A Daguerreotype

Business had long since migrated to the western and southern parts of the city, when I turned onto Graybar Street on an especially chilly and overcast day. The area had an abandoned and specter-like quality.

But fifteen or twenty yards away in the direction of the waterfront, a dog … a beagle, was dragging or pulling another dog by its front paw. The dog being pulled lay on its side and did not move. Around the larger dogs hovered two beagle puppies.

On the other side of Graybar Street a woman stepped off the curb and moved slowly in my direction, walking with a noticeable limp. When my attention returned to the dogs, I was surprised to now see two children, a girl and a boy, possibly ten or eleven, standing a few feet from the animals. Both the children, I was certain, were crying.

The woman stepped onto the sidewalk. She wore a brown coat with a tattered collar and clutched a faded green shopping bag in her right hand. The woman nodded. She was about my age I thought. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.” I motioned in the direction of the dogs.

The woman put her shopping bag down.” The children were jumping on the dog.”

“Jumping?”

“Playing with the dog. In their way.”

“The dog isn’t moving.”

“I think they may have killed it,” the woman said calmly.

“What?” I stared at the boy and the girl. Both of them were pale and kept rubbing their noses. Their clothes were worn and shabby, clearly not from the privileged class.

“She must have cared for him.”

“Who?”

“She is pulling the male dog.”

“The children ought to help.”

“It’s never clear is it,” she remarked.

When I turned to answer her, she was already limping down the street. I watched as she disappeared around the corner, a faint aroma of cheap, homemade soap trailing after her. The sky to the west began to darken, and I saw flickering lights behind the sullen clouds.

The dogs and the two children were farther away. But what I had not realized before was the steep descent of the street, nearly a forty-five degree angle I estimated. Not only was the scene receding off into the distance, but it was also slipping below the horizon because of the precipitous incline of Graybar Street.

I glanced at my watch. I knew I should be getting on my way. I had come to this part of the city as I was to meet Madoc Gelker at the pier on a Liberian steamer, which was owned by a Panamanian holding company, supposedly belonging to a firm in Singapore, whose principal stockholders, I’d been informed by my accountant, were three Hungarians and four Chinese businessmen from Shanghai.

The dogs and the children had now vanished from sight. I decided to follow them as long as they continued in the general direction where  I needed to be. I was naturally curious.

I reached the beginning of the incline and stared downward. In the distance the female dog still pulled her mate, the puppies hovered nearby, and the two children continued to rub their eyes and noses. Jagged lacerations of light snarled from the west, beginning to now push aside the cloud curtains.

I was annoyed, I realized that. Of course the children ought to be helping in some way. Was something wrong with them? The sky continued to darken, and I turned up the collar of my overcoat and adjusted my homburg.

I started down Graybar Street and within a few minuted I felt the tightness in my thighs as I tried to control my pace. A small box-like house squeezed between two decaying brownstones took shape in the distance. Could that be where they live?

The dogs and the children arrived at the bottom of the street. I halted. They were indeed heading for the small house. I wondered who might open the door. For a brief moment they waited by the door, almost frozen in place I thought. The boy then pushed open the door. The one dog pulled the other dog inside, followed by the puppies, then the girl, and finally the boy. The door closed.

I looked at my watch once again; I did not have a lot of time to get to my appointment. All the same I could not shake off my growing curiosity. Was it also somehow vaguely familiar … in some obscure way? I glanced over my shoulder in the direction where I had just come from. No one was in sight.

At the bottom of the street I stopped and stared at the house. What could I possibly say? That I was following children? There had been an incident many years before regarding an eleven year old girl, only indirectly involving me, but nevertheless not one I wished repeated. It had turned out to be a nasty bit of business.

I knocked tentatively at the door. And waited. I knocked again, this time louder. No one answered. I reached down and lifted the latch. “Hello. Is there anyone here?” Only dead silence greeted me. I opened the door wider.

It was, however, not the lack of a response which surprised me, but the fact that the one small room was absolutely empty, no furniture, clothes or any indication of human habitation whatsoever. “What the devil?”

I now stood in the middle of an empty room, but saw that there was another door directly in front of me. I lifted the latch of this door and slowly pulled it open, leery of what I might discover. But of all the things I briefly considered, what I found myself staring at I could not have expected.

I was outside, but in front of me was a large field-gray tent, the kind you’d expect to come across during a military campaign, where overall battle strategy was being planned. I strode quickly over to the tent, pushed back the flap and entered. The interior was spacious and could have accommodated fifteen or twenty persons. While at the moment empty, there were signs of recent occupation.

In the middle was a long rectangular wooden table surrounded by several canvas chairs. In one corner of the tent were three large metal trunks, and on top of one of the trunks lay a gnarled walking stick with a polished saddle-horn handle.

My attention turned to the table. An inexpensive writing pad lay on the table and beside it a black fountain pen. Near the pen was a half-eaten pear in a pewter dish. The pear had just started to turn brown in color. I thought I also detected a vague aroma of cigar smoke. Then I noticed a photograph partially turned toward the rear of the tent.

“Good god,” I heard myself gasp. I now stared at the old sepia-colored photograph. In the picture a young boy and girl stood in a room, their hands at their sides, looking down at the floor. At their feet were four beagles. One dog lay on its side, its eyes closed, appearing to be asleep, while the other dog held the sleeping dog’s paw in its mouth, as though expressing a protective affection.

Two slightly blurred beagle puppies stared up into the camera. They apparently had moved just as the picture was taken. A minute later I put the photograph down. I rubbed my hand across the wooden table, needing to feel the texture of the wood. Absentmindedly I picked up the fountain pen and noticed the initials M.A.G. engraved in gold letters on the side.

I went to the rear entrance of the tent, pushed aside the flap and stepped outside. The sky was a dark blue, and a cool breeze ruffled my hair. In the distance was the waterfront. Without thinking I put the pen in my coat pocket. I saw the steamer with the Liberian flag waving in the breeze. So many memories I said to myself as I strode to the wharf … and so little time. “Isn’t that always the case, Mr. Gelker,” I exclaimed to no one in particular.

Posted: March 25th, 2010
Categories: Written Word
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