Michael F. Smith


You and Peggy and That Dog

You've got a new bedfellow, some fury, whimpering thing that nudges itself between you and Peggy and whines and pees at its leisure. You didn't even want the dog, but what else can you do when you're wife walks in the door with a puppy peeping its head out the top of her purse, ears hanging like wilted plants, and says Don't worry, he was free. You recall something about the want of a puppy. That must have been at least a couple of birthdays or Christmases ago and you thought puppies were forgotten, but now you see they're not as you spend your time dodging the curious little creature scurrying around the landscape of your house.

After a week of reckless urination, you finally talk Peggy into letting Sammy the Mutt sleep on a pillow on the floor next to the bed. Now you get yelped at from midnight to six a.m. as Sammy the Mutt puts his paws on the side of the bed, rears his head back, and squawls as if the devil's veterinarian was digging his claws out with a spoon. Can't we put the pillow on your side of the bed, you ask. Not enough room, she says, just reach down and pet him when he cries. As you lay there with your eyes wide open at 3:37 in the morning, a puppy siren wailing in your ears, you wonder if clobbering him with a pillow could possibly constitute petting. Poor little thing, you hear Peggy mumble when Sammy the Mutt pauses to catch his breathe. You like to think she's talking about you.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact time that life with Peggy became so vanilla, but you're not naive, and know you've had your chances to preserve the color of marriage. There were the kids, or the lack of them. Would just one have killed you, you think now. And you remember those arguments so many years ago. Peggy was eager to build a family, but you hinged, and you don't even recall exactly what kept you from wanting a child and now you're too old and don't have the energy and the promise of sleeping late on Saturday is enough to get you through the week.

* * *

It's not that you didn't want a kid. When you and Peggy married at twenty-four, she figured you'd enjoy each other for a few years then get down to business. She picked up maternity magazines in checkout lines and elbowed you in the ribs whenever they saw someone with a stroller. She told you that you'd make a good daddy.

"Nobody is ever completely ready," she had told you.

"I know. I'd just like to be a little more stable," you answered, and pretended it was only the money. That's how you saw it, as responsibility, not as passing on the family name or fresh love. It was an addition to the list--taxes, electric bills, car payments, insurance. And you'd seen what could happen if something went wrong, had seen the documentaries on autism or cerebral palsy. Bad what ifs filled your head whenever Peggy had pushed the issue. While the water could get cut off or the car could get repoed, you couldn't resale a kid.

As newlyweds, you and Peggy had eaten TV-dinners and spaghetti until you scraped together enough cash to put a down payment on the loan for an air-condition installation business. You had celebrated by riding around town with a bottle of champagne, noticing all the houses with window units, claiming you'd never worry about missing a loan payment. It had taken only two years for you to get enough steady work to where Peggy could quit her part-time job at the grocery store and finish the last twenty-something hours for her college degree.

Somehow things had fallen well enough into place with the business and you bought a house--1,700-square feet that felt like a field compared to the beige-carpeted, cream-walled apartments you'd bounced in and out of. Separate rooms for eating, cooking, and sleeping, and a back porch for smoking and grilling chicken. You sat in the living room grinning at one another, satisfied in the sounds of a neighborhood filtering in through the open windows, your piece of the world.

And that's when the second wave came, clawing like a wildcat. To Peggy, it was a natural progression-- marriage, a house, a business, a degree, a child. She had waited on everything.

"Why not?" she kept asking.

"Can't we enjoy what we've got?" you said. "Jesus, we haven't had the house but a year."

"I'm sick of waiting. I don't want to be pushing retirement at PTA."

"Lots of parents are older these days." That had become your new favorite thing to say.

"Who cares? I don't want to be lots of parents," she countered, her jaw tight and a vein raised in her forehead. "I'm ready right now."

"I just don't see what the big deal is."

"What if we don't have a little longer?" she had said trying to scare you, not realizing it might be true.

At your five-year anniversary dinner, all you could do was complain because the Sizzler raised the buffet price two dollars. Peggy didn't say anything. Then you went home and thought some play time might be in the works, but you just had to turn on the TV for a minute, and that diamond commercial came on with the shadows on the wall and the guy walks up and puts a necklace around the woman's neck and the voice says, "For your anniversary, show her you'd marry her all over again." Peggy got up and went and cried in the bedroom and you slept on the couch.

After the baby talk died out, she sank from you, found fun with the office girls and kept leaving notes on the kitchen table about happy hours and girls nights out. She switched from Marlboros to skinny cigarettes that looked like candy sticks and her lipstick got redder and redder as you spent more evenings alone. Two garage sales cleaned out her pants suits and flowery sweaters to make room for black skirts and silk blouses.

"You're looking good," you'd tell her as you sat on the bed, watching her go from only a towel to the finished product before a night out. Her hair was longer, down past her shoulders, and her toenails stayed painted something bright.

"I know. Hands off," she'd say and brush you off when you'd reach out for her as she walked back and forth from the mirror to the closet.

You ignored it for a couple of months. Even enjoyed her coming in late, slithering in bed like a moccasin, waking you with sloppy, smoky kisses. You played detective a couple of nights, sitting in the dark corners of bars. She laughed it up with her girlfriends, stuck to beer. Men liked her and asked her to dance or do other things, but she only took offers for drinks. You figured she'd come around soon enough.

But on a Friday night she didn't come home. You waited and waited– smoked a pack, watched crap on TV, turned on the carport lights and changed the oil in your truck. At nine the next morning she pulled in the driveway, came in the kitchen door and walked right past you as you sat drinking coffee, not a word. Her hair was wild and her clothes were wrinkled, but her lipstick shined like neon. The shower turned on and you got up and left to work on a job.

That afternoon you drove home anticipating a fight, your knuckles white squeezing the steering wheel. When you got there, you found a note saying she was having drinks with "some people."

You stormed into El Chico's during dollar margaritas, shoved the blonde who said "Smoking or non," grabbed Peggy by the arm and forced her towards the door. The office girls whispered and Peggy jerked away, but her embarrassment kept her walking into the parking lot. When she got in your truck, she slammed the door so hard a cassette ejected itself from the stereo. On the way home, the only thing she said was, "Don't ever plan on touching me again."

And you didn't. Not for a long time.

You spent autumn stepping around each other, speaking only to ask for the pepper or tea, so you didn't take it as strange the day she hid in the bathroom for hours. She wasn't making much noise. You flipped channels, read the paper, ate a sandwich. Finally you knocked. No reply. Then you beat on the door. No reply. When you kicked it in, Peggy was face down on the floor, towel still wrapped around her middle. The ambulance came and she regained consciousness before making it to the emergency room. Her eyes had been glassy and detached, like they were floating in her head.

You had thought strokes were for old people with fragile hearts and bad headaches, but it happened to a thirty-two year old woman. The stroke left Peggy limp and weak on the left side of her body. She worked hard at therapy, gritting her teeth through the exercises. She regained most of the motion and control of her muscles, but her left eye and cheek drooped like a bag of marbles, and her foot dragged slightly, making weird footprints. When she smiled and talked, half her face was still.

Sometimes she was slow to react to a punch line on television or respond to simple yes-and-no questions. And she didn't recall some things--names of older friends, restaurants you visited on vacation. It was like she's lost in a place she's been before, but can't remember exactly where the exit is.

You looked hard for the old Peggy, but couldn't help but see her as less of a woman. It's hard to touch her the way you touched her when you were new, with the fingertips, like she was fragile. You're ashamed, leaning your head to her right side when you're close so you don't catch a glimpse of her motionless cheek.

Last night she crawled on you during the weather, pulled back the sheets, said, "I miss you." You turned off the TV, turned off the lamp. "I don't want it dark," she said. You ignored her and kissed her. She went for the lamp.

"I've got to get up early, Peggy," you said. "Two new jobs."

"Then we'll do this fast. You'll sleep better, won't you?" She flipped on the lamp and your eyes were closed.

"Really, Peggy," you said. She turned off the lamp again, and went to the couch and fell asleep to a bad movie.

During days crawling around in attics, as you cut holes in ceilings or screw down air ducts, you tried to conjure up ways to motivate yourself to walk in the door, carry her to the bedroom and make good old-fashioned love to her without thinking of anything else. But you couldn't talk yourself into what you knew was right.

* * *

"I'm going to the vet again on Saturday," Peggy says. She's on the sofa with Sammy the Mutt in her lap. "I think he's allergic."

"To what?" you ask.

"I don't know. That's what the vet'll tell me."

She's never had a dog before and doesn't understand they snort and sniff and scratch their ass for no reason, so when Sammy the Mutt whines funny or licks himself, Peggy calls the vet.

Sammy's done something good to Peggy. She's playful, rolling around on the living room floor, letting Sammy wallow on her stomach and rear end. They spend evenings together on the sofa, playing and laughing, making sweet eyes at each other. She takes Polaroids of him sleeping or chewing on socks and sticks them to the fridge and bathroom mirror. She puts him on a shoe string of a leash and walks him around the block and two nights ago you found her in the recliner with Sammy the Mutt held close to her chest, her singing a soft lullaby and rocking him to sleep. Her smile is more complete, the strength of the good side nearly lifting the weak side to equal ground.

Peggy and Sammy leave Saturday morning the same time you head to the job you had wanted to finish on Friday. Peggy backs into the street and as she pulls forward she holds Sammy the Mutt's paw up and waves bye-bye. You lift your arm to wave back, then stop, hoping the neighbors aren't watching. You get in your truck but don't hurry as there's only an hour's work at the most. Riding to the job you pass the Little League park and kids are practicing, so you pull over and take a seat in the bleachers. The kids are wired and the coach wears a full uniform--a Red Sox hat, three-quarter sleeve practice shirt, ratty black cleats, and navy pin stripes.

The coach whips the kids through drills, switches them from position to position trying to find the right fit, and spits out baseball jargon in quick hits--Hustle up! Get two! Hit the cutoff! The coach looks funny among the kids as he's not much bigger and about a quarter as talented. A cigarette hangs from his mouth and he drills ground balls half the time he means to lift pop ups.

You pay attention to the kid on third base. The kid is lanky, doesn't chatter as much as the other kids, has good hands. The coach hits him a grounder and he fields it clean and whips it to first. The other kids yell, "Good shot, Joe!" Joe doesn't smile, just turns around and gets back in position for the next round. Doesn't even watch the shortstop and second baseman make their plays. You can tell by the size of his feet he'll be tall, but you hope not too tall, not insecure tall, not the kind of tall where stupid little shits ask how's the weather up there. Joe is strong and young, but you worry about him. He looks timid and quiet and he doesn't have the face of a kid that would put up a fight. Maybe he'll be okay, you think, maybe the world won't take advantage of that.

You watch the ball move around the infield, and hear the different voices, see the different sizes and hair colors, imagine the different fears. It's then that you realize life is like eating lettuce--it's not that it's bad, it's just not that good. You know that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, you will look at Peggy over your coffee in the morning and wonder what it was that made you both happy.

That goddam dog, you think, and suddenly you're ticked off because there's a new joy in the household but none on reserve for you. You decide you want a new feeling, too, so you leave practice and drive through a bad neighborhood, slowly, with your windows down, but the guys smoking the funny stuff on the corner don't even look at you. You whistle at a girl in a denim skirt walking down the sidewalk. You buy a pint of whiskey, though it's only 10 a.m.

As you ride and sip, you begin to fantasize about ways to dispose of Sammy the Mutt--maybe there's an accident involving a heavy shoe, or a herd of cats kidnap and hold him for ransom. Maybe you were gonna be a sweetheart and take him for a walk and, oops, he slipped away from you right when that Suburban rolled by.

