Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

We Are, All of Us, Old Dogs Here

Written By: Connie Corzilius

The thing is, Jane doesn’t really want to help. Not this time. She doesn’t like the way the whole thing sounds. Like something that will stir her up. Something she’ll have to defend to Tom.

“Sure,” she says, then hangs up the phone. Because, after all, she’s a doer—the kind of woman who comes through in a pinch when there’s no one else to call. Well. She likes to think so.

There may even have been something eager in her voice.

 

She didn’t mean to drag Tom into it. He isn’t always thrilled when she volunteers. “We’ve got our own dogs, you know,” he says at those times. “Right here. Our own dogs who need us.” Querulous. Aggrieved.

Jane can’t argue with this. They do have dogs—three of them now since their old girl recently departed. After her children, they’re the most important thing in her life. Their girls are grown, ostensibly—ostensibly, because they always need something: money, advice, a place to escape from the sputtering window units and the painted-shut windows and the slanted linoleum kitchen floors of their shabby hipster Atlanta apartments. She feels off-balance when she visits, has to stop herself from clutching at the refrigerator door handle.

She loves her daughters but they are a cranky pair—the older one perennially incensed over some perceived stupidity, the younger one terminally appalled by some perceived injustice.

Anyway, the dogs do not rail over injustice and stupidity. They do not present her with laundry and a crooked, knowing smile. They offer her—they offer them—the solidity of their bodies and the purity of their intent and the stink of their breaths. Their backs, warm in sleep, pressed against their own. Their arthritic joints and the gelatinous gunk that settles in the corners of their eyes and the fur that falls from them in single hairs and in odd, improbable chunks.

Was she ever so rhapsodic about her daughters’ infant bodies? Maybe.

Maybe, but it’s hard to remember.

 

“I want to help in honor of our dogs,” Jane says, trying to explain. “To help others of their kind.”

Tom sighs. She knows he loves dogs every bit as much as she does, but he wasn’t raised to pitch in. Although his family was generous with the checkbook, they were apt to hold back, not step up, when action was required. Now, of course, they are all gone.

“Why does it have to be you? Isn’t there somebody else who can do it?”

“No,” she says, firmly. “There’s nobody but me.”

“Nobody but you.” He raises one eyebrow.

“Nobody but us.” Case closed.

 

The landscape is bleached, the greens turned to brown and the browns turned to tan, and she notices that some of the weeds have turned a noxious shade of purple, the color of rotting eggplant. Georgia is shriveling in drought. The cars, filmed with red dust and aerosol sand, blend into the road, disappear at the horizon; and the people walk around in a sweating stupor, heads down, eyes squinting at the ground.

“I heard tell there’s this phenomenon,” Tom says. “This amazing spectacle, where the sky actually produces water. Rain, they call it.” He feigns a Southern accent. They often speak to each other in purloined inflections, borrowed tongues. He pauses, then repeats: “I heard tell.”

“Hmmm,” she says, “I might could go for some of that there.”

“Turn left at the stoplight,” he says in his regular voice. “We’ve never been in this part of town, have we?”

She shakes her head. Seeing new places is one of the things she likes about transporting dogs, even in her adopted city. Even if the places are on the downward slide.

They pass churches and more churches, both trademarked and off-brand. Sometimes, in the car, they make up church names by combining words: Holy. Covenant. Gospel. Redeemer. Zion. Deliverance.

“What’s ‘apostolic’ mean?” Tom asks now.

“Of or related to the apostles. Probably.”

“What’s an ‘apostle’?”

“You’re hopeless,” she says. “You’re going to hell.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

 

“Lydia told me there would be two dogs,” Jane says. “One is three and the other is, I don’t know, five maybe? They’re a bonded pair.”

“So, they’ll be adopted out together?”

“I’ll do my best, but you know.”

