Peter Beagle

 

 

MR. McCASLIN
 

       On Gunhill Road old people die in summer, not winter. At least that was so when I was a boy, in the middle of another century. New York winters were often bad — I remember the entire city shutting down for two days one time — but you could bundle up, turn the radiator on full-blast and go to bed. The apartment buildings of my neighborhood, most dating to the 1920s, were thick-walled and generally stayed warm, even in a blizzard. No, you could get by in winter back then.

     Summer was another matter. Open your windows as wide as you wanted, the stagnant air was almost too hot to breathe, and didn’t always cool down after dark. Air-conditioners were still new then, and prohibitively expensive — no one in our neighborhood had a unit — so folks made do with electric fans, which were little more help than a handheld one or a folded newspaper. They sat through double and triple features at the movies, just for the air-conditioning there, when it was working, and soaked bedsheets in cold water to be able to sleep. Old people hung out of their windows with their mouths open, gasping like stranded fish, until one day they weren’t there anymore. I usually dressed up for two or three funerals every summer.

     Irish families were rare in our otherwise diverse quartier back then. I only remember two: the Geohegans in my building, two floors down, and old Mr. McCaslin, who lived alone in my friend Jake’s apartment house across Gunhill Road, beyond the vacant lot where everyone had planted Victory Gardens during the war. I knew one of the numerous Geohegan sons well enough to be regularly invited for New Year’s Eve, and I always went, just to hear Mr. Geohegan deliver his customary toast at midnight: “Well, boys, we’re t’rough wid wan hell of a bad year, and here goes for anither just like it.” I still keep up the tradition, whether I’m with my own family and friends, or in solitude. It brings more back than merely New Year’s Eve.

Mr. McCaslin was a stubby, whitehaired man with a narrow red face, a retired subway driver living on a pension and Social Security. Even though he had lived in that same apartment, a floor below Jake and his family, since before Jake and Phil and I were born, I can’t recall his first name, and I’m not sure we ever knew it. It’s hard to explain why we three took the personal interest that we did in Mr. McCaslin, as little use as he had for us. He was sour and bad-tempered, given to yelling through his door at kids who made noise in the halls, short even when he was being polite; if he was drunk, he might take a swing at you. I don’t think he ever intended them to land — it was just another way of saying, get away, get away from me. We never took it seriously.
 

Why and how he became our crabby old man, I can’t tell you. Maybe we were reacting to his loneliness, or to what we saw or sensed as his loneliness. Children are a cruel, utterly self-concerned lot, innocently heartless; but the three of us were all loners and misfits in our different ways, blessed with imagination, cursed with empathy. We took Mr. McCaslin in somehow, beyond logic, beyond behavior, whether he wanted us to or not.
 

The summer of 1950 was evilly hot, even for New York. The little gardens along Tryon all withered early, for all the watering their owners did, and I used to imagine that you could hear the trees panting for rain and cool air, just like the old people. The police came by now and again to open the fire hydrants down on Decatur Avenue, but Phil and Jake and I all felt too old this year to play in the water with the little kids. Instead, we talked our parents into letting us sleep on the roof, or even on our fire escapes, and we shot our allowances on bus rides to the public pool at Tibbetts Brook Park. And we moved very, very slowly.
 

Mr. McCaslin suffered. Apart from the heat itself, we knew that he had some sort of lung ailment, contracted in the subway tunnels, and we could hear him wheezing behind his door, and often even when he yelled at us — or tried to, for he couldn’t always get the words out. Most of the time his face was redder than ever, the way my Uncle Leon’s had gotten before his stroke; but now and then, when he shuffled past us in the hallway, he looked as bloodless as cheese, as gray-white as candlewax. Jake’s mother, who worked at a local hospital that had its own health plan, tried to get him to come in for a checkup, but he told her he couldn’t afford it, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. She was a plain-spoken woman: she said, “You know you won’t last out the summer like this,” and Mr. McCaslin nodded agreement and closed his door.
 

