did not have a Call-of-the-Wild narcotizing effect on Carl. Instead he
became hyperalert, a riot of regret gnawing his insides as his buttocks
froze on the hardwood bench. He rammed his fist against his forehead,
then performed a mock prayer. But he knew Jessica wouldn't come back.
She would never come back; she was too stubborn. He would
have to admit that she was right, that she was always right, that she
was the boss.
They'd fought while returning to Boston
after spending a miserable weekend at Jessica's friends' cabin a couple
of hours north of the city. Carl had started it. "Turn off the high beams,"
he'd said. "Don't tell me how to drive!" Jessica had replied. "But it's
dangerous in the fog." "Shut up!" Carl gripped the dashboard as Jessica
raced down the foggy mountain road. "You humiliated me in front of Sam
and Mary," Jessica said after a silence. "You were humiliated?! What about
me?" "You're supposed to tell people I'm a librarian, idiot!" "I thought
they knew-they're your friends," Carl replied. "Embellish! Remember
all that coaching on the way over? Jesus, you really are untrainable!"
"Bitch," Carl muttered. "What did you say?" "I said, 'Bits.'" "Liar!"
"Bits!" "'Bitch.' Now, apologize!" Carl shook his head. Jessica slammed
on the brakes and pulled over. "Apologize!" she said. Carl got out and
slammed the door. "I'm leaving," he said. "I don't need you to be a failure."
"Loser!" she'd shouted, screeching away in a dark swirl of icy leaves.
There hadn't been anywhere to go but back
to Sam and Mary Upjohn's cabin-a walk which took over an hour-and when
he'd finally gotten there, he'd discovered that the Upjohns had already
left for their teaching semester in the Philippines. He'd tried breaking
open the front and rear doors, but only succeeded in waking the dogs who
barked bloody murder. Suddenly he remembered that the Upjohns didn't have
a phone, for this pair of quasi-missionary middle-school teachers had
given up the modern life, thrown out their computer and television and
telephone. Hitchhiking was Carl's only option, and if that didn't work,
he'd have to walk twelve miles to the nearest public phone to beg his
thesis advisor for help.
In the beginning, the power struggle between
them had not been evident. Jessica seemed the weaker one. She didn't know
what she wanted to do with her life. She'd wake up in the middle of the
night crying, "If my parents hadn't divorced, I might have become a lion
tamer, not a librarian," (Though Jessica liked to think she was a librarian,
she was actually a library security guard.) Carl would always console
her, delivering the most unwavering pep talk: "Everything is going to
be okay. Soon you'll be promoted to reference..." After she'd calmed down
and confirmed her convictions with an incantatory "I've taken the road
less traveled. I am woman, hear me roar...," Carl would find himself lying
next to her peacefully snoring body, his mind racked with self-doubt.
She never knew of his own soul-searching, the restless nights questioning
the logic of his thesis (a discursive investigation of how William Blake's
"Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience" was a prophecy of the 20th Century's
barbarism), wondering if he too had another calling, as he obsessively
repeated the opening couplet from his dissertation:
And throughout all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
ticking away the seconds until he rose to pack Jessica's lunch, Carl wasted
the remaining pre-dawn hours analyzing his sheepish attempts to ask her
to marry him: "Maybe we should get married." "What for? There won't be
any tax break." "You're right. Let's not get married." Or: "If I asked
you to marry me, what would you say?" "I'd ask you why you were asking
me to marry you." Theirs was a strange struggle for dominance, an endless
competition for the title of least meek.
His attempts to talk about their relationship
backfired. One night, deep in the quicksand of guilt for procrastinating
on his thesis, Carl bolted from the frayed living room couch, manically
energized from an infomercial about improving self-esteem. Armed with
a memorized plan for the Five Steps to Success™ (Goals, Planning,
Confidence, Discipline, Success), he threw open the bedroom door without
his usual timid knock and found Jessica not engrossed in a fat tome of
Trollope or her usual child abuse literature-Beatings on the Right
Side of the Brain-but with a copy of When the One You Love Is a
Loser. Around the perimeter of the pages, like pastel peacock feathers,
were hundreds of multicolored sticky notes. Jessica quickly shoved the
book into the folds of the quilt, yawned, and rolled over, three highlighters
stacked behind the top of her left ear. "Je... Je... Jess," Carl stuttered,
the courage draining out of him before he got to Step Three, "have you
seen the remote?" The next morning, after she'd left for the library,
he discovered her cache of When the One You Love Is a Loser books.
There was the workbook, heavily used, questionnaires answered in pencil,
erased, and refilled in; the audio cassette series; and Low Expectations,
the Autobiography of a Loser Lover. He found her Self-Help Book of
the Month Club catalog with a voluminous order ready to be mailed in.
