That Saturday morning Freddie Single, my grandmother's bootlegger, arrived just as Mr. Clark was leaving. They passed each other in the narrow areaway leading down to our basement kitchen. Mr. Clark looked with alarm at the big dog being dragged along by Freddie and hurried off to his truck.
"Well, come on in, Freddie. Don't stand there," called my grandmother from the kitchen.
Seemingly encouraged by her voice, the dog, his low-slung body waddling from side to side, hurried into the room.
My grandmother, really seeing him for the first time, stopped her activities at the sink and just stared in disbelief. Neither she nor I had ever beheld anything like him. A pinkish gray, mottled skin, loose and wrinkled, covered his large body. His powerful legs were bowed and his stomach almost reached the floor. His hind legs being longer than his front legs caused a salacious wagging of his hind quarters when he walked. But it was the head that was astonishing: His large, broken-up face was deeply wrinkled and surrounded a black nose that had been smashed back between his wide-set eyes. His lower jaw protruded well beyond his upper jaw and was curved upward in an inverted V. From the mouth thus formed, a long rope of saliva fell on the kitchen floor.
Freddie stood proudly beside this monster and asked, "What do you think?"
My grandmother, coming closer to the dog, looked down at him. "What is it?"
When she spoke, the dog lowered himself even further and rolled over on his back. Standing, he had been grotesque, but lying on his back, he was unbelievable. His huge head tilted to one side in a caricature of coyness. Large, liver-colored spots covered his stomach, his tail extended straight out, and above his tail his genitals waved from side to side.
"my God!" said my grandmother.
When she could speak again, she said, "Get up."
The dog did so at once and his immediate obedience restored somewhat her equilibrium.
"He's worth a hundred dollars," said Freddie. "Grove raised him." Grove was the proprietor of a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue and one of Freddie's best customers. "Grove said he'd applied for papers and they should be here in a day or two."
"You mean you want me to take this creature on account?" My grandmother was incredulous.
"Well, I could get you come good Scotch, but you all don't drink all that much booze. I'm short of cash right now or I wouldn't suggest it."
As Freddie knew, my grandmother didn't like the mention of cash. It made her nervous.
She looked with a little more favor at the dog and then turned to me and asked me Freddies's question: "What do you think?"
Asking me a question, as one adult to another, was an example of why I loved my grandmother and why I decided to stay in town with her this summer of my 10th birthday. My parents and sister were spending the summer, as usual, in the country at Fairfax Station, a half-hour's electric-car ride down into Virginia from Washington. In the winter we all lived together in town.
Every Saturday morning of that summer my grandmother and I would leave the tall, old city house and walk to Pennsylvania Avenue where we would board the electric car that took us to the country for the weekend.
I can't remember my grandmother planning an activity just for me: She had many interests and involvements of her own and I went where she went and did what whe did and found it all interesting. One thing we accomplished was to lay a brick walk through the small backyard, making it easier for her to tend her flowers.
It may be that she had a special feeling for me because I was the only one in the family who wholeheartedly agreed with her about the way she handled the small fortune she had inherited at the death of my grandfather three years before.
Her husband had been a very "careful" man when it came to money and my grandmother -- to use her own words -- "never had two cents to rub together." At first she was nonplused to have all this money at her disposal and spent a year worrying, consulting lawyers and receiving advice on investments. At the end of the year she was more confused than she had been at the beginning.
It was Mr. Clark, the farmer who delivered eggs, who solved her problems and gave her a financial plan that was wholly satisfactory to her. Our house was the first house on his route and he always had coffee in the kitchen with my grandmother -- to give him strength, after his long drive from his farm in Poolesville.
One day he told her he was going to lose his farm, that the bank was going to foreclose on the mortgage. The impending catastrophe was due to a variety of reasons which he recited to my grandmother. She was outraged that bad fortune should befall such a nice man and immediately offered to pay off his debt. Mr. Clark said that he was overcome by her generosity and began to figure in his receipt book how much he could pay her back every month. She took the paper from him, looked it over folded it several times and gave it back to him.
"You don't understand," she said. "I want to pay off the debt in produce."
And that was the way it was. Every Saturday morning the big kitchen table was filled with the best Mr. Clark's farm had to offer: bushel baskets of peaches, apples, corn, tomatoes; boxes of radiches and scallions early in the spring; pumpkins, potatoes, turnips in the fall; and in the winter spareribs and sausage and always the smooth brown eggs and heavy yellow cream.
