Jiffy Popped Corn and Puppy Don’t Care

Helen Astley and Henry Stein lay cuddled together in bed with the lightsoff, munching Jiffy Pop, watching an old western flick, For a Few DollarsMore. They were no longer each other’s lovers. Five years ofhot and cold drama had left the two numb: frostbitten below, scorchedin the head. Still, they enjoyed each other’s sober, quiet companymore so than that shared with anyone else since Henry obligingly movedout roughly one year ago. And even if nothing bad were to happen, andHenry 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, sentimentaland therefore not-to-be-trusted kind of love lingered between Helen andHenry that made such make-pretend believable to their baby, Puppy, theAkita/Great Dane mix curled up at their feet.

What do you do when you have something to say and no way to say it? Ifyou are Puppy, who was born forty years old and went from there, who flewwith mamma Helen from high and deep in the mountains to live with Henryand choke on chicken-wing bones on the dirty streets of this sea-levelcity, what do you do? He liked the two together, however insanely jealousof their fun and deeply depressed by their unhappiness he had been madein the past. Puppy still lived with mamma Helen, recently joined by a taller,chestier, more sane Helen—her sister, Emma—who occupied the room whichformerly held his bed, Henry’s writing desk, and mamma’s easel.Sometimes Emma had boys over who Puppy didn’t know and didn’tget to know. The boys always pretended to pay him attention, but he didnot dignify their presence by goofing around or playing dog. He is notthat 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 hisnose and Puppy would neither attempt to grab or chase it or even wonderfrom where the thing had come. What was the use? Everyone tells you whatto do all the time—heel, sit, stay, lie down, fetch—but what is theright thing to do? Once, back when Henry was still living there and thingsweren’t too bad, mamma Helen brought home a wounded seagull. Crazy!How different from this fall when mamma Helen had new boys over every otherweek. This was torture to the dog, as he was inevitably barred from thebedroom and often went un-walked through the night. He sat in the hallwaybetween the girls rooms and the bathroom, panicking, staring shell-shockedpast these boys as they walked by au naturel. Always an uncomfortablesituation. Once he turned and licked a boy’s nuts. Another time hebit 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 andlaid, too—Helen asked Henry if he would walk the dog. As long as he wasgetting out of bed, and since he’d have to go home in the morningto change for work anyway, Henry suggested they should walk together tothe train station. Henry was not without emotional awareness. In his workin public relations, he was consistently lauded for his ability to graspclients desires and set a forward course toward fulfillment. “Thekid’s got ketchup for blood,” a McDonald’s franchise owneronce told Ms. Kortenhaus, his boss. High praise, everyone agreed. So heknew what Helen wanted—she wanted for once in her life to be able to watcha movie and fade into sleep without having to walk the dog—but a catalogof memories reminded him why he was no longer in the business of caringabout Helen’s wants. Helen had a similar file on Henry—his love ranshallow and wide—but he wasn’t the one looking for a favor. Theywere not starting fresh. Not starting anything. Helen didn’t bristleor plead. She knew Henry wouldn’t help her then, just as he hadn’thelped her before. And she didn’t particularly care if he stayedor not. After taking one of her night-pills, she would sleep so soundlythat she wouldn’t notice ten men ten times the size of Henry in bedwith her.

Outside the trees had sucked all the color and life from their leavesin preparation for winter; the brown remainders crunched below the sleepythreesome’s feet. Helen and Henry were holding hands, searching thesky for a dipper—big or little, no matter—as a Crown-Victoria sedanpulled up to the curb ten yards ahead. A black pit bull straight out ofa news-clip nightmare stretched two feet out of the passenger side andlooked around. Puppy, acknowledging the other dog, crouched calmly intoa bow. “Pit bulls need to be muzzled for mating,” Henry mentionedto Helen. “Shut up,” she replied. Henry was soft, Helen thoughtthen. He had no faith in Puppy; no faith. On seeing Puppy lying on thesidewalk, the tight little wad of muscle pranced over, its nails clickingtick-tick-tick. The car’s driver, a gray-haired hippy woman in hermid-thirties, emerged from the driver’s side and waved. “She’sfriendly,” the woman said. “Yeah, well ours isn’t,”Helen replied. “He’s not neutered, and sometimes that’sa problem.” The hippy was not overly concerned about the safety ofher pit bull. “She’ll be fine,” she said. Then that’syour 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. Witha nasty noise and a graceless heave, the pit bull attacked, attemptingto wrap her jaw around Puppy’s neck. Helen held Puppy by a foot ofleash, the rest choked up around her hand; she would not move. Henry couldnot move. Rising with a twist of his big head, Puppy chomped sidewaysinto 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 aninfinitely more frightening pitch than the pit bull’s everyday growl.“Bear!” the hippy yelled, “Come here!” Helen finallydropped the leash, crying, “Puppy! No!” Funny, that’s whatPuppy was thinking. No. No, this will not stand. Not in my house. I willguard you here, mamma. The bitch was slick with blood and saliva; sherushed clumsily at him again. Seconds later, Puppy—Christ, he foughtlike hell—having thrashed the bitch until she began whelping and screwedout from under him, someone somewhere pressed a button and the car alarmshut off.

“My dog is bleeding,” said the hippy. “You should keepCujo on a fucking leash,” Henry yelled back, immediately wishinghe 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. Whoam I here? An ex-boyfriend, a stranger on his way out. Helen inspectedPuppy 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.

Share this story

1 thought on “Jiffy Popped Corn and Puppy Don’t Care”

Comments are closed.