“These things always happen in threes”. At least that was the particular wisdom that Molly Hargate had to share with me that one summer night when my angel, Gabriel, came knocking on my door. Okay, not really knocking…more like scratching and wagging his brushy tail up against my loose screen door until I had to get up from reading the evening’s paper and investigate why Buddy Rich was ripping off a good, long drum solo on my front porch.
Gabriel is a dog, you see. Not just any dog, either. Gabriel is what my new Vet, Doc Townsend, calls a 100% pedigree-without-the-paper Golden Retriever. To me he’s my new best buddy and let me tell you, at 69 years of age a body learns to let the little things go and appreciate a fella for what he is. Which is an angel. An angel on four paws.
Getting back to Mrs. Hargate (who I think is a little sweet on me but she’s not Italian), she’s of the opinion that all momentous things in life happen in groups of threes and will whip out a year’s worth of her National Enquirer collection to show you that yes, two movie stars and a wanna-be all died within months of each other and yes, all three kids on TV’s Different Strokes had to enter rehab…three times. Never mind that two of those movie stars were old enough to have started in silent films and the third was born a Hemingway which pretty much dooms you to an early grave right there.
Anyhow, Hargate calls my Gabriel “Angel # 2” because my son, Joe Jr., and his wife finally popped me out a grandchild, named Angelina DeMarco appropriately enough, so Angelina is Angel # 1, Gabriel is Angel # 2, and old lady Hargate is holding off her own imminent demise until she finds out who or what is the third angel in my life. I try to tell her that my late wife Lucy was my first angel but the old hag just wags her wrinkled finger, bats those $2.99 fake eyelashes (that look like dead spiders) at me, and declares “that’s not the same thing”. Women. Go figure.
Number 2 or not, Gabe is all he-man boy doggy and as such, he has a lot of dignity and carries himself well. He’s also scary-smart. Almost from the get-go he trained me to have his food dish ready to go at 8:00am sharp (wet food, not dry), pay attention to his door scratching—unless I want to clean up another accident by the fridge again, and if I expect him to interrupt a nap and come running when I want us to take a walk around the park, I’d better call out “Gabe” and not “Gabriel”.
Even if his tag did say “Gabriel” when I rescued him.
Maybe “rescued” is a little strong. I think it’s more like he rescued me. I was powerful lonely when Gabe’s tail started rat-ta-tat-tatting on my door and I might have been in what my son calls the “funky dumps” after my Lucy passed on, so Gabe showing up when he did seemed to be just what the doctor ordered—or maybe a gift from above so I’ll go with that angel business although I don’t think angels are supposed to pay that much attention to their rear ends.
Gabriel. 510-555-2626—that’s what his tag read when I opened the door that night. No owner’s name, no vaccination notice, just the name and number on a blue brushed-aluminum square attached to a very manly brown leather collar. Gabe had squatted his hind legs on my “Welcome to New Jersey—now go home!” welcome mat; golden hair all shiny and in place, and had given me that lop-sided Retriever grin that framed about ten miles of tongue. Being as smart as he is, he waited a minute while I glanced up-and-down our street to see if anybody was looking for him, and then he came in to get better acquainted.
Oh sure, we’ve been roommates for about six months now but I tried to do the right thing that first night—once I got him some water and some left-over potato salad from Omar’s. I called and called on that number but all I got was a “We’re sorry—you’re call cannot be completed at this time”. Well, what I discovered is that my call cannot be completed at any time which I find to be pretty strange since a number that ends in “2626” has got to be reassigned to somebody.
Like I said, I did the right thing: running next door to Molly Hargate’s (who knows everybody’s business in town) to see if she knew about a lost dog—that took up about a half-hour of my life listening to her Angel # 2, gift from God, “it-happens-in-threes” speech, and then I took my old legs around the block looking for “missing dog” posters or a concerned owner.
A reward would not have been an unwelcome surprise.
