SUDDEN, EMPTY SPACE by Melissa Reddish
WHEN I FIRST MET HIM, his dog was already dead. Not hit by a car dead, the kind of death that takes you completely by surprise, where the first few days are spent in a cocoon of shock as you continually search for that warmth by your feet, stirring at the slightest movement, ball already in mouth. No, this was the death after a long, long illness, the limbs becoming stiff and weak, the drooping gray muzzle barely lifting at the sound of the Milkbones or the chain leash scraping the countertop. This was a death that happened slowly, moment by moment, until there’s only one move left. I know about these things because I owned a dog, too—a Border Collie named Sallie who got hit by a car in our old neighborhood when I was ten. She was always dashing out of the front door, no matter how much my mother or I tried to stop her. And one day, there was a car there, and well, you know the rest. I told him this story the first day I met him, the man with the dead dog, and he said it wasn’t the same. If Sallie had only lived longer, to a ripe old dog age, so I could see her sprint, literally, through all the stages of life like a flipbook thumbed too quickly while I was barely passing into my thirties, then I would understand. Okay, I said, even though I didn’t really agree—like I’m really going to argue with a guy whose dog has just died.
I had just finished another semester of teaching English 101 at Plainview Community College and was feeling that bizarre sense of manic deflation that only other teachers can fully understand—a mixture of elation and depression, glad that I was finally finished with the semester and certain that I had done nothing but run in place for several months. Two years at Plainview and this is what I learned: the full-timers were constantly running, out of breath, always so busy with papers to grade and classes to teach. Their door is always open (for five minute spans between classes, anyway) and they are there to talk to you about typical student problems, potential classroom activities, ways to deal with the stress and workload in a tone that lets you know that you are the one asking and they are the ones telling. And twenty hungry, desperate, tired adjuncts all try to squeeze into the tiny, one-room office. Too many personalities in one space: the overly gregarious, super-gay art history teacher who always bogarts the one shared computer; the almost-retired, tight-lipped, perpetually frowning math teacher who uses the Humanities office to eat her lunch, and the newly married, bright, young, energetic composition instructor in a chic summer dress who has new ideas on how to teach writing (x10). All of us are crammed into the tiny office, shoulders hunched, muttering apologies and ‘no you go first,’ the only inkling of our hunger, the flash of our bright white teeth lifted into a sudden grin.
And now I was faced with three solid months of summer stretching endlessly before me where I would try to write the novel that I had written and rewritten and scrapped and revised (really re-seen, as I tell my students) at least four times with a second half that was still an inchoate mist swirling in my subconscious. Nothing before me but the long blank call of seagulls in the Giant parking lot circling above me, just waiting for me to collapse and spill my bag of frozen French fries.
David was standing in the supermarket staring at a wall of potato chips with a look on his face that could only be described as traumatic. I didn’t know his name or even about his dog yet, but the way the light shone off his too-still face revealing eyes both watery and dark let me know that there was something ugly and sharp curled in their depths, like the flash of a dun-colored fish where once there was only sand. His navy blue polo was wrinkled in odd creases all along his back as though he had slept in it, and his brown mop of hair had a similar disheveled look. I had the sudden urge to wrap him in a blanket and stroke his head. He reminded me of the boy in my high school chemistry class who lost his dad from a drunk driver. He had come to school in one of his dad’s old flannel shirts every day for two weeks and spent each class stripping labels off of soda bottles, binders, whatever he could get his hands on. His fingers just kept working and working. Whenever I saw him sitting at the end of a long cafeteria table full of people, staring at his congealed slice of pizza for a full minute before tossing it away, I always thought I should go over and say something, offer some sort of support. But instead, I just walked by him, agreeing with Cindy that we should stop by 7-11 for a slushie later.
After the supermarket, I expected that would be the last time I saw David, but, as if we were in a novel, I saw him again about a week and a half later at Boscov’s looking at button-down shirts with those same traumatic lines carved into his face. Without really thinking about it, I approached him.
“Nice shirt.” He turned to face me with an unreadable expression. “I mean,” my hands gesturing at nothing, “the shirt you’re looking at. Not the one you’re wearing.” I let my hands drop. “Which is also nice.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I think.”
