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The Watchful Mr. Pott.

Mr. Pott, who liked to joke that he was "round as a pot," which he was, lived on the top floor of the modest, whitewashed, two-story, balloon-frame house owned by his landlady, Mrs. Ogilvy, who occupied the lower floor.

Another favorite joke of his was "a watched Pott never boils," and for a long time Mr. Pott said it at every opportunity. All who met him agreed that Mr. Pott never "boiled"--that is, he never became agitated or angry.

Everything changed one night when Mr. Pott was cooking a little dinner for two for Mrs. Ogilvy and himself, as he often did. He enjoyed rummaging around in Mrs. Ogilvy's pantry and rustling something up from whatever groceries she happened to have on hand. In this matter Mrs. Ogilvy was unpredictable.

Mr. Pott was making something vaguely "Asian" with ground chicken. He had a nearly full bottle of Chinese five-spice powder that was over a year old. This he had purchased personally. The idea had been to put it on a goose to roast for Christmas, more than one whole Christmas ago.

Mr. Pott, at the time, had never cooked a goose. He had never even sampled one. His first mistake was stuffing lemons, garlic, and satsumas into the wrong end. He was thinking how difficult it was to stuff a goose when he realized to his horror that he was pushing everything down the poor thing's neck hole. He could not recall feeling more disgusted with himself. Putting things in the other end was easier, but suddenly that didn't seem like so much fun either.

The famously luscious goose fat mysteriously got lost somewhere in the unknown crannies of the roasting pan and Mr. Pott had difficulty finding enough to baste with. The fat slid through a hole in the tin foil covering the rack on which the bird was resting, and Mr. Pott was unaware of the fat's existence until it was too late. The bird turned out dry and rubbery and flavorless, and Mr. Pott felt positively criminal for his part in robbing it of life.

It still troubled him after all this time, and he reflected on it once again as he stared into Mrs. Ogilvy's Dutch oven--a model made in the 1950s from something the manufacturer called Magnalite--waiting for the water to boil so he could drop in the noodles. He stood there regretting the poor old goose of Christmas past for so long that he actually saw the water starting to boil, despite the wisdom of the old saying.

"The watchful Mr. Pott," he said, quietly. Just saying it radically altered his perception of himself. He was the cook and he was the pot. He was the water and the noodles and the poor dead goose who had died in vain. It wasn't a joke he would share with friends. It wasn't a joke at all. It was a private transformation. He thought maybe he was one of the thirty-six just men of Jewish lore who kept the world from falling apart, though he wasn't Jewish.

Mrs. Ogilvy and Mr. Pott had their peace and quiet interrupted when someone bought the rundown shack behind them and started turning it into Versailles. The new owners put in a reflecting pool and an ornate iron fence and a rock garden and stone lions. The house got a fresh coat of paint, which was nice. Old pipes and things were hauled out and new things were hauled in. Mrs. Ogilvy and Mr. Pott watched it all happen with good humor. But then the new neighbors, whoever they were, went into a frenzy. They tore down everything they had gone to such considerable effort and expense to construct, every ornament and addition. They ripped up the yard in the ugliest way. Heavy machinery was going day and night. The neighbors acquired two slavering hounds to guard their vulnerable property. The dogs barked and howled incessantly at nothing. Maybe these changeable neighbors had big new ideas about everything, about life. The alterations became monstrous and drastic. Mr. Pott said they were trying to build the Masonic pyramid featured on the back of the dollar bill. Worst of all, he might have to buy curtains, which made him feel claustrophobic. He liked looking down at the neighborhood from his free and unencumbered bedroom window. Now that the new neighbors seemed to be adding another floor, someone might be looking in his window all the time. Even now he would peer out on certain nights and see a fat old woman walking around the roof of the neighbor's house with a hurricane lamp. Certainly she wasn't a construction worker. Certainly it wasn't legal or right or safe for her to walk around on a roof at night, even if she owned the place. He was sorry he thought of her as a fat old woman. He was a fat old man!

The goings-on made for lively discussions. Mr. Pott came in from his nightly stroll and woke Mrs. Ogilvy--who was dozing with her knitting needles in her lap--by saying, "Walking past the neighbor's, I saw a glowing orange thing in the yard. What is it?"

"A glowing orange thing?" said Mrs. Ogilvy.

"A glowing orange thing!"

"I haven't the foggiest!"

"It was between two sawhorses."

"The Good Lord Himself knows what it is!" said Mrs. Ogilvy.

Mr. Pott went up to bed. It was nice to have some excitement in the house.

