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This One Thing by Jaren Watson

 

Jaren Watson lives with his wife and children in Tucson, where he is working toward his MFA at the University of Arizona. He writes fiction during the day and spends his nights hiking in the desert with his family, photographing wildlife. He is a member of the BHC writing community

Carlton is huge. Even for a Great Pyrenees, known for their size and snowy fur like a fresh avalanche, he is colossal. Serious heft. Ample beef scraps from the table and a lackluster exercise regimen has ballooned Carlton to nearly 200 pounds. Not only is he the biggest non-livestock animal I have ever seen in my life, he slobbers like a baby with a jaw full of candy. Susan and I keep three mops in the house to swab his drool.

Don’t even get me started on his droppings. Suffice it to say, a dog the size of a horse can produce some mammoth turds. If our house didn’t sit on an acre and a half of ground, I’d seriously consider taking him for the long ride in the country. Even with a lawn as big as ours, walking through it is still like negotiating a minefield.

One summer evening the year after we got the dog, Susan and I tried playing croquet in the backyard. We were on some kind of kick to get more active. After the first errant ball slopped through one of Carlton’s lawn bombs, we boxed up the set and pitched it in the trash. No biggie. Who wants to play croquet? We’ve resigned ourselves to sipping lemonade on the patio and watching it pile up. The bright side is that our grass is as green as a golf course, though I wouldn’t recommend putting around. And that’s the crazy thing: the stuff that kills the neighbors’ grass is the very stuff that’s making ours worthy of a turf-builder ad. We’ve got our problems, sure, but the lawn is fine.

. . .

It was Susan’s idea. After studying for the bar twice, I had finally passed and recently hired on with Johannsen, Smith, and Johannsen, a one-stop shop in town. I was in the home office, straightening papers on my desk and Susan walked in the room and said, “Mark, I think it’s time.”

If there’s one thing I know, it’s Susan. So I knew what she meant, and even though I wasn’t sure I was ready, we talked about it and agreed that everything fit. Our college days were looking pretty small in the rearview. We were settled in a new house with a huge lawn and the money was finally stable. Susan didn’t even have to work, but spent most of her days sculpting clay angels that she would or would not sell to the local boutiques. She stopped taking the pill the next day. Who decides the time is right based on how the lawn looks? I don’t know; it just felt right.

. . .

Susan was as giddy as I’d ever seen her. I mean she glowed. I tried to tell her to wait until we knew the gender at least, but she said we could buy unisex. We drove downtown in the rain and strolled the baby aisles of every department store we could find, buying twenty or so tiny outfits in gender-neutral reds and greens. We also got the crib, the stroller, and an old-fashioned rocking bassinet made from hand-tooled maple strips. It cost $375 and I was jealous. The baby wasn’t even here yet and it already had the nicest furniture in the house. Maybe we did get a little carried away, but we were having fun.

There’s something to be said about decorating your own child’s nursery. I’ve found that fathers-to-be have to be involved in these little projects. Susan felt the motherly bond building as soon as she peed on the strip and it showed positive. But for me, I noticed that I had to do something hands-on. The shopping was nice. But when I was covered in both pink and blue splotches of paint—we were covering our bases, just in case—I was Daddy.

. . .

I think Susan is brainwashing Carlton. I’m the one who feeds and waters him. I’m the one who hauls out the huge steel tub and bathes him every Saturday. And I’m also the one who carts the wheelbarrow out back, shoveling badger-sized mounds of Carlton’s goodies each fall. And what do I get for my efforts? The other night Susan and I were wrestling around in the living room when all of a sudden I felt inch-and-a-half canines latch onto my ass. I tried to tell him we were just playing, but the crazy mutt wouldn’t let go. It felt like I was going to lose a cheek. Hell of a guard dog. If he ever pulls a stunt like that again, I’m having him put down. Susan still laughs about it. But she’s the one who had to apply the ointment.

. . .

I was in the middle of a patent suit when I came home one day to find Susan crying at the kitchen sink. Her head was down and as I walked up beside her I could see her shoulders shaking. At first I thought she was laughing, but she heard me coming and when she turned around, I saw the wetness on her cheeks.

