by Joseph Harmon
I’m out with the dog, which isn’t my dog. I keep forgetting his name, but I appreciate the company. He’s throwing this eager look back at me, like I’ve got a direction in mind. I don’t. He knows the woods better, and we’ll just have to live with that.
Ah, dog, what are you doing? Crunching through the frozen creek bed, is what. Now he looks a little startled. Buddy, what did you expect?
Earlier that morning, I said yes. Yes to all of it. I’m going to apply to new jobs, I’ll tidy up the weird little tchotchkes Paul has lying around, I’ll give Sarah a call and say exactly what I mean. Then, as I was brushing my teeth and looking through Paul’s medicine cabinet, something about the light outside changed. I don’t know why, but any possibility of those things happening shut down. So I thought to myself, Uh, why don’t we take a little break? I went online and lost myself in a spiral of news, funny videos, and old emails that reminded me what I meant to people. The day went down the drain, and here I was walking this dog.
My brother, Paul, part of him had to be loving this. An ego boost. He’s not the runt anymore; I’m the one camped out in his guest room. I won’t mention it unless he gives me a reason to lash out, but he’s being too cautious for that. In passing, he sometimes rests a hand on my shoulder like a sensitive kindergarten teacher—which he is, actually, and a pretty good one from what I’ve heard. He’s patient and he listens. He tells me that the kids surprise him every day.
When we were kids, we were wild. In the third grade he bit my ear, latched on like a pit bull and didn’t let up. In high school we called him Pall Mall because he’d always be smoking them in the senior parking lot, a big scowl on his face. Maybe it’s my fault. I was a bad role model. I’ve made some wrong turns, sure, I’ll be the first one to admit that. But all through it, Paul’s gentleness was there. If he hurt someone, you could trust him to set it right. Me, I’m not so sure. We keep going anyway. I’d like to think the surprises are buried in us.
Sarah doesn’t think so. She says I’m stuck, and she wants me to shape up. I tell her I’m trying. I see what needs to happen, but I can’t seem to cross that gap. The other day, in our kitchen, I gave up in a good way. I said to her, Hey, do you want this omelette? It was a work of art. Despite how stoned I was, I had caramelized the onions and everything.
“No thanks,” she said, but I scooped it onto a plate anyway. She was wearing a kind of bitter confused smile, the new way she looked at me. I still liked it. She knew all my tricks, but that meant that she knew me.
“Honey, you’re a mess,” she said. I grinned as wide as I could.
“Can I get some constructive criticism?” I asked.
Now the dog is completely still, rigid, staring off into the pines. The sun has already disappeared, but it’s hanging around just enough to see. I should have brought a headlamp.
“What is it?” I say to the dog. “No more walk?”
The dog ignores me, and I know it must be afraid. Its instincts are kicking in, but I’m too big and dumb to sense the danger. I squint off into the distance, but see nothing.
If there’s some danger out there, I just want to see it. I want to know what I’m dealing with. It’s worse to wait. I tell myself that I’m ready but know that I’m not. The dog and I just stand there, our breath condensing in the cold. If this is it, we go out together, not knowing each other’s names. Maybe there’s something beautiful in that.
Paul has a book on the coffee table that I’ve looked through. I’ve looked through everything—my days are full of hours I didn’t know we had. It’s a book of poetry, which is not at all Paul’s thing. He got it as a white elephant gift last December. What I like about it is that it’s poetry fragments. They’re from Ancient Greece, Rome. Just a tiny piece of the author’s work stands for all they were.
I’ve been wondering if this is my fragment. If this moment will define me. My choices have led me here, so probably yes. But who’s to say that it’s a low, that there hasn’t been lower. Why is it high or low, like on some graph?
Screw it, I’m out. Don’t show me the danger. I’ll just go home. I tug the dog back. He’s still transfixed, but I make him leave. It’s Paul’s home, not mine. He built it for himself and I’m resting there before I rebuild my own. This is all temporary. I have these thoughts, and even though they’re simple, I feel like they explain everything. Then, right as I’m about to understand, they slip away.
As I open the door I remember that I made a dish in the crockpot earlier. It was stewing during the walk, waiting for me, becoming something better. The smell is warm and good and strong. It welcomes me back. That’s all I want: to be welcomed back with nobody home.
I unclip the dog and he rushes to his water bowl as if dying of thirst, sloshing it over the sides.
While he does I find the coffee table, find the book. I settle down on a quilt that Paul claims our grandmother sewed but I know for a fact he bought at Kmart.
Everything is laughter and unthinkable dust, my favorite fragment says. Is that true? They don’t know who said it.