Friday
Aug092013

Lost Dog

Brian Evenson


 

I.

He could not, afterwards, remember the first time he had noticed. Or rather, he remembered vaguely being aware that his dog had been acting in a way that he didn't understand, and then his thoughts were interrupted by the chiming of the grandfather clock. He had been reading in the sitting room of his house, and the sense that there was something different, something wrong even, had just begun to register, and only rose to the outer skin of his conscious mind hours later as he lay that night alone in his lonely bed. Yes, there had been something wrong with the dog. The dog had been acting like dogs normally do not—or at least like this dog normally did not. But at the time of it actually happening, he was still fresh enough from the grief of his wife's death and from the state of gray torpor this had sunk him into that it had registered without registering.

He had been sitting in the leather club chair, his limbs feeling overcome again with a kind of willed paralysis, as if he couldn't move, as if he wasn't really in charge of his own body. He has been staring out at nothing in particular. His thoughts, as usual, had been involved in the reconstruction of the past, attempting to replace the current emptiness of the house with the fullness it possessed in his memory, trying to invoke again his wife, even if only as a ghost, but, as usual, not quite getting there. Then had come—he realized later, alone in bed, staring at the ceiling—the sound of the dog whining. He had been staring off at nothing, but the dog had been athwart the path of that nothing, and so now, in retrospect, he saw its ears pricking, its fur ruffling for just a moment as if its hackles were threatening to rise, and then the fur smoothing out as its tail began to wag furiously and it began to bark—happily, it seemed to him, the corners of its mouth raised in a smile. At the time he had thought, vaguely, confusedly, that the dog was barking at him. Perhaps he had given it some cue, unconsciously, that made it think he was about to take it on a walk. But now, later, he wondered. For the dog clearly had not been looking at him. At least he didn't think so. No, it seemed to him now that the dog had been staring at empty air. Though had he been paying enough attention to really notice?

Eeven while it was happening, he had felt something was wrong, and he might indeed have in the end paid a more scrupulous and particular attention. But then the chiming of the grandfather clock had begun. By the end of it, whatever the dog had been doing it was finished doing and his own thoughts were fractured as well. Now the dog was just acting like it always had, like a normal dog, and his mind, never very distant from her, was already turning fully back to thoughts of his dead wife. A few minutes later, when he surfaced briefly from his brooding to notice the dog fully again, it was curled up on the hall floor, asleep.

He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, still remembering. What time had it been? How many times had the clock chimed when it had sounded? Six, maybe, or five. He couldn't remember. What, he couldn't help but wondering, had the dog been looking at? Empty air? Or had there actually been something there?

But by the time, late at night, that his mind actually began to formulate such thoughts, sleep had begun to overtake him again. And by the morning he had mostly forgotten.

 

The next day was uneventful and dark, the weight of the absence of his wife resting so heavily upon him that he felt he was having trouble breathing. He found himself stumbling from one end of his day to the other, hardly aware of time passing at all. He was unable to take pleasure from anything. He didn't pay attention to anything around him, muddled his way through, but at night, in the middle of the night, he awoke again to the image in his head of the dog. He heard the clock begin chiming, he could hear the last of the tones fading, but he wasn't sure if the clock was chiming in his thoughts or in the night or both. And before that, there was the image of the dog in his head, perhaps a memory: gilded by the late afternoon or early evening sun, wagging its tail, barking at empty air.

Why was it that, after a long day of grasping at nothing, at letting everything around him roll grayly away, his mind now clung to this? Was he remembering what he had seen the day before? Or had there been a new incident, a second incident? In his head, the dog was happy, it seemed happy—at least tentatively so. But its behavior seemed somewhat confused too. It was, after all, barking at empty air. It was treating empty air as if something was there. It was as if the dog had gone slightly mad. What was wrong with his dog? Had this just happened once only to be doubled in his thoughts at night? Or had the dog, two days in a row, at more or less the same spot, in more or less the same way, done exactly the same incomprehensible thing?

 

On the third day he realized that more or less was not the right phrase. The dog wasn't doing more or less the same thing in more or less the same way at more or less the same spot: it was doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way at exactly the same spot.

