The Tale of John Marker
by Amy Fontaine
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Life is a fragile thing. Like a bone placed in the supper dish of a huge dog, it can be easily shattered into pieces by the teeth of time and circumstance, regardless of how much care and effort was spent building it up and strengthening it. My life was a strange one and, just when things became most interesting, it seemed to end much too fast.
My name was John Marker. It isn’t now. Just like everything else, my name has passed under a veil of dust and been forgotten, cast aside. However, my story lives on, though I am the only one left to tell it, and I hardly count as anybody at the moment.
As I’ve said, I was once called John Marker. I lived in New York City from my childhood into adulthood. My father was a cop, so he was always away investigating some crime scene or another. To a young boy, it was a nerve-wracking sort of job for one’s father to have, with him being gone so much and no certainty that he’d come safely home. However, he always tried to make time for me, and I was very proud of the work he did. He lived to retire contentedly and passed away peacefully in his sleep.
My mother had a more uncommon occupation, if a similarly dangerous one. An exotic animal trainer specializing in large felines, she brought a unique brand of excitement into the household. Though she never kept any of the animals she taught tricks for zoos, shows, and the occasional private owner, she would sometimes bring animals home to work with them “one-on-one.”
I have a vivid recollection of coming home from elementary school one bright Monday afternoon to find Paws the leopard raging through our apartment, wrecking china and vases and everything else he ran into and shrieking like a bratty baby. And everywhere that chaotic creature went, my mother dashed after him, hair frizzy and glasses askew, calling over the loud cracks and crashes, “Paws, sweetie, come back to Mommy now. Honeybun, please, this is not reinforcement-worthy behavior!”
I recall explaining my absent homework to my teacher the following day, relating calmly that I could not concentrate because of the leopard that had rampaged through my residence. Needless to say, I was not excused.
Having always fostered a passion for animals, psychology, and science, I decided, upon escaping from college, to become an animal trainer myself. However, I knew I did not want work in an exotic branch; for some reason or another, my mother’s obsession with trying to tame impossible beasts had not rubbed off on me.
Besides, ever since the leopard incident, I had detested cats, even small ones. I wanted something fierce and protective, yet friendly and loyal, an animal that could chase the nasty cats away. Thus it was that I picked up both family mantles by choosing to become a police dog trainer.
I had no idea what I was in for.
* * *
My father’s unit of the police force had long since been abolished. When I went to the downtown station, I had no clue what branch I wanted to make a career in. I stumbled to the front of the room, past the empty waiting benches and to the reception desk, made dizzy by the white brightness of the overhead lighting and feeling foolish.
A middle-aged woman sat at the desk, typing with long magenta fingernails as she drawled into a phone she was holding with her shoulder. Perhaps because no one else was in the room waiting for her attention, she neglected to notice me at first, for what felt like half an hour.
Finally she concluded her conversation and hung up the phone. The patter of keys subsided as she peered down at me over her horn-rimmed glasses. “Whaddya want?” she growled, scrutinizing me closely.
I thought, for a moment, of speaking my mind to her about the quality of this station’s service. Instead I politely told her I was seeking a job as a dog trainer.
“No jobs,” she said bluntly.
“But, ma’am,” I said, “there is a poster outside on your window that says ‘Trainers Wanted’. I came because I thought I could be of service to you and, in return, get paid. If you have no need of me, I’d be happy to turn and leave your poorly-employed little stink-hole of a station as it is.”
I could nearly see steam billowing out of her flared nostrils, and knew I had made a mistake. She glared at me with a hardness that physically hurt and pointed jerkily to the door. In my mind, I had already begun to mourn my lost job opportunity and, potentially, limbs when a squeaky voice from behind the woman’s counter cried, “Wisteria, no! I need him!”
Startled, both of us turned to look.
An old man was standing there, panting as if he had run all the way here from the back offices when he heard us bickering. He looked sweet and unassuming, rather like a moose, yet around his tall figure, cloudy white hair, and wise eyes lingered the aura of a professor. He stood nearly doubled over as he tried to catch his breath, looking rather out of place and goofy in his plaid kilt, red baseball cap, orange sunglasses, and expensive leather coat.
