The puppy’s brown eyes were damp as if from the tears of joy I was about to bring her. She was a Dalmatian, and I’d already named her Venus. (We’d been learning about the planets in my first-grade class.) It was all I could do to keep her in my lap—she was intent on leaping up to lick my eyes. In the three minutes I was on the floor of the Cat’s Meow with her, I dreamed fifty dreams of us together. Forty-eight involved fire engines.
My mother, standing above me in an ankle-length fur coat, finished inquiring of the proprietor whether he sold mousetraps (“Only the kind that purr”) and said, “Charlie, it’s time to go.”
“But can’t we keep her, Mom?” I begged. “You said I could have a dog some day. And this is the dog I want. I know she’s special.”
“I said you could have a dog some day. I didn’t say today.” My mother had a hooknose, and when she was disappointed or upset, I imagined it digging into the skin above my heart.
“Please, Mom! Please!” I felt an urgency I had never felt. Venus and I were supposed to be together. I was certain of it. She had kissed my eyes—her blessing of the life we would have together, which I’d seen in flash forward, fire engines racing, sirens wailing their magnificent distress.
“Come on, Charlie.”
I held Venus tighter. She curled into a tight ball on my lap, and I leaned over her, daring my mother to separate us.
“You’re insufferable,” my mother said, and as she peeled my fingers from Venus’s fur, I felt a warm dampness soak my crotch. I don’t remember what pants I was wearing, but the wetness was visible when I stood because my mother thought I’d pissed myself in protest. “You, little man, have lost your chance of ever having a dog.”
I watched Venus skitter hopefully toward the next customers in the pet store, a mother and her son. I knew the boy. He was Franklin Smith, a third-grader in my school who, at recess one day, threw a plastic soda bottle filled with sand at me. It hit me in the left knee and I limped all week.
Pulling me by the wrist, my mother moved quickly toward the door. Behind me, I heard Franklin say, “I want this one, Mom. This one who’s eating my shoelaces.”
“If you’re sure, Franklin.”
In solidarity with the dog I’d lost, I didn’t remove my damp pants all day.
Emma, my father’s sister, looked like a dog, which is to say she looked beautiful, with hair as floppy as a beagle’s ears and large, brown, sorrowful eyes. When I was in the seventh grade, she came to visit us from South Africa, where she’d moved after her wedding three years earlier.
Although my aunt and uncle had no children, they did have a pair of cocker spaniels, Mindy and Max, who were as mischievous as sprites. On walks on the beach on the Cape, my aunt told me, they would disappear, sometimes for hours, only to return covered in seaweed and smelling of fish. Once, they engaged in a tug of war over an octopus carcass. On another occasion they were swept into the cold Atlantic, where my aunt rescued them in a borrowed motorboat. “All I kept thinking was, ‘Let me get them before the sharks do.’”
My aunt volunteered at an animal shelter in Cape Town two days a week. “Your mother asked me why I waste time with dogs and cats when there’s so much human suffering to contend with,” she said. “I told her that if we learn to care for the most helpless in our world, perhaps we can learn to care for each other. But the truth is I like animals more than people.”
Two weeks after my aunt returned to South Africa, I quit my basketball team and began volunteering at Animal Allies, a no-kill shelter behind the half-empty mall at the east edge of town. At Animal Allies, it might be said, I had my childhood wish fulfilled—I was surrounded by dogs, not to mention cats and an occasional parrot, ferret, and guinea pig.
But the animals rarely stayed at the shelter longer than a few weeks before they were adopted. The single exception was a Great Dane-pit bull mix who was so large and ugly he deterred even Animal Allies’ softest-hearted patrons. Thor had a special fondness for me, and I reciprocated, treating him to longer walks than the other dogs. The shelter’s manager, Mimi Patterson, whose silver hair often stood on end like a rooster’s crown, would sometimes drop me and Thor off in my neighborhood so we could walk around the block and I could pretend he was mine.
Eventually, a woman who liked big, ugly dogs—“He looks like my husband’s twin,” she joked—adopted Thor. For a long time afterward, I found it difficult to go to Animal Allies. When I returned, I sat in front of Thor’s empty cage as if it were a shrine.
“I’d keep them all if I could,” whispered Mimi from behind me. “Each one who leaves is another chip off my heart.”
If my father was never a frequent presence in our household, he was a paragon of financial responsibility. A heart surgeon at Ohio Eastern University Hospital, as well as an adjunct professor in the medical school, he treated us to all of the comforts late twentieth-century America had to offer. We lived in a six-bedroom Tudor on Hope Hill, Sherman’s most upscale neighborhood. My brother and I were both given new cars on our sixteenth birthdays. When my brother, two years older than I, was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, my father paid the full four years of his tuition in advance.
