by Jenny Vester
Even before they chain up that dog in their spectacularly untended back yard, you despise the couple next door. You refer to them as Bitch and Asshole, same as they call each other, and give them the surname Knob so you can lump them together—as in, The Knobs have really done it this time.
The dog arrives on a Friday night while you’re at work. You drive home from another shift of mixing drinks and pouring pints, wondering how much longer you can work at Uncle Tom’s pub. Ten years is too long already. Never your dream, it was just a way to help out and be helped while you figured out what to do next. Your dream, your true life, is in deep Errington. It includes tall trees, a garden, no close neighbours, and dogs. Lots of dogs.
For years now you’ve been saving, but you’re not the only one who wants to disappear into the woods; and property prices keep climbing. When your nest egg is big enough, you’ll never again deal with a skinny nineteen-year-old girl puking and crying in the ladies’ at the end of the night or a belligerent coke-nosed man insisting he’s responsible for her. You should have fought him harder. Lou would’ve. But what were you going to do? Rescue someone who didn’t want to be rescued? The girl chose him over the options you offered. She shook her head when you mentioned calling her parents or the police and folded in her shoulders when you said she could come to your house. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and left clinging to that fat bastard. You tasted bile when he dragged her out to his car.
When you pull into the back alley to park behind your house, you’re greeted by a torrent of hostile barking. Under the weak streetlight, through the tilting cedar fence that separates your cultivated yard from the Knobs’, you see a fierce, white dog. A bull terrier from the look of her long head and broad chest. She’s straining at the chain attaching her to the lone, scraggly ornamental tree growing in the sea of what had been tall grass before her circling tamped it down. You shake your head in disbelief, and the rage in your belly boils up. Not at the dog—of course, never at the dog, though she seems willing to rip out your throat—but at all the wrong in the world. If you could, you’d destroy all the cokehead men, all the parents abandoning their teens, and these fucking Knobs.
Greasy-mustached Mister Knob and bleached-backcombed Missus never hide their smoking, drinking, yelling, fighting, screwing routine. They even have a soundtrack for it. The background blare of 80s rock music makes your teeth grind. You never want to hear the catchy guitar riffs and raspy voices from songs like “Back in Black” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” again. But you do. Daily. How are these people even real? You wish they’d get sucked back through the rip in time’s fabric that spat them out in the first place. The one thing you appreciate about them is their childlessness. Not that you haven’t fantasized about a cool kid moving into the rental next door and becoming a special friend, it’s just that you hate when damaged dumb fucks procreate. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids, like your own parents—too willing to swing a fist, too broken to stop, too lost to say sorry. You had to leave them behind. Nanaimo is marginally better than Red Deer, Alberta, though people like your parents exist here too—dangerous people clutching to the “glory days” when it was okay to go out with your buddies to beat up faggots and Indians, okay to pick up underage girls.
You hate them. You hate this town. You hate your job. You hate the coke-nosed man and the stupid fucking Knobs, but you won’t hate the wretched dog. You lean over the fence and croon, “Hi nice friend, where did you come from? What interesting ears you have.” But your attention distresses the creature. Her bark hoarsens from the tension of collar cutting off throat. After the horrible shift at the bar, you don’t have the energy to deal. You can’t stop seeing the girl, her short, tight dress riding up her thin thighs as the man shoveled her into his car. You know he won’t offer her water, or clean the vomit from her straggly hair, or tuck her into a safe bed to sleep off her hangover. You can only hope he has a heart attack and dies.
The dog barks on and off, off and on, breaking up what little is left of the quiet summer night. You understand the need to wail. To yell. To not let anyone else sleep because yes the world sucks—but come on! Finally, you pull your pillow over your head, snug it around your ears, rest your cheek on the cool sheet. Sleep comes, fragmented by images of immature breasts and spilled martinis.
Late next morning you bribe the dog with Milkbone treats. She snarfs down the biscuits and barks again, more incessantly when you stand at the fence. How are you going to be able to garden in peace? The peas are ready to pick. You want fresh greens for lunch. As you retreat into your house, you hear Missus Knob. “Ghost, shut the fuck up!”
On the second night, the barking begins before you roll your car into the alley. An hour later, from your bed, desperate to pass out, you shout out the window. “Stop it, just stop it!” Ghost barks louder, angrier. You cry. You actually cry. Is no one else listening? How can anyone in the neighbourhood sleep? Why is no one doing anything? When you finally tip into a dream, you see yourself locking the Knobs into their house and lighting it on fire.
