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16 Dec 97

This is a bad short story; it was an attempt to be kind of clever, and an attempt to -- oh, well, fuck it.

Obedience

My roommate Max died three years ago in August. Kristen moved in a month later, bringing a three-week old Boston Terrier. We named him Cheese Boy.

Kristen and Max had disliked each other, and I think she was trying to stomp out his ghost by moving in. It didn't work. She and I quickly unearthed deep incompatibilities. She fell asleep before I came home. I adore computers, sometimes to the point of ignoring people who matter. She went to the bathroom with the door open. Two months later, with cold acknowledgement, we moved to separate apartments. She found a share in Noho and I went to a studio in Brooklyn. We continued to visit and sleep with each other, trying to keep affection from withering. Her share didn't permit pets, so I held on to the dog.

Boston Terriers balance the best doglike qualities. They're neither the emasculated, sweater-wearing type of dog nor mangy, pony-size hounds. In the new apartment, Cheese Boy slept in a cardboard box with a blanket in the bottom and one side ripped open for a door. I positioned him in front of the stove. He was quiet and friendly, and women stopped to pet when I took him out. I settled into a single parent's life, educating him in excretion etiquette, hand-shaking, and the fine points of sitting still while not begging. I left the radio on for company when I left for work. He developed into a a sturdy, cheerful puppy, grew quickly, and fit smoothly into the schedule of my life, until that February, when, as I worked on the computer, he began to bite my pant cuffs. When I spanked him and scolded "No!" he began to hack and cough.

It went on for several seconds, so I patted his black fur back, and said, "you okay, boy?" He shook his furrowed head, then looked up to me and growled, "rizrax."

He growled again: "Riz rax! Rix rax!" I backed out of my chair, away from him, scared.; I could only think of The Shining: "Red rum! Red rum!" He raised his growl, louder and higher: "Riz Rax! Reezus! Rax! Riz Rax!"

Something in the intonation hooked into my memory. I inhaled and looked at his deep black eyes. He said it over and over. I said: "It's Max?"

"Reezus Riced! Ran roo."

I looked at him for several seconds. "Jesus Christ. Thank you?"

The dog nodded, and said, "Res."

There was an awkward silence. There's no real protocol for that kind of conversation.

Cheese Boy rolled his eyes, like Max used to.

"Oh, shit," I said. "It's you?"

"Rud eye ret rum ruckin reel rood?

That took a moment. "Could I get some real food?" I repeated, still in shock.

He nodded.

"Sure," I said. My mind was jerking from question to question, but I stuck to the issue. "Reincarnation?" I asked.

He hunched his shoulders, a shrug.

"You want something besides dog food?"

Agitated head nodding.

"I could defrost some steaks..."

He barked, then said, "Res."

"I'm taking it well, aren't I?" I asked.

"Roor rakin rih reh? Rime a rukin rog rin roor rakin iweh?"

My brow furrowed, and I translated: "I'm a fucking dog and you're taking it well."

He lifted his right paw and nodded.

"Good point." I went to the freezer and pulled out some frozen beef.

Long conversations followed, and I learned to understand his growl. Max didn't know what happened; one minute he's driving a Chevy Caprice in a thunderstorm and the next he's emerging from a dog's womb. "Smelled damned nasty," he said. He began to realize it wasn't a dream when when Kristen came to the puppy farm and pulled him from the pile.

"No insult, but that was shit, having her pick me up and stick her face in my snout, and then you call me 'Cheese Boy', which is the stupidest name even she could come up with, and I'm laying there in the doggie bed while you two screw on the couch, trying to make myself not listen. It was rough on a puppy."

Indignant but sympathetic, I said, "If I'd known, I would have done something."

"I couldn't tell you," he grunted. "I wasn't allowed to. There's some inhibition on communication. Like you're at one end of the gym and the person's at the other, and it's crowded with basketball players between. I don't know how I willed myself into speaking. I just kept trying and trying and one day I could say 'It's Max'."

"Does this happen a lot? With dogs?"

"I don't know. I think it might be. I'm pretty sure the Shar-pei down the hall is Ava Gardner. That could be wishful thinking, though."

"It sucks, doesn't it?"

"Of course it sucks. I had a BS in engineering and a job with the state. Now I run a risk of worms and see in black and white. And suddenly I can smell chili cooking three blocks away."

"Your senses are that good?"

"Sure. I can tell that you went down on Kristen four days ago. It takes that long to wash off because she's a stink--"

"Shut up," I said. "Don't rag on my girlfriend or I'll get you fixed."