In a macabre way that I’m embarrassed to write about, her verdict only increased our fascination with him. We were kids: we had all known people who had died, but never anyone actually in the process, sentence spoken, date of execution set. So we went out of our way, individually and together, to do things for him. Fruit was big — someone was sick, you gave them fruit, everybody knew that. We brought his newspaper up from the lobby; we carried his grocery bags if we saw him struggling with them on the stair. I even sneaked him some of my own rather expensive cough syrup, which made me feel much better during an asthma attack, and which got taken off the market a year later. Mr. McCaslin gave me a long look when he read the label, but he took it, and that time he said thanks.
 

It was kind of us, certainly, but there was more to it than kindness; children have ulterior motives that adults never imagine for a moment. If Mr. McCaslin should open his door to us — often he didn’t answer the bell, and we had to leave this or that gift on the mat — then we’d get to peer around him for a moment, just to see what a dying person’s apartment looked like. I never glimpsed more than a worn sofa, a radio on a three-legged card table, and a few photographs tacked at random on the one wall I could see. It smelled a bit of old man alone, and a bit more of aging Chinese food; nothing else. I think we were all vaguely disappointed, but none of us ever said.
 

One August morning, early enough that it should have been still cool, but wasn’t, I was sitting on the front stoop of Jake’s house, waiting for him to get back from a piano lesson, when Mr. McCaslin came out of the front door, started down the steps, and then turned suddenly to look at me. He said, in his increasingly hoarse, rasping voice, “Where’s the ithers? Never see the one of youse without the ithers?” He didn’t have Mr. Geohegan’s strong accent — he’d lived in America longer — but his own surfaced now and then on certain words, and in certain rhythms.
 

I told him where Jake was, and that Phil was probably sleeping in; even then, he often stayed up all night, to his parents’ dismay, drawing and sketching. Mr. McCaslin took this in, nodded briefly, grunted, “Want to talk to the three of youse tonight,” and shambled on his way without another word.
 

Phil’s mother and mine were both nervous about Mr. McCaslin’s illness possibly being contagious, but Jake’s mother reassured them that if that were so, there would have been a lot of people coming down with it over the years he’d lived in the building. So at nine o’clock that night, after months of peeking into that apartment, the three of us were finally perched solemnly on Mr. McCaslin’s couch, which wobbled at my end, watching as he poured himself a full tumbler of whiskey without apologizing. The living-room was sparsely furnished, disappointingly so to a curious child. The centerpiece was a handsome old armchair with a plastic cover on it; for the rest I remember only a couple of other chairs, a few books on shelves mostly filled with china animal figures. The few photographs, close to, were mostly of children, except for one of a young woman with her dark hair piled and knotted high on her head. Mr. McCaslin took a deep drink from his glass, and spoke for the first time then, saying flatly, “Youse all know I’m dyin’.”
 

We didn’t say anything. Maybe we nodded. Whatever our response, Mr. McCaslin brushed it aside, saying, “I got no time for bullshit, that’s one good thing about dyin’. I don’t mind, I’m tellin’ youse that straight off. It’ll be a rest, that’s what it’ll be, and that’s all I want, is a rest.” He took a second swallow of the whiskey, coughed, and went on. “Y’ain’t such bad fellas, for little shits, so I’ll be askin’ a favor of youse. One favor.”
 

I remember watching Phil studying that hollowed-out red and pale face, and thinking, he wants to draw him. He’s drawing him in his head right now. Mr. McCaslin said again, “One favor. Youse got to keep the dog from me.”
 

We stared. Phil’s family had a cocker spaniel named Dusty, but she only got out of the house when Phil walked her, mornings and evenings. I wanted a dog in the worst way, but I was allergic to practically everything in those days, and asthmatic as well. Jake had fish. Mr. McCaslin said, “The Dark Terrier.”
 

It looks odd in print — maybe even a bit funny — but it didn’t sound like that, the way Mr. McCaslin said the words. He pronounced it like tarrier, I remember: the dark tarrier. “Back in Ireland, the Dark Terrier, he always comes when a McCaslin’s dyin’. He’ll be comin’ tomorrow, day after. Youse boys got to keep him from m’door.”
 

Jake was the first one to find words. He said hesitantly, “You mean, if we keep this...the Dark Terrier away, you won’t die?”
 

