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The Barcelona Review

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So she walked into the room and the dog jumped out of the baby’s play pen. She had no inkling that the dog was in the pen with the baby. She, the dog, had been lying on the cool stone floor outside the pen. She, the baby, had been lying flat on her back on a thin blanket looking up at a mobile of triangles, squares, rectangles, all in primary colors, that floated over the pen. Now the mobile was a tangle of string and plastic crisscrossing Jennifer’s soft shape – Jennifer, she, the baby. (She, the mother, was named Bithia, by her own mother, who had been a hippy and a pot-smoker and who spent weeks making lists of baby names. Till at last Bithia it was.) Bithia leapt over the pen to make sure the baby was all right. The tangle of the mobile she lifted off Jennifer’s pillowy legs, so tiny – the legs – and the mobile really not much of a mess at all. Bithia had pictured it strangling poor Jennifer to death. Red triangles, green circles, constricting around the fragile neck. But Jennifer was all right. Not a bite mark. Not even a bit of sweat. She might have been sweaty if, for instance, the dog had lain on top of her to smother her. But her skin was dry; well, not exactly dry, since it was soft and moist and lotiony, from a recent bath. She was cooing. Jennifer was. Bithia was still trying to get her breath.
      This is how I picture it. I am writing the story in my head. I am at a dinner party and somebody has just told the story of the dog jumping in and out of the baby’s pen. The story is about the fear of the mother, whose name is not mentioned in the story-told-aloud because it has no relevance; after all this is only a moment of conversation at a dinner party, an anecdote from one stranger to another, because we have ended up at the same table, drinking the same beer and wine, sharing a crawfish étouffée. The story fills a moment of conversation, and we are amazed by it, all of us, as though nothing of the kind has ever happened before, and I am thinking, before you know it, that the dog might have eaten the child, or might have contemplated eating the child, or, more likely, was intrigued by the smell of it, of her – of Jennifer, in my mind, when I name her – that sweet quiet smell of a baby, newness embodied in tender arms and legs, squiggly and squirmy, helpless, as the dog leaps into the pen and looks down at her. In my mind.
      Then mother walked into the room and, in an instant, her relationship to the dog changed.
      She had raised Pookums from a pup, had loved her through mange, fleas, and allergies, a mongrel she had rescued from a neighbor’s house, a neighbor who kept his hound bitch, as he called her, chained up in his front yard. She hated the neighbor because of the chained dog and loved the pup – whom she named Pokemon Edna but called Pookums – because she had rescued it and because it, too – she, the dog was a she – was small and wriggly and very pleasant as she pranced around the house, bounded onto the hassock and the coffee table, and wreaked havoc in Bithia’s life. She knocked over a picture of Bithia’s mother and broke the glass that covered the glossy color print, and stood over the broken glass wagging her tail and looking up at Bithia with those bright eyes, all hopeful and clueless, and Bithia scooped her up to protect her from the glass and looked down at the picture of her mother and thought, well, you deserved that, Mom, I mean, look at you, wearing Daisy Dukes and a tank top and leaning back against an orange Mustang you just bought, a car you would drive for years, immaculately clean and well maintained. You, Mom – Bithia’s mom, I mean – you were probably stoned in the picture and maybe you had just had sex in the back of the Mustang, though that would be a pretty tight squeeze. You have that kind of look on your face. Bithia’s mom. Bithia who grew up to think you deserved almost anything that happened to you.
      She loved Pookums, she did, with her whole heart, with all the love a lonely woman grown out of a lonely girl can give, which is to say, all the love in the world; loved Pookums completely, right up until that moment, the second jump, the one out of the pen, when the dog stood there looking at her, at Bithia, with those same bright, dark eyes. But there was something furtive in the look, and the way she wagged her tail communicated hesitation, because she knew she had done something wrong – she should not have jumped into the pen, it was a mistake, but she could not help it, but she did it for a reason, a doggy reason, and then Bithia caught her, the dog, in the pen, and she leaped out again. Stood there hesitant. Waiting to be rebuked.
