On Pine Street, there is a dog that takes himself for walks. His owner, a short, thin, balding man with larger than average ears, opens the gate to their yard at 8:30AM. The dog, a Newfoundland, big and black and hairy, walks out unleashed. The man closes the gate and goes inside. The dog walks, one block-turn-one block-turn-one block-turn, then back to his house. The man is in the yard again. 8:47AM. He opens the gate. The dog goes in. The man pets him. The dog’s hair flops around like wide noodles. The man goes to work. The dog lies in the yard for the rest of the day, until the man comes home at 6:17PM and opens the gate for the second walk of the day. Just like that, again and again.
I have been watching the man and the dog out my window for nine and a half days. I get up at 8:00AM and eat spaghettiOs or ramen noodles and sit at the window waiting. Each morning I expect that something will change, the man will be late opening the gate, or the dog won’t come back around the corner, or Sofia my girlfriend will show up. She is missing.
I have never spoken to the man or petted the dog; in fact, before Sofia went missing, I didn’t even know they lived across the street from me. But now, I have named them, Phil and Egbert. I have decided that Phil is an attorney, one of those older guys who wears sport coats to work and spends most of his day doing cross-word puzzles. He has never been married and all of his family members are dead. Egbert is his family. For his part, Egbert was the runt of the litter, although now, he is massive. He is a shy dog, and when Phil showed up at the breeders, Egbert was the only puppy that sat patiently waiting, pink tongue panting, while his brothers and sisters jumped and licked at Phil’s legs and arms like needy children.
Sofia and I met at a Barnes and Noble reading; a local poet stammered and stuttered over his words. I fidgeted with a paper clip, twisting it back and forth until it snapped, stabbing me in the meaty part of my palm, a little dot of red. She handed me a Kleenex and whispered, “I’m bored too.” Her soft summer-blonde hair frizzed in tight curls around her face. We went for coffee afterwards.
I imagine that when Egbert is let back into the yard after his second walk at 6:34PM, he follows Phil, in plodding steps, into the house and they share a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, Lady and the Tramp-style, and watch the news.
Before Sofia disappeared, we used to make elaborate meals together, like braised lamb with fennel. We would open a bottle of wine and put on Miles Davis and cook and kiss. She would smile these sideways-smiles with her dimples catching on her cheeks like glitter.
I have been seeing her lately, in the grocery store, at the mall, at the park near our favorite bench. She is always in the distance, and I am not sure if it is really her or if it is just some other girl who, with my glasses off, begins to take her shape, her walk. Two days ago, as I filled my cart with pudding snack packs, I swear I saw her down the cereal aisle, her arm looped lazily through the elbow of a tall, straight, stiff-looking man. “Sofia,” I said, my voice cracking out in a low huff like a dog coughing. “Sofia.” I tried again, but the word seemed to hit off glass and bounce back in my face, vibrating between my ears. The woman with the stiff man leaned up and kissed him on the cheek, tippy-toed. I left my cart in the center of the aisle filled with two litter pop bottles and cheese curls and ran to my car, lungs burning.
On Saturdays, Phil and Egbert stick to the same time-table, but usually Phil walks with Egbert on these days. They walk side by side like old men, no leash, slumped shoulders, not looking at each other, instead concentrating on the cracks and bumps of the sidewalk in front of them.
But today, this Saturday, they are late. It is already 8:41AM, and they have not emerged from the house. I know they are in there. I saw them go in last night after their walk. I am at the window with an empty bowl of orange spaghettiO-liquid crusting along the edges. I tug at the blind cord, twisting so tight the tip of my finger turns blue; I poke at it before I release the pressure. I hold my breath and count to ten, twenty. The door does not open. By 9:00AM, I have the cordless phone in my hand. I turn it on and off. I punch in 9-1 and hang up. I lick my lips, feeling the cracks underneath like canyons.
I worry that perhaps in the night a gang of men with black ski masks over their faces broke into the house and kidnapped Phil and Egbert. Or that someone slipped cyanide into the spaghetti sauce they generously poured over their noodles last night leaving them on the kitchen floor. I worry they are gone.
At 10:00AM, I slip on my boots and a sweatshirt I haven’t washed in over a week, and I walk across the street. I open the gate stepping over the dead spot of grass, flat and brown, where Egbert usually lies. The first porch step creaks as I lean forward, and I step back into the yard. I say quietly, “Hello, are you okay?” A light breeze flips the fabric of my pant legs back and forth. I suck-in a breath and run up the steps, banging out three loud knocks, without exhaling. Nothing. I cough and sputter as I let the air out, hands on knees until I am breathing in a pattern again. I knock again, three light controlled knocks. I poke my head up and shade my eyes to look in the window at the top of the door. It is dark and all I can see are shades of gray, black on layers of black.
I slide along the side of the yard to the garage. I again shade my hands around my face and peer in through the long glass panels on the garage door, the blue-gray car is there. I go back to the yard and find the spot where Egbert lies every day. I lie on the ground and curl myself into a fetus-like shape so all of my body fits in the space Egbert has trampled down with his. I half-expect to feel the heat of his body, to be inside him.
Across the street I can see my house, the porch leaning to one side, the grass long and weedy like the un-swept floor of a barber shop. The last time I saw Sofia, we were on the porch, sitting on the edge of the step, feet on the pavement. She was flipping the laces of her shoes around her fingers, weaving them in and out. I know her lips were moving, but in my memory it sounds like we are underwater, she says, wah wah, wah wah. I reached for her hand. She pulled it away, letting the laces fall like dead worms across her bright red sneakers. I know I said something here too, before she stood, shoes still untied. But the words hung silently between us like deflated balloons. Her curls crunched off her shoulders as she got into her car. I didn’t call after her. Only empty air. And now, she’s gone.
Just then the door opens behind me, I hear a swoosh-hum of air. Egbert’s tags jingle like Christmas bells. “Son,” a man’s voice says. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I say. Egbert is next to me now, sniffing at my hair, his tail hitting my back in a long, slow rhythm of thwacks. “I live across the street,” I say, like this helps explain why I am lying here in his front yard curled up like a child.
“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen you in the window.” This has never occurred to me before, that they, Phil and Egbert, could see me too. “We’re going for a walk,” he continues. “Want to come?” I roll over and sit up. Egbert sits next to me, panting and drooling in long lines of salvia. I stand. Phil pats me on the back and says, “Good man. Good man.”
We open the gate and go out. Three across is too wide for the sidewalk so Egbert plods along beside Phil in the grass. I imagine what Sofia would see if she pulled into my driveway right now, at this moment. She would see our backs for the first block, my rumbled jeans and the way my hair has grown out since she has been gone. Then we would turn and disappear around the corner and she would wait, anxious for us to come back. She would tug at the ends of her hair, twirling it, spinning it in slow circles around her fingers, her eyes fixed on the place she thinks we will reemerge, hopeful.