That’s a fair question, Miss therapist, though it rouses a distasteful memory. Thinking back on how things went, I still believe I acted out of love, though you people will certainly take me for some kind of coward. I do wish I’d told my wife the truth, but once I hadn’t, there really was nothing to do but leave——
And it’s true that I did still love her. But over the years she’d come into the opinion that I belonged to her, as a house cat might. And while, in the light of most days, I was able to pardon this possessiveness as a side effect of Molly’s devotion to our marriage, when lying awake at night beside my wife, I found that her omnipresence had a truly suffocating effect. But if it’s all right with you people I’d prefer to stop short of explaining the exact reasons I decided to leave. Fair enough?
Your point is valid, Miss therapist. I came here of my own volition, that’s true. And I do recognize that the powers of a support group may be diminished if I withhold details, but I just don’t see the honor in trashing my wife in front of a bunch of strangers. Now don’t shake your heads. I can see the ties that bind us are real—you’ve all lost someone, and I have too—but I’d prefer to talk about the grief without constructing a litany of grievances. Do you understand why I’m reluctant? Do you see that I’m not one of these people whose grief is also anger? I’m all for anger when it happens. Like Herb over there. Herb’s still livid that his brother gassed himself in the garage. I get it, Herb. I’d be pissed off too if one of my people took himself out like that. In fact, some years back, I had a dear friend who did exactly the same.
One afternoon, out of nowhere, this dear friend’s wife called me up. “Oh, Darrel,” she said, “I need you right now!” I tried to tell her I didn’t have time for any nonsense, but this woman was hysterical. “Randy’s missing!” she cried. “He didn’t come home from work! His boss said he never even showed up!” So Molly and I went over there and immediately we could see, through the little garage windows, what Deb hadn’t yet noticed, that her husband’s Subaru was still in there. So I rolled up the big door and there he was, sleeping in his Outback. That’s how it appeared, anyway, as if Randy was just taking a good long nap, his face wearing the clamped smile of a man rowing peacefully through dreams. The happiest I’d seen him look in years.
So I guess I wasn’t mad about it, but Deb was certainly upset. She eventually did the stages, though. Anger, bargaining, all of it. She got better. She even got remarried, to that hack dentist with his office beside the candy store. The one who parks his penis-shaped sports car all over town. Or maybe I don’t know the guy well enough to hate him, but the point is, Deb moved on. It’s me who still dwells on how, when we found old Randy piloting his Outback into the hereafter, the vehicle was heaped with dead squirrels. Squirrels! You see, a rather sizable community of these rodents had taken up residence in the rafters of Randy’s garage. I’d been over there with him a few times drinking beer and picking off the little fuckers with my Winchester, but it was no use. They were multiplying faster than I could reload. But now I figure I’ve got the way to do it. The next time a neighbor needs his garage cleared of vermin, I’m just going to tell him to leave the car running with the doors closed.
Yes, Miss Kay, it’s true that my story has veered from its original course, but the point is that I don’t want to share the particulars of my anger with a room full of——
Before anyone gets excited, though, I’m not the suicidal type. No offense to your brother, Herb, or to you, Carol, for the long nights you claim to have spent considering it, but I just don’t see it as a legitimate solution. I’m so sad I’m gonna make everyone I know go to a fucking funeral?
Sorry, everyone. The F word. I’m working on it. But where was I? Right, so Randy takes a road trip to Elysium, and then I start getting these weird middle-of-the-night feelings like I need to get in the truck and drive until I’m a bachelor again. For hours sometimes I’d lie there beside my beloved wife imagining the clothes I might fold into a duffel. Night after night like this, month after month, like one of those old-time prisoners visualizing every footstep of the jailbreak. I had it down to a perfect single piece of luggage filled with the exact right clothes. A go-bag to end all go-bags.
And then one night, completely out of nowhere, without even realizing she wasn’t sound asleep, Molly cleared her throat and said, “What are you thinking about right now?” Just like that, with the “right now” tacked on the end to make sure I didn’t think she was just making idle conversation. And for a second, I was going to tell her. But when I opened my mouth, I said the first other thing that popped into my head. I said, “Molly dear, I wish you’d quit driving around with Shackleton on your lap. It’s dangerous, for both of you.”
She just lay there in silence, for so long I thought maybe she’d fallen back asleep. But then, in this solemn little voice, she said, “Okay, Darrel, I promise I won’t do that anymore.”
