Dog

by Steven Gillis

I am Hercules.  That’s right.  That’s right.  Say my name.

I think this when I watch him, imagine what it must be like.  The way he moves suggests a knowledge of the universe I don’t have, all twelve ribs working in tandem with the scapula and sternum, the cervical and thoracic vertebra.  His muscles are worthy of envy; the cleidocervical and trapezius, the external oblique abs, the deltoids and bicep femoris.  His fur is brownish-red, covers his tuck and flank, brisket and stifle, foreface and backskull, his occiput, crest and flew.  There is purity in the primitive construct of his design.  A kind of feral grace.  What goes on inside his head, I wonder?

My wife says nothing.  I mean she says a lot but about Herc she says nothing’s in his head.  She says its all instinct converted to a kind of recognition, a thought process that is synthesized down to reflex.  The eye observes and the body responds.  “It isn’t like he wakes up thinking today I’m gonna catch a squirrel,”  my wife says and I understand, there is no premeditation.  But Hercules anticipates.  He knows when I wake he’ll soon be outside and once he’s outside anything can happen.  Part of what can happen is chasing down a rabbit or a squirrel and isn’t this anticipation then the same thing as thinking?  Isn’t it close enough, really?

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 At Kenmore we talk about our dogs, our wives and our kids.  We talk about the Knicks but not the Nets, the Giants and the Jets.  We either root for the Yankees or the Mets.  Some guys at work have girlfriends on the side – know as GOTS – but mostly we don’t.  We are what we are.  Unless the plant shuts down for good I have a job.  I don’t have foreman status but I have seniority and when the layoffs come they affect me last.  I’ve done every type of job over the years.  With the plant running at high end capacity we make motors and compressors for washers and dryers and refrigeration units.  Twice when Kenmore cut back I lost my job for a time but kept my foothold.  I am at the plant now on a schedule sliced and diced by CBA concessions.

Few things stay the same, I know.  I think a lot about this.  I think a lot about a lot of things but the things I think about are mostly random.  If I think about any one thing too long I tend to obsess and then I get myself in trouble.  I once got the idea that I could build a better mouse trap.  Seriously.  I read an article which theorized how most beached whales wound up that way because their navigational systems were thrown off by the sonar the ships at sea sent out.  I figured if it worked for whales by accident maybe I could come up with something that attracted rats and mice into a trap.

What I didn’t take into account was how rats were different from whales and the senses they used to get around in the dark weren’t so easy to replicate.  I then thought about putting an electric charge wire inside some cheese and setting the trap so when the rat took the bait it got zapped.  I built a prototype but couldn’t get the conductors to work in any way that assured the rat would touch the wire.  Worse, when I made the wire live, it melted the cheese and covered the trap with an orange goo.

I must have wasted a thousand hours thinking about rats and traps but there was really no way around it.  Once I start I’m stuck on something for the longest time.  I used to think about my wife like this.  In obsessive ways.  Then it stopped.  And now for reasons I’m not crazy about it’s started up again.

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My wife is the receptionist at Katwaller & Deel, PC.  She has been at K&D almost fifteen years and is on friendly terms with each of the firm’s eleven attorneys.  Our oldest boy, Brett, was four years old when my wife was hired at K&D.  Back then my wife’s good looks dressed up the reception area just the way Katwaller wanted.  Now that she’s older her value to the firm depends more on her overall efficiency.  She remains still conscious of her appearance and pushes back hard against any signs of age.  She flirts more than she used to, out of necessity she thinks, though it’s all harmless and nothing I should waste time thinking about she tells me.

It remains my intention to be the man my wife fell in love with, but it isn’t always easy to keep track of these things.  The core qualities are fundamental; honesty and loyalty and kindness.  As for the rest, after all these years there are parts of me which have changed and are different from who I was in my youth.  What to hold onto and what to let go of?  This is the riddle.

My wife knows what she wants.  She has, among other qualities, an organized mind.  She keeps a tight rein, does not let her imagination run about willy-nilly.  This is not to say she isn’t imaginative because she is.  She can also be cunning when she wants.  There are things about her I don’t know.  I know this.  I do not like to think of these things but its hard not to.  I do not think that my wife sets out to deliberately keep secrets from me.  I think whatever secrets she has she simply considers none of my business.  Whether or not they are my business I can’t say because they’re secrets and I don’t know.

