“I’m thinking about getting a cat,” she says.
“What? Is that you, Felicia? Hang on, let me put down the phone for a sec.” Felicia hears the clacking of steps, then her sister’s voice cutting through some kid-voiced squabbling in the background, followed by the sound of a door closing and silence. “Better. What are you doing up so late again? It’s what -- midnight in Massachusetts?”
“If I go to bed too early, I won’t sleep long enough to miss 8:11 am.”
“Oh, honey. You can’t avoid that time for the rest of your life.”
“But I’m planning to,” Felicia says brightly. “I never again want to watch a clock tick over to 8:12, 8:13, 8:14... Ever.”
“You do know that it wouldn’t have made any difference if the ambulance had arrived faster, don’t you?” Anne says gently. “Alan was gone immediately. Isn’t that what the doctors said? With an aneurysm like that, there’s nothing anybody could have done.”
Anne sighs. “So what’s this about you getting a cat? Didn’t you decide in third grade that you didn’t like animals for some abstruse reason?”
“I’ll have you know, as you seem to have forgotten, that Michael Toolson’s poodle peed on my brand new Hi Tops. What’s abstruse about that? But it’s too quiet in the house. Too orderly. You think God is laughing about me? Because I know I always complained how Alan left his stuff lying everywhere. And now I hate that nothing changes unless I change it. And nobody makes any noise. It’s awful.”
“God is not laughing about you, and a cat won’t change the stillness. They’re stealthy creatures. Why not get a dog?”
“A urine-soaker of shoe ware. No, thanks. A dog would be too much… animal. An animaly in my life, so to speak.”
“An animaly? Really, Felicia, you need to get out of your head! When was the last time you left the house?”
“Today,” Felicia says indignantly.
“Further than getting the paper and mail in?”
“... No. But --”
“What are you wearing?”
Felicia looks at her crumpled yoga pants and the sweater Alan used to wear to golf and that is now sporting a stain from yesterday’s coffee and something that looks like tooth paste.
“Jeans and a fresh white blouse,” she says.
“You’re lying. I bet you’ve been wearing the same thing for days. You probably even sleep in it. When is the last time you showered?”
“Who cares when I shower? There’s nobody around to smell me.”
“Take a shower. Put on fresh clothes. Go for a walk. Here’s an idea: Go to the beach! You’ll carry sand all over the house. That’ll give you something to clean up.”
“Now?! It’s the middle of the night!”
“Tomorrow then. Get a good night’s sleep and head out in the morning. Are you still taking Valium?”
She doesn’t want to worry her sister. “Just sometimes,” she lies.
Once, Alan explained to her that the universe was basically empty. Yes, there were the odd bits of clumped-together mass, he said. Like Earth and the Milky Way. But between them there was nothing. And those voids were so big that even light took millions of years to cross them.
It seemed like arcane knowledge back then, but now Felicia can often feel all that nothingness. When she lies awake at night, she sees in her mind that things aren’t that different on Earth itself either. Viewed from her rumpled bed in the darkness, the planet’s six billion people remind her of tiny mass particles, swirling in a sea of emptiness. Some, the lucky ones, have other particles spiraling around them. She isn’t one of them anymore. When she and Alan met they wanted to travel, dine out, enjoy themselves. By the time they thought about starting a family, it didn’t work. Now, at 46, with a husband who died eating oatmeal at the kitchen table (God MUST be laughing about her -- whose husband frigging dies eating a heart-healthy breakfast?!) she seems destined to spend the rest of her life alone. A solitary particle, spinning into an ever-remote orbit.
The vision terrorizes her.
With Valium to put her under, she doesn’t experience those distressing sleepless nights anymore. But nothing can save her from waking up. The blissful forgetting of sleep means that every morning she has to remember anew. Sometimes it’s only when she turns her head and sees the undented pillow on Alan’s side that she realizes he’s gone. She misses his smile and the off-key rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight that he used to sing in the shower. Selfishly, she also misses him for the things he did for her. Like taking care of the mortgage (which she’ll now have to refinance herself), filling up the car (she hates doing that) and the way he could gently tease her out of a bad mood.
At least today she remembers before opening her eyes. She cries a bit, like she does most mornings, and performs her habitual count. Fifty-eight days. It’s been almost two months, she realizes. Suddenly, this angers her.
“Stupid grieving!” she yells. She kicks the blanket aside, swings her feet to the floor, and forces herself to walk to the bathroom without looking at Alan’s side of the room, where the coins and keys from his pant pockets are still lying on the dresser and Bob Dylan’s biography is waiting half-read on the night stand.
She’ll go on that walk that Anne suggested, Felicia decides. Then she’ll run to the store and stock up her empty kitchen shelves. After that… Well, she’ll see about after that when she gets there.
She brushes her teeth, gets dressed, heads out the garden gate. Summer is tipping into fall. The first mums have appeared on the porches in her neighborhood. And the leaves are tinged with color.
