Excerpt: It All Started With a Dog
Despite the good intentions of matchmaking friends, family and neighbors, Rachel Springer, a tough Washington, D.C. lawyer, has spent a lifetime protecting her heart from the dangerous possibilities of love.
When she finds a ragged stray dog on the streets of Georgetown and brings him home with her, she starts a sequence of startling events that lead her down a path she’s never explored. Along the way, she rents her downstairs apartment to a bachelor whose 5-year-old grandson has the same effect on her as the homeless dog.
Rachel’s expanded life in Washington takes several unexpected turns as she juggles the dramas of divorces and molestation charges; a midnight drunk on her front porch; a health crisis that threatens to disrupt her law firm; and a weekend tragedy that turns her world upside down. All it takes to fully open the door to Rachel’s heart is the disappearance of the dog that started it all.
Ralph was the dirtiest, skinniest, most morose looking creature Rachel had ever seen – and being a divorce lawyer, she had seen her share of rejects.
The dog found her one evening as she walked home from her office in Georgetown. Deadlines loomed and she dictated answers to interrogatories until almost eight o’clock. After twenty-five questions and answers and a take-out Chinese dinner, she turned off the lights and locked the door behind her.
As Rachel stood on the corner of M and 33rd Streets to hail a cab, watching the tourists watching each other, she heard a whining in the alley behind her.
She set her briefcase down on the sidewalk and stooped to the dog’s level, ignoring the voice in the back of her head that told her he might bite, might have fleas, might have rabies . . . or worse.
Hesitant at first, Ralph seemed to sense the strange woman was not to be feared and slowly inched his way out of the black toward where she crouched.
Rachel wasn’t a dog person, but something about Ralph touched something about Rachel Springer.
Convincing the cab driver to allow him in the back seat was a different story. Nothing about the cabbie was touched, but a $20 tip persuaded him that Ralph could make the short ride to Rachel’s house on O Street.
The veterinarian Rachel found the next day hadn’t held out much hope for Ralph, diagnosing severe malnourishment, assorted worms, advanced mange and a couple of other medical conditions that he and his owner soon forgot as his health improved.
Five years later, Ralph was a poster dog for the healing power of love. He sported a shining thick coat of black fur, clear eyes and perky tail that at one time looked like it was permanently stuck between his legs.
Sometimes Rachel took him to work, where he sat on a window seat with a view of 32nd Street. Passersby who knew him looked up to see if his familiar silhouette framed the upstairs window of Springer & Associates.
Rachel didn’t have any associates. Once, years before, right after she left the large law firm where she began her career, she agreed to associate herself with another attorney, but that didn’t last long. Some folks play best alone.
She found that she and Georgia Payne made a great team.
Georgia was about five years younger than her boss. She could have easily earned as many degrees as Rachel, but didn’t. Instead, she focused on her family. Married for 25 years to the same man, she had two grown sons and four grandsons. She worked for Rachel as long as the office had been open, running the show in more ways than one.
People with problems loved her, and it was not unusual for Rachel to walk up to Georgia’s desk and find a bouquet of fresh flowers from an appreciative client. Georgia kept a box of tissues near her inbox and a willing ear ready to hear the parts of the story they were reluctant to share with Rachel at $300 an hour. Georgia always made time, even as her work pile grew higher and higher.
The outer office was decorated to create a relaxed mood with lots of African violets in the window sill, Good Housekeeping on the coffee table, rocking chairs and an overstuffed sofa covered with a faded flowered slipcover. Hooked rugs completed the grandmother’s parlor décor.
Behind the closed door that separated the reception area from Rachel’s office was another world.
Once clients had filled out the intake form, Georgia chatted them up with a cup of coffee and one of her homemade chocolate chip cookies, and then they were ready to get down to business on the other side of the door.
Rachel’s office was streamlined for business. The top of her huge antique mahogany desk was uncluttered, except for the bare necessities. Clients saw a simple black phone – no bells and whistles – a small green banker’s lamp and a blank yellow legal pad with two sharp pencils lying ready beside it.
Rachel Springer, 62, sat tiny behind the desk, in front of a towering backdrop of legal reference books. Her diplomas from the University of Virginia and the Georgetown Law School were framed modestly in a corner.
