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Short Story

THE DOG STARTLES ME. I stop dead, as transfixed by him as he is poised on the scent of his prey. Any common thing is startling out of context: a dog on the seventh floor of an office building, an angel on the head of a pin, a sock in the street. As I step tentatively closer, the dog turns out to be a spindly bench at the end of the hall. Not a black and tan coonhound. I watch for whatever wildness the hound was trailing, even though I appreciate that there is no hound. I am a rational man.

Wait. My list was flawed. Truly, an angel on the head of a pin would not be out of context, as a pinhead is a favored dancehall for angels. But of course we have traded in uncommon angels for common sense.

I do not whistle for a bench to follow me. I leave the office, last man out, leaping and echoing down the steps like that painting descending the staircase. Though I keep my clothes on.

On my way home I notice a vigilant Dalmatian near the schoolyard. When I turn aside, sunlight dapples the stand of aspen. Not a Dalmatian. Yet, I shall be wary of fire, as Dalmatians are to firehouses as angels are to pins. Dry leaves are tinder about the slender, patched trunks of the aspen.

The sun is at that cumulative position in the sky, gilding all the heat laid on by its preceding hours. I observe an old woman kneeling by her irises, her poodle devouring her head. The poodle vanishes as she raises her head and gazes back at me. The woman’s thin, white curls barely mask her pink skull. If she is not overcome by the sun, her dog might yet seize her there among the royal irises, the dog’s own pink flesh raw from ardent grooming. As I step onto her lawn, the demented poodle is now peony cuttings, cream, pearl, and coral. The woman rises arthritically. I compliment her on her green thumb and ask after her dog. Before she can tell me she has a cat, I rush off.

I sprint across the park to catch up with a blue Great Dane that turns out to be the shadow of the ice cream truck undulating across the grass and rhododendrons. As I pay for an ice-cream bar, I warn the vendor about the Great Dane. He says he fears no dog of any size, as they all love ice cream. Ice cream is better than mace, he says, alluding to scripture, though I cannot place it. My melting ice cream topples off the stick. I suggest it would be more rational to serve ice cream in winter. He is not a good-humored man. Even so, I advise him the Great Dane is likely to be a ghost who cannot eat; thus his ice creams offer no protection. He drives on, tinkling his bell to enrage the hungering ghost dog.

I am glad to get home, where I do not have a dog. After sundown, I sprinkle cheese on a flour tortilla, slide it under the broiler until handsome black bubbles rise. As I slip it onto my depression-glass plate, the blisters collapse into ash. I cannot eat. If only one of the dogs had followed me home. The ghost dog might eat ashes. Since I do not know how to call him, I just put the green plate on the floor in case he or one of the others shows up.

I open my PowerBook to file what I have uncovered today.

  1. Some creature or condition lurks at work. A hound tracks it.
  2. School is too dry; fire danger is severe. A Dalmatian stands alert.
  3. Gardening may engulf the gardener. Poodles are omnivorous.
  4. Even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. The Great Dane fasts.

Coherent, chronological dog-sightings. But there’s a taxonomical problem I can’t quite grasp.

I go on to make another file:

  1. Something preys upon me.
  2. Something inflames me.
  3. Something has hold of my head.
  4. Something haunts me.

Before I get around to sleeping it is morning. Time to shower and go back to work. Before I can leave the house, Mother calls again.

Please, she says, please come back home and back to the Lord and back to Miriam.

I am patient with her. I fry an egg while we talk. I explain again that an empty tomb is no proof of a resurrection. I slide the egg onto the blue willow plate.

Mother tells me Miriam wants to talk to me.

The yolk breaks. I tell Mother that the virgin birth is either mistranslation or misogyny. The egg yolk drowns the three little blue men on the bridge on the plate. I put my cell to my other ear and call in sick from my landline while Mother quotes John 3:16 to hint at what a sacrifice she has made for her only begotten son. I retort with John 2:4, Oh, woman, what have you to do with me? I put the plate on the floor next to the other one with the tortilla, thinking the egg doubles my chances that one of the dogs will come-and-get-it.

Mother says that Miriam still loves me.

I’m sure she hasn’t seen Miriam. I tell Mother about the difference between reason and revelation, and that I unfailingly cut to the cleanest explanation—Occam’s razor, which I apply even to love.

She begs me not to resort to violence.

I prop open the screen door with the big stone, assuming that at least three of the four dogs cannot walk through walls. I say goodbye gently and hang up. There is nothing of Miriam’s left in the house. Without evidence—her pleated silk scarf, her nail file, her bite marks on a piece of toast—it’s easy to say someone does not exist.

