(A Short Story)
Jason opened his eyes at 8:15 in the morning. He didn’t usually sleep that late and his first feeling was one of gratification. Outside the window, the trees looked frozen and bare. Noise came from the kitchen. He turned slowly in bed, and rose to a sitting position. The pain was manageable. The dog on the ottoman at the end of the bed watched Jason, but didn’t move, as if doubting the getting up was for real. Jason found his slippers and crossed the short distance to the armchair. On it was the paisley robe his wife had recently bought for him at J. C. Penney. He had never owned a robe before, so she’d intentionally purchased it at a middlebrow store, not knowing how he would react. She promised him a better one if he liked it. He put it on and the robe was comfortable.
When Jason got to the door, the dog moved. He lowered his front paws to the carpeted floor, and with his hind paws still on the ottoman, started stretching. The ottoman was a mismatch, a piece Jason had saved from an old living room set and brought upstairs. He had placed it at the end of the bed and the dog loved it.
“It’s about time, old boy,” Jason said to the dog as he slowly walked to the stairs.
He counted eight steps, a landing, and seven more steps. He descended slowly, one hand on the polished wooden rail, the other hand touching the wall adorned with oil paintings.
The dog caught up with Jason on the steps and they made it to the kitchen together.
“Look at you, you’re up,” Jason’s wife Gail said cheerfully.
She was dressed in a two-piece gray business suit: a short skirt and a jacket with wide lapels. Her legs looked suntanned in nylon stockings. On the left lapel, she wore her favorite silver brooch inherited from her mother.
“You’re ready to go,” Jason noted.
“I was waiting for you to have breakfast.”
The kitchen table was solid butcher block, with the wood fibers showing. In front of his chair, on a wicker placemat, Gail had arranged a bowl of Frosted Flakes cereal, a tall glass of orange juice, a cup of milk, and a cup of coffee. A white porcelain container held three pills. Next to it were pages of stretching exercises the physical therapist had given them at the hospital.
“No need to wait,” Jason said. “We can manage.”
“We, as in you and your dog? You come down to the kitchen together and I get excluded?” She smiled in a delicate sort of way — an old tease between them.
“No, please, stay if you can. Usually you’re long gone at this hour. I just didn’t want you to be late for the office.”
He started eating and Gail let the dog out into the back yard.
“Take your medicine,” she said when she returned, and Jason took his pills with orange juice, one after the other.
She came near him. “I’ll let the dog back in, and then I’ll go to the office. But can I leave you alone, for sure? Will you be all right?”
“Don’t worry,“ Jason said. “Please, don’t worry.” He slid his arm around her waist, still as slim as when she was a teenager. Her face was close to his, fresh and familiar.
She kissed him quickly on the lips and stepped aside. “I’ll try to be home for lunch, and when they call, please call me.”
“I’ll call as soon as I hear.”
Jason did his stretching exercises sitting at the table. He turned his head to the left and counted to ten. He stretched. He turned to the right and counted. He didn’t take his exercises too seriously. In high school many years ago, Jason had been a good athlete. He played tennis and baseball, and in his junior and senior years he made varsity. He used to exercise every morning then, and ran three miles to warm up, before starting the actual training. Of course, he no longer was in the condition he’d been in as a teenager; even so, these exercises were nothing. Yet he continued doing them and thought that in a round about way the way he felt about them was healthy. They didn’t hurt. They were easy, restored his self-esteem, and made his condition seem less critical.
The phone rang while he was on his fifth exercise. He moved as fast as he could and ripped the cordless from its beige wall socket.
“Hey, Jason, how you feeling?” the voice at the other end said. “It’s Bill, from work.”
“Oh, Bill,” he said, just a tad disappointed. He had hoped the call was from his doctor. “I’m feeling all right. How are you? And how’s the project?” He didn’t really have to know, but he thought he would ask, like he cared.
“The project’s all right, though we could use your help. That’s for sure.”
“You guys are too nice, and I know you’re doing just fine.”
Bill let out a small, satisfied laugh. “Seriously now, I …the guys…we would like to know how you’re doing.”
“Well,” Jason said. “It’s been a few days, and every day I feel better.”
“Great,” Bill said. “I’m happy to hear. But how did the surgery go, and what did they do to you at the hospital?”
“I guess that as surgeries go, this was major. It took almost four hours and I lost a lot of blood. They said four and a half pints. I was too weak the first few days to even go to the bathroom. My head would spin. The whole room would turn black if I tried to get up. It was scary.”
Jason walked to his chair at the kitchen table and sat down. This was going to be a long conversation.