Jane has transported owner surrenders before, but she has never picked up the dogs from the surrendering family. She is not—she has never been—good at concealing her true emotions, and she’s afraid that contempt will harden her face so nothing soft can squeeze through. Because dogs are a commitment. They’re family. They are not disposable. She supposes everyone involved in dog rescue feels the same way, but she also knows it’s her job to be matter-of-fact, pleasant even, with these people. Because the dogs are the thing. Not her judgment or her outrage or her desire to put the owners in their place.

After taking down the address, she had asked Lydia—she’d felt compelled to ask—why the family was surrendering the dogs. Was she hoping to add to her collection of stories about how shitty people are? Whatever, she’s heard it all. A child is allergic. They’re moving. The dog isn’t trained and they don’t have the time or the patience or the interest to train it. They travel a lot, and it’s unfair—isn’t it?—to spend so little time with it. They work a lot, and it’s unfair—isn’t it?—to keep the dog crated all day. Or, worst of all, the dog got old and started to have “issues.”

So here, you take it.

But Lydia’s voice had been gentle, sympathetic even, when she said, “The wife has postpartum depression and can’t cope anymore. It’s all she can do to take care of the baby. That’s what the husband said.”

And so, Jane did not mount her high horse.

 

There is a wide range of housing stock in their Southern city, with drastic fluctuations often within the same block. It’s one of the things they marveled over, she and Tom, when they moved here from the Midwest. You might see a million-dollar Tudor on the same block as an abandoned ranch, or a neat Colonial next to a ramshackle bungalow. Jane likes this. It lends the place mystery. Dimension. Texture. Who knows when the old-money dowager, on her way to Garden Club in a well-preserved Mercedes, might cross paths with the stringy-haired mechanic in his maximum truck? The Confederate plate the only thing they have in common.

But there is also a blighted sameness to this neighborhood: one squat rectangle after another, materially different only in the decorative flourishes she suspects were born of a trip to Dollar General or Home Depot. Hence the pinwheels made from diet-soda cans, the brown-brick house with shutters the color of mercurochrome, the wishing well fashioned from milk-carton bricks, odd shingles, and a plastic bucket suspended by clothesline. Some of the front yards are fenced and tidy, while others, weed-choked, simply peter out, giving way to gravel at the curbless street. So, the houses are different, she thinks. It’s only the feeling of muted despair they invoke that is the same.

 

“Up here,” Tom says. She pulls into the driveway of a tan-colored, stucco house with high-gloss aquamarine trim and parks behind a Chevy Cobalt. They climb out of their SUV, and Tom pops the hatch, smooths the soft old quilts they inherited from his mother, and makes a nest out of them for the dogs.

“Did you check the D-rings? And the leashes?” Jane asks, though she had checked them herself before they left home.

“They’re fine,” he says. “Ready to go.”

As they walk up the driveway past the car, she spots a child’s car seat in back and an ID from the local Army installation on the dash in front of the steering wheel. On the porch, she arranges her mouth and then knocks on the single door, which sounds hollow and insubstantial.

He’s so young, this man who answers. He’s really just a kid, though he holds himself like a soldier, which is what he probably is.

“Hi,” she says. Brightly, she hopes. “We’re here to pick up the dogs…?”

Tom takes a step forward, shakes the young man’s hand. “How are you,” he says heartily, in what she calls his man voice.

“Appreciate you coming, sir … ma’am,” the young man says, nodding. He is tall and skinny and he stoops just the tiniest bit to swing the door open, inviting them to stand on the linoleum square which serves as landing pad and entry to the darkened interior. “I’ve got some supplies. Won’t take but a minute—” He disappears into the recesses while she stands there with Tom, her eyes beginning to adjust. It’s cooler in the house than it is outside, but there is no sense of relief.

Jane, who is frequently bathed in sweat from some internal, infernal light bulb that switches on and off arbitrarily, nevertheless feels an instant and overwhelming preference for the antiseptic sunlight on the cement porch just two steps behind her. The air in the dim room is close. The heavy drapes are drawn, the only light emanating from the vertical blinds on the sliding doors at the far side of the kitchen. The odor of bacon grease and mildew is oppressive, and without deciding to, she begins to breathe through her mouth.

