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The magazines kept coming every week or every month, so it was one or another of them every day, and you didn’t have what we both knew it was going to take to make them stop. That would have meant making some calls to cancel. And then you’d need to find a way to explain the situation. But you just couldn’t bring yourself do it. Pick up the phone, dial the number, say the words that needed to be said. You thought that then the young man on the phone was going to feel a need to pull himself up and argue with you. It was his livelihood at stake, was why. He worked on commission, didn’t he? Just doing my job, he’d say. And then he’d go on to explain that he had debts to pay or mouths to feed. And times were tough, weren’t they? Everybody seemed to think that this was true.

The magazines themselves said so. The news stories in them said so. And Edward, he’d known it too. He read those magazines. Mostly they had to do with politics and science. He sat with them in the evenings. He looked up now and then and smiled at you. His breathing was loud enough that you could hear, and even with your eyes closed, be comforted to know that he was there.

So you’d have to tell the young man on the phone the truth: Edward is no longer with us. Edward has passed on. My husband is dead. And the young man would answer back: But don’t you want them for yourself, dear? And you wouldn’t know how to argue with that.

I’ve said, I’ve told you again and again: You need to talk to people, Maudie. You’re too much alone. So you could be thinking: Well, I’m talking to this young man, aren’t I? And then you could ask his name. You could ask him: Where in the world are you right now? He might claim to be in Idaho, and so you could think of him alone, in a cabin maybe, or a trailer. Something temporary anyway and not at all sturdy. Wearing big boots with red laces and a flannel shirt that’s fraying at the cuffs and heavy pants that are brown and stiff and look uncomfortable, and his wife is in the other room napping and the baby in the crib is napping and a dog lies by the door and a cat sits on the sill and a bird sings in a cage and flowers nod in a vase and you can’t go on, so you say: Yes, all right, thank you. I’ll just keep them coming after all.

So here they are. They come every day. Along with what was at first the stream of condolence cards that has lately dwindled to a trickle. Not to mention the bills and the final statements and the notices. Business that piles up. The magazines in stacks. The letters in a bin.

The Mutt is sitting at your feet. He whines when the mail comes and you tell him to hush now, and you hide behind the curtains and watch the postal person descend the steps and move on.

 

* * *

 

Your phone rings and it’s me and I want to talk and I want you to tell me how you’re doing and you say you’re just fine. You say it twice, but I still don’t believe it because I want you not to be fine. I want you to be miserable, drowning in grief, wallowing in the sadness of it all. Edward’s leaving the world the way he did. But you say it a third time: I am fine. And I say: You need to get out more, dear.

 

* * *

 

I’ve been living in another city, far away from where you ended up. I’ve only been to visit that one time, when I helped put Edward in the ground. So I don’t know much about what you do or where you go. If you don’t answer the phone, I’ll think you’re out. You can make up a story, but that might be too much trouble, and even if you do I’m going to want to know the details and I’ll have to worry about where you went and with whom and so you don’t bother to make up some kind of lie. You say nothing, and that leaves me feeling free to go on: Maudie, it’s not right for you to be so all-alone.

The Mutt is watching you while you’re talking to me. He was Edward’s dog, not yours. You smile into the phone. You toss your hair and wave your hand, carefree and fanciful. Fancy free and careful. But, you insist, I’m not alone. I have the Mutt. He’s right here. Your laugh comes out as a cough, so you try again and, hearing this, the Mutt cocks his head. Then he gives a tentative wag to his tail, as if he understands.

You’re happy, then?

You and your Mutt look at each other while I talk on until I’ve run out of steam and have no choice but to let you go.

And anyway, it’s true: You have your Mutt.

 

* * *

 

You hang up the phone. The Mutt looks at you and you look at the Mutt. He’s all yours now, though I’ve read it said: You can’t actually own an animal. You can only care for it. So he’s your companion, then. Or maybe he owns you. This thought makes you smile, and when you smile he wags his tail for real.

So there you are then, the two of you. You and Edward’s Mutt. You make your dinner in the microwave. You make his, in his bowl. Kibble with a salty dollop of your mashed potato on top.

I can’t remember your Mutt’s name. What did Edward call him? My Mutt? Maybe that was all?

He eats from his bowl on the floor and you eat from your plate on the table. He laps water. You sip wine. He lies on the rug while you sit on the couch. He closes his eyes while you run through the channels on the TV, but you can’t find anything of any interest to you.

Your Mutt jumps on the bed to wait while you brush your teeth. He snores while you read your book. His paws twitch. He’s after something, somewhere. Through the window across the room, the sky is vast and black.