“What happened?” I asked her.

She didn’t say anything. She reached out to me and took my hands in her hands. Then she lifted her shirt a little and put my hands on her stomach. Her skin was warm.

Susan was looking at me. She said, “Can you feel that?” My hands were there. I couldn’t feel anything. I held my breath and felt her belly and didn’t say anything. “Mark, can’t you feel that?”

“No honey, I can’t. But it’s still soon, right?” I tried to sound reassuring.

Then Susan smiled. “I can feel it, Mark. Not right now, but today I did. First at lunch and I thought I was imagining it. But then a few minutes ago I was going to wash some dishes and I felt it again. I can actually feel the baby. Can you believe it? There’s a baby in me.” She almost laughed. From her big open smile, I could tell she almost laughed.

I was surprised at how strongly it came over me. I’m sure it was relief that nothing was wrong, but I got excited. “Are you sure? Can you really feel it?” I tried to feel it again. I pushed a little with my fingers. “What does it feel like?” I kept prying with my fingers. I was really getting going. Her skin was warm and smooth and I kept feeling her there.

Susan was still holding my hands on her stomach. “I’m sure. Not at first, but now I am. Oh, I wish you could feel it.” Susan doesn’t sing, but the way she looked then, I suddenly wished she would. I remember seeing her there in the kitchen and wishing she would sing.

I wished I could, too, that is, feel the baby. But I was thrilled anyway. I got a little corny. I knelt down and started kissing Susan’s stomach everywhere. I said, “I love you, baby. Can you hear me, baby? It’s your Daddy and I love you.” And I kissed her some more. I kept saying “baby.” Susan laughed and said she liked it when I said that. She said she liked it when I said “baby.” And then I asked again, “What does it feel like?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to say.” She closed her eyes kind of squinty. She does that when she’s concentrating. And sometimes her nose crinkles. “It feels like something. Something little.” She was quiet for a while and she held my head against her stomach. My ear pressed against her warm skin. With one ear I could hear the plink of water dripping in the sink and with the other ear I couldn’t hear anything. Then Susan said, “It feels like a baby.”

. . .

Every father has waited for the call. It’s notorious for not coming when it’s convenient. It’s also notorious for coming sooner than expected. I was at work, of course, when it came for me. I had about twenty hours of work to do and six hours left to do it. But there are some calls that need to be taken. I took that one. It was Susan on the telephone and when I answered, she told me. We didn’t talk long. I said the only thing I could think to say. I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

. . .

I hadn’t owned a dog since before college, but after Susan lost the baby we both needed something, some living thing into which we could pour our love, our loss. We lay in bed a couple of nights after I watched the doctor drop the 17 week-old fetus in a white bucket, and we agreed to get a dog.

Susan scanned the classifieds for the next week or so. It was a subconscious thing really. I mean, we didn’t intentionally set out to get the largest animal we could find. I guess Susan figured we need something big to handle our hurt. She found a breeder in Cody, the wife of a man who owned a llama farm, and arranged for us to drive down one weekend to pick out a puppy.

The drive was 600 miles round trip and we made it in near silence. We found the place—it looked like a postcard, white picket fence and all—just south of town, ringed by a neat stand of aspens and junipers. The overwhelming quaintness of the place bothered me at first. I mean I was actually upset. But then I started thinking about it and I cooled off. The corral was out back and we could see the tousled heads of llamas bobbing up and down as we pulled off the highway, crunching gravel under our tires. And that’s when I was really through with my anger—when we saw the llamas. I guess I hadn’t ever seen any live ones before, but good night, they’re weird animals. I defy anyone to look at a llama and stay angry.

The dogs had heard us drive up and seven milk-white pups scampered toward us as soon as we got out of the car. Their wet black noses and dark eyes looked like shots of coal sunk in a bed of snow. They were, in other words, beautiful things. We leaned against the car and they danced around our ankles, yipping excitedly. There was an energy there in the country, and for a few minutes we just soaked it in. What was it? Maybe those dogs, so small and good and full of life. It really could have been those dogs. Or us. Maybe it was something we were looking for. A thing manufactured from the wordless part of us, made out of a need frenzied and deep, surfacing without our knowing it was coming. Whatever it was, it felt like rest. A relaxing of the bones. There is a peace that comes sometimes. Sometimes it comes.