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We live outside the city, on three acres I inherited from my Uncle Ham.  Other than the garden my wife keeps and the half acre I use to grow okra, the land is decorative and left to Herc.  Over the last few years most of the farms near us have changed hands, the property passed down to the next generation which shares a more radicalized Libertarian view, rails against any form of trespass.  They are not welcoming to dogs appearing anywhere on their property even when the dogs avoid running through their corn and wheat, beans and pears, pumpkins and squash.

After we got Hercules, I went ahead and closed off two whole acres with five foot high bails of wire fencing and over a hundred t-posts.  The job took a month as I could only work at night and got the boys to help.  Two acres is a lot of property and for his first few years Hercules showed no interest in escaping the yard.

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Some nights now my wife calls just before dinner to say she has to work late.  She’s taken a computer class and begun picking up overflow assignments. I’m proud of her ambition.  Like Hercules, my wife has an endless reserve of energy.  Working at K&D means she is self-sufficient.  Hercules at least depends on me to be fed and sheltered.  My wife has no similar need.  She is here simply because she chooses.

I would not prefer my wife stay at home and give up her job.  At the same time I understand relationships are by nature a partnership.  Unless conscious regard is paid to that bond the independence established through our work and money and separate friendships will fray the connection.  Then, when say a wife has a good job and is surrounded by men who make considerably more money than the husband, whose own situation is tenuous and who has seen his earning capacity dwindle, well, naturally things happen.  For example.

I’m just saying.

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The secretaries at K&D are glad to have my wife’s help. Back when my wife first started working late I’d wait for her to finish then meet her downtown for a bite to eat.  She appreciated the gesture.  These days she tells me not to bother, says she can’t be sure when she’ll be done and that I should just stay home and relax and order Chinese with our youngest boy, Tom, if he’s around.

The first time Hercules got out of the yard my wife was working late.  I came home to find him gone.  Alarmed, I called his name, whistled and went into the woods.  Highland Road runs along the far side and I imagined Hercules dashing into traffic or getting shot by some rouge hunter.  I returned to the yard an hour later and walked the fence line until I found a seam where Herc managed to push through.  Hoping still that he’d be back I started securing the grounds, put in more t-posts and laid brush and logs up against the bottom at places I thought were vulnerable.

I was pounding posts on the far side of the yard when I spotted Herc trotting along the front lawn, tongue hanging and coat covered in burs.  He went to the door and waited for me to come around.  Relieved, I knew I couldn’t yell at him for taking off, that I didn’t want to confuse him and make it seem he was wrong to come home.  I brought him into the house, filled his water bowl, then took him to the point in the yard where he escaped and made clear this was not to happen again.  He crouched low and pulled his ears back to let me know in the moment he understood.

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That same night my wife came home from work late.  I’d lost track of the time dealing with Hercules and when I realized it was after nine I phoned her but got no answer.  An hour later my wife came in and stood in the archway between the front room and the kitchen.  She seemed distracted and appeared to have been drinking.  I asked and she laughed.  I delayed any further questions.  I also didn’t tell her about Herc.

My wife went to the bedroom to change out of her clothes.  I was half-watching the end of the Mets game when I heard the shower run.  Ten minutes later my wife returned, this time in her pajamas, and announced she was going to bed.  I came into the bedroom soon after and inspected the clothes my wife left on the floor.  I could smell cigarette smoke and something else.  I tossed the clothes onto a chair and rinsed my hands in the sink.

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The next day I had a half-shift at work.  I woke early, turned the coffee on, made up Hercules’ food bowl and put him outside with a stern warning to stay in the yard.  I then went back inside and woke my wife.  Usually we had our coffee together only that morning she was slow to get up.  I thought about last night, asked my wife where she’s been.  She pretended to snore and still be sleeping.  I got in my truck and drove to work.

Hercules escaped again that afternoon.  I came home around one and he was gone.  I spent another hour in the woods, checked for footprints along the creek shore.  This time as I came back Hercules was sitting on the front porch waiting for me.  I went and sat with him on the step.  “What gives, hound?”  I said.  “What is this?”  It occurred to me that possibly being alone all day was the cause, the lack of company and Herc’s being a social creature.  I gave him water then took him in my truck down to the South Haven Shelter where I let him pick out a pal.

We chose a one year old shepherd named Bud.  The two dogs raced and wrestled across the yard once we got home.  Eventually they wore themselves out and fell asleep panting beneath the deck.  My wife came in a short while later.  I was sitting outside when she found me.  She said hello in a pleasant tone and expected me to do the same.

