After leaving behind a relatively successful business career just as the re-engineering and downsizing craze began, I slouched with my eyes half-closed into retirement blues and hit bottom when my wife died. An old friend, sympathizing, invited me to spend a week or two at his home in a retirement village in Florida. The idea appealed to me about as much as taking home leftovers in a doggy-bag, but he was well-meaning and I wanted preserve our friendship, so I accepted. On the third day in Boca Raton I decided to go to the beach. My host excused himself, saying that the ocean was dangerous and there were no lifeguards on duty on weekdays and anyway there were several perfectly good pools in the Village.
I drove past the entrenched retirement villages and shopping malls and over the drawbridge to the deserted beach. At the water's edge the rising sun cast a wavy red line across the sea from the horizon to my ankles. The sea was rough, but I've always been a good swimmer so it didn't worry me. I pushed my way through the breakers to where the chest-high water was relatively calm and floated with my eyes closed. As often happens recently, I went back not to yesterday but way beyond. The decades rolled through my mind like gently rocking waves, tempting me into a kind of half-sleep.
Suddenly a less gentle wave washed over my face, forcing water up my nose. I coughed and righted myself to stand but there was nothing down there to stand on. I looked around for the beach and was shocked that it was so far away. Could I have fallen asleep? No, I saw what happened. Close to where I entered the water the shoreline curved away, so as I drifted along with the strong current the distance between me and the beach widened proportionally.
Instead of trying to reach the now distant shore directly, which might have been beyond my strength, I headed back in the direction from which I came. The free-stroke I started with soon tired me and wasn't all that good for an aging heart, so I floated on my back kicking like a baby in a crib for a while, but couldn't control my direction, so I settled for a side-stroke. But I realized too late that going against the current, which had carried me to where I didn't want to be, wouldn't work.
After unsuccessfully trying to touch bottom for the umpteenth time, I was tempted to just relax and wait for the end. What, after all, did I have to live for? It didn't seem worth the effort or the pain of the heart attack I felt approaching. I read somewhere that someone said the heart isn't really a pump, but a complex of valves, and the blood courses through our bodies of its own volition like the sap in a tree, only faster. Whatever it is, it was telling me now, intimating at least, that life still had some surprises up its sleeve. So I gave it one more try, one last burst of frantic free-stroke, heart or no heart, a short spurt, but enough to pick up the few yards I needed to stand up. As I pressed walking against the undertow toward the beach an ingoing wave picked me up and tumbled me onto the damp sand somewhere between where I'd entered the water and the new shoreline.
I lay there panting for maybe a minute, when I felt something sniffing at my left ear. I opened my eyes and saw the four paws of a small white dog. I looked him in the eye. Could it be that I recognized him? Wasn't this Toto, the dog I'd played with as a child in Brooklyn? Actually he was Dorothy's, my play companion of those days. We used to wrestle, with Toto looking on wagging his tail, in the lobby of the apartment building we both lived in.
I must have passed out, for I was back in that lobby with Dorothy on top of me trying to pin my arms to the floor. I could smell her hair, damp from sweat, on my face. It was winter and the heat from the artificial fireplace spread real warmth over us. From the street you walked down six or seven steps to enter the lobby, I remembered, and a threadbare carpet covered the floor. A small window in an alcove over the mailboxes and a dim overhead bulb provided the only light, and it was all we needed.
I hadn't paid much attention to Dorothy when we sat on our fire-escapes in summer because she was younger and, worse, a girl, until one winter afternoon I went downstairs intending to play touch football on the street with the guys. She was sitting on the carpet in the middle of the lobby playing with a doll and Toto. I watched her for a moment talking to Toto, who was supposed to be the doll's father. She was the mother of course. She didn't notice me, or was ignoring me, which was unacceptable in either case, so I said, "Hey waddaya doin'?"
"Playing house," she answered, glancing up at me, then back to her doll.
"House!" I shouted as though I'd never heard the word before.
"Yeah, wanna play?"
"Sure. Don't you like to play house?"
"Not much." Although I thought I'd make a better father than Toto.
"Wanna wrestle then?"
"I'm smaller and you'd probably win, but I can wrestle."
"Well, OK," I said after a manly pause, "just for a while though, cause I gotta go out."
She sprang to her feet and charged, grabbing me around the waist. Her momentum knocked me over and she jumped on top of me, trying to pin my shoulders. Toto circled around us whining with excitement. With a quick thrust of my groin I heaved her off and climbed over her, but she was wiry and I couldn't pin her. We rolled across the carpet until we bumped into the fireplace, where I let her squirm back on top. She straddled my knee as she struggled to work her way up to pinning position. I put my hand on her head to push her off, but then we were both still and I pushed my fingers through her thick black hair that smelled like peaches. After this brief tableau I shoved her off, straddled and pinned her, simulating a greater effort than it really was.
