Stories & Lit
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Kennel man says, “Ever had a dog before?”
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?”
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.
That doesn’t entirely answer the question. Please don’t tell me which one she is. “What’s the dog’s name?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
Don’t talk, Grant. Just enjoy the moment. It’s gone so long, in between.
“Nothing will happen to you. Don’t be silly.”
By this time he was putting on his clothes. He’d stayed longer than usual.
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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 moves to a different house in an even more remote location. She hopes Dante lives to be 15, at least. More time to think.
Photograph by Marcy Robinson