Where Oh Where (2012)
Ryan Everett Felton
My mother asks me when I’m gonna give her a grandkid. I tell her to shut up and hang up the phone. She was mostly just kidding, I know, and I feel bad about it – not about hanging up on her or telling her “shut up.” About being her only hope for ever having grandkids. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy, but here I am – the only son she has left. Too bad for her.
That’s when there’s a knock at the door. No one hardly ever comes by, so I assume it’s one of the neighbors’ friends again, drunk and turned around. I step over the pile of jackets and shoes I swear to God I’m taking to Goodwill very, very soon to answer it, and to my surprise, it’s Katie.
Katie lives across the street, in one of the townhouses. She’s one of these sort-of pretty girls you know is way more interested in you than you are in her. Not just romantically, but in general. She listens when you talk. Or she’s really good at looking like it.
“Hey, Jeremy,” she says. Her hands are clasped together. She’s wrapped up in a poofy coat, hunched over like she just came in from the Arctic wilderness. She looks distraught – I think I see smudged eyeliner on her cheek, just a spot she must’ve missed cleaning it up. No move is made to cross my entryway, and I don’t offer to let her in. I hope this is quick, whatever it is.
“You got a second?” she asks. I nod. See, Katie is my buddy Taylor’s cousin. I had never met her or even heard her name uttered once until I started living here. Everyone had a good laugh and thought it was so damn cool when I moved in across the street from her. “Small world,” they said. All I could think of was how now I would have to acknowledge her somehow every time we passed each other.
But she’s never come over before. Still standing in the doorway, I ask her what’s up.
“Uh, listen,” she says, and I swear her voice is cracking. “I know it’d be asking a lot of you, but – um – if you aren’t terribly busy could you help me look for Gibbons?”
“My dog,” she says.
Oh. I think, You mean the dog that keeps me up all night yapping? That fucking dog? Instead, I say, “What happened?”
“I left the door open carrying in groceries,” she says, “and I guess he got out. I’ve been looking for him for an hour.” Another quake in her throat. She clears it and dabs subtly at her nose. “It’s gonna be dark soon. I… If I’m out there past dark, I’d just like to have some company. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Of course I have to.
“No, it’s okay,” I say, bending over to grab one of the jackets littering the floor. “Really. I need to get out anyway.” And that’s true. A walk wouldn’t hurt me. For God’s sake, why am I so turned off to the idea? It won’t be so awful if I just adjust my attitude right now.
I slip into the jacket and say, “Your dog – what’s his name again?”
“We’ll have Gibbons back home in no time,” I say. I smile, and I’m pretty sure it looks convincing.
So we go outside, and the whole time I’m trying to think of something to say. “Which way did he go?” I ask.
Katie shakes her head. She’s shivering. It’s really not that cold. “I don’t know,” she says. “I was in the kitchen when he ran off. He’s such a mommy’s boy. He can’t have gone that far, can he?”
I shrug and let her get one step ahead of me, so I don’t have to lead the search. I’ll give it thirty minutes and come up with an excuse to head back.
“Thanks so much for doing this,” she says. “I felt bad asking, but I didn’t really know what else to do. Nobody around here’s very nice.” We turn right and, I assume, head for downtown.
“But I’m nice?” I ask.
“You said ‘yes,’ didn’t you?” she says.
Can’t argue with that logic.
Twenty minutes later, we’re walking around the park at dusk – Katie says she takes Gibbons (God, what a name) here all the time so it might make sense for him to head here. He really loves it, she says. I think she’s giving the dog too much credit, but I don’t say anything because either way I’m going back home in ten minutes.
“I mean,” she says, “if I was lost I’d sniff out someplace familiar. He probably knows this is the first place I’d look for him.” She gives me this look, this totally serious look and I can’t stand it anymore.
I say, “I doubt your dog’s that intuitive, Katie.” I stuff my hands in my pockets and take a big stride, surpassing her for the first time. I’ll poke my head in some of the shrubs and that’s it. I’m done.
“What does that mean?” she says, catching up. Her speech is strained, like she’s winded. “Are you saying Gibbons is stupid?”
“No,” I say, crouching down and pulling the branches of this bush apart. There’s nothing behind it. “I’m saying your dog is a dog. Meaning he thinks of two things only: eating and barking. Humping, too, if you haven’t got him fixed.”
I stand up. “I’m telling you,” I say, “he’s somewhere totally random and meaningless. Gibbons chased a squirrel or something for half an hour and wound up God-knows-where, and if he is somewhere in this park it’s coincidence, not because it holds some special meaning to him.”
Katie hugs herself tighter. She won’t look at me, and that’s okay, because after I say all that I find myself unable to look back. “All I know is Gibbons loves it when I take him on walks here,” she says, mumbling.
I nod concession. “Right,” I say. “All dogs lose their minds over going out for a walk because it’s the closest thing most of them will ever know to freedom. For fifteen minutes a day they get to be an animal, not a decoration.”
She takes a deep breath and makes a dismissive gesture with one of her hands before tucking it back under her arm. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Right away I feel bad, saying all that. As if it’ll make up for it, I make sort of a show getting on all fours and crawling around the base of this row of shrubbery, searching. Within seconds I’ve collected about a pound of dirt under my fingernails, and the closest thing to a clue I find is a pile of shit that might be a dog’s.
I straighten my back, still on my knees. “There’s nothing here,” I say. I don’t think Katie notices me stealing a glance at my watch: it’s past time to go home. I’ve done my part. “C’mon,” I say. “We’ll have better luck in the daylight.”
Maybe she doesn’t hear me, but I think it’s more likely she’s ignoring me when she cups her hands around her mouth and starts shouting like a lunatic. “Gibbons!” she screams, and takes a few loping steps forward. “Gibbons!” She does this every few feet, completely uninhibited. A lot of the other people in the park take notice and give us dirty looks. Suddenly I don’t want to be seen with Katie anymore. I come out from under the greenery and dust my pant legs off, letting her put some distance between us. I make eye contact with a passing mother, who’s got a death grip on her kid’s hand. I sort of grimace, an attempt to be simpatico with her, like, “Yeah, what a weirdo, right? Who is this crazy girl?”
It’s pretty sad, really. She’s upset. Lost her dog, the poor thing. And all I can think is how strange she looks, how irrational her behavior is and what everyone else must think. I’m not helping anymore, if I ever was. Katie’s the second woman I’ve let down in a single evening. I think of Mom again, and now I really wish I hadn’t hung up on her. That stuff about grandkids was just innocent banter; I didn’t have to get so defensive.
If things had been different, if Clay was still here, Mom wouldn’t have to hedge all her bets on me. She’d at least have one son who doesn’t tell her to shut up, and I bet she’d have a couple grandkids by now, to boot. And I’d be good ol’ Uncle Jeremy, most likely not picking dirt out of my fingernails in some godforsaken playground looking for a damn dog with some girl I barely know.
But here I am. And now I’m all Mom’s got. Right now, I’m all Katie’s got, too, evidently.
I have no idea what to do for either one of them.
Now this young couple – I guess about my age – come up to Katie. The woman puts her hand on Katie’s shoulder, and I wonder why I haven’t done that yet. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I think maybe they’ve seen Gibbons so I walk over there.
“Oh, sweetie,” says the girl, “I’m sorry, no, we haven’t seen him.”
She’s still rubbing Katie’s back. This couple both look more well-off than Katie and me combined. New clothes, both pretty fit and tidy. They’re like mirror images of one another. I bet Katie thinks they were made for each other, but I know better. They hooked up and remade themselves for each other. That’s how it always works.
Even the guy seems concerned – actually anxious – for Katie’s predicament. He pulls a pen and scrap of paper out of his pocket. “What’s his name again?” he asks. Katie tells him “Gibbons” and he writes it down. “We’ll definitely keep our eyes peeled, okay? Let me get your number just in case.” His girlfriend, fiancée, whatever, cozies up to him, and to me it looks like she’s wedged herself into his side so many times that she’s worn down a groove in just her shape that runs from his armpit down to his thigh. They seem so happy, so natural, and all I can think is how something inside me’s got to be broken because having what they have would just make me miserable. Do they ever get a moment’s peace from one another? A night to themselves? How can either one of them breathe?
The two of them walk off, a luxury that’s so far escaped me, and Katie looks over at me again. Since it seems appropriate, I say, “Sorry.” She nods.
“Why don’t we split up and cover a bit more ground?” she asks. “Fifteen more minutes and I’ll let you off the hook. You’re right. It’s getting too dark to do much good, anyway.”
“Okay,” I say, “sounds fair.”
She points past my shoulder. “You go that way, I go this way?” she says, right before she tosses her other thumb over her own shoulder. It’s a mystery to me how this became my problem, too, but I’m already here and the guilt over how I spoke to her earlier is a powerful thing.
So we walk off in our designated directions. Somewhere out here, I think, there’s one incredibly happy dog who must think he’s died and gone to heaven. No walls, no leash, just Gibbons and the world sprawled out before him – no limits. If Katie and I are successful tonight, we’ll certainly be knocking him down a few pegs.
My improvised path leads me down this sloping hill, where I take one clumsy, sideways step at a time toward this ditch off to the side of one of the more rural roads in town. It’s getting dark fast and cold even faster. Katie had the right idea, wearing a coat out here. Though it’s not like I had any particular plans for the evening, I can’t wait to get home and out of this obligation. I’m dreaming up excuses just in case Katie asks for my help again tomorrow while I kick at the trash caught in this sludgy ditch. It’s like I’ve crossed some imaginary boundary. The park’s so pretty and well-kept, but down here, just out of view, it’s like a wasteland. My stomach turns just from looking at some of this shit, it’s so disgusting. Old food. Dead birds. Diapers.
