I'm in the Palatial Tampa Theater with my husband, eating fistfuls of hot popcorn and watching Oscar-nominated animated film shorts. This is just one of the activities he has planned for us while we’re in Florida, in what will be a series of valiant efforts to get my mind off my grief.
The last entry, Mr. Hublot, is an 11-minute film about a charming little robot man who lives alone in a house full of clocks and mechanical plants. Every day, Hublot rises at the same time and goes about his chores in the same order—winding the clocks, watering the plants—before jetting off to work. One morning, mid-routine, Hublot catches sight of a robot puppy as it darts into a discarded box on the street. Then he sees the city garbage truck lumbering toward it.
Hublot saves the puppy, and his daily routine expands. Each morning, after winding clocks and watering plants, he feeds the robot pup breakfast. It’s a rich diet of nuts and bolts, motor oil, and chains, and soon the pup grows so comically large that Hublot must widen his thresholds and hallways. When the dog grows too tall for the room, Hublot must make a decision: get rid of it or find a bigger home for both of them. In the movie’s final frame, the two sit happily side by side in an enormous empty warehouse.
The lights come up, but I don’t move. My husband and I sit quietly, shoulders touching, until the crowd shuffles out and the echo of voices fades. Then he pats my thigh.
“C’mon,” he says gently. “We have to go.”
We’re in Florida for a few days because my husband has work here. He is an artist who travels around selling high-end work to wealthy patrons. I’m a writer who works mainly from home in a tiny upstairs office with three dogs I call my employees. Until recently, that is.
“Let’s go to work!” I’d say every morning, and they would scamper upstairs and take their places on the rug and under the desk and in the chair beneath the window. When they were older and could no longer manage the stairs, I carried them up one by one—a human ferry, depositing them on the landing and instructing them to wait until I got the next one, and then the next one. At lunchtime, we’d reverse the process, and after lunch, we’d start all over again.
But a year ago, I put the 12-year-old to sleep (her heart was failing), followed by the 16-year-old a month ago (his liver was failing), followed by the 14-year-old a week ago (everything was failing, and she was a wreck without the other two). For the first time in 36 years, I am dogless. Cocker Spaniel-less, to be exact. Not that the breed matters, except that Cockers happen to be especially cheerful dogs, loyal to a fault and worshipful of their owners. Having three was like being the benevolent dictator of an extremely happy country.
“You should come on this trip,” my husband suggested, a few days after we put the last dog down. “It would be a good distraction.”
We’d go to the movies and explore downtown St. Pete and the Dali Museum. While he was at meetings, I could write. None of this excited me. But when I weighed the option of staying behind in a house newly emptied of dogs against taking a trip I didn’t want to take, I decided the former was worse.
So I packed. Out of habit, I moved stealthily from suitcase to closet, sliding my feet as if on snowshoes though there were no dogs in my path to trip over, and none tailgating. I once read that writer David Foster Wallace liked to get into a cab and ask to be taken to some ridiculously un-urgent destination, such as the library, then adding, just for fun, “… and step on it!” It made me think about my dogs, always skittering behind me, their precisely aimed noses pushing urgently into the backs of my knees, as if to say, To the kitchen, and step on it! To the sofa, and step on it!
My husband and I file out of the Tampa Theater and walk through the darkened streets to the car. It has rained, and the air is cool. The smell of garlic drifts from a nearby restaurant.
“I’m starved,” he says.
“That was sad,” I say.
He reminds me that everything ended well for Hublot and his dog. Then he puts his arm around me and pulls me in close. He knows what I mean. Even a happy story is a sad story for a sad person.