Jaime lived in the apartment opposite Anna, on the fifteenth floor of the last surviving high rise block in the town. The other neighbours had no time for Jaime, people don’t for drunks, as a rule. Marco lived on the ground floor, you passed his door going in or out of the block.
He complained, ‘What am I, the landlord? People bothering me all the damn time,’ yet there he would be, his front door open while he smoked in the concrete yard outside. Marco was Portuguese, the skin of his face made Anna think of a flawless nut. She could imagine that if you kissed him, up close you would see the fine grain. He was five foot three, a doll-house version of a big man. A miniature perfection.
Anna suspected his secret pleasure in being needed. Marco was the only person with a toolkit, and he knew how to use it. They all said, the whole block, if you have a problem, call Marco. It was quicker than calling the council.
When she fantasised about him, she imagined Marco even smaller. Not because she wanted a tiny sexual partner, that was just how the fantasy was shaped. She, a pale giantess, a queen larva, and he, almost like a squirrel, darting over her, perfect and sleek. Very nimble. She believed the strangeness of this fantasy meant that she loved Marco in a special way, as a pet or spirit guardian. Nevertheless, his virility could not be denied.
Anna could not have guessed Jaime’s age. Somewhere between thirty and sixty, if you held a gun to her head. With drunks, age was hard to tell. Jaime acquired a dog, sources unknown. The way other people might catch a head cold, or find gum stuck on the sole of their shoe.
‘Anna, the block rules say no pets.’
Though the wisdom of keeping a dog in a fifteenth-floor apartment was questionable, she defended Jaime, saying,
‘’He’s very gentle.’
‘Nah man, I don’t like it,’ Marco narrowed his squirrel nut eyes.
Anna argued, ‘It gives him a reason to get up in the mornings. He’s all alone.’
‘I live alone!’ Marco protested, but he knew it was different. ‘This damn building,’ he said.
Through similarly mysterious channels Jaime obtained a bicycle, which he rode when walking became increasingly difficult.
‘Gout,’ Jaime told Anna, ‘Me bunions swole up like bleedin’ radishes.’
Like untreated wood left out in all weathers, his legs had also begun to bow.
‘What’s with his walk?’ Marco asked her. ‘The drink bust his legs out like that?’ He bent at the knees, illustrating the shape. ‘Won’t stop a goat in an alleyway.’
‘Why would he need to?’ asked Anna.
The dog was big boned with a black wiry mane, and the sloped spine typical of German Shepherds, as though his tail was heavy. He was old but could trot alongside the bike. Jaime called him Dobbo, and Dobs, but Anna used his full given name.
‘Dobbin looks like a wolf,’ she said.
‘He’s soft as butter mate,’ Jaime replied.
But how soft was butter?
High rises were built to be rid of urban slums. Vertical villages, reaching high. Anna might have lived closer to the ground, she had choices, but she liked the view.
‘The higher you go, the more there is,’ she said.
‘And the further you got to get down,’ Marco replied.
Jaime had lived there longest. Anna didn’t ask about his situation, it was wrong, to ask anything of a drunk. He would have lost so much already.
‘His mother used to come by,’ said Marco, ‘but she don’t no more.’
‘Did they fight?’
‘Anna, I don’t know this. You ask like I got the answers. Maybe she get too old for the trip.’
‘Was she sad?’ It must be difficult, for the mother of a drunk.
‘Sad, I don’t know. She was a big lady, walked like a sick chicken.’
‘A sick chicken?’
‘Yeah, you know, like…’ Marco leaned, first on one foot then the other.
‘Like she wobble along, real old, you know?’ He shrugged.
‘ Maybe she died,’ said Anna.
‘That’s really sad.’
Marco shrugged again.
‘My mother died.’
‘Marco, I’m so sorry.’
‘Hey I’m just saying, mothers, they all die sometime, right?’
Marco said, ‘Hey, God turned his back on this dude. You can’t fix him, Anna, it’s too late.’
‘Too late for what?’ she asked.
