Only Friend by Joseph Chevalier

When she opened the front door of the townhouse Mark smiled and then leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek, stealing a glance at her eyes as he did. They were clear today, not red rimmed or glassy. That was a good sign.

“Hey good lookin’. How’re you feeling today?”

“Oh, I’m hanging in there. How was your night, dear?” She smiled back at him, the dentures that lined the top of her mouth many shades whiter than the yellowed teeth on the bottom.

“It wasn’t bad.”

“What’d you do?”

“Just hung out with some friends.”

“Was it John and Greg?”

“No. Some other people.”

“Oh yeah? What’d you all do?”

“Oh, we just kinda’ hung out and watched some TV.” He rolled his eyes, playing it up. “Big Friday night, huh?”

She laughed as if this were funnier than it was and turned and led the way into her little kitchen just to the right of the front door; he followed behind her, scanning the countertops and the cluttered kitchen table for a wine glass or a tumbler. He didn’t see anything but he knew that she'd sometimes stash her drink behind the toaster or the breadbox when she saw him coming up the walk. It was only noon, but that didn’t matter: he’d found her drinking earlier than this before, strong Mimosas or sometimes white wine.

She took her usual seat at the table and lit one of her long and skinny cigarettes and then turned the volume down on the little television that sat on a stool by the window across the room. This meant that she wanted to chat for a bit.

“So, listen. You know my cleaning lady that I’ve told you about? Martina?”

“Umm, yeah. The new one?”

“Yep. Well. You remember how I was saying how I couldn’t find those watches that belonged to my grandmommy? The gold ones?”

Oh God you’re kidding me. “You don’t think she took them, do you?”

“Well, I don’t know, Marky. I just don’t know. I think I would remember if I moved them anywhere, you know? I’d remember something like that. I’m sure I would.”

You probably don’t even remember what they look like. “Maybe you just misplaced them. She wouldn’t want to risk her job by stealing stuff from her clients, would she?”

“Well, Marky, I tell ya, those watches belonged to my grandmommy, then she gave them to my mother and then my mother gave them to me. And my mother, she just adored those watches. Just adored them. And I asked the cleaning lady, Martina, I asked her do you know where these watches are? And she doesn’t speak much English, you know, I’m not sure where she’s from, but she can only speak English a little bit, and all she said was, you know, no no no, I don’t know, I don’t know, I no take, I no take, you know? But I tell ya’ Mark, somethin’ just wasn’t quite right about all of it. I could tell just from the look on her face that something wasn’t right.”

“Mrs. Sloan…I don’t know. I really don’t think that she would just walk into your room and just start stealing stuff from you.”

He tried to keep any hint of agitation out of his voice.

“I don’t know, Mark. They didn’t just…they didn’t just walk away. I think…I think I might have to call somebody about this.”

“Oh, no, you don’t want to do that, do you?” He let a small mirthless laugh. “I don’t think you want to go and do that. Not unless, you know, you’re sure. And you’re not sure. You probably just misplaced them.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have misplaced these. They were my mothers, and some of them, were, you know, pretty valuable, you know?”

“Yeah. I don’t know. Just think about it before you go calling anybody, okay? Can I have a water?”

“Course you can, dear.”

He walked over to the refrigerator and opened it. The case of bottled water was on the bottom shelf. It was the only space in the fridge that wasn’t overflowing with condiments and deli meat and jars of preserves and pickles. Cans of soda, leftovers in tupperware containers, a loaf of bread with little spots of green mold. God knew what else. He knew that half of the stuff in there had expired. She had bought enough food for a whole family even though he never saw her eat.

He pulled a water out of the case and shut the fridge. “Where’s Smitty?”

“He’s in the backyard, dear. Come sit down. Have a cigarette with me.”

“Oh, no thanks. I’m kind of trying to quit. And I’m sort of in a rush, I’ve got to get back to work by two.”

