In memory of Roman.
Just a few years ago, he regularly bounded up the three steps to his front door. Today, the same three steps left him breathless and exhausted.
Where had the lasts three years gone? The days filed by like a monotonous parade of identical soldiers. These “day” soldiers had turned into weeks, and then into years. They marched on in their uniformity until he had lost count, and their passage meant nothing —just an unending parade. The death of his wife had changed everything.
The vintage glass doorknob was cold and Stanley knew that turning it would only lead him into a cold hallway, and home.
From around the corner came the unmistakable sounds of paws as they slid on the dark hardwood floors until they rested at his feet. Johnson, Stanley’s dog, had also made the trip to the front door a little slower than he had nine years ago, but he had not lost his enthusiasm for life or for seeing Stanley at the end of the day.
Stanley sat his briefcase down, and kneeling before Johnson, began the daily routine of rubbing him behind his ears. “You’re a good boy, Johnson,” he said. Johnson, a particularly large Bernese Mountain Dog, responded with a low guttural sound that told Stanley that he was scratching in just the right place.
He picked up his briefcase, and the two friends walked down the hall and into the kitchen. It was a confortable room flanked by a large fireplace on one wall and the stove and refrigerator on the other. Johnson took his position in front of the hearth where he knew a fire would soon be warming the kitchen and adjoining rooms. From this position, he could lovingly watch Stanley’s every move. Johnson would track the progress of dinner from its inception until the two friends said grace and took dinner.
Johnson noticed that Stanley was looking older. He had watched his master age before his large brown eyes. Stanley’s shoulders were hunched and his movements looked pained. Johnson calculated that Stanley was around 450 years old but was not sure how old that was in people years.
After dinner, the two took a walk around the neighborhood . . . came back in doors . . . and retired to the back bedroom. Johnson sat on the floor at the foot of his master’s bed, waiting to hear goodnight from Stanley.
Johnson had never intended to interfere in his master’s life because he was content to be Stanley’s pet. Now, he wondered if that relationship would have to change.
Johnson woke up with a start. His master was making breakfast. He hated when he overslept and missed Stanley’s morning routine. He shook off the cobwebs of sleep and ran down the hall to catch Stanley pouring a bowl of cornflakes and covering them in a thick layer of milk and sugar. He nuzzled Stanley’s arm postponing his master’s first bite to ensure that he was acknowledged. He longed for a quick game of catch or a meaningful conversation like they used to have. But he knew Stanley was struggling and it was his time to be supportive.
“Well Johnson, it looks like another day at work. Same ole, same ole. Just one more day to be reminded that I have out-grown and out-lasted my relevance,” said Stanley between bites of the cornflakes that were becoming increasingly soggy. “Once again, I will sit at my desk, add numbers together, and make more mistakes today than I did yesterday. The bosses will pretend not to notice and my self-esteem will take another dive.”
He scooted his chair away from the table and placed his cereal bowl on the floor so that Johnson could finish Kellogg’s legacy in the cereal hall of fame. “Oh well, at least I am still alive. I guess that is a good thing.” He gave Johnson a scoop of dog food in addition to the cornflakes, kneeled to give him a hug, and headed out the door.
Stanley’s office was as drab and lifeless as the job. It was not so much an office as it was an extension of the room that housed the copiers, office supplies, and the coffee machine. It was very rare indeed that people stuck their heads around the corner to speak when making copies or getting coffee. They were not being rude; they had just forgotten that he was there. Over the years, he had become invisible to the company and employees.
It was September 15th, and the monthly and quarterly statements were due. These reports were required by law, but held no real value to his employer. The collection of numbers, charts, and graphs were mind-numbingly boring to create. Stanley was convinced that they were filed in a hidden government warehouse never to be viewed. He envisioned the enormous warehouse from the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. His reports would be dumped in a wooden crate marked “Do Not Open” and placed right next to the Ark of the Covenant, and possibly a family of aliens evicted from Area 51. As a result, Stanley neither cared about the report nor the extraterrestrials that might be using this report for toilet paper . . . if they even had a need for such things!
Stanley sat in his chair with his eyes closed and head bowed. He dug deep into his soul for motivation. As he began the process of soul mining, two young executives entered the adjoining room, poured their coffee and started to complain about work. They lowered their voices conspiratorially as they said, “At least we’re not that guy that works in the coffee room and does those stupid reports!” They laughed hilariously as they left the room along with the last of Stanley’s self respect.
A Good Conversation
This evening, Stanley turned the cold doorknob and walked past Johnson. Moving slower than normal, Stanley threw his coat over the kitchen table and sat down hard in the overstuffed chair in front of the fireplace. He stared for a moment before acknowledging Johnson.
“How’s it going Johnson?” Stanley sounded despondent. Without waiting for a response, he continued, “Well, today was worse than yesterday. And to tell you the truth, I can’t remember if yesterday was worse than the day before—as if it matters. Stanley dropped his face into his hands and his elbows onto his knees. He was resigned to the fact that this was now his life, but that did not make it any easier. He was trapped by a mortgage and unpaid bills. Retirement was not an option. In the briefest of moments, he considered more drastic measures than quitting his job, but he knew that he could never leave Johnson by himself.
