Oliver Scott stood across from the woman who nine years earlier he had vowed to love forever.
“Shoes, please,” Charlotte said, indicating that he should remove his.
He looked down at his worn-out tennis shoes. “Maybe I’ll just wait in the car.”
“And let our son think that I’m making you feel unwelcome?” she said, stepping aside to allow for his entrance. “You are welcome, welcome, welcome. We need to have at least ten minutes household-transition time.”
That was a phrase she’d picked up from the onsite counselor they had seen during their lunch hour. They worked at the same behemoth software company, Infinity Mapping. Oliver was a programmer. Charlotte was hired (as a newly graduated computer science major from Wisconsin) to write how-to manuals. After they married, she got a column: “Map Rap” that ran in the company magazine. Oliver noted that this was when her hair got blonder and her makeup more precise. She started power walking. Now she was lean. Too lean, Oliver thought, making her sharp around the edges.
“I already fed Lionel some lunch,” Charlotte said, nodding in the direction of their son.
Oliver took his time undoing his shoelaces hoping that Charlotte would leave, but she stood there, sentry to the house they’d bought together, gatekeeper to his child. For this reason, and this reason only, he faked a sheepish smile. “I’m not wearing any socks. Sure you want me to take them off?” Charlotte had a thing for socks after their son supposedly got a teensy case of athlete’s foot at Oliver’s place.
Oliver followed her into the kitchen where she set the timer on the stove for exactly nine minutes. She proceeded to clean up the lunch dishes; on the counter sat two mostly-eaten bowls of toxic orange macaroni and cheese. Oliver stared at the congealed mass. Didn’t she know she was killing herself, or worse, their son?
“You can get that without all the preservatives,” he said.
“I can get it, but Lionel won’t eat it,” she said.
“He eats it at my place.”
“He doesn’t eat it. He moves it around on the plate. Then he comes home and eats a huge bowl of cereal.” Charlotte scraped the contents of both bowls into the sink.
Was this true? Oliver wondered. Was Lionel just pretending to like whole-wheat macaroni to please him? Or was Charlotte a spiteful bitch, hell-bent on stripping their son of any nutritionally sound foods? Oliver would find out: “Lionel! Lionel, can you come in here?”
“You probably haven’t exercised in like what? Two years? But you’re gonna go after my pasta?” Charlotte said.
“For your information, I’ve started biking.” This was absolutely not true, but it rushed through Oliver as just as effortlessly as if it was. Maybe he would take up biking. Maybe the lie would give rise to truth.
“What kind of bike, Oliver?”
God, she knew him well. He was saved from composing an answer by Lionel’s entrance. At seven, their son was small for his age, just as Oliver had been. Charlotte would probably have said that Lionel was in need of a haircut, but Oliver loved his over-long locks, the way they hooded his large brown eyes. Under the eyes and across the nose, Lionel had a smattering of freckles. He also had big front teeth he hadn’t grown into yet. That’s my boy, thought Oliver. Oliver loved Lionel so much that sometimes he had the urge to squeeze and squeeze him. He was just a little afraid he would squeeze Lionel so hard that Lionel’s internal organs might get pushed out of their intended spots and land somewhere new. His spleen in his knee, his stomach up in his neck. When Lionel was a baby, Oliver had a similar irrational fear of taking a real bite out of him. He loved him that much.
“Hey, buddy,” Oliver said. “Your mom here seems to think that you don’t like the macaroni I fix for you. The healthier kind.”
“It’s okay,” said Lionel.
“Your dad wants you to be honest with him, Ly. Or else he wouldn’t have asked. Right, Oliver?” Charlotte turned to Oliver and held up the empty blue and orange box. “You want to buy Lionel this kind of macaroni if that’s what he prefers, right?”
“Uh…right,” Oliver said not quite understanding her plan of attack.
“Okay, I like that kind,” Lionel said, pointing to the box in his mother’s hand.
“Anything else?” she prompted. “The hummus? Do you want to tell your dad about the hummus?”
