ONE DECEMBER SUNDAY, just two weeks before Christmas, Rose and Mark came home to discover Gretl alone in the yard, surrounded by trails of sticky black hair and a tangle of grayish, gnawed up bones. Hans’s rat-like skull, the eyes picked clean, poked out from under a deck chair on the far side of the patio. When they had left on Friday there were two small dogs. Now, there was just one. The first small dog—the dead one, Hans—had not loved Gretl, the other small dog. Gretl had loved him. It was simple and well-meaning, but misplaced, dog love. It was, at times, frightening, in both its scope and intensity. In the end, understanding this love and its powers, or its needs, would become something important for Rose to consider.
At the time, however, what she thought was: Fuck.
This scene that greeted her as she slid open the back door of the lovely, New Haven home that she and Mark shared was jarring, an upside-down mixture of what should and should not belong. Gretl, always spritely and prancing upon the tips of her clickity toenails, danced in greeting. Behind her, strewn across the lip of the patio and into the crusty remnants of last week’s snow was Hans detritus, the long femur bones and narrow, cracked ribs. A flap of pink, inside-out skin was fuzzed with frost. FUCK, Rose thought this time. In all caps. After she’d called to him and explained her hypothesis, Mark stood in the middle of the yard, scanning for additional pieces of Hans. “Are you sure it’s him?” he asked at first, dazed, his hand stuck to the back of his head and buried in this thin, sandy-gray hair. “Could it be a cat?”
Gretl continued to prance in a circle and Rose picked her up, noting the extra heft and excessive roundness to the dog’s normally trim belly. Gretl gurgled, pumping her head and shoulders forward while her flanks sucked in and out, her whole body shivering. Rose quickly put her down and Gretl spewed a foamy, bilious puddle across the patio. Clumps of glossy, bristled black hair floated among the yellow bubbles. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, thought Rose, and she sat down on the cold concrete.
That evening Mark emptied his rolling suitcase onto the floor, tossing underwear, shirts and pants into separate piles, sorting for laundry. The pair of them had mostly been silent since they’d returned from the vet’s office an hour earlier. It was late, and a Sunday. They’d been away for the weekend and everything was a little out of array. They had no clean clothes, one dog was dead, and the other had eaten him. At the veterinarian’s office, Dr. Wilson had gone into the back with the vomiting Gretl and the garbage sack of Hans’s remaining skin and bones. His skull. Rose had gathered them into a Hefty bag, wearing long, yellow rubber gloves that went up to her elbows. She threw them away afterward. The whole thing was grotesque, hilarious, and terribly, terribly sad. She wasn’t squeamish—she was a doctor (“Not a real doctor,” Mark’s sister, Mina, liked to joke, “just an optometrist”). After, Rose had walked outside to the back of the building and laughed—steam trailing from her nose and mouth; her bare, stinging hands clamped over her eyes—until tears and strings of spit had come streaming off of her face, pocking the parking lot asphalt.
Hans was an old dog, Rose justified, and Mark had not had him that long. Four years. Mark had only had Rose for three. Hans was an elderly Miniature Pinscher who did not love, or particularly like, anyone. Not even Mark, who’d done his best to translate Hans’s jumping, frothy-mouthed excitement about breakfast and dinner into something like affection. Gretl came later, a romantic notion of a friend for Hans. She had a fractured little fairy tale of a name, and was a gift (or re-gift) from a co-worker in Rose’s office, which was connected to the glasses store at the mall. The woman had too many small dogs, all named after characters in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Gretl was from a pair—Liesl and Gretl, from The Sound of Music—but as it turned out, she was one little dog too many, and that is how, three years earlier, she came to live with Mark and Rose. It was right after Rose had moved into Mark’s house. “We’re becoming a family through slow attrition,” Mark had said. She was pretty sure he didn’t know what the word meant. He was better with images than words. He was a graphic designer, which was the most respectable way to be an artist if you came from money.
“I feel like this is my fault,” said Rose, tossing back a sock that Mark had accidentally flung onto the couch. She had chosen to tag along, which is why no one had been watching the dogs. They had taken the train down to Boston—Mark, for a business meeting and to see his sister, Mina, whom they would be seeing at Christmas anyway. He was supposed to have gone alone, but Rose had pushed. They had a doggie door and a food dispenser with a timer, since they both worked long days. East Rock was a good neighborhood, and it was only two nights. What was the worst that could happen? The answer, Rose thought, was divided up at the animal hospital—half in medical waste, half waiting for the incinerator.
