The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Pet the Dog

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He wants her to pet the dog. He holds the curly mass in his arms and pushes it toward her. He prompts: Isn’t it cute? The dog pants in anticipation. If this is a conspiracy the dog seems to be in on it. He always wanted a dog but their mother wouldn’t let him get one. She didn’t like contact with animals or their dirty excretions. Now he has an apartment, their mother is dead, and he has a new dog. He has a sports car too, which their father makes fun of, because it’s fancy, even if it’s used. Their father is sure he paid too much for it even though he doesn’t know how much his son paid. She thinks the same, and discovers he paid two thousand. Their father thinks he’s a dandy, with his sports car and leather briefcase. He thinks it’s ridiculous to buy a leather briefcase when the bank offers an imitation one as a premium. He mocks his son’s expensive tastes because they seem like an affectation and their father has no affectations, he is without guile, unless it is an affectation to tell crude jokes for their shock value. She is like their father, no affectations either, unless it is an affectation to take on the traits of a martyr. He is like their mother, equal parts hurt and dissemblance.

The sports car is parked in the front of the house and he is holding the dog in the backyard. Their father is in the house watching baseball and stewing about the sports car. He thinks it was selfish to buy a car with no back seat and a front passenger seat too low to get in and out of. Who gets a car that doesn’t have room for passengers? Once they all lived here. Now it’s only their father. The rabbi still lives across the street, the blind boy across the alley. The Germans, who own a bakery, are still next door. The daughter of the Holocaust survivors who live three doors down was killed by a rogue wave on the beach in Israel. A woman on the next block killed herself by drinking transmission fluid. Their father’s red geraniums circle the middle of the yard. The peony, whose flowers she used to bring inside until their mother objected to the ants, droops over the walk. Carrots and tomatoes grow in front of the steps to the basement. Their father thinks the carrots are a failure because they don’t come up out of the ground. Through the window they can hear the sound of the game at Comiskey. Isn’t it cute? he says, nuzzling the dog. He looks at her expectantly. What he expects is that she will respond to the dog as enthusiastically as he does. That she will, like he does, love the dog and pet it. She moves her feet in place in the grass. Once she found a packet of oregano he dropped in the hallway, and she threw it away without telling their parents. Was he smoking it? Now he works in a Japanese bank. She works for a women’s center making referrals to gynecologists. They talk infrequently, always promising to talk more. She suspects their mother loved him, if not more, more straightforwardly. I worry about him, I don’t worry about you, their mother said in the hospital, and while that should have been affirming, it felt like a diminishment, or a withholding, as if she didn’t deserve worry. It also felt like their mother was asking her to take up the mantle of worrying, to worry about him for her, to look after him, when she was gone. He smiles back and forth from her to the dog; it is gray-black and of an indeterminate variety. He is red-blond and flushed. His eyes are like their mother’s, vulnerable and transparent. The dog squirms in his arms. It might be, she concedes to herself, a sweet dog, but that doesn’t mean she warms up to it. She offers a few tepid murmurs of affection, in imitation of other people. It’s the best she can do. She hopes it will suffice, but knows it won’t. Nothing will suffice short of petting. Her hands find their way to her pockets. She fingers the penny slipped in there, the penny she found on the street, found money, about which their mother used to say, found money is lucky money. Her hands stay put. Something in her resists, as if not to would deny an essential part of herself. It would be simple to say that she is missing the internal formulation that makes one enthusiastic about dogs. And that would be true, partially. Was she, as their mother once said, a cold fish? But it would also be true to say she is guarding some authenticity she doesn’t fully understand. He moves closer, as if all she needed was a better look. Come on, pet it, he says again. He holds it out to her. The dog is almost in her face now. A drop of moisture hangs from its lip. He murmurs back and forth between them. He and the dog already have a language, from which she is excluded or excludes herself. She tries to evade his exhortations. He looks at her, puzzled. His smile has turned slightly grim. I don’t understand, he says. Overhead, clouds skim by. She can hear the muted din of the game, seeming to come not from the bedroom but down the shaft of the expressway, all the way from Comiskey, and with it the times they went there. It was the three of them, but her mind does a quick detour around him, and then it is just father and daughter. She was the real baseball fan, the one their father tried to turn into a hitter here in their backyard ballpark, and if their mother loved her less, their father, perhaps, loved her more. They made a day of it, an orgy of food and, because the Sox often lost, of disappointment, which seemed not to dim their pleasure but augment it, one necessary for the other. Now she is stuck to this spot in the grass, their father is deep in the house swigging milk from the carton, and he and the dog hover before her, with their demands.

What do they want from her, exactly? What are they trying to extract? Why does she feel such a formidable need to shield herself from their conjoined pleading? Her calves itch in the heat. His arms circle the dog. Soon their father will sell the house and move to a condo complex, which, he will joke, has a direct pipeline to the Piser Weinstein funeral home; the buyers will build a garage, tear down the porch, pull out the carrots, transplant the peony. The handprints of the daughter of the Holocaust survivors will remain embedded in the sidewalk. The sun will traverse the sky, and they will stand there for years, all of them wanting.

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Photographs provided courtesy of author.