“I don’t like it,” Lionel said to his dad. “And could you get different cereal at the regular store ‘cause I’m collecting the bobble-heads.”
“Sure,” Oliver said with resignation. “We’ll go to the store now, just grab your stuff.” Lionel trudged off in the direction of the bedrooms.
“So, did you get in touch with a realtor?” asked Charlotte.
“Looking,” Oliver said.
“You should check out those condos off Parkland. Prices have really dropped and they’re less than half-mile from here. It’d make it a lot easier on Lionel if you lived close by.”
“How about here?” he said, hating himself even as he said it.
Charlotte stopped wiping the toaster. “Do you have amnesia about our marriage? You weren’t any happier than I was.”
“I never wanted a divorce though.”
“Then you shouldn’t have cheated on me.”
This was true. He had slept with Stacy from accounting on one occasion. She had reminded him of the old Charlotte: wholesome and pasty-white, her body slightly Rubenesque. They’d had sex on her double bed while a Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal watched from the headboard. Oliver had gotten a migraine headache right afterward. Charlotte put cold washcloths on his head that very evening; even drove him to Urgent Care for an injection of Imitrex. He regretted the infidelity, yes, but he regretted the confession even more. There was no point to it, no catharsis for either of them. He should have lived with his guilt, made peace with its gnawing presence.
“I still wanted to figure it out together,” he said.
“What’s to figure out? You wake up, you take a deep breath, and you live. Some days are better than others. It’s not that complicated.”
And then she smiled, a sad little smile that said “I-know-you-don’t-have-a-bike-and-I-feel sorry-for-your-compulsion-to-lie.”
The timer on the stove buzzed. Transitional time was over. Oliver felt the loss of those nine minutes. A portion of his life delineated and cut. Of course it was complicated. There were layers and layers she didn’t seem to see.
“Wake, breathe, live,” Oliver said.
“That’s right,” she said, not taking the bait.
“And wear socks. Socks are important.”
She stared at him. He loved her. He hated her. He wished she would slug him. He wanted his hair pulled, his cheek shoved, his chest beaten with her hard freckled fists.
“Goodbye, Oliver,” she said, calmly rinsing the macaroni pot in extremely hot, germ-killing water. The steam rising up around her made Oliver think of how she had looked naked coming out of the shower, naked and full of Lionel. How her body that way had made him—for brief moments—believe in God.
Pulling away in his truck with Lionel beside him, Oliver found it hard to believe that he had ever agreed to buy a house here. The front yard was ten by sixteen feet. That wasn’t a yard. That was a suggestion of a yard. He hated this whole neighborhood: East Highland Ranch, at the base of the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Long ago the area had been citrus groves, probably an actual ranch or two. Now the top of the hill was covered with a rash of custom homes on half-acre lots, some with plywood covered windows, fluorescent orange No Trespassing stickers, yards returned to hard-pack earth—the downturn opening the way for the desert to reclaim its own. Next down the hill came their division: smaller lots, but not necessarily smaller homes with pockets of houses similarly abandoned. At the bottom of the community boundary were the condos. He passed them now on the way back to Redlands, where most of the East Highland “ranchers” worked and where Oliver was currently renting..
By the time they reached the old industrial neighborhood at the cities’ shared border, Lionel had already emptied his backpack unto the seat and was busy constructing a flying submarine. On Monday, Oliver would make an appointment to look at houses. Real houses. A boy needed a yard, something to mow, some place to plant a garden. Or maybe Oliver would move to the mountains thirty minutes away. A lot of people at work did that. Or he could move in the other direction, to the high desert..
He and Charlotte had an agreement that until their son was eighteen, neither one would move farther away than sixty-five miles from the other. They laid a map on the dining table where they had eaten so many dinners together and Oliver drew their circle of geographic possibilities with a compass. The circle looked like an organ, a heart or lung, all the roadways their shared veins. Before Oliver lifted the sharp anchor point of the compass from the thin map, he dug it into the table just a bit. Sometimes when he stopped by the house, he took secret pleasure in touching that gouged spot.
