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Last Dog

Claire Burgess

Joel was worried about the dead dog in his trunk. Heat rose off the road in front of him, rippling the air like a photograph warping over a flame—he was beginning to regret his decision to pack the ice inside the trash bag with the dog. In this heat, he knew, the ice would be melting, soaking the fur, and if there’s a smell worse than dead dog, it’s wet dead dog. What he should have done was put the dog inside its own bag, put that bag inside another bag filled with ice, and then put that bag in the suitcase. That way, the dog would have stayed dry. Every time he hit a pothole or made a sharp turn, he could hear the suitcase with the dog in it thump and slide. He thought he could hear sloshing water too, but he couldn’t be sure.

The dead dog belonged to Joel’s dying father. He had lung disease, and when he called Joel and said that the dog, a coonhound named Hound, had beat him to the grave and he was going to follow him soon, Joel had checked out of the motel he had been staying in since his wife said she needed some “time,” and had flown straight down to Forte, a town where the waters of the Gulf seeped up through the ground to form marshes, undermine the foundation of houses, and breed enough mosquitoes to outnumber the humans. When he arrived, he found his father skinny and stooped, but with joints swollen and huge, as if they belonged to a larger animal. Skin hung off his bones like a turkey’s wattle, and his eyes seemed to have a translucent film over them, like a second set of eyelids constantly closed. Joel hadn’t been born until his father was thirty-six, which Joel had thought was too old to be having your first child. But then here he was, two years past that age and childless. And jobless. And possibly soon to be wifeless.

Upon the dog’s death, Joel’s father had gotten the boy down the street, in exchange for a silver dollar, to carry it to the garage for him and store it in the large freezer that formerly held venison from his successful hunting trips. Joel had tried to transfer the dog into his father’s biggest cooler for transport, but the animal was frozen solid, or maybe stiff from rigor mortis, or both. Either way, it wouldn’t fit, and Joel had to improvise with the trash bags and ice and his big rolling suitcase. He had dumped all his clothes onto the blue-carpeted floor of his childhood bedroom, where they formed a pitiful, odorous pile, and he had reflected on the meaning of that pile, which contained everything he had brought with him to the motel after leaving the house he had shared with his wife but now did not. The pile meant this—failure, regret, defeat. And then he dragged the empty suitcase to the garage and stuffed a frozen dog into it.

But it probably didn’t matter about the ice, Joel thought, since the dog itself was probably thawing by now. He had been lost for the last twenty minutes, cursing his unhelpful GPS and weaving through roads that should have been familiar, but now were not. Nothing looked the same, or maybe everything looked the same as everything else. He drove past live oaks trailing Spanish moss, past brightly painted Victorians, past rusted-out trucks and tilting sheds and jungle-like vegetation that swallowed fences and spilled onto the road, as dense and unsurpassable as steel wool. It was stranger than Philadelphia had been, or Chicago, or Louisville, Joel decided, because it was familiar and strange at the same time.

Joel squinted at the passing landscape, hunched over the steering wheel like his father used to do before his eyesight got too bad to drive, hoping for something to trigger a memory. He used to know these roads like he knew his own face in the mirror, but then again, he didn’t really know his face anymore. Like his face, Forte had become strange over the years, had changed while he wasn’t looking.

Joel had left when he was eighteen. He had only returned for Thanksgivings (they had done Christmas with his in-laws), his mother’s funeral, and for the occasional visit to his father after he got sick, but on those visits he seldom drove anywhere except to pick up groceries from the Piggly Wiggly down the street or to take his father to the hospital in Mobile. He hadn’t ventured onto these roads since the weekends in high school when he and his friends took six packs into the swamp and shot bottle rockets at each other. And now here he was again, bouncing through the beat-up back roads of his youth in his father’s Buick, but this time he had no friends or beer or bottle rockets, just a thawing dog in the trunk.

When he finally found the taxidermist’s, he came upon it by accident. He rounded a curve in the road and there it was in front of him, sprung like a bobcat out of the swampy underbrush to stare him in the face, unexpected and startling and sadly obvious, like everything else in his life.

The shop was on the ground floor of a squat house the color of dried moss, right next to a partially abandoned strip of shops which included a tanning salon, a Chinese buffet, and a hunting gear store. “Herbert Taxidermy” said the sign out front. Joel pulled into the gravel driveway and then wondered if he should roll the whole suitcase in, take the dog out first, or walk in and ask. They might not even do dogs, after all. Mounting a pet seemed morbid to Joel, but then again, mounting anything seemed morbid to Joel. For a period of time when he was young, he had refused to go into the den unless his mother covered his father’s trophy animals with sheets and pillowcases. When he wasn’t looking directly at them, he swore he could see them move.

Joel decided to go in and ask first.

Inside, heads clustered the walls—deer, bucks, boars, even a moose. The front room had been converted into a showroom dominated by a standing and dusty black bear. A random assortment of tables and shelves held exhibits of small game and fowl, and a large desk blocked the doorway to another room shielded with a camo-print curtain. The desk looked like it would be better suited to a smoky study, not a taxidermy shop. On one corner of the desk, a small white bunny was mounted on a shiny disk of wood. The room was so packed with animals that at first Joel didn’t notice that he was the only human in it.