They look at each other, she and Tom, right before the young man comes back, his arms laden with blankets and food dishes and a big bag of toys that squeak and rattle as he clutches them to his chest.

“Here, I’ll take that for you,” Tom says quickly, and then he is stepping out the door, into the sunshine, leaving her there.

“Can I take something?” she asks. But the young man has turned away and is speaking to someone she cannot see.

Until he moves sideways a step.

A woman—the wife, presumably—is standing at the sink, running water from the faucet into a baby’s bottle.

“I’ll get her bottle in a minute when I’m through here, okay?” he says, putting a hand on her arm.

But she stands motionless before the gushing faucet.

He takes the bottle from her hand, gently, sets it on the counter, then turns off the tap. “Just formula, remember? No sugar water.”

It is then that Jane sees her other hand, which is holding a container of sugar.

She turns around then, the wife, short and slumped inside an oversized terry cloth robe thrown over some combination of top and pants. It’s hard to tell where she’s looking, or if she is looking, her brown hair hanging in her face.

“Hi,” Jane says, forcing herself to speak. “Can I—may I help with anything?”

“No, ma’am,” he responds for his wife. “We’re fine.”

“You heard him,” the woman says. “We’re fine.”

“Of course!” Jane says, then feels ridiculous. Chirping like an old woman.

The young man looks at each of them in turn, then she hears him exhale. “I’ll just go get the crate.”

 

When he’s gone, the woman picks up one of those giant plastic cups of soda—Big Gulp or Thirst Buster—her hands looking as small as a child’s. She takes a long drink, the straw making a hoo sound as it moves in and out of the hole on top.

Where to look, what to do with her own hands? Everywhere Jane looks, there’s a puzzle: a basket of wrinkled clothes on the kitchen island; smeared paper plates on the glass coffee table; an open package of disposable diapers on top of the cable box; and an exercise bike draped in towels—wet? dry?—shoved in front of the TV. The kitchen counter is a congested cityscape of cereal boxes and liter bottles, casserole dishes and cigarette cartons. When her gaze returns, Jane is startled to find the woman staring at her.

“I was okay at the beginning,” the woman says in a flat voice. “The first couple of days. But then—” Her voice trails off.

“It’s hard, I know,” Jane says. “The hormones.”

“But then the dogs—Vince and Augie—I caught them staring at the baby, and—and I just knew.”

“Knew?”

“That they would hurt her if they got the chance.” Her face reddens. “They would hurt her!” Her face crumples and she starts to cry just as her husband returns. He shoots Jane an embarrassed look, then wraps his arms around his wife, closing her off from view.

Jane  feels Tom behind her, then, feels the flesh beneath the skin and the bones beneath the flesh, and she leans into him, her shoulder touching his upper arm.

“Hey,” he says gamely, having missed the exchange between the two women. “What can I do?”

“Tom—” she whispers.

But then the young man turns to them. “Nothing at all, sir. We’re fine.” His voice wavering. “We—”

“Stop saying that!” the young woman shouts. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” She wrenches away from him. “Just get them out of here.” Her voice is thick with emotion as she pushes past her husband. “Just get them goddamn out of here.”

Then she disappears down a hallway where—Jane thinks, though she is not sure—she hears a baby crying.

 

It seems the dog accessories will never end, but they do, and then the young man hands her a bag of dog food—cheap stuff, though not the cheapest, some seal of veterinary approval stamped on the side, and half-gone, the heavy paper rolled down and secured with a square of duct tape. “Here you go,” he says. Then: “Be right back.”

A moment passes, and she is just about to whisper to Tom that this is all well and good, but where the hell are the dogs, when the young man reappears with an empty wire crate. It is large and in less than fabulous shape, the black wire rusted in places and the plastic pan at the bottom chewed around the edges, a ratty pad and blanket stuffed inside. He takes an uneven step and then Tom is there, hoisting one end, saying here we go, and the two carry it to the SUV, while Jane hustles ahead and clears her mother-in-law’s quilts, making room.