“Oh, okay.” She finished her cigarette, snubbed it out in the ashtray in front of her and then pulled another out of the crinkled package. She paused for a moment, idly twirling the unlit cigarette and staring blankly at the table. “Did I tell you I have another doctor’s appointment later today?”

“Jeez, how many can you have in one month?”

“Well, the doctor says that he thinks they’re close to finding out exactly what’s going on. They aren’t quite there yet but he thinks they’re getting close.” She nodded. “They’re getting close.”

Sure they are. Just like last time. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be able to get to the bottom of all of this soon. ‘Til then just don’t worry yourself too much, okay?”

She ran a hand through her yellowish-gray hair and shrugged. “Ya’ know, you’d think they’d be able to tell me something by now, right? But every time I go in they tell me it’s the last time, and then the next day I get a call tellin’ me to just, to just…come on back in for some other danged thing. To test for this or that and some other thing, ya’ know?”

“Well, just keep at it. They’re doing all they can, right?”

“I just wish they could tell me what’s going on, ya know?” She swallowed. “They still don’t know what this lump I have is.”

She looked at him, her eyes glassy with tears now. He could see her gauging his reaction. It was sympathy she wanted, he knew, but he had none to give. That had run out a long time ago, along with his patience for her, for this.

He held his hands out and shrugged. “Just keep doing all you can. It’s all you can do. I’ve gotta go, though. I’m sorry. I’ve gotta get to work. I’m going to go walk Smitty, but when I get back there’s something I have to talk to you about. Are you gonna be okay?”

“Sure, honey, you go ahead. What do you need to talk about?”

“It…I’ll tell you when I get back. I’ll see you in a little bit…” He turned and walked out of the kitchen before she could start talking again.

The backyard wasn’t a yard really, just a hundred square feet of redbrick patio surrounded by a wooden fence. There was a small and neglected coy pond in one corner. It was actually just a pond now, really. The coy were long dead. A couple of metal patio chairs sat in front of the pond, and between them a small table with an empty wine bottle and an overflowing ashtray sitting on top of it.

Mr. Smitty turned to look at him when he heard the screen door slide open and shut, but otherwise didn’t move. He just stayed where he was on the opposite side of the patio and stared at Mark, his tail slowly curling up between his legs as if Mark were a total stranger, untrustworthy and possibly dangerous.

He was some sort of strange mixed breed. The shape of his head and ears made it clear he was part beagle, but the other parts were anyone’s guess. Whatever his background may have been the end result was an incredibly ugly dog. His eyes bulged too far out of their sockets, his legs were too short for his body, and he was so fat that he didn’t seem to have a neck. His tiny little head just seemed to sprout directly out of his tubby brown hulk of a torso.

To the left of the door there was a green plastic storage trunk. Mark undid the latches, opened it and produced a dog leash. Then he stepped gingerly across the patio, careful to avoid all the piles of dogshit underfoot. As he neared Smitty the dog’s tail curled up even tighter and his body slunk closer to the ground, but he allowed Mark to attach the leash to his collar and lead him out of the gate.

Out in back of the row of townhouses there was an open lot, mostly dirt with some grass around the edges. In the center there was a mulched area with a jungle gym and a swing set. Just past the playground there was a path that led down to a creek where Mark took the dog every day.

One of Mrs. Sloan’s neighbors appeared, pushing her toddler in one of the swings; other than that the lot was deserted, it was an old neighborhood and there weren’t many children living around.

When the neighbor saw Mark walking across the lot she smiled and gave him a wave. “How are you doing!” Her name was Mary. She and her husband Dave lived a few units up from Mrs. Sloan. They were one of the few young couples in the neighborhood, both were in their late twenties, just a few years older than Mark. Over the past two years he would run into them as he was walking the dog, and their casual pleasantries had evolved into small talk and eventually into friendly conversation. Mark was shy but he had always found Mary and Dave easy to talk to. They both were so outgoing and nice that he found them impossible not to like. Over the past few months they had even started having him watch their kids for them, from time to time when they would went out to dinner or to parties.

Mark returned her wave. “Pretty good. How ‘bout you?”

