Two Autumn Tales

1: My Own Private Newbury

On the first morning, I rose early and set out across Copley Square. I passed the Gilbran memorial plaque, took some pictures of Hancock Tower and the square. The sun had risen but the Tower obscured it, sheathing everything in grey light. The Back Bay's corridors funnel wind down most of its streets, especially before 10 am, and that morning was especially cold. As it grew brighter I became more invigorated.

I passed the Starbucks on Boylston and Berkeley, but kept going, hoping for somewhere I might get into more interesting conversations with the locals. Sure enough, just under a mile down Newbury, I found Espresso Royale. It was at semi-basement level and its interior was small. Outside the cafe, a curved wall with four windows stared out at a small courtyard filled with tables. From here, I could sit with my backpack and notebook and gaze up at the sidewalk in front or the raised walkway that led to the businesses on the ground level.

It was eight am. I wrote to occupy my time. I finished the first coffee too quickly. I ordered another, and took my time with it. I covered fifteen pages in my journal and noticed a sea of bodies around me. The place was packed with commuters just passing through, but before too long the tides receded, leaving a few artifacts behind. There was an old man with a dog, an old lady with a kart, and another old man with a newspaper.

Then there was a girl.

She was tall and lanky, with exaggerated supermodel features, and swathed in a long grey chesterfield coat. She approached my table, stopped, whipped her head back and took a long careless drag off her cigarette. Her hair spilled out in wavy ringlets. She dropped her hands at her sides and asked, 'someone sitting here?'

I was too enthusiastic in reply, but she sat down anyway, trayed her smoke and began undoing her scarf's intricate hacking knot. Her scarf was an assaulting, four-alarm red. It distracted me from the rest of her.

"Watch my stuff." She got up and went inside. I sat there, pretending to write. I glanced furtively at her brown suede knapsack a few times. She was real, right? That bag was proof.

She came back with coffee. She sat down and just starting talking to me. She complained about her school assignments like we were old friends. She brought up parts of her week that I know I hadn't been briefed on - since we'd never met - but I went along. I asked myself: is she crazy or does she think I'm someone else? Between her story about almost falling into the Charles River and complaining about her roommate, I decided I didn't care. I was having too much fun.

By noon, there were a group of them around me. I said little about myself. None of them knew how far from home I was. I listened. I added generic responses when it was appropriate. It seemed they had a leader, too. I didn't remember him even sitting down with us. I don't remember his name now, so 'Bob' will have to do. Bob was a poet. He was exactly like the leader of the hustlers in My Own Private Idaho. You remember, the old skeezy man reciting Shakespeare and shaking his children down for drugs in that movie? Yeah, that was Bob.

Before long, Bob took over the conversation. He spoke in riddles. He kept encouraging me to be a part of the collective. At one point, during a particularly awkward exchange, I was almost positive he was trying to pimp one of the girls out to me. I also had no idea what on earth he meant by 'the collective' but as his salesmanship grew, the blossoming violets around me all shrank into the corners. The fun was over. I packed my things up and wandered off down Newbury in search of other adventures.

2: The Man-Hating Dogs

I almost didn't make it. The train pulled away slowly as we entered the Station. No time for goodbyes.. just RUN! I coughed up a lung on the way to my seat, past the disapproving conductor.

I got to the house about an hour later. It was a big white Colonial home in the town of Sharon, and surrounded by trees. I was welcomed by my mother and her friends who owned the home. We all sat down for dinner and I noticed two lumbering dogs, one doberman pinscher and one mastiff, running through the house. I stooped down to pet them. They were so friendly. 'What great dogs!' I said.

My host sighed and responded, "Well... just be careful." I stopped scratching Alice, the black doberman, behind her ear and stood up straight. The other dog, Brenda, sulked near the kitchen.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well..." she went on, in the same nervous tone. "Brenda and Alice had some abuse when they were puppies, and men did it, so they generally attack men."  As if reading my thoughts, she added, "Oh, they haven't figured out you're a man yet. When they do, you'll know... and watch out!"

Immediately after this, we all sat down for dinner at a large antique colonial table in a rectangular dining area with an intricately carved raised ceiling. My host began to say grace.

When you're someone's guest in an unfamiliar home, it's customary to feel a bit trapped. You don't know where the bathroom is and you're surrounded by strangers. You're at their mercy. If you're at the table listening to Grace, you're particularly bound by convention.

It was exactly at this point that the two dogs began circling the table. They snorted and sniffed their way from chair to chair, investigating each of the guests. I kept my hands away from my sides. Grace lasted a really long time. I paid particular attention to the bit about 'protect us from harm' and raised my head to the ceiling, nodding.

Brenda wandered silently around the other end of the table, and Alice was to my right, sniffing everyone, and was three guests, now two, now one guest away.

", heavenly father, thank you for this bounty you've bestowed on us."

Grace ended, and I grabbed my fork and began cutting the chicken up into tiny pieces. I heard a low growling to my left. Brenda was stiff, head lowered, gums curled up into a snarl, staring right at me. All at once Alice began barking wildly, and this set Brenda off.

As they lunged, I instinctively knocked my fork and knife up into the air. They clattered to the ground. There was still a piece of chicken on the fork. Alice gobbled it up. This placated her for a second, enough for me to get up from my seat and cross over to the other side of the room. She she quickly resumed her aggression and headed for me.

All this time, my host opened a door at the other end of the dining room, and did her best to corral the girls toward it. "No!" she snapped. "No girls! No! Here! Here now!" There was panic in her voice. I was terrified. Both dogs' heads tracked me like motion sensing cameras.

Finally, my host shooed the girls through the door, down some stairs into the basement, and shut it. I could hear their frenzied crying from the basement as we sat down to continue our meal. By the time dessert was brought out, the dogs in the basement were still barking.

"They've caught your scent now," said the lady of the house, helpfully. "You'd best be careful around them until you leave."


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