Well, we’re stuck with each other. Gabe does all the good doggy stuff—like lying curled up at the end of the bed to keep my feet warm, and letting me know when I’ve left something on the stove too long…he’s a real good watch dog. He’s cut those visits by people with those religious pamphlets down to next-to-nothing. Having worked in the post office for umpteen-million years, and having been married for forty, I’ve grown comfortable with a regimented life-style so Gabe and I settled into an nice, easy rhythm—I give him his space, and he gives me back my old bedroom slippers.
Time passed and I had put Molly Hargate’s prediction of a third angel totally out of my mind until Gabe decided that my doctor was right and we did need more exercise than our once-a-day walk around the park. Out of the blue, Gabe decided that there was something going on down at the end of Crawford Street that we just had to see.
I was down to my last rock when Gabe got this notion into that thick golden head of his.
My memory not being as good as it once was, I got into the habit of placing three stones from my driveway into my jacket pocket and throwing one away every time Gabe and I pass that stone statue of a guy on a horse that I never heard of. One stone—one lap around the park. No stones left—it’s Miller time.
I had just thrown the last stone away when I felt a tug on the leash and both Gabe and I were barreling out of the park, almost colliding with a man coming out of the Super-Value store, and stumbling/running down Crawford like my hair was on fire and the Atlantic Ocean was the only body of water big enough to put it out. Now, I don’t know about you, but these old muscles don’t work as well as they used to so once we got going there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. We must have run a half-mile. Right past a 7-11, a nails shop—all the way down to where they have the storefront entrance to the Senior Resources Center.
The Senior Resources Center is where a lot of disadvantaged people go to get information and referrals on social services, low-cost housing, and twice-a-day they run a lunch counter—handing out sandwiches and coffee and I think they have a card game or two. I don’t know. I’d never been there.
The windowed door to the small building is tinted but that didn’t stop Gabe from squishing his head up against it and trying to peek inside and leaving a slobbery imprint on the glass. I was beyond winded and my legs were shaking and I was seriously trying to remember if I had taxi money on me when the door opened and Gabe jumped up onto a small woman. Her hands flew to her throat as she exclaimed: “Gabriel!”
It was Annie…Annie Santini.
I shouldn’t have recognized her. It’s been at least thirty-five, forty years and we hadn’t kept in touch all that time. My last memory of Annie Santini was seeing her off to post-graduate work on the west coast, crying a little, exchanging addresses, and promising to stay in touch even though we both knew we never would. Whenever I wanted to get Lucy’s goat a little I’d bring out the old college yearbook and say: “You see, Luce? The ‘one that got away’. My, but you’re the lucky one—marrying me! Why, you almost missed the Brass ring.”
My Lucy was a grand lady.
“Joseph? Is that you?” Annie was staring at me with wonder and simultaneously trying to calm Gabe down.
I said, “Annie Santini. I haven’t seen you in ages. What are you doing back in this neck of the woods?” Gabe’s eyes swiveled back-and-forth between Annie and me.
Something dark passed over her eyes. She said, “It’s McAdams now. Annie McAdams. I married George McAdams but he…he passed away…oh, years ago.”
“Oh Annie, I’m so sorry. I lost my wife Lucy back in 2010. I don’t think you knew her. God, I don’t know what to say but, but…you’re looking well.”
And she was. Annie still looked vibrant, with her natural Italian dark looks and her hair still not silvered and cut short but stylish…not a throwaway cut just for the sake of convenience. She didn’t look a pound over the hundred and ten I had known her to be in the past. I suddenly felt self-conscious with my gray head and less-than-perfect weight.
She graciously said, “You look wonderful—but I don’t understand. How did you find me? How did you know Gabriel was mine?”
Mine? My heart sank.
Recovering as quickly as I could, I said, “We have to catch up. Listen, can I buy you lunch? I mean, brunch? There’s a little sandwich shop right around the corner that has a couple of tables outside. They’ll let me have Ga…Gabriel there and we can talk. What do you say? Can you get off work here? That is what you do…you work here, right?”
Annie’s face curiously turned red and she cast her eyes back into the building. “Yes,” she said, “I think I’m through for the day. You go ahead and get us a table and I’ll catch up with you. Are we talking about Sullivan’s?”
