You Seen My Dog?
After breaking things off last night with Robin, I didn’t expect to find myself the next afternoon on her sloping porch, knocking on her front door. Four pm and the sky has gone black-dark, the temp below zero. My cheeks have stiffened into parallel sheets of ice. OK, so maybe I shouldn’t have chosen New Year’s Eve for the break-up, although you could say our pathetic crying and hollering permitted us to end the year with a bang. As Robin and I fought in my Camaro, across town my house caught on fire and my German shepherd Dakota—not my seven other roommates—remembered to wake John who’d passed out on the third floor after downing half a bottle of Jaggermeister. Dakota saved John’s life and then ran away. I missed all that. I got back from the break-up to find our house ablaze. I asked the sole firewoman of the crew if she knew anything about Dakota. This woman’s face was soaked with sweat and blackened from smoke and ash. That was our disintegrated stuff all over her skin. She told me that after Dakota had jumped out of the inferno, she’d taken off down the street at high trot, headed towards Dahmerville.
Did she go off to look for me?
I lost everything, which wasn’t much. Most of my vinyl collection, my clothes—that’s ten or so T-shirts, a couple tattered sweaters, jeans, and my back-up pair of Converse One-Stars. And then my books the U Bookstore refused to buy back and some puppy photos of Dakota, likely the only thing I’ll miss. I’m at Robin’s to take inventory on what I may have left here, like my Pixies records and a couple T-shirts. Robin might have some photos. Mental note to self: make a list of this stuff. And maybe Dakota’s been by, maybe she’s in the house, conked out on Robin’s bed. When Dakota sleeps, she arranges her lanky body into a circle, resting her muzzle against her back haunches and paw pads. She folds into herself.
As I blow warm breath into the cup of my numb fingers, I wonder if Robin will let me crash here. I’m so tired. Last night I slept two hours in my Camaro. I ran the engine through the night just to keep toasty, but this swallowed what gas was left in the tank. Right now if I were to lie down in Robin’s bed—with its clean flannel sheets and heavy goose duvet—I know I could sleep for 75 years. Pull an old Rip Van Winkle.
I knock again. I hear footsteps, so I jiggle the knob, and it’s unlocked. Real smart. We live, or I should say, Robin lives—I don’t live anywhere now—in the worst neighborhood in Milwaukee. Any dickrod with a gun could walk in and fuck things up. Robin’s graduating this spring and has her mind set on the Twin Cities, likely some tidy gentrified neighborhood chock-full of yuppie go-getters. Like Uptown. Where the green grass is crisply mowed and the rent more expensive. I find it lecherous. Armed with their entry-level positions they begin buying all kinds of shit: brushed suede couch from Pottery Barn, 40-inch RCA with surround-sound capabilities, gas grill complete with heat stoves, Jeep Wrangler. They soon forget they ever lived in an apartment with radiator heat and listened to punk music.
I let myself in, and the radiator hisses out dry, warm air. Robin’s roommate, Shelly is walking around in lemon-yellow panties and an oxford-collared shirt, which happens to be open. Her breasts, her nipples are right there. Her blond hair, thick and carefully mussed and which falls unevenly around her neck, breaks my heart. Very Julie Christie. “What a surprise to find you here,” she says in a flat, ironic tone, devoid of sincerity.
“Have you seen my dog?” I ask.
“I guess you probably need a place to stay for the night,” she says, “Too bad, no space available here, especially for losers.” I love the slight paunch hanging over the waist of her panties. Her fun-derwear, as she calls them.
Shelly flips me off and walks into her bedroom. Breathe in, breathe out.
I can see that Robin’s down jacket is absent from the wooden coat pegs. She hammered these pegs above the radiator, that way the coats would dry and then stay heated. She does handy stuff like that, stuff I never imagine myself doing, building things and going out of her way—all to make her surroundings more comfortable. Robin’s an expert organizer.
Shelly comes out in a pair of blue scrubs like a surgeon wears. Her shirt’s still open. “Real bummer about the house. If Varner were here, I’d ask him to beat your ass for dumping Robin in a car. That’s pathetic, Matt.” Varner is Shelly’s rugby-player boyfriend, and I’m sure he’d kick my ass if he were here, given the situation with his girlfriend’s breasts. Rugby players at Marquette are Neanderthals. They wreak havoc at bars and house parties. They beat up random people, pour gasoline over couches and light them, punch holes in walls, urinate on inebriated girls. All for the fun of it. Once at Real Chili I saw Varner fling his Marquette Special (chili over noodles with sides of diced onion and shredded cheese) right in this poor freshman’s puffy, acne-filled face. According to Varner the kid was ‘ogling the fuck out of Shelly.’ I ask, how can you not ogle the fuck out of Shelly? Her beauty does lie in the finer details—the wave of red stars tattooed on her inner arm, her pouting lips and stained upper incisor, her black eyes more often than not emitting an ironically perplexed gaze. But hey, Varner’s a client of mine, a decent one at that. His checks never bounce. I’m in the business of writing essays for students who are desperate enough to cheat. I charge five bucks per page, ten if I have to read one to two books, fifteen to read more than that or do extensive research. Last semester I wrote two essays for Varner—one on The Graduate and the other on Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both earned him A’s.
“Don’t you think it could do you some good to move away from campus, seeing you graduated four years ago?” Shelly says, following me into the kitchen.
Now that’s true, I did graduate some years back. And also true, I’ve stayed around campus. But give me one good reason to leave. I make a decent enough wage selling essays and tending bar at Thoma’s, an off-campus underage dive. Everything I need is within walking distance. Taverns, coffee shops, a top-notch diner, the Mini-mart, a record shop, a bookstore with a decent lit section, a laundromat. The School of Dentistry offers five-dollar cleanings and the Medical College free check ups. Nothing in my life requires an interview suit, a resume, a portfolio. Long-sleeved white undershirts to cover my tattoos. A treacherous internship where all you do is make Xerox copies for some entry-level a-hole. And I hate to be so shallow, but there’s nothing more irresistible than a young woman before she enters her post-college career phase (although some skip career and fall right into the marriage / house-buying / child-bearing sequence). Before all of that happens this woman is reckless, hungry for the experience of making impulsive decisions and damaging herself lightly at many levels. To brush right up against that tender ouch.
