Mr. Puwlowski wore his thin white hair in a tight ponytail that reached all the way down to his giant potbelly and contrasted brightly with his ruddy, jovial face. Even in the summer he wore faded jeans and faded flannel.
Most people my age didn’t like cops but Mr. Puwlowski was different. He was retired, too, so that got him bonus points.
Plus, he had Morty, his canine companion from back when he was on the force. Barry asked him once how he managed to keep a German Shepard in his apartment without the landlord finding out.
“Oh, she knows,” he said with a wink. “But if she ever tells me to get rid of ol’ Morty I’ll call up my pal at the precinct and then, boom!” He snapped his wrinkly finger. “There goes half of her illegal immigrant tenants. Besides, he’s been highly trained, even more than me, so he won’t be doing a lot of barking. ”
They laughed at the prospect of screwing over their bitchy landlord. “Well, whatever,” he said as he handed me Morty’s leash. “Have a good jog. I’m packing.”
“When are you leaving, sir?” Barry asked.
He eagerly rubbed his hands together. “Just one more day. I’ve been waiting for Jamaica for twelve years, and I can’t stand these next 24 hours.”
“That’s great to hear, sir,” he said. “If I were you, though, I’d stock up on sunscreen.”
Mr. Puwlowski laughed even harder. That was another thing Barry liked about Mr. Puwlowski. He laughed a lot, so much that he had wrinkles around his eyes.
Morty timidly scratched at Barry’s pant leg. “Looks like he’s ready to go, sir. I’ll see you in an hour or so,” Barry said.
Mr. Puwlowski nodded and waved as the two descended down the elevator.
It was a beautiful autumn day, and both canine and human could feel it. As soon as he got a whiff of fresh, crisp air, Morty’s tongue lolled out and he panted with excitement.
“Okay boy,” Barry said, “Let’s go!”
They set off around the corner of the old, sagging apartment building. He had barely made it down the block before Barry felt his lungs burning and the lactic acid building in his legs.
Barry started to slow down, but Morty wasn’t having any of that. He jerked ahead on his leash, and he somehow willed himself to bring his pack back up to an acceptable level.
“I just want to slow down for a second,” Barry said between gasps for air. “I must’ve gone at least half a mile.”
Thankfully, they reached an intersection with a red light. Barry jogged in place to impress the pair of girls taking their coffee at the corner Starbucks. They giggled at him.
He worked up the courage and smiled at them. Their giggling became coy grins.
It was a good run.
They returned an hour later, both panting heavily from the exercise, but happily. Mr. Puwlowski was checking his mail in the lobby. Instead of a flannel shirt he wore a Magnum PI Hawaiian shirt and aviator glasses. “Barry! Have a good run?” he asked.
“Yeah, it was!” Barry said between gasps of air. “Get any good mail?”
He beamed at me and flashed a plain white envelope. “Just got my plane tickets! I’m leaving right now. You can still watch Morty for me, right?”
“Yeah,” Barry said, “No problem.”
“My man!” Mr. Puwlowski clapped a big paw on his shoulder. “I really appreciate this. And don’t worry, I’ll pay you.”
“That’s what I like to hear!” Barry said back, and the pair watched Mr. Puwlowski catch a cab and zoom off.
During the week that Barry watched him Morty never once barked again. It was a pleasant week for both of them. Morty got to indulge in expensive dog treats and Barry got a companion. After a long day at work, having someone wiggling with joy at seeing you was nice.
Mr. Puwlowski returned on a Friday, and they ran in to him as they came back from a jog.
“Oh hey Mr. Puwlowski!” Barry said. “How was your trip to Jamaica?”
He looked up from his lock. His beard was straggly, he must’ve lost thirty pounds, and his skin was taunt and sallow. If Barry didn’t know, he’d have guessed that Mr. Puwlowski had been to jail, and had not gone on a vacation.
“It was good,” he said tersely.
Barry laughed awkwardly. “Meet any sexy natives?”
Before he could answer Morty whined. He took a few steps back and his tail stopped wagging. It reminded Barry of when he ran out of treats and Morty whimpered with disappointment.
“What’s wrong boy?” he asked.
“It’s nothing,” Mr. Puwlowski said. He reached out his hand. “Give me the leash.”
For a moment Barry thought about saying no. Something was wrong; something made him uneasy. It reminded him of the same unease he felt when he went to the funeral of a fellow student he hadn’t really known during his sophomore year.
“Give me the damn leash!” Mr. Puwlowski nearly yelled, and Barry quickly did so.
Morty laid down in an effort to prevent from being dragged into Mr. Puwlowski’s room. He whimpered, and even gave a few little barks in protest. The fur around his neck bunched up as the collar pulled on him.
“Come on damn it!” Mr. Puwlowski growled. He gave a few more jerks, and man and dog disappeared inside.
It left Barry with a feeling like his stomach was being tied in knots. He had fantasized about where Morty would go once Mr. Puwlowski, in his advanced age, passed on. He imagined that he would be the first person on the list of possible owners. Now he wasn’t so sure.
Two sounds woke Barry up that night. Barking from across the hall and a knocking on his door.
At first both confused him. What dog was barking, and who was knocking on his door? He groggily rolled out of bed. The next thing he realized was the awful stench that permeated his apartment. It smelled of rotten meat and soured milk. “That’s gross,” he said hoarsely. “Did I leave something out?”
The knocking was also weird. It was slow and rhythmic, like a drum on a Viking ship. “I’m coming,” Barry grumbled as he shuffled to the door. As he approached the door the smell got worse. Someone must’ve left their garbage out in the hall, he thought.
In the background the dog was barking louder and faster. He sounded in pain, frantic. Morty, Barry realized. I’ve never heard Morty bark before. In that brief moment Barry realized how strange that was. He’s never barked. Didn’t he say it was part of his training?
Mr. Puwlowski had told him about it once. What had he called Morty? It was weird, Barry thought.
The barking neared a desperate crescendo. It sounded as if he was getting years of barking out of his system. And all the while the knocking never changed, never slowed nor quickened, just stayed the same rhythm.
Oh, that’s right, Barry thought as he opened the door. A cadaver dog.