“I don’t usually approach strangers,” I explained. “But you seemed upset.”
“My dog died,” he said, quickly and absolutely, like a stone plunging into a solid mass of water.
“Oh, I’m sorry. How did he die?”
“She. Congestive heart failure. It was pretty painful by the end.”
“Wow, that’s…” I said and had no idea how I was going to finish that sentence so I started a new one instead. “I had a dog once. She died too.” I told him about Sallie and he told me that it was nothing like his dog dying and that whole mess about the flipbook and all. I liked the analogy, even if the rest of it was bullshit. Grief affords you a little bullshit, although a dog death affords you less.
We fell into the silence of strangers who have no obligation to speak. I looked up at the glass ceiling and chandeliers and marveled how a department store like Boscov’s could stay in business and wondered, as I wondered every time I walked in there, if they existed outside of Salisbury, or if this elegant ruin was particular to our town that was trying so hard to transform itself into a city and succeeding only in the areas of traffic and crime. (Local girl kidnapped in the parking lot of the Tastee Freeze, driven out to the Wicomico River, raped and strangled with electrical wire. Car found on the opposite side of town, filled with crushed beer cans, a rubber tourniquet, and copious amounts of urine.)
“What was your dog’s name?” I asked suddenly, realizing I didn’t know.
“Pretty,” I said, “Like the plant.”
“No. Not like the plant.”
I waited for him to correct me, to tell me another bullshit story of how Ivy was his grandmother’s name and how he wouldn’t dream of naming his precious dog after a weed, but he was resolutely silent on the matter. Grief or not, this sort of purposeless antagonism was too much. “Well,” I said, ready to walk away, when he spoke again.
“She used to pass the rankest, the absolutely foulest gas on the planet. Believe me when I tell you, you haven’t smelled anything until you’ve smelled a dog fart, and Ivy was the master of the silent but deadly kind. I would be sitting on the couch, watching the game, when I would just smell this absolutely foul odor, and she would just lie there like nothing happened.” He turned to face me and his eyes teared up. “Funny what you miss, huh?”
Was this guy for real? “Listen, uh,” I realized that I knew his dead dog’s name but not his.
“David,” he said. His eyes dried, grew recalcitrant.
“David,” I repeated. “I should get going.”
David cocked his head to the side, just like a dog, and I wondered what other dog-like mannerisms he had picked up, and if it was intentional, a tribute to his beloved mutt or an attempt to keep her alive. “But I don’t know your name,” he said.
“Laura. My mother was going to name me Larry because she was so certain she was going to have a boy, so when I came out, all pink and with a vagina, Laura was the first name she could think of.” I blushed, having no idea why I told him this. I hadn’t even told this story to the other adjuncts in the brief ten minute conversations we had between classes. In fact, this was probably the longest non-essay related conversation I had had all year.
David simply smiled and cocked his head to the side once more. “Well, almost-Larry, would you like to get a cup of coffee with me sometime?”
“Sure,” I said, and then, “Why not,” so as not to seem too eager. He wrote his number down on a scrap of paper, in an interesting but somewhat disconcerting gender role reversal, and I stuck it inside my wallet. Presumably, he was handing over the entire sticky mess of waiting around a couple days to seem interested but not too eager and then calling him, my voice confident and cavalier, a clear plan for seduction already in place. I pictured him coming over to my one-bedroom apartment after a large pasta dinner at Olive Garden and then fucking on my dirty kitchen counter, crumbs flying everywhere like space ships.
After David left, I wandered over to the fudge counter, the original reason I walked into Boscov’s. When I was six or seven, my parents had led me to the fudge counter once a month to buy a treat and watch the candy man mix bag after bag of sugar into the whirring machine, the sugar rising in great plumes of smoke that clung to any surface it could, creating brilliant crystals of light. Back then, Boscov’s had seemed like a ritzy place with the chandeliers, the ostentatious jewelry (gold and silver brooches clinging to the felt backdrop like tarantulas) and expensive shoes and handbags. My favorite part was the mirrored ceiling—I would crane my neck upwards to watch myself walking, my parents’ shoes in the corner of my field of vision, until I inevitably stumbled and my father reached a massive, hairy arm down to catch me before I fell. Now, of course, the exact same styles winked at me from row after row of untouched clothing, maintaining a solemn dignity among the dust and irrelevance. My parents hadn’t lived here for years. When 1st National Bank became M&T Bank after a completely average-looking man had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and issued his teary confession on the six o’clock news, my parents had quietly packed up their lives, abandoned their two-car garage, and moved three hours to the suburbs of Northern Virginia, working jobs they both hated and learning to drive too fast and too close.
