This story takes place in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, where a young couple discovers the magic of a homeless street dog.
by Gail L. Winfree
The small hotel stood a block off the main road and was one of the cheapest in Veliko’s old town district. The young couple arrived there late in the evening when a light rain began to fall and cleared the streets of pedestrians. The dark alley to the hotel was lit by two small lamps above the door. There wasn’t much more they could see.
Their room was adequate size and comfortably furnished with a bed, a small sofa and refrigerator, a desk, TV, wardrobe, and bathroom with shower. Helen began unpacking while Blake checked the room’s features to ensure they worked properly. Afterward, they went straight to bed. The flight, then the three-hour bus ride had worn them out. This was their first vacation together since spending their five-day honeymoon in Rome three years ago, and they were determined to enjoy themselves.
They woke early, showered, and began to get ready to go out.
“Do you think I need a jacket?”
“Yes, it’s still a little nippy out,” Blake called back from the second floor room balcony. He looked out across the narrow cobblestone street in front of their hotel toward the row of cafes, restaurants, and shops beginning to open. The crisp morning air smelled clean from the gentle rain that fell most of the night.
“The rain has stopped. Looks like it might be a nice day,” said Blake.
“I didn’t hear you. What did you say?” Helen yelled from the bathroom.
Blake returned inside, looking at his watch. “I said you should take a jacket.” He walked to the bathroom where Helen was teasing her hair. “Are you almost ready? I need some coffee and something to eat.”
“Almost. Are you sure I need a jacket?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Take a jacket.” Blake reached in his breast pocket and pulled out a crumbled pack of Marlboro he had bought at the Sofia Airport a day before. “I’m almost out of cigarettes. Why don’t I go ahead and buy a pack? I can meet you at the café.”
“Blake, you really should quit smoking.”
“Yes, I should quit smoking, quit drinking, quit eating, quit having sex. I should just…”
Helen interrupted. “You don’t have to get so nasty. Remember, we’re on vacation. We promised not to argue. Remember?”
“I’m sorry, Honey. I just need a cigarette, some food, and a cup of coffee,” Blake said. “Listen. Finish getting ready and I’ll meet you at the café across the street. I’ll go ahead and order you a coffee.
“Doesn’t the hotel serve breakfast?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see a restaurant anywhere. But there’s a café right across the street. And some restaurants, too. We can eat somewhere else.”
“We should check if the hotel has breakfast.”
“I’ll go down and ask. Just get ready, OK.”
Outside, Blake lit his last cigarette and tossed the empty pack into a trash container next to the hotel entrance. This was the couple’s first morning in Bulgaria’s old capital of Veliko Tarnovo, and he was anxious to explore the area.
Next to the café Blake had his eyes set on was a kiosk where he bought a pack of Marlboro then walked next door and took a table outside in a spot where the warm Bulgarian sun began to penetrate the morning chill, and the sun on his face felt like stepping into a warm bath.
Blake looked at the pictures on the menu card that was on the table. Everything was written in Bulgarian. He was looking for food.
“Kakvo bikhte iskali?”
He did not notice the waitress who had appeared and stood next to him.
“Oh, hi. Do you speak English?”
“Yes. Would you like to order?”
“Two coffees, please. Do you serve breakfast here?”
“Yes, food. Do you have food?”
“Yes, food. We have toasts. Would you like toasts?”
“What kind of toast do you have?”
“We have ham and cheese toast and cheese toast.”
“OK, then bring us two cheese toasts and two coffees.”
The waitress looked puzzled, but took the order and left.
Helen arrived about the same time as the coffee. Her jeans jacket hung over her travel bag, and Blake picked up the clean scent of her perfume as she sat down. It was early and they were the only customers at the café.
“I ordered you a cheese toast. I believe that’s all they have.”
“That’s OK with me. We can pick up something later. Did you check if the hotel has breakfast?”
“I checked. The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant.”
“Not even a dining area or lounge?”
“No restaurant, no dining area, no lounge, no coffee machine, no nothing.”
Helen ignored Blake’s sarcasm and rummaged through her bag for a small cosmetic bag with a mirror. She was now fully awake, fully engaged, and talked nonstop. Blake—not so much—was immersed in the warm sun and half listened, hearing the words but assigning them no meaning. He could never understand why women talked so much and everything was always a question with them.
She looked in the mirror. “Blake, do I look OK?”
“You’re beautiful, Honey. Just beautiful.”
“You’re only saying that. You don’t mean it.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”
“Blake, why don’t we do this more often?”
“Take vacations. Be together more.”
“You know I can’t with my new job. We’ve been through that already.” Blake said while studying the menu card, thinking of a way out.
“Do you believe this? Look, coffee is only one lev. That’s about fifty cents.
