Just Fine

The concept of the life examined—or even, like his own, unexamined—had never occurred to him. Indeed, if one of his acquaintances had spouted the famous saying at him—but was it likely that any of them had heard it either?—it would have slid down the slick gullet of his mind as smoothly as his Stoli on the rocks, its empty calories instantly metabolized and its melancholy taste already lost while he was ordering a second. Spooky’s was his favorite bar because, though no one really knew him, everyone knew him there. It had a reputation for attracting a lively crowd at happy hour and being an even rowdier place at night—though it appeared to him that Fat Freddy, the bartender, wouldn’t have any problem handling the action—but at lunchtime the clientele was mostly local businessmen. Fat Freddy, though no one would have dared to call him that to his face—he wasn’t really fat, anyway, he was more of a square, an extremely solid square surmounted by the solid square of his head—never remembered his name but knew him well enough to have his drink on the bar by the time he’d hung up the trench coat he wasn’t wearing today on the rack behind the door and greeted the usual crowd clustered in front of the bar.

And that, his Stoli on the rocks with a twist of lemon, was what he’d be reaching for even before he pulled up a bar stool, not for a moment giving any thought to what it might take to turn him inward, towards the examined life: what supernova bursting open the locked door of the self and illuminating, however briefly, its darkest corners; what earthquake shattering the crusted shell of the self, opening raw crevasses for his scrutiny. To the extent that he did look at his own life, it was only to think that if he came around a second time, he might like to have a body like Fat Freddy’s; the idea of being able to throw his weight around in the world like that had a definite appeal.

The guys from the auto dealerships along the strip who hung out there always greeted him by name, though he had to be careful about that; most of them he didn’t know by name, and he got confused as to whether it was Roger from the bmw dealership and Burt from the Lexus place or vice versa. On the other hand, he knew it didn’t really make a lot of difference to them; either way they’d slap him on the back, tell Freddy to bring him a fresh one, and laugh it off. They were car salesmen; they didn’t have any loyalties. They all bought each other drinks and ordered their burgers right there at the bar and ate them standing up and then went back to work, which he knew meant mostly lounging around in empty, overlit showrooms.

And then he’d go out to his six-year-old Buick, which he always parked in the little employee lot behind the building where the car salesmen wouldn’t see it. As he climbed in, habit, his old driving companion, would crank his head around toward the backseat, which used to be stacked with samples when he sold commercial-grade carpeting. Once he’d even sold the Mercedes dealership on the other side of town five hundred square yards of top-quality nylon to carpet their showroom. They’d been reluctant at first—how could it stand up under the cars constantly being moved onto and off the floor?—but he went out on a long, thin limb and told them that if it didn’t work out he’d have it off in a day and it wouldn’t cost them a thing. They’d laughed when he’d joked that it would outlast their new 280SLs, and he knew it’d still be there and looking good if they hadn’t tired of the color after a couple of years, a murderous burnt orange he’d tried his best to talk them out of, and then gotten a better price for replacing it from one of his competitors.

He wasn’t bitter about that—it was the name of the game—but now he sold services, and everything he needed to show his customers was in one black-covered, gold-embossed, ring-bound notebook that lay on the passenger seat beside him. Today, he’d spent the morning at home on the telephone, having little luck making calls to line up future sales appointments. He didn’t know what it was. Did everyone come in late these days? Did they have so much other urgent business to get to first? Either way, nobody wanted to see him in the morning anymore. Now he had the usual three appointments for the afternoon, all he could handle if things went well, though there was never any telling if he’d actually get to talk to anyone of consequence. People forgot, people were suddenly called into important meetings, people would have their secretaries explain that they just couldn’t see him now. What was the matter with people these days? Only the secretaries ever apologized, and not all of them.

Once he’d familiarized himself with the services he sold, maintenance contracts for computers and copiers, he didn’t give much thought to them. It wasn’t as if they were meeting some crying need anyway, but how different was that from carpeting? A good half or more of what he’d sold back then had only been for redecorating. He could never stand to be around when the crew was tearing up old stuff that was still as good as new, the color fresh as a paint sample and the pile thick enough to run your fingers through, and he liked knowing, though he never admitted to the crew that he knew, that the guys made a few extra bucks for themselves by peddling what they pulled up to friends and neighbors. You did what you could.

