Posts

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

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.

 

The 4-D Dog
by April Kelly

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Considering the number of dog owners in America, it is safe to speculate that on any given day a small percentage of the population wakes to find an unpleasant mess on the floor, as did Dylan Carter one Thursday in March. The difference between him and the others who made such a discovery that morning is Dylan did not own a dog. And he lived one hundred and twelve stories up on the card-access-only penthouse floor of the newest and tallest building in Chicago.

A year earlier, when he’d made partner in one of the most successful law firms in Illinois, Dylan believed he had added the third and final point to his golden triangle of desirability as a man. The Carter family fortune—by then laundered through four generations to cleanse it of its unsavory robber-baron origins—had ensured his privileged position in society from the day of his birth. It had also led him to view the rarified spectrum from which he would eventually select a mate as a quite narrow strip at the zenith of womankind.

A second unearned gift, that of good genetics, had made Dylan tall, well-proportioned and movie star handsome. A glance at photos of his maternal grandfather assured him he would never succumb to male-pattern baldness, and he would keep his meticulously razored hair well into old age, one day seeing it turn from black to silver.

He understood his lofty position and unlimited money could attract a top-quality woman, but the addition of incredible good looks guaranteed he could aim as high as he chose for that one perfect gem of femininity who deserved to share his life.

Making partner had fanned away any lingering whiff of the spoiled trust fund baby surrounding Dylan Carter, as he had worked hard to earn the reward on his own. Ready at last to begin an earnest search for a wife, he stopped dating the actresses, supermodels and avant-garde artists who had assisted him in sowing (without germination) the wild oats of his raging-hormones twenties, and started seriously assessing the debutantes, heiresses and royalty-adjacent European beauties who comprised the lofty plane of females in which he felt entitled to browse.

The heiress sleeping in his bed that morning when he slipped from under the covers to go make coffee had taken the reins of her family’s company at age 28, after her father had a stroke. For the six months it took him to recuperate and return, she kept things running well enough to show the old man he would not have cause to regret the lack of a son when the time came to turn over the company for good.

Paige was refined, intelligent, a Vassar grad and definitely on Dylan’s radar screen as a potential. They had sniffed each other out at galas, fund-raisers and charity 10Ks for months before having dinner at Henri last week, and their second date had ended in mutually gratifying sex the night before. Paige had checked all the right boxes on his application form for the future Mrs. Carter, Dylan thought.

Right up until his bare foot sank into a pile of excrement on his cream-colored wool Berber carpet.

The one-word expletive he cried when he looked down was singularly appropriate to the occasion. He reflexively jerked his foot up from the stinking mess, which threw him off balance so that he had to set it down again immediately to prevent falling over. This action left a perfect print of five toes and the ball of a foot rendered in umber ten inches from the mother load.

After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his outcry hadn’t woken Paige, he hopped to the kitchen on one foot, stopping in front of the sink and holding onto it with one hand while opening the cabinet below with the other. He was fairly sure Carmen stashed the cleaning supplies there.

Having never been required to wash anything other than his own body for thirty-three years, Dylan paused before the dizzying array of cans, sprayers, sponges and wipes. The bottle promising a “fresh scent of citrus” seemed just the thing to counter the foul smell wafting up from his suspended foot, so he squirted liberally before using a wad of paper towels to scour his sole.

Two more rounds of spritzing and swabbing finally satisfied him he was no longer tainted, so he carried the bottle, the roll of paper towels and the kitchen trash can out to the living room, where he knelt to do what pet owners have been doing since the first dog was allowed into the first cave.

Fifteen minutes later Dylan carried the plastic garbage bag to the chute by the elevator, returned to scrub his hands multiple times, then put up the coffee. He watched the liquid drip into the pot, unnerved by the events of the morning and, when Paige emerged from the bedroom, drawn by the aroma of Jamaican Blue, he eyed her with suspicion but dared not ask the question.