“I’m going to buy a nice jar,” said Rose. “An urn, I mean.”
Mark stayed quiet. He reached into the pockets of a pair of pants to check for pens or change. From the kitchen, where she was asleep in her crate, Gretl gave a whimper and began to thrash in a dog dream.
“Really,” said Rose. “I feel terrible.”
Mark flipped the now-empty suitcase shut with his foot and joined Rose on the couch. He settled back into the smooth brown leather and took off his delicate, rimless glasses, balancing them on his knee.
“This isn’t your fault.” Mark leaned into Rose, resting the side of his face on her collarbone. “It’s just so strange.”
Rose yawned. “What should we do about Gretl?”
“What about her?”
“I don’t know. I just—what do you do with a dog like this? What about Hans?”
“Well,” said Mark, slowly and into Rose’s neck, “It’s not like she killed him. She just—made the best of a bad situation. Dr. Wilson said this wasn’t the first time he’d seen this.”
Rose lurched up from the couch, leaving Mark and his piles of clothes, dirty little islands across the thin-slatted wooden floor. If Gretl had been out of her crate, she would have been rolling in them, gleeful to disguise her doggie scent in human musk and grime.
“I guess I don’t have to feed Gretl, huh?” Rose tried to twist her mouth into a squiggled smile, but felt the corners of her lips pulling down. She almost had tears in her eyes, which was odd, as she had never much liked Hans to begin with. Gretl had been her favorite. This was probably because they’d both arrived in the house at the same time, bewildered females in uncertain territory: Gretl, stuck with her pitiful and writhing, unrequited love toward Hans, and Rose, newly ensconced in what turned out to be Mark’s childhood home, which he had inherited from his mother at her death. But there was nothing unrequited between the house and Rose, other than the strangeness that came with inhabiting the place where Mark and his sister had grown up and called home, but that she, who currently lived there, could somehow not. In spite of these concerns, she loved the house. It was russet brick with panels of creamy tudor crosshatched in chocolate brown wood. It had a hedge, for Christ’s sake, like something she had imagined while reading a book as a child. It was a very nice house.
But poor Gretl—all alone and cast in a wide shadow of blame. Judgment. Could dogs feel shame? At the vet, they had pumped Gretl’s stomach. From the pan of evidence in the back, which Rose had morbidly requested to see, there was no doubt that Gretl had eaten Hans, from the soft pouch of his bladder to the gamey meat from his ribs. In her stomach, they’d found hair, a few teeth. The undigested, rubbery sclera of an eye.
“Don’t make jokes,” said Mark. “Give it a few days at least.”
In the shadows of the living room, Mark looked old. In spite of his hair and thin frame, he was a robust forty-two. Often, he looked a prematurely-gray thirty-five. “Maybe we’re done with dogs,” he said. “Time to move on to bigger and better.”
Bigger and better. Maybe bigger was not what Mark meant, and Rose had her qualms about the better too. The great marriage and procreation debate had been the theme of their weekend away—not a new theme by any means, but one that became of heightened intensity during the trip. On the Acela back to New Haven, Rose had shrunk into her seat and picked at her ill-advised cheese plate, avoiding the peripheral views of barren trees as they streaked past.
“I really do think it’s time we get married,” Mark had said, jiggling a loafer on his foot. “Maybe in the Spring? And have a baby. I’m really ready for kids. Past ready, really.”
Rose looked straight ahead, as was her custom. She tired of looking people in the eye. It seemed too diagnostic in her personal life; everyone was in need of a refractive test. She’d met Mark in her office, had him voluntarily trapped in the exam chair. It was his third visit in a year. He’d claimed it was because he was a graphic designer and owned his own company that he needed an elevated level of visual clarity. One thing was clear, for certain—no change in his prescription, and on that third visit, he’d asked her out. The office assistant had remarked he was a good catch, but Rose wasn’t sure who had caught whom.
“Past ready,” Rose said to the windshield. “I see.” She’d learned this phrase from a friend: while it indicated understanding, it also pulsed with a vein of underlying disagreement or judgment. “I see.” It was almost funny. It didn’t mean seeing at all.
