By Jim Triggs
Louis loved to lick. His favorites were urine-drenched fire hydrants, the rear ends of other dogs, fallen branches, light poles, recycle bins, old dog poop, discarded beer cans, yellow snow and salty blacktop – especially at its saltiest in late 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 human taste of feet, hands, noses, chins, cheeks and – his favorite – lips.
Part chocolate lab, part golden retriever, Louis was “saved” by Rita at the city pound. In some ways, Louis saved Rita. Her husband died six years ago and that first year alone was dreadful. When she visited the pound, “just to look around,” Louis leaped from the cage and soaked her face with doggy spit: it was love at first site.
Louis’s licks were legendary as fellow dog walkers on Twisted Creek learned to stay in motion 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. Have a good day.”
Rita – ever the optimist – assumed everyone was so busy these days and assumed all dogs like to lick like Louis and assumed everyone liked being licked by Louis. She was a lonely soul and 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.
That day in late March, Louis was especially busy. 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 two curbs, 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 large 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 uncovered all sorts of wonderful stimuli for Rita’s four-legged friend. Every four or five yards, Louis found something new to lap up and he 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 his newest excavation. 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 Louis’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 beneath the snow – was freaky. But that was only part of the shock. To get a closer look, Rita yanked hard on the leash to move Louis away from his discovery. It was Stanley Staub’s nose.
Stanley Staub was a slight man who wore clothes that were a size too large for his narrow frame. He had short black hair combed to the side with the help of gel, a pale ruddy complexion, a delicate chin, an impish mouth, and diminutive ears which hugged the side of his head. It seemed everything on Stanley was small – with one exception: his gigantic nose was completely disproportionate and out of sync with the rest of his body. It looked like a replacement part meant for a much larger person, spanning a full six inches from bridge and to tip. And it was hardly a tip at all. The end of his nose bulged so much it looked as if a ping pong ball was somehow inserted under the skin. On those rare occasions when Stanley attended a neighborhood party, it was difficult – for Rita, impossible – to talk to Stanley without glancing down.
Calling 911 was pointless: Stanley was already dead and Rita didn’t have her cell phone. She had no choice but to ring Nancy’s doorbell and give her the bad news. She would make the call for Nancy and provide support and comfort until the police arrived. Do they send an ambulance for dead people? How long has Stanley been out there? Does Nancy know he was missing? Is Nancy even home? All these questions filled her head as she rang the doorbell. The front 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. Uh, Louis and I were walking ….”
“Please, come in! 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. Don’t worry about your shoes.”
Nancy motioned Rita to her sofa, “Have a seat. Please, can I get you a coffee?”
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 coffee, long talks over the phone with her four sisters back in Evanston, and forty two years of nervous one-way conversations with her husband.
“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, maybe a thousand square feet on the first floor and even less upstairs. It had a small kitchen, small dining room, small living room and a ten by ten screen porch on its south side where Stanley Staub was known to sit during the summer months, puffing Cuban cigars, listening to the ball game, and ignoring his wife.
Stanley was very quiet and rarely attended the Twisted Creek block party held each September 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 asked about Stanley. She would dance around their questions and make light of whatever it was Stanley 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 coffee pot, two coffee mugs, a sugar bowl, a saucer with a few pink sweeteners, 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 picture window toward Stanley Staub’s general vicinity. Could she see his nose from the living room? How was she going to break the news? Nancy came back in the room 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 a Sunmaid Raisins box and simply had to try it. I never had a chance to make these for Stan.”
Rita was even more confused. As far as she knew and until a few minutes ago, Stanley was still alive, living quietly with Nancy. After a few tentative sips of coffee, 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?”
“Stanley? Oh no. I haven’t seen him since last November, but I know 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 at my bird feeder. Actually, I was hoping they would find Stan. Maybe that would scare some sense into them.”
Rita was confused – and horrified. 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 coffee?”
“No, thank you.”
“I’ll have a touch more.” Nancy topped off her cup, sat back in her chair, crossed her legs and took a deep 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 and a bit manic. Today, she was gracious, good natured, quite relaxed.
“Rita, you were married so I hope you can understand. Stanley and I married when I was quite young – I was nineteen. He was thirty two, very dashing in his Army uniform. I met him at Charlie’s Tavern. You know the place on Broadway in Minot? 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 Chisholm, Minnesota.”
“Stanley was a spy?”
“At first I thought so and he was rather vague about his duties.”
“How long was he with the government?”
“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 weatherman. Excuse me, meteorologist. Stanley hated it when I called him a weatherman.”
“Like Tanner Elway on KMOT?” Rita didn’t mean to demean the frozen Mr. Staub by comparing him to Minot’s local weather expert.
“Yes, in a sense, but not the kind you see on TV. Stanley 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 overthrow a dictator, 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. Stanley 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 not hard because he was quiet, by nature – annoyingly so.”
“I’m sorry, Nancy. Did you and Stanley have issues?”
Issues? Rita immediately regretted the word. All marriages have issues. She loved Murray for forty two years and they had issues. Put the toilet seat down, Murray. Hang up your pants, Murray. Murray, that’s your sixth drink. 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, Stanley 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.”
“Sometimes. But my sisters in Evanston kept my spirits up and I volunteer quite a bit. Actually, I liked the autonomy. As long as I wasn’t spending money, Stanley 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 Jimmy Carter years?”
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 Iranian deal?”
“Yes. Well, Stanley 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 Stanley out front?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Stanley always said I couldn’t get to the point. Well, about a year ago, Stanley lost his job with the government. Actually, he turned sixty five and had to retire; but in his mind, he lost his job. I was excited because I had this vision of traveling and doing all sorts of fun things.”
“Stanley 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 Atmosphere … 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. It drove 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 even during meals he’d go over charts and printouts.”