It wasn’t a story he could repeat to his colleagues at Durham, Kempe, Walliston, Finch and Carter, or to his family, but Dylan needed to vent. Luckily, Gary Delgado was free for lunch. Dylan didn’t ask his assistant to book a table at any of his usual high-end restaurants, as Gary was certain to show up wearing a tee-shirt from his eclectic collection, most likely with at least one offensive word in the humorous saying splashed across his chest. He asked Gary to meet him at Jo-Jo’s, their school days’ haunt.

They sat outside at a small metal table, its pedestal as wobbly as it had been twenty years earlier when the two had exercised their newly gained teen independence by dining al fresco on hot dogs and curly fries. The Carters had frowned on their son’s friendship with Gary. Although the children attended the same ultra-exclusive private school, the Delgado boy was on full scholarship, fluked in on the bases of scholastic achievement and high IQ, rather than the guidelines more predictive of future success: millions and millions of dollars.

Gary was one of those quirky people of whom can truly be said doesn’t live up to potential. Too scattered in his thinking to focus on a single career path, too inclined to follow every Alice down every rabbit hole, and too willing to test drive the latest club drugs, Gary earned a living doing what he called “this and that,” basically whatever held his attention right then. Several ingenious patents guaranteed a flow of income, but Gary let it accumulate in a savings account, never motivated to invest it, move it to a higher-interest resting place, or spend it on a more genteel life. He didn’t run in Dylan’s circle, but he had never aspired to, valuing the friendship despite their worlds intersecting so rarely.

After a debate over the ideal condiments for a hot dog, one that had pitted mustard and relish against ketchup and onions for two decades, Dylan recounted the story of the morning’s events. Gary, no newcomer to the world of peculiar sex practices and the wide range of strange indulged in by human beings, took the story at face value and asked Dylan if he was going to see her again.

“Oh, hells no!” Dylan’s usually impeccable communications skills always relaxed in his old friend’s company.

The last of the shared curly fries fell to the quicker fingers of the man in the business suit and the two did their backslapping good-bye, assuming a couple months would pass before they saw each other again.

That’s why Gary was so surprised by the early phone call the next morning asking him to come to Dylan’s condo ASAP. The doorman gave Gary the stink-eye, blanching when he read the tee-shirt, but allowed him in after calling Mr. Carter to verify the guest’s welcome.

Dylan threw open the door before Gary’s knock was done. “Come and take a look,” was all he said before turning and heading down the hallway. Gary shut the door and followed. The first thing he saw on entering his friend’s bedroom was Dylan, still in pajamas, pointing at the floor a few feet away. Even without the gross visual Gary would have known what was on the carpet by the disgusting smell.

“Dude, I thought you weren’t going to see her again.”

“I didn’t! I was alone all night and when I woke up, that was here.”

Gary considered this for a moment before asking, “Are you by any chance using Ambien?”

“No, why?”

“Well, some people who take it get up and eat in their sleep, and others try to drive their car. I thought maybe you could be a sleep-crapper.”

“Jeez, Gary, look at it. That’s from a dog, not a person.”

With sealed windows and only the one entry, there was no possible ingress for a canine unless it knew what code to paw into the keypad. And that’s after it talked its way past the guard.

Dylan and Gary opened every drawer, closet and cabinet. They checked the screws in the vent covers for the heat and A/C, felt along the walls for hidden seams that would indicate a secret panel or trap door. Nothing. And no sign of a dog. At the end of the two-hour search, a frustrated Dylan asked, “How is some filthy mutt getting into my condo?”

“Okay, I think we’re dealing with one of three things here,” Gary said. “A ghost dog, a canine-like alien or a dog from another dimension.” When Dylan stared at him incredulously, Gary hastened to add, “You’re right, the first two are stupid. What you have is a dog from another dimension.”

Queried as to why a dog from the fourth dimension would choose this particular condo in which to leave its three-dimensional poop, Gary pointed out they didn’t know for sure Dylan’s condo was the only one.

