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One Way Street


Harry Buschman

We always knew Ralph was crazy, but it wasn't until we were in eighth grade that we decided Ralph was really crazy. He wanted to be a taxidermist and he had already stuffed a cat and a canary.

When we reached the tenth grade, Ralph got an offer to stuff a dog. It was the coming of age to his young career, and maybe ours as well.

He stuffed a lot of things before that. I remember a canary that hung in its cage from a hook in the stair hall because it belonged to my mother. The cat belonged to my grandmother ... and Ralph stuffed the two of them. Taxidermy was only a hobby to Ralph then, and he said and he got the idea after spending hours in the the Museum of Natural History looking at the dioramas of the African wildlife.

I think the canary was his first try. Ralph was only a beginner and it wasn't a very life-like canary. He simply scooped out the insides and sewed the little thing back up again, then wired its feet to the perch it had previously sat on for nearly four years. Its eyes fell out one by one, then it drew flies so my mother threw it out.

I only saw my grandmother's cat once after it died, and that was when my grandmother kept it on a satin pillow in the living room. Ralph tanned the hide to preserve it and then stuffed it with cotton and bent wire. He made it look as though it was all curled up asleep on the pillow. When the cat died, my grandmother wrapped it in rags, put it in a shoe box and buried it. I suppose she said some kind words over its sudden end and what it could expect in the hereafter. I'm sure it never expected to sleep on a satin pillow while it was alive. Ralph must have dug it up again. My grandmother was a gentle lady, an understanding lady, and she thanked Ralph sweetly, but you could tell she wasn't happy about it. Furthermore she had already adopted a new cat. Ralph never knew grandmother threw the cat out a second time. She asked me not to tell him and whenever Ralph asked me if my grandmother still had her cat I'd tell him yes.

The dog was another story. It was a wire-haired something or other and it belonged to Rudy Fleisch, the grocer. He called it "Turnip." The dog stayed home during the week because Rudy's customers didn't like the idea of a dog nosing around in the vegetables, but on Sundays Rudy and Turnip were inseparable. They would go to the park sometimes. Occasionally Rudy would take him for a ride in the car, they even went to McDonald's on Sunday mornings for breakfast and they’d eat together in the car. Rudy loved the dog as much or maybe even more than he loved Mrs. Fleish, that was apparent to anyone who saw the three of them together. As to whether Mrs. Fleisch felt left out or not I was too young to know. It didn't come as a surprise to any of us, however, when we heard that Turnip came to a violent end.

In short he fell out the window of the Fleisch's fifth story bedroom window one afternoon while Rudy was at work in the grocery store. I was in the store buying potatoes for my mother when a friend of his ran in to tell him. His eyes went glassy, he turned as white as one of his cauliflowers, and without even so much as emptying the cash register he left the store and ran for home.

He found his dog in the alley ... still warm, but dead, and looking up he saw his wife looking down at him.

"He jumped," she said.

Without another word, Rudy carried the dog three blocks to the veterinarian ... a fruitless effort of course, then seeing no further course of action, he waited for Ralph at the schoolyard with the dog in his arms. We were in high school by then and it was well known to all of us that Ralph had his career mapped out ... he was going to be a taxidermist. No doubt about that. He was already going part time to "Hide'n'Hair," a school downtown for mounting deer heads and fish for sports clubs. The rest of us were just getting interested in girls and none of us had the slightest idea what our futures might be, or even if we were going to have one, but Ralph was into stuffing animals full time.

In tears Mr. Fleish held out his dog to Ralph ... "Look what that woman went and done," he sobbed. "She says he jumped. Dogs don't jump. Cats jump ... he ... he was pushed. Ralphie, make him look like he was. You remember little Turnip, dontcha?"

We were all standing in the background, but we could catch the conversation word for word and I remember Ralph saying he would stuff Turnip so he'd be a dead ringer for the way he used to look. But that was the whole thing, he told Mr. Fleish ... he'd be a dead ringer.

"I can keep him in the store with me. I'll stand him on the counter by the cash register ... people can pet him when they buy their fruits and vegetables.”

"Whatever, Mr. Fleish," Ralph said. "It'll take a month though ... he'll have to be cured first."

"He's dead Ralphie, how can he be cured?"

"It's a term we use in the trade, Mr. Fleish." Ralph took the dog from him and looked away ... and tentatively cleared his throat. “ ... and Mr. Fleish ... there’s a few things.”

“I don’t think I wanna know everything Ralphie.”

“It’s about where you’re gonna keep him ...”

“... on the counter, so people can can give him a pet on the head.”

“No, Mr. Fleish.” Ralph shook his head slowly and with a finality that belied his fifteen years. Looking back on it now I can see what was in the back of Ralph’s mind. No petting on the head. Life is a one way street and when it’s over it’s over. You have to change the routine. You can’t go back. You have to start with a new deck.

“He won’t put up with pettin’, Mr. Fleish. There’ll be parts of him that ain’t his ... and they fall off easy. You’ll have to keep him in a glass case.”

“Like a goldfish, You mean?”

“Yeah Mr. Fleish. Somethin’ like a goldfish without the water.”

Rudy reached out and rook the dog back in his arms. “Give him back, Ralphie. That ain’t the way I want him back.”

Mr. Fleish took Turnip back to the vet and had him cremated. The urn, no bigger than a can of Campbell’s soup, stood on a shelf behind the cash register on his grocery store, and as long as I can remember, he’d give the can a pet or two from time to time.

©Harry Buschman 2010

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