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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Tricks

From the Kennel Dept.: Here’s a story I wrote about twenty years ago, playing on the time-honored premise of the beast that can talk, and not of your Mister Ed variety. If there’s more than a hint of Saki’s Tobermory in this – well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

                                                                                        

WHEN HOWIE SHORE’S DOG, Phlox, began talking, the surprise of it didn’t hit home for a while. At first Howie blindly, sleepily accepted it — Phlox had always been articulate in Dog, so why not in English as well? — and moved to obey his mutt.

Mutt he was, a spaniel-sized specimen with a spotted coat, colored so strangely that you might suspect the beast slept in the studio of a sloppy painter.

Which wasn’t far from wrong: the dog came from Lila, a former girlfriend, an artist who dabbled in advertising and who, when she wasn’t naming animals after plants, named plants after old boyfriends. “Water Charles, please,” was one of the strange commands Howie heard during her brief residency at his apartment.

After the split he was left with the dog. “Something to remember me by,” said Lila, and the amount of attention the dog demanded was reminiscent of the woman — a mutt herself, as far as her ex was concerned.

Howie was more of a purebreed. At 24 he had a comforting sense of his life being, if not in control, at least nearing the correct track. He worked in a local electronics store, evenings and weekends, supervising videos and music. He accepted a generous allowance from his mother to encourage the only expression of love she practiced, which unfortunately also encouraged her wish out loud that he’d return to her house. He detested both, but the money allowed him to live with what essentially was a part-time job.

It was a pleasant Saturday morning in late spring when, after repeated barks at the recumbent Howie, Phlox sat on his hind legs, whacked his master on the shoulder and said, “Will you get the fuck out of bed and walk me? I have to take a shit!”

 Howie had been dreaming about his mother. It was a gruesome scenario in which yet another plea for his return was spiced with the unlikely offer of a gift of the house itself. With herself sequestered, gothic novel-like, in a distant wing. Like many dreams of domestic horror it had its inspiration in anticipated fact: Howie had promised to visit his mother today, and the awful reminder was distraction enough to make the dog’s articulate demand seem unremarkable. Howie lifted himself out of bed, dressed and searched for leash and keys, angrily muttering progress reports.

“Forget the goddamn leash,” the dog insisted.

This statement was impossible to ignore. “Did you say something?”

Phlox looked at Howie with a canine tilt of the head, shaped his mouth into an ◯ and howled. And added, “There. Is that what you expect?”

A private person, too private to risk even the most casual conversation in say, supermarket or bus, Howie drank rarely and used no drugs. Like most humans, he wished to believe in the unbelievable. Even as he was forced to acknowledge the incredible fact that the animal was speaking (a poor term to apply to a talking dog) he was happy to accept the wonder of the phenomenon.

“When did you learn to talk?” he asked.

“How do I know?” the dog whined. “About the time Jesus was a pup. Let’s go. I may be able to talk, but I can’t open the fucking door.”

As he prepared to face the day, an easy task because no shave or shower was required on a weekend, he realized an added pleasure: this was like making a new friend. It made him feel special. And the nature of the friendship made him feel different. Even a little courageous.

Courageous enough, perhaps, to get that date with Betty Pillston, a woman whose lovely aloofness kept him at bay. She ran the Dog ‘n Suds, a nearby combination pet shop and laundromat, and would certainly be impressed with this newly-revealed aspect of a dog he feared she detested.

Khaki trousers and a colorful Hawaiian shirt were his garments of choice. And sunglasses, new wraparounds with a rakish vee at the bridge. He paused at a hallway mirror to admire himself. “Let’s go,” Phlox barked. They left the apartment, which sat a couple of blocks from the village center.

Wonders are more acceptable within safe surroundings. Outside, on the sidewalk, Howie understood that the voice he’d just been hearing was only that: a voice, a dream-voice, an extension of his slumber. His animal trotted obediently at his feet as they approached Drake Park, an acre of green in the village center. And it was no surprise when the beast thrust his nose against one of the stone pillars flanking the park’s entrance. But Phlox then turned to look at Howie and said, “Christ. Some asshole shepherd pissed all over this thing. No way.” The dog lifted a hind leg and discharged. “There. Take that, you stupid son of a bitch.”

“Come on, Phlox, don’t talk like that,” Howie protested. “Someone may hear you.”

The animal sniffed his work, peered back at his companion, wagged his tail and loped onto the gravel pathway. Howie hurried to keep up.

He perspired despite a lukewarm temperature. Mere breathing grew uncomfortable, as if someone were pressing against his chest. Thanks to a trait of his mother’s he unconsciously aped, he believed himself to be overly susceptible to colds and flu and feared a bout of illness might be near. He plopped onto a bench to consider his health while his charge wandered out of sight.

But this was no illness. Shock, probably. Astonishment continued to assault his sensibility. Howie studied his surroundings, the newly-risen plants and refoliate trees a testimony to a secure, predictable nature of things. A nature that doesn’t include an articulate brute.

Who appeared, tongue lolling amidst quick bursts of breath. “Come here,” the dog panted. “You gotta see this.”

“What?”  Was he an idiot to converse with such seeming calm?

“Just come here. Follow me. Pretend I’m Lassie.” Phlox turned and scampered a few feet, stopped and stared back again. “Christ almighty, get over here!”

The animal was childlike, which, of course, Howie had known all along but never considered in anthropomorphic terms. This was a dog of two behaving like a kid of twelve. A filthy-mouthed kid of twelve.

Filthy-minded, too, as Howie discovered when they reached the dog’s destination. “Can you smell it?”  The dog spoke in what may have been meant to be a whisper but came out gruff and velar. On a bench in a nearby clearing sat an elderly man with a setter pup. The animal was leashed, straining at the limits of the strap as it sniffed the littered ground, worrying styrofoam containers and white deli wrappers.

“The bitch is in heat,” Phlox explained, “only she don’t know it yet. Oh, Jesus, she’s just aching to get a stiff one rammed up that cunt. Smell it?  God, what perfume!” The mutt howled with a short, intense burst of pleasure. The setter looked their way with a frightened expression and backed to sit by her master’s legs.

“Oh, yeah, she knows what’s coming to her,” said Phlox. The quality of his speech sounded more and more human. “Scared to death, too. Great!  I love poppin’ a fuckin’ virgin. They never know what hit them!” He howled again and trotted in a circle. “Get ready, now, bitch. This’ll be over before you know it.” Another woof and a glance at Howie. “Mind if I practice on your leg?  Only kidding!”

Phlox charged into the clearing, head down, tail straight up. He shouted what sounded like “spread ‘em wide, your daddy’s here!” but was too mixed with barks and howls to be understandable. A change came over the setter as the old man watched in astonishment: the animal squatted on its forepaws, thrusting a golden rear high into the air, a glistening bull’s eye at its center. Phlox left the ground a dozen feet shy of his target and sailed squarely onto her back, wrapping his paws around the setter’s belly and jackhammering madly.

Both beasts took on the sad, wide-eyed expression of rutting wildlife as the old man got to his feet and savagely kicked at the pair of them. “Stop it!  Stop it!” he shouted. He pointed at Howie. “You! Get that goddamn dog off her!”

Howie’s first desire was to run home and take the phone off the hook, but he ran instead to his feverish pet, uncertain where to grab hold. The traditional pail of water would have been welcome.

Phlox bared his teeth. “Get any closer and I rip your fuckin’ leg off, you hear me, man?”

“Did you hear that?” Howie said to the other man. “My dog’ll attack me if I do anything.”

“And tell that old fart to stop kicking me or he gets it in the balls.”

Howie shrugged.

The man looked at him in anger. “That damn animal is killing my dog and you just stand there!” He gave another kick, this time catching Phlox in the rib cage. The dog whimpered and withdrew. “Now get out of here!” the old man shouted.

Phlox’s tail arced around to his belly and he hugged Howie’s shins as both moved away. “Fucker,” he muttered. “He coulda killed me.”

“I can’t believe what a jerk you’re acting like,” said Howie. “You can’t just run over and have sex with some guy’s dog.”

