The dog showed up in the front yard the same day the azaleas bloomed. It was thin, mangy, and covered in sores on its belly and legs from chewing at fleas. I tried to smell the azaleas, but the dog lay in the shade of the bushes, growling at me each time I got close. Azaleas only bloom for a few days each year. I didn’t want to miss my chance.
I baited the dog away with bowls of water and dog food, but it wouldn’t move. I pulled a steak out of the freezer and waved it at the dog, but it just rested its head on its paws. I knew the flowers would smell fantastic. The petals were pink and white.
In the yard, I opened a folding chair and sat down. “You can’t stay there forever,” I said. The dog looked at me, exhaled deeply, and looked away. It licked its lips. The sun rose above the trees and then started back down. The dog napped, woke up, stretched, and fell back asleep. Sweat soaked through my pants and stuck my legs to the vinyl seat. My feet itched. The sun burned my forehead.
I stuck my nose in the air and the heat and breeze from the traffic carried the faint scent of the azaleas to me. It was tantalizing. The dog seemed to know what I was thinking. He rose to his feet and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. I looked around for a stick.
To my right was a dead oak limb. I looked at the limb and then back at the dog, trying to figure whether I could reach the limb before the dog reached me. The dog bared its teeth. I leapt for the limb. The dog pounced, and we fell together into the dirt.
I grabbed the dog’s throat with my left hand and tried to push it away from my face while my right hand reached for the oak limb. The dog’s breath was rank and hot and its eyes squeezed almost shut as it struggled to bite me. The last thing I remembered was a cramp in my forearm working its way up to the tips of my fingers.
When I woke up in the hospital, I had no idea how much time had passed. My wife and son sat next to the bed, and I tried to speak, but no words came out. The skin on my throat felt tight. Reaching up to it, I felt stitches. My son looked up from his video game.
“Dad!” he said.
My wife smiled. “You’re awake,” she said.
I held my arms out to them, as if to say, “Come hug me,” even though I couldn’t speak. They crowded around the bed and rested their heads on my chest. I first noticed the tube coming out of my abdomen when my son’s arm bumped it.
“Oh, that,” my wife said.
I raised my eyebrows.
“I’ll get someone,” she said, and gave me a long kiss on the lips before pressing the call button to summon the nurse.
The nurse stuck his head in the door. “You’re awake,” he said, smiling. “We saw your heartbeat jump on the monitor. Did your wife tell you about the tube?”
My wife looked down at the floor and shook her head. My son pressed his nose against my ribs.
I looked down at the tube. It ran out of my right side and into a machine that pumped rhythmically up and down, then back out of the machine and down to the floor where it disappeared underneath a curtain in the middle of the room.
“Well, you’re very lucky,” the nurse said, stepping into the room. “We almost lost you, but it turns out this guy,” the nurse pulled back the curtain, “was a perfect match.”
On the other side of the curtain, the dog lay in a hospital bed with the sheets pulled up to his chin. A brown leather muzzle was over his mouth. My tube ran up under the sheets and into his left side.
My wife started to sob.
“I’ll send you home with an informational pamphlet,” the nurse said. “It’s really an amazing procedure.”
They kept me two more days for observation. On the third day, the nurse came in with my discharge paperwork. He pushed a large wheelchair into the room. It had two seats, side by side. He put my arm over his shoulder and helped me up. When I moved, the tube stretched against my side and I grimaced from the pressure. Once I was seated, the nurse pulled back the curtain. “All right,” he said to the dog. “It’s time for you to go home.” He lifted the dog out of the bed. The dog pawed at the air and twisted its head from side to side. “Settle down,” he said, and the dog seemed to hear, because it went limp in his arms.
He put the dog in the empty seat next to me. The dog tried to snap at me, but its mouth was still covered by the muzzle. The nurse strapped it to the back of the seat. “He’s a little rambunctious,” the nurse said, laughing. “What do you think you’re going to do with that muzzle on? Stupid dog.”
My wife pulled the car around and met us at the front of the hospital. The nurse helped me and the dog into the back seat, then put the machine between us. He buckled the dog’s seat belt and it tried to bite him. He laughed again. “Stupid dog.”
My son got to sit in front. On the way home, he and my wife counted fire hydrants. They counted twenty-three. I stared out the window. The dog squirmed.