“I want my dog. That’s the only business at hand.” I shed my coat, muffler, and tassel cap and pile them on the antique high chair, the very one in which toddler-Robin was fed. She treats that chair as if all her precious memories have been locked away within its clamorous mechanics and torn vinyl seat. She refers to it as a decorative piece.
Shelly pours me some cold coffee. “Thanks a lot,” I say, getting the crazy idea that Shelly, Varner, and Robin found Dakota last night and have her down in the basement. They don’t want me to have her. I nearly get weepy recalling the way Dakota closes her eyes when she chews rawhide bones. It’s as if her sense of sight no longer serves the pleasure she’s seeking.
“Your roommates are real brilliant,” she says, buttoning up her shirt. Not to the top. “Lighting firecrackers inside the house. That’s using your cerebral cortex.” That’s not how it happened. Then again, I’m not sure what caused the fire. I do know this: after my seven-year-old German shepherd saved John’s life and darted off towards Dahmerville, nobody thought to run after her. Our neighborhood is lined with shabby A-frames with sunken porches and rotting eaves and ramshackle apartment buildings with dimly lit, trash-filled lobbies. Soiled fast-food wrappers and food remnants—hunks of bun, stray chunks of tomato—collect against street curbs and storm grates. Dog shit all over the sidewalks. In any bus shelter you find empty to half-filled forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Depending on which direction the wind blows you smell the yeast from the Pabst or Miller brewery, the rank odor from the tannery, or chocolate from the Ambrosia factory. One in three students falls victim to a crime, e.g. mugging, house break-ins, and on the rare occasion, somebody gets caught in crossfire. I repeat, rare. But if anybody can survive our blighted, gang-ridden streets, it’s Dakota. She’s a master scrounger. I once watched her open Robin’s refrigerator door and help herself to some cottage cheese.
Dahmerville, by the way, is another name for the avenues that run west of campus towards Miller Valley. Infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lived in a duplex on 25th between Wells and Kilbourn. It was either my first or second senior year he was arrested. I can’t remember which. Inside his flat the police found several gasoline barrels and a meat freezer filled with body parts. I do recall it was summer. Dakota and I had walked up to take a look-see. It was unbearably humid. It was like ambling through a sauna. We stopped every block and I’d fill up an empty butter tub with bottled water and let Dakota lap it up. The Dahmer-duplex had been cordoned off with yellow tape. There was a mess of TV crews, cops, neighbors, students, and a steady line of traffic paraded by on Wells, cars with plates from Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan. We were all rubberneckers, trying to catch a glimpse of the monster’s slimed abode. Why am I so attracted to such loss? Possibly I get a thrill out of sorting through what others so quickly dissemble. Trash on the sidewalks, homeless men and women drifting across the avenues towards the shelter (neon-lit Jesus Died For Our Sins beckoning in the freezing night), neighborhood kids bombarding each other with ice balls. The insolent, petty ways we treat each other. At the bar I’m always on the lookout for something contentious or deafening or ignominious—anything to wipe away the sticky glaze of American cheerfulness. We are selfish creatures who have needs—why feign anything else? Two nights ago I overheard one of my regulars, Harold, a flabby man with a swelled face and thinning orange hair who sucks down a whiskey shot for every pitcher of Pabst he drinks, brag to a man that he’d killed several Vietcong west of Chu Lai. Who even knew if he was really in Nam? The only guys who can really sniff out the liars are Nam vets themselves. I do know Harold masturbates in the men’s room every night, and he smells so bad—an admixture of underarm odor, Parliament’s, and a faint whiff of feces—that once he leaves for the night I spray down his area with Kohl’s pine-scented Deodorizer. I know after about ten pitchers and shots he closes his eyes and mumbles to himself in a besotted tone.
Maybe I just enjoy a deep cut.
Both Shelly and I are seated at the kitchen table. I ask her when Robin’s going to be back. Nobody works on New Year’s Day, except bartenders like me. Mental note: call my boss.
“Do you really think your dog would come here?” Shelly asks, reaching inside her shirt and scratching her right breast. I can see the darkness of her areolas thinly veiled by oxford. Did I mention that in a rugby match against Notre Dame Varner broke some domer’s nose? Varner was evidently annoyed by the domer’s smug face, with his “noodle lips” and eyebrows that seemed to “wrap around the side of his head.” So Varner cold cocked the guy.
“Dakota knows this house.”
“Not any more. No girlfriend, no dog. There should be rules against this type of thing, this coming over after the break-up.” She thumbs out two cigarettes and flings one across the table.
“You rarely ever pour me a cup of coffee or give me a cigarette, much less traipse around the house in your panties with your shirt open. What gives?” I ask.
“You know I hate the word ‘panties.’” Shelly pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail, like that of a librarian’s. “It’s not like you haven’t seen me naked,” Shelly says.
“Has Varner been tutoring you in Logic?”
“Varner’s on his way here. I’m going to tell him you said that.”