“Hello?” he said. His voice sounded very loud. In the corners of his vision, glass eyes rolled towards him.

The camo curtain moved to reveal the head of a girl peering at him. The head had red hair the color of a candy apple, which in some places would be a statement color, but here was just the color people dyed their hair when they went red.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the head. “I was so caught up I didn’t hear you come in.”

“It’s okay,” said Joel. “Are you Herbert? Sorry, do you pronounce the ‘H’ or not?”

The candy-headed girl emerged the rest of the way from the curtain and tugged it closed behind her. She was wearing a sundress and cowboy boots, and on her upper back, where it wasn’t covered by her hair or the straps of the dress, part of a large tattoo was visible.

“The Cajun way: ‘A-bear,’” said the girl. “And yes, I’m Abear.”

“Oh,” said Joel. The girl, Abear, was young, mid-twenties, Joel guessed, with a nose like a smooshed muffin and a large purple birthmark that spread like an ink stain from her left jaw under her ear up to her cheekbone, nearly covering the whole cheek. Joel strained to not stare and to look at her eyes instead, eyes that were a brown so dark that the irises were barely distinguishable from the pupils. They reminded him of the eyes of an animal—not the glass ones in the mounts, but live, blinking animal eyes.

“Can I help you with something?” she said.

“Yes,” said Joel. “It’s, uh, it’s kind of embarrassing, actually. And please don’t hesitate to say no if you’re uncomfortable with it—”

“What, you want to mount your wife?” said Abear with a smirk, the left edge of her lip drawing towards the birthmark.

Joel was silent for a moment, and then expelled a nervous laugh that sounded more like choking. “No, uh, it’s a dog,” he said.

Abear’s smirk disappeared. “A pet?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure your want to mount it?” she said. “Mounting it won’t give you your dog back. It’ll give you a statue of your dog. Have you considered cremation?” It sounded like she had given this speech before.

“I’m sure,” he said.

The edge of her bra was visible under the sundress. It was the flesh-colored kind his wife wore, which she called “sensible.”

“Most shops won’t do this kind of work, you know,” said Abear. “Too much buyer’s remorse.”

Joel knew. That’s why he had come here, because the ad in the phone book said they did “unusual animals,” which he assumed to mean exotic animals, but he was hoping the choice of the word “unusual” would mean they’d make an exception for this one dog. He thought of his father sitting on his cigarette-burned armchair in the wood-paneled den with the animal heads, his oxygen tank at his side, and said, “Please. It’s important.”

Abear eyed him for a moment, her eyes squinting as if trying to see him better, and then shrugged and offered her hand.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it.” When they shook on it, she gave his hand a reassuring double-squeeze at the end.

“It’s in my trunk,” he said, pulling his hand away.

When he opened his trunk, Joel was embarrassed to see one plastic-covered paw protruding beyond the zipper of the suitcase as if the dog was trying to escape. He glanced at the girl to see her reaction, but she only raised one finely plucked eyebrow.

The dog was thankfully still frozen solid, but some of the ice had melted and wet the red-brown fur. It had also escaped the trash bag and soaked the bottom of his suitcase and some of the trunk upholstery. He was sure he would never get the smell out.

“It wouldn’t fit in the cooler,” Joel explained as he stooped to remove the dog from the trash bag, but he was so busy watching Abear’s two-toned face that the trash bag slipped and the dog water and remaining ice slushed onto the parking lot and into his shoes.

“Goddamnit!” he said, almost dropping the dog. He could feel his cheeks going red, and then redder when he realized they were going red. For a moment, he had an out-of-body experience. He could see himself from the girl’s point of view—a middle-aged man with rings of sweat under his armpits, holding a dripping, frozen dog in his arms, standing in wet shoes, blushing. He saw his receding hairline at the temples, the expanding, pit-like pores on his nose, the growing water spot on the front of his shirt where he held the dog against his softening belly, the gap of his mouth slightly open with embarrassment, his eyes dull and a bit out of focus with humiliation.

And then he was back in his body. The water in his shoes was freezing.

“It’s only water,” said the girl. And then she reached out and touched the dog. She stroked the matted fur on the top of its head as if it were alive.

“He looks like a nice dog,” she said.

Joel couldn’t meet her eyes, so he stared at the edge of her bra and said, “He was.”

~

On the way back to his father’s house, Joel called his wife. He knew she wouldn’t answer, but he did this anyway, every day. She always sent him to voice mail, but she never outright rejected the call, which meant something. It meant he had a foothold. It meant he was still present in her life in the form of his messages. It meant she couldn’t cut him out completely.

Joel had a plan. He would get back in through her voicemail, convince her to take him back through persistence and eloquence. Every message was carefully pondered and planned out before he left it, and he often pressed four to replay the message and then two to erase and record it again until it was perfect. He would listen to her voice on the recorded greeting, the brisk alto of it, shiny and full and cold like brass, and every time he could feel longing and hope swell in him and then get cut down by the sharp muscle spasm of remembered heartbreak.

