Arnie makes his careful way up the walk at a moonless two am on memory and a sliver of lamplight through closed curtains. Laura left the lights on again, every one except the porch light. Arnie goes through the house turning them off: bathroom, living room, kitchen. In each one, he waits until the blinding hot blink fades to shadow.
Nails scrape against wood as Hummingbird tries to raise herself from the bedroom floor. She comes staggering into the dark kitchen and he kneels, buries his face in white fur that smells, lately, like his wetsuit when he hasn’t washed it in a while. She’s been having trouble getting around, sheds hair by the handful, even in the chill fog. Keeps chewing on herself, left back leg down to raw blood-freckled skin. There have been pills and shots; the cream the vet recommended doesn’t seem to do anything but make her throw up after she’s licked it off. She’s old, Dr. Altman said at their last visit, it’s time—skin, intestines, bones. They won’t be able to manage her pain for much longer. Arnie tells Laura he isn’t stalling; there just should be an intuitive pace for this kind of thing. Keeping time. To hold the space between sound. As if any part of time can be captured, owned, set apart from everything else.
“Still my baby,” he whispers in her ear, and she licks his nose until he stands.
I know what you’re thinking: another story about a dying dog. Just what the world needs. You’ve heard this one before. But we still cling to pop songs and fairy tales—repetition is what saves us.
Maybe the person who needs saving is I, and it makes me uncomfortable to force you to be complicit, because it’s not in my nature to ask for things. But between the three of us, the four of us, the ten of us, maybe we can come to an understanding. Arnie will only show us what he wants to show us. We will not sentimentalize. We will follow the breadcrumbs and not ask too many questions. If there is any sand left in the hourglass when we’re done, we will split it evenly between us.
Instead of turning the light back on, Arnie opens the cupboard in the dark. It doesn’t seem to matter to him these days, clear or brown. He barely looks. He stands at the window and pours some into a glass. It’s brown.
Yes, this story is also about an alcoholic musician who’s lost his verve. Whose slow emotional decay through the years has formed a crust of stagnation that could be interpreted as contentment if you’re not looking too closely. This is a necessary component of the dying dog story: to access the damaged part in each of us, the misunderstood bard we secretly understand.
Fog hovers on all sides of the house in a way it never does in the light. Hollows. Makes everything a little sad, powerless, private parts bared then ridiculed by their very nature. If he opens the window, Arnie will hear ocean, the steady break of waves two hundred feet from where he stands. But then he’ll let that fog all the way in, obliterate the solid pumping things behind his skin he’s been working so hard to keep intact. We imagine him opening the window, imagine the fog like something poured, curling its milky tentacles into his ears and eyes and mouth. The mattress groans from down the hall, and we’re reminded imagination has nothing to do with this.
Creak of footsteps, and then Laura is behind him. Hands underneath his shirt, hair tickling the backs of his arms. She hasn’t been this close, so intimate, in a while. He takes a deep breath of her: the opposite of decay—newly rinsed, recently bloomed. It must require willpower not to push her up against the cupboards, to check the hunger her reserve elicits. The smug, secretive carnality underneath all that flannel.
“How was the show?” she asks, her voice soft with sleep.
“Fine. Same old.”
“Did you tell the guys about tomorrow night?”
“What did they say?”
“Oh, you know. That they’d come. That it was a little morbid. I told ’em it was your idea.”
“Did you order the cake?” she asks.
“Yeah. Should be ready for pickup tomorrow after one, they said.”
“You didn’t have them write anything on it, did you?”
Laura is probably no different from most of the girls who’d come in and then out of Arnie’s life. Thirteen years younger than he, raked with a feral, fidgety beauty. They met at one of his local gigs, where she danced through their entire set, thick dark hair—dreaded in places, braided in others—moving with her like Medusa’s snakes. She was in his bed that night, then the next, and she’s still there, like the Stones’ greatest hits, like “Visions of Johanna” played at the very end of the night, something we hum in our sleep.
“Is this new?” Arnie picks up one of the glass animals from the windowsill: some kind of quadruped, giraffe body with a long tapered elephant trunk. The college let Laura use the furnaces of their glass studio for a nominal monthly fee. Something about her creations makes us sad but horny, their impossible appendages wrought so delicately.
“Yeah. I just finished it. I call it a Giraffant.”
“You’re getting really good. You know that?”
She circles his wrist with her finger. Hands with dry calluses interrupted by the smooth pink coins of recent burns. When she puts them on him, there must be no mistaking it. Though she’s doing less of that. We imagine baptismal shivers across our veins.
