Louis loved to lick. His favorites were urine-drenched fire hydrants, the rear ends of fellow dogs, fallen branches, light poles, recycle bins, discarded beer cans, yellow snow and salty blacktop – especially at the end of winter. While most dogs were satisfied simply sniffing their way through life, Louis used his morning walks up Twisted Creek Road to lap up Mother Earth with a large pink tongue that demanded constant contact. Being a people-dog, he especially liked the taste of feet, hands, noses, chins, cheeks and – his favorite – lips.
Louis’s licks were legendary as fellow dog walkers on Twisted Creek Road learned to keep walking as they exchanged greetings with Louis and his owner, Rita Toomey.
“Hi Rita. Hi Louis. Nice day. Gotta hurry. I’m … uh … picking up … a few things at the store soon. Have a good day.”
Rita – ever the optimist – assumed all dogs like to lick like Louis and couldn’t understand why everyone was so busy. She was a lonely soul. Her husband, Murray, died many years ago, they never had children, and, except for her cousin, Gregory-in-Peoria-who-hated-dogs, Louis was her closest relative. To Rita, her overly-oral dog was a faithful companion that appreciated walks so much he would lick her from head to toe if she let him. Sometimes she did.
Louis was especially busy that day in late March. The winter snow was turning a blackish gray as it melted a few inches each day. Twisted Creek Road, which loosely followed its namesake creek, had a steady flow of melting ice and snow that streamed along its curbs sometimes branching off in random paths across the pavement when the slope of the road pitched left or right.
There were a few glimpses of grass, mainly under larger trees and shrubs that shielded the ground from heavy snow. You could tell which homes had children by the telltale balls, Frisbees and dolls that emerged from the melting snowpack after their long winter hibernation.
“Oh Louis, you are extra snoopy today!”
The moderate temperatures of early spring brought all sorts of wonderful stimuli to Rita’s four-legged friend. Every three or four yards, Louis found a new scent and new taste to lap up and wouldn’t move without a yank of the leash.
Rita had one of those retractable leashes that allow dogs to roam an extra five or ten feet, which is great at Logan Park but not so great when your dog stubbornly probes the Staub’s front yard. Louis would not budge from his newfound treasure. He dug with his nose, sniffed, licked and dug some more.
“Louis, what is it? C’mon honey. You are being so naughty today.”
Rita paused to let him have some fun. She assumed Louis found a dead mouse or tennis ball. Usual fare this time of year. To get a better look, she stepped over the icy bank toward the newly excavated hole. Louis looked up, proud to show Rita further proof of his hunting and licking prowess.
“Louis, what …”
At the center of the snowy crater was a nose. Licked clean by Louis, it pointed straight toward the sky and the dog’s saliva made it glisten in the morning sun. It looked like one of those fake noses you buy for Halloween, the ones that comes with a pair of glasses and a mustache. It wasn’t a small nose, either. It was a huge schnozz with a bulbous tip and two hair-packed portals flared open as if they froze at the very moment of maximum expansion.
Rita’s shock was understandable. She had taken this walk with Louis for eleven years and this morning began like every other morning. Finding a nose – which was probably connected to a body– was shocking. To get a closer look, Rita yanked hard on the leash to move Louis away from his discovery. It was Stan Staub’s nose. There was no doubt. He had one of those repulsive noses that are hard to look at – but even harder to look away from. For Rita, that nose was unforgettable.
Calling 911 seemed pointless – Stan was dead. Plus she didn’t have her cell phone. Letting Nancy Staub know that her husband was encased in snow in her front yard seemed like a good start. She would make the call for Nancy and provide some comfort until the police arrived. Rita didn’t put much thought into what she was going to say to Nancy as she rang the doorbell. The door opened almost as soon as she released the button.
“Well, hi there, Rita, and hello, Louis! What a beautiful day! Please come in.”
“Hi, Nancy. Louis and I were walking ….”
