The Gentleman with the Dog
by Mark Spencer
S______, Russia, 1899
The old woman who operated the boarding house knew him only as the gentleman with the dog. He had taken two rooms several months ago, and his use of them was erratic, two or three hours once or twice a week, always in the evening. One room was for the dog, the other for the gentleman and the young woman who arrived a few minutes before he and his dog did.
He dressed impeccably and kept a month ahead on the rent, so she said nothing about the whining of the dog. The dog’s room was next to her own, and the creature whined nearly the entire time the gentleman was in residence, but the whining was soft and usually more poignant than annoying to the old woman, who sometimes imagined the large sad eyes of the beautiful white Pomeranian, but only for a moment, and then she went about her business.
She enjoyed vodka as much as any man, and she would sit in her room without the lamp lit and enjoy herself with a bottle, and she only half heard the dog and only fleetingly thought of the balding and gangly gentleman and the young woman, who was not a lady and who had no more shape than a walking stick and bad teeth and whom a gentleman would surely pay poorly, if at all.
* * *
Rudolph Von Diderits, the husband of Anna Sergeyevna, balanced himself, naked, on a wooden stool in a corner of the dark, little room. He wept briefly, as he always did after being with Aleksandra Brasnov, berating himself silently for his lack of restraint and for his depravity.
When his tears ceased, he looked across the room at the small, slumbering figure almost lost amongst the twisted blankets of the iron bed. A single candle illuminated a small foot. His guilt and grief were instantly forgotten for now.
She sighed as she turned and hugged a pillow to her shallow bosom, as smooth and white as his own. He felt himself becoming aroused again, but it was getting late, and he was aware of the dog whimpering in the next room.
Von Diderits stood from the stool, which was hard and uncomfortable, and crossed to the door that adjoined the two rooms and opened it. The dog leapt at him, and he rubbed its head and said, “This is torture for you, I know, but you are my excuse for leaving the house.”
Then he heard the striking of the clock in the tower of the church across the street. It was nine, and although Anna had gone to Moscow again to see a specialist regarding her internal complaints, he knew he must consider the speculation and regard of their servants and must therefore return home. Besides, the dog must be fed.
After he dressed, he stood at the bedside and caressed Aleksandra’s bare shoulder until she awoke. She seemed drunk. She frowned and murmured, “Why are you dressed? Stay here with me.”
“You know I can’t. And you have to go home to your own house.”
She snorted. “The old man falls asleep at dusk and might as well be dead. His snores shake the walls. I mean it! And they are not thin walls. They are as thick as his belly.”
“But he’ll awake before dawn and reach for you. If you’re not there—”
She violently pulled Von Diderits to her and kissed him as if she would never see him again, as if he — or perhaps she — were going to war and would likely die.
When she released him, she breathlessly admonished him: “Never speak of that pig again.”
* * *
On the street, the dog on a leash, Von Diderits relived in his mind the pleasures of the evening, and he felt cleansed and energetic. His skin tingled. His chest swelled as he inhaled the evening air. He stood straight and tall, his shoulders thrown back. His legs felt powerful. If he were attacked by a vicious dog, he was certain he could kick it to death.
Yet he felt watched and followed, as if his father-in-law lurked in every shadow or his mother or his priest or God Himself. He feared that when he arrived home there would be word that a loved one had been struck down by some horrible accident — a judgement upon himself it would be. His grandfather had been German, and he sometimes blamed his German heritage for his depravity, but he himself was Orthodox Russian and knew he should have had a better grip on himself.
As he often did during the weepy moments on the hard stool, he swore to himself now, on the street, tethered to the dog, that he would never return to the wretched boarding house. He would live righteously while savoring the memory of sweet Aleksandra, whose kisses he would surely recall on his deathbed, and she would understand; after all, it would be best for her as well, although she spoke with only disgust of Boris Brasnov, whom she had been married to when she was seventeen and he was past forty. He had been a friend of her father’s.
Von Diderits loved Anna Sergeyevna when he married her. She possessed a shapely form, and her hair was lush with strands of yellow and red and gold blended as if God had spent an extra moment on her creation; her teeth were white, and her gray eyes reflected the purity of her soul.
But she was a lady, after all, and therefore understandably cold. Her coldness and his incompetence with her made for little satisfaction. When they had married, he had had no experience, and his fumbling was preceded and followed by apologies and self-abasement. “I am not much of a man,” he would say, to which she made no reply but would sometimes pat his hand or his bony shoulder as if he were a boy who failed at schoolyard games. For a very long time now, her internal complaints had prevented even an attempt, and on some level he was relieved.
* * *
When he arrived home, no one was waiting by the gate, not his father-in-law or his mother or his priest. He sometimes feared that Anna Sergeyevna would be waiting: “We have searched the entire city for you, Rudolph Von Diderits. Where have you been hiding? There has been a terrible accident...”
He stood and gazed at the tall gray fence that surrounded his imposing home. Black trees blocked the windows, and the house appeared unoccupied. Inside awaited his real life, his decent one. His butler would ask whether he needed something to warm his blood, and he would say yes and feign fatigue over having walked the dog for so long.
Before he closed the gate behind him, Von Diderits reminded himself to stoop as he normally had all his life. Once, when he had arrived home on an evening like this one and Anna was not in Moscow, she said in a voice of surprise, “Why, you’re standing so straight! I didn’t know you were so tall!” He immediately slouched, fearing that his secrets were on the verge of discovery.
So he stooped, and the dog tugged at its leash, running ahead, eager to get to its evening bowl.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Spencer