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The Sweetheart Clip
for Phil Geusz
This takes place the February before "A View From the Fence".
I check the address in my little purple-and-black planner one more time. Yep, this is it. Angelo Eagan, 322 East Park Road, Apartment number 11. Just up this half-flight of dirty, carpeted steps. I square my slim, rounded shoulders as best I can and carry myself a bit taller in my black trenchcoat. No use in appearing unprofessional. Granted, he doesn't know the group that I am representing, unless he has some affiliation with the MacLeod University SCABS community. Still, I must maintain a respectable image for the sake of myself as well as others. I have never been and hope I never will be a less than adequate spokesperson for students with this syndrome.
I knock on the door. "Just a minute!" A friendly, but anxious, male voice answers. The dog is barking, and my heart sinks a little already. It's much bigger than Henry, from the sounds of its deep voice. "Hush," the man tells the dog as they approach the door. As it opens and Angelo faces me, the Poodle stays just in back of him, with a final greeting-bark. I stifle a sigh and try to keep my eyes on Angelo rather than the large Standard Poodle.
"Hello, Mr. Eagan," I say. I hold out a paw for him to shake. "My name is Kim DeJong. I called you earlier in regards to a missing college student..."
A friendly smile barely twitches at the edge of his uncomfortable expression. As we shake hands, I get a strong whiff of the sweat from his palm and realize it is not me he is uncomfortable with. Well, that is something, at least. I may be one of the most predictable and, yes, charming members of the SCABS community, I have been told so many times, but against a person who will not see there is... Little to be done...
"Hello, Miss DeJong. Come on in. Sable, back out of the way. Come in here, Miss, and you can get a better look. Maybe talk with him a little bit."
I already know that the dog is not Henry Mickels, but I feel it would be a cold gesture, leaving now. Mr. Eagan seems so upset about something. Maybe there is more I ought to know. What can it hurt, anyway? No Valentine's plans for me, and I daresay none for him, either. The thought of the cold outside and the reds and pinks of the stores this time of year make me brace myself once again. It's not _easy_ to be cheerful on any given day. But February's one bright day can bring the best of us low. For the first time I notice that the dog has a small, reddish-orange bow with tiny white hearts printed on it attached to the hair of his left ear.
Poor Angelo, I think suddenly, though I don't really know why. Then I step easily to the middle of the living room. "May I sit down?"
"Yes, of course!" Angelo pats the orange-beige striped couch and then sits himself in a matching, rather worn chair. Sable wriggles up to me, black paws patting the carpet in an obvious attempt to keep his boisterous greeting under acceptable limits. My muzzle wrinkles in a smile and I tickle the happily panting dog on the fluffy black chest. He promptly jumps up onto the couch next to me, sighs dramatically, and lays his nose in my lap.
Angelo laughs nervously, then suddenly sobers. "He likes you, but then he's friendly with everyone. It really doesn't seem as though he..."
"Recognizes me," I finish for him. "No, it doesn't. But that doesn't mean there's nothing there. If I may ask, Mr. Eagan, what reasons do you have for believing that Sable might be a fully-morphed SCAB? Any information you have might help in finding his family, if indeed he was human."
"Yes, yes, I know." The red-haired man sighs slightly, though not in anger. "We've been through it all with veterinarians, I've taken him to my own therapist, nothing. No truly human response-- though he is a wonderful dog-person in and of himself." Angelo smiles at the Poodle and Sable, though he does not leave my side, returns the look with dancing brown eyes. The man continues to speak.
"The reason I informed the missing persons department, and the reason they referred you here, is that there is no proof that this animal is _not_ a SCAB."
"Explain," I say, knowing he is going to, but feeling I must let him know I am actively a part of this exchange. The two of us are alone today. Odd, how you meet someone, and while they are certainly no replacement for... Well, for long-time friends, you know the two of you have something in common for just these few hours, and will not, in time to come, forget.
Angelo looks at me almost sorrowfully from gray-green eyes. I note the careful way he sits, almost as though afraid of his own chair and his own apartment. I lean back against the old couch and catch a scent of fully stale cigarette smoke, mingled with something female and human-- though not recent. I try to pay close attention to Mr. Eagan's words, what he says is important to me, but I am easily caught up in exploring the room with my nostrils and eyes. I momentarily fixate on the faintest glint of white-silver from Angelo's tiny unisex earrings, one in each ear. I nod as he speaks about the question of Sable.
"I found Sable in the City Animal Shelter. Or, to say it more accurately, representatives of the Shelter found him, and I adopted him. But I still do not know if this situation is permanent. I had my suspicions at the time, right when I looked at him. And it just keeps piling up, all the things we don't know about him."
