Spaniel

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Tobias Reiner

 
 

William puts Ernie’s dead body into the hole with the help of his seven-year-old daughter. They are in the backyard, near the swing-set.

“Are we going to put up the headstone?” Lara asks.

“No,” he says. He doesn’t want to hear about it from Bernice. She will think it ridiculous to erect such a monument for a dog, for what she refers to as “the lower life-form.” Not a lower life-form, but the lower life-form, as if dogs are as low as you can get. She once pointed to a rock and explained how, after dogs, came that.

“I’m going to miss Ernie,” says Lara.

“He was a good dog,” says William.

He was an evil dog according to Bernice. Sometimes: “Fucking evil.” Occasionally: “Unplanned offspring of Mephistopheles.”

Bernice used to lie on the couch and try to stretch her legs around the cocker spaniel, and Ernie would snip at her toes in a sleepy growl, drawing a pinprick of blood. On numerous occasions, Bernice had tried to put the overspill of Ernie’s food back into his bowl, not in service of the dog, but rather to “keep the spaniel’s shit off the floor.” Ernie heard the sound of nuggets hit the plastic bottom and came rifling toward Bernice, his choppers ready to bite.
“He’s just protecting his food,” William had told her.

“Who’s going to protect me?” Bernice asked him.

“The dog is blind,” William said, as if that were a valid retort.

It was true, though: Ernie had two cataracts. On the carpet, he was an ace at not running into things. He’d race around the house and turn hairpin corners, even after a vacuuming. But on the kitchen tile, he’d walk headfirst into cabinets, the dishwasher, the trash-compactor and, most often, the island. A mopped floor seemed to remove all of the familiar scents on which Ernie relied. Perhaps if Bernice hadn’t mopped so often, Ernie could have found his way around the kitchen. She had mopped too much. She had mopped out of spite.

There are still remnants of Ernie. Squeaky toys shaped like mallards and baseballs and bone-in sirloin steaks.

Bernice explains how, earlier, she sat on a stick. It’s the morning after the burial. They’re in the kitchen, her eyes lightly bloodshot, shorts a bit askew. Her straight brown hair is tousled, strands making bell curves down the length. It makes William think of those close-up images of the sun, solar flares catapulting off the surface.

“Let me guess,” William says. “In between the sofa cushions. He loved putting his sticks there.”

Bernice sighs. “I’m getting tired,” she says, “of seeing you so mopey. You didn’t see me mopey when Roger died.”

Roger was a fish! William wants to scream. Instead, he says, “I wonder if there’s an afterlife for dogs. And maybe even fish?”

“You see?” Bernice says. “If you’re good, maybe you’ll see Ernie again after all. If you’re good and not a mopey man. Maybe that’s what I should call you from now on: Mopey Man. Like a superhero, but not super. Or a hero.”

William wakes up earlier than usual and walks out to the porch. In the backyard, morning dew glistens across the lawn, except, it seems, in the small rectangle of St. Augustine-sod under which he and Lara had buried Ernie yesterday.

“Why are you up so early?” his wife asks from behind him. He starts a little, but easily falls back into his trance.

“I don’t know. Why is anybody up so early?”

“Don’t weird out on me, Will.”

William hardly hears her. The neighbor’s sprinkler burps its first shots of water and then spits into full motion, spraying the dewy lawn.

“Silver lining,” Bernice says. “The grass where you buried Ernie is growing wonderfully. Maybe we should plant something there. An orange tree?”

“Shouldn’t you be going back to bed?”

“No, not an orange tree. Then it’d be like we were eating the dog every time we had an orange.”

“Please.”

Bernice sighs. “I’m trying to make light of the situation. A little cheering up.”

William tells her he’s going back to bed, but instead finds himself walking to the couch, onto which he drops himself and stares at the ceiling wherein lies a small crack he had never noticed before.

“She had mopped out of spite,” he tells his mother over the phone on the way to work.

“Have you considered a light course of action, like divorce.”

“Mom.”

“The way she treats you, William, I….” She trails off, which is how William knows his mother is upset. Hacking off sentences as if they’re gangrene and she needs to amputate before it spreads into something worse.

“If we ever to get a divorce—and we’re not,” he tells his mother, “but if we were to get one, it wouldn’t be until Lara is at least in high school.”

“High school?” she says. “You’re like matrimonial masochists.”

“Like what?”

“You enjoy each other’s pain. You’re both unhappy, and yet you both do nothing, as if….”

“As if what, Mom?”

“As if you’re waiting for the other person to.…”

“Mom?”

“To pull the….”

“You’re upset.”

“The plug. To pull the plug, William.” His mother sighs and, to William, it’s like a hurricane, that sigh—a shove of warm, angry, swirling air that he can practically feel through the phone.

He lies in bed, thinking of options, not for the first time. He considers yoga. He has heard good things. Something related to dysfunctional cognition and serenity. He has no athletic abilities, he knows this. But, as he sees it, what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in desperation.

In the morning, he colors with Lara. She carefully runs a fistful of crayons over a blank page in her coloring book. William stops coloring his own page and leans over the kitchen nook table to watch.

“That’s beautiful,” he says.

“You should get over Ernie,” she says, not taking her eyes off her abstract, spiral galaxies of red, green, blue, carnation pink.

“Your mother told you to say that, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” she says. “She also said you need TheraFlu.”

“TheraFlu?”

“Or something.”

“I don’t know how to get over Ernie,” William says.

“What do you mean by that?” she asks, and William realizes he doesn’t have an answer. He thinks hard about how to explain his rationale to a seven-year-old, but, really, he doesn’t need to worry about it. Lara is already moving on from the conversation.

“I want to dance,” she says. She springs off the floor and runs to the stereo and turns on music. Earth, Wind & Fire sing “September.” Lara claps her hands and sways her hips. She spins around and hops in a circle. “Ba de ya, dancing in September!” She sings this for every part of the chorus, as they’re the only words she knows. “Ba de ya, dancing in September! Ba de ya, dancing in September!”

He sits there and watches. He thinks how Ernie, if he were still alive—still in his youth—would be dancing with her, jumping up and down on his hind legs, yipping in pure, unadulterated glee.

He can’t imagine not seeing her every day, not hearing her voice, not taking in her facial expressions when she is happy or sad or confused or angry. Not feeling her energy.

Once, at work, he spotted a colleague playing an escape-room game. “It’s a puzzle,” the colleague said. “You’re stuck in a house and you need to solve your way out of it.”

That, William thought, sounds like my marriage.

If that is his marriage then this, he knows, is the hardest puzzle to unlock: finding a way to not break your child’s heart. To keep the Fabergé egg that is her very being intact.

Middle of the night, it hits him: not TheraFlu, but therapy. His wife, via Lara, was saying he needs therapy.

• • •

William is off to a bad start during his first yoga class. He forgot to buy a mat, so he had to borrow one from Delilah, the class instructor. Now, as he lies on his back and lifts his legs up in the air, his baggy sweatpants slide down his legs and bunch up near his groin, coiled like a soggy accordion.

At the end, Delilah turns off all the lights and asks everyone to lie on their backs and get comfortable.

“Now close your eyes,” Delilah says in the darkness. Choral music fills the room softly, like a slow leak.

William closes his eyes.

“Imagine you are soaring,” Delilah says melodically, “over the mountains. Over the forests, the green leaves of large canopy trees rustling from the wind you provide them, as you move in a perfect line, the leaf-shimmer like light rain.”

William sees himself flying, his arms locked forward in front of him like Superman. Is he supposed to fly like Superman? Or is he supposed to fly like Peter Pan, arms by his sides like thrusters? Delilah hadn’t specified. He imagines his arms in each position, back and forth—Peter Pan, Superman, Peter Pan, Superman—until he crashes into one of the large canopy trees in his mind’s eye.

That night, he informs Bernice that he tried yoga. She laughs. “Sorry,” she says, “I’m just picturing it.”

“Right,” says William. He tells her it went well and that he thinks the instructor has taken a liking to him, which isn’t true but the words end up slipping out of his mouth, as if his subconscious is saying, I’ll take it from here.

“‘Taken a liking,’” Bernice says. “How quaint.”

There is a certain desperation in lying with the intent of making another person jealous. In the act, it can feel like the lie being stitched will ultimately thread a nuanced artisanal tapestry worthy of The Met. When really, after taking a step back, it’s nothing more than a doily. And there are few things sadder than when the person you’re trying to make jealous calls bullshit, as Bernice has done, in so many words.

When Bernice goes to bed, William sees the doily he stitched together. He takes to a bottle of peach schnapps, as that is the only liquor in the house he likes. He never was a big drinker, so it doesn’t take long before the schnapps does its magic, winding his mind up and then letting it spin in a fantastic wobble.