I am nothing if not accommodating.  Loving my wife has created in me a level of capitulation which feels self-protective at times.  I still planned to talk with her about last night, but began instead by telling her about Hercules and how he twice got out of the yard.  I described the way I’d reinforced the fence, for what good it did, and that after mulling the situation I decided Hercules’ escapes were based on his being left alone all day.  I whistled then and both dogs came from under the deck.

My wife loved Hercules, there was no doubt.  That said, my bringing home a second dog without her consent did not go over well.  My wife stared at me.  She considered what I had done and the rationale I offered.  I anticipated an ugly scene, but my wife was clever.  Rather than start a fight which would have lead to our talking about more than the dogs, she turned her attention to Bud.  “Well what have we here?”  she said and dropped down on her knees, in her work dress, as she had never done before as far as I knew.

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That night after dinner I went out back again to play with the dogs.  Tom was at the movies and my wife was puttering around the house.  We had made it through our meal with casual talk, had discussed the dogs mostly, the manner and method of Hercules’ escapes, how he had gotten out and my hoping Bud would resolve his need to leave the yard.  We didn’t talk of anything more than this, though I wanted to and the energy I expended to keep a civil tone was exhausting.  I left the table before dessert and headed back to the yard.

The thing about marriage is that it’s designed to function under a certain amount of tension, like the orthotropic beams in a bridge.  When the pressure becomes significant it’s essential for the foundation to be well supported.  If the support system fails the entire structure will collapse.

I brought the dogs in after dusk and they stayed with me as I watched tv.  My wife joined me later.  Both dogs got up and vied for her attention.  Her mood was not the same as earlier and she soon snapped at them to sit.  “Honestly,”  she complained openly for the first time about my bringing Bud home without so much as a warning.

“I’m sorry,”  I said.  “I suppose I should have told you my plans.”

The reference wasn’t lost on my wife.  For a while now she has dyed her hair a shade of blond much lighter than it used to be.  Before her hair was soft and scented by whatever shampoo and conditioner she used.  Now the texture is stiff and smells of phenylenediamine and hydrogen peroxide.  This is the tradeoff, what my wife is willing to sacrifice to achieve what she thinks she needs.

She moved away from the dogs and said,  “I was working with Kevin.  When we finished we grabbed a bite.”

“I see.”  There is something disarming about the truth.  Even if delayed it’s difficult to attack.  Kevin Hartin was a partner at K&D.  I knew him casually as a man of colorful qualities, quick to joke and slap your back, to argue sports and politics with a pompous conceit.  He wore a large gold Rolex and kept a cottage on Springwell Lake which he shared with guests even in the off season.  His hair was darkened and a bit too long for his middle-aged face, while the extra pounds he carried sat soft in his center and lower down in his thighs.  When my wife spoke of Kevin it was always with amusement, his indiscretions treated as mischief.

I presented my own list of truths.  “Your dress smelled of cigarettes and Old Spice,”  I said.  “You’d been drinking and came home and took a shower.”  This sort of accounting, even if true, came across as harsh.  My wife stood in front of the television which I had muted.  Behind her on the screen was a woman in China riding a bike.  Hercules and Bud were sitting together now, observing me as I tried to say something less inciting, but it was too late.

My wife weighed her options, considered indignation or some level of hurt.  She chose a combination.  “What are you saying?  What is this?  What are you accusing me of?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,”  I answered.

“Then what?”  She knew I wouldn’t answer.  Free to carve me up and serve me as an after dinner snack, she asked,  “How many times have you gone out for a drink with people from work?”

“I don’t take one of the girls out,”  I told her.

“What take out?  It was late and I was hungry.”

“So come home.”

“I did come home.  After I ate.”

I was sinking fast and knew it, said the only thing I could then with impunity.  “You could have told me.”

“What?”  My wife frowned, was trying to force me into making a more specific claim.  I couldn’t do it and continued to retreat.  This is my nature.  I don’t enjoy confrontation.  I attempted an apology, admitted that giving voice to my concerns made them sound absurd.  Why should I care if my wife shared a drink and dinner with someone she’d worked with going on fifteen years?  “If anything,”  I told my wife she should be flattered that after all this time she could still arouse in me this sort of reaction.

I said all this in a stuttering stumble, waited for my words to neutralize my wife’s reaction.  Instead Tom came home after his movie and was greeted by Hercules and Bud.  My wife issued a weary deep sigh and left the room.

______

Over the weekend the dogs stayed in the yard.  Tom came and went.  I busied myself with projects around the house while my wife treated me with a distance I didn’t think that I deserved.

Monday I found a message from my wife on the machine when I got home.   Rather than call my cell she had phoned the house, said she would be working late and to have a nice night.  I took a beer out back and tossed a rubber football around for the dogs.

My Uncle Ham used to read Thomas Merton while drinking sweet cherry vermouth.  In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton defined intuition as a meeting of the conscious and subconscious self.  I don’t know if this is true, but I guess that’s the point.  There are things we don’t know we know and yet we make use of them nonetheless.  I drank a second beer then got back in my truck and went downtown.  The offices of K&D are on Cooperston and Third.  I parked around the corner and went to The Tavern Cove across the street.  Shortly after seven my wife and Kevin came out and walked east.  My wife was laughing and Kevin had his hand on the small of her back.

I waited until they were out of sight before going to the lot where I knew my wife parked.  Her car was still there.  I wasn’t sure what to do so I went back to the Cove and had a chicken sandwich and two whiskey shots and then went home.  Tom was in the yard with the dogs.  We spoke for a while and around ten I went inside and watched Sports Center.  I crawled into bed at eleven and woke sometime later when my wife came in.

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Hercules sleeps on the floor beside my bed.  Bud has staked out a place near the window.  Both dogs stirred at the sound of my wife.  I tried not to move though my head was buzzing.  It occurred to me as I lay there that relationships never really succumbed to any seismic shift but changed gradually, like an erosion.  When things cracked and fell into the sea it was more a cumulative effect than one defining fissure.

My wife got in bed and I waited to hear if she would say anything, would touch my arm or make any sort of acknowledgment of my being there.  She didn’t.  I let her settle in then asked,  “You ok?”

“I’m fine,”  she said.  “Good night.”

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I got up early again the next morning, put on the coffee and fed the dogs.  When I went in to wake my wife she exhaled as if I’d annoyed her and said she was taking the morning off.  I made a crack about working late earning her perks.  She tugged the sheet up higher and fell back asleep.

Bud was outside when I got home that afternoon but Hercules was gone.  My theory about his taking off was obviously flawed.  I whistled and walked the yard, decided not to go look for him this time.  There seemed no point.  If he really wanted to be out and about on his own, if running free had created an awareness of greater possibilities, what could I do?  I played with Bud then brought him into the house and left him with a bone.

Five minutes later I was driving to Lowe’s where I bought an electric fence.  I had to buy two units actually in order to make the wire reach around the yard.  My plan was to lay the wire out fast and not worry about burying it tonight.  It still took time to install as I had to go all the way around the yard to complete the circuit.  I also had to figure a way not to place a charge along the back deck and effectively block Herc from the house.  This assuming he came home.

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My wife came home while I was working the wire down the south side of the yard.  Bud ran to her as she walked toward me.  She noticed Herc was missing and asked with some urgency what I was doing.  My back hurt from spending the last two hours hunched over.  I wanted to talk of other things, to tell her what I saw last night and have her explain.  The sun had started to set directly in front of me.  I straightened and squinted, put my left hand up over my forehead and looked in my wife’s direction.  I told her how the wire was supposed to keep Herc in the yard.  She asked why I wasn’t off looking for him and I explained that the last two times it was impossible to find him.  “He comes home when he wants,”  I said.

As always my remark wasn’t lost on my wife.  The sun lit her face, made her expression severe.  “Listen,”  she shot back in such a way that I braced myself.  We stood there for several long seconds before I turned and said,  “I need to finish.”

When I looked back again my wife was disappearing into the house.  A minute later I heard her car start and saw around the garage as she pulled out of the drive.  I imagined her gone for good and began to shake.  It took me a while before I could focus again on the fence.  I set the rest of the wire then attached the ends to the power box I’d mounted in the garage.  I adjusted the controls, tested the collar Hercules was supposed to wear.  After this I went inside and washed my hands and face.

Bud followed me.  He knew Herc was missing, saw that my wife just left and wasn’t sure what would happen next.  I reached and tugged his ear.

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A few years ago I had this idea for how to improve the efficiency of the pump behind the drum of Kenmore’s frontload washers.  The pump sprayed water during the wash and rinse cycles and I figured a way to increase the flow while using less energy.  It was a simple calibration really.  Instead of filing a patent, I took my idea directly to the boys upstairs.  They reviewed my plan, thanked me but said they’d already come up with this design.  Six months later a new machine with my pump was put on the market.  My wife groaned and asked,  “Whatever were you thinking?”