The whole thing seemed terribly romantic to Joel. His carefully crafted messages were love letters, hand written, corked inside a bottle, set into the outgoing tide of a grey sea. He imagined her listening to them while standing in the kitchen, the scene of their break, possibly while eating a solitary meal at the new granite island they had just installed six months ago, before he lost his job, on which Joel had broken two plates and three wine glasses (granite is notorious for breaking things—you have to be very careful, and Joel was never careful enough). He imagined that she would imagine him across from her as she replayed his messages, imagine him sharing her meal. He could see her face—her upper lip with the dip over it the shape of a dew drop would tremble slightly—her huge blue eyes that protruded from her face in a way that stopped just short of buggish and landed on startling would be closed—she would run one hand through her blond hair from front to back, the way she did when she was stressed or upset. She would save the message. She saved all his messages. He imagined.

“You’ve reached Danielle Riggs,” the greeting said. “I’m away from my phone right now, but please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thank you. Bye.”

Riggs. That was his last name. Riggs. He cherished it, her name joined with his. It was his favorite part of the message. His second favorite part was when she said “Bye.” So polite, automatic, and completely unnecessary.

“Hi, honey,” he said after the beep. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m in Forte now. My flight was good, clear skies the whole way. I wish you were here. Dad would love to see you. He doesn’t have much time left. I would take you to that seafood restaurant you like, the one with the fresh oysters from the Gulf. Do you remember the first night we went there? And what we did when we went back to Dad’s? Good thing he’s hard of hearing. Ha-ha. I haven’t heard back about that interview at AmeriBank, but I’m going to follow up in a couple days. Oh, and Hound died. It’s very sad. Dad says he has nothing to live for anymore and he’s going to go soon. I wish you were here. I love you. Bye.”

He pressed four to listen to his message, and his voice held the perfect mix of sadness and intimacy. That one might bring a tear to her eye. She liked Hound, even though she had animal allergies. She had always wanted a dog but could never have one, and sometimes she would look at Hound longingly from across the room and sneeze.

~

“She said it will take a month at the least,” Joel told his father when he found his way back to his house. “Probably more.”

“Not good enough!” his father wheezed at him as he dragged his narrow green oxygen tank to the recliner beneath the 8-point buck. “I might be dead by then.”

“Don’t talk like that, Dad. The doctor said you could have years left,” said Joel.

“The doctor doesn’t know shit,” his father said. “He’s a third my age. He doesn’t know what dying feels like, but I do. I can feel it all over my body. I predict I have three weeks.”

“Dad.”

“Don’t ‘Dad’ me. You don’t know what it feels like either.” He paused to have a coughing fit and hack something from his lungs into his palm. He held it out to Joel, cupped in his wrinkled hand in a way that seemed tender and careful. It reminded Joel of how his father used to scoop tadpoles out of the swamp ponds that were everywhere around here and show them to Joel, pointing out the ones with legs, the ones with legs and arms, the ones with nothing. He would press his fingers together to try to hold on to the water, but it would always seep out, leaving the tadpoles squirming on his bare palm.

Joel looked into his father’s cupped hand. In it was something dark and viscous, like black snot.

“See?” his father said. “That’s what death looks like. It comes from inside you and fills up your lungs and chokes you.” Then he flapped his hand over the trash can beside his chair until it flew into the plastic lining with a thwack, the wet sound of finality. Joel imagined he could feel his own skin getting loose, his joints starting to compact, his eyes starting to blur.

“Tell that girl to hurry it up,” he said, pointing a yellow-nailed finger at Joel. “Tell her it’s a matter of life and death.”

It was too late to call the taxidermy shop, so Joel decided to call the next day. Or maybe he would go there in person, just to get out of the house, get away from the wheezing and the talk of phlegm and death. When he thought of seeing Abear again he felt nervous. He didn’t know what he would say. “My father is dying soon and wants the dog ASAP,” didn’t seem right, especially since Joel had lied and claimed the dog was his. Well, he didn’t say that, exactly, but he didn’t correct her, either. Why had he done that? he wondered.

She’s so young to be in such a grisly trade, Joel thought while he was lying in his old bed in his old room that night. It was a twin bead, and his feet hung off the end, vulnerable, cold. He wondered what Abear’s first name was. He wondered if she hated that birthmark. He wondered about the tattoo on her back, what was behind the curtain in her shop, if all her bras were flesh-colored, or if she had some that were colorful, or black, or lacy even.

And then he thought of his wife, and he had a feeling like he was collapsing onto his knees, even though he was lying in bed.

Danielle needed to take some time for herself, she had said a month ago in the kitchen. It had been ten o’clock at night, and she hadn’t called, and Joel had been waiting on a stool at the island for her to get back. She needed to get some perspective on things, she had said. Joel had stared at her lips, the insides of which were stained purple with the wine she had just been drinking wherever she had been, with whoever she had been with. He had wanted to rub his thumb across them, rub away the stain.

She needed to re-evaluate her life, she said. She had turned into a person she never wanted to be, she said. Her life was not the life she dreamed of in high school, she said. It was maybe his fault. He had asked what he did to ruin her life.

“You asked me to marry you.”

He thought about his knees tucked into the backs of her knees, her hair tickling his nose.

“I fell in love with a different man,” Danielle said. “You were exciting and fun and did things. You had beliefs. And then you became a bank manager. And I became whatever it is I am now, and I hate this person.”

“Well, I’m not a bank manager anymore,” Joel said, joking.