Oh, sorry, good question, Carol. Shackleton, or “Shack” as we called him, was our Jack Russell terrier. Okay, let’s pause here. I know what you guys are thinking. You’re thinking, This hulking motherfucker—sorry, Miss Kay—this hulking bastard owned a motherfucking toy dog? And to be honest, “toy” probably doesn’t even paint a fair picture. This animal was a runt of runts, which is actually why we ended up with him. You see, good old Randy the Sad had a Jack Russell for himself, which he and Deb bought from a breeder in California. Then they bred this dog themselves every few years, sold off the puppies and used the money to trade up for a new snowmobile. But of course no one lays down any coin for the runt of the litter, so Randy started talking about carrying the thing up the pass and leaving it for the coyotes. This is what the man honestly proposed. To hear him eulogized, you’d think he was kind to all creatures great and small, but I’m telling you Randy Menard had a demon inside him, which happens to be my theory on suicide, by the way, that these people who end themselves, that it’s actually this occupying demon they’re trying to kill when they——
Okay, fair enough, Miss Kay. It’s just a theory. But anyway, I was sitting on a lawn chair in Randy’s garage some years before he did himself in, and that pee-soaked newborn pup was lying in a crate full of soiled shop towels, and Randy took his ball-peen hammer off the pegboard and said, “One bop on the head and that puppy wakes up inside a coyote’s gut.”
Evil, right? Carol, are you listening to this? This is why you’re not actually going to kill yourself. You don’t have a demon inside you. You just miss your dad. This grief of ours is a hell of a thing, but we’re not possessed. Trust me, Carol, you’re a survivor.
Which is what I’m getting at with Shack. This dog was a fighter too. He just needed someone to give him a chance. So I plucked him from that crate and took him out of there, without even asking. And that night, when I got home, there was my beloved wife in the kitchen, wearing a look like her house cat is gravely mistaken if he thinks he’s an outdoor cat now. She especially wanted to know what Debra Menard had been phoning her about—something to do with me chopping Randy on the breastbone with a hammer and stealing the last puppy they’d been thinking of keeping for themselves.
“Bullshit, for themselves,” I said to Molly, and told her about Randy’s plan with the coyotes and would she please just look how goddamn malnourished this animal has gotten sitting over there in that steaming death trap of a garage.
This was where Molly came around to my side. She was still pissed at how I’d gone about it, and there was no end to the phone calls from Deb about the little piece of bone chipped off the bottom of Randy’s sternum now just sort of floating in the center of his fat chest. But before those weeks of static from the Menards, and way before we eventually refriended them so successfully that it would be me and Molly who’d come fish Randy out from under that mounded carnage of squirrels, it was just the three of us in that kitchen together—husband, wife, dog.
In that way, Shack was like our child, in lieu of actual children, which we could not have. This is another one of those details I’d prefer not to share with you people, but rather than suffer the arguments of those who believe the reproductive travails of my wife and I might somehow be relevant to my current grief, I’ll just say that our issues were actually my issues. I could raise the crane just fine—no problems there, I assure you—but there’s such a thing as sperm motility and——
Understood, Miss therapist. I just didn’t want the Freudians in the room to think I was holding back about my damaged loins’ influence on the present state of my psyche. But the fact is, if such an issue had ever existed, this tiny dog seemed to be filling that void in our lives.
Of course we’d thought about getting a pet before, but we didn’t want to be those people who have dogs instead of children. And Shack wasn’t some proxy. He was a miraculous event in our lives. I swear something half magical came over me that day in Randy’s garage. But it wasn’t any swell of compassion, and the last thing I desired in my life was a purse-size canine. So do you see how it was? Can you hear the whispers I so desperately wanted to avoid? What is he doing with that miniature dog? He played high school football, for God’s sake. And have you heard, he’s shooting blanks! No, it wasn’t compassion that drove me to take Shack that day, and I had very little humanity left in my life at that point. My humanity was being wasted feeling sorry for myself for all the heirs I’d never sire, secretly hating Molly for shrugging her shoulders and saying, “So we’ll adopt.” But I’d seen the videos of those feral Romanian orphans. Put them all to sleep, right? And leave the runt pup to the coyotes? It was exactly the kind of thing I could’ve said. And how many times had I sat in that very lawn chair with my Winchester pointed to the rafters ready to blow away a small mammal? But the point is, that time in the garage I wasn’t the one saying it. And with that tiny whimpering dog lying there in that crate, something deep inside me just broke open. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t compassion. It was more elemental than that. Like pure shame. And humiliation. Yes, that’s it. Looking into Shackleton’s suffering yellow eyes was like a great and merciful shame, gushing through me, humiliating me…and maybe forgiving me too, for all the horrible shit I’ve done.