He discovered that she'd rented a PO box under the name of Margot Thatcher.
"Just as winners are not born but bred," Carl read from a book called
Losers for Life, "losers need enabling." Through the rollercoaster
ride of anger, denial, and acceptance, Carl spent the afternoon playing
212 games of computer solitaire.
Carl's golemic-five hundred pages at last
count-thesis contributed to his abysmal confidence. The deeper he got
into it, the more it seemed bottomless. There were just so many psychological
connections between the failed romanticism of the late eighteenth century
and the electric mania of the twentieth. A wounded idealist, Carl was
obsessed with cataloguing wars, assassinations, pillories, and gang rapes,
each meriting a lengthy footnote, the revisions feverishly pencilled in
on the kitchen table, only to be erased five minutes later in a flurry
of doubt. He swung nightly, hunched like Quasimodo before his computer,
from manic joy to agonizing despair, complaining in e-mail to his only
friend, Dmitri, a Gulag survivor and divorced Blake scholar. Together
they pined for the Elysian optimism of the era of Blake, Beethoven, and
Like people, ideas tended to overwhelm Carl.
At times his intellectual will felt like silly putty, infinitely malleable,
a rubbery palimpsest for others' more authoritative views. At the small,
bankrupt university where he did his research, Carl had developed a lackey's
reputation, acquiescing to all of his advisor's numerous demands. First
there'd been the subject of his thesis, switched thrice by his advisor:
from Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" to T. S. Elliot's "The Wasteland," then to
Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" before finally being directed
to "The Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience," decisions which wasted
three years. Besides serving as general amanuensis, Carl waxed his advisor's
floors, calculated his income taxes, picked up his in-laws at the airport,
and served jury duty in cognito.
Slumped on the Upjohn's outside bench, watching
his frosty breaths dissipate into the starless night, Carl wondered if
there was any cause and effect in his life. Did his miserable progress
on his thesis feed his meekness with Jessica? Or vice versa? Was he Sisyphus
and Jessica the boulder? Or vice versa? It was the chicken or the egg
dilemma. He catalogued the extent to which he catered to Jessica's every
need. He did the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and home repairs. He baked
brownies for library benefits, polished Jessica's jewelry, gave her pedicures,
ironed her uniform, darned her socks. He trudged through snow and ice
to buy her Tampax. Saturday night's reward was a brief breast lump exam.
He tuned up her car, frequently replacing the brake pads, wondering why
she put on so much mileage on the weekends. Did she have a lover? Impossible.
Neither of them had the courage or stamina for something so enjoyable.
In the final analysis, he'd become servile,
a spineless skivvy, a Pavlovian wimp-the perfect complement to his father,
the implacable, Pepto-Bismol-drinking dictator, who after Carl was born
forced his mother to get her tubes tied, and in his impecunious fashion,
performed his own vasectomy with the aid of a mirror, X-Acto knife, and
a reprint of The Lancet. The only child of a failed philatelist
who now at age sixty flipped burgers for a living and wept while reading
Darwin, Carl was just another fruitless branch in this failed experiment
in genetics. He would inherit his father's surly slavishness, his dyspeptic
indistinction, but none of his attitude; his mother's shame but none of
her endurance. Even Carl's dreams lacked ambition. Usually they were text-based,
but when they did contain imagery, they were always reruns of the same
sad scene. The location is his parent's kitchen in Bunker Hill. Carl is
filming a documentary about the history of his romantic relationships.
He focuses the camera on everyone, starting out with his first high school
girlfriend, Mindy, and the three women he hopelessly chased after in college-Diana,
Diana, and Diana. After college he'd endured a five-year dry spell before
jumping like a schnauzer on Jessica at a used bookstore-the remainder
bins of Poetry and Self-Help conveniently adjacent. "What was it that
finally made you leave me?" is the question he asks each of his ex-girlfriends,
while his parents watch from a corner card table where they scarp up their
favorite nonaphrodisiac of saltpetered baked beans and potatoes au gratin.
"Your meekness," each woman replies in a suburban Boston brogue. On hearing
the lancing declarations, Carl's father reaches into his pocket as if
to offer Super-Size-It coupons as reparations, but instead pulls out a
bandanna, the big red and white one which when wet he used to flail across
Carl's buttocks, but now serves as a receptacle for allergies and grief.
"I'm sorry he caused you so much trouble," Carl's father says. "If only
I'd had ejaculatio praecox, everyone would've been spared the suffering."
"Me too," Carl's mother says.
During rare moments of lucidity, Carl realized
that Jessica had endured worse. After all, Carl's mother had never burned
him with a cigarette, nor had he spent most of his childhood cleaning
up smashed glasses and stains of Knott's Berry Farm vomit off the sofa.
