Bubba arrived at my cousin Joan’s country house with a dog-owner’s instruction book, a vocabulary list, and a handwritten note from his previous owner: “If Bubba is going to be in a threatening situation (like going to the vet, being around other dogs or going for a walk ☺), you should use the choke collar.” Joan tells me this as we sip gin-and-tonics on her sprawling patio. “Choke collar,” she scoffs at the smiling face. “The point is, Bubba is supposed to be my guard dog.”
At eight months, Bubba is “still a puppy,” guessed to be part Labrador, part Golden Retriever. He is broad-shouldered and the jumbled color of whole wheat flour. When I’d arrived, Bubba had nearly bowled me over on the gravel driveway, his paws the size of boxing gloves jabbing my stomach. He’d seemed friendly enough, but his throbbing tongue, branded by a round black bullseye, worried me. He was drooling buckets.
Joan thinks she needs Bubba because, although she lives in the city, last week her country place was burglarized during the day. “I can’t imagine how they had the nerve to steal a truckload of hay,” she says, rubbing a wedge of lime around the rim of her glass. When she came up last weekend, she’d noticed that about a hundred bales–the good stuff, from her second cutting–were missing from her horse barn. “How do you do it?” she asks me. “In broad daylight, do you just back up a flatbed and start pitching?”
Being a city girl myself, I have no idea.
With her closest neighbors a mile away in every direction, I understand why, despite the elaborate alarm system hooked up to the Barkeyville police station, Joan feels vulnerable. She’s five-foot-four and built like a fireplug, but she is forty-eight years old, has a standing appointment for her weekly manicure (Chick Pick Cherry), and is typically swathed in heavy gold jewelry, most of it from Tiffany’s. When one of Joan’s friends, who was moving to California, offered her Bubba, the businesswoman in her recognized the obvious advantages of “live” protection, equivalent, she said, to having a man around. Now, as Bubba pants beside Joan’s chaise lounge, he looks perfectly at home, not at all aware that he is destined to be “guard dog.” Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine that the thwack! thwack! thwack! of Bubba’s ebullient tail will scare off any poachers.
“Isn’t he a little friendly to be a guard dog?” I ask tentatively. Joan is a hard-nosed, highly competent executive vice president of something vitally important at a major communications company, and I don’t often question her.
“He’ll learn,” she says. Joan believes that all problems are manageable, given the right tactics against the right strategies.
I’m surprised that Joan replaced Max, her thirteen-pound pedigreed schnauzer, so quickly. He died just five weeks ago. Joan got Max the day after her husband Tom, without any warning or hint of disharmony, moved out to live with a paralegal at his firm who was honey-haired and fresh from college at Florida State. That was a dozen years ago. Joan was so angry she hired the meanest divorce lawyer in the city and pushed Tom’s partnership lifestyle back to early-student. She busied herself with her career, bought a country home and was “done” with men, except for Max, whom she called her “little gentleman” and insisted was nearly human. She fed him macrobiotic diets, allergy pills wrapped in liver sausage, and seedless green grapes instead of doggie treats. She forgave Max his sweet tooth when he found a guest’s purse on the floor and managed to get it open and eat the lipsticks and breath mints inside, or when he found the smell of her new yellow Pappagallo pumps irresistible. She would never forgive Tom.
“I assume he’s trainable,” Joan says again, “although he’s not as smart as Max. Max had papers a mile long.” Joan introduces everyone by title: CEO, CFO, EVP, etc., and it was important to her that Max had a pedigree. I know she has a little trouble introducing me to her friends because I’m “only” a paralegal, and probably guilty by that shared association with Tom’s bimbo. Joan doesn’t intend a personal insult; to her you either have the pedigree or not, and she’d rather spend her time with those with better blood lines. Still, we’re cousins. Like her, I’m single, and I admire her success and her independence and how she doesn’t feel sorry for herself about losing Tom. Had it been me, I would’ve been an emotional cesspool, but Joan treated her divorce like a business proposition and got the most out of it.
I also love Joan because she can say out loud the most outrageous things, things the rest of us would be ashamed to admit, but she says them like facts, cold and analytic, without fear of what anyone might think of her. I am reminded of one time in the city when Joan and I were walking Max. We passed by a middle-aged woman who sat on the sidewalk next to a filthy beige plastic pet carrier. The woman wore a blue jean skirt with a frayed hem and heavy, once-white athletic socks. Her maroon sweatshirt was grimy and bulky in the wrong places, as if both her possessions and her pets were burrowed beneath it.
“Feeeeed my caaat! Feeeeed my caaat!” The woman’s drawn-out plea was nasal, as cutting as a bleating goat. She spread the words too thinly to be easily understood, but the sound conveyed insatiable need, a well too deep to be filled. With one hand, she stroked a bit of gray fur curled in her lap. With the other, she rattled a paper cup from Burger King.
“Oh, please!” Joan muttered. “Eat the cat!” As if I weren’t there, she added a management-style bone, “Then, we’ll talk.” She yanked Max away.
“Joan!” I started to open my purse. “The poor woman is begging for her pet!”
