If only Eustacia
Vye had been there waiting, her raven hair flowing, behind her the autumn
colors of the moor. But no, for a greeting there was only the sultry August
heat of Evanston, Ill. and the sight of CTA buses spewing exhaust over Asbury
Avenue. I shuffled along, coming home. I had been a second-team All-Big Ten
cornerback at Northwestern, I had played in the East-West Shrine Game and the
Coaches' All-America Game, I had been the eighth draft pick of the Kansas City
Chiefs, and I had been cut.
Dogs walked past
me and sneered, not bothering to bark. Cicadas droned contemptuously. Tree
leaves rattled like bones. It was more like the return of the Fuller Brush man
than the native, so dismal was my welcome.
Feeling as low as
a puddle, I trudged the final block to my old college-days residence—a toadlike
three-story frame house containing 20 rooms and anywhere from eight to 16
occupants, depending on the season—and tried to plan my entrance speech. Should
I be apologetic: "Sorry guys, I, I...let you down"? Or matter-of-fact:
"Yeah, I got the ax"? Or defensive: "Well, I've never seen you do
anything but hold down this damn front porch"? Or philosophic: "You win
a few, you lose a few; some get rained out"? It was a cagey group I would
be rejoining and there was no telling what the best defense would be.
When I was half a
block away, I decided to use the absurd approach and enter laughing
hysterically, thus taking the fight to them. I was thinking whether that attack
would be sufficiently disarming when suddenly I detected a blur of brown
streaking toward me, a neighborhood dog that had forgotten the neutrality code
and was blatantly and wholeheartedly attacking.
My despair was
complete when from a distance of 20 feet I recognized the dog as my own Leo, my
own little flap-eared beagle, now transformed into a 40-pound bullet of howling
madness. Am I an outcast even to man's best friend? I thought. Feeling myself a
tragic hero I bared my neck and leaned forward.
Just as Leo was
prepared to leap for my jugular vein, he skidded to a halt. He circled once,
sniffing, and began to jump up and down, squeaking and yipping for joy.
blurted, feeling myself return from the dead. "Yes. Yes, my little
pedigree! It is I, your human. Oh, yes! Circle and dance and remember! You
cannot forget your favorite, can you, my little sweetmeat?"
I was so happy
that I bent down to give him an ear rub. But as I did so he shot off like the
wind after a wayward squirrel and I was left crouching on the sidewalk watching
him disappear as suddenly as he had arrived. I straightened up, grabbed my bag
and proceeded solemnly toward the house. I decided to forget my plan of attack
for rejoining my friends and simply to play the situation by ear. That was the
only thing to do.
In the front yard
everything was exactly as it had been one month earlier before I had left. The
grass was brown and dusty, the garden bristled with poison ivy and beer cans,
and Mac and the Cannery Row boys were lazing in the sparse pools of shade
afforded by our lone, curving elm tree. The boys were expecting me, I guess.
They'd read the paper. From their various positions of recline on the grass,
the porch steps and the glider, not one of them stirred to acknowledge my
presence. I shuffled through the dust and sat down amidst a cloud of stuffing
on the red leather couch that reposes like an anchor in our front yard, feeling
uncommonly weary. Someone handed me a beer and I drank it. Then someone handed
me another beer, and I drank that one, too. The same hand offered me a third. I
felt much better.
I was daydreaming
when one of the boys who was lazing on the couch beside me raised up and
chucked a crumpled beer can at the growing pile next to the steps. He opened
another with a tranquil pop and then he said to me: "Hey, Rick, how was
Kansas City?" It was an entirely normal thing to say.