I was staring out the window in the front room for I don’t know how long when my wife returned.  She had Hercules with her in the car.  I hurried outside to meet them.  Hercules was on his leash which my wife had brought with her.  She looked satisfied and annoyed all at once.  Bud barked inside the house and Hercules tugged my wife toward the front porch.  It was dark out by then, I remember.  My wife said she found Hercules on East Minor, which meant he had crossed Highland Road.  “Honestly,”  she opened the front door and let Hercules off his leash.

I followed her inside and went into the kitchen where my wife was putting more water in Hercules’ bowl.  She seemed to blame me for Herc’s disappearance and I took offense.  “Honestly what?”  I said.  “You think this is my fault?”

“The dog was across Highland.”

“I know that,”  I went to where I’d left the electric collar, the battery now installed, and holding it up I said,  “I know that Herc got out.  I am taking every precaution.  I’m doing what I can.”

“You should have gone looking for him.”  My wife still had her work dress on.  I explained again my thinking, how I had wasted several hours looking for Hercules the first two times he escaped, and while I appreciated her going to search for him, and was greatly relieved she found him and he wasn’t hurt, I had made a calculated decision and put in the electric fence with the expectation that he couldn’t now get out.

My wife was not convinced, insisted I had my priorities backwards.  “You needed to find the dog first,”  she said.  Her cellphone rang and she checked the number but did not answer the call.  I had never envisioned myself in this situation, not with Herc and certainly not with my wife.  I was someone who took pride in my relationships, my ability to put everyone at ease and receive from all the same in turn.  I was no saint but those I loved I treated well and expected as much in kind.  Confronted by adversity, I looked for resolution.  Failing at this, I tried to keep my frustration in check.  And failing again, I experienced distemper, the same as anyone else.

I went over to Hercules and put the collar around his neck.  My wife watched then began walking out of the kitchen.  “You can’t leave things to chance,”  she said.  “Just because you didn’t find him the first two times doesn’t mean you should quit looking.”

“So what are you telling me?”  I had Hercules and Bud now over by the door leading back into the yard.  Whatever patience I possessed had expired.  I asked my wife if she believed whenever a loved one was feared lost the most rational and responsible thing to do was go looking for them?  “For example,”  I said and spoke about last night.

My wife had her cell phone still in her hand.  She stopped in the hallway leading away from the kitchen.  Her voice was different when she replied, more cautious and slightly muted.  I listened then opened the back door and went outside with the dogs.

Hercules sensed the new collar around his neck.  He looked at me before going with Bud onto the grass.  I stood on the deck.  My wife came out a minute later.  I had turned the lights on and half the yard was visible though it was hard to see out to the fence.  Another minute passed where my wife stood beside me saying nothing.  Finally she asked,  “What happens now?”

The instructions which came with the electric fence suggested ways to introduce your dog to his newly reinforced boundaries.  There were teaching guidelines, the suggestion of planting flags and offering treats but I knew Hercules was smart enough to figure things out on his own.  I let him run across the yard without any warning, listened as the collar was designed to give a beep when the dog moved too close to the fence.  This was followed by the shock if the dog continued closer to the wire.

I thought of what my wife had said before inside when she spoke to me of Kevin.  She went on for a time, described the way of the world and how our boys were grown and her place in the universe felt ever more precarious and temporary.  “It’s just that,”  she said, and hoped I wouldn’t think ill of her as everything was crazy now and did I know what she meant?

Hercules moved from the light.  He and Bud were somewhere back toward the far corner of the yard.  I answered my wife then as best I could.  I told her that I didn’t know what she meant actually, that I was sure it must be a deficiency on my part but I didn’t think that way about the universe, that I believed the here and now was better than good enough and whatever else I imagined, being in love, building a better mousetrap or designing a more efficient pump, grew out of this sense of comfort and fascination.

“Crazy?”  I said and spoke more about my world, how I was satisfied and if this was naïve and foolish of me then I could accept that.  “This,”  I said and extended my hands outward.  I described how what was here contained everything and that this was plenty, and repeating my wife’s question, I asked if she understood.

The beep on Hercules’ collar went off then.  It was just loud enough to be heard where my wife and I were standing.  We waited together on the deck, anticipating what would follow once the connection was made and Hercules received the shock.

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Steven Gillis is the author of the books Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and The Consequence of Skating, which won the Silver Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards in 2010. Most recently, Steve published his second short story collection, The Law of Strings with Atticus Books, in August 2012. Along with co-founding Dzanc Books, Steve is also the founder of 826michigan.