Monday afternoon, Josie called me, in tears. Prince has not been feeling well for about a week, and she had Andrew take him to a vet that morning, for bloodwork.
The minute he was brought in, looking weak and groggy, they knew something was wrong. He had been in for a visit Friday, but things had gotten worse over the week-end. Further examination revealed a splenic mass and possible lung mass, as well as a heart murmur. For a 13 year-old dog, it wasn't good.
I immediately left work and drove to pick up Josie from work. We were going to face this together.
Look, I don't want to make my journal too depressing. I had the Paul story last time around, and the Thumbkin incident is still a fresh memory. But Prince...well...Prince has gotten me through so much through the years...every night before I moved out of the house, I would walk him at eleven at night, to try and stay sane. Josie once said she wouldn't know what to do if she ever lost Prince. I've always called him the great escape artist, because he had a talent for getting free from any chain or leash we set up...the dog officer in North Eldredge knew our guy on a first name basis.
I think, rather than focusing on the negative, I'm going to choose to remember happier times. The following story I wrote in 1998...back before I had a Live Journal, and back when Josie and Matt lived together in a house in Eldredge and was just about to welcome a new addition into our family. I had posted this back in August, but I always loved the story.
She came home that day and announced that she had fallen in love with another man.
Knowing her as well as he did, he barely lifted an eyebrow. He just knew by the tone, by the gleam in her eye, by the half raised upper lip, that this ‘other man’ was anything but a flesh and blood three-legged variety of her own species. So, armed with his instinct, he simply put on a skeptical face and parroted back her opening line.
"You've fallen in love with another man, have you?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied, then paused for dramatic effect. Then the pay off. "He's a Border Collie and he's absolutely beautiful."
Oh. Damn. He knew he should have put up a fuss when she said she wanted to go out with her Nana Santapietro. Nana wanted help looking around for a pup to keep her company. Josie had seemed eager to assist. He should have known there had been an ulterior motive.
"Oh, Matt, he's gorgeous!" she protested. "You should have seen him there, laying all by himself, all locked up. Beautiful markings. And he was just so calm, all the other dogs in the pound were freaking out, but he just sat there, looking up at us. My heart just went out to him."
"We started in Eldredge, but there wasn't anything there that Nana liked. They were all too big." Nana had been mentioning for weeks that she was considering a little dog. So when Josie had spotted a full page ad in the Eldredge Gazetteer displaying photos of the "Most Wanted" dogs in the area pounds, she had announced that she was taking her out for a ride. "So then we went to the North Eldredge pound, but you know how she is, so picky. Either this one's too big, or this one looks mean, or this one's too dark. She didn't like one because she thought it might have to pee too much. So she didn't find anything there and we agreed to try just one more place. There's a small animal shelter over at Slater Park. You ever see it?"
He nodded his head absently, although he had trouble remembering exactly where Slater Park was, much less the lay out. If you've seen one park, well...
"Anyway, they keep all their dogs in outside cages during the day. Nana saw this sweet little beagle, so we went inside to take a good look at him. While I was inside, I asked if I could see the border collie."
He rose from their couch, a languorous position he had occupied since before she entered the house. He stretched out and then drew back in, rubbing the palms of his hands up against his eyes. He glanced over by the side of the door, where a small brown kennel lay and a pair of coal black eyes peered out, perpetually eager.
"There is one problem with this fantasy of yours, you realize," he said imperiously.
"We already have a dog." He gestured towards the kennel, which held a small, gray and white Lhasu-Apsu mix, a ten pound terror they had procured about ten months ago. "And two cats, besides that. And a rabbit. And three kids, in case you forgot about them. There's no room at the inn."
"Fantasy?" Josie asked, adopting the look that said 'I've got a secret' and always brought a jolt of terror through his spine. "Who says it's not reality?"
What? She'd better be joking. He moved towards her, ready to grab her arms and shake her up and down if she were serious. "What are you talking about?"
She put her arms around his neck, patently unafraid. "Well, I do have a dog in my car right now, honey."
"Where's Kyle?" she interjected. Their one year old.
"He's asleep in our bedroom."
"Then why don't you take a look in the car?"
He grimaced and squirmed his way out of her grasp. He headed for the door. She better have not picked up a dog without my say-so. I'll move out, I swear to God, and I won't come back until she gets rid of him. I have enough trouble with the mutt we already have...
He opened the door, his eyes squinting to locate the beast. He spotted Nana Santapietro by the station wagon, bent over with a leash in her hand, and Ashley, their four year old, sitting in the grass by her side, her face serious, intent on petting a small animal. He couldn't see it very well, but it appeared to be white and brown, with some patches of black. Hadn't she said it was a border collie? It seemed awfully small. Maybe he wasn't thinking of the right breed...
Nana stood up and turned around, hearing the front door open. She was a small woman, with whispy white hair. She wore dark oversized sunglasses and a green polyester pantsuit.
"Oh, Matt, come on out here," she called. "Just look at the dog I picked up!"
Oh, the beagle. Thank God. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"I knew you wouldn't get another dog without letting me know," he said to his wife.
"I wouldn't," she replied. "But now I've let you know."
That night, they lay in their brass bed together, something of a rarity, since she usually spent her evenings typing up recorded statements for his company until ungodly hours of the evening. It didn't pay great, but helped to make ends meet. A lot of times she started typing, but got too tired and would try and rest on the couch, then wake up an hour later to try again. She usually felt even more tired by this point and would end up back on the couch. Some evenings all she had to show for her work were two typed pages and an aching back.
He was reading a book. She was writing a letter to a friend in Texas. Their youngest lay between them, noisily sucking on a bottle.
It was a good book. He was re-reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. He had first read it in high school, in a Gothic Literature class, taught by an older woman who had died of cancer two years after he graduated. He was certain there was no connection between her death and his graduation.