Bigger and better, Rose thought, later climbing the stairs to the bedroom. A baby was no larger than a Miniature Pinscher. They were both the size of chickens—naked and vulnerable. And to someone, somewhere, they were probably all quite delicious. Her thoughts swirled with unsolvable problems, with all of the wrong that could be done in the world, of two little dogs and how they had confused the fuck out of her. Where have the boundaries gone, she wondered. Maybe way back then, Mark had been right. Maybe family was a constant, slow attrition. In her pocket, her phone buzzed with a text from Mina. “Not sure about Christmas ham. Barfing.” She’d added a frowny face and an emoji of a pig.
The weekend trip had been difficult for Rose, and she’d spent most of her time with Mark’s family wondering why in the hell she’d come along. Mark’s sister, Mina, was newly married and newly pregnant (hence what was becoming a constant debate about Christmas foods) and in a strange place of hyper, yet detached domesticity. Her house was stocked with perfect, hemstitched linen tablecloths and napkins from Barneys, and a frighteningly expensive Vitamix blender, but she and her husband ate in restaurants every night. They were lawyers, and reveled in how busy their daily lives were. “You know how it is,” Mina said to Rose, but Rose did not, really. She never had work to bring home with her—one of the joys of clinic-based occupations. Perhaps this was not entirely true. She would think about her cases through the day—sullen teenagers faking near-sightedness in order to don moody, plastic frames, or an elderly man insisting that he could see well enough to drive. “It don’t matter,” he’d said. “I know my way home.” Sometimes there were too many people, too many to be jammed into her head. Their marbled irises, or vein-squiggled retinas would float in front of her, pigments suspended in jelly-like vitreous.
In the two nights she and Mark spent with Mina and Erik, they ate every meal at restaurants in Back Bay with menus that read like ee cummings poems and dish presentations with whimsical subtext Rose did not understand. On the last evening, they’d eaten at a sushi restaurant where the hand rolls were crafted into intricately shaped animals. It was Erik’s favorite place, Mina had explained, which angered the hell out of her, since she temporarily could not eat sushi. “Poor, fat, pregnant me,” she’d said, pausing for coos of pity. Mark talked about trashcans—happy trash cans that wanted your refuse. His firm was designing a new logo for a waste management company. “I can’t get the eyes right,” he’d complained. “They need to look hungrier, eager to gobble up garbage.” Mina feigned a queasy look, but devoured her vegetable tempura and talked alternately about copyright law and mercury. Rose choked down the spicy tuna, which was sculpted into a tiny pig. Back at Mina and Erik’s Beacon Hill rowhouse, she’d quietly vomited in the bathroom. She tried hard to be sophisticated, but also preferred that all of her dead animals be cooked, and at that, well-done, to chagrin of the culinary elite like Mark and Mina and Erik. They knew that vichyssoise was supposed to be cold, and all their childhood birthdays and report cards were celebrated at country clubs. Rose had been raised poor, and small, uncooked portions of food seemed an ironic privilege.
She was from Oklahoma, a state that, when she mentioned it, seemed like a surprise, other that she was from there and that it existed outside of shaky high school stagings of the eponymous musical. Her family had seemed like an accident or something poorly stitched together: three people dropped onto a failing sod farm, in a clapboard house smack in the middle of the state. Her father and stepmother climbed up and down the strata of poverty, made poorer by her younger brother’s battle with and death from childhood leukemia. He was seven, Rose ten. Later, she’d learned that the Children’s Hospital in Little Rock was an option, but it meant selling the farm, and so they’d made do with the medical help nearby.
The older she got, the more Rose associated the heavy, bleaching pesticides of perfect grass with rapidly dividing cells, with her poor brother, his thin white arms and eggshell skull. She had emancipated herself as a minor, just before entering college at the University of Oklahoma, and then to the east for grad school. She left as soon as she could. When Mark would question her about this, push to visit her family, she resisted. On their only trip together to her family’s house in the four years they’d been together, she’d forgotten the way from the airport and had to stop for directions. Mark did not understand this, but this is what she told him: it’s a lot easier to leave than to be left behind. Even if you cannot find your way back. More attrition.
It was only a few days until Christmas, and Mina and Erik were still coming for the holiday, as planned. If they should have been put off by some kind of imagined grieving for the subsumed dog, Mina blasted past this with her usual bravado for tradition. She was now heartily on board with a turkey. “Some kind of bird,” she’d said. “I want a drumstick.” Rose and Mark were alternating cleaning and arguing about the visit and what to do about Gretl’s vomiting problems. She was still throwing up.
