~This story originally appeared in The Kenyon Review (2009).
Will went with Linda to the animal shelter because he had a crush on her and thought that the trip would help her to see him in a good light. She called Sunday morning, told him she needed a favor, and he said he was free. A lie. He’d planned on going to yoga in the afternoon for his back pains. He met Linda a month ago at yoga, before she quit to join a more challenging class.
She picked him up and told him in the car that she’d put a hold on a dog yesterday. “Impulse shopping,” she said, and that she needed a neutral party.
Will felt absurdly hurt, but said, “I’m your man.”
The shelter was south of town, in an area that was undeveloped two years ago, when Will moved to
Colorado. Tract houses were there now, and people were
raking leaves and washing cars. He saw a
sign for Shaeffer’s Miniature Animals and Petting Zoo, and in a small field
beyond the houses, children were looking into an oval pen.
“They do something scientific to alter those animals,” Linda said. “It makes me sad.”
He saw a tiny goat and something prehistoric-looking, a shaggy thing, perhaps a yak, the size of a tricycle. Miniature horses, their manes glamorously long, pranced among other mini-animals, including a pint-sized pig. Children pitched lettuce at the animals, and a bossy, regular-sized goose honked, and nipped at the children’s ankles.
Will knew that he’d recall this moment and the constriction in his heart. The boy he’d been. That’s what did it. The boy who despised circuses and carnivals, and feared especially the clowns, back East, in the
Adirondacks. He was seven when he and his older brother
saw the carnival parade--caissons of animals in cages, clowns lobbing candy at
people, and at the very end, a skinny, dark woman in gypsy garb, riding an
elephant. Will’s brother Eddie swore
that the woman winked at him.
Will turned to Linda in the car and said that he’d just plunged back into a childhood memory.
“It happens to everyone. You’re probably getting in touch with your inner child,” she said, and added that she was working with a therapist to uncover childhood traumas.
He felt himself entering a chamber, sealed off from everything, except judgment.
“Something’s waiting for me back there, and I’m going to face it,” she said. “I’ve got shooting pains in my legs every night. The residue of blocked memory. Those pains. That’s what I’m currently working on.”
“Get over it,” he wanted to say. Why did he have a crush on her? She wore gaudy skirts and blouses and a cloying lilac perfume. But her hands—big, strong hands. She was a potter.
“My back pain is the direct result of an injury,” he said. “I fell off a ladder. Yoga has made a world of difference.”
“That teacher used to put me to sleep, which was all right, I guess, because people do go there to relax, but he tried to hit on me.”
No, I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it. It happened after class. Why would I make up such a thing?”
It would be pointless to defend
so he kept quiet. He’d never attended
yoga before, and had nothing for comparison, but Gary was all right. He was in his forties, like Will, but pudgy,
which had surprised and pleased Will.
Sure, it took him awhile to get used to the tapes Gary played—a
monotonous flute and a chorus of humming voices—but the music later became one
of the attractions. Gary and his music
were dependable, as were most of the regulars in the class, lots of old people,
and a couple of younger ones, like Linda, and a trim, bald man who occasionally
skipped some poses, and stayed curled in the child’s pose, the very thing Gary
recommended at the start of every session. “It’s not a competition,” he’d
say. “You’re here to take care of
yourselves, and put troubles out of mind.
You’re doing something for yourself.
If it hurts, quit.”
Sheathed in black spandex, Linda did all the moves and mastered a breathing technique that Will liked to listen to. He’d hear her take a gorgeous intake of breath, releasing it with a loud flutter. One time he’d seen her crying.
“I’m sorry for what I said earlier about not believing you,” he said at the shelter parking lot.
“I really like the advanced class. First thing I do now is to see myself as a hose, a long, bright green one, with many kinks, and my job is to work out those kinks.”
“Sounds good. I might just try it myself.”
The shelter smelled of damp concrete and disinfectant inside, and it felt chilly, even though sun thieved through the curtains behind the front desk. Somewhere, beyond the reception area, Will heard dogs wailing and birds shrieking.
“Remember me?” Linda asked at the desk.
“The terrier,” said the receptionist.
Linda nodded. “I brought a friend with me. I might’ve gotten a little carried away yesterday, and this fellow’s here to bring me to my senses.”
