Joyland

New York |

The Dog Sitter

by Kirsten Kearse

edited by Emily Schultz

The truth is not the story she will tell him, she realizes as she stands in the street, her right arm stretched out behind her against the traffic, her left arm extended toward the carcass as if commanding the animal to rise up. Like Virabhadrasana, warrior pose.

Ellen is surprised that she knows the technical name of the pose. She’s only been to three yoga classes since taking her “The Best Me” pledge. She feels her teacher’s steady hands re-aligning her hips: “lots of people carry tension here.” Ellen shifts her position slightly, not minding the idea of someone else’s touch. It’s worth the fourteen dollars. But why bother correcting herself now when it is clear there is no right way… or is it that there is no wrong way… that this pose is a moment, right or wrong, and she must move through it. Also, she should get out of the middle of the road.

The difference between a “friendly toot” and a “honk” would be noted at a moment like this, and Ellen would welcome either one. Everything feels too loose and too brittle and any stranger should take charge, tell her what to do, somebody, please. The cars line up behind the power of her right hand, silently. She has slowed time, but was too slow in doing so. Jennifer is already dead though Ellen cannot be sure of the exact moment. Was it when the Civic struck the dog, clumsily casting little Jennifer through the air like a bully flicking boogers at his bony sister, or was it when Jennifer’s body struck the cement, face first, a snap of the neck second? Without knowing this, Ellen will be unable to tell Aaron exactly what has happened to his sweet poo-bear. He likes specifics. Details. It’s the curse of the Virgo, a trait she and Aaron share. Bonded by the stars, by birth and soon by a lie about a pet poodle’s death, it is clear to her that destiny is involved.

A child, a small girl tangled in a man-sized bicycle, cries on the curb.

“This is your fault. I hope you know."

Ellen suspects this is not the way of the warrior, but her sharp words have quieted the girl. Does the warrior only have one way? It will be hard for Ellen to keep track of all the mistakes she will make this day.

Ellen steps her feet together and bows down to the dog. She then touches her toes and rolls up her spine coming into an upright standing position. It feels like the right thing to do. Muscle memory. Our body, ourselves. She takes a deep breath in, bends down again, picks up Jennifer’s limp body and crosses the street back to her house, unsure when she is allowed to breathe out.

Ellen lays Jennifer on her couch. There is not much blood. She imagines the dog must be bleeding on the inside, filling up like a balloon. As she wraps her favorite knit throw around the dead dog, she hopes Aaron appreciates her sacrifices. It would be awful if the blood filled balloon-dog popped all over her blanket. She has always loved, maybe not loved, but admired that blanket. She can see the flaw in it, and to see a flaw is the first step in understanding.

She found the blanket on the other side of the country, at Rosy’s Antiques in Brooklin, Maine. Any wedding invitation requesting that an uncoupled forty-five year old woman fly across America to a second cousin’s second wedding should include this warning: A multitude of pity will be directed toward you, coffee not guaranteed. She was an hour-and-a-half into her hunt for black caffeine and the morning mist had solidified into mop-water gray.

“There’s a nice Double D, about seven miles down. In the plaza near the Salvation Army.” Rosy pointed the way, just through the wall where a shellacked puzzle of a hamburger hung above a basket of door knobs and a wooden box of photos ripped from a stranger’s carefully curated life. Directions don’t come free in Maine and Ellen hastily paid the sixty-three dollars — the price of the afghan she had casually picked up as cover for her true motive. She has been known to over-compensate when desperate.

Sated by a large iced hazelnut, Ellen found herself disappointed by her antique purchase. It seemed less like a gem of the past and more like the result of a lonely crafter learning a new monotony. Bodies are shaped like long rectangles, not squares. Ellen knew this intuitively but the Mainer learning to crochet realized this almost too late. She salvaged her creation by changing her pattern, latching her needle to one end and crocheting a square into a rectangle as an afterthought. She turned the rainbow of bulk yarn into something useful — a shroud for a would-be boyfriend’s Southern Californian dog. It is possible to change one’s nature. Little Jennifer The Rescue changed her nature when she darted after the haughty girl on the too-big bicycle. She transcended. It can take a lifetime. Even in California.

Mitsy, Ellen’s thirty-five pound cat, perches in a carpet turret squinting down at Ellen and the recently transcended Jennifer. Mitsy’s expression of superiority would have hurt Jennifer’s feelings, had Jennifer any feelings left and Ellen doesn’t like to be judged either. Especially since if Mitsy were, let’s say, a parakeet, or a tumor free hairless lab-rat given a second chance at life, Aaron would be able to hang out at Ellen’s house every now and again, maybe even stay over. She could at least make him dinner. But Aaron is allergic to cats. It’s Mitsy’s saliva, not her fur. That’s how Aaron explains it. Jennifer is hypoallergenic, even now in her current state. It irks Ellen that owning a dead poodle is more conducive to having a relationship than owning a cat, as far as allergies go.

Ellen needs time to make a plan. She considers telling Aaron that Mitsy has been drooling excessively today. She’ll offer to drop Jennifer at his house. How’s eight or nine? She doesn’t want his eyes to start itching like that time last week when Aaron got off work early and she had left her front door unlocked. He knocked and she called out from the bathroom, “One minute!” He says he heard something but wasn’t sure what, so he let himself in. Luckily she had done the dishes. She invited him to stay for a drink. He declined, citing the early hour. Water counts as a drink, was her first defensive thought, and did he just break and enter? Then he started to sneeze. Even bad actors can fake a sneeze. The whole thing was so odd and accusatory. A pop quiz. A trap. Like he wants to catch her not having a life. He wants to catch her doing disgusting things in the bathroom. He wants to make sure she is available and waiting for him.