The unnamed narrator of Rebecca had a dog, too. Two of them, in fact, two spaniels, both spending their days running around the well-manicured grounds of Manderly. Well, actually one was somewhat inactive, being older and half blind. She was usually described lazily napping in the main house. The other, younger and more active, named Jasper--
He looked up from his book and glanced over at his wife, who saw him turn, but chose to ignore him.
She looked over at him and smiled. He rolled his eyes and went back to his book, determined to overcome that infuriating
Yip yip yip!!
A grunt of irritation, then a pause.
He forced his body to lie perfectly still on the bed. He felt afraid to disturb the fragile calm that had settled upon the house, fearing that the wiggle of his big toe might throw the whole thing akimbo, resulting in a renewed round of barks from the tyrant who lay caged in the small plastic box the size of a cooler in the living room. Theirs was not a large house. Any sound made its way through the rooms like a night watchman on his rounds. Especially, it seemed, the--
--of their dog.
He threw Rebecca down. She bounced off the bed and flew onto the ground. Capsized again.
"You really want to have more of this?" he demanded to know.
She shrugged, her eyes on her letter. "You don't know what kind of dog Prince would be. He might actually calm Happy down. Some dogs have that effect on other animals. You never know."
"Really?" He thought about her words. But then he looked up at her in alarm, troubled. "Did you just say, 'Prince'?"
She grinned sheepishly, caught in the act, placing a small hand over her mouth.
"I, um, already have a name picked out for him."
"You already named him."
"Well, it's just what I call him, that doesn't have to be his family name..."
"We haven't agreed that we're even going to get him yet!"
She put down her letter and ran a hand through her thick black hair. Of course, he was right. But he didn't know, either. He hadn't seen Prince yet. She had felt an instant connection the minute she saw him, even though he was slumped down in the cage, his fur in need of a good washing, his belly far too gaunt. He had looked right up when she walked by his cage, as if he had been expecting her to call.
But she didn't explain this to her husband. Instead she simply said, "No, we haven't."
"I just don't think I could take another animal in this house," he continued on, his usual overwrought self. "You sure you're just not trying to drive me over the edge?"
She touched the top of his head and smoothed over some of the remaining black hairs. "Honey, no one's trying to drive you over the edge," she cooed. "At least not this week."
"Hmph." He reached out his hand to turn off the lamp, but stopped, and looked over in her direction, remembering the letter she was composing. In his tiredest voice he asked, "Are you going to be writing to Kathleen much longer?"
"No, honey, you can shut out the light," she said sweetly.
"Thanks." He finished his click and bathed the room in darkness.
She called out in the night, touching his chest at the same time. "We'll need to get up early tomorrow anyway, in order to visit Prince at the pound after church."
Yip! Yip! Yip!
"You got room in there for me?" he called out to Happy.
The air was crammed with a cacophonous mix of yips and howls.
They were a bit early, and decided to wait in the car with the three kids until the shelter opened up. They weren't usually early for things. In fact, just getting out of the house was usually a major production. But Josie had been unusually persistent that morning in getting everyone organized and into the car. He regarded that as a bad omen.
He glanced into the rear view mirror irritably.
"Anna, your sister's talking to you, take off those headphones and answer her," he barked out to their oldest.
"She's only saying she wants to go to the playground," Josie pointed out. "For the hundredth time."
"Yeah, well, she's saying it to Anna this time," he grumbled. "She should answer her."
Josie rolled her eyes. She reached down for her pocketbook to conduct a last minute inspection on her face. She dropped out the vanity mirror and unzipped her make-up bag. And she thought about his mood.
"You don't really want to go through with this, do you?" she asked.
He kept staring into the rear view mirror. It afforded a view of the playground, a labyrinthine stretch of jungle gym. One small child with a red jump suit was playing on one of the swings, while his mother, a middle aged woman wearing a bandanna, read a newspaper.
"I'll go through with this." He paused, then corrected himself. "The looking, I mean. Although I don't really see the point."
She applied a last lick of lipstick and closed up her vanity mirror. "Hey kids, why don't we all go out and take a look at the doggies, what do you say?"
She opened her car door before he could say anything snide and started out.
He closed his eyes for a minute, saying a silent prayer to the gods that be, then drew back his car handle in order to exit. He moved out and opened the back door so as to help Ashley out and assist with the one year old.
They evacuated the children from the automobile and stared ahead at the building before them. It appeared somewhat nondescript, in Matt's estimation, all red bricks and mortar. He certainly wouldn't want to be trapped in a cage here.
"You kids want to take a look at the dogs?" Josie asked cheerily. Her voice was always on the sweet side, usually upbeat, never too loud, owing in part to her asthma.
"Yessss!" called Ashley loudly.
"That's what we're here to do," he muttered, almost under his breath.
If the front of the building faced North--which was a big if, since he didn't have the slightest clue which direction they were facing, then the outdoor kennels were lined up on the east and west walls, taking up both sides, save for a mid-sized play area to their direct left. This appeared to be the area where prospective owners could get an opportunity to size up their candidates. Sort of like a canine Miss America pageant. They started on that side, trudging past the play area to take a look at the puppies, who were each given a uniform four by ten foot cage, half enclosed, half open air.
They moved to cubicle number one, filing unthinkingly into a line and staring forward as if they were at an art exhibit.
"Ew, gross," he said, then was quiet. She stewed in irritation. He waited for a response. None was forthcoming. Onward, James. "Do you think he has rabies?"
"What's rabies?" asked Ashley.
"Well, that does look like foam around his mouth," she answered, trying to pass it off as a small, inconsequential matter.
"What's rabies?" repeated Ashley.
"A lot of foam," he pointed out.
"It means we won't be bringing that dog home any time soon, honey," she cut off Ashley abruptly, at the same time trying to sound her most motherly. "But he's not the dog we were looking for, anyway."
"Thank God for that."
"Can you imagine that animal alone with Kyle, baring his fangs, moving in to--"
"ANYWAY! Let's move on..."
Cage number two. A mid-size dog was lying on the ground, a brown and black mutt, mostly German shepherd. Dolefully, he paused for a moment from licking his crotch to glance over in their direction.