“Please, come in! Don’t worry about your shoes. Have a seat. I just started a pot of coffee on and, frankly, this time of year I can use the company. You know – I don’t see neighbors very often in the winter, although you certainly make the effort every day. I watch you and Louis pass by the house. I should really get a dog and get some exercise. Please, can I get you a cup of tea?”
Nancy headed to the kitchen assuming Rita would take her up on the offer. She was a fidgety woman who filled her days with endless cups of tea, long talks over the phone with her four sisters back in Evanston, and forty two years of nervous one-way conversations with her husband, Stan.
“Well sure, Nancy.”
Rita whispered to Louis, “I’m not sure how to break the news. Maybe we’ll just sit a bit and then let her know. Poor girl.”
The Staub house was rather small, under a thousand square feet on the first floor. From the front door, you could see the living room, dining room and kitchen. Just off the kitchen, on the south side of the house was a ten foot by ten foot screen porch where Stan Staub was known to sit during the summer months, puffing on Cuban cigars, listening to the ball game, ignoring his wife.
Stan rarely acknowledged greetings and never attended the Twisted Creek block party held each Labor Day in front of Ralph and Betty Clancy’s house. He was the mystery man of the neighborhood. Nancy would turn a bit flush whenever her lady friends mentioned Stan’s name. She danced around their questions and make light of whatever it was Stan was doing. They knew better than to inquire as she did her best to change the subject.
Nancy walked back into the living room with a tray carrying a small porcelain tea pot, two cups, a sugar bowl, a saucer with a few pink sweetners, and a pint of half and half. Louis licked Nancy’s slippers as she set the tray on the coffee table.
“Here you go. It’s so nice of you to stop by. Can I give Louis a treat? I have some cookies in the cupboard. I bet he’d love one – or maybe two.”
Again, she headed to the kitchen before Rita could answer.
“Oh, you’re so nice, Nancy. Please don’t bother. He can be such a nuisance.”
“No, no … I insist.”
Rita was getting nervous as she looked out the front bay window in the general vicinity of Stan. Could she see his nose from the living room? How was she going to break the news? Nancy returned and Louis attacked the cookies she placed on the floor in a small bowl.
“Oh, Louis, you are going to love these. Homemade oatmeal with raisins and chocolate chips. I found the recipe in on the back of the raisins box and had to try it. I never had a chance to make these for Stan.”
Rita was even more confused. Until a few minutes ago she assumed Stan was still alive, living quietly with Nancy. After a few tentative sips of tea, Rita decided to it was best to say what she had to say. “Nancy, I have some really difficult news.”
“Yes, I know you do. I saw Louis digging in the snow and my heart skipped a beat.”
“You saw it … him, too?”
“Stan? Oh no, I haven’t seen him since last November, but I knew where he’s been all winter and I always figured Louis or some squirrel or maybe one of those wretched Taylor twins would find him. Those twins. Always in my yard, turning over garbage cans or throwing rocks at my bird feeder. Actually, I was hoping they would find Stan. Maybe that would scare some sense into them.”
Rita was confused. Nancy’s tone was calm and matter-of-fact, as if knowing her husband– lying in state, buried in snow all winter – was perfectly normal.
“But Nancy, when did you find out he was outside? Did you call 911? Did he fall?”
“I’m sorry. This must be very confusing. Would you like more tea?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Nancy topped off Rita’s cup, sat back in her chair, crossed her legs and took a long slow breath.
“This is a bit awkward, Rita, so let me start at the beginning.”
Nancy’s tone was so different from what Rita remembered. They were never close, but she talked to Nancy a few dozen times over the last twenty years and she always seemed so tense, so manic. Today, she was gracious. Good natured. Quite relaxed.
“Rita, you were married once so I hope you can understand. Stan and I married when I was quite young — nineteen actually. He was thirty two, very dashing in his Army uniform. He had an intelligence job of some sort, all very top secret, and the mystery made our courtship so intriguing, especially for a young girl raised in Chisolm, Minnesota.”