I squatted down to pet the dogs. They nibbled at my hands. Susan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the house. On the concrete porch a puppy sat alone on its haunches, completely still. It just sat there, staring at us. Susan spoke for the first time since we had crossed into Wyoming. “I want that one, Mark. Will you bring him to me, please?”

A person’s life is a complicated thing. In marriage it all becomes a jumbled mess. Personalities, traditions, habits, and schedules bunch together and you spend the rest of your life trying to make sense of it. It is not a small feat. Somewhere in that sifting morass between Susan and me, it turns out there was a little space. The day we met Carlton on the llama farm in Wyoming, he walked right in and made himself at home.

We cruised back the way we had come with Susan holding the puppy in her lap. Just before we got to the house, Susan turned to me in the car and said, “What the hell kind of animals are llamas, anyway?” She has a point.

. . .

It’s an interesting feeling: missing something you never even had. Though I can’t say for sure, I imagine it’s a little like losing a part of your body, a hand maybe. Years afterward, you can still feel your fingertips tingle.

If it was a boy, we were going to name him Caleb. If a girl, Sara. Would he have looked like me or Susan? Would she like music, and if so, what kind? These are the questions that get asked.

We still have the clothes. They’re in a box in the nursery. The green onesies are in one pile, the red are in another. Looking at the clothes, it’s difficult to imagine a person fitting in them. They seem even smaller than when we bought them. The other things are there, too.

The room still smells like paint. Once in a while, if I come home early from work, I’ll find Susan sitting in the room, rocking the bassinet back and forth, back and forth. I can’t remember how many times I have found her there. I don’t say anything. I just walk back down the hallway as quietly as I can.

. . .

In our backyard, there is a gigantic old willow tree. Its branches are so long that even when the weather is calm, the tips of the branches rise and dip in a sleepy rhythm. They kiss the ground and draw back up a little, and kiss the ground again. The branches are so long and thin they remind me of taffy, warm and stretched. They make a perfect ring around the tree about twenty feet out from the trunk, so that once you are inside, they form a protective canopy all around you. It’s like being indoors. Carlton and I like to walk through the taffy branches over and over again, slowly working our way around. It feels like stepping through a curtain of beads.

Years ago there was a terrible ice storm that came through the area, caking everything in a half inch layer of ice. The ice downed trees, telephone poles, and it smothered the life out of many smaller plants. The weight of the ice wrenched the willow tree so violently that it split down the center of the trunk. Luckily, the ice melted pretty fast, and the tree survived. It is healing now, but there is still a six-foot scar, gnarled and tough. The scar will be there until the tree dies. It is the largest and oldest tree on our lawn. Carlton urinates on it twice a day.

. . .

Something is wrong with the dog. He has been slowing down for the last year or so. We noticed that he rarely got up and walked around much. The only thing that would get him moving was food, and for a few weeks there, he just about stopped eating.

We hadn’t seen Dr. Jenkins since Carlton got his shots as a puppy, but he remembered us because Carlton was the only Great Pyrenees he’d ever had in his office. Even so, the surprise on his face was evident when we brought Carlton in. I can’t remember for sure, but I think he said, “Good Lord.” Like I said, he’s a big dog.

Dr. Jenkins looked in Carlton’s mouth and felt his teeth and gums. He rubbed the dog’s limbs and palpated his belly. When he listened with a stethoscope to Carlton’s heart he said, “That’s it right there. There’s the problem.” He told us that one of the valves in Carlton’s heart was leaking. Instead of hearing the normal thump, there was a whish.

We should have been watching Carlton’s weight a little better. The leaky valve would have sapped some of his energy no matter how good his diet, but since he had gotten so big, the heart had to work harder to pump his blood throughout his body. The problem was that, as Carlton’s heart pumped more forcefully, the valve got leakier and leakier. Dr. Jenkins informed us that surgery would be necessary to repair the valve. “And you’re going to have to find a way to slim that dog down some,” he said.