"I am interested to hear," I say, thinking fidgetingly of that ancient cigarette smoke and how impolite it would be to ask, in a non-smoker's home, if I might light up. He must have quit some time ago, by the smell of it. But the residue must tempt even him. Well, I should be quitting anyway... "what you think of the situation, because I must admit that this dog shows no resemblance to the student I am seeking, but I have many contacts at MacLeod. If anyone there has any leads, I am sure they would be glad to contact you."
Angelo shifts in his chair. He seems to be relaxing, yet still not entirely calm. It occurs to me for the first time that I may be the only visitor he has had in who-knows-how-long. He is so carefully groomed, yet evidently not happy even with his neatly trimmed hair, smooth face and well-fitting clothes. Yes, I am the first one here in some time. And I am a visitor who is rather hard to ignore. I remind myself at the moment of a blindingly white Teddy Bear from the Valentine's shelves at the grocery stores, blatant in white and black coloration, cheerful in appearance, removed from the shelf with my stuffed scarlet heart and plopped in the middle of this poor man's couch. Only in my case the heart is a Poodle, with his own Valentine's bow. And I don't recall any of those cheap once-a-year Teddies wearing trenchcoats. Angelo is speaking.
"After my Flu I had to leave my job. Or rather, my job left me."
He seems to be considering how much to tell me, or not to tell me, and then presses on. "...I heard a well-known groomer speak, at a convention a couple of years ago. I was impressed with her overall, and I remember quite a lot of what she said, but the thing that applied to me most was this. She said that grooming is such a wonderful profession, because we can groom through everything. You go into 'Groom mode,' she said, and groom right on through death, depression, divorce, illness..."
I wait as he pauses, then nod. "I know what you mean."
"Do you?" He looks up almost eagerly, as if I have perhaps proved myself enlightened in some way. Or perhaps he is just lonely. "Do you know you are the only woman I have spoken to since my last pet-owning client left me?"
"No." I am almost horrified. The poor woman! Angelo, not the client. So this is the way it is when-- perhaps I understand better than I thought I did.
"Well, that's it, you are. So I'd love for you to stay and talk, even if it doesn't help Sable, or you or your friend. I know that sounds horrible to say."
I shake my masked head. "I would love to stay and talk. Do go on."
He shifts the subject for a moment. "The missing man-- was-- is-- he a Poodle 'morph? I seem to recall that on the phone..."
"Yes. Henry Mickels has been known to go full-morph from time to time, but he has consistently taken the form of a Miniature Poodle. I have never seen him as large as this dog." I give Sable an affectionate ruffling of the shoulders. The dog grins amiably up at me. Not a hair is out of place on his impeccably clipped, cleaned and scissored body. He almost seems out of place in this apartment. That may be because he is the only piece of art. I continue, "Henry has not gone to the extreme of failing to recognize those known to him, or forgetting his name. But even though you did explain to me that this dog is quite large, I did want to see him, and am grateful that you have allowed me to do so. It would not rest easy on my mind, knowing there was a Poodle I had not seen, and knowing the other... Possibilities..."
Which now are, unfortunately, the most likely. Mr. Eagan looks at me and says, "I understand."
He twitches aimlessly for a second, patting the few wrinkles in his slacks and shirt, before speaking once more. "The speaker, wonderful as she is, forgot one thing. You can go into Groom mode, sure, to take you steadily through just about anything that can happen to you in life, but you can't groom if no one will let you handle their animals."
I yawn. Angelo seems to know this is a way of mine of showing distress, not boredom, for he smiles at me gratefully before continuing. "I started hanging out at the Blind Pig," he says, somewhat huskily. "I'm sure you've heard of it. I couldn't smoke-- I'd quit, only two days before the onset of Flu, and once I'd done it for good there was no going back. Not if I could help it. But that didn't stop me from trying to get drunk.
"I was a complete slob. Of course I didn't know how to handle myself. All my clients were gone, and with them the companions who were with me all day, every day, save on weekends when I missed them sorely. Need to take a break sometime, you know. And the Shih Tzu I had years back had died at an old age, so I was without. I thought, another puppy, someday. And then came the Flu and I didn't care anymore. I wondered about even handling another dog. The reactions of my clients were so... scary."
"How so?" I remember all too well the reactions of high-school students. Does it get no better when we enter "adult" society? No, I realize for the hundredth time. I let out the smallest of sighs. I know where I would be right now, if things got better as we grew up. But now is not the time, here not the place for that. Let Mr. Eagan cry in his own house. Besides. Sable is a tribute to what they say about dog-petting and blood pressure. I'm feeling better already.
"How so scary? Well... I don't... Well, they were bad for me, but I'm sure you..."
I shake my head at him. "No, please, I'm listening. Lemur or no Lemur, I'm not the only one with problems. Let us both be glad we are not Henry Mickels."
"Yes. Let's. God, that poor man. I hope the police find him."
"Alive," I say, and Angelo winces.
He nods. "Now that I know, I can maybe be of some help. Check the shelters and such."
"How thoughtful of you!"
"I _want_ to help. As I said, the reactions were scary. Most people up and left because I wasn't 'me' anymore. And I guess, I _know_, that in a lot of ways that's true. My hands are too big, I even have trouble sometimes with the grips of my scissors. But I know when I'm faltering and would never let it hurt an animal. Me, that's a different thing. I might hurt me. I can take only so many pains over so many piddly everyday things before I forget and screw up, like bumping into something I used to be short enough to walk under. And as for companions...
"I knew my girlfriends would freak if I showed up claiming to be me, asking for a hug and a shoulder. That left the Bar, or at least, that was the only place I could go at first.
"I was afraid to be seen in public doing everything all wrong, clumsy and not well dressed and strange and lost. I had three clients in one day tell me that their little dogs are afraid of men. I had another five in one week point out to me that SCABS has not been _proven_ harmless to domestic animals. The paranoia can get to you, reach in where there were no thoughts of negativism before. My pets and their families, so appreciative of my art, had turned around just like that and managed to almost destroy a self-esteem they had built up." He pauses for an angry breath. "But I'm sure you know what that's like."
Oh, yes, I do. But he knows that I know and there is nothing to say about it now.
Angelo watches me stroking Sable and seems to think about it for a minute, my paw and the dog and the couch, before going on. I look at my own paw and in an instant that has been repeated often over the years, realize how unusual it is. But then its not-sameness fades and I continue to stroke the dog and listen to Angelo.
"The Blind Pig regulars saved my life. At least, they saved my grooming life. And to me that is companionship which is my whole life."
Yet he, like the rest of us, has a long way to go. His life may have been saved, but there is still the change to deal with. When the woman-smells and the cigarette traces (no, I _don't_ need one-- the grumble of defiance almost leaves my throat before I stop it) fade, Angelo will still be fighting himself the way I have fought, and am fighting, society. Is that why I am here, listening, sharing? Maybe. We are not battling with each other. I turn towards Angelo with my ears, eyes, nose, all intent upon him. He sees and appreciates my scrutiny, and asks a question.
"How do I... Look?"
"Hm." I make a non-committal thought-sound while I form an honest opinion. Then I can happily tell him, "Great! Smooth, dashing. But you slump a little."
He straightens up. "I'm used to being shorter. I'm still working on so many things... Michael-- he's a friend of mine-- has helped me with the clothing since we met in the Bar. Everything you see here... He helped me to find and try on. I had no idea..."
I wait while a wave of helpless anger moves over the man's face, fades and passes, though somewhere in there it must remain.
"... no idea how... It's so _humiliating_. To let another help when-- when you used to be pretty-- good at these things yourself."
"Yes," I say, grateful for the fact that my form is at least friendly to a trenchcoat. Change my style? No. I've changed enough. "I know."
The other piece of art in this room is Angelo. So I have to repeal the earlier judgment on Sable and decide instead that he is the only piece of art in the room _made by Angelo_. Angelo is in a process where others are deciding _him_. Am I? May we both, at some time, come away and keep ourselves _and_ our friends? "How does it feel," I inquire in my best attempt at a gently-joking voice, "to the Groomer, to be the one groomed?"
He laughs. "I used to go to the hairdresser's every three weeks to have my hair _colored_ red. Now look at this." He fingers the red-clay hued strands. "And as for my friends, I introduced them to whitening shampoo, and they take me clothes shopping. Although I must admit the strangeness of it has crossed my mind, a Dalmatian dressing and making haircut suggestions for a man. But I believe I have done him some good."
"So you _are_ finding--"
"Clients. Yes. And I am so grateful to them. Do you have a groomer?"
He is half-teasing, but it is heartening to see any fellow victim bouncing back, if just a little. "Why, no. I will have to take your card when I leave here."
"Do. I have had too many of them for too long. I would _love_ to run out of business cards again."
My turn to chuckle slightly. Then I turn to the dog, who is half-asleep with his head in my lap. "So, how did you come by Sable?"
"Well, it had to do with Phil, really. My therapist. I had an appointment to groom him and his companion bunny shortly after I met my friend Michael in the Bar, and something struck me about the rabbit. The pet, not the 'morph. Phil is a New Zealand White 'morph," Angelo explains. "Anyway, I worked on Shortcake, which is what he calls her, and I started to feel the way I did when I really liked someone's animal and got into that 'maybe I should consider another puppy' thing. You know? The kind of wistful planning you do, when things seem like they just might be possible... And I went to the City Animal Shelter. I filled out an application. I looked at the dogs.
"They said this fellow was a Lab-Terrier cross. But that's those shelter folks for you. They think all 'Terriers' are one breed and anything black and over twenty pounds is a Labrador Retriever mix. I've even see them call purebred Labs Lab 'mixes'. But in his case I guess I really couldn't blame them."
Angelo looks fondly at the dog again and sighs. Seems to be a lot of sighing going around this day. "He was a royal mess. It was awful. Don't get me wrong-- those Shelter people are sweet and caring and work very hard. But I was the only one who stopped and looked and said, 'My God, it's a Standard Poodle.'"
"This is an unusual find in an animal shelter...?"
"Oh, yes. It certainly is. Even under that mass of mats and crud I could see the _quality_ on him. And right then I began to wonder..."
I look again at the velvety black creature sitting with me, my bright brown eyes on his cheery dark ones, seeking some vestige of a recognition other than open friendliness. Nothing. At least not now.
"Nothing," he says. "I know. I even took him to Phil. He was very good about dealing with Sable and myself, and I am sure he did the best he could. I admire him for putting up with this fellow. Not that Sable is particularly difficult, but Phil can be dog-shy and it was nice of him to try. At least he didn't scoff at the idea, which is what some therapists might have done. Of course, first I took this fellow down to the animal clinic for boosters and a check-up, usual rigamarole, you know. And besides him being an excellent-quality Poodle just _found_ on the street, the doctor found a few more things that made us suspicious about his background."
Angelo twitches again in his chair, fiddling with the shimmery earrings and seeming to have trouble getting into a graceful resting position. Finally he settles on one and continues, as I too move cautiously, not wanting to remove Sable from my lap but feeling the slightest loss of circulation in my right leg.
"I had shaved the Poodle down to the skin, just about, to make it easier to wash him up and examine him. I do think his coat will come in nicely, given a chance. But it was as well that I take it off at that point, and the vet got a good look at him. They can be in such a hurry, they will miss things sometimes, but I explained my fears and he was very thorough." At this point Angelo sees my own fidgeting and rises shyly from his chair. "Would you like a drink? Orange juice? Beer? Perhaps a Mountain Dew or a candy heart?"
"Can't let the season go by without filling my candy jar," he says, disappearing for just a moment into the kitchenette. He reappears with a glass candy container, decorated on the top and colorfully full of shiny Valentine's treats. I smile-wrinkle at him.
"Yes, thanks, I will have a candy heart. Perhaps a Mountain Dew, too, since you have them and are offering."
"Of course!" Angelo opens the jar and leaves it on the coffee table for me. I hear the refrigerator door open almost as soon as he steps out of sight in the shallow kitchenette, then he is back with the new design of can, one for each of us.
"Thanks, this is sweet of you," I say, lifting the soda can in some sort of impromptu toast before sipping a little.
"Thank you for staying. If there is anything else I can get you I will gladly do so."
"I will let you know," I assure him, and settle in with Sable again. "What did the vet find? With Sable, I mean."
"Well. He found out first that this animal has no identification of any kind that would be typical for a well-bred and kept dog of his type. I asked the doctor to send in a blood sample to the DNA registries-- nothing. He has no tattoos, either in the ears or the flanks. We scanned him for a microchip-- also nothing.
"All of which I suppose would be explainable by oversight, through a good-quality puppy slipping through the cracks, so to speak, except that the breeder would have had the dewclaws removed and the tail docked by three days of age, long before selling the pup to any buyer. I don't know how such a great-looking dog could have ended up going so long without having that done. But the fact is, he had it done as an adult. Or such is the veterinarian's opinion."
"Could the veterinarian be wrong?"
"He _could_, yes. But I have groomed many a Poodle in my time and I can tell you that the scars are pretty obvious to me, too... I have one other explanation. He _could_ have been a pup from a lucky breeding by a complete novice, and an unethical novice to boot. I can't see docking the tail on an adult dog for _cosmetic_ reasons. And the vet feels it would have been for the typical Poodle cosmetic reasons."
"To help make this ball of fluff look pretty," I say, toying with the pom on the end of Sable's three-quarters tail.