If my father wasn’t at the hospital or teaching, he could usually be found in the office he’d made of the carriage house in our back yard, writing articles for medical journals. I don’t remember my mother ever complaining about how seldom he was with us. If I was occasionally jealous of my friends whose fathers coached their basketball teams or led their Boy Scout troops, I understood that my father had more important work to do.
When one July morning between my junior and senior years in high school, my mother told me my father had moved out of the house, I asked why.
“We’re giving each other space,” my mother replied.
“But all you’ve ever given each other is space,” I said. I wasn’t attempting to be cruel or sarcastic, but my mother rushed from the room in tears.
My father rented a condo on the other side of town, close to the hospital. In my senior year, I visited him in it twice. He came to my high school graduation but left before I received my diploma. The hospital had paged him. He had a life to save.
Two weeks into the summer before I was to leave for the University of Pennsylvania—my father again had paid the full four years’ tuition in advance—my mother asked me if I wanted a dog. I knew she wanted the dog for herself in order to keep her mind off my father’s lingering absence, but I pretended ignorance of her motives. “There’s a no-pets policy in my dorm.”
“I’ll take care of it while you’re at school.”
“It wouldn’t be the same, Mom. But thanks.”
If I had agreed to the dog, or if she had suspended her pride long enough to admit it was she who wanted it, she might have been able to temper her sadness. But thereafter, late at night, she sobbed in her bedroom, the sounds muffled by a pillow or a towel or her hand over her mouth.
She was, I realized, no more capable of giving herself what she needed than giving me what I needed.
In the summer after I graduated from Penn, I traveled to Guatemala with a group called Smiles for Jesus. There were fourteen of us, including the group’s leader, Richard Bock, my mother’s dentist. My mother, I suspected, had been hoping to use religion to fill the hole left by her divorce, but she found Evangelical Christianity, she told me, “as boring and unpersuasive as astrology.” Nevertheless, my mother volunteered my services as a translator to the group because I’d minored in Spanish.
Our proselytizing band of dentists, periodontists, oral surgeons, and hygienists was to spend time in twelve Guatemalan towns during our three weeks in the country. By our fourth stop, the towns began to look the same, their central squares dominated by an enormous Catholic church, with tiny Evangelical churches sprinkled everywhere. There was, too, a sameness to the way the towns smelled, like burning corn fields.
I spent mornings working with Fred Livingstone, a dentist in his fifties from Alabama who had three chins, a belly of epic proportions, and teeth worthy of a movie star. For the toothaches his patients inevitably complained of, he had one remedy. I must have repeated the phrase “The dentist must pull the bad tooth” a hundred times. It was difficult to witness a tooth extraction once, much less the dozens of times I did. While most of the adult patients agreed to the procedure with a courageous smile or even a joke, their faces, in the aftermath, showed disquiet as their tongues probed the vacant spaces.
In the afternoons, Livingstone declined to work. Instead, he strung the hammock he’d bought at the airport in Guatemala City between trees and indulged in what he called a siesta but which sometimes stretched into a four-hour nap. I spent my afternoons with Alma Fernandez, the lone Guatemalan dentist in the group. She lived with her parents in Cobán, a town in the north. She was twenty-seven years old.
Alma, who spoke no English, saw few patients during the Smiles for Jesus tour. “They all want to see the American dentists,” she lamented. “I don’t blame them. Guatemalans think Americans are gods or at least have the technology to perform miracles. Besides, Guatemalans are afraid of Guatemalan dentists. They think all I would do is pull their teeth.”
I wouldn’t have called her beautiful. Her nose was too long for her face and her eyes were like muddy teardrops. While she was taller than most Guatemalan women, she was at least eight inches shy of my six feet. Her fingers were short and thick, and I wondered if they made doing her work difficult. During the Evangelical services held each night in our group’s honor, she would stand in the front of the church, her eyes closed, her arms extended, her palms up. She would appear radiant, as if lit from within by holy fire. The preacher would shout—all Guatemalan preachers seemed to shout—and, as if in counterpoint, Alma would speak evenly and slowly the spontaneous language of her belief.
Always after services, I escorted Alma back to the pensíon or hotel where our group was staying. A week-and-a-half into the Smiles for Jesus tour, we were in a town called Santa María de Jesús, and standing in the street after the service, we stopped to gaze at the blue-black silhouette of Volcán de Agua under a star-filled sky. She turned to me with a glowing smile, and although I suspected its inspiration was the beautiful night and not my humble presence, I kissed her.
In the aftermath, I expected her to slap me. Instead, she grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s go to the park.”