The receptionist looked at him, Will thought, as if Linda was a bad judge of character, and then the receptionist left.
He and Linda explored The Feline Room, cages of cats from floor to ceiling. Will read the cards that gave the cats’ names, history, and personality traits, always positive, he noted. He was peering at a hefty, declawed Maine Coon cat named Cinders when a little girl and an elderly woman entered, the girl in a fancy yellow dress and the woman in a blue running suit.
“Cinders bites and spits,” the girl told Will, “and see that old tabby cat up there, that one stinks.”
“Marcy’s an expert,” the older woman said.
“Gram, just like I told you, the rejects are still here, and someone walked off with Hazel.”
“It was meant to be,” the woman told Marcy.
“They found Hazel in a barn,” Marcy said. “Just an itty-bitty kitten, cute as a button. She had a baby brother, but he expired.”
“She can tell you the facts about all the animals here,” the woman said. “Are you looking for a cat?”
Linda shook her head. “We’re here for a dog.”
“Dogs are good,” said the woman.
“Which one are you after?” Marcy asked.
“A terrier, ginger-colored, with white whiskers and--”
“Bucky!” Marcy exclaimed. “A long tail, crooked feet, and a hide that could use some shampooing. He’s old. He’s on the death list.”
“I know that,” Linda said, and moved closer to Will.
The receptionist led them to The Get-Acquainted Room, and opened the door a crack. The dog tried to leap out, but before the receptionist closed the door, Will saw a grimy snout and bristly white whiskers.
“He’s excited,” the receptionist said. “Bucky belonged to an old couple in the country, but they got too feeble to take care of him, so they dropped him off here.”
“When was that?” Will asked.
Linda shook her head. “Let’s just go in, and see how he takes to us, okay?”
It wasn’t a handsome, venerable dog. It wasn’t the least bit dignified or even cute. It was a plump dog with short legs, long nails, a right foot that jutted out, matted hair, and a smell that made Will shudder.
“What do you think?” Linda asked.
“He likes you. He’s a happy dog.” Bucky was all over her, clamoring at her legs, and shooting his paws up her skirt. The tail was long, just like Marcy said, and Bucky was chasing it, spinning around, snapping at his tail, and falling over. “You’ll have to get him all checked out to make sure nothing’s wrong with him.”
“And then what? Bring him back? I couldn’t do that to him or myself. I can’t help it. I get easily attached.”
“Get attached to me,” he wanted to say, and projected himself into her house in the hills, a place he’d not seen, but that she’d mentioned after yoga. It would be ample, with a deck overlooking the river, a hot tub, and a generous bedroom.
“Take him,” Will said.
Linda might’ve been getting appraised as a potential parent for an overseas orphan for all the paperwork. While she filled out forms, he looked at the time. No yoga today, and there was Linda, buying a leash, and talking about making vet and grooming appointments, picking up toys, food, a collar, and ID tag. He kept his counsel even though he thought of the expense and trouble she was going through. In the car, she insisted that she had to begin attacking her errands. Bucky was surprisingly calm in the back seat, as if the previous antics at the shelter were an act, and now that he found a companion, he could relax.
Will rolled down the window, but the car still stank.
“I know, I know,” Linda said. “He’s homely and pungent, but he’s the one. I felt it yesterday. Thanks for coming along, and not making fun of me. I’m a fool. I know that.”
Will was touched, but a stupid thing came out of his mouth. “I did something one time, when I was a kid. My brother Eddie had this poodle, Sassy. Very high maintenance. She used to bite me, but Eddie always said she was just trying to play with me. I don’t remember all the circumstances exactly, and the dog was old. She peed on the sofa, and I smacked her hard. I’ll never forget the thud she made when she hit the floor, but, by God, she looked up at me and licked my hand. She tried to get back up on the sofa next to me, but she died.”
“Oh, Will.” Linda rested her hand on his leg, and then Bucky got stirred up in the back seat. He yipped, stood on his haunches, lifted his chin, and rested his crooked paws on his fat middle, like a little Mussolini.
“So, is there more to the story?” Linda asked. “What did you do about Sassy?”