“Have sex?  Humans ‘have sex.’  I’m makin’ puppies!”

Howie never considered sex in procreative terms and was surprised to hear it put so plainly. “That’s interesting. I never got a dog’s perspective on it before.”

“Oh, cut the ‘perspective’ crap. It’s no different for you.”

“Maybe so. Maybe this dating and marriage thing, the way we humans practice it, is just hypocrisy. I mean, how faithful are you to the mother of your children?”

“Are you outta your fuckin’ mind?  I’m doin’ her a favor, buddy. She wants the damn pups — I’m just getting my rocks off.” Phlox suddenly dropped onto his back and rolled on the ground, taking care to land on top of a pile of fast food wrappers covered with bug-encrusted food.

“Get up!” Howie shouted. “That’s disgusting!”

“Man, you’re so uptight. You’d do it if you could.” Nevertheless, the dog stood and meekly followed. Howie was reassured that the newly-displayed ability hadn’t altered the dynamics of master and dog.

This would be important in the encounter to follow. He was confident that Phlox’s fantastic ability would be the agent to melt Betty’s rugged chill. He set a path for the store and the animal trotted quietly at his side, bobbing his wrinkled snout back and forth over the filthy sidewalk.

An illuminated plastic sign that once proclaimed this run-down plaza as Shop-O-Rama was reduced by BBs and decay to an enigmatic   hop     ma. A supermarket dominated one side of the row of one-story buildings; beside it were a liquor store, deli, sewing shop, and bakery. In typical suburban style, the shops nestled with emporia of trendy but less-useful products: pottery, New Age music, designer clothing for children.

Dog ‘n Suds inherited its location from a failed auto parts store and opened first as a laundromat only. Bart Pillston later decided to add a line of livestock and accessories, filling his extra floor space and cashing in on his theory that appliance-starved apartment-dwellers would enjoy the company of small pets.

He placed his daughter behind the sales counter for the daytime shift. Betty resented the job. She was surly to the customers, but she adored the animals. Howie was jealous of each pup she added to the collection because the beast was guaranteed to get a piece of the attention he so craved.

A few sentences from Phlox will change that, he reasoned, and her estimation of him will rise. Howie pulled open the glass door and trotted his pet into the shop, an entrance greeted by a chorus of baying from the dogs imprisoned along one wall. “Listen to ‘em,” Phlox muttered. “Buncha crybaby assholes.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Howie said softly. “I want you to help me. There’s a lady here I want to impress.”

“Fuck that. There’s some cherry here I want to impress. For a start, I’m gonna get a bone on and lick it ‘till it’s crimson.” Phlox plopped onto his haunches and did so, pausing to say with wistful sarcasm, “Don’t you wish you could do this?”

Howie slid his shoe violently against the dog’s behind and hissed, “Knock it off!”

Betty was making change for a laundromat customer, dropping a careful count of quarters into the old woman’s hand, ignoring the woman’s thanks. She saw Howie and did not change expression.

But Betty’s attractiveness was striking even when her face was stern. Puffy around the eyes, with bleached hair in need of brushing, but what’s beauty if not also an inner thing? She swung onto a seat behind the sales counter. “Yeah?” She rested an elbow on the counter and placed her chin on her fist.

“Hi Betty. How are you?”

She said nothing, switching her gaze to Howie’s dog. Phlox kicked at an ear with a hind leg. “Whaddaya need, flea powder?”

The dog snickered. “Hear that?” said Howie.

“What?”

“Phlox. My dog. He just laughed.”

Betty made a weary face. “Whaddaya mean, laughed. Do you need something or what?”

“I wanted you to see him. Or hear him, really. This dog can talk.”

“Sure he can talk. All dogs talk. I listen to ‘em all day.” She gestured at the cages with a sweep of her hand.

“No, I mean English. Words we can understand.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

Howie bent to face his animal. “Say something to Betty.”

Phlox bashfully licked Howie’s face.

“Very impressive,” Betty sneered. “But you must’ve mistook this for the circus. If you’re not here to buy something, I’ve got work to do.” She headed for the laundromat wing with Howie in pursuit.

“No, wait! I have to tell you something!”