“I’m sorry, Nancy. Did he like what he was doing?”
“How would I know? He never said anything … ever.”
As Nancy talked about Stanley, 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 listened attentively. 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 Minot neighborhood. Should she be scared? Did Nancy knock off her husband or was it some sort of sleeper cell that wanted Stanley dead?
“So, how did …”
“I apologize! I do have a terrible time telling a story.”
Nancy tried to relaxed as she re-committed to finishing the story.
“Last November, right after a pretty disastrous Thanksgiving, I asked Stanley 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.”
She poured herself another cup of coffee.
“He said it was too late because there was a nasty system coming down from Canada and the ground was too hard. So I asked him if snow was in the forecast. He said a major snowstorm would hit Minot on Thursday and we probably wouldn’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 him, left the table and headed back down to the cellar. No goodnight-dear. No thank-you-for-dinner-dear. 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 dreadful.”
“It gets worse. That same night, I woke up a few hours after Stanley came to bed. I was still mad about dinner and our marriage. I’m 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 our home in Minot, North Dakota. But that night, Stanley forgot to log-off and, for the first time, I saw what he was really doing down in the dungeon.”
Rita sat frozen on the couch, still wondering how Stanley ended up on the front lawn, but pretty sure she was about to find out.
“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. Girls with girls. Boy’s with boys. And a few with animals. I bet there were twenty or thirty websites all running simultaneously doing the most god-awful things. After a few minutes, I threw up in the waste basket.”
Rita didn’t know what to say. She didn’t move a muscle.
“After getting sick I was livid. So angry. You think you know someone after thirty years of marriage and …”
She stammered a bit and continued.
“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 I had so much rage. I grabbed it, walked quietly to our bedroom, stood over the bed and smashed in the back of Stan’s head as hard as I could. He never moved again.”
Tears welled up in Nancy’s eyes, but she remained defiant and unwilling to cry. Rita didn’t know what to do or 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. Rather than bashing in his brains, perhaps a better approach would have been to simply leave the guy and start over. 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 time to figure things out. When my sister called the next day, I put on my fake happy voice and told her how busy Stanley was and how winter seemed to be coming early this year. I avoided the blood-soaked bedroom and downed a few glasses of wine during the day to calm down.
That evening – I’ll never forget it – it was Thursday, November 29, at exactly 8:15 PM, just like Stanley predicted, it started to snow. And it snowed and and it snowed and and it snowed. Stanley told me the ground was too frozen, so burying him was not option. So I decided to take him outside and let Mother Nature bury him. I wasn’t ready to deal with the police, but I was ready to get his disgusting body out of my bedroom, out of my house, out of my life.
Our bedroom is just up the stairs and Stanley’s pretty small, so I dragged him out of bed by this ankles. His head slammed on the bedroom floor and then on each step as I bounced him downstairs. My adrenaline was a huge help as I finally dragged him out the front door and to the curb. The cleanup was disgusting. I bet I threw up four or five more times.”
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, more like a frozen pork loin. I shouldn’t disparage lambs.”
Now that she confessed to the murder of Stanley J. Staub, Nancy seemed more relaxed. Rita was still a bundle of nerves, but this was old news for Nancy.
“Some mornings, I make myself a cup of coffee and sit in my favorite seat by the window and visualize his slowly decaying body under all that snow. It’s been a wonderful winter, the best in years, and 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 a cup of coffee when Louis started digging.”
Nancy turned her attention to Louis and let him lick her hands and chin and lips. In a voice often used for dogs and young children, Nancy scratched Louis’s head saying, “When you started sniffing and pawing at the snow, I was so excited. It was like kids finding Easter eggs.”
She then looked at Rita with a faint smile.
“And the look on your face, Rita, when Louis found Stanley. It was priceless! I’m sorry to scare you like this and make light of a terrible situation, but it is kind of funny. Think about it. My perverted weatherman of a husband was right after all. He may have been the twisted scum of the earth, but he was a good weatherman!”
On the one hand, Rita suddenly felt very vulnerable. The realization that her neighbor bludgeoned her husband to death and didn’t seem very remorseful made her wonder if she was safe. She gripped Louis’s leash a bit tighter and he jump to his feet sensing her angst. On the other hand, what a horrible, disgusting husband! Murray had his flaws, but he was always kind, always truthful and certainly wasn’t a pervert!
“I’m sorry to burden you with this, Rita. If you want to call the police, I completely understand. In some ways, it will be a relief. You may not believe it but I had a very nice winter and, for the first time in a long time, I was at peace.”
Once again, Rita had trouble find the right words.
“Nancy, I think you should get an attorney, get some advice and turn yourself in. I don’t know what to say. I feel terrible you had to endure this all these years – we had no idea. Do you know a good lawyer?”
“No and I don’t think I can afford one. When all of this happened, Stanley had about $7,000 in checking. I know we have other investments, but I haven’t a clue how to transfer the money. I’m pretty useless when it comes to finances. I have about a thousand left in checking and people are calling me about unpaid bills. That part of it has been really tough.”
“Can’t you just go to the bank and ask the banker to give you a printout of your accounts?”
“No. Well, maybe. Everything is in Stanley’s name and I’m afraid they’ll ask for him.”
“Nancy, I don’t know what to tell you – but I do know you’ve got to do something soon because the snow’s melting and Stanley’s nose is exposed.”
Rita didn’t mean to put it that way. There was an awkward pause and, quite suddenly, Nancy started to giggle … or cry. Rita wasn’t sure.
“That nose. God, it’s ugly. It’s amazing. You can be married to someone so long and get used to certain things. I hadn’t really noticed it for a long time. When I dragged him outside in the snowstorm, I tried kicking some of the snow on top of him, but it kept sliding off his nose and it was the last part of Stanley I remember from that night.”