I tugged on Gabe’s leash. “Yeah. Right around the corner. See you in five?”
Annie smiled a little smile. “Ten.”
Gabe didn’t want to leave Annie’s side but I dragged him around the corner and found a wrought-iron table to tie him to. He just sat there looking at me with that loopy grin while my stomach did backflips at the thought of losing him.
“Traitor.” I muttered under my breath.
Annie came around the corner and I appraised her more fully as she came and sat at the table. She had on a simple flowery dress, modest but stylish and she clutched a small purse that matched the pastel pink of the flowers on her dress. She wore little makeup and I was pleased to see she wore simple amethyst studs in her ears, not the clunky hoola-hoops like I see so many women of her age wear. She looked as nervous as I felt.
I had trouble getting started. We ordered, a ham-on-rye for her, a corned beef for me (even though I know half of it is going to Gabe), and we both settled on iced tea. We tried small talk but finally I had to blurt it all out.
“I swear to God, Annie. I tried to find Gabriel’s owner—you, but the number on his tag kept coming up ‘no connection’.” Gabe laid his head on my lap and gave me a soulful look.
Annie put her hand on my arm. “Joe, it’s alright. I really can’t keep Gabriel anyway. The reason why you can’t get me on the phone is because it’s disconnected.”
“Joe,” she said, “I’m homeless.”
I was shocked. I must have been staring because she continued, “Surprising, right? Not everyone who is homeless has holes in their shoes and sleeps in a cardboard box.”
I couldn’t help it, I was tongue-tied. I stammered, “What happened? I mean, was it your husband? Was it you? Did one of you get sick for a long time? What?” I felt as if I had embarrassed her.
Annie took a sip of her tea and said, “You’d be surprised how often this happens. Yes, George developed a sickness, dementia, and over the years the health care just ate up our savings. We have a son and he wants to help but he has children of his own and there’s only so much he can do. Can you believe it? Ten years ago we had a house, a car, we had stocks—Goldman Sachs killed that for us. I mean, after a while I just couldn’t keep up. I had to retire early to care for George—eventually I lost it all. And now…” She sighed, “…all I’ve got is Social Security and even that isn’t enough.”
Her tears welled up and I remembered that sad young girl, kissing me goodbye, her eyes filled with the same tears but her heart filled with excitement for the life she was leaving me for.
I said, “Oh Annie, what can I do?” She reached down to pet Gabe.
“You can take care of Gabriel for me. They’ve been letting me stay in a back room at the Center in exchange for a little kitchen help, but there’s no room for Gabriel there. Probably why he ran off…” Annie gave me a wan smile. “I make a mean bologna sandwich, though.”
Gabe was sneaking his sandwich off of my plate as I thought of my little house—a second bedroom just sitting there; empty since Joe Jr. got married. I must have sat in my old sofa chair for years, bitching about the gas prices and taxes, and bemoaning the fact that I had to buy the cheap bottled water. I felt suddenly ashamed.
I grabbed Gabe’s chin, wiped off a sliver of corned beef, and pressed him to my ear.
“What’s that, boy? You think what? Well, that’s a mighty big responsibility for a dog to take on. Yes, yes—I know you’re not just any dog but maybe you ought to think it over…what? Well, if you feel that strongly about it…” I released Gabe’s head and like the old shyster that he is, he barked. I looked at Annie’s amused face.
“Now that I’ve conferred with my furry partner, here’s what we’re going to do…”
* * *
We had to woo her. Over her protestations, Gabe and I came down every day—buying her lunch, hanging around watching card games , and we even ate one of her fabled bologna sandwiches in the park till she eventually crumbled and moved into her new home.
I must have recited “strictly platonic, Annie! Strictly platonic!” a hundred times before Molly Hargate’s prediction of the third angel came true. Oh, and if you haven’t guessed it by now—we used to call Annie “Annie” in college because she wasn’t fond of her Christian name: “Angelica Rose Santini”.
“These things always happen in threes.”
And for me…they did.
Dedicated to the McAdamses…thanks for the inspiration.