"Lovely," Matt commented.
"No! He's cute," she countered. "Here poochie!" Her call was high pitched and somewhat grating.
"He-ga!" called out Kyle, squirming in her arms and pointing at the dog. The dog looked at them and then stood up, somewhat weakly, advancing towards the front of the cage.
"I don't like German shepherds," he said.
"I do," said their oldest, Anna, her adolescent attitude showing through.
"Does he have rabies?" asked Ashley.
The dog pointed its nose downward and opened its mouth. It started to make a sickening hacking noise. A small puddle of something stained the concrete floor.
"That would look nice on our bedroom carpet," he remarked cheerily. "Shall we move on? I can't wait to see what's next on the island of misfit dogs."
"I want a dog with rabies!" continued Ashley.
Cage number three.
"Ah," cooed Josie softly.
He lay there on the concrete floor, his head bowed low, staring up at them morosely with big, brown eyes. Even though he had obviously been underfed for quite some time, even though it was equally clear he had not been bathed in just as long, one still could plainly see the beautiful animal that lay just below the surface.
He was a big dog, weighing at least sixty-five pounds, even with a gaunt belly. His markings were purely that of a Border Collie--a study in black and white, his face a soft, almost shimmering milky color, save for a large irregular ebony circle around his left eye. It almost seemed as if he flashed two completely different profiles depending upon which direction he turned. He had huge, thick paws, bigger than their son's, and a long, thick tail which, in juxtaposition to his head was totally black until you reached the very end, where it suddenly turned white as fallen snow.
Yes, Matt had to admit, he was a beauty.
"Well," he said, determined to maintain his reserve. "We'll see more of him later--"
"Isn't he beautiful, Anna?' his wife rhapsodized.
"--But right now, we're just window shopping. Let's move on!" He started to hum, "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?"
"Yes," said Anna quietly.
Cage Number Four.
"Oh, look," Josie said, turning away before they could get much of a view. "They've opened up the office. Would you kids like to meet the nice dog we just saw in the cage?"
"The one with the rabies??" Ashley asked, jumping up and down.
"The pretty black and white one..."
"I would," said Anna, casting a cautious glance in the direction of her father. Matt just clenched his teeth and didn't say a word.
"You ready, Matt?" Josie asked.
He looked down and kicked a pebble on the concrete with his loafer. "Let's go."
They traced their path back to the office, past cages three, two and one. They turned the corner and moved to the front door. A little bell jingled as they opened it. The office was quite bright, painted yellow. A single woman stood by a beaten desk, talking into a black phone.
"We're open until twelve o'clock today, if you'd like to come over and take a look," she spoke into the receiver, glancing over quickly at her visitors and raising a single finger in order to beg their indulgence. "Mmm...mmmhmmm...Yes, it's first come, first serve. Hah hah!"
Matt looked her over suspiciously, this gateway to securing yet another animal for his much too cluttered world. She wore wire-rimmed glasses with gold frames, which drooped from the tip of her nose. She was thin, a little too thin, with mousy brown hair. She was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and sensible shoes. She possessed a thick jaw that almost appeared frozen on the left side, almost as if she had suffered a stroke. He remembered that Josie had mentioned something about it, but he hadn't really been listening. He wasn't about to ask her. How about if Jose had been talking about someone else?
"Okay, see you then," she cried out and hung up the phone. She turned her full attention to the five of them. "I won't see hide nor hair of him, you watch! Hah hah!" She hunched down and crossed off a name and phone number on a scratch pad by her desk. Matt could just tell she was an efficiency expert. He personally was both attracted and repelled by efficiency. "I can just tell these things...anyway, so you dragged him in?"
Matt took umbrage to the use of the word "him," as if he were a frightened child being brought to the dentist to have his first tooth removed.
"I did," Josie replied. The two looked at each other as if they were speaking a silent language. They both smiled.
"My name is Carol Westheimer," the woman said, extending her hand towards Matt.
"Nice to meet you," he said, shaking what was offered. He didn't extend his name.
"So, are you going to do it?" Carol Westheimer asked animatedly. She clapped her hands together as if she were pounding erasers after school.
"We'd just like to take a look at the dog," offered Matt.
"Prince," Josie corrected.
"Oh. Okay. You named him Prince, did you?" enthused Carol Westheimer. She had a prominent Rhode Island accent. She said going with more emphasis on the "g" at the end than the rest of the word.
"She did," Matt pointed out.
"I like it," said Anna.
"I take it your husband is still unconvinced," said Carol Westheimer. She appeared somewhat amused.
"Well, it is a big decision," he pointed out. "I mean, we already have one dog and two cats, and a rabbit and--"
"Oh, you people kill me!" she interrupted him, laughing with the fake laugh she had used with the man on the phone. "I have twelve dogs at home, you know what I say to people with only one or two dogs like you? Compared to me, you don't have nothing! What's one more dog, really?"
He looked at her with ice in his eyes, determined not to lose his cool. "You don't have any children, do you?" he asked politely.
She shook her head, surprised by the question. "Um, no."
"Take the animals you have and multiply them times two. Then add on two more dogs and see how thrilled you are." He smiled and laughed tersely.
"Ha-ha!" But she wasn't amused. She turned to lead them to the doggie in the window.
That night they lay in bed again. She had been working on transcribing a statement but had quit for the night, too tired to go on.
"Ashley said something funny today," he said.
"Oh, yeah?" she was trying to sleep. He paused patiently, waiting for her to open her eyes, turn around, anything to acknowledge his story. Sigh. She raised her head up from the pillow. "What was it?"
"We went outside and were playing in the front yard. Ashley picked up one of the sea shells that we have scattered around the lamp post. And she was holding it to her ear. So then she handed the shell to me and said, "Put it to your ear, can you hear the seashore?" So I did. I told her that I could, and how nice it sounded, and I gave it back to her. Well, she dropped it on the ground. And as we were walking away, she asked me if the ocean stayed inside the shell even after we put it down!"