Whereas Carl's parents were for the most part passively aggressive, Jessica's
were proactive, at least the mother was. He'd met them once, a Thanksgiving
visit, over six years earlier. Mr. and Mrs. Spanakopangelopoulos-their
name had once been more beautiful, Jessica's father had lamented, an elegant
name butchered by the Ottomans-Mr. and Mrs. Spanakopangelopoulos had driven
in from Buffalo during an enormous snowstorm. The Spanakopangelopoulos'
custom was to have Thanksgiving dinner on the Monday before Thanksgiving,
that way they'd beat traffic in both directions. After Jessica's father
had set up the video camera, the meal began, and the scripted dinner conversation
focused on the inevitable marriage between Jessica and Carl. The fathers,
it was agreed, might get along since both were in the fast food business,
Jessica's father having won an interstate TCBY booth in a lottery for
Armenian immigrants. Because of a burst water pipe in the living room,
where Jessica's parents were supposed to spend the night, everyone had
to sleep in the bedroom. Jessica's father, however, insisted on retiring
behind the wheel of his Pacer, a Dunkin Donuts cap worn at a rakish angle,
as the distant, moralizing voice of Paul Harvey lulled him to sleep. Carl
slept next to Mrs. Spanakopangelopoulos, on the Nordic Track. Cotton stuffed
in his ears, he endured the bruising swings of a gallon wine jug, the
back hair-singeing ash of three simultaneously lit Merits, and mother
and daughter's brief moment of reconciliation when they discovered that
both were reading When the One You Love Is a Loser. Back in Buffalo
on Thanksgiving day, Jessica's parents ate boiled leftovers while they
watched the videotape and called collect so Jessica could be enlightened
by her mother's acerbic commentary. One month later, Mr. Spanakopangelopoulos
ran off with an older woman, a truck driver, penniless, short, and ugly.
There were rumors that they were opening a frozen yogurt stand in Ottawa.
Jessica and Carl's phone bill that December was very high.
A sudden surge of shame smothered Carl,
and he bit his lip to prevent a cascade of self-pitying tears. In the
dull trudge of his journey to understand love, he had so habituated himself
to Jessica that he no longer had the strength to love anyone else. He
resolved to remain solitary and celibate, a lifestyle that would no doubt
please his father. He'd get a pet. With the lower species, there'd be
unequivocal love, no confusion over who was master.
A car was approaching, gliding up and over
the crests of the road. Carl bolted off the bench. He sprinted a few steps,
tripped on a rock and fell. After a few agonizing minutes, he managed,
wheezing and cursing, to stand up. His right ankle was cut. Down jacket
hemorrhaging feathers, pants leg bloody, he limped back to the bench.
Through the front door window he could see
a legal pad on the mail table which enumerated instructions for Bailey,
the caretaker of the dogs. Muffin, the ancient, motley-colored cocker
spaniel, suddenly woke from her rheumy slumber, yawned, and scratched
at her fleas. Across the hall, in the living room, he saw the other dog,
the handsome mastiff-German shepherd mix. Herman-was that his name? Mary
had always said it quickly with a guttural German accent-Herman, his back
to Carl, seemed mesmerized by some detail in the woodwork. The dogs looked
warm inside. Wincing, Carl hobbled around the back of the cabin and, after
several minutes of fumbling in the dark, squeezed himself through the
narrow dog door.
No sooner had he stood up, then Muffin came
scampering over, dragging her dysplasic hips, whimpering as if in anticipation
of a beating. She immediately went to work on his aching ankle, her warm,
slimy tongue slurping up the blood, her cold, tumor-bloated runny nose
sniffing the perimeter of the hairy gash. "Okay, Muffin, that's enough,"
Carl said. The dog wouldn't stop. She wrapped around his leg and hung
from his pants as he tried to step away. "Muffin, stop!" Carl said, reaching
down to pat her pink, welt-covered belly. He struggled to the living room
to find Herman, who he found sitting as before, on his haunches, chin
raised regally, paws and spine perfectly aligned, his eyes gazing into
a full-length mirror. "Herman," Carl said, "it's me-Carl. Remember me?"
Herman growled and Muffin whimpered, tightening her grip on Carl's pants
leg. Then Herman strode over and swatted Muffin in the head. Muffin shrieked,
scrambled to the doormat for safety. "That's not nice!" Carl said. Herman
snarled, and Carl sat down, as if on command.
The dog's large, brown-orange eyes stared
critically at him. "Good dog," Carl murmured as he began massaging the
dog's meaty musculature. "We're buddies, remember?" Behind, Muffin quietly
sobbed, each tremulous whimper seeming to say, "If you pet Herman once
more, I'm gonna commit suicide."
