The Things We Learn
By Cathy Mellett
Jay got the news on a Wednesday afternoon. I’d been sleeping on the new leather couch in the living room. The sun streamed in the window, strong enough to warm my stomach as I lay on my back. I was in a deep sleep when he entered the house. I’d been dreaming of playing in the snow in the backyard. In my dream, I passed a snowman with eyes made of big black buttons, so round and plastic they scared me. I ran in the snow, ran and ran, and then I heard a faint scraping. I thought it was a branch bumping against a windowpane. But no. It was Jay’s key slipping against the lock and missing again and again. Finally, he found the right spot and turned the key.
I was fully awake by now, slightly annoyed that I’d been caught in the middle of my afternoon nap. His face looked strange. I sat up on the couch, poised to jump off as soon as I heard the command. It’s best to wait for them to say the words. Otherwise, they learn nothing. He still held the keys in his hand. His arms looked limp and his face washed out. He came over to me, sat down, and put his arm around my neck. “It’s OK, Max,” he said, without looking at me. “It’s all right. No need to get off. After all, it’s just a couch.” What was this? The keys jangled by my ear, making me tremble. I shook my head, my ears flapping in a way that always made him laugh, but he didn’t laugh this time. He leaned over and dropped the keys on the coffee table and hugged me harder. I licked his face and tasted tears.
I followed him upstairs. I had to go outside, but when he crawled into his bed and pulled the covers around him, I got in beside him. We stayed in bed for hours. I woke around midnight, my bladder so full it was painful, and heard what I thought at first was laughter.
A diagnosis is like a command. Suddenly your whole world changes. You have to sit when you want to stand. One day Jay was fine, and the next day he was sick. Our lives turned over as easily as that, like a page on a calendar. In no time at all, our house was filled with medicines, bottles, tinctures, and ointments. In the middle of the night, I would follow him to the bathroom, resting my chin on the tub until he was ready to go back to bed. His bladder seemed to give out immediately whereas, thankfully, mine seemed twice its normal capacity. I didn’t want to be a burden. Soon, owners and dogs we hadn’t seen for years came to visit us, and after each visit, Jay seemed exhausted. His brother Todd visited, and although Todd seemed edgy when he talked with Jay, he had a knack for finding the best places to scratch. Jay’s friend, Julie, stayed in the guest room for a few days, invited me to sleep right on the bed with her the very first night, and announced the next morning at breakfast, “You know, I’m thinking of getting a dog.” But she didn’t make any offers.
“They’re all coming to pay their respects,” Jay said.
“You know, in a weird way, I always wanted to be present at my own funeral,” he said. “I guess this is as close as you get.” With this, my heart, like my bladder, expanded, and we welcomed everyone who came.
After the first hospitalization (when he put me in the kennel) and the trauma that followed, he made a sign for the vet’s office. He put my photo at the top. It was the photo taken by the pet photographer, A Picture is Worth a Thousand Woofs. He told his friends he took me there as a joke. “After all, the sitting fee is only five dollars,” he said. “You can’t pass it up.” He got the wire brush and brushed my hair and my beard, then used a bit of mousse to twirl the ends of my moustache. “There,” he said, with a flourish. He snapped my leash, and we were off. When he selected the photos, he showed them to me as if I was supposed to choose one, when all I could do was give them a lick. (They tasted salty.) And when the photos came, he explained to all his friends, “It was a package deal,” put the 8 x 10 in beautiful new mahogany frame, and set it on the center shelf of the bookcase. He cut the wallet-sized ones apart, mailing one to Julie and one to Todd, saying, “They’ll get a kick out of this.” The final one he slipped into his own wallet, telling me, “Of course, what else am I going to do with this?”
He was so proud of the flyer he made with my photo:
My owner is ill. He is looking for just the right home for me. ARE YOU THE ONE? I’m completely self-taught, good with children if I’m around them but I don’t like a lot of noise. I’m affectionate and a good listener.
Won’t you be my new friend?
P.S. I am a good dog and completely housebroken.
It looked like a wanted poster to me.