She smiled sleepily, her eyes droopy, almost looking drunk. Then she put her head back on the pillow, assuming she had been dismissed. He went back to his book. For a moment, at least.
He patted her bare shoulder. "I really don't want to get another dog."
"I know, Matt."
"Do you see me lately? With the dog yipping and the kids all talking at the same time? I don't think we've had a second of silence ever since we got Happy. How am I supposed to handle another one?"
"Do you know, the other day at work, Sandy came over and started to tell me this long, involved story? Do you know how much trouble I had following it? I can't listen to anyone talk for more than two minutes. I'm too used to someone interrupting me before then, or two people talking to me at once. It's scary."
Well. She opened her eyes and turned around to face him. He was laying in the opposite direction to her, his hair askew, his paperback book in his hands and a pillow between his legs. She could see the look of frustration on his face. Hmm. Maybe she was being a little selfish. Yes, she was. It was just that she--no, no, he was right.
"And have you looked at our bank account lately? How are we going to afford this? I know the dogs at the shelter are free, but there are other costs besides that, you know. Shots, and a collar, and what if he's not neutered--"
They had played with the dog for about fifteen minutes in the play area. They threw Prince a ball, which he caught marvelously, in an acrobatic display of agility. But his retrieval skills needed a bit of improving. He'd approach, but he would refuse to give up the ball. Ashley had enjoyed playing ball for a minute or two, but then caught sight of the playground, and talked Matt into taking her there. It didn't take much talking.
"You guys take as long as you want," he said and walked away.
After they departed, Carol had turned to her and whispered conspiratorially, "So he's not thrilled about it, eh?"
"He seemed to enjoy playing with the dog. At least, I thought."
"I don't think he's thrilled," she replied, unconvinced. "I think you're going to have trouble talking him into it."
"--And it's not like you would need to talk me into it, if we didn't have other animals, or a bigger house, or more money. Or if the kids were older. But they're not, and we don't. And seriously, Josie, do you really want to--"
"You're right," she said softly, stroking his left leg.
He stopped. He frowned at her. "You really think so?"
"Yes," she admitted. "It was a dumb idea. I was just carried away because Nana Santapietro picked up a dog. Forget I brought the whole thing up."
He sat up Indian style, kicking the pillow out from between his legs. He bent down to kiss her on the cheek. She closed her eyes and allowed him to put his arms around her.
"You're making the right choice," he said. "You really are."
Sometimes Matt didn't mind his job, and sometimes he actually enjoyed his job, but most of the time it was simply a chore. Now, mind you, there can be enjoyment in a chore--he liked nothing better, for example, than cleaning a sink full of dirty dishes, attacking the plates with dried food hanging to them like barnacles, the saucepans with congealed goos at the bottom; he enjoyed washing them all up and leaving them on the shelf atop a dish towel to dry, a final resting place his wife never could comprehend. But it was, when all is said and done, a chore nonetheless, coming as it did with a small hump of dread when one contemplated the work that needed to be accomplished. That's how he felt, each morning. As if he needed to climb a small mountain in order to scramble into the thick of things. A chore.
He was a Casualty Supervisor for a large insurance company. He wasn't exactly sure how he had ended up where he now was. Many years ago, after graduating from college, he had worked as an adjuster at another large insurance company, but he had quit after a year and a half, decrying the insidious game he had been forced to play all day long. The game was still being played. Unscrupulous attorneys looking to get as much money as they could for their clients, regardless of the validity of their claims. And, from his side, tight fisted carriers looking to settle for the fast buck, as if a herniated disc or fractured femur carried as much meaning as a red light sale at the local K-Mart.
But somewhere along the line he had grown to accept things, to harden himself to the harsh reality that it was the honestly injured who suffered as a result of the pervasive cynicism he was exposed to day in and day out. They didn't stand a chance. How could they? The system, after all, had been constructed for them.
Be that as it may, he would admit to being especially proud of himself on this particular morning. He had been putting off reviewing a particularly horrible claim for months. The loss involved a fatality--a fifty-two year old woman who had been drinking at a local bar with her boyfriend until twelve thirty at night. She had a drunken argument with him and left the bar in anger. She had called her son to pick her up. But before he could arrive, she had grown impatient and attempted to cross the busy avenue where the bar was situated, apparently to walk home. She made it halfway across before being struck by a pick-up truck and left for dead, her brains splattered all across the highway. The responsible party, a noted fire fighter in the city where the loss occurred, had consumed a few drinks himself that night and convinced himself that he just hit an animal. He had turned himself in a few days later.
The son of the deceased woman was placing an underinsured claim under his policy for his mother's death. The trouble was, there was a real question as to whether the mother actually resided with the son, and it was hard to contact the son, since he was now residing in Ohio. But his Attorney was still around. They usually were.
In any event, he had gotten through the belly of the beast today, sorting through what material evidence they had regarding her physical address and his, as well as suggesting several other avenues of investigation. They might help to pin her actual address, squirming and wiggling, to the wall. Or maybe not. It was hard not to get cynical.
To reward himself, he decided to call Josie, something he usually did at least once in the morning. He suspected sometimes that it drove her crazy, because he'd call, then start to get distracted by something on his desk, and begin to fade away mid conversation. He doubted that he'd ever be able to explain to her the importance of those calls. He wasn't even certain he fully understood their importance himself--what it meant, just to talk to her, even if it was over nothing. Even if his attention was being tugged at.
She picked up on the second ring. He could hear barking in the background. Evidently Happy was up to no good. And Ashley, arguing about something, to someone. He could pick up the words "torn shoes."
"Hello?" she answered cheerfully.
"Hello." He tried to make his voice sound warm and sexy.
"Well, I've been thinking about last night," she said. Oh, dear. He frowned and stared vacantly at the screen saver on his computer--the computer from Lost In Space, claws unfurled, proclaiming, "Warning!" Warning indeed. Thinking. That didn't bode well.
"Yeah." She hesitated. The dog continued to bark. "And I kind of feel, well...I mean, I know how you feel--"
"Yes, you do."