You say: Goodnight, Mutt, but he doesn’t respond.

 

* * *

 

I told you that you needed to get out, so you are going to get out. It’s a nice day, after all, if you don’t mind clouds and drizzle and wind. You can see people out there in their cars, on the sidewalks, going to work or something. You’ve slept late, you and your Mutt. You drew the curtains against the blackness of the night and there is no clock because the ticking bothers you. It makes your heart skip. And so now your Mutt lolls in bed beside you with no urgency.

You can’t tell me any of this. I’d worry my pretty little head if you did. I’d just call you more often. I’d be saying: What? You’re not up yet?

You hear the postal person ascend the front steps, and then the mail drops through the slot in the front door.

Your Mutt whines, but you shush him, as usual.

 

* * *

 

There’s a park down at the far end of the street where you live. Your Mutt is on his leash. Or you’re on his. He pulls you along like he’s the boss. The wind knocks you side to side so you feel buffeted. Out of control and helpless, as usual.

Mothers watch their children like hawks. They sit by the playground and gossip on the benches, pull their collars up and shiver, eye the sky.

A man with balloons has set up his equipment near the swings. You eye him warily, but he’s young and he seems all right. There’s a crying child somewhere. A balloon floats up and off.

You bring a tennis ball out of your pocket and your Mutt is on his haunches, alert, nose twitching, ears tall. You move your hand. He tenses, starts, holds. You move it again the other way. He’s tight all over. The leash is coiled at your feet. The woods are on the other side of the field. There aren’t any other dogs around.

You throw the ball, but it’s too late, because your Mutt has already given up on you and all your teasing. He sets off after the lost balloon instead, yipping and nipping at it as it floats farther away, and then he’s gone altogether, swallowed by the trees. The child wails. The balloon man turns his back. The mother scowls at you. A police car glides past.

You pick up the leash and cross the field toward the trees. The damp grass is going to ruin your fine shoes. The police car slows and stops. The balloon man folds up his cart rolls it off, farther down the lane, closer to the monkey bars.

You’re off the grass and in the trees. The lost balloon is a sad sight, its string caught on a branch, its glad face wagging mournfully at you. Or mockingly. Ha ha ha. Like a moon face. Silent laughter. And a rhythmic, You, you, you, that beats along in time with the hammer of your heart.

Your Mutt is nowhere to be seen.

 

* * *

 

Now you’re home again. Your shoes are dry. Your Mutt hasn’t come back. The phone doesn’t ring. It looks like I’ve given up on you by now. Left you walled in by the piles of Edward’s old magazines. They keep on coming, through the slot. Folded lengthwise or splayed on the wood floor like dead birds, fallen from the sky.

It’s too warm for a fire, but you don’t care. No one’s going to see the smoke. No one will think to wonder or worry. A dog is barking somewhere in the distance, but you know it’s not your Mutt because he had his throat cut at the same time they took his balls, so as not to disturb Edward over the course of his death days. We need it quiet in here, you screeched, and after that I took you in my arms and hushed and cooed and said: There, there.

 

* * *

 

You feed the fire with the knowledge that’s inside the magazines. The light flickers, grows. Embers fly up and out the topside of the chimney, high into the sky to join in on the party of the stars. Maybe you can light the whole world on fire this way. The houses and the trees and the grass and the clouds. Wouldn’t that be something? All it will take is one wandering ember, one burning page, soaring with the flames on its tail from your rooftop to the next rooftop to the tall trees and the old squirrels’ nests up there knotted in their branches at the top.

 

* * *

 

That other dog has stopped barking. Your Mutt is long gone. Your Edward is dead. Your house is on fire. You curl on the floor and let the flames lick your face.

Another whiskey, then.

The splash you poured yourself earlier is almost gone.

 

* * *

 

The next morning, you go back to the park. Maybe your Mutt will be there, waiting for you. Or maybe you’ll see him with some other family and then you’ll at least know he’s cared for and happy and in a better place.

You sit on the bench and wait for such a miracle, but it’s no good. You have your coffee in a cup and there’s a splash of whiskey in it, but who’s to know and who’s to care?

You’re wary.

You’re secret.

Hood up and sunglasses on. Even in that red coat, you could be invisible.

The balloon man is here again, and a small boy stands close, waiting, gaping up at him as he twists the rubber this way and that, squinch and squeak, to make a dog, with big ears and a small tail. But it’s too simple and common, really. You’re disappointed in the balloon man, but the small boy is young and to him it’s a wonder.