When I arrived at the fudge counter, the candy man, a balding man with an apron wrapped tightly around his bulging midsection, shuffled over to where I was standing on tiptoes with anticipation. I peered down into the glass like a little kid to see the selection.
“ ‘Can I get for you?” the man asked.
“Just looking to satisfy my sweet tooth.”
“Hmm.” He wiped his sweaty brow with the apron and then returned to the machine currently pounding sugar and other mystery ingredients together.
“So, what’s it like making fudge?” I asked, hoping to hear stories of him standing over pots of boiling sugar with his mother waving a wooden spoon like a sword he wanted one day to wield.
“Awful,” the man said, his fatigued voice hiding a secret excitement, as if this was a speech he had been practicing in front of the mirror all afternoon. “This machine is so goddamn loud, first of all, and I have to stand right over it when I pour the sugar in.” He leaned directly over the machine to demonstrate. “All that sugar gets in my nose and gives me a headache something awful. And those kids. Always running up and down the aisles screaming bloody hell.” I glanced around the quiet store, the only sound the ubiquitous elevator music piped in through the crackling speakers, half-expecting to see a group of sticky children hiding behind a rack of shoes, faces streaked with war paint and holding tomahawks, just waiting to jump out and start wailing. The candy man’s face was pulled down in unhappy lines.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I could feel my face start to mirror his and I quickly lost my appetite for fudge.
“Ah,” he said and shrugged, returning to his task that he despised. I turned and walked away quickly, leaving the dour candy man with his rows of perfectly cut fudge encased in glass, besmirched by tiny fingerprints.
Early morning is the worst time, the time when I first wake up, the light always too bright even with my blinds shuttered, when I expect to feel Ivy’s back pressed up against me until I rise and she rises, simultaneously, her tail already wagging and her mouth already salivating for Kibbles n’ Bits. I love waking with her small dog body pressed against mine, so completely dependent on me and so completely surrendered to this need. She never has any doubt that I will pull through for her in the end. But this morning is like all mornings lately: I wake and stretch and groan and roll over into the sudden empty space, not a trace of dog body or even dog hair, and already my day is cavernous, an empty, ruined space I have to fill.
Today is slightly different. I have another date with Laura, the community college teacher. She is small and gangly, and her teeth are very large. Her need for physical affection is palpable; it emanates from her like smoke, and I imagine I am the first person it hasn’t suffocated.
I have decided that today I will sleep with her.
Most of my days have been spent in the quiet solitude of my own grief, and I found that tending to this yawning emptiness inside me has become a new pattern that I can sustain for now, a way of organizing the interminable hours and minutes of my day into little blocks of managed sorrow. Ivy died two months ago, and I still can’t envision a life without her.
I have decided to invite Laura over for a home-cooked meal after she explained her usual dinner of pasta or meal-in-a-box. My day at work goes by slowly, filling out forms for insurance claims and adjusting information to make my boss with the soccer-mom hair happy. Everything at work is comfortingly the same: the same gray carpet speckled with dull red and blue flecks. I imagine in the catalog this was listed as “fiesta.” It brings to mind men in dark gray suits with little pointed hats and party horns. Truthfully, it looks more like cat litter than anything else.
In my small, equally gray cubicle I’m on the phone all day with customers, taking statements from both drivers and sometimes passengers, too, if the story sounds suspect. Usually people are truthful, and I can hear the tinge of fear in their voice when I identify myself from the insurance company, as though I’m secretly in cahoots with the police. But sometimes they try to pull a fast one, explaining that when the other driver hit them (rear left side bumper), their windshield cracked or they received a dent in the nose of their car. It is at this point that I feel most like a cop—I lean on them until they confess or I interview the passengers and watch the story crumble in my hands.