She takes the whiskey from his hand and sips, grunting as she hands it back. “God Arnie, that’s like gasoline.”
Hummingbird starts to whine. Or maybe she’s been whining and we just now notice. These days her whines are high and hushed, like she’s trying not to bother anyone, round and around like a rusty bicycle wheel.
Laura sits down on the linoleum next to her. The ghosts of her breasts still press beneath our shoulder blades.
“Faith has been broken, tears must be cried,” he sings. “Let’s do some living, after we die.”
Laura strokes Hummingbird’s head, rubbing her ears. “Did you call Dr. Altman?”
“You used to love that song.”
“Did you set something up?”
“She wasn’t there. I left a message.”
“When’s the last time you wrote one of your own songs?”
“Nobody ever really writes their own songs.”
“You’re not doing her any favors, Arnie.”
“It’s my job to sing other people’s songs.”
Laura sighs and lifts her hand: a tuft of white fur falls from her fingers, to become one of the many haunting tumbleweeds that drift through the house.
“It’s raining,” she says.
We look out the window. Little more than a drizzle, just enough to make a person feel tired.
“You guys gonna play?” Luis asks. Hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, skin—all in shades of sand. We can’t look at him very long without squinting. Arnie squirts a little more Cheez Whiz in Hummingbird’s dish.
“Yeah, later.” Arnie pours the last of the Evan Williams into two shot glasses, hands one to Luis, taking it down before Luis has a chance to cheers to something.
“I’m officially putting in a request for ‘Honkey Tonk Women.’ You guys killed it last time.”
There were stories about Luis. That he’d lost his wife and kids in a car crash years ago, that he’d been driving drunk. Also that he lived by himself in a sea cave. He collected mermaids. Danced with sharks. He was immortal. These people love their local lore. Arnie never pried. They mostly talked about the waves, or music. But even though he didn’t know the details of Luis’s life, he always seemed glad to see him. We think they share some deep ancestral darkness, like they both know stuff in their bones that could never be communicated to the rest of these people.
“She’s so sweet,” Luis says, crouching down. Hummingbird rolls onto her back, reaching a front paw behind her like a reluctant lover.
“She’s a little hussy.”
“It’s the end of an era. That’s for sure,” Luis says.
“Yeah.” Arnie suddenly looks wrung out. It might be the light, but his skin seems grayish and loose, like he’s underwater. He takes a swig from the bottle then hands it to Luis. “She’s been with us for a while.”
“How are we going to ever find another mascot?”
“That’s it for me, I’m afraid.”
“Laura said you guys are thinking about Portland.”
Laura’s been talking about Portland. Oregon. The music scene there, she says, is right up his alley. She thinks the change of pace will be good for them, maybe he can start writing music again, a chance for her to bring her glass animals to a wider audience. He tells her he’s been to Portland. Hipsters in skinny jeans and ratty messenger bags, rushing to see whatever tone-deaf experimental group the indie mag reviews favorably that day. He can’t imagine leaving Pismo, he says—bright wildflower cliffs slowly crumbling, every day a new profile etched from the loam by wind and salt. His band is here, the house he’s lived in for the last ten years. He’s been around, he knows something about switching locations.
We watch Chrissy walk over to where Laura’s alone contemplating her beer bottle. She says something in Laura’s ear. Chrissy and Arnie had a thing before Laura, brief but pretty hot. The day he broke it off, she unbuttoned her shirt and unhooked her bra and pulled down her skirt and then threw a coffee mug at his head—just missed him. They both look over at them and Arnie looks away.
“Portland’s got a lot going on. A good place to play music for a real audience.”
“I’m kinda particular to the local one.”
“You know, sometimes I look up from one of these parties, and I realize I don’t know anyone,” Luis says.
“It’s my house, and I feel the same way.”
“So this one’s for old Hummingbird?”
“Yeah. It’s weird, right?”
“I don’t know. The cake’s a little weird. But I get it.”
Nobody has touched the cake. White frosting with the outline of a paw and “Goodbye Hummingbird” written across the top.
“You want a piece?”
Arnie locates Laura against the wall talking to John and Pat from next door, microbrew bottle in her hand. She’s wearing a short billowy sundress and cowboy boots, dark hair gathered at her neck, bare shoulders.
“You’re lucky,” Luis says. We think he’s referring to Laura, but when Arnie looks over, Luis is looking down at Hummingbird.