On the third night, you roll foamy orange plugs between your fingers before inserting them into your ears. They expand but can’t keep out the muffled sound of a distressed dog. You try headphones—two Coldplay albums in a row, too loud to be restful, not loud enough to completely drown out the bouts of barking. Nearing a spent and furious edge, you search for your old friends, the sleeping pills, in the medicine cabinet. You shuffle through bottles even though you’re certain you purged the out-of-date Ambien in the last drive to safely dispose of pharmaceuticals.
Finally, at four in the morning you dig the last three pot cookies from the freezer, eat one and a half, and lie back down knowing that tomorrow is your day off. All you need to do is bake for Lou. Not long after, deep, dreamless, uninterrupted sleep takes you. By the time you wake, groggy and unsure, it’s after noon.
When Rumple was alive, you rarely slept in past eight. The clatter of claws, on hardwood floor from his bed down the hall to your bedroom door, was your alarm. You woke with his warm, moist nose pushing into your palm, your face, the soles of your feet—whatever part he could get at. If only you’d recorded the sound of him trotting down the hallway, the rhythm of his clicking claws following you around the house. The odd time, you still think you hear him coming. The Happy Saunterer you’d called him. The Lanky Loper. The Proud Prancer. That dog loved his four-legged body, swishy tail upright, nose swinging from scent to scent.
The death of Rumple was both expected and a surprise. The day before, on the way to the Morell Nature Sanctuary, he’d leapt a ditch and chased one of the university rabbits. Tricked by the daily drug regime keeping him alive, you believed he still had years of good life ahead of him. Even though the vet had warned you: Rumple’s heart would one day, couldn’t say when but sooner rather than later, quit. The x-ray proved Rumple’s huge heart was more than metaphorical; it filled his entire chest cavity. His expanded, loving heart was destined to kill him before he could get old.
The morning he died you stuck three pills down his throat—two for the heart, one for the kidneys. Rumple gobbled down a mound of kibble, and the two of you went for a quick twenty-minute walk. Back at your kitchen table, drinking tea and doing a crossword puzzle, you heard Rumple release his last sound. A wild, keening howl as a deep, full-body, back spasm bent him the wrong way, extending his water-swollen belly. Piss gushed out of him. His breath gone from one second to the next. A few final muscular twitches offered brief hope of his return, but his limp, cooling, purple tongue said no.
Three months, five days and counting. One day you’ll lose track. When that happens, you’ll be ready for your next dog. Rumple was your third, but the first to love you best. Your friend Lou found him wandering a side road in Yellow Point—no tags, no tattoo, hopping with fleas. She got him into her car and brought him to you. The first time you and Rumple made eye contact, his searching yours with naked need, you knew more than anything you’ve ever known: You belonged together.
It’s lunchtime and Ghost starts up again. Kids passing through the alley jeer at her. Action requires either you march next door and demand better from The Knobs or call the SPCA to report abuse. No dog should be chained to a tree for days on end. From your kitchen window you watch Ghost lie down to lick her front paw; you suspect a hot spot.
The ashtray on the table holds three fine roaches. You light the longest one and huff and puff the smoke into curling cumulous clouds. Sweet, potent, first toke of the day. Thoughts defuse and ramble; and for a second you forget about dogs, lost and found.
When the barking starts up again, you cradle your bent head in your hands and plug your ears with your thumbs. Your fingertips rub your scalp. The early afternoon light pours through the window to illuminate floating dandruff. You recall Lou telling you once that eighty percent of the dust in a house comes from live flaking surfaces. The two of you were smoking the latest strain you were growing when Lou had pronounced, “Life is a dance with deterioration.”
You’d both laughed then, but your decaying bits are building up. The vacuum’s been out of commission since you pulled the retractable cord from the innards of the machine a couple of days after you buried Rumple under the hydrangea in the back yard. Now his black and golden hairs have unified with the dust bunnies, morphing and multiplying into furry monsters under the bed, table, couch, chairs, and in all the corners.
You miss his shedding fur, his soft floppy ears, his long slow licks on any skin you bared. Your body misses your two daily walks together. Seven extra pounds have packed around your middle, one for each year you and Rumple were together.