The heavy braid that hung halfway down her back was steel-wool gray and tied at its coiled end with baling twine – two orange ceramic beads secured at each tip. Rachel found the beads at the flea market outside Santa Fe on the first trip she made to New Mexico and wore them as a reminder of the “returning home” feeling she experienced out West.
Her eyes were heavily lashed and almost lilac. Strangers sometimes stopped her in the street to ask if she wore tinted contact lenses. She had known they were her best feature for years – perhaps even when she was a baby and the doctor in the delivery room remarked that he had never seen a child with eyes the color of spring.
Now, as her other physical attributes began to sag, began to mottle, began to dimple and crinkle, the clear pools still sparkled and, even edged in wrinkles and cornered by crows feet, they often attracted the kindness of strangers. Rachel figured everything else could be covered.
She was not one to go in for cosmetic surgery – facelifts, Botox, tummy tucks – or spend a lot of time exercising to beat her body into submission. She ate right without being obsessive but admitted to a chocolate craving. Rachel especially loved Almond Joy bars.
* * *
Rachel lived on O Street in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in a three-story brownstone within walking distance of the Dupont Circle metro station.
She found the house despite herself. Actually, a friend found it for her.
While Rachel meditated one day, the phone rang. Usually, she let it ring, aware of the sound, letting it jangle on the outer edge of her consciousness, not judging whether she should answer or not, just letting it be and hoping whoever was calling would leave a message.
This time, she decided she had sat still long enough and got up from her zafu cushion and caught the phone on its last ring before it rolled over to the answering service.
Her friend Susan was on the other end of the line. In her usual fashion, she launched into the purpose of her call with no preliminary chitchat.
“Rachel, I’ve found your house,” Susan said.
Rachel sat down in the rocker she kept beside the kitchen phone and took a deep breath, preparing herself for yet another one of her friend’s Rachel-improvement schemes.
After a few seconds of silence, Susan said, “Rachel, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Well, why didn’t you say something? I’ve found your house.”
“I’m not looking for a house.”
“I know, but this is definitely the house you should be looking for, honey, and it’s right across the street from me. Please promise me you’ll come look at it.”
“You mean the Mason house?”
“Yes. They’ve been transferred to the West Coast and they want to sell it in a hurry. You’d get it for a song, honey – less than a song, in fact.”
Susan spoke in the honeyed tones of the deep South, something that had irritated Rachel when they first met at the University of Virginia 40 years ago. But, over the years, she had learned that underneath the sickening sweetness that came out of Susan’s mouth was a true green pea goodness.
Rachel lived comfortably across Key Bridge in Crystal City in a small condominium. On a clear day, she easily made the walk to work in Georgetown.
Susan insisted she needed more space for a garden, maybe a pet, more room to entertain – all things Rachel wasn’t sure she wanted. She knew she didn’t want the hassle of moving. The thought of packing her hundreds of books alone gave her a headache.
“Isn’t that house three stories?” Rachel asked.
“What do I need all that room for, Susan?”
“Maybe you could rent out some of the rooms, honey. In fact – yes, I’m sure of it – there’s a tiny little basement apartment in the back. The Masons used it to sleep overnight guests, but you could fix it up and use it as a rental unit. Get some nice young man in there who knows how to fix things so when – ”
“Susan, I don’t want to move.”
“Just look at it, honey. Just promise me you’ll look at it.”
And so Rachel allowed Susan to make an appointment for her to see the house a week later – finally giving in to her friend’s constant nagging – and made an offer on the house for the asking price within an hour of returning home.
The cherub fountain in the back courtyard had charmed her right out of Crystal City.
The courtyard was enclosed by a six-foot tall brick wall and was laid with cobblestones. She first saw it in the spring when the azaleas bloomed in several shades of pink under the towering oak trees. Daffodils peeked out from several corners.
But the focal point was the fountain. The sound of water dropping from the cherub’s cupped hands reminded Rachel of trips to her grandmother’s house in Fredricksburg, Virginia, where the same cherub held court in the backyard near the boxwood bushes.
Rachel toured the house – the English basement apartment the Realtor assured her she could easily rent for $1,000 month; the living room to the left of the entrance foyer on the main floor, library on the right – both with working fireplaces and the eat-in kitchen and dining room across the back of the house, looking out onto a small wooden deck and the courtyard.
The second floor held the master bedroom and bath – also overlooking the courtyard – two guestrooms and the bath they shared.
