Lori Rader Day
The stray dog walked up to Kathy’s feet and snuffled the grocery bag hanging from her wrist. The dog had melted-chocolate eyes, a coat of shiny black, and a barrel chest like a bull. Its two front paws were sandy brown, like dirty socks bunching up at the ankles.
“Dad?” she said.
Her father had died more than six months ago. Kathy had never spoken to her father about reincarnation or God or anything so permanent or personal, but she felt certain that he would not have stood for this. He would have called her a Woo Woo and told her to get the hell out of his sight.
Kathy reached a hand toward the dog. “Dad? It’s me.”
A woman leaving the store behind her stopped short and navigated a wide circle around them.
Kathy stood back and watched the woman walk away. At the corner, she glanced back as though Kathy were a pile of dog shit she’d narrowly avoided.
She was not insane. The dog whimpered, sat, wiggled back to its feet, sat again.
“What is it, boy?” Kathy crouched down on her heels. “I mean, girl?”
Up close, Kathy saw it was no mistake. The dog was familiar. The rippled jowls hanging from her mouth? Her father, a fit man for his age, not fat at all, had had inexplicable jowls that pulled down the sides of his face. His eyes had been the same deep-well brown as the dog’s. In his final years, her father had grown a couple of frightening, long hairs from his eyebrows he hadn’t bothered to trim. The dog had whiskers very much like that—whiskers left untended, whiskers arched out from the brow in surprise.
She also recognized the expression on the dog’s face. Earnestness, mixed with hunger. Fear that it was already too late. On the last day of his life, her father had blinked his eyes at her in just such a way.
Kathy reached out a hand, holding still as whiskers tickled her palm. The dog stretched its neck out to sniff, then rose from the sidewalk to give Kathy’s fingers several wholehearted licks.
“OK, OK, it’s cheese,” she said. “It’s sample day in there. If I’d known you were going to be out here—”
The dog was just a dog. Kathy scratched behind its ears where the fur was as soft as a butterfly’s wing. She stroked a hand along the dog’s neck. No collar, no tags. Inside her shopping bag, she had a bag of spinach, a lemon, and a bottle of wine she’d been intending to take home and drink on her own. She didn’t know what dogs ate. Her father had never let her have a pet because her mother had been allergic. Though her mother had died when Kathy was just a child, the rules had never changed. They had kept the house just as she left it. The davenport in the front room covered in plastic. The guest room dust-sheeted. No dogs.
“Will you wait here?” Kathy looked up and down the street for someone to watch the dog while she went back in for something to feed it. The dog nuzzled her hand, the soft loose skin of its mouth reminding her again of her father and how, after he had died, she had finally found the courage to take his paper-skinned hand in her own. She nearly cried. “I’ll be right back. I promise. Swear to me you’ll still be here. I mean, stay.”
The dog shifted its weight from one front paw to the other, staring at her in expectation. That’s what Kathy saw: that the dog was hers now. She was needed, again or at last. Her father had never needed her until the end. But now here he was, on the streets without a license, paws rough from the concrete, reincarnated—or whatever—into the sort of animal he never would have paid any mind to. Here he was, begging for her attention.
“No way,” Kathy’s boyfriend, Damon, said. “It’s me or the dog.”
Damon lived in his own apartment, visited twice a week to eat her food and slide his hands under her clothes. He never stayed over, except once by accident when they’d fallen asleep on the couch watching a late movie. At two a.m. when they’d woken in the living room and moved into the bedroom, he’d said, “This doesn’t change anything.” And it hadn’t. He didn’t even keep anything at her place. No extra sweaters or socks. On the two nights a week he came over, he brought his own copy of the TV listings from the newspaper, and then took it with him when he left. They had been together ten months. Kathy had met him at a party, shook his hand and dismissed him entirely. She knew now that she should have listened to that instinct instead of trying so hard to hold a conversation with him, instead of feeling that she had to say yes when he asked her to dinner. The only thing that had kept her from breaking up with him was the feeling she got once in a while, when they thought the same thing about a stupid sitcom or they agreed completely on which late-night movie to watch. It was nice to belong to someone.
Now the issue was being forced. Kathy looked at the dog, which had become her dog. “But—”
She couldn’t say what she wanted to. It’s my father. First, it was nonsense. Kathy had talked herself out of it again on the walk home. The dog was a dog. But more importantly, Damon hadn’t liked her father, and her father hadn’t like him. She’d arranged a dinner out for the three of them, and at the end of the night when her father got into a cab to go home he had leaned into her ear—as though he were going to kiss her cheek, but she hadn’t been fooled—and said, “Why are you bothering with this?” He was right. He was right, but she was exhausted from always being wrong. Later, Damon had been no help whatsoever with her grief.
It’s my father. She’d sound crazy. She would be crazy. At least this way, if he had to explain why they’d broken up, he’d sound petty and ridiculous. People loved dogs. They would side with her.
No one would ask. But if there were sides to be taken, Kathy wanted the stronger position.
“The dog,” she said.
Damon picked up his newspaper and was gone.
“Well,” Kathy said. She stood with her hands on her hips, watching as the dog sniffed around the room: the bookcases, the cactuses dying in the window, the trash bin next to her desk. “You’re giving yourself a tour. Here’s the view.” She pulled the cords on the blinds. The window opened up to a sun-filled view of Chicago, the skyline distant but distinct against the blue sky. “That’s the Sears Tower. If you press your face against this spot up here, you can—see that blank area? That’s the lake. It’s why I pay so much, I guess.” The dog seemed uninterested. It sniffed a path around the room and then into the kitchen and around the cabinets.
“You’re hungry?” Kathy asked. The dog lifted its head. “You know that word. You probably should be hungry after all you’ve been through.”
She found that she meant the cancer, the surgery, the chemo, the last days, the afterlife, and the reincarnation event, whatever that entailed. That’s what she meant, even if she’d already decided it wasn’t. Kathy couldn’t help talking to the dog as though it had come from far away. She opened a can of the food she’d bought and scooped half of it onto a paper plate. The dog swallowed it in two quick, choking gulps and looked up at her, accusing.
She had been expecting this. She emptied the other half of the can onto the plate.
The dog ate the food and began to gnaw through the plate. When Kathy reached for it, the dog growled low in its throat. This, too, she would have predicted.
The animal gave up on the plate and wandered around the apartment, claws clicking against the floor. Kathy sat on a stool at the kitchen counter and listened. The dog was taking more interest in her life than Damon ever had. Her father, in life, hadn’t ever come to visit her at home or at work either. She had wanted to show him something about her, something real, but they’d always met at restaurants. Bad restaurants, the coffee fresh but everything else covered in lukewarm gravy. Like dog food, actually, Kathy thought.
“There’s not much to see, huh?” she called. The dog returned and stood under her. It had the most delicate ridge of eyelashes, not like human eyelashes at all—more like the fakes the old-time starlets used to wear.
“I can’t exactly call you Dad. What should it be?”
The dog crouched low on its haunches and let a stream of urine patter onto the kitchen floor.
She fetched paper towels, deciding to call the dog Cookie. She hated when people gave their dogs human names. Cookie was also the name her dad had called her, when he was in the mood to. Not because it was cute. She’d been pudgy all her life, and her dad liked to say she’d had one cookie too many. She’d never liked it for herself. For a dog, though, it was endearing. “Cookie,” Kathy said. She could rewrite the history of the name. Why not? She decided to give it a try. “My father used to call me Cookie.”
She knelt to the mess, the dog panting into her ear. “Did I sound as though I meant it the right way?”
Cookie walked away from the puddle she’d made on the floor and began another tour of the apartment. She began whimpering urgently.
“Oh, shit,” Kathy said, and coaxed the dog out the door and down the stairs just in time. Cookie crouched in the grass outside the front door and shook violently with diarrhea.
Yes, Kathy thought, waiting on the sidewalk. She looked away to give Cookie privacy. That’s exactly what happened to you when you were human.
After three days of this, Kathy took Cookie to the vet. Waiting in the lobby, she stroked the dog’s sleek back to keep her from bolting over to where a thick woman dressed too warmly for the weather had a small crate with a handle. Inside, there was a live, chittering thing Kathy couldn’t see. Cookie growled and huffed, but stayed at Kathy’s feet. This was progress.
Kathy’s fingers found a lumpy knot between Cookie’s shoulder blades. In the examining room, she said, “Is it a tumor?”
The woman held the dog by the scruff of its neck. “Where is her collar and leash? You can’t just have a dog without a collar and leash.”
“We—lost them. But is she going to die?”
The vet rubbed at the spot Kathy indicated and shook her head, frowning. “That feels like the scar tissue that can build up around her microchip. Wherever you got her, they put it in. With your address? You should keep that updated.”