For the next month, I stayed in bed. My wife made a pallet on the floor of our bedroom for the dog. She brought my meals to me on a tray. Every time she came in, the dog growled at her through its muzzle. “None for you,” she said to the dog. “You eat through a tube now.” The dog looked like it wanted to get up, but it was too weak.
I tried to read the pamphlet the doctor sent home with me, but I couldn’t even make it through the first fold. My abdomen felt swollen. I still couldn’t speak.
My wife started working overtime to pay the medical bills. My son had to walk home from school now, our house key on a string around his neck. When his mother came home after dark, he was tired and grouchy and hadn’t done his homework. She cooked dinner and helped him with math problems while I lay in bed, listening to their voices from down the hallway. She couldn’t keep up with the chores, the dog hair that collected in the corners of our bedroom. Even though she never complained, I saw her looking sadly at the vacuum.
After school, my son wanted to play catch. He brought his ball and glove to my bedroom. “Can you get out of bed yet?” he asked.
I started to cry and shook my head. I still couldn’t speak. He needed to do his homework, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell him. He hung his head, walked away, and I heard his video game start up in the living room.
By the time I recovered from the surgery, I hadn’t been outside in a month. In the back of the local weekly I saw an ad for the botanical gardens and pointed at it happily. My wife was exhausted, but the next Sunday she helped me and the dog into the wheelchair, placed the machine on my lap, and took us to the gardens. In the front seat, my son punched his baseball glove as we drove.
The azaleas blossoms had died and fallen on the ground, but the roses were in bloom. I gestured to them and my wife pushed the wheelchair in so I could smell. The dog was agitated. I patted him on the head and smiled. He twisted in the seat, working his jaws against the muzzle. The leather stretched but held firm.
My son ran up and down the rows of plants, enjoying the sunshine. A man in a pair of overalls handed us a flier. “Flower smelling contest starts at 2:15,” he said. The flier announced a one hundred dollar prize.
We registered and waited by a white gazebo for the contest to start. The registration fee was five dollars, which left my wife with only two dollars in her wallet. She gave it to our son and told him to get a snow cone. “I overdrafted the checking account this morning,” she said after the boy ran off.
As people showed up for the contest, the dog grew more restless. My wife fastened the leather straps around his chest so he wouldn’t wiggle out of the wheelchair. People in the crowd pointed and whispered, but my wife pretended not to notice.
We were first in line for the contest, and the announcer helped my wife wheel me up on stage. The dog squirmed. I smiled at the audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, “welcome to the fifty-third annual Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Flower Smelling Competition. My name is Harold Merriweather, and aside from my awesome God, my beautiful family, and the best country in the world, I love smelling flowers more than anything. Let’s see what this year’s contestants are made of.”
The announcer wrapped a blindfold around my head and asked if I could see. I put my hands up in front of my face and shook my head. He held the first flower under my nose and I inhaled deeply. I knew the smell at once: honeysuckle. I smiled and opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I stretched my jaw and my tongue and tried to make any sound at all, but nothing happened. The announcer pulled the flower away.
“Well,” he said, “do you have a guess?”
I knew it was honeysuckle, but I just shook my head.
“Honeysuckle,” the man said.
The announcer went through the rest of the flowers: rose, gardenia, lily. I couldn’t say a word. “Thanks for trying,” he said, removing the blindfold. The crowd clapped sympathetically. I touched my throat, where my stitches were still held in place with black thread, but the announcer didn’t notice. He waved a young woman in a yellow summer dress up onto the stage, blindfolded her, and held a flower under her nose.
“Rose,” the young woman said.
“That’s right,” the announcer said. He put the second flower under her nose.
“Gardenia,” the young woman said.
“Right again,” the announcer said.
“Honeysuckle,” the young woman said. “Lily,” the young woman said.
The announcer gave her a check for one hundred dollars. “What are you going to use it for?” he asked.
The young woman smiled and leaned forward so that her mouth was right next to the microphone. “Dental surgery,” she said. The crowd cheered.
My wife pushed the wheelchair off the stage and out toward the parking lot. She loaded me and the dog into the back seat. Our son was overheated and fell asleep as soon as the air conditioner turned on. The dog panted, its tongue hanging out between the brown leather straps of its muzzle. Over my wife’s shoulder, I could see the gas gauge resting just above empty.