It was the wrong answer. She had thrown up her hands, spun around, and slammed the kitchen door behind her. Joel heard her car start up and pull out of the driveway. He had sat at the island for another half hour, stunned. The kitchen seemed suddenly foreign, a kitchen in someone else’s house that he had accidentally walked into, thinking it was his. He watched the door, waiting for her to return, teary-eyed, and take everything back. She didn’t.

The next morning, Joel packed the rolling suitcase and took it to the Residence Inn by the interstate, which had rooms with kitchens and rented by the week. He left a message on Danielle’s phone saying that he had left so she could have the space she needed, and she should stay in the house. Then he called back and left another message saying that when she was ready, he would make everything up to her, and to please call him back.

When he got to the motel, he slept for a long time. Then he went to the grocery store and bought potato chips, bagels, and a box of wine. He put the wine on the nightstand by his bed and the bagels and chips on the side of the double bed that he wasn’t sleeping on, and for most of the next week he stayed in bed and watched the hotel’s cable TV, drank wine from a Dixie cup, ate the potato chips and bagels for meals, once creating a potato-chip bagel sandwich, and slept in his crumbs, only getting up to use the bathroom. When he ran out of food and wine, he went to the store by their house and hoped to see his wife there. But then he realized what he looked like—unwashed, stubbly, orange Doritos stains on his sweat pants—and left quickly, darting furtively down the aisles. In the third week, he got a call from AmeriBank, one of the many banks he had submitted job applications to after he lost his job during a merger due to “redundancies.” He bathed and shaved, and he put on his work suit for the first time in three months. He clipped his nails and shook hands and answered questions about his strategy for leading a team and situations in which a problem arose and he had solved it. After the interview, he went back to the grocery store, confident this time, and hoped to see his wife. He walked up and down the aisles but couldn’t find her. The next day, he started leaving the messages. And then a few days ago, his father called. And so here he was.

Joel hung up and thought about the taxidermy girl and what she would be doing to Hound right then. Would she be taking off his skin, he wondered. Would she be letting his fur dry before she took off his skin? Would she be petting him behind the ears?

~

The next day, he avoided calling the taxidermist. He thought about it frequently, but for some reason it made him nervous, and he found reasons to put it off. He got a roast from the Pig, which was one of his father’s favorite dinners, and which would take all day to cook. He cut the grass in the yard and took off his shirt when he started to sweat through it and felt manly and vital and only a little self-conscious about his gut, which wasn’t nearly as flat as it used to be. He dusted the mounts in the den and avoided looking them in the eyes. And all the while, his father watched TV and breathed loudly and spouted bits of wisdom during commercial breaks, like—“Women have no heads for numbers. They always bid too high. The one that says One Dollar—almost always a man.” And, “Religion is a defense mechanism to deal with death. But don’t tell God I said that.”

At 4 o’clock, Joel’s cell phone rang. Something like electricity or nausea shot through his body as he dug it out of his pocket, almost dropping it in his haste, his hands suddenly damp. It was an unknown number.

Not Danielle.

All feeling vacated his body—he was a limp sack of flesh. And then he realized it could be AmeriBank, and he mustered the will to answer.

“Hi Mr. Riggs,” said the voice on the other end. “It’s Susanna Abear from Abear Taxidermy?”

Susanna. Her name was Susanna. Oh, Susanna, he sang in his head.

“Of course. I was actually about to call you,” he said. He glanced at his father in his recliner and snuck out of the room.

“Have you changed your mind about your pet? People often change their minds, so I always wait a few days before starting.”

“No, no. I haven’t changed my mind,” said Joel. “I was actually going to ask if there was any way you could get it done sooner than a month, so I would prefer if you go ahead and start.”

“That’ll be difficult,” said Susanna. “It’s a whole process, you know. It’s hard to speed it up. It takes time to tan the skin, sculpt the form, let everything dry out.”

“There are extenuating circumstances. If you get it done early, I can pay you extra.”

Susanna was quiet on the other end of the phone.

“But what were you calling me about?” said Joel.

“I was going to ask for a photograph. Of your dog. It helps to get the expression right. Pets have a way of looking at their master that’s impossible to duplicate from the lifeless form. It’s actually really hard even with a photograph. The eyes are the hardest part.”

“Oh,” said Joel. “Of course. I’ll see if I can find one.”

“Thanks, Mr. Riggs. And I’ll do my best to get your dog mounted sooner.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Oh, and one more thing. What’s his name, your dog?”

“Hound,” said Joel.

On the other end of the line, Susanna laughed. “Perfect,” she said.

~

Joel’s father had a whole shoebox of photos of Hound. When he relayed Susanna’s request, Joel’s father directed him to the hall closet to retrieve the box, nearly packed to the brim with glossy four-by-sixes. Joel brought it to the kitchen table, and his father wheeled his tank over and pointed at pictures and told their stories—here’s Hound as a puppy in your mother’s lap, before he got too big to sit in laps. He used to pee everywhere, his father said—we had to get the carpets cleaned professionally three different times. There’s Hound and me on a hunting trip, the time Hound tracked down the bobcat on the mantle. Hound in a pile of leaves. Hound and me sitting on the porch. Hound and me shaking hands. Hound and me hanging our heads out the windows of the Buick.

Joel wondered if there was a shoebox somewhere full of photos of him.