I fooled around with Shelly last summer—a wild 4 am fling at an afterbars party that began with a fascinating discussion on my senior thesis, ‘Exploring the Theme of Unusable Love in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (Not For Sale). I knew Shelly was a passionate reader of short stories. She collects handsome hard covered editions of collections by the best writers—O’Connor, Welty, Anderson, Chekhov, Maupassant, Munro, Hemingway, even Von Kleist—older books whose dust jackets have been snugly fit in clear Mylar. The kind libraries use. OK, I admit—Shelly rouses my whole librarian-fantasy. That night, we talked about the adulterers’ relationship, especially Anna and Gurov’s feelings of hauntedness. After they split and Gurov returns to Moscow, he cannot stop seeing her face: “In the evenings she peeped out at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from the corner—he heard her breathing, the caressing rustle of her dress. In the street he watched the women, looking for some one like her.” I’m in constant search for this lonely, frenetic feeling, and I told Shelly that. We were in the kitchen, backed up against the counter top. She leaned into me. She pinched my thigh and I began tugging strands of her bronze Julie-Christie hair. Shelly said (I quote), “Gurov deserves to understand what it feels like to love somebody enough you could die of it.” We ended up sneaking into an empty bedroom on the third floor where we crushed and snorted some Ritalin and before I knew it she handcuffed me to the radiator. By dawn we were dripping with sweat and tenderness for each other. Did we at all consider how much our tryst would hurt Robin? Did we imagine Robin’s busy, equitable face crumpling at the sight of my head underneath Shelly’s skirt? I did.
At least I’m honest. I told Robin about the entire fling, which caused a big to-do between her and Shelly, and Shelly hasn’t forgiven me. She’s actually been really pissy with me ever since. If she had told Varner, he’d have wiped the floor with my ass.
When Shelly goes to the cupboard to retrieve a makeshift ashtray—Hey, it’s my Pixies coffee mug!—I snag her pack of cigs, drop it in my back pocket. I ran out this morning, and I’m having some problems with my bankcard—well, mainly it’s that I have minus-10 dollars in my account. Now that I think about it, a cigarette butt smoldering on the couch could have caused the fire. Nine guys, nine smokers, one ashtray.
The front door opens. I hear winter boots tapping the ground to shake the snow off. Shelly buttons her shirt to the top just as Robin saunters past me to the cupboards, breathing hot air into her hands. Her sandy curls are matted down, held to the shape of her winter cap, and her cheeks, usually pallid and droopy, are flushed and tight from the icy gusts blowing off Lake Michigan. She loves this weather, loves coming in from the freeze and sipping hot drinks like apple cider or cocoa. To Robin, hard luck, difficult situations, and inclement weather are merely temporary states—you must pass through them as you travel to something more fecund, shimmering. Life as a dollhouse.
Fishing for her Bucky Badger coffee mug, Robin says to the cupboard door, “Sorry about the house. I kind of figured you’d be over.” Her voice sounds cool, unlike last night when she screamed, “You’re a lost and sorry asswipe.” She followed that with an open-hand slap to the cheek. It was an appropriate reaction to what I had said in response to her question, “Do you really want to sleep with that slut from textbook buyback?” Can you show me, please, how to shut off the valve of my desires? Robin pours herself some coffee—I tell her it’s cold. Without making any eye contact, she puts her mug in the microwave and pushes some buttons. Inside Bucky Badger begins to circle. It looks ridiculous.
“How did it start?” Robin asks.
“Have you seen Dakota?”
“I heard she dragged Jake from the fire,” Robin says.
“You mean, John,” I say. Robin was never interested in keeping my roommates’ names or faces straight. She refused to sleep over. The whole house pretty much disgusted her, especially the bathroom with its moldy ceiling and soggy newspaper sections spread over the grimy linoleum. The toilet smelled too, not so much like feces or urine, but like sour milk. It was so thrashed that cleaning felt like a waste of time. Occasionally we’d load up all the dirty dishes in a garbage bag and toss it in the dumpster.
So what did we do?
We liked hanging out, we took it seriously. In the summer we’d play croquet or toss horseshoes in the backyard, and in the winter, if we weren’t at the bar, we’d sit in the family room, curl up in blankets, pull bong hits, and play Trivia. It was too much lethargy for Robin. Lethargy, by the way, is a word she’d use—I’d say, Leisure.
“Dakota dragged him by the shirt through the house,” Robin tells Shelly, then grabbing Bucky from the microwave oven and rushing it to the kitchen table.
“Where are you guys getting your information?” I ask.
“I was standing in line at 7-11 and overheard the clerk talking to some guys in front of me,” Robin says. Watching the languid way her fingers curl around the mug’s handle, I get this awful realization that I may never touch the bare skin of Robin’s hip. Nor will I—in the middle of the night as Varner, Shelly and Robin all sleep—step quietly into the kitchen, sip cold coffee, smoke cigs, and watch Dakota, laying over my socked feet, chew up one of Shelly’s shoes. This room, with its wiped counter tops and outdated appliances, can be so peaceful.
“Dakota’s barking woke John,” I say.“He crawled out, and Dakota jumped out after and was last seen running down Kilbourn. That’s what the firewoman told me last night.”
“I’d ask Varner to help you, but we’re watching TV tonight,” Shelly says, squinting her eyes in mock suspicion.
“Is it Nickelodeon tonight?” I asked. “A Cosby Show marathon?”
“I’ll make sure to tell Varner you were interested,” Shelly says, facetiously itching the tip of her nose with her middle finger. What does a smart, beautiful girl like Shelly—she’s double majoring in philosophy and literature—see in a meathead like Varner? He’s one of those guys who will get through college without reading an entire book and then snap up a six-figure position at his father’s food distribution company in downtown Chicago, an office on Michigan Avenue, The Magnificent Mile. Two-hundred-dollar bottles of Cabernet and a Company Expense Card without a limit. But who am I to judge? It’s not like I’ve found the magic formula for living life post-college. In a sense Varner will do what he’s meant to do—schmoozing, intimidating, fucking people up. It’s for the same reason that I hesitate to leave campus. Simply put: I’m meant to be a student. I enjoy the discounts, enjoy living out of a few crates and sleeping on a futon mattress over cold hardwoods. I enjoy falling for some lovely new girl, i.e., the reference librarian, the barista who works the afternoon shift at the Fuel Café, the girl who hands every student a blue tray at the dorm cafeteria. Shelly. The latest is this transfer student from Whitewater—she cashiers at the textbook buyback station at the U Bookstore. She has long, straight, ink-black hair and wears fuzzy cardigan sweaters that hold tightly to her chest. When she hands me change and receipt, her fingertips brush my palm. It tickles. What’s her name? I like to let a girl’s beauty—oxblood painted lips over light skin, tree-bark brown irises, bangs scooping across the forehead, that shy-girl voice—seep into every available space of my consciousness so that when I close my eyes, this girl’s face shimmers in my mind’s eye. I don’t stalk or shadow, nor do I linger at her place of employment or hunt down the tavern she patrons. I’m old fashioned. I court. I listen. I respond to what she says. If I had any advice to offer to an incoming freshman boy—they are boys—it would be to listen and respond, to stop railroading these beautiful young creatures with all your bullshit expert knowledge about rock bands and books. I love a girl till she tramples my heart and forces me into a state of blessed sorrow. Robin’s problem was that she wouldn’t stop loving me. Just before Thanksgiving she attended some job fairs and met with headhunters, and when she got home—Dakota was chewing one of Shelly’s mittens while I was using Robin’s VCR to view Midnight Cowboy on which I had to write an essay—she asked me if I liked the idea of moving with her to Minnesota and sharing an apartment. I didn’t like that idea. Later that night I decided in my head to break up with her, like that weekend, or the next, but I ended up having a hard time quitting our late night snuggles. How will I ever get over the delight of pressing my bare chest into hers?
“Maybe the fire department needed a new mascot,” Robin says, her tone harried, arms akimbo, shooting me a hard, baleful look. “You should check there.”
“You’re still upset about last night. Dakota could be frozen for Christ’s sake.” Dakota wouldn’t make a good mascot, mostly because she’s never excited about the home team unless food is involved, particularly beef. A spectator I believe, but never a mascot. I still have a hard time believing the fire caused her to bark. You could say all the pot has quieted her.
The front door opens and slams shut. This time it’s Varner, and he makes a huge clatter stomping the snow off his boots. Like he’s kicking the shit out of the walls. Shelly launches out of her chair and sock-slides across the linoleum, meeting him in the entryway for the greeting. I’ve seen Varner’s hand down her pants in the TV room, laundry room, bathroom, kitchen, front porch, etc…
“Hey, tiger, what’s up?” I say.
The intrepid Varner, still shaking snow off his boots as he enters the kitchen, tells me he is sorry. His head is shaped like a giant football, and he has this poof of red hair. “That’s some tough luck,” he says, sitting down and pulling Shelley onto his lap. His sweatshirt reads, If you can’t run with the big dogs, then stay on the porch—MU Rugby. Clever.
“Speaking of big dogs,” I say, “Have you seen mine?” Shelly’s index finger has slipped underneath Varner’s shirt for the daily navel cleaning.
He says, “I heard the TKEs torched it. Didn’t you paint all their windows green last week?” Varner’s 100 percent college.
“Remember that I graduated four years ago. I don’t paint windows green. I stopped tracking frat happenings long ago,” I said. OK, so John, Dakota, and I did paint the TKEs windows, but if the dickwads would stop their incessant hazing (we’d caught them force-feeding raw meat to some gangly pledges), we wouldn’t have to undertake such menial projects.
“I heard the TKEs have him,” Varner says, smiling that crooked, sinister smile and I’m ready to open a can of whoop-ass on his face.
“Don’t fuck with me, Varner. Dakota’s a she. The TKEs couldn’t handle a dog like her. She’s not obedient enough.” Robin laughs at this, nearly spitting out her swallow of coffee. “This is funny?” I ask her. She knows how much that dog means to me. Mental note: get Dakota snapshots from Robin because she doesn’t deserve them.
“I want to know why you’re here,” Robin says, combing her fingers through her curls. The first time I spotted them was in a History of Math lecture, nearly a year ago. I’m such a sucker for open seating. Why, you ask, was I, a graduate, attending an undergraduate lecture class? Our star basketball player, who shall remain anonymous, had employed me to get him a passing grade. I took tests, wrote an essay or two, attended said lecture. What struck me as even more stunning than Robin’s curls or her bright face or her milk-skinned runner’s legs poking out a brown leather miniskirt was the primitive way she gripped her pen, like it was a club with which she was going to hit me over the head and then drag me into her capacious cave.
“I’m here to get my dog,” I say.
“After you dropped me last night I wouldn’t have called you if I’d seen her outside shivering.”
“You couldn’t have reached me,” I say. Robin tells me to check elsewhere.
“Where was the dog last seen?” Varner asks. I tell him about the firewoman and the dog speeding down Kilbourn. Dakota can run. I wanted to rally a search party but couldn’t stop watching the house being taken by the fire; not to mention that Dahmerville at night is no neighborhood to be searching for a German shepherd who has had far too much pot smoke blown in its ears. I guess I assumed Dakota would eventually return to my parked Camaro later that morning. Watching the blaze seemed like the right thing to do. Billowing clouds of smoke poured from the house as the firewoman, on the roof, axed holes in the tar shingles. Letting the fire breathe. As little orange tongues flared through the torn shingles, I fantasized about getting my own apartment, one closer to the student union or the library. Just the dog and me. Art posters, coffee and end tables, a glass ashtray, clean dishes and silverware, a color TV. And the Pixies full blast—a little “Wave of Mutilation” cranked to 11. The whole package. I needed to treat myself for once. I thanked God for letting the firewoman down safely as the rest of the crew battled the flames with their hoses. Meanwhile students walked from blocks away to watch. They passed jugs of wine and forties of Pabst. I forgot that it was New Year’s Eve till 11:59 when the crowd started counting down the last ticks of the year. Bang. Everybody was hugging and kissing. Even the fire crew and cops seemed to be groping each other.