“Not bad. Still job hunting?”

“Um, I just got hired, actually. I’m working for up at Bryson Community College now, I do computer stuff for the campus. Just got hired a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, cool! That’s fantastic! I remember you talking about how hard you’ve been looking. I knew it would just be a matter of time.” She continued pushing as she spoke, the child staring ahead impassively as the swing rocked back and forth. If the kid was enjoying himself he wasn’t showing it. “You like it?”

“So far, yeah. Actually, it’s great, really. Everyone there is really cool and I like all my bosses and the work I do is something I know a lot about so it’s pretty easy and…yeah. I like it a lot.”

“That’s great! I’m so happy for you! Are you going to still have time to walk Smitty?” She pointed at the dog, who had taken advantage of the break to flop down in the dirt and lick his front paws.

Mark paused. “Well, I don’t know. I mean…it’s not really all that convenient for me to get over here everyday anymore. Actually it’s pretty inconvenient. I might talk to her about it today.”

“I don’t know how you’ve put up with her for this long, already.” As Mary carried on she kept at pushing, the child staring about him blankly as the swing rocked back and forth. If the kid was enjoying himself he wasn’t showing it. “She’s not my favorite person.”

If you only knew. “Yeah. I hear that a lot.”

“Do you know what she did the other night?” Mary lowered her voice as if anyone else was listening.


“Me and Dave were out here with the boys and she came out to throw her trash away, and she told Dave that he 'had to be more careful about where he throws his beer bottles'. Dave doesn't even drink beer, he only drinks wine or, you know, sometimes like whisky or whatever, but he hates beer. And when he tried to tell her that, you know, that it wasn’t him, she just flips out! Just starts cursing and threatening to call the police and this and that, and all of this is in front of Tommy and Brian! Like, they're three and four years old! She was dropping f-bombs! Right in front of them! And Dave was telling her to watch her mouth and, you know, to calm down, but she was just all screw you and calling him a liar and this and that and just…just making this huge, huge scene. She was just obviously drunk, she was like, swaying, and just not making any sense at all and oh my gosh it was just…it was just ridiculous. Unbelievable.”

“Yeah, you’re not the first person to tell me a story like that,” Mark said, thinking about the time three months before when some of the other neighbors that lived a few houses down from Mrs. Sloan had told him that she had called their twelve-year-old ‘a little wetback’ when he rode his bike through her front yard.

Mary stopped pushing the swing and plucked her kid out of the seat and placed him on the ground, where he sat down and busied himself making handprints in the dirt. “Has she ever acted like that with you?”

“No, she's never gotten like crazy mad or anything at me in person, like not to my face, but sometimes she'll call me randomly at night and she'll be hammered and just start yelling at me for whatever reason she can come up with. That I’m ungrateful, that I didn’t walk the dog long enough, that she pays me too much. It’s only when she’s wasted, though.”

“Oh my gosh, how do you put up with it? I mean I was just blown away. It’s just this little old lady screaming… screaming... at my husband. Over nothing! I mean I’ve heard stories about her but this is the first time I’ve actually witnessed it. It was insane!”

Mark was nodding. “When she drinks she just sits and gets bored and angry and she just goes looking for an outlet for it I guess. I used to feel bad for her but that was a while ago. Now I'm just tired of it. She can’t treat people the way she does just because she’s lonely, you know?”

“Oh my gosh, I know, I mean, I feel bad for her sometimes, you know, that she’s sick and how it’s just her living over there all by herself, you know, and that her husband died a few years ago, but that’s no excuse to come out and make a huge

“She doesn’t have cancer. She’s not sick.”

“Beg pardon?”

“She doesn’t have cancer. She’s not sick at all. That’s just something she makes up.”

“Are you serious?”


“How… I mean… how do you know? Did she tell you?”

“No. But she doesn’t have cancer. I’ve walked this dog,” he pointed down at Smitty, “for her for two years now. A little more than two years, actually. Since then she’s had cancer about fifteen times. She pretends to have it when she’s feeling really down, when it’s been a particularly bad month or whatever. It’s crazy, I know, but she just wants the attention and that’s how she decides to get it.”