He doesn’t expect much from TheraFlu. The therapist’s name is Dr. Pepperdine. The office itself smells of peppermint. A play on his name, the doctor tells him.

“Also, I’ve been told it helps calm my patients,” Dr. Pepperdine says.

They dive into William’s life, and the topic inevitably turns to Ernie, how he was blind, and how it was difficult at first but Ernie adapted. William tells the doctor the dog’s color and fondness for squirrels and how Ernie loved rolling on his back in the grass, tongue lolloping out of the snout. William doesn’t tell him how there are still mornings—in the handful of seconds directly after slumber, the mind still winding up the cogs of logic—when he pretends Ernie is alive, and thinks how he’d better get up to walk the dog before Bernice finds piddle, and how sometimes he actually starts getting out of bed to do just that, and it’s only when he puts his feet on the floor that he remembers Ernie’s gone, and so he shifts his sorry weight back into bed and pretends to sleep, even when—especially when—Bernice gets up to shower. He doesn’t tell Dr. Pepperdine any of that.

“He had a flea situation, too,” William says.

“Talk more about that,” says Dr. Pepperdine.

“I always thought the older the dog, the fewer the fleas. I’d pore through his coat looking for them, but I could never get all of them.”

He waits for Dr. Pepperdine to say something, but the doctor remains quiet.

“Lara would sometimes watch,” William continues. “She would act like a cheerleader, rooting for me to beat the fleas.”

Another silence, long enough for William to think how he had never beaten the fleas. The fleas were too tough. The fleas always won. They were the New England Patriots of parasites. The New England Parasites.

Dr. Pepperdine nods, as if he were reading William’s thoughts.

“The thing about losing loved ones,” Dr. Pepperdine says, “is that sometimes we can even miss the troublesome things—that is, the things that hurt them.”

Ernie scratching, nibbling away the itch in his paws.

“I like to think there are three types of rituals,” Dr. Pepperdine says. “There are the Happy Rituals, which are easy to recognize and hold dear.”

Lara dancing to Earth Wind & Fire.

“There are the Sad Rituals. Patterns that include a loved one, but not in an entirely pleasant way, and when we look back, we hold these dear, too.”

The New England Parasites.

“And then there are the Silent Rituals. The ones we can never look back on because we’ll never see them, no matter the distance in time. But they were there all along.”

Dr. Pepperdine goes on, but William is no longer listening. He suddenly wants to fold his body into the tightest fetal position known to the human race. He wants to Houdini his way out of here. He wants to hide from Dr. Pepperdine, from the receptionist in the lobby, from everyone, and he stares out the window, wondering how awkward it would be if he opened it and used it as an exit.

He goes to a small, old-fashioned pub with brick interior, dim lighting, and moose heads on the wall. He drinks a watered-down beer and then splurges on two non-watered-down beers. He drives home the long way, tracing the route he used to walk with Ernie. There is the pond, where Ernie used to bark at the ducks strutting back and forth like they owned the place. There is the trail he and Lara hike, where, one time, Ernie pulled free of Lara’s grip and chased the fattest squirrel William had ever seen. And then there is the stop sign, where Ernie used to lift his leg.

He doesn’t even remember driving the rest of the way home. He finds himself in his driveway staring straight ahead at the closed garage door. Behind that door is the headstone he and Lara had made for Ernie out of a large flagstone. Perhaps he should just put the goddamn thing up. Maybe Ernie’s ghost won’t go away until William does it. Just like in the movie Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg. Swayze couldn’t move on until there was closure.

William thinks, Ernie is the Patrick Swayze of canines.

He puts the headstone up that night, when everyone is sleeping. He sits by the grave and drinks from the bottle of peach schnapps, the rim of which, he notices, has lipstick stains on it.

“I still don’t feel better, Mom,” William tells his mother. He’s on his way to pick Lara up from school. “I put up the headstone and it did nothing for me.”

“You need to bury your marriage, Will,” his mother says. “My psychologist said the dog was just a diversion from your real feelings about Bernice. Or the dog represents your feelings. Could be that, too.”

“You talk about me with your psychologist?”

“I talk about a lot of things,” his mother says. “You can be a topic, is that such a bad thing?”

“It depends on the context of that topic.”

He is hungover. He does not need this right now.

“Just be happy you’re a topic,” his mother said. “Some people.…”

“Okay, Mom.”