"But my feeling is...that is, I just wonder if this dog was meant to be with us, you know? And if we don't take him, I might always regret it, and look back and say, 'Jesus, I wish we had gotten him.' I'm not sure we'll ever get a chance like this again."
The scowl on his face was fierce and ran deep. One of his new adjusters, Ilene, got up from her desk to approach him with a question. "Josie, do you remember exactly how much money we have in our bank account?" He observed out of the corner of his eye Ilene discretely move back to her desk.
"Maybe you don't. It's a negative one, remember?"
"I remember, Matt."
"I think you need to see it again in front of your face. Go pull it up on the computer."
"Why do you want to have two dogs, Josie? We have enough trouble handling the one we have!"
"I thought of that."
She paused again. "And. No one says we have to have two dogs."
He actually gasped. He wasn't certain why, but he did anyway. Probably for dramatic effect. "Are you saying you want to get rid of Happy?"
"Well, Matt, it's not like we haven't talked about it before--"
"You know how much he drives you nuts. You're always saying so. He spends most of his day in the kennel, because we're not able to paper train him. So it's not like he plays with the kids much. And when he's out, he only runs around and nips at them whenever they come near him."
"But what kind of message would that send to the kids? Getting one dog and then junking him when a better one comes around?"
She laughed. "You know, I wasn't thinking about leaving him on a street corner in the pouring rain."
"Well, see, that's the thing," he replied wickedly. "If you're not going to be cruel to the little bastard, I don't want any part of it."
"I was thinking we could take out an ad and sell him. To a nice family."
"What makes you think we'll have more time for this new dog?"
"I just...think it'll be different. That's all."
"So you won't let me get him."
Oh. An ultimatum. God, since you put it that way... It was infuriating. He made decisions all day long at his job, he gets asked one simple question that only requires a yes or no answer, and now look at him, with a huge question mark towering above his head.
"I didn't say that." There. A nice non-committal answer.
"So what are you saying?" Oh, damn!
"Look...if this is something you really want, I'm not going to stop you. But would you do me a favor and think about it, please? Think about the money, and having two dogs--"
"We won't have two dogs."
"You think it's going to be easy to sell off that dog? Who's going to place the ads, and interview the people, and--"
"And think about me, would you?" he concluded, probably a little too loudly. "Think about me with two dogs. That's going to be fun to live with, isn't it?"
Her voice was sweet and warm. "I love you, Matt."
He frowned. "I love you, too." He hung up the phone. He knew the dog was as good as in their living room that moment.
He returned that evening and was greeted to confusion thrown around the living room like a dinner buffet at a Munchkin house. The new dog--he remembered the name, Prince--had arrived just as expected. Prince stood by the door, his brown eyes friendly and his mouth wide open, panting. His tongue jutting out, roughly the shape and texture of a thick piece of bacon. Ashley stood next to him, her arms around his neck.
"Surprise!" she said as he entered the room. He smiled at her and patted the top of her curly head.
Kyle was located on the couch, sucking his big toe and staring up at the television screen. Anna was sitting at the kitchen table working on her homework with her Walkman blasting. She looked up at him, pointed to the dog, and laughed.
Josie was on the phone, talking to someone. He knew she had seen him enter, but her back was now to him, ostensibly talking away and paying him no mind. Her attention was allegedly focused on the conversation and the washing machine, which she was also filling up with another load while the dryer drummed a complex rhythm by her side. Liar.
Ruff! Ruff ruff yip!
And him. He was hard to locate at first, but a sound check easily focused Matt's gaze to where Happiness lay, inside his cage as usual, his bright black eyes peering out and his fangs occasionally bared back against the metal bars. And she had said that being in the presence of the Prince might calm him. He smiled spitefully. Well, it didn't seem to be having exactly that effect.
"Has he been like this all day?" he asked Anna, all sweetness and light.
She put down her headphones. "Huh?'
"Has he been--"
"Most of it."
He snuck a look in his wife's direction. He could swear she had been glancing his way, but turned away as he looked over. "When did you get him?" He pursued Anna in effigy.
"About three thirty.
"Hmm. Well." He turned almost shyly towards the dog. Ashley crouched down, one arm wrapped around Prince's belly, her thumb jammed in her mouth. "How's he feel, Ashley? You like him?"
"Yeah," said Ashley, still intent on her thumb.
"Let me take a look at this beast." He walked over to Prince and placed his hand upon the dog's head. It felt soft and silky, particularly around the ears. He noticed for the first time that his head was shaped like a Golden Retriever. He moved his touch down to his back. The fur felt rough and tangled, the result of not having a bath in God knows how long. The dog looked up at him, his brown eyes almost human in expression. He opened his mouth, as if grinning.
From the other end of the room, he heard a loud "Ruff!"
"He looks like a nice dog," he said.
"He is," said Anna. Apparently she didn't have trouble hearing that one through the Walkman.
He turned back towards Anna. His wife was still on the phone, but had turned to watch him with the animal. She looked into his eyes for the first time and smiled. He returned a quirky grin.
"Has Happy been out at all?"
"He was out for a while, but got too excited."
"How could he be more excited than he is now? Did the two fight?"
Anna shook her head, her beautiful blue eyes steady and focused. "No. I think Happy was a little scared of Prince."
"Well, that's a good sign..." He patted Ashley on the heads as if he had mistaken her for the dog and moved towards the kitchen, towards Happy, who was agitatedly clawing against his cage. He didn't look that Happy at that moment. He passed his wife on the way and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back then placed that hand over the receiver.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
He bent down to unlock the front of the cage. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
She lifted her hand away from the receiver. "Hold on, just a minute, Debbie." Hand back. "Why are you doing it?"
"It's got to be done sometimes, right? I just want to see how they react to each other."
"We've already tried that."
"Maybe it'll shut Happy up for a moment." He took a sadistic enjoyment over her concern over taking Happy out. She deserved some anxiety.