“And it isn’t necessarily the fourth dimension that it comes from. There are many other choices. Are you familiar with String Theory?”

When Dylan held up a hand to indicate he was not open to a physics lecture, Gary suggested he ask around to see if any of the other owners were having the same problem. Dylan couldn’t imagine how he would frame an inquiry of that sort to the chairman of the board of directors for the Chicago Symphony or the elderly widow who had founded the prestigious Cornelius Foundation.

Gary left, promising to give the problem a good, hard think. Dylan, too embarrassed to leave a note asking Carmen to dispose of the mess, cleaned it up himself. It was a humbling experience to do a job he wouldn’t ask his housekeeper to do.

For three more nights the poop fairy visited the condo, and Carmen had to add paper towels to her grocery list even though she was certain she had bought six rolls the week before. On the afternoon of the third day, Dylan’s assistant told him a Mr. Delgado was on the line.

“I think I have a fix,” Gary said. “What time do you get home?”

When Dylan’s driver stopped in front of the building, Gary was already waiting with a ten-pound bag of Purina One. The doorman didn’t dare cast a skeptical glance at the wild-haired man in the outrageous tee-shirt—Mr. Carter was among the building’s best tippers at Christmas—so when the men entered the lobby together, they were both greeted with a smile.

Once the elevator doors closed and Dylan slotted in his access card, he turned to Gary. “Dog food? I’m trying to get rid of the thing, not invite it to move in permanently.”

“Have you ever heard the old saying ‘don’t shit where you eat?’ Well, it isn’t only a morality guideline for horny businessmen.”

They filled one of Dylan’s hand-thrown ceramic pasta bowls with kibble and a second with water, then put them on a towel to protect the kitchen’s costly bamboo flooring. The next morning the food bowl was empty and the water was half-gone, but Dylan’s carpeting bore no unwanted gifts. He called Gary to tell him the ploy had been successful, but they both knew it was only a stopgap. Gary promised he was working on something more permanent.

Grocery shopping was a new experience for Dylan, but he had been unwilling to designate the buying of dog food to anyone who might ask questions. That’s why before leaving for work each morning he washed, dried and put away the two mementos of an old fling with a leggy blonde ceramicist. What Carmen didn’t know wouldn’t give her a reason to quit.

He and Gary spoke by phone several times a week, with Gary hinting he was on to something and asking Dylan to be patient. Meanwhile, Dylan fell into the routine of a dog owner, filling the large plastic bowls he had finally picked up in the pet food section of Albertson’s and setting them out every night before going to bed.

After a Friday evening wine tasting that had morphed into a serious putting-away of Grand Cru claret, Dylan came home and fell into bed without remembering to leave food and water for his invisible pet. He awoke the next morning with a hangover and a surprise on the carpet.

Five weeks after that first night deposit had disturbed his orderly existence, Dylan woke to a soft scrabbling sound coming from somewhere inside the condo. A glance at the digital clock on the nightstand told him it was 3:18 a.m., and, assuming the sound was being made by his canine visitor gobbling the kibble, he slipped from his 1200-thread-count cocoon and took a small flashlight from the drawer. He would finally get a look at the 4-D dog.

Moving silently across the carpet with the flashlight held loosely in his right hand, he exited the bedroom, deciding to leave the light off till he got to the kitchen so he could lay eyes on the dog before it had a chance to beam itself up, or whatever the hell it did to leave the condo every night. As he ninja’d his way down the wide hall, he realized the sound was not coming from the kitchen straight ahead, but from the living room to his left. Easing over to the archway that opened onto the vast sunken area dotted with leather couches, Eames chairs and Tiffany lamps, Dylan craned his neck to look inside. The tall windows that made up the west wall of his condo let in enough moonlight for him to see the empty space over the fireplace where his Matisse had hung and two very human figures taking down the Kandinsky from a multi-canvas grouping across the room.