Now all he had to do was lay out their services to his prospects—and he didn’t even have to do that, what he had to offer was identical to what everyone else in the industry offered—and go down the list of specifics and explain their pricing policy, leave their glossy, eight-page brochure and two copies of the priced contract, and hope for the best, while the guy or gal was ushering him out the door with a handshake and a worthless promise to get back to him by the first of the week, right after they’d had time to discuss his proposal at their next staff meeting.

He didn’t even get time to schmooze, and schmoozing was what he was good at, schmoozing was what made sales when product was a wash, and all products were a wash these days: Coke/Pepsi, Colgate/Crest, Ford/Chevy, McDonald’s/Burger King, even the fish they always told you tasted like chicken (“If I’d wanted chicken, I’d of ordered chicken,” he’d snapped at the waiter once, but his wife—ex-wife now—spat one of those don’t-embarrass-me-in-public looks at him so he calmed down and said, “Well, what the heck, I’ll try it,” and it did taste like chicken). Who really cared? But no one wanted to take time to schmooze anymore. There was genuine pleasure in schmoozing, ease and camaraderie, but now nobody seemed to enjoy what they were doing, they just did what they got stuck doing and that was that, bang-bang and on to the next thing. When was the last time he’d seen a guy roll his chair back and stick his feet up on his desk and point to the open box of cigars sitting there next to the telephone while he slowly peeled the cellophane off one for himself?

 

He lived alone now in a high-rise apartment that was tight up against the edge of what he could afford, and parked his car on the bungalowed side street nearby rather than pay the steep extra tariff for the underground parking that was available to him as a tenant. He used the cheap gas station car washes, which were a bargain with a fill-up, and then, if the weather was nice, went over the Buick with a damp shop rag and a chamois when he got home. The cleaning lady they used to have once a week came once a month now, for a few hours in the afternoon—he never even saw her, they left each other notes, his with the cash and hers with requests for cleaning supplies—and lately he’d been asking her to clean the stove or the refrigerator instead of bothering with the second bedroom, which no one ever used.

He liked his lunchtime drinks with the boys at Spooky’s, the relentless kidding and no-name companionship, but he rarely went out to the bars and restaurants in the evening, at least not during the week when everyone else was home with their families, including his divorced girlfriend, Eleanor, who felt it was important to sit down to dinner with her daughters. Besides, it was cheaper to drink your own whiskey, especially if you bought it by the case; the initial outlay was tough, but the cost per drink was a real bargain—unless, of course, you ended up pouring bigger drinks and downing more of them, but in the privacy of his apartment on the third floor (the first residential floor after the lobby and the office suites; they charged more the higher up you lived, as if, he thought, you were paying for the additional elevator service) he never looked at it like that.

 

On a certain Tuesday when he hadn’t managed to arrange any appointments for the afternoon and hadn’t been able to get through to anyone in the morning, when even the secretaries weren’t willing to find him a slot on their bosses’ appointment calendars, he went out after lunch, a bowl of chili and a couple of drinks, and bought a little dog. He had stayed at Spooky’s and had one more after the automobile guys left while he picked up the morning paper one of them had left behind and went through the classified pages, marking the pet ads that looked interesting with the fountain pen his parents had given him as a high school graduation present, a maroon Schaeffer that still wrote like a dream after all these years. He hadn’t realized that purebreds were so expensive.

He wasn’t looking for a puppy because he worried about housebreaking it. What he was hoping for was a young dog, already trained, that could adapt to apartment living, nothing very big because he remembered that when they’d first hired the cleaning lady she’d been terrified having to walk by the Weimar-aner in the neighbor’s fenced-in yard. Looking for a new cleaning lady, he figured, would be harder than looking for the right-sized dog. He found four ads in an acceptable size range: a six-month-old West Highland White Terrier at an outrageous price; a young Welsh corgi named Mimi who needed “special attention”; a two-year-old Lhasa Apso; and a dachshund whose age wasn’t specified. Freddy had offered to let him use the phone at the bar, but he wasn’t comfortable with that. This felt like a very intimate act. The Lhasa Apso had already been sold by the time he called from the pay phone by the front door. The dachshund’s owner told him the dog was probably a year old, but she wasn’t sure; he told her he’d be right over.

