Michael F. Smith
You and Peggy and That Dog
Youíve got a new bedfellow, some furry, whimpering thing that
nudges itself between you and Peggy and whines and pees at its
leisure. You didnít even want the dog, but what else can you do when
your wife walks in the door one day with a puppy peeping its head
out of the top of her purse, ears hanging like wilted plants, and
says, Donít worry, he was free. You recall something about wanting a
puppy. That must have been at least a couple of birthdays or
Christmases ago and you thought puppies were forgotten, but now you
see theyíre not as you spend your time dodging the curious little
creature scurrying around the landscape of your house.
After a week of reckless urination, you finally talk Peggy into
letting Sammy the Mutt sleep on a pillow on the floor next to the
bed. Now you get yelped at from midnight to six a.m. as Sammy the
Mutt puts his paws on the side of the bed, rears his head back, and
wails as if the devilís veterinarian was digging his claws out with
a spoon. "Canít we put the pillow on your side of the bed?" you ask.
"Not enough room," she says. "Just reach down and pet him when he
cries." As you lay there with your eyes wide open at 3:37 in the
morning, a puppy siren wailing in your ears, you wonder if
clobbering him with a pillow could possibly constitute petting.
"Poor little thing," you hear Peggy mumble when Sammy the Mutt
pauses to catch his breathe. You like to think sheís talking about
Itís hard to pinpoint the exact time that life with Peggy became
so vanilla, but youíre not naive, and know youíve had your chances
to preserve the color of marriage. There were the kids, or the lack
of them. Would just one have killed you, you think now. And
you remember those arguments so many years ago, Peggy eager to build
a family, but you hinged, and you donít even recall exactly what
kept you from wanting a child and now youíre too old and donít have
the energy and the promise of sleeping late on Saturday is enough to
get you through the week.
There was your five-year anniversary dinner when all you did was
complain because The Sizzler raised the buffet price two dollars.
You went home and thought some play time might be in the works, but
you just had to turn on the TV for a minute, and that diamond
commercial came on with the shadows on the wall and the guy walks up
and puts a necklace around the womanís neck and the voice says, "For
your anniversary, show her youíd marry her all over again." Peggy
got up and went and cried in the bedroom and you slept on the couch.
Itís not that you didnít want a kid. Married at twenty-four,
Peggy figured youíd enjoy each other for a few years, then get down
to business. She picked up maternity magazines in checkout lines and
elbowed you in the ribs whenever she saw someone with a stroller.
She told you that youíd make a good daddy.
"Nobody is ever completely ready," she told you.
"Iíd just like to be a little more stable." You pretended it was
only the money. Thatís how you saw it, as responsibility, not as
passing on the family name or fresh love. It was an addition to the
listótaxes, electric bills, car payments, insurance. And youíd seen
what could happen if something went wrong, had seen the
documentaries on autism or cerebral palsy. Bad what ifs
filled your head whenever Peggy had pushed the issue. While the
water could get cut off or the car could get repoed, you couldnít
resale a kid.
You and Peggy ate TV dinners and spaghetti as newlyweds until you
scraped together enough cash to put a down payment on a loan for an
air-conditioning installation business. She quit school and started
full-time at the grocery store while you put up metal buildings with
your Uncle Dan, and you dropped pennies, nickels, and singles into a
Folgerís can whenever you could spare them. The day you signed the
note, you celebrated by riding around town with a bottle of
champagne, noticing all the houses with window units, claiming youíd
never worry about missing a loan payment. It took only two years for
you to get enough steady work to where Peggy could quit the grocery
store and finish the last twenty-something hours of her degree.
Somehow things fell well enough into place with the business that
youíd bought a houseó1,700-square feet that felt like a field
compared to the beige-carpeted, cream-walled apartments you had
bounced in and out of. Separate rooms for eating, cooking, and
sleeping, and a back porch for smoking and grilling chicken. Youíd
sit in the living room grinning at one another, satisfied in the
sounds of a neighborhood filtering in through the open windows, your
piece of world.