“Lied. I told Eddie that Sassy probably knew she was on her way out, like dogs do, when they’re old and sickly, and try to go somewhere to die. I said that she’d been acting peculiar, begging to go out, so I let her out.”
He couldn’t recall how he’d felt, lifting Sassy off the floor, and placing her body at the base of a maple tree, only that Eddie accepted the story as one befitting Sassy and how she always got her own way.
He glanced at the back seat. Bucky was trying to get up into the rear window area. “The stories that dog could tell,” Linda remarked. “He was in the shelter for over a month, and before that he had a history with his original owners. It’s been a good day, a good day,” she said, and thanked Will again for his time.
“I could help you. You’ll have your hands full, and then you’ve got to introduce Bucky to your place and make sure he adjusts all right.”
“I’ve got someone.”
He felt a spike of hurt and embarrassment and looked away. Ribs of orange clouds showed in the sky above emaciated trees on the outskirts of town, near where he lived.
“My partner goes to your yoga class. She’s the one with the curly gray hair. Kind of short, but big on top.” She laughed. “Her hair, I mean.”
“Oh?” That woman was probably in her sixties, and nondescript, except for her agility and her unfortunate hairdo, closely cut on the sides, with tufted hair on top. She usually wore baggy, tie-dyed clothing. And didn’t she have a tattoo on her arm? Yes, an unoriginal rose. “I don’t recall her. I tend to zone out in class and do what
Gary says by turning
“She likes the class, too,” Linda said.
Linda pulled into his driveway, and he quickly got out of the car. Comfortably ensconced in the back seat, Bucky stared ahead at the house with a haughty expression, as if to say, “So, this is where you live. It’s old. It needs to be fixed and spruced up.”
“I’ll keep you posted,” Linda said, and as she backed out of the driveway, Will leaned over to pull some weeds and felt a sharp pain in his lower back.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “Goddamn it.”
He was in bed, an ice pack on his back, when it came to him that he should’ve asked Linda why she took him to the pound, and not the companion. Maybe Linda got Bucky as a surprise present for the old contortionist. What a fool he’d been. Right now, the lesbians might be discussing him while they lathered up Buddy, rewarded him with treats, and gloated over their shared good fortune. The old mutt would’ve been put under, and now he had two doting women.
On Monday, Will complained about his back, and his colleague Brian, at Food for All, recommended a chiropractor. It was Brian who had suggested yoga, and also urged Will to invest in a back-friendly chair for the office. The new breed, Brian. Up on cures for every ailment. Only in his late-twenties and already a district manager, a position Will earned after years of being assigned to ailing stores in
that eventually had to be shut down.
He’d been relocated to the store in Colorado for the past two years, and living
in a condo until last fall, when he bought the house. The back injury came when he fell off a
ladder while cleaning the gutters.
“That chiropractor will straighten you right out,” Brian said.
“I hardly slept a wink last night. Even with the extra-strength pain relievers.”
Brian shook his head, but spared Will a lecture on the advantages of natural, homeopathic remedies. It was probably the painkillers, insomnia, and yesterday’s fiasco that made him feel sluggish. He excused himself and went outside. It was nippy out back by the loading dock, but he had an unobstructed view of the foothills, where Linda lived, and where he wanted to live, but the houses were out of his price range. Going up there with the realtor had made him feel like an outsider, and brought to mind an image of himself as a boy, peeking into the window of an elegant house on
with Oriental rugs, handsome furniture, and paintings. He’d pedal home on his bike afterwards,
passing the houses of people who worked with his father at the paper mill, and
then enter his house, where his mother would be watching TV, trying to tell him
what he missed. Silver Lake
It doesn’t have to be one traumatic thing that happens to kids. Why were people like Linda so intent on unlocking a major event? Nothing awful had happened to him. He and Eddie turned out all right. Eddie had a wife and kids and his own car dealership back East. And as for himself, he was proud of his job and accomplishments. He lived in a nice neighborhood, and was getting accustomed to living alone just fine, not pining away for Ruth, the woman he’d been involved with in
elementary school teacher, who couldn’t just abandon her job to follow him to Colorado.
He glanced at the foothills, their shape and color influenced by passing clouds, one hillside burnished by sun, another darker, almost purple, but still more distinct than the sunny side, so that he could see the exact shape of the trees and the way their crowns and skirts responded to wind.