With pounding heart he instantly knew the dog fiasco was part of an art theft scheme. He wasn’t sure how it all fit in—maybe to get him inured to sounds in the night so he wouldn’t wake up—but that had to be the answer. He was angry knowing he had been screwed with and angry his priceless paintings were being stolen, so he flipped the wall switch without considering the consequences. When light flooded the room, the two black-clad intruders dropped the Kandinsky and spun around to find Dylan bringing up his right hand.

“You! Stop!”

The first man saw a metallic glint off the flashlight and yelled, “Gun!” The second man whipped a pistol from his waistband and fired.

Thunder echoed off the high ceiling, but Dylan didn’t hear it until after the bullet had slammed him back against the wall. He slid down, pain radiating through him, as a second bullet exploded into the surface inches over his head. He watched the intruder walk toward him, weapon steady. The next shot would be the fatal one.

From the kitchen a snarling white shape launched itself at the gunman, fully airborne when it crashed into him and took him down. One shot went wild as the gun flew from the man’s hand and skidded across the floor. The second thief dived to retrieve the firearm.

Fighting to remain conscious, Dylan scrambled to his feet and made a dash for the alarm panel in his bedroom. Screaming sirens filled the condo but weren’t loud enough to cover the blast of another gunshot and an inhuman howl of pain. Knowing the building’s security team would arrive within minutes, Dylan shut and locked his bedroom door.

Gary found him in the emergency room four hours later, shortly after police detectives had taken Dylan’s statement. “Does it hurt?”

“Probably. But the drugs they gave me are working re-e-e-eally hard to prevent my knowing that.”

“The doc said you could go home, so I called Jimmy to bring your car and pick us up. I’ll stay with you and maybe try one of your happy pills.”

“Gary,” Dylan mumbled through his pharmaceutical haze. “They shot the dog. One of those scumbags shot him after he saved my life.”

“Oh, boy, those are good drugs.”

As Gary helped his friend into the tee-shirt he had brought, Dylan kept insisting the 4-D dog had come to his aid and been shot. Maybe killed. “And all to save my sorry ass.”

After Gary got his friend home and to bed, he inspected the living room. A vertical streak of dried blood on the wall next to the entry arch marked where a .38 slug had passed through Dylan’s right armpit, grazing a rib and missing the bones of the shoulder joint by inches. The forensic team had pried it out of the wall, along with the bullet that had narrowly missed his head. The third hole was high up near the ceiling across the room and Gary figured it must be from the shot Dylan had said went off as the huge white blur slammed into the gunman.

The police had found three bullets, but if Dylan was right, a fourth had gone into the dog. Gary stayed the rest of that day and night, filling food and water bowls in the evening, remembering at the last second to put down a towel to protect the floor. The kitchen floor in Gary’s own small apartment was impervious not only to water, but to anything short of a direct hit from a drone. When he checked them the next morning, the bowls were untouched.

“Knock, knock,” Gary said from the door of the bedroom.

“Did the dog come back?” Dylan asked, pushing up into a sitting position.

Gary shook his head. “No, but Paige sent a fruit and wine basket.”

“From Glendon’s.” It was a statement, not a question.

“How did you know?”

“It’s my set’s go-to place for births, deaths, weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it. Glendon’s is Walmart for rich white people.”

“Ah. When you care enough to have your assistant send the very best.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve got stuff I need to deal with. Are you going to be okay here alone?”

“Yeah. I’ll call Carmen and ask her to pick up soup from Whole Foods.” He fidgeted with the silk duvet. “I just wish I knew what happened to him.”

Gary promised to stop by the next day, and an hour later Carmen arrived to tell Dylan the breaking news on the in-house grapevine. His condo was one of three that had been targeted. All were art thefts by criminals who hacked the building’s computers to get access codes, tied up the doorman and guard, then cleared out the most valuable pieces from two other residences before breaking in to his. Everyone was talking about how brave Mr. Carter was for stopping the bad guys.

“You are like a superhero, Mr. C.”

Dylan knew the real hero had four legs, not two, and he spent his day alternately napping and worrying about the dog. As a child he had begged for one, but his father claimed allergies and his mother claimed they were inherently filthy. Dylan only now realized the carpet color he had chosen for his condo was the very same pale cream his mother had vehemently defended against her seven-year-old’s hypothetical dog.

At 9:30 that evening Dylan filled the bowls and set them on the floor, not bothering to put down a towel first. He sat next to them with his back against one of the custom cabinets that had cost him a fortune, hoping the dog would show. It was the first time in his life he had felt empathy for another living creature.

His parents had always been supportive, but in an abstract way. Cool; distant. They had expected him to be perfect and he had, for the most part, lived up to their wishes. He saw Gary only at school or on the sly, not willing to bring a friend his parents considered undesirable into their pristine world of privilege, and he now wondered if that had ever bothered Gary. Dylan had done without a pet and learned to regurgitate his mother’s views on canine filthiness like a young religious zealot raised on a steady drip of someone else’s idea of God.

Women had been nothing more than exciting toys until his decision to acquire a wife. And then he had evaluated them the way an HR person might screen candidates for a top-level position. Dylan wondered if he had ever felt love. He thought he had a few times in his twenties, but looking back he suspected the concepts of love and sex might have gotten confused. He fell asleep sitting on the kitchen floor, waking early to find the bowls still full.

Messages filled his voicemail, flowers arrived from the law firm, and three more baskets came from Glendon’s, two from the tenants whose artwork had been recovered and one from his parents. He left the messages unanswered and insisted Carmen take the flowers and baskets home to her family. His own doctor came by to check his wound and proffer a higher-grade pain med, but Dylan declined.

Gary never came as promised; instead, he called mid afternoon to say he was finishing up something important. “I have to go see a guy in Springfield right now, but I’ll swing by your place tomorrow.”

Dylan was used to his friend’s attention being diverted by one mirage or another, so he wasn’t surprised, although he would have liked the company. Facing a second lonely night, Dylan filled the food and water bowls, and began his vigil, once again falling asleep in an awkward seated position cradling his strapped-down arm. He dreamed he heard a scraping sound. A whimper. Panting.

Dylan jolted awake to find a huge white dog lying next to him. Crusted blood matted the hair on its right side, the side that faced upward, as the dog panted heavily and tried to lap from the water bowl. Each time he lifted his head, though, his muzzle bumped the bowl and it scooted forward, always staying out of reach.

Dylan tilted the bowl and held it in place while the dog slurped noisily. After getting half the water down his throat and the other half all over the bamboo floor, the dog laid his head back down with a low groan.

“Easy, boy. Easy,” Dylan said softly. He put his left hand on the dog’s neck, feeling the silky hair flatten under his reassuring strokes. The big eyes closed and the pained panting subsided into whimpering sleep.

It took numerous phone calls and the inducement of a five thousand dollar bonus above the fee, but a veterinarian finally agreed to come to the condo immediately. On the basis of Dylan’s description of the injury, the vet brought everything he needed to perform surgery on the scene with a one-armed helper. A little after four a.m. Dr. Mitchell left the condo and Dylan stroked the dog’s neck and shoulder while he waited for the anesthesia to wear off.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning pulled him from his too-short sleep. A drying smear of blood and a scattering of dog hair were the only signs an injured animal had lain on the kitchen floor a few hours earlier. The phone was in the bedroom and on his way to answer it Dylan automatically looked around for the big white dog.

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Gary announced enthusiastically.

“Well, Gare, you’d better pick up some coffee and come on over, because I’ve got a pretty unbelievable tale myself.”

Gary managed to hold still and stay quiet through the recounting of the night’s bizarre events, but the moment Dylan wrapped his story Gary was on his feet and pulling rubber bands off the rolled-up tubes of paper he had brought with him.

“The dog’s name is Bear. Short for Mr. Polar Bear.”

“How do you know that?”

