By Wayne Cresser
Norm lay in bed, aware of a sudden dampness on his skin and a bitter taste rising in his throat, poking the back of his mouth with acid fingers. It was awful. He propped himself up on an elbow and coughed. His head pounded and he glanced at the clock radio on the plant table, its face blurred by a thick layer of dust. He didn’t like to but it was a reflex, to think of time and loss. Of course the smallness of his night sweat compared to the larger cruelties and miseries of life, embarrassed him. He shouldn’t think of himself. For he knew other people a lot worse off, but they pushed forward, always schlepping toward the sunshine. He envied them because it was his bent to be pissed. He’d like to know how to get past that for what good had it ever done him?
Summer rain tapped the roof now and he rolled over on to his side. He ran his hand over the deep crease next to him, the valley emptied out, the cold wind that never quit having shut the village down. He left the bed. He stepped over the dog sleeping on the floor, then turned and stopped. He bent over the quiet rising chest, kissed him on the head and asked for his forgiveness, as he’d be doing for some time. He didn’t always remember and he didn’t always ask at the same time.
He moved on through the dark to the second floor landing. He nearly slipped on the beginnings of a puddle forming under the open skylight. He was grateful for the rain though. August had been dry, the grass browning out in spots, the days already growing shorter. If he waited too long after dinner to walk the dog now, he had to bring a flashlight. His baseball team was sinking out of sight.
He made his way to the fridge and found a tub of nonfat and plain yogurt, scooped a pile into a ramekin and took himself to the living room where he stretched out lengthwise on the couch. Something in the yogurt would battle and ultimately defeat the rioters in his stomach. His head would clear and he would sleep, but not before he’d wrestle with the bully again, that tireless inventor of new ways to rule over him.
How long had he been awake? Any increment of time beyond a quarter of an hour would lead him to black thoughts about the paradoxes of time and sleep. One needs eight hours, the experts say, but over time that’s a big chunk of one’s life spent doing nothing. The body needs rest, he understood that; what he wrestled with was the inflexibility of the demand. Complicating things even further was the fact that once it finally happened, he loved the drift of sleep, and any interruption such as a bout of acid reflux, a bad dream or an untoward noise, took him down a treacherous path.
He continued to swallow yogurt and wonder how he might recoup all the minutes he would spend driving himself nuts before his eyes glazed over and he was horizontal on the couch, all the racket of his contradicting world quieted.
He was not hopeless. Lately he’d experienced some personal triumphs, some modest affirmations of his lifelong efforts to teach and write, but he was not consoled. He was sleepless and distracted by recent memory, the latest layer having to do with the dog sleeping upstairs. Hal was Norm’s favorite creature in the world, but they’d had some drama. And although all might be forgiven, disquieting echoes of the event might on some level account for the way he was feeling.
Some months before the dog had started getting out of the house while Norm and his wife Helen were away. This happened both day and night. The first couple of times, they accused each other of leaving him outside. When both he and she denied that possibility, they agreed that they couldn’t have been so careless and scratched their heads in wonder.
One evening upon returning home from dinner, Hal came bounding into the driveway, smiling broadly, shaking a gnawed up Frisbee, begging them to play. Helen looked at Norm and said, “Houdini.”
They went inside, turned on every light in the place and searched for an explanation. She discovered the tear in the screen behind the couch on the sunporch. It was a corner tear, remarkably precise, no yawning gap, no shreds of screen dangling over the floor. There was just a flap pawed through the lower left-hand corner and running up the side of the window frame about two feet. He was a medium-sized dog with big paws and piercing nails. The destruction could have been unspeakable but this was tidy, impressive work.
Of course none of this mitigated Norm’s concern for the dog or the security of their home, nor his vexation at the thought of having to repair the screen. It crossed his mind that the work should be temporary in nature, a patch, in the event that there was more to the incident than an urge to go outside and pee or stretch out in the sun.
Days, weeks, he didn’t know, passed before he walked himself down to the hardware store. If he had to tell you what prompted him finally to do the job, he would say house flies.
At the hardware store he found a screen patching kit and the nails he needed. He told the clerk, “After eight years my dog seems to be developing behaviors.”
It was just shy of one in the afternoon and the sleepy-eyed clerk said, “What?”
He didn’t explain further.
Back at the house, he cleared a narrow path through the catmint on the south side. He nearly had to press himself against the window frame to find an effective angle from which to drive the nails through the stripping that would hold the patched screen together. The fuzzy flowers of the catmint brushed his legs, they felt like bugs. He smelled badly and wanted to lie down.
When he was done, he headed for the spare room off the sunporch. He fell asleep on top of the bed. Hal lay at his feet. Norm stirred in his sleep because he was driving again and the driving was foolish again. And as usual, he was alone in the car.
This time something like pea soup was spreading itself from the bottom to the top of his windshield. He lifted himself off the seat, raising himself as high as he could to find an aperture but it was no good. He couldn’t see where the road was going but he could feel it underneath him, bending like an elbow. He woke up before the inevitable crash and reached involuntarily for Hal, but the dog wasn’t there.
Norm rolled out of bed, calling him. He sang something silly he’d made up, a song which declared Hal the doggie prince of the world. He stopped to listen, nothing. Then, through the living room windows, he caught a flash of movement in the front yard. He plowed through the room, threw the screen door open and found Hal, stretching out like a raja on the carpet green of the front lawn.
Hou-fuckin’-dini! he said to himself and before anything else could happen, he was dragging Hal through the living room, the spare room and finally to the sunporch. With one hand on the dog’s collar, he used the other to grab an arm of the couch and yank it away from the screen, revealing the gapped and shredded mess behind it.