The pick-up’s windshield was filthy and the sun coming in made it hard to see the road. There was something up ahead. A box? Suddenly, the box moved directly in front of him. Oliver hit the brakes hard, his seatbelt locking his upper body tight, his hand flying protectively to Lionel’s chest, Legos flying into the dashboard.
“You, okay?” Oliver whispered, stunned by the mere thought of injury.
Lionel sat transfixed as he watched “the box” move back to the side of the road. “We almost hit that dog, Dad.”
From the side passenger window, Oliver could see that it was a dog, not a box, a dog the color of cardboard and rather squarely built. Oliver pulled over next to the wash. The closest business was a tile manufacturing plant about an eighth of a mile up ahead. There were no houses here. Not even much traffic.
“I’ll just make sure he’s okay,” he told Lionel. Oliver got out of his truck and approached the dog cautiously. He didn’t think he had hit it, but felt morally obligated to make sure. The dog’s eyes were yellow, wide-set and wary. Oliver slowly stuck out his hand for the dog to sniff. He was a squat thing, size of a beagle, but with shorter legs. His head looked oversized on his body, ears hanging like little pieces of curly lettuce. The dog seemed okay; end of deed. Only Oliver knew that he was supposed to do something more, knew Lionel would expect it. He should take the dog to a shelter, call a pet-rescue organization, something. He knew the wash was a dumping ground for all kinds of things. From where he stood he could see an old blue sofa and two tires in the silvery brush across the street.
“Daddy?” Lionel called from the truck.
Crap. Why’d he have to pull over? As a rule, Oliver was not a dog person. Maybe that was his problem. Wake, breathe, live was probably the philosophy of dog-people everywhere.
“Can I pet him?” Lionel said, starting to get out of the truck.
“No! Stay there.” Just then a big rig rattled by causing the spooked dog to run back out back into the street. “Hey! Here, boy! Come here!” Oliver called in the direction of the street. “Stay, Lionel! Stay!” he hollered towards the pick-up. The yelling and name-calling seemed to paralyze the dog. It froze as if trying to recall what “Here, boy!” and “Stay!” might mean. Just then a yellow Volkswagen coming down the road at a good clip caught the dog on its back end, spinning it like an ice skater.
Miraculously, the dog limp-ran itself back to Oliver. Once at his feet, the dog turned in nervous circles, whining frantically. Oliver looked up to see Lionel framed in the back window; his boy’s mouth a frozen “O.”
“Your dog all right?” the Volkswagen driver asked.
“It’s not my dog,” said Oliver, but even as he said it, he knew it was a lie. Of course it was his dog. For whatever reason, it just was.
“That will be three-hundred and seventy-nine dollars,” the receptionist in the Emergency animal clinic said.
“Do you take checks?” Oliver asked.
“Cash or credit only,” she said pointing to a large and obvious sign. “You need to give him this antibiotic twice a day for fourteen days. Here are his x-rays.” She handed him a manila envelope. “Oh, and apparently he’s got a pretty bad case of worms. They’ve de-wormed him, but you want to make sure and dispose of the feces carefully.”
“Worms?” Lionel said.
“Can you hold the X-rays, buddy?” Oliver asked partly to distract him. Worms. Yuck. Oliver couldn’t help but picture a city of worms existing inside the cavity of the dog in his arms. For a moment, he wanted to toss the wounded animal to the receptionist and run, run, run. Swallowing down the sweet spit that precedes vomiting, Oliver collected himself. With one hand he managed to take out his credit card and sign the slip. Lionel used his whole body to hold open the clinic’s heavy-glass door while Oliver gently carried the dog to the truck. From behind the bench seat they found one of Lionel’s old Thomas-the-Tank-Engine towels and laid it down for the dog, getting in on either side of him like a pair of bookends. Lionel pointed to the blank line on the X-ray envelope where it said “Pet name.”
“We’ll have to think on that,” Oliver said.