Maybe intervention is never possible anyway, she thought. You cannot save people you can only love them, she read that once. Still, she would have expected more, from God.
‘You shouldn’t buy that shit for him,’ said Marco. The vodka bottles clinked in the grocery bags as she walked by the wall where he leaned, scrolling his phone.
‘But I don’t buy it,’ Anna said. ‘He gives me the money and a list.’
‘If he wants it, he should go buy it himself.’
‘But his legs don’t work!’
‘Then why the fuck he drinking?’ Marco shook his head. ‘For shame, Anna. For damn shame.’
She didn’t like buying the vodka, but a list was made for a reason, wasn’t it? You cannot save people, you can only love them.
One morning Anna let herself into Jaime’s apartment. She hadn’t yet brushed her teeth and could still taste breakfast cereal, that milk taint saliva. He had shouted her name repeatedly, so she knew something was wrong.
There wasn’t enough in the flat to get messy, but it was dirty. There were empty bottles of Glen’s vodka and overflowing ashtrays. Beside Jaime’s old wingback chair was a bucket, which Anna was very careful not to look into. Very careful.
Dobbin lay on his square blue bed. It bore a pattern of bones and was covered in hair. Curtains drawn, the apartment was dark, everything coated in a film of something between mood and matter. Anna was accustomed to the flat, she dropped in two, sometimes three times a week. She had a key to save Jaime getting up, but he didn’t let her run around after him. He put away his own groceries. She respected that.
‘It’s community,’ she told Marco.
‘If you say so,’ he replied.
Anna bought Dobbin sausages, but more than that she didn’t know.
‘He’s not eating nothing are you Dobs?’ Jaime was clearly worried.
‘Scared of the vet, Dobbo is,’ he said, when she suggested taking him.
They entered a sort of limbo, a Dobbin-vigil, except on the surface, everything stayed the same. Anna still went to work, Jaime still sat in his chair. Time passed, one, two, three nights. Looking back, Anna saw that they knew Dobbin was dying. Life was like that, sometimes. You needed to get a little way in front of something to make it out.
The fourth day, Dobbin was gone. Anna didn’t make a big deal of it.
‘People manage their grief in many ways,’ she told Marco.
She was curious though, as to the body’s whereabouts. The hair covered blue bed with its pattern of bones was halfway rolled up, as if Dobbin had perhaps tidied before departure or, and this was more likely, been pulled from it post mortem.
Marco shook his head, ‘You sure he’s dead?’
She was sure. ‘Jaime said, Dobbo passed on mate. To the other side.’
‘The other side of what? He’s got the dead dog up there somewhere.’
‘Haven’t you seen anybody come by?’
‘For sure. I have a bad feeling here, Anna.’
‘It must be,’ Anna considered, ‘that someone came by and we didn’t see. That’s all.’
It was only a one-bedroom apartment, there was nowhere Jaime could have put Dobbin. Life carried on, the way it does. They let it go.
The long days of summer drew on. Anna always visited her mother the last weekend of the month. Her mother was sick. That long term sick you get used to, until you don’t remember the person without the sickness.
Anna missed a bus and was late home. The block elevator was broken again, she would have to take the stairs.
Marco was smoking outside. ‘Good trip?’
‘Yeah.’ She smiled. ‘Have you seen Jaime over the weekend?’
‘Nah.’ He stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Listen, Anna, you want me to carry your bag up? You look busted.’
She shook her head. ‘Thanks though Marco. Night.’
Marco opened his arms wide. ‘Ground floor living, Anna. I’m just saying.’
Outside her door, her legs buckled, slick with sweat. She didn’t check on Jaime but went straight into her apartment, showered and fell into bed.
After work the following day she stopped by the One-Stop garage and bought a pack of tropical Solero ice-cream sticks. Anna didn’t curse but if she did, she would have cursed the damned broken elevator.
When there was no reply at Jaime’s door she let herself in.
At first, she thought he was dead. She could only see his hand, but it was very still. Still enough to be dead.
She stepped closer.