“Look at that!” he shouted. “Just look at that, mister. You did that.” The dog looked away and Norm smacked him on the nose with an open hand. “No,” he ranted. “Bad,” he said, and repeated the last word, drawing the letters out, dragging the a behind the b. He might have sounded like a wheezing accordion when he said, “Baaaaadddd.” He might have sounded like a blowhard or a shithead because at that precise moment, Hal wiggled out of his collar, dismissed him with a glance and leapt through the fresh hole he’d made while Norm was sleeping.
“Son of a bitch.” He took off through the back door, rounded the corner of the porch and plowed by the rusted Camry in the driveway.
Hal had reached the street already. “Come back here, you,” Norm called.
At the sound of his voice, the dog set off like a trotter heading for the first turn or maybe the last. Maybe Hal imagined heading home, to the Missouri breeder’s barn where he spent the first six weeks of his life. Then he looked back, over his shoulder. His expression was strange, smiling almost. There was the flash of teeth, his pink tongue hanging out. He seemed to say, “Later, asshole,” before he flung his head forward and his ears flew back and he burst into a full gallop.
The cartoon cover of one of his daughter’s favorite books came suddenly to mind. He saw the grinning face of the dog. Ruth was only little then, not grown and sophisticated and moved away from the island. He had read the book to her dozens of times, she always marveling at the notion of such busy puppies. Of course the dog on the cover looked nothing like Hal. That dog wore a jaunty cap and scarf. He drove a convertible too and in the story, he was on a quest to find a dog party. After a while, it became their thing to holler Go, Dog. Go! whenever they saw dogs at play having an especially good time.
With all that racing through his brain, he hollered, “Stay, dog. Stay!” Then he started to run. He didn’t have a hope of catching up, he just didn’t want to lose sight of the dog. Before he covered a block, Hal was gone, nowhere to be seen. Due west stretched the main road with an old brick library on one corner and the island’s only gas station across the street.
He thought of Helen now and how she was the one who said “Houdini” when Hal appeared out of nowhere that first time. She was clever and beautiful and he had done nothing but watch as she filled the Tiquan with gas before she left the island for Ruth’s place in Manhattan, a journey without a timetable. He didn’t know where she was now. Or how much time had passed.
He felt nervous. Traffic moved fast along the main road and he shuddered at the notion of the dog trying to cross there. He was afraid to slow down. Considering how fast Hal could move, every second counted.
He soon discovered he couldn’t sustain even a jog. He felt rotten and useless and bullied, more defeated by the minute. He ached and couldn’t catch his breath. Sun glanced off the windshields of the cars passing on the main thoroughfare. Between where he stood and that road was another cross street. Hal could have turned either way at the intersection. One way led to a long incline that topped out at a golf course, a place where they’d taken many winter walks. Golfers would be playing there now and a loose dog would mean trouble.
The other way led to the house he and Helen rented when they first came to the island. The dog was only two blocks away from the scene of his youth.
He wondered too if Hal might have a more epic journey in mind. His brother-in-law lived north of the bridge, on the bay with a patch of beach in his backyard. Hal liked to root around there for the remains of fish that had been caught and cleaned. Such a quest would require hiking along the main road and Norm trembled at the thought of it.
This is the last place I want to be, he thought, the place where anything can happen. He wondered if he knew anything at all. He was supposed to take care of the things he loved, not drive them away. He’d been a man who liked to know where everything was and what had he done? Lost his temper and scrambled his bearings, muddling everything that mattered to him. Somehow he’d even managed to confuse the one creature whose love he could always count on. He had boasted to friends that the dog was like Velcro to him. He would never run.
When those words returned to his mind now, he believed them all over again. In fact, it occurred to him, he’d been thinking wrong. This action was something other than a jailbreak. Hal didn’t intend to hike out, never intended it. He wants to be found, Norm conjectured, that’s the nature of this game. This wasn’t about a blind lurch into the uncharted, it was rather an object lesson meant for him alone. He’d blown too hard, too cold, for too long. He’d acted badly and Hal was serving him an unequivocal message in the form of see what I can do anytime?
Now he moved in a straight line toward the main road. When he got there he looked north, then south. No dog in sight, nobody even walking one. His heart sank again. There was nobody else within shouting distance on his side of the street. From the other side, two blonde teenagers approached the gas station. They laughed as their ponytails bobbed behind them. One of them pointed across the street and the other one stopped to look. They laughed again.
Norm stayed on the opposite side of them moving south along the edge of the playground next to the library. As the girls continued their walk, he crossed onto the spacious greenery of the library’s street side entrance. Then he saw him, Hal, the raja, the doggie prince of the world, stretched out and smirking, luxuriating under the leafy umbrella of a Norwegian Maple.
“There you are,” he said aloud. Then he breathed deeply. All of the hideous scenarios that might have been vanished like fog on a windshield. His lungs opened again and he felt better.
“C’mon, boy,” he shouted. Hal turned his head in Norm’s direction. He jumped because his movements were never sluggish, he never dragged. He started toward Norm, his hind end twitching enthusiastically. He came within two or three feet of him and lay down again.
Norm lowered himself to the soft cushion of the lawn, feeling then as he felt right now, stretched out on his couch in the bewitched early hours of the morning. His eyes glazed over as he recalled the final shot in the scene, his anger seeping into the verdant ground. He felt every inch a fool, wanting nothing more than forgiveness and hoping that there would be enough time for him to find it.
Copyright Cresser 2015