It happened just before five o'clock: he noticed it when it was happening this time, he looked at the clock. His dog was in the hallway just outside the sitting room. He himself was sunk in the same chair as usual, unsure of how to go on with his life. He saw the dog prick up its ears, saw its fur ruffle. For a moment it looked anxious and confused, and then just as suddenly its tail began to wag and it began to bark. All that lasted for only a moment, until, with the chiming of the clock, the dog calmed again. A moment later, the dog was curled up on the floor. A moment after that, it was fast asleep.

"What are you barking at?" he asked it. The dog raised its head and looked seriously at him with its watery old eyes. He stroked its muzzle which had become, almost without him knowing, gray with age. Was the house in some sense haunted, he wondered, and for a moment his heart leaped with the thought that his wife, though dead, might still be here, caught up in the nooks and crannies of the house, her presence threaded suspended in the air. No, he thought, of course the house isn't haunted, there's no such thing as ghosts, but a moment later he couldn't stop from softly calling his wife's name. Nothing happened. He called it again. Still no response: no shimmer of air, no subtle shifting of objects upon the table, no briefly perceived form in the motes of dust dancing in the early evening light. No, he told himself, there's nothing there.

At least nothing you can see, a more optimistic part of him suggested.

Yes, admittedly, at least nothing he could see. But what could be there that he couldn't see? No, he didn't believe in ghosts, couldn't believe in them—how could his wife be a ghost if he couldn't even imagine her fully in his mind? No, she was distant from this place, far too distant, and that was one of his great regrets. But he wasn't going, as a result, to try to pretend like she was somehow there when he didn't sense her, didn't feel her. He owed her more than that. And the idea that she would come to the dog, too, show herself to the dog, but not to him? Absurd. No, there had to be another, more rational explanation for the dog's behavior.

Still, later that night, again alone in the empty bed, he couldn't help but think, What if she is here? Lying there in the dark, staring up into the darkness, feeling a vague non-existent light crackle behind his lids each time he blinked his eyes, he thought it might be just possible. What if? he couldn't help but think. What if?

 

He found himself thinking about this through the morning and into the afternoon as well, turning it over and over in his head. A quarter to five he was positioned in the club chair, turned slightly now to give a better view of the hall. He had a book in his hands and was pretending to read. But he was not reading, was instead simply waiting.

The dog was lying flat on the floor in front of the fireplace, sleeping. Whatever had happened the past few days, if anything at all, was not likely to happen again. Or if it did happen, he told himself, the dog would sleep through it.

He listened to the clock tick, watched its hands move toward five. This was how time was, he couldn't help but think, always moving inexorably forward and slowly taking a little more away, one day then the next, one day then the next. Always sternly forward and never looking back, like the man Orpheus should have been. He sighed, and closed his book.

And then suddenly the dog's ears pricked and it raised its head. With a grunt it heaved to its feet and went quickly out in the hall. He watched the fur on its back bristle briefly, heard it whine softly, watched what he took to be its confusion, and there it came again, just as it apparently did each day at this time, the wagging of its tail, the happy bark. He was up on his feet himself and behind it, eagerly trying to determine where the dog was looking, trying to capture a flicker or flash of light, maybe, or an insect, or, despite everything, a ghost. Trying to feel something, to get some sort of confirmation that something, however intangible, was there.

But there was nothing: nothing he could see, nothing he could feel. Nothing at all that was actually there.

 

He now vaguely thought of himself as having a purpose. Five days, he told himself, is that all it takes? Apparently so. He now spent most of his time observing the dog, trying to understand how it thought. But it was not so easy to enter into the head of a dog, particularly when the dog, old as it was, seemed to alternate between a sleepy dazedness and a vague pleasure when it noticed him looking at it. Once more at five o'clock, just before five o'clock, the dog engaged in its unaccountable behavior. And then, the next day, again. And the day after that, again. And still he had gotten not an inch closer to understanding why. Would he ever? Perhaps a sound so high-pitched he couldn't hear it. Something shifting in the clock maybe as it prepared to chime the hour. Or the dog was somehow seeing something that wasn't actually there. Or maybe he was simply watching the dog go mad.

