The Writing on the Wall

Stewart Black/Flickr

What apology is right when your two-year-old scrawls across a friend’s wall? If I ever knew, the time is past. But when it’s you who is the injured owner of the wall, then I do know what to do, and I knew already when a friend’s two-year-old did it to my wall—not be angry or upset. That job’s for the mother, if anyone; your job is to lessen her burden by pretending you don’t mind. But my friend didn’t seem distressed—instead of apologizing, she laughed and told her toddler he needed to improve a lot before he could get away with drawing on people’s walls.

It’s difficult to apologize for your child, but it has got to be easier than for your dog after he’s done something he shouldn’t have. Children are more themselves, more independent and individual than dogs. More autonomous. The mischief a child does is because you haven’t managed to prevent him from it, while a dog’s mischief is because you allowed him. You might as well have done the act yourself. So when my dog bit the bottom of the person who’d come to fix the furnace, I burned with shame. How had I let him do this?

The repairperson was a woman, and it was her second visit to the house. The first time, a month earlier, she’d come in the late morning and then returned with a part after lunch, and adding up the two sessions, she overcharged me by an hour. When I questioned the bill, she made it clear that there was nothing to question. “No, no, I left just in time to pick my kid up from nursery school,” she said. Her look was direct, and her eyes were beautiful—the hazel irises very light with a dark rim that made them seem to pulse. I wasn’t going to argue or refuse to sign the bill. Either would have been stressful. I didn’t want to resent her either—I liked the woman.

So instead, I remembered a joke about a man who has a malady. He goes to the doctor, because doctors have to make a living, they have to take care of themselves. The doctor writes a prescription on his pad, and the man takes it because the office supply salesman has to take care of himself, and then he fills the prescription at the drugstore because the druggist has to take care of himself too. When he gets home, he throws the medicine in the trash. “What are you doing?” asks his wife, and he answers that he, too, has to take care of himself. The repairwoman had just been taking care of herself; that’s how it worked. But I wondered now, had my dog picked up on and remembered our previous disagreement? Was he taking care of me?

I apologized again as I tied the dog up after a harsh word to him, and the repairwoman said not to worry about it. But she was grimacing and rubbing her rear. Had it been her shoulder I’d have offered to look, or to put something on it. “I’m soo sorry,” I said again. “He’s never done that before. He’s more likely to be afraid of people.” I wanted to tell her Toby’s history, but what would the point be—to suggest that she reminded him of someone who had starved and beaten him?

Well, I thought, if she overcharges me today, she’s got an excuse. But she seemed, if anything, friendlier after the bite, which I’d decided was more like a nip, and the bill this time was the minimum. As she was packing up her tools, I asked after her child, and she said the girl never slowed down. “It’s Mama this, Mama that, she doesn’t stop for a minute. It’s just me, and after working all day …” She shrugged. Yes, of course, I nodded, you want to relax. She looked at me with those astonishing eyes. “I’d rather have her like that though than sluggish or subdued,” she said, and shrugged again.

Before she left she answered a final question about the furnace. I thanked her. “You’ll be out repairing furnaces yourself,” she said. I answered that I doubted it, but still, I hoped I wouldn’t be seeing her again for a while.

Toby, you bad dog, I told him gently, freeing him when the repairwoman had driven off. You’re not a two-year-old, you know. I said it lovingly, though I was thinking that a little more subdued, a little more sluggish would be fine. He gazed up at me. Just give me time, said his dark, sad eyes.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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