"Just don't give me any more of those Gaines Healthy Dog Patties. And don't get me fixed. My sex life is already nil. Women won't dig me anymore, now that I'm less than two feet tall and don't wear pants. And suddenly, I'm fantasizing about other dogs. And not always the right kind of dog, you know? Can I tell you something in total confidence?"

"Max, who could I tell any of this who wouldn't have me committed?"

"I'll be honest, I was strictly hetero before this, but now I see that big retriever in the park and I don't know."

"I think that's normal. Dog's don't get hung up on that shit like people. Remember that stupid joke, 'Why does a dog lick his own genitals?' and the answer's 'Because he can'?"

His eyelids pushed up into his bony head when I mentioned the joke--an unnerving effect. "I'd totally forgotten that joke. Can you give me a minute?" He trotted into the bathroom, nudging the door shut. A few minutes later, he staggered out on four paws.

"Holy shit," he said. "This may not be so terrifically bad. I can blow myself."

I forced him to promise good behavior for Kristen's next visit. She and I hadn't spent time in two weeks; our jobs were busy and the relationship was rocky.

She liked me best if I cooked, so I decided to do a whole chicken with rice and beans, and serve it on some new black plates I'd bought at Pottery Barn. I took Max for a walk on my way to get some acceptably expensive wine.

"Check out the haunches on that Weimeraner," he said. I now understood his so speech thoroughly that he could whisper. "I'm a haunch man. I always used to be breasts, but it's hard when they come in sets of six. I like a little hair but no shag."

"Good looking dog," I said.

"You're an amateur. That's the best looking dog in the park."

Kristen rewarded my dinner, and the wine, with smiles and hand-holding. After dinner, she and I stretched on the sofa and played with Max, who pretended to regular doghood and nipped at our feet. I kept forgetting to call him "Cheese Boy."

"Why do you call him that?"

"He reminds me of Max."

"I thought we called him Cheese Boy. It's strange to name him after your roommate."

"Cheese boy is still his name. He's still our dog. We share custody."

She looked at the little dog and gave a horizontal smile. "Oh, he's such a good boy." She dropped from the sofa to her knees and began to rub Max's head. "So good. Such a handsome puppy dog." Giving me a sideways glance, Max lolled out his massive pink tongue and luridly licked her face, trying to get his tongue between her lips. Kristen pulled back, wiping dog saliva from her mouth, her face wrenched with disgust.

"Goddamn you," I said to Max, "don't lick." I got up and gave him a solid swat on the ass. He barked.

"It's okay," she said. "Don't worry about it."

"He needs to be trained."

"Don't get upset. He's still our good boy. He'll learn."

"He's an immature hound." I gave him a cold glare. He sniffed the air and looked at Kristen, then wrinkled his snout in disgust.

"Enough about the dog," she said, slyly, wiping her mouth. She came across the sofa and sat between my legs. I saw Max slip out of the room; we'd made a deal that if he saw Kristen and I hooking up he'd go into the closet and take a nap.

I was lucky to get a full minute of fondling before Kristen suddenly yelled out, bit my tongue and pulled away. I tasted my own blood. "Jesus!" she said, jerking her leg up. "Your dog was humping my leg."

"He's our dog. And you bit my tongue," I lisped. "Where am I going to put the band-aid?

"Sorry," she said, reaching out to put her hand on my arm. Before she could touch me, she screamed, "Damn it, get off!" The dog was back at her leg. As she tried to kick him away, Max, in retaliation, bit her calf, hard. She screamed.

"Oh, shit," I said. "He's going to the pound. You hear me boy? To the pound." In the candlelit silence after my shouting, Max stood defiantly, slowly lifted his leg, and pissed on the carpet.

"I'm really sorry," he said. "I mean it. It was totally canine behavior and I apologize."

"It was sub-canine," I said. "It was an attack. You'd be in jail if they knew you were human."

"I'm not, though. Sometimes this inner dog gets the best of me."

"It's not very inner. Why did you have to hump her leg?"

"I got caught up in the moment. It was a practical joke, you know? It seemed funny."

"It wasn't funny. I like you being my dog, but I almost got laid, and you blew it for me."

"Why don't you hook up with that chick with the Weimeraner? Then you can get me alone in the doghouse with that piece of shag..."

"I like Kristen. I've liked her for over a year. Your opinion is not relevant."

"I've known you for six years and it's not relevant?"

"You sniff asses, I shake hands."

"I lick my own balls and you jerk off in the shower. Are we so different?"

"You're back on dry dog food if you don't shut up."

"I'll calm down. I've been feeling strung is all. Just take me for a walk?"

