"Josh, old man Scrapple's gonna kill you if he finds out you've brought puppies into the house! You left them in the hall!" Matt shoved the milk crate into his arms, noticed for the first time what looked like tear tracks on Josh's face. Josh stared down at the milk crate in shock, and one of the puppies leaped up, managed to lick his chin.
He shoved the milk crate back at Matt. "They aren't mine! What the hell? Where did you find them?"
Matt stared at him, and set the puppies on the floor. "They were in the hall." They looked down into the box, and Josh reached in, picked up a puppy and held it to his chin like he was under the influence of an irresistible impulse. Matt couldn't leave the other puppy alone in the milk crate, that would be too cruel, so he picked up the other one, gave it a snuggle. When he looked up, Josh was crying.
"What's wrong? Are you allergic?"
Josh shook his head, and the puppy licked a tear before it dropped off his chin. "No, it's just Christmas, and I always wanted a puppy for Christmas when I was a kid. And now my mom is off on a cruise to Hawaii! She's gonna be gone until January, can you believe it! My mom said it was time for me to start making my own Christmas traditions. What kind of crap is that?"
"I know! My mom went to Greece! Last year she was like, 'Matt, I'm not putting up the tree again. I've had enough evergreen to last ten lifetimes. I want laurel and olive leaves. Next year you're on your own.' I mean, it's like she doesn't even have a kid anymore!"
Josh wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "I mean, it's not like all of a sudden you're grown up and you don't need Christmas with your mom!"
They both stared down at the puppies in their hands. They were cute as buttons, some sort of fluffy, floppy-eared mix. As if on cue, Matt's puppy started to bark, little puppy yelps. "Shhh! Quiet!" He shoved the puppy's head under the edge of his sweatshirt. "If Scrapple hears them, he's gonna toss us both out into the street."
Josh sniffed. "Figures. We'll be homeless for Christmas. Perfect. We can stay down at the Mission."
"They don't let puppies into the Mission."
Thump-drag-click. They both heard the ominous step of Mr. Scrapple at the same time. Matt shoved his puppy at Josh, pointed to the alcove that served as a bedroom. He stepped out into the hall as the door at the top of the stairs creaked open.
"What are you boys doing down there? I thought I heard a dog."
Matt made his face as innocent as he could. "We don't have puppies! No pets allowed here, right?"
"Damn right. And don't you forget it." The door slammed and Mr. Scrapple's grumpy face disappeared. Matt stuck his head back in Josh's apartment. He was in bed, with a quilt pulled up to his chin. He scooted over and Matt sat down on the edge of the bed. Matt pulled the quilt down a couple of inches. There were two puppies asleep on Josh's chest. They must have been lulled by the warmth of the bed, by their heads resting over his chest, listening to his heartbeat. Matt thought that he could probably fall asleep that same way.
"What are we going to do?" Josh was whispering. Matt shook his head. "They're your puppies," Josh said. "You brought them in here."
"Yeah? Well, you took them to bed. I think that makes them yours." And they both realized at the same moment how ridiculous this was, and grinned at each other. "We can't leave them alone. They're too small. They'll make noise and bring old man Scrapple down on our heads. I've got some milk at my place. What else do we need?"
"A litter box?" Josh shook his head. "No, that's for cats, right? We need newspaper." Josh looked around. "I've got a couple of old copies of the New York Times Book Review around here."
"Perfect." Matt realized they were still whispering. "Okay, I'll take them back across the hall, and give them some milk. You bring the newspaper. Then we need to figure out..."
Matt grabbed both of the sleeping puppies off Josh's chest. He could fit them in a hand each. At the door he looked carefully both ways, then dashed across the hall. Josh peered around the door at him. "Five minutes," he said, mouthing the words silently, and Matt felt a bubble of laughter in his chest, like they were boys playing at commandos. Maybe they should synchronize their watches.
Back in his kitchen, Matt poured some milk into a saucer and put it down on the floor. The puppies seemed to know what to do, though they were not very neat about it, getting milk all over their faces, nearly up to their floppy ears. They had some organic puppy food at the Co-op. He could run across the street and get some when Josh got back with the newspapers.
Josh was good to his word, and the five minutes had been spent on a shower. His black hair was now slicked back and confined in a rubber band, and he was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and bare feet. His sweatshirt was a black hoodie with a picture of Billie Holiday on the front. The quote said, Don't threaten me with love, baby. Let's just go walking in the rain. He was carrying a handful of newspapers. He looked around at the little studio. "Man, you and me got gypped on these apartments. I got one room, and you got one kitchen."
