Fiction from The Future: “Dog Days” by Michael Chin

FROM BACK BEFORE ALL THE dogs were gone, I remember Waffles. The first time Waffles stole a waffle from Dad’s plate (the reason we renamed him from Rover). Waffles barking from the far side of the front door when I keyed into the house. The way Waffles smelled when he was wet—moist and mildew-y in a way that made it seem as though he’d never be dry again. That look on his face when he was happy. People say dogs couldn’t smile, but I swear Waffles did every day I knew him.

Then Waffles got sick. He was slower one day and sneezy and I asked Dad if we ought to take him to the vet and he said it was probably just a cold. But other dogs got sick, too. A lot of them. So many it made the news.

Waffles’s fur started to fall off.

He’d shiver and whimper and I tried to hold him close, but Mom said that wasn’t a good idea. She said I shouldn’t touch Waffles.

I went to school. I came home. No barks from the far side of the door or scraping of his nails against the wood. No thump of his tail against the floor. Mom opened the door before I could get it unlocked all the way. Already home. She told me they’d to put Waffles to sleep.

I hated her. Couldn’t understand at the time that it was better to let some things die than to draw out suffering. I understand that part now, even though I still resent not getting to say goodbye.

But that’s how dogs went. Not just Waffles, but whole breeds, and then the entire species, gone inside of a year. There were plenty of theories, but no could give any real reason why.

And all of a sudden the world split. There were the dog lovers. Those who had had dogs or wished they’d had dogs, and in either case felt a profound loss at having nothing but photographs and videos to commemorate their existence. And then there were those other people. The ones who didn’t much seem to care, or who even seemed pleased at not having to worry about stepping in poop on the sidewalk.

There’s a way in which such divisions were good. Useful. I could see immediately that the dog haters weren’t worth knowing.

And then I met Holly.

Holly wasn’t like the rest of the people who hadn’t known dogs. She was curious. And she listened. Maybe it’s just because the two of us went from sitting next to each other in US History to flirting to having phone calls that kept us up past one on school nights. Maybe she loved me enough to love hearing about dogs. But I could see a difference. That you didn’t have to have had a dog to be a dog person. To have a good heart. To be loyal. To be up for a waffle at any time of day or night

It broke my heart that she never knew a dog’s love. But it broke my heart even more that after we’d graduated and after we’d married, our little girl Spirit would never encounter a dog at all. That to her, dogs were like dinosaurs—some relic from a time past that only seemed vaguely possible, but never a part of day-to-day life. For all I know, she may have seen the old photographs of me with Waffles, and might as well have been looking at me posed with a cardboard cutout of a unicorn for how strange and unbelievable such a creature looked.

We got her a cat, at my insistence that it was good for a child to care for an animal, and after Holly got won over by Poof—named for his thick plume of white fur that made it look like he was in a constant state of electric shock. I never fell in love with the cat the way I’d fallen in love with Waffles, in part because I didn’t think it was possible for a human to love a cat the way a human loves a dog. Poof nonetheless became a part of the family—as a good substitute as we could find for the kind of animal companion I might have hoped for.

When Holly decided we had married too young and weren’t really a good fit for one another, she got Spirit five days out of the week; I got Poof seven for seven. I didn’t particularly want the fur ball, and might have let Holly have him or given him to a shelter were it not for the fact that I could see Spirit had formed her own connection with him. Then it became a matter of pride, and a matter of shoring up my daughter’s affections, that she would associate Poof with Dad. That even if she wanted to stay in her normal bed and play with all the toys she was used to after a long week of school, she would want to come to Dad’s Friday night if for no other reason to chase down Poof and touch noses and give him a squeeze.

And so we lived this pattern. During the week, Poof alternated between stretches of aloof solitude when he hid in a suitcase or a kitchen cupboard, and starving for attention and stretching himself across my laptop keyboard or leaping onto the kitchen table to stare me down from an inch’s distance as I ate Spaghettios or Ramen.

And then the dog arrived.

I was at my computer, studying Holly’s Facebook photos. She hadn’t posted a new one for a month, but I looked as if there were a chance one had escaped my attention. I wish I could say it were the only time. I was paused on one of them. A picture of her in a two-piece bathing suit. In our years together—our years of marriage—I don’t recall ever having seen her in a two-piece, too body conscious and modest. But there she was at sunset, hands on her hips, back to the camera, mid-step at what looked like a hotel pool. There was no one else around. The photo first surfaced in the middle of the week in winter, so the upload couldn’t have synched up with when it happened. And she’d uploaded it herself. All of a sudden proud of this moment, this photograph, posted to an album called Adventuring which otherwise featured images of her picking blueberries with Spirit, posing over a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, puzzling over a chessboard. It was the first photo of hers to make me wonder who was behind the camera. Who she had her head cocked toward, neck turned as if she were just in the process of looking to the camera, just in that moment discovering that a picture was being taken, though she didn’t look annoyed or frustrated (strange because she didn’t like candid photographs).

I hadn’t managed to shake the question since.

Like I said—then the dog arrived.

He arrived on the far side of the sliding glass door. I had a ground-level apartment and it wasn’t unusual for birds or squirrels to trespass upon the space. Poof originally chased them away from the opposite side of the glass, but had grown into watching more calmly, from more of a distance so that the smaller animals might not see him. From that distance, Poof silently moved his mouth as if in a chewing motion.

Poof noticed the dog before me. Was already taking stutter-steps toward the glass door, the way he’d sometimes approach his reflection in the full-length mirror in my bedroom. That fundamental knowledge that something about what he was seeing was not right. That instinctive fear of the unknown.

The dog staggered. Not favoring any particular leg but walking as if he were wounded, as if he’d already walked a hundred miles that day. A sheepdog—didn’t they always look sort of pathetic? He had white and gray fur like bangs all but covering his eyes, and his jaw wiggled as if he were trying to muster a bark.

Poof hissed.

I stood beside him. I didn’t want to scare the dog away. A real, live dog! Gently, but firmly, I ushered Poof aside with my shin the way I would when he got in the way while I had a pot on the stove or when I was trying to comb my hair, late for work. I ushered him aside visibly, as if to show this dog that of the two creatures who lived in this apartment, the larger one welcomed him. And I opened the door.

 

I named the new dog Waffles. He wasn’t so much like the old Waffles, but a rather a generally exhausted, floppy dog who didn’t demonstrate much interest in the waffle that I, naturally, tried to feed him. Instead, he fixated on licking a spot on the floor.

Waffles barked when the doorbell rang. I should have expected it. Since I’d washed him off in the tub, trimmed the fur from his eyes, and fed him half a steak, he’d revitalized a little and started barking in response to Poof when he hissed, barking when gunshots were fired on TV, barking when the microwave beeped to announce another meal was ready.

I should have predicted he’d bark at the doorbell and should have headed it off. I should have been there waiting when Holly came by with Spirit Friday afternoon. Waffles got all excited and Poof, who’d been napping on the couch, sprinted off to the bedroom or bathroom like he did at each reminder Waffles existed. Holly and Spirit were, predictably, spooked.

Spirit had never heard a dog bark in real life before.

I could see through the front window that they’d taken a step back from the house, and I hurried to open the door.

Waffles ran up to them and barked—not a mean bark, but a loud one, and he pursued Spirit with his nose as she backed away from him.

Holly backed up too, and angled her body as if to get between Spirit and Waffles. “Chuck, what’s going on?”

I told her about Waffles’s arrival—not that I was looking at pictures of her when I first saw him, of course, but that he had walked up to the door. No tags, because who owned a dog these days? What dogs were there? But wasn’t it incredible? And Waffles was friendly and well-behaved aside from the barking. He’d even been good about waiting to go outside to do his business, and I’d fashioned a leash using an old belt for a collar, duct-taped to a tape measure that would expand and retract as we walked. He didn’t show much interest in running. He seemed old. Maybe a survivor, somehow, from the old days. A secret pup who’d made it in the wild, or, more likely, with some other master.

Holly looked to Spirit. “Could you please wait in the car? Your father and I need to talk.”

“She can come inside,” I said.

“I think the dog should go inside.”

Inside, I understood, was a mutually exclusive space for Spirit and Waffles, but just at that moment, Spirit seemed to warm to the mutt. She scratched behind his ears, not unlike the way she would with Poof, who often as not squirmed and ran. Waffles leaned into it. Wagged his tail, strong and wide. Joyful.

“Please,” Holly repeated, a little edge to her voice.

Spirit listened, slowly walking back to the car. I bent over and put a hand to Waffles side to keep him from following after her, though his eyes stuck on her in a stare that I could only assume Holly would describe as creepy. I snapped my fingers behind him and he turned around, obedient, if sullen, and went inside far enough for me to pull the door shut behind him.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to have some strange animal around our daughter?”

“For Christ’s sake, he’s a dog, not a rhinoceros. Poof would probably hurt her before Waffles would.”

“It barked at her.”

“He didn’t know her. And didn’t you see how quickly he let her pet him? And she liked him, too.”

She sighed. “Don’t you think it’s strange? No one’s seen a dog since we were kids and then this one shows up at your door. Don’t you think that’s suspicious?”

I liked it when she got angry. A dirty little secret, but the volume and the tone of her voice when she got agitated was very close to how she sounded mid-coitus. Not just that, but the way her nose wrinkled in indignation and in ecstasy—also very similar. I only noticed these things after she’d told me we were through, and savored them in the aftermath. Often as not, I actually preferred it when we fought to when she was acting nicely toward me. The latter was an act, but the former was real and intense, and her flesh would turn pink for forcing out too many words, not taking in enough air.

“He’s just a dog. A well-behaved dog, too. And I don’t know if someone’s been caring for him, or he’s a survivor, but he’s been in my home the last two days and nothing’s gone wrong besides Poof getting spooked.”

She looked back to the car. Spirit was in the front passenger seat, but up on her knees, so her head almost hit the ceiling, leaning over the console, over the dash, peering forward, smiling with her mouth wide open. I followed her line of sight back to the house. Waffles was on the couch, front paws up on the back of it, mouth open wide, unmistakably smiling back.

“Promise me, Chuck.” Holly had her hands on her hips, not unlike the photograph by the pool, her body pointed toward me, head cocked back toward Spirit. “Promise me the second that thing does anything dangerous, or the second Spirit says she’s scared, you’ll get rid of it.”

She trusted me just enough to care for our daughter under the rules we’d come up with together when we’re parenting in the same place, at the same time. Not enough to improvise.

“I promise.”

 

There were no catastrophes. The worst of Spirit’s first visit with Waffles around was that when Poof fled her arms because he saw Waffles coming, he scratched her skin in his hurry to escape. Waffles fell down at her feet and exposed his belly, and Spirit was immediately distracted from the white line Poof had left on her forearm, in favor of giving Waffles a rub and laughing with glee as he thumped his tail mightily against the floor.

I took photographs of Spirit and Waffles. Waffles returning the tennis ball she’d thrown for him in the backyard. Spirit hugging Waffles from behind before she went to bed. I sent them one by one to Holly. She still called Friday night, three times Saturday, and once Sunday before she came to pick up Spirit after dinner, and the subtext was clear that she expected me not to answer, because Waffles had taken a turn and attacked us both. Holly did soften a bit each time, though, and when she came to the apartment, she even went so far as to pat Waffles on the head and laughed rather than recoiled when he got up on his back paws to hug his body against her.

Poof watched from atop the kitchen cabinets, full of scorn.

But Poof was a relic from a past life we’d all shared in which there were no dogs, and in which Holly had left me. In this new life, we had Waffles, and the following week Spirit brought along a squeaky baby toy for him to play with. She explained, Mom told me dogs used to like toys like this. In this life, things were getting better. In this life, Holly posted a new photograph to Facebook. One for which she was neither photographer nor subject, but rather recipient—a selfie I had sent her of Waffles, Spirit, and I all curled up on the sofa together, the three of us all looking so happy. It got likes. It got comments. From what I could gather, everyone assumed we’d Photoshopped it somehow, inserting this long-extinct dog in between us.

I didn’t Photoshop anything. But I did open a separate window so I could look at the picture of Holly in the bathing suit and this new photo in juxtaposition to one another, shifted and resized until I could imagine we were all in the same picture together. Happy together. A family.

And then Holly texted me, Wednesday night at 10:08, eight minutes after Spirit would have gone to bed. She texted me, What do you say we go for a walk tomorrow night?

 

Holly left Spirit with her mom. I left Waffles and Poof home alone. Not like I didn’t do that every day when I went to work, but it was unusual for me to be out at night. Poof was hiding when I left, but Waffles followed me all the way to the door, as if he thought I meant to take him on this moonlight stroll, and whimpered a little when I closed the door behind me without him.