      And Bithia rushed to her baby, meaning, to Jennifer, and so on.
      At the dinner party we have moved past the story of the dog onto other topics: whether a particular beer can on the table is blue or orange, and how to view it as either, and what it means if you first see it as orange, because of the brightness, or whether you see blue, because of your inner spirituality, your way of seeing deeper. Or whether it is a yellow can, because part of the can is, indeed, a pale yellow, almost invisible when compared to the glare of the orange or the vibrant shade of blue. I am watching the young women across the table, not as sexual objects, because they are not, for me, but rather as physical objects, a pretty blonde woman with bright eyes; a girl with a sharp, long nose; an older woman, also blonde, with a mellow face, at least at the moment. If I see them as I see the orange beer can, I see young, older, oldest, all intelligent, varying degrees of pretty, skin ranging from smooth to finely wrinkled, all sitting in a row, as though they are examples of something. An encyclopedia composite photo about aging. But if I see deeper, as though I were looking for their varied shades of blue, I would note that the youngest of them slumps, as though she would be smaller than the rest, though she is also lively when she talks, as though she wants to present herself as taller then. The middle woman, the blond with the bright smile and light colored eyes, has a deceptive affect; she and the youngest woman have run a half-marathon today, and they have about them the glow of people who have accomplished something with their bodies. The oldest might be the younger’s mother, but there might be no relationship at all; I have missed that part of the introductions and am reluctant to ask too many questions. For instance, all these women have names. One of them is Cora, and one is Sara, and the other is Mandy. I am not quite sure which is which though I am fairly certain Mandy is the one with the sharp nose, the young one, who slumps.
      It is tempting to think that they are less sensitive than I, because the story of the dog has not affected them, but the truth is that one of them told the story, which happened to a friend of hers, and so, for her, the story, being real, is less significant. That is to say, she can less afford to embroider on the dog and its two jumps, because she knows the woman, and the baby, and the dog, and so it would be impolite to speculate on the ways that moment might resonate, or the changes it could have brought. Doing so would be in some way disloyal to her friend, to the person whose real dog it was that leapt into the pen with the baby; might imply some criticism of this person, who, perhaps, was careless in leaving the dog in the room. Who trusted too much. Who might narrowly have averted a tragedy.
      For the same reason, I ask no more questions about the dog, or the baby, or the moment. I might find myself intruding into something unpredictable. I might have misunderstood the story.
      Nevertheless it continues to unfold. Bithia raised Pookums from a pup, but now she was not a pup – Pookums – she weighed nearly eighty pounds, shed fur all over the house, mostly did her business outdoors, unless she became excited about something, at which point she was prone to pee on the floor, and she was a big dog, and so it was a mess. Never on the carpet, usually on the linoleum, in the kitchen, which made the puddle easier to clean, of course, but still, it was the kitchen. Bithia found herself thinking about germs and allergens and pollen of all things, even though Pookums could hardly be accused of giving off pollen, though of course when she went outside she no doubt picked up pollen on her fur and shook it off in the house –  she liked to shake herself as soon as she came inside from a run or a nose inspection of the backyard – so of course she could be bringing pollen into the house, the idea wasn’t just Bithia’s paranoia, and who knew? Other than scientists and baby experts like doctors, who probably understood how much damage dust and allergens and pollen could do to a poor, innocent, helpless little baby. A baby who found herself surprised constantly at the existence of her hands and feet. Who moved them and was delighted that she could control them.
      So what to do? For now it was impossible to see Pookums the dog, or Pokemon Edna the puppy, or a loving pet; now the dog had become an object, a furry animal prone to slobber, or worse, a predator, not hungry at the moment, but considering her next meal. Or to pretend that Pookums had jumped into the pen because she loved Jennifer, that she the dog already felt a connection to the baby, that she meant to protect Jennifer and love her. Bithia might have continued personifying the dog as people do. To see the love in its face and the smile and the happiness. That would have been all right. Bithia would have liked that, because she did believe all those things, that Pookums was a loving animal, that dogs felt the same emotions as humans, that they are naturally good when they are well treated, that humans shape the dogs they own and are shaped by them, a whole panoply of belief about animals and people and goodness and benevolence. But if Pookums had jumped into the pen because she loved Jennifer and wanted to be close to her, why had she jumped out again? When Bithia entered the room?
