I can’t stop thinking about this afternoon when I was sixteen and walking the old lesbian’s dog.
I didn’t like the old lesbian. Not because she was a lesbian, but because she was old, with one shoulder lower than the other and a slurred way of talking, so that she seemed more dead than alive. I didn’t like the dog either, a cocker spaniel with white hair gone dirty yellow around the mouth. Tricks, he was named, but the only tricks I ever got from him were high-pitched whines and gooey shit.
I walked Tricks once around the island for three dollars every night before dinner. The route took about fifteen minutes total. I tried to appreciate the easy money, to have a good attitude generally, and be grateful for living in a nice house on a beautiful island surrounded by a bay in Southern California. But grateful was hard at sixteen, and all the more right then. My dad had just had his surgery. And my first girlfriend Jodi, who wore cut-off jeans and no shoes, had dumped me for reasons I didn’t understand and couldn’t stop guessing at.
This was October, I think. And the weirdness of the day, the mystery, started in front of the Edwards’ house. It was the only double lot on the island, a mansion with thick green reeds growing wild in the flowerbeds. A sudden rustle, and Tricks pulled hard, got his head in the reeds. I yanked the leash back, and out came Tricks with a duck in his mouth.
I’d seen roadkill before, but that was so mutilated, so clearly gone from an animal into a thing. This was different. A male duck, a mallard, its dark green head shimmering like velvet. Black eyes open and blank. The duck was still except for a swivel in the neck whenever Tricks moved.
“Drop it!” I ordered the dog.
But Tricks didn’t drop it.
“Drop it!” I said again, trying to sound more alpha. Tricks ignored me, probably sensing I’d never been alpha. And I thought that maybe Jodi had sensed that, too, that it was what she’d meant when she’d said, “It just doesn’t feel right.”
I yanked the dog’s leash one way then another; the dog just moved its head one way then the other, duck still in his mouth. I wished I had dogs treats or a muffin to distract him, but I felt self-conscious about knocking on someone’s door to ask.
Chin up, is what my dad would say, so I tried to go with that.
At least it was a beautiful day. The sky bright and clean just before sunset, so that everything from the shingles on the Edwards’ house to the stucco across the street, from Eucalyptus trees to stop signs had a glow. Plus, there was no one around.
For a little while, then, I told myself to feel good. Adaptable. Calm in the face of adversity.
It lasted about three minutes. Because when I got to the island bridge, there was Jodi. Jodi herself, skin dark from the sun and hair light from it, barefooting her way over toward me. She wore summer clothes even in Fall: cut-off jeans and a green t-shirt without any bra. I’d seen what was under that shirt. Touched even. The skin so pale it seemed some other substance, all the more tender for being so rarely revealed.
“Oh, hi,” I said, as if it were all just normal. The dog with the duck and her showing up exactly then, even though she didn’t even live close by.
I tried to get out in front of the dog, so I could introduce the situation gradually, come up with a joke. But Tricks charged ahead, went in for sniff, which meant the duck’s feathers and beak ran up against Jodi’s bare legs.
“Sorry,” I said. “Sorry.”
But she didn’t mind. “It sorta tickles,” she said.
“Are you here for something?” I asked. “What are you here for?”
“I was walking around.”
And the dog kept sniffing. Jodi smelled of cinnamon and suntan lotion and some kind of flower, maybe a lily, even though she didn’t wear any perfume.
“Is it dead?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Do you have a muffin or something? I mean for the dog.”
She put out her bare hands, shifted her hips in the tight cut-offs, saying through the gesture, where would I have a muffin? But then I was staring at her body. And we both noticed that.
“How’s your dad?” she asked.
“Good,” I said. “Fine. The whole thing, the cancer, it’s really slow-moving. He could live another thirty years.”