On his office chair, he found a note from Brian: “Call Linda.”
“I’ll pass on that. She has unhealthy fixations. Linda is contraindicated,” Will told himself.
She answered on the first ring, but it was hard to hear her. She whispered his name, and he winced even though it felt stunning, hearing his name in that breathy way.
“It’s not working out,” she whispered.
With the partner, he hoped. Maybe the partner was nearby, trying to eavesdrop.
Jesus, Will thought, when he heard panting on the phone—clearly the dog. “I’m pretty busy right now. Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you want.”
“Could you take him? On a temporary basis. I can’t give you all the particulars now, but I’d be eternally grateful for this small favor.”
“You’ve made your bed, now lie in it. Go stew in your own juices,” he could say back to her, as he’d done with Ruth, when he made belittling farewell remarks about her hometown and the brutal
Nebraska weather. He looked down at his unergonomic chair and
the phone message. A voice inside him
said, “Be kind. It’s easier to be kind,
and better than that awful jealousy and rage.
Do this for yourself.”
“I know I’ve put you in a hard spot, but I trust you, Will, and I feel we made a connection.”
“You’re full of surprises,” he said, but whatever she said back was lost because the dog turned operatic.
He jotted down directions to her place, and then told her that his back hurt.
“I’ll fix you right up,” she said, but she could’ve been addressing the dog.
He told Brian that he was heading to the chiropractor and the health-food store to pick up natural remedies.
Brian patted his shoulder. “Good for you, old boy. Your spine’s been sending messages, telling you to shape up.”
“Take it easy, take it easy,” Will told himself, but the traffic drove him nuts, and why was his heart racing? Linda, a woman unavailable to him, asked him to lend a hand. He wasn’t traveling to a lover’s place, but still that voluptuous feeling that just around the bend something fabulous awaited. Of course, tribes of cyclists in their neon outfits would be pedaling up the narrowest part of the canyon. To calm himself, he focused on the river and the way that the sun tumbled over the sandstone cliffs, casting shards of light on the water.
He took a left onto a narrow dirt road that curved into an area canopied by evergreens. No houses in sight, and the air was cooler and still, as if things were slowing down, even the thrumming crickets and birds hushing up, and then he felt a quickening sensation in his chest.
He calmly walked up the steps to Linda’s place with an image behind him, the picture that had emerged of himself as a boy in the woods. He’d come upon a tarpaper shack, with windows covered by sheets of plastic, smeared with rain and grime, and inside a wobbly flame from a kerosene lantern making acrobatic shadows on the wall. He’d craned his neck to see more, and just moments ago, the moldy smell of the window from years ago had come back to him, and the flickering sight of three people inside--a man, woman, and a homely little girl with pinched eyes.
And now he was at Linda’s door, failing to register shock that it was a trailer home, a plain beige rectangle, beyond which was a lush vegetable and flower garden, with leaves as big as mittens.
“I had quite a trip up here,” he told Linda in the tiny kitchen, its shelves crammed with dishes, bowls, and cups that he assumed were her handiwork.
“I’m going to give you some arnica oil for your back.”
He wondered where the companion was, but asked about Bucky.
“He’s hiding under the bed,” Linda said.
So, this is where it happens, Will thought, in the bedroom, a bright room with a bay window and a large bed covered by a patchwork quilt.
“It didn’t work out,” Linda said, and got on her hands and knees.
The sight of her hunkering down and dragging Bucky out titillated him. “Did he misbehave?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. Bucky’s tongue lolled, and his body trembled. The women hadn’t cleaned him up, and his paws and snout indicated that he might’ve rooted around in the garden.
“Your friend didn’t like him?”
“She had an adverse reaction, and this fellow hasn’t eaten a thing, but what a ruckus he made yesterday, a regular whirling dervish. Eleanor’s in the hospital.”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry,” he said quickly.
“Everything backfired. She used to have a terrier, but he passed on. He’s buried out back. Sick people often respond well to animals. Sometimes they go right into remission.”
His spine tensed. This is what was happening up here. Linda’s companion had cancer or leukemia. He sat on the edge of the bed.
“There’s no way that I’m going to put her in assisted-care. No way.”
“Good for you,” Will said, a bit too exuberantly, he realized. Bucky sat up, and used his front paws to drag his rump across the rug.
“That dog’s got multiple personalities, or a mood disorder. Charming one minute, and crazy the next,” Linda said. “Eleanor will come home. She’ll have her garden, her own bed, and all the things she loves around her. That’s the picture I’m working on.”
She got up. He closed his eyes, and visualized water trying to surge through kinks in a hose.
“I’ve got just the thing for you.” She gave him a jar of arnica oil for his back and herded him toward the kitchen door, thanking him profusely for his help.
“Why did you pick me?” he blurted.
“To tell you the truth, I figured you’d knock some sense into me. Yesterday, I thought you’d say, ‘Have you got rocks in your head? Why take old damaged goods?’”
He forced a smile, but felt wounded, and ashamed of thinking about himself when she had bigger matters to contend with, but he was fixed on the artificial act he performed yesterday to win her affection. Something and everything had shut down in him, so that when Linda hugged him and handed him Bucky’s leash, he felt nothing. Bucky followed him to the car, and climbed into the open passenger door, as if the leash and human commands had become superfluous.
Bucky collapsed on the seat, and dozed off, as Will drove down the canyon.
The first bark startled him. Bucky sat up and kept barking. They’d entered a populated area, maybe Bucky’s old territory, but it was hard to tell if he was sad or happy. He was infatuated again with his own tail and with the window.
Will pulled off the road, put the leash on Bucky, and got yanked into the tall grass toward the river, now a pale blue reflection of the late-afternoon sky, definitely not vivid like the river in his hometown back East. That river had been affected by dyes at the paper mill where his father worked. On the day he and Eddie went to the swimming hole, the river was maroon. Eddie had attached a rope to a tree so he could swing out and cannon ball into the deep part. Will had stood on the shoreline, watching the colored waves cuff the sand and his toes. He heard Eddie yell, “Geronimo,” but missed seeing Eddie’s flight, and later insisted that they had to go home. Eddie, colored like a beet, razzed him for ruining his good time. “You chickened out. Party pooper.”
Will wanted to deck him, but as Eddie boasted about his terrific feats at the river, Will pretended he was Eddie, climbing the tree, and swinging over the water. He’d even felt his own heart cooperating with a rising and falling sensation.
Buddy just wanted to do his business. That’s what all the fuss had been about. He pooped and peed in the woods, and was now lapping up river water.
“What a fatty,” Will heard a woman say. He looked back and saw a middle-aged woman in a bulky cardigan, black slacks, and fancy white running shoes. “What kind is it?”
“He’s a male dog.”
She laughed, as if she’d heard something hilarious. “No, I mean what kind of mix is he?”
She leaned down for a closer look. “I’ll bet there’s some basset hound in him. Ooh, what a stinker.”
“He’s not mine. I’m helping out a friend.”
“That bowser’s got basset hound in him. Oh, bless his heart,” she said, when Bucky walked crookedly toward her. “Has he got arthritis?”
“I don’t know. He’s old. He’s probably got a lot of things wrong with him.”
She looked offended. “I have two cats, a calico and a Siamese. They’re old and delightful, and well-maintained. That dog there--”
“Bucky,” Will said. The dog thrust a muddy paw at Will’s slacks and rolled over to exhibit a slack belly soiled with muck.
“Bucky looks like the product of neglect.”
Will felt a sword of resentment move through him. “I never cared for cats. Too haughty and devious.”
She glared at him, and then trudged off in her stupid athletic shoes.
Will put the leash on Bucky, and got an awful whiff of that ripe smell. He pulled Bucky back to the car, rolled down the windows, and felt a pitch of dread. Pretty soon he’d be home, stuck with Bucky. “It’s only temporary,” he told himself, and then recited what needed to be done. “First, a grooming appointment, buster. I’m the boss now. Forget your other life. You’re not allowed on the bed, and you are not to bark or make any begging sounds.”
Bucky was asleep, his legs twittering, as if he were dreaming.
Will pulled into his driveway. Linda and Eleanor might be leaving the hospital now. His house needed a paint job, and the leaf-filled gutters seemed to mock him. Tomorrow, he’d have to tell a pack of lies to Brian, but he could say he picked up arnica oil for his back.
