The Dog Walker

The Dog Walker became Ruth Clancy's saving grace, although she wasn't sure why. She never spoke to the man but every day, like clockwork, he strolled by the house walking his black lab – once in the morning (usually just about 6:56) and again in the evening (at just about 7:10 each night).

Ruth lived on a dead end street and McAllister's Field at the end of the pavement was a good place for dogs to do their duty so she understood why The Dog Walker passed by like clockwork. Sometimes he'd had a cup of coffee in his hand or a soda but he rarely missed an outing. He was a tall thin man with a mop of black hair that resembled any of The Beatles from their Rubber Soul era.

Ruth would see The Dog Walker bundled up in a heavy coat, wool hat and gloves on snow days and in rubbery rain gear on stormy days. In warmer weather, he might be in shorts, sandals and a tee shirt. But he was always there and after a while Ruth took his appearance as the one sign of normalcy in her otherwise chaotic life.

Ruth wasn't even supposed to be in her childhood house to see The Dog Walker pass by every day. Two years earlier she was married and co-partners with her husband Isaac at the Clancy and Clancy Law Firm of Warwick, Rhode Island. Now the firm was closed, she was disbarred, and her marriage was over.

Although she didn't know that her husband was intentionally misappropriating client funds to pay for personal bills and luxuries, Ruth was found guilty as an accomplice after the fact and ordered to surrender her law license. She also received a year of probation and a $50,000 fine (her husband was fined $250,000).

While Ruth was unaware that her husband was keeping portions of settlements and judgments from clients by telling them that the funds were used to reimburse third party providers, as a co-partner in the firm she was found equally responsible and she faced criminal charges if she didn't willingly give up her law license. The practice ruined and her marriage over, Ruth returned to Greenville in shame and humiliation, moving in with her widowed mother.

Ruth performed discreet law clerking and researching on the side and she volunteered some, but mostly she kept to herself and avoided public interaction. Somehow, the Norman Rockwell image of The Dog Walker passing her house each day gave her solace and peace witnessing the sight of innocent normalcy of a man and his dog enjoying the simple pleasures of life each day, a stark contrast to the corruptive disgrace she had fallen into.

Ruth found herself getting up early (even though she had no reason to drag herself out of bed at all) just to catch sight of the man and his dog. Same was true for the evening stroll when she would leave Wheel of Fortune for a moment to watch The Dog Walker passing by. She liked the way his hair bounced with his gait and how he talked with the dog (she could hear his voice some days. Interestingly enough, the dog and the man resembled each other with their black hair and long gaits.

Ruth knew she was becoming pathetically obsessive about her secret little habit the morning she ran naked from the shower and stood behind the curtains of her bedroom window just to sneak a peek at the man (and his dog).

The Dog Walker took on added significance when Ruth's mother learned she was terminally ill. The unexpected news felt especially cruel to Ruth who had already been through so much. The cancer was fast moving and devastating, unstoppable even after two operations and Ruth found herself acting as her mother's caretaker in the final months of her mom's life. Now The Dog Walker served as an escape for Ruth – just for a moment as she stood in the window momentarily forgetting about loss and pain and grief and sorrow and sickness. The consistency of the man and the cuteness of the happy dog – his tail wagging, his tongue hanging out – made Ruth smile even on the worse of days.

Ruth's mother peacefully passed away on a quiet sunny morning in early July, having slipped into a coma two days earlier. Shelia, the Hospice Volunteer, sat with Ruth in those final hours and when it was over Ruth was hit with a strange sense of relief combined with an incredible feeling of loss and loneliness.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of funeral services and settling the estate. Ruth inherited the house and a comfortable monetary amount from savings and insurance so she didn't have to have to worry about her immediate future. It was only when things finally settled down that Ruth realized that she hadn't seen The Dog Walker in recent days and she struggled to remember the last time when she actually did see the man and his dog.

For several days, Ruth stood in the window well before 6:56 in the morning and well before 7:10 each evening waiting for The Dog Walker to approach – but he never did. His absence served as a double loss for Ruth and although she stood watch for several days, hoping perhaps the man was on vacation or away on a business trip, she never saw him or that wonderfully happy black lab pass by her house again and that left her feeling incredibly depressed, although she wasn't sure why.

Several months passed and Ruth had all but forgotten about The Dog Walker. The house was empty and lonely without the company and emotional support of her mom and Ruth found herself in a general malaise about her life. She worked from home providing research and consult services for various lawyer friends, typing up briefs, case studies and summaries and offering analytical background support. The work kept her busy and semi-involved although her days felt aimless and unfulfilled.

One Saturday morning, Ruth was in the Greenville Stop and Save picking up groceries and other items. As usual, she was lost in her own thoughts and not paying attention to those around her, usually afraid somebody might confront her as the disgraced lawyer and hometown disappointment (although not one person had ever said a word to her since she returned to town from Rhode Island). Ruth happened to glance up and she noticed a man standing in the cereal aisle staring blankly at the various assortments of cereal brands.

"Oh My God!" Ruth said aloud, startling the man who knocked a cereal box from the shelf to the floor.

He picked up the box while glancing at the strange woman staring opened mouth at him with wide eyes.

"You're The Dog Walker!" Ruth exclaimed.

"I beg your pardon?" The man asked with confusion.

"I used to see you walking your dog by my house every day," Ruth explained, sounding like some fan who had just encountered her favorite celebrity. "I live in that brown bungalow on McAllister's Lane just before McAllister's Field."

"Oh, yes, Hootie." The man smiled with affection.

"I don't see you anymore," Ruth sighed.

"Well, Hootie died," The man revealed with a sigh.

Ruth unexpected burst into tears upon hearing the news, startling both herself and The Dog Walker. She buried her face in her hands and wailed out an anguished sob.

"Are you okay?" The man asked with surprise.

"I'm sorry," she said, with a mixture of embarrassment and humiliation. "I don't know why I'm being so emotional. It's just that my mother died around the same time….."

"Oh," The man said. "That's terrible."

"She'd been sick," Ruth explained, searching her purse for a tissue. "For some reason, you and your dog gave me comfort every day."

"He had a cyst on his liver we didn't know about," the man sadly explained. "It burst one morning and I had to put him down."

"That's so terrible," Ruth said, dabbing her eyes and wiping her nose with the tissue she finally found.

"It was pretty hard," the man agreed. "Hootie was a good dog."

"I imagine you miss him," Ruth said.

"Just as I know you miss your mom," the man said.

"Yes," she said, forcing a smile.

"I'm Marty Barnett," the man said, offering his hand. "It's nice to meet you. Thank you for noticing Hootie."

"Ruth Clancy," Ruth replied, accepting his hand in hers while making sure her tissue was in her other hand. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"As I am for yours," Marty replied.

They looked at each other for an awkward moment. "Well, I should get back to my shopping," Ruth realized.

"I have no idea which one of these to buy," Marty admitted, returning his focus to the many boxes of cereal on the shelves in front of him.

"I'm partial to Raisin Bran and Grapenut Flakes myself," Ruth reported as she wheeled her shopping cart down the aisle.

Marty glanced after her and smiled before taking a box of Raisin Bran off the shelf and putting it into his cart.