Then Jodi was looking at me with this softness in her eyes that made me think about something my dad had just told me: that the prostate surgery meant he’d probably never be able to get an erection again. I couldn’t begin to get at how baffled and awkward and sad it made me to hear that. And I wasn’t sure I could talk about my dad right then without bringing it up. So I said, “The woman who owns this dog is a lesbian, I think. She lives with this other old woman and they both have short hair and say they’re roommates.”
“It’s awful to have to pretend you’re something you’re not,” Jodi said.
Then we looked out over the water and at the abandoned yellow sailboat where I used to stash Playboys. And I wondered if she broke up with me because she thought I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Or because of my overly active tongue when we kissed or my lack of gentleness with her breasts. Or because of the letter I’d written after I touched those breasts in which I compared her to a wild orchid.
“What if we squirt him with a hose?” she suggested.
The closest hose was curled into one of those spool things outside the house of someone I didn’t know. But it seemed like the situation called for bravery. That maybe the real reason she’d come by all of a sudden was to reevaluate the breakup, so I’d better hide my bad qualities, which included hesitation and second-guessing.
I yanked that hose and let it unspool, and I put my thumb to the opening to make it spray at Tricks—who stood there and took it, shabby and noble, looking at me like I was Judas.
“Stop,” said Jodi. “This is making me sad.”
“It was your idea.”
“That doesn’t mean it can’t make me sad.”
I turned off the water and spooled back the hose, feeling stupid and confused, even though I was smarter than her, at least in a standardized test kind of way.
“The duck didn’t move when you sprayed him,” she said. “So it must be dead.”
“But they’re used to water. Its feathers are waterproof. Look how the water collects there. Makes those little droplets.”
We looked at the droplets, the miraculous little bundles of light. I thought about how the soft feathers could possibly do that, which made me think of Jodi’s feet. She said she had to wear shoes at school, but we didn’t go to the same school, so I’d never once seen her wear shoes. Not because she was poor or anything, but because she preferred not to. We’d gone into stores, to restaurants, to a Love and Rockets concert, and no one had ever insisted she put on a pair. That alone made her seem a little magical. One time, she’d let me feel her feet. Grubby and square and warm like rocks in the desert. I’d tried to touch them in a friendly way, like it was no big deal, but all the time I’d been buzzing with the contrast between those rough feet and the softness of her breasts.
I was thinking about that when Tricks shook off the water all over Jodi, who screamed and laughed. Water glittered the light. Spotted her shirt. Beaded on her hair and skin like on the feathers of the duck.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s really okay.”
“Do you want to walk back with me?”
And that was nice. Really nice. Just the two of us out there walking along the street, and if you ignored the duck that was probably dead, then we could have been some real couple who owned a dog together.
But then she started going on about my dad again. “I’ve been thinking about him so much,” she said. “Just hoping he’s all right. I like that guy a lot.”
“Everyone does,” I told her. He had an ease with people that came from an ease with himself. He’d go saying things like, “See you around like a donut,” and everyone just thought he was the most charming guy. All his friends liked to tell me what a lady-killer he used to be, how he’d go up to girls on the beach and ask them if they’d seen his bowling ball, a line so bizarre and well-delivered that a lot of the time it worked.
“How are you feeling about it?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s really all fine. Did you take the PSAT?”
“I got 790 on verbal, but not so great on the math. My parents say I might be able to get into a really good school. Like Stanford or something. But it might be hard to afford. My dad’s business isn’t doing all that great right now.”
She seemed sad all over again. We walked awhile in silence and passed some of the island kids in the alley playing Butts Up: Roger, Jeremy, and Agnes. They came running over.
“What’s that?” asked Roger, holding the Butts Up tennis ball and sort of dancing like he needed to pee. “Hey, what’s that?”
I had to explain, while Roger kept dancing and Agnes swung a plastic sword in the air.
“I ate a duck once when my mom took me to a restaurant,” said Roger.
Agnes started hitting the dog with the sword.
“We don’t hit living things with swords,” I told her.
But Agnes kept hitting.