I lie down to sleep.

I awaken when the police officer hollers down the hallway. He flaps his badge at me. It may as well be a tintype. I ask him how a layperson would discern at a glance the authenticity of a badge.

He asks me the whereabouts of Miriam.

I ask him if my mother sent him.

He asks me if I own a razor.

I feel my chin.

He walks around my house.

I follow him.

He looks at the two dishes on the floor in the kitchen. Where’s your dog?

I don’t have a dog.

He writes it down as though a non-dog is a missing person.

I explain that the presence of the egg and the quesadilla do not indicate that a dog was here, but rather that a dog might come.

He writes that down. He lifts my laundry out of the hamper with his pen.

I wonder why he looks into laundry, but not into the books stacked up by his foot. What are the principles of investigation? How do we know what to consider? I ask politely.

He brings up Miriam again.

I wonder if there is something in the laundry I didn’t notice, something that a detective would see. As far as I’m concerned, I tell him what I told Mother: Miriam does not exist.

The policeman says: Don’t leave town.

I ask him if he has ever noticed that the old movie sheriffs tell undesirables to get out by sundown, but these days they say, don’t leave town.

He leaves.

I go back to work just as everyone is quitting for the day. They pat me like a dog for feeling better and for being conscientious. I wait for them to depart so I can call out the black and tan, or its quarry.

Mother calls my cell. Why are you still at work?

I ask: Why did you call the cops?

Miriam’s missing and you know it, she accuses.

I find the doughnuts by the coffee machine, setting them out on paper napkins at strategic spots.

What are you doing? Mother asks suspiciously.

What is it you say, Mother? Catch more flies with honey than vinegar?

She denies ever having said it.

It is pretty much what the ice-cream vendor had said about ice cream and mace. I still can’t think of the scriptural reference.

Mother says: Why would you have flies there, around all those computers? Is something rotting?

I hear a sound in the copy room. I have to go now, dear, I say to her.

Why?

Because if the hound’s trapped in the copy room, it could duplicate and I could end up with two of them. Or two hundred.

What are you going to do about Miriam? she asks.

Miriam’s old news, Mother. I snap shut my phone. I slide one of the doughnuts just inside the copy room and wait.

After a long time, I see the black and tan again, standing in the same place as before, in the position of the little bench at the end of the hall. When the dog is a bench again, I consider how the bench was designed for understatement, and nothing at all like a fine hunting dog. I finish two reports, sleep for a while on the carpet, put on a fresh shirt I find in the boss’s closet. I gather up the doughnuts into my sweaty shirt just as everyone starts to arrive. It has become morning again. They pat me again; I cheerfully tell them to check their e-mail. I whistle for the coonhound as I leave, just in case he would follow. I try to whistle a happy tune, one that would not sound like a dog-call to humans, nevertheless inviting to a hound.

As I pass the school the Dalmatian is sniffing for curls of smoke. I stand there catching scents with him until he fades into the stand of aspen. I leave doughnut crumbs on my path so the dogs will be able to trace me easily.

The old woman is back in her flowers. The poodle jumps at her and nearly knocks her over. I dash over to assist her. She flails at me with her trowel. Where did the dog go? I ask her. Stay back, she says. You should get out of the sun, I advise her as I leave.

I lie down on the grass in the park to wait for the silver-blue Great Dane. The ice-cream truck comes by, but no dog.

I get up and walk home, and without going inside the house, get in my car to drive out to the Humane Society.

The dogcatcher, Konnie, is unloading her lambs, her sitting ducks: a Pomeranian she snatched from under a lawn chair, a blind old collie, an exuberant Frisbee champion. A hoodwinked husky smiles from the passenger seat like she’s on a date. Konnie locks them up to hold them for ransom. Konnie Dogcatcher also tickets people for jaywalking. Humans and dogs scatter when they see her.

The pound reeks. I do not go near the cats, but their scent permeates everything. Mother dotes on Miss Pawla, her cat, who makes me itch.

The dogs are frantic or listless. I look for my dogs. An ancient beagle raises her head, her eyes all milk glass. To my surprise, I see subtle evidence she might be the black and tan from my office. The Dalmatian is not in any of the cages, even the empty ones. I look and look. I might have missed the poodle, who caged up here has become a standard, far larger than the toy I remember from the old woman’s yard. The poodle is morose, as though the old woman just dumped her off. To my amazement the twilight-colored Great Dane is here, penned up, pacing. The ghost dog, alert, is the soul of all these forlorn Rottweilers, malamutes, and yellow Labs. I pull off the name cards attached to the pens of my dogs. I do not bother to read whether they are good with kids or cats.