“Stay with me,” Gary said, unrolling the first poster-sized sheet onto the kitchen counter and anchoring the corners with four ceramic coffee mugs he took from a wooden service tree. “This is a picture of the Chicago skyline taken from the Adler Planetarium.”

Dylan leaned in to look, but recognized almost nothing. “Are you sure?”

“You mean because you don’t see your building in the photo? That’s because this was taken on March twenty-ninth, 1933. That date ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

“Okay, what night did your caca drops begin? Never mind, I’ll tell you. March twenty-ninth.” Gary pointed to a hard-to-see object in the photo, above the skyline but far to the left. “That’s an airplane,” he said. “Specifically, a 1931 Ford Trimotor.” In rapid succession he unrolled three more large prints, slapping each one down and indicating the left-to-right path of the aircraft over the city.

The fourth photo, which should have shown the small plane directly centered above the skyline, instead featured the black, white and gray bloom of a mid air explosion.

“Three cameras were running on timers, so I have more shots of the plane blowing up, but this one’s best for our purposes.” The next large sheet he unrolled was clear acetate with only one image, that of the Clarion Tower, the building in which they were standing. When Gary laid the acetate over the photo and adjusted it so the Clarion stood in its correct position among the many skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous, the top of the building overlapped the exploding plane.

As Dylan tried to wrest some meaning from the show-and-tell, Gary took out a smaller sheet of paper, a copy of a newspaper photo. It was folded in half, and he revealed the partial image to his friend with the casual aplomb of Vanna White unveiling a consonant.

“Did the dog in your kitchen look like this one? Because he was in that plane when it blew up.”

Dangling in the air in front of Dylan’s eyes was a dead ringer for the animal he had helped operate on six hours earlier. The same blocky head and straight white hair. The same eyes that had seemingly pled for help in getting to the water bowl. Dylan knew it was the same dog, and yet he understood it couldn’t be. After teetering on a fulcrum of doubt, he came down on the side of rationality.

“If I understand you correctly, you believe a dog was flying that plane when it exploded, and now it has overcome time and death to visit my condo.”

“See, this is the tone I hate. It’s the same dismissive voice you used when I showed you the cockroach shoes I invented when I was ten.”

“They didn’t work, Gary, and you broke your ankle when you tried to climb the wall.”

“If duct tape had been as sticky back then as it is now, cockroach shoes would’ve been awesome.” He unfolded the photocopy so Dylan could see the other half. “The dog wasn’t flying the plane, she was.”

Dylan looked at the grainy image of a beautiful young woman. She and the dog leaned against each other as she held up a trophy topped with a replica of a biplane.

“Her name was Susan Quillian, but a reporter nicknamed her Suzie Q when she won the San Diego to L.A. air race in 1927.”

That was the year Charles Lindbergh made his nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, and public interest in aviation was almost manic for the next decade, with female pilots of special interest. Suzie Q and Bear became top draws at flying competitions and air shows across America, overshadowed only slightly by Amelia Earhart.

Suzie Q dazzled the crowds with Immelmanns and loop-the-loops in her de Havilland Tiger Moth, while her dog, too heavy to carry in an aerobatic routine, waited on the ground. For cross-country races she flew a four-place Stinson Detroiter and Bear rode second seat.

When she suddenly dropped out of competition three years after that win in her first race, rumors flew. One said she’d married a tycoon who forbade her from risking her life in the air. A second claimed she had a terminal illness and could no longer muster the physical stamina to fly. The most outlandish rumor, by far, was that she had been hired by Al Capone to smuggle contraband. And that one was true.

Dylan listened intently as Gary went on to tell a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnny Torrio killed his uncle, Big Jim Colosino, and took over his operation. Bootleg liquor, whores, protection—Johnny sold it all with the help of his young henchman, Al Capone.

Among the many small businesses Al and two backup thugs shook down for protection money was Angelina’s, a restaurant on the South Side owned by Joe Bartolo, a man struggling to pay off medical bills and keep up with college expenses. His wife had died of cancer in 1921 and his daughter Susan had entered Northwestern in 1923, but his restaurant was popular and he managed to stay a half step ahead of financial ruin.