In Santa María de Jesús’s central park, the dozen benches were filled with young lovers, kissing. Alma pulled me to one end of a bench occupied on the other end by a couple whose ages couldn’t have added up to thirty. After we sat down, she placed her arms around my shoulders and tilted her head up. I was soon lost in her lips.
Every evening, Alma and I found a bench in the central park of whatever town we were visiting, sharing the venue with teenagers and, in Salamá, a couple in their sixties. To kiss in the park, I soon understood, was a sign to parents, neighbors, friends, pastors, and priests—anyone full of suspicion—that more extensive intimacies weren’t being exchanged outside of public view.
As the Smiles for Jesus tour entered its final week, I begged Alma to allow me certain liberties—a hand up her blouse, fingers a few centimeters south of her belly button. She complied, sometimes after a moment to pray over her decision. The concessions Alma allowed only heightened my desire. Before long I was babbling about becoming engaged, about marriage, about children.
On our third to last night in the country, we were on a park bench in San Pedro Carchá, surrounded by the usual crowd of teenagers devouring one another’s mouths, when a light-colored dog as thin as a knife scooted up to us, inches from our legs. Street dogs were common in Guatemala. I’d seen boys in more than a few towns throw stones at them in cruel sport. The dog looked at us curiously, as if we were part of an exhibition. “Go!” Alma hissed at it, but the dog continued to stare. I’d stowed a roll from lunch in my pocket—I had sublimated my sexual deprivation by overeating—and I was about to remove it to feed our visitor when Alma stood, reared back her right leg, and kicked the dog smack in the chest. The dog yelped and skittered off, looking back once, dolefully, before disappearing.
Alma returned instantly to my arms, her head tilted, her lips ready. The holy heat I’d felt from her had vanished, however, and I was conscious of the mortal smells—of burned cornfields, of car fumes, of human longing—around us. The roll remained in my hand, and I told her I’d meant to give it to the dog. She laughed. “Save it for the pigeons,” she said. “They are less ugly.”
She slid her hands into my hair and pulled me to her, but although we kissed until it was time to go, Alma was again the stranger I’d met at the beginning of the tour.
In the morning, I woke up with a ferocious stomachache. I spent the last forty-eight hours of the Smiles for Jesus tour either on or within close distance of a toilet. Alma came to see me twice; both times, dental hygienists—middle-aged Midwestern women who treated me to all the gushing worry they might have bestowed on a spoiled son—were with me. I didn’t ask them to leave.
Before our final goodbye, Alma slipped me a piece of paper with her address and telephone number. “I will expect your call,” she whispered, and kissed me on the forehead. She marched toward the door but before reaching it slowed and turned around. There was something sad and resigned, if also hopeful and confused, in her expression. I knew I’d seen this expression before, but only after Alma left, stepping into a mist-like rain, what locals called chipi-chipi, did I remember where: on the emaciated dog kicked into the night so love could resume.
I never learned to set aside small grievances. Neither did Sherry, the woman I married when I was twenty-eight-years old. Rarely did our arguments focus exclusively on what had inspired them. We each owned catalogues of past wrongs, endless lists of offenses we referred to in anger. If we had spent half as much time on learning to forgive each other as we did on aiming to prove the other was the world’s worst spouse, our marriage might have survived.
One of the recurring subjects of our arguments was the dogs from Animal Allies I insisted on fostering. (I had succeeded Mimi, who had retired, as the director of what was now a four-branch no-kill shelter.) In the abstract, Sherry enjoyed the idea of our house being a refuge for the abused and abandoned, but the reality proved less romantic. Dog urine and feces, dogs with less-than-benevolent temperaments, dogs with fleas—these realities began to weigh on Sherry until, one day, she told me she’d had enough. I said I couldn’t see myself as someone who barred his door to dogs. (I think I used this exact phrase, pompous as it was.) We might have split over this issue if the next month Sherry hadn’t discovered she was pregnant and I hadn’t conceded that a parade of pound dogs wouldn’t be the best companions for a baby.
Beatrice, our daughter, was the living refutation of two wrongs failing to make a right. She was blond with strawberry lips, like her mother’s, and with her quiet, sweet, and curious presence, she had a way of making everyone she met want to be better than they were.
Wanting to be better and succeeding at it were separate matters, however. One night six years into my marriage and four weeks before Beatrice’s first birthday, Sherry said, “I want a divorce,” and I said, “So do I.” I waited for her to back down; she waited for me to do the same. But soon lawyers were involved, we signed papers, and we were free to find misery elsewhere, which we did. Sherry was married and divorced twice more. I became a disconsolate, dissatisfied serial monogamist. I always dated women who seemed to promise uncommon kindness and broke up with women who reminded me of my mother. My longest relationship, post-Sherry, lasted thirteen months.