Hold on a second. I’m not crying. I’m just, goddamn it, that dog. He was a pain in the ass those first months, and an expense too. Imagine hooking a rat up to an IV and a feeding tube. Can you see it? The little heart monitor going beep? Close your eyes if you need to. Come on, Jose. Carol, you too. Close ’em. Can you guys see this pitiful sight? Okay, ready…? Now imagine the invoice coming in the mail.
You wouldn’t believe what intensive veterinary care costs. More than a coyote, for sure. Bill, you must know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen you drive away in that shiny Cadillac. You some kind of rich veterinarian? And those vanity plates: dr. bill. What is that, a play on words or something? No? Not gonna take the bait? One of these days we’ll get you talking, Bill. I tried to hold out too, brother, but eventually Herb’s beady eyes just overwhelm you and you start gushing about your poor dead dog. It’s pathetic, me sitting here between Carol with her murdered father and Jose with his—what was it again, Jose?
Right, dead sister. Black ice. Honestly, there’s no excuse for me coming in here and getting choked up over a dog that wasn’t supposed to live to begin with. But that was exactly the issue. Shack started improving. He came home and he began eating food and sleeping on our laps, and his presence pumped new life into our marriage, for a time. The married people in the room know how it goes, how things grow stale. Or, I suppose I was the one growing stale. I don’t know why, but one day I just stopped gushing with all that great forgiving shame. It was probably the day I found Randy in the garage and started dreaming of go-bags.
But I kept that fantasy to myself. I stood firm against the gathering demons. I loved my wife, after all. I loved her enough to lie to her in the stark midnight void, to tell her I didn’t like the way she drove around with our dog on her lap when what I really should’ve said was “Can you please find me a support group for assholes who can’t be happy with their incredible good fortune?”
But it’s not like I took off the very next day either. I waited for the feeling to pass. I stayed quiet, especially when the cops came sniffing around. After all, they just wanted to tie up some loose ends and stamp Randy’s file a suicide.
“You really have a stamp like that?” I asked them. But the detectives weren’t in a joking mood. Turned out Randy’s sister was someone at the county coroner’s office, so the medical examiner was dragging his feet and the police had to make like they had an honest death investigation on their hands. So they questioned me about the ball-peen hammer incident and the stolen pet and also about a more distant episode where I allegedly strangled Randy in the parking lot outside Brothers’ Tavern. But I wasn’t worried about the police. My wife was well liked around town, and I was well liked by her. So I told those cops, “Go ask Molly about my whereabouts. She’ll tell you I was here the whole time.” Which she did. And the cops haven’t been back since, so I assume the case of the sad, evil neighbor who just couldn’t go on is now closed.
Doctor Bill speaks! Finally! And I was afraid we’d have to go on in perpetuity listening to you rattle off name and serial number. But no shit? You actually knew Randy Menard? A patient of yours, I bet. Well, if you were the one who tended to his chipped sternum, then I regret to inform you the patient didn’t make it after all. He was consumed by demons while hunting squirrels in his garage. The police investigated, but the demon fled. It may now be hiding out inside Carol’s heart——
Okay, yes, Miss Kay, that was in poor taste. Carol, I apologize. It’s just that you guys have got me picking at some old wounds, and—hmm, okay, you’ve all been patient with me, with the swearing and all, and, let’s see, Herb, are you still awake? What was it you were fishing for earlier? My “anger”? Okay, let’s try that out. If you guys like it, then we can vote to see if I should include it the next time I share my feelings with strangers in the basement of a community center——
I am getting to it, Bill. However, I must say your long-anticipated contribution hasn’t been entirely pleasant. But where was I? Anger…anger…okay, so in all honesty, no bullshit, I am still angry with Molly. It is, after all, an incredibly stupid thing to do. So yes, anger is actually a fair word to use here.
