Writer in Residence · 09/07/2012

Dear Mr Fantasy

Memory is a funny thing, not because of what comes to mind, but because of what doesn’t. All the moments, all the faces, all the places we’ve forgotten. They’re in there somewhere, aren’t they? Is it only a matter of access? The right word said, the exact scent, the taste, the touch, the sound.

Take Isabel Cooke. Here she is, in her house in her town in her world as it is now, with her husband dead a year. All the friends and colleagues who came around at first, to honor him and comfort her, have slipped back into their own lives again, leaving Isabel to fend for herself, supposing she must be over her grief by now.

And maybe so. She might have moved on, as she’s heard someone put it, though moving on for her is going to take some packing first, because she was married to Alan for thirty-two years, and they were sweethearts for eight years before that, so forty years altogether, and only the one without him now to balance all that against. Even in dog years, it isn’t enough.

She has plenty to keep her busy. Her house. Her garden. Her car, her bank account, her clothes, her dishes, her linens, her books, her papers, her furniture, and yet it’s all of it tangled up with him. There are associations everywhere, even with the photographs removed. The lamp he made. The table he repaired. The cabinets he painted. He’s here in everything. Watching her, it seems.

She sits at the table nursing a cup of tea, warming her hands, and listening to the quiet that defines her loneliness—no sound of his footsteps, no creak on the stairs, no water running in the shower. A silence so complete, it hums. Or she stands at the window, arms folded over herself, and peers out at the road. As if he might be coming home. The car in the lane. The hand on the gate, the step on the porch, and how he’d greet her. A kiss on the forehead. The same old hello and how was your day and what’s for dinner, and you expect me to eat this slop?, and wipe that look off your face. What look? Nothing she did, nothing she said, but something had made him mad.

But that’s all over now, and she can feel it fading more every day. She watches television and movies. She looks at magazines, photographs, and paintings. She stares at the smallest thing—a leaf, a tree, a butterfly, a bird—to burn new pictures into her mind until they become so clear that everything else gets dim.

And then the dog. And then the phone call.

First, the dog. His dog, hers now. Heavy body, bandy legs, like Alan himself. The broad brow. The powerful shoulders. Small hips, balls hanging. He’s a pit bull, full grown and beset with bad habits that Alan never bothered to train out of him, because already he was dying and there wasn’t time. The dog turned out to be a companion, a comfort to him in those last days, after the fall, when he was bedbound downstairs in the front room that had been converted to contain him. The TV set just so and on all day, screaming at him because he was deaf a little and asleep a lot. The leg would heal and the ribs, too, but not the head. She came downstairs that morning—like Christmas—to find him with the dog there beside him, snarling when she tried to get close, whispering his name. Then alarmed and louder, but Alan’s jaw was hanging and his eyes were open, and he was cold and clearly dead.

It took food to get the dog to come away. A steak, as in a cartoon. She thawed it in the microwave and then stood there at the door with the summer a raucous green beyond, teeming with life, as if in taunt to him. Holding the door open with her foot and calling to the dog, who scrabbled up and bounded, sliding, down the hall, all memory of master gone, replaced by the smell of meat. Tossed out into the backyard, and then the door slammed after him.

From there, a cascade of event. Too fast, too jumbled to sort clearly. Phone calls and visitors. Arrangements, papers signed, flowers, casseroles, a black dress, and a black umbrella. The bed removed and the house put back the way it was, the way she liked it, as she cleared her husband out of here one room at a time. So now, twelve months later, in high summer once again, there’s hardly any trace of him left at all.

Except the dog, who remains a constant reminder, as if Alan planned it that way. Looking at her, with Alan’s eyes. Chin on his paws. And not a pretty dog. Not even a friendly dog. Not a companion to her. A watch dog maybe. Every bag of kibble she buys and lugs from the store to the car, then drags from the car into the house, is a resentment.

The dog dozes by the back door, spread out, belly to the cool floor. It’s midmorning and the summer heat is starting to build. The garden is a riot of vegetables that she will never be able to eat. Maybe it will rain. Isabelle Cooke is in her kitchen drinking tea and making a list. Soon she’ll go out on the porch to read while the bees buzz the flowers and the sun creeps across the sky.

And that would be that, a day like any other day, except the phone rings and she jumps and the cup clatters out of its saucer. The dog startles awake and is on his feet, barking deliriously. He slams into the door and through the screen, leaves it hanging.

When the machine picks up, what she hears is Alan’s voice, like a ghost slamming into her. “We’re not here. Leave a message. Maybe we’ll call you back.” And then a silence, in which she sits, frozen, while the tea runs off the edge of the table and drips onto the floor, and the dog’s barking fades into the distance.

Then: “Isabel? I don’t… Well, this is Duffy. Duffy Branch. I know it’s been awhile, and I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner, but I only just now heard. And so I’m calling to say… Well… I’m sorry, I guess. But… You can call me back if you want.”

And then, his number. The click of the machine. The tape whirring, resetting itself. A beep. A new message. Beep. A new message. The light flashes. Beep. Beep.

Duffy Branch.

+

Once he’s out the door, the dog is gone. Charging after the kids who have been huddled behind the bushes at the side of the backyard. These kids who are drawn here to the widow’s house at the end of the lane, where the woods thicken above the creek that they’ve been fishing all morning until now, on a dare, they’ve crept up into her yard, to peek through the bushes for a glimpse of her. She’s crazy, they’ve said, or heard their parents say. She killed her husband, didn’t she? She’s a witch. She will poison you or try to take you. She kidnaps kids and keeps them in her basement. She used to be a teacher, the meanest teacher you ever had, the one who would slap you and send you out into the hall. The one with the long nose and small mouth and sharp finger always pointing at you, or someone like you. And then they fired her. There was a scandal of some kind. The memory’s not clear. It might not even have been her, it could have been someone else, but it doesn’t matter, because these kids hear the stories and they tell them over and over, upping the ante, compounding the risks, until the little ones are properly terrified. Because then the dare can mean something. Go up there and ring the doorbell. Put this on the porch. Break a window. Steal something, anything. It’s a test and if you’re brave enough, if you can pass it, then we’ll let you… What? Join the club. Be our friend. Be one of us.

Not figuring the dog. Or not mentioning him, because that’s half the game, it’s half the fun—send a kid into her yard or up to the door, then watch what happens, as the dog comes bounding out, a thick ball of muscle and rage, through the screen and onto the porch and into the yard. You hardly have time to turn, to change your mind, to run back to the woods with that hell dog at your heels, his breath huffing, his paws pounding, and your friends, if that’s what they are, all watching and laughing as you fly across the grass, yelping in terror. He leaps and you fall, hard, the wind knocked out of you. He’s on top of you, gnashing, though he won’t bite. He sits on your chest, his face to your face. Slobbering. Panting. Grinning, it seems. You’ve passed the test. You’re all right.

+

She listens to the message four times before she writes the number down. And then once more to be sure she has it right. Not that she’s going to call him back. No, that isn’t her intention, not yet. Finally she erases the message and thinks again about changing her own message—removing Alan’s voice from the machine. She’s aware of the dog, barking in the woods, and the cries of children too. She unplugs the machine from the wall and then from the phone. Wraps the cord around it and puts it in the trash. Gathers the bag, which is not quite full, cinches it tightly shut, carries it to the backdoor, sets it on the porch. Puts a new bag in. Looks out the window to see a flash of color beyond the bushes. The children, she assumes, playing.

By the time she’s fixed the screen, she knows she’ll call Duffy back. It’s only a matter of time. Not whether, but when.

Not long, as it turns out. She puts the tools away and looks out at the woods to see whether the kids are gone, to see if the dog is coming back. His representative, his spy, as if Alan were still there, watching her. She doesn’t like the scrutiny.

By now she has the number memorized. The paper is folded in her pocket, but she takes it out to look at it again, to be sure she has it right. Three rings, four, five, and now she’s panicking at the choice that’s been presented: Will she hang up or will she leave a message of her own? But the phone just rings and rings, as if he doesn’t even have a machine or a service, and for a bit this seems all right, listening to the ringing. It’s soothing, in a way, and she gets used to it. She doesn’t do anything, just hears it, dreamily, as if she just might sit there like that forever.