I tell Debbie, the woman at the desk, I’ll take Sally, Lucky, and the too coincidentally named Ghost.

Konnie Dogcatcher and Debbie look at each other.

I open my wallet.

Debbie tells me that I’ll have to select only one animal, fill out the application, and wait to be approved.

Konnie warns that not everyone is approved. They laugh. It could take up to six weeks. I will need three references, proof of employment, and inexplicably, a paid water bill before they can begin to process my application.

We shout at one another. I say to Debbie, Do you think I don’t know you embezzle from the neutering funds?

Konnie and Debbie growl.

So I add, Everyone in town knows you take the donated kibble over to that man you’re crazy about. And he doesn’t even want that yellow-eyed dog you forced on him.

Debbie and Konnie snarl at each other. Debbie’s crimes and rage stick to her red and blue face. The water in the goldfish jar quivers, a mockery of the imprisoned dogs.

Konnie jangles her jailor’s keys and we both leave at once. It must be Konnie who knocks over the goldfish.

Back home, I whistle for any of the dogs. The Dalmatian maybe, who seems not to have been captured by Konnie. My back door is still open.

Miriam is sitting at the kitchen table.

Anything is startling out of context. Like a sock in the street.

Your mother is gone, she whispers.

Nonsense. Where would she go?

I mean, Miriam continues to whisper, she’s passed away.

You mean dead?

Yes.

Not likely, I say. She thought you were dead, Miriam.

No she didn’t, because I was with her when she called you.

You’d have to be at her elbow twenty-five hours a day; she calls constantly.

Here, she offers, I made you a ham sandwich.

What makes her think I’d eat ham? She serves the sandwich on my orange Fiestaware. I set it down on the floor beside the other two dishes. At least Miriam brought something a dog might like.

I’m staying the night, she announces, but don’t try to come in the bedroom. She undresses all over the kitchen and living room. I pay no attention to where she scatters her clothes. Any common thing is startling out of context.

I open up my laptop and note:

  1. Black and tan masquerades as beagle.
  2. Dalmatian vanishes.
  3. Poodle expands.
  4. Great Dane is a spirit more willing than flesh.

I look at the list. I’ve learned something more.

The phone rings. It is Mother and it is one am. When does that woman sleep?

Miriam is here, I say. And she thinks you are dead, but I can’t talk now. I hang up.

I gather the necessary tools and drive back to the Humane Society. It is easy to break into this cinderblock jail. The dogs are all amused. I find Sally Beagle, who is the black and tan in disguise. With a twinge of doubt I carry her to the car. It takes me two hours to free all the dogs. The poodle and the Great Dane are glad to follow me. I let all of the dogs go free so they can’t trace the missing ones back to my application. A few dogs just lie on their concrete pads, long, long residents suffering under a no-kill policy.

The Great Dane licks my ears as we drive off. The beagle yodels. The poodle watches the eyes of her escaping companions in the headlights.

When we get home, they sniff the dishes on the floor. I scramble up some eggs for them, setting them out on my yellow Fiestaware, my Clarice Cliff, and my Prussian porcelain. The Great Dane, the ghost, disdains the offerings; the poodle, just as when I first saw her, is voracious; the beagle looks on mournfully.

Miriam comes out of the bedroom with a sheet wound around her. Don’t you have any bacon? I can’t live with this menagerie.

Leave, I say.

I came to comfort you, she says, trailing the sheet.

She’s still pretending my mother is dead. And pretending my desire for her is not.

And just to prove her wrong on one point, the phone rings. It must be sunrise already, when Mother insists I have to be up.

Miss Pawla Cat lay on Daddy’s pillow every night, Mother whines.

It’s loathsome when Mother refers to her husband as Daddy. May he rest in peace. Gone just two months, which accounts for Mother’s frequent phone calls. Her husband moved in with her when I went to college; whose Daddy does she think he was?

Miss Pawla just lay there staring into my eyes, says Mother.

Miss him? I ask, respecting her grief.

He needed her, Mother explains.

I correct her. She needs him, you mean, thinking she means herself projected onto the cat.

No, Mother snaps. In heaven, Daddy needed Miss Pawla. So I sent her along to him.

What? Mother, I whisper, wondering how she did it. A twist at the rhinestone-studded collar, a drop of poison in the tuna, Daddy’s pillow over her head?

You don’t understand, son, because you aren’t going to heaven.

I ask her how many times we must go through this: there is no heaven or hell. Heaven is made of envy and hell is built on spite; both are based on fantasies of revenge for social inequities.