Muffin's was a pitiful story. Besides the
nose cancer, she'd been run over twice, fleeing the broomsticks of former
owners before her rescue by the Upjohns. Herman, on the other hand, was
a breeder's pièce de résistance, nursed from a bottle,
lavished with praise, the certificate of his masterful eugenics framed
on the living room wall. Carl was mesmerized by Herman's steely gaze,
eyes so beautiful, intelligent, and unsentimental, they seemed to stare
into him like parallel search lights.
The cabin was frigid. In front of the disappointed stare of Herman, Carl
lamely attempted to light a fire in the wood stove, then gave up after
emptying the last pack of matches.
He wrapped himself in Muffin's woolly afghan,
and sat on the floor, his hang-nailed thumb in his mouth, his eyes surveying
the cabin walls covered with framed awards of the Upjohn's community service.
On the bookshelf were a few copies of On Walden Pond, the book
Sam and Mary were going to teach in Manila. The Upjohns woke at sunrise,
proselytized at school, and spent evenings by the fire shaking their fists
in agreement as they read Ayn Rand. Their smugness was too much for Carl,
and all weekend long the conversation had seemed stacked against him,
forcing him to trip over the lowlights of his slim resume, as he furtively
passed fibrous chunks of the bland brown stew under the tablecloth to
Muffin. "Where did you do your graduate work?" Sam had asked, glowing
with Schadenfreude after listing his ivied alphabet of degrees.
"Hartford," Carl had replied, quickly buzzing the "tf" to jump from the
Connecticut to the Charles. Then Sam launched into a prolix about teaching
civics and English and how he was going to spot weld a sewage pipe thirty
feet underwater in Manila Bay. Mary picked up the torch, lecturing about
math tutoring and her bible classes, then apologized for being a bit tired,
for only that morning she'd donated another pint of blood.
It had been over twelve hours since Carl
last ate. He limped to the kitchen, hungry even for a crock of Mary's
brown stew. He opened the refrigerator: empty except for an old jar of
mayonnaise. He combed the barren cupboards. He searched everywhere, Muffin,
dragging from the cuffs of his pants. All the food had been cleaned out;
there was nothing edible but the dog food in the pantry.
He installed himself on the adirondack chair
in the living room, nursing his bruised ankle, as he skimmed through a
thumbworn copy of Mein Kampf, and listened to the patter of acorns
tumbling down the roof. On the bookshelf under a copy of Kon Tiki,
he found a small portable radio. He turned it on. "... The slaughter is
in its tenth day, an act of revenge according to the rebel leader's press
release," a distant, staticky voice announced. "Experts fear an acceleration
of ethnic cleansing and a domino effect of reprisals in-" Abruptly the
power cut off, to Carl's relief.
He returned to the pantry, read and reread
the ingredient lists on the bags of dried dog food. He knew that "emulsified
meat meal product" was a necessary euphemism. He closed the door and stared
at the dogs' bowls. Muffin's was yellow, shallow, and made of cracked
plastic. There was a clay-colored residue crusted over its sides. Underneath
the bowl was a vinyl mat which said in a green and white gingham-patterned
typeface, "One's work is never done." A few feet away and benefiting from
the direct sweep of the overhead kitchen light was Herman's minimalist
setup: a shiny bowl of stainless steel. Carl poured equal portions of
nuggets into each bowl. Muffin scampered up, only to be halted by Herman's
bark. Tongue out, paws waving pitifully, she watched Herman wolf down
her food, belch, then move on to his own brown mound.
Around three-thirty in the morning, Carl
woke from a brief nap with terrible hunger pangs. He needed to distract
his thoughts, bloated with visions of all-you-can-eat buffets. He decided
to check out the upstairs, for Sam and Mary hadn't offered him a tour
during his stay.
There were two slant-ceilinged rooms, he
discovered, as he limped up the last stair-a small study and the master
bedroom. Carl lifted the black metal latch to the study door and went
in. On the far wall were two crossed muskets. Before the rear window was
a small, dark-stained lectern with a copy of The Crucible on it.
On the wall around the front window were dozens of plaques and certificates
announcing, "Fundraiser Extraordinaire," "Super Soup Kitcheneer," "Volunteers
of the Decade," "New Lyme Award for Outstanding Humanism."
On top of a small dresser next to the lectern
was a tintype of the Upjohns dressed in colonial outfits. There was also
a cute little ceramic lamb being petted by a little girl, which when Carl
picked it up, played a tinkly "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Next to this was
a double issue of The Achiever, one of Sam's many alumni magazines,
featuring Sam in grinning glory, with the headline "Alum of the Year!"
Carl pulled open the dresser drawers and found a dozen graduation gowns
and stacks of plaques waiting for free wall space.