I hesitated. "Okay," I said coldly. "Get your leash." He ran to get it and returned with it in his mouth.

"Max, seriously, that can never happen again."

"No guarantees," he said, dropping the leash to the ground. "I'm a dog."

***

Despite my doubts, our friendship returned, and before long we worked out some good tricks. Max could howl out famous opera themes. He barked out the answers to multiple choice questions about politics. He proved his value as a roommate by dispatching the rats that snuck into the apartment. He even behaved around Kristen, tolerating her when she scratched his stomach, and hiding in the closet when she began to kiss me. Kristen forgave the bite, even though the scar stayed for months. My tongue healed.

This strange peace was interrupted in the next summer, during a walk through Prospect Park, when Max tore out after a squirrel. I only ever kept a token grip on the leash, and I lost him for a half-hour. When I caught him, he trotted up to me, shame-faced, and I grabbed his collar. "What the hell?" I yelled. People walking on the path behind us stared. "Why did you do that?"

He looked worried. "Take me home," he growled, "right now."

At home, he noisily lapped an entire bowl of water, then said: "I lost control with that squirrel. I couldn't help myself."

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"It's like before I could talk, when I was a puppy. I'm just watching but I can't manage the dog."

"Are there two of you in there?"

"I'm not even sure there's one. Lately I've been feeling the dog really get the better of me."

"What's that mean?"

"It means I may just be a Boston Terrier before long, not Max."

"Don't you think you'll stay like this? You haven't shown any signs before."

"No, I'm pretty confident Cheese Boy is winning out, here. It was an accident that I got to be Max, anyway. I'm going back into dog limbo."

"How soon?"

"I don't know, and I've been thinking, I don't want ten years of being inside of Cheese Boy's head. I don't want a life of vicarious shitting or leg-humping or biscuit eating."

"You haven't done much besides."

"No, I'm not joking here. I want you to take me for a walk in the next couple of weeks, and I'll slip the leash and run under a truck."

"Oh come on. I can't do that."

"I need you to. I can't handle being trapped in a dog. And the only other option is to bite Kristen or someone else, to force you to put me to sleep. Dying near you, under a truck wheel, is a good alternative to a needle jab by a stranger."

"I don't like any of this," I said.

"You're still six feet tall and relatively hairless; you see things differently. Ultimately, it's my choice, right? I could pretend I'm rabid, bite strangers, and they'll have to destroy me. I'm just asking for your help. As a friend."

I hated the thought of my old roommate trapped somewhere inside a dog's body, and after long thought, gave in. A few weeks after that morbid talk, we shook hand to paw, said goodbye, and walked to the Hamilton Expressway. Without warning, Max yanked the leash from my hand and ran beneath a 18 wheel truck. Tires squealed, and his black and white body folded under the wheels. I cried, and the truck's driver, burly and hairy, cried too.

"What was his name?" the driver asked.

"Max," I said. "He was a good friend to me." I said goodbye to the driver, told him I didn't blame him at all, and pulled some rocks, tied together, from my backpack. Careful to avoid spectators, I took Max's body and tied the rope to it, then heaved him into the Gowanus canal, a few dozen feet from the scene of his death. I walked home and sat on my futon and cried. It was hard to lose my closest friend for a second time. I called Kristen to break the news.

"Cheese Boy got hit by a car," I said.

"Oh," she said. "I'm pregnant."

That night, she and I lay on my bed, my hand on her stomach. Max's cardboard bed sat empty.

After some mutual promises and a month to think about it, she moved into my little place. I kept the sheets tucked in, kept my socks off the floor, and she speedily turned fat and half-luminous. I liked it, ignoring the city for my pregnant fiance, rubbing lotion into her stretch marks, feeling pride and little kicks as I did. I grilled cheese sandwiches on rye with ketchup for her; I read novels out loud. Six months into the pregnancy, I found a better job upstate. Our lives would be small, safe, quiet, and wooded. We called movers, rented a house, and fitted a room with a crib and yellow wallpaper.

After some discussion and disagreement, we named the baby Max. He was a healthy boy, 7 lbs 6 oz., with Kristen's hair. I came home each night as Kristen went to work, teaching English as a Second language at the local high school, and I spent the standard stupid hours mooning over the crib, changing diapers and dangling shimmering things above his face, gum wrappers and plastic rattles, ignoring the work piled in my study. (A house so big it had a study!)

One night, thinking of my old roommate, winding the musical mobile above the crib, I looked down on my boy and said: "I hope you're not re-incarnated, too."

And thank God, he didn't answer back.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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