Luz cringed at the sound of Herman singing in the hallway, returning from his morning walk with Nacho, his twelve-year-old chihuahua terrier mix. The whole building knew how much her husband loved his “Nacho, Nacho Man.” It was embarrassing. Guarded and private, Luz didn’t like other people knowing her business, asking questions about painful subjects. None of that bothered Herman, who had become somewhat of a busybody, timing his morning and evening walks to run into as many of the residents as possible as they hurried to or from work. They were all family to him. Lately, he had “adopted” a young mother and son, new to the building, to walk with him in the evenings.
“Funny thing,” he said, seeing her in the kitchen. “I just ran into old Sammy from the VFW. Says his neighbor had the sniffles yesterday, then his home health nurse finds him dead in bed this morning. Can you believe it? This virus.” He shook his head and walked out of the room.
The drone of the television filtered in from the living room, a background of indistinguishable voices and canned laughter. Over it all, Herman’s commentary, conducted as a conversation with the dog. It irritated her more after his walks, thirty minutes of blissful silence, like putting shoes back on blistered feet.
Herman started coughing during the Ellen show. One or two, here and there, then a fit that brought Luz to the living room with a glass of water. Doubled over on the couch, Herman gasped for air between spasms, motioning with his hand for her to stay away. She quietly placed the water on the end table and ran back to the kitchen to call 911.
She tossed him blankets and left more water after securing Nacho in the bedroom, but he put up his hand and shook his head if she came close. Pacing in the kitchen, sick with worry and guilt, she felt as helpless as Nacho, whining in captivity. For some time now, she had wished Herman would stop his monologue and just be quiet, but he was compelled to fill his waking moments with chatter or song. She had loved him for it, back when he sang love songs to her and talked about dreams of a family together. Before the miscarriages. Before the fur baby.
When they were newly married, she admired how he could strike up a conversation with anyone, and stay positive no matter what. So handsome in his uniform, the going away party before he shipped off for ‘Nam, where she naively told everyone she would greet Herman with a son when his tour ended. Their first born, of many, she had bragged. Such foolish pride. They cheered and congratulated her. The older women asked how far along she was, patting her hands and wishing her luck. Within a month it was over, amid wrenching cramps and bloody sheets, an agonizing lesson in humility. She kept the next two pregnancies to herself, only telling Herman as they slipped away from her, but the last was too far along to hide. That one sent her to the hospital, where the doctors told her she could try no more.
She rarely left the apartment after that. She couldn’t stand the pitying looks from those who knew. Others asked if she had children, or, worse, called her Mamacita. She came to hate that question. Herman was able to brush it off with a simple Nope, no kids for us, which was fine in the decades when it was just the two of them. Then he brought home the dog, and suddenly they had just a fur baby. Being called Mamacita by strangers was bad enough. She did not agree to be a mother to a dog.
It took over an hour for the paramedics to arrive, haggard eyes over soiled masks. The tall Dominican man spoke with her, and the other, a white woman with a brassy ponytail, took Herman’s vitals, his breath ragged, barely conscious. Nacho barked and scratched the bedroom door, desperate to save his master from the intruders. They bundled him onto their gurney and hustled him out to the ambulance.
The man shook his head when she followed them out. “Sorry. COVID protocols. No passengers.”
“Where are you taking him?”
He exchanged a look with his partner before answering. “We’ll see if they can take him at Lincoln. Otherwise, it might be Presbyterian.”
“So far?” Luz reached for her husband, but the paramedic stopped her.
“Señora, you need to stay home. They won’t let you in with him. And you need to isolate yourself, you and anyone else your husband had contact with, and call 911 again if you start to get sick. Can you do that?”
She nodded, eyes blurry with tears.
“The hospital will call you,” he said, loading Herman into the back. “The sooner we get him there, the better.”
The super watched from the front door. “Poor guy,” he said as she passed him. “I’ll put up a sign so the rest of the tenants know they gotta quarantine.”
Nacho had worked himself to a fever pitch, loud enough to hear down the hall. He bounded out of the bedroom when she released him, sniffing the floor, searching for Herman. Eventually, he settled in Herman’s spot on the couch, his whine softening, as though crying himself to sleep.
Luz sat at the table, unsure what to do with herself, butter congealing on the toast she couldn’t bring herself to eat. They would normally be finishing dinner around now, Herman recounting and editorializing every story he heard that day, from neighborhood gossip to shows on TV, while she half-listened. She found herself focusing on noises, listening for the Nacho song in the hallway.
The hospital did not call with good news. Herman Luis Sousa passed shortly after arrival, before being connected to a respirator. Luz jotted down the information, too numb to think about what it meant. An address, a few phone numbers, a claim-by date, quarantine instructions. She thanked them for the help and hung up.