We walked to the vet’s office and put the flyer on the bulletin board together. Instead of walking home the long way through the park, like we usually did, we went right back to the house. He sat down and waited by the phone as if the calls would start coming in right away.
On one of our nightly walks, we passed a very modern house—the kind with long sleek lines and a roof pitched so low it looks as if it’s hiding something. One of our habits on our walks, particularly at dusk, was to walk slowly past a house if the lights were on so that we could see inside without being too conspicuous. Dusk is a great time to snoop.
The house had huge windows that opened up our view of the entirely white room. White sofa, white chairs, white walls. Was there a white grand piano, or did I imagine that? Jay, being an architect, stopped to look. This was unusual for him, a man so given to subtlety in his life—and on our dusk walks together. My mind, I admit, was on food. He’d forgotten to feed me, and I was thinking about what would happen to me should something happen to him.
Being so preoccupied, I didn’t even follow Jay’s gaze. At first, I waited for him to start up again, waited for the feeling of my leash rising as if it had a will of its own. It took me a few moments to see what he was seeing: that room and its contents. And, the dog. Sitting on the white couch: a white Chihuahua in a ridiculous red sweater. The Chihuahua didn’t look embarrassed. He just looked sad. In fact, his face had a forlorn look I’d never seen the likes of before. Our eyes met for a moment, but instead of him wagging his tail or running to the window, he turned his head and closed his eyes.
An excruciatingly thin man and woman sat at a long, elegant dinner table, eating dinner, not saying a word. The woman leaned on her wrist, as if it were an effort to eat. The man read a newspaper and seemed oblivious of the woman. And that poor Chihuahua. He was the telltale sign, the teller of the tale. He should have been at his masters’ feet, waiting for dinner. (We never give up unless we’re sick.) But no, he was several feet away, sitting on the couch. He didn’t care if he ate or not. It was obvious that some well-meaning person (perhaps a previous owner, perhaps a relative) had knitted the sweater, had taken the time to get the size and dimensions just right. But now I saw that a long tail of red yarn wound down over the sofa cushions to the floor and around the corner. That sweater was not just a sweater. It was a symptom.
“Well, Max,” Jay said, looking down at me. “No matter how bad things get, rest assured, I’ll never dress you up like that.”
That night when Jay left the door open, I slipped out and tried to go back to the house, but I couldn’t find it. Every time I had the opportunity, I tried to go back, and it made me feel like a failure as a dog that I couldn’t find my way.
Several days later, we got our first call about the poster.
“She sounds perfect,” Jay said, hanging up the phone. “She’s married. So that means there would be two people to walk you. Or argue about whose turn it is.” I put my head in his lap.
He got out the mousse again, and we waited. We waited so long that we thought she’d stood us up. I fell asleep, then heard a noise and ran to the window. A red skirt was getting out of an expensive car. This was her. She. My possible new owner.
Jay opened the door. I recognized her right away. Tall and so fair of skin she looked like a phantom, with thin wrists that seemed too small for her body. I looked behind her for the white Chihuahua in the red sweater. But she was alone.
“I had an emergency. I’m sorry,” she said. “Oh, what a wonderful dog!” She swooped down and tried to scoop me to her bosom. She smelled of anise and old socks, and I took a deep whiff. She was intoxicating.
Surely, Jay would recognize her, I thought, but as he led her into the house, I could see that he didn’t. Of course, we had stood only a few moments outside her house. He was probably looking at the dog, the furniture, and the architecture, whereas I, who notice everything, took her in as well because I wondered what kind of person could make a dog so sad. She would not be taking me in. Taking us both in.
Jay led her to the couch and she talked excitedly about herself (she was a book editor), her husband (he was a lawyer), how she worked at home and was by herself all day. How much she wanted a companion. How much she wanted a dog.
“So, you don’t have any pets?” Jay asked.
She shook her head and reached down to scratch my back.
I yawned widely and loudly again and again, but Jay didn’t seem to notice. No pets? Did she say no pets? What happened to the dog in the red sweater?
“You look familiar,” Jay said.
She smiled and reached for me again. Ah, she smelled heavenly, but I knew that inside her own sweater lay a heart like an old nutball left over from the holidays. Maybe it had been warm and gooey once but no more. Now it just looked tasty from the outside.