The cage door pulled back. Matt looked on with anticipation. The barking, clawing, banging stopped. Happy stuck his coal black nose out first, sniffing the air noisily. Then his head, his black pupils straining to see beyond the tasseled mess of hair that fell like a hanging curtain over his eyes. Then, slowly, the rest of his tiny body, his fat little belly, his fur, all matted from upsetting the water bowl in the kennel and laying in it for countless hours, in various shades of black, brown, gray and white, his little swirl of a tail. He was out, completely.
Matt continued his watch.
He clicked to the end of the kitchen and peered into the living room. Prince was still by the door, laying down. His head was tilted to one side, staring with interest into the kitchen. He had noticed Happy. Happy stopped in his tracks, hesitant, unsure whether to move forward or turn tail and run. Prince lifted himself up off his haunches, his head lowered, his tail wagging slowly from side to side like a grandfather clock.
"Ruff." Happy barked softly, cautiously.
But he stared at Prince defiantly, almost pathetically. As if he was the ruler of a kingdom that had undergone a revolution and overthrown their Sun King. Then, he advanced forward, almost leaping, trying to catch the larger dog off guard. Prince watched him calmly, not showing a hint of concern or irritation. It suddenly dawned on Matt that he had yet to hear Prince bark. It was a pleasant change of pace and a direct contrast to his eternally hyperactive counterpart.
Happy stopped about three feet from where Prince stood. He craned his neck up to stare into his eyes, a baleful gnat before a behemoth, a Davey before Goliath. Prince lowered his head down and tiptoed forward, sniffing the air before him. They touched, nose to nose.
Prince stuck his tongue out and licked Happy across the face. Happy jumped back, surprised, but didn't move away. He simply stood before Prince, noiselessly.
Matt smiled, pleased. He saw that Josie was still on the phone, but her attention was also focused on the drama being played out, while she pretended to listen to Debbie go on and on about nothing. Even Ashley took her focus away from her thumb in order to observe the canine kabuki.
He gave Josie a thumbs up sign. "Looks like things might be okay after--"
Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!
Above the din of the statement she was transcribing, she could hear him shuffling out of the bedroom. She stopped the tape, glanced up from her computer terminal and threw off her headphones. He finally made it into the kitchen, a comical figure in chili pepper boxer shorts, a bleach stained sweatshirt and comfy slippers.
"Will that damn thing ever shut up?" he demanded to know.
She shrugged. "Don't ask me."
"It's two thirty, you know. I've only got four more hours to sleep before I wake up. Oh, silly me, I'm already awake. I'm going to be dragging my ass at work tomorrow, let me tell you!"
She felt little sympathy. "At least you get to sleep."
"Prince hasn't made a sound all night. He's been lying on your side of the bed for hours. I wouldn't even know he was there if he didn't take up most of the room. Oh, and I think that he snores, too."
She pushed away her bangs from her forehead. She let out a huge yawn. "Nice of you to let him get fur all over my side of the bed. I need a coffee..."
"I need a pair of ear muffs."
"Did you ever think that maybe Happy's jealous because he's stuck in his kennel and would like to be in the bedroom?"
He made a face. "Fat chance of that happening."
He shook his head in irritation. "Excuse me." He moved over to the cage and grabbed a metal cookie box, placed purposefully by the kennel for moments of stress. The cookie box was full of pennies. Matt crashed it against the side of the cage.
"Shut up!" he cried out, crashing the box down again. "Shut up!" He crashed it down twice more for emphasis.
"You know the only time that I heard that dog in the bedroom bark?" he asked, directing his comments deliberately in the direction of the kennel...as if Happy could understand a word he was saying. "That time Ashley tried to take Happy's chew toy, and shithead here tried to snap at her!"
"I know." Josie sounded almost maternal, as if she were referring to one of her children. "He was trying to protect us."
"Now that's a good dog." Satisfied with his dressing down, Matt discarded the cookie box and started to shuffle back to the bedroom.
Josie sighed and glanced down sadly at the cage, which rested only a few feet from her chair. On some nights, her typing seemed to soothe Happy. He actually quieted down, so long as she kept up her pace. Not tonight. He just couldn't stand being in the cage with another dog running around free. However, until he learned not to go to the bathroom inside, he wasn't going anywhere. And he had already left a little brown gift by their bureau dresser once tonight. She picked up her headphones to resume her work.
She looked down at the cage and kicked it gently. Shut up, if you know what's good for you, you damn mutt.
Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!
Josie stopped typing and waited expectantly.
He shuffled back into the room. He hadn't even made it to his bedroom this time. He looked tired and at the end of his rope.
"Can't you do anything to shut him up?"
She threw down her headphones this time. As if she wasn't having enough problems trying to get through the statement without falling asleep. And she just knew that Kyle was going to wake up any minute, demanding a bottle.
"What do you think?"
He bit his top teeth into his lower lip. "I think I can," he replied grimly. He moved to the cage and lifted it up, placing it under one arm like a pile of schoolbooks. "Into the cellar you go." The dog howled in protest.
"Oh yeah?" Matt barked back. "Be thankful if I keep the lights on down there!"
He opened the door to the cellar and exited. She looked back at her computer and pressed the play button on her Dictaphone.
That night he dreamed about coconuts and lemon drops.
They were the only things he could find to eat, stranded on a desert island, wearing nothing but his chili pepper boxer shorts and a lei around his neck (he had some dim memory of celebrating at a luau before being swept up by a twister.) The sand looked white and felt as soft as a velvet painting of Elvis.
Lying lazily on the beach, listening to the ocean lapping against the shore, he suddenly spotted a boat in the distance. He jumped up, waiving and calling out to be saved. He could hardly discern the figures aboard the ship, although he imagined he observed a tiny captain with a telescope tattooed to one eye, waiving on several other crewman. This observation in and of itself was amazing, considering the fact that he wasn't wearing his glasses in his dream and couldn't see more than five feet in front of him under normal circumstances.
In any event, he observed the crewman move forward, carrying something large and bulky, which they dragged to the stern and threw overboard. He definitely heard the splash as the object hit the water. Then he saw the captain waive good-bye and start to sail off.
