Anne Colwell, an English professor at the University of Delaware, has published two books of poems: Believing Their Shadows (Word Poetry, 2010) and Mother’s Maiden Name (Word Poetry, 2013). She writes poetry and fiction and won the 2013 Emerging Artist in Fiction Award for her novel, Holy Day.
After Jeff died, the dog started freaking her out.
Bowtie was Jeff’s dog, even though they’d picked him out at the shelter together. Bowtie was his dog the way that the Sierra Club and Greenpeace letters were his and not hers even though her name was above the address. They’d gone to the Milford SPCA on a cold morning in March, March 15th. There had been frost on the windshield and Jeff had scraped it off with a flat branch when he couldn’t find the scraper. She’d sat in the car with a travel mug of coffee in her hands, the seat cold against her legs even through her jeans, and she watched the slender blue lines he made and watched the crystals that formed around them.
He threw the stick, opened the driver’s side door, and slid in beside her, rubbing his chapped red hands and turning up the windshield defroster. He looked at her sidelong, wary. She wanted to say something, but all the words she could think of seemed as thin and cold as the lines etched on the glass in front of her. He reached over and squeezed her knee, then put the car in reverse and looked over his shoulder.
They’d fought the night before. Not screaming and yelling, they weren’t like that. Later Jeff called it a debate, a reasonable debate. But it felt like a fight, the tightness inside her and the ache between her eyes, and it felt like a defeat when she’d agreed. She’d run out of arguments and she’d conceded, finally, that Jeff was right and that overpopulation was a dire problem and they wouldn’t bring children into this world.
“More children,” he said.
“Our children,” she corrected under her breath, and then she’d gone into the bathroom and shut the door and sat down on the toilet and cried as quietly as she could.
She hadn’t even meant to talk about it at all. It was the dog that started it. They had decided to go to the SPCA and adopt the dog the next morning and, while they were making dinner, they’d started talking about names. Jeff was standing on the other side of the butcher block, chopping a Videlia onion in a quick, decisive flurry of small strokes. Since he’d died, she thought about his hands a lot, pictured them on the steering wheel of the car, running up her legs. She wanted to see his hands again; she missed them. She catalogued all of the small scars in her head so that there would never be a day when she would forget: the long straight line on the pad of his left thumb where he’d sliced it open cleaning a fish, the spatter of small red acid burns like wild strawberries on the middle fingers of his left hand from an experiment gone wrong in his inorganic chemistry class, the mangled nail on his right pinky from closing his hand in the car door as a kid. His fingers were strong and short and stout. He told her once that his piano teacher when he was a boy had held them in her own and sniffed and called them “butcher’s hands.” They’d laughed about it, lying in their bed all those years later, when he mocked the teacher’s German accent and love of Wagner.
Sylvie had never played piano or had a dog or a sleep-over birthday with squealing girls and ice cream or done any of the things Jeff called “normal.”
They’d met when she’d taken her third grade class to the College of Marine Studies for a field trip. He’d been recruited to talk to them about the huge sea worms he was studying. All the girls shrieked when he pulled the thing out of the tank; he’d looked up at her apologetically and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” She’d liked him right away, his quiet eyes and his mortification at having caused such a fuss.
She’d been born late to older parents who’d raised six children, the youngest of whom was twelve years older than she. “Our caboose,” her father had called her. Then her mother got sick when she was seven, and everything changed. As her mother grew frailer, her father wore himself away with worry about the disease that no one ever named, at least to Sylvie. Sisters and brothers would sweep in, abruptly, and they’d take her out for ice cream sundaes, smiling and nodding when she asked for sprinkles, and to the water park where they’d watch her go down the long blue slide and clap happily from behind the fence, or to the movies to see Disney princesses or cartoons. There were tears and whispered conversations and signs that she needed to decipher and couldn’t. There was never room for anything like pets or music or noise. “I’m sorry, sweet girl,” her father would say, “but your Mom . . . .” He’d put his big warm hand on her head and never finished the sentence.
Sometimes her older sister Janet would fly Sylvie west to Phoenix to stay with her family for a week or two when school was out. Her two nephews, Joey and Butch, were just a little older than Sylvie, which was strange, too, but they didn’t seem to mind one way or another when she showed up. They had a dog named Chester, and two cats, Ginger and Spice, and an in-ground pool that all six of them, kids and animals, lived beside from the time they woke up on those summer mornings until they came in for the night. There was always a radio or a television on, something spilling or falling, always someone calling “Mom,” Chester barking, splashing and hooting. There were beach towels and fresh puddles and mess and play. Nothing could have been further from the quiet house Sylvie left. She’d watch her nephews bounce off the diving board from the corner by the ladder with a mixture of joy and wariness, because she knew it wasn’t hers to keep.
