Catherine Ryan Hyde

Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of the story collection Earthquake Weather as well as numerous novels, including Pay it Forward (which was adapted for film and has been translated into 20 languages),Chasing Windmills (Doubleday, Spring '08) and The Day I Killed James (Knopf, Summer '08).

Culture: Stories & Lit
Memory as an antidote for loss.
Dante - Catherine Ryan Hyde

Kennel man says, “Ever had a dog before?”
“When I was a kid we had a Cocker Spaniel.”
“This ain’t no Cocker Spaniel.”
The dog is in a run by himself. He doesn’t have to share with other dogs. Because he won’t. “What kind of dog is he?”
“I dunno. No kind of dog. Every kind of dog. Got some hound, maybe. Maybe not.”

He’s yellow. Very short hair, not shiny or lustrous. Strong looking. Ellen keeps thinking that. Not pretty, in fact, he gives her the creeps. He hasn’t looked at her yet.

Kennel man says, “You gotta take him?”
“No. I don’t have to.”
“You gotta take him otherwise you don’t get some big inheritance?”
“No. He is the inheritance. Just him.”
“Lucky you. Don’t take him.”
“Why not?” She gets down on her knees in front of his chain-link gate. The dog makes a greater effort to avoid her eyes.
“I just don’t trust that dog.”
“Did he bite you?”
“Did he try?”
“No. But I can see him thinking about it. He’s too smart.”
“Too smart for who?”
“Look at his gate.Why do you think it’s padlocked? He learned how to put his paw through and work the latch. So we put a clothespin on it. So he learns how to bite the clothespin so it opens. God did not intend dogs to be that smart.”
God did not intend dogs, period, she thinks. They were our creation. But she doesn’t care to argue theology. “Why is he so skinny? Don’t you feed him?”
“Yeah, we feed him, but he don’t eat.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Danty, I think. Something like that. It’s on his card.”
“Why don’t you go get his card?” As soon as she’s alone with the dog, he turns his head and looks into her eyes. It’s a chilling moment. His eyes are yellow. She feels reduced by his stare. He averts his gaze again, because the kennel man is back.
Ellen reads the card.
“Dante,” she says. The dog’s head whips around. His lip curls back to expose monumental fangs. He wags his whole body, grovels across cold concrete on his belly to the gate.
“Why is he snarling at me?”
“I dunno, but he’s wagging his tail. Maybe he’s smiling. Some dogs do that when they feel cowed. You can tell he knows you. I’m glad he likes somebody.”

She has never met this dog before.

Against her better judgment, she puts the back of her hand to the chain link; he covers it with his wide tongue, thankfully.

“Open the gate,” she says.

He drops the key onto the aisle floor beside her. “You open it.”He clears the area before she can.

Dante leans out. Kisses her face excessively. It’s not pure friendliness, there’s something straining and desperate and apologetic about it.

She reaches in for his dish of untouched kibble, sits in the aisle, on the cold concrete, Dante lying heavy on her legs, and he eats kibbles one at a time out of her hand.

There’s something to be said for alcoholism, though I admit I’ve reached this conclusion vicariously. Carrie used to be one, and she told me all about it. She says she still is, but that’s beyond me. Alcoholics drink. Carrie doesn’t.

After 30 white-knuckle days of not calling Grant, nobody gave me a nice little medallion to wear on my keychain. At the vast watermark of a year, no cake. Nobody sang. At Grant’s memorial, even though I didn’t know those people, I was sharply aware of their potential failure to appreciate that accomplishment. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

We were on a hill, this bunch of strangers and me, looking out over Mariner’s Cove. A string quartet played, because Grant loved classical music. Of course he did. I never knew that about him until that moment. I remember being glad I’d never played Elvis Costello when he was over. Somehow I thought I’d left Grant just in time to avoid that moment where I realize I didn’t know him. That’s kind of a joke though, because I remember why I finally broke it off. You’re with a man for almost two years, you should know where he lives, and you should have met his dog. Even I can see that’s not natural.

You get angry, thinking about what you don’t know.

There was one familiar face there, but I tried to avoid it. His name is Wilson Greene. He introduced me to Grant, he hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that something came of that introduction, I haven’t quite forgiven him for starting the rolling snowball of events.When I saw him coming, I tried to duck.

Meanwhile I was thinking, this is all wrong. Crashing surf and strains of classical music. In my family, we had organ music and a lot of screaming and crying. This is way too genteel. My thoughts become disjointed in stress situations.

