The Drowning Dog
Though his wife, Lori, had died some seven months before, Jeffrey Rosen still spoke with her regularly. In hospice, during the last weeks of her life, he would sit by her bed while she slept and speak to her aloud, for he felt certain that she could hear him. The closer she drew to the end, the more she slept, and the more voluble he became. Less confident after her death that she still heard him, he kept up the conversation anyway, silently in public, sometimes still audibly when alone at home in the modest gray-shingled Cape Cod house in Takoma Park, Maryland, in which they had lived together for more than thirty years. Most often, he talked to her at night and when drunk, and because his sleep had grown fitful when it came at all, and he drank more than ever, those conversations had become quite frequent of late.
He sat now on his living room sofa, a squared-off, dark-blue, mid-century modern piece that he and Lori had purchased early in their marriage. A near-empty bottle of Chianti and a half-full wine glass stood on the coffee table in front of him. On the wall opposite the sofa hung a reproduction of Goya’s The Drowning Dog that Lori had bought from the gift shop at The Prado. He and Lori had quarreled over the print of the little black dog, depicted in profile, sinking—already neck-deep—into a vast ochre void. The dog’s expression, one of fear, bewilderment, and hopelessness—“Why this? Why now? Why does no one hear me?”—unnerved him.
“The more I drink, the harder it is for me to get drunk,” said Jeffrey, his eyes fixed upon the drowning dog as if he were addressing it. “So I have to drink more every night.”
“I hate to see you this way,” he imagined Lori answering.
“I hate to see myself this way. But I have an excuse tonight. I have to fortify myself for visiting Mom. I’m driving up to New York again this weekend. She’s not doing well.”
The image came to him unbidden, as it had countless times before, of his mother alone in the den of a house that in the two months since she had become a widow, must have come to seem to her as vast and empty as an airport hangar. Feeling light-headed, she would have set her knitting down upon the table. Maybe she would have lost that second or two during which she fell and then have wondered how she came to be lying prone on the carpet. Unable to rise, the entire right side of her body having suddenly gone inert, she would, like the drowning dog, have sensed that something catastrophic that she did not as yet understand was happening to her.
“Again you’re going? What about that brother of yours? He’s in Manhattan, an hour away from her.”
“Rob’s still doing his part. He visits her once or twice a year, whether he needs to or not.”
“It’s so unfair.”
“If life were fair, you would still be here.”
He drained his glass and then refilled it, pouring into it all that remained in the bottle.
“And that poor little dog wouldn’t be drowning. God, I’ve always hated that painting. One of these days, I’m going to take it down and put it in the basement.”
“You can do as you like with it. You don’t have to please me anymore.”
Finishing the Chianti, Jeffrey put the glass down on the table and lay down upon the sofa.
“Poor dog. Do you ever have… any regrets?”
“Regrets? About what?”
“I don’t know. Not having kids? It would have been nice, maybe. When I picture growing old now, it seems so desolate.”
“I would have liked very much to have a family.”
“True. You wanted one much more than I did. I’m sorry.”
“There’s no reason to be sorry.”
“I hope you don’t. Have regrets, I mean. I know I wasn’t the easiest person to live with. It was good, though, mostly, wasn’t it? O.K., at least?”
“If you have to ask now, I wonder whether you ever knew me at all. Was I the sort of person who would have stayed married for thirty-one years to a man I didn’t respect and love dearly?”
How would she have posed that question? Irritably? Tearfully? The uncertainty made him fearful. He realized then that he was weeping, and he furtively wiped his eyes, as though wishing to conceal his tears from her. Would there soon come a day when he would no longer hear her at all? He saw her fading, pulling away.
“So now that you have your answer, you can let me go. I’m dead. I have no existence outside your imaginings. Stop wasting your breath talking to a shadow you’ve conjured up to keep you company at night. You have responsibilities. There are living people who need you. Your mother, for one.”
“You’re right, of course, but…”
“No buts. Of course I’m right. I always was.”
“Not always, boss. But more often than not.”
“Good night. I love you.”
“Goodbye. I’m dead. The dead can’t love you back.”
“They speak very bluntly, the dead. As ever.”
He glanced over again at the drowning dog, forever sinking into oblivion in mute despair. Yes, he resolved, as he closed his eyes, he would consign the dog to the basement. Tomorrow. He felt much too tired to bother now—so tired that he dared hope he might get some sleep.
Edward Belfar is the author of a collection of short stories called Wanderers, published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2012. His work has also appeared in numerous literary journals, including Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, Potpourri, Confrontation, Natural Bridge, and Tampa Review. He lives in Maryland with his wife and works as a writer and editor.
The Ekphrastic Review
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