All that winter we managed to be in the lobby at the same time in the afternoon, except for weekends when there were too many adults around, and our game was invariably wrestling, which we quickly converted to "house" when we heard someone at the front door or on the staircase. She was a year younger, but I let her win once in a while because I was in love with her, which may seem precocious in an eleven-year-old, but it was true. Kids do fall in love, you know, they just don't realize it and don't know what to do about it.
Dorothy and I wrestled.
One day she announced that she was moving. I asked where to, thinking that we could wrestle just as well on East 23rd or 24th Street as on 22nd, and she said to the West Coast. That sounded pretty far away so we wrestled more intensely from then on. Sometimes, after the grunting preliminaries, we just lay there on the frayed carpet wrapped in each other's arms, bathed in an aura of something I can't describe, even to myself. When moving day came I watched the van being loaded from my fire-escape. Toto sprang into the back seat of their Buick and sat looking straight ahead into the future. Before getting in beside him Dorothy looked up and waved, not a big wave, not much more than a slight hand movement at shoulder level, and I waved back the same way. It was life's first painful separation.
We met again twelve years later, during the Korean War. After a year-long German course at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, I was stationed in Germany and was attending a course at the Military Intelligence School in Oberammergau, Bavaria. Oberammergau is known for the medieval Passion Play they put on every ten years using local people as actors. It wasn't a Passion Play year, but the town was full anyway because of the excellent skiing in the majestic Bavarian Alps and the shops that sold wood-carvings of the characters in the play (Mary, Joseph, Baby-Jesus, etc.). I didn't ski -- Brooklyn is notoriously devoid of hills -- nor, as a Corporal, was I in a position to purchase the expensive wood-carvings or frequent the gemütlich cafes.
One sparkling Saturday afternoon I was strolling on one of the town's packed (with people and snow) streets when a little white dog darted out of one of the shops trailing its leash. It must have spotted the perfumed poodle strutting to my right and was looking for action. It went through my legs, the leash became entangled around my ankle and down I went after a futile attempt to keep my balance on the slippery snow. The dog's misstress ran out after him, saw what had happened and took my hand to help me up. I got half-way up, but flopped down again when the dog pulled away and the leash yanked my leg from under me. Instinctively I held on to her hand, with the predictable result that she fell on top of me, straddling my knee. The shared sensation of déja vu was inevitable, as was the smell of peaches in her hair. Her deep black eyes looked into my blue watery ones and she said, "Frankie, is it you?" By that time an amused crowd of onlookers had gathered round us.
Unfortunately, very unfortunately as it turned out, she was accompanied by her fiancé, who had the advantage of being handomer than me and considerably more substantial. After gently raising Dorothy, he grabbed the dog's leash and handed it to her. Only then did he take my hand to help me up.
"You know each other?" he asked her.
"My God, yes," Dorothy said, "I can't believe it. We were children together."
"Oh...in Brooklyn?" He had an educated southern accent, which probably meant that he thought of Brooklyn as the seventh circle of hell. Not that he would have been very wrong, but everyone likes to defend his own turf, indefensable as it may be, so I said in my best Brooklynese, but also to show that I knew a thing or two, "Yeah, we useta wrastle in Paradise Lost."
Dorothy laughed and her boyfriend lifted a corner of his moustached mouth. We were both in civies, but he had an officer's aura.
"Who'd you all wrestle with - God?"
"No," Dorothy said, "with each other," and she took my arm, which had the double effect of backing me up and putting her boyfriend in his place. "How've you been, Frankie, and what on earth are you doing here?"
"That's a long story," I said, cagily. "I mean I could ask you the same, and it's cold out here." The dog sniffed at my shoes. "Hey, this looks like.."
"Of course--it's Toto!" she laughed.
"But it couldn't be, he's..."
"It's not the same dog as back on 22nd Street, I got him here in Germany, but he could be, couldn't he?"
"Sure could. Maybe he's the old Toto's reincarnation."
Dorothy's smile outdazzled the snow that glistened on her black hair. "Let's go someplace and talk," she said. "Would you mind, Cal? We haven't seen each other in all these years." She didn't give him time to express the fact that he obviously did mind, "What time is the train?" she asked.
"Seven o'clock. No problem, darling. Just don't be late. Do you remember where the bahnhof is?"
"I'm not sure, but nothing is far in this town."
"I know where it is," I said quickly. "I'll take her."
"OK, see you then." He took off his leather glove and held out his hand. "Nice meeting you, Fred." I took off my woolen mitten and shook. "Same here, Hal.
I took Dorothy and Toto to the cafe in the best hotel in town. Toto curled up under the table and fell asleep like the well-mannered German dog he was. We drank coffee, reminisced and brought each other up to date. After graduating from college, which she attended on an academic scholarship, Dorothy spent a year in Germany working on her doctorate in European history. Calvin, her fiancé, was a Captain in the Air Force, an engineer who would soon be discharged and who already had a great job in his pocket -- depressing news for me. I wanted to order a bottle of wine and tell her to chuck Calvin and stay the weekend in that gemütlichly warm hotel where we could continue our wrestling careers under the eiderdowns. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, that running into each other that way was destiny, and so on. But I didn't. One problem was that I didn't have the money to pay for the wine, let alone a weekend at the hotel. Furthermore, she might have said no, might even have laughed in my face. I was still afraid of that kind of thing back then.