Joel rifled through the photos, looking for one of him and Hound. He didn’t know if such a picture existed. Hound had never been his pet. His father had bought him years after Joel left, after Hound’s predecessor, a dog named Dawg, got into a neighbor’s garage and ate the poison left out for rats. Joel didn’t know why he wanted to give Susanna a picture with him in it, preferably one of a younger, more attractive him, but he did. He wanted her to study the picture for Hound’s expression and find that her eyes kept straying to the side, to Joel’s face. She was too young for him, of course. It wasn’t a sexual thing, he told himself. He just wanted someone to see him, that’s all. And maybe to make up for the moment yesterday with the ice water, when he was sure he looked so old and pitiful.

Then he found it. Joel was sitting on the front steps with one arm around Hound, smiling into the camera. He was wearing jeans and an undershirt, and his hair was longer than it was now and artfully mussed, as if he and Hound had just been rolling on the ground together. His jaw was shadowed with stubble, and his teeth looked incredibly white in comparison. On his wrist was a watch with a brown leather band that his wife had given him on their first anniversary, a watch that he lost two years later when they went on a vacation to Florida and he took it off beside the pool and someone walked away with it. That made him between thirty and thirty-two in this picture, then. He looked like a different man. He looked happy and exciting and fun. He looked like he had beliefs. This was the man his wife fell in love with, he realized. This was who he thought he had been all along, but wasn’t. It might have been his wife behind the camera, taking the picture. He slipped the photo off the table and into his back pocket.

Beside him, his father leaned back in his chair and sighed. “He was a good dog,” he said. “May he rest in peace.”

“How will they do it?” said Joel.

“Do what?”

“Mount him.”

“Ah,” said his father. He sat up again and leaned towards Joel over the table. “Why the interest now? Want to start hunting? Maybe I’ll let you have my mounts when I die.”

“I’m just curious, Dad.”

“Well, it’s a whole process. I don’t know much about it, really. They skin them first. I’ve done it before with bucks. It’s surprisingly easy. A few cuts here and there, and the whole thing just peels right off like a banana. And then they tan the skin and do some other stuff, and then they add the original teeth and some glass eyes, and then you’ve got yourself a pretty mount.”

“And you’re okay with doing that to Hound?” said Joel.

“Darn right I am,” said his father. “Don’t give me that face. It’s a gesture of respect. It’s an art form, boy, an act of reverence. Why would I have this bobcat and that deer and that bass and not want my dog?”

“But why only Hound? Why not any of the other dogs?”

Joel’s father was silent for a moment. His breath rattled in his chest and he adjusted the oxygen tube over his ears.

“‘Cause he’s my last dog,” he said.

~

That night, Joel called Danielle’s answering machine—“Hi, honey. I’m still in Forte. My father is having Hound mounted. How messed up is that? I think he’s just lonely and doesn’t want to die that way. Of course he doesn’t. No one wants to die alone. I’m just hoping that he’s not going to ask me to get him mounted next. Ha-ha. I found a photo of me from a little after we were married. I can be that man again, just with less hair. Ha-ha. But really, we can be happy. I can make you happy. I love you. Bye.”

~

The next morning, Joel was planning on taking the photo to Susanna, but as his father was eating his oatmeal in his recliner and Joel was doing sit-ups on the floor in front of the TV (he had decided to fight back against the advance of his gut, reclaim that flat stomach, be the man his wife loved), his father started having chest pains. He tried to set the bowl on the coffee table, but he missed the edge and oatmeal spilled across the carpet. Joel heard the clink of the bowl and spoon knock together as they hit the floor and turned around to find his father bent forward, bunching his shirt-front in a gnarled fist and struggling to breathe. His breaths were shallow and gasping and loud with phlegm. The skin around his mouth and eyes was going blue.

Joel knelt in front of his father and turned up the oxygen. His hands fluttered around the edges of his father’s form, not touching him, not knowing where to land. He settled on his hand, the one that wasn’t grabbing his shirt, and his father’s burled fingers closed around his and squeezed. Joel could feel the bones through his father’s skin, narrow and light, but still strong. His grip was actually causing Joel pain. “It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “Try to breathe slowly. Try not to hyperventilate. Just breathe.”

After a few minutes, his breathing got better, but the pain in his chest was still there, and he couldn’t draw breaths deeply. Joel helped his father to the car and drove the forty minutes to the hospital in Mobile, against his father’s protests. In the passenger seat, with the oxygen tank between his knees, Joel’s father wouldn’t look at him. He stared out the window the whole drive, and Joel watched him out of the corner of his eye. He watched the hunch of his upper back and shoulders, curved so far forward they didn’t touch the seat. He watched the skin that hung from his neck sway with the movement of the car, looking thin as a cobweb, able to be brushed away with the swipe of a hand. He watched his father’s hands, curled and inert in his lap like broken game traps.

In the ER, Joel’s father didn’t want him in the room when he was called back, which didn’t take too long since they used the magic words “chest pains,” so Joel sat in the scooped plastic chairs of the waiting room by himself and called his wife. But this time, instead of sending him to voice mail, she rejected him.

“The caller you have dialed cannot be reached. Please try again later,” said an automated female voice that wasn’t his wife’s. Joel’s lungs felt suddenly filled with blackish fluid, rising from the inside, choking him.