 

* * *

 

The sky is dim. The day is gloomy and cold. The small boy takes his dog balloon by its string and it floats above his head so he just about falls over flat backward trying to look up at it. His mother is paying the balloon man in coins. He’s smiling and asking questions, so she’s looking into his eyes and doesn’t see the bad boys running past, but you do.

They’ve snatched the string right out of the small boy’s hand and are carrying that balloon dog off with them. The small boy screams his fury and takes off after the bad boys, and you get up to follow. Down the path, into the trees.

You know the way.

 

* * *

 

You’ve found the small boy. He’s on his knees. His balloon dog is in shreds. Another dog is barking on the far side of the creek, but it still isn’t your Mutt and it’s not the balloon dog either.

You kneel beside the small boy. Maybe he can smell the whiskey on your breath. His face is wet with tears that will freeze to ice if he isn’t careful.

There, there, you say. In that, you sound like me. We’ll get you another one, you say. And: I’ll take care of you. You pull him into your lap. He doesn’t resist. You wrap your arms around him. Come home with me, you say. I’ll make you a hot chocolate and cookies and get you warmed up. We’ll build a fire.

Your nose is in his hair. He smells like soap and sweat. He’s stiffened in your arms. You have to squeeze him hard to keep him from wriggling away, but he’s too strong and one more shove and he’s free and you’re flat on your back in the wet grass.

The trees. The sky. The barking dog. The mother’s face looming.

She’s so loud, you cover your ears and turn your head to hide your face inside the hood. She has her son. She’s carrying him away.

 

* * *

 

I told you: You have to do something. Get up. Get out. Get back into the world again.

So now you pull yourself up off the ground and follow the trail back to the field and go on across the field to the playground. Those bad boys are there, hanging around with their mean faces and their greasy hair, their pimpled foreheads and their filthy hands and their brown pants and their big boots. But you’re not afraid of them. You stand by the monkey bars and offer up a good-sized piece of your mind. Shaking your fist. Shivering like a tree in the wind. Your mighty branches twist and fly. You turn your back on their laughter and their jeers, feeling triumphant and strong. You’re thinking: Edward would be proud.

The balloon man is all smiles now. His rubber face is a mask of delight and his hand is on your arm and he pulls you over to him. His nails are clean. He calls you “Miss,” which flatters. You’re a long way off from “Miss” anymore.

He wants to make balloon animal for you. He asks: What would you like?

You have to think about that. A dog? No, too obvious. A husband? No, too complicated. You tell him: A boy. I would like for you to make me a boy. Then: But that would be too difficult, wouldn’t it? I don’t suppose you could make a boy for me? A good boy?

But he can and he will and he does. Two arms, two legs. A torso and a head. The blue balloons squeak and squeal in the making. Then, feet and hands and a freckled face drawn on with marker. Pants. A vest. Even a pair of black shoes.

He hands the good blue boy to you and it floats above your head. Five dollars, the balloon man says, still smiling. His hand is out; his palm is up. You glance at the bad boys who are closing in behind you as you dig into your purse to pay.

 

* * *

 

The bad boys have followed you and your good boy home.

They’re out there now, peering in through the window to see you sitting on the sofa with him.

Together, you and your good boy eat your supper. Together, you talk about your days and the weather and the news. Together, you watch television and laugh at the same jokes. Your good boy laughs and nods and bounces. The bad boys press their faces to the window glass, but you don’t mind. It’s not hard to pretend they aren’t there.

When the time comes, you tuck your good boy into bed. He’s like most boys, both good and bad. He’d rather stay up. He wants to play. He wants to talk. He wants to float away. You hold him close and he squeaks.

Hush now. Hush.

You both sleep then. You dream a silent dog romping in the sky and wake to find your good boy is snuggled in beside you. He smiles and squeaks. Your legs are blue. Your arms are swollen and stretched. Your insides are helium, and you float above the bed. Your string drags on the floor. Your head bumps against the ceiling. You and your good boy hold hands. Together, you float along the hall and down the stairs. The front door opens. The bad boys whoop and howl, with laughter and delight. The sky is vast and black and swimming with stars.

One leap and you rise together, you and your good boy. The bad boys crane to see and your Mutt sits in the grass with them, panting, as you float off, smaller and smaller until you’re altogether gone.

I’m calling you again, but you’re not there to answer, and so the phone inside your house just rings and rings.

 

 

About the Author
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Susan has published several books, most recently The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci and It’s Not About the Dog: Stories. Her short stories have appeared widely in journals. Susan is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.