The third floor featured one big room – a garret with floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for the artist who originally built the house.
Rachel left it empty of furniture and used it for a meditation room – one lone cushion sat in the middle of the floor. She loved to sit there in the spotlight of a full moon and practice the stillness she was convinced helped her practice the law that was her livelihood.
She started her Buddhist meditation practice in her 20’s and found that the daily ritual not only created a stillness in the hectic life inside her head, but an acceptance of what went on outside it.
Rachel also liked to piece together quilts. What thrilled her most was finding the fabrics. Scavenging in antique shops and yard sales – even traveling some distance out into the countryside to an estate sale advertised in The Washington Post. It was all an adventure and once she got the scraps of material home, she had great fun imagining what they were used for and by whom.
Rachel was a creative cook and didn’t mind eating alone. Her mother died when she was eight-years-old, leaving her father to parent her and her little brother, Edward.
John Springer hired a woman to come in to help with the cleaning and to do the laundry once a week, but he figured Rachel and he could manage to scrape together a meal.
Even at eight, Rachel’s cooking was imaginative – much to her little brother’s horror. Not many six-year-old boys take a liking to mint showing up in unlikely places. But Edward’s complaints didn’t discourage Rachel, and her father just smiled at her culinary surprises.
She never followed a recipe, so sometimes her concoctions turned out well, and sometimes they didn’t. She loved to entertain, and her friends always knew they were in for a treat when they were invited to join in one of her last minute dinner parties.
The dining room table only seated six, but it was not unusual for her to spread her guests throughout the house if she started out fixing a pot of soup and ended up with enough for an army.
When Rachel moved into the house across the street, Susan figured she would benefit from her friend’s love of cooking. Not only was the food tasty and pretty to look at – often garnished with juicy oranges and lemons, fresh green parsley or purple violets in bloom in her garden – but Rachel served her meals on a collection of mismatched china and crystal she had collected in her years of traveling.
No cup matched its saucer. No plate was the same size or shape as the one next to it. The only thing on the table that was a complete set was the monogrammed sterling silver she inherited from her maternal grandmother – a 24-serving set of heavy and very ornate Georgian flatware that was probably worth as much as the house.
When the family lost all its money in the Depression, they managed to hang on to the silver, and Rachel loved to polish it and use it when she entertained.
She played a guitar – badly, but with great gusto. Her instrument was an old beat-up acoustic guitar given to her by a high school sweetheart when she went away to college.
She learned to play Stewball was a Racehorse over and over and drove her college roommate crazy. Her repertoire didn’t include too many more tunes 40 years later, but she loved to take the guitar out into her back courtyard in the late evenings and play.
The neighbors never complained.
Sometimes, she remembered Joe, the boy who gave it to her and wondered where he was as she sat near Dupont Circle strumming Stewball.
They had kissed many times in the back seat of Joe’s father’s Pontiac, but not much more than a kiss. Not with Joe or any of the boys who followed him into her arms.
And there had been many men who had been attracted to Rachel over the years. She enjoyed sharing a movie in high school and college, and she loved to dance, but that was about it.
As her friends began to announce their engagements, got married, had babies, she thought she might follow that path, but after she hit 30 and had never had a serious romance, she began to believe that living alone would be her lot in life.
She never felt lonely – a state of being she was convinced drove many of her friends into unhappy marriages.
She certainly saw plenty of disastrous relationships walk through her office doors during her law career.
And perhaps what influenced her the most to remain single was the fact that her father had been one of the happiest people she had ever known, and he lived alone until the day he died of a heart attack at 75-years-old.
Rachel knew he missed her mother, but she also saw him accept her death. After Agnes Springer fell from a horse and broke her neck, he found happiness alone, surrounded by animals, his children and a few friends.
Rachel learned by his example.
* * *
Rachel had absolutely no intention of offering her basement apartment for rent. Occasionally, she used it for out-of-town guests, and she certainly didn’t need the income it might generate. Having the extra space was a luxury she could afford.
When Susan called to suggest she rent it to a man who needed a temporary home while he was in town working as a consultant, her immediate reaction was to say “no.”
But in her typical way, Susan refused to give up.
“Just meet him, honey. Jim and I had him over for dinner last night, and he’s very charming. He practically drooled all over himself when he saw your house over there across the street. Ralph was peeping out your front window, and that did the trick. He loves dogs,” was her parting shot.
