David Erik Nelson
"Hey, Dan, you ever hear about the haunted dog?"
"Jesus!" I jumped in my seat, sloshing the better part of a pint of beer into my lap, "Crap. What?" I asked, not looking up, searching my parka for paper napkins--something to mop up the beer. "What was that?"
I'd been sitting belly to the bar for I don't know how long, staring into the long mirror behind the bottles, not really thinking at all--apart from vacantly wondering how I'd become such a sad old sack--and that warm, friendly, familiar voice was like stepping on a tack in the dark.
"Sorry to startle you, Dan. I was just asking if you'd ever heard about the haunted dog?"
"You mean like a ghost dog?" I asked, trying to soak up the beer with my wool mittens, then realizing they were the ones Janey had knitted for me when she'd been a Brownie, and putting them away in favor of a wad of those crummy square bar napkins. "Like that one about the guy whose car breaks down in the woods and there's a wolf--"
"No," his voice was sharp, annoyed, like the way you talk to a smart kid who's acting stupid, "not a ghost dog--a haunted dog, like a haunted house." I looked up from my beery crotch.
"Is it a joke?" I asked. The guy--young, twentysomething, short, dark hair still damp from an evening shower, wool pea coat, pale face--he didn't look like anyone in particular. Someone Janey had gone to high school with? The age was about right. "Are you asking me, 'Did you ever hear the one about the haunted dog?'"
"No, Dan, this isn't a joke, it's a story. A true story--"
"Well, wait. I'm afraid I don't know--"
"Shhh," he waved his gloved hand at me. "You'll dig this. Just listen:
"So there's this guy, right?, this family, and they get this dog--a beagle--from the Humane Society. You with me?" He pulled his gloves off and set them on the bar, lacing his fingers over them. He didn't really look at me as he spoke, instead craning around like he was waiting for someone, afraid he'd miss her in the crowd.
I grunted and sipped my beer, feeling like a ridiculous old fart because I couldn't quite place this kid.
"So, this guy, his family, they're down at the Society and they pick out this beagle, and the guy asks the attendant where's the dog from? What's its history? And the attendant lays out this big old yarn about how the dog used to belong to some old guy that lived all alone in a little cracker-box house on a big slab of land out near Beggars. Dog was the old guy's dearest, only friend, blah blah blah, docile, blah blah blah, housebroken--you know, the basic keep-me-company house pet, right? Dog's name is 'Ski Boot.' Imagine that, calling a dog 'Ski Boot'? Old folks are weird." He turned to look at me. "Sorry. Present company excluded."
I nodded, waving my hand in a 'don't sweat it' gesture as I set down my empty mug. And right then it came to me: this kid must be a fella Janey'd dated in high school her sophomore or junior year. Skinny, dark hair--it was all slowly gathering together in my head. If this was him, then he'd certainly changed, but it seemed right. Kid's name was Rob or Ron or something like that. No car, I recalled. I'd liked him for that.
"Say, what line of work you in these days?" I tried to sound as casual as possible.
"What?" he asked, looking at me blankly, "Work? Oh . . . never mind that. I don't really live around here.
"But, so the guy with the family asks the attendant what drove the old codger to get rid of such a beloved pal--you know, the guy figures he has the attendant over a barrel, caught him in a lie. The guy thinks he's a regular suburban Sherlock.
"But the attendant tells him the old guy died, no family surviving him. All of his property defaulted to the State and they auctioned it. The State didn't need a beagle for anything, and it didn't get bid on, so. . . .
"Well, suffice to say, the guy feels like a first-class bastard and adopts the dog with no further questions, plus a nice little donation to the Humane Society.
"So, they get the dog home, walk him around the block, have dinner and turn in. They figure that the dog will settle down to sleep upstairs, maybe in one of the kids' bedrooms, maybe in the master bedroom--hell, maybe even try to get into one of the beds."
"Dogs are like that," I said, thinking of a mutt named Butter I'd had for almost thirteen years before I had to have him put down last spring. "If they've been let to sleep in a bed in the past, it's hard to break them of it." Butter slept curled behind my knees, every night for seven years, after Janey's mom passed on in '93. And then it dawned on me, if this fella hadn't been around--probably went off to college somewhere, and is just back visiting his folks or something--he might not know about Janey. It'd be an awful thing, not getting the proper chance to pay your respects to a classmate. Especially if they'd dated. . . .