And thatís when the second wave came, clawing like a wildcat. To
Peggy, it was a natural progressionó marriage, a house, a business,
a degree, a child. She had waited on everything.
"Why not?" she kept asking.
"Canít we enjoy what weíve got?" youíd say. "Jesus, we havenít
had the house but a year."
"Iím sick of waiting. I donít want to be pushing retirement at
"Lots of parents are older these days." That became your new
favorite thing to say.
"Who cares? I donít want to be lots of parents," she countered,
her jaw tight and a vein raised in her forehead. "Iím ready right
"I just donít see what the big deal is."
"What if we donít have a little longer?" she said trying to scare
After the baby talk died out, she sank from you, found fun with
the office girls and kept leaving notes on the kitchen table about
happy hours and girls nights out. She switched from Marlboros to
skinny cigarettes that looked like candy sticks and her lipstick got
redder and redder as you spent more evenings alone. Two garage sales
cleaned out her pants suits and flowery sweaters to make room for
black skirts and silk blouses.
"Youíre looking good," youíd tell her as you sat on the bed,
watching her go from only a towel to the finished product before a
night out. Her hair was longer, down past her shoulders, and her
toenails stayed painted something bright.
"I know. Hands off," sheíd say and brush you off when youíd reach
out for her as she walked back and forth from the mirror to the
You ignored it for a couple of months. Even enjoyed her coming in
late, slithering in bed like a moccasin, waking you with sloppy,
smoky kisses. You played detective a couple of nights, sitting in
the dark corners of bars. She laughed it up with her girlfriends,
stuck to beer. Men liked her and asked her to dance or do other
things, but she only took offers for drinks. You figured sheíd come
around soon enough.
But on a Friday night she didnít come home. You waited and
waitedó smoked a pack, watched crap on TV, turned on the carport
lights and changed the oil in your truck. At nine the next morning
she pulled in the driveway, came in the kitchen door and walked
right past you as you sat drinking coffee, not a word. Her hair was
wild and her clothes were wrinkled, but her lipstick shined like
neon. The shower turned on and you got up and left to work on a job.
That afternoon you drove home anticipating a fight, your knuckles
white squeezing the steering wheel. When you got there, you found a
note saying she was having drinks with "some people."
You stormed into El Chicoís during dollar margaritas, shoved the
blonde that said Smoking or Non, grabbed Peggy by the arm and forced
her towards the door. The office girls whispered and Peggy jerked
away, but her embarrassment kept her walking into the parking lot.
When she got in your truck, she slammed the door so hard a cassette
ejected itself from the stereo. On the way home, the only thing she
said was, "Donít ever plan on touching me again."
And you didnít. Not for a long time.
You spent autumn stepping around each other, speaking only to ask
for the pepper or tea, so you didnít take it as strange the day she
hid in the bathroom for hours. She wasnít making much noise. You
flipped channels, read the paper, ate a sandwich. Finally you
knocked. No reply. Then you beat on the door. No reply. When you
kicked it in, Peggy was face down on the floor, towel still wrapped
around her middle. The ambulance came and she regained consciousness
before making it to the emergency room. Her eyes were glassy and
detached, like they were floating in her head.
You thought strokes were for old people with fragile hearts and
bad headaches, but it happened to a thirty-two year old woman. The
stroke left Peggy limp and weak on the left side of her body. She
worked hard at therapy, gritting her teeth through the exercises.
She regained most of the motion and control of her muscles, but her
eye and cheek droop like a bag of marbles, and her foot drags
slightly, making weird footprints. When she smiles and talks, half
her face is still. Sometimes sheís slow to react to a punch line on
television or respond to simple yes-and-no questions. And she
doesnít recall some thingsónames of older friends, restaurants you
visited on vacation. Itís like sheís lost in a place sheís been
before, but canít remember exactly where the exit is.
You look hard for the old Peggy, but canít help but see her as
less of a woman. Itís hard to touch her the way you touched her when
you were new, with the fingertips, like she was fragile. Youíre
ashamed, leaning your head to her right side when youíre close so
you donít catch a glimpse of her motionless cheek.