In spite of steady canning and preserving on my grandmother's part and on the part of any aunt or cousin she could press into service, in spite of the large quantities carried to Virginia on the weekend, there was always more than she could use and no person, including the mailman, ever came to the house without leaving with a bag of fruit and vegetables.
Having negotiated what she considered a highly profitable deal with Mr. Clark, she was eager to find a new investment. She found it in the person of Mr. Desio, who had been my grandfather's barber. He had invented a face cream guaranteed to prevent wrinkles and wanted to manufacture and market it from his basement. He just needed a little money to get started. The cream was of a smooth texture, almond-scented, and Mr. Desio delivered to our house dozens of jars of this every month, along with a lilac toilet water that he had taken on as a sideline. Almost every childhood memory I have is permeated with the smell of almond and lilac.
Another businessman she set up was Mr. Marshall, the mailman. It seems that he had always wanted to have a photographer's studio. My grandmother installed him in the brick stable behind the house. Here he placed on a platform an elaborately carved chair like a throne. Behind the chair were hung the painted scenes of his backdrops: Niagara Falls for men, the Egyptian pyramids for women and a forest glad for the children.
The house was filled with "studio portraits" of all of us at various stages of development and photographs commemorating every occasion, as Mr. Marshall strove to pay off his debt. It seems inconceivable to me now but I'm sure many of the photography studio's clients came to our front door and were ushered through the house and across the garden to the stable.
Freddie Single was my grandmother's most recent investment. When Prohibition went into effect, my grandfather had said, "Nonsense," and soon Freddie was delivering liquor to the house on a regular basis. My grandfather had said he was a very reliable young man.
One night, several months before Freddie brough the dog to the house, he had called my grandmother from the First Precinct and told her he was in jail and needed someone to post bond. She walked all the way over to the police station and bailed him out. Later when he was convicted and fined for "illegal possession of spirits," she put up the money again.
Stopping by shortly afterwards to make arrangements to pay his debt, he had learned of my grandmother's feeling about being paid off in money. It was a dilemma for both of them. Even she knew that being paid off in large quantities of illegal liquor was a bad idea. So he'd left with the problem of payment unresolved.
When my grandmother asked me the question about the dog, I knew that more was at stake than whether we needed, wanted or indeed could handle him. This was a test of my grandmother's system. To refuse the dog was to complicate all dealings with his owner -- to call in question the whole feasibility of the arrangements my grandmother had made with her debtors.
"We could take him down the country," I said.
"Yeah," said Freddie. "Sure. You always need a dog in the country." He looked hopeful.
My grandmother was dubious.
"Your mother . . .?"
The thought of my mother's reaction to this dog appearing on her front porch made me very anxious.
"She might get used to him," I said weakly.
My grandmother thought for a few minutes and then said decisively, "All right, Freddie, you can leave him. We'll take him down the country today. What's his name?"
Freddie took a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket and read, "Northumberland's Robin."
"Robin! That dog's name is Robin?"
At the sound of my grandmother's voice the dog rolled over once more.
"See!" said Freddie. "He's smart. He knows his name. That dog's a winner. His collar and leash go with him. You'll never regret taking him. Mrs. H."
And he was right.
After Freddie left we filled a strong mesh bag as big as a trunk with as much of Mr. Clark's produce as we could get in. The bag had two handles and my grandmother and I had a system for carrying it the six blocks to the car stop. Every block we'd chance places, thus resting each arm alternately.
This morning the maneuver was complicated by the dog, who, whenever we stopped, circled round and round, wrapping my grandmother, the big bag and me into a neat bundle. Once untangled and on our way, we didn't dare change arms again but settled for resting the bag on the pavement every block until we reached our destination. My grandmother always wore a black skirt sweeping the ground and a white shirtwaist. On her head was a stiff, black hat that slanted outward over her long nose. She carried herself slightly bent from the waist with a forward thrust of her large bosom. The top part of her body always arrived just before the bottom part. This morning she was being pulled along by Robin faster than she cared to walk on this hot and humid Washington day.
At the corner by the street-car stop was Pappas' fruit stand. We hurried toward its wide striped awning that covered a good portion of the washed-down sidewalk and toward the delicious, cool smell of peaches and wet wood. Each piece of fruit in the wooden boxes was like a jewel. Presented, in its perfection, in its own pleated case. Mr. Pappas, an acquaintance of long standing, took Robin to the back of the shop to give him water.
