The Loneliness of Dogs
By Donovan Swift
He is in the middle of the room. The patch of sunlight that drew him there has since moved a few feet east, but there he lies. His stomach rises and falls erratically. He tries to look her way without moving his head, giving his eyes a touch of insanity or panic.
Her keys still hang from the lock in the door as a pink sky envelops her economical hybrid. He doesn’t seem capable of standing. Men pull into driveways with ties loosened and sleeves rolled, and say Ahh as they enter homes of varying levels of comfort.
His tongue hangs out onto the rug, long and folded over to the side like something recently dead. The classical music his owners play for him is still on, and she hopes it brings him some sense of ease. She asks him where it hurts without expecting reply.
She dials the number for the hotel in Maui that the owners left but doesn’t call. She shuts the door and turns on the hallway lights. Her sandals look dirty and foreign against the pristine wood.
His eyes try to speak to her with a language they don’t yet have. She turns on the living room lamp and runs her hand over an embroidered throw pillow, silently debating the ethics of household euthanasia. The cross-hatched ray of sunlight has vanished into night, and she wonders how long he’s been like this. The floorboards don’t creak or moan as she crouches down and runs a hand over his apparently frail torso.
His eyes lose interest in her and recede back to sanity. She realizes that he may have been afraid of her or whoever first came through the front door, his body now left completely without defenses like a torture victim bound to a chair. She whispers things she hopes are soothing. It’ll be ok. Easy now. It’s going to be fine. She knows the words are interchangeable to him, but hopes her tone suggests calm.
There is not a single rounded edge in the kitchen. Everything is sharp and modern, angular. She sets her bags down on the marble counter. The cabinets and floor are an immaculate mahogany that match almost too perfectly, like the plains of the room are bleeding into one another. She retrieves the dog bowl from the sink, and the fridge asks her how she would like her water on a scale from cold to coldest, then tells her what the weather will be like this week. Expect rain. She catches a glimpse of herself in the reflection of the large fridge and shudders.
There is a small chalkboard sign that says Wine a little, you’ll feel better. These are the kind of people who have expensive drinks just because. She dims the lights on the way out instead of shutting them off because she’s always wanted to have the power to do so. She is an intruder.
It is a different room under lamp light. All of the books are white or off-white, taupe, and even he is an appropriate sandy brown. She gently probes under his ear and neck, waiting for a whimper but getting none, then carefully lifts his head into her lap. She tilts water into his mouth but most just spills out onto her thighs. His head falls into her like something inanimate, and she wishes he would whine or moan or do something to force her into action.
If pushed to do so, she would probably describe the walls as a mauve. She has a strong feeling that the owners left him like this for her to take care of, but can’t explain where this feeling comes from. His breathing is quick and arrhythmic, and she knew from the beginning that there was no chance. Like with an old relative, the discussion now moves toward preserving comfort rather than life. She eyes one of the throw pillows again, tassels and all, but can’t decide which spoiled thing the owners would be more upset about. The dog’s name is Wallace.
She pictures suitcases, packed, sitting at the base of stairs. One red and the other black. They are the kind of suitcases that will be hard to distinguish from the rest at baggage claim; the owners may even inadvertently remove someone else’s bag from the motorized loop thinking it their own. The female owner is coming down the stairs as the male brushes his teeth. Seeing her not fully dressed yet, he reminds her of the time, as if she didn’t already know it.
She acts surprised, looking down at a watchless wrist with wide eyes. The male tries to say something about security lines and having to check their bags, but toothpaste overwhelms his tongue and nothing resembling words emerges from his mouth. This removes the tension. They share a laugh.
Wallace is sitting on the couch with his head between his paws, looking sullen, as if he knows they are leaving him. The male googles whether or not they speak English in Maui, and asks the female up the stairs if they should consider a phrasebook. She does not answer him so that is that. The sound of the blow-dryer leaks out of the bedroom, and the male asks Wallace what the deal with women is.
Wallace does not seem to know. The male owner is wearing his vacation uniform: Bermuda shorts and short-sleeve collared shirt, plus strappy sandals and a sports watch that is water resistant and glows in the dark. It is what everyone else at the office wears, too, on weekends, so during company cookouts they all look like minor actors getting ready to audition for the same small role.
The male’s hair has the perfect amount of grey, and he has been asked, sometimes aggressively, whether or not he uses Just for Men. No, he has to always say, fingers running through the hair in question, it is all natural. There is pride when he says this, as if it is something he personally won. He is the kind of person who says that it’s all about hard work and a positive attitude. He leans back into the sofa, sighing.