~

Joel’s father was checked into the hospital to stay overnight. They took another chest x-ray and were running more tests. It was probably an infection that was exacerbating his condition, the twenty-something-year-old doctor said. He asked Joel how long his father had been coughing up blood, and Joel remembered the black fluid in his father’s palm two days before, and said, “I don’t know.”

“Your father knows that he should come in at the first sign of hemoptysis,” said the doctor, and Joel assumed that ‘hemoptysis’ meant coughing up blood. “The fact that he didn’t does not bode well for his mental state. Many patients his age with conditions like this stop caring about their lives. It’s a good thing you’re with him.”

Joel tried to sleep on the chair in his father’s room, but his father wouldn’t let him. His nasal tubes had been replaced by a full oxygen mask, and his voice sounded muffled and far away when he talked. Joel wondered if this was one of those things you hear about where an elderly wife dies and the husband follows the day after the funeral, except Hound was a dog and Joel’s father outlived his wife by ten years. Joel asked his father why he didn’t go to the hospital days ago, asked him what he was thinking.

“Do you want to die?” he said.

“Don’t be a sensitive ninny,” his father replied, and then told him to go home and not to come back tomorrow unless he brought the stack of National Geographics from the coffee table with him.

Joel drove back to Forte alone and did not get lost on the way. But he did drive for fifteen minutes with his headlights off, not noticing how dark it was, not noticing the cars flashing their lights at him, until he got to the back roads and realized he couldn’t see a thing. He tried to call his wife again and was rejected. He imagined her in their house in Philadelphia, seeing his name on her cell phone, pressing reject. But he didn’t know what he would have said, anyway. He felt as if his insides were hollowed out by a grapefruit spoon, his outsides scrubbed pink with bleach.

~

His father stayed in the hospital the next night, and the next. It was, as the doctor suspected, an infection that had set into his lungs and was inflaming them and causing the chest pain and making his breathing even more difficult than usual. It doesn’t look good, the doctor said, but they were doing everything they could, and he might pull out of it. He should have come in sooner.

Joel wanted to talk to his wife, to someone, but the only person he knew anymore in Forte was Susanna the taxidermist. He found himself thinking of her often when he was in his father’s trophy room. He thought about her making precise slits on Hound’s body and removing his skin as easily as unzipping a jacket. He imagined her sculpting Hound’s form, paying special care to the place behind his ears. On the umpteenth time he thought about this, he started imagining Susanna gently pulling off Hound’s skin while wearing nothing but her sensible, flesh-colored underwear. He considered that these thoughts might be perverse, but he didn’t care enough to stop them. So he let himself think of her skinning Hound in a nude underwear set, the birthmark vibrant on her cheek, completing her back tattoo with his imagination, a different tattoo every time—a tree, some flowers, a dragon, a moose head, a house. Then he imagined her holding up Hound’s skin and giving it a shake like airing out a sheet, and then swinging it around her own shoulders, draping herself in it, shaking her nail-polish-red hair down her back over Hound’s brown-red fur. He imagined that the skin would still be warm, but not bloody. In his imagination, he removed the blood. He imagined her in a Hound sundress. A sundress of fur.

On the third night, when Joel was having trouble sleeping, he decided to try his wife again. It was the middle of the night, and she would have her phone on silent so it wouldn’t wake her up, and it would go to voicemail, and he’d be able to leave a message. The blue screen of his phone when he opened it was so bright in the dark room that he had to close his eyes for a second. He squinted at the photo of his house he used as a background, and it felt like looking into the sun. He pressed her speed dial.

“Hello, you’ve reached Danielle. I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave a message, and I’ll call you back as soon as possible. Thanks. Bye.”

Joel’s whole body went numb. His muscles felt like well-baked chicken, ready to fall off the bone.

Riggs. There was no Riggs.

He was so shocked that he forgot what he was going to say in the message, and when it beeped, he fumbled the phone trying to end the call and dropped it off the bed, chasing it onto the floor before hanging up.

On the floor, he could feel his heart pumping madly, spurting adrenaline into his veins. What a stupid muscle it seemed, with its dumb, reflexive pump, its instinctual clench-clench-clench, moving his passive blood all over his body. He was amazed that it hadn’t given up, hadn’t got tired after these thirty-eight years of him wandering just as stupidly and reflexively through his life, hadn’t just called it quits and relaxed, loosened, gone still. He was amazed that things like this could happen—separations, divorces, deaths of parents—things that end your life, or what had been your life, over and over and over again, and in the dark inside your chest your heart just keeps blindly pumping, pumping, pumping, unaware that your life is over.

Joel stayed on the floor, the soft blue light of his phone beside him, and stared forward into the dark, seeing nothing and thinking of everything, until it all became nothing, too. Joel felt as if his skin had been peeled off and tugged over a fiberglass him-shaped mannequin, but also like what was left over, the living red meat of him exposed, white veins of fat glistening, lipless teeth bared, lidless eyes wide open.

~

The next day, Joel thought about calling AmeriBank to follow up on his interview, but he didn’t. He thought about calling his wife, but he didn’t. He took his wedding ring off and put it back on again. Took it off and put it back on again. He took the photo of him and Hound out of his wallet and looked at it. His youthful smiling face, Hound’s pink lolling tongue. He still hadn’t taken it to Susanna. It was bent now.