A double batch of medicinal macaroons takes a few hours, start to finish, to bake. Weighing, toasting, cooking, and straining transforms the marijuana buds into bright green coconut oil. You’ve cobbled together a recipe from experience and online suggestions, aiming for consistency, even though you’re dealing with a different batch of flowers most times.
The kitchen smells funky-skunky when the macaroons come out of the oven, lightly browned and a teensy bit crispy. The extra-virgin coconut oil creates crunchy edges, which dissolve on the tongue. Sweetened with maple syrup, the centre is soft and chewy with shredded coconut and almond meal. The right dose promises a solid sleep, a stop to nausea, a prod to hunger, an exit from anxiety and, some say, anti-cancer medicine.
The new marijuana world is all about gummies and over-packaged warehouse weed, but you’re all about the cookies. A decade before dispensaries popped up on every corner, you were immersed in the hush-hush of an illegal grow-op. Your one and only boyfriend convinced you to spark up a show in the unfinished basement you rented from Aunt Cleo and Uncle Tom on Seventh Street. With their permission you blacked out windows, hung halogen lights, and set up fans and timers. Turned out, you cut better clones than the boyfriend, caught the mites earlier, and trimmed the crystal-covered buds with efficient speed. You got used to the hum underneath your feet, the smell of pot wafting up through the vents. When the boyfriend left, you kept the little scene running, distributing the modest amounts you grew through the regulars at the pub. The additional cash went into the “Escape Fund” envelope you kept hidden in a hollowed-out plant encyclopedia on your bookshelf.
When Aunt Cleo got breast cancer, you made the first batch of cookies to ease the side effects of her chemo. Over time, word spread. Now, your cookies have a reputation for being healthy and helpful. For an inexperienced user you suggest a quarter macaroon before bed and then to gradually increase tolerance. Lou’s up to two cookies a day, one in the morning if she doesn’t need to drive anywhere and one in the evening.
Once the twenty-six macaroons are baked, you pack them, still warm, into a big Ziplock, leaving it open so the cookies can breathe. Ghost starts barking as soon as you open your door. She lunges at the fence and spins on her chain. When the idea comes, you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it before. Instead of pulling a Milkbone from your pocket, you pull a cookie from the Ziplock, one of the extras thrown in for good measure. You toss it over the fence, watch it whirl—a perfect miniature Frisbee, a tiny UFO—twirling towards, and then smack, into the dog’s mouth.
All creatures love cookies. A universal treat.
Ghost has already gobbled it down when you wonder what a whole cookie will do to a dog that weighs less that fifty pounds.
You and Lou have known each other for over eight years. When she joined the team at Uncle Tom’s pub, you were smitten by her irreverent, sexy sass and her refusal to suck up to cranky customers. For whatever reason, she liked you back. Without makeup, cleavage, or caring what you looked like, you were never competition.
And you smoked. Your friendship grew over countless cigarettes before you finally quit. She told you things, wryly, as if it was nothing to fuck your high school English teacher or get beat up by your big brother. You’ve always been a better listener than talker, but you told her things too. What a relief to find out she didn’t want kids either—for different reasons than you, but nonetheless. After your brief boyfriend left, you chose celibacy as the best birth control option; but she freely took lovers, men and women. Once, she called you for a ride home from the hospital after an abortion. She told you it was her third. Her eyes, unashamed and hard, found yours, in case you were judging. You weren’t.
Lou opens the door, wearing all black. She’s frail, hidden in baggy sweatpants and a hoodie. A “Fuck Cancer” ball cap covers her baldness. She takes the bag of macaroons from you, nibbling on one as she leads the way to the kitchen where a pot of green tea is steeping.
“So, how’s work?”
“Same same.” You don’t mention the barely legal drunk girl and the blowhard dude.
“Nancy fight anyone lately?” Lou misses the regulars, craves juicy details.
“Nah, she’s been pretty good. Hasn’t said anything about my fat ass or moustache in almost a month.”
Lou takes another bite. “That skinny bitch, maybe someday she’ll swallow whatever sour thing lives in her mouth and shit it out.”
A gaunt girl herself, Lou is dwindling away. Her eyes are big in her face, dark smudges of worry ringing the hollows, like a goth cartoon character. Before cancer you thought Lou was incapable of expressing fear, but not anymore.
“Nancy’s never going to change, she was born mean.”
