I truly believe the best way to learn to write is to write and write and write, and then write some more. Gerald Brenan, activist and historian, agrees: “It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.” So, in each creative writing course I teach, students produce weekly exercises that utilize writing techniques we’re discussing in class. In the story below Holly Atterbury focuses on the technique of imagery. The assignment prompt was to use concrete, significant detail (imagery) to create a reality that is convincing—and yet literally impossible.
The Curious Canine of Humbaker Street
By Holly Atterbury
In the town of Milforde, Pennsylvania, Bartleby’s Deli and Sandwich Shoppe sits just south of the intersection of 5th and Humbaker Street. The block is composed of brick-red buildings identical but for the furnishings and the color of awning. To the left, under the bright blue awning, is Pearl’s Salon and Spa; “spa” being a loose term for the cucumber-eyed, avocado facial Pearl will give you for the discounted price of ten dollars, if you spend twenty dollars for a haircut first. Nearly a year ago, the competition for avocadoes (of which Milforde already had a limited supply) led to the dissolution of anything that could be considered a friendship between Bartleby and Pearl. The shortage might have been bearable, harmless even, if the start of Pearl’s facials hadn’t coincided with Bartleby’s first and final Avocado Festival. Henry Davis, who used to deliver fresh vegetables to Bartleby’s Deli and Shoppe recalls the fiasco in occasional nightmares and describes it “like two people trapped on a desert island who suddenly realize that there isn’t food enough for the both of them. Or something like that.” To the right of Bartleby’s, underneath the weather-stained red awning with a small hole in it, is Free Expressions, a tattoo parlor, where owner Ralph Luftraedo’s style of tattoos stagger across customers’ skin like the drunken, first attempts of abstract drawings. Ralph and Bartleby have yet to find a reason to irreparably harm their relationship; although, if Ralph’s son keeps looking at Bartleby’s daughter like that (and she keeps looking back), people will begin covering their tattoos upon entering the Sandwich Shoppe, just as everyone knows you don’t grab lunch next door directly after getting a haircut.
As the citizens of Milforde watch the conflict escalate by degrees, mimicking the slow, upward crawl of the thermometer as the days lengthen into the summer months, they wish Nikola was still capable of negotiating a truce.
Nikola was formerly known as the short, jovial Italian man who owned and ran the Italian bakery directly across the street from Bartleby’s. Nickola was a generally agreeable person, who devoted much of his free time to tending the purple regal geraniums he planted in large, rectangular stone planters on the sidewalk in front of his bakery, smiling and waving to passerbys with the hand that was not occupied with his bright yellow watering can. He was the mediating force between Pearl, Bartleby, and Ralph, most famous for settling the Chalkboard Sign Crisis of 2012. Each shop owner had simultaneously, unbeknownst the others, purchased a standing chalkboard sign for the sidewalk in front of their shop. Each sign would, in turn, be vandalized by what each owner believed to be his or her neighbor; from Nikola’s vantage point, however, it was eventually discovered that the culprits were Sierra Hult and Calvin Resden, who found the feud between the three hilarious, saw an opportunity, and took it.
Indeed, it was agreed that if Nikola still possessed his proper form, the current tensions on Humbaker Street would have faded back into that of the normal levels of annoyance commonly experienced by neighbors in close proximity to one another. But Nikola is of little help nowadays. The Bergamasco pads around town, coat swaying with every step, looking like a dirty mop that grew four legs, a slimy pink tongue, wet nose, and a wagging tail.
One might wonder how a human man could transform into an Italian sheep dog known for its naturally matting fur that dangles down from its body like thick strands of yarn and believe such a thing to be impossible, but the citizens of Milforde, Pennsylvania, have no doubts that the canine is Nikola.
“That’s Nikola, alright,” says Jolene Spitz, who can often be seen sitting on the lone bench in Attwood Park reading mystery novels. “Nice guy. Even nicer as a dog, but he seems kinda sad. I miss his baking.”
Several residents were witness to the clear afternoon of August 22nd, 2013, when Nikola made the transition from man to dog. “He was outside, watering those flowers, and he just sort of…stopped,” Philip Gurth says. “He stopped what he was doing, just froze. Like a statue, almost. Or like when you see a big wasp.”
Evelyn Hult (Sierra’s mother) continues, “I thought he was going to throw up. He had that look on his face, you know? He twitched, like he was trying to move forward, and then in a blink he was gone.” She snaps. “Just like that. And in his place was the weirdest-looking dog I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Bewildered witnesses slowly approached the dog, who appeared to be staring forlornly through his thick, dark bangs at the toppled yellow watering can. Humans and canine alike watched the water twinkle across the dull gray of the sidewalk and over the curb, until the stream slowed to a halt, leaving a darkened line on the concrete. According to the reports, Nikola the dog had then given a great sigh, looked at the people gathered around, picked up the watering can between his teeth, and walked back into his bakery. Now he roams around town, patrolling Humbaker Street in particular, trying to keep the peace and tend his geraniums as best he can given his current situation.
“It’s a real shame,” Bartleby says as his cleans the front windows to his Shoppe. “Only decent guy on this street turns into dog. That shouldn’t happen to nice folks. If it’s going to happen to anyone, it should happen to awful people. Like Pearl or that lazy son of Ralph’s.” Pearl comments that, “If Bartleby were to turn into a dog, he’d be the ugliest dog in the world.” Ralph, who doesn’t say much, just shrugs and says, “Yeah, Nikola was a good guy.”
No one knows who, if anyone, turned Nikola into a dog over a year ago, or if he’ll ever turn back.