“Stan was a spy?” Rita creeped toward the edge of the sofa; this was more interesting than her usual morning walk.
“At first I thought so and he was rather vague about his duties.”
“How long was he with the government?”
“Let’s see, thirty five years. But soon after we married I got a better idea of his real duties. He went to the University of Illinois and received an advanced degree in meteorology. Apparently, he was a good weather forecaster and statistician.”
“He was a weatherman?” Rita didn’t mean to demean the frozen Mr. Staub.
“Yes, in a sense, but not the kind you see on TV. Stan developed some sort of fancy, shmancy formulas for predicting the weather and the government decided they could use his talents.”
“So the government needs good weathermen?”
“I guess so. If you plan to knock off a terrorist or go into battle, it’s good to know what kind of weather to expect that day.”
“I’ve only talked to him a few times and never thought to ask what he did.”
“He wouldn’t have told you. Stan had a pretty high security clearance because various agencies were very particular about weather forecasts in specific regions around the world. So, he took the job and the secrecy very seriously – which was too bad because he was, by nature, a very quiet person – annoyingly so.”
“I’m sorry, Nancy. Did you and Stan have issues?”
Issues? Rita immediately regretted the word. All marriages had issues. She loved Murray for forty two years and they had issues. Put the toilet seat down, Murray. Can you please hang up your pants, Murray? Murray, when you bring the garbage to the curb, strap them shut with bungee cords to keep the raccoons out. Murray, wake up; your snoring is disgusting.
Even Nancy thought the word rather odd.
“Issues? Well, I didn’t think so. As I said, Stan is … was … a very quiet person. Most of our time together he’d get up in the morning, eat a bowl of cereal, shower and go to work. He worked long hours and weekend duties were not unusual.”
“I’m sorry. You must have been lonely.”
“No, I didn’t mind. My sisters in Evanston kept my spirits up and I volunteered quite a bit. Actually, I liked the autonomy. As long as I wasn’t spending money, Stan didn’t seem too interested in what I did. Of course, I couldn’t ask what he did.”
“So, he could never tell you what he did during the day.”
“Never. Wait, I take that back. Do you remember those helicopters that crashed in the desert during the Carter Administration?”
Rita wasn’t much into current events or history, but she vaguely remembered it had something to do with a rescue mission.
“You mean the Hostage Crisis?”
“Yes. Well, Stan came home that night, had a few too many drinks and began telling me how stupid the whole operation was and how he told his superiors the timing was terrible and the chance of a sandstorm was very high. I never heard him talk so much and, for me, it was very interesting hearing his side of the story.”
After feasting on Nancy’s cookies, Louis was now at Rita’s feet, fast asleep.
“But the next morning, he was grumpy and hung over and said he shouldn’t have said a word to me about the disaster on the front page. That was the last time he shared anything about his work.”
“Nancy, I’m sorry to be a pest. But why is Stan out front?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Stan always said I couldn’t get to the point. I dribble on and on … Well, about a year ago, Stan lost his job with the government. He mumbled something about cutbacks — I’ll never know. I was excited because I’m still young and had this vision of traveling and doing all sorts of wonderful things.”
“Stan doesn’t strike me as the fun traveling type.”
“You can say that again. His big retirement idea was to create a blog that outperformed the national oceanic something or other. So, he set up shop in our basement and started an online business selling weather forecasts to intelligence agencies around the world.”
“That sounds interesting!”
“Hardly. Stan was driving me nuts. He would go down to the basement before I woke up and he’d reappear for lunch and dinner and not say a word. After all those years of going to the office, he was living like a monk in our dingy basement, watching weather patterns, tracking cold fronts, analyzing sunspots. He was obsessed with the weather and reviewed printouts while he ate.”
“I’m sorry, Nancy. Did he like what he was doing?”
“How would I know? He never said anything to me … ever.”