A chilly spring rain was falling when he got there, and he dashed from the car to the enclosed front porch of the little house hoping his suit and tie wouldn’t get soaked. It was a workday, after all, even if he personally didn’t have any work to do; what would they think of him if he’d showed up at Spooky’s in khakis and a windbreaker? The porch was packed with waist-high stacks of old newspapers, leaving only a narrow aisle between the porch door and the front door, and when she opened it to him he could see that the front room, and the dining room beyond that, were filled with still more tall stacks of newspapers plus countless paper grocery bags whose contents he couldn’t discern since they too were piled one on top of the other and on top of the newspapers as well. Aside from the dining room table, a dark, claw-footed pedestal with two chairs snugged together on its far side, there didn’t seem to be any furniture—or any room for furniture. He didn’t understand how anyone could live like this.

That she was such a young woman surprised him: mid-twenties at the most—there must have been newspapers out there on the porch that were older than she was—and dressed like most of the young people he saw these days, in tight jeans and clunky black boots and an oversized purple sweatshirt that read don’t even think about it! across the front. She looked like she was about to say something when the little dog came scooting around from the back of the house, its nails clicking and skidding on the hardwood floors, skirting around her and sliding to a stop right in front of him, sniffing at his wingtips and pants cuffs.

“This’s Boots,” she said. “She was my aunt’s. I’m Ardis.”

It was a dachshund just as he’d always pictured dachshunds, long and low and lean—he could even see its ribs—with floppy ears and a reddish-brown coat and the two white front feet that gave it its name. It was looking up at him now with big, dark eyes that he couldn’t read. When he knelt down to pet it, as he supposed he was expected to do, Ardis left the room, but she was back in minutes, before his knees had time to tighten up, with a bright red leash and a matching, two-compartment, plastic bowl.

“She’s all yours,” she said. “Just look.” The dog had twisted its head around to lick the fingers he’d been scratching behind her ears with. “She adores you.”

 

It had started raining again by the time he stopped on the way home to pick up some dog food, and it was still raining when he parked the car, so he carried the dog into the apartment building nestled under his suit coat, lugging the bag of Purina under his other arm. Once Lou, the day man, had buzzed him in, however, he let her wiggle out into the open; he didn’t want Lou to think he was sneaking something by him. Not that he was really hiding much with twenty pounds of kibble under his arm, but he couldn’t figure out what the wide-eyed look Lou gave him meant: What next? You call that a dog? You, of all people, with a dog? It could have meant anything; Lou was a man of looks and nods, not words.

Upstairs, however, filling one side of the bowl with water from the kitchen faucet and then scooping out a handful of kibble and rattling it into the other side, he began to worry: was there a building regulation against pets, or maybe against dogs in particular? Lou would have known; Lou could have reported him already; at any moment the building manager, Koenicke, a hardheaded fellow whom he had once seen chastising an elderly couple for letting their grandkids play checkers in the lobby, could be knocking at his door. What could he say? He was taking care of it for friends, it was only for a day or so, the way other tenants had their kids or grandchildren stay over, of course he’d pay for any damage it did? And then what?

Meanwhile he needed to follow up on Ardis’s suggestion that he make a vet appointment. She didn’t seem to know much about the dog: how old it really was, what its feeding schedule was, whether it had had its shots, what vet, if any, her aunt had taken it to. After she’d handed him the bowl and leash, she’d picked the dog up with both hands around its bony chest, its four legs sticking out straight and stiff, and thrust it at him as if she were ordering him to carry out the garbage. Maybe it hadn’t been so much an offer as a dismissal: Here, it’s your responsibility now, you take care of it.

