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People Food

When I was a boy, a dog lunged at my cheek and broke the skin. It was my piano teacher’s dog, a German shepherd mix named Toots. My piano teacher never apologized for her dog’s behavior, which is what good dog parents should do when their dog children act out. It’s what I used to do back when I was a dog parent.

             If my dog Skippy ever did his business on someone’s lawn at the same time that person happened to be opening the front door, I would say “Good boy,” loud enough so that the homeowner would hear me. Then I would rustle around in my pockets and fish out a green plastic bag. It was an attempt to ward off the look that the person might shoot me – the “your dog is pooping on my lawn, asshole” look.

           It’s similar to the look my ex-girlfriend Diane used to give me when she would complain about our sex life. But that had little to do with defecation or, as Diane put it, “anything remotely interesting.”

            In general, I try to be respectful of people’s property, but if I were shot a particularly nasty look, even after showing the person that I was indeed picking up the poop, then I wouldn’t bother to do it in the end. I would just leave the poop there on the lawn, congealing in its own juices.

            Skippy actually was a good boy. He was good for me. He forced me to get up and exercise in the mornings. Without him jumping on the bed, nudging me awake with his nose, I would have overslept every day. Others (Diane) have informed me that I’m a heavy sleeper.

            “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re alive or dead,” she would say.

The fact that Skippy needed a walk morning and night really helped me with my exercise regime. I lost twenty pounds in the year I had him, although our walks could get dicey. Skippy was a Great Dane who weighed as much as I did. Sometimes he took advantage of this fact, even though it really wasn’t in his nature to exploit my weaknesses.  

            Skippy pulled violently on his leash because he could, and even though I tried my darndest to remain in control, Skippy would occasionally drag me off into the middle of the road in his quest for something – a squirrel, a pine cone, or a plastic bag he wanted to eat. A few times, we had to dive out of the street to avoid being hit. Others (Diane) have told me in the past that I don’t have much upper body strength. To his credit, Skippy didn’t hold these accidents waiting to happen against me. He wasn’t one to bear a grudge.

            Skippy, like most dogs, felt most secure on a schedule. I appreciate a firm schedule as much as anyone, but when we would get off track for some reason, we would clash. Skippy’s way of getting back at me was as simple as him peeing in the house. One night I came home from a work dinner only to find that Skippy had peed in the bathtub. I’d had a doggy door installed as soon as I adopted him, so it’s not as though he’d had an accident. He knew that I like nothing better than to take a warm bath after work. Diane can denigrate the practice as “unmanly,” all she likes, but I believe that a soothing bubble bath does oodles for improving one’s well being. I believe that’s why Skippy peed in the bathtub, as a way of putting my masculinity in doubt. He played that card too when he would pull me into the street, causing people driving by to yell things like “control your dog, shithead!” And he was right, in a way. I was the dog parent, after all. I was the shithead left in charge.  

            When I adopted Skippy, he was already a grown dog. I had decided early on in the process that I wasn’t going to adopt a puppy. Unlike Diane, I did not have any interest in babies. I wanted a dog with a fully formed personality, a personality compatible with mine.

           If pressed, I might have referred to my work colleagues as friends, but I can’t say that I ever had a true companion until I met Skippy. At one point in our relationship, Diane might have qualified, but humans lack loyalty and always seem to ruin things.

           Maybe I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, but in retrospect, I think that Skippy was my one and only love.   

            The idea of dog ownership seemed like heaven:  A dog would be there for me when I watched TV, when I took my bubble baths, when I ate my meals. A dog would be around every day but wouldn’t comment on how inexpertly I was taking out the garbage or complain that my dish drying didn’t live up to his expectations. A dog wouldn’t judge me.

            I went to the animal shelter and surveyed all the available dogs and then I waited for the voice in my head to tell me that one of the dogs was indeed The One. But for some reason, the voice stayed quiet, while I stared into the cages for hours, inhaling the stench of piss.

            Several of the dogs locked eyes with me so intently that it was as if they could see directly into my soul. If a dog stared at me with that kind of religious fervor, I quickly moved on to the next cage.  I was struck that the staring dogs might be an incarnation of the Divine, or possibly of the Beast, and I didn’t want that type of drama in a relationship, not after Diane.  After a few hours, I left empty handed. I considered giving up the idea of adopting a dog completely, but the silence in my condo that night was even more deafening than usual.