Wilson put his hand on my arm.
“We have to talk, Ellen.”
“Funny, we never did before.”
“About the will. I’m the executor, you know.”
“You? Not his wife?” Please don’t tell me which one she is.
“Maybe because of this odd situation…”
“Are you saying Grant left me money? I am not going to sit in on a reading of the will and watch the look on his wife’s face. I’m sorry. Tell them I died.” A slight exaggeration. Please don’t tell me which one she is.
“It’s not money.” Real property, a car, a personal effect of some sort. A problem, either way. Then it hit me. I knew it was true, because it matched the look on Wilson’s face. “Oh, God. The dog.”
“You knew about it.”
“What does his wife think about that?”
“She hates the dog.”

That doesn’t entirely answer the question. Please don’t tell me which one she is. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“You never met his dog?”
“Where exactly is this dog right now?”
“In a private kennel. See, technically he’s in probate. I think they said his name was Dandy. Something like that.”

Dandy? Grant’s dog? I think not. “So, listen,Wilson.” I put an arm around his shoulder, turned him back to face the stately congregation. “Tell me.Which one is his wife?”

They cross the fence line together. She unclips the leash. Since leaving Grant, she’s moved to a rural locale. Life here is not as simple as she had hoped. For the first time, they see cattle. Glimpses of them lumbering between scrawny pine and scrub oak. Foraging. Dante gathers like a crossbow. Launches. In the second of gathering, she notices his build. His chest. Rangy but muscular. Such a powerful machine. It frightens her, even though he’s on her side. A loaded gun in her hand would be on her side, but its potential would frighten her.

She screams his name.

This is private grazing land, they shouldn’t, technically, be here. But she can’t take the dog around other animals, and he needs to run. And Dwight said she could. Dwight, he stays in the caretaker’s cabin.He’s a close friend, Dwight. Very close. He said she could, if the dog doesn’t run cattle.

“If he runs cattle, keep him home or I’ll have to shoot him.”
“If he runs cattle I’ll keep him home.”

As she crashes through the brush, screaming his name, he comes crawling back. Her voice is like an earthquake to him. Slithering through pine needles and poison oak on his belly, showing his teeth. She’s still not comfortable with that, though it’s clearly passive. Grovels at her feet, licking her shoes. She never yelled at him before, and now she wonders if he’ll ever get over it.

They walk on to Dwight’s cabin, Dante bounding ahead. A short parade of cattle wander across the road. Dante freezes, stares at the dirt close-range until they survey him and move on.

They arrive at Dwight’s cabin, Dwight meets them out front.

Dante puts his head down, growls low in his throat. She has yet to find someone Dante likes, but he likes Dwight less than most. Already.
“Well,” she says. “He doesn’t run cattle, that’s for sure.”
“Good watchdog.”
“I’ll say.” She has begun to fear that, in Dante’s presence, nothing bad, or good, will ever happen to her.

Dwight approaches carefully, one hand extended. Goes down on one knee. Speaking low. Offers the back of his hand. Dante’s lip peels back, very differently. He snarls, leaps forward to attack the air, biting down less than an inch from Dwight’s hand. More show of teeth, and a long, rolling growl. Dwight pulls back in slow motion. White-faced.

Dante sits at Ellen’s heel, leaning.

Dwight throws her a chain. A big, heavy chain, the sort you’d use to haul a car out of the mud. She chains Dante to a tree and joins Dwight on the porch. As she walks into his arms, the yelping splits the air like a scream. They watch the dog hit the end of his chain and flip over onto his back, repeatedly, mouth foaming with the sweat of his exertion.

Dwight says, “I do believe that dog is crazy.” “I better go get him.”
“Hell, no. You want him to run you?”
“I guess not.”

She follows him inside, where he undresses her, and pins her to his bed, like so many times before. His pants are halfway off, hobbling him around the knees, when something slams against his door. From the sound, something about the size of a tractor.
“Shit,” Dwight says, stands up and trips over his pants.

They can hear him chewing at the door. Tearing at the door. Dwight kicks a leg out of his pants and runs to the window, his urgency mirroring her own. If Dante wants in, she figures he’ll get in. Dwight pulls back the curtain, and the shadow, the shape, crashes against the glass, shatters it, but bounces off again. Dwight locks himself in the bathroom before the next, successful leap. Dante hits the bathroom door once, as if for effect, then stands with his head down, growling, intimidating it.

