by Dickson Musslewhite
didn't mind the affair so much. That was his business, but what bothered
me was the fact that he showed so little respect for his fellow creatures.
What annoyed me was putting the dog in such a compromising situation.
His dog was his excuse. I'm going to walk the dog, he'd say and he would.
Straight over to his girlfriend's apartment about a mile and a half
away, where he would proceed to screw her with the dog, his wife's dog
actually, sitting on the carpet, panting.
I can't tell you how painful it was sitting around his house, Judy serving
up our drinks and fetching little tastes of this or that, like one of
the ends of the pot roast and then watching her stick out her finger
for the dog to lick and watching the dog just sit there.
"You see," she'd say, "Something's wrong. What kind of dog turns down
a lick of pot roast? He doesn't love me anymore. He likes Kenneth better
than me. It's so upsetting. I used to be able to fit him into my lap.
And now look at him." She'd lick her own finger and shout at Kenneth
through the French doors that divide their one room flat, "Something's
wrong with that dog."
"Maybe there's something wrong with the pot roast," he might say.
And if I was there, I would say, "The pot roast is fine."
To which my wife says: "I think you're jealous. You're jealous that
your friend is fucking two woman at the same time."
There's something in her voicethere's always something in her
voiceand, when she says this, our dog (my dog actually) comes
running. He's a mutt. A hundred and ten pound mutt mix of some kind
of retriever and shepherd. He's your run of the mill retriever like
dog with webbed feet. "Sweetie," she says. "Daddy's so weird."
"Don't do that."
"Daddy," I say. "It gives me the creeps."
She looks at me while she pets the dog. She and the dog look at me like
I'm some strange species of something and she pets the dog. I pull my
chin in an inch or so.
"You need to get some work. You really need to go out and get a job.
Stop worrying about whether your friend. Who I might add, you said you'd
had enough of only five months ago. Stop worrying about whether...or,
better yet, who... Kenneth is fucking. And start worrying about bringing
some extra money into this house." She waves her hand around this house:
a two bedroom, under furnished wall-to-wall apartment not too far from
Broad. Somehow, her wave seems to draw attention to the particularly
ugly nature of the green on the walls. "This house," she says again
sort of like an Amen.
It didn't matter that I was doing some very important personal work,
the kind of deep, secret rearranging that is not visible to the naked
eye. I had just picked up Ulysses for the fourth time and, though
I was stalled on page 143, I was pretty sure I could finish. I had a
plan, a forty page a day plan. I was working on the tilt of my head.
I have very bad posture. I lean into the world. It's like I'm in a rush
to get to it. It's a stance that was identified by a friend at a party
as having something to do with some kind of deviant childhood experience,
some trauma that I had obviously buried a good six inches into my gray
matter. What? I don't know. Buried. Gone. Who cares? You can add a pound
for every inch your head leans forward. Given the fact that a head starts
at eight pounds on the average, I was, before I started this deep and
secret work, up to eleven, twelve pounds easy. It was debilitating.
I was competing with eight-pound heads on the average. Nine pounds tops.
I was operating under a distinct disadvantage there. Every time I turned
my head it was the equivalent of doing a two pound neck lift not
such a strain as an isolated event but two, three hundred neck
lifts a day.... a mild mannered copy-editor of unsolicited mailings
on behalf of what will for legal purposes remain an unnamed major distributor
of personalized Visas and MasterCards cannot afford the strain. The
back and the tilt. Lean into the world, and the world does not give.
They updated my wife's software at her job three times in the last six
months. Three times they gave her an entirely new software package and
told her to learn it or leave it. From the whirly gig pace of the modern
American secretarial pool, the deep and secret work of mine is pretty
childish, pretty strange, pretty pointless stuff. Stuff, that word.
That terrible word. My stuff: the epic struggle to pull my chin in an
inch, an inch and a half, a quest that, for my wife, is somewhere in
the vicinity of a hand-washing obsession; my stuff, the rut I was in
and my annoying little tendency to project all of the bile and fecal
matter floating around in my fore lobe onto decent people with a decent
head tilt, people with the decency to lie about whether or not they
had finished Ulysses, good people like my good friend Kenneth,
my stuff was. Well, basically, until I got another job, my concern over
the fact that someone is fucking around on my good friend Judith had
"I'm so tired," I said.
She stuck some of her after work snack in her mouth, a piece of pear,
and picked up the newspaper, which I had folded to the Crossword. "Four
letter word for disencumbers?" she said.
We had a long history of reading the paper together. We once lived in
a rented house, in Houston, in the Montrose, a nice, mixed neighborhood.