All that changed when Johnny Torrio and an estimated 30 million of his closest friends retired to New York in 1925, leaving the syndicate short-funded when it passed into the hands of the ruthless Al Capone. The new boss’s first order of business was to step up income from all sources, and suddenly protection cost more than Joe Bartolo could afford. The first time he couldn’t cover the vig they smashed up Angelina’s; the second time they smashed up Joe.

“How did you learn all this?”

“You’d be surprised at the number of gangsters who wrote their memoirs once they were locked away and knew there wouldn’t be any future income from criminal acts. So, after the beating, Joe takes out an insurance policy on himself. Two months later his restaurant burns down and he dies in the fire.”

“Capone torched the place?” asked Dylan.

“Maybe. Or maybe Joe knew a suicide would negate the policy and leave his daughter with nothing so he made it look like something else. There was plenty of history to point the finger at arson and murder, courtesy of Al Capone, so the insurance company paid.”

“What happened to his daughter?”

“Now, that’s a mystery. Susan Bartolo dropped out of Northwestern at the end of her second year and disappeared, never to be seen again.” Two years later, however, a young woman named Susan Quillian appeared on the flying circuit with a pair of biplanes and a big white dog, drawing media attention with her surprise win of the San Diego to L.A. cross-country race. She courted publicity for three years, her beauty garnering it even when she didn’t win first prize. And then she quit racing and hired on with Al Capone.

“That makes no sense,” Dylan said. “Why would she go to work for the man she thought caused her father’s death? And how do you know it’s even the same girl?”

“Revenge,” Gary said with a smile. “And Joe Bartolo’s wife’s maiden name was Quillian.” Suzie Q’s good looks and minor celebrity got her in the door, where she pitched Capone the idea of ferrying cargo from place to place via plane. His trucks were getting hijacked by rivals or intercepted by G-men more often than his greedy business model allowed, so the idea appealed to him. Plus, he liked her dog.

After a few test flights with only sawdust in the sealed boxes—Capone had to make sure she wasn’t working for the feds—Suzie Q began air-muling whatever needed a safe ride from one place to another. As trucks full of contraband fell into the wrong hands once or twice a month, Suzie’s SB-1 Detroiter maintained a perfect record: on time and without loss.

“So, Capone is trusting her more and more, even upgraded her wings to a Ford Trimotor. All-aluminum body and capable of carrying a much bigger payload than the Stinson,” said Gary, getting more exited as he told the story he’d been researching for more than a month.

“What was she waiting for? Sounds like she routinely got close enough to kill him.”

“She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted to rip him off. Take the money he’d shaken her father down for, and then some.” Suzie bided her time until late March of 1933, when an armored car transporting gold ingots from Cincinnati to Philadelphia vanished without a trace. An early morning call ordered her to fly to a makeshift airfield near Cicero the next night for a pickup headed to a Montreal warehouse owned by one of Al Capone’s Canadian business associates.

A dozen men with Tommy guns guarded the grassy landing strip as the Tin Goose was loaded, first with a dummy consignment of perfectly legal items in the passenger cabin, then with nondescript 20-pound boxes that went in the hidden, drop-down cargo holds below the inner wing sections. Suzie tried to appear as disinterested in the goods as always, but she surreptitiously counted fourteen of the small wooden boxes before she was given the okay to go. She climbed into the cockpit, fired up the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines, taxied across the moonlit field and flew away, never to be seen again.

“Okay, lets say she landed somewhere, hid the gold and then took off. What I don’t buy is that a photographer just happened to be at the Adler Planetarium that morning. With his cameras coincidentally aimed at the exact spot where the plane exploded? Come on.”

“The photographer didn’t happen to be there. She hired him the previous afternoon to shoot her pre-dawn flight over the city,” said Gary. “Told him she wanted to generate some publicity to restart her flying career. What Suzie Q actually needed was proof of death so Capone wouldn’t come after her with everything he had.”