“Dante!” He jumps onto the bed beside her, slapping his tail. Kisses her face. She checks him for damage. Blood, some, on his face, and one leg. Nothing deep or dangerous looking. “Oh, Dante. You broke your collar.”

Dante rests his head between his front paws in shame.
“Ellen? What are you doing?”
“Getting dressed.”Having said so, she gets started on that.
“Ellen? I really think the best thing for everybody would be if you let me shoot that dog.”
“Everybody but him, you mean.”
“You figure on keeping him?”
Dante’s eerie yellow eyes come up to meet hers. He must have heard everything. “He’s a good watchdog.”
“Yeah, well, either he goes or I do.” She pulls on her sweater, Dante curls around her legs all the way out the door.
“It’s been real,” she says.

Dwight sends her a bill for the damage; she pays it without comment.

I dwell on the past. Always have.

Lying in bed with Grant. After. My mind a perfect blank, because that’s how it always was.My body and head hollow, humming, like a tuning fork almost ready to go still. But not quite.

My eyes closed.

It was always better than great with Grant, but mostly with my eyes closed, because none of his greatness was visible. So I wondered, sometimes, if I was imagining, manufacturing the good parts. I never held tangible proof of their existence.

When I first told Carrie she said, “Ooh. Tell me all about him. Is he young, is he handsome, is he hung?”

Even one out of three might have redeemed me, but as it was, I didn’t answer.

“So, the sex is, like, great, right?”
“That’s something.”
Anyway, we were lying there, his mouth against my ear, a good moment for tender words, if that had ever been Grant’s style. “If anything happens to me, Ellen, I want you to take my dog.”

Don’t talk, Grant. Just enjoy the moment. It’s gone so long, in between.

“Nothing will happen to you. Don’t be silly.”
“If it does.”
“Everybody outlives their dog. That’s why I don’t get one.”
“Doctor thinks I’m ripe for an MI. Cholesterol, blood pressure. Family history. For starters. I’m not a kid, Ellen.”
“Can we talk about something else? After you tell me what an MI is?”
“Myocardial Infarction.”
“Like a heart attack.”
“Exactly like one.”
“Then why don’t you just say heart attack?”

By this time he was putting on his clothes. He’d stayed longer than usual.
“Just promise me.”
“Wouldn’t your wife want the dog?”
“No. She wouldn’t. Promise me?”

I wanted to, because I always wanted to be what he wanted. Helpful. Intelligent. Loyal. I felt like a Girl Scout in his presence. I firmly believe Grant died owing me a handful of merit badges I worked hard for and will never see.

“I’ve never even met your dog, Grant.”
“Well, you’ll have to, then.”
“Bring him with you when you come next week.”
“Okay, I will.”

But he didn’t.

We went to bed, it was phenomenal, as always, even though I knew what I would say when it was over. I knew if he didn’t bring the dog, that was the last straw.

I didn’t call to change my mind. I guess I thought if I could hold out long enough, it would be that great with somebody else.

The need for him cycled like a recurrent fever, hid around corners waiting to trip me. Swept me offshore like a rip current. The missing him. It sang to me, an opiate drug reminding me how warm and familiar it had always felt, could always feel again. How easy it would be to fall back into. But I didn’t call. Thinking the Universe would reward my resolve.

It’s never been that good with anybody else. And God knows I’ve tried. At least it was over before I promised to take the damned dog I’d never met. It irked me that I’d forgotten to ask the dog’s name. There’s always one thing you can’t let go of, and it’s usually something peripheral and fairly unimportant. I guess it’s easier that way.

Carrie says, “Maybe you should change his name. It might make him sound friendlier.”

Ellen says, “I don’t think the issue is how he sounds.” She sits on the floor by the window with her arm around the dog. They both hold still because Carrie is sketching them for a portrait. Dante seems to understand the art of posing. Dante seems to understand everything. Ellen is beginning to think the kennel man was right.Maybe there’s only just so smart a dog should be. “What do you think I should call him?”

Carrie seems to consider this, and when she decides, Ellen knows by her smile. “Grant’s Revenge.”
“Right. Friendly. I don’t want to change his name.”
“Do you think that’s why he had you take him?” “What do you mean?” She knows what Carrie means. She’s considered it herself, at some length.
“How long since you’ve been with a man?”
“Five or six months.”
“For real, Ellen.” It’s a little game they play.
“Okay, seven months, 13 days. Not counting that one time.With that one guy.Who didn’t deserve to be counted.”