He reaches over and gives Wallace a hefty pat—one that makes an audible clap—and a few scratches. He smells his fingers and makes a face. Wallace has a noticeable “scent.” He is really getting up there in years, thinks the male. He lifts the dog’s ear, then the lip, as if he knew what looked healthy and what not. Another sigh and a pat.
Wallace has not budged; it makes the male wonder what’s going on in that little skull. The dog has the look of a young mystic, the eyes of someone who can silence the room with one ambiguous sentence. The only other time he has this look is when the male masturbates with him in the room. He knows too much. He must be killed. The male smiles to himself and checks his watch. He announces the time melodiously in his mock opera voice that only he finds funny. It’s NINE thirrrTEE. He is having a good time.
It makes it easier, picturing them this way. The lights are fluorescent and very bright. There is a faint sound of barking coming from somewhere behind closed doors. The woman at the front desk has short pink hair, and her name is Sharon but spelled with a C. Wallace’s breathing has slowed, but his eyes dart around the room manically. She regrets this immediately.
“And you’re Wallace’s owner?”
She holds the dog under the front and back “armpit,” making the legs stick out straight like he’s flying. He is flying.
“The dog.” She nods at Wallace. “Are you his owner?”
“Yes. This is Wallace. My dog Wallace.”
Her eyes go back to the screen as she types too many letters for just a name. Charon’s skin is blotchy and red underneath her magenta scrubs. The people in her line of work all tend to be more or less like Charon: Generally uncomfortable with human interaction, never more than moderately attractive, nice. But she is probably described the same way.
“I don’t see…”
“It’s probably under my husband’s name. Paul? Paul Day.”
She hasn’t said the phrase my husband in quite some time. More typing. She wants to tell Charon that she has a dying animal in her hands and it’d be great if she could, you know, hurry it up. It seems that Wallace has just farted, but she prefers to give him the benefit of the doubt and blame it on Charon.
“Ok. Perfect. Alright, so, now, if you could just step into room uh, four, the doctor will be in there shortly.” Heavy wet blinks. “I put a rush on your file.” She reaches out and touches Wallace’s head gently. In a baby voice: “Just hang in there Mr. Wallace. Ok?”
The room is just like one for people, except the diagrams posted on the walls are of hamsters and cats instead of humans. One refers to guinea pigs as “exotic” pets. She pictures herself on a beach chair in Maui, looking out at startlingly blue water with a fruity drink sweating in her hand, surrounded by nothing but palm trees and guinea pigs. Hundreds and hundreds of guinea pigs. In the trees. In the sand. On her reddening legs.
“Hi. Dr. Menendez. Let’s get him up on the table.”
The doctor wears scrubs too, and his arms and knuckles are exceptionally hairy. She wonders if he has a white coat but opts out of wearing it to keep up employee morale. She doesn’t know why she wants to mock the fact that he is called a doctor, but she does. She is ashamed of this.
He feels Wallace’s chest, and runs a hand along his spine. “What’s his diet like? Is he on kibble, wet food?”
She doesn’t actually know the truth but the doctor can tell that it’s mostly wet. The doctor seems disappointed in her because of this, and she, too, feels at fault. He pulls back an eye lid, a lip, takes the tongue between two fingers. Something about the doctor makes Loreen feel like she’s next up on the table.
He sighs. “You know a dog this age needs to be on mostly kibble, right? Wet has waaay too much fat. You see this?” He pinches a piece of Wallace’s sagging stomach. “That’s not a healthy dog’s stomach. That’s an old, fat dog’s stomach who gets fed too much wet food.”
He talks to her like a child because he knows what’s going to happen next. He knows that Wallace is too far gone, so he needs an object to direct his frustration toward. How else would he get through the day? She is happy to take the blame. This is not her first time.
“Well. Is there anything you can do?”
“We’ll take him to the back. Run some tests.” Dismissive wave of the hand. “But I can’t guarantee anything, you know. He’s in real bad shape. Even if he does pull through—I’m just being honest here. Even if he does pull through, he won’t be walking on his own, not without wheels or surgery. And even then. He’ll probably end up in this same situation in, I don’t know, a year or so? Maybe less.” He purses his lips, gives Wallace’s head a rub.
“But let’s see what we can do.”
She doesn’t know why she’s back in their house. The lamps’ orange glow was warm and inviting from the dark street. She had called them on the way home from the vet and explained the situation in a tone that she hopes sounded sympathetic. She doesn’t know the time difference, but Loreen had sounded drunk, and she could almost hear the warm sunburn and smell of beach on her skin.