The dog was having trouble getting its footing on the tiled kitchen floor, so he moved its bowl around the corner onto the dining room carpet, where it quickly gobbled up the powdery nuggets whose oily grit still coated his palm and fingers and began lapping noisily at the water. He didn’t know much about dogs. Had he given it enough to eat? Would it need to be fed again later? Should he take it out for a walk right now? His parents had never let him have one when he was a kid and his ex-wife, who’d grown up with what she’d claimed were hundreds of them in the house, wouldn’t even discuss the subject with him. Her father had bred and shown boxers when they were at the height of their popularity, and she always knew she took second place—or maybe hundredth place—to dogs in that household; she wasn’t about to let a man make that kind of judgment about her ever again. He could have consulted Eleanor, whom he vaguely recalled having mentioned once owning a dog, but he was afraid that would have implied more intimacy than he really felt. When he thought about asking the guys at Spooky’s for advice, he realized that the dogs they talked about owning were all massive creatures: Great Danes, St. Bernards, Old English sheepdogs, the collie that Burt laughed about because of how it herded his kids back into the yard every time they tried to go anywhere. He could imagine how they’d respond to hearing he’d gotten a dachshund. That was when he realized that if Fat Freddy asked him what had come of his dog search in the classi-fieds, he’d have to lie. He’d say that he’d decided it was a bad idea, it wasn’t fair to a dog to keep it cooped up in an apartment, especially when he was gone so much of the time.

 

As it turned out, Lou did report him. A day later a photocopied page of building regulations crouched in his mailbox, crumpled as if thrust there in anger, the relevant paragraph highlighted in urinary yellow: no pets over twenty-five pounds permitted. Boots—he couldn’t seem to get used to its name and simply thought of it as The Dog—weighed in at the vet’s safely under that. He paid the additional damage deposit required of pet owners, as mandated in the next paragraph, without a murmur, though it seemed exorbitant. The vet, whose bill also surprised him, laughed when he told her he thought the dog was about a year old.

At Spooky’s, Roger overheard him explaining to Fat Freddy that his apartment management didn’t allow pets and said, “Fuck that, man. You’ve got your constitutional rights. Everybody gets a dog and a gun.” “Get a real goddamn dog,” Burt added, “not some pansy little thing.” Within minutes the dog theme sniffed its way around the bar and returned home with the consensus that a Rottweiler was the right dog for him. He didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment to his manliness or a criticism of his lack of manliness. He’d always heard how dogs were a reflection of their owners, how they even came to look alike, and he could see that in his jowly, snub-nosed, intractable former father-in-law, but how did that apply to him? There was nothing of the long and lean in him; would anyone have ever referred to him as perky? He turned to Freddy to order another drink, but one of the guys jumped in first: “Bring him one on me, in honor of his new dog.”

“I don’t have a dog,” he mumbled, but no one heard him.

No one noticed the new tie he’d picked up at the Tie One On shop in the mall, either. It sported rows of yellowish brown, almost orange, dachshunds on a black background—a color combination he liked because he could wear it with either black or brown suits—and he thought it would make for a great icebreaker on his sales calls, that it could stimulate some schmoozing; a lot of those people he called on had to be dog owners. But if they were, they weren’t admitting it. Or maybe it was the dachshunds; maybe he should have gotten the Rottweiler tie. After a while, he stopped wearing it. It had been too much trouble, anyway, wearing one of his regular rep ties to lunch at Spooky’s, then replacing it with the dog tie when he got back in his car afterwards to begin his calls.

The dog itself was doing fine, though. It ate well, it gobbled down the heartworm pills the vet had prescribed, it slept through the night right beside his bed, it did its business quickly on their walks—early mornings when he first got up, around noon before he went off to lunch and sales calls, late afternoon when he got home, once again before he went to bed—and if he still wasn’t calling it by name, at least he’d quickly learned the plastic bag routine for cleaning up after it and disposing of its waste. No one talked about dogs anymore at Spooky’s. Once—it was midsummer by then—it briefly occurred to him that they might be keeping their silence on dogs out of consideration for him—out of pity either because he couldn’t have a dog or, worse yet, because they’d somehow found out what kind of dog he really did have—but he instantly realized they weren’t that subtle, not those guys.

Nothing much had changed. People went off on summer vacations, which made it even harder to line up appointments but left him free to spend more time with the dog. Sometimes on Fridays or Saturdays, when Eleanor could get her older single sister to stay with her kids, they went out to dinner and then she spent the night with him. She was a quiet woman, affectionate with the dog, which quickly got in the habit of rolling over and exposing its belly for scratching the moment she walked in, but she never asked what had moved him to get a pet. She’d even given up suggesting he could spend some nights at her house, get to know her kids a little better. It didn’t bother him that the two girls, eight and nine, looked just like their father, whose photo still sat on a side table in the dining room; he just didn’t know what to do with them or expect of them. His own childhood seemed as remote to him as if it had happened in another century, in a different country, to someone else, someone who had grown up speaking a foreign tongue. So things stayed pretty much the same. It was a slow time, but he was a salesman, he was used to slow times. He was fine with that.