As Nancy talked about Stan, Rita noticed she became more anxious. Her speech quickened and her voice went up an octave. Also, her brow contorted that funny way brows contort when people are stressed.
Louis was content lounging on Nancy’s area rug while he slept through her marital issues. But Rita was still wondering when this story would come in for a landing. It was surreal. Her neighbor’s husband is slowly defrosting on a warm March day and Rita was learning about a covert weather operation in her sleepy Minnesota neighborhood. Should she be scared? Did Nancy knock off her husband or was it some sleeper cell that wanted Stan dead?
“So, how did …”
“I apologize! I do have a terrible time telling a story.”
Nancy relaxed a bit as she re-committed herself to finishing the story.
“Last November, I asked Stan if it was too late to plant a tree in the front yard. I really didn’t care about the tree, but I found he was more likely to engage and answer my questions if there was some connection to the weather.”
“He said it was too late because there was a nasty system coming down from Canada, we’ll have eighteen inches tomorrow and we won’t see the ground until spring.”
Rita saw where this was going and couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I tried to keep the conversation going, but it was no use. He finished the cheeseburger I cooked, left the table and headed back down to the basement. No good night. No thank you for dinner. No let-me-help-you-with-the dishes, honey. Nothing.”
“He sounds like a very selfish man. Murray was not exactly Mr. Excitement, but we enjoyed each other’s company. To be ignored like that must have been very depressing.”
“It gets worse. That same night, I woke up a few hours after Stan came to bed. I was still mad about dinner and our marriage. I was only fifty two and felt trapped in a horrible life. To take my mind off things, I went down to the basement to change a load of laundry. We ran out of Tide and I thought I had an extra box in a storage cabinet near Stan’s desk. Computers and weather maps and numbers bore me to tears, so I never bothered looking at what he was doing. Besides, Mr. Top Secret used some crazy combination of passwords to keep intruders off his screen – as if someone would want to break into this house.”
She spit out “this” as if the word had a bad taste.
“But that night, Stan forgot to log-off and, for the first time, I saw what he was really doing in the basement all day.”
Rita sat frozen on the couch, still wondering how Stan ended up on the front lawn and where this story was going.
“Rita, it was disgusting. I clicked on one of those buttons at the bottom of the screen. It makes me sick thinking about it. The most wretched triple x-rated scenes. Bodies all over bodies. They were like a bunch of animals. I bet there were twenty or more websites all running simultaneously doing the most god-awful things. After just a few minutes, I threw up in the waste basket.”
Rita didn’t know what to say. She didn’t move a muscle. Louis sensed her mood and immediately stood up and began licking her knee and hand.
“After getting sick, I was livid. So angry. My blood was boiling and the first thing I saw was a sledge hammer leaning against the furnace. I am a very peaceful woman, Rita, but something got into me that night. I grabbed it, walked quietly to our bedroom, stood over the bed and smashed Stan’s head as hard as I could. He never moved again.”
As she talked, tears welled up in Nancy’s eyes, but she remained defiant, unwilling to cry or show remorse. Rita didn’t know what to say. Her eyes were wide open and she felt her heart beating quickly. She also felt conspicuous not responding or saying anything. But what could she say? Oh, that’s too bad. Sorry to hear your husband – now lying dormant on the front lawn – was a sex addict. Yes, you are stupid letting someone treat you so poorly for so long. Perhaps a better approach would have been to simply leave the guy and start over rather than bashing in his brains. Well now, that was an interesting story; I think Louis and I should be going.
Instead she sat in silence, waiting for the rest of the story.
“Needless to say, I was in shock. I was too afraid to call the police and I really needed some time to figure things out. When my sisters called the next day, I put on my fake happy voice and told them how busy Stan was and how winter seemed to be coming early this year. I avoided the blood-soaked bedroom and downed a few bourbons during the day to calm down.
