“The Dog” by Karen Foster
This short story was originally published in Omaha’s The Reader and has since been published in Tower Journal and Muse Apprentice.
There is a fine lot to it all, how the day has become, and loneliness sets in. What a day. The rain came early in the morning, but the rainbow didn’t come till dusk. The family in 21 saw it first. They always do. They saw the one last week before their dog died, the wife talking about the rainbow she saw in a perfect circle around the sun. I never heard of such a thing, her husband said. Didn’t I tell you, she said. I look at the gray sky, the clouds calm after the rain, and wish I could have seen that perfect rainbow circle the sun.
Poor old room 20, no phone operating so I gave the money back. Tore up the American Express charge before his eyes. No one else to decide what to do, except me. The phone company’s closed for it’s 8 o’clock, but that’s the way it is. Just a fine day. What am I to do but watch the neighbor ride his pale horse down the highway. It whinnies. He pulls his cowboy hat down to shade his eyes. I sit in the lawn chair under the awning, smoke a cigarette in such a damn depressing mood. I go inside and watch the ceiling fan go round and round. The air conditioner makes such a racket. I can’t hear anything, not a single noise from the rooms, not even the words on this tv mystery.
Then there’s this dog, a golden retriever, and the strange smile from the woman tonight who let it die out in the grass last Thursday afternoon when it was so hot. What did it get into, her husband comes to the office after work to ask me. I look at him, his eyes red, his sunglasses in his hand. I didn’t know his dog was dead. He tells me. He leans on the counter. My dog’s dead, he says. What did you say, I ask him. He asks me, what there any poison. I said, the housekeeper said his wife wouldn’t let the exterminator in. I wasn’t there then.
I saw the dog at one when I drove in, panting in the sun, and I should have said something then, knocked at the door and warned her that the dog should have some shade, but like children, I thought, it’s their business. I wouldn’t keep a dog in the sun like that, heat that day not fit for man or beast, 102; even the skinny housekeeper feels it. She can’t take the heat, she said. We talked about how it’s better than 20 below and freezing to death in the afternoon when the wind whips as before a blizzard, our arms loaded with sheets and towels down the sidewalk, in and out of rooms.
I call the housekeeper. It’s 4 p.m. She says, no, the woman did let the exterminator in; she didn’t want to at first, but she did. I track down the guy. He’s in another room, talking to a buddy. Both of them here building tanks for this company outside of town. I tell him I called the housekeeper and she said your wife did let him in. I didn’t want you to get mad at your wife. I’m sorry I misunderstood her when she told me about this morning, what when on and such, before she left. It becomes quiet in that room, and I shut that door.
The phone’s dead in room 20 tonight. The guy wanted his money back, says he needed a room with a phone. Whoop tee do, I wanted to dance a jig in front of him in the rain puddles. I pounded nails today to replace a sash, scraped off paint, pulled nails, washed walls in one of the rooms, paid bills, checked the guy in room 20, a tall, nice-looking man from Omaha, who needed a phone, but I forgot to call the phone company to come over today. I knew it wasn’t working yesterday. I tried a different phone, but it’s something in the connection. I hear him saying, I need a phone.
It’s raining, all day on and off, on and off. How can one hang out towels on the line in the afternoon when it’s raining? Hell if I know. If there’s a vacant room, I can sleep in it and idle away the time, watching some movie channel, put my feet up and not go home to an empty house with no one to call me or put my feet in his lap. That’s the way it is; nothing but the best for me.
This dog was seven years old, his owner says. He wagged his tail at me when I saw them check in, the dog on a leash beside the owner. I looked at the dog and thought how quiet he seems. He was showing me the dog, saying how he never moves off a blanket they bring with them, won’t be any bother. Someone else who saw him said he was an old dog, but I can’t tell an old dog from a new dog. They’re all the same, young or old. They have this fur on them, and I can’t tell unless I open their mouth and count teeth or know when they were born or see the light in their eyes when they lick everything in sight, sniff around my feet and circle my skirt. If their gums are bad, how can anyone tell from that? Maybe they smell, or walk like I do with a shuffle, stiff as if cement has settled in my legs, then I can tell how old they are.
They had him staked out by the portable pool they set up for their children, splash, splash, filled with a hose attached to the bathtub, three towheads, and I can’t even see my grandchildren every other weekend. Every other weekend, mothers leave them off. Perhaps my son might bring them over. Swinging in the swings at the park, I see them when I drive over. At their house, the garage door open. I call and call, then guess the park. I watch them for a while, put my finger to my lips so my granddaughter doesn’t warn my son when I sneak up on him. My son says, how did you find us here, the kids going higher and higher in the swings, too high for them to jump off without getting help from their father. He lifts the boy down. The little one runs from swing to swing to try them out as if they were candy bars, a lick here a lick there. When I go behind the swing, I can’t push him higher and higher. He wants his dad to do it, daddy, do it, daddy, do it. He does. The boy soars in the air. He lifts down his daughter. She runs over to me and squeezes me tight, then runs back to the swings, to the one by my grandson. They sound like crows, daddy, push me, daddy, push me.