“You got to share a whole life and death with another living thing. There aren’t other moments of absence that you can regret, chunks of her life you can only imagine.”
Arnie looks unsure what they’re talking about. The band’s drummer, Tony, walks by and points at him with a sloppy grin, and we know it’s only a matter of time before the hugging begins.
“I got her from the shelter,” he says. He reaches down and gathers some of Hummingbird’s fur at her nape. She looks up at him adoringly. “They said she was found on the side of the highway, six weeks old and full of fleas, dehydrated, her ribs showing.” He releases and blows a fistful of white hair like dandelion seeds. “It was love at first sight.”
Luis crouches and takes Hummingbird’s big shaggy head in his hands.
“A lucky dog.”
No matter how much whiskey he drinks, Arnie doesn’t seem to be getting drunk. In his head, he’d probably pictured this whole thing differently. A celebration, a chance for Hummingbird to feel good and loved before leaving this world. But nobody is very interested in Hummingbird. This is just another gathering, some young people, some old, long flowing skirts and torn jeans, pierced, tattooed, tan people with knots in their hair, scars and chapped lips, the beach people, the ones who stay through the bare bones of a touristless winter, who surf in 12ºC, who make pottery and seashell jewelry and kombucha and store it all for summer like bears. They think this party is for them, a way to ward off the shivering fog, to relieve the restlessness of empty cafes.
He reaches down and grabs Hummingbird’s dish, rinsing out the untouched Cheez Whiz in the sink.
“A pretty good turnout,” Laura says, suddenly right beside him in that way of all Lauras, before there’s time to prepare.
“I guess.” He pours two shots and hands one to her.
Laura leans down and rubs Hummingbird behind her ears, eliciting a grumbled, half-broken moan. “This was your idea.”
“Arnie, she’s in a lot of pain.” Laura looks up at him and shakes her head.
She straightens and leans in. Her nose almost touches his lips, and we feel that familiar ache in his chest. “I don’t understand you,” she says. “I know you don’t want her to suffer.”
He pushes his lips against hers. Someone starts to play his bongo drums in the corner, the beat dumb and knotted. He opens his mouth. Drinks her, beer and honey.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She takes a step back. The whiskey is finally catching up, we see it in his face, a warm splotchy flush, too-hard gaze, like everything is moving through something else.
“It’s OK,” he says, slurring his words a bit. “I get it.”
The voices and laughter have risen a notch, which strangely makes it feel like we’re all alone.
“I’m glad one of us does,” Laura says. She looks down at Hummingbird. “I think I need a walk.”
Hummingbird lifts her eyes at the word. Arnie doesn’t look able to move from his place in the kitchen.
“OK,” he says.
He helps Hummingbird up and they walk slowly outside, past the people smoking and laughing in the front yard, people who slap Arnie on the back and touch Laura’s bare arm, crouch and pat Hummingbird’s back. They walk down the sidewalk to the water and as they reach the sand, there’s a noticeable change in temperature. Hummingbird crouches and strains to pee, looking up at them in embarrassed pain. It’s misty and sunless. Nobody else is on the beach. Arnie takes his jacket off and wraps it around Laura’s shoulders. They walk a little further down the sand and then Laura takes off her shoes and sits. Lumps of seaweed vibrate around them like hives. Arnie sits beside her and they both watch as Hummingbird catches up and settles in front of them, an ordeal of digging in the sand, turning around, shifting one hip down and then the other. She settles in with a high taut whine.
“I do love this place,” Laura says, as if continuing an earlier discussion.
“I do too.”
The tide is low, and black-capped terns dot the darker patted-down sand. Some of them are sitting, heads tucked into feathers, as if waiting for the fish to come to them.
“Can you imagine the first time someone discovered glass? That you could light the sand on fire,” she says. Arnie tries to look at her, but seems to find it difficult to keep his neck turned like that in the cold. One of the birds walks slowly up to another one and settles down directly behind it.
“What is more beautiful than a window?” she asks.
Arnie looks sick. He probably should have eaten something.
“It won’t change anything,” he says.
A wave crashes, much bigger than the previous ones. The tide’s coming back in, but the terns don’t move.
“I don’t want it to.”
Arnie looks at her and she smiles, in that wistful way of someone who’s already made up her mind. “I made you something,” she says.
Laura reaches into the pocket of her coat and takes out a wad of newspaper. He takes it from her and carefully unwraps it. He studies the arch and bump of colorless glass. We can’t make heads or tails of it. Though there definitely is some kind of head and some kind of tail.
