White Dog Roaming
Corium Magazine Issue 22 (Spring 2016) is just out with one of my short stories, “White Dog Roaming,” a dramatized version of an unusual encounter my family and I had in a parking lot in Oconto, Wisconsin. My thanks to the editor, Lauren Becker. Here’s the story and link to the magazine.
A brushed-aluminum sky grates my eyes as we stand in the parking lot of a Subway in Oconto, Wisconsin. We cluster around the open tailgate of our Subaru eating our lunch rather than going inside where the air conditioning is too cold and the people behind the counter too cheery. I’m the tuna melt, my wife is turkey with jalapeños, our twenty-year-old daughter a foot-long Black Forest ham. From the cargo area our yellow Lab begs, wishing he could be all of the above.
I’d been wishing too, incessantly, for several hours. We were on our way to Northern Michigan for our annual family vacation. It had been a stressful few months at work for me, and in the car I’d been wishing I had enough money to retire and my blood pressure was lower and on and on. The kind of wishing you do at 3 in the morning when you can’t sleep and you long for a pinch of morning light like a penitent wishes for forgiveness. My hope—my wish, my prayer—was that I’d find it within me to stop wishing while we were on vacation. To be, and not to wish.
My wishing is cut short by the approach of two men who’d just driven into the parking lot in a rusted Chevy station wagon. One is old and silver-bristled, the other middle-aged, ropy except for a bowling-ball-sized paunch. They smile. We smile back.
I recognize the old one. We met him a summer ago, same parking lot, behind this same Subaru, along this same highway north to the forests of the Upper Peninsula. He’d seen our “Recall Walker” bumper sticker and complimented us. He said he hated the Governor, who took away large chunks of his pension. A savvy old guy, I thought. A man who knows his politics. An old-style Wisconsin progressive. Good man. He shows no indication he recognizes us now.
The two men gravitate to my daughter. The old man speaks.
I like dogs, he says. His smile reveals two gold fillings nested in a field of yellow.
That’s a beautiful Lab, he says. English conformation, right? Blocky head, stockier body, shorter legs. Good hunting dog. Great companion.
My daughter responds with yesses and a smile and her eyes and her Black Forest ham.
What’s his name?
Good name. Can I pet him?
Petting done, the old man recalls a poodle. White, standard-size, he was. Named him Andre, he says. Smart as hell, that dog was. We’d hide antlers around the house, my boy and I did, taught the dog to find ‘em. Got so good at sniffing out antlers he’d go out into the woods and find ‘em and bring ‘em home. I’d just sand down the sharper parts and he’d have all the antlers he wanted. Had an unending supply of deer antlers to gnaw on, that dog did.
We nod. So does the tall man with the paunch. He must be the son.
But Andre didn’t stick around long, says the son.
I look down at his paunch to avert my eyes. I’m thinking I don’t want to hear a sad story about how Andre was run over by a semi. Or how a beaver trap mutilated his leg during one of his antler-hunting expeditions and he had to be euthanized, or put down, as they say, which of course sounds like someone insulted the poor dog.
The old man nods. It was my wife, he says.
An oh-no expression clouds my daughter’s face. My wife’s too, but at least she’s finished her turkey sub. I think of how fresh a tuna melt will stay in a sweaty pair of hands on a hot August day on an asphalt parking lot in Oconto. Not long, I figure, and I want to eat it more than ever. But I pause, mid-sandwich, feeling a certain inevitability about hearing the old man’s tale of his wife and the dog Andre.
The old man again: I couldn’t keep Andre because my wife said it was too expensive. Now the younger man says, She wanted money for her mother.
I can think of nothing to say. All I can do is wonder why we in America open the doors of our private lives to total strangers.
My mother-in-law, says the old man, his grandmother, he says, pointing to his son. What a witch she was, he says, shaking his head.
Pet ownership is a big responsibility, says my wife, who’s better at this kind of thing than I am. Maybe your wife just needed more time before committing to owning a pet, she says.
I admire her answer. So understanding.