Last night she crawled on you during the weather, pulled back the
sheets, said, "I miss you." You turned off the TV, turned off the
lamp. "I donít want it dark," she said. You ignored her and kissed
her. She went for the lamp.
"Iíve got to get up early, Peggy," you said. "Two new jobs."
"Then weíll do this fast. Youíll sleep better, wonít you?" She
flipped on the lamp and your eyes were closed.
"Really, Peggy," you said. She turned off the lamp again, and
went to the couch and fell asleep to a bad movie.
During days crawling around in attics, as you cut holes in
ceilings or screw down air ducts, you try to conjure up ways to
motivate yourself to walk in the door, carry her to the bedroom and
make good old-fashioned love to her without thinking of anything
else. But you havenít been able to talk yourself into what you know
"Iím going to the vet again on Saturday," Peggy says. Sheís on
the sofa with Sammy the Mutt in her lap. "I think heís allergic."
"To what?" you ask.
"I donít know. Thatís what the vetíll tell me."
Sheís never had a dog before and doesnít understand they snort
and sniff and scratch their ass for no reason, so when Sammy the
Mutt whines funny or licks himself, Peggy calls the vet.
Sammyís done something good to Peggy. Sheís playful, rolling
around on the living room floor, letting Sammy wallow on her stomach
and rear end. They spend evenings together on the sofa, playing and
laughing, making sweet eyes at each other. She takes Polaroids of
him sleeping or chewing on socks and sticks them to the fridge and
bathroom mirror. She puts him on a shoe string of a leash and walks
him around the block and two nights ago you found her in the
recliner with Sammy the Mutt held close to her chest, singing a soft
lullaby and rocking him to sleep. Her smile is more complete, the
strength of the good side nearly lifting the weak side to equal
Peggy and Sammy leave Saturday morning the same time you head to
the job you had wanted to finish on Friday. Peggy backs into the
street and as she pulls forward she holds Sammy the Muttís paw up
and waves bye-bye. You lift your arm to wave back, then stop, hoping
the neighbors arenít watching. You get in your truck but donít hurry
as thereís only an hourís work at the most. Riding to the job you
pass the Little League Park and kids are practicing, so you pull
over and take a seat in the bleachers. The kids are wired and the
coach wears a full uniformóa Red Sox hat, three-quarter sleeve
practice shirt, ratty black cleats, and navy pin stripes.
The coach whips the kids through drills, switches them from
position to position trying to find the right fit, and spits out
baseball jargon in quick hitsóHustle up! Get two! Hit the cutoff!
The coach looks funny among the kids as heís not much bigger and
about a quarter as talented. A cigarette hangs from his mouth and he
drills ground balls half the time he means to lift pop ups.
You pay attention to the lanky kid on third base. The kid doesnít
chatter as much as the other kids, has good hands. The coach hits
him a grounder and he fields it clean and whips it to first. The
other kids yell, "Good shot, Joe!" Joe doesnít smile, just turns
around and gets back in position for the next round. Doesnít even
watch the shortstop and second baseman make their plays. You can
tell by the size of his feet heíll be tall, but you hope not too
tall, not insecure tall, not the kind of tall where stupid little
shits ask howís the weather up there. Joe is strong and
young, but you worry about him. He looks timid and quiet and he
doesnít have the face of a kid that would put up a fight. Maybe
heíll be okay, you think, maybe the world wonít take advantage of
You watch the ball move around the infield, and hear the
different voices, see the different sizes and hair colors, imagine
the different fears. Itís then that you realize life is like eating
lettuceóitís not that itís bad, itís just not that good. You know
that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, you will look
at Peggy over your coffee in the morning and wonder what it was that
made you both happy.
That Goddamn dog, you think, and suddenly youíre ticked off
because thereís a new joy in the household but none for you. You
decide you want a new feeling too so you leave practice and drive
through a bad neighborhood, slowly, with your windows down, but the
guys smoking the funny stuff on the corner donít even look at you.