“Don’t,” Joan said. She ticked off her business analysis of the woman’s situation. “One, she can’t afford a pet. Two, she can’t afford herself. Three, she should go to a homeless shelter, take her meds, and stop pestering people in my neighborhood.”
I bugged out my eyes to let her know I thought she was being harsh, but I closed my purse.
Joan kept walking, then brightened. “I have to admit it’s a pretty decent marketing hook. Who can resist a pet?”
We just had, but I didn’t say anything. Joan bent down and picked up Max.
I’m telling Joan about my latest document production for a big-name client when she jumps from her chaise and charges across the patio.
“No!” she commands, her tone checked, controlled, as if inviting a reasoned discussion with a gunman.
Paws on the glass-topped patio table, Bubba is eagerly inspecting Joan’s signature deviled eggs, each nestled in its own molded oval around the perimeter of a blue-and-white ceramic platter with a center inscription, “Joan’s Little Devils.”
“No!” Joan says again.
Bubba ignores her.
“Down!” she shouts, no longer solicitous.
Bubba doesn’t seem to understand; his snout stretches towards the platter.
“Off! Off!” she shouts. Bubba replants his front feet, flush against Joan’s stomach. She cups his paws and drops them back down on the patio. “Good boy,” she says, patting the top of his head.
“Right on target,” she mutters to herself, then turns to me. “‘Off ‘ is one of his words,” she says. Bubba sits by the table expectantly while she goes inside and brings me the instruction booklet, “Your New Best Friend.”
I read out loud, “Dogs are like people…” Bubba lifts one paw to the table and cocks his head towards Joan, his tongue snapping like a lizard’s.
“Max was never like this,” Joan says. “Max knew not to beg. I absolutely cannot bear that. No!” She slaps Bubba’s rump. “Off!”
With an almost-human toss of his snout, as if one thing’s as good as another, Bubba zig-zags across the yard, following the cologne of an unseen critter.
“That’s right,” I venture, knowing that I am on thin ice. “Max just went to the kitchen and took what he wanted!”
Before she can chastise me for criticizing Max, I ask, “Remember the rum cake?”
The Easter before Max died, Joan had hosted our entire family at her country house. My mother had brought her famous rum cake, a dense yellow cake with half a cup of Bacardi Dark baked in, and saturated with an additional half-cup through toothpick holes in the top. My mother usually loses patience with the procedure after filling half of the holes, and she then picks up the bottle and douses the other half. Just before serving, she seems to fear that the rum may have evaporated, and douses each slice again.
Twelve of the Strong relatives were seated in Joan’s great room, a combined living and diving room, for a late afternoon Easter dinner. After the meal, my mother insisted on clearing the table, since Joan and I had cooked. It took a little longer than usual for her to deliver her first load to the kitchen. When she returned, she took my plate and furtively lifted her eyebrow. She continued to clear the table, including the butter dishes, the salt and pepper shakers and every last thing not necessary for the dessert course, and then asked if anyone wanted coffee. She took a fair amount of time asking each of us individually, rather than just taking our family’s usual show of hands. I knew something was bothering her.
Hoping to prod her into serving it, I asked, “How’d the rum cake come out?”
She looked at me as if I’d committed some etiquette felony punishable by a year of hard, potato-peeling labor. Then, she put on a little girl face, pulled her lip down with her index finger and said to Joan, with the inflection of a question, “I think maybe Max got into it?”
Joan jumped from her chair. “MAX!!!” she shrieked, bumping against the table and toppling two water glasses.
She flew to the kitchen, and the rest of us, like a team of tornado-chasers, rushed after her. Nose down, Max shuffled past us.
“MAAAX!!!” Joan stomped back out of the kitchen and into the great room. She still clung to her linen napkin, smeared with cranberry, rose lipstick and a dot of brown gravy.
Max took a step towards his box of playthings by the fireplace before he apparently understood Joan’s tone, and stopped dead in his tracks, eyeing the stairs. He looked as if he wanted to bolt up them two at a time, but he was visibly bloated now and could hardly move.
In the kitchen, we saw the offense. There, on the pine table, in the center of a glass plate, surrounded by sugared walnuts, was my mother’s rum cake, gouged like a gravel pit. At least a quarter of the cake was missing.
“Oh, God, Max,” Joan yelped. Max plopped over, legs akimbo, his eyes like onyx, yellow crumbs stuck in his old man’s whiskers, begging her to rub his belly.
“You’re a dog! You’re not supposed to like alcohol! You shouldn’t get drunk!” Joan moaned.
“You’ve always said he was human!” I said cheerfully, but my mother shot me a glance that said I should know better than to choose that moment to mention Joan’s drinking. Luckily, Joan had been too concerned with Max to notice my jibe.
We are laughing about the excavated rum cake, and I idly toss one of Max’s weathered tennis balls into the yard. Bubba races after it, hurdling some daylilies in his way. The lilies rebound, but, once more, Joan is disproportionately incensed. She charges after Bubba, screaming “NO!!!” Bubba pauses, momentarily confused, and trots to her, his tail thrashing.