“What?” She stopped by a row of dryers.

Howie searched the air for words to capture his jumble of feelings. He caught sight of a puppy, some manner of hound, tilting its head quizzically from a cage in the corner. He knew just how that animal felt. Couldn’t Betty make it a little easier on him? “All I really wanted to do was show you my dog, since I know how much you like animals.”

“Yeah, I saw him. Thanks.” She turned and walked away.

Howie’s embarrassment was compounded by the taunt he heard growled beside him: “You dickless jellyfish. Don’t let that cunt treat you like that. If I jerked around as much as you I’d never get laid.”

“I can’t just . . . jump on her!”

“Then say something! You’ve got a hell of a lot more words to use than I do! Use ‘em!”

Howie nodded. He led Phlox along the aisle between washers and dryers, dodging clothes baskets. Three customers were washing laundry. Betty stood beyond them. She turned when she heard his approach and scowled when she saw him.

“Listen, Betty,” said Howie, too frightened to meet her gaze, “I have to tell you. I think you’re very . . . very nice.” He gulped in the triumph of getting that out, and felt the tickle of a cough. As he worked his mouth to subdue it he was horrified to hear his dog speak in a credible imitation of him.

“And I want to fuck you,” the dog said. Betty’s eyes widened as she studied his face.

“How dare you,” she said softly.

Howie opened his mouth, trying to find something to say that would cancel his seeming gaffe. Again, the dog did it for him: “Then can I at least squeeze your tits?”

He had long admired her legs and ass, face and breasts with an anatomical detachment typical of men. Only now, when he was forced to consider Betty as a functioning, integral unit did he appreciate the splendor of her entirety. Her first punch caught him, sloppily, on the side of the face, mashing cheek against teeth and drawing blood. With her other hand she sucker-punched him, doubling him and sending him to his knees.

Betty screamed a shrill, wordless cry that accompanied repeated kicks to Howie’s rear. On hands and knees he scurried to the door, dog trotting beside him, and he rested only when he had turned two corners and could sit against the back of the strip mall by the delivery doors.

“You’re a bastard,” he said to his animal. The dog scratched an ear. “Don’t play dumb with me now.”

His dog faced him, staring blankly, and murmured, “I thought of biting her, but I don’t want to eat her as badly as you do.”

*

The key to Phlox’s character was selfishness. He wished only for that which would offer comfort or delight. Although it took Howie merely a morning’s worth of experience to intuit that the dog needed to be treated with the same forcefulness you show a six-year-old, he nevertheless failed to understand how manipulative an ersatz six-year-old can be.

“You’re not going with me this afternoon and that’s final,” Howie insisted as he finished cleaning and patching himself, trying to hide the bruises from the morning’s encounter.

“For Chrissake, you’re going leave me locked in the fucking house all afternoon while you stuff your face at your mother’s house?” The dog lolled on his back, wiggling with a snakelike jiggle, his genitals bobbing for all to see. Ever since Phlox became conversational, Howie noticed these things with more embarrassment, but to point them out only invited ridicule.

“After that business with Betty I’m not sure if I’m ever taking you anyplace with me.”

“Okay. It’s not like you’re wrong or anything. In fact, you can kick me in the ribs a few times if it makes you feel happy. The point is, I was only trying to help. I got excited and went too far.”

“So I’m supposed to trust you not to get excited like that all over again?”

“I’ll play in the yard. I’ll sleep under the bed.” Phlox yawned in an elaborate show of teeth. “Gosh, I am getting pretty beat, now that I think of it.”

“You’re not going.”

Phlox crouched and approached Howie, his tail sweeping the floor with a noisy whush-whush. It was still surprising to see this doggy behavior fleshed out with speech. “I’m sorry,” he whined. “Really. I deserve another chance. I just want to be wherever you are.”

Even without the spoken intention, such cravenness had been demonstrated by dogs all through history. The added enunciation intensified the behavior. Howie felt terrible. He reluctantly assented. Phlox took the change of heart with dignity, promising that the afternoon would be good for both of them.