We lived in a rented house and read the paper every Sunday, sitting
on the front porch on a Sunday, trying to come to terms with the Clinton/Dole
campaign. We sat on the porch in the summer with the dog at our feet,
reading the paper to each other.
The rules were very strict. There were weepers and laughers. And we
read the weepers first so that the laughers were that much better. We
lived in a rented house in Houston during one summer of the Kevorkian
killings, so we often started with the description of a suicide scene
of some old person. It was Jeaneane's policy to finish with the sports.
There was always a feature feel good in the sports.
"Undoes," I said.
"Six. Past tense."
"I didn't recall you saying anything about verb tense," I said.
"Past, not present."
"Did you mention the verb tense?"
"Three letter word for exist."
She held out her pear-wet fingers and the dog sidled up on the other
side and began to gently, lovingly, caressingly lick off the pear juice.
"Are? As in you are."
My wife was being too affectionate with the dog. I think. I don't know.
We started letting the dog sleep on the bed. And he was getting weird
about commands. He'd role around on the floor when you told him to come
and, when we watched movies, he'd sit in her lap, just sit there.
"Don't you think that licking's gone on enough?" I asked.
She stuck her finger behind the dog's last tooth. He gummed it. She
studied me, a specimen. "You jealous of the dog?"
"If that dog was a human being sitting at your heels on all fours..."
"Baby powder. Four letters. First letter starts with a T."
"It's been a while."
"Really? That's it, T-A-L-C." She called the dog onto the couch and
let his ten, eleven-pound head fall in her lap. "Honey, its hard for
me to find you attractive right now. That's just the way it is," she
said to me.
"Has been," I say.
"I love the smell of talc," she says.
I picked up the paper. "Four letter word for Bivouac," I said.
It occurs to me before I go any further I should say something about
the setting of the present events. Something that really establishes
the city, something that reveals my sensitive understanding of the essence
of Philadelphia. Something like oh the best Italian hoagie is at
Evelyn and Shanks on Tenth Street you know down near the Market.
(The truest sentence I've ever written.) I'd like to say something about
where you go when you want an especially rancid piece of goat cheese.
But what I really have to say about Philadelphia is that neither my
wife nor me had any reason for being there. It wasn't a Michelin Top
Fifty city or a US News and World Report-recommended place to
make a homeIt was just a place with no special reason: no mountains,
no trees, no ocean, no novel or movie or even a TV show to recommend
it. It was on the planet. It was a place. And this place, what this
place had to offer is not the kind of thing you report in the Michelin
Fifty. It was a particularly depressing place with broken row houses
and empty lots strewn with old furniture. It was about ninety-nine percent
of the time smothered in a gray light as dirty as the sidewalks where
the mottled pigeons pulled crumbs out of the Ho-Ho wrappers. It was
a dangerous place.
I saw a woman get in a fight with a jukebox and lose.
I had a friend who threw his back out on South Street, right outside
Super Fresh, putting away the groceries heavy bags because he
was a canned bean, canned soup, canned chili eating bachelor into
the trunk and. ping... a vertebrate slipped, kissing another and pinching
that soft gooey material in the process. His knees buckled and he fell
to the ground. A man came to his assistance.
"You okay, man."
"No," my friend said. "Shit, I can barely move my legs."
The man reached down to him. "That's rough." The man rolled my friend
on his stomach, took his wallet, grabbed the keys out of the trunk lock,
picked up the bags of canned goods, dropped them in the trunk and left
my friend in the parking garage of a grocery store on South Street.
Dark, unclean, unfriendly, gray, pigeon crowded, so ugly it was unwatched.
Philadelphia: the perfect place to do a little secret work.
Philadelphia has got a lot of nice small parks filled with what I'm
sure are lots of nice, dog-loving folk who are full of good doggy tips
and genuine love for your dog which your dog would no doubt benefit
from if he or she were exposed to the loving, knowing hand of a few
Philadelphia dog owners. You can see them at the parks, at dusk, at
the appointed hour just before it gets dark in the winter, just after
they've gotten off of work, fraternizing while their dogs romp and sometimes
fight. I can see them. I've got a window that looks down on a lovely
small park full of twenty-something benches where I could chit, chat
and schmooze about pinch collars and retractable leashes and which vet
is really abusive and which vet charges too much and how you actually
can get a dog clean in the bathtub of a two bed room apartment with
ugly green walls.
I've known for a while that I could go down there and talk about the
swimming holes in the municipality that aren't contaminated to the point
that your dog goes in and comes out with running sores. But as a general
rule I'm not the type. I usually don't go in for that sort of thing.
It's not so much that I think I'm better than these people, they have
their points and those points are valid. It's just that I like to get
the dog down there, let him do his water and take his shit and then
I pick up the shit and then, if he needs a run, the two of us go down
to the big park and take a real run, something that'll knock him out
for an hour or two so I can get a sustained shot, no interruptions,
at the third chapter of Ulysses.