Sometimes I find owning a cat is a challenge, chimes in my daughter. She’s only halfway through her Black Forest ham, but still trying to be helpful and supportive, following in her mother’s footsteps.
My mother-in-law was the most selfish person I ever knew. The old man doesn’t just say the words, he spits them as if he’s tasted acid.
She and my wife were always in cahoots. My wife would take my salary—I worked for the county—and spend it on her mother. A new carpet. New coffee table. New drapes. There was never anything for us. For me and my boy. My wife and her mother were living high on the hog. Over at her mother’s condo. It was my money that covered part of the down payment!
Rage is not what I anticipate in the parking lot of the only Subway in Oconto, a quiet little town with a river and a campground, a population of 4,513, an estimated median household income of $40,000, and an estimated median house or condo value of $91,000. But rage is what we get. Mixed with massive doses of orange-red bitterness. I’ve given up on my tuna melt.
I was clearing ninety dollars a week on my paper route, says the son.
It’s no longer possible for me to stare at his paunch. His eyes are unavoidable and they flame like a drought-stricken forest in a controlled burn.
And she took it all away, he says. Every single week. Nothing left over.
She ended up in an insane asylum, says the old man.
I ask, your mother-in-law? These are the only words I’ve spoken in this exchange, and of course they have to be words that invite more rage.
No! says the old man. My wife! It was my wife! My wife was in the loony bin! Several times! In and out, in and out! It was too much to take!
He’s waving his hands now.
The son is nodding, yes, yes, yes!
And then the son’s voice rises as he says, she wouldn’t let me buy a new bicycle even though I needed one for my route! It all went to my grandmother!
His paunch now bounces in rhythm with his shouts. It’s hard to tell if the shouts cause bouncing or the bouncing shouts.
And: my mom brought men home and slept with them in the bedroom with my dad sleeping out on the couch!
The old man is shaking his head and looks as if he’s about to cry. His mouth curls in anguish. I have a vision of him on his deathbed wearing that expression.
Again the son, booming: Worst of all, she killed Andre! She killed Andre! Stabbed him! Slit his throat! Blood everywhere!
The son is now striding back and forth, arms flailing, and Flint begins to bark a strange, wailing bark I’ve never heard before.
My daughter’s expression turns from oh-no to oh-my-God.
Leaving downtown Oconto, such as it is, we take County Road S north until we reach US 41. I’ve driven all the way from Madison so now my wife takes over at the wheel. I still haven’t finished my tuna melt due to our sudden departure from the Subway parking lot.
I look outside and see the passing trees. Some are stressed, already showing fall colors, a consequence of dry weather. Most still wear their multiple shades of summer green. They would look brighter under a blue sky rather than this oppressive aluminous gray, but they still look good.
I look into the backseat. My daughter has put what remains of her sandwich in the Subway’s bag. I couldn’t finish it, she says with a half-hearted smile, I lost my appetite from, you know…
My wife says, I think the jalapeños have disagreed with me a little, especially after all that…
I try to finish my tuna melt, but now I too don’t feel as hungry as before. I have an image of how it would look had I left it in the parking lot, baking, pepper jack cheese running out onto black asphalt, mayonnaise turning milky liquid, lettuce browning. I put it back into its bag; I’ll give Flint a little treat at the next stop and pitch the rest.
Flint has just curled up into his travel mode. My daughter opens her iPad and I take a quick peek back at her to be reminded of what she looked like as a child reading mysteries and fantasy. My wife sets the cruise control, but my mind does anything but cruise. I take a deep breath, and I wonder if everything the old man and his son said was true or whether it was all a crazy, violent lie. I think about what anguish people experience in their lives, far more than I do. I think about their rage, and how they wish for relief wherever they can find it, and how they need to talk about their hurting. I’d been wishing not to wish, simply to be, but perhaps this was a mirage, a convoluted detour. I needed to wish, but not for me. For them, and everyone like them.
I turn to look out the window, concentrate on the forest, and wait for a single thing. I think I see it in a clearing bounded by red sumac, but then it’s gone. It looked like a flash of white, but I can’t be sure, the moment passed before I knew I was in it.