(from THE NARROW DOOR)
A man opens his kitchen door. He watches his dog, a white dog with enormous feet, walk down the steps of the porch onto the backyard. The dog trots the border of the property three times. He sniffs some grass, rubs his coat against the hedge, looks for a spot where the man can keep an eye on him, then settles into the wet ground with a grunt, satisfied. The dog has done it a million times like that. He’s a little funny about the three trots–he seems to think they’re a riot. The ritual could be clocked. The man stays with the dog for some minutes–maybe the man will have a smoke, check the messages on his phone–before they head back together into the house, the dog smelling of dew. But this time there is a crash in the house: has something fallen? The man goes in to see what the crash might have been–he checks the bookshelf, the anchor hanging on the library wall–nothing. He walks back out the to the yard where there’s no sign of the dog. He steps out onto the grass, which soaks into his shoes. The night is cold. For a moment, he feels himself shrinking down to a single intention: a hard seed with a shiny surface. It’s a stunning, terrible feeling. He’s alive in it. Every feeling he’s ever denied himself is contained by it. Then the hard shell breaks open and the black powder inside flies out, in a silent roar. He calls the dog’s name. He runs past the property line, trips over the raised roots of the oak. He is stunned by the volume of his cry. Already he has split himself apart from himself, as if in preparation for what he’ll see when he gets back home: the full bag of dog food in the pantry, the dirty, cream-colored bed with a shape still impressed in it.
It’s always startling how quickly the ones we love are ready to be lost. They could be standing right in front of us and be lost to us. They don’t always have to run away. They could look at us, smile at us, kiss, hold us, say good things to us, good night to us, and still be lost. He’d never thought about that.
Two months later, after searching every animal shelter in the region for the lost dog, the man is driving home. The new dog sits upright in the passenger seat. He smells fresh, it’s the smell of the sea. He does not bark. His teeth are so white. Already a gentleman, he scans the houses and driveways with a scholar’s curiosity. In the weeks to come, the man will see that the new dog is preferable to the lost dog, who slept too much, was a little smelly, prone to melancholy, and leapt up on just those people who didn’t want the threads in their sweaters pulled. The new dog is a very good dog indeed, and the man cannot believe his good luck after so much sorrow. He thought he’d be alone for the rest of his days.
Still, the man can’t stop looking for the lost dog. The need in the looking is a little like a drug–it must be hidden, forbidden. He imagines the lost dog racing the banks of the interstate, against the traffic, wildness in his face. He imagines him sniffling around dumpsters of the strip malls, chewing rags, chicken bones, flowers, cigarette butts. Once he even thought he saw him hovering in the sky, flying with paws extended, looking down at him with disappointment in his eyes, but that was a kite. In truth, the man doesn’t quite know what this feeling is. It’s both ruining him and keeping him strong. If he could give that feeling a name, he’d call it wanting. But wanting sounds too dark and defeated. He describes it to himself as love. It always feels better to call any strong feeling love.
Does the new dog sense the love is not all for him? Well of course the new dog knows; he’s no dummy. But that doesn’t stop the new dog from trying in vain to win over the man, from succeeding at tricks to being overly good–he will not leap into that wool sweater–whenever a stranger comes to the door. The dog looks up for the approval in the man’s face. He wants it so much from the man that the man won’t give it to him. Possibly the man sees a little of himself in the dog: it is unnerving to have a mirror. So little by little the dog gives up. He puts on some weight, gets a little sluggish, his breath goes bad. Tricks? He forgets how to do them. The dog spends each day listening for the man’s truck to crunch the stones in the driveway, not even knowing he’s relinquished what he was.
The looking goes on. The looking doesn’t proceed in straight ahead fashion–how could it with so many options, questions, possibilities for digression? This street, that cul-de-sac, right, left, then back on the main road for a while, until he feel like dispensing with the main road altogether. The story of love is the story of looking. It is every twist and turn. It is all the empty roadsides that might turn up the body of the beloved.
Paul Lisicky is the author of LAWNBOY, FAMOUS BUILDER, THE BURNING HOUSE, and UNBUILT PROJECTS. His work has appeared in THE AWL, FENCE, THE IOWA REVIEW, PLOUGHSHARES, TIN HOUSE, UNSTUCK, and other publications. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden and in the low residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. A new nonfiction book, THE NARROW DOOR, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014.