We had a civilized conversation, wrote down each other's addresses, (she was going back to the States the next day and would be married within a month), knowing we would never use them, and I took her to within a block of the train station, where we decorously kissed goodbye. Then she hurried to the station, a shadow flitting across the gleaming snow. The station was small, so I could see the train pull in and depart, taking her out of my life forever, or so I thought. Second painful separation.
When my wits returned, I realize that Toto would have had to reincarnate at least four times to have been the same dog. He barked and ran down the beach, braked in a cloud of sand, returned and ran off again. I got to my feet, every long unused muscle aching, which is at least proof that I was still alive. I scanned the beach and saw my little pile of clothes not far off and considered driving back to my friend's home to rest. Had it been any other dog I certainly would have. Toto though, or his doppelgänger, could not be denied. He ran in spurts, stopping frequently to look back and for me to catch up. Following him, I rounded the curve that was almost the death of me and came upon a little girl playing in the sand near the water. Tiny sea-drops glistened on her shoulder-blades like raindrops on a bird's wings. Fifty yards or so upbeach a lady wearing a white terrycloth robe sat in a beachchair under an umbrella with an open book in her lap and the wide brim of a straw hat shielding her face from the sun. She seemed to have fallen asleep.
"Hi," I said to the little girl, whose resemblance to my Dorothy of long ago was remarkable, "Is this your dog?"
"Yes," she answered, looking fleetingly up at me. "Did you bring him back?"
"I'd say he brought me."
This information didn't seem to interest her; at least it didn't surprise her. "Would you like a cup-cake?" she asked. The only cup-cakes she had to offer were those she was molding from damp sand.
"Thank you, but I've just finished eating."
"So soon after swimming?" she said, eyeing my wetness reproachfully.
"Worse. I ate while swimming."
She squinted up at me and placed a sandy hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun at my back. "What did you eat -- a fish"?
"As a matter of fact, yes. I think is was an octopus."
"Oh." She expertly lifted a plastic mold off a brownish gray cup-cake.
"What's your dog's name?" I asked her.
"Toto. He doesn't like fish."
I swallowed hard and felt my heartbeat accelerate as fast as when I was battling the ocean waves. Must one be careful even of memories in old age?
She looked up at me. "My Grandma gave him to me. She always had Totos."
"Always had Totos?"
"Yes. This is Toto the Fourth. I've had him ever since Toto the Third went to heaven."
I was tempted to tell her that I may have known Toto the First, but decided against it. Little wizardy white dogs named Toto must be a dime a dozen.
"Dogs don't live as long as us, you know," she informed me. "He was Grandma's, but she decided not to have any more dogs so she gave him to me."
"That was a good idea."
"Yes, it was. I'm always going to have Toto's, too."
Toto the Fourth, excited at hearing his name dropped so often, jumped between us and crushed a cup-cake.
"Toto!" the little girl shouted in feigned anger, "now look what you've done,"
"Is your name Dorothy by any chance?" I asked while she reshaped the cake.
"No, Robin," she answered disdainfully, apparently weary of being asked that question. "Just because my dog's name is Toto doesn't mean mine has to be Dorothy, you know."
"True," I said, conscious of having been put firmly in my place, "very true."
I watched her fill another mold with sand, pack it and top it off. "Tell me, Robin, are you with that lady?" I asked, pointing upbeach with my eyes.
"Yes, she's my Grandma."
"Oh. And isn't your Grandpa here?"
"My Granddad's in heaven." She looked at the sky, then back at me.
"I see. Well, that's a very nice place to be."
I decided, erroneously, that the direct approach would be the best one. "What's your grandma's name?"
"I told you," she said, looking at me as though I were a scarecrow with a straw-filled head, "Grandma."
"So you did." I sighed audibly. "Well, I think I'll take another dip."
She let the mold drop and sprang to her feet. "Can I go with you? I'm not allowed to swim alone."
"Sure, as far as I'm concerned, but don't you think you should ask your Grandma first?"
She looked doubtful, probably anticipating a negative reply, but said, "Yeah, I guess you're right." She ran full speed up the beach, sand swirling around her heels and followed by Toto, crying, "Grandma! Grandma!"
The lady started, lifted the brim of her hat and watched them approach. Without my glasses her face was a fuzzy halo. I took a deep breath, pushed a strand of white hair back off my forehead, pulled in my stomach and followed Robin and Toto up across the hot sand, determined to end life's painful separations once and for all. A long shot, but after almost drowning to get there, worth a try.