“You stole the dog.”
She corrects him: “I didn’t steal her. I took her. She’s Boyer’s dog. If Boyer had a child, we’d take the child, wouldn’t we?”
“If Boyer had a child, whoever he had the child with would have kept the child.”
“But she’s a dog. It’s not like Yiyi gave birth to her.”
“She lived with the dog. Helped Boyer care for it. You can’t just take a dog from its home because you feel like it. I know what you’re trying to do.”
They look away from each other now: Sarah, for not thinking he’d see through and name her mistake; Rex, perhaps, for realizing he shouldn’t have said it.
“Well,” she musters, “she’s here now. And Yiyi hardly protested, so. That’s where we are.”
“We’re not dog people,” he says, pushing his words out so softly his lips make something like a whistle.
“How do you know that? We’ve never had a dog,” Sarah says.
“That’s how I know.”
Rex returns to the table. He plucks away the loose pages of newspaper that slipped from his fingers and tented over his bowl of muesli when Carmela came unexpectedly barreling into the kitchen, her tags and studded collar jangling like a distant wind chime. He lifts a spoonful to his lips and smirks, “You’re a mess.”
The quickness of his words, so small and exact out of the side of his crunching mouth, steals Sarah’s breath like a slap. She grabs her keys, lets them drag along the blue marble countertop he fusses over with baking soda every Sunday, and begins a stompy exit. She considers a detour to the table to pour his cereal—better yet, his coffee: he likes it black; it’ll stain—over his smart morning cardigan, but pauses when she catches her warped reflection in the steel of the refrigerator. Her navy blouse is dusted with stray sprigs of Carmela’s gray and auburn coat, damning evidence of her struggle to lift that old-boned girl in and out of the car. Sarah thinks of those newspaper sidebars about the world’s dumbest criminals—burglar writes his own name at the crime scene; robber trips, stabs himself with the knives he was stealing—and hurries from the kitchen to laugh where he can’t hear. A furry puddle rises from the floor, shakes itself out, and follows quickly behind her.
The idea came to her during Boyer’s memorial service. Sarah had spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, saucing the homemade tortellini she’d spent all last night filling and rolling and buttoning with her thumbs, icing a layer cake larger than the one at her own wedding thirty-six years earlier, and artfully arranging platters of gooey imported cheeses. Every so often, one of Boyer’s friends, each dressed in something Boyer had designed—the men’s collars and the women’s necklines bore his trademark illusion of being perforated at the seams, of being not quite attached to anything-would shuffle into the kitchen and ask if she needed help and wouldn’t she like to join them. But Sarah promised she could hear and see everyone just fine. Twice, Rex did the same.
“You’re missing all this,” he said. She wanted to snap back something robust and melodramatic like, “I’m missing our son,” but that wasn’t who she was, and it certainly wasn’t Boyer. This feast she’d been preparing, the hundreds of dollars worth of rabbit rillettes, and bacon jams, and almond paste sculptured into fruits, was all a final bitchy joke from Boyer she promised to deliver, a sarcastic indulgence from beyond the grave.
Three days before he passed, and one before he could no longer speak or even crack an eyelid, Sarah sat beside him, massaging his fingers, the skin so thin and blue—“ice blue,” according to
Boyer, “very next season, you’ll see”—his knuckles looked bulbous, vulgar. Rex was there too, but he paced the halls, making himself endlessly needed and tasked, seeking out nurses, visiting the snack machines even though he never ate anything in a wrapper, and bringing back schmaltzy greeting cards from the gift shop to mock with Boyer since they both detested sentiment. What they shared most, apart from their potato chins, was an insistence on not sharing at all—Rex holed away in a campus lab scraping petri dishes and making slides, Boyer sketching alone for days and draping fabrics over limbless busts—until they could share their discoveries en masse, with authority, without the need to explain themselves.
“Let them eat cake,” Boyer said, his scabbed lips parting across his teeth, now mossy and brown because brushing pained him, seemed pointless.
The doctors had warned of morphine and non-sequiturs. Sarah pushed a hand to Boyer’s forehead, at once slick and terribly dry. “Honey?”
“At the service. Make a big, big cake.” Boyer moved his mouth as though chewing the food he went on to describe. “Food scares them. They’ll die.” Boyer smiled, but there was meanness in his crackling voice.
Rex returned just as Boyer was dozing off again. “It smells in here.” Rex heaved, put a hand to his mouth and stepped back into the hall.
Sarah looked down and saw the sheets beneath Boyer’s back were soaked in a color she couldn’t quite describe, hoped he’d wake up and name it for her.
When it was Yiyi’s turn to speak, Sarah poured herself a glass of Malbec and moved to the living room. Yiyi slipped out of her heels, lifting herself up on her toes every time she began a sentence. She recounted how she’d met Boyer, answering an online ad for “a seamstress with small hands and a small voice—mute preferable,” which made even Sarah chuckle. Yiyi spoke of Boyer’s impeccable vision and taste, and how she’d do her best to carry out his legacy. Spare us, Sarah thought, taking a big angry gulp of wine, you just fucking cut and paste. The others applauded Yiyi, who was sobbing now, as though she’d won an award or courageously risen during an AA meeting. Rex politely tapped his palms together too but Sarah felt her face go slack. Yiyi rejoined the group of men Sarah couldn’t tell apart, accepting their shoulder rubs and forehead kisses with gratitude. One of the men handed Yiyi his barely disturbed slice of cake and she pushed it around with her fork, mindlessly breaking apart the layers Sarah had so carefully stacked, before tossing the plate onto the coffee table without even a taste. Carmela, who’d fallen asleep on the bathroom tiles after moping about the house, pattered into the living room and dropped down beside Yiyi’s feet. Her long tongue circled Yiyi’s bare ankle; Yiyi rubbed furiously at it with the opposite heel. Sarah watched as Carmela waited for Yiyi’s touch, neck craned patiently until she lowered her head to the ground and closed her eyes. She considered simply telling Yiyi to leave the dog that night, but the thought of a confused Yiyi in early morning, draped in the same ruby kimono Boyer had made and gifted them both, silently watching Carmela be marched away filled Sarah with delight, though she couldn’t quite say why.
Joe Vallese’s writing has appeared has appeared in Southeast Review, North American Review, VIA: Voices in Italian-Americana, Backstage, among other journals. He is editor of What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour Through New Jersey (Word Riot, 2010), a recent Pushcart Prize nominee, and was named a Notable in the 2012 Best American Essays.
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