Helen Astley and Henry Stein lay cuddled together in bed with the lights off, munching Jiffy Pop, watching an old western flick, For a Few Dollars More. They were no longer each other’s lovers. Five years of hot and cold drama had left the two numb: frostbitten below, scorched in the head. Still, they enjoyed each other’s sober, quiet company more so than that shared with anyone else since Henry obligingly moved out roughly one year ago. And even if nothing bad were to happen, and Henry ended up staying over, as he sometimes did, there would be no penetration.
Pleasure? Here’s the drill: Some nights you just had to do without.
The mind fills in all kinds of gaps if you let it. A frustrating, sentimental and therefore not-to-be-trusted kind of love lingered between Helen and Henry that made such make-pretend believable to their baby, Puppy, the Akita/Great Dane mix curled up at their feet.
What do you do when you have something to say and no way to say it? If you are Puppy, who was born forty years old and went from there, who flew with mamma Helen from high and deep in the mountains to live with Henry and choke on chicken-wing bones on the dirty streets of this sea-level city, what do you do? He liked the two together, however insanely jealous of their fun and deeply depressed by their unhappiness he had been made in the past. Puppy still lived with mamma Helen, recently joined by a taller, chestier, more sane Helen—her sister, Emma—who occupied the room which formerly held his bed, Henry’s writing desk, and mamma’s easel. Sometimes Emma had boys over who Puppy didn’t know and didn’t get to know. The boys always pretended to pay him attention, but he did not dignify their presence by goofing around or playing dog. He is not that kind of dog. He chased a Frisbee once. It got him nowhere, he found. Things had gotten to the point where a ball could roll right past his nose and Puppy would neither attempt to grab or chase it or even wonder from where the thing had come. What was the use? Everyone tells you what to do all the time—heel, sit, stay, lie down, fetch—but what is the right thing to do? Once, back when Henry was still living there and things weren’t too bad, mamma Helen brought home a wounded seagull. Crazy! How different from this fall when mamma Helen had new boys over every other week. This was torture to the dog, as he was inevitably barred from the bedroom and often went un-walked through the night. He sat in the hallway between the girls rooms and the bathroom, panicking, staring shell-shocked past these boys as they walked by au naturel. Always an uncomfortable situation. Once he turned and licked a boy’s nuts. Another time he bit someone’s hand. Nobody understood.
When the movie was over and the Man with No Name rode out of town with, yes, a few dollars more than he had on him when he got there—bathed and laid, too—Helen asked Henry if he would walk the dog. As long as he was getting out of bed, and since he’d have to go home in the morning to change for work anyway, Henry suggested they should walk together to the train station. Henry was not without emotional awareness. In his work in public relations, he was consistently lauded for his ability to grasp clients desires and set a forward course toward fulfillment. “The kid’s got ketchup for blood,” a McDonald’s franchise owner once told Ms. Kortenhaus, his boss. High praise, everyone agreed. So he knew what Helen wanted—she wanted for once in her life to be able to watch a movie and fade into sleep without having to walk the dog—but a catalog of memories reminded him why he was no longer in the business of caring about Helen’s wants. Helen had a similar file on Henry—his love ran shallow and wide—but he wasn’t the one looking for a favor. They were not starting fresh. Not starting anything. Helen didn’t bristle or plead. She knew Henry wouldn’t help her then, just as he hadn’t helped her before. And she didn’t particularly care if he stayed or not. After taking one of her night-pills, she would sleep so soundly that she wouldn’t notice ten men ten times the size of Henry in bed with her.
Outside the trees had sucked all the color and life from their leaves in preparation for winter; the brown remainders crunched below the sleepy threesome’s feet. Helen and Henry were holding hands, searching the sky for a dipper—big or little, no matter—as a Crown-Victoria sedan pulled up to the curb ten yards ahead. A black pit bull straight out of a news-clip nightmare stretched two feet out of the passenger side and looked around. Puppy, acknowledging the other dog, crouched calmly into a bow. “Pit bulls need to be muzzled for mating,” Henry mentioned to Helen. “Shut up,” she replied. Henry was soft, Helen thought then. He had no faith in Puppy; no faith. On seeing Puppy lying on the sidewalk, the tight little wad of muscle pranced over, its nails clicking tick-tick-tick. The car’s driver, a gray-haired hippy woman in her mid-thirties, emerged from the driver’s side and waved. “She’s friendly,” the woman said. “Yeah, well ours isn’t,” Helen replied. “He’s not neutered, and sometimes that’s a problem.” The hippy was not overly concerned about the safety of her pit bull. “She’ll be fine,” she said. Then that’s your problem, is what she meant. “Will you please come get your dog?”
Henry asked, but it was too late. The pit bull paused, looking troubled, pained, growling lightly. Drool leaked from her gums. Puppy remained still. “Helen, move,” Henry said with what breath he could find. With a nasty noise and a graceless heave, the pit bull attacked, attempting to wrap her jaw around Puppy’s neck. Helen held Puppy by a foot of leash, the rest choked up around her hand; she would not move. Henry could not move. Rising with a twist of his big head, Puppy chomped sideways into the pit bull’s skull and whipped the bitch into a car door, setting off the alarm. Then he returned to his crouch, snarling in an infinitely more frightening pitch than the pit bull’s everyday growl.
“Bear!” the hippy yelled, “Come here!” Helen finally dropped the leash, crying, “Puppy! No!” Funny, that’s what Puppy was thinking. No. No, this will not stand. Not in my house. I will guard you here, mamma. The bitch was slick with blood and saliva; she rushed clumsily at him again. Seconds later, Puppy—Christ, he fought like hell—having thrashed the bitch until she began whelping and screwed out from under him, someone somewhere pressed a button and the car alarm shut off.
“My dog is bleeding,” said the hippy. “You should keep Cujo on a fucking leash,” Henry yelled back, immediately wishing he hadn’t. Puppy’s the baddest-ass dog in the world, he thought, a living thing with a reason to live, and Helen is one bad-ass mamma. Who am I here? An ex-boyfriend, a stranger on his way out. Helen inspected Puppy through the drool and found no wounds. “He’s clean,” she reported, wiping her hands on her slacks. “Let’s go,” she said, but Puppy could not be budged.