In the hospital, a purple bruise spread on the inside of his father’s arm around the IV needle, and he coughed up blood, and he breathed behind his mask.

“See?” he said. “T minus two weeks. You’ll see.”

Joel drove straight from the hospital to the taxidermist’s, and this time, he didn’t get lost.

~

“I was beginning to think you forgot,” Susanna Abear said when Joel walked in, his thumb worrying the bare skin on his ring finger like a bad tooth.

Joel stopped in front of the desk and looked at her. Her hair was pulled back from the temples with bobby pins, and her skin was bright and firm and flawless except for the dark bruise of her birthmark. This was only the second time he’d seen her. She looked different than he made her in his imagination, her nose and her figure a little less shapely, but close enough. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt this time. He remembered the fur sundress of his imagination and blushed.

Her line-less brow knitted, possibly in response to the sudden reddening of his face, and she said, “You okay, Mr. Riggs? Do you miss him?”

Joel looked at her concerned face, and her youth suddenly seemed tragic to him. Nothing is how you expect it to be, he wanted to tell her. You have no control. The most formative events in your life will not be your wedding, your first child, your promotion—they will be the things that rear up and punch you in the face, the things you don’t see coming that knock you down and you can’t get up for a long time and when you do eventually get up—which you will always do, you’ll always get up and get up and get up—all you can do is just wait for the next thing, knowing it’s out there, knowing you’re always travelling towards it, knowing it’s crouching somewhere, waiting, and there’s nothing you can do but walk right up to it.

“He’s not dead yet,” said Joel, and then he realized she was asking about Hound’s death, that she didn’t know about his father, that Hound wasn’t even his. Susanna looked at him, confused.

“Oh, Hound,” said Joel. “I thought you meant my father. My father’s dying.”

The look on Susanna’s face was like wings opening.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“It’s his dog. That’s why I need it sooner.”

Susanna nodded. “Okay.”

“I brought the photo,” Joel said, pulling it out of his wallet and handing it to her. “It’s from six years ago. I hope that’s okay.”

“Good picture,” she said, looking from him to the photo. “You look exactly the same.”

Joel watched the part in her hair, incredibly white next to the red.

“Hound lived a good life,” she said, looking up at him with seriousness. “I can tell.”

“He was a dog,” said Joel.

“I know, but I mean it.”

“Well, what makes you think that?”

She shook her head. “You’d think I’m crazy.”

“No I won’t.”

Susanna looked at him, her eyes narrowing as if trying to squint enough to see through Joel’s pupils and into his head. Her face settled into some sort of resolution and she said, “Okay, follow me.”

She held the camo curtain open for him and he stepped into a dim room. He could make out the forms of more mounts, but there was too little light to see what they were. Behind him, Susanna turned on a lamp.

The room was filled with mounts, but of animals he’d never seen. On the table in front of him was a creature with the head and wings of a hawk and the body of a cat. To the left of it was a hare with the curled horns of a ram, then a baby crocodile with the wings of a bird of prey.  There was a lamb with a unicorn horn, a bobcat with a lion’s mane, a rainbow trout with small out-spread wings. On the wall were a two-headed deer with red plumage on its throats and a boar with antlers. Joel stood frozen, staring, his eyes wide as the eyes of the mounts.

“This is my private collection,” said Susanna, walking up to a large squirrel with a fox tail and stroking its head. “I make the animals into what they want to be.”

Joel wanted to look at her but couldn’t stop looking at the animals. The shift from fur to feathers to scales was perfect, seamless, organic. They looked so real. So whole. So this is what the ad meant by “unusual.”

“What do you mean, ‘what they want to be?’” he asked.

“Our outsides rarely fit our insides,” she said, casually, with a shrug. But one hand rose unconsciously to the dark spot on her cheek.

“And how do you know what they want to be?” he asked. He found he was whispering and didn’t know why.

“I just get a feeling when I touch them. I look at them, and I can see it. Sometimes I’ll get a warthog and think ‘turtle,’ or a mallard and think ‘goat.’ It’s weird, I know. Some people can write music, just like that. I make animals.”

This is crazy, Joel thought. But he also wondered what he would be. What would she make him into? Would she slide fish scales under his skin, growing from his flesh like fingernails? Would she crown him with the curled horns of a ram, the fuzzed nubs of a fawn, the rack of a buck? Would he have a tail, a fin, claws, hoofs, a shell? Would he have wings? Would his face still be his face, or would he have the face of an animal, furred and snouted and wet-nosed? What would he be?

“Are you going to do this to Hound?” he asked.

“No,” said Susanna. “Hound was exactly what he wanted to be. Hound was Hound, through and through.”

Joel was silent for a moment, and then asked, “And what about me?”

Susanna smiled at him and shook her head. “Doesn’t work with humans,” she said. “Too complex. All I know is myself.”

“So what are you, then?”

“Would you like to see?”

Joel nodded.

Susanna turned around and pulled up the back of her t-shirt to expose the rest of her tattoo, bisected by the strap of her bra. It was wings. Dark, mottled wings, like an owl or a grouse. Of course, he thought. Of course she would be a bird. Everyone thinks they’re a bird.

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“Not as much as you’d think,” Susanna replied, her back still to him, her shirt still up. Then she said, “Do you want to touch them?”