 

In August, when absolutely nobody was around to see him on business, when even the secretaries only left him their voice mail, he and Eleanor vacationed at a well-known but affordable little resort on one of the northern lakes while her ex stayed with the two girls. He hadn’t seen as much of her as usual since he got the dog—lately, even phone conversations had begun to take an enormous effort, whether she called or he did. The telephone itself, that innocuous-looking beige thing that hung on the kitchen wall, seemed when he picked it up on evenings and weekends to suck the muscles right out of his arm. More than once he ended up sitting down on the cool, hard tiles and propping his elbow on his knee to support the phone, while the dog clickety-clicked over and slid her narrow head onto his lap. One morning, though, when he wearied of being left on hold by every receptionist in the world, he’d phoned around until he lucked into a resort that had just had a cancellation.

“You are one lucky guy,” the clerk informed him on the phone. “We’re already booked through most of next summer.”

“I guess I am,” he replied, and then for no particular reason—he was only mildly pleased at snagging the reservation itself and not the least bit interested in why it was available, but maybe it was the silenced schmoozer in him looking to get something going—he added, “So what happened?”

“Car crash,” the clerk said. “Bang. Canceled.”

He should have canceled it himself then. By the third day there he was ready to go home. The sex was okay, what there was of it; he didn’t feel the urges like he used to, but maybe that was just his getting older, or maybe it was his disappointment with the slightly seedy tone of the resort. It wasn’t worth looking into. But then there was the problem of the other twenty-three and a half hours. Almost every other couple at the resort was there with two or three kids, and apparently whatever it was the kids did not only kept their parents busy all day long but completely exhausted them by evening; not only was the dining room half-empty at mealtimes—many of the couples saved money by cooking in their rooms, even though it was strictly against the posted rules—but as soon as dinner was over the place emptied out as if the whole season had suddenly been canceled.

He and Eleanor sat in the vacant lounge and had an after-dinner drink and read rumpled paperback mystery novels that other guests had left behind many, many years ago. When he paused to sip the cheap vodka that smelled like rubbing alcohol but was all they had here, he felt sorry for himself because he’d blistered his left palm when they’d gone canoeing on the second day. He wasn’t about to try that again. He wasn’t interested in fishing and she didn’t play tennis—well, neither did he, really—and an hour or so on the beach was about all either of them could take, and he brooded about the dog, which he’d left at a boarding kennel the vet had recommended, a place that had seemed even seedier than this one—why shouldn’t a dog have a decent vacation, too?—and he was beginning to wish it’d rain so they’d have an excuse to leave early, but every day was the same: as warm and sunny and practically cloudless as the terrible watercolors on all the walls. Aside from the vodka and the food— which was like his mother’s cooking had been, dried out meats and things from cans—there was really nothing to complain about.

On Thursday, though, he woke just at dawn with a tremendous pain in his gut, doubling him over on his side and practically hurtling Eleanor out of the bed.

“What?” she wanted to know, perched on the edge of the bed, still barely awake, scratching her head, her long flannel nightgown hitched up over her knees. They’d expected chilly nights this far north in August, but it hadn’t happened; the temperature seemed to stay the same day and night, just on the edge of uncomfortably warm. Sometime during the night he’d flung off the T-shirt he usually slept in.

He clutched his belly with both fists, as if he were trying to draw out a knife someone had plunged into his guts. “Unh,” he gasped. “Unh, unh.”

 

When he awoke in the recovery room, he knew neither his name nor where he was nor what had happened to him. Eleanor was gone, too, back home looking in on her kids once the emergency room doctors had assured her he was stable and would be moved to a room as soon as one was available, but he didn’t know that either, because Eleanor was no longer present in the corner of the small, bare room she had once occupied in his mind. His appendix, just on the point of bursting, was gone as well, but so, inexplicably, were his apartment, his car, his lunchtime drinking buddies, his occupation, his very name. The only thing that remained was the little dog, sniffing around annoyingly in all that emptiness, scratching to get out.