I hope Daddy doesn’t hear you; I feel his presence here with me.

He’s a ghost? I ask with contempt.

His spirit is here.

Make up your mind, Mother; populate heaven with souls or the house with ghosts. Give him his reward or keep him restless on earth. How can she believe that tripe? The Great Dane licks my cheek, reminding me that he is a ghost. I hang up.

No point in sleeping now; I go to work, arriving along with everyone else. No one pays any attention. Since I am not out of context I get no hearty pats. I am not a sock in the street, an angel on a pin, a dog in the office.

No, no, not the angel. That category error again. Angels, like beetles and butterflies, belong on pins. Like Mother’s god on the cross.

I do the work of a dozen men and leave a couple hours early. There’s no point sticking around when the hound is not here; he’s back at my house masquerading as an old beagle named Sally.

Mother calls. I chat with her as I walk.

Please, she says, please come back home.

Aren’t you going to ask about Miriam?

She never calls me back, Mother pouts.

I stop by the school to check on the Dalmatian. I can’t see him.

Mother, I say, I think I understand.

You’ve found the Lord? she asks.

I’ve found Miriam.

I notice that the old woman’s not in her yard; either she had a sunstroke or she’s sorry she put away her poodle.

Mother asks insistently, What are you doing?

I’m running to the park. I tell her, There are no dogs in the park. Konnie Dogcatcher has already been here. With all the dogs out of the way, the squirrels are showing off.

It shows, Mother says, how God made a perfect world.

That Konnie picks off dogs so squirrels can play is Mother’s evidence for intelligent design in the universe. I hang up on her and stuff the phone in my pocket.

I can hear my home phone ringing blocks away.

Your mother’s calling, Miriam taunts just as I get home.

Don’t pick it up, I yell.

She picks it up.

The dogs run to greet me; it’s the only happiness I have known on earth.

Hello, Mom, Miriam says. She’s not Miriam’s mother. Does everyone have to be in the same family?

No, Mom, he’s not here, Miriam says into the phone. Well, the gardener next door said he left a few days ago, and no one’s seen him since. The back door was wide open, screen door propped open. House empty. But Mom, she continues, We know he’s been here. Did you know he has four dogs? He seems to have been gathering dogs to him.

What does she mean four dogs? I can’t find the Dalmatian. I only saved three dogs.

I’ll drive the dogs over to you, Mom. I should tell you, though, there was a break-in at the Humane Society. He’ll be arrested. How many years do you think he’ll get for stealing dogs no one wanted? The neighbor said she saw a cop over here. I know, Mom, but if they put him away, the dogs will be a comfort to you. Now that Miss Pawla is gone and Daddy is gone, you’ll love the company. Bye, Mom, love you, see you soon with some darling doggies. Miriam hangs up. She’s wearing the shirt from the boss’s closet. Any common thing out of context is startling: the boss’s shirt on Miriam is startling.

You can’t take my dogs, I say. You can’t take that shirt.

Miriam can’t seem to hear a word I’m saying. She loads the dogs up in my car, carrying Sally Beagle like a baby.

You can’t go without the Dalmatian, I say.

As she drives away, I think I see four dogs hanging their heads out the windows, smiling in the wind.

I open up my PowerBook and make a list.

  1. I am immaterial. One way or the other.
  2. Either my mother is dead or her cat is dead. If Mother is alive, she murdered her cat.
  3. Dogs are missing.
  4. All six of my plates are on the kitchen floor, with fried and scrambled eggs, a ham sandwich, and a quesadilla. Yet I saw the poodle eat all the food and the black and tan, albeit looking like an old beagle, lick the plates.

This list is not logical. I should print it out just so I could tear it up.

I call my mother.

She picks up and asks, Why don’t you ever call me?

I want those dogs. Send them back here.

I haven’t seen any dogs. But I’ve heard you are wanted for kidnapping a hundred dogs.

When they get there, send Miriam back with them.

If they find out about the dogs, they’ll find out about Miriam, says Mother.

Mother, I sent you a list. Open it.

I can’t open the e-mail. There are terrible things in there.

In where?

In the e-mail. They think I’m some man. I can’t tell you what they want to send me.

Oh, yeah, Mother, just delete. Just open the ones you want.

I don’t want any.

I open up my list and tell her, I’ve provided a rational map for you.

I’m not going near that computer ever again.

All right, Mother, I will read you the list; please listen:

  1. Any common thing out of context is startling. Example: a sock in the street. Not to be confused with a miracle, say, Christ’s sock in the street. However, a miracle demands a supernatural corruption of nature, whereas what I have discovered is just Nature’s Untidiness. The distinction is between a man walking on water and a dog appearing in a seventh-floor office building. Both are startling, but the miraculous water-walker disrupts nature. A dog in a place of business simply shows how nature remains rational. But untidy.