Joel did. He really did. He reached out one hand slowly and touched the tip of her left wing, lightly. He ran the tips of his fingers over the ink, expecting it to be raised and scar-like, but it was all smooth, deep in her skin. His hands ran over the strap of her bra, nude like it was in his imagination, and he wanted to take it off, to remove it so he could see her wings free and unobstructed. Nothing is permanent, he wanted to tell her. You think you’ll have these forever, but they’ll fade and blur and sag with the rest of you. You will look behind you one day and find them changed, unrecognizable. You will wonder what happened. But he said nothing, because, for now, they were perfect. They held so much hope, those lame, flightless wings. He wanted to bend down and put his lips on those wings, trace the feathers with his tongue. He felt bold, strong, reckless. He could feel the animals watching them with their glass eyes, and he didn’t care. He felt as if he was on the edge of something, and he was going to throw himself off, goddamnit, and see what happened. He thought maybe he was a bird, too.

And then he did it.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 20: Edges, which you can purchase here for $8, or consider a two-year subscription for $18.

Art by Kerri Augenstein

Claire Burgess (they/she) is a writer, teacher, metaphysical practitioner, and ever-shifting human being. Their short fiction has received a 2014 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, been listed as notable in Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest 2016. You can find their stories in JoylandThird CoastAnnalemmaPANK, and elsewhere. Claire received their MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and was a founding editor of Nashville Review. They wrote the weekly blog column “This Week in Short Fiction” for The Rumpus from 2015-2017, where they covered one newly published short story a week, with an intentional emphasis on LGBTQIA+ writers, female-identifying writers, works in translation, and writers of color.

Visit with Claire Burgess

Animals Saved Me
by Richard Gilbert

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

5 Reasons to Recommend With Animal

by Amelia Marchetti

With Animal by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

Black Lawrence Press

May 2015

The Premise

With Animal explores the extreme natures of parenthood. Parents are cruel because they are selfish, because they can’t understand; parents are kind because their child needs them, because they find ways to connect. This is a collection of stories about people who can get pregnant with animals — a premise that inspires curiosity — but the focus isn’t on the animals, it’s on the relationship between parent and child. Animal children require unusual care, like jellyfish babies needing the ocean shore, or an egg hatching into a flying cat and stealing energy from a parent. But sometimes these circumstances are impossible to handle. By using fantasy, these stories can explore how complicated and strange parenting can be.

The Range of Stories

There isn’t one way to be a parent or a child and With Animal doesn’t deliver only one. In “With Sheep,” a father tries to sell his lamb and the mother steals her away to hide together in a flock of real sheep. A father in “With Joey” knows his wife does not want to be pregnant so he carries their child. “With Fish” has a mother giving up her body so her children can live, to the horror of her girlfriend. With Animal isn’t trying to answer any questions about raising a child, but I can look at its stories and find connections with my own childhood and parents — I saw my raging sister in “With Dragon” and myself leaving home in “With Fox.”

The Story “With Dragon”

“With Dragon” is the opening story and, immediately, the book is starting with a mythical creature. Pregnant with a dragon, a mother goes to forums looking for advice, eats fire, fears her child, and fears for “With Dragon” works because of the tight, short scenes, the voice that is both loving and in denial, and the voyeuristic horror of watching someone you love commit patricide and burn the town down. And she still loves her child, still fears him leaving her. I feel for that woman. I read this story over and over to feel her love, her heartbreak. She gave birth to something terrible and she loves it as only a mother can; it hurts me to read her loneliness upon seeing her dragon child fly.

“I saw her start to leave me in the most human of ways.” —      “With Fox.”

I love this line because all the stories in this collection revolve around the complicated relationship between parent and child — how they stay together, how they push each other away, and, most importantly, how they leave. One son leaves for a family that will love him unconditionally, two sisters leave because they think it’s best for their mother, and one daughter leaves because she would be happier on her own. So much of this leaving is described as part of their nature, but this final line of “With Fox” is the first time that leaving isn’t just an animal trait. This line reminds us, not unkindly, that it is also a human one.

The Complexity of Animal vs. Human

Literature and movies like to pit humanity against nature — humanity doesn’t win that comparison. Pets are better than people. Nature is a pure, wild ideal that humanity ruins (Fern Gully) and animals are guardians and examples of that pure, wild ideal (The Chronicles of Narnia). With Animal takes this dynamic and plays.

“With Human” has a narrator who loved her perfect animal children, but her human child, in contrast, was harder to come to terms with — he was wild. No soft panda baby sleeping snugly to her breast, but something that would bite and hurt her. “With Unicorn” follows a child growing to resent how his mother treated him like a trophy. Animal children have human reactions along with their animal urges; humans have animal desires that turn them wild, as well as a selfish, desperate, loving human foundation.

There is no “animals are right, humans are monsters” philosophy in With Animal. There are cruel animals and there are humans that try to cherish their beautiful spider daughters. People and beasts are both capable of selfish indifference and deep empathy. With Animal reminds us of that while delving into the complicated relationship of parent and child.


Carol Guess is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement. A frequent collaborator, her co-authored collections include How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents (with Daniela Olszewska) and X Marks the Dress (with Kristina Marie Darling). She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University, and blogs here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, as well as the collaborative poetry collections The Reckless Remainder and History of My Locked Wrist. She teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Western Washington University.