Below is an excerpt from the title story of my short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories:
I see her feet first. White Reeboks, size 7 ½, with mud on the soles coming straight at me. Then I look up past the knotty sinews of her legs in denim shorts, past the belly button and small, swinging breasts in a white cut-off T-shirt, past her narrow chin and high ruddy cheekbones to her deep-set brown eyes full of tenderness and love. I’m so lost admiring those sad and hopeful eyes that I don’t notice her left arm winding up a pitch until she says, “Go fetch it, Marcus.”
I stagger to the left through choppy grass, scampering over beetles and ladybugs’ nests, trying desperately to beat the breath of a late spring breeze that exhales the softball Amelia has thrown toward me. I move a little more to the left, then forward, then step back a few paces, then stop, rise up on my hind legs, open my mouth and lean forward. Got it! The gummy material bounces against my teeth and then mysteriously falls away. Oh, no!
“Better luck next time,” Amelia says, jogging toward me and bending over to retrieve the soppy softball. With her free hand she rubs behind my ears and under my chin. I close my eyes and luxuriate in the gentle love of her massage. When she stops, I start to whimper. She palms the softball, wiping my slobber against her denim shorts, and smiles. “Want to try again?”
I bark enthusiastically, though I don’t really feel like it. All I can hear in my head is her boyfriend, Phil, saying what he always says when I’m around, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
I am seven years old. Five of those years I spent on the streets. I had a family once, when I was a puppy, but it didn’t last for long. I couldn’t follow the rules:
Don’t sit on the sofa.
Don’t pee in the house.
Don’t jump on anyone.
For a while, I was moved from shelter to home, home to shelter, then I escaped and traveled the back alleys, rummaging through garbage cans. I know what it feels like to be cold and homeless.
Then I met Amelia.
She was coming home from work at the legal office where she represents corporations in billion dollar mergers. She bent over the trunk of her gray Volvo and removed a single bag of groceries. With a grace both astonishingly simple and stunningly learned, she closed the trunk with her elbow and proceeded to balance the groceries against one hip while humming a tune.
Eager for a look at her face, I stepped in front of her. She tripped on my front paws and staggered back, regaining her balance. Shock and fear melted into kindness and concern. She stooped to examine me, setting her groceries on the lower step. “You look hungry,” she said, combing her fingers through my matted fur. “And lonely.” Her face was fuller then, with softly rounded cheeks and a subtle double chin. She gathered me into her arms and I licked her neck helplessly. Then she screeched and shoved me out of her lap, standing up and glancing down at her black slacks drenched in pee. I thought for certain I had blown it, but she just shook her head and wiped her pants with a tissue from her purse. “We’ll have to fix that,” she said, stooping to gather her groceries. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
I trotted behind her up the stairs and down the hall to her one bedroom apartment. She once again perched the groceries against her hip while fumbling with a jangling set of keys on a long golden key chain with a picture of the sun dipping into the Pacific. She threw open the door and invited me into her spacious living room with its neutral carpet and eggshell walls. I trotted past the built-in bookcases lining either side of a marble fireplace to the loveseat and sofa across from the sliding glass door that lead to the small yard that would become my sometimes home, sometimes prison.
While Amelia stocked fresh fruits and vegetables in the crisper, I sniffed my reflection in the glass coffee table that was trimmed with oak. A row of photographs of her family graced the end tables and the bookshelves. I noticed a brother and a sister, a mother and a father, and someone else, someone special. His photograph pierced the center of a stainless steel heart. With windswept sandy blond curls and rugged mountain climbing muscles, he seemed unusually turbulent, even with a cloudless smile, and some part of me knew, instinctively, that I would have to battle him to retain a space in Amelia’s otherwise rambling, open field heart.
Amelia smiles, not sensing how hard I am trying to please her. She winds up another pitch and asks, “Are you ready?”
I bark and leap into the air. I’d do anything for Amelia. Anything. Even slop around in a muddy soccer field chasing fly balls, trying to catch them in my small mouth and bring them back to her like ten-carat diamonds dug up from the depths of my hound-dog heart.