The beach is half a mile away, its sandy expanse empty now that the summer visitors have left. The air smells salty and humid.
She picks a spot and sits. With the sun hiding behind clouds, the sea looks muted. Battleship-colored waves wash up on the sand and retreat. Wash up and retreat.
Felicia is pondering whether this can be seen as a metaphor for her life from now on -- gray days, monotonously coming and going, without leaving much of a mark -- when she notices a movement from the corner of her eyes. Fifty yards from her a dog wanders along the beach. As she turns her head, it stops.
Felicia turns her eyes heavenwards. “You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding.”
By the time she looks again the dog is sitting halfway behind her on the sand, just out of reach. It’s medium-sized and scruffy, with tufts of hair sticking up above his eyes and nose. His lower teeth stick out in an under bite.
“You’re ugly,” Felicia says.
The dog wags its tail. She laughs.
She pulls the granola bar she’s grabbed on her way out of the house from a pocket of her jeans. The mutt watches her eat. Felicia tosses him the last chunk.
The dog sniffs it, then scratches his ear with a hind leg. It looks at the sea, ignoring her offering.
When she gets up to leave so does the dog, trotting a few yards behind her.
“Oh, no, you won’t.” Felicia makes shooing motions, claps her hands, stomps her foot. The dog scampers away nervously, then stops. When she checks a little further on, it’s still standing in the same spot, looking after her uncertainly.
Back in the house, Felicia makes coffee and arms herself with a pencil and a writing pad. Checking the shelves, she compiles a list. Milk, bread, cookies, toilet paper, shampoo…. By the time she’s done she has filled a legal-sized page. Get everything! she writes at the bottom. Get a new life, too.
She grabs her wallet and keys from the counter and leaves through the back door.
The mutt is lying on its side in the carport, next to her Toyota, sleeping. Hearing her approach, it lifts its head and thumps its tail against the ground.
“Shit.” Felicia sees no collar. Wasn’t there an article in the paper some time ago about holidaymakers who abandoned their pets when they returned to the city?
She opens the back door of the car that is closest to the dog and pats the seat. “You’d better hop in then.”
The dog jumps in as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. By the time Felicia has clicked the door shut, walked around and gotten into the driver’s seat, it has clambered onto the front passenger side and is looking at her expectantly.
Up close he smells muddy and she can hear him pant in excitement.
“You won’t attack me while I’m driving, right?” Tentatively Felicia holds out her hand. The dog licks it. She pats its head. As she scratches the mutt’s ear it leans into her fingers.
Together they drive across town. Felicia lowers the passenger window, and the mutt sticks its head into the wind.
She parks at a low-slung building she has passed countless times on her way to somewhere else. “Chesterfield Animal Shelter,” a sign proclaims.
The dog trustingly follows her inside and sits down next to her as she stops at the counter.
“Help you?” the girl behind it asks.
“I picked up a stray at the beach. He followed me home. No tags.”
The girl rounds the desk with a scanner-like device and runs it along the dog’s neck.
“No microchip either, that’s unfortunate,” she says. The mutt sniffs the contraption, then scratches its ear.
“He seems like a friendly fellow,” the girl says. “Probably not much older than a year. And --” she peeks between the hind legs “definitely a he.” Still crouched down, she looks at Felicia. “Any chance you want to keep him yourself?”
The dog licks Felicia’s pants.
“You sure?” the girl asks. “He seems to like you. And unfortunately we operate with only a three-day grace period here, if you know what I mean.”
“Thanks,” says Felicia. “But you don’t have to reserve him for me even that long. I’m sure I don’t want him.”
The girl opens her mouth but before she can say anything else Felicia has backed out of the door. From the parking lot, she sees how the girl is slipping a collared leash over the mutt’s head and leading him towards the back.
“It really wouldn’t have been practical to have a dog,” she explains when Anne calls several evenings later.
“Why in the world not? You’re a textbook writer, you work from home. Which reminds me. ARE you working again?”
“You know how it is. There’s always some tome that needs updating. I only have to say the word.”
“But have you? Said the word?”
“I will. Soon.”
Felicia pulls her knees up to where she’s sitting on the sofa and absentmindedly scratches her ankle. There has been an unseasonable surge of mosquitoes in her house. She wishes she could catch some of the buggers.
“Don’t you think you’d feel better if you had something to do?” Anne asks. “See, if you had a dog, you’d have to walk him. And he’d keep you company. I bet he would lie next to your chair and put his head on your feet while you’re working. In the evenings the two of you could snuggle on the sofa, watching TV. And he’d be there to greet you when you come home. No more empty house.”
“That does sound nice,” Felicia admits. Then: “Damn!” she yells.
“These aren’t mosquito bites, they’re flea stings!” Felicia bends down to have a closer look, “Yep, three in a row. That’s fleas, right? Stop laughing!” She jumps up and starts swatting at her pants as if fleas might start falling out. “That damn dog. I should have never let it into the car. It gave its fleas to me and now those bloodsuckers have probably spread all over the house! DAMN! What am I going to do?!? STOP LAUGHING.”