Then, that evening – I’ll never forget it – it was Thursday, November 29, at exactly 8:21 PM, just as Stan predicted, it started to snow. And it snowed and snowed and snowed. Stan predicted eighteen inches. You know what? He was right on the money. Exactly eighteen inches. The guy was a fucking a-hole, but he knew his weather.”
The F bomb jolted Rita. To hear “fucking” and “a-hole” from such a quiet lady was … shocking. The sentence seemed natural, as if she were saying, “He has his weaknesses, but he’s a good provider.”
“Our bedroom is just up the stairs, so I dragged him out of bed by this ankles. His body fell to the floor and I dragged him downstairs. With each yank, his head slammed the next step. I loved it. My adrenaline was a huge help as I finally dragged him out the front door.”
Finally, Rita had to say something.
“But didn’t you think someone would see eventually find him?”
“Sure I did. I didn’t care – still don’t. If they want to lock me up, go right ahead. I married a pig and I take great pleasure knowing I cracked his head open and he’s been stuck outside all winter, frozen like a leg of lamb. No, that’s not fair to lambs. More like a frozen pork loin.”
Now that she confessed to the murder of Stanley J. Staub, Nancy seemed more relaxed. Rita was still a bundle of nerves.
“Some mornings, I make myself a cup of tea and sit in my seat by the window and visualize his decaying body under all that snow. It’s been a wonderful winter, the best in years. I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until I dragged that monster out of the house. That’s what I was doing this morning, enjoying my tea when you and Louis showed up right on time: 8:30 AM.”
Nancy turned her attention to Louis and let him lick her hands and chin and lips. Nancy scratched Louis’s head. In her baby voice, she said, “When you started sniffing and pawing at the snow, I was so excited. It’s like hiding Easter eggs!”
She then looked at Rita with a faint smile.
“And the look on your face, Rita, when Louis found Stan. It was priceless! I’m sorry to scare you like this and make light of a terrible situation, but it is funny. Think about it. My perverted excuse for a husband was right after all. He may have been the scum of the earth, but – gosh darn it – it snowed exactly eighteen inches. I guess he was a very good weatherman.”
Nancy was clearly enjoying herself. Rita was speechless.
“Oh, and one more thing, Rita. I really do think I should mention it since I’m sharing so much with you this morning. Yes, I know it was many years ago and it was just a fling … and I’m sure Stan took full advantage of Murray’s passing. But you should know that I have felt like such a fool sitting by like the good little wife while you and Stan carried on like you did. For years it bothered me, especially when you’d go prancing by our house each day with your dog. I was gone for one week visiting my ailing sister and you and Stan had to have your fun.’”
There was no anger in Nancy’s voice. Just the opposite. She delivered it all with a smile.
Rita, on the other hand, was flush and her head throbbed. She hadn’t thought of her tryst with Stan for years and convinced herself that nobody knew – especially Nancy. It happened about a year after Murray died. While walking Fletcher, Rita’s first dog, Stan invited her inside for coffee. The excitement of the affair was a welcome break from her loneliness, but the sex was rather dreadful. The memory of Stan’s monstrous nose going up and down was disgusting.
She tried to respond to Nancy’s revelation, but was frozen. Her arms and legs seemed pinned to the chair and her breathing became difficult – and then impossible.
It all took a bit longer than Nancy thought it should. According to the website – yes, she spent the winter in the basement learning how to use Stan’s Dell computer – the powder was odorless and tasteless and easily dissolves in warm water. “A lethal dosage is less than a teaspoon and death should occur within minutes.” Mixing it in Rita’s tea was the easy part, but sprinkling it on Louis’s cookies would have been tricky – and inhumane. Plus, she liked the idea of having a nice dog like Louis to keep her company.
Rita sat motionless in her chair. Her eyes were open and her lower jaw drooped. Amazingly, she didn’t drop her cup of tea.
“Louis, you are a good doggy,” Nancy sighed as she scratched under Louis’s chin. “Now, what should we do with Rita and Stan? Spring is coming.”
Louis wagged his tail as he licked Nancy’s hand.