"Exactly. So we advertised. And nobody came forward. Which leads me to wonder... Did someone steal him from an unethical or unknowledgable breeder, using their own knowledge to surgically enhance him? Without papers, he is worthless to a reputable show-dog person. But to someone willing to lie about the identity of a dog shown on the papers..."
I carefully tilt my soda can and take another drink. "I must admit here," I say, "That even though I am a student of human law, all this canine-legality stuff is a bit over my head. Are you trying to tell me that Sable could be a stolen animal but that you... Do you doubt it? I'm lost here."
"I doubt he is a stolen animal. We advertised in breed magazines and the national pet dog magazines and the local papers. After that we reported back to the police that not only was he a found Standard Poodle, he may well be a found person. And then you came along. He _could_ have been stolen by creepy dog people. But I feel it to be much more believable that he was _kidnapped_ by creepy dog people. In that case there would be no leads from the dog community that actually revealed his true owner. And there have been no such leads.
"We do not even know, if he is a SCAB, whether he was male or female, black or white, young or old, what have you. I have no idea how he escaped his captors. The Shelter people found him, shaken, bruised, afraid but, as they said, pitifully friendly.
"I asked him all about it. And always he has given me dog answers. But I do not know whether, for some instant, there was a flash that allowed him to know, to get away and find help. I do not know."
Finally Angelo sinks back and takes a long swallow from his Mountain Dew. I finger a small pink heart from among the many choices, pluck it from the clear jar and eat it. Sable sighs, idly watching the journey of the candy as it is lifted to my mouth and disappears. "Can the dog have something to eat?" I ask.
Angelo smiles. "Oh, using the eyes, is he? That bow helps too, I daresay. Have a hundred of 'em sitting around, and I am such a bow nut. I used to... Well, I planned a little too far ahead, I guess. Phil let me use one on Shortcake. I think he was just humoring me. But what can a groomer do? For some silly reason my wolf clients don't like heart bows attached to their clothing. How I will talk anyone into the orange-and-black ghost-patterned ones for Halloween, I don't know." He smiles at the edge of his lips and I can smell the almost desperate gratitude he has toward his clients. But it is a deep shame that anyone should be forced to change this way. I suppose that is what I am working on. Not SCABS, but the unused ribbons. Is that obscure enough for you?
"I suppose," Angelo says in a certain tone that immediately has his companion dog's attention, "that Sable can have a little treat."
He rises from his chair and simultaneously the dog is scrabbling from my lap and bounding the short distance to the kitchenette. I smell the wheat and garlic of dog treats as Angelo opens a package, then hear Sable's excited munching before they both come back into the living room. "Happy, Sable?" I ask him, and he dances in an expression of agreement before setting to the task of sniffing the floor for any crumbs he might have missed.
Angelo comes over and sits on the edge of the couch, next to me. I move into conversation angle and offer him one of his own candy hearts. He thanks me dramatically and accepts a grape one. I eat a lemon yellow one, and then almost as one body we reach for the gray-and-black TV remote.
"Staying for the Valentine's specials?" Angelo laughs. The color of TV snaps on before him and Sable looks up at the sound and light before getting comfortable in the chair Mr. Eagan has warmed for him.
"Maybe just a few," I smile. The thought of Henry Mickels crosses my mind. I must convey my agitation, because Angelo becomes concerned.
"I could move," he says, hand on the candy jar and body poised to depart the couch.
"No. It's all right. I was just thinking of Henry." I'll be darned if I'm going to move this man now. I will not be a part of it. He has not alienated me. I will leave after the specials and it will be cold outside. But somewhere there is someone colder than I.
Angelo watches the TV for a moment, then flips the channel once and stays with the animated bit he sees there. I begin to talk about university things, and he half-watches, while minding what I am saying.
"You are a friend of a friend of Henry's?" he asks me.
"I belong to an organization, of which Henry w-- is also a member. I am not his closest friend. I came because I might be able to... Be objective."
Sable yawns, spreading his black self over the chair.
I lean over, the better to see the shapes on the television. Angelo makes a sound like a sob, only it ends where it begins.
"I want a heart bow for my lapel."
"They're free, with a groom."
"Oh, and without?"
"Well... I suppose for Lemurs I can offer one as a gift now and then."
I smile as he goes to the bedroom and comes back out with a plastic package full of bows. He opens the container. "Choose."
"I get to choose?"
"Of course! It's always the client's preference."
I look up at him, knowing full well that my large eyes permanently carry a startled expression, but hoping now that they might be knowing and mischievous. I have a sudden thought as to what I can do, before I leave the man and the dog alone.
"What would _you_ suggest?"