Matt nodded. "It would be a decent apartment if we put it back together. But I need the kitchen."
"What have you been cooking? It always smells good over here."
"I've been making fresh ricotta cheese and cooking with it."
"Wow. You make your own cheese?"
Matt felt his face turning red. "Well, just ricotta so far because I can't seem to... finish with it. I keep thinking of more recipes to try."
Josh gestured toward the counter. "What are you making now?"
"It's sort of going to be a country souffle with plums. Sort of a puff pancake."
"Are you making up the recipe?" Matt nodded. "You got to think up a cool name, then. Is that what you do? Make up recipes?"
"I guess." Matt felt his shoulders droop. "You know I work over at the Co-op, right?"
"I've been to cooking school. Cordon Bleu. But my first job in a restaurant kitchen? I quit in two days. It was horrible, so many people rushing around, yelling, the sound of dishes clattering into plastic bins, waitresses bitching -- and at the end of the night, it felt like you'd been beat with sticks, and for what? So the restaurant would make money." He shook his head. "That's when I realized it was all about money, not food, and I just... couldn't do it."
Josh gave him a look, nodded, and started putting paper down on the floor for the puppies. "Yeah. I get that. You know how many books I sell either got Chicken Soup or Naughty Housewives on the cover? Makes me think we've lost our soul."
He sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and Matt pulled up a stool. They watched the puppies in silence for a moment, and when the saucer was empty of milk, the puppies crawled across the paper, fell asleep in mid-stride.
"Are you working today?" Josh nudged a puppy with his finger.
"Yeah. I have to go in at one."
"I'll come back and get them about 12:30, then. I'll keep them overnight if you want. What about tomorrow? I've got to be at work at eight."
"I've got tomorrow off."
"Cool. Matt... If we send them to the shelter..."
They both pictured the cement floor, the metal cages stacked four tall, the smell. "No way. We need to figure something out."
Josh nodded. "I'll go get some food."
He wasn't back in the five minutes it would take to get puppy food from the Co-op, so Matt started on his ricotta. He had a couple of cups of fresh draining in the cheesecloth and was cooking the plums down when Josh got back. He was loaded down, puppy food, the good organic stuff, and a small bed lined in plaid flannel, and a little brush, and puppy pads for the floor. And food bowls and water bowls, two sets each. "We ought to have one set for each apartment so we don't have to move them back and forth across the hall every day. Do you want purple or blue?"
"You choose," Matt said. Josh looked happier, some color in his cheeks, and he looked over Matt's shoulder, studied the fruit in the pan. "Are those plums?"
Matt nodded, and Josh looked up and met his eyes. They were blue and clear, like the warm waters of the Aegean. "I'll take the blue bowls," Matt said.
Josh was studying the plums again. "Purple's good for me." He pointed to the pan. "Is there enough of that to share? I just spent my food money."
Josh watched with interest as the plum juice was folded into the ricotta, which was then folded into the beaten egg whites. Matt thought quickly about how to plate and serve food again, something he had not done in some time, since it was so much easier to eat out of the pot. Josh wouldn't mind eating out of the pot, he thought, but the plum souffle was going to be so lovely it deserved plates. He had some French roast coffee, too.
When he had everything poured into the iron skillet, and into the oven, and a fresh pot of coffee brewing, he took off his apron and joined Josh on the loveseat. He had both puppies up on his lap, and they were curled up together, making snuffly little puppy noises. Josh scooted over to make room for him. "You sleep on the loveseat?"
"Yeah. I've got a sleeping bag I throw on the floor when I can't stand the loveseat anymore."
"But it's the kitchen, right? You took this place for the kitchen?"
"I have to cook, even if I can't do it in a restaurant. I've always loved to cook. I baked a Boston Cream Pie when I was six."
"Is that the one with the pudding in the middle? I like that cake. I haven't had it in years, though."
"It's gone out of style now -- seems old fashioned. But some classics have flavors you can't improve on."
Matt noticed the smell of the souffle in the air, and the warmth of Josh's thigh next to his own, and the puppies curled up so sweetly, and he had a sudden urge to curl up himself, put his head on Josh's shoulder and sleep.