Lara sits on the sidewalk, near the main entrance. As they drive home, Lara tells him about her day, how they looked at different leaves strewn across their school. They gathered the leaves, pasted them onto sheets of paper and wrote underneath them the type of tree from which they had fallen. He half listens to Lara, half thinks about what his mother said. He thinks of getting home from work and Ernie running up to him, piddling the tiniest puddle of celebratory urine.

And then: the car hits his car’s rear quarter panel on the passenger side. He knows this not because he sees the car, but because his back end jolts to the left. He jerks the steering wheel, trying to correct the direction of the car. He knows that he needs to get to the shoulder of the road without even thinking about it. When he reaches the shoulder, he looks at Lara long enough to see that she is unconscious. There is a ringing in his ears.

Dust floats off the airbags, glimmers in the sunlight. He watches the motes, like fleas launching into the air, until everything goes dark.

Delilah the yoga instructor stands at his bedside. She wears a flowing white gown. Pagan-like is how he describes it in his head. She smiles and rests her hand on his, gives it a light squeeze, and yet he can’t feel her hand, which worries him. Has he lost feeling? He realizes only then that he’s in a hospital room—IV stand, blipping Star Trek monitor, floral-print curtain hanging from the ceiling—and so perhaps it’s medication that’s making his hand numb. “Imagine you are flying, William,” Delilah says in her soothing yoga voice. “Over fields of St. Augustine grass, you are at the head of an arrow of birds, swooping in and out of low clouds: farmland, picket fences.” He pictures it all: Green pastures liver-spotted with cattle. Circles of lakes. A string of highway cutting through wide-open fields and, in one field, the most random object: an oil well bobbing up and down, up and down. He turns to look at the birds. He asks Delilah what kind of birds follow him, and she tells him “swallows,” which bothers him for reasons he can’t put a finger on. “Why swallows?” he asks her, but she doesn’t answer. She stands there, making swooshing sounds, like one might hear while soaring through the atmosphere: shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh. Until the world goes dark again.

When he opens his eyes, his mother is standing by the bedside, and this feels more ‘real’ to him than the Delilah episode. Delilah seems like a fever dream, whereas this moment is decidedly reality—for only reality could feel this cold and sober and involve his mother standing next to him.

“I’m here,” his mother says. She takes his hand and gives it a squeeze.

“Lara?” he says.

She suddenly looks as if she’s seen a ghost. She covers her face with her hand and begins crying. “No…” his mother says.

His stomach drops.

Then his mother says, “No, son, not Lara. It’s me, your mother.”

“No,” William says. “Is Lara okay?” It takes all his energy to speak.

“Oh,” his mother says. “Yes, she’s fine. She hurt her leg a little, but nothing bad. She’s in a couple rooms over and….”

He sighs and falls back to sleep.

Two weeks post-burial. This is how he marks his time. But it will stop now. This will be the last time.

He and Lara sit on the sofa, where all sticks have been removed from between the cushions. Bernice is sleeping on the Barcalounger next to the buffet table where all schnapps have been removed. Stick-less, schnapps-less.

“Did you know spaniel means something other than a dog?” Lara asks William.

Spaniel-less.

“No, I didn’t know that,” William says to Lara. “What else does it mean?”

Lara looks to her right, at nothing at all, the look of someone trying to remember, searching the mind’s bookshelf and trying to find the spine of a certain memory. Then she says, “It means a submissive person.”

William gazes out the window, where the sun pokes holes in the top of an oak tree. The doctor told him that, while nothing was broken, Lara did receive a bad gash on her right leg. “It’ll be fine,” the doctor said, “but it’ll leave a scar. The kind that might stick around for a while.” William imagines how Lara will have to explain the scar to people throughout her life, if it were to hang around that long. The first time she swims with other people. The first time she undresses in front of someone. “I was with my father,” she’ll say to this person. “He was worrying over his dead dog and….” He knows he and Bernice will be divorced by then. He can already feel what little filament there was holding them together dissipate even more. He will spend weeks, months, trying to decipher when things started going wrong, but he has a feeling it will be futile. Like trying to pick out all the fleas.

And things will be better apart anyway. They’ll have coffee together every now and then, maybe. They’ll share stories about the old days, none of which would be about Ernie though, because that would only lead to the accident. Ernie will not only be buried physically, but also topically.

From the Barcalounger, Bernice lightly snores. Lara stares at her hands and picks at her fingernails.

“Submissive, huh?” William says. He pauses, then says, “Your mother told you to say that, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” Laura says, not looking up. “She did.”

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