"Still Life," by Gregory J. Wolos

Gregory J. Wolos

Gregory J. Wolos

Gregory J. Wolos lives in upstate New York on the bank of the Mohawk River. His short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Silk Road Review, A-Minor Magazine, JMWW, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Madison Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A cappella Zoo, Jersey Devil Press, and many other journals and anthologies. His stories have earned three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his latest collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.

Still Life

I’m late, and I’ll be much later; the dead dog I see through the slats of the louvered door is to blame. I haven’t the art class instructor’s telephone number. What will her students use for a model when I don’t show? Who or what will occupy my stool? I will be replaced by an object. Still life. A piece of fruit. Perhaps a ripe tomato. A coffee mug. An interesting piece of found trash? All my folds and wrinkles, my hairy and hairless patches would have been on display. My retired penis would have awaited the skill of the boldest among them. But on the other side of this door Sirarthur is dead. His name was a compromise: Susan wanted something spiritual; I favored Sherlock Holmes. If she hadn’t predeceased him by a year, his stiff bulk would have brought my wife to tears.

When Susan passed, I was posing. My cell phone, set on vibrate, was in my pants pocket, left with my shirt, socks and underwear behind a screen erected for my convenience. I had emerged, as for every class, in my yellow terrycloth robe, which pooled on the floor as I assumed the session’s position. We thought Susan had months, even years, that this hospitalization was just one more in a cycle of treatments and homecomings that would last into a hazy future neither of us acknowledged. The voice message: Please hurry; Ms. Weber is failing.

Because of his incontinence, Sirarthur passed nights in a basement room with a tiled floor. This morning, clapping and shouting “Sirarthur, hey!” didn’t rouse him. The hairs on the back of my neck lifted. I pushed, but the door didn’t yield.

Heart failure, they said at the hospital—Susan had fought hard, but the strain of her treatments had taken its toll. Sheeted to the chin, she lay alone when I arrived, breathless. Her wig was backwards, and I shifted it into place above her smooth brow. Her parted lips seemed about to chide—the wig? my lateness? Eyeglasses and dentures in a cup waited on the nightstand. She would never again see me or say my name.

Because the husky’s body blocks the louvered inner door, I enter Sirarthur’s room from outside. His open eyes, mismatched blue and brown, never intelligent, are empty—there is a great distance between simple-mindedness and death. His tongue lolls through his open jaws as if he’s tasting the floor. But his mass is ambiguous: he is neither furniture nor art, but he is definitely here.

Susan suggested modeling. She saw an ad. “‘No experience necessary,’” she read. “It’s at the college. You’re great at sitting and doing nothing.” I like watching old movies. Sometimes I read. “You need to get out,” she said.

“I walk Sirarthur,” I said.

“That doesn’t count,” she said. “You need to see people.”

“I walk him twice a day.”

“The neighbors stay away from the two of you. He growls. You never trained him.”

“He doesn’t like people.”

“See about modeling.”

“Would you mind taking off your shirt?” the instructor asked. I offered the rest of my body. “I’m at the mercy of time and gravity,” I warned. At the end of the session the instructor praised my “gift for stillness.” She passed my name on to other art teachers.

Sirarthur must be removed, but there are problems: first, I have not yet achieved sufficient objectivity to touch him; second, his weight will make transporting him a challenge. The flesh should disappear with the life. Leaving it behind is like littering: the dead’s irresponsible final gesture.

Half an hour. At Susan’s bedside that’s how long it took to divide the life from the body, to transform the first into a memory and the second into an object. A nurse entered and touched my elbow. I rose and a dull fluorescence followed me like a cloud down the hall to a desk where arrangements were discussed. I needed to get home to walk Sirarthur.

We’d owned two other dogs, Krishna and Watson, adopted after children proved impossible. Little dogs, coddled through long lives ending with somber, responsible trips to the veterinarian’s. Then we saw a movie featuring huskies, and their beauty and vigor touched us. “They can be willful,” the breeder said. “Walk him for an hour a day. Two, if possible.” Sirarthur was handsome, powerful, and untrainable. Having a name seemed irrelevant to him. He was impossible to allow off-leash and only intermittently housebroken. During his first epileptic seizure I tried to comfort him; temporarily blind, he bit through my thumb. Medication reduced his seizures but left him perpetually ravenous. He spent more and more time in his basement room, where I tuned his television to the classic movie channel. And so passed the duration of his hard-to-love fourteen years.

Susan was diagnosed the week of our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. She died a month before what would have been our fortieth. We had hoped to travel more than we did after our retirements, but kenneling Sirarthur became an impediment. “He howled all night,” said one proprietor. “I can’t take him again.” Another he bit. One ran a kennel on her farm, and we managed two week-long vacations, one to Key West where it rained almost every day and another to London. Where it rained. Our vacation pictures catalogued humid deluges and chill drizzles. The kennel-woman told us after our second trip that on his walk Sirarthur had grabbed her rooster by the throat and shaken him dead. Then he wouldn’t let go—she’d paraded him around the yard, screaming at him, while the bird hung from his jaws. Only when more chickens crossed their path did he drop his kill for a lunge. London was our last vacation.