“Where were you when it started?” Varner asks, his hand crawling underneath Shelly’s shirt.
“He was dumping Robin in his Camaro,” Shelly says.
“Shelly, stop it,” Varner says, his gaze locking onto mine. “I think Matt has enough to deal with right now.” I sense something unfamiliar from him. Compassion? This coming from the same guy who believes the police should curb the growing numbers of homeless in our neighborhood by beating them up.
“When my roommate comes home crying her eyes out, it’s my business. He’s a fucken hand job.” Shelly waves her index finger in my face.
“Time for us to go,” Robin says, taking my arm. I grab the mug and cigarette and follow her into her bedroom where she cranks the valve on the radiator. The heat hisses out of the cast-iron beast. I imagine my beasts hissing and blowing out hot air, I imagine deflating into an empty mass.
“No smoldering ashes in here,” Robin says, nodding at the cigarette in my hand. I rub it out in the mug.
“I need to take some inventory.”
“Inventory,” Robin says, incredulous, “You lost all your dog photos, and oh God, the bong you made in high school shop class.” She’s got that fed-up look on her face—squinted eyes and flared nostrils. If a bulldozer could make a face. Something weird happens. Her cool distance, her upbraiding me—all of this makes me want her. Although I have to admit this brazenness is unlike her. She usually fawned over me, e.g., “Matt, are you going to be my love today?” or “You really fill me, cookie man.” This repelled me. It was like her sense of me, as generous and easy to love, didn’t exactly match up with the Matt I knew. Distracted, a leisure-seeker. A reader of fine literatures. A patron of grubby diners. A pothead. Selfish. There I am.
“I’d planned on taking inventory of what I still have, not what I lost,” I say.
Robin fills a box with my T-shirts, which she has already pulled from her drawers and folded neatly. Always on top of things, our Robin. Next to her crate of CDs are my Pixies records. I also see New Order, The Replacements, and Sonic Youth. She picks them up and places them on top of the shirts. Someday they’ll be collector’s items. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll sell them back to Atomic Records for cigarette money or a cheeseburger. Robin then dumps a pile of letters into the box and hands me some photos. All of them show Dakota and me playing Frisbee at the lakefront. That dog can leap. I think about her furry pantaloons and her soft, wooly coat, or the way she shoots her muzzle into your crotch when she wants attention. I know this sounds funny, but I swear Dakota smiles.
I pick up one of the letters and spot my handwriting. The last line says, “PS…Sitting at a diner I fantasized about licking your kneecaps—over a plate of eggs and hash browns!” Even though we lived four blocks from each other, I wrote Robin love letters and sent them to her as if we lived a thousand miles apart. Hell, I was like our man, Gurov, painfully in love. I then drop the letter and photos in the box. I’m feeling sad, as if she’s broken up with me.
“You already gathered some of my stuff. Were you planning on bringing it to me?”
“Where would that be?” Robin is sitting on her bed. Her hair is pleasingly disheveled. Her green-beaded necklace is the same light green of her eyes. I feel like touching her, so I sit down on the bed and kiss her forehead. With her sunken lips, her face looks sad, welcoming, as if she understands that her desire for me trumps any other emotion she might be feeling: outrage, loss, confinement. In less than 24 hours she has regained her dignity and now she will set it aside, nullify it for my touch. This is not self-hatred or insecurity on her part: it is pure recklessness, like a great fucken rock song, like “Debaser” or “Teenage Riot.” She will tamp down this debaucherous impulse once she leaves college and enters her striver phase (marriage, career, motherhood), and muted, benign, it will become something she barely discusses with old friends, those rare, aimless nostalgic chats: “Oh, God, those days were too much,” she’ll say in a dismissive tone over a protein shake.
Crazy, insoluble day—within you I forever search to be known.
I slip my hand in her corduroys and begin running my index finger over her panties when she calls a hand check.
“Get off my bed,” she says, her face now washed of its glow, chastened. I stand up, feeling more dazed than ever.
Robin’s room reminds me of an antique shop. It often smells like fresh stain, nauseating me, a deep sinking spiral in my stomach. She buys used furniture, strips the old paint, and refinishes the surfaces. On her newest acquisition, a rosewood desk, sits a framed collage of family photos. She matted the whole deal herself. In one photo her dad flips burgers on the Weber while her mom marinades some chicken. Both wear tall smiles. In another photo Robin hands a Nerf football to her sister. Fall leaves are scattered around their feet. There are no photos of them standing around doing nothing, they are always in progress. I think of my family. I do not hate them. Father works in acquisitions and mergers. His regal visage, with its swale-shaped, neatly trimmed and waxed eyebrows, appears often on the cover of magazines like Empire City Business or American Executive. The most interesting thing about Father is his fourth and current wife. Excuse the juvenile drool but she is totally hot. Totally. I like to beat off while conjuring up Isabella’s girlish-clear skin, her long black curls daubing my shoulder, or her tiny sheer panties through which you can easily see her thick clod of dark pubic hair. On their last visit to Milwaukee—this was four years back I believe—we all tried our darnedest to behave. I showered and shaved and wore a pressed oxford shirt and slacks without holes in the knees. During meals I stopped using the word “fuck,” Isabella didn’t initiate footsies with me underneath the table, and Father nixed the yacht-talk. The afternoon before they left (after Father wrote me out a blank check), as Isabella and I were waiting in Father’s Lincoln Towne Car for him to come out of a lunch meeting with his lawyers (“All I do is meet with God damn lawyers.”), I asked Isabella if she wanted to pass the time by showing me her pubic bone. She laughed. But after Father telephoned saying he’d be another 10 minutes, she shut the partition between front and back seats and lifted her Mango pink suede skirt that she’d recently purchased on a “torrential spree” in Lisbon. Did I mention the seats in the Towne Car were soft leather and heated? And then there’s Mother—she’s a trip all right. After I left for college, she sold everything she owned, even the New Buffalo beach house in which I was raised, and moved to the Ozarks into a lean-to without phone, water, electricity, or shoes. She reads Carlos Castaneda voraciously, meditates, and raises a vegetable garden that could end World Hunger. The rare occasion I do see her—I have to travel to Missouri—I tease her that she’s become a hippy long after the original hippies took up money-making and cocaine. As Father likes to point out—she can afford to be a hippy. Mother and Father are uninteresting to me. Strangers, really. Considering this—it makes finding Dakota all the more necessary. She is my family. I call her Pal. I think about how Dakota lifts herself from the sticky linoleum floor in the kitchen (her nightly post is right below the sink, next to the dishwasher) and moseys upstairs, putting herself to bed because she’s tired, because sleep, at this particular moment, is more satisfying than hunger and the waning possibility of food scraps, and when I come upstairs myself, she lifts her muzzle out of a thin sleep and flashes me her best “I’m-tired-and-worried” look, one that closely resembles that of a human in need. In need of what? Love. Food. Heat. A bed. All of the above, please put your pencils down and wait for the proctor to collect the examination booklets.