Their boss had told her that the lay offs at Little Darla’s Cabinets And Doors were generally random. Nothing personal. Numbers. Stunned by having fallen victim to such senseless misfortune, she roamed back and forth past the water fountain like a thirsty ghost, like a wind-up robot tangled in a worn rug’s loose fiber, until Aaron, empty water bottle in hand, found her. He had heard.

His neighbors recently complained about Jennifer’s barking and now that Ellen wasn’t doing anything…? Twenty dollars a day would help, but really it was his human kindness that she latched onto like a rattlesnake latching onto a milking jar. It’s possible, she realizes now, that Aaron has joined her among the randomly unfortunate and that’s why he swings by in the middle of the day. He treasures the moment the three of them share-- Aaron, Jennifer and Ellen-- like a divorced man treasures the weekend hand-off with his ex-wife. He cannot afford her anymore, but he still loves her.

Is this wishful thinking, that Aaron has been fired? That Ellen is like his ex? Thoughts are super powerful, as powerful as the breath and Ellen needs to let these thoughts go before she does real harm. She lifts Jennifer, burritoed in the only positive thing to come from her cousin’s second marriage. The first escape is from Mitsy’s evil eye. The second will be to Santa Fe. Renee lives there. Renee knows how to do the thing with sage where curses and troubles are covered over by an outdoorsy smell. Renee’s life has been filled with sage.

Ellen slams her trunk, deciding that she will tell Aaron that this is all about attachment and detachment… as well as attachment… but maybe even more about detachment. Jennifer will be comfortable in the trunk. It’s dark and warm and even a little damp. It’s an eleven hour drive to their New Mexican destination but Jennifer’s dead so it won’t feel like anything to her. The inconvenience is Ellen’s alone.

As she backs the car out, Aaron pulls in. This is a variation on what Ellen calls “the Kitchen Scenario.” Cleaning up from breakfast, She goes to open the fridge just as He reaches for the broom, their lips almost . . . but . . . if. She has imagined “the Kitchen Scenario” many times. This is why she knows it doesn’t need to happen in the kitchen. It can also happen when He skips washing his hands and bursts out of the bathroom as She pulls a towel from the linen closet. Or when He reaches for the remote as She leans in for the salsa. It is the moment when eyes lock. When a connection is made, an understanding, a “deep knowledge on a cellular level,” as Renee would say. This time they corner-lip-kiss in the form of her rear bumper grinding against his front one. And that look after the near-miss which is more of a direct hit than a kiss planted squarely could ever be, is happening now, as Ellen reluctantly checks her rear-view mirror to see what poor creature she’s killed this time and Aaron’s eyes flash back at her. Then her trunk pops open, like a powder blue Ginsu knife, slicing their gaze in two.

Ellen buckles her seatbelt while shouldering open the door. It’s her body fighting against her body and her body is not winning. It’s a panicked case of the right hand knowing exactly what the left hand is doing and begging to differ. She untangles and extricates herself from the car in a sloppy battle, lunges toward the trunk and slams it shut.

Aaron has parked a few feet from where his beloved recently passed. His innocence perturbs Ellen. It’s the kind of innocence Ellen could accept from a man in his twenties. Nobody expects much from those men. It is like they deserve an award or something if they decide to be father to their own child or buy their own ticket home for Thanksgiving. But Aaron has never even had his heart broken and he is thirty-eight. It is his least human quality. Unattractive, thinks Ellen. Out of balance.

“I forgot to leave you the bags.” He seems drab in his apology as he hands her a roll of orange baggies decorated with tiny paw prints.

“Look, not even a scratch. Plastic.” Ellen kicks her bumper hard, scuffing her yellowed flat and jamming her pointer toe.

“You okay?”

She is not. She is in pain.

Ellen pulls her lips tight and bares her teeth. This is a smile. A smile causes thousands and thousands of muscles in her face to release endorphins or dopamine or serotonin, she’s not really sure, but that’s probably where the saying, “smile in the face of danger” comes from. As Ellen turns her face into the drugstore of her mind her head begins to spasm, twitching to the right. She grabs hold of her neck with both hands to steady her head. The creases in his forehead deepen in judgment. That’s when she realizes it must look like she is choking, that she is asking for help, asking to be saved. She is making, albeit by accident, the international silent cry for help and he is not helping. She’s only asked for his help once before and he said he couldn’t, he had plans.

“Whiplash,” she laughs, carefully loosening her fingers from her throat.

Her top lip sticks to her front tooth in a sneer. Aaron does not return her smile. Her head spasms again. They don’t share a sense of humor, so maybe it never would have worked out, their relationship. Maybe this preamble of longing and stunted desire wasn’t the painful part.

“I’m late for work.” He takes a step toward his car.

She should thank Jennifer — for what is worse than spending a life with a man who won’t accept a basic whiplash joke to distract from the lie she’s decided not to tell.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.” She promises herself that this is the last favor she’ll do for him. “It’s in the trunk.”

Author photo by Shaz Bennett