By Ken Luber
Idyllwild author

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of several installments of a short story local author Kenneth Luber has written. See prior week Town Criers for the other installments.
Fred’s heavy-lidded eyes were shut. His double chin rested comfortably against the second button of his blue shirt. All I could think of was that his heavy breathing sounded very much like Milton’s raspy snoring and that sometimes, people, especially people with moustaches, don’t want to hear the truth. Which reminds me, Chester and Princess Gabby agree with me that those silly cat videos, all over the Internet, do not represent the feline intellect or our grit. Just hang out with a lost alley cat for a week. 
I waited three weeks before rubbing up against Fred’s leg again, mostly because I had mixed feelings about this. I don’t want to give Milton all the credit, after all, he didn’t build it in the back kitchen door, but, since Fred had the doggie door installed for Milton, I’ve been able to use it, too. After all, it’s a door. There’s no sign saying: “NO CATS ALLOWED.” The great news is that because of the door, I’ve been able to reconnect with Chester and Princess Gabriella on the fake Tudor roof and hear some of the neighborhood buzz. The cats are still afraid of Milton and won’t rendezvous in the yard, which I’ve always considered to be a public animal space. 
“Fred, Fred,” I said, “I know this isn’t the most convenient time to approach you about Milton, but I think you should know something about Floppy Ears. Put down the lemon squeezer.” 
Of course, Fred didn’t. He loves dribbling lemon juice over his fried zucchini, but I knew he was listening. “Milton is hiding things,” I said. “Big and small things. I don’t think he knows the difference.” Finally, Fred looked over to me with a smile, his white mustache curling up at the edge of his lips and his blue eyes still sparkling, even after so many months of crying over the passing of his wife, Miss Betty. “Haven’t you even noticed you’re missing a house slipper? It’s stuck in the snowy rose bush in the backyard. And, take a look and see if you can find the hot pad with the stitched windmill on it that you and Miss Betty brought back from your trip to Europe. How could you forget? Of course, I didn’t go. You had me quartered at your sister’s house with that vicious cat Kaiser all the time you were on a deluxe vacation. Still the hot pad meant something to me just because Miss Betty used it all the time, including when she fried up that zucchini you like so much. And where is the hot pad now?” 
Fred blinked. “Where is the hot pad now?” He followed me straight out of the house, across the foot high snow into the tool shed. I poked my nose at the bottom of a rusty rake. Fred smiled, reached down and pulled out the chewed-up hot pad. 
“I know what you’re going to say,” I quickly jumped in. “‘Milton had no idea of its sentimental value,’ but I’m just sayin,’ it looks like Floppy Ears chewed on it, too.” 

Fred did nothing, absolutely nothing to that dog. No limit on doggie treats. No outside playtime curfew. Nothing. Can you believe it?
“He’s a rescue dog,” That’s all Fred said. “He was beaten and abused by the people he was with, so we’ve got to be very gentle with Milty.”
Okay, I kind of get it. Suffering is something we’ve got to address, especially in the animal world, so I give Fred props for his sensitivity. But I really wish he wouldn’t call him Milty. It sounds cuter than the big horsey dog he really is. I mean, someone’s got to be honest with Mr. Duparlo. That yowling at the door when he goes off to work drives me nuts. And guess what he said when I complained that Floppy Ears chews all his toys. I waited, with cat-like patience until Fred turned off the TV news before he grumbled, “It’s all rubbish.”