She was gaping at him. “That’s pretty awful. Dave’s mom died of breast cancer last year. It’s not something someone should just make up for attention. That isn’t right.”

“Yeah. I don’t know. Usually she only ‘gets cancer’ when she’s really hammered. But sometimes she’ll play it up for a week or two before she forgets about it. She’s been doing that again lately for the past week or so. Like just now she was telling me she’s going to the doctor for more tests later today.” He shrugged.

“Oh my gosh, that’s crazy! You are such a nice guy for putting up with that. I mean that isn’t really fair to you, is it? I mean, it’s not your place to... it’s not your job to…I mean, you’re not her family. She has no right to put that kind of nonsense on you, Mark.”

“I know. I know. She just doesn’t really have anyone else. I mean I’m more or less her only friend. Her husband died a few years ago

“I know that's so sad.”

and now she’s basically alone. Her relatives are all dead. The only people who call her now are her stepsons and they just want money from her.” He paused. “Don’t tell anyone I told you all of this, though.”

“Oh don’t worry. I’ll keep it between me and you, I promise. But you should really think about quitting, Mark. Seriously. I mean, you can only do so much for someone. Especially if you’re not getting anything back from it, you know?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I know. I’ll see you around.” He waved at the child, then tugged on the leash and turned around and walked across the open lot to where the bike path began.

When he returned to the townhouse she was still sitting where he had left her, a coupon magazine open on the table in front of her, a news channel muted on the little television.

“Was he a good boy for ya?” She grinned at him and pulled a cigarette from the half-empty pack.

“Oh, sure. Just like always.” He undid the leash and Smitty trotted happily over to his mistress, wagging his tail and nuzzling her legs.

She rubbed the back of the dogs neck affectionately. “He go to the bathroom?”


“You pick it up?”


“Good. Refresh my memory dear, is today payday?”

“Sure is.” He had planned it this way. A clean break.

“Let me get my checkbook.” Her purse was on the table. As she rooted around in it he almost said it, almost blurted out the speech he had been reciting and perfecting in his head every day for the past three weeks. Mrs. Smith, you know I've been talking about not really having much time on my hands anymore what with my new job and the move and everything. You know I love you and Smitty but it's just really hard for me to make it over here every day and I think I’m just going to have to call it quits. Of course I'll still visit but I won't be able to walk him anymore for you, at least not every day. I'm really sorry but I just don't have the time anymore. Do you understand?

“So when are you going to the doctors tomorrow?”

“Oh probably around nine or so. We have to be there at ten-thirty and you know how Beltway traffic is around that time so we're leaving early just to be safe.”


“Okay, here you go.” She ripped off the check and handed it to him. As he reached for it she grabbed his wrist and held it, her tiny fingers ice cold. “You know I really appreciate how much you do for me, Mark. I really do. I don’t know what I’d do without you sweetheart. Me and Smitty.”

He looked her in the eyes and saw the genuine need that was in them and said “Yeah. I know. It’s no problem at all. You know that.” He patted her hand gently and pocketed the check.

“Thank you, dear. Do you want some cookies before you leave?”

“Umm... I'm good.”

“Okay sweetheart. How's Mom and Dad?”

“They're good. Hangin' in there. Mom's still nannying for that couple that moved in down the street from them a while back.”

“Oh that's so sweet. And how about Katie?”

“She's doing okay I think. I don't really talk to her as often as I'd like, but she's like me, she's not really a phone talker.”

“Right. So, I'll see you tomorrow?”

“Um... yeah. Yeah. I'll be here around the same time probably.”

“Okay dear. Love you. Have a nice night at work.”

“Yup. Love you too. Bye.”

He turned and walked out of the kitchen and out of the front door and down the red brick steps to his car. One more day. One more day and that's it.

Joseph Chevalier lives in Northern Virginia. He also occasionally contributes to RVAMAG.