Mr. McCaslin laughed, which I couldn’t remember ever seeing him do in all the years we’d known him. It was a kind of tearing, ratchety sound, but it was definitely a laugh. “Boyo, nobody keeps the Dark Terrier away forever, you have m’word on that. All I want, I just want three days.”
 

We were back staring, completely bewildered, and increasingly frightened — anyway, I was. Not by the words so much, as by the utterly serious tone of Mr. McCaslin’s rough, painful voice. “I got to write a letter,” he said. “Before I go with him. It’ll take me three days. I’ll be ready in three days.”
 

“Who’s it to?” Neither Jake nor I would have dared to ask, but Phil always had to know.
 

Mr. McCaslin didn’t take offense at the question; he hardly seemed to have heard it. He said, almost dreamily, “It’s to m’girl, m’daughter. There’s things to set right, things we didn’t understand, neither on us...” His voice trailed off, and he was silent for a few moments before he added, “Her name’s Daisy. M’wife named her.”
 

The notion that Mr. McCaslin had once had a wife — let alone a daughter named Daisy — was as strange and disconcerting to us as any doomful tale he might have told. It was easier then, somehow, for me to ask about the Dark Terrier. Did his coming always mean death, and only for a McCaslin? It seemed an important question, if we were going to be getting in the thing’s way.
 

Mr. McCaslin didn’t brush that off. “I never heard of him comin’ for none but the McCaslins. It’s three hundred years and more we’ve passed that story down, all the way back to bloody Cromwell’s time. M’own father, he saw his father go off with the Dark Terrier, he told me so himself. Always warned me, have your house in order, boyo, for the dog won’t never wait. And I done that, I done that, except for the one thing.” His faded, almost colorless eyes were glittering with tears. “I got to write to Daisy.”
 

“It’ll take you three days to write a letter?” Oh, please God, that wasn’t me! Yes, it was, and with Phil and Jake looking at me...But Mr. McCaslin only said, with some dignity, “I got a lot to say to her, and no practice in saying it.”
 

I didn’t ask any more questions after that. Neither did any of us, really.
 

I don’t think we ever formally agreed to hold the Dark Terrier at bay for three days, either to Mr. McCaslin or to each other; but when we left that apartment we knew it was a done deal, as people say now. We didn’t talk much afterward, except to decide that we’d watch in shifts, with Jake taking the first, me the second, and Phil the long third, since he hardly slept anyway. Then we went home and had bad dreams. All of us. I know this, because I checked.
 

As edgy and keyed-up as we were, not in the least sure what to believe, or what we’d actually do if the story turned out true — how do you plan to waylay a phantom dog? — it’s a good thing that the Dark Terrier appeared the very next day. It happened on my shift, around two in the afternoon: I was sitting crosslegged on the floor, a few doors down from the apartment, working in my special secret poetry notebook — people were used to seeing me like that — when I heard the soft clicking of blunt claws on slate tile, and looked up to see the black head come around the stairwell. I dropped the notebook and scrambled to my feet, and we regarded each other, the Dark Terrier and I.
 

It wasn’t ghostly or transparent, nor at all menacing, and it wasn’t exactly black, either. Dark really is the best word, for it seemed to be made of darkness: a darkness as far beyond black as the darkness of space must be from our simple night. Otherwise it was an ordinary-looking smallish dog, something like a fox terrier (I knew all about dog breeds back then), with a mild-mannered style, and an endearing way of carrying one ear up and the other down. It considered me amiably enough, plainly dismissed me, and started directly for Mr. McCaslin’s door.
 

“No,” I said. “Oh, no,” and I beat it to the door and scooped it up before I had time to be scared of being bitten. Then I ran down the stairs, still saying no, no, no — completely forgetting my poetry notebook — and I ran almost all the way home across the sweltering street, carrying the Dark Terrier tightly in my arms.
 