“They performed a laminectomy,” he said. “This is when they cut out a piece of the vertebra to gain access to the tumor. The incision is about seven inches, and it hurts when I move.”
“And they left it open?”
“No, they stitched it together.”
“I know they stitched you together,” Bill said, “but what happened to the vertebra?”
“Nothing. They didn’t cut the bone, they chipped it, bit-by-bit, and they left it open.”
“Will the bone grow back?”
“No, but the doctor said that the only way it would matter is if somebody tried to stab me right there. Then there’d be no bone to stop the blade, and I’d be dead in the water. But what are the chances?” Jason laughed. “You wouldn’t want to stab me in the back now, would you?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“That’s my Achilles’ heel,” Jason said. “Now you know my weak point.”
“Buddy, you have plenty of weak points,” Bill said, “and this new one, doesn’t change anything.”
“Coming from you, I’ll take it as a compliment.”
“So you’re done,” Bill said. “From now on, you’re on the road to recovery.”
“Yeah, except for the tumor. They sent it to a lab for testing. It takes up to ten days, and the tenth day is today, so I’m waiting.”
“I bet you are,” Bill said. “It’s quite a difference between hoping and knowing.”
The sofa bed in the family room was open, and after the phone conversation Jason felt tired. He placed a few pillows at the top of the bed, took the cordless near him, and lay down. The dog jumped on the bed, and Jason covered himself with a blanket.
Through the sliding door he looked at the woods — the same ashen trunks he had seen earlier from the bedroom. There were houses behind the trees, and their windows shone in the sunshine. A few dead leaves fell to the ground, twirling, zigzagging. A walk in the woods would be nice, he thought, but it was out of the question. He closed his eyes and dozed off, his sleep dark and dreamless.
When the dog moved, he woke up. He looked at the dog and remembered. “Hey dog, I didn’t feed you this morning.” The dog jumped off the bed, came around and pushed his muzzle into Jason’s hand. His floppy ears were down, his fur curly and tangled.
Jason sat up on the bed. He turned and carefully lowered his feet to the ground. He stood and picked up the cordless. It crossed his mind how pleasant the house was, bathed in the morning light, warm and silent. He looked at the familiar paintings on the walls, at the modern furniture, the potted plants, the recessed lights, and the two accent beams under the ceiling. He followed the flow of the house, from the family room to the breakfast area, the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the foyer, and through the short hallway back into the breakfast area and kitchen. He should walk as much as he could, the doctors had told him.
The dog followed him like a shadow.
Jason took a can of dog food and a couple of milk bones from the pantry. The dog wagged his tail. Jason fed the dog a milk bone and set the other on the counter. He put the phone down as well, fit the blade of the electric can opener over the lip of the can, and pushed the lever. A low frequency metal on metal vibration traveled through his hand. The phone rang and he released the lever.
It was Gail. “Did they call?” she quizzed him anxiously.
“No,” he said. “Only Bill from my office.”
“Okay,” she sighed. “I wish they’d called. Why don’t you call them already?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Too bad. And by the way, I can’t make it for lunch, but I’ll be home early for dinner. Three o’clock at the latest.”
“Take your time,” Jason said. “I’m fine, believe me. You don’t have to do anything special.” There was a click on the line. “I’m getting another call,” he said. “Let me put you on hold, just a minute.” He brought the cordless to his face, then stretched his hand and squinted. He needed his glasses. He pushed the wrong button and the line went dead. He pushed again to return to Gail. “Just a second,” he said. He pressed and got the dial tone. “Gail, I lost it.”
“Use the caller ID,” she suggested.
“You’ll have to tell me how to do it.”
She did. She was good that way, always knowing, always reading the manuals.
He went upstairs with the dog and found his glasses. With them on, he pushed the proper buttons and the display on the phone lit up: unknown caller. Not to worry, he thought, his doctor would have called from a listed number. In his hand, the phone felt tame, like a small animal.
He kept the glasses on and in the kitchen his eyes fell on the dog food can label: Science Diet, Adult Canine Maintenance, Chicken Recipe. Yummy!
“Here, dog,” he called after he cut the pasty contents with a knife and placed them in a bowl on the floor. “Here, boy, come here, breakfast!” The dog wagged his tail. He sniffed the food and moved aside. He didn’t move far and just looked at Jason. Jason rolled his eyes. “C’mon old dog…I know…you want Dad to feed you.”
