Coal is a pug who lives across the street. Coal is roly-poly and black as a lump of anthracite. He belongs to an older couple, Roger and Terry.
Roger is tall and gaunt, with a white crewcut. He worked at the Post Office for many years. Then he worked for the printer who prints architectural drawings. He still wears the company T-shirt when he works in the yard. He has a heart condition, he says.
You don’t see Terry that often. Short and stout, she uses a cane to go a few steps. She flicks leaves and trash with the cane. She has had two surgeries on her knees, and a third is scheduled, to remove scar tissue. The new doctor says old Dr. Schildwachter did a poor job. I saw old Dr. Schildwachter about my knees, I say, and he was no help at all.
Roger and Terry live in the walk-out basement of their brick bungalow, because Terry can’t negotiate stairs. They have two grown children who live in North Carolina. You never see them visit. Coal fills in for the absent grandchildren.
Three or four times a day, Roger brings Coal outside on a leash. The front yard is mowed grass, with roses, azaleas, and a dogwood tree. Roger holds a scoop with a long handle like a hoe. As I sit in the living room, I hear Roger’s voice.
“Come on, Coal! Do your business. Come on!”
If I am sitting on the front porch, and Coal comes outside, I stick a finger in the book I am reading to mark the page, and I cross the street. I wave at Coal and say hello. His black eyes bulge, and he looks like a big fat bug. I bend down, and he licks my hand.
“Are you animal, vegetable, or mineral?” I ask.
Coal wriggles and squirms as I pet him in his harness. He is old, Roger says. His hind legs wobble. They give way, and he flops on his belly. Roger takes him to the vet for this and that—kidneys, bowel trouble, a condition that requires a special type of food. Coal smells of baby powder from the dog groomer. He barks as I leave, my finger still stuck in the book I was reading. His bark is more of a squeak.
Roger used to walk Coal around the park nearby. Now the dog is too feeble, so Roger takes him there in a baby stroller. Coal sits up, his tongue hangs, and his eyes pop from his head.
The park is small and square. People walk their dogs, and they walk around the perimeter, and they run laps. The park has a basketball court, a jungle gym, a slide, and swings. The swing frame stands in a trapezoid of wood chips. A blue tube fountain sprays in summer. People bring their children to play in the sun.
The children flock to the baby stroller, and Roger pauses. He tells the children who Coal is. They stroke the little dog’s glossy black coat, and he snorts with pleasure. Coal is so happy, he glows.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Christian Science Monitor, Fiction International, Louisville Review, and Saturday Evening Post.