When they got to the duplex, Oliver made a bed with an old sleeping bag, but the dog ignored it, preferring to curl inconveniently in front of the back door. Lionel sat next to the dog like a patient nurse. He colored quietly and ate the all-natural puffed-rice cereal without complaint. “We need to stay here and watch him,” he said when his dad offered to take Lionel to the grocery store. He didn’t even want to watch Happy Feet that night, preferring to play Monopoly Jr. on the floor beside the dog. “Waldo,” he exclaimed, seemingly out of nowhere. “We should name him ‘Waldo.’”
By the time Oliver was ready to take Lionel home on Sunday afternoon, the dog was drinking and eating a little.
“Can we bring Waldo to show Mom?” Lionel asked.
“He’s still a little weak, Bud,” Oliver said. He slid on a pair of flip-flops.
“When he’s better?”
“Sure,” he said in a non-committal tone.
Oliver headed back up to East Highland, retracing their route, half-hoping to find a new “Lost Dog” sign. There was nothing of the sort. No trace that the dog had ever been here, no sign that his presence was missed. Oliver crossed Baseline and headed up into the Ranch. Turning onto Parkland Avenue, he saw the large “Condos Available” sign. The buildings were the color of sand with the ubiquitous red-tile roofs. There was a lawn that bordered the front of the place in a thirty-foot deep expanse then flowed down the middle of the complex like an inlet, broad and green and empty. What a waste. All that thirsty grass when they were in a drought condition several years running, all that lawn for people who never go outside. He continued up the hill, making a right into their division.
Lionel threw open the front door. “Mom! We got a dog!” Oliver admired the deftnes with which his son took off his shoes in a swift heel-toe pull before running inside. “Mom!” he hollered again disappearing into the house.
Oliver entered and carefully set his flip-flops just inside the door.
“What’s this about a dog?” Charlotte said, coming to the door.
“He was hit, a stray… I—we had to take him in,” Oliver said.
“So you don’t know anything about him?” Charlotte said.
“He’s brown,” Lionel offered.
“He hasn’t attacked us or given us rabies so I think we’re okay,” Oliver said.
“What’s rabies?” Lionel said.
“You shouldn’t just bring a stray dog”—Charlotte’s voice grew softer as she turned to their son—“into a house when—” Something stopped her cold, her voice changed again, “Oh my god. You are covered in dog hair.”
She pulled off Lionel’s T-shirt in a single motion and marched out the front door with it. On the porch she turned the shirt right side out. In the sunlight, Oliver could see the hair. It was as if it had been purposefully applied. Charlotte shook the shirt like a starting flag, but even Oliver could see that it did little to dislodge the thick, straight strands.
“Did you check him for ticks?” she said.
“The dog?” Oliver said.
Charlotte shoved the shirt under her arm and grabbed Lionel’s head with both hands. She gently moved her hands across his skull like she was reading a contour map, looking for a volcano. “Ahh!” she said nearly breathless. Then she exhaled. In her hand was a part of a sunflower seed shell. She flicked it away. “Ticks have been known to paralyze children. Kelly—in advertising sales—sent me an e-mail about it. Neurotoxins are excreted from their salivary glands.”
“His name’s Waldo,” Lionel said. “Daddy saved him.”
Charlotte released Lionel and went back to his shirt, pulling at the individual hairs with her slick acrylic nails. Oliver imagined all ten of them pressing into his back. He had never made love to a woman with nails like these. He wasn’t even sure he had ever been with the woman in front of him. How long does it take for all human cells to re-grow; for him and her and Lionel and even Waldo to become all new creatures?
It was time to go. Oliver leaned towards Lionel: “Give me a kiss.”
“A hug,” Lionel corrected, but allowed himself to be kissed anyway.
This was the hardest thing about what Oliver had done, the daily loss of the physical presence of this boy. Oliver slipped his sandals back on. “I’ll be sure to brush the dog next time.”
“Thanks,” Charlotte said, her eyes as green as the lawn on Parkland.
A month passed. The dog slept a lot. Maybe a paralyzing tick had bitten him. He wasn’t very active. This was fine as far as Oliver was concerned because there was less pressure concerning their interaction. Waldo required only food, water, a walk to go to the bathroom and an occasional pat on the head. Actually, the pat seemed entirely optional.