“It’s not such a big deal,” says Anne, when she catches her breath. “There’s a product you can buy. You put it on the skin and it kills the fleas as well as the eggs they might have laid.”
At the idea of flea eggs in her house, Felicia groans.
“There’s just one hitch,” Anne chirps.
“What’s that?” Felicia asks suspiciously.
“You’ll have to get the dog back. You don’t put that stuff on your own skin, dummy. You treat the animal.”
The internet backs Anne up: The easiest way to get rid of fleas is to treat the dog that gave them to her. So after a night of wishing fervently that no living particles might swirl too close to her, Felicia finds herself retracing her steps. Feeling foolish, she pushes open the shelter’s glass door.
It’s an elderly woman at the desk this time.
“I brought in a dog last week,” Felicia tells her. “I know that he’s probably not reserved for me anymore, but I was wondering if he’s still here. I’d like to take him home after all. I think.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. If you brought him last week he’s almost certainly no longer with us.”
“Oh. Could I get another one then?”
That earns her an irritated look. “This isn’t a library, ma’am, where you check things out willy-nilly. First, let me make sure that we, in fact, don’t have that dog anymore. What day did you bring him? And did you say that he was reserved for you?”
“Thursday. And, yes, your colleague said that she’d give me a three-day grace period.”
The woman stops typing and looks at Felicia. “Oh dear. I’m afraid you misunderstood. It’s the dogs that get a three-day grace period. Not the humans. The city keeps cutting our funding. So unless an animal becomes adopted quickly we simply can’t afford to feed and house them longer than that.”
“We have to put them down,” the woman clarifies. “Sadly.”
“Oh,” says Felicia. “OH.” Guilt washes over her. She feels nauseated as she thinks how little she has, again, accomplished those last few days. Stocked up on groceries. Washed one load of laundry. Hunted for non-existing mosquitoes. Watched too much daytime TV.
And while she was moping, an animal got killed because she’d brought it here and forgotten about it. It had done nothing wrong. Except that it had picked the wrong person to follow home.
“No, no, no.”
“I’m very sorry,” the woman says.
“Are you sure?” Felicia pleads.
“Well, maybe he did get adopted. Let’s check.” Her fingers clatter across the keyboard. “We had only one arrival on Thursday, so that would have been him,” she mumbles. As she’s hitting more keys she starts beaming. “Your little friend is a lucky dog.” She giggles. “If you forgive the pun.”
“He wasn’t adopted. But our vet got sick so we had to push some animals’ …schedule back a bit. Including your friend’s. We still have him.”
Before Felicia can digest this, the woman dashes towards the back. “Let me bring him out.”
After that, backing out doesn’t seem an option anymore. An hour later Felicia is sitting in her driveway, feeling dazed. Has she really just adopted a dog? It has all been so easy. She paid a modest sum for the shots, filled out some paperwork, agreed to let a shelter employee visit her home later this month.
The dog seemed happy to see her, dancing around her feet with his tail going like a metronome on the fastest setting. Or maybe he was just glad to be out of the kennel.
On the way back, Felicia stopped at a pet store where the owner helped her pick out food, bowls, a leash, toys and flea poison -- even though the shelter woman has promised that the dog has already been treated.
Now here they are. As soon as she’ll open the car door, it’ll become real, Felicia recognizes. She’ll live with a pet.
She looks to the passenger seat, where the dog has taken up position again. He’s gazing at her with his head cocked as if thinking, “Now what?”
Felicia wonders the same thing.
“Well.” She reaches behind to pull the new leash from the back seat. “Let’s start with something we know. We’ll go to the beach.”
“How’s it going?” Anne inquires when she calls later that week.
“If he finds a rotting fish on the beach, he eats it. And then he farts so wickedly that it makes your hair fall out,” Felicia informs her. “If I say ‘sit’, he licks my hand. If I say ‘come’, he comes. Unless he goes sniffing after some exciting trail. And yesterday he, uhm, passed a candy wrapper.”
The dog is curled up next to her on the sofa. She offers him a piece of crust from the pizza she has just eaten. He takes it gently, chomps it down in two bites and tucks his head against her thigh, sighing contentedly.
“He also makes me laugh”, Felicia confesses. “When he wants his belly rubbed he lies on his back and wiggles like a worm. And sometimes he chases his own tail.”
“Laughing is good,” Anne says. “Which reminds me: Do you have a name for him yet? Otherwise, I have a great one. Zotke. It Albanian for ‘God is laughing’. A friend told me.”
“Jake. That’s what I’m calling him.”
“I like it. It’s simple. Friendly. Not overloaded with meaning.”
After they hang up Felicia sits there. She feels Jake’s warm body pressing against her hip. He’s snoring.
“Hey,” she says softly. The dog lifts its head and looks at her. “Want to go to bed?”