Out of the dog's presence, our doubts about his welcome in Fairfax surfaced.
"Maybe we'd better take him back to Grove right now -- his restaurant is just down the street. Your mother is not going to like us bringing that dog down."
"She said that perhaps some day I could have a poodle."
"That is no poodle." My grandmother was emphatic. Robin had emerged from the back and was now rolling around happily on the wet sidewalk.
Our conversation was cut short by the arrival of the electric car. We boarded it with the sensation of committing ourselves to a chancy and somewhat dangerous enterprise.
The conductor held on the Robin while we pushed the mesh bag up the steps. It was a summer car, open, with long wooden seats facing each other. The three of us sat in a row -- Robin, without hesitation, hopping up awkwardly beside us.
Just before the conductor rang the bell to take off, a young woman and a small boy hurried past the fruit stand, boarded the car and sat opposite us.
At the ring of the departure bell, Robin collapsed down from the seat beside us and wet to sit next to the new arrivals. Without missing a lick of his raspbery sucker, the boy reached out and put his arm around the big dog.
The robust, freckle-faced girl said, "My brother likes your dog. His granddaddy down in Vienna-- where we're going now -- says maybe he is going to get him one soon."
Robin, his eyes rolling around in his head, was ecstatically sharing the boy's sucker. It struck my grandmother and me at the same moment -- these two were made for each other.
The electric car, now having crossed over the Potomac River was banging and rattling at great speed through the Virginia countryside, causing a reviving wind to blow against our damp, hot bodies.
"What kind of dog does your brother want?" called my grandmother across the aisle.
The girl, noticing the happiness of her seat companions, answered, "Perhaps one like yours."
"He's a fine dog," I put in. "He has papers."
"Oh, a pedigreed dog!"
"Yes, his name is Northumberland's Robin."
The girl seemed impressed.
"How much a dog like that cost?"
Before I thought, I made a tactical error. "A hundred dollars," I called.
The young woman sat silently, thinking about my answer. The electric car was fast approaching Vienna and I feared I'd put her off for good.
I was relieved when the girl rose, staggered across the aisle and sat down beside my grandmother.
"You want to sell that dog?" she asked abruptly.
This was not time for subtlety. "Yes," my grandmother said.
"Well, I don't have a hundred dollars but I do day work. Maybe I could work it out until I've paid off the dog."
"Good," shouted my grandmother. "Perfect." Her system was working.
She took a card from her pocketbook and wrote our address on it.
The girl took it and, just as the car was slowing down for the Vienna stop, said, "I'll come in Wednesday morning if that's all right."
The boy, who had paid no attention to this conversation, did not seem surprised when his sister indicated that Robin was to leave the streetcar with them. It must have seemed to him like a benevolent act of nature, pleasant but not astonishing.
The conductor seemed astonished, though. He must have remembered that it was the older woman and the little girl who had boarded with the dog in Washington.
Robin and his new family stood by the road waiting for the car to pass.
"What's your name?" I shouted to them.
"Katy Hopeman," the girl called back.
"Billy," yelled the boy.
Thus Katy Hopeman became one of my grandmother's investments, one of the best she ever made. At first Katy worked for us once a week and the full time. She was a capable and loving woman and a valuable addition to our family.
Moreover, she attended a church whose congregation consisted mostly of large, poor families. Much of Mr. Clark's farm produce went directly to these families, solving a problem os distribution that had always plagued the Clark investment.
Also from this church came several additions to my grandmother's portfolio. For years yards and yards of crochet lace flowed into our house. It was made by Mrs. Costello, who'd borrowed money to help send her son through college. To this day I have pillow cases edged with Mrs. Costello's crochet.
Katy persisted in the belief that we, touched by the affection between her brother and Robin, and out of the kindness of our hearts, had let Billy have the dog. Every once in a while she would bring Robin in from Vienna to see us. Because we didn't wish to hurt her feelings, we made appropriate grateful noises, feeling somewhat guilty and hypocritical. Robin no longer rolled over at the sound of my grandmother's voice. Instead, he just put his head on one side and leered at her.
Freddie Single, his business ruined by the repeal of Prohibition, became a steward in the merchant marine. Whenever his ship came into Baltimore, he took the train down to Washington and stopped in to see us. Once he brought us a green and blue, Spanish-speaking parrot and once an exquisitely carved, ivory Buddha from Singapore.