“Why don’t we just call it Mutt?” Jeff said.
Sylvie stopped stirring the simmering tomatoes and turned around to look at him. “That . . . is singularly unimaginative! Are you going to call our son Boy, Tarzan?” She’d been pleased with her wit and turned back to the pot again, but when he started talking, the wistfulness in his voice made her stop and turn and look at him.
“If we ever had a boy, I’d want to name him Robert after my dad. I sometimes wish we were going to have kids just for that. It’s stupid, isn’t it?” He slid the knife through his fingers and shook off the stray bits of onion. “To want kids just for that. For Robert.”
Sylvie, who had never heard him say anything like this before, who’d thought for years that she understood and accepted that he never wanted children, felt as if she’d suddenly been able to hear after years of being deaf. It was there in his voice. She looked down at the wooden spoon she was holding, the red stain already drying into the grain. They would have children. She pictured their son, suddenly, completely; she saw his quiet gray eyes like Jeff’s, his hair, thick and blonde as hers. He was six-years-old, standing in front of her; she fell in love with him, instantly.
“I want that boy,” she said, astounded at her own words, astounded at how much, how suddenly very much she wanted him, how it could open inside her like a wound. “I want a son, Jeff. A boy named Robert.”
She watched as the expression on his face changed, as the open door closed, and he put the knife down slowly. “We’ve talked about this,” he said. “We’ve talked about this forever, from the very beginning.”
“But what if your son, because he grows up with a scientist as a father and because he learns to care a lot, what if he is the one who finds the answer? Couldn’t that be true? A son who solves the puzzle.” “But what if your child, your son or your daughter, because they grow up with a scientist as a father and because they learn to care a lot, what if they are the ones who find the answer? S She was leaning against the counter, holding an apple; she remembered how it felt in her hand, cool and smooth. She didn’t remember why she’d picked it up in the middle of cooking dinner, if she’d meant to eat it, if she ever had. But she remembered the feel of it in her hand, smooth and comforting, as she watched Jeff’s forehead crease deeply between his eyes and, then, when he bowed his head, watched his long brown hair shift around his face. She remembered that and she remembered all of his words.
“Magical thinking,” he said. “You know it, Sylvie. The answer is in responsibility, not in waiting for the savior genius.” He was right, too. They’d had these conversations hundreds of times in the ten years they’d known each other. The discussion had always been hypothetical though. Never about shutting a door or refusing to open it. She’d been angry at herself that she hadn’t thought to research it all better, hadn’t really known any of the reasons that might sway him, that might be offered in favor of having a child. At one point, running her hands through her hair again and again, she’d said that other people who cared about the environment had children, that there must have been reasons that made sense to them.
Jeff had looked at her full of sympathy and moved to stand close beside her, leaning against the counter, his body touching hers, warm. He didn’t say anything, just shook his head.
You knew this, she told herself later, sitting in the bathroom, dabbing her face with toilet paper, you knew this all along. She thought of the nights they lay on the couch in the basement apartment he’d lived in when he was finishing his Ph. D., how he’d talk to her about the whales he’d seen in British Columbia and the old growth forests, the golden eagles. “Humans,” he said, “are a slime mold on the planet. Before we’re done, we’ll kill it all, cover it over.” And she’d agreed, too. She’d never seen what he’d seen, but she knew that everything was more crowded and polluted than it used to be. He changed her, knowing him, listening to him. She drove less, recycled, thought about what she bought before she bought it. She believed, all these years, she believed that she’d agreed with him about everything, about children. Until that moment in the kitchen.
Bowtie was a mutt. The sign on his cage at the SPCA said he was a shepherd/black lab mix, but he’d never grown very tall and his coat was soft and he had white socks on his front paws and a patch of white fur at his neck that was shaped like a bow tie. Sylvia thought it made him look strangely formal, like a sad man dressed for a big party he didn’t want to go to. Sylvie could still see the way he’d looked that March morning, the way his head lifted from his front paws when they stopped in front of his cage. The way he’d leaned his head into Jeff’s hand as it reached through the bars and the way he’d closed his eyes when Jeff scratched his ears that first time.
She’d loved the dog from the first, too. It was impossible not to love him with his trusting chocolate eyes and his silly cocked ears. The woman at the shelter said that he’d had a rough time of it in his first year. He’d been taken away from people who neglected him, kept him chained up outside, never played with him or walked him, went away for days at a time leaving the dog with no water or food.