Until he picks up. “What?”

So startled, she doesn’t know what to say, at first. Then, “Duffy?”

She remembers his teeth, the gap between them that was supposed to mean something. And his eyes. She’s wondering whether he still has his hair. “It’s Isabel.”

He says he didn’t know about Alan, or he would have called sooner. He only heard yesterday or last week or sometime. And, what happened? And, are you all right?

This takes her aback. That he would show up like this, out of the blue, after so many years, to ask her that, now.

“I’m fine.” Which isn’t exactly true, but he seems glad to hear it anyway. His voice warms, and now she’s telling him how it happened, this story that she’s told so many times, but he brushes it aside. He doesn’t want to talk about Alan, he wants to talk about her. He’s remembering, he says, their morning ride. So many years ago. It was that summer and he calls out the year. There was a party, an all-night party, and… He tells her what he remembers, a story she listens to. But. No. That wasn’t her, was it? She doesn’t want to disappoint him, but… When, again? “I don’t think…”

She wants to remember. She wants it to be true.

But now there’s someone banging at the front door. She looks up in fear. Caught, as if she’s been doing something she shouldn’t, and she tells him, “I have to go. I’m sorry.” And then hangs up on him.

At the door: the dog, on a leash. The kid, bloodied. The father, threatening.

“Your fucking dog. My son. I’ll sue.”

He unhooks the leash, and the dog bounds in, back to the kitchen, collapses on the floor near the stove, panting. Seeming to grin. Looking at her, as if, she thinks, he knows.

+

It might have ended there. Both the phone call and the angry parent at the door. Blips on the screen. Waves cresting, then gone. The long quiet time between events, the silence between the tick and the tock, erasing all reaction first and then even memory. She might forget he ever called, and the father, satisfied by his own righteousness and his own anger successfully vented—that could have been the end of it. Let well enough alone. The fracas faded, the dog slept. She sat at the kitchen table, eating her supper. Reading. Working a crossword. No one came to the door. The phone did not ring. This went on for days.

But now there is a package in the mail. She’s not accustomed to anything other than flyers and bills—some of them addressed to Alan still, his name not yet erased from all the lists, and how would they know if she didn’t take the trouble to write and tell them? It’s a padded envelope with her name printed large, front and center, and Duffy’s smaller on the upper left. She carries it into the living room and sets it on the chair. The dog, following, wants her to hand it over to him, like Alan reading her mail before she could get to it herself.

There is no note. Nothing but a CD—Traffic, “Mr. Fantasy”—and a photograph, clipped from a magazine. She puzzles over these only for a moment before she realizes: This is the song they listened to, on that sunrise drive, and this was his car—a 1967 TR4A. The top was down. It was August, so there might have been a first chill of fall that early in the morning. The music loud. Her hair long and blowing. His hands on the wheel, and the way the car hugged the curves. From the farmhouse where the party was, around the long bend, and then over the bridge. A left turn into the park. The woods thick. Wet, with morning. They’d been up all night and they were high, but it was wearing off, a headache coming on.

+

On Saturday there’s a postcard in the mail, and Isabel wonders if the mailman noticed and read it and now is speculating about her. Whether he’ll tell someone and it will get around and then they’ll have one more thing to laugh at about her, the old widow with a man in her life again.

The photo on the front—a park. The scene is summer. The black road winds into a cascade of full-leaved trees. They would have left the party at the house at the end of a back lane through the fields that run alongside the river and takes you to the highway, where the entrance to the park is. Heading west then, with the sunrise behind them. The sky purple up ahead and lilac at your back, yellowing at the rim where the sun begins to glimmer. The top down. He in a T-shirt and a cap. Bell bottom jeans and bare feet. His hair long, curly at the ends. She in a summer dress and sandals.

On the back of the card he has written, “Remember this?”

She stares at it for a long time. She puts it down and picks it up and puts it down again. She can see herself getting into the car. He opens the door for her, smiling. It’s an ironic gesture, old-fashioned.

But she has nothing before that. How they happen to be together. How he invites her to go with him. The others strewn about the house and porch and yard in various states of bacchanalian repose. Some passed out. One in the hammock. Maybe that’s Alan.