Mother interrupts, I don’t have time for this.

As if she can see them through the telephone, I hold up two fingers—the rabbit salute—and continue:

  1. Even if that incongruous commonplace turns out to be a chimera, it is nature changing nature. Example: a Dalmatian guards the school against an outbreak of fire. As Dalmatians are companions to firefighters, it matters little if the Dalmatian is corporeal insofar as we have been alerted to fire hazard.

Miriam should be here at any minute, Mother says, unable to concentrate on my list. She’s on her way now with my precious puppies.

How can they be your precious puppies? You don’t even know what they look like.

I’ve already made their beds and put on a roast for them.

Mother, listen. There are no dogs. Those are my dogs. Give them back. Let me get through this. Do you have the first two points—the commonplace out of context and the commonplace as phantom? Now, the third point.

She sighs. How many points do I have to hear?

Four, of course. Perfect reasoning culminates in the fourth.

What are you up to?

Three. Now listen:

  1. It turns out that a chimera is equal to or greater than a verifiable body in space and time. Example: a woman gets sunstroke or is eaten by her poodle; the poodle is equal to or greater than the sun as far as the old woman is concerned, even though the sun rises every day and the poodle is an optical illusion.

Mother interrupts, Are you making fun of the church again? Every one of these doggies will go to heaven, but not you.

Don’t you harm those dogs, Mother.

Do roast beef and down comforters harm a dog? They’ll be more grateful than you ever were.

Please pay attention, Mother. This is the important point:

  1. Thus, desire for or attention to the chimera is sufficient to pull the illusion into what is commonly called reality, not as substance, but as a manifestation of desire. Example: the risen god. Example: the apparition of the dead husband.

Mother hangs up.

I am surprised she calls back so quickly, but it turns out to be Miriam.

Bring back my dogs, I command.

There’s nothing to bring them back to, she says. Go look in a mirror.

The light isn’t good. I’m outside.

You can’t get me to come back to you over some imaginary dogs, Miriam says. Your mother has reported me missing. You’d better be good to me, or you’ll get the chair if they can’t find me.

Habeas corpus, I say.

What about your invisible dogs? She laughs.

You miss the point. They are visible. Though they may be incorporeal.

I say to Miriam: Listen. I only want to make four points. I bring up another file to read to her.

  1. If a man has the concept of dog, he will encounter dogs. The concept makes the appearance of a dog ineluctable.

You’ll never get me back, or these dogs.

  1. There are those who say reality is arbitrated by the startling, the surprising. Something out of context. Something rather than nothing. Or difference in the midst of similarity. Example: an old, balding poodle.

Miriam sighs theatrically.

Listen:

  1. If the dog is extracorporeal, he will surely be out of context no matter where he appears; thus, the natural (dog) will be made hypernatural (the dog mirrored).

Did you take a look at yourself?

Listen:

  1. Yet the dog does not originate in the concept of dog, but in the wolf. Dogs, wolves out of context, became ubiquitous, with the power to appear out of the nowhere of a man’s coming and going. Something comes of nothing after all.

Your mother is right about you, sugar, Miriam says.

Never mind about Mother. Can’t you see? Can’t you follow an argument? I’ve discovered how rational love is after all, even though it’s framed by pleasures of the anomalous. I hang up, I am so startled to have discovered love when I expected to find only, say, a bench, or a tree, a peony, or even a passing shadow in the park. I could save the world with this discovery.

Perhaps it is because the police officer doesn’t expect to find me here that he cannot see me. Konnie Dogcatcher pulls up and looks around with a flashlight, even though it’s daylight. I am waiting to be arrested. They help themselves to pears from the tree next door. And they call themselves law enforcement.

As soon as they leave, Miriam pulls up. The dogs bark to wake the dead.

Hey, she calls out, have you seen him today? She looks at me strangely, then says: Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not the guy I talked to before. I thought you were the gardener.

I reach out to touch her, but she waves and backs out of the driveway. She and the dogs are on their way again to my mother’s. Who knows what story they’ll have to make up for each other.

I can’t find my phone. The policeman must have kicked the stone away, so the screen door rattles like a sack of bones. He locked up the house so I can’t get in. I sit down on the step.

Suddenly, I am startled to discover the Dalmatian sitting next to me, leaning against my chest. His spotted hide mingles with the flickering afternoon shadows, as if we are in black and white flames.


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