He moved on to the bedroom. The king-sized
bed had a cast-iron canopy frame, sturdy like Plymouth Rock, high off
the floor. He knelt up onto the bed and was surprised that the firm-looking
surface rocked and undulated. It was a waterbed! On the wall above the
pillows were a pair of certificates with seals from the state of Massachusetts
and Lyme Mountain First Protestant Church, legitimizing the Upjohn's right,
secularly and religiously, to achieve connubial bliss. Carl lay back on
the slopping bed and noticed, across the canopy, just underneath the lacy
outer-cover, a trio of belts which had been strapped together, seemingly
to reinforce the structural integrity of the frame. He imagined Mary tied
up there, Sam tickling her, making her beg. Or would it be Sam hanging
by his wrists? Underneath Mary's surly aloofness was a hint of wanton
passion, Carl thought, a wild side that raged when she let down her hair.
Perhaps she really let him have it. She wore the pants in their relationship.
Carl was getting excited.
He hobbled over to one of the dressers.
Top left drawer first. Panties, panties, panties-a riot of panties, jungle-patterned
ones, flower-covered ones, paisleys, black ones, red ones, silk and lace
and cotton and spandex, and not a dark stain or spot on any of them! He
opened other drawers, found the usual assortment of primly folded sweaters
and pants and skirts, all perfumed with a lilac sachet. Sam's dresser
was full of predictable stuff: socks, jock straps, long-johns, an old
ROTC uniform, overalls, a pile of coiled belts. He could not find a whip,
a sex toy, or an old Polaroid anywhere. He returned to Mary's dresser,
knelt down, closed his eyes as if in prayer, and reached underneath a
pile of wool skirts, shimmying his hands back and forth like dowser's
rods. His fingers felt a book. Ah hah! The hidden porno omnibus
with soiled black and whites of rubenesque French women in ripped knickers.
When he pulled it out, he discovered that it was only an old library book-Vincent
Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking-yet to his consolation,
it was years overdue. Hah! The sinners-wait 'til Jessica hears
about this! In the middle of the pages, he found a few letters and
a photograph of a dreamy-eyed, unshaven guy, smiling, his head of corkscrew-wild
hair framed by the hood of a ski parka. "My Little Mary Quite Contrary..."
one letter began. The lover! The idea drove Carl wild. He studied
the photograph, noticed how different the man looked from Sam and how
it was not much of a stretch to say the guy resembled him, Carl (if he
had curly blond hair, a dark complexion, and blue eyes), he unleashed
pent-up fantasies, even as he discovered the yellowing letter was from
Mary's dead brother. He was in so much of an erotic tizzy that he didn't
notice Muffin hop on the bed, where she collapsed, tongue vibrating to
the rhythm of her stertorous snore.
Carl pawed through the drawer of panties,
pulled a pair up to his face and sniffed the novel scent of Mary's homemade
detergent mingling with what he imagined must be her musky undernote.
He gathered up a giant bunch and carried it to the bed, where he lay back,
threw up his arms, and unleashed a shower of frilly silk onto his face
and chest. On the bedside table, next to the lamp, he found a small notebook
with rows of numbers pencilled in. A planting schedule, he thought. Then
he inspected the data and discovered that it was a basal-body temperature
diary. Jessica had told him that Sam and Mary had been trying for years
to get pregnant. How ironic! The four times he and Jessica had had sex,
triple layers of latex smeared with nonoxynol-9, she'd gotten pregnant
and swiftly had an abortion while Carl waited in the clinic parking lot,
defending himself from the baseball bats of pro-lifers. Nowadays, waiting
in the lobby of the gynecologist was the closest he got to sex. He imagined
the Upjohns in pre-procreative ecstasy, Mary waving the glistening thermometer
in front of Sam's happy nose, then removing her flannel nightgown, a corset,
leggings, a garter belt, her wireframe bra-such a delectable vision, so
unlike Jessica's starched and stern JC Penny pajamas. He saw Mary letting
down her hair, cavorting at the foot of the bed, naked except for the
Lapland hat, the tiger panties, and a pair of Shetland wool socks. He
unzipped his trousers and pulled himself out. His penis was basically
healthy, underutilized, but healthy, the survivor of that rare genital
fungus that he and Jessica had endured for nearly five years, despite
their nonexistent sex life. He cocooned himself with a pair of silk panties.
He closed his eyes, his free hand caressing the bounty of panties. He
found a soft, cottony pair, brought it to his nose, and jerked faster,
moaning, a naked Mary flailing him, shouting at him to beg for more and
to apologize. There was a bark. Carl opened his eyes. Herman was watching
in the hall, a fierce expression on his face. Carl wilted. Lifting the
panties from his nostrils, he discovered that they were made by Fruit
of the Loom and embroidered into the elastic waist band were the words
PROPERTY OF SAM UPJOHN.
