A good dog

809 words

Okay, here’s what happened. My husband creates these writing prompts and puts them on the calendar for me (he’s awesome). I don’t see them beforehand. Last night, I dreamed of my dog, Bliss, who died eight years ago this month. Then I got up and saw my writing prompt—and immediately burst into tears. 

I knew I couldn’t write about Bliss, or my current dog, Ferris, or really, any other dog I’ve known. This one needed to be different. I turned on the TV as I was getting ready for work, and The Twilight Zone was on, one of those post-apocalyptic episodes. I guess that was in my head as I drove to work, and I came up with this (yes, on my lunch break). 

He’d slept in the shipping container, the one that faced the bay. There were others around it, but most of those were open to the shore. He figured that facing the water was safer; who or what was going to approach him from the water? He could also avoid announcing his presence to the world—any movement, any light could be deadly. On the other hand, of course, he couldn’t see anything that might sneak up from behind. He took his chances.

He didn’t know what the containers had originally held. Whatever goods had been there had long since been washed away, even by this unimpressive tide. He assumed it was probably something that wasn’t of much use these days: cigarettes, toys, patio furniture. But thinking that maybe there had been shoes, blankets, or canned goods, he searched every container thoroughly. There was nothing.

He’d seen food in a can only a few times in the past year. It always startled him when he found one. It was a relic, something he could not believe existed in plenty at one time. He could remember plucking them off the shelves in multitudes: refried beans, tomato sauce, okra. When he thought back, that seemed as strange as going into a museum and taking paintings off walls and gold chalices from display cases and tossing them into shopping carts.

The first can he’d seen since the stores and houses had been emptied contained green beans. There was no brand; just an illustration of the perfect green bean on the front. “Plato’s ultimate green bean,” he’d thought. Of course, he had no can opener, and managed to puncture the metal by smashing the can repeatedly on a rock. He considered sticking his fingers in the jagged hole to pry out the beans, but fearing a cut and inevitable infection, he resisted. He poured the bitter, grassy water into his mouth, being careful not to touch his lips to the fractured tin, then found a long, flat stone to use as a miniature crowbar. He spent the next hour meticulously prying the hole open, pressing the rock into the hole then pushing it downward. It was slow work, but he had time.

He’d almost made an opening big enough to remove a bean when he saw the dog for the first time. It was long-legged and ropy, with large paws and ears like sails raised to the sky. Dogs were almost as rare as canned goods, perhaps even more so. It was medium-sized, thin but with tense muscles visibly contracting beneath its meager hide. Its matted fur was crosshatched with scratches and scars, and he was surprised to see its ears were completely unblemished.

Most of the remaining dogs looked like this. The pets—the lap dogs, the overbred toys carried in purses—were the first to go. The larger working dogs lasted a little while longer because they trusted people. That turned out to be a mistake. Then there were the strays; the ones who had learned to live on their own. But if they had any leftover whispers of domestication, they could be coaxed with even the smallest tidbit of food. They went next.

He’d met a woman who kept a dog. She was going east while he was heading west, trudging uphill through dust and brush. He’d seen the dog first. Startled, he stopped in his tracks. The dog did the same. He then took a step forward, and the dog retreated, scrambling and barking. He chased it, and as he summited the hill, he saw the dog at the feet of a young woman. She had her left hand looped in a small bit of rope tied at the dog’s neck. Her right hand was on her hip; her fingers brushing the handle of a pistol tucked into the waistband of her filthy jeans. She said nothing.

He pointed at the shepherd mix. “Is that your dog?”

“Yes,” she said, but offered nothing else.

“You’re keeping a dog?” he asked again.

“I am,” she said. No one moved.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of foolish?” he asked, nodding at the dog. “You have to feed it, don’t you? And,” he said, visibly sizing the dog with his eyes, “It’s a waste of meat. There’s not much of that around anymore.”

“She helps me hunt,” she said. “She’s loud. She lets me know when there are others around. And she protects me from…” she paused, giving him a once-over similar to the one he had given her dog, “…people.”

He took a step toward her. She loosened her grip on the dog’s makeshift collar but tightened her fingers around the gun. The dog, feeling the shift, moved forward, straining against the rope and pushing her ears back on her head.

