A Man, His Beer, and His Dog  Holly Nicole Hoxter



              The woman who makes the lasagnas shows up at the old man's front door on a Saturday with two young girls. The woman is from the church and so are the girls. The girls stand there smiling in coordinating hats and scarves. The woman tells him their names, but he forgets their names as soon as she says them. He shakes their mittened hands. She tells him that the girls are there to take down his dead wife's Christmas tree, but that isn't how she puts it. One of the girls is carrying a plastic bag. He lets the girls inside. The woman says she will be back in one hour.


              The old man points to the tree. He shows them where the boxes are piled and he leaves them an old newspaper and then he limps into the kitchen. He puts his beer in the refrigerator. The girls stand and look at the boxes and the tree. He offers the girls coffee but they are too young for coffee. He already knows they're too young for beer so he doesn't offer. He would offer them milk, but there is only enough for the dog. He sits at the table and drinks his coffee and watches the girls take off their coats and hats and scarves and mittens and lay them down in a pile on the sofa. It is the last day of January and his wife has been dead for one month.


              The man is eighty years old. He wears an old t-shirt inside out, underneath a flannel shirt, tucked into green sweatpants. After they decline the coffee the girls don't look at him. They were probably told to talk to him, cheer him up, like all the church women try to do when they come to visit him. But they are young girls and they have nothing to say to this old man they do not know. He's never been to their church and he knows none of the women who come to visit him. Before she died, his wife asked the women from the church to look in on him. He wonders if the girls had known her.  


              They married when he was fifty-two and she was forty and they never had children together. She had been married twice before. Her first husband had been killed in the war and her second husband brought her to Baltimore and then ran off with her savings, but these men gave her no children.


              The girls take the ornaments off of the tree and wrap them in newspaper. He hears the dog barking in the backyard.


              One of the women from the church gave him the dog— not the lasagna woman, but another one, who makes meatloaves. She didn't ask if he wanted a dog. The women from the church don't ask what you want— they think they know what you want, or else they don't care. The dog has been his for three weeks and it is the first dog he has had since he was a boy. He calls him nothing because he doesn't speak of the dog to other people. He never speaks to the dog because the dog doesn't need to be spoken to. When the old man wants to pet him, the dog comes. When it is time to be fed, the dog sits and waits. When the old man moves toward the door to let him out into the backyard, the dog trots behind him.


              It is a young dog and he is sure he will never awaken to find him stiff and lifeless. He will never have to throw away his food bowl and his squeaky toys and his leash. This dog will outlive him. When the old man dies, the women from the church will come and take the dog to someone else.


              All of the ornaments are packed away in boxes. The girls pull the branches out of the tree, bend them in and pack them away. One of the girls looks at her watch. They stop and talk for a moment and then the girl sits down on the couch and begins cutting cupids and hearts out of a large piece of vinyl she pulls from the bag she brought with her.


              These girls make him think of his daughters from his first marriage. They don't look like his daughters, and they are probably not even sisters, but they are young and they are girls. His daughters are much older now, grown women, but he remembers them most at this age, right before he and his first wife divorced and he no longer saw them.


              The girl tries to hang the hearts and cupids in the front window, but the tape isn't holding and the vinyl shapes slide and slant. She growls at the decorations and the other girl smiles at her. The old man stands and his chair squeaks against the kitchen floor as he pushes it back from the table. The girls jump and look back at him as if surprised to remember they are not alone. Then the surprise fades and they smile at him. He nods his head and tries to think where his wife would have kept the tape. He opens the cabinet above the telephone. He finds cans and cans and cans of pork and beans, corn, sweet potatoes. He opens more cabinets and finds more and more cans.


              He walks toward the girls in the living room. They are busy with their task and they do not look up at him. He goes upstairs to his bedroom. His wife had her own bedroom across the hall. His snoring kept her awake at night. In the last month he has spent more nights in his dead wife's bed than his own.  


              He means to find a roll of tape and take it downstairs to the girls, but he sits down on his bed instead and stares at the pictures on his wall. The photographs downstairs are all professionally framed, but these few pictures here, in his bedroom, are stuck to the wall with thumb tacks. There is a picture of him and his dead wife on their wedding day, simply dressed, on the steps of the courthouse. His daughters when they were very small one Christmas morning grinning in their pajamas with uncombed hair. His only grandson in his baseball uniform.


              When his older daughter married she began to visit the old man again, with her new husband and later with their son, until the boy drowned in the ocean the summer before his eighth birthday. The photo on the old man's wall was taken the spring before that trip to the beach. Just before winter that year, his daughter and her husband moved to Delaware and visited less often and then not at all. His younger daughter calls on his birthday but he has not seen her since the older daughter's wedding.


              The old man sits on the bed and looks at his pictures. He waits for the lasagna woman to come back and pick up the girls. They are nice girls, but he doesn't want to go down and say goodbye.


              He stares at his photos until the doorbell rings. He waits. It rings again, and then he hears the door open and the lasagna woman talking. He can hear their muffled voices through the floor. The girls tell her that the old man has gone upstairs. She calls up the stairs but he doesn't answer. They wait quietly and then one of the girls suggests that he may be on the toilet. The old man smiles.


              Finally, they yell goodbye and they go. He hears the door shut behind them.


              The old man walks downstairs and surveys the damage. The tree is gone and the window is full of crooked hearts. But there is so much they overlooked, so much that couldn't be undone and packed away in an hour.


              They've forgotten the manger. They probably didn't even notice half of the snowmen she put in random places all around the house. There's the mistletoe by the door, the red and green candles, the mini-Christmas tree by the stairs, the electronic Mr. and Mrs. Claus who nod their heads and ring bells and sing Christmas songs.


              The old man lets the dog in. He pours the rest of the milk in a bowl and sets it on the floor for the dog. He gets his beer from the refrigerator. He opens a can of dog food and sits in his chair. The dog comes to him and sits in front of his chair and the old man feeds the dog with a spoon.


              They've taken the tree and next week when they come back they will probably notice the rest of it. They will pack it all up and straighten out the hearts in the window and watch him eat the lasagna or the meatloaf or whatever they've baked for him and they will smile as he chews.


              The man sits with his dog and his beer and looks around at a million little things that remind him of her. Next week they will come and take more of it away, and he will let them. He will eat their lasagna and smile between bites and when they leave he will have another beer and let the dog in and he will be able to stop smiling then because the dog doesn't need him to smile. And then they will go back to the church on Sunday and they will ask everyone to pray for him, and that will be alright—it's all alright, really—because it's exactly what she wanted.