“Oh... that’s right,” said the woman. “The old fellow and his science-obsessed crony need some more guinea pigs.” Under her breath, she snickered. “Well, come on in, boy...” With an unsettling hoarse bark of a laugh, she started typing again, muttering as she did, “Don’t even know why they’re in a police department, stupid people... Honestly, spend tons of funds on useless experimental fiddling, don’t even let me see what they use it for... Just call it ‘forensic progress’... They talk smart, but they’re idiots, if ever I knew ’em...”
Before I had time to be more than a bit disturbed, the man snatched a handful of my coat and dragged me past the counter, through the doorway toward the back offices, with cries of “Come in, come in, boy!” and “Come now, don’t be shy!”
He shut the door after us, and sat me down in one of fifteen cubicles. He seemed rather unfamiliar with this part of the building, as if this was not where he normally worked.
“Thank you for coming, boy,” he smiled. “I’m sorry Wisteria didn’t welcome you. Though we work in the same building, I see hardly any of her, as we do different, indeed completely disconnected work. She and her workers, those who do their jobs in these offices” — he gestured vaguely with his hand around the room — “do not understand my mission at all. They go about solving their simple, tame crimes, while I and my co-worker do something much deeper. I think, since you offered yourself up to us, you are worthy of this line of work.”
I could not imagine what work he must be doing if he considered the ordinary New York Police Department something that tackled only “tame” crimes. Nonetheless, I swallowed my thrill of fear and murmured, “Thank you, sir.”
The man smiled again. “And if you were wondering, we already have a client for you.” With a snap of his fingers, a door that had been concealed in the back wall flew open, and a German shepherd bounded out to greet us, sitting quickly and compliantly at the opening in the cubicle wall. He cocked his brown-and-black furry head as he gazed at me. An unusual curiosity and intelligence seemed to sparkle in his amber eyes.
“Call him whatever you like,” said the man. “He has a name but does not like it. You don’t have to teach him any set behaviors yet; just take him with you no matter where you go, and always keep him by your side. Then, when you’ve made an impression on him, he will show you what he’s capable of.”
I thought these were bizarre instructions, but nodded all the same. I felt pity for this old man, and decided to do whatever he said. Besides, it was a job.
“Thank you,” he said, firmly shaking my hand. I followed him out past the rows of empty cubicles, with the German shepherd following swiftly and almost silently behind me. He led us safely past Wisteria and saw us to the door, which he opened for us.
“By the way,” he said with a toothy grin, “my name is Reuben.”
The old man didn’t contact me after that and, to be honest, I was almost grateful. Though he seemed quite a nice bloke, the conditions under which we met and the things he’d said had made me nervous. Besides, though I had no clue what to do with the dog, I was quite delighted to have him. I never had company and didn’t own pets. I had unconsciously taken to calling him “Scruffy”, because of the jagged, ruffled state of his otherwise clean fur.
Though it was a bit of a hassle to keep Scruffy with me all the time, I admired him, with his beautiful brown fur with its black saddle-patch, and the black markings, like a sly thief’s mask, around his face. I adored what I thought of as his impish smile, and talked to him constantly, though sometimes even I didn’t know what I was saying. He always seemed to listen attentively. It was as if he wasn’t far from being human... which, in fact, was true.
I found out one day when, out of the blue, my mother called. I was quite surprised, as we had had little contact after I was out of college, but pleased that she still thought of me, even as an old woman with a separate life. She was happy to hear that I had landed myself a job and invited me to her new house to celebrate. After she assured me she no longer trained leopards, I agreed.
It turned out that her latest unhealthy exotic obsession was macaws. The path through the large greenhouse which led to her front door was lined with cages of the colorful, noisy birds, feathered rainbows making a racket. Scruffy eyed them warily, wincing. To his sensitive hearing, the sound must have been even more horrible.
My mother was happy to see me, as I was to see her. She was interested in Scruffy, though I avoided telling her much about how I had procured him. He lay politely and quietly on the floor while we chatted and helped ourselves to tea.
When I had bidden farewell to my mother and left her house to traverse the greenhouse path once more, with Scruffy at my side, a scarlet macaw called after us, before I had opened the door to leave and go to my car parked at the curb, “Hello!” His voice was grating and obnoxious.
Scruffy turned and looked back at the macaw. To my total shock, he spoke. “¡Hola, pollo gordo!” said Scruffy. “¿Qué tal?”
Copyright © 2015 by Amy Fontaine