Nacho shifted position and sighed. Herman would normally have fed him by now and taken him on another walk. She put a can in the pot of water on the back burner, turned the flame to medium, and set the timer.
“Don’t expect me to sing to you.” She bent down to face the dog, who now waited at her feet, roused by the sound of the pull-tab on the can. He sniffed at the food but wouldn’t eat, pacing and whining until the doorbell rang.
Luz rarely answered the door, but she remembered the super’s words. ‘Everyone will have to quarantine.’ He would want an update. That man was such a gossip, half of Herman’s stories came from him. Nacho ran ahead of her, barking and jumping at the door. Through the peephole, she saw a young, dark-haired woman in a work smock.
Luz left the chain on and cracked the door. “Can I help you?”
“Mrs. Sousa?” The woman squatted slightly, extending her hand to Nacho, who pushed his head into the opening. His whole back end wagged, his bark shifting to excited yips. “Hey Nacho Man,” the woman whispered to him.
“I’m Elena. Elena Carbajal? My son and I moved into 5C last January? I heard there was an ambulance for Mr. Sousa, earlier, and I saw the sign at the mailboxes about needing to quarantine. Is he okay?”
“I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“Elena? Javier’s mom? We walk with your husband and Nacho before dinner every evening?”
Elena. Of course. Luz had rolled her eyes at Herman’s stories about the young mother and the boy he called his honorary grandson. He thinks too much of himself; she had thought, assuming the attention was unwanted. The concern in Elena’s eyes told a different story.
“I don’t mean to pry,” she continued, “but Javier’s getting anxious. He’s never this late, and well, it’s just been a tough day all around. My son’s…different, and your husband’s helping him with his social skills. Is he okay?”
“No.” She let the word out. “He’s not okay. He’s gone.”
“Gone, gone?” Elena’s face crumpled.
“I’m so sorry.” Tears brimmed her eyes. “Javier and I will need to quarantine, too. You and Nacho can join us, if you like.”
“No, I should stay here,” Luz answered a bit too quickly. Part of her wanted to go with the young woman, who knew a side of Herman she had long forgotten, but her reflex to decline was ingrained. “But maybe you and your son can walk Nacho for me? He hasn’t been out since this morning, and I…” she shook her head, unlatched the chain and opened the door.
Nacho wiggled into the hallway to greet Elena, who had dropped to her knees and was letting him lick her face, telling him what a good boy he was. To Luz, she said, “We’d love to help with the little man. I know you’re not really a dog person.”
“My husband told you that?” Luz felt the heat rise in her face along with the pitch of her voice.
“He told Javier. I forget what he said, exactly. He liked to talk about how you put up with him, and that Javier shouldn’t settle for anything less. He always had such beautiful things to say about you. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you sooner.”
It’s not that she didn’t like dogs, Luz wanted to explain, it was what the dog meant. A giving up, an acceptance of their fate as a childless couple that she didn’t agree to. Herman’s willingness to settle for a dog stung, too, as if a trip to the shelter was anything like carrying a baby for nine months, or the six months she endured before it dashed her dreams for good. Luz didn’t tell Elena any of that. Instead, she collected the leash; the pressure rising in her chest. “He was Herman’s dog, you know. He never really took to me.”
“Dogs can be jealous.” Elena attached the leash and stood to go. “I really appreciate you letting me take him. He’ll help Javier cope. He called Mr. Sousa Grandpa, you know.”
“I know.” Snippets of Herman’s stories flooded her thoughts. Smart but shy. Needs a little help to come out of his shell. A real natural with animals. “Herman talked about Javier all the time.”
With Nacho gone, she drifted around the apartment, examining the mundane objects of Herman’s life. She found the key chain on his nightstand, a string of garish plastic beads that spelled out #1 Grandpa. A gift from Javier. Rolling it in her hand, she sobbed. Her heart ached, not just for herself but also for the little boy, a child so desperate for family he would cling to a friendly new neighbor. Just like Herman.
And who did she have to define her days, now that Herman was gone? Elena was so polite, like Luz would’ve raised her own daughters to be. She obviously loved Nacho as much as Herman did. Luz could help her with Javier, too. She could be an honorary Grandmother.
Elena and Nacho returned without fanfare. “He was such a good dog,” the younger woman said, handing the leash to Luz.
“Where’s Javier?” Luz asked.
“He’s waiting on the stairs.” Elena lowered her voice. “I didn’t want him to bother you.”
“A child is never a bother.” Luz’s eyes teared again. She held up the keychain. “Please, I’d like to meet the boy who called my husband Grandpa.”
Maryanne Knight’s short stories and flash fiction have been published in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal and On the Run. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Vermont, she now lives and writes in Southern California.