February 25, 2014

She Loved Dogs (part one)

She said that she loved animals, she loved dogs. She talked about her dog all the time.

She loved her dog. As long as he behaved.

A big sootish one with a giant mouth and loud, deep barks. He was the kind of dog you walked away from, your gait quick and light-footed, like when you’re facing a bathroom emergency. But all he really wanted was for you to throw, as far as you could, stick after stick after stick. He was a tireless enthusiast of play and people. She — Nancy — also had two cats. Also gray. They didn’t talk much and didn’t ask for much. But then, cats are libertarians. She called the dog Swat.

Although opposed at first to a tenant with a dog and two cats, David finally relented, because, among the realities of owning an old house in the country he also loved animals, and the furniture was second, third, fourth-hand, and ratty. The cats could have at it; the sofa and love seat had already been tormented by time and probably by other cats.

Nancy moved in a couple of weeks before David left for the City where he worked over the winter. Nancy would be his first roommate in over twenty years. She came recommended by people in town. She came with no furniture of her own, but oddly, with a pantry-full of food supplies. She immediately made popcorn. She stocked David’s actual pantry with many week’s worth of ramen noodles and cans of beans; bags of rice; boxes of herbal teas; the popcorn; grated cheese for the popcorn; oils and vinegars; muffin trays, and the kinds of pans that looked like they were for baking cakes. After she made the popcorn, she chatted with David, introduced Swat, introduced her cats.

For some reason, the more Nancy talked about her pets, the more David felt relieved that he’d found Nancy to rent his house, even though she couldn’t afford what he should have charged for four bedrooms. Actually, she could only afford to rent a single room. But David thought it better to have the house occupied over the cold months than to leave the place empty. His aunt had warned him once about that. She said the place would age faster, that the wood would shrink, that it wasn’t healthy for buildings to remain empty. Even a home needs a good home. David needed this kind of advice. He knew next to nothing about country and house living. It irked him, though, that Nancy was getting such a big house for so little.

They ate the popcorn in handfuls. Nancy talked about Swat’s breed. That they were intense animals, loyal, eager to please more than normal dogs.

“You have to be careful even playing fetch with him. He’ll play until he drops dead of a heart attack. Seriously.”

She talked a lot about breeding and dogs. She had dabbled in it herself. Swat was an output of one of Nancy’s breeding experiments. She had sold Swat’s brothers and sisters. She had a forthrightness in her tone that calmed David, that made him trust in her own confidence. It was David’s turn then to talk about his animal, his pet, his cat, Sam, who had died of cancer a year earlier. He hadn’t admitted to anyone that some nights in bed he still cried about it. And then he told Nancy that it was Sam’s demise that provided the seed for a broken engagement with a woman who had found his inconsolable grief for a dead pet alarming.

Nancy looked horrified. “Oh, my god. You don’t do that. You cook your boyfriend dinner and let him cry on your shoulder.”

“No, kidding? Right?” David said. But sometimes he wondered if he hadn’t overreacted, and that maybe he had proved the woman’s point about having an alarming side. Maybe his iron sureness he felt about everything wasn’t worth so much in the end.

One of the last things that Nancy brought into the house was a large dog-sized cage. David helped her. They installed the cage on the enclosed summer porch.

“When I’m not home, he stays in there,” she said.

“Like when you’re at work?”

“Yep. Swat doesn’t mind.”

David looked at the cage, pushed to the far end of the listing porch. It was the last week of September. He laughed. “You sure?” Nancy’s face clouded for the briefest moment before brightening up again into the approachable smile that he’d first noticed about her. She wore round glasses, she was zaftig, so when she smiled she looked like a guileless hippie.

“On no. He loves it in there. He feels safe. It’s his home.”