“But I don’t want a tenant,” Rachel insisted.
“Just meet him. He’s leaving to go back to New York tomorrow. I’ll bring him over tomorrow night after supper.”
“But Susan, I don’t – ” was all Rachel was able to get out before Susan hung up the phone.
The next evening around 7:30 Rachel was on her way out the back door to water her impatiens plants when the doorbell rang. She wiped her hands on her apron and walked toward the front of the house, wondering who could be coming to see her unannounced at that hour. Ralph hadn’t barked, so it must be someone he knew, she thought.
It was only when she opened the door that she remembered the phone call from Susan the day before.
“Honey, this is John Turner, the friend of Jim’s I told you about,” Susan chirped as she grabbed the embarrassed-looking man by the arm and almost pushed him through the door at Rachel.
“I hope we’re not interrupting your dinner, Mrs. Springer,” the man said. “It’s so nice of you to offer to show me your apartment.”
“Well, I haven’t,” Rachel was tempted to say, when Susan interrupted her with, “Oh, I see you have your gardening gloves on. Rachel has the most lovely courtyard in the back, John. John is an expert gardener, himself, Rachel. He’s created the most lovely rooftop deck at his apartment in the Village. I’ve seen the pictures.”
And with that, Susan pushed on through the foyer, dragging Rachel and John behind her like a magnet, Rachel all the while thinking that if Susan hadn’t pushed her, she wouldn’t be in this house. It wouldn’t hurt to show the poor soul the apartment. He might not even like it.
And Ralph was wagging his tail and looking at the man adoringly.
Tall – at least six feet – lanky – almost skinny – slightly stoop-shouldered – a full head of curly slightly fading red hair – freckles and green eyes with a devilish twinkle that made him seem younger than the rest of his body hinted he might be.
Rachel softened. “Would you like a cup of tea before we go downstairs?”
“Actually, I’m very anxious to see the apartment,” John said. “I lived in this neighborhood many years ago, and I’d love to call it home again – even for a short time.”
“Exactly how long will you be needing the place?”
“At least six months – maybe longer.”
Well, that shouldn’t be too bad, Rachel thought. She could share the house for six months – maybe longer – without a problem. It wasn’t a long-term commitment. Just a short arrangement to help this man out.
So they went around to the side of the house, and Rachel dug around behind some ceramic pots and found the key to the basement door.
“You’ll have to forgive the smell. It hasn’t been used in at least six months – since my brother and his family came from Arkansas. I’m sure it’s terribly musty.”
She switched on the overhead light to reveal a small living room and kitchen area with exposed brick walls and a long window at street level.
“The bedroom is through the kitchen,” she said.
“It’s perfect,” John beamed. “Reminds me of the place I rented in Adams Morgan the summer after my senior year in college. How much do you want for it?”
“A thousand dollars a month, all utilities included,” Susan announced without missing a beat.
John looked at Rachel and smiled. “Is that right?”
“I guess so,” Rachel laughed. “Susan’s the boss.”
The three walked around to the back so John could admire the impatiens and say good-bye to Ralph, who was whining because he had been left behind.
“When do you want to move in?”
“Next week, if you don’t mind. I need to go home to get a few more things, but when I get back to D.C. I’d like to think I’ll be coming home rather than to the Jefferson Hotel.”
“I’ll draw up a simple lease and send it by Susan to your office tomorrow.”
Rachel and John shook hands, and she noticed the twinkle was even brighter as he smiled down at her.
“Good night, Mrs. Springer, and thank you for sharing this with me. It’s perfect.”
“You’re quite welcome, but it’s ‘Ms.’ not ‘Mrs.’ And you can call me Rachel.”
Leigh Somerville has had a long career as a full time writer doing business as Studio McMillan in Winston-Salem. Currently, she is the Director of Marketing & PR for Twin City Stage. Formerly, she was Editor of Winston-Salem Living and wrote as the Scene & Heard columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal for 10 years. She has contributed to regional and national magazines. Her work includes ghost-writing memoirs and legacy letters, facilitating writing workshops and retreats, coaching and public speaking.
Somerville entered the world of novels with It All Started with a Dog followed by All Good Things.
Click here to buy: It all Started with a Dog