Today, one man has a story I have not heard before. He hit a deer, which is standard enough in this area. But he claims that the deer hair has become embedded under the slick finish of his car, so he will need to have his entire car repainted. I should have known. The man started off with a voice that was suspiciously nice and far too accommodating. Those are always the ones you have to watch out for. Now, he pulls a 180 and begins screaming and berating me, his voice growing more and more southern hick as he proceeds.
“Listen to me you son of a bitch. You ain’t here so you don’t know shit about my truck.”
“Sir, I assure you, what you are saying isn’t possible.”
“I’ll tell you possible, you stupid s’ah’bitch. I’ve been a loyal paying customer for ten years, and you are going to paint every inch of my goddamn truck.”
“Sir, I’m going to need you to calm down.”
“Then do what I’m telling you to do or I’m gonna come down there and shove this phone so far up your ass that your gonna have to take a shit long distance.”
Charming. Instead of answering, I simply place the phone on the cradle and listen to the susurrus of conversations around me. Lately, I’ve been less and less willing to stick my neck out for a customer, especially one that is trying to get someone else to pay for his mistakes. I used to feel sorry for them, driving around with a dented car that bespoke their misfortune, but now I understand what I didn’t before: they deserve it, the fuckers. Every last one of them.
When I arrive home at six, I am greeted by nothing, a breeze that wafts through the door as I cross the threshold into a quiet, empty house. My insides stretch once again to enclose this small grief, but I notice it hurts less than usual. I seem to be looking forward to this evening, filled partially with a nervous anticipation.
Laura arrives at seven and I’ve already begun par-boiling the potatoes and carrots, the lemon and rosemary-infused chicken baking in the oven. The smell has permeated the kitchen and wafts across the doorway to Laura, who closes her eyes and lifts her head in an ardent expression of appreciation. So many of her mannerisms seem to be an affectation, something she feels she should or would like to be, like this sniffing the air like a dog, or her habit of tossing her head back to laugh a high, tinkling sound like champagne glasses clinked together. I want to tell her to relax and be herself, but there is no way to tell her this without her getting affronted. Dogs are so much easier; if they do something that displeases you, you tell them “no” in a firm voice and that is that.
I finish cooking the chicken and pour us both a glass of wine. She tells me how her co-workers grow herbs like rosemary and thyme, and how she could never manage it. She has a black thumb, she explains, laughing her champagne laugh. After the chicken, we drink another glass of wine and another, growing sloppy in our movements and speech. She begins talking to me about her work at the community college, the movements of her hands becoming wide and grand. She tells me about the other teachers, how they are just waiting for her to fail so there will be fewer people competing for a full-time position. I tell her this sounds paranoid. She eyes me distrustfully and hungrily and pours another glass of wine. Then she begins talking about her novel, and the way her hair falls into her face and becomes stuck on her moistened lips is wonderful, and I want to tell her to leave it there when she brushes it angrily back behind her ears.
“Writing is like discovery,” she says, pausing more often as she searches for words that hover around her, fine and untouchable. “It’s not so much creating a story as discovering it along the way. Like the characters. My main character isn’t me, per se, but she has aspects of me, and sometimes I find things out about myself through writing her.”
“Such as… I don’t like teaching very much.” She looks around the room as though her boss is hiding behind the couch ready to jump out with a pink slip. “I like it okay, but there are days when it just feels like I’m a glorified babysitter. Do you know what I mean?” Her eyes don’t meet mine and then they do. They are large and wet.
“No, I can’t.” She picks at a bit of fluff on the couch. “What else would I do?”
“I hear there are always jobs in insurance.”
She pushes her hair back, and there are those lips stained red with wine, waiting. “Like with you?”
She smiles and her face relaxes. “Tell me about Ivy.”
I am reluctant to do so because I know that I am growing increasingly tipsy and I will begin to wax maudlin and maybe even cry. Already Laura is going to sleep with me, so there is no need for theatrics or to open up that gaping wound in me for her to see.
“Pwease,” she says and opens her eyes exceptionally wide.