When we get home, Phil is sitting on the sofa. He has a key to the apartment that he uses when Amelia’s out of town on business and someone needs to care for me. On the coffee table, the morning classifieds and sports sections litter the glass. When Amelia opens the closet to hang up her sweater, two suitcases topple out.
“Cece’s leaving me,” Phil says. “I thought I could stay here.”
Amelia’s lips tighten. “Can you go home and talk about it? I thought you were seeing a counselor?”
“We were. She told the counselor last night that she wants a divorce. She says she’s found someone who listens.”
Amelia unlaces her Reeboks and sets the softball inside the left shoe. She runs her fingers through her long brown hair and tries to smile. I’m thirsty from chasing muddy softballs, so I trot into the kitchen and lap up the clean water Amelia placed there this morning after we had breakfast. When Phil’s here, the rooms feel smaller, darker, cluttered. I stay in the kitchen, chewing Purina dog chow, eyeing Amelia in the living room. She curls up beside Phil on the loveseat and brushes a sandy curl off his forehead.
“I guess it will be all right. You can probably find a place by the end of the month.”
Phil kisses her mouth. “What would I do without you?”
By the end of the month, I’ve given up my space in Amelia’s bed to Phil. I sleep outside, eat outside, and pee outside. My chewy toys no longer hide beneath the sofa cushions or underneath the coffee table. The apartment is still a mess, but it’s a different kind of mess. Phil’s Polo shirts drape over the sofa’s arms. On an end table where Amelia’s reading lamp used to be, a portable television blasts a baseball game between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Monitors and hardware cases lean like Lego cities on either side of the fireplace. Sometimes Phil thinks he’s home and he trips on my paws or steps on my tail. I yelp. Amelia says, “Be careful,” but doesn’t do anything when he’s not. I’m beginning to wonder when they’re going to send me away like the last family did a month after they brought a new baby home. “There just isn’t enough room in this house for another mouth to feed,” the husband said. I thought they’d get rid of the baby, he came last, after all, but they got rid of me.
Amelia isn’t holding up any better. She’s lost a lot of weight. When she bends down to feed or pet me, I can see each bone in her wrists. And her sad smile.
Five weeks later, Phil says he’s finally found a place. I think we ought to celebrate. But the night before he’s supposed to move out, Amelia closes a deal between Soltech and Fusetronics and, in the process of restructuring, Phil loses his job as a software engineer.
Phil slams the door when he comes home. Amelia is cooking in the kitchen, dicing onions for the soup she will not eat. I am sitting by her feet, just happy to be near her.
“How could you?” Phil spits. “I may not love my kids as much as you love that damn dog, but at least my kids would never back stab me.”
Veiled by her hair, Amelia continues dicing. “You knew I was working on that deal long before it became final. If you had a problem with it, you should have said something then.”
Phil stalks into the kitchen and kicks over my water bowl and steps into the moist crumbs of dog chow. “Shit. His crap is everywhere. I thought I told you to keep it outside where it belongs.”
“We had a snack together. Is that so horrible?”
“You could at least get rid of the evidence.” Phil dumps the bowl of water in the sink and rinses the dog chow down the drain. He mops the floor. He pulls open the refrigerator and moves around my cans of moist dog food looking for a beer. “You know, the Italian Affair is having its grand opening tonight. We should go there and celebrate your big deal.”
“Stop teasing me. It was a big deal negotiating that offer. I couldn’t write in the terms and conditions for everything. How could I have known they would lay you off?”
I whine and whimper, hoping Amelia will understand. Please, don’t let him stay.
But she’s not paying attention to me. She’s paying attention to him. “Listen, Phil,
I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better, you can stay here until you get another job.”
Phil pops the lid on a can of beer. Foam rises over the edge. He slurps it up and wipes froth off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, too. It’s just that most guys my age are settling down, not starting over.”
Amelia touches his cheek. “Beginnings aren’t bad. They’re endings upside down. Like a frown to a smile. You have to look at it the right way. Now you have time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Like play softball.”
“You’re right.” Phil wraps his arms around her waist and kisses her. “It’s not all bad.”
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