“I’ve run out of options JJ. I have no earthly idea how to fix this, and I don’t have the energy to keep trying.”
“You’ve never given up before, and you’ve always enjoyed work. You were pretty good at it too!” Completing the circle of internal conversation, Stanley began to answer himself.
His heart hammered in his chest as he jerked violently out of his chair. The voice that answered his questions was not in his mind; he heard it. It was someone else speaking, and they were in the room.
Looking from side to side, and then under the table, panic now built while he desperately searched for the person that had answered his rhetorical question. “NO, NO, NO!” Stanley cried. “I am not ready to have a mental breakdown!”
He looked behind furniture. “Where are you? Who said that?”
Then from behind him, he heard the voice again, “Oh good grief, Stanley. What’s wrong with you? You talk to me all the time, and the first time I answer you back, you have a meltdown? Seems a little narrow minded to me.”
He stared down at Johnson in disbelief, and Johnson wagged his tail. “WHAT are you staring at?”
Slowing circling around Johnson, Stanley said, “Well . . . you’re my dog and I am obviously having a nervous breakdown. He fell back in his chair and squeezed his eyes closed, “I’m getting old; I’m losing whatever talents I used to have, and now I am losing my mind. I should have seen it coming.”
Johnson let Stanley have his little moment.
Stanley continued, “If you’re crazy, do you question whether or not you’re crazy—or,” he thought for a moment, “do you just move on without any clue that you are crazy. That the warranty on your brain has finally expired?”
With a little more “growl” in his voice than before, Johnson jumped back into the conversation. “I can’t babysit you and your breakdown all night. I’m tired and I have a big day tomorrow. I just wanted to weigh in on this little pity party you were throwing.”
Stanley paused. He was now torn between wanting to know what Johnson thought—and maybe more importantly, what big plans Johnson had for tomorrow. He had never considered that Johnson made plans.
Stanley yielded to his curiosity, “What big plans have you got for tomorrow?”
“Hey, that is just insulting? I have a life. I have things to do. And compared to the way you talk about your life, mine looks pretty good.”
Stanley could not argue the point, and slumped further into the chair.
“You’re pathetic, Stanley. Cheer up.” Johnson slowly rose, stretched, and walked over to his master’s chair. “Make you a deal. You scratch my head behind my ears, and I will tell you why you’re not happy, okay?”
Still trying to ascertain the extent of his newly acquired parting with reality, Stanley agreed. “Sure, sounds like a fair trade. I will scratch your ears and you tell me the meaning of life.”
Johnson tilted his head. “I didn’t say anything about the meaning of life. I just know why you’re not happy.”
“Right, right. I stand corrected. Why am I not happy?” he said, fully convinced that whatever answer he got from his dog would only ensure him of the insanity that bore down on him.
“Well, let me ask you this,” Johnson started, “Did you mark your territory today?”
Stanley closed his eyes, squinted, and then with his eyes still closed, he raised his eyebrows. Breathing in slowly he asked, “Are you asking me if I peed on anything or anyone in my office today? Is that what I hear you asking?”
“Okay Stanley, if you want to be difficult, then yes, that is what I am asking you. Did you leave any mark in the office today that would tell someone you were there?”
Stanley’s eyes shot open. “Of course, I left—my— What do you mean exactly? I, uh, well I started to—I—no.”
Breathing out heavily, Stanley could not bring himself to say, I am not sure that anyone even knew I came to work today. The two guys that got coffee this morning certainly didn’t know. I did not speak to a soul today. You would think that someone could have at least spoken to me.
Johnson yawned and reminded Stanley with a nudge that his advice was not free. “Aren’t you supposed to be scratching my ears?” the big dog asked.
With the renewal of the ear massage, Johnson continued, “Anyway—you poor baby. Did you go by anyone’s office and say hi? You can’t be the only miserable soul there. Did you throw any of your co-workers a bone to make their day better?”
Now it was Stanley’s turn to cock his head sideways. “Why would anyone want to hear from me? I am at the absolute bottom of the pyramid.”
“Look Stanley, I love you with all my heart. I am a dog and that is what I do. But, you’ve got to work with me here. If you don’t leave your mark everyday, what is the point in working? Why do you think I pee on anything and everything in the neighborhood? I want every other dog in a five mile radius to know that Johnson, Stanley’s dog, was here, and by golly, I will be back here tomorrow doing exactly the same thing. Don’t you get it, Stanley?”
Stanley thought he did.
Over the next few days, Stanley incorporated additional bits of advice given to him every evening by Johnson. Some insights were harder to incorporate than others. Stanley nixed one such recommendation immediately. Johnson had tried to explain the need to know your enemies as well as your friends. Before he could finish, Stanley explained that smelling co-workers was inappropriate in the workplace, no matter how much Johnson encouraged the behavior. While marking a bush near the sidewalk, Johnson commented that for millennia the process had worked beautifully for dogs whether Stanley agreed or not!
While Stanley stood steadfast in his prohibition of smelling coworkers, he did look at the relationships he had established in the office, or more to the point, the lack of them. At Johnson’s insistence, he took more time at the water fountains and spoke to everyone. Going out on a limb, Stanley bought a dozen donuts from Donut World and placed them in the coffee room adjacent to his office. He was surprised at how it made him feel. He was not on the social perimeter of the office anymore, but instead, had stepped directly inside the circle.
Of course, everything was not perfect. When he complained to Johnson that not everyone responded to him and that one of his co-workers ate five donuts, his four-legged advisor explained, “If you speak only to be spoken to, you’re missing the point. You speak to others because that is the person you have chosen to be. If they reply, great! If not, who cares? As far as the guy that ate the five donuts goes, he probably owns cats. You can’t do anything about that.”
Johnson watched as his human student absorbed. Before Stanley could say anything, Johnson continued, “That is right, Grasshopper. This is a much bigger issue than whether or not you speak to someone, or whether or not you buy donuts. The issue is deciding what kind of person do you want to be. It is up to you, you know.”
“If you want to have more friends, go out and make friends. What kind of person do you want to be, Stanley? And here is a surprise for you. There are people out there that feel just like you do. They would like to have someone speak to them occasionally. Reach out to others because you know they need a friend—no other reason.”
“Stanley, you need to decide very carefully who you want to become. You were created to be so much more than the person you see yourself as. You are not just the guy that fills out the monthly report.”
“I watch TV,” said Johnson, defending his choice of the pop culture reference.
“So, how did it go at work today?” Johnson asked when they headed down the street for their nightly stroll. Summer was begrudgingly relinquishing the reigns to autumn, and days acquiesced by growing shorter. It was cooler tonight and a pleasant breeze encouraged the leaves to dance around their feet.
“It’s alright,” Stanley absentmindedly commented. “I had lunch with some of the guys, today—and that was fun, ‘ya know?”
“It’s better than it used to be, but I still hate the job. The same old stupid report, month after month, quarter and quarter, year after year. If I am not careful, I will be doing the same old reports until the day I die.”
“I caught a car once,” added Johnson with a sudden sense of enthusiasm.
Fully convinced that Johnson had not heard a word that he had said, Stanley replied, “You don’t say?”
“Oh yeah. It was epic. I had been chasing cars for years, ‘ya know. Never came close to catching one. But, oh man—that one day. It was a spring afternoon and you had left the door open. I was gone like the wind. I don’t even think you knew I was gone. Cars came and went, and I chased every single one, by golly. And then it happened. This big blue car came slowing driving down the street. I snuck along the other side of the bushes until—bam. I ran out in front of the car and it had to stop dead in its tracks. It was beautiful!”
Johnson looked into the distance as he relived the moment. Stanley saw the joy of the moment in his big brown eyes.
“So what happened then?”
“What do you mean, ‘What happened then?’ I caught the car. I finally caught the car! It was incredible.”
“But so what? You didn’t get to keep the car. You weren’t able to bury it in the back yard, or at least I hope you didn’t. So why do you chase cars?”
“The bigger question is why do I put up with you?” asked Johnson. “I chase cars because that is what I do. I need a challenge. I need something to strive for. What fun would it be if I could catch a car every day? I would quit because it would not be a challenge.”
“In the name of Pete, what does that have to do with my reports?”
“Have you ever caught a car?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, have you ever caught a car? If you’re going to do the same report day in and day out in your little coffee room office, shouldn’t you know what your reports are for? Someone, somewhere, looks at them. What do they look for when they read them? Is there a car to be caught among all that data? What would happen if you ‘caught the car’ before the guy upstream from you finds it? What would happen then?”
Before Stanley could answer, a woman’s hat rode the current of a strong breeze past the two conversationalists. A young woman blew past them chasing her hat.
“Don’t just stand there, Stanley, chase the hat!”
The hat was retrieved, pleasantries were exchanged, and the paths of two lives changed course.
Johnson and Millie curled up together in front of the fireplace in Stanley’s kitchen while Stanley and Mary Joe drank coffee at the table. Life still had its ups and downs, but both boys had caught a car. Stanley accepted the stupid reports as the negative ballast in a life that was otherwise pretty good. He still missed his wife, but the day soldiers that passed in front of him now had discernable features. The parade of passing time had become almost enjoyable.
Stanley glanced over to see his buddy and he knew that he was happy. Johnson spoke to him less often now, but they still communicated regularly in a deeper way. Stanley sensed Johnson’s moods and thoughts now without speaking a word.
Stanley peered at Millie and he could have sworn that she cocked her head and smiled.
Stanley wasn’t sure, but he felt that he might just have “caught a car.”