It didn’t struggle at all, nor growl, nor ever once try to bite me, but only put its head back and looked at me in a rather puzzled sort of way, as though this were the last thing in the world it had expected, which it probably was. When I slowed down, breathless and sweating, I panted to it, “We have to keep you for three days, Mr. McCaslin isn’t ready, he has to finish his letter. It’s very important, he’ll go with you in three days, when it’s done.” Unlike a real dog, the Dark Terrier felt achingly cold against my chest, and I couldn’t feel any heartbeat. It hurt me to hold him.
 

 My parents were at a teachers’ union meeting. I’ve never been more grateful for anything in my life than I was for that as I ran into our apartment, slamming and locking the door behind me. I put the Dark Terrier down, and went from room to room, closing and locking every window, even though we lived on the fifth floor, and despite the fact that I was cutting off what little flow of air there was. The Dark Terrier followed me, still with the same slightly bewildered air, not trying to escape, watching me intently as I phoned Phil and gasped out the story. Nearly six decades later, I still remember that the first thing he asked was, “You okay?”
 

“Yeah,” I said slowly, not having considered allergies or asthma until then. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s like a regular dog. But they’ll never let me keep it, not even for three days. I know they won’t.”
 

“I might just get away with it,” Phil pondered. “Might. Tell my folks I’m keeping it for a friend, it’ll be a playmate for Dusty. Give me a couple of hours, I’ll call you back.”
 

I called Jake after that, and he came over immediately, easing cautiously around the door while I blocked the hallway, to keep the Dark Terrier from making a break for it. He’d already told Mr. McCaslin that we had the dog, and the old man had thanked him feverishly and hurried back to continue writing to his daughter. “Anyway, I hope that’s what he was doing,” Jake said. “He smelled pretty strong.”
 

We regarded the Dark Terrier together, and it looked back at us with calm impatience, if there is such a thing. Jake said thoughtfully, “Ordinary sort of dog, you come right down to it. You think it’s really the Angel of Death?”
 

I shook my head. “If it’s an angel, it could just waltz right out of here and right through Mr. McCaslin’s door, and that’d be that. I think it’s just something they’ve got over in Ireland. Maybe it doesn’t have the same powers here? I don’t know — but it sure knew where he lived, just like he said. It’s the McCaslin family dog, all right.”
 

“Three days,” Jake said to it. “You can wait three lousy days, can’t you?” The Dark Terrier gave no sign of hearing, comprehending, or complying.
 

Phil called in an hour to say that he had talked his parents into letting him babysit his friend’s sweet little black dog for the couple of days the friend would be away. Jake and I promptly brought the Dark Terrier over, still unresisting: sleekly muscular and shockingly cold in our arms, and so clearly waiting, just biding its time, that Phil said, “I wish they made dog handcuffs. Dog hobbles, dog shackles, dog ball-and-chain things. We’re never going to hold this one for three days.”
 

But we did manage it for two. Two and a half, really.
 

Phil’s mother was a well-meaning, anxious woman, a deal more nervous than Jake’s mother or mine. Surprisingly she took to the strange black dog (as did Dusty, the old cocker spaniel, which was even more surprising), and spent time petting it and playing with it, even assuring Phil that he didn’t have to be watching it absolutely every minute; he could leave Sweetie — as she was calling the Dark Terrier — with her, and just go back to his room to draw or paint for a while. Phil held out until the morning of the third day; then he yielded, leaving her with instructions and warnings enough for the keeper of King Kong. His mother, rather uncharacteristically, obeyed every one of them. It didn’t help.
 

The moment Phil’s mother opened the door for the plumber who had come to install the new kitchen sink, the Dark Terrier shot between her legs and was gone, leaving hysteria in its wake, and Phil on the phone to Jake and me, telling us to get over to Mr. McCaslin’s and keep that dog away from his door; he’d be right there as soon as he’d finished yelling at his mother. I could hear his father rumbling in the background, and thought it might be a little longer than that.
 

For all that Jake lived in the same building, and knew exactly where the Dark Terrier was bound, it was at Mr. McCaslin’s door before Jake could get there to head it off. It was on its hind legs, scratching at the door like any family dog wanting in, and Jake could hear Mr. McCaslin inside crying, “Not yet, not yet, I ain’t finished! Please, not yet!” But the dog would not wait.
 