Oh my dear Lord! you remember Peggy screaming two nights ago. You fell asleep in the recliner watching television and her cry snatched you awake. Sammy the Mutt was down, a victim of rolling off the couch while sleeping too close to the edge, his body crashing to the floor in a thud. He was crying and whimpering and Peggy was close to tears. Sweet baby, it's okay, it's okay she kept whispering over and over, her lips brushing the fur on the top of Sammy the Mutt's head. His eyes were big and scared. He could've broken his little neck in two Peggy had said to you. Yes, you think now, he could have very well have fallen off the couch in his slumber and snapped his small neck like a twig. Would've never felt a thing. Hearing Peggy's words repeated in your own voice, in your own mind, brings a nasty thought to your head. The rest of the weekend you watch them together, beg for Monday to come.

On Monday you cut out of work early to beat Peggy home, running two red lights and zooming through a school zone on the way. You find Sammy the Mutt asleep on the couch. You happily slam the door and he jumps and yelps simultaneously. "Well, excuse me your highness, didn't mean to wake you," you say. Sammy the Mutt looks at you but you're not Peggy, so he lays his head back down and again closes his eyes.

You walk over to the couch and sit down. It's quiet and you can hear little breathes wheezing in and out of his wet nostrils. With one hand you pick up Sammy the Mutt and hold him close to your face. You study him, peering closely at those big eyes and search for some reason to let Sammy the Mutt be. You place him on your knees and wrap your hand around his small head, cupping it like a gearshift. You twist it a little to the right, then a little to the left, trying to determine how much torque you'll need to snap his neck in the cleanest, least painful fashion. Sammy the Mutt is sleepy and isn't squirming.

You find your palms sweaty and don't want to misfire so you wipe your hands on your pants. When you release Sammy the Mutt he lifts his head and looks around at you. With dry palms, you grasp him again, tighter than before. This time Sammy the Mutt whimpers as his entire body is squeezed.

As you cradle his odd head, you realize if Sammy the Mutt were to live a long life, certainly he would become the ugliest dog in the world. Sure, he's a darling and a sweet pup, but as time goes on he'll get bigger and uglier, Peggy will cuddle him less and less and he'll be demoted from the couch to the floor to eventually out the back door where he'll sleep in the cold, or the rain, or whatever. There would be no more soft and chewy dog food and he'll be forced to chomp the hard bits of some Wal-Mart brand special. Sammy the Mutt will grow right out of Peggy's arms into a real dog's world where fleas bite your ass and a good piss on your favorite bush is the highlight of the day. Human touch will disappear from his daily routine, and he'll sit at the back door and remember the days of puppy love, and be curious as to how they could seem to disappear so fast.

You hear a car door slam and you notice by the clock that Peggy is home. You stand up, carrying Sammy the Mutt with you, and walk to the kitchen window where you look into the driveway. Peggy walks around to the back of the car and raises the trunk. She bends over and after a minute of labor, manages to get an enormous bag of puppy food to fall from the trunk onto the concrete. You look at the size of it, and look at Sammy the Mutt, and believe he'll be dead and gone long before he sees the last feeding from that bag. Peggy squats down and tries to wrap her arms around it. She twists and turns and fights to get it lifted, but the combination of its size and her bad left arm makes it impossible to budge. Once she stops and looks around--maybe in embarrassment, maybe looking for help. Again she tackles the big bag and she looks frustrated. You look down at Sammy, scratch behind his ear, then you take him with you as you go outside to try and help.

* * *

Michael F. Smith studied at the Center for Writers at Southern Miss. This past May he was awarded the Henfield Prize from the Transatlantic Review Awards for a first novel excerpt. He has also published stories in several journals and reviews. This semester he will serve a fellowship at the Eur-Am Center for International Education in Pontlevoy, France.