When Beatrice turned six years old, I gave her a pug who had won my heart by peeing on my lap at Animal Allies. Beatrice named him Sun because of his unusually bright fur. From the first day, he accompanied her everywhere. He even slept at the end of her bed.
Despite our happy first encounter, Sun never failed to greet me with suspicious barking, as if I were a stranger. I didn’t think this was due to lack of recognition—he was a smarter dog than this—but wondered if it was a critique of my parenting. I had become more like my father than I would have liked to acknowledge. The custody arrangement allowed me only two days a week with Beatrice, and sometimes because of work or my commitments to animal-related organizations across the state, I would go weeks without seeing her. Beatrice never said a word in complaint. She allowed her dog to do the grousing.
When Beatrice was twenty-one-years old, she dropped out of a wildlife management program at Ohio Eastern to marry one of its visiting professors, Paul Portillo. At her wedding, it wasn’t only I who walked her down the aisle. Sun, too, dapper in his custom-made white tuxedo, which mirrored the white in his muzzle, marched at her side. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so genuine.
On the farm they bought in Montana, Beatrice and Paul acquired over the years a menagerie of dogs whom I came to call, without insinuation or irony, my grandchildren.
When I turned fifty, I celebrated with an ice cream jubilee at the Arctic Emporium. In the following weeks, few days passed when I didn’t cap off a lunch or dinner, and sometimes both, with an enormous helping of ice cream. In short time, I became, for want of a better word, an addict. I also grew from overweight to enormous.
At Animal Allies, I sometimes played therapist to the young men and women who volunteered in the shelters, their problems—with their studies, their parents, their lovers—familiar to me from long ago. I listened with sympathy and gave the wisest advice I could. One day, a young college-aged woman, who if she wasn’t anorexic was a missed breakfast from it, suggested both of us had the same eating disorder, although with opposite manifestations. I asked her to clarify.
“I starve myself because I think no one will love me otherwise,” she said. “You eat so you have an excuse when no one loves you.”
I didn’t subscribe to my young friend’s analysis, but I was sufficiently embarrassed by it to want to lose weight. One Saturday morning in June, I set off on what I hoped would be the start of a regimen of weight-curbing walks. When I reached the track at Sherman High School, I noticed a dog training session being conducted in the grassy middle. There were ten dogs with their caretakers and, in front of them, the instructor, a tall woman in a referee’s jersey, who was teaching the dogs to sit. A young beagle was one of several who wasn’t cooperating. He kept wheeling around to look at me. I waved at him in a comradely gesture, and as I did so I felt a shiver run across my right forearm and a fist squeeze my heart.
In the wake of my heart attack, Beatrice came from Montana and spent two weeks with me. She showed me pictures of the twenty-three dogs she and Paul now had on their farm. At the end of her stories, she gazed at me for a long time, her eyes, like her aunt’s, large and dog-like in their compassion. “Why didn’t you ever have your own dog, Dad?”
How could I answer her without sounding like an amateur Freud or someone full of self-pity? But if something—echoes of my mother’s harsh voice, my feelings of unworthiness—prevented me from calling any dog my own, dogs had been less reticent about making their claims on me. Take, for example, my near-fatal day at the Sherman High track. After my heart shattered and I crumpled onto the ground, I opened my eyes to find myself staring up into the faces of what must have been every dog in the obedience class. They were looking at me with curiosity and tenderness, like a compassionate surgical team. The beagle, whose eyes bore a soulfulness one associates with hundred-year-old tortoises, whimpered.
I don’t remember much of what followed: the dog-training instructor’s CPR, my ride in the ambulance, my angioplasty at Ohio Eastern University Hospital. I do remember, as I stared up at the dogs, feeling simultaneously terrified of dying and comforted by their warm presence, their familiar, rich, and earthy smells. I do remember thinking, If I have to go, this is the company I want to escort me to the door. I do remember the beagle’s tongue caressing my chin and cheeks as he licked me back to life.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of five books of fiction: The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award; Steal My Heart, winner of the 2001 Maria Thomas Fiction Award; An American Affair: Stories, winner of the 2008 George Garrett Fiction Prize; The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize; and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize.
His writing has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show as well as on public radio in Cleveland, Iowa City, New York City, and Pittsburgh. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and technical trainer, he is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
(Updated Nov. 2013)
Born in 1979, Elahe Behin is a freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and member of ASIFA (Iranian association of animators). She studied graphic design at Tehran University. She has worked as a graphic designer for several advertising companies, illustrated a number of books for children and adults and participated in the production of several short animations. She is a prize winner at the 8th Tehran International Animation Festival, 2013. Elahe Behin currently lives in Rasht, Iran where she has her studio and teaches art. Her works can be found here.
(Updated Nov. 2013)