You whistle at a girl in a denim skirt walking down the sidewalk.
You buy a pint of whiskey, though itís only ten a.m.
As you ride and sip, you begin to fantasize about ways to dispose
of Sammy the Muttómaybe thereís an accident involving a heavy shoe,
or a herd of cats kidnap and hold him for ransom. Maybe you were
gonna be a sweetheart and take him for a walk and, oops, he slipped
away from you right when that Suburban rolled by.
Oh my dear Lord! you remember Peggy screaming two nights ago.
You fell asleep in the recliner watching television and her cry
snatched you awake. Sammy the Mutt was down, a victim of rolling off
the couch while sleeping too close to the edge, his body crashing to
the floor in a thud. He was crying and whimpering and Peggy was
close to tears. "Sweet baby, itís okay, itís okay," she kept
whispering over and over, her lips brushing the fur on the top of
Sammy the Muttís head. His eyes were big and scared. He couldíve
broken his little neck in two Peggy had said to you. Yes, you think
now, he could have very well fallen off the couch in his slumber and
snapped his small neck like a twig. Wouldíve never felt a thing.
On Monday you cut out of work early to beat Peggy home, running
two red lights and zooming through a school zone on the way. You
find Sammy the Mutt asleep on the couch. You happily slam the door
and he jumps and yelps simultaneously. "Well, excuse me, Mr. Sammy,
didnít mean to wake you." Sammy the Mutt looks at you but youíre not
Peggy, so he lays his head back down and again closes his eyes.
You walk over to the couch and sit down. Itís quiet and you can
hear little breaths wheezing in and out of his wet nostrils. With
one hand you pick up Sammy the Mutt and hold him close to your face.
You study him, peering closely at those big eyes and search for some
reason to let Sammy the Mutt be. You place him on your knees and
wrap your hand around his small head, cupping it like a gearshift.
You twist it a little to the right, then a little to the left,
trying to determine how much torque youíll need to snap his neck in
the cleanest, least painful fashion. Sammy the Mutt is sleepy and
When you release Sammy the Mutt he lifts his head and looks
around at you. As you cradle his odd head, you realize if Sammy the
Mutt were to live a long life, certainly he will become the ugliest
dog in the world. Sure, heís a darling and a sweet pup, but as time
goes on and he gets bigger and uglier, Peggy will cuddle him
less and less and heíll be demoted from the couch to the floor to
eventually out the back door where heíll sleep in the cold, or the
rain, or whatever. There will be no more soft and chewy dog food, as
heíll be forced to chomp the hard bits of the Wal-Mart brand
special. Sammy the Mutt will grow right out of Peggyís arms into a
real dogís world where fleas bite your ass and a good piss on your
favorite bush is the highlight of the day. Human touch will
disappear from his daily routine, and heíll sit at the back door and
remember the days of puppy love, and be curious as to how they could
disappear so fast
You hear a car door slam. You stand up, carrying Sammy the Mutt,
and walk to the kitchen window where you look into the driveway.
Peggy walks around to the back of the car and raises the trunk. She
bends over and after several minutes of labor, manages to get an
enormous bag of puppy food to fall from the trunk onto the concrete.
Peggy squats down and tries to wrap her arms around it. She twists
and turns and fights to get it lifted, but the combination of its
size and her bad left arm makes it impossible. You look down at
Sammy, scratch behind his ear, then you take him with you as you go
outside to try and help.
Michael F. Smith
has published fiction with The Texas Review, Pindeldyboz, The
storysouth, and numerous other literary reviews and journals.
He has been awarded The
Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, a fiction
fellowship from the Eur-Am
Center for International Education in Pontlevoy,
France, and in 2006 The
New York State Arts Commission selected him to read at
the New York Public
Library in Manhattan as part of "Periodically Speaking."
He was recently awarded
the 2007 Alabama State Council on the Arts Award for
Literature. He lives in
Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and daughter and
their two well-adjusted