Lionel, on the other hand, saw Waldo in a completely different way, freely inventing an entire emotional landscape for the dog:
“Poor Waldo was so sad. He didn’t like those bad people who threw him away. Waldo wishes he would’ve bitten them.” Or:
“Waldo’s happy cuz he doesn’t have to take his anti-botics anymore. Huh, Waldo?”
Lionel could go on and on. The dog’s expression remained neutral. Lionel tried to get the dog to play catch or fetch or even go for a walk, but the creature declined every time. At first Oliver reasoned that it was because the dog was still recovering, but after four weeks, it was apparent that it just wasn’t in the dog to play.
Lionel adjusted accordingly: “I really like it that Waldo is mellow, don’t you, Dad?” “I’m really glad Waldo doesn’t jump all over us. Cory’s dog scratches like crazy.” “Waldo’s such a good dog, Dad. He never runs away.”
Lionel’s flexibility gave Oliver pause. Look how this child adjusts, he thought, like water, this boy, moving around the rocks in his life with gentle acceptance. Are all children like this?
“Ly, it’s almost time to take you home. What do you say we take the dog with us and get an ice cream at the drugstore next to Sport Time? I need to run in for some new socks.”
“I’ll have to ask him.” Lionel whispered into the back of dog’s neck. “He says that’s fine. You might have to pick him up and put him in the truck though cuz he’s feeling a little tired.”
In Sport Time, Oliver bought a bag of socks. Lionel got tennis balls: “Maybe Waldo likes this kind.” Then they both got ice cream at the drugstore next door. They ate their cones in the shade of the store’s overhang, their backs leaning against the scratchy stucco surface of the building.
This was the very drugstore where Oliver and Charlotte bought the home pregnancy test kit that announced Lionel. It was a Saturday morning in May. The air was clear and the surrounding mountains begged to have their picture taken. They planned to eat cones there, but they were so excited once they had the actual kit in their hands that they got a take-home carton instead. He still remembered the taste of Charlote’s cold sweet vanilla mouth; the way he was physically unable to keep his hand from her stomach, sure he could detect the change in landscape. Recalling that now, he fought the urge to cry. That’s the thing about living in the same place for a while. You run into your own ghosts.
“Look,” said Lionel, pointing. Each time his Blue Bubble Gum cone dripped, the dog licked up the spilled bits. “Bubble-gum’s Waldo’s favorite, Dad.”
Oliver had to admit, it was the most animated he’d ever seen the dog.
“Mom puts a marshmallow in the bottom of the cone before she puts the ice cream in. That way it never leaks out,” Lionel said.
Waldo was still in the car for the Lionel drop-off. Lionel insisted that his mother meet the dog. Reluctantly, Oliver put the leash on Waldo and carried him to the porch.
“That’s a pit bull!” were the first words out of Charlotte’s mouth. “You picked up a pit bull?”
Oliver knew that pit bulls were vicious dogs with clamping jaws. Waldo was… well, not that. Oliver lowered him to the pavement.
“He’s not a pit bull, he’s a mutt. The vet thought maybe he was part lab, some terrier.”
“A pit bull is a terrier!” she said, her words clipped and furious.
“You are such a bitch!” roared in Oliver’s head, but instead of giving voice to this clear and compelling thought, he cleared his throat and took a deep breath through his nostrils before speaking. “We’ve had him a month. The vet okayed him. He’s not a pit bull. He doesn’t have paralyzing ticks. Lionel loves him and I don’t need your permission to keep him.” He tried to leave with a flourish, but when he tugged on the leash, Waldo refused to follow.
“He likes it here. Can he come in?” asked Lionel.
“No!” the parents responded in unison.
Oliver kissed his son on the top of the head and scooped up the dog. As soon as Oliver got Waldo settled into the car, he took off his socks. It was too hot for socks. Who wears fucking socks in the desert?