Robin’s radiator steams ahead. “You better go find Dakota. You can’t just leave her out there.” Robin’s voice is meek like a kid’s. I wonder if ‘out there’ refers to the cold weather or this life. I should leave. Maybe John’s taking visitors at the hospital. I pick up my box and cross the doorway’s threshold. She wishes me good luck and closes the door behind her words.
I stare into the full-length mirror hanging on the wall. I look like hell. Matted, bent hair, hot eyes shattered red with veins, dark circles underneath the sockets, patches of prickly stubble. “Have you seen my dog?” I ask my reflection, but there’s no answer. My coat and muffler have been tossed on the hallway floor near the front door.
The lovers have moved into Shelly’s bedroom. As I pass by her door I overhear them:
S: “He’s finally leaving. Let’s [inaudible]...”
V: “T’s, take it easy. We can cuddle-fuck later, baby.”
I slide over black ice. It glistens like an opaque window. I remind myself to check into work. Maybe my boss won’t mind if I sleep in his office.
After a few heaves the Camaro ignites and I put in some Pixies. The cold weather messes with my tapes—the treble sounds metallic, and the tape plays slow, sounding as if Black Francis has swallowed some opiates. I drive the four blocks to my old house, keeping my eyes peeled for Dakota.
The yellow “Do Not Cross Police Line” tape has been cut and is strewn across the yard. Wood beams creak and then fall inside the house. The roof doesn’t exist and the attic has collapsed onto the second floor, my floor, Dakota’s floor. The house is folding into itself. I imagine my bedroom walls caving in and toppling on her food and water dishes.
On the porch I turn around and face the street. Steam pours out of a sewer tunnel. The front door opens behind me and smacks my right shoulder blade, heaving me back to the slippery porch steps. A jolt of pain streaks through my shivering body.
Some transient walks out of the house, cradling a crate of vinyl, my vinyl. He has a white beard, ZZ Top-style, long and knotted.
I ask him to justify his existence. It ends up that Jimmy, our slumlord, gave the neighborhood pillagers first dibs to go through the house after the insurance adjusters finished. I never trusted Jimmy. In addition to owning several old dilapidated A-Frames around campus he runs Real Chili; there he employs acerbic transsexuals for minimum wage and steals half their tips to pay off the mafia to hold health inspectors at bay. What a louse.
“The insurance people declared it a total loss,” ZZ Top says, “Those asshole college kids done fucked the pooch, they probably used the gas burners for their cigarette light.”
I realize he thinks I’m a vagrant too.
I point at my crate, The Replacements astonishing record, Please to Meet Me lays on top. “We finished college actually, and those aren’t your records, rock n’ roll.” The album covers look charred brown and black. The paper sleeves and vinyl are probably water soaked. What do I need with unplayable records when I no longer own a turntable? He offers me the crate, and I tell him “No thanks.” ZZ Top walks to the curb and sits down, likely waiting for the 30 bus. The steam from the sewer tunnel washes right over him.
I go to the curb and tap his shoulder, “Have you seen my dog? She’s a German shepherd and weighs about 80 pounds.”
“Lassie, the hero-dog. I heard Jimmy leashed him and took him home.”
“Dakota’s a she.”
“Who’d you hear that from?” I want to yank his beard right off his chin. He shrugs his shoulders as if the whole event took place years ago. It’s unlikely that Jimmy took Dakota. Last fall I’d gotten a wee-bit behind on my rent and Jimmy came over all hotheaded. He shook me a little on the porch and Dakota—she’s very protective—chased him down the block and bit him in the ass.
Unfortunately I don’t have enough gas to cruise around the neighborhood looking for her. I imagine Dakota’s been taken in by another student, possibly the beautiful girl from textbook buyback. Orange-fuzzy-sweater girl. I imagine she lives in a studio apartment and chooses to spend holiday breaks away from her family. She loves animals, dogs especially. She’s already bought tin bowls for food and water, along with a bag of Purina. She’s made a place for Dakota to sleep in her bed. If only I could find them.
I decide to head for the hospital to see how John’s feeling. Maybe nobody will say anything if I crash in his room.