            The second time I went to the shelter, everyone was talking about a large dog that had been recovered from a home in foreclosure. The owners had moved out, and the neighbors had seen a rangy, blue-coated Great Dane through the picture window in the living room, sleeping and padding around the empty house. The volunteers at the shelter called him Skippy. He was too big to fit in a regular cage at the shelter and so was sequestered off to the side in a large pen.

            I went over to take a look at him, expecting him to act skittish and traumatized, but he was surprisingly nonchalant. He sniffed my fingers, gave them a quick lick, and then settled back into the corner and snuffled his huge balls. He seemed to me to be at home anywhere. At that moment, I knew what I wanted – a dog with low expectations. I signed the necessary papers and took him home that day. The shelter told me that they would run a background check on me, but I never heard from them, so I guess it was meant to be. 

            One thing Skippy did care a great deal about was food, but it was mostly quantity over quality.  I always kept dry food out in Skippy’s bowl for him to snack on, but I also kept an available assortment of both dog and people foods around for him to try. He took such pleasure in food that it was almost a sin not to give him different options. I don’t cook as a rule, but every day I would scramble Skippy up an egg with American cheese, just like my mother used to make for me after my piano lessons.

            I started to enjoy doing little things for Skippy, like buying him treats or the newest thing in doggie toys. It’s a nice feeling when you can make someone feel special; when the little things you do have the effect you are hoping for.

            Skippy would look me straight in the eye sometimes and it was as though I could almost hear him speak. I would envision him saying, “thanks, old chum” in a British accent.

            When I think about Skippy now, I can get very emotional. First, I have many happy memories of our all-too-brief time together; then I vacillate between despair and depression, and after a few hours, the pain finally gives way to acceptance. I’d like to think that Skippy would be proud of the progress I’ve made since he’s been gone. I think he’d want me to keep calm and soldier on.

            Diane found out that I had adopted a dog a few months after she broke up with me.  I had changed the message on my phone to “You’ve reached Bob and Skippy.” When Diane heard the message, she texted me:           

“Who is Skippy? Is there something you want to tell me?”

            Diane always suspected that I might swing both ways. It stemmed from a misunderstanding. While we were still together, I confided in her that for some strange reason, I had the urge to have my ass tattooed with the words, “Property of Henry Rollins,” whenever I saw him on Letterman.  She didn’t understand that I didn’t mean it in a sexual way.

            “Skippy is my dog,” I told Diane.

            “Did you get his name tattooed on your ass yet?”

            I let that one go.

             When we first met, I found Diane’s “shoot from the hip” communication style endearing. Towards the end though, she started to remind me of an Ernest Borgnine-type character in a World War II movie; his bulbous nose streaky from sweat and dirt, his greasy fingers pressed against the trigger of his machine gun, waiting for a chance to blow some Nazi’s head off.

            “A dog is a big responsibility,” Diane continued, her gravelly voice trailing off.

            Diane broke up with me one rainy Sunday afternoon at Starbucks, and over a vanilla latte, she listed out all the reasons why. Among her litany of complaints, she found me fundamentally unreliable.  She also said that she had become fixated on procreating with someone of another race so that she could produce a beautiful, multiracial baby.

            “You should find someone who loves you the way you need them to,” she said, spooning whipped cream into her red lips.

            In retrospect, I did find someone who loved me that way, although Skippy was loathe to wear his heart on his sleeve. He liked to cuddle when it was cold out, and tended to sleep on my bed, outside the covers, but other than that, he didn’t show me much affection. Sometimes it was frustrating, but usually, he made up for it in other, perfectly endearing ways, like the way he would occasionally put his large head close to my hand so that I would scratch his ears or the way he sometimes leaned into me when he was tired, the way a small child would. 

            Diane never did find anyone of another race willing to procreate with her, so she decided to adopt a baby from Kazakhstan instead. Last I heard, she was waiting for the papers to come through, and was excited about the prospect of becoming a mother. I’m sure she’ll make as good of a mother as any mother can be. 