"Stop! Help!" he called out.
He stared, aghast, as the boat sailed away, growing smaller and smaller. But conversely, the object thrown overboard made its way with unerring accuracy towards the shore, growing larger and larger in inverse proportion to the ship. After a while, he could make out its features. It was a wooden crate. He took his eyes off the dwindling image of the ship, intrigued.
The crate continued to grow in size, until at last it washed onto the shore. He ran over to it, his feet splashing against the foam. He reached the crate and dragged it farther ashore. It felt surprisingly lightweight. He glanced at the top of the crate, then did a double take. The crate had his name on it! It had a big pink tag that read: "Matthew Edwards. Destination: Unknown."
And there was a letter underneath the pink tag, too. Sealed up in a little plastic bag and then duct taped to the side. Curious, he ripped the bag off and tore open its contents. The letter inside was blue and smelled of perfume. The handwriting was unmistakably Josie's.
The letter read: "Honey. Thought you might be lonely on that big old deserted island. Decided to send you a little something to keep you company."
He grew excited. What could she have shipped? Books? CDs? Hustler Magazines?
Yip? He frowned. Then he lurched over and started to tear open the crate, almost nauseous with anticipation. No, there was no way she could have done it, no way, no way in Hell...He ripped open the last plank atop the crate. He looked down in horror, at the mess of dog food and dried turds that lay at the bottom of the crate.
And there, in the corner, was Happy, staring up at him with his little beady black eyes shining. He started to scratch and whimper to get out.
Oh dear God, no...not this...anything but--
He woke up, in a sweat, his heart racing. He could hear her still typing away in the other room.
The following afternoon her brother Cal came over for a visit. He had been doing that often lately, in part, because he had recently been laid off from Hindsman Electronics, where he had worked in the metal die casting department for fifteen years. He was five years older than her, about Matt's age. He had been married once--was still married, actually. But he had left his wife years ago. He never talked about the reason he left, although Josie had her suspicions. Cal had yet to get around to finalizing the divorce. "If she wants to do it, she knows where I am," he would reply bitterly when asked.
He had picked a good time to visit. Anna was at school and Ashley had gone to her mother-in-law's for the day. And Kyle was taking a nap in the nursery. Josie had been working on housework and welcomed the interruption.
He held a musical instrument in his hand. A recorder. He handed it to her when she opened the screen door. She stared the instrument, colored brown and white, and plastic. She crunched up her face.
"What's this for?" she asked.
"Anna," Cal replied. "She left it over Ma's. She asked me to drop it off when I saw you."
Josie frowned. "Anna hasn't played the recorder in over two years."
He shrugged and pursed his lips as if he were the cat who swallowed the canary. "Ma asked me to drop it off about a year ago. It's been in the back seat of my car for a while." She tried not to laugh at him. By all rights she should be mad. But Cal still looked like an impish little boy from time to time, with his curly blond hair and blue eyes, even if he was approaching thirty-five. Without her glasses on she'd swear she could still see him in farmers jeans and barefoot, a bullfrog in his hand.
No. He was an adult now. So was she.
"Come on in," she said.
He spotted the pile on the kitchen table as he trudged in with his heavy boots. She had placed a stack of purple flyers down, on which had been printed a silhouette of a black dog with "For Sale" in big black letters at the top of the page. He walked over and picked up a copy.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Oh, just something I was working on. I've been putting a few up around the neighborhood here and there...oh! That's right. You haven't met the newest member of our family, have you?"
"You mean your new dog?" He made a face. "Where is he?"
She pointed towards the kitchen. Cal looked inside, where Prince lay, sprawled out across the floor. Cal's eyes grew wide with surprise. "Jesus! How big is that monster?"
"The vet said sixty five pounds," she replied. "But he's not operating at full capacity right now. He'll gain weight as his belly gets bigger."
"Oh, that's just what you need in this house, another dog," Cal said sarcastically.
"My mother-in-law says she's beautiful," she countered. "And she says she sees why I fell in love with him."
"Your mother-in-law also doesn't have to live with him. What does Ma think?"
"She hasn't seen him. Dad has. He thinks he's great."
"What about that other little dog? Where is he, anyway?"
"Outside on a leash," she answered. "He's quieter that way."
She paused, listening. Well, maybe quieter, but certainly not quiet. He was still yipping away. She could picture him, straining to get off his leash. And looking around, indignantly, every five minutes. As if he were shocked that no one were coming to answer.
She felt ashamed. It had been a feeling that had been growing for days. She knew they had failed with him. They had never had the time to sit and really train him. But he had always been so high strung, so demanding. How the hell could she give constant attention to him when she had three kids tugging her in different directions? And if that weren't bad enough, she fell in love with Prince, and now--
"So which one are you giving up?" he asked.
She pushed a flyer his way. "Which one do you think?"
"That's what Happy is, in case you didn't know."
He snorted and pushed the flyer back in her direction. "Well, it's your life."
She tensed up.
He grinned knowingly. "It's nothing."
"I just can't believe you, that's all." He reached in and pulled a cigarette box out of his pants pocket. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"You know I do! What can't you believe?"
"Your sense of morals, that's all."
"Well, I mean, if you had a kid that was a pain in the ass and you gave birth to a better one, would you give the first one away?"
"I have three kids that are pains in the asses. Why, you want one?"
"You want Happy? That way we could keep him in the family."
She turned on him angrily. "Don't you talk to me about morals! I feel guilty enough having Matt angry at me, without you sticking your big nose where it's not wanted. I know another pain in the ass around here!" She went to kick him in the butt. The phone rang. She stopped in her place. "But it looks like I'll have to finish you off later on." She moved to the phone. "Hello?"
She sat in the bathroom, atop the sink, in a white satin negligee that showed plenty of cleavage. She had her doubts if that was for the best.
"Cal was questioning my morals today," she commented.
"Why?" He sat in bed, reading. No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. He had yet to finish Rebecca, which was buried somewhere in a jumbled pile by the bed. No Ordinary Time contained a dog, too. They were inescapable, it seemed. FDR had adored his little black terrier, Fala. Matt had little sympathy.
"He said trying to sell Happy was like selling one our kids because a better one came along."
Matt smirked. "If one of our kids yipped like Happy, I'd consider it."
She moved out of the bedroom and sat down on the bed next to him. He shifted uncomfortably, trying to mask his irritation at being interrupted. She stroked his right leg, which was crossed over his left kneecap, bobbing in the air before her like an apple on a tree.
"I feel bad," she admitted.
He chuckled involuntarily. She let go of his leg. He put down his book.
"Oh, you do, do you?" he said with a broad smile, seemingly delighted. "I felt bad about the situation from the start, but did you listen to me?"
"Matt, don't you dare give me that I told you so shit--"
"No! You had to go with your feelings!"
"Well, I asked the kids about which dog they'd rather keep today, you know," she said defensively.
"That's constructive! Really gives them a sense of having a choice. What'd they say?"
"Ashley said she'd rather get rid of Happy."
"Ugh. Those words. 'Get rid of.'"
"Well, it's what we're doing, isn't it?"
"No! We're just...relocating him, that's all. To a different household."
"Oh. So that's different, right?"
She lay down on the bed, defeated. It was hot out. They really needed a fan in their room. But she was too tired and too depressed to get one from the cellar. She closed her eyes, face down in the mattress.
"You going to sleep soon?" she asked.
"I can if you want me to."
He threw his book on the floor and reached over to turn off the light. The room fell into darkness. They couldn't see each other, but lay together, side by side, aware of the other's breathing.
She thought about what he just said. She thought about his attitude the past few days. He really had been a pain in the ass about everything. And the thing was, he liked Prince, too. A lot better than Happy. She knew he did. Why did he have to act like such a--
"Hey, Josie," he asked, breaking the silence.
"Would you give me away if someone better came along, too?"
He chuckled to himself, pleased that he had irritated her. Then, silence.
"Well then, why don't you just divorce me?" she finally asked through the darkness.
He stirred. "What?"
"If I make your life so miserable."
"Oh, Josie..." He reached over to touch her shoulder, then moved up and stroked her hair. "No, no, no," he whispered. "You make my life complete..."
He placed his head down on her chest, listening to her heart beat. She smiled, although he couldn't see it.
"Misery's just a small part of it," he whispered.
She smacked him on the head. His laughter turned into a yelp.
"So is pain!" she called out.
He brought his head up to meet her lips. "So is something else," he said, and kissed her.
Happy started to bark in the kitchen.
Josie promised herself that she wouldn't cry.
She had decided to make the whole process as easy as possible. She arranged for Kyle and Ashley to be with her mother in law all morning. Anna was at school, so she didn't have to worry about her, boo-hooing and carrying on. She probably would have been the worst. And Matt, who undoubtedly would have come a close second, was at work.
Just for old time's sake, she placed Prince down in the cellar about an hour ago. Where Happy usually ended up. She hadn't heard a single complaint, as yet. He had simply gone down, calmly and quietly, even tempered as always.
So it was just her, alone with Happy, alone together. She kept him out of the kennel--it wasn't going with him, anyway, because the new owner didn't believe in them. She didn't mind if he crapped on the floor on his last day there. If that's what turned him on, so be it.
She was making the right decision, she just knew it. She wasn't giving up one of her children-- the analogy had been absurd. Pets aren't children, they're just that--pets. And if it wasn't working out, if it was creating unneeded stress in the household, if they weren't able to give the animal the time and attention it needed, then it was in everyone's best interests to get out of the situation. As long as the pet was being placed in as good a household as the one he was leaving. Perhaps, in a few ways, moving on to a better one.
Which was the case here, she just knew it. Happy was going to live with a nice older man who had just lost his wife to cancer and was looking for companionship. She had met with his daughter on two separate occasions, and now she was going to meet with him today, and if things went well, he'd be taking Happy home, for at least a trial period.
She looked over at Happy. He was chewing one of Matt's loafers and looking up at her expectantly, his tail wagging furiously. He was waiting for her to pick up the shoe and throw it.
Instead, she reached down and picked him up instead, ruffling up the wiry fur on his backside. He squirmed around, his attention still focused on the shoe.
"You be a good boy," she said, nuzzling her nose against his. "You're going to get the run of this new house. And no kennel to live in, what do you think of that?"
Happy stared blankly at her and panted, not understanding a word of what she was saying.
"And don't think you'll miss us, because we'll come to visit you, I promise," she said, although she knew deep down that it was an outrageous lie. They wouldn't be coming to visit. They'd never find the time, and it'd be too much of an imposition, barging into this man's house with three kids. No, once he was gone he'd be just a memory.
"I'll miss you," she said.
And she meant it. Although she wasn't sure exactly how long she'd miss him for. Maybe not more than a day. But there had been good times-- taking him for a walk (Prince wasn't nearly as easy, weighing as much as he did. With Happy, if he got stubborn you could always drag him), taking him to Anna's Little League practice, nuzzling his little pink tummy. She hoped that she remembered the good in addition to the bad.
"I am doing the right thing," she repeated.
She gave Happy a kiss on the head. He continued to pant and squirm under her grasp. She finally took mercy on him and let him down. He click-clacked his paws on the floor back to the loafer. And I'm not going to cry. I can get through this without crying, really.
There was a knock on the door.
This was it.
Happy sat on the floor, oblivious, content just chewing on Matt's old battered shoe.
She looked around for a Kleenex. She had to dab at her eyes before she answered the door.
As we sat in the hospital, petting our handsome guy one last time, Josie leaned over and whispered into his ear, "You were the best other man I ever had in my life."
And the greatest of the escape artists. There will never be another pup better than you, Prince. Never. I just wish that you had been able to escape, one last time. But I know that somewhere, you're up there, hanging around with Thummy and Stormy, and giving heaven's dog patrol officers conniptions.