‘Jaime?’ She leaned, closer still. ‘Are you okay?’
His face, hollow around missing teeth, leaned against the wing of the chair. He was drooling, but he was not dead. A bottle of Glen’s vodka nestled in his lap, almost empty, screw lid missing.
His bare feet were purple and swollen, the bunions far worse than any imaginable radish. Folding Dobbin’s bed on the small coffee table, she hoisted Jaime’s legs onto it. His skin was dry and papery.
‘Murnu duh?’ he mumbled. ‘Shwaurn?’
Remembering the Solero ice creams, she walked to Jaime’s big chest freezer and opened the lid.
Anna ran the fifteen flights down and knocked on Marco’s door in that emergency way, when you aren’t sorry for the fuss, when the panic fits the task.
Marco followed her up the stairs like the weariest man in the world.
‘Come on,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘Quickly.’
‘It’s not going anywhere.’
‘Why are you bringing your tool bag? I don’t think you can fix this.’
‘Listen Anna, this place, you never know.’
‘How do you think he got him in there?’
Inside the freezer, Dobbin had taken on rectangular dimensions unnatural for a German Shepherd, or any sort of dog. He left not much room for anything else. His legs curled around a frozen packet of hash browns.
‘Jaime’s favourite,’ Anna remarked.
‘Damn,’ said Marco. ‘Dude put his fucking dog on ice.’
‘I’m saying the drunk carried him in there, unless this a first-time dog suicide. In which case I sympathise.’ Marco smiled at the thought of the suicidal dog.
‘But Jaime can hardly walk!’
‘Anna, I don’t know. It’s a miracle, you tell me.’
‘We could have helped.’
‘Dog’s his big pal, right? Guess he didn’t want to see him go.’
‘Maybe his dignity kept him from asking for help.’
‘Anna. The guy pisses in a bucket by his chair. His legs make a damn circle. Don’t talk to me about dignity.’
‘We should give him a proper burial.’
Marco looked at her. ‘You’re talking the dog, right?’
Dobbin, tightly compacted, had grown ice around him like hard, blossoming snowflakes. The freezer was unwilling to release its unexpected cargo.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t,’ Anna said, as they chipped around Dobbin’s block, Marco with a hammer and she with a butter knife.
He didn’t look up. ‘Anna, I was not raised to leave bodies in freezers.’
‘My fingers are so cold.’
‘So get gloves. Listen, pass me the chisel.’
The chisel was effective. ‘It’s all in the tools, man,’ said Marco.
Dobbin retained his corners. Lots of wiry hairs were stuck to the freezer walls. Anna shut the lid.
‘Damned useless elevator,’ said Marco, as they set off, down the concrete stairs.
Dead Dobbin bared his teeth over Marco’s shoulder. Like he was joking or making the emptiest of threats. His bloodless, grey-blue tongue was frozen stuck over one side of his nose. Marco’s shoulders were broad in comparison to his compact frame. Anna looked at the muscles of his arm and she couldn’t help it, she thought of the busy heat of the squirrel. She kept her place in the solemn funeral procession, staring shamefully at the beautiful arms.
‘Stop at old Max’s for his shovel. He has an allotment.’ Marco and Dobbin waited in the stairwell while Anna knocked.
‘You burying someone, Anna?’ asked Max, handing her the shovel.
‘Yes,’ she smiled.
On the patch of wasteland behind the estate, Marco dug a hole. They lay Dobbin in it, compacting loose dirt over him, a final petting. Good Boy.
‘Shouldn’t he have a cross?’ Anna asked. ‘A marker or something?’
Marco sighed, ‘Okay, wait.’
He kicked around in the scrub and found a short piece of wood.
‘You want to write his name?’ Marco fished in his pocket for a pen.
‘I’m knowing you too well now, Anna.’
‘Should we pray?’
‘Nah man, I don’t think so.’
‘We better go check on the drunk.’
She stood up, brushing dirt from her knees.
‘Nice,’ said Marco.
The piece of wood read: