A tray of leftover drum sticks, mashed potatoes and a pencil drawing of a nude woman—this is what I find sitting on the hallway rug of the hotel room next to mine. Yesterday, it was roast beef, broccoli and a drawing of two naked women, long limbs entangled, in a state of ecstasy. Before that, a plate of congealed gravy, a sliver of turkey and a drawing of a woman’s torso, no head. My dog gobbles up the leftovers, and I make sure he doesn’t choke on the bones or eat the drawing.
Before my dog finishes, the door whips open and a short, bald man, the top of his head like a glowing flashlight, glares at us. He’s elfish, coming up to my elbow, in his late sixties, black-clad, a youthful aggressive energy, with his hands balled up in fists. “Your dog destroy my drawings.” He has an accent, maybe Italian or Portuguese, I’m not sure because I’m not well traveled. He says, “I put great effort into my work and that animal has no respect.”
When I decide he’s Portuguese, I say my dog has great respect. He hasn’t eaten one drawing. He says my dog is splattering food on his fine art work. I say if he cares that much about his drawings, why leave them on his tray? He says, “I have my reasons.” I say fine, but my dog is behaving as a dog. And he says he’s acting as a man who owns a pencil and a drawing pad.
I take my dog and head down the hallway to the stairs, but the man follows me, still talking loudly, in a language I don’t understand, but I’m pretty sure is Italian. I don’t turn around, but I picture him gesturing wildly, throwing his limbs around, like a human pinwheel, his thick legs scuttling along, and I pick up my pace, my dog sneaking a look at the man, then tucking his tail between his legs. We head down the five flights of stairs and the man’s voice bellows in the stairwell, “Keep your dog away from drawings!”
That night, I hear the man in the room next to mine. When he showers, he sings loudly, a baritone voice that is operatic and lovely. I put my book down, and my dog perks up its ears and sniffs, as if it found something deeply satisfying in the air. Two days go by, and I wait, letting the maid service take away the man’s tray, before I head out.
In the morning, the man leaves his tray of leftovers, quiche, bread, a splash of red wine in the bottom of a glass, and a drawing of a naked woman, and in her arms, she’s holding a dog. When he opens the door this time, I’m holding my dog in my arms.
I’m about to set my dog down, so he can eat the drawing, but there is something I didn’t count on: the man’s face, so sheepish and pitiful. Like the way my dad looked, after growing tired of adding numbers on balance sheets and income statements, his accounting mind weary, my dad would doodle, the strangest, most wonderful things flowing from his pen, a dog with a horse’s body, a field of loaves of bread, a tree full of frogs. When he finished, he’d look around, mortified, as if he’d been caught in the act of something shameful. He always threw away this nonsense, and though I saved a good number of them, I didn’t save my dad, who was an accountant until his last breath.
The bald man says, “You like?” a quiver to his voice.
My dog is squirming in my arms. What right does this man have to draw me and my dog? Besides, the dog is too skinny, in need of a good meal. Then another voice: he has every right—I’m not the one in charge. I think about shame and self denial and stunted lives. Not that I hold the man’s fate in my hands, but he does look pathetic, even miserable.
“Yes,” I say.
He gives me a big squinty smile. “I am new man.”
Russian, I decide. I set my dog down and he gulps down the quiche, and, as an art-respecting dog, he leaves the drawing alone.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her debut novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and was named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle.