I turn the key. It still turns. I remember the door of Cochran Place, the way I watched my mother open it, and I have the familiar and pleasant feeling that even though I have lived elsewhere, even though they have redone the porch and the kitchen and the washing machine, even though they threaten to get rid of the wallpaper in the dining room (and never do, yielding, I have to assume, to my superior powers of persuasion and interior design), even though the bedroom pillows are worn out, even though the driveway is no longer made of gravel– even still, the key still turns.
I lay my skis against the foyer wall and go to seek my dog. I do not have to seek far. He is asleep, on the couch, prone, in the usual spot. Fred is old, older than dirt, we say, older than the hills, older than 9/11, older, in point of fact, than the porch or the kitchen or the washing machine. He has been so long a part of my life, a part of my family, a part of my home. But he, too, is changing, aging, deteriorating. Coming home only once every few months, before that not coming home for a year, I have watched him age in spurts, I have sampled his progress in low resolution to find it, of course, aperiodic, asymmetric; teleological.
The dog’s legs don’t work; what had been a slight limp has become the threadbare vestige of control over the rear two legs, splaying out at his sides when he sits, the left further forward than the right. On hardwood floors they do not grip, the pressure between pad and ply is not enough to keep the angles straight, and he slides, quasi-skating backwards, a miracle on ice, the sad but inevitable march indoors. He takes glucosamine daily. While he does not seem to be in pain, he sometimes seems embarrassed, and we are careful to encourage him, never to make fun of him, to treat him as family, to give him his dignity.
He opens his eyes. The dog is deaf, now, almost stone deaf. Like Zayda, his hearing loss is highly selective, but it is still quite real. The cataracts cascading over his lenses are a little more opaque each time. Still, I think he recognizes me. I scratch his ear and lean in to Eskimo-kiss his muzzle.
It happens very fast.
I am cursing with hellfire and thunder in my voice, rumbling up from my gut, from a wellspring of baritone I was unaware I had, “BAD FUCKING DOG,” I do not even remember the Christians next door with their impressionable baby, I am sure they are displeased with my display of irreverence. Blood literally drips from my beard, I catch it in my hand as I use the other hand to grab the dog by his scruff and shake him. “SEE WHAT YOU FUCKING DID,” I growl in a voice that is scarcely half human, and I can see the recognition now, the fear, the realization of what he has done. I order him off the couch and into a corner. He slinks there like a cat, trying to make himself invisible, as I go to inspect the damage. There is a cut just below my lower lip, on skin uncovered by beard, which is nearly invisible when my jaw is relaxed, but widens into nearly an 8-gauge piercing when I stretch my lip, as if to chew with a closed mouth, or to make a silly face. I soak a gauze pad with my blood, discard it, use another. The flow is already lessening, but certainly not stopping.
I call my mom. “We’re almost home,” she says, “are you home?”
“The fucking dog bit me in the fucking face,” I tell her.
They arrive home ten minutes later or so. I spend the entire interim glaring furiously at Fred. He tries to make himself small, pill-like, and I occasionally tell him what a bad dog he is, causing him to curl up even tighter. My parents arrive and my mom agrees that I do indeed need stitches, and gauze still pressed to my mouth we head to Prompt Care.
In the waiting room, my mom says, truthfully, “We’ll have to forgive him– he doesn’t have that much time left.”
“It’s true,” I agree.
“Do you remember,” she asks, even though she knows I do, “when he bit you in the face last time? You were ten and now you’re 23… his life has sort of been bookended by biting you.”
“Yep,” I mumble. I don’t want to move my lower jaw much. When the nurse asks me, later, how much pain I am in, I tell her it is a four out of ten. It is probably only a three, but I know not to underestimate at Prompt Care.
“We brought in the dog psychologist then, do you remember? She told us to get rid of the rawhide and to make you and Molly be the ones to feed and walk him… so he would learn dependence. I wonder what happened this time. I guess he just didn’t recognize you. You’ve been two months… and you startled him.”
“I look like an animal,” I say, smiling and then stopping, conscious of the blood in my beard and that it is mine.
“All he saw was fur,” Mom says. “He feels so bad. Did you see him sitting on his bed? He’s so embarrassed.”
“I know,” I say, “I yelled at him pretty fucking good. I think I offended the neighbors.”
“They’ll deal.” She pauses. “We only had him for a month then, and we might not have him for another month…”
The nurse comes and gives me a tetanus shot, but there is a delay before the stitches. “He’s getting old,” I tell Mom. “He’s been going blind, deaf, arthritic, he’s been doing those for a couple years now… but now he’s really getting… old.” She nods. “I mean… I think his mind is going.” She nods more slowly. Neither of us really wants to pursue the topic so instead we play Words with Friends.
Eventually I get my stitches and we make our way back to the car. I cannot talk due to the anesthetic; I limit myself to mm-hm’s and hm-mm’s. On Concord we see Dad walking the old man. I roll down the window. “Who’s that vicious animal?” Mom calls out. “I’m not talking to him,” Dad says, “or touching him. He needs to pee so he doesn’t pee in the house but this is not a fun walk.”
I make eye contact with the dog. I do not know if he remembers what he has done, but he looks at me in the eyes. Benefitting him with doubt, I ascribe to him my own intelligence and think: Will they ever love me again? Will I die shunned? What have I done? Wordlessly, I call him to the window, and deliberately, slowly, I lower my hand. He looks at it for a moment and then, deliberately, slowly licks my fingers. I smile and scratch his ears. “He’s sorry,” Mom remarks. Mm-hm, I hum.