Sometime near daybreak, to the hypnotic
tick-tock of the grandfather clock, Carl found himself, sitting on the
kitchen floor, staring into the living room at Herman who was staring
at himself in the mirror. As Muffin rolled on the floor scratching her
fleas, her tongue eking out the last bit of flavor between Carl's toes,
he realized just how powerful Herman really was. His rib cage was enormous,
his sharp, white teeth capable of great savagery. Such a marriage of strength
and beauty made Carl ashamed of the wasteful way his orotund body occupied
space. It was too much to endure; Herman was too good for him. The wind
picked up outside, blasting a cold charcoaly current down the chimney,
and Carl's shame metastasized into hallucination: he saw a slaughtered
Herman on the grill, his rib cage cracked open, the juicy meat searing
over the fiery pit, the sputtering barbecue sauce, homemade stuff with
nuggets of garlic and diced onions, fresh tomatoes, and mashed up mangoes-if
they were on sale-running over the blackening flesh. After devouring Herman,
he would make a cummerbund out of his hide, perhaps a pair of bold cowboy
boots which he would stride in across the spotlit stage to receive his
doctorate. Those tall, defiant and regal ears would be smoked then sold
to an indulgent owner of a little Fifi. Licking his chops after the surfeit
of tender grilled flesh, Carl would experience one of Jessica's so-called
paradigm shifts. He would be in control, a man of action, a hunter. He
would stand up to Jessica, firmly and with machismo. It would be as if
he'd woken from some terrible depression, unearthed his meek personality
from the legacy of his father's abuse. And Muffin would be liberated too!
By consuming her superior companion, she'd undergo an amazing transformation,
a psychological revolution. Unburdened by Herman's grace and intelligence,
Muffin would be free to develop a full personality. She wouldn't just
exist in opposition. She would say what she wanted, ambulate where she
desired. In one quick coup d'état, the proletariat would rise up,
the Muffins and Carls of the world would rule the earth!
There was a sudden slap on his back and
Carl turned, mortified. It was Herman, his giant paw raised, one of his
enormous eyes cocked, teeth clenched as if he were wrestling with a formidable
dilemma of conscience. He barked, and, claws clicking on the wood floor,
shoved Carl aside with his large, wet muzzle.
"Oh, you're hungry again," Carl muttered.
Herman pulled on the rag which was tied
around the pantry door handle. The door opened, and there in the center
of the narrow closet was a giant slot machine-why hadn't Carl seen it
before? It was clear that the machine was some incredible handmade creation
of European artisans and engineers for it was byzantinely ornamented with
Blake-like depictions of Romulus and Remus, Lassie, and stoic portraits
of Saint Bernards poised for action in the Swiss Alps. Herman stood up
in front of the giant Las Vegas machine of chance, licked his right paw,
reached up for the leather-covered handle, and pulled. The wheels spun
dizzyingly, Herman scanning the blur of colors, before he pressed the
buttons. He did not seem surprised at the lucky result: BAR- BAR - BAR.
Out from the stainless steel maw gushed a clatter of dog biscuits into
a giant golden bowl. Herman immediately chomped into his reward, and pressing
a little red button with a nudge of his nose, dripped fresh snow water
onto his tongue. Three minutes later the feast was over, and Carl, panting
in empathetic euphoria, nearly passed out.
It took hours to fall asleep on an empty
stomach. The cabin was freezing and Carl could not erase the horrible
taste of Breeder's Pride from his mouth. Eventually near dawn, he managed
to fall asleep, curled with Muffin on the doormat.
Carl woke in the early afternoon, disturbed
by grunts coming from the dilapidated barn in the backyard. His back ached
and his buttocks felt bruised. Rubbing the seat of his pants, he discovered
a splotch of Herman's semen. There was no time to contemplate the humiliation
of what had happened: the brutal growls sounded like a dog and a bear
fighting for their lives. Carl pulled on his damp sneakers, scrambled
on hands and knees through the dog door, and limped, carrying a broomstick,
across the crunchy snow. The sky was dark, and the wind had picked up,
smashing branches across the field. The barn door was open a crack, and
he peered into the blackness, wincing at the riot of growls, jaw snaps,
and throat gurgles. "Hahhhh!" he cried, shoving open the creaking door,
the broomstick flailing. Several steps later, he discovered that it was
not Herman butchering a lost bear cub, but Herman attacking an enormous
flank of hanging dried meat. Herman stopped suddenly, fangs clamped around
a severed hunk of flesh, and shot Carl a glance so contemptuous that Carl
scrambled back to the cabin.