Gary had spent the day before in Springfield with the photographer’s grandson, who had grown up hearing his grandfather speak of the tragedy.

“My granddad felt terrible about the young woman dying in the explosion,” the man had told Gary. “And almost as bad that he lost her dog.”

When Gary pursued it, the man said Suzie paid his grandfather $100 to watch her dog for a week, but sometime that night Bear broke the chain that held him in the yard, jumped the fence and ran away.

“Grandpa didn’t know what he would tell her when she came back for her dog, but after he saw the plane blow up he knew she wouldn’t be coming back.”

His grandfather sold the photo to the Chicago Tribune and it made the front page, ensuring Capone would see his cargo blasted to kingdom come.

Gary and Dylan sat in silence a few minutes, then placed a phone order for Chinese. While they waited, Dylan asked, “What do you think happened?”

“I think she put a bomb on a timer and parachuted out at the last minute. It was still dark enough for a jumper to go unnoticed, especially with the fireworks elsewhere in the sky. She retrieved the gold and lived a long and happy life far away from Chicago.”

“But if your theory about some Dr. Who time tunnel is true, Bear had to have been in the plane when it blew up. Why would she take him with her if she knew that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “Maybe he found his way home that night and hid in the Trimotor. Or maybe he went to the airstrip in Cicero where they’d made so many pickups before. After the boxes were loaded, the mob guys would’ve been watching the perimeter, not the plane, and Bear might have snuck on while Suzie did her pre-flight check.”

Gary was closer to the truth than he knew. Susan Quillian had thought Bear was safe with the photographer when she made an unscheduled stop ten minutes after taking off from Cicero, but once she locked away the last of the boxes she had spent thirty minutes unloading, while she was buckling into her parachute harness, the big white dog leapt aboard and stowed away. Only as she approached Chicago had she felt the familiar wet lick on the back of her neck, and by then it was too late.

At five-feet-three and 102 pounds, Suzie couldn’t possibly carry the 90-pound dog while she parachuted to freedom. With twelve seconds left on the timer and an ache in her heart at the unfairness of it all, she hugged Bear one last time and made the hardest decision of her life.

The smell of shrimp fried rice and broccoli beef hung in the air long after Gary had gone, but Dylan left the open cartons on the counter when he went to bed. He was haunted by thoughts of poor Bear. Abandoned. Left in that plane to die. And if Gary was right, the dog had wandered in some never-never land for more than eighty years until the Clarion Tower had been completed ten months ago and a portal of some kind opened in Dylan’s condo on the anniversary of the accident. Now that the passage was open, the dog could apparently go back and forth at will between the condo and…whatever.

It was all too sci-fi and woo-woo for Dylan to wrap his mind around, and yet, Bear was real. He ate real food and shat real poop, though, thankfully, in that other place now. And a veterinarian had done actual surgery on him. Dylan tried to sleep, but pain in his armpit and worry about the big white dog kept him tossing fitfully for hours.

Sometime deep in the night he heard scuffling and a thud on the floor alongside his bed, so he inched to the edge and looked down. When he saw Bear curled up on the carpet a lump formed in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He draped his good arm over the side and tentatively put his hand on the dog’s neck. He heard a heavy sigh and, a few minutes later, untroubled snoring. Dylan stroked the silky hair until he, too, fell asleep.

Early morning light filtered through the bedroom curtains, gently coaxing him back to consciousness, but when he opened his eyes he snapped awake. Bear sat next to the bed, pink tongue hanging out and tail rhythmically thumping the floor. Standing beside the dog, scowling down at the man in bed, was the beautiful girl Dylan recognized from the grainy news photo.

“So,” she snarled. “Are you the son of a bitch who shot my dog?”

Italians call it the thunderbolt. Less creative Americans call it love at first sight. Dylan had aimed high for a wife, but he never suspected he’d find her one hundred and twelve stories above the ground.