He crouched but it wasn’t comfortable and his gown was in the way. He lowered his right hand to the floor and sat down slowly. The tension in his back eased. He took off his glasses and placed them in his pocket. The dog came closer. Jason picked a piece of dog food with his fingers and fed it to the dog. “Good dog,” Jason said. “I know you’re not a spoiled brat, just an old doggy without teeth, isn’t it true, doggy?” He fed another piece to the dog and the dog ate it. “You know, as far as dog years go, you’re quite up there. No wonder you have no teeth left. If I were ninety years old like you, I wouldn’t have any either.”
He remembered the day his children had brought the dog home: a five-week old pure breed mid-size apricot poodle. “You were such a bundle of joy,” he said to the dog, “soft and cuddly. The largest one of your litter. You fell outside the pedigree charts, you poor reject. Did you know this, doggy? That’s why we got you so cheap: seventy-five bucks for you, your cage, your blanket, and all the certificates. But this was thirteen years ago, and everything was cheaper then, and all of us were young and cuddly.”
They all lived in a townhouse then, and the children were little. Now his children had moved away, he and Gail lived in this big house alone, and it was all up to him, Gail, and the doctors.
“You know, old fellow,” he said to the dog while he fed him. “You might have six more months left in you, maybe a year. But you don’t give a damn now, do you? Why should you? You went through this world like a fish goes through water, although the fish lays her eggs around, and you didn’t. The one thing you had going for you got cut off when you reached adolescence. So you don’t posses anything, don’t affect anything, and don’t understand much either. Not that I understand a lot more; I don’t, but I have a few problems. Because dog, there is more to life than the chicken recipe you gulp down with much fervor. I have a boy still in college slacking around, and two daughters who I’d like to see married. That’s what fathers are for, doggy, to marry off their daughters. They sent me home from the hospital to wait for a phone call, and I might have run out of luck. You see, doggy?”
Jason talked like this, man to dog, and he didn’t think it was corny.
“I have this old mother,” he said. “What will become of her if I die, who will visit her, doggy? How would she feel to see her son go before her, like in some odd black and white movie? What will Gail do, after all we’ve been through together? You tell me, little pooch, and if you think it’s easy crossing the night alone, tell me pooch, why do you sleep in my bedroom?”
There were three pieces left when the dog finished eating, and Jason wrapped them in a paper towel and threw them in the garbage. He fed the second milk bone to the dog and the dog ate it.
He slowly moved to the sofa bed with his robe, dog, glasses, and cordless phone, and remembered how determined Gail had been thirteen years ago when she insisted on having the pup sleep in the cage they had brought home from the breeder. It was late in the evening and they were all ready to call it a day, but the pup scratched the cage with his sharp little claws, and overturned his bowl of fresh water, and yelped with a sound that penetrated the walls, and barked and whimpered until finally Gail gave in and brought him into their bed exclaiming: “I know what it is: he’s missing his Mommy!” Jason, who didn’t know what it was, thought the dog was persistent. Half way under the blanket and squished by their warm bodies, the round bundle found his peace instantaneously. The following day Gail purchased a book on dog behavior. She read it cover to cover and when she finished, she explained with liberating satisfaction: “Dogs are pack animals and they follow the leader. The leader of the pack is the largest and the strongest of the dogs. In our home this is you, Jason. If we prevent him from being with you at all times, from following you around the house, and from sleeping with you in our bed, he’ll get stressed and develop psychological problems.”
That was when Jason found the ottoman in the basement.
On the black lacquered side table next to the sofa bed was a stack of hard cover books. Their next-door neighbor, Kathy, had brought them over after the surgery. Jason pulled out the second from the bottom with his right hand, and stabilized the stack with his left. He moaned from overstretching. After rearranging his pillows and pulling the blanket over his knees, he opened the book. It contained the first three novels John Irving wrote. One of them was “The 158-Pound Marriage.” He had read it twice before and decided to read it a third time. The dog jumped on the blanket and went to sleep. When Jason reached the point in the book where the Georgian officer extracted Utchka from the belly of the putrid cow, the cordless rang. Jason dropped the book on the floor and answered. It was his son who wanted to swing by after class. “Have dinner with us,” Jason said. His son declined: he’d made plans for the evening already. Jason remembered how it was to be his son’s age, said “Fine,” hung up, and put the phone down by his hip.
* * *
When Gail arrived, the sun was behind the trees. Its light seemed warm, but it wasn’t. Gail walked over to the couch in the family room. The dog looked up, recognized her, and lowered his head lazily. Jason was asleep on his back. Gail tried not to wake him; he needed his rest. He needed her love and affection. She watched him for a while, then sat down at the edge of the sofa bed, took her shoes off and lay down next to him. Her body came very close to his, protective. She lay as still as she could and played aimlessly with the fine silver brooch on her lapel.
She didn’t see it: the cordless phone squished between them like a beige compact monster.
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