But Isabel is wide awake and so is Duffy, and he shares his cigarette. Then as the sky begins to change he says, “Do you want to take a ride?” And she says, “Sure.” That simple. So he pulls her to her feet, and she follows him across the grass.

She can get herself into the car with him. She can get the top down and the headlights on. He backs around, his arm across the seat, his hand on the wheel, spinning. A stick shift? And then they’re heading up the long drive; they’re turning into the lane. The headlights first, now the music. The wind in her hair. His eyes on the road. She can get them right up to the entry to the park that way. His blinker flashing.

But that’s as far as she can go. Sitting on a rock beside the creek, holding the post card. Studying the picture. Turning it over to read his question again. “Remember this?” While the dog rolls in manure.

+

By the time she gets back to the house she’s decided it’s time to get rid of the dog. While she hoses him off she considers how she might do it. When she turns off the water, he shakes himself dry and jumps around. Playful, happy, so she can’t be mad at him. In this, too, he reminds her of Alan.

In the phone book there are two listings for animal shelters. One here in town and another just off the interstate, twenty miles away. Tomorrow she’ll get him in the car and drive him over there. Say as little as possible. Just leave him and come home, she thinks, and then that will be the end of that.

He follows her upstairs to bed. He’s on the floor, sleeping, while she lies awake and watches the moon and hears an owl and sees the shadows of the trees moving in the wind.

+

In the mail the next morning, this time it’s not a card, it’s a letter.

Dear Isabel,

Have you got a memory yet? Any sparks? I propose a re-enactment. Just me and you. We’ll retrace the now infamous route, cool? It did happen, as I’ve this burnt-in memory of returning to the farmhouse, and the rising sun to the east, aglow on your blond hair, blowing in the wind.

+

The dog goes willingly into the car. She leaves the back window open, and as they drive he has his head out, tongue hanging, eyes squinting in a way that makes him look like Alan laughing, which was rare.

She has the address and the town is small. The shelter is on a country road, down at the end of a long dirt driveway. The dog, getting a whiff of what’s in store maybe, whines, then barks, then leans forward so his head is next to hers.

“Almost there,” she says, to calm herself as much as him.

It’s hot already and it will get hotter as the day wears on, but there is a lingering coolness in the shadows of the trees that hover around the low concrete building with the kennels at the back. She has the dog on a length of clothesline because she thought to leave his collar and tags at home. It should look like this is not her dog. She has her story ready—he’s a stray, he just showed up. She put a flyer out, but no one called. Some talk about people and irresponsibility and abandoning their pets in these hard times, when you have to cut back somewhere if you want to keep your family fed.

It’s not until she tries the door that she realizes there’s no one here. She hums a bit in her frustration. The sign is clear as day—Monday: Closed. The dog is pulling at her, so she yanks him back and takes the rope off. She rolls it up as he bolts around the corner, stops to sniff, lifts his leg, then ambles on, hackles raised, toward a run where another pit bull is frantically throwing itself at the fence, teeth gnashing.

She doesn’t stay to see what happens next, but turns, quickly, and hurries back across the grass and then the gravel, to the car. Her heart slamming, ears ringing. She slows at the top of the drive. A truck barrels past and she slams on the brakes. Dust roils behind her.

She waits. She watches in the mirror, expecting to see the dog come into the yard again, looking for her, for her car. Or the door of the building opening and someone stepping out, someone who has seen everything and knows what she’s done, what she’s trying to do. But there is nothing. No dog, no dog catcher. She puts on her blinker, looks both ways, then pulls out onto the highway again and heads back home, alone.

+

Now that dog is gone and she’s by herself in the house, it’s as it was when Alan died, those first days after, when it was still possible for her to imagine that he was just gone out somewhere and would be coming back again any minute. She tries to pinpoint when it was that that changed—the precise moment when she realized that no, not so, he’s dead, Isabel, it’s over—and recalls a morning when she woke and the sun was already streaming in the window and she could feel it, she just knew that now the world was all her own. She recalls the way she moved that morning, going about her business in the stillness of the house as if it had a personality itself and they were in cahoots, she and the house, in this their new emptiness, their new silence, in which anything could be said or thought or done, and it would always be her own.