Anyone can go mad, he told himself, and then corrected himself: Anything. Was this watching, he wondered, this waiting, his own form of going mad?

 

It went on for days, then weeks, and still he was no closer to understanding it. He would, he knew, have to return to work soon. The compassionate leave he had received following his wife's sudden death had run out, and he had gone through most of his vacation days. He had to pull himself together, he knew. But the closest he could get to pulling himself together, the closest he could get to anything that went beyond immobility, was watching the dog. If only I can figure it out, he told himself, then I'll be able to go on with my life. But he knew even as he said it how arbitrary it was, how this act of understanding some small part of the world could not stand in for the many incomprehensibilities of which the world was composed.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. One day at five, as usual, the dog pricked up its ears, ruffled its fur, and began to bark. The clock chimed, as usual, and then the dog curled up again on the floor. Only this time, it didn't curl up to sleep, but to die. When he prodded it with his foot a few minutes later the body had already begun to stiffen.

And so he had to go on with his life without figuring anything out after all.

 

II.

For weeks more he was muddled, just managing to hold things together. And then, at last, he began to think of himself as the person he had been, at last coming back to his past self. His wife's death was still with him, but seemed safer now: he felt as though he were carrying it around in a locked case. He could take it out and examine it, experience its grief, and then lock it away again. Rarely did it come out of the case now unless he beckoned to it. It took years before this happened, and it was years after that before he found that he had gone a full day without thinking of her. He had forgotten the dog long ago, and had not tried to replace either it or his wife. No, he lived alone, almost monastically, in the same house, among the same worn things. There was something comforting about that to him, as if time hadn't gone by at all in the house, as if everything was the same as it had been since his wife died.

 

But of course he knew this was an illusion. Time had gone by. His body was weaker, frailer. He would soon retire, and perhaps soon he would die. But until then he would live in the same dusty house in the same way, and tell himself that even if time had passed for him it had not for this place. It was a lie he was telling himself, but only a small lie. And even if time had passed for the house it was easy to convince himself that it had passed less quickly for the house than it had, say, for other houses, than it had, say, for him.

 

The house was thus a reassurance. The house was something he could cling to as everything else changed. The town grew larger, sprawled out, sickened in the center, but the house was still the same. The company he worked for was bought by another company, changed names, changed buildings. Half of the employees he knew by name lost their jobs or were forced into retirement. The people he had grown up with grew older, had children, got divorced, got remarried. But the house was just the same, and he himself could feel he was the same while in the house. It was just as it had been after his wife died.

 

Well, almost, he told himself. There was something missing. And, for the first time in many years he thought about the dog. With the dog gone the house wasn't quite the same. The smell of the air was a little different—better admittedly, but still different—and thinking back he remembered there had been something too about the sound of the dog's breathing that had permeated the house. At the time he hadn't noticed it. Even for some time after the dog's death he hadn't thought about it. But now, years later, he noticed the dog's absence.

 

Why had he gone years without thinking about the dog only to think about it now? What had made him more acutely aware of what was already absent? What had changed in the house, if anything? What had changed, if anything, about him?

It was strange. He had a feeling that his senses were more specifically perceptive than they had been before, that even though his vision had faded and his hearing had dimmed, he was nonetheless more aware of what was directly around him. As if by having restricted the scope of his world to just the house, he had increased the intimacy of his connection with the little of the world that remained.

Perhaps, he thought, this is how everyone feels as they approach death.

But surely death was still years and years away for him?

 

It was only days later that things began to make sense to him. As suddenly as he had become conscious of the absence that had been there all along, he began to feel a presence. At first he thought—hoped even—that it was his wife, returned finally, years later, to haunt him. Being haunted would be, he told himself, a consolation. It would mean his wife still existed in one way or another, that death was not as definitive as he had thought it to be and that, above all, he might someday have her back.

And so he waited and watched for her. He whispered her name. He waited for her to reveal herself. Sometimes, too, he wondered if he wasn't going mad. But did it matter if he was? If he was, then coming to his senses would not make him any happier. Now, at least, he felt he had something to live for. A purpose.

He was developing the kind of attention, he felt, that began to think of the world around him as a kind of scrim hiding something else, and that began to try to peer through it to catch glimpses of whatever wavered behind.

But still he was seeing nothing really, catching no glimpse of his wife. He felt that there was something there, just out of reach, something he was almost touching but not quite. He whispered her name. He tried to conjure up her image in his head, what she had looked like not just before she died but in the better days a few years before. He did everything he could to prepare. He sat in the leather chair and stared at the empty air and waited for her to materialize.

And indeed, finally, after much effort, something did come.

But it was not his wife.

 

It was early evening. His head had begun to throb a little and his vision, as always in the evenings, to blur. His throat was dry and his knees ached from staying in the same position for so long. He pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and rubbed his eyes, and saw briefly little bursts of colored light. When he drew his hand away and lowered his glasses, they were still there. Or something was there anyway. There was a bit of a wavering in the air. At first he took this to be an afterimage from the pressure of his fingers, but slowly he realized it didn't have anything to do with his eyes. That it was something in the room itself.

It was a dozen steps away, just outside the entrance to the hall, near the clock. There was something there, yes, finally—there really was. He was up on his feet and on his way toward it almost without knowing, heart thudding in his throat.

The light gathered and coalesced and then dispersed again. He stopped short of where it had been, thinking he had lost it. But then, a moment later, the blur returned, came together this time into a vague shape. There was a sound with it too, a sound like the metal hull of a boat bumping a dock over and over again, too quickly. It was, rather, the ghost of a sound, something he could barely hear.

What was it? The shape was wrong for it to be his wife, or even for it to be a human, too low, unless that human had fallen to its hands and knees. He could not see a face, could not even see a head, but felt nonetheless that it was directing its attention toward him. How could he know this? But, somehow, he did.

And then, as suddenly as it had arrived, it was gone, fading away. That might have been the end of it. Indeed, it would have been had it not been for what happened next, and how it brought everything into focus for him: the clock chimed five o'clock.

 

It all came back in a rush: the dog barking and wagging, always at the same moment, always just before five. The shape was right. The sound, too, with a little effort, he recognized as a sort of barking. In the days that followed, as the event was repeated, always exactly at the same moment of every day, and the blur began to seem more and more dog-like, he was convinced. For brief moments, at a particular time of day, time had become ripped and torn at a particular place in the hall—somehow just for the dog in the past and somehow just for him in the present, in a way that brought past and present together. The dog had been able to sense his future self, to recognize and greet it. And now he, too, could recognize the dog, could understand that it was looking impossibly forward through time and barking at him, greeting him here, now.

It was always just that brief moment, and then it was gone. And even though the dog's shape became clearer, it remained still vague and insubstantial. When he reached out to try to touch it, his fingers brushed through empty air. It was like, he thought, some sort of time travel in which you never quite arrived. Like being able to fly somewhere but being unable, somehow, to step off the plane. Looking briefly out of a rain-blurred window for just a moment before taxiing and flying home.

But still, he told himself, it was something. Still, it was a start. Perhaps he could learn from the dog, and then he would be able to push his face through other holes in time and into a past in which his life was still alive. He would watch the dog, he would figure it out. He just needed to do so before that moment, in the past, when the dog would hear the clock chime for the last time and die.

 

Tomorrow, he told himself once the apparition had faded and he had returned to his worn leather chair, I will be here too, waiting. And so will he, wagging his tail despite being dead.

Though "tomorrow," he thought: What could that word now possibly really mean?

 

He sat in the leather chair, waiting for his dog, waiting for the moment when enough of the day would have passed that he could reach the time when, for a brief moment, he could feel that no time had actually passed at all. One day would be like the next, or like the day before, and, still lost, he would still have learned nothing new. It will go on like that, seemingly endlessly, until one day, quite suddenly, it will end, and he along with it.