When Carl woke, he knew he had to call his son. Even before he opened his eyes, he knew something was wrong. And he knew his son would be able to fix it, he would. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, that had happened, but by the time you got as old as Carl you had learned to trust your gut on things like that: if you thought something was wrong, something might be wrong, but if you knew something was wrong, well, you can’t know something that ain’t true, can you? No, you sure can’t, Carl told himself, a little upset that something needed fixing, but proud of himself for knowing about it.
He opened his eyes and the world slowly focused itself, stopping a few points shy of sharp. He reached for his glasses, fuddled for them on the end-table for what felt like a very long time, finally found them and placed them on his face. Now the world was still imperfect, but it would do. He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed, slowly raised his clasped hands over his head in a stretch, as he had done every day in his life, and said out loud as if to someone present: “Thank You, Lord, for minding things while I was out,” as he had done every day since Gloria died. “Now,” he said, as if to the same person, “what’s wrong?”
He stood up. No need to dress himself: when you live alone there is no one to tell you not to parade yourself about in your long johns. The dog might see, of course, but the dog didn’t really care— poor old man was losing his mind, he was. Carl felt bad for him, the dog, but he didn’t resent his illness. After all, one day Carl too would be old and decrepit, and when that happened, someone would have to take care of him. So he had to carry his pet up and down the stairs, so he had to help him sit up and lie down, so he had to feed him those awful-smelling dry food pellets out of his hand— he was already picking up his poop for fourteen years for God sakes, sorry God but You know it’s true, I did pick it up and carry it around the block twice a day for fourteen years, think I’ve earned a right to say so— well if it wasn’t for Your sake, whose was it for? Dog sure didn’t care if I left it— ain’t it funny that dog and god—
Carl kept mumbling to himself as he shuffled to the kitchen, thankful for his own legs and continence. You sure do mind things. He flicked the switch on the coffee pot and sat down, trying to remember what it was he had to to today. Something was wrong, he remembered, but what was it? It’s just like the movies, he thought, I gotta figure out what the problem is and then I gotta call David and he’ll fix it, he will, as the coffee pot began to make its familiar, comforting steamy drip-drip. Just gotta feed that poor old dog, he thought, poor old man probably doesn’t even know it’s morning, poor old man don’t know nothing any more…
He stood up again and walked to the dining room, where the dog’s dishes had been for fourteen years, for fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…
Carl stopped. Something wasn’t right.
For fourteen years I’ve been scooping the same awful-smelling dry food pellets into the…
That was wrong. That wasn’t right. Of course he used to scoop them into the dish, but since Gloria died the dog hadn’t been eating right, ain’t that right… He’d had to feed them to him, out of his hand, and he would never eat them out of the bowl but when I held them in my hand he must have thought something was different about them, thought they tasted better that way, he used to be such a smart dog but he was losing his mind…
Wasn’t I supposed to call David?
Where in the hell, sorry Lord but I’m upset, where in the hell was the dog? And his God— his God-danged—
Carl was frantically dialing his son’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep. And the voice came on the other end, David, David, is that you? —something about an area code— we ain’t had no area codes here before I ain’t paying for no long distance— he dialed it again— David is that you this time answer your phone for Chrissakes, it don’t count Lord if I don’t pronounce the T, do it— it was the same stupid lady telling me I gotta dial an area code, I don’t get it, my son didn’t move, where the hell are you David? Finally he decided that if it was going to cost him fifty cents it would just have to cost him fifty cents— he dialed the area code and then David’s number, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep.
David answered. Dad?
David, Carl said, David—
Dad? Is everything OK?
No, Carl said, no, listen… He paused, he took a deep breath. He had to be strong now. David, son, look, I’ve, I’ve got some very bad news.
Oh no, David said, what happened.
David… He sighed deeply, he wiped a tear from his eye. The dog is dead, David, he said, the dog died.
There was a long pause, a long, long pause, poor kid’s too young for this, why couldn’t I shield him, why couldn’t I protect him, You didn’t mind everything while I was out, I know I can’t question Your wisdom but would you throw me a bone once in a while, just—
I know, Dad, David said, I know.
And now Carl was wiping more tears away— And your mom’s dead too.
I know, Dad. I know. I know.
When did she die? And the kid didn’t answer for what felt like a very long time, a very, very long time, three years ago. Three years ago, he repeated himself, and his voice cracks on the “ago” and I couldn’t protect him—
And the dog? Carl asked. When did the dog die?
A year after that, David answered. Two years ago. A year after that.
You didn’t mind things while I was out, Carl said, Carl started to shout, You didn’t mind things while I was out, You were supposed to take care of everything, and David knew that Carl wasn’t talking to him. He listened. He waited. And eventually his father burned himself out, eventually the fire ran out of fuel and the line was silent.
Dad? Do you want me to come over?
Aren’t you in New York?
No, Dad, I moved back here, we all moved back here, for… Look, why don’t I come over, Dad, I’ll even bring the kids, we’ll have a nice time.
We can have a nice time, Carl repeated. We can have a nice time. I’ll make a pot of coffee. And he hung up. He walked back into the kitchen and saw that the coffee machine was already on. He wasn’t sure when, exactly, he had made the coffee, but he was grateful it was there. Maybe You made it for me, he thought, now I just need a mug, which he took out of the cabinet, the same cabinet the mugs had always been in. He set the blue ceramic mug that Gloria had made on the counter and he poured himself a cup of steaming hot water. It don’t look like coffee I’ve ever seen, but I sure gotta believe that You know what You’re doing.