It’s like that again now, with the dog gone. She can think that nothing’s changed. He’s off somewhere outside, getting into trouble that will bring someone to the door to scold her for something that he’s done, but she’s responsible for. Or the phone will ring and someone will be complaining and telling her that whatever has happened, it’s her fault and she must make amends. He chased a child or he tore through a garden or he pulled down some clothes from the line in somebody’s backyard. Muddy footprints on the porch. A dead chicken in the yard. A pile of his stink steaming on the sidewalk. But no, now there won’t be anymore of that.

So she should be happy. She should be feeling free. Except it isn’t morning, it’s night. And she’s in bed and the empty house is really empty now, it’s really all just hers. No Alan. No dog. For the first time, she’s afraid. Her mind seethes, her body tenses and curls in on itself, and then, before she knows it, Isabel is weeping.

When the front door bangs, at first she doesn’t hear it, but when it bangs again and then the third time she stops her gurgling and lifts her face from the pillow where she’s buried it to muffle the sobs, and holds her breath and listens. She creeps to the window to look out and expects to see a car in the driveway, pulling away now, or waiting. Again a sound. Someone is out there on the front porch. So now she’s floating down the stairs—her face a mess, her hair wild—and as she’s turning on the light it occurs to her: it must be the dog. He’s found his way back. He’s here and he wants in.

But no. No one is there. Or if they are, they’re hiding. Did she lock the back door? Are all the windows closed? Could someone have come into the house somehow and now is hiding? Standing behind her, watching her, in the closet, in the basement, in the attic, behind the door.

She spends the rest of the night downstairs. In Alan’s chair. With his shotgun across her knees.

+

When she wakes, it’s with a sense of surprise that she’s even slept at all. She’s glad she’s alone and no one, especially not Alan, has seen her this way, tangled in this panic and this doubt. He would have rolled his eyes and said, “‘Twas ever thus, my dear.” Taking the gun gently from her hands and putting it back in the front hall closet where it belongs, behind the winter coats and the umbrellas and the boots. “You’re all right, Isabel,” he’d say. “You’re perfectly safe here. You’ll be fine.” It’s a moment before she hears this and understands that she’s been talking to herself, and maybe that scares her more than the idea even of someone there in the house watching her and waiting for the right moment to step out into the light and reveal himself as one who has come to inflict some kind of final harm.

But there is no one there. Isabel is alone, and that’s all she wanted, isn’t it? She turns on the lights, turns on the television, slaps around barefoot, busy with the business of making coffee and taking her vitamins and brushing her teeth and combing her hair. The TV is reporting traffic conditions in a larger town than this and weather in another state altogether. Farm reports and stock reports. News and commentary. While Isabel Cooke sits at the kitchen table with her hands cradling her mug, and behind the windows the sky brightens and the shadows recede, to reveal, in the front yard, beyond the dewy grass, the ruin of her garden. The plants trampled. Tomatoes smashed. The fence broken. The gate hanging on its hinges. There are muddy footprints in the grass. She stands on the back stoop staring at them, trying to figure, how many? One or two? Or twenty? These kids emerging from the trees, creeping across the lawn and then tearing into the garden in a mad wild frenzy of annihilation aimed at her. And in the middle of it a threadbare witch with a monster mask, hanging from a tree, arm raised, and finger pointing at the house.

+

We drove the back way around the lake. No one else was up. We left them sleeping, crashed around the house on sofas, in chairs, in beds, and on the floor, together or alone, and we two the only ones still awake. I took your hand. You followed me out to the car. We left the headlights off and rolled away, down the driveway to the road and down the road into the park. Your blond hair blowing. Your hand on my knee. The radio was playing, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and I kissed you as the sun came up and the sky brightened into day.

+++

Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and_Harmony_. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, Folio, Folly, Word Riot, Coe Review, Guernica Magazine, Seedpod Press, Amarillo Bay, and The Adirondack Review. She has taught fiction writing in the low residencyMFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spends as much time as possible in Colorado, and at present lives in Los Angeles. Find out more about what Susan’s up to at www.susantaylorchehak.com

+++

posted by Nancy Freund