“The neighbors called it in,” she said, shaking her head. “Can you imagine? Abandoned, neglected. This sweet creature.” She crouched down in front of the dog and he licked her face and whined.
“I thought dogs like that didn’t get socialized, to humans, I mean,” Jeff said.
“Not this one. This little guy is just a sweetie. See?” She sat Indian style and the dog jumped into her lap. Sylvie slipped her hand into Jeff’s.
On the way home in the car, Sylvie sat in the back and the dog put his head in her lap and fell asleep. She kept stroking the soft fur between his ears and felt sleepy herself, lulled by the heat and the motion and the calm that was stealing over her.
Since Jeff had died, the dog had moped around the house most of the time, looking behind doors and into closets, heaving a big sigh when he lay down on the brown dog bed at the corner of their bedroom. The dog had changed.
But this was normal. Sylvie had googled “what do dogs do when their owners die” and read that they grieve in some of the same ways humans do, that they sometimes refused to eat or play, sometimes howled or chewed things or pissed on beds or shoes. She’d looked up from the computer and down at Bowtie who was stretched at her feet. “I get it,” she said. “I feel like doing all of those things, too.”
But what she hadn’t read anywhere on any of the sites was what Bowtie was doing on quiet afternoons or in the middle of the night, the way he would get up and wag his tail, stare at something in the middle distance, bark a little, or pull his head down between his front paws as he’d always done when Jeff scratched between his ears. Bowtie would stand expectantly by the closet at night, just as he had when Jeff was getting undressed at the end of the day. Sometimes he’d even offer his paw and then sit, his only trick. Jeff loved it. “Paw?” he’d say. “Sit.” And then Bowtie would jump up, his forelegs on Jeff’s thighs or belly. It always made Sylvie laugh.
Now when he did it, Sylvie stared at the emptiness in front of the dog and went still.
“There’s no one there, Bo.” She said it over and over again.
Jeff took the dog everywhere: he rode shotgun when Jeff went to the store, came to Jeff’s parent’s house for dinner, even for runs in the park. Sylvie was a runner, too, but she and Jeff rarely ran together. Once she called him on it, laughing. “You like running with the dog more than running with me!”
“You can’t keep up.” Jeff put his arm around her shoulders and shook her like a little girl. “Bo can.”
He called the dog “Bo” and “Bobo” and “Baby Bo” and lavished it with affection. The dog slept at the bottom of their bed always with his head on Jeff’s ankles or feet. She’d wake often now in the middle of the night and find him there again, though that side of the bed was empty.
One July evening, after Jeff had come home from work, she’d watched out the window as he threw a pink rubber ball and Bowtie brought it back, dropping it at his feet, jumping around him in anticipation. She smiled. The warm butterscotch light poured through the trees and already, in the woods across the street, the dark was settling in. She said the words “playing catch” out loud and imagined, just for a second, baseball mitts and watching Jeff play catch with Robert who would have been in Little League.
It wasn’t that she regretted it or resented the dog. It was just this -- in the days that followed that March morning when Bowtie came into their lives, Sylvie started running another narrative in her head, a narrative that was loose and disjointed and impossible, one that would suddenly come out of nowhere, one she never told anyone and barely admitted to herself. One in which Robert was born that cold March morning, March 15, and she’d imagine sometimes what he might be doing had he ever “arrived,” what their lives might be like. She’d imagined Christmas mornings holding the baby. The little blue cake they’d bought him and put on his high chair for his first birthday. How he’d have rubbed it in his face. The picture of him on his first day of first grade. She’d been dreaming that story for eight years when Jeff died.
Then she’d had to dream another scene, telling Robert that his father was gone, sitting on the edge of his bed that night after she’d come home from the ER. Robert dressed in a little suit standing beside the casket at the funeral.
Sylvie lay in bed watching the dog out of the corner of her eye.
“Bo! Come on, Bo! Come up on the bed with me!” She patted her hand on the spot on beige comforter beside her.
But the dog stayed still, looking with great intensity at the closet and whining in the back of his throat.
Bowtie did this now two or three times a week, sometimes more, whined at the closet door in the middle of the night, or just at bedtime. Barked at nothing. Tracked something moving through the room when Sylvie couldn’t see anything. Now she stared at the closet, too, and her blood ran cold. She imagined Jeff the way she’d seen him in the emergency room after the accident, the bruises blooming there around his ear and down his jaw and neck, the line where they’d shaved his head. He’d been riding his bike the way he always had, every Thursday night, leaving from Bill’s Cycle Shop and riding over the bridge and back with the guys. The driver had been an old woman; the EMT’s said she must have had a heart attack.
The ER nurses had tried to clean Jeff up before she saw. She could see that they’d rubbed off blood from around his mouth and nose. She was grateful they’d done that. She was grateful, too, that they’d asked her if she wanted to see him, that the tall doctor with the long braid had held her hand when she opened the door. But she wasn’t sure that she made the right decision. Now sometimes, when she thought of Jeff’s face, it was this image that came to her. And always in these moments when Bowtie was whining at the closet, she imagined opening the door and seeing him like that, his body bruised and cold, propped there among his old clothes. Horror movie bullshit, Jeff would have called it, and it was. She knew it. Once or twice, she’d gotten up and turned on every light in the house and gone to the closet and opened the door. Flung it open in one big burst of bravado.
Something about his clothes hanging there quietly did not help at all, was not at all reassuring. The only suit he owned, the one he’d worn to his father’s funeral, she’d buried him in, so it wasn’t there. There were a couple of sport jackets, white dress shirts, flannel plaids and denim. The clothes seemed to hold the lines of his body and standing there in the glare of the overhead bedroom lights, Sylvie missed him with a physical pain that doubled her over.
“Get rid of the clothes.” That was what Brian told her when she’d finally had the guts to tell him the story. He was Jeff’s best friend, another scientist, and she knew he wouldn’t take this seriously and she welcomed his scorn. She got together with him for lunch about once a month. He always called to say that he wanted to see her, “to check in.” She had been working herself up to telling him about Bowtie. She knew it would be like telling Jeff. Jeff would have laughed at her, too, told her that she was not reasoning clearly, was letting emotion rule.
What if Robert wants Jeff’s clothes someday, she thought, and then she remembered that this would never be true.
The next Saturday, she gathered up green bags and boxes. She’d do it. She’d box up what could be donated and throw the rest away. She opened the closet. Bowtie took out one of Jeff’s shoes and carried it to the middle of the floor. Then he got the other and put it down beside the first and looked up to about the place where Jeff’s head would have been, conjuring him. Sylvie sat down on the bed and looked up, too, squeezing the balled green trash bag tight in her hands.
“Jeff,” she said. “Jeff.” She said it over and over again and the dog went back and forth, back and forth between the two of them, wagging his tail, sitting, giving his paw. The afternoon light splashed on the floor around the shoes. Shadows from the trees moving over the carpet like gray hands. She sat there a long time until Bowtie broke the spell, darting back out into the hallway and down the stairs, barking at something he heard passing in the street. Then she felt calm, different, as though she had decided something that she couldn’t put a name to. She put back the shoes and boxes, shoved the bags under the bed.
In July, she and Brian sat on a bench outside Peace o’ Pizza, squinting against the afternoon sun. The campus was quiet and slow in the heat. Brian chewed his crust thoughtfully while she sipped her diet coke.
“Did you get rid of the clothes?” he said.
She knew he was going to ask. She’d been planning to lie, a quick yes, casual, change the subject. She looked down at salad in the white carton on her lap. She’d lost ten pounds since Jeff died. She meant to eat; she’d tried. She’d get hungry and fix herself some food but when she sat down to look at it, her stomach revolted. That was what happened as soon as they walked into the pizza place; just the smell had made her nauseous. She realized that she shouldn’t have met Brian at all.
“No,” she said. “Not yet.” She took off her sunglasses and rubbed them with the hem of her shirt, looking away. “I’m not ready,” she said. “We’re still grieving.”
“We’re?” Brian looked at her until she looked back. “We’re? Really? You and the dog? Sylvie? You and the dog?”
Her throat tightened, but she swallowed, willed the bile back down. She would not be sick. She would not cry. She heard in the field behind them, the voice of a boy. She wondered if it were real or her imagination. “Dogs grieve,” she said. “I read it in veterinary journals, Brian. It’s real. Just like human grief. It’s real. It isn’t just a feeling.”
He raised one corner of his mouth. “That makes no sense, you know. But I get it. You’re not ready.”
Then Sylvie said what she had promised herself she wouldn’t, what she sometimes thought but knew she shouldn’t say, especially to Brian, that it would be the same as telling Jeff that she wanted children.
“He’s not gone yet,” she said. “I have to wait until Jeff’s really gone and the dog knows. I have to wait for Bowtie to tell me, to show me.”
Brian crumpled his napkin tighter and tighter in his hand. “The dog smells him all over the house, everywhere,” he said. “He won’t ever stop. We can fix that, Sylvie. I’ll help if you want. Any day. Maybe clean things up and rearrange and . . . . It’s – what? – almost a year? It’s time.”
“Eight months,” she said automatically. “Almost nine.”