The Camaro doesn’t start. I stay in my car and wait for the 30. My toes and fingers tingle with cold. I want nothing more than to lie down in a warm bed. I recline the seat. I’m starting to feel hungry. The last meal I had was around noontime. One of my regular clients, this guy named Tanner, works at Helen Bernhard’s Bakery. Most recently I’d sold him a term paper titled, “Shinnies: Death and Violence at the Medieval University.” Shinnies was this vicious game in which two Medieval students smashed each other’s shins with sharp-edged boulders. The last guy standing won. Tanner, very pleased with his A- grade, met me at the back door and loaded me up with some day-old bakery—four maple donuts and a Boston cream. I’m hating myself for not saving one for later.
I hear a car pull beside me. I lean up. It’s Varner. Our windows slide down in unison like he has power over my windows. “Who the hell is that guy?” Varner asks, pointing to ZZ Top.
“Some transient with my records.”
“Do you want them back? I wouldn’t mind kicking his ass.” Varner’s face—with its puffy eyes, fat lips—looks swollen like he’s been crying.
“No, but I could use a lift.”
“Now you’re talking.”
I ask Varner to drop me at the hospital. Instead he parks in front of the Avalanche Super Bar and says, “Let’s have a drink.” For every eight people in the city of Milwaukee, there’s one tavern. And no glitzy frou-frou drinks or coolers full of micro-beers: we drink domestic beer on tap and we drink liquor, mostly whiskey, tequila. The drinkers of Milwaukee are not amateurs, they’re simply uninterested in the finer pleasures.
Inside the place is mostly empty. A handful of students hovers around the pool table. Some cheeseball Soul Asylum song blares through the jukebox speakers. The ‘Lanche is the kind of place best frequented during the week. They offer fifty-cent taps, chilidogs, and Tombstone Pizzas, and if you tip the bartender well, he often passes you a perfectly rolled joint. On the weekends it fills up with frat-types, jocks, girls dumb as wood getting their MRS degrees.
As Varner and I belly up to the bar, my favorite bartender and mentor Steve is tapping a pitcher of Pabst. He tops off a pitcher with an inch of foam. That’s decorative, I think. Steve plays after-hours poker games with my boss two mornings a week (which is how I got hooked up with my current gig at Thoma’s). Steve taught me all the technique I know: keep one eye on customers’ faces while the other scans for empty mugs and pitchers and unlit cigarettes. The best bartender controls his customers’ needs. If you tell them when they’re thirsty and what guy or gal they want to sleep with, you’ll keep them coming back. And Steve’s best advice: “Four out of five pitchers pay out to the till and the fifth goes in your pocket.” He’s one of the best.
Steve tells me that my boss called here looking for me. “He’s got some broad working your shift. Better watch your job, Matt. A broad keeps drunks drinking.” Steve is right, as always. A female bartender buoys within the male drinker—especially a regular whom she serves nightly—a fantasy in which that man is the solitary object of the bartender’s desires. She wears that slim tank top or sweater just for you, smiles warmly and makes staid eye contact with you the moment you walk in, and when you tell a joke, she laughs with her whole body, she brushes your elbow. Of course, she doesn’t want the drinker—she wants your crumpled dollar bills. And so such a fantasy, this yearning that is never sated, becomes nothing more than fodder for masturbation. And that’s something. It fastens him to that bar till close.
Now that I think about it, Billy, my boss, has been giving me hell about my totals. Maybe they have been a bit low. God, he probably thinks I’m stealing from him. And I am.
“What did you say?” I ask.
“That your house burnt down to the ground. He asked how it started, I told him.”
“How did it start?”
“Faulty wiring,” Steve says, sliding two Pabst bottles across the oak bar top.
“Where did you hear that?”
“The Journal-Sentinel. The beers are on the house.” Steve throws the newspaper on the bar and walks off to deliver the pitcher. I take a pull from my bottle. It tastes grainy. I peruse the newspaper article for any mention of Dakota’s whereabouts. The fire inspector found charred and jammed wiring in the TV room walls. Next to the article is a sidebar shaded in gray; the headline reads, “German shepherd’s barking saves the day.” The article talks about how Dakota saved John’s life. The reporter quotes John: “It’s so true. A dog really is a man’s best friend.” The reporter doesn’t even mention me, Dakota’s true best pal.
Varner reads over my shoulder and says, “Faulty wiring… The insides were in flames before you knew anything.”
“I can’t wait to tell Robin and Shelly, I told you so.”
“I don’t think they care how the fire started,” Varner says, staring down his beer like he wants to sack it. “Robin thinks you’re pathetic.”
“Thanks for the comfort, big guy.”
“You fucked it up, not me. I’m just being straight with you.”
Varner’s brute honesty sears me. And yet I realize Varner and I have never drunk a beer together. What a joyous occasion—two worlds coming together. My burnout slacker roommates, or old roommates, I should say, would be appalled. I raise my bottle sweating with condensation, and say, “Let’s have a toast.”
Varner picks up his bottle. “To what?”
“Here’s to Dakota finding her way.”
“Here, here,” Varner says, smacking my bottle with his, a high-pitched clink, like a scream.
We both take long pulls. I finish my beer and signal to Steve. Before I drop my arm to the bar he’s front and center. I order two more, plus due shots of Wild Turkey for Varner and me. On the other side of Varner an old man sips whiskey, his hands shaking like a seizure, the bronze liquid wavering in the tumbler. Steve pushes us the shots and beers, says, “On the house,” and splits for the other end of the bar. Steve rocks.
“Let me toast this one,” Varner says. This fills me with pride. “Here’s to you not fucking Shelly anymore.” His shot glass collides with mine, the Turkey splashing on my hand. His eyes look icy—through them I can practically see the storm of hatred lining up his thoughts like dark clouds before a thunderstorm. I imagine Varner throwing me through the window. I recall last night, Robin slapping me with an open hand. It made me regret breaking things off, for I hadn’t known she was capable of such violence. In that papery moment I would’ve let her urinate all over me.
He tosses his shot back, and I lick the whiskey off my fingertips and then do mine. Its thick repugnant syrup creeps down my throat. It nearly gags me. I shake it off and move the empty glasses to the rail and then thumb out a cigarette from the pack I snagged from Shelly. An orange flame from Steve’s Zippo licks the cigarette end. So stealthy, that Steve. “Have you seen my dog?” I ask him.
Steve takes my hand, clutches it in a comforting way. Ahh, Steve, my friend. He’s looking at me dolefully. “I thought you knew.”
“She got run over by a garbage truck on Vliet.”
“Bullshitass, Steve. I don’t want to hear that kind of talk,” I yell, lifting from my stool.
“This is no bullshitass,” Steve says.
“Did you check the tags?” I ask.
“I don’t deal with dead dogs. You can go check the tags,” Steve says. I remember the day Dakota and I got the engraved tags. The downtown veterinary clinic was having a special on them. I also bought her a new red collar, one of those nylon deals, you know, for comfort. Dakota pranced around the TV room, her tail wagging. Approaching each of my roommates, she showed them her new medal, as I called it, licking hands and waiting to get scratched behind her ears. It was a good day to be Dakota.
Varner puts his chubby fingers on my shoulder. Is he trying to console me? His glowering eyes tell a different story as if at any moment his hands could follow the chiseled path of his stare and squeeze me to death. It definitely feels like the wrong moment to ask Varner for a fiver to buy a Tombstone pizza or a bowl of chili. My empty stomach roils and I’m starting to get shaky from low blood sugar.
I slide off my stool, out of Varner’s grip. I head for the jukebox near the bar’s entrance when three of my roommates file into the bar. Even though they moved in last summer, I rarely ran into them. They lived on the first floor. Our three-story A-frame had become, over the past years, a boarding house for dropouts and post-graduate slackers. John referred to me as The Original Roommate. If my housemates needed a tie-breaking vote on pizza toppings, John would say, “Let’s defer to Matt—he watched the Berlin Wall come down in this house.” I’d moved in back in ‘87 as a student with a bunch of friends I’d met in the dorm, and eventually these friends graduated and little by little moved away and new ones replaced them. A friend of a friend who needed a room for a month—that type of thing. Over time they were no longer friends, just some dudes I recognized from the bars or afterbars parties.
Now I do recall speaking to the one roommate with the long sandy dreadlocks. But the other two I’ve only nodded towards or mumbled, “What’s up?” and then raced upstairs to my room. One’s the guy with red hair and freckles, and the other’s taller than an ostrich. John and I call him, “Big Bird” but not to his face. The three of us are wearing the same clothes from last night.
I notice that Varner’s talking on the pay phone in the back of the bar, clutching the cradle like a dagger. His face is blushed and resplendent.
“Have you guys seen Dakota?” I ask my roommates—ex-roommates, I mean.
Dreadhead peers at me with squinty eyes as if his view is out of focus. Then his face goes slack in recognition. He says, “That dog has made us celebrities.”
“We’ve gotten free drinks at every bar on this corner,” Big Bird says.
“What about the dog?” I ask.
“The bartender at Murph’s said the pound’s got him,” Red Freckles says, “Doggy Death Row. You better get down there.”
Big Bird breaks in, saying, “Although Tamara at Real Chili said that when the MPD spots possible recruits for the K-9 Corps they’ll steal them right underneath your nose.”
“Why didn’t you go search for her last night?” Dreadhead asks me.
Varner has joined our circle. Sizing up the dreads, Varner’s face emits a look of disgust.
“You guys could’ve put a leash on her after she ran out of the house,” I say.
“What leash?” Big Bird asks.
“That dog didn’t even have a chew toy,” Red Freckles says.
Varner pulls me away toward the door, saying, “She’s your dog, Matt….Let’s vamanos.” Not quite out of their earshot, Varner says, “I swear, you’re all fucking losers.”
Did I hear him right?
At the door I think how yesterday at this time Dakota was with me. Even with the subzero temperatures and mid-afternoon darkness, we took our usual walk to the campus Mini-mart (cigs for me, a Milkbone for her); as she trotted ahead, leading me gallantly to our destination as all good dogs do, I let her cast her brown-black muzzle in any bush and patch of ground covering she wanted. She loves to sniff ground covering.
Varner says he can drop me by the pound, maybe they have Dakota there.
Over my back I hear Steve say, “See you later, Matt.” I turn to wave, but he’s busy tilting the tumbler of whiskey to the old man’s mouth. The old man’s hands rest at his sides, each fat finger quivering like a beached fish.
Outside the cold stuns me, and in a deep clap-like voice I howl for my dog. A long swoop of a howl, a howl with wings. I wonder if Dakota knows where she is.
As Varner keys into his car, I realize I’ve forgotten to grab the newspaper, the one with the articles about the fire and Dakota’s heroic actions. It’s sitting on the bar top next to the empty beer bottles and shot glasses, next to the old man sipping whiskey from Steve’s hands.
I wait for Varner to unlock the doors, but he just stands there, looking behind me, and I turn and see a group of guys walking fast towards us. They wear the same blue-gold rugby coats Varner wears and are likely coming from Murph’s where all the Rugby lugnuts frequent.
Varner ambles to the sidewalk, says to me, “You’re such a fuck,” and hammers my face, knocking me to the sidewalk. It is covered with ice and jagged clumps of dirty snow. Steel-toed boots blast away at my ribs and stomach. Dent my back. Somebody lifts my face, slams it into an ice chunk. Swipes it across the metal base of a parking meter. Then more kicks to the back of my head. I am crying, I am bawling like a child. Have mercy on me. I scramble wildly, crane my arms over my face to deflect further blows. They stop. I hear car doors opening and shutting and Varner’s car tearing off. Frigid silence. The wind off the lake cuts through my body as if I were only skeleton. God, it’s so fucken cold. This will be our second homeless night.
For Todd McKinney & Rich Jankovich