“You’re going to have to learn to be an outside dog,” she mews, almost as if she is talking to Max. It is hard to tell if it is my story or the gin that has first angered her, then softened her up.
“I’m not sure this is going to work,” she says, scratching Bubba’s ear. “It may be too soon.” She takes a deliberate gulp of her gin. “Need another?” she says to me.
I decline, but she goes into the kitchen and returns with a tumbler—her third. It’s not polite to count, but I know from past experience that, after three, she gets a little sloppy and then sleepy. Occasionally she forgets to serve dinner.
Joan sighs and this time looks at me. “It may be too soon.”
I hold my breath. Joan doesn’t often admit mistakes.
“The vet said he could’ve had surgery, and then chemo and maybe radiation, and that he would be in there for like six weeks. But Max was old. I’d had him longer than I’d had Tom, the jerk.” She pauses to take a drink, and wipes her eyes. “Max wouldn’t leave me. He was more loyal than most humans!”
I study the daylilies. Joan has never cried in my presence. Now, there is a gash in her voice that I realize must have been welded silent when Tom left. Had she really thought a dog would replace a husband? That if she had Max she wouldn’t mourn Tom? She’d been angry, to be sure, but she’d never admitted to me that she was hurt.
“What could I do?” she asks. “I couldn’t put him through all that.”
“He was your friend,” I say.
Joan straightens in her chair, forcing her voice to the analytic. “It would have cost more for him than for a human being,” she continues.
The calculation is a dead give-away. Her decision was not just a business decision, the prerogative and burden of senior management, but an elective of love.
“So I drove up there, and the vet said he could do it then. I held his little body, and I don’t know if he even knew me, and the vet gave him a shot and that was it.” In a single slurp, she finishes her gin. She puts a hand on the chaise and steadies herself as she stands up.
“Don’t!” I say, surprised how much I sound like her.
She halts, as rigid as a pillar of ice, and glares at me inscrutably, like someone in a coma.
In the heavy silence, my heart throbs dangerously, and I hear, in the distance, country life: a crow cawing, a horse whinnying, a dog barking. It’s not my place to judge Joan’s drinking, but she is my cousin, and now I’ve heard her pain, and I can’t stay silent while she kills herself as surely as the shot that sent Max to sleep.
“Don’t what,” she says flatly. It’s a tone that dares a junior executive to contradict the senior.
“Sit down a minute, and then we’ll eat,” I say.
“I’ll have another drink first,” she says, victorious.
“You drink too much,” I blurt. I am shocked at my boldness. Joan is looking at me like she doesn’t know me. I soften my voice, “It’s not a cure.”
Slowly, her spine releases, her shoulders relax, and her face melts. She opens her dark eyes wide, and blinks to clear her tears.
Thwack! Bubba announces his return to the patio with a slap of his tail at Joan’s knees, and she sits back down. With impeccable timing, Bubba rests his chin on her lap. She hands me her empty glass and waves it away, done for the day.
She looks at Bubba and shakes her head. “It’s not your fault, Bubba. It may be it’s just too soon.”
A week later, Joan and I meet in the city for lunch. She isn’t certain yet that Bubba is going to work out. He still doesn’t know all the words on his vocabulary list, but he is learning. She thinks he may be a little too friendly to be a good guard dog. She can’t say why, but he’s growing on her.
Joan doesn’t finish her glass of wine, but we leave the restaurant. It is a bright August day, and the city’s pace is leisurely, pedestrians waiting for “walk” signs just to delay by a few precious moments the return to work. We are at the corner when we hear a stabbing voice.
“Feeeed my coat! Feeed my caaat!”
We turn around. The woman from Joan’s neighborhood squats against the brown mustard brick of the Save-More drugstore, the cat in her lap. In front of the pet carrier, the food bowl is empty.
“Jeez,” Joan mutters, then strides over to the woman.
“Oh, Joan,” I groan, panicked at the scene she might cause. She ignores me, and I look away deliberately, as if I’m considering whether to turn left to Nordstrom’s or right to Macy’s. I hear the woman rattle her coins.
“Thaaaaank you,” the nasal voice says, and I look back in time to see Joan’s outstretched hand over the cat lady’s paper cup.
Joan joins me at the curb, her shoulders thrown back in a business-like stance. There is a moment of silence between us when I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to make her feel self-conscious or incur her wrath. But then I figure there must’ve been a good reason for Joan’s change of heart. Thinking to tease her, I ask, “The marketing hook worked?”
Without looking at me, Joan touches the corner of her eye and says, “Doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him.”
Mary Hutchings Reed is the author of four indie literary mainstream novels: One for the Ark, Warming Up,Saluting the Sun, and Courting Kathleen Hannigan, which foretells the #MeToo movement as it chronicles the challenges facing a young woman lawyer “growing up” in a prestigious Chicago law firm. Mary practiced intellectual property law in Chicago for many years and her short fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, The Tampa Review, Ars Medica and the Ligourian. Read more about her work at www.maryhutchingsreed.com