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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 you.

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 PTA."

"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 now."

"I just donít see what the big deal is."

"What if we donít have a little longer?" she said trying to scare you.

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 closet.

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 is right.

"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 ground.

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 that.

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 isnít squirming.

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

Summerset Review, 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 dogs.

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