At first it seemed rational to think she’d leave the dog at home and go to his place, whoever he was. But she has not succeeded in leaving the dog alone. He’ll get out, and follow. Through a window if necessary. So she takes him places with her, or she gets Carrie to baby-sit.

Since leaving the city, she works at home, on the Internet. Thank God.

Potentially she could leave the dog with Carrie and go to his place, but Carrie has a life, too, and Ellen hasn’t found a him who doesn’t consider that a burdensome limitation.

“So, do you think that’s why Grant did it?”
“No. I think it was because nobody else would have kept the dog.”

She realizes that if she were to die, she’d have to obligate someone to Dante, too.

“So, in other words, Grant’s dead, and you’re still being the one person he can always count on.”
“Don’t artists usually like silence when they work?”
“You should think about getting rid of him.”

Dante breaks the pose. Slinks, and pushes his head onto Ellen’s lap.

“Who, Grant or the dog? I wish you would be careful what you say around him.”
“He doesn’t speak English.”
“He knows what people are thinking. Look at him.”
“Now I have to be careful what I think around him?”
“I can’t get rid of him. He doesn’t like anybody else. Except you.”
“Well, don’t look at me.” She folds up her sketchpad, ending the session without comment. Maybe she’ll work from a photograph. That was the original plan. Before Dante proved himself a poser. “So, he’d have to be put to sleep or something. I know. That’s hard. But…”
“Can we talk about something else? You’re really freaking him out.” Dante has crawled over her lap and is trying to hide between Ellen and the window, but she’s not big enough to provide the cover he needs.“Maybe I’ll have to try women.”
“He doesn’t like women either.”
“No, that’s true. Just you.”
“Definitely don’t look at me.” She swings her coat on, stands by the door.
“Don’t worry. He doesn’t like you as much as he used to.”
"Is this about the dog, Ellen? Or is this about Grant?”
She has to think. She doesn’t like questions that make her think. She likes Carrie for hardly ever asking them. “Because he loves me. And because I loved Grant.”
Carrie’s eyebrows react. “I thought that was mostly sex.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Until she tried to replace it.
“I’ll call you,” Carrie says as the door swings shut.

When her footsteps are gone, Dante sits up. She puts her arms around him. Feels a slight tremble in his muscles as she holds him. “We both miss him. Huh, Dante?” She gets up quickly to make a cup of tea. Unable to identify what that will solve. How tea will be an antidote for loss.

Dante whines, long and low, and when she’s left the room, looses a long, modulated, unnerving howl which raises goosebumps on her skin. And leaves her thinking that she can never find just the right words.

Lately I’ve been troubled by vivid limited memories of Grant, and they make me worry about love. I don’t like so many questions being raised at a time in my life when I feel I should have some answers.

One thing I know for sure about love. It’s a bitch of a thing to identify in retrospect. Concerning a dead man. But I guess, dead or married it’s all the same to me at the bottom line. Only, dead is safer.

In one memory, I come up on him sitting in a chair, putting his socks on, and I kiss the very top of his forehead. Where I’m sure he had hair in his youth, but not much at the time. See, something else to fault him for, but it doesn’t work. I remember his chest, easing down on me, I think this must be a sexier thought if the guy had a flatter, tighter stomach. Less hair on his chest and more on his head. But, Dwight was young, handsome and hung and I don’t think about him much anymore.

It’s not that I like older, balder, smaller, soft-muscled men better, because the world is full of them if that was the only problem. It’s something about the exact sum of Grant, like a DNA strand, and any substitution seems to ruin the equation.

See, I worry that I might have just described love.

I met a guy who didn’t seem to feel my strange dog was an undue hardship. In fact, I think he respected that about me. So I told him at great length how I happened to come by Dante. When I was sure he would never call me again, my relief felt so tangible that I had to admit I did it on purpose.

Carrie says, “I changed my mind. I don’t think you should get rid of the dog. I think this might be good for you.”
Ellen says, “What do you mean?” She knows what Carrie means. She has considered this, too, at some length.
“How old is that dog?”
“He’s supposed to be about seven. Maybe eight by now.”
“So, he’ll live to be about 10, right?”
“Or 12. Or 14.”
“Anyway, the town just voted you least likely to get robbed or raped. That’s something.”
“Yeah, that’s something. I’m certified uneventful.”

Ellen moves to a different house in an even more remote location. She hopes Dante lives to be 15, at least. More time to think.