“Beyond redemption?” asks Lou.
“I’m talking out of my ass. Nancy makes me crazy, they all make me crazy.” You try to smile, apologize for your lack of generosity. “My crackhead neighbours have chained up a dog in their back yard . . . barks all the time. Don’t know what to do about it.”
“Do?” says Lou. She knows you prefer dogs to humans.
You remember the macaroon spinning through the air, into the dog’s mouth. “So . . . how are the cookies working?”
“Yeah, yeah, they’re good for pain and the mental shit. And I’m getting my tolerance up. Only once last week I couldn’t tell if I was floating or lying on the bed. The puking was probably from the chemo though.” For a second, Lou softens. Her hand reaches across the table to touch yours. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
A bristling fat lump swells in your throat. Your eyes brim hot and salty as you get up to hug your best friend. And in your head, you say: Don’t die.
By the time you get home from Lou’s, purple dusk is replacing bright day. No lights shine from the Knob’s house. Ghost doesn’t bark. You creep to the ruined fence and push open the leaning gate. Ghost doesn’t make a peep. She’s a glowing puddle. You whistle softly, and she raises her head slightly. In quiet, slow motion, you step through the thigh-high grass, trying not to break an obvious trail to her worn patch. Ghost’s breath is shallow, but at least she’s breathing.
“Hi, hi, hi, nice white doggie. Too much eh, a whole cookie was too much. Sorry about that.” Ghost wheezes. Her eyes are mournful. “Did you barf? Are you thirsty? The medicine sure chilled you out.” You smell dog shit and hope it isn’t on the bottom of your shoe. You scratch between her ears, down the ridge of her backbone, and give a few gentle pats on her thigh before you pull some garbage-rescued burger from your bag. Ghost sniffs at the half-eaten slab of grey meat with indifference before her head wobbles down between her paws again. “You don’t have to eat it now. Save it for later. You’ll be hungry tomorrow. Sleep is your best bet. And don’t worry, nice doggie, you’ll feel better in the morning. But don’t bark about it.”
Miraculously, you both sleep through the night. By noon, Ghost has found reasons to bark again—the guy noodling on his saxophone three doors down, the construction crew renovating the place on the corner, Asshole yelling at Bitch, whatever. Ghost reacts to all of these but with less intensity, less persistence, less care.
As you head out for your evening shift you dose Ghost again, but with half as much. When you return late and break a new trail from the gate to the tree, she’s less dozy but peaceable, polite even. You whisper as you edge towards her. “Pot got your tongue, little sister? What a lovely side effect.” The dog’s amber eyes train on you as the space between you shrinks. Ghost pants. She whines. When her nose meets your hand, her tail swishes with pleasure. You refill the water bucket and leave gluey blobs of gravied fries and half-eaten chicken strips at the base of the tree.
For the next three nights you play out the same scenario. Ghost catches the cookie out of the air. Ghost gets stoned and quiet. You bribe her with late-night love and leftovers. On the fourth day, you cut the dose to a quarter cookie. That night, when you open the gate, Ghost stands up and wags. Her whine, shrill yet soft, is insistent. She licks your hands. Her nose seeks out the pub food. When you rub between her ears and under her chin, you discover the raw groove where her collar chafes her neck. “Poor thing. Poor lovely thing.”
On your day off, you putter in the garden, deadheading flowers and pulling weeds. Ghost barks intermittently. You throw her Milkbones. When the sun lowers and shadows stretch long across both yards, you watch Ghost watch for you as you watch for The Knobs. They finally leave at ten o’clock, and you slip out of your house. In your hand the coil of Rumple’s old leash, in your pocket a quarter of a cookie.
The early July night smells of the star jasmine littering blossoms in your back yard. You have goosebumps, even though the air is warm on your bare arms. Ghost releases a sharp, excited yip when you push open the gate. You shush her. The dog sits, waiting for your hand to offer the cookie. Someone has trained her. She licks hard at your palm long after every crumb is consumed. When you ask, “You ready for an adventure, nice doggie?” thump thump thump goes her tail on the beaten grass.
You unclip the chain and fasten Rumple’s old leash to Ghost’s collar. The air around you vibrates. “We have to be cool, Ghost. Super cool. No crazy. Just cool, like we’re allowed to do this.”
