By Marshall Howell

A man with siding sat outside and watched as trucks with purple patches roared across the veldt and disappeared. It struck him strange, and strange was often sickly as a smile. He twisted up from his futon mattress, pain shooting down his thigh, hobbled across the room, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed a felt tip pen from the table next to the computer terminal, and scribbled the words down on a scrap of paper before everything faded. He couldn’t believe that, for once, he’d actually recalled lines he’d composed in a dream. He was having some weird Coleridge type experience. Soon he’d be a noted poet. Soon he’d be living on easy street. Outside, a radio blared out “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday,” and bottles shattered as the garbage men worked the dumpster across the street. Inside, it was hot and stifling. It was 7:30 in the morning by his VCR clock. He’d only slept about three hours, but soon he’d get some more.

He limped into the living room, where Debbie, his girlfriend of seven years, was getting ready for work as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan (he’d met Debbie at the end of law school, both of their futures bright, and he’d gotten an offer from a top New York City law firm, but then he’d had a back injury, and she’d been supporting him ever since). Debbie was naked except for her shoes and stockings, and he tried to keep his eyes above her neck. She lifted her navy blue pinstriped suit from a hanger and brushed it off.

“I’m asleep,” he said, “but listen to this.” She raised an eyebrow. But she was going to love it. It was the best thing he’d ever written. When he finished, she said, “To be honest, I didn’t really follow you.” He frowned, then reread the two lines, enunciating every word, talking a little too loudly. “Oh, it’s siding,” she said. “I thought you said sighting. What’s a veldt?”

He stared at the stains on the wall on the other side of the room and the soiled blue-and-white dog papers near his feet, then slumped down in the green chair with the torn seat cover but great back support the manager at the Manhattan Chess Club had sold him for eighty dollars (he’d wasted about five years of his life playing chess, hobbling back and forth from the apartment to the club in an attempt to achieve something, anything. Daisy, their six-year-old Yorkie, who’d been abandoned by her first owners, and who had a liver shunt and was supposed to have died before she was two, crawled out from under the sofa and watched him with watery eyes, wagging her tail feebly.

“Hi, Daisy,” he said in his softest, gentlest voice. “How’s it going?”

Debbie said, “There’s something wrong with her. She doesn’t feel too good.”

He stared at Daisy, his heart thumping. If anything should ever happen to her, he didn’t know what he would do. Daisy was his best friend and a great listener. He was afraid that Debbie got a little jealous sometimes. “It’s her back again.”

“How do you know?” Debbie asked.

“Look at her. She’s stretching in that way she does.”

Daisy was arching her back deeply, looking up at him with sad eyes, her front paws on the floor, her rear end held high. For a second, the room turned misty. He knew how much a back problem could bother you, even though a dog, unlike a human, never complained. But maybe Daisy’s back problem was different. Maybe it was related to her liver. Maybe something bad was already happening inside her body. Maybe she wasn’t going to make it. “Good Daisy,” he said, his voice trembling. “You’re a good little dog.”

He thought about taking her in his lap and rubbing his thumbs up and down her spine the way he had the first time she’d developed the problem. It had worked once, miraculously, but when he’d tried the same technique other times, it hadn’t helped, and he was afraid now that if he pressed the wrong way he might hurt her. He leaned down and scratched Daisy behind the ears. In a few minutes she’d be okay. She had to be. He petted her head, then got up and limped back into his room, motioning to Daisy, and she trailed in behind him.

When he took Daisy up in bed with him, she scratched his pillow several times, then curled up and shut her eyes. He ran his palm down her back, smelling her dog smell while she licked his free hand. She seemed to be all right, thank God, that was the important thing. Suddenly he felt at peace. Soon he’d lose weight and rehabilitate and get a job and write the great novel and quit wasting his time playing Word Whomp for six hours every day on America Online. Soon he’d stop watching Ultimate Fighting videotapes, thinking about how he’d give it all up just to have a fourth-degree black belt in Gracie jiu-jitsu. Soon he’d do a lot of good stuff. Not today, probably, but soon.

He picked up the scrap of paper on which he’d written the two lines, then cringed. Dreadful. What had he been thinking? It was like when somebody wrote out profound thoughts while on L.S.D. Daisy scratched for him to pet her some more. There’d never be a “soon” in her world, only a “now,” at least if he had anything to do with it. (But soon he might not be able to help her when she didn’t feel good. Soon she might be dead.) He shoved the idea away, breathing too fast. Why did he always have to think things like that?

“Good little doggie,” he said, stroking her from end to end. “Soon everything is going to be okay. Really it is.”


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