Carlton was lying on a metal examination table. As Dr. Jenkins talked to us, he stood next to Carlton with his hand on Carlton’s head. We scheduled the surgery for the following week.

. . .

Here’s the deal with anesthesia: there’s always a risk that once you go under, you aren’t coming back out. As your body systems slow down, there’s a very fine line to walk, which, if crossed, your life just sort of slips away before you know it. That’s why we pay anesthesiologists so much money—to keep us out of pain, but still on the right side of the line. Same deal with dogs.

After successfully repairing the valve in Carlton’s heart, Dr. Jenkins saw that the dog wasn’t doing so well. The anesthesia should have worn off, but Carlton wasn’t coming to. I have to give Dr. Jenkins credit. He was pretty up front about it. “You better get down here. Carlton is dying.”

We noticed strange smells before we even opened the door to the room where Carlton lay. There were the odors of antiseptics and medicines. There was the acrid smell of dried blood, and the distinct smell of a body that had been opened.

Carlton looked dead. He lay on his side on the table, completely motionless. His tongue lolled out the side of his mouth. It was dry. A rim of moisture glazed his eyes. They were still. Only when I put my hand carefully on his ribs could I feel the faint rise and fall that told me he was breathing.

Susan was at the door. She was looking around the room, but not at Carlton. “Susan,” I said softly. “Honey, come here.” She had her arms folded across her body. She stayed where she was. She stood there in the room and hugged her arms close to herself. It was very cold in the room and Susan looked cold, too.

“It’ll be okay, Susan. Come here, please.”

Susan walked over by my side and she looked at Carlton. She put her hands on the sides of his face, under his ears. She stayed there for a few seconds, looking at our dog. Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead gently against his. I could barely hear her whispering, “Please, Carlton. Don’t you do it. Please baby. Please.” She sounded as if she were praying.

Who could say no to that? Not me. Not the dog, either. It took awhile, but Carlton woke up.

. . .

This diet is killing me. Literally. I am wasting away. Susan said if Carlton has to do it, we all do. It’s been three months since the operation. Carlton has found the energy that he should have had in his youth. He deserves it; he’s lost fifty-three pounds. In human pounds, that’s like, well, it’s a lot. A couple of shih tzus at least. I’ve lost five pounds. I’m practically a skeleton, avoiding strong winds and so forth. Susan won’t tell me how much she’s lost, which is pretty much like saying she hasn’t lost any. This can’t go on much longer. I’m starving.

On the up-side, the first Johannsen retired last month. Before leaving, he asked me if I would take his place as full-partner. I pretended like I was considering it for a few seconds and then said yes.

. . .

Right now, it is the middle of summer and Susan, Carlton, and I are sitting underneath the protective branches of the willow tree. The sun is heavy and is about to be swallowed by a blazing horizon. The night-fire is filtering through the branches and painting us in stabs and streaks of orange and red. The air in here is as calm as our lives feel. In short, things are good. Carlton’s reduced belly still makes a decent pillow.

It may be the recent promotion at work, or it may be Carlton’s full recovery, but I can feel it working in us before Susan says anything. I know what she is getting at when, under the darkening stillness beneath the ring of the willow tree, and the burning dusk beyond that, she leans into me and says, “Mark, it’s time.”

I don’t need to think about it. “Have you?” I start. Susan finishes for me: “I stopped yesterday.”

What can I say? The lawn is perfect. I tell Susan to stay where she is and I take Carlton through the beaded curtain of branches and into the house. I grab a thick blanket from the closet and walk to the back door. The last lights of the sun gone down are ebbing into black. “What do you think?” I ask Carlton. He is looking at me. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t expect him to. I pat his head. He’s getting older, but his fur is still pretty soft. “Stay,” I tell him. He knows what I mean.

It is more than the lawn, of course, though it surprises me how things like that weigh in on our most important decisions. Maybe because everything else is so intangible and hard to hold. It could be. I won’t pretend to know. I guess the best you can do is make everything as orderly as possible, clip the grass, and let it fly. Que sera, though it’s usually easier said than done. I pat Carlton’s head one last time. He’s been as good as a dog can be.