On one dramatic occasion a bulldozer or steam shovel kicked up a considerable cloud of dust, which landed all over the kudzu in Mrs. Ogilvy's backyard. As Mr. Pott knew from his reading, kudzu was a pernicious and parasitic vine capable of engulfing entire civilizations, but Mrs. Ogilvy liked it and he respected her preferences.

Mrs. Ogilvy expressed an opinion that the neighbors, taking the usual exception to her kudzu, had sprayed a deadly toxin all over it.

"I think it's just red dirt."

"Oh. If you say so, Mr. Pott. It's still awful, isn't it?"

"It'll wash off when it rains."

"Yes, next time it rains. If that happens."

"Oh, Mrs. Ogilvy, it is going to rain again one day, I'm pretty sure," said Mr. Pott. "Now you just take my word for it."

Several days later, Mr. Pott was forced to admit that the red dirt still hadn't been washed off the leaves.

"Well, it hasn't rained," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

"It rained that same day, in fact. I recall it distinctly because you said it was never going to rain again, and then it did, immediately."

"There hasn't been a monsoon, which I'm afraid is what it's going to take," said Mrs. Ogilvy. "I don't know what I should do. Get out there and sweep it with a broom?"

"No!" said Mr. Pott. "Oh, Mrs. Ogilvy, it would be a disgrace to see you so ill-used."

These new people were standoffish and neither Mr. Pott nor Mrs. Ogilvy ever really drew ahead on them. They deduced as best they could that the fat old woman had given the house as a present to her attractive young daughter, who seemed to enjoy a number of gentleman callers. Her behavior was quite aboveboard, if a little on the rowdy side.

Mr. Pott came in from an evening stroll with a tantalizing tidbit: while the most invasive of the construction was taking place, the young woman had taken up residence in a sunshiny yellow cottage on the same street behind them. How many houses did she have? What a lucky young woman. He had spied her on the porch, swinging idly on the swing in her fetching shift and bare feet, sharing cans of beer with a couple of her beaux. Mr. Pott quipped fancifully that there was probably an underground tunnel connecting the two homes, and Mrs. Ogilvy appreciated the whimsy. She wouldn't put anything past these unusual neighbors!

It took forever but the house went up and all the workmen trickled away and things were quiet again, except for the large and inconsolable dogs. But just as Mr. Pott had feared, he was obliged to buy curtains, for now his bedroom looked directly into the young woman's own spacious and airy boudoir, and the last thing he wished to be called was a gruesome old pervert.

Mrs. Ogilvy was an early riser. It couldn't have been much past dawn when she wakened Mr. Pott--and not for the last time--to tell him one of the neighbor's dogs had gotten loose. She had seen it chasing a stray kitten into the kudzu patch. Could Mr. Pott do something?

Mr. Pott pulled on his pants and went outside and found a big, mossy stick on the ground. He picked it up, per Teddy Roosevelt's advice, knowing full well that he had no idea what to do with a big, mossy stick. He walked past the iron gate of the neighbor's house and the second dog rushed at the bars, hot foam and unearthly noise rushing past its hared fangs. It made Mr. Pott jump. This one, the one still caged, was the scarier of the two giant dogs. It looked like a nineteenth-century fur trapper on all fours, something unnervingly human about its face.

When he turned the corner he saw the other big dog padding nonchalantly toward a fairly busy intersection.

Mr. Pott knocked on the neighbor's front door. Then he knocked on the door of her spare cottage down the street, though he believed it had been a while since she had occupied it. There was no answer at either address.

Mr. Pott was at a loss. He had lost sight of the dog and here came a determined elderly person in a purple tracksuit. She wasn't jogging, she was ... Mr. Pott couldn't remember what they called it. Power walking? Her little fists were balled up and her little arms pumped up and down. She looked startled when he approached her. How bedraggled he must have appeared, and grasping a threatening branch.

"Just be on the lookout, there's a large dog loose," he said. "I don't know its temperament."

"Thanks for letting me know," she said without stopping.

Mr. Pott fretted. Had he done enough to save her life?

When he returned home he was astonished to find the creature on the back porch, licking the hand of a delighted Mrs. Ogilvy.

"This is a sweet fellow after all," she said. "I tried to put him back in, but there's a numbered lock on the gate and I don't know the combination."

"I'm glad the other one didn't get out," said Mr. Pott. "This one is more like a dog." It was a very pleasing color, almost red.

The dog moved toward him and Mr. Pott turned away. He didn't want to give it any ideas.

"There's a number to call on his collar," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

Mr. Pott tried the number and there was no answer. The dog took off again. Thinking of the woman in the tracksuit--on its hind legs this animal would dwarf her!--Mr. Pott decided they needed to call the police.

"I'm afraid a policeman will shoot the dog," said Mrs. Ogilvy. "Just because he's a policeman, he thinks he can shoot whatever he wants."

But the policeman was helpful: a sandy-haired, clean-cut, fresh-faced, decent-seeming recruit, who didn't know what to do with the dog. He confirmed through trial and error that it was a friendly dog, which Mr. Pott and Mrs. Ogilvy already knew. Everything he suggested, Mr. Pott and Mrs. Ogilvy had already tried.

Mrs. Ogilvy had a flash of inspiration. Drawing on her close observation of the neighborhood at all hours from her various windows and porches, she recalled seeing on more than one occasion a bantam rooster of a man prance by with a big, black dog of his own. He would often stop at the gate to talk to the young woman or her mother, and Mrs. Ogilvy got the impression that their dogs may have come from the same litter, or at least had attended the same obedience school. In any case, there seemed to he some familiarity between the dogs. This spindly-legged but powerful and angry-looking small bald man was a certain kind of serious dog owner, if Mrs. Ogilvy knew people, and he might know what to do with a big, loose dog. He lived on the next street over. Mrs. Ogilvy would show the officer precisely where.

Mr. Pott went inside to watch the happenings from safety. Mrs. Ogilvy and the policeman returned on foot, shortly followed by the prematurely bald man in his pickup truck. In the bed of the pickup truck was yet another dog, the black dog of which Mrs. Ogilvy had spoken, equally dangerous in appearance to its canine acquaintances or kin. Mr. Pott could just imagine that dog bounding out and joining the fray. All heck would break loose. He couldn't watch. He went to the kitchen and put some fresh coffee on.

Presently, Mrs. Ogilvy came inside and told him that everything was settled and fine as wine. The policeman and the scowling bald man had disappeared around the side of the neighbor's house, and, as she had hoped, he must have known the combination to the lock or some secret trick for dealing with dogs, because the sweetie was back in the yard with his fearsome brother.

"Quite an adventure," said Mr. Pott. "And before eight in the morning."

Not too many days later the situation repeated itself and Mr. Pott was once more wakened before six because the same dog had escaped and was scaring the birds and the squirrels and the cats and possibly even the butterflies, all the animals that Mrs. Ogilvy so enjoyed seeing going about their daily routines unmolested. In this aspect she resembled her late husband the bird watcher, though they had never seen eye to eye on cats. Was this to be the warp and woof of Mr. Pott's new life, just when he thought he had reached its final, blessedly inactive stages?

Again he was sent off by Mrs. Ogilvy to try to get these mysterious neighbors to answer at least one of their doors. Again he was affrighted, though he should have expected the sudden wild clamor by the grisly, cross-eyed, frantically captive wolfhound with the human face.

There were a lot of beer cans on the porch of the secondary cottage, but did that mean anything? No one was roused when he rapped on the dark glass. Mr. Pott really felt like Sherlock Holmes. "The Watchful Mr. Pott," he said to himself as if it were the title of a series of mystery paperbacks you could buy at the drugstore. He should have been Asian, he thought. He looked at a white rocking chair and noted that there was a layer of dust on most of it, with a clear outline proving that something in the shape of human buttocks had removed a quantity of the dust--and recently, he would say. The armrests were likewise partially cleansed by the recent presence of arms. He picked up a warm beer can and shook it. There was a little left. "The Watchful Mr. Pott and the Case of the Restless Rocker," said Mr Pott.

No one answered the door of the more magnificent edifice, either.

The dog was there licking Mrs. Ogilvy's hand again, and somehow neither she nor Mr. Pott wanted to call the police a second time. They didn't want to become nuisances. Neither of them wanted to be those old people who call the police for no good reason. "You go up the street there and get that pugnacious bald man," said Mrs. Ogilvy. "He knows what to do."

"It's not even six in the morning, Mrs. Ogilvy. I don't know him. I don't know which house is his. Did you try calling that number on the collar again?"

"I tried and tried," said Mrs. Ogilvy. She told him where the bald man lived.

It was the rare occasion when Mr. Pott felt a little put out by Mrs. Ogilvy. But he didn't have a better idea. And her legs weren't too steady these days. He shouldn't have let her walk up there the first time, not even with a police escort.

So he started what seemed like a very long walk to the bald man's house. At one point he got the heebie-jeebies and felt nervous that the dog might be following him, but when he turned around, it was just Mrs. Ogilvy, way back, watching him from smack-dab in the middle of the street, a good place to get run over. Why? Didn't she trust him? He realized to his dismay that he had absentmindedly gone out in his long, old-fashioned nightshirt and traditional nightcap and slippers.

As he was walking up the hill on which the man's house was perched, the sprinklers came on and drenched Mr. Pott in his sleepwear. He heard laughter echoing in the empty street and turned to see Mrs. Ogilvy having the best time, and now the very tame escaped dog was with her. What a pair they made.