I realized that I could stretch my head way back into her armpit as she thumped on my chest without actually having to look her in the face. Her eyes chilled me, but her touch was, I’ll admit, quite nice. The image of the white Chihuahua in the red sweater brought me back to my senses. He certainly didn’t look as if he’d had many chest thumps lately. If ever.
I shook myself and wriggled out of her grasp.
“Feisty,” she said, pronouncing it as if she were going to give me a medal. “Have you had many calls?”
“Calls?” Jay said.
“For the dog.” She smoothed her sweater. “Have many people called you?”
Jay lied badly. “Yes,” he said. “Oh, yes.” He nodded. When he looked at me so happily, I forgave him his deceit. “But,” he told her, “We want to make sure we find the right person.”
I sat next to him. “Don’t we?” he said, rubbing my chest. His touch wasn’t as exotic as hers but it was familiar, and I’ve been around long enough to know that there is a lot to be said for that.
She said, “I could tell by the way you talked about him on the phone that you’d want to make sure he was going to a good home.” She fished in her purse and brought out a piece of paper, which she handed to Jay. “That’s why I brought this. References.” She smiled, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, the canines a bit too long to be a human’s.
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Jay said, and I could tell he was impressed. The next thing I knew, they were talking about my bed and what kind of food I liked and how many times a day I went out.
He didn’t recognize her. He didn’t recognize her at all. Even after all my attempts to get him to look at her as I licked her face, he was oblivious.
“Do you think you’d want to take all his stuff now?” he said. “It’ll be easier for me. There’s a forty-pound bag of dry food. He doesn’t love it, but the vet says it’s good for him. It must be working, because he’s never ill.” Jay looked around and cleared his throat. “I’ll carry it to the car for you.”
They seemed to be wrapping up the deal. (So soon? I thought. That’s it?) This made me mad enough to just go with her and be done with it. At least the Chihuahua would have company. But I knew in the long run I’d be the one to suffer. There was only one thing to do.
I went to her side.
“Hello, hon,” she said, wrapping her long thin arm around my neck. “Oh, you are too perfect.” Like the perfect crime, I thought.
Where to do it, I wondered. I knew if I waited any longer, I would lose my nerve. I lifted my leg neatly and aimed.
She shot up from the couch as if she’d been stuck with a pin.
“You rotten mutt!” she said. She kicked off her shoe as if it was on fire. “Look what you’ve done! I paid a fortune for those. They’re ruined!”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Jay said. He looked at me, aghast. “He’s never done anything like this.”
“Oh, really?” she said. “That’s probably why you want to get rid of him.”
Jay looked aghast. “Well, this won’t work at all, will it?” he said.
“No!” she said. “Not at all.”
After she was gone, he said to me, “What were you thinking?”
Next, he put an ad in the paper. Others came, but I wasn’t ready to leave him. Fortunately, either I’d do something they didn’t like, or they just didn’t like me on sight, which was good because I wouldn’t have to come up with a way to get rid of them. The shoe trick got old. With each person who came to meet me—and with each new rejection—Jay seemed to get physically weaker. I would have stopped if I thought I was hurting him, but as he grew weaker, it seemed he grew happier inside, happier than he’d been in a long time. It was a kind of acceptance, for both of us. After it seemed we’d exhausted all our possibilities, Jay would wave goodbye and then go back to the couch with me. I settled onto his lap, and he said, “Well, we got rid of them, didn’t we? Didn’t we, Max?”
We did indeed.
No, I could not leave him. I knew it, and so did he, and it was with this realization that he became even happier.
On the first morning he couldn’t get up to let me out, we just waited. I climbed onto the bed and put my chin on his chest. He stroked my head over and over again until he could catch his breath more easily.
“We’re a pair, aren’t we?” he said. “What am I going to do with you?”
Finally, when he made up his mind, he began writing letters.
“We’ll time this just right,” he said, licking the big, thick envelopes. “There’s a lot to be said for Priority Mail. It has all sorts of advantages. You’ll have a good home.”