Ghost tucks in close to your heel, so her nose can meet your hand over and over as you thread your way through Harewood up to the Colliery dam. Someone has taught Ghost to walk on a leash. In amongst the trees, the light of the moon is enough to guide you along the two kilometres of well-worn trails. It’s good to move, good to have a dog at your side again. No one else is out and about. At the parking lot you sit on a bench and comb your fingers through Ghost’s short, thick white fur. If you try to stop, she nudges your hand back to action. When you stand up to go, Ghost rolls over onto her back and invites you to work over her belly.
“What a nice doggie, what a nice friend, what a nice girl.” Ghost squirms, smiles crookedly, showing her teeth, and begs for more.
You’re back on Wakesiah, just two blocks from home, when you hear the rumble of Mister Knob’s truck. There’s no escaping the headlights that illuminate you and the dog. You keep walking until the truck slows to a crawl then stops beside you. Mister Knob leans out the window to stare, his eyes narrow with disbelief. “Hey, what are you doing with my dog?”
“We’re walking,” you say calmly, even though your mouth is suddenly dry and a cold sweat is soaking your armpits.
He looks at you like you have six noses, and you stare back before he pops open his door and steps his beer-bellied body onto the street. “Get in the truck!” He commands.
Ghost slinks behind you, folds her shoulders in and aims her gaze to the ground.
“What the fuck? Ghost! Get in the truck!”
“Are you sure this is your dog?” you ask.
“I know my own goddamn dog! Look here, who the hell do you think you are?”
“Your friendly neighbourhood dog lover.”
Asshole looks at you closer and shows no sign of recognition. In the three months he’s lived beside you, he’s never taken notice. You’re piqued and resigned. If you make a point of not being seen, you shouldn’t be surprised when it works.
“Are you crazy? You can’t just steal someone’s dog and take it for a walk!” His face is red. He’s spitting. You can tell he wants to hit you. He reminds you of the cokehead who crammed the wasted girl into his car. He’s not winning this time.
Crazy? He doesn’t know crazy yet. Because when you open your mouth, screaming comes out. Even you can’t believe that’s you, yelling on the side of the road about the sores on the dog’s neck, about the length of her chain, about the barking, the empty water bucket, the lack of exercise, the undeniable cruelty, the SPCA knocking on his door, the fines he’ll have to pay. About this dog making a choice.
You feel a monster raging in your pulse, and you’re sure Mister Knob can too. Behind you, Ghost growls low in her throat. If the scumbag won’t cave, you’re going to fight. You imagine pulling out his bulging eyeballs, yo-yoing them up and down. Reaching into his chest to extract his useless heart and feeding it to Ghost.
“Jesus, Frank, who cares about the stupid dog.” It’s Missus Knob. You didn’t even notice her. “Let the guy have her. Come on, let’s go home.”
“I can’t fucking believe this,” he blusters as he climbs back into his truck.
“Believe it, you nasty bastard.” The fury that’s puffed up your chest slowly releases as he drives away. Your exhalation turns into a titter and then a few quick tears. You get down to press your forehead to the third eye of your new dog.
Back at home, Ghost follows you inside. In the kitchen you take off her collar to examine the abrasions on her neck. She doesn’t want you to touch them. Close in, her pink nose is the exact shape of a heart. She sniffs and sniffs, skittish, as she investigates your space. She munches a few kibbles from Rumple’s bowl and slurps some water. You show her Rumple’s bed in the living room and pat it repeatedly with the palm of your hand. Ghost’s nose wiggles and computes as she circles round and round and round the hairy, cushioned, softness, storied by a happy and gone dog.
You lie down on the floor and hope she’ll settle, but she doesn’t. She peers down the hallway, returns to the kitchen, and then circles you again. You let your weight relax into the hardwood beneath you and close your eyes. Tears arrive, unasked for, a hot silent stream crossing your cheeks and pooling in your ears. No sobbing accompanies them. You don’t want to alarm your new friend.
You follow the click of her claws with your ears. She’s restless. You want her to lie down beside you. You want her to gaze into your eyes just like Rumple did. You don’t know it yet, but you want her to be Rumple. Here’s the thing: She’ll never be your old beloved dog. All that’s left of him is fur and dust, and soon you’re going to vacuum up even those memories.
Exhausted, prone, weeping—you wait for her. But only her bark comes. It jolts your body into sitting. And there’s Ghost, at the door, wanting out.