      At the dinner we are moving on, past the cheese plate, into a second and third bottle of wine, and there is passing over my head the sort of conversation that cousins engage in when they have not seen each other for a decade or more – Really, ten years! they exclaim, with evident surprise and delight, and there is the very interesting story that the cousins themselves did not travel to the marathon together but ran into each other by accident, and then remembered Nancy, another cousin who is also my friend, my connection to the dinner and the event and the story about the dog. And decided to call Nancy – the cousins  – and visit her and Bill – turned out to be fabulous people – so stayed with her for a night and a dinner, and I met them when I came into town for a planned visit – my visits are always planned, everywhere, no matter what the circumstance, because I am that sort of person. Shy of arriving at someone’s house unannounced. Disliking to be surprised.
      The two people who ran the marathon are very happy about it, but not at all smug, as athletes or physical people often are – there was no air of, well, I am fit and robust and ran this race and what did you do today? They are simply very pleasant and hungry and join in the conversation and praise the food and drink the wine and laugh at the jokes – some of them are my jokes, and when they find me funny I am pleased and they are, too – I can see them remarking to one another about me, and they are relieved that I have turned out to be all right, a decent companion at a dinner table, and this continues to be true – I think it does – when I drink more wine than I ought – I am not much of a drinker any more, but I always drink heavily when I am with Nancy and Bill, it is the way of our friendship, for a lot of reasons that might be summed up by the statement that in the past we have always been together on vacation-like settings; we taught together in one of those low residency graduate programs that are really more like summer camps for adults. First Madrid, and then San Miguel de Allende. And then I stopped teaching in the program and then the university in question fired Bill from his job as director of the program – we have a history, in short, and it includes long dinners, good food, and alcohol of various types and in large quantities, and having established this as our habit of being together, this is what we do when we see each other now, less frequently, in Bill and Nancy’s home.
      When they discuss the marathon – the two who ran it and the two who watched – there is enthusiasm, a feeling that these people are fit and happy, that physical activity defines them, and their bodies are lean and firm, at least to the eye. The older blonde is as healthy and robust as the younger. They are keenly interested in the fact that the marathon took much longer to run than anyone planned, and they point to the heat – this is New Orleans, after all – as the reason for it. You all looked so beautiful running, said the older blonde, and it was just so thrilling to watch, and then you came out of the shade into the sun along the lake – Lake Pontchartrain – and that’s when you looked beaten down. They discuss this idea, whether they were beaten down by the heat and the sun and quibble about it but in the end agree it had been so. There is a good deal of discussion about the time elapsed during the actual run as opposed to the (shorter) elapsed time they had trained for and expected. They are keenly satisfied with themselves. It is a bright thing, this happiness, this aura of exercise and health. I feel invited to share it and I do.
      But still there is this other thing inside me unfolding. Bithia was watching Pookums, who walked in circles sniffing the bottom of the playpen, heaved herself to the floor with a kind of sigh, and lay her head on her paws with a mournful look. Appealing to Bithia in some way. Asking for love or forgiveness. But this would not be possible now. The feeling that had shifted inside Bithia was permanent, and maybe the dog could sense it, though the baby was blithely unaware of anything other than the tangle of colors and shapes that had been restored to its place above her in the air. For Bithia though, the moment is quite astonishing, to feel the love she had harbored so long for the dog dry up, crack, like the exposed mud at the bottom of a lake out of which the water had been drained. That whole lake of love turned to another course.
      What would she do?