The baby talk is nauseating, especially coming from the speech of a drunk, so I tell her about Ivy and how she would lie on her back and twist her body whenever she had an itch, like she was doing a dance. I told her about how she got the jitters, her whole body tense and expectant whenever she saw a squirrel, but how she was such a good, well-trained dog, she wouldn’t run after it until I gave her the signal. She would just stand there, shaking with anticipation, watching its mocking tail as it ran up the tree. I told her about how she would pace back and forth endlessly before she would actually squat to take a crap and how sometimes, she would suck the shit right back into her butt like a little vacuum to pace some more.
Laura is laughing with tears in her eyes, her wine glass tipping dangerously towards the couch.
And then I made the first and only mistake of the night. I told her about how Ivy had skin problems and the medicine the vet gave her ravished her hips, so when she got older, she could barely get out of bed, and when it got really bad, she would take a dump unceremoniously in the middle of the street, not even bothering to walk onto the grass first. That’s when I knew we were reaching the end. What I don’t tell her about is how her eyes stayed so trustful, even as the pain ravaged her hips and her heart began to give out on her, even as I failed her.
Laura’s face is one of unbearable pity. The wine glass is abandoned on the coffee table and she is next to me, rubbing my back like a sick child. And then, the tears are wet on my cheeks and I want to rip apart the stupid throw pillows on the couch until the entire couch, no, the entire house is covered with that cottony white stuff, obliterating everything. I hate Laura for seeing me like this. She leans in close and starts kissing the damp spots on my neck and whispering, “Shh, shh.” The vibrations on my throat feel good, so I put my hand on her stomach, which is warm and round with food and wine. I reach my hand further up her shirt, poking my finger around her bra, a little number with frills and a bow in the space between her breasts. The little flourishes turn me on. And Laura too, because she’s leaning her head back and exposing her swan-white neck to me.
We both begin fumbling with clasps and zippers and buttons, and there are so many it seems as though we’ve become permanently tangled in each other’s clothing, more covered than when the evening began. Then, miraculously, her top is off and my pants are wriggled halfway off my body and she is climbing on my legs like a mountain-climber exploring dangerous new territory.
“I need you on me,” she gasps as though she will suffocate without the press of my body on hers.
So I oblige, and I lay myself on top of her, pinning her arms and legs, pressing my full weight on her thin chest that is heaving up and down like a tiny bird. She closes her eyes when I thrust into her, and I wonder if she is thinking of me or someone else or if she’s thinking about nothing at all. When she wraps her legs around my legs and digs her nails in my back, I envision those marsupials that traverse the forest floor with their young hanging from them with low-lidded patience.
Then she is opening her mouth and a sound like uncertainty is coming out of it, “ah ah ah.” I almost stop before I realize it is her orgasm. All those affectations, and she couldn’t manage a more theatrical orgasm, one ripped straight from a porno that would express how my cock brought her to tears. But a look on her face, mind-blank and quiet, makes me realize that I prefer her this way. Afterwards, she will whisper in my ear that she is going to quit and maybe even apply for a job at my company. She will be close enough for me to stroke the fine white hairs on her upper lip, though I won’t. And later, much later, I will ignore her calls when they come two, three times a day. But for now, I tuck that look of satisfaction into a secret corner of my mind to pull out later when I’m jammed in the dirty, tile-stained bathroom to remind myself what peace I can give this girl simply from a tussle in the sheets.
Sallie was a Border Collie, and the first and last thing she taught me about owning a dog is that there is only so much you can teach a dog, only so much you can reroute in its hardwired circuitry to suit your individual preferences. Of course, collies were bred to be herders, but this breeding took place over years and years and years so that when I wanted Sallie to sit and stay and roll over, she wanted to herd. She wanted to herd everything, from my parents and myself to the neighborhood cats (feral or otherwise). She never met with success, but this just convinced her that she had to try harder. One day, tired of being cooped up in the living room and forced to lie down while her owners gazed slack-jawed at the picture box, she shot out the front door, rounded our neighbor’s Sedan, planted her feet, and readied her short, sharp bark.
MELISSA REDDISH graduated with an MFA from American University in 2008. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Petrichor Machine, decomP, Prick of the Spindle, and Printer’s Devil Review, among others. She is also the co-faculty editor of Echoes and Visions, the student literary publication of Wor-Wic Community College.