Cruz poked her head out of her apartment and watched us as we climbed step by slow step up to the third floor.