Imagine stealing a dying puppy from the jaws of a coyote, plunking down thousands in medical bills, then thousands more because it has every degenerative disease a dog can have, but you end up loving it like it’s the honest-to-God embodiment of the children you couldn’t give your wife, and then she gets in the car one day to take the latest ream of adoption forms to the post office and some teenager rolls through a stop sign and the two cars bump gently but just hard enough to trigger the airbag and this miracle dog explodes all over the woman you love more than anything in the world.
This happens, people. This happens everywhere, all the time. Ask Doctor Bill. He probably has the stats in his head about how many beloved terriers get crushed by airbags each year. He’ll give you the numbers, and he’ll come to the defense of a shit-heel like Randy Menard, but he won’t actually tell anybody why he’s at our meeting.
No, Bill. You go fuck yourself.
Okay, I’d like to restart things by thanking Miss Kay for giving everyone a few minutes to cool off. I, for one, think a recess could be a healthy part of every meeting, but we’ll vote on that later.
Right, of course, there will be no voting on anything. And thank you also, Miss Kay, for reminding me that I didn’t apologize to Bill for my, as you put it, “aggressive behavior.” In fact, instead of merely apologizing, I’ll take this moment to cordially invite Bill to share his reason for being here.…
Well, if Bill isn’t going to talk, then I’ll——
Okay, wow. Tissues anyone? That was the worst thing I’ve ever heard, Bill. Honestly, the worst. A bit thin on details for the likes of Herb and Miss therapist, but there’ll be time enough for that next week. But yeah, Jesus, your loss takes the cake. This is humbling. I think I’ve just been humbled. And I’m sterile, so that’s saying something. But, oh man, your wife of how many years? And this happened on the very day of your anniversary? Yeah, okay, I’m remembering the article in the Gazette now. The gates weren’t working, was that it? I mean usually people are just trying to beat the train, but sometimes there’s more of a death wish——
I’m not trying to usurp Bill’s narrative, Miss Kay. I’m just ruminating on the tragedy. And Bill’s clearly not afraid to interrupt me, so if he wants to go on with more details, he should feel free. But in the meantime, I feel I’ve gathered some momentum in processing my own loss. I’m going through the stages here. I feel like just today I’ve moved past denial and anger into bargaining, or maybe even depression. Depression would be nice. Then bring on acceptance! Like Deb Menard. She got over Randy in no time. She did her stages at high volume, so the grief burned off faster. I remember going over there one day to see how she was holding up and she had the pool-cleaning guy, Lance something—he did maintenance on our Jacuzzi too—facedown in her lap. This was only a few months after Randy had shuffled off his mortal coil, so needless to say, I was bothered by the sight. Worse, though, it turned out to be the very day that we’d lose Shack in that fender bender.
I remember heading right back home to wait for Molly so I could tell her that Deb was making a rebound with the pool boy. But Molly didn’t come home, and the hours started piling up, and she wasn’t answering her phone. And every time my cell rang it was Deb wanting to know why I couldn’t knock first, and Deb wanting to know if my feelings were hurt, and Deb explaining that it’s absurd for her to remain monogamous in a relationship with a married man. But I didn’t have time for that woman’s bullshit with my wife mysteriously running three hours late. And right then, the police came waltzing up my front walk. Not the same ones who’d come sniffing for blood on my hands, but this fat mustache in a sheriff’s hat who said my wife had been in a car accident and that she was in surgery at the county hospital having broken ribs removed.
But I wasn’t understanding him. I was in shock. He was blathering on, and I wasn’t hearing him right. Finally, I snapped out of my daze and asked this officer, “Did you say that nine of her ribs are broken?”
“Not nine ribs,” the cop said. “Canine ribs. The dog’s bones were lodged in your wife’s chest and neck.”
I got to the hospital just as Molly was coming into post-op. She was moaning, “I killed Shackleton!” and I kept saying, “You’re fine, that’s all that matters.” But every time I opened my mouth she’d flinch like she was sure I was going to say “I told you so.”
What do you mean next week? I can’t just pick up mid-story seven days later. Can’t you guys stay a little longer? I’m almost done. Two more minutes, that’s all. I’ll cut to the chase. Jose, sit down. Herb, come on. How is it possible that Bill is the only one not packing up?
Okay, thank you. All right, where was I? Post-op? Forget post-op. I’ll jump to post-post-op, which is where it really goes downhill.