I was outside early. A change of pace because I was always running late—one of my many shortcomings Holly cited when she left me, one of the reasons she always picked up and dropped off Spirit, so I’d never leave her waiting.

She wore a long-sleeved, flowing black shirt, blue jeans, black boots. Not the clothes she would have worn at work. Not entirely casual, but not exactly dressed up either. I didn’t recognize the shirt and wondered when she’d bought it. She smelled incredible, like dandelions and citrus.

I got too excited, I know, but once we started walking, I couldn’t help myself from talking about summer and having friends watch Poof while the four of us—me, Holly, Spirit, and Waffles—went somewhere new and exotic, where we could spend some time at a pool and Waffles could run around to his heart’s content, and maybe he’d want to doggie paddle in the water, too.

Holly took my hand. It was happening. And I was ready. Nervous, sure, but ready to be the husband I probably should have been all along. I’d dress better and start jogging to stave off my paunch and we’d stop rock-paper-scissoring over dish-washing duty. I’d just do it.

“I met somebody else,” she said.

As we walked by, a set of sprinklers turned on. The water reached just far enough to hit my tennis shoes as I walked past, closest to the lawn They were probably on a timer, and it was probably bad luck that we passed by when we did, but I didn’t put it past whoever lived inside to have turned on the water more purposefully to keep us moving.

“Things have been moving quickly.” She loosened her grip for a second, pulled away just a little, then gave my fingers a squeeze. “He asked me to marry him.”

I squinted at the house, studying the blinds in the front window for movement, or to see if anyone’s fingers were parting them, and if I might catch their eyes watching us. I’d glare back at them. Maybe give them a crazed yell.

“Chuck, I’m moving to Philadelphia. With Spirit.”

I would have questions. Could she legally move out of state under our joint custody agreement? Who on earth was this boyfriend of hers? How quick was quickly? When did they intend to move? Had they had sex, and was that what Holly had been up to all the weekends when I had Spirit? Had this other man taken the photograph of her in the two-piece? Had she chosen now to let me down because I had Waffles to keep me company? All of those questions would wait until after the whimper that I could neither suppress, nor cut off in time to come across as a sane human being. I think that whimper cost me whatever remained of a last chance of convincing her that no, it was she and I who should be together.

 

Waffles slowed down. One night, he lay down, curled on the floor beside the couch and wagged his tail with a slow, irregular rhythm. Slower, slower, until it stopped.

I like to think that the fact he was wagging in the end meant that he died happy.

I called Holly and explained what had happened. I said Spirit should be there. My best guess is that she felt this was a small favor to pay, so she didn’t put up a fight, even though it was the middle of the week.

I’d dug a hole in the backyard already. We loaded Waffles on a blanket. Holly and Spirit each took an adjacent corner and I took the opposite side to lift Waffles, to lower him. I shoveled the dirt over him and Spirit hummed “Amazing Grace.” I wondered where she’d learned the song. I didn’t remember ever teaching it to her. Probably the Internet. There were worse things for her to have picked up on the Internet.

As I shoveled, it occurred to me that all the phrases that used dog in a pejorative sense, like dog days and he’s dogging it and it’s a dog-eat-dog world had fallen out of vernacular. I liked to think it had to do with remembering our canine friends fondly, but just as likely it was a matter of obscurity. Dogs were gone so why speak of them?

The hole in the yard full, Waffles at rest, Holly hugged me. Of the three of us, she was the only one to cry in the moment. Spirit yawned. It was past her bedtime.

It was too late at night to eat without tempting indigestion, but after Holly and Spirit left, I put two waffles in the toaster. I poured myself a glass of milk and fetched the plastic bottle of maple syrup from the fridge door. The kitchen started to smell of burning, and by the time I got back to the toaster, the coils were hot orange, the edges of my snack crispy, black, and wasted.

 

 

***

Born and raised in Utica, New York, and currently living in Las Vegas with his wife and son, Michael Chin is the author of three full-length books—You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books (2019), Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle (2019), and most recently The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press (2020). His chapbook, Autopsy and Everything After, won The Florida Review‘s Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest (2017-2018). He previously published two other chapbooks, The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press (2017) and Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books (2018).

Image: From Dogs & Water by Anders Nilsen, torontocomics.tumblr.com

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