In the kitchen, ashen faced, heart pumping
wildly, Carl found Muffin ramming her head against the lower hinge of
the pantry door. Herman was busy and Muffin knew she had an opportunity
to eat something before he stole it from her. "Muffin, stop! That'll never
work," Carl cried, pulling the ramming dog away from the door. Muffin
sneered, releasing a halitotic vapor, and continued ramming. "Stop! Goddammit!
Stop!" Carl yelled and cracked the broomstick on the dog's back. Muffin
shrieked, dropped to the floor as if shot. "My God," Carl cried and lifted
Muffin into his lap, stroking the tumor scar where the broomstick had
hit. He opened the pantry door and poured out two handfuls of Herman's
Breeder's Pride. Muffin didn't seem interested. He poured out a mound
of Geriatric Nuggets. She shook her head and barked angrily in his face.
Then Carl understood what she wanted. "I'm sorry," he repeated over and
over. "Please forgive me. I'm sorry." With the final apology, Muffin seemed
satisfied and wobbled out of the kitchen for a nap on the doormat.
There was a grunt and the sound of paws
tramping on the kitchen floor. Herman was finished with his mêlée,
Carl thought, now lying on the sofa in stuporous hypoglycemia. Herman
strode into the living room, yawning, licking the blood smeared across
his jowls. Muffin got up and scampered over to a bucket by the fireplace.
She returned with a brush in her mouth, which she dropped at Carl's feet.
Herman strutted over, and, keeping his chin up, sat down on his haunches,
waiting a few seconds before raising his paw and swatting Carl's chest.
Muffin followed with a prod of Carl's hand. But Carl was determined not
to give in. Shaking his head, he retreated to the adirondack chair. Muffin
picked up the brush and walked somberly over, her brittle hips cracking.
"Don't even think about it," Carl said, rolling his eyes, chuckling nervously,
picking up a copy of the Ye Olde Farmers' Almanack. I'm not
going to be manipulated, he thought, thumbing through a discussion
on minimizing alfalfa mutants. Herman growled.
Carl had never groomed a dog before. He
rubbed Herman's shoulders and flanks, accentuating the clockwise and counter-clockwise
swirls of short auburn and black hair. An hour later, when he was through
with the brush, the serrated hoop, and the fur conditioner, he felt a
certain satisfaction, even if Herman remained indifferent, striding over
to his electric-heated leather bed for a snooze.
By the second day, Carl's hunger was so
intense that he thought little of being selfish or cruel. He had already
hit Muffin several times without apologizing. Reviving the cruel, dyspeptic
expression his father used to give him as a child, he shouted and kicked.
Later his mind seemed to hallucinate, like some hunger artist in the rhapsodic
throes of starvation. He lay for hours, curled on the couch, sucking at
the distant hint of saltiness in the sow's ear, spellbound by the morphing
of the wispy clouds, which leapt and tumbled like white greyhounds across
the winter blue sky. A soothing resignation had replaced his ambition
to leave the cabin. The wooden hands of the grandfather clock seemed not
only to slow down but to move backwards, retreating from the present towards
some lulling Blakian glade. The buzz of distant chainsaws, the roar of
logging trucks, the stuttering pops of hunters' rifles-the outside world
seemed far away, unalterable, and totally inaccessible. Gradually the
minutiae of the cabin acquired a magical aura. The craggy undersides of
tables and chairs, the whorls of dust and lint in corners, a dead fly
suspended in a spider web, lost buttons, pencil shavings, pen caps, a
crumpled old sticky note-all these forgotten scraps of daily life glowed
with angelic beauty. The sound of melting snow, the whistle of wind fluting
through the roof tiles, the celebratory caw of crows, which once might
have seemed menacing, now seemed to fuse into a sylvan sonata. And there
were the smells: mold and wet wood, sweaty wool socks, the burnt oil odor
of the refrigerator compressor. Who needed one of Jessica's paradigm shifts
when hypoglycemia brought on such childlike sentience? And when Carl slept,
he slept snugly, curled like a croissant between Herman and Muffin, his
breaths deep and satisfying, his heart-beat synched with a rhythm more
authoritative than his own.
Snow flakes danced against the window panes,
and in the distance Carl could see thin flashes of lightning. Muffin scampered
into the living room with uncontrollable enthusiasm. She licked the scab
on his bruised ankle, trying to get him to stand up. "What is it, Muffin?"
Carl muttered, following her into the hall.
Underneath the mail table, was a small cardboard
box . RM 104, MS. MARY UPJOHN. 24 COUNT were the words just below the
gnawed handle. "Hey! Hey!" Carl said, as he opened the box and found stacks
of fat candy bars, each one labeled, 100% PREMIUM MILK CHOCOLATE. ALL
PROCEEDS TO CHARITY. He ripped open a bar and bit into it. Delicious!