Generally speaking, I don't go in for that kind of dog schmoozing that
goes on around here, so it was kind of a surprise, even for me, when
I took the dog down there the other day and made my way to the dog-owner
in the back. She had big head of unruly red hair and a stiff little
mouth. She was walking a hairless dog and talking about saving the environment.
And we were the only two out there in the park, being watched no doubt
by the old ladies that hide in the row houses whenever the light starts
to go out of the sky. This red head liked my dog. She liked mutts. They
were sympathetic, and they're actually better dogs than full breeds.
She covered her dog's ears when she said this. "These greyhounds are
While the redhead told me about coming across Sasha at the veterinarian
when she was taking her cat in for shots, I was wondering what would
happen if I took her home and screwed her in our bed. Our nuptial bed,
Sasha was a very ugly and nervous dog who was on the brink of evacuating
her bowls just about all of the time and who's main recommendation was
the great Dickensian abuse she suffered at the hands of a hypothetic
I'm a dog person, but I'm a private dog person. I was born into a 10
year old beagle mix named Shasta after the cola, which was named after
the mountain. Tired, limping displasurely, Shasta was done in by Carter,
a deaf Dalmatian that refused to play fetch and was named after the
ex-president just before the article about his imagined but unrealized
infidelities came out in Playboy. Carter was poisoned with what
the vet characterized as a good deal of anti-freeze, on the night of
Reagan's inauguration. Apparently, dogs have no idea anti-freeze is
bad for them; it tastes so sweet, looks so green, is so full of promise.
After Carter, Hallelujah my brother's idea.
Hallelujah saw me threw a blizzard of pimples, my first football practice,
ate the vomit from my first drunk. Because I was young and didn't think
much of it, Hallelujah was there when I got down the pants of my first
full-fledged girlfriend. She was there while I had her on the end of
my index finger, she stood and sniffed when I tapped out the first full-fledged
orgasm with the end of that finger. Hallelujah. I called her into the
bed with me and wept on the bundled fur of her golden neck the first
time I tried and failed to read Ulysses without a secondary text.
Tried, because I had a teacher who said that Ulysses was the
seminal work of the twentieth century and that, if you wanted to be
a thinker of any kind in this world, you had to make peace with it.
Failed, because it was obvious after the thirty-eighth page that I wasn't
going to be a thinker of any kind in this world. Cried, because I failed.
"I'm a sucker for wayward pets," the redhead said.
"Ah," I said. Even with the very deep and secret work I was doing, nothing
was more wayward than me. "I know what you mean, I never recovered from
having my cat run over."
"Oh god. Really? I'm so sorry. I know how that must feel. I lost my
father and my cat in the same week one year. And I have to tell you
that I cried all week about the cat, but that I didn't shed a tear for
"I was six. I was in a tree," I told her. The cat was in a gutter minding
its business, flicking its tail in the summer heat, when this old lady
with a blue Buick came throttling down the street. "She drove a very
The red haired dog owner reached out to pet my dog. Her reach was loaded
with sympathy for all of us: the old lady, the cat, myself, and anyone
who had a nice late summer day disputed by happenstance. It was going
to be good. I couldn't remember the last time I made love that was predicated
on pity. The best kind: you're feeling sorry for yourself. She 's feeling
sorry for herself. You're feeling sorry for her. She's feeling sorry
for you. The two of you just melt in this quivering, orgiastic puddle
of three-beat, swooning sorrows.
My dog has a tendency to bite others, so I nonchalantly yanked him back,
probably too hard. He yelped. All of that sympathy suddenly turned on
me. I was suddenly the Track Owner driving around the track with a dead
rabbit tied to the bumper of my El Camino.
"He's been acting strange since they removed the tumor," I said.
"That collar probably hurts."
"It's just a pinch collar. He's been acting so strange."
I held my dog on my far side and reached out to touch her elbow and
she made it clear that she didn't like me touching her. In fact, she
would have left right then and right there if her nervous racetrack
refugee hadn't decided that now was the time to do business. As long
as it takes a nervous greyhound to do its stuff, which believe me is
not long, I talked about how you've got to draw lines with a dog. How,
yeah, we all feel incredibly affectionate with dogs and they're like
having like little humans, but they're like having little retarded humans
around and blablablah.
"What's the matter honey, you nervous?" she asked her dog. "Don't worry
sweetie. You know him. He's a nice man. He's a very big man, but he's
a nice man. He looks mean. But I think he's nice." She looked at me.
Tight smile. No apologies. "Big men scare her," she said.
She gave me a still little smile. And I hunched down a little further,
my head dipping into the stagnant air like the soft-stemmed tulips on
which my dog did his business.
So much for that. My dog watered and crapped and me worse for the wear,
I went upstairs, pulled Ulysses off the shelf, turned to 143...He
raised his head firmly. His eyes bethought themselves once more. Witless
shellfish swam in the gross lenses to and fro, seeking outlet.
-Mr. Chairman, ladies and Gentlemen...
...set it down and dragged the J. Crew catalogue out of the trash.
I shook off the coffee grounds on the cover, turned to the Intimate
Apparel and began masturbating to the image of a woman who had had
most of her nipples, but still just enough to call it decent, air brushed
It was a little awkward at first, but I have to tell you that when this
relatively nipple less woman walked off page 45 and into the gray, muffled,
dank, dog-hair filled air of my apartment I was not just forgiving of,
but titillated by the weirdness of that. And for a second I was forgotten.
And my deep and personal work was on hold.
It would have been a great and lasting thing, something I could have
easily milked into Kenneth's party and beyond, that would have lasted
me into the night and eased my eleven pound head into my pillow and
filled those eleven pounds with easy thoughts of my wife, if I hadn't
looked up just before I was about to finish and seen the dog in the
room, his head turned, the way it would be turned the whole day and
into the night, making me acutely aware that I resided, for the day
at least, outside the company of even canines. I told him to scram,
but he looked back, seemingly bored by the unpleasant spectacle: His
master. He looked at me. His eyebrows, arched, informed me that I am
not so removed from beasts, as the miracle of this little gray machine
on which I'm tapping out this little memoir would suggest.
There's a monkey brain about the size of a regulation softball at the
base of your brain that makes you want to whack off in the half light
of a fall day and it's a miracle of civilization that you don't club
the first woman you see in the street and drag her off into the bushes.
That you don't pummel the unruly bank clerk, or some fat guy smacking
on a hot dog on the train. It's a very old thought. And that thought
first occurred to me sometime in the middle the sixth grade, when I
could get a hard on from the vibrations of the school bus, when I had
a crush on Melanie-something and still could sit in a classroom and
answer questions about decimals. Long before Bloom traipsed through
my interior world, dropped his trousers and proceeded to evacuate himself,
before wiping himself with the Dublin Daily 19-0-something, I knew what
the arched brow of my dog was telling me, I knew it from the base of
the monkey brain to the corrugations of my frontal lobe where civilization
lived. No, it's not new, nor is it trivial, but I wasn't in the mood
for a wordless, but expressive lecture on the subject from my canine
buddy. There was a Pier 1 catalogue on the table. I threw it
at his head, a bull's eye. Nothing to be proud of, but effective nonetheless.
He ran into the kitchen and after I heard him settle down hard on the
kitchen floor, I laid the J. Crew out and focused on the nipple
less girl in the black see-through brassiere, working to invent her
nipples, her breathing, the purring in her throat, the trembling fingers,
all the sweat that was pooling in the shallows below her throat, between
the collar bones, the humming underneath the shallows...the purring
there, until the magazine fell off the couch.
There it was, splayed out on the wood floor. Looking dead. Suddenly
the afternoon was up and running in the living room. A siren somewhere
in the distance. A baby crying on the patio next door. A dog. Some old
lady talking loudly. Honking. The million-footed city out my window.
I picked the magazine up. I thumbed desperately for the nipple-less,
headless creature with the lovely gauze brassiere. I thumbed and thumbed
until I found a leg. Her leg? What a leg! A thigh, the calf, the slope
of it, the trembling in it. It was a shoe. What a shoe! A most beautiful
shoe. This shoe. This red shoe. A torso...A leg...a shoe.
I have long been habituated to seeing the erotic potential of certain
kinds of curves. Since the early catalogue days, the Sears underwear
section, I have been trained to see eroticism lurking under the dead-eyed,
middle-class stare of a Sears underwear model. I have been trained and
am forever tutored. These Korean women have no idea what they're doing
to us, the ones that sell Cherry behind a rack of Juicy Fruit.
Saturday, I was walking down South Street and ran into a homeless man
wacking off in front of a mannequin in an Anne Taylor window. Here was
this shoe. This spiked-heal red shoe. This shoe. Shoe. I could not hear
the sirens in the street. I can not hear those three kids walking down
the street, talking about Scottie Pippen, the baby next door, I can
not hear, because this shoe. Oh shoe. My shoe. The shoe! The shoe! The
You feel the same way about the catalogue as you do about the real thing.
There's the distance and the slight sense of regret. The slight sense
of obligation. The feeling that maybe it's time to go. That was the
thought, alone in the room, a catalogue stuck to my forearm.
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