            One night around Christmas time, Skippy and I were sitting in front of the fire, both of us eating popcorn and watching the local news. Even though the news was full of stories of violence and death, it occurs to me now that it was the most content that I had probably ever been: I had my health, a warm hearth and a dear companion next to me. I stroked Skippy’s head. The rest of the night passed uneventfully.

            But the next morning, I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t inside or in our small yard. I frantically searched for him in the neighborhood, calling his name and ringing neighbors’ doorbells, asking in tears if they had seen my dog. No one had. One guy even had the nerve to say, “You’ve got a dog? I’ve never seen you with a dog.”

After ruminating over the situation again and again in my mind, I could only surmise that sometime during the night, Skippy had taken off through the doggy door. He must have left suddenly, perhaps on a whim, to chase after something.

            I plastered the neighborhood with posters but I never got any real leads. The police were certain that it wasn’t foul play – the fence was locked from the inside, and frankly, Skippy was, like most Great Danes, not very agile. He knew his limitations and would never even try to scale it. One officer commented that it didn’t look like a dog had ever lived in my condo, but he didn’t know Skippy the way I did. He could be as neat as a pin when he wanted to be. I pointed out the doggy door to them. “Why would I have had this installed if I didn’t have a dog?” I said. The two cops looked at each other for a minute, and then one of them said quietly, “Sir, do you mean your front door?” I wanted to explode – didn’t they know how big Great Danes are? A new front door was the only door big enough for Skippy.  He figured out how to twist the knob in his paws in about ten minutes – he’d go in and out of the house like that all day long. But it just wasn’t worth trying to explain.

            I started checking the animal shelters again, asking if anyone had a Great Dane in their custody. But none of them did.  No one from the shelter I adopted from even remembered a Great Dane named Skippy who had been there only a year earlier. Somehow, the record of my adoption had been lost or purposely destroyed. It was a very confusing time. I always thought that Skippy was satisfied with our life together, but I guess I was wrong.

           The pain has lessened in the years since Skippy left me. I do still think about him an awful lot, as there is so much to miss about him. Once in a while, for old times’ sake, I pee in the bathtub just to remember how it felt to clean up after him.

            I’ve considered adopting another dog, but I just don’t have the stomach for it. These days, I keep things pretty simple. I’m in touch with few people. My colleagues finally gave up trying to contact me after I stopped showing up to work. I read a lot of Shakespeare aloud in a British accent, but not as well as Skippy used to.

            Sometimes I wonder about Diane. Maybe one day I’ll get a call from her telling me that the adoption papers finally came through, and that she is jetting off to Kazakhstan to pick up her child from an orphanage teeming with children, their staring eyes full of the light of the Divine, or of the blackness of the Beast. And who can really tell the difference?

            Most days I wait until it gets just dark enough, and then I take Skippy’s leash, which I keep hanging on a hook near the door out for our nightly walk. The leash curls up in my coat pocket, as though fast asleep. At the first sight of oncoming traffic, my body clenches as the sudden urge to throw myself in front of the cars washes over me and then passes just as quickly.

            When I am safely past the cul-de-sacs and I can see the lights of the subdivisions off in the distance, I scale up the steep side of a hill, where the cool of the night envelops us, Skippy’s leash and me.

            There is always a moment of trepidation until the leash finally awakens in my pocket. That’s when Skippy appears to me – glowing, blue haired and angelic.  

            He runs and pulls me along with him, as the dusk gives way to dark. If I appear hampered by indecision or fear, Skippy drags me forcibly, his will crushing mine. We are tethered by invisible, connective tissue, like identical twins in the womb. He pulls me farther until we disappear into the night, becoming shadows against the rising moon. It’s hard to put into words what happens next, but there is both an ending and a beginning. I howl as I have never howled before. When I awake in the morning, all is well. The days pass, and I soldier on. I think Skippy would have wanted it that way. I can only marvel at the beauty of this earth and my small place in it, and at the abundance of kibble in my bowl.

Debbie Graber’s short fiction has appeared in The Conium Review, Cagibi, Hobart and Zyzzyva, among other journals. Her story collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday, was published in 2016 by The Unnamed Press.

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