The roads had been empty and the radio playing nothing but all-night jazz, so she was forced to relive things otherwise forced roughly out of awareness. Though not her dog, she had cried when they brought him out wrapped tightly in a towel so only his head peeked through, like a mother being presented her newborn. As Loreen, the dog’s actual owner, she was meant to say goodbye for the last time and be appropriately emotional. This was not difficult.
She waits to cross over into the living room, hovering in the hall with a piece of paper, signed Loreen Day, held loosely in her hand. It cost her one-hundred eighty dollars. Charon had been very sorry about all of this, of course. She hangs her keys on the hook underneath the chalkboard, on which someone had drawn a crude beach with palm trees. It will seem sarcastic when they get home and have to wipe it off.
She sits down on the couch like it’s her own, eyeing the damp circle of drool still on the rug. The room feels different this time, hastily thrown together. The lamp light not a warm blanket, now, but a band aid, trying to salvage the room.
She stretches out on the coach, letting the sweat from her neck dry on the arm rest, and pulls a pillow to her stomach. The faint sound of a concierto she doesn’t know the name of still emanates from the sleek entertainment system across the room, but all she can hear is the sound of waves. She’s supposed to be at her seven o’clock, letting out two schnauzers and feeding a bird that she thinks is a cockatoo, but is here instead, on a couch that isn’t hers and in a house that no longer needs her. She will explain the emergency to Ms. Lerman, breathlessly, the next day in hopes of keeping a job that she really does not want to keep.
But Lerman will not understand; she will be fired. Her body bends toward sleep, but she’s afraid that Paul may burst through the door at any moment and add to the strangeness of it all. She forces her eyes open and lifts her head. She sometimes wishes she felt half as comfortable in her own home. Something about the houses of strangers pulls her toward a sense of calm, an uninterrupted sleep otherwise elusive, though this does not bother her the way some would suggest it should. She may even have a drink just because.
It will be the time of day, almost night, when everything looks lit by the blue light of a monolithic TV glow. Their street will look slightly foreign to them as they turn onto it, like a home town after years away at school. They will be upset that the trip is over, tired, but relieved to be home. Loreen will turn the radio down by the dial and remind him to call Eric in the morning. She will not return the volume to its original level, and this will quietly anger Paul. As a green lawn bleeds into the next, Paul will think that the neighbors have left the recycling out on the wrong night, again, but then realize the day.
He will be glad that he did not say something aloud, though will be shamed by the thought itself. The street will unfurl comfortably, too familiar to register, and the drive will prove impossible to remember. He won’t be able to shake the nagging feeling that he left his toothbrush at the hotel, and Loreen will tell him that he just passed the house. She will press her nose to the glass like a young girl and watch it recede back into the other homes of delicately varied style.
They will feel naked in their vacation outfits, stupid. Paul will strongly suggest that they should leave the bags in the car and go straight to bed, but Loreen will not leave the driveway without them. The headlights will splash onto the garage door, framing Loreen in white light, and the car will beep from the open doors. A jogger will pass with his dog and all three, excepting the dog, will raise a hand to wave.
Smiles will jump to their faces. Loreen will go to the back of the car and jiggle the locked trunk handle until Paul caves and unlocks it from afar. The taillights will turn Loreen red. The trunk exhales like a fridge door as it opens. She will struggle to pull her bag out, and Paul will ask if she needs a hand without actually moving to assist her. He will offer to take her bag, too, extending an open hand, but she will walk past him toward the front door. The trip is officially over.
They will come inside expecting to be greeted at the door, ready for the jangle of a collar or the clack of claws on floor. They will have decided not to cut their trip short upon hearing the news. What good would it do, they will have reasoned, to rush back to a situation they can do nothing about? He was very old, after all, and it is already taken care of. He is gone. Why not enjoy the trip while they still can, Paul will have said. It would not make sense to spoil such an amazing experience, here gesturing to the view of the water and the trees with the sweep of a newly browned arm.
Paul will have a tan line from his sunglasses, reverse raccoon-like, and will struggle to remember what coming home was like before the dog. He tries to remember his face. It does not feel all that different, he will decide, but won’t be sure if he means it. They will both linger in the hallway, though, bags strewn about like dead things waiting to be seen, and look toward the kitchen, hopeful.
But street lights will come on and Loreen will remind Paul to write a check, including tip, for what’s-her-name, and the need to turn on a light and find a pen will usher them back into step. He will be replaced.