Oliver and Lionel started taking Waldo in the car for all their short trips. Oliver even started taking the dog in the car when Lionel wasn’t there. Sometimes at stoplights he found himself resting his open palm on the dog’s back. He started getting an empty feeling in the car when he was without the dog’s companionable silence.
Oliver found a realtor who printed him a long list of properties in his price range. He entered the property listings into his company’s residential mapping system and printed out pages and pages of starred roadways. He and Waldo drove all over, focusing on one three-mile square grid at a time. Oliver’s favorite time to look was at dusk when—in the occupied houses—the windows were illuminated. The people looked like shadow puppets, like the shadow profile of Lionel he’d had done at the Orange Show Fair, the one Charlotte had insisted on keeping. He loved that simple black cut out, how in the most elementary way it captured what was essential about the boy. A few months after they’d separated, he’d snuck that framed profile out of the house in Lionel’s backpack. Propped against his reading lamp now, it was the last thing he saw when he went to sleep.
The realtor left several messages on his answering machine: “If you don’t look inside anything and consider putting in a bid on anything, then I can’t really help you.”
Two months into his adoption, Waldo seemed to slow down even more. His never-hearty appetite dwindled. “Maybe he wants a new kind of food,” Lionel suggested. At the grocery store, after choosing a box of Frosted flakes (with the agreement of banana slices on top), they went to the pet food aisle and selected one can of every brand of dog food.
When they got back to the duplex, Lionel lined up all the various, colorful cans in front of the prone dog. “I’ll see which one he sniffs. That’s the one we’ll try first,” Lionel said. But Waldo didn’t sniff any of the cans.
By Sunday morning, Waldo wouldn’t get up at all. Oliver called the vet’s office, but they were closed. “I’ll take him in first thing tomorrow morning,” he promised. Together, they wrapped an old Mexican blanket around Waldo for warmth and Lionel kissed the dog on the top of his head before leaving for home that afternoon.
Oliver checked on the dog several times during the night, but in the morning, the dog was dead.
Oliver drove to the house with the news later that morning. Lionel answered the door. “Waldo died, honey,” Oliver said.
The boy’s face remained perfectly still but tears ran down in uneven lines, like rivers on a map. “I miss him,” he whispered.
Charlotte came down the hall in the robe Oliver had bought her two Christmases ago. All of the sudden, Oliver was washed in panic, his chest hurt, he couldn’t catch his breath, maybe he was going crazy… or having a heart attack. He plopped down on the tile entryway and put his face between his knees.
“You all right?” Charlotte said.
“Waldo died,” Lionel explained.
“Oh,” she said, “Lionel, why don’t you go get your dad a glass of water.”
Lionel went off towards the kitchen.
Oliver could feel the tips of Charlotte’s nails on his shoulder, could smell her ripe pajama smell. He wanted to climb inside that robe and begin again.
“Oliver?” She rubbed his back in small, slow circles.
After a minute, the grip on his lungs was loosened, his heart stopped racing. He could breathe slower, more purposefully. Lionel brought him a glass of water in a cup shaped like a rocket that he drank in one gulp.
Oliver left work early that same day and picked up Lionel from school.
“Can we bury him?” Lionel asked, getting into the truck. “I think he’d like a funeral.”
Before he’d left for work, Oliver had laid one bag of frozen peas and two blue ice containers on top of the dog to prevent immediate decay. When they got to the duplex, Lionel approached the body reverentially. He poked it gently with his index finger to confirm that Waldo was really dead. Then he poked the warm bag of peas.
They loaded the dog—still wrapped in the Mexican blanket—into the back of the pick-up truck. Oliver pointed his truck towards the mountains and the wide, rocky creek bed that lay at their base.
Lionel and Oliver took turns at the shovel, Lionel’s slight body struggling against its weight. Watching those small arms at work, Oliver thought about what an elemental thing burying was. How father and son had been digging these sorts of holes together since humans were walking upright. How all these tumbled boulders everywhere had once been part of an even bigger mountain, how nothing can prepare you for death but the digging. Oliver put out his hands and with great effort, Lionel handed him the shovel.