      Not a moment of angst, never. Phone calls, consultations. Sadie, her bookish friend, would come and sit with Jennifer, bringing along a copy of Ducks, Newburyport to read. Bithia would box up all the dog’s personal effects – not so many, really – collars, a dish for eating and drinking, a few chew toys, a strip of rawhide – and drive the dog to a local shelter. She thought about trying to find it a home but there was no time for all that, it might jump into the play pen again, or worse. The shelter could find it a home. The dog’s belongings she bagged to be picked up in the garbage. The dog, senseless and affectionate, leapt into the backseat of the car as if this were another exciting journey to the park, or even to the vet! Bithia fixed herself behind the wheel as though she were pegged there with pins and drove with a fury gathering inside her, the memory of the dog standing over baby Jennifer, the expression on its face – but really, she thought, dogs don’t have expressions, people only think they do – and none of that mattered now. Her mind, Bithia’s, was made up, and here she was, pulling up in front of the dog shelter to do the inevitable.
      The people at the shelter were confused because of the love that the dog so evidently felt for her. But she went on claiming that she had found the dog wandering in her back yard, that it did not belong to her, that she could not keep it, because her husband – which she did not have, since she had borne Jennifer out of wedlock, through artificial insemination – because her imaginary husband was allergic. Of course she had walked around the neighborhood, asked the neighbors, of course she had. But no one was missing a dog. Some stranger had likely abandoned the dog near her house and she could not, would not keep it under any circumstances. She had a child to take care of. When she was tired of the conversation she simply walked away, and the dog – poor Pookums – followed a couple of steps, but appeared to sense something, and stopped. Watching Bithia step into the car.
      On the drive home she remembered the night Pookums saved her life – she had always thought of it that way – someone rattling the front door of her house as if he (had to be a he) were about to break in, and brave Pookums, enraged, stood at the door, barked for her whole life, hair standing up along her spine, scratching the door, so loud and fierce – Bithia had to repaint the door afterward – but it had worked, the intruder had gone away, and the police, whom Bithia called, praised Pookums and scratched her chin and told her what a good girl she was. There was someone invading homes in the neighborhood, likely thought the dog would be too much trouble, all that noise – anyway, life saved, she had gone to sleep, with the dog warm along her side.
      In the driveway she sobbed, once, a deep, hurtful sound that left her chest hollow. Inside, though, lifting Jennifer out of Sadie’s lap, she held the baby, her baby, soft and close and warm, as if she would never let go, and that was the last of the dog, that moment of love that poured out of her – Bithia – when she cradled the baby against herself.
      At the dinner party things have taken a turn. We have gotten stoned. Sometimes this makes me stupid but tonight it just makes me sharper, and one of the guests – the husband of the middle woman – has a crush on me, laughs at all my jokes. There are awkward moments, when the older woman talks about a hike she took in Scotland, three days of trails in the highlands from house to house, and says she wants to do it again, and I tell her, “Do it soon, while you still can,” and she blinks at me. As though age can never touch her. Later I will think mine was not a wise remark but in the moment I only mean to tell her how fast it all goes, from fifty to sixty, and how your knees creak and your breath gets wheezy, at least for some people; though she will be thinking that she runs, she eats well, she takes care of her body, and who am I, after all, to give her advice. She will be right to think so. Later, when the cousins are gathered at the end of the dining porch, where the light falters, they look dead in the dark, their faces huddled in a bunch, waiting for the photograph, and I tell them so, that they look like corpses down there, all pale, and their friend, who is taking the picture, laughs as if my joke is hilarious, and snaps the picture, the flash flooding them for a moment, their faces startled and still, four cousins and the rest of us, etched on a memory card in a smartphone, ready to be posted to Pinterest. I am not so steady on my feet. I walk home, which is a rented apartment across the street.
      Where it is dark and still, no one else home, and I am still seeing Bithia in my head, cradling Jennifer, frightened, against her bosom, the two of them listening to the quiet of their house, emptier now of the dog, whose love once surrounded them all. One wrong step. So curious, that the dinner party evoked this story in my head, that it feels as real, at least, as the cousins and their half-marathon, none of them I will ever see again. Who have no more need to remember me than I to remember them. But there is this story in my head, it won’t go away. So I will have to do something about it, make of it what I can.

© 2020 Jim Grimsley

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