They run away from me when I try to hold a small hand or two, I want my daddy. One mother drops hers off on Friday evening in a small town half way between here and there, half way between there and here, half way. The other mother drops her son off on her way to the bar. Doesn’t pay attention, she says about him, but he watches tv on his father’s lap, lets my son read him a story, play catch with a big old softball. She’ll be in the bar, sipping beer in her skin-tight blue dress; there’s the three-year-old, sitting in his father’s lap like a prince, a little boy who lays his head down on the dog’s belly or lies next to him sleeping.
The dog vomited, 21 said; what did he get into? 21 asked; do you have poison? With the dandelions all over, I couldn’t have spread poison on the grass. But what about bugs, he asks? They use chrysanthemums, I said. I called the pest controller to ask them what did they use. I read him the invoice. Chrysanthemums, he says, as I thought. Even if he licked up all the residue in the container, he says, shouldn’t hurt him, he says. It was the heat, I said to the guy. Can’t leave a dog outside like that in this heat all day long. He was out only a short time, his owner says, so I called the housekeeper again. Was he in the room when the pest controller came? No, she says, no, outside at 10 a.m., outside at 1 p.m., then at 3 when a woman from Wisconsin with two big hairy dogs in the backseat stops by to rent a room. I didn’t have any vacancy, her dogs barking at something. I figured the dog from room 21.
The man’s crying, says he’s had that dog longer than he’s been married, seven years, that’s what he said. How old is the oldest of his three kids, I wonder, if the dog is that young? They take their kids on the road to jobs, a wife and three kids living in a motel room from one site to another, here for a month, there for six. Today the children roller skate in the parking lot. His wife sweeps away gravel from the asphalt that truck tires kick up, so roller blades can swirl around and around. When they’re exhausted, the three girls sink their butts in puddles of rainwater that reflect the clouds on this dismal afternoon. I see cheetoes sprinkled on the cement in front of their room. I watch them while standing in the rain. Couldn’t work today, the man said, rainy, can’t build tanks for this company they’re here for, so they went to a park. I waited until 10 p.m. for a guy to show up for a room he’s suppose to be in, but he doesn’t come and it’s getting late.
That dead dog lies in the grass by the road, his head nestled in the grass’s steamy smell. Wet alfalfa it must have been to his nose, his legs stiff to one side. I called the vet at home. Does a dog vomit when he has sunstroke? Sometimes when he’s drinking too much trying to cool down, sometimes. That night I went home and had a couple, then stayed up till 2 waiting for a storm to come. Suppose to rain, and it was a Thursday night. They left that next day for their home in Missouri to bury the dog, have an autopsy, he says, that’s why I called the vet. 102 degrees that noon, and no breeze, chained out in the sun.
The guy next to them tells me that night that the dog was there at noon. I kicked that guy and his girlfriend out the day after, so what does he say to another staying here when he bitches? I’m prejudiced to Mexicans. Can’t be, I tell the customer. Three rented the room next to the office for two months and we got along fine. Noise, I told him, noise at 1 a.m. in the morning, noise. The girlfriend says, that’s our business. Not when I pay the bills, I say. Noise and fighting and drinking, and buddies until 1 a.m. I get complaints on the telephone and then before you settle down, your boyfriend tells you he’s going to kill you. That’s our business, she says, her pert little self with her hands on her hips. Our business, she says. She’s in a white tank top with short shorts, something I could have worn when I was 20 too, I think to tell her. Not when I own the place is it your business, two days after the dog died while the people in 21 are in Missouri burying the dog and getting an autopsy.
On the phone the vet says, keep it iced to get an accurate autopsy, so I tell them, keep the dog cool, but they load it up in the trunk of the car, so it must have started to smell south of Omaha on the way to Missouri, the kids screaming in the backseat and him bitching her out for leaving the dog in the sun all day. How could you be so stupid? Maybe they plot to sue me, cause me grief. They come back today. Wasn’t up to the autopsy, he said, but there’s that strange smile she gives me when she and the kids follow him and me into room 20 to check the phone after the guy who needed a phone gets in his car to see why it won’t work. The man in 21 says his phone has trouble too, have to push the clicker all the way in. I say, I’ll get the phone company out here tomorrow and check them both, wonder if the other rooms are like that. Their two girls tromp in the room with their wet feet and muddy bottoms from plopping in puddles all afternoon.