Imagine this. Imagine bringing your catatonic wife home from the hospital and dragging her up to the bedroom with the little crater still in the bedspread where your miracle dog took the last afternoon nap of his life, and you tuck in this wife of yours, groggy and blood-crusted and laced up with surgeon’s thread, and you kiss her on the forehead as she drifts into an ocean of painkiller dreams, and then, as if your life isn’t complicated enough, you come downstairs to an answering machine that’s got a dozen messages from Deb Menard saying she’s so, so sorry and that the pool boy doesn’t mean anything to her and that she needs your forgiveness or she’s going to kill herself and that she forgives you for whatever happened with Randy, for absolutely whatever it was you did to him if you did anything at all because she knows now that the two of you are meant to be together forever.
But then the message ended abruptly and I looked up to find my wife, suddenly wide awake and in the room with me, standing there with her finger on the answering machine’s stop button, her eyes boring deep into the center of my chest, as if she was seeing something there she hadn’t noticed before, like just maybe she was seeing a true demon. And this is my final theory on demons, by the way—that they don’t hunt you down and crawl inside you or anything like that, but rather they start out as something good and pure that you invite into your heart, like love or friendship, before morphing into a ravenous imp that feeds on your guts. I still love Molly like I always did, but it’s her love that’s turned rotten inside me, possessing me.
Yes, I see you people packing up again. It’s fine. I’m done. I’m truly and forever done. I’m possessed. We tried to un-possess me in couples’ counseling, but it’s difficult to fix a tough problem when giving up is an option too. And by “giving up” of course I mean that I wrote my little note and ran away.
See ya, Herb. It’s cool. I know you’ve got places to be. Later, Jose.
Anyway, after I left, I still kept tabs on Molly. She wasn’t exactly thriving, but she pressed on, until she didn’t. One day she was there in the amber nighttime windows of the home we once shared, and then the next day she was on a slab in the basement of the hospital. Complications from surgery. Elective surgery. But you can halt your conjecture, Bill. It wasn’t a nose job or anything. Vanity wasn’t in Molly’s heart. There’d been scars where Shack’s rib cage had stabbed into her neck, and a single woman needs to keep herself looking good, right? Anyway, it was a routine procedure, until a sponge got left behind and festered.
“The infection spread too quickly,” her surgeon explained to me. “There was nothing we could’ve done.” I had to agree, not being a doctor. Plus, I was in shock again. “What do you mean she’s gone?” I said, responding to the part when they’d first given me the news. But then I got caught up. I said, “Well, you could’ve not left the sponge inside her neck is what you could’ve done.” The surgeon’s face seemed to agree with this, but he remained quiet. Somewhere, a guilty nurse was being coached up in a broom closet. I could practically hear the whispering. Or maybe it was the voice of my inner demon, the day’s news having emboldened it to begin haunting me even before I went home to my motel room full of liquor bottles.
See ya, Carol!
Yep, just a botched surgery. How mundanely tragic, right? Give me a head-on with a semi like Jose’s sister. Or a freight train, even. Am I wrong, Bill? Better to have the ones we love wrenched from us in spectacular fashion than to watch them succumb to a series of minor mistakes.
And good night to you too, Miss Kay!
Guess it’s just you and me now, Bill. Only the widowers, if your story’s to be believed. Your tale of woe isn’t very convincing yet, but that’s just because you haven’t come forth with the details that implicate you in the calamity. Miss Kay would have us believe we’re telling our stories here in order to feel better, but that isn’t really it. You’ll eventually cave in with your own ugly particulars because you’ll feel the need to demarcate the line inside yourself where the simple sorrow butts up against the terrible, gnawing regret. Your story in brief is made improbable by its one-dimensional sadness, but maybe next week you’ll throw some light into the dimmer corners of your grief. Like the time, years ago, when I pressed Deb Menard up against the fridge at a Christmas party while my beloved wife chatted up my boss in the next room. Or the dead color that filled Molly’s eyes as she coolly verified my alibi for the morning of Randy Menard’s murder. Or the way my voice trembled like a coward’s as I spoke into the midnight void while her wet corneas caught the moonlight just so.
Here lies the true shame of a life, Bill, and the wicked irony too, unmerciful in its incessant return, night after night, hour after hour, as I lie awake in bed wishing like hell somebody was there to roll over and ask me, “What are you thinking about right now?” Just like that, with the “right now” tacked on the end to make sure I don’t think she’s just making conversation.