I was at the college for an author talk on a novel based on local history. A few dozen people attended and most of us headed afterward to a refreshment table loaded with desserts prepared by students in the culinary school. I put slices of pound cake and chocolate cake on a paper plate and I stood at a small table that supported my cup of water as I ate. If the cake hadn’t looked so delicious I’d have bolted after the writer’s last word because I’d seen Mr. and Mrs. Y in the audience and feared she’d buttonhole me. Mrs. Y and I were former colleagues and we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. I’d met Mr. Y once or twice at staff events. His mode was to stand beside Mrs. Y and bob his head while she stretched her neck toward the nearest person and began the burrowing process. My name was already more than she needed to know.
I saw Mrs. Y bump her elbow into Mr. Y and gesture toward me. They were on their way.
“Where have you been?” she asked. I smiled faintly, my answer to question number one. They held cake plates, and their water cups joined mine on the table. “Isn’t this cake moist? How have you been doing? What have you been up to?”
“More of the same.”
“Same what?” she asked. She paused. I did not interrupt the silence. “Are you still on the east end?” I nodded. “You have friends out that way?”
I wondered what difference it made to her where I lived and how I was getting on with any friends. She surely didn’t expect an invitation from me. I had always minimized contact with her and had never asked her a personal question.
“I don’t think I’ve ever asked where you’re from originally,” she said.
She waited, leaning in, as if listening to me. “Do you have family here? Parents? Siblings? Children?”
Why give me examples of what family meant? I stared at her, hoping she might ask herself why I didn’t answer. I felt an impulse to ask Mr. Y if he knew of any children he’d fathered out of wedlock.
Mrs. Y eyed me with frustration and impatience. I imagined her sticking her hand in my mouth, barging through cake crumbs, and reaching down my throat for answers, submerging her arm up to the shoulder, her wriggling fingers scraping my pelvis.
“I thought the author was interesting,” she went on. “Did you enjoy the book?”
I’d only read a hundred pages, though I preferred not to admit that to Mrs. Y. She might ask me why I’d stopped, and I thought it would be ungracious to disparage the book after the author had flown in and given a well-prepared talk.
I shrugged, leaving my reply at that. I chewed my last bite of cake and gulped my water. I nodded at Mr. and Mrs. Y and left them, but she pursued me, calling my name. I stopped and turned.
She told me that someone we’d worked with had passed away and there would be a service for him later in the week. If she knew my number, she could text me the information. I said I could look up the details online. She said she could send them in half a minute and save me the trouble.
“Do you plan to attend?” she asked. “At work, you seemed to be digging a hole so you could cover yourself up, so I thought a funeral might interest you.”
I coughed, a crumb sticking in my throat. I walked away without addressing her remark.
“Maybe I’ll see you there.”
I kept going, feeling her, down to my footsteps.
Nan and I barely spoke to each other, but our silence deepened following the disappearance of my dachshund, Much. After forty years of marriage we found we got along best when we didn’t share our thoughts. We both harbored resentments, though neither of us remembered where they all came from. Nan also resented Much, who’d never done anything to her, and often referred to him as Mooch or Mooch Pooch or Sausage. I suspected she channeled her resentment toward me through my completely innocent dog. Nan volunteered at the library and the local soup kitchen and because of that felt superior to me, a retired person who did not volunteer. She conveyed her perceived superiority without ever coming right out with it, which was her style, I’m sorry to say. So I had my reasons for resenting her.
Had Nan’s resentment grown so much that she felt compelled to be destructive? What could she have hoped to gain or to prove? Did it amuse her to imagine me enraged? Due to whatever ideas were jerking her around, I returned from a trip to the bank and the grocery store to find that Much was no longer in the house. Nan was ensconced in her favorite chair in our bedroom, reading a murder mystery. I waved at her and she faintly nodded. As I put the groceries away I started to look for Much. My concern mounting, I searched every room and the backyard but saw no sign of him. Nan did not ask what I was doing. I got in the car and drove around the neighborhood. I asked several walkers if they’d seen an aging dachshund wandering around. When I got back, Nan did not ask where I’d been, and I denied her the satisfaction of confronting her.
I went to my chair and sat, imagining Much rolling out from under the sofa and trotting toward me, emanating goodwill. Was Nan pranking me? Was Much stashed inside a box in our closet? Had she given him to someone she’d met at the soup kitchen? Had she killed him and thrown his body into a dumpster? Was Much on the loose somewhere, afraid and wondering where he was? Was she chuckling to herself as she pictured me asking myself these questions? I was tempted to hop out of my chair and demand an explanation, but no, I wasn’t playing into her hands, into the role she’d imagined for me. She’d deny her guilt and enjoy watching me suffer. Maybe Much would turn up. Maybe she’d hidden him somewhere and would bring him home. Why use him to express her resentment? Was she picturing a day when she’d sit next to me, and breaking into a grin, reveal to me what she’d done with him.
I’ve waited, but Nan continues to play dumb. Though she senses me eyeing her, she does not stare back or ask what I’m looking at. I know her intent is to keep calling Much to mind, to keep his ghost endlessly treading between us. As a gesture of retaliation, I’ve left his bowls and his oval bed with the memory foam in place, in effect, daring her to remove them. Whenever I’m out I find myself looking for him, my anger rising, and in the back of my mind I hear him growling and barking at Nan. I’ve vowed to myself never to give in to her, and for her part, she has not said one word about Much.
Glen Pourciau’s third story collection, Getaway, was published in 2021 by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Rupture, and others.