“Go away,” he said.

The emptiness, which had the moldy familiarity of stale air to it—of his own bedroom, say, absent as it too was—didn’t frighten him at all. If anything, it seemed more like home to him than the apartment he no longer remembered he had, where his cleaning lady came and went a few days later, leaving him a note requesting new bottles of Windex and Mop & Glow and asking if he’d forgotten to leave the money for her. Except for the dog, its sharp nails clickety-clicking around inside his mind, a few brown hairs floating off its back every time it paused to shake itself, it felt as clean and polished in there as if she’d been visiting every day while he slept. He rather liked it that way. He wished she’d do something about the scattering of hairs, though. He wished someone would do something about the dog, which apparently had no intention of listening to him.

“Go away,” he said, “go away, go away, go away.” But every time he checked, the dog was still there.

Except for monitoring his vital signs and attending to the needs of his recuperation, no one seemed to know what to do about him. The appendectomy, though touch and go at the end when it came to lifting that vermiform little bomb out of his guts before it exploded, had gone normally. He’d been slow waking, but that wasn’t all that unusual; he’d been groggy for the rest of that day and the next, his speech slurred and nearly incomprehensible except for something none of them could make sense of about a dog, but surely the trauma and the painkillers accounted for that. Visiting the day after his surgery, Eleanor heard from his nurse about the dog; she called the kennel he’d told her about on their drive up north and was told it was doing fine. When she returned to the room and reported this to him, he looked at her with his wide, flat, empty face, drained of what little color it had acquired on their brief vacation, as if he had no idea what she was talking about. When she brought her daughters along the next day, hoping their bright young faces might cheer him up, she got the same look from him, the same look she got when she walked into the room herself.

By the first of the week, with no change evident, Eleanor suggested to both him and the new doctor who’d joined his case, a youngish neurosurgeon, that he be released in her care. The doctor was reluctant to do so without a clear diagnosis, though he kept assuring her that the mri, in spite of revealing a brain that was curiously smooth, almost like a child’s, showed no troubling abnormalities, no lumps or lesions, no signs of stroke. The two of them looked at him where he lay propped up in his hospital bed as if they had a right to expect a response from him. He looked at them the same way he looked at the television mounted high on the wall in the corner of his room whenever Eleanor or one of the nurses turned it on: as if he hadn’t the slightest idea why anyone would do such a thing.

“I’ve already discussed it with the kids,” she added, trying to make sure he was included in the conversation. “They think it’s a fine idea.”

He seemed to brighten up. “What about the dog?” he said. It was the clearest thing they’d heard him say since the operation.

“The dog,” she repeated. “Of course the dog can come too.”

“No!” he cried. He suddenly looked frightened, worried, long horizontal lines creasing his brow, his eyes darting around the room as if he were tracking some quick-moving thing neither she nor the doctor could see.

“No, that’s not it. That’s not right.”

For the next two days, while the doctors squabbled about keeping him hospitalized, or releasing him to a nursing facility, she ran the same scenario by him at each visit, hoping for some different response. But nothing changed. Each time she tossed out her suggestion, he replied, “The dog.” Each time she explained that of course the dog could come too, he gave the same, startled response, as if instead of saying “dog” she’d named some wild thing, a tiger or a jackal or some feral beast whose ferocity brought fear into his eyes.

On the third day, she turned to the neurosurgeon standing next to her and said, “This’s spooky.”

*

Recovery drew up to him gradually, a slow freight train many miles, many hundreds of cars long, each car rumbling toward him loaded with the rusted parts, the broken connecting rods and gap-toothed gears from which he could begin to reassemble the stilled machinery of who he was, and with Fat Freddy as the engineer, the only one with the bulk, the strength, to keep the massive weight of all those random recollections rolling. It didn’t seem to him, as the empty warehouse of his mind rolled open its loading doors, that he could possibly have room for all that wreckage. It took days to unload it all, fingering each unfamiliar part as he lifted it and set it down; days to organize all the curious components he had no memory of having seen before; days to figure out what went where, what unlabeled tab fit into which of the look-alike slots. But gradually things began to find their way into their old corners, where they had generally lain unused for most of his life; piece by piece—cogs and wheels, rods and rotors and rings, shafts and switches and couplings—he eventually managed to reconstruct the whole contraption, much as it had been before, to the best of his ability.