He knocked on the door and heard some bumping around. He looked through the window and there was the bald man, hurtling out of a doorway, stumbling over his own feet as he tried to pull up some underpants to cover his nakedness. At last he opened the door and snarled at Mr. Pott through the latched screen.

"I'm sorry to bother you," said Mr. Pott. "I wanted to let you know your friend's dog is out again."

"So what? It's a dog. If it gets hit by a car it's on them. Shit! Leave me alone." And with that he slammed the door.

Mr. Pott intended to leave him alone forever. It had been his good fortune never before to have been addressed in such a fashion. "He hides there in his house like a short, powerful ogre," said Mr. Pott to himself. "He could put my lights out." Mr. Pott practically rolled down the wet, green lawn, round as he was, and walked back home as quickly as his stubby legs could carry him, thinking about how the mean little crabapple had probably grown up from childhood having to defend himself with his fists to show the bullies that a puny squirt like him could take care of himself. Had Mr. Pott made an enemy? He had gone his whole life without one. When would the changes stop? Only with death, he supposed, if then.

Mrs. Ogilvy was still standing in the street with the dog, and when he reached her, Mr. Pott relayed unto her all that had transpired.

"I can't believe anyone would find this man charming and compassionate," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

And Mr. Pott replied, "Does anyone find him charming and compassionate? You're not telling me he has a ... lady friend, are you?"

"He has a wife and children!" came Mrs. Ogilvy's startling reply. "They live with him in that very house!"

Perhaps unfairly, Mr. Pott imagined two cherubic children playing quietly with paper dolls and their nervous wreck of a mother telling them, "Remember, no noise now! You know Daddy can't tolerate noise when he reads his evening paper."

"We thought he was their friend and knew the code to their gate!" said Mr. Pott. "Otherwise we wouldn't have bothered him."

"But it was funny when you walked through the sprinklers," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

"Mrs. Ogilvy, that dog owner is home. All the evidence suggests it. We're going to get to the bottom of this."

Mrs. Ogilvy stayed on the back porch with the dog. She sat in a chair she had brought out from the kitchen and he napped at her feet. Mr. Pott asked for the loan of the late Mr. Ogilvy's field glasses. He went up to his bedroom and threw back the curtains and peeped through the young woman's bedroom window without compunction. There she was, sprawled out on her king-sized bed, one long, bare, milky leg extended from under a downy white comforter. Mr. Pott recalled seeing his first more carefully cultivated pudendum circa the mid-1980s. It had looked like an airplane landing strip and he thought of it thereafter with a hint of melancholy longing every time he cut the grass. This young woman seemed to take similar pains with her intimate grooming, maybe everyone did now, he really had no way of knowing.

Mr. Pott stormed back down to the porch, the cordless telephone raised defiantly in his chubby hand.

"Keep calling, Mrs. Ogilvy! Keep calling the number on the dog collar. Don't let up."

They walked around to the front door of the castle where the young woman lay sleeping or incapacitated by beer. The dog came with them. Following Mr. Pott's suggestion, Mrs. Ogilvy hung up each time she was sent to voicemail and immediately phoned again. At the same time, Mr. Pott was unrelenting in his pressing of the doorbell.

Their combined assault worked. At last she came down, wearing just a man's shirt, and she was very sweet and grateful, despite her Marie Antoinette tendencies. There were charming creases on her face from where it had been pressed against her counterpane.

Her dog was overjoyed to see her. She took him to her side and explained the loophole the highly intelligent dog had cleverly discovered as a means of escape.

Well, don't explain it, fix it, thought Mr. Pott. But he also appreciated that she wasn't mean and grouchy, unlike some other people he had met around six that same morning.

"I heard you've taken care of him before," said the young woman. "Thank you so much. Listen, I'll give you the code to the gate in case he gets out again. Do you have something to write it down with?"

"I'll remember it," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

She gave Mrs. Ogilvy the code and thanked them again and took the dog inside.

"So the nice dog is smart enough to escape and the killer dog with the human face is too dumb to follow him out. There seems to be some comfort in that, some unearned grace, some inkling of order in the world."

"Be quiet, Mr. Pott, I'm trying to remember the code."

Mr. Pott sat and drank coffee while Mrs. Ogilvy wrote the code on the back of an envelope and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet shaped like a banana.

"Somehow you've become responsible for everything," said Mr. Pott, shaking his head. "And this, we must sadly conclude, is your reward for being a good person."

"It's enough," said Mrs. Ogilvy.

ILLUSTRATION BY CALUM HEATH
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Article Details
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Author:Pendarvis, Jack
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2019
Words:4301
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