He gathered all the pill bottles together on his bedside table. “The wishes of a dying man,” he said, waving the letters in front of my face. “No one can refuse a dying man! You’ll have a good home, Max. You’ll see.” He laughed and then fell back on the bed. “You’ll be treated like a king. A king. King. That’s a dog’s name. I should have named you King!” He seemed to think this was hysterically funny.
The day began with a long walk. He had to sit down several times in order to make it all the way around the park. I was worried about him. And then, he explained, because he just didn’t feel like cooking anymore, we went through a bevy of fast-food restaurants. Breakfast at McDonald’s. Lunch at Burger King. “King again,” he said, laughing as he handed me my very own Whopper. Dinner at Arby’s where he accidentally put horsey sauce on my roast beef.
I shouldn’t have been so happy. I knew what this was leading up to. I felt ashamed for how delightfully I ravished the food. It is impossible to eat such good food in small bites. Yes, I was ashamed until I saw how happy it made him. He ate hardly a bite. He just watched me. And then offered me his.
We had mailed the letters two days before. To Julie, whom Jay said has an incredibly kind heart, and to Todd whom he really loved. “Even if he says he doesn’t approve of my lifestyle,” Jay said. “How could you not approve of someone’s entire life? Just imagine how sure of yourself you’d have to be.” He scratched my head. “Well, he loves dogs, though. You’ll see. You’ll have the time of your life.
“Todd is rich and Julie’s poor,” he said. “Surely one of them will take you, and they’ll take good care of you, too. I’m leaving everything to Julie, so either way, you’ll be set. Who knows, maybe they’ll even give you canned food and too many scraps, although I hope not. It’s not good for you.” He looked mischievous as he said this.
He brought in a young woman from a maid service to clean the house. She had a thick accent. When she asked when he would like her to come back, he said, “No. Thank you. Not necessary.” When he saw her disappointment, he added, “Oh, you did a wonderful job! It’s just that I’m going away. I may not be back.” She seemed to misunderstand. “I won’t come back,” he said. I could tell she didn’t believe him. She turned and sniffed as if she sensed a change in the wind. He gave her a huge tip and said goodbye. She looked so confused.
We crawled into his bed, and I dreamed of the Chihuahua. The dog was sitting on a couch, except it was our new leather couch, looking out the window. I started to admonish him at first to get off the couch. We weren’t supposed to be on the furniture, and after all, it was really my place. He turned his sad wet eyes toward me. He seemed so sorry for me. “Will you never learn?” he said. His fur turned from white to red, the couch from black to the sickening color of cat’s milk, and I woke up very afraid. I watched Jay until daylight.
The next day, the final day, he let me out the back door. I went and came right back. I couldn’t eat a bite. Even if it was only dried food, I wanted to make a statement.
Jay put on a nice sweater and a new pair of jeans and stretched out on his bed. I crawled in beside him and waited as he took the pills, every one. When he was having difficulty swallowing, when his tears fell out of his eyes, I tried to lick them back in. A couple of pills fell to his cheek, stuck like leaves in a dog’s muzzle. I licked those back into his mouth, too. He laughed through his tears, and he hugged me.
As I lay nestled in Jay’s arms, smelling his freshly laundered sweater, I remembered the dog in the sweater again. The Chihuahua. And I remembered the look on the dog’s face as he sat on the couch. Whatever happens after this, I thought, I’ll never be as lonely as that. Never as lonely as that. This is what I kept repeating to myself as I watched Jay’s eyes close.
Phrases I’ve heard over and over kept going through my head. Seven dog years for each human year. Seven brides for seven brothers. Seven Wonders of the World. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. Bad things happen to good people. All good things must come to an end. All good things must come to an end. In this life, you learn so much: the things people teach you, and all the things you pick up along the way.
Jay and I were together seven years. The final thing he taught me is that you take care of each other until the end, and sometimes you have to find a way to navigate the end so that it’s right for both of you—not just the dying but the ones they leave behind.
About Cathy Mellett
Cathy’s Mellett’s short stories have appeared in The Yale Review, Confrontation, The Literary Review, Greensboro Review, and others. In the near future, she will have a memoir piece in Midwestern Gothic and flash fiction in Brain, Child.