“It’s a Wom-ine,” she says, grinning. And we can sort of see it now, the woman’s face featureless, but an intimation of hair, breasts. Canine legs and tail.
“I thought you never do humans.”
“Yeah, well, I made an exception.”
“Thanks.” This was the first one she’d ever made expressly for him. He should probably feel flattered, but we don’t exactly know what it’s supposed to mean. Is it a riddle or a gift? He holds it in his palm.
“Yes, how many years can a mountain exist, before it’s washed to the sea? Yes, how many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?” he sings— charmingly, we think, but Laura doesn’t seem moved. She stares out at the water.
He reaches over and puts his hand on Hummingbird’s back, letting it rise and fall with her breath. “She doesn’t have any trouble breathing,” he says.
“That doesn’t mean she’s not in pain.”
He takes his hand from Hummingbird and puts it over Laura’s in the sand.
“The fog’s coming in,” she says, and all of a sudden she’s right. Laura is really good at pointing out the obvious in a way that makes it sound like a revelation. She would make an excellent narrator.
The fog spreads a dense shadow an inch above the water. A seagull begins to eat something it’s found in the sand, and a few of the other birds turn to watch him.
“Is he breathing?” Arnie asks. A couple people turn to look at him like he’s not the one who lives here. He comes closer and we realize it’s Luis. Someone is giving him CPR on the floor.
“Hey, that’s Luis,” he says.
“Do you know him?”
“Yeah.” Doesn’t everyone?
He catches Laura’s eye on the other side of the crowd. Beautiful in her worry. Hand at her neck, she looks at him like he should do something. He probably should do something. Hummingbird puts her dog head on his shoulder, and he presses his cheek against her fur. She makes a noise in her throat like she, for one, is glad to be alive.
He puts her down outside the circle, a spot far enough away that people won’t accidentally step on her but not so far that she can’t see him. He comes closer to Luis. The crowd parts, ready for someone to make sense of things.
And there he is, what doesn’t so much look like Luis anymore. It’s him, but a version we haven’t seen—a hanging wide open. A body at the end of a sandstorm. Arnie crouches and the sirens get louder.
The guy who was giving him CPR is still sitting on the floor. He looks at Arnie.
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“He’s dead,” Arnie says. Probably friend was inadequate. Arnie couldn’t tell anyone where Luis lives or his last name, but he could talk about his fear of bees, in particular being trapped in a bathroom with one, or what he would say about the mustache—too groomed, too pretentiously ironic—CPR guy was rocking.
“He’s not dead,” CPR guy says.
Luis is moving, moving and breathing. His eyes are glazed over and he’s coughing, but he’s alive.
“Hey buddy, just hang on, try not to move too much, paramedics will be here any second,” CPR says.
Luis closes his eyes. Despite the instructions, he turns over on his side and hugs his knees. A gesture of embarrassment maybe. Arnie stands to give his friend some room.
People are already starting to break up, walk away. Lights flash through the windows. Someone lets the paramedics in, and Arnie picks up Hummingbird. A flurry of clearing space, lifting, vitals called, and then Luis is floating through the air on a gurney, then gone. The paramedics have left the back door open, and we watch Arnie watch Laura cross the kitchen to close it. She walks with her head down, arms hugging her chest. As she shuts the door and turns around, he tries to put Hummingbird down, but she starts to whine again. To reach out—that’s all it would take, a few steps, an extended arm, and he could pull her to him—but the CPR guy walks up and starts asking him questions, and she’s gone again, talking to someone on the other side of the room.
“You know that guy? Is he a friend of yours? Who was he here with?”
Arnie shrugs. “I think he came by himself. His name is Luis.”
“Someone should go with him to the hospital.”
A group begins to gather, seeming to accept without question their next move, quickly exiting together out the back door as if they’d rehearsed it beforehand. Laura is part of this group. She already has on her coat and a bright red wool hat.
He catches her eye. Stay, he mouths.
What? She mouths back. The cold wet air comes in, and Hummingbird begins to shiver in his arms.
“He just crumpled to the floor,” a girl beside us is saying. “He was standing there one minute, and then the next he was out.”
“Stay,” he says now, out loud. “Stay.”
But Laura shakes her head with impatience. She runs over, breathless.
“We’re going to try to find someone,” she says. “There has to be someone, he must have people here somewhere.” She puts her hand on Hummingbird.
“Where are you going to look?”
“I don’t know. Chrissy thinks he used to date her neighbor.”