Mark balanced on the raised brick hearth of the fireplace, dusting around the mantle with a purple feather duster, especially carefully around Hans’s new urn. He looked ridiculous. Whose idea was a feather duster? To Rose, it conjured images of garish pet store birds, like mite-covered parakeets and pink cockatoos fluttering and thrashing over your things. When had Saturdays become about dusting and cleaning dog vomit? She remembered a time with movies and wine tasting. Sex without the dim, unreciprocated hopes of reproduction.
“You know that that just moves the dust around.”
Mark grimaced and climbed down from the ledge. “Mina said that having dinner in a restaurant would be fine, too. She just wants to come home for the holidays.” He stretched his arms over his head, showing a thin strip of still-firm stomach between his sweater and pants. “She’s feeling emotional, wants to be near family. Wants tradition. Coming home would mean a lot to her.”
Home. It really was such pressure living at home, Rose thought. Such pressure to live in a home that is everyone else’s but yours, even if that house had a deep, claw-footed bathtub and a set of heart-breakingly lovely hexagonal mullioned windows across the back of the kitchen. Especially at Christmas, when the lights from the park and the neighboring houses sparkling against the snow, making Rose feel like she was in a fairy tale.
Oh, the house—from its uneven floorboards to the front door she’d painted a glossy red. A new discussion had been on the table lately, other than the old kids and marriage routine. Mark wanted to move somewhere safer, with lower mill rates, and where they could buy a bigger, newer house. He said things like “Roxbury” a lot, which made Rose shudder. Sometimes, even, Mark said he wanted to live on a golf course.
But Gretl was still pining. In the time since Hans’s death, she slept curled to one side of the red tartan bed she’d shared with him, pulling along a yellow, stuffed duck to keep under her pointy chin. She had dreams, too, whimpering and kicking her spindly legs like an overturned insect. Even if there had been a way, Rose did not want to know about these dreams. Her own dreams were frightening enough, with the otherworldly chiaroscuro and distorted sizes and places. She saw her childhood house caught in a twister, flying dogs, an eye chart with Mark’s name spelled out in blocky capitals, but in the dream, she could not read it even though she knew what it said. Her dreams were not made better with Gretl’s wandering in the night—she scratched at the closed doors of closets and cupboards. At least two nights a week, Rose rose to put her securely in her crate in the kitchen. “She feels safe in there,” she explained to Mark, but did not admit that she wanted Gretl locked up and far away while they slept. Mark had taken a new and tender interest in Gretl, somehow forgiving her for eating his dog. Rose wondered, a little bit, if it was because of this subsuming of Hans—that parts of him existed in Gretl in some strange and mysterious way to Mark, something that he did not realize.
The night before Christmas Eve, Rose sat down next to Mark on the couch, where he was cuddling Gretl in his arms like a baby. She was still bloated, still throwing up every few days. Rose sometimes thought that pet ownership was symptomatic of a certain kind of insanity. Mark would clean the carpet, brush the sour smell out of Gretl’s tiny teeth and sponge the foamy vomit from her muzzle.
“When you were a kid, did you read that book about the cats? The cats who ate each other?” Rose perched near the edge of her cushion, swiveled toward Mark, oblique but not touching.
“Hmm. I cannot say that there was a lot of cannibalistic cat literature in my day. At least aimed at children. Maybe it was after my time.” He scratched Gretl’s belly.
“No, it was a very old book. From the twenties, maybe.”
“I’m not that old.” Mark gave her a nudge.
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Rose stretched her arms over her head, tired from hunching over her stool all day. “This married couple wants cats, and the man goes out and gets just a ton of cats. Millions of cats. But then they start eating each other—one after another. And the only one left is the littlest, tiniest, meekest of the kittens.”
“Russian nesting dolls,” said Mark. “That kind of thing.” Mark nudged Gretl toward Rose, indicating that she should hold her, but Rose ignored him and continued to speak.
“I guess. I was just thinking about that book. Made me think of us. Our situation.”
“That story is nothing like us.” Mark went back to nuzzling Gretl under his chin, and she gave a happy little snort. “We’re not married.”
“Touché,” said Rose. “Good job keeping things topical.” Softer, more tender and tentatively, she added, “I’m still thinking, you know.” Rose stood up from the couch. “But, anyway, the smallest one—the littlest kitten,” she added. “It was the one who started the whole mess.”