“You want this, right?” the man says, and she has no idea if Lydia wants the crate or not, but she is not going to refuse it now. “They’ve been staying in here,” he says quietly, looking off, away from them. “They’ve been staying in here too much.”

“Can we help you with them? The dogs?” Tom says.

“No, sir,” he says. “I’ll get ’em.” And then he sprints back into the house.

The day is still, brown, and dry. She thinks how one errant match might burn the entire block down.

Suddenly, a dog comes charging out of the house, a Corgi, overweight, huffing, circling on stubby little legs. Jane’s first thought is the street! but no cars are coming, all is quiet, and she goes after him, making a clicking sound that is some kind of canine currency. He stops, approaches, and she grabs his collar. “Hello, there, Sweetie,” she says, scratching his ears as he pants, looks around, pants, looks up at her.

Meanwhile, the man bursts through the doorway, carrying a caramel-colored dog in his arms. The dog’s limbs are splayed like a toddler’s, his front paws around the man’s neck.

“Do you want—” Tom starts to say, swinging the crate door open, but the man stands at the tailgate, his face inclined against the dog’s, which is suddenly still, muzzle closed, ears back, compliant, almost swooning. Tom steps away, giving him a moment, but he says nothing Jane can hear, only breathes, sighs, then snaps to, pushing the dog into the crate and reaching for the other, whom Jane has led to the car.

It’s done, then. After so much preamble, it’s one-two-three, and the man is thanking them, fast, so fast, with something desperate, then resigned, in his eyes. He strides up the short walk to the door. He does not look back.

Just a kid.

 

Vince wriggles with delight, for that is the caramel-colored dog’s name—Vince—as Tom scratches him under the chin, behind the ears, wherever he can reach through the crate’s open door. Augie, the Corgi, huffs and settles into his fur.

“I think he was about to cry,” Jane says as she pulls out of the driveway. She had seen his face: something struggling, then dying.

“I think you’re right,” Tom answers, but his attention is on Vince. “You know, this is one sweet dog. You are, aren’t you, Vincie, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?”

Her husband is so predictable, wanting to avoid these situations, protesting that someone else can do it, but then falling for every dog he sees.

“Do you think they’ll make it?” Jane drives slowly, finding her way out of the subdivision, passing houses, each with its own story.

“What, these guys?” he says, gazing at the dogs. “These guys are golden. Nothing but better days ahead for them.”

“I meant the couple.”

That, he doesn’t answer so fast. Finally, he says, “I don’t know. They’re young, they’ll probably get past it. But man, it’s a hard way to go.”

They are silent for a moment, thinking their separate thoughts.

“You know, Jane,” he says, turning toward her, his mouth lax around a drawl. “You know, we might could take Vincie here home with us.” She gives him a look and he grins. “Now, don’t say no right off. Just think on it.”

“Tom, they’re a bonded pair. You know we can’t take one, much less two.” She reaches over to tuck the label back into his shirt.

He sighs. “I guess you’re right.”

Think on it,” she echoes, shaking her head. “Y’all have done lost your mind.”

Then she looks back at the dogs. Do they wonder where they are going, Vince and Augie, haunch to haunch, drawing comfort from each other’s scent?

“Yeah,” Tom says softly. “A bonded pair.”

 

for Mark

About the Author

Connie Corzilius - Fiction - We are, All of Us, Old Dogs Here

Connie Corzilius has an MFA from the Writers Workshop of the University of Iowa, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Calyx, Willow Review, Mississippi Review Online, Small Spiral Notebook, and storyglossia, among others. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Million Writers Award, and have been finalists in several recent contests (Narrative, New Letters).

Connie has worked as a bookseller, grant writer, and writer/editor for the bookselling and publishing industries. Born and raised in Granite City, Illinois, she lives in Augusta, Georgia.