Legions of former colleagues and students attended Susan’s memorial service. A young man to whom she’d taught geometry and who became a state senator spoke. The afternoon following the service, Sirarthur followed his usual routine when brought upstairs: he barged through the door; checked for food on the dining room table; checked for food on the kitchen counters; checked to see if the garbage can was locked; checked for food in the den; drank from the toilet. Then he lumbered to my seat, dropped his heavy paw on my thigh, dripped toilet water on my lap from his open jaws, and demanded petting. He did not look for his mistress. If he had, he would have found her silver urn on the mantle, where it still sits like a trophy.

I am bleached of vanity. What, I wonder, do the art students see in my sagging flesh? Do their brushes and pencils and charcoals reanimate the surfaces youth has deserted? Tufts of colorless hair gather on my shoulders, above my nipples, in my ears, over my penis, and upon my scrotum. The students’ eyes crawl over my membranous skin, collecting data, transferring it, their interest not in me, but of me; they translate me into their own languages on paper and canvas, mingle me with themselves.

Thirty minutes to objectify the body before I attempt to remove it. The veterinary hospital does not provide this service. “But we’re so sorry,” a young woman says. “Bring poor Sirarthur here and we’ll take care of everything. We’re so, so sorry for your loss.” I wait and watch a movie on Sirarthur’s TV, peeking at the carcass now and then to see what’s changed. It’s a musical. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in each other’s arms. Sirathur’s tongue is frozen to the floor. Finally, I expect nothing from his vacant eyes.

The movie is Top Hat. Astaire wears one. I maneuver the body with a shovel. The carcass moves as a piece, hindquarters to head. I pry Sirarthur’s rear quarters from the floor and slide the open end of a forty gallon heavy duty black plastic contractor’s bag beneath his stiff legs and tail. It slips frictionlessly over and under the black and white fur I brushed yesterday. I try to hurry. The animal hospital waits, and at the art class there is no accounting for my absence. The bag accommodates Sirarthur’s forelegs, but forty gallons are not enough. His head protrudes from the bag like a wall mounting. I keep the box of contractor bags in our bedroom. I have filled several with Susan’s clothes: dresses, blouses, robes, skirts, stockings, outfits that she wore to synagogue, to parties, to dinner, to bed. I don’t really fill them. I keep her closet closed. But I imagine the sleeve of her red sweater reaching from a black bag, and I remember Sidarthur shedding on it as Susan petted him. Straddling his carcass, I tug a second bag over Sidarthur’s head, and it shimmies like gown to his hip.

When I model, I decline breaks, though they’re offered at regular intervals. “I meditate,” I tell instructors, and they allow their students to continue capturing my essence. But I don’t meditate; I replay movies in my head. Entire scripts. I see the action. I hear every line of dialogue and the music. I keep still: the movies play in a private corner deep within my brain. I don’t allow the tragic or comic to excite my heart. I breathe serenely.

Moving the carcass—where do I grip? Can I wrap my arms around it like Fred held Ginger? I spread a canvas tarp, push and tug with the shovel, and coax the carcass into its center. I’m just putting on my top hat, tying on my white tie, dusting off my tails. I turn off the television. I’ll envision a different movie while I drag the loaded tarp out the door, uphill along the side of the house to the driveway where I’ll somehow hoist it into the trunk of my Taurus.

Halfway up the hill, and Of Mice and Men absorbs me, the oldest version with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Junior. My back aches, and every two steps I adjust my grip on the corners of the tarp bunched into my fists. One-two, pause. One-two, pause. Tell me about the rabbits, George. It’s a black and white movie, but I see it with a sepia tint. When I drop the tarp and straighten, my back crunches. My neighbors have pulled their pickups side by side in the road at the end of my driveway and chat through open windows. Their engines run. I’m in too much of a hurry for explanations and stoop back to my task, grasp the corners of the tarp, and, leaning back, straining hamstrings, quads and glutes, drag the bundle to the black-topped driveway, one-two-three, one-two-three, all the way to the trunk of my car. The fatta the land. I leave it there, ignoring my neighbors, cross my lawn, ascend my porch steps, and pass through the front door into my living room.

I sit on the radiator cover at my front window, peering from behind the curtain. I wait for the men in the street to drive off so I can load up and head to the veterinary hospital. There the staff will take over. They will have a gurney. While it’s rolled away, someone will attempt to distract me by patting my arm and offering a tissue. There’ll be a question about ashes and I’ll choose the cheapest option; when they’re ready I’ll keep the box on the mantle next to Susan’s urn. But if my neighbors leave soon, I might make it to art class after the vet’s, and the students will be happy to have me to copy—unless they’ve already devoted themselves to the still life I’m afraid has taken my place.