Howie chose a more dignified outfit of chinos and a cotton shirt, a lightweight jacket with tiny lapels giving him a look of tea-party elegance.

He discovered a tea party of sorts in progress at his mother’s house when he arrived that afternoon. The woman greeted him with complaints about her chest and the usual dire predictions of neuralgia, rheumatism or (if she were lucky, Howie decided) cancer. “Why the dog?” she demanded.

There was a numb moment of horror while Howie waited for the dog to give some wise-ass comeback, but Phlox acted as if he hadn’t understood the sarcasm in the question. Which made sense: the stupid beast was capable only of reacting in broadly-sketched terms. “He likes it here. He wanted to see you.” Howie answered, surprising himself with the deftness of the lie.

It pleased his mother, who showed them to a living room clogged with her powdered, perfumed, colorfully dressed friends. “This is my son, Howie,” she shouted when they’d shouldered themselves to the center. The women, each carrying a plastic cocktail cup, converged upon him. Phlox vanished. Howie surrendered himself to the will of the party, which drew from him the dull details of his working and social lives. Identified quickly as “a good boy,” someone “who listens to his mother,” he was promised dates galore with a string of available daughters, assent to which he gave in a manner he hoped was too wispily vague to be remembered.

His only hope of surviving this encounter lay in sneaking from the house amidst departing guests, but his mother had another idea. “You’re staying to dinner with me,” she told him, snagging his wrist with a clawlike talon. “And then we’ll discuss why you’re living where you do.”

Denied easy escape, he retreated to an upstairs bathroom. Phlox appeared at his heel. “Been up here sleeping,” the animal explained. “And you know what I thought of? You have a stupid language. I took a nap, but if I say I was dognapping, you’d think I was stealing some of my friends. I have to say I was catnapping, and I don’t like that very much.”

“I have to stay to dinner,” Howie complained. “And she’s going to pressure me to move back in here.”

“Easy solution,” said Phlox. “I make a nuisance of myself and she won’t want either of us. I’ll piss on her furniture and eat the food off her plate.”

“No you won’t. I’m going to handle this myself, and without any games.”

“Sure. Just like last time. She always gets the better of you. You’re just gonna have to tell her to fuck off.”

“I’m not going to be vulgar.”

“Suit yourself.”

Howard!” His mother’s voice rocketed from below.

“Just stay out of this,” Howie hissed. “And don’t misbehave.”

“No problem. You’re the boss.”

“Who are you talking to?” On her way upstairs now, her voice cutting dagger-like through the walls.

Howie opened the door to meet her. “I thought my dog might not be feeling well,” he said.

“That’s all we need, a sick dog in my house,” she said, her tone a metallic buzz. This meant that all of the guests were gone; she used a more modulated sound when trying to impress company. “I’ll tell you one thing: that animal goes when you move back here.”

Howie glanced at Phlox, who was sniffing the toilet as if unconcerned. Knowing that the dog at any moment could disrupt the situation with his foul-mouthed conversation, Howie felt sweat droplets form on his forehead. The animal was not to be trusted, a notion that violated what used to be Howie’s unwavering belief in the loyalty of dogs.

Of course, it was the rare dog who would leave an accessible plate of donuts unmolested, and even the best-behaved beast will climb onto a favorite, forbidden chair when left with it alone in a room. In learning to speak, Phlox stole a human trait and reduced it to canine proportions. But the trait was too powerful to exist within those limitations. It was the most powerful quality the dog now possessed, far more useful in a world of humans than fangs and growl. Which made the animal a trotting time bomb.

Time to defuse it by proving to the dog how easy it was to get this woman in line. “Two things,” said Howie, following his mother downstairs and into the dining room. “I’m not moving back, and I’m not getting rid of Phlox.”

“Oh, yes you are. That allowance of yours is going to end if you don’t. You’re going to get a real job and start looking and acting like someone respectable.”

“Maybe I’m happy with the way I live.”

“Maybe I’m not.” His mother turned to face him with unusual passion. “I listened to those people all afternoon talking about their children and the things those children do, and I’m ashamed to tell them my only child is a bum who runs around with a mangy dog at his side! I’m still your mother and I can at least see that you make something of yourself before I die!”

Howie couldn’t see the dog in question. Ordinarily this would be upsetting; now it was a relief. He considered the ghastly, funny thought that his mother’s character was similar to his dog’s: both were entirely self-absorbed, arguing passionately in favor of those things that indulged such absorption. She didn’t really want him near. She only needed to protect her reputation as a mother.

Like most of her female friends, she had a failed marriage behind her. Being a condition shared by so many, this was reckoned a benefit. Were more of these mothers’ kids as happy-go-lucky as Howie, he, too, would be a source of pride.

“I’m doing fine, mom.”

“Oh, no you’re not!” Her stance, her expression, her tone of voice: all of them sent daggers into him, reminding him why he left the house in the first place, probably why his father left so many years earlier.

“Look. I’ll be the judge of my own life, okay?”

It is not okay!” Her mouth trembled. White shone around the irises of her eyes.

This was a familiar stand-off that never resolved. He wanted to yell right back at her, to smack her with his fist, but he knew how futile it would be to prolong the scene. He bowed, clenched his fists, and walked into the kitchen to find his dog.

You come back here!

Phlox was plopped on the floor, chewing a grease-stained dish towel. There was evidence of a tour of the dirty serving dishes. The dog looked up, gave a canine grin and said, “Coward.”

Howie grimaced. “Aw, shut the fuck up, you stupid idiot.”

I heard that!” His mother stood in the doorway, looking remarkably like a rearing horse, snorting noisily, nostrils dilated. “Don’t you ever think you can talk to your mother that way!”

Phlox rolled on his back and said, really very gently, “He was talking to me, you stupid cow.”

Routine expectation, and thus a sense of routine, were shattered. It happened in silence. Howie’s mother looked from her son to the dog, again and again, before choosing to disbelieve what she heard.

“I don’t need any of your tricks,” she said at length.

“Tricks?” said the animal. “Tricks? I decide to speak your language and you decide it’s some fucking trick?” He rolled to his feet and faced her. “Listen, bitch, I worked hard to learn how to do this, and I listen to the crap that comes out of your mouth and it’s so stupid I wouldn’t even piss on it. You treat your son like this? Hell, I make puppies and they stay on the tit for a few weeks, tops, then out of the nest, Jack, and go get a life! And I don’t even want to see their bitch mother again unless she’s in heat.”

“Come on, Phlox, take it easy.” This was Howie’s gentle appeal.

“What for? To listen to more of the shit she spews? Look, you go ahead and be polite to her, but as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t even sniff her butt.” The dog looked up at the woman. “Where I come from, that’s an insult.”

Howie’s mother continued to say nothing, but now it became apparent that this was due to physical distress. Her mouth worked silently and she moved her hands around her torso, as if chasing bugs. Her change in color from flush to pale was evident even under the layers of makeup. She took a couple of robot-like steps into the center of the kitchen, her eyes fixed on the dog. Her only noise was a whimper.

Howie later reckoned that she intended to do the animal some harm. She was reaching toward the knife rack when she fell. She had no control over her descent, however, and her head caught the wooden corner of a counter on the way down. She writhed for a moment and then lay still, her face a frightened mask.

*

When Howie moved back to his mother’s house he had the contents of her room carted off by a secondhand furniture store. He drove her clothing to a Goodwill drop two towns away, figuring that it would seem too ghoulish to turn the stuff over to the local thrift shop.

The phone call from Betty came a couple of days after the obituary appeared. “I’m sorry I was so mean to you,” she said. “I didn’t realize you’d just lost your mom and everything, and I guess you didn’t know what you were saying.” Although their subsequent dates lacked the fireworks of a traditional romance, she was impressed enough by his infatuation to accept his attention — which included lavish gifts — and move into his house.

She has no intention of marrying him and plans to stay only as long as the insurance money holds out, but the way things have been going she’s thinking of leaving sooner. It’s like there’s no privacy in the place. Every time she brings a boyfriend home, no matter how thoroughly she’s checked to see that Howie’s away, he knows all about it and shames her with retribution. But who closes doors to the family dog?
   
– 4 October 1993

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