Pickles scooted her bowl across the wood floors till it came to a rug, scrunched from her sprint around the house and poor friction, where the bowl flipped. It was empty. Her toenails clacked against the floor and in the narrow hallway her tail slapped each wall, a line of the paint already faded from years of tail-slapping. She saw me looking at her and her tail sped up and the echo leapt through the house and scared any bats from attic. She was excited for dinner. She nudged her bowl and stepped on it to flip it. Maybe she was missing a few teeth and ate Molly’s underwear for a snack and often hurt her tail, toes, and head with her energetic antics, but she was a smart dog.
“If you don’t need anything else, I should go,” Maria said, setting Pickles’s leash on the bench in the foyer where I often flung my coat. “She’s obviously looking for quality time with her daddy.”
Pickles nuzzled the food bowl and wore it on her nose. “Stick around for dinner.” I grabbed the bowl and she tugged like it was a toy but I demanded she drop it, and I lifted it, with the dog, off the wood floor. I set her down so as not to rip out more of her teeth, and she kept tugging but had no traction. “She loves when there’s more than one plate to beg from. Whoever finishes first is her favorite till the plate’s licked, then she befriends the next plate-holder.”
We walked into the kitchen; I dragged Pickles by her bowl. I set a can of dog food on the black marble counters.
“I’m not hungry,” Maria said.
“C’mon, I broke out the good-stuff for you. It’s lamb-chop with gravy. Pickles loves it and her palate is refined from all the butt licking.”
Maria sat at the table with her hands in her lap and stiff posture, looking at the kitchen decorations above the cabinets: the antique watering jug, fake fruit in a cornucopia, wood cutouts painted to look like cats prowling for mice. My parents had decorated.
“What are you in the mood for? Burgers? Pasta? Waffles? Ice cream?” I pried the tab on the dog food with a spoon. The scent wafted into the air and I opened a window for it to blow out. Pickles stood on her hind legs, pawing the counter.
“Anything is fine. I just had a curried shrimp au gratin casserole last night. That took an hour to make, so simple is fine with me.”
“Simple for me is opening some Lays.” I dumped kibble into the bowl then covered it with the lamb-slop but the gravy was congealed so I poured in hot water. It was like lamb-slop soup with kibble-croutons.
She called Pickles, but the dog was hypnotized by the aroma, the sounds, the anticipation. She drooled. “You should consider eating more than potato chips for a meal. Pickles gets more veggies than you.”
“I should but my diet hasn’t killed me yet. I was even down a pound this morning. Maybe it was the hiking.” I set the dog food can in the sink and rinsed the bits into the garbage disposal. The sharp lid of the can had gravy stuck on and I scrubbed but rubbed too hard against the edge; I dropped it, whipped my hand in pain, which smacked the counter then Pickles gnawed at it to get the taste of lamb and blood. But when I looked, my hand was fine.
“You okay?” Maria asked, startled by my outburst. She got a paper towel to wrap my hand, but there was no blood.
Impatient Pickles pulled the food bowl from the counter and spilled it on the floor, then ate her dinner. “I’m fine I guess. It just hurt. Only a bit. All better now.”
“You’ve had a rough day.” She held the towel to my hand though there was no blood and I let her. Her hands were rough, dry, cracked at the cuticles.
Pickles had finished licking her meal off the floor already and begged for more. There was no more so she scratched the backdoor, demanding to be let out to sniff the poop in backyard that she forgot was hers. “A weird day. I’m not in any pain.” I washed my hands and sat on the counter. It creaked under me but it’d hold. My parents used to tell me not to sit there because I, a runt of a teen, would break it. 15 years later, 70 pounds heavier, and sitting on it nightly, it still held. “Do you have any tattoos?” I asked.
“I never understood the craze,” Maria said.
“Me neither! But—” I lifted my shirt and checked the reflection on the oven. I turned to Maria, still holding up my shirt. “This just appeared. I haven’t been drunk lately so where’d it come from?”
She looked away, bashful about seeing my happy trail. “Maybe it’s a bruise.”
“Did you see it?” I snapped. “It’s a perfect spade! There’s nothing I could’ve lay on that would leave that imprint.”
“Sorry.” She raised her hands in defense from my shouts.
“First the tattoo—mark, curse, whatever and then—I’d do jumping jacks if it didn’t make me jiggle, but a guy who falls down stairs shouldn’t be able to do calisthenics. Then I cut myself. Then the doctor you sent pretty much skinned me but there’s no hole in my back, just in my shirt, right? It’s weird. Spooky. Eerie. Fucked up. I don’t have the vocabulary for the situation because I don’t read mystery novels and I don’t find any of my students’ mysteries particularly believable but this is a damned riddle, played by the same Universe that told me to go home early so it could throw me down the stairs. The Universe is a sadistic bitch and I’m sick of it. Then there was that stupid dream. Maybe I’m still dreaming.”
“But Leo, I never sent a doctor.” Pickles scratched at the backdoor and Maria opened it for her to come in, but the dog turned around and whimpered, insisting Maria come out to play in the humidity. Maria closed the door on the mutt but Pickles scratched again. “I would’ve sent one that wouldn’t miss a concussion. You must have one. You sound like it anyway. Are you sure someone came? Maybe it was another dream. I should stick around so you don’t fall into a coma.”
“He came! I’m not nuts. He was an old man in a fishing hat with holes but no lures. He’s old enough to have walked the Earth for a century. And he probably crawled it before that.” I held my head. My brain felt pickled, too hard to think. “I’m telling you something’s going on!”
“Let’s get you to bed. I’ll turn on the sound machine on my phone: play the ‘sounds of the forest.’ You’ll drift off and I’ll wake you in an hour.” She grabbed my arm at the elbow and escorted me to the hall closet, thinking it was the bedroom. She then opened the bathroom door, which I kept closed so Pickles didn’t go bobbing for floaters in the toilet. On the fifth try, she found my bedroom with Molly’s panties on the floor.
I lay down, against my will, and grumbled myself to sleep. I was also nervous having her on my bed; it like I had felt when I first had met her; she was wearing leather pants then too. My imagination projected romantic fantasies on my eyelids, skipping the boring parts and looping the most intimate moments, till I was soothed by the “sounds of the forest” –a bunch of crickets and birds and leaves rustling: inaccurate but enough of a reminder to send me back to my dream in the forest where I woke to piss. Too bad dream analysis was bunk or I might try to figure what that black orb meant. Did I miss my dead parents? Was I secretly in love with a male student? Was I afraid of Pickles devouring me in my sleep? No. It was all bunk.
But the black orb, the shining smoke, and the bullets that pierced my back were imprinted into my memory while the rest of my dreams had faded.
When Maria woke me in an hour, I knew I had to return to the forest. “I’ll be taking tomorrow off. To rest,” I lied to her. “You’re free to rest too, if you need a bed for the night. Pickles will share.”