“That sounds rock solid.”
Laura presses her lips together in a clear sign of annoyance and pets Hummingbird.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “How are you doing?”
“Me? I’m fine. I mean, it’s sad. It’s weird, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”
“You were talking to him earlier. How did he seem?”
“Normal. A little buzzed, I guess, but fine.”
She takes her hand from Hummingbird and briefly sets it on his shoulder.
“I’ll call you and let you know what we find out. You sure you don’t want to come?”
“I wasn’t asked.”
“Do you want to come?”
He looks around. “No. I should stay here. I should stay with her.” He shifts Hummingbird in his arms. It must be painful, his arms must feel like they’re about to fall off. But this is all he has left, this mute martyrdom, this small sacrifice.
A car honks outside. “I gotta go,” she says. She gives him a peck on the cheek, waves, then closes the door behind her. The few people who remain in the kitchen are looking at him. He puts Hummingbird down.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” someone asks, a young guy we’ve seen hanging around. Baseball cap, a white shirt like a garbage bag, like he’s all bones underneath. There seem to be more and more of these young people lately, this whole group of
weird kids suddenly everywhere, waiting to take over.
“Nothing’s wrong with her.”
Hummingbird stays where he puts her down, on her belly on the linoleum. She starts to whine.
“Are you sure? I think something might be wrong.”
“Geez. Sorry, man.”
Arnie starts to clear the empty bottles and cups. Most everyone has left. A few stragglers in the living room, but their noise is muffled, far away. There was talk of another party, one without a dying dog and a body on the floor.
What could have happened to Luis? we wonder. He couldn’t have been older than Arnie. Fifty was pushing it. Maybe he had a condition. After all, nobody really knew him. At least, not that we know of. But maybe he just had too much to drink; a close call. Maybe you shouldn’t taunt death, like once you talk about it in the open, welcome it with cake, bad things happen. Does Arnie consider his own mortality? Is he thinking about the randomness of loss, his own culpability in what he gives up and what he dials in? He’s not giving us anything.
Arnie reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out the glass womine. The tail has broken off. It looks almost like a normal human woman now. He holds the two pieces of glass in his palm. There’s a thing he should be doing, we think, a moment that should be observed. A prayer. He sets the pieces of glass on the windowsill and opens the window. Fog seeps in like a living mass. It covers everything, obscuring even his hand in front of his face. Okay so it’s not that thick, but we like to imagine the fog doing something for once, uncoiling inside him, removing blood and organs, washing everything out. Hummingbird’s whine is the only thing that makes it through. A thin line of pain, desire, dreams, panic, song. The only thing
reliable, his foundation. But where is Hummingbird?
Arnie looks in the living room, the bedroom, the backyard. He asks everyone still there if they’ve seen her, but none of them have. He continues to call her name, though the whining has stopped. He tells everyone to be quiet. He tells everyone to
He checks under the bed and in the crawlspace underneath the stairs. He’s not crying so much as moaning from his solar plexus. It’s not hard to imagine Hummingbird dragging herself off somewhere, wanting one last final moment of peace, shivering in the cold, retching from the pain. We know this is what Arnie is imagining, the recognition he will soon find her body, that he will have failed to share with her, to comfort, in her final moment. If he can just get to her in time, maybe he can save her. But we also know this isn’t going to happen. We knew from the start a dog was going to die. Arnie circles the house and then walks down to the sand and sits down. There’s no moon, and he waits for his eyes to adjust to the dark. This is like a recurring dream we have. The occasion changes, but there’s always an ocean nearby, and it’s only the last minute that we’re able to go to it, we almost miss the opportunity. The water is clear and beautiful and we stare into it, hoping to see something. And because we hope, and it is our dream after all, things start to appear—a bloated purple starfish from someone else’s childhood, a zebra running along the ocean floor, a killer whale holding a grudge from another dream we can’t quite remember—and we don’t know what to do with it, all this strange and terrible beauty. So we just walk away, and then we wake up.
Arnie stares into the sky, starless and so much like nothing it would be difficult to call it black. He just stares, stares and stares, and we’re not sure what he’s looking for or if he’s finding it. He begins to sing a song, a song we’ve heard before, everyone’s heard this song, but it doesn’t matter to him. He continues, sings it as if it’s his song, rising from his gut teeming with sand and stars and dog-hair tumbleweeds. We stay and listen for as long as we can. It’s the least we can do.
“Dog Story” was originally published in The Tides (TLR, Winter 2014).