“Remember that one night in Rome when we were looking for a restaurant and found that little place in the piazza in middle of nowhere?” he said.
“You mean the place where they were having the private wedding party?”
“Yeah. We went in and took a table and everybody looked at us real strange. How were we supposed to know it was closed and they were having a private party?”
“It was nice of the waiter to invite us. We ate and drank for…what…three, four hours, and the bill was something like ten dollars. I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”
Helen laughed. “You practically had to carry me back to the hotel.”
“And you were ten pounds heavier. Almost broke my back.” They both roared with laughter.
The waitress looked oddly at them, then showed her first smile, an attempt to join their laughter.
“Your toasts.” She place two plates on the table. The toasts were large—more like flatbread than toast—with slices of tomatoes and cucumbers on the side.
“Are you English?” she asked.
“No, I’m German and my husband’s American,” said Helen. “We’re here on vacation.”
“How do you like our city?”
“We just got here last night. We haven’t had a chance to see much of it, yet,” Blake replied.
“Veliko Tarnovo is beautiful city and very old. We have many English people here…and students. You must see the castle while you here. That’s our…uhh…our spectacle.”
“Yes, we will,” said Blake.
The waitress stood for a moment, studying the couple. “Please. I hope you enjoy your toasts,” she said and left.
They ate the toast with the tomatoes and cucumbers and drank their coffee. Blake was beginning to feel like a human again. When they finished, he lit a cigarette and sprawled back in his chair as though he were lying on the beach.
As he wandered off into la-la land, he heard Helen talking, but not to him. He opened one eye and saw her petting a dog that was standing next to her wagging his tail and panting.
“Hello big boy. Who are you?” Blake watched as Helen talked to the dog.
“Look, Blake. We have a visitor.” She continued to pet and ruffle the dog’s fur around the neck and ears and he responded with faster tail wagging and panting, almost dancing. “You’re a beauty, aren’t you, boy?”
The waitress came out with a bowl of water and set it on the ground under the tree that shaded the front part of the café.
“For the dog,” she said to Blake and Helen.
“Does he have a name?” Helen asked.
“We call him Jacko,” said the waitress. “He live here on the streets. We have many street dogs in Bulgaria.”
“He doesn’t belong to anybody?” Helen said.
“No. He street dog. Many of them here.”
As Jacko lapped up the water, Blake and Helen did not notice an old man walking toward the dog. The man moved slowly, like someone out of shape, just finishing a marathon. From his ragged appearance, he was obviously homeless. He carried five or so old plastic shopping bags. When he approached Jacko, the dog looked up at him like an old friend, and the man took a sandwich from one of his bags and gave it to him. Jacko torn into the sandwich finishing it in three huge bites. The man smiled, gently patted Jacko on the head, and continued down the street.
Helen and Blake watched the man as he stopped every few steps to rest and check his bags, then saw Jacko trotting after him.
“You know, I miss Chester,” Helen said.
“Yes. He was a good dog.”
“Maybe we should consider getting another one.”
“Honey, you know how I feel about that.”
“No. you never tell me. How do you feel?”
Chester was Blake’s dog before he met Helen, and Blake’s closest companion for nearly twelve years. Helen accepted that and grew quite fond of Chester. The couple—Blake and Chester—became a trio after Blake and Helen married.
“The worst thing that ever happened in my life was losing Chester. I don’t want to go through that again. I’ll never be able to replace Chester with another dog.” A lump grew in Blake’s throat. “I loved that dog.”
“You don’t have to replace Chester. I loved him, too, and I miss him. Blake, there are so many dogs who deserve good homes. We could adopt one in Chester’s memory. Don’t you think Chester would like that?”
Blake rubbed his eyes to hold back the tears beginning to form. Then a dog barked and he jerked his head around to the other side of the street. Two street dogs were standing together having a conversation in the middle of the sidewalk while people walked around them. He smiled and leaned over and took Helen’s hand.
“You might be right,” he confessed. “Listen, when we get home, we’ll go to the pound and find ourselves a dog that Chester would be proud of.”
“Oh, Blake. That’ll be so wonderful. You’re adorable. Now I know why I love you so much. You’re just a big softie.”
“I have an idea. Let’s find a store and buy some dog treats and then go see that castle.”
Blake paid the waitress and asked where the nearest store might be. It so happened there was one on the way to the castle. As they were leaving, Blake noticed something.
“Wait a minute. Helen, your jacket. You left it on the chair. Go ahead. I’ll get it for you.” Blake walked back to the table and fetched Helen’s jacket. When he caught up with her, he stopped and threw the jacket over his shoulder and watched as she handed money to a homeless man sitting on a bench next to a sleeping dog.