He stopped his advance. “Well then,” he said. “That’s a good dog.”

The family recipe

823 words

So tired. I thought yesterday’s was like pulling teeth. This one was like a root canal. Had to fight for every syllable. 

Grandma pulled a box down from a closet shelf. It was a plain cardboard box, and according to the handwriting on the outside, once held towels, clothes, and books. Each item had been written in a different ink, then crossed off as the box was reused. Its most recent incarnation was for “keepsakes.”

“All right, kid,” Grandma said, setting it on the kitchen table. “Don’t expect much. But I think I have something in here that might be useful.” She pried open the top, the ancient layers of yellowed tape announcing its age like tree rings. She carefully folded down the cardboard flaps, their edges soft like felt. The contents revealed themselves to Grandma, and she paused a moment to become reacquainted before removing them from the box. Tamara, saddled with the impatience of a 13-year-old, did her best not to fidget or sigh. Grandma, she knew, would take her sweet time, and no obvious signs of annoyance could make her go faster.

When Grandma finally dipped her mottled hands into the sea of tissue and newspaper, she did so with a reverence rarely witnessed by Tamara. Grandma had strong, weathered hands that had seen their share of grease burns and callouses. She’d seen Grandma pull stubborn ivy from along her garden fence and rip it from the ground by their roots. She’s seen her whip potatoes into submission. But she hadn’t seen this: hands that hesitated and honored. Tamara thought, despite Grandma’s words, there must be something in the box that was extremely valuable.

The crumpled newspapers that Grandma removed first, Tamara saw, were from 1963 and from a place Tamara hadn’t heard of. She didn’t know if Grandma had lived there—Casper, Wyoming—or if the papers had mysteriously made their way into Grandma’s home as a stowaway. She understood that this was a part of Grandma’s history she should probably know, and she was a little embarrassed to ask about it right then. But of course, that was the whole point of the visit.

Grandma plucked items from the box. They were swaddled in tissue, but she made no move to unwrap them. Even so, she appeared to know each item by shape and feel, turning them over in her hands and smiling as she did so. At the bottom of the keepsakes box, she reached another box. This was the item she was looking for. She set this box in the middle of the kitchen table, shooing aside the packing papers and larger box. This box looked like it once had held a gift, perhaps even an expensive one. It was a faded red, but Tamara could tell it had once been rich and velvety. The top was gilded with gold, except at the edges where it had been worn to the cardboard beneath.

Lifting the lid, Tamara could see it held a number of loose items. A library card. A cork. Several hand-written letters with Wyoming postmarks. A delicate gold wristwatch, a souvenir metal globe. But at the bottom of all of these things was a stack of cards held together by an elastic band. Grandma pulled them out and set them on the table in front of Tamara. “If you want to know what this family’s all about,” she said, pushing the cards towards Tamara, “then you’ll need these.”

Tamara looked at the stack of cards. The top one had, “From the kitchen of” printed on the top. Someone, presumably Grandma, had written, “Patricia” in ballpoint pen in the blank space provided. The rest of the card was written in ballpoint pen as well, a list of ingredients with corresponding amounts. Tamara, frowning, attempted to remove the elastic, but gasped a little when it crumbled.

“Don’t worry, it’s old. I’m pretty sure I can find another rubber band.”

Tamara pushed the sticky remainders of the disintegrated elastic away with the side of her hand. She flipped through the other cards; there were about 15 in total. Several came from the kitchen of Patrica, but there were other names. Helen. Rita. Bobby Lou. And, surprisingly, Tom.

“I don’t get it,” Tamara said. “The assignment wasn’t to learn how to cook. The assignment was to figure out our family tree. How are recipes supposed to help me do that?”

Grandma took one of the recipe cards—Tom’s, as it happened—and held it up. “Anyone can go online and type in a bunch of names and have it spit out a diagram showing who married who and who begat who.” She flapped the card. “These, though. Family recipes. They show you how they lived and how they loved. There’s a reason why I’ve saved these ones. Each one has a story. A beginning and an ending. Now. I know you, Tamara. It’s never been good enough for you to do just what’s asked of you. Do you want a list of names, or do you want a good story to tell?”