Rose walked to the kitchen to unload the dishwasher, hanging in the doorway to look back at Gretl and Mark. He was scratching at a little crease under her ear, and her eyes were closed in apparent delight. They looked odd in the harsh spotlight of the table lamp, and Rose shifted her eyes over them to study the view, a habit of hers. In the back of the eye, where the optic nerve enters the retina, there is a small spot without rods or cones, where nothing can be reflected. If you hit that spot you can’t see anything within the space of it. In school, they’d taken pieces of paper with dots slightly smaller than pencil erasers, and moved them through their line of vision, into the periphery, until the dot disappeared. Rose liked to do this with small objects—un-focus slightly and turn, see when they slipped into that dead little spot. She tried this with Mark and Gretl, tried to see where they might disappear, or become slightly occluded. She couldn’t. They were too big, maybe, or she was not far enough away.
After Mina and Erik had arrived and promptly gone to bed (“I tired myself out from dry-heaving in the car,” Mina had said, and Erik nodded solemnly, red eyed and exhausted looking), Rose started to prepare for the next day’s meal with a string of frenzied actions. She scoured the inside of the oven then pulled out seldom-used serving platters and cooking tools she barely knew how to use and scattered them across smooth flagstone of the kitchen floor. From the crawl space in the attic she’d retrieved a grand, copper roasting pan, tarnished to a mottled gray-green, one of Mark’s family heirlooms. Mark offered to polish it, and she left it on the floor in front of the open oven. It just invited someone to trip over it, which she did, several times.
“Shit,” she whispered, curling her banged toes and rubbing them against her calf. Gretl, excited by the clatter, came skittering across the kitchen linoleum and did a dance to be picked up.
“Are you swearing at ghosts?” Mark hung in the doorway, looking around at the dishes Rose had scattered over the floor.
“I don’t want to wake anyone up.”
Mark looked around at the array of pans. “It looks like a Williams Sonoma graveyard in here.”
“Come here.” Still holding her uncapped can of oven cleaner, Rose reached out her arms to let Mark in. She held him close, guiltily, almost like a goodbye.
“Friendly ghosts, I guess.” He squeezed her and breathed into her hair. Mark rubbed the tops of her arms, as if to warm her up, or invigorate her. He then went up the stairs to the bedroom while Gretl continued to scratch at Rose’s pant leg.
Rose stared after Mark into the dark slant of the back staircase. Later, many months later, after she finally did leave, she would think back to this moment. How she stood in the kitchen and picked up a turkey baster, tired and wondering where to put it for the next day so that she would not lose track of it, and wondered if that was it—where everything came together and made sense and did not, if it was then that she resolved that she was not ready for what Mark needed. Or if, as she had gazed, wistfully, at the lacy pattern of the linoleum under her feet, she wondered how much she would miss it. Still staring at the ground, she moved her gaze to the patch of floor in front of the oven to see Gretl, who had finally left her alone and was now asleep. She had curled up in the roasting pan, snoring, a perfect fit.
In bed, Mark was already asleep, on his back and with left hand just grazing Rose’s hip. Rose rolled onto her back and Gretl stirred, stretching and climbing up onto Mark, atop his sternum. The small dog quivered. Without opening his eyes, Mark lifted a hand to the dog’s back, smoothing out her short, bristly hair and rubbed at the dog’s nose, letting Gretl settle in and become comfortable. Rose couldn’t tell if he was awake, or doing this in his sleep, but both made her shudder, and she rolled softly back to her side. She stared out at the rest of the room, straight ahead and unblinking and somehow able to see the sharp lines of everything in the dark. It was after midnight, so it was now Christmas Eve. In the bathroom, she heard the turkey move in its ice bath, settling down between the cubes and closer to the bottom of the tub. Rose tried hard to compose a grace to give before the meal later in the day. Composing grace—it seemed counterintuitive, impossible. Grace wasn’t a product of consolidation or shimmying between decisions. Was grace acceptance? Could you learn it? It did not seem like love, or even thankfulness, which was freighted by its shadowy inverse—the things you were not grateful for, the things that scared you or you missed or from which you could not turn away. Being thankful was a reconciliation, or an acceptance. It was a small, dark thing you let curl up on your chest and sleep.
Meredith K. Gray hopes to one day obtain an ethically-sourced piece of the Aggro Crag. Her work can be found in such places as: The Normal School, Slush Pile Magazine, The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and regularly on Reductress.
Illustration by Scott Murry.
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