They went to the park, the girls tell me all at once. They sound like whippoorwills. We saw four deer and three woodpeckers up in a tree, the oldest said. I can’t look the little girl in the eye and talk to her: she’s jumping up and down, telling me about the deer. The middle child pulls on my sleeve. The father who had the dog starts talking. Four deer, he says; we should have gone there now in the afternoon, when it’s stopping raining; the deer would be out grazing. They talk about the rainbow in the sky overhead, how last week it was complete. Tonight its tails end in the hills; the middle disappears in the clouds. The youngest girl twirls at my feet, round and round in her blue sundress. I look at the rainbow and watch the guy who wanted a working phone in room 20 turn on the highway. He said it’s a nice room and all, but I need a phone. I don’t suppose, I thought, I need a phone too. The room is nice, bathroom freshly painted, plush green carpet, halfway decent mattress and a tv repaired yesterday for 60 dollars.
My dog died out on the highway, a cross between a Sharpie and a Saint Bernard. How did that Saint Bernard do that, bend down so low, and she so high, or she on a box by the trash, but there was this puppy Rufus I fell in love with. This woman comes in, asks to use the phone. She’s holding this puppy, and he looks at me. I want that dog, I said to her. You do? she says. He’s the runt of the litter, last one left. You do? Here, and she gives him to me. He licks my face while I hold him in my arms. We sleep together and he messes on the carpet, eats like a stallion. In a snap he trains himself. He big feet plop up and down the cement in front of the rooms as he follows me from room to room. Woof, woof, he’d bark and shake his jaw until the wrinkles around his mouth bounce in abandon. He was spotted black and white, an ancestor probably a dalmatian, all fire, and no rain.
He died out on the road. The young man who hit him walked in the office with Rufus in his arms. Rufus, I said, crying already. I called the vet, at night. Bring him down. I’ll meet you. Rufus wouldn’t come to me that night, the neighbor dog Barney shook his bony self outside my door. Rufus went with him, wouldn’t come back when I called up the road after him. Barney took Rufus’s leash in his mouth and led him out of my lawn, across the neighbor’s to his farmhouse a quarter mile away. To teach him new tricks, I thought, an old dog and a young one. Rufus wouldn’t come back. A beautiful spring day, sun warming everything, and Rufus, a young one who wanted to run and chase dogs, bark at cars. I loved that dog, a mutt with an attitude. He loved everybody, would sit on the sofa, his tail wagging low, his Saint Bernard head staring out the office window, barking at Barney whose rear end would wiggle back and forth low to the ground as if someone was shaking his tail, only it was tucked between his legs. Barney saw me on guard with my hands on my hips behind Rufus who perched on the sofa, his paws like a bear’s spread a foot wide on the sofa’s back, barking at Barney. Barney looked at him then back at me through the glass pane, watching to see what I would do, chase him or throw stones. A customer comes in and Rufus springs for the door before it shuts, trailing his leash I kept on him to put my foot on before he could bolt out the door. The customer in the office trying to find a room and Rufus out the door. In my head later, I heard a voice say to me, go get Rufus. I didn’t, was watching news or Jeopardy or Roseanne. He’ll be all right, I thought; he’s been out before; he’ll come home. Then this young man comes in, dressed in a nice striped shirt with a tie, slacks, beige I remember, but blood on his shirt, dripping on his pants and Rufus in his arms, his head lopping off the guy’s arm. What happened; what happened? Is this your dog, he asked; the people down the road said this is your dog. I hit him with my car. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I call the vet; he meets me at the office. Rufus is in the back of the van, blood all over. I talk to him on the way over; you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine; we’ll get there in time; hang on, boy; hang on; but the vet looks at his eyes when I open the van’s door; blood covers the carpet. He says he’s dead, but you can bring him in if you like. I can’t see for the tears; they’re streaming down my face. The vet takes him in his arms. I go back to the motel, call my daughter and tell her. She tries to comfort me, and I can’t stop crying. For three days I cry. I see Rufus in my sleep and I feel him lying on my feet. He was a puppy, a big old mutt with rolls of skin around his mouth and neck, a mouth that dropped open as wide as the ocean, black white spots all over him, feet that could collapse a mountain, and could he run. He galloped down the sidewalk. In the wind I can still hear him.
And tonight comes the rain again, a wild uncontrollable, summer storm. Lighting flashes in the office. Housekeeper called tonight. She left before I drove in so I didn’t talk to her. She had no trouble today, nothing to speak of, turned away a customer for the only room available was reserved tonight, but the reservation didn’t show up. A lack of dollars for tomorrow.