When Jake tried to prod the Dark Terrier away from the door, it turned on him and growled for the first time, showing only its front teeth, which he said was scarier than if it had bared every fang in its head. He retreated and stood by helplessly until Phil and I got there; then, between the three of us, we did manage to make the dog back off at least a little way, where it sat on its haunches, still growling in its chest, while we lined up before the door, linking arms theatrically and chanting “No pasaran!” — they shall not pass — like Jake’s Uncle Irv, who had been in the Spanish Civil War, and had a blind eye to show for it. I wondered if any McCaslins had died during that one, and if the Dark Terrier had come for them too, trotting briskly between the lines.
 

We stayed there well into the afternoon, facing down a thing none of us truly understood, hoping that we were really buying time for Mr. McCaslin to finish his last letter to his daughter Daisy. We were hot and weary — emotionally weary as much as physically so — and when I think back on that last day now I’m amazed at how three eleven-year-olds held together: even three very bright eleven-year-olds, even knowing whatever it was we maybe knew. I remember Jake saying, “We’re never going to be able to talk about this to anybody,” and Phil answering, “I don’t ever want to talk about it to us.” For myself, I kept wishing I’d brought a book.
 

When the door behind us opened, it opened suddenly, catching us all — and maybe the Dark Terrier too — by surprise. Mr. McCaslin stood there. looking not exactly taller in the ragged green bathrobe he must have been living in for days, but somehow straighter, lighter, as though a great old weight on him had turned to wings. He did not look at us, but said simply to the Dark Terrier, “I’m done now. Come in, if ye will.”
 

The dog that had come for every McCaslin for three centuries paced past him into the apartment, after a last long stare at each one of us. Its eyes were as unearthly dark as the beast itself, and completely expressionless; but it seemed to see us, and know us, as no one ever had.
 

Mr. McCaslin said to us, “I thank youse all three. Don’t forget to mail m’letter to Daisy. I put stamps on it.” Then he turned and followed the Dark Terrier into his apartment, and closed the door.
 

Jake nipped in and grabbed the letter when the paramedics came for the body the next day. Mr. McCaslin had died in bed, with an untouched bottle and glass on a chair nearby. There was no sign, or any trace, of a dog ever having been there.
 

The letter was fat and heavy, addressed in a surprisingly neat hand to Daisy McCaslin at a box number in Toronto. We stuck on a few extra stamps, just in case, and dropped it in the mailbox at the corner of Gunhill and Wayne. I like to think she received it, but of course I don’t know.
 

We never did talk much about Mr. McCaslin, not then. The questions the whole episode raised were simply too much for eleven-year-olds to deal with. Where had he gone with the Dark Terrier, and did its existence imply the reality of an afterlife? Could there be other such creatures — phantoms, apparitions, spirits — and did they only attach themselves to certain families, certain sorts of people? Could they be considered evil or benign, finally? We could neither find nor invent answers to any of these; so, whatever we thought as individuals, as a group we just let it all go.
 

These days, though, all of us being older than Mr. McCaslin probably was at that time, we do discuss it now and again, from our three corners of the continent. Jake and Phil both swear that they’ve actually seen the dark terrier: turning a street corner just ahead, pattering down the front steps of some old building late at night. I can’t say that, but I’ve sometimes thought I’ve heard its claws clicking behind me, even though it’s never yet shown itself. But all three of us, I know, still see it in our minds, standing up on its legs and scratching at Mr. McCaslin’s door to be let in at last. And when that vision comes back to me, I hurry home to write my own letters, to make my own amends, to get done that which no one else can ever do for me...before I hear the scratching at my own door.

 

"Mr. McCaslin" (c) 2008 Avicenna Development Corporation.
_________________________________

 


Peter Beagle at the University of California, Berkeley.

Peter Beagle is  author of The Last Unicorn, considered one of the top ten fantasy novels of all time, and at least two of his other books (A Fine and Private Place and I See By My Outfit) are considered modern classics.

His coda to The Last Unicorn,  "Two Hearts," won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novelette and in 2007 it won the Nebula Award in the same category.