They went back inside and went at the popcorn. Nancy remembered she had brought cheese, and she bemoaned her lack of foresight. She ignored the jar in the pantry and grated fresh parmesan over the remaining popcorn. Then they smoked weed. This was Vermont, after all. Smoking pot was a cultural expectation, a bonding ritual, like champagne before a meal or cognac afterward. Then Nancy made more popcorn. They drank a few beers left in the refrigerator from David’s last poker game. He had a regular game with some of the locals he’d befriended, the ones who’d given him advice about eradicating field mice, about sinking post holes, about fixing roof gutters.

Nancy spent the weekend rearranging the cupboards, settling in the cats (“Okay, here are your litter boxes!”), hanging some of her paintings, arranging her room, and playing with Swat in the yard. David, wanting to be a good sport, played fetch with Swat. He threw a stick and Swat went after it. Swat was fast. He flew across the yard and grabbed the stick without stopping, swinging around to shoot back, the stick clamped in his mouth and dripping with his saliva. Swat dropped the stick at David’s feet and looked up. David threw the stick again. When Swat came back, dropped the stick, and looked up, he wore on his face an insistence that surprised David. David threw the stick again, if only to be sure about the expression he’d just seen on Swat. Swat ran and scooped up the stick; by now the dog had become familiar with the landscape of the yard, and he took advantage of its width by racing around the perimeter, gracefully, like a horse exulting. When he got back, and dropped the stick at David’s feet, Swat again looked up with that incredible expression. David had seen dog giving begging looks, hopeful looks, happy looks, but the look on Swat’s face was intelligent and demanding. “Again?” David asked. Soon, David was double-sticking it, throwing one stick while ready with the next one. He threw and threw the sticks. Swat came back, demanding, and David threw again. Finally, David just gave up. His arms felt sore. The pressure to keep up with Swat had drained all the fun out of the game. Although he almost expected Swat to drag him back to the yard with his teeth, Sway obediently followed him back into the house.

When Nancy came back from the errand she had run in the next town, David told her about the fetch game.

“I told you. You have to be careful. They’re driven. They’re so driven that they’ll play until they drop dead.”

“He didn’t stop.”

“I told you. It’s a real problem with this breed.”

David saw how Swat was never far away, never quietly sleeping, but always at the ready, with that look, that look David had never seen on a dog’s face before. He wasn’t afraid of it now, but Swat’s expression always required an answer. When Swat stepped around the house, he moved like before on the yard, like a horse: the muscles, and breath pouring out of his nostrils. Swat didn’t realize how scary he looked. He loved Nancy, and he watched her and David closely, not so much worried that David would do something to her, but that he’d steal her attention. So, the first night Nancy and David spent in David’s bedroom, Swat spent the night outside the door, nervously hoofing the floor. David knew, even as he cuddled with Nancy, that no good would come of this. Nancy was soft but aggressive. He’d known she’d be this way. It was how she made the popcorn that alerted David. She grabbed the handle of the pot with the authority of a tyrant. David never cooked like that; he cooked with a touch of fear. And while the combination of Nancy’s weight, blonde hair braided like a mountain milk lass, and that tyranny that excited David, he also foresaw the inevitable conclusion. You can’t have sex with a tenant. Eventually, they’re not going to want to pay you rent. Worse, you’ll end paying for their utilities, too. But of course, none of this stopped David when it came down to business. He had yearned to run his forehead down Nancy’s sternum, and nothing could eradicate that itch.

On Monday, as Nancy prepared to go to work, and while David watched her as he drank his coffee, she put Swat into his cage.

“It’s not really necessary,” David said. “I can look after him.”

“No, don’t worry about it,” Nancy said. “I’ll come back and walk him during lunch.”

Swat didn’t look happy as Nancy coaxed him into his cage. At least, not to David.

“Are you sure he likes this?”

The cloud returned to Nancy’s face. He couldn’t blame her. It was like telling a mom how to raise her kids. “He’s really fine with it. He’ll sleep.”

Nancy finally got Swat into his cage and David saw him peering out. Swat became anxious as Nancy put on her coat, and stepped off the porch. At her car, she called out to David: “Call me if there’s any trouble.”

Read Part 2