Kathy nodded. Cookie was not a stray. She had suspected when the dog seemed to have a vocabulary: hungry, sit, walk, out. But the fact that the dog had come to her from another home, was possibly missing from another owner, didn’t match up with what Kathy knew. Cookie had begun to sleep at her feet while she read or watched TV. Whenever she moved, the dog leapt up to assist. Cookie followed her from room to room, a bodyguard, an escort. At night, Kathy allowed her onto the bed, but always slipped on a nightgown or t-shirt now. In the dark of her room, she liked the weight of the dog on the other half of the bed.
She had been calling into work at the temp agency where she was a recruiter. For two days, she let the dog roam her apartment. Cookie always came to find her again. She always seemed excited to see that Kathy was still on the sofa.
Finally Kathy had to leave Cookie at home to return to work. That night she found the arm pillows from her couch gutted. Kathy read the stuffing on the floor like tea leaves, a message of love and devotion and desperate need. Don’t you dare leave me, the message said. Kathy had slipped a few times and called the dog Dad after all.
After paying the vet, Kathy led Cookie down the street to a pet store. She’d never been inside one. At the door, she stopped, one hand on Cookie’s neck to still her.
A kid in a blue smock walked toward them. “You have to have your dog on a leash, ma’am.”
“I need to buy one. Could you—?”
In the aisle, the kid knelt before Cookie and placed a thick red collar around her neck. Cookie stood obedient, her tongue lolling to one side. When they had a matching leash hooked to her, the kid turned the lead over to Kathy and handed her the price tags. “She sure is a good dog,” he said.
Kathy had thought she’d known what she was getting—her father, all over again. All the old habits, all the old hurts. In the hospital the last week of his life, he’d called her all those names. The nurse was sure he was going into dementia, or crazed from too much medication. Kathy had allowed them to cut his morphine drip a bit, because the truth was too hard to discuss with strangers. Her dad was a name-caller. He was not loyal.
But he had been reborn a better species: strong, loving, eager to please.
“She is, isn’t she?” Kathy was as surprised as anyone. She looked down at the dog. “Maybe some treats, too?”
Cookie knew the word treat. She led the way down the aisle and into the next, sniffing and snorting at the bags and boxes on the shelves. Halfway down the aisle, she began leaping and pulling at the new leash.
“What? Cookie, stop!”
At the end of the aisle, a woman and a little boy, six or seven, turned in their direction. The boy said, “Shelly?”
Kathy really hated the name Shelly.
“That’s my dog,” the kid said. He ran up to Cookie, threw his arms around her, and buried his face in her neck. “Where have you been, girl? Where have you been?” People who had turned to look at the commotion smiled fondly at them.
The boy’s mother petted the dog with one hand and her son with the other. Please don’t cry, Kathy thought.
The woman turned to Kathy, her mouth wrinkled. “We’ve been looking, but—We’d given up hope. Where did you find her?”
“She found me,” Kathy said. She wanted proof: papers, photos, birth certificates, adoption papers. What kind of proof did you have that another living thing was yours? But Cookie had her dirty-sock front paws on the chest of the boy, licking his ears as he laughed into her fur. What other proof was there? She had no evidence herself. Back at her apartment, there was a half-eaten paper plate and an old mixing bowl filled with water on the floor. A few pillows opened up. The light perfume of dog on the empty spot on her bed.
“Thank you for taking care of her,” the woman said. “Of course you’ll get the reward.”
Kathy shook her head. She wanted no reward. She wanted to take Cookie and leave this place, to show her the long way home past the little park they hadn’t visited yet. To point out the building, tall and gray in the distant skyline, where she worked. To pull her along on the new red leash and show her everything. Her life had been remade since they’d last seen each other, and it had only been better since they’d met again. This time, it had seemed like love.
“No reward,” she said. “I’ll pay for the leash and collar. My dad—”
The woman looked up her, her head cocked like Cookie waiting for the second half of her can of food.
The boy took off running down the aisle. Cookie pulled after him.
Kathy dropped the leash. Cookie’s nails clacked against the linoleum and around the corner out of sight. “When I die, I want to come back as a dog.”
The woman laughed. “It’s a good life, don’t you think?”
Kathy said nothing. She went to the register and paid for the collar and leash. She paused at the front of the store, letting the automatic doors open and close. Each time the door opened, she said to herself: Go on, girl. Go on. Until, at last, she could.
Lori Rader Day’s stories have been published in Good Housekeeping, Crab Orchard Review, TimeOut Chicago, After Hours, Big Muddy, and Southern Indiana Review. She won the 2008 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction from The Madison Review and has an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago.