Becky and Coach stand shoulder to shoulder at the sliding glass door and watch what is going on outside. Earlier, snowflakes the size of teeming confetti poured out of the sky and covered the ground with a few inches. But now with the sun fully out, the white stuff sticking to the small backyard patio is turning into slush the consistency of wet sand. And with the snow-reflected daylight coming through the glass door, Coach in his bulky sweat suit and Becky in her thick terry cloth robe look like, from behind, bulging shadow puppets against a white screen. A moment ago Coach had finally wound down and is silent now. Becky, bleary-eyed, yawns a fixed smile. Her eleven-year-old son Chad and Mick, Coach’s nine-year-old boy, chase Bonkers, a two-year-old mixed collie, from one end of the narrow backyard to the other.
“What on earth are they doing to that poor dog?” Coach says.
“The boys are just playing with Bonkers,” Becky says. “Trust me, she needs the attention.”
The boys had taken Bonkers out earlier so she could relieve herself, and it took no time at all for the chase to begin. The boys try tackling the galloping dog. Becky laughs because Bonkers is not about to be taken down by anyone anytime soon.
“I don’t like this kind of play.” Coach points at the glass with two index fingers like he’s scolding his varsity squad. “My son shouldn’t be out there abusing your dog. It’s bad enough we come barging in so early,” Coach says. “It’s bad enough we’re intruding.”
“Oh, you’re not intruding.”
“You’re a great friend.” Coach’s voice returns, full-scale. “Out of all our friends at the high school I came here because I knew you’d understand; how you and Hal are going through a similar break up. You know what you are? You’re a real first century-type Christian. You know, I break a leg and you’re in my field the next day taking care of the harvest. Or letting me sleep on your rug over there.”
That sounds about right, Becky thinks. She appreciates Coach’s correct observation of her.
Chad howls on the other side of the glass.
Coach’s whole expression fractures for a moment. “That studio I’m in now is a shoebox, and there’s nothing in the fridge.”
“Come on, I have plenty of room,” Becky says, “and more than enough food for all of us this weekend.” She just now decides that Coach and Mick will use her master bedroom, and she’ll stay in Chad’s bedroom and make her son sleep on the floor.
Coach blurts out, “I bet you were surprised when you opened your door.”
“Not really surprised.” She was startled, actually. When she swung open the door, she fully expected to see her husband standing there in the snow downpour at seven-twelve in the morning instead of Coach, whose name is Andy but everyone calls Coach, and his son. Coach was leaning heavily against the jamb and immediately started up, his speech fast and rising, telling Becky what his wife had just done to him, how she’d blindsided him. Snowflakes salted Coach’s dark hair. Then Becky realized that most likely her red hair was sticking up in all directions. She quickly pulled her hands out of her robe’s pockets and awkwardly tried flattening the thick curls, and continued this useless preening well after inviting the early morning visitors into her house. Mick gawped up at Becky with those beady hamster eyes and worked on swallowing his pudgy upper lip.
“I bet you thought, what am I in for now?” Coach says.
“Helping a friend, a fellow colleague in our much beleaguered profession, that’s what I’m in for,” Becky says.
With all the running around by the boys and the dog, most of the yard is mud-whipped to the consistency of gelato. Both boys are covered in wet filth and the dog flies by the glass door, her fur draping from her underbelly like stalactites.
“Just fucking lovely!” Coach blusters. “I apologize for the crudity but my son’s clothes were clean and dry when he put them on.” His arms cross so tightly over his large chest that his sweat shirt bulges like loaves of bread.
“You did pack, right?”
“His mother threw a pile of stuff in his duffle bag,” Coach says tiredly. “I don’t know what’s all in the bag at the moment.” Coach’s face distorts as if Bonkers just kicked a gob of mud into his mouth. “I’m still kind of stunned, you know. How she changed the rules.”
Here we go again, thinks Becky, but she doesn’t mind; for the first time in weeks she is in high-spirits.
Coach goes on, “We worked out a deal. We agreed to no lawyers or courts, like you and Hal. Who can afford a divorce these days? Especially us, with all of the salary cuts and furloughs. And then at six this morning she’s threatening me she’ll get others involved if I don’t take the kid, even though, according to the schedule we worked out months ago, this weekend is not my time with him. Just so she can—how’d she put it?—have a shot at happiness. Apparently, happiness lives in Denver, and willingly sent her a plane ticket.”
“Mick is definitely with the best parent,” Becky says.
“Not according to the schedule.”
Becky presses down the hair on the side of her head, then says in a halting way, “Hal and I have never really put a plan in—”
“Why don’t they leave it alone,” Coach says. He claps his hands, three times, hard. “Don’t they see the dog wants to be left alone?”
Mick skids a few feet as the Bonkers zigzags around him. Chad laughs and stretches out his arm and barely pets the dog’s hindquarters instead of grabbing at her fur as she darts by.
“They’re having fun being boys.” Becky shudders and hugs her elbows. “And Bonkers is having fun being a dog.”
Bonkers cuts a deeper and deeper oblong rut length-wise across the slippery yard. And at both ends of this track the narrow muddy rut stops briefly as the dog jumps up onto the wall and temporarily runs sideways on the cinder blocks before hopping down. Her dark paw prints overlap and overlap, painting a solid band of mud across the lower end of the wall. A brick or so higher, a few lone prints ascend like early stars.
“Just look at their jackets.” He rubs his face as if he has just woken up.
“We’ll clean them up later.”