“Rubbish” was exactly my point! I seized the moment, leapt on to the arm of his chair, and vented. “I don’t want to be the negative one in this house, but I’ve got to tell you that Milton is shedding hair all over the place.” I gave a quick glance to the Brown Mound of Hound (I sometimes call him that). He was sprawled on the couch, the black knob of his nose resting on a paw. I knew, even though I think he was looking straight at me − sometimes it’s hard to tell because I think he’s cross- eyed - which I definitely think is genetic and not the result of abuse. Anyway, I knew that I could speak about him in his presence because he doesn’t understand cat talk, let alone Cat-English. Fred is always shouting different commands and Floppy Ears just keeps jumping up and down as if he’s trying to catch a stick or a Frisbee. I was very matter-of-fact with Fred. “Dog hair is all over Miss Betty’s favorite wingback chair and I noticed a trail along the bedspread in the guest bedroom. You’re gonna lose Margarita, the cleaning lady, who, must I remind you, has been coming to the house way before I got here and was one of your wife’s favorite people.”
What do you think Fred did when I voiced the hair complaint? He agreed with me. “Dogs shed hair. That’s part of their nature. Even you shed hair.”
I knew he might pull that trick so I was prepared. “Maybe a hair or two when I’m sitting in one place too long, but not bunches of hair you could make a mop out of!”
I saw him look over to Milton and wink. That really tweaked my whiskers. I went straight to the window, jumped up on the sill and watched the sun sink behind the blue and white house where I knew Princess Gabriella was dozing, unperturbed by a chocolate and white dappled hound that looked like he could knock over a hundred-year-old Christmas tree or chew it into granola. I shuddered.
In the next few days, I tried my best to keep in mind that Milton was a rescue dog. I even started calling him Milty in my own head, but that always stopped when he drooled, you know, sort of like whitish clear bubbles running down the side of his mouth. Disgusting. Cats definitely don’t drool. That’s one of our significant pluses and that’s what I told Fred. I came right out, after dinner.
“Cats don’t slobber, Fred. Milty does.”
Fred sort of smiled and tapped his pink finger, still sporting the gold wedding band, against the arm of his chair. I could see he was pleased I was using his perennial name for the hound, but that didn’t seem to change his opinions. I raced mindlessly – very difficult for cats who always have a thought in their head - from one end of the den and back to Fred. I was panting. “Sometime, you’re going to have one of your friends over from the Rotary Club,” I screeched, “and he’s going to slip on drool on the hardwood floor and you’ll have a lawsuit on your hands. You’ll get sued, lose the house and I’ll wind up living in your foam green sedan with you and Floppy Dog. Is that what you want?”
Fred scoffed. “You’re being overly dramatic.”
Maybe I was that night. I had just seen a very pretty calico cat walking down the street by herself. I’m not being “overly dramatic” when I say that her steps reminded me of a dance I’d seen on Fred’s bedroom TV. The flat screen was filled with quick bows and rapid turns. Princes Gaby said I was watching a “tango.” Chester didn’t have an opinion. He never has an opinion about dances. Of course, when Miss Betty was still living, I always slept at the foot of the bed.
I’m not being jealous, either. Maybe there is room for a dog in the house. But not a “Milton” dog. Gabriella was a rescue cat and she told me, as soon as we could get up on the fake Tudor roof and away from Floppy Ears, she told me while we were taking turns licking out an old yogurt carton, that there are small dogs at the shelter as well as big hounds like Milton. My point is that if Fred had brought home a smaller dog, he wouldn’t have had to bring home a bed for Milton that sprawls across the breakfast nook floor like a tugboat. Which reminds me, and this is something I spent a lot of time talking to Fred about: Why does Milton have to spend each night walking around his bed so many times? It’s always in the same place! “What’s he looking for? Why does he need a special bed anyway? Do I have a bed?”
“You have our bed.”
“Yes, when our dear beloved Miss Betty allowed me to sleep on it, but now you close the bedroom door.”
“Because you jump on my head at three o’clock in the morning.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But things scare me deep in the night. The wind pushing branches against the side of the house. Or the way you sometimes leave the closet door half open and I see one of your suits hanging there that looks like a man. Or a car backfiring as it passes the house. Yes, I admit, those things make me jump. But I’m not trying to land on your head! It’s just a mid-air flight adjustment problem I’ve been trying to correct since Christmas.”
Molly & Milty return next week.