Except for the dog.

The dog was like a leftover piece from a completed jigsaw puzzle. It clickety-clicked around inside all this complex machinery, unable to settle down, wandering among partially clogged lanes where all the used goods were stacked or scrambling with considerable effort up onto the top of unopened packing crates to stare down at him. It circled a spot in a corner behind some wheezing vacuum pumps as if it were about to bed down there, but instead of lying down, it went sniffing off again into a dark little alley between a pair of humming dynamos, only to repeat its circling and move on again. It disappeared for hours at a time, but he could still always hear it scritching away out of sight. He didn’t understand what kind of life there could be for it in there. He didn’t really want to know. He just wanted it to go away.

A week after he’d been released from the hospital, Eleanor let herself into his apartment with the key she’d persuaded him to give her so she could check on him and bring him take-out food. He was in bed, lying on top of the covers in a white V-neck T-shirt and white boxer shorts, resting, though he couldn’t have said from what—maybe from listening for the little dog, anxious about what corner of his mind it’d poke its pointy nose out from next—and she came into the room and sat down on the bed beside him and laid a cool hand on his bare arm. The weather was changing already. When he patted her long, thin fingers and mumbled thanks, though he didn’t know for what, she told him she had a nice surprise for him. He didn’t care much for that—every day was a surprise for him now as the freight of his old life kept chugging newly back into his mind, keeping him busy trying to find places to stash it—but he already knew better than to say that.

“Okay,” he said, pulling himself up into a sitting position.

“I picked up the dog a couple of days ago,” she told him, “and took it home.”

For a moment he just stared at her. “Sure you did,” he said.

“The girls adore it.”

He was quiet again. Then he said, “I’ll bet they do.”

When she told him what the boarding costs had been for several weeks at the kennel, he got up slowly—he was still stiff from the incision—and went into the kitchen and sat down at the table there and wrote her a check. He didn’t want any trouble. There was a little red, two-compartment, plastic bowl sitting on the counter, and he felt he should offer her that, too, but she said she’d already picked one up at Kmart.

“Sure you have,” he said. “No problem.”

It was the third week of September by the time he showed up at Spooky’s again, shrugging off the trench coat he’d worn to ward off the chill and hanging it on the rack behind the door as the guys at the bar all turned to welcome him, raising their glasses in salute. They were loud, rowdy, clearly a couple of drinks ahead of him already. He could hardly make out who was shouting out what, but he could see that Fat Freddy, behind the bar, was holding up the Stoli on the rocks he’d already poured for him.

“Where ya been, man?” they asked as he approached.

They touched him gingerly on the back, on the shoulder, as if he were a returning war hero. They opened up a slot for him at the bar and said, “How ya doin’, guy?” They listened as he sipped his drink and told them what had happened, and they gulped their own drinks and chewed on their burgers and with their mouths full said “Wow” and “Jesus H. Christ” and “What a bitch” when he told them about his memory loss.

And when they all grew quiet, draining their glasses and shaking their heads in amazement at his tale, it was Burt, finally, who asked about the dog.

It took him a moment to respond. “Ah,” he said, setting his empty glass down on the bar and shoving it in Freddy’s direction, “the damned dog.”

Freddy picked up the glass and looked at it as if it were the saddest thing in the world, shaking his head slowly, as if he’d known all along that the dog was a bad idea, but it was Roger, pushing through from behind a couple of the other guys, who blurted out, “Fuck the dog, buddy, you’re the man, how ya doin’ now?”

“Hey,” he told them, looking around at the familiar cluster at the bar, embarrassed by all the attention, “I’m fine, just fine.”

Freddy handed him a fresh drink.

“If only,” he added, “I could get rid of the damned dog.”

He looked around again, surprised at the total silence, and asked, though he knew what the response would be, “Anybody want a dog?”

About Alvin Greenberg:
Alvin Greenberg’s latest novel is Time Lapse (Tupelo Press, 2003). His most recent collection of short stories, How the Dead Live, was published by Graywolf Press in 1998. Previous collections include The Man in the Cardboard Mask, Delta q, and The Discovery of America.