There were chunks of almonds, too! Carl's eyes watered; each swallow was
a sudden stab of pleasure. As he ate, the cabin's muted colors, the barren
winter landscape, Muffin's mottled coat-all suddenly took on a wonderful
Technicolor vitality. Muffin feverishly licked his knee and Carl broke
off a block and popped it into her mouth. He opened another bar and wolfed
it down, laughing hysterically. Muffin chortled with delight. It was too
good to be true: Herman was asleep and the two of them-Carl and Muffin-were
ascending to the land of milk chocolate and honey. He could hear a symphonic
chorus of transcendent voices shattering the claustrophobia of his failures.
He unwrapped three bars for Muffin, and the two of them embarked on a
chocolate feeding fiesta. Five minutes later, they'd finished the whole
box. Suddenly Carl felt nauseous. Blood shot through his trembling body
like plasma separating in a particle accelerator. A Beethoven symphony
thundered in his ears. Muffin ran into the kitchen, hurling herself against
a coat rack, tearing up newspapers. Outside the wind raged and the leaves
of the holly scratched murderously against the front window. Lightning
slashed through a black curtain of clouds. Thunder rattled the cabin.
Carl got up, frightened. His legs were twitching, and he lost his balance,
overturning the mail table. Muffin careened against the walls, knocking
over candlesticks, tearing through Mary's loom. Carl limped along the
living room wall, grappled the bookshelf, tipping it over, pelting himself
with an avalanche of bibles, framed photographs, and a gold square of
embroidery which said, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the
earth." Through all the tumult, even as a torrent of hail pounded the
roof, Herman slept deeply like some sacred coyote. Muffin shrieked. Carl
tripped into Mary's loom in the kitchen and fell, splintering wood, snapping
threads. A moment before he passed out, Muffin ran into him, convulsing,
gurgling chocolate all over his face.
Vague sounds of booted footsteps woke Carl.
He felt something warm, rough and moist wiping across his face-a washcloth,
perhaps-then opened his bloodshot eyes to find Herman's enormous pink
tongue at work on his crusted face. Somebody reached down with rubber
gloves, picked up something off his left thigh, and wrapped it in a newspaper.
"What's going on?" Carl murmured. "Jess...?"
"Herman shat on you," a woman's gravelly
voice replied. "I've never seen him do that-ever."
Carl painfully extracted his legs from the
crumpled loom and sat up. His right ankle was swollen and throbbing. "Who
are you?" he said, shivering. A strange, smoky-sweet odor emanated from
the tall woman, dressed in a plaid wool shirt and overalls.
"Bailey. I live down 117." She plunged a
mop into a bucket of steaming, soapy water. "Consider yourself lucky I
didn't call the police," she said after a moment. "You could get thirty
days for trespassing-and who knows how long for murder of a dog."
"What do you mean murder of a dog?" Carl
said, feeling a crust of dried vomit on his neck and shirt.
"The dog's out back, frozen stiff. She had
a heart attack."
"Oh, Jesus!" Carl cried. "Muffin's dead."
A knot of anguish snapped in his chest and he began sobbing. Herman walked
over, claws clicking, and stared at Carl with bemused omniscience. "Muffin!
Oh, Muffin... Why her...?" Carl keened. "It wasn't my fault. We were both
starved. We both needed a little joy... I didn't kill her. It wasn't intentional..."
"Dogslaughter then," Bailey said as she
scrubbed a scab of vomit off the floor. "Now, stop being sentimental.
Stop crying! You must move on."
"How?" Carl said, sniffling. "How?"
Bailey stopped mopping and straightened
up. "Here," she said, flashing him a row of gold-capped teeth, and thrust
the mop handle into his arms.
took a month to repay Sam and Mary for the damage to their cabin. He erected
a modest monument to Muffin behind the Upjohn's compost heap which he
visited as often as he could between shifts at Bailey's smokehouse, where
he worked, shoveling mounds of desiccated sow ears around a barrel of
smoldering hickory. Jessica took him back, after he'd apologized and begged
for nearly a week. "I'm sorry. I was wrong," he sobbed. "You're the alpha
dog. I can't live without you." His thesis staggered forward for a few
months, then was put to death. Slimmed down, humored up, numbered and
bulleted, it was reincarnated as Levity for Losers: A 12-Step Program,
and rose gradually to the bottom of the self-help book charts. Carl still
walks with a trace of a limp, and whenever he and Jessica drive to his
in-laws, he sits quietly in the passenger seat, little Muffie in his lap,
Beethoven's Ninth thundering silently in his ears, the bright sweep of
the high beams illuminating the mysterious night.