I tell myself what an idiot I am for choosing here of all places to look around. Coming down here means I’ll now have to climb back up that hill. I could’ve searched anywhere, but I chose to slum it down here. My arms, I notice, are wrapped around my chest just like Katie’s. My breath’s visible now and I have to flex my jaw so my teeth don’t chatter. For God’s sake, it must’ve been fifteen minutes by now.
That’s when I see it. Sprawled out about six yards ahead of me, barely discernable in the dark, but unmistakable nonetheless: a dead dog, tossed onto the roadside by some speeding vehicle.
I run over, biting my lip and holding my breath, wishing for it not to be fucking Gibbons, but of course when I get there it’s clear that it is. I can’t look. His long brown body, in its current condition, is the grossest thing I’ve seen down here by far.
It’s Katie. I can see her, at the crest of the hill, just a fuzzy speck in the distance. There’s no way she sees me, down here in the dark. My first reaction is to somehow keep her from venturing down here, to hide Gibbons from her. The words I want to say are, “Hang on! Be right up!” but they don’t come out.
I think of Clay, how Mom and Dad didn’t tell me about what happened to him for days. Trying to protect me, they said, but even now I’m not sure I forgive them for it. They had no right to keep that from me, to let me go around thinking everything was okay – even if I was just a kid. Katie deserves to know what I know, right? Only an asshole would let her keep looking around for her dead dog like a moron, right?
She’s still up there, scanning the view from the top of the slope. She turns around, I presume, to go look elsewhere for me. She needs to know.
I take a deep breath and hold it, stoop down over the mangled Labrador and pick it up, a pair of furry legs dangling over my arms. Springing back upright, I nearly buckle under the unexpected weight I now hold. It’s strange. Take the life out of something and all of a sudden it’s so heavy.
It’s not easy, carrying this thing up the hill. The grassy incline stretches on forever, and I swear every step I take somehow adds another yard’s distance to my climb. The muscles in my arms tighten and sting, and at one point I can’t help it: I have to take a breath, and I catch a whiff of the dead animal draped over my arms. It’s all I can do not to throw up right here and now.
When I finally reach the top of the hill I see Katie right away, a tiny, spinning silhouette under a lamppost, casting a shadow five times her height. I get about ten steps from her, shaking now with exhaustion, when she finally turns around and sees me.
In her gaze, I freeze. There’s no hesitation – she just comes running, and I think it was stupid to bring the dog up here and make her look at it. But I wanted her to know. That was fair.
For a second I wonder, the way she’s booking it over here, if she might think Gibbons is just hurt. But then she screams, and from the sound of it I know she understands. “Gibbons!” she says, and now she’s right in front of me. The crying’s already started. I had dared to hope she would contain that until she went home. “Damn it, no!” she says, and I set the body down. She crouches in front of it, lets her open palm linger over her lost friend without touching him.
I let her cry. I have nothing to say, anyway. This is, frankly, a much bigger deal to her than it would be to me. A couple of minutes pass like this until she stands up and turns around.
“Will you wait with me,” she asks, “if I call animal control?”
I tell her yes, and almost – almost – move to hug her, but her phone’s already out and her back turned again. Just as well.
An hour goes by before animal control shows and cleans up the mess. We reach the stoop in front of Katie’s townhouse, and by now I’m freezing half to death. My nose is dripping, or at least I assume it is because it was when last I could actually feel it.
If I’m freezing, Katie’s hypothermic. She’s red-faced from the crying and the cold. Her hand hovers, trembling, over her door handle, and she looks up at me.
“Well, thanks,” she says. “For going out there with me. It…” Big breath. “It made it easier, having someone else there, when it happened.”
“No problem,” I say. Because in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t, I guess.
“Do you want to come in?” she asks. “I’ve got hot chocolate.”
I shake my head. “That’s okay.” I mean, I’ve got hot chocolate.
“There’s some rum in there, too,” she says. “I’ll probably be cracking that open as soon as possible. You’re welcome to some.” Her face is strangely flat. She doesn’t look sad anymore, but she’s not smiling. It’s a void, is what it is. Her face is a void.
“I’d better get going,” I say. I start to turn around.
“Wait!” she says, almost yelling. She grabs my arm and pulls me close, gets up on tip-toes, and kisses me.
I’m shocked. I’m a little irritated, too. This hardly seems appropriate, and in all honesty I don’t think much of Katie. Not like that.
But I like it, a little bit, so I kiss her back. Her arm snakes around my side and her hand presses into my shoulder blade. I let this go on for a while, and she’s reaching for the door handle. I think about not breaking the kiss, about following her inside.
And then, out of nowhere, I think the saddest thing I’ve ever thought. I pull back and fall silent. She gives me this look, this look of Why? Or maybe it’s Why not? And I just hold up my hands and shake my head. She goes inside, and I head across the street toward my own apartment, thinking this wretched and abysmal thing over and over, like a mantra.