He got out of the car with Bucky on the leash. The dog looked around with a curious expression, as if to say, “How did I end up here?”
Will looked up briefly, and felt transported to last fall, and the feeling he had that something was going to happen. He’d climbed up the last rung of the ladder. One hand on the gutter, the other on the ladder, he’d felt it coming, the ladder toppling backwards, and he’d given into it, not even trying to hang on to the gutter.
Bucky moved about the house like an appraiser, checking out the floors, furniture, and kitchen appliances. Will placed two frankfurters and a bowl of water on a paper towel on the floor. Bucky tore into the towel, but snubbed the frankfurters and water.
He was too tired to scold the dog and embark on the training regimen. Before heading upstairs to take a bath, he dumped the jar of arnica oil in the trash.
The hot water in the tub steamed the room and blushed his legs pink. No more would he play the fool for people like Linda and Brian. He’d come home today with a smelly mongrel. “You got your comeuppance,” Ruth could tell him. “What goes around comes around.”
“Geronimo,” Eddie had yelled, and then there’d been a long wait between the war whoop and the sound of Eddie hitting the water and finally coming up for air. It was the second part that rattled Will—waiting to see his brother come up—and learning later that Eddie had wanted to scare him. There’d been no fractured skull, no brother drowning in a maroon river, and when Eddie kept bragging about his fabulous experience, Will told him that he’d missed out on something bigger—two people in the woods on the opposite side of the river, having a picnic.
“So, what’s the big deal? A picnic?”
Will explained that it was hard to see things exactly, but a man and woman were sitting on a blue blanket and drinking something from a thermos.
“I don’t get it,” Eddie had said. “That’s something you see every day.”
“Yeah, but then they sprawled out on the blanket,” Will said.
“Were they naked?”
“She was. Buck naked. She was on top of him, and then you hollered ‘Geronimo,’ and she took off like greased lightning.”
“I didn’t see anything when I went under the water. It was muddy as hell down there.”
“I saw the woman’s ass and back. She was tea-colored, I swear.”
“What did the man look like?”
Bucky sounded like he was tearing up the carpeting outside the bathroom. Will leaned back and rested his head on the curved lip of the tub. The man didn’t hightail it out of the woods with the woman. He hung around, waiting to make sure that Eddie was all right.
Bucky was panting, scratching at the door, and whipping his tail at for it for extra emphasis. “Hey, relax,” Will shouted, but Bucky kept at it.
Will got out of the tub and opened the door part way. Bucky dropped low and cowered. Will wanted to shut the door; that’s all he had to do, but he stood there, water dripping from his legs. What a sight, he thought. What a sight.
Bucky plunged inside, and went right for the tub, as if performing a necessary trick he’d mastered long ago. He heaved himself into the soapy water with an “I’ll show you attitude,” and looked back at Will, daring him to dispute who was boss and what happiness looked like.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The story might’ve been sparked by my longstanding fear of dogs, and how I once went to the local pound, against my better judgment, to help a dear friend pick out a dog. She must’ve known that I’d support her every desire by going all along with her in the first place to appraise a terrier she’d looked at earlier on her own. To be honest, I spent much of my time gawking at many cats in cages, and finding them all unacceptable, despite the glowing placards on the cages attesting to each cat’s pleasant disposition and suitability for becoming a lovable life-long companion.
When I saw the terrier my friend had chosen, I had to squelch the desire to say, “Do you have rocks in your head? Have you taken leave of your senses?” The dog looked like the product of neglect, and I was hungry, and just wanted to leave the place, so I did what I often do when friends parade new and unacceptable mates for inspection and approval, I hold my counsel, and then I lie outright by praising “the significant other.” In the terrier incident, I came across like the voice of Satan by saying, “Take him.”
ABOUT LESLEE BECKER
Leslee Becker’s story collection, The Sincere Café, won the 1996 Mid-List Press Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Epoch, New England Review, and elsewhere. She has received the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Award, the Nimrod/Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize, Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the James Michener/Copernicus Society Award, the Moondance International Film Festival Award for Short Stories, and the 2014 Boston Review Fiction Prize. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and teaches at Colorado State University.