“I don’t want to clean up anything later,” Coach says. “He wants to escape.”
“She is having a blast,” Becky says. “Look at that. Jumping up on the walls gives her such terrific momentum.”
“Stop chasing that dog!”
As if hearing him through the now partially fogged-up glass, the boys stop running after Bonkers. They position themselves in the middle of the yard and take turns throwing themselves at her as she runs by. Bonkers’ long tongue flaps against her pointy face.
“Oh, nice. Diving down in it all.”
“Like a couple of pigs.” She laughs.
“Yeah, two pigs in a trough,” Coach says, disgusted.
“Bonkers is a pig, too.”
A few days after her husband had left for good, Becky took Chad to the local animal shelter. She figured a pet might bring a noisy, distracting joy into their quiet house. Becky’s son noticed the small collie mix first, running manic circles in her pen. One of the animal shelter workers said the dog was found wandering the streets in one of the older neighborhoods by the university, abandoned and starving. Abuse was obvious, but the dog was friendly enough, though high-strung at times and extremely playful if given any attention. Becky wanted to name the dog Lucky, for her change of fate, but the boy called her Bonkers.
The problem is Becky has the puerile habit of calling Hal bonkers around her boy. So only a few days ago, when she referred again to her husband as “absolutely bonkers,” Chad became uncharacteristically upset. He shouted that there was only one Bonkers in the world and that the only true Bonkers was worth everything and deserved everything. This outburst startled Becky; Chad’s demeanor tended toward aloofness like herself. Also, Chad had been so blasé about his father’s departure, a moment when a son should be upset. All he said was that it was fine, all moms and dads didn’t much like each other anymore these days. And now here was this usually calm little boy throwing the first tantrum in his whole life, and all over his dog’s name. But Becky knew it was more than that, and she knew she must catch herself from now on. After he ran away from his mom, Chad sulked for a time. Becky left him alone. Later that same day Chad became unusually talkative and made smart-ass remarks, acting as if he was never angry at all. Soon he was overdoing it, teasing his mother over trivial things, hugging her tightly, and making fart noises against her neck.
Becky tucks hair behind first one ear and then the other. “Hal doesn’t seem interested in his son staying with him, wherever that is.”
“Everything is going in the trash,” Coach says, preoccupied. “Mick goes on and on about how that’s his favorite jacket, too.”
Shaking it all off, Becky cheerfully applauds as Chad slides over the muck and almost collides with the dog. He claws at Bonkers’ hind leg, but the dog’s staggering velocity accelerates her comma-shaped body headlong.
“Wow-wee,” Becky says.
Then she good-naturedly pokes at Coach’s side. He bends and bends, so far away from her that she feels sick with embarrassment, with her arm reaching for a body so awkwardly contorted. Coach’s face is furious with color.
On the dog’s return trip, Mick makes a dive and his face is painted with mud. He gets up on his knees and curses. Chad jogs in a water-logged way over to the other boy. Bonkers slows her gallop, not jumping as high on the far wall. When the dog hits the sloppy ground once more she trots in a serpentine back toward the boys.
“See, Coach, everybody’s winding down.”
Becky watches with pride her son patting Mick’s wet hair, speaking to Mick in a kind way, as if he is an adult trying to sooth this upset child. Mick pushes Chad’s arm away. Bonkers passes teasingly close, and that is when Mick lashes out, his fist striking the side of the dog. Bonkers’ backside digs into a mound of snow, scooping up a spray of ice.
“Did you see that? Did you see that?” Coach flings open the sliding glass door. The outside air is warmer than Becky would have guessed.
“Come back in here,” Becky says. “You’ll ruin your shoes.”
Coach doesn’t care about ruining his white running shoes. “Did you see what he did? Hey, sport,” Coach yells at his son, who rises quickly, “how would you like a punch in your ribs?” Coach pitches and rolls across the snowy and then mucky ground, the running shoes loose on his feet.
Bonkers runs around in a tight circle, barking.
Chad hurries over to the open sliding glass door, where Becky is now sticking out most of her body, and tells his mother, “Coach looks like a fat penguin.”
Mick rushes along the wall and stops at a far corner like an escapee in a lit-up prison yard. He works at swallowing both his fat upper and lower lips.
“Coach? Andy?” Becky says. “The dog is more than fine, no apparent damage.” She marvels at her dog’s unflagging joy. Bonkers barks and jumps up on Coach’s thighs, pawing muddy streaks down the front of his sweat pants.
“I see how it is,” Coach says, his voice unnaturally high. “I know what you want.”
“Come back inside,” Becky says.
Coach picks up Bonkers and heaves her up into the lap of his big chest. He moves awkwardly but as fast as he can across the slippery yard. His wobbly feet skate, his legs compensate, keeping him from falling.
“I know exactly what you want,” Coach says, “and I’m the only one here who gives a crap. Here we go. Are you ready?”
“Mom,” Chad says.
“Andy,” Becky yells.
Bonkers happily wriggles in Coach’s arms. And in one fluid motion Coach lifts the dog and then tosses her further on. Bonkers is stiff-legged up there in the air, her long tongue now hidden behind clenched teeth. Becky watches her son’s dog, her dog, disappear over the wall.
Dan Crawley grew up in southern California and now lives in Phoenix, Arizona. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the North American Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Emerge Literary Journal, Fiction Fix, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. He has taught fiction workshops at various colleges and universities, including Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. He now teaches writing at Ottawa University.
Photo credit: Thomas & Kash, Border Collie-Aussie Mix Information