“Throw the ball,” said Jeremy. “See if the dog’ll drop the duck and chase it.”
It was good idea. I unleashed the dog.
“I can throw this ball really, really, really far,” said Roger to Jodi. Then he wound up and did.
But instead of chasing it, Tricks went shit. A long one that made him tremble.
I had to clean it up with a plastic bag, and I only had one of those thin, clear ones they use for vegetables. The shit was hot and soft in my fingers. All the kids laughed.
“Poop-grabber,” said Roger.
I was trying to be dignified. Natural. To handle the situation the way my dad might.
Jodi had already reattached the dog’s leash since I’d forgotten, and she was holding on. The kids were telling her about Butts Up.
I told her I’d be right back and went to find a trash can. When I came back, they had Tricks leashed to a pole and were playing a round. Giggling and locked in the moment.
I worried my hand smelled like dog shit. Then I smelled it, and it did. And I saw that Jodi was looking at me and had probably seen me smell my hand for dog shit, and I had to try hard not to worry more.
Then she missed the ball, and Roger tagged the wall before she could, and she had to go through the traditional Butts Up punishment, which meant going to the wall, bending over, sticking out her butt—that tidy, powerful roundness.
Roger pinged it with the tennis ball, and she made this little yelp.
Then we walked, the two of us, back toward the old lesbian’s house.
“You remember that time your dad fixed the chain on my bike and I didn’t even ask him to?” she asked.
“Like I was just over, and he noticed it was messed up, and he fixed it.”
“That was so sweet.”
“I think we should stop talking about my dad now.”
We were nearing the dead-end where the old lesbian lived. The street stopped abruptly at a short curb and then just dropped right down into the bay. Her house was right next to that dead end.
The old lesbian’s name was Cecilia Cate. Somewhere in my head, I knew that.
Years later, when I was just starting at Vassar College and feeling more deeply bewildered than ever about women—their varieties of elegance, their desires, their deep language of gesture, and that question of who was in or out of my league—the old lesbian, Cecelia Cate, would accidentally drive her car off that dead end into the shallow bay. She would be unhurt, water only up to her chest. My dad would pull her out. And the car would have to be removed with a crane. My mom would tell me that story over the phone as something funny. But to me, it would feel sad. Humiliating. Diminishing. And it would remind me that I was never as kind to Cecelia Cate as I might have been.
My dad died only a few months after Cecelia did. A mass built up in his stomach that none of the doctor’s noticed. Then my mom died a few months after that from a heart condition brought on by stress. They’d gone into debt without telling me. So that midway through my sophomore year, I couldn’t afford to go to Vassar anymore and had to get a job at Oh, Those Donuts back in Costa Mesa.
I work and drink beer and watch TV shows about the end of the world. Sometimes, I give myself pep talks about going to back to school, say community college, about what my dad would have done in this situation. The pep talks aren’t taking hold, at least not yet.
But in this story, the one I’m telling, Tricks the yellowing dog still had that duck in his mouth, and I still had my hope. Nearing Cecelia Cate’s house felt like the end of a date, and I had the urge to tell Jodi I loved her. How I didn’t understand her, and how that lack of understanding was part of what made me feel that way. And how if she only came to see me that day because of pity about my dad, well, I’d take it. And maybe, with time, it would transform into something else.
A light wind pushed ripples up on the water. Jodi looked away from me toward that. The sun was beginning to set, and everything lit up red, including her hair, which looked like something out of a commercial for conditioner. I had this feeling like whatever happened next would determine the rest of my life.
There was a dock next to the dead end. I suggested we get the dog out there, push his head down into the water in hopes he’d release the duck, and she said it was a good idea. So, we scooched Tricks out to it. He got his claws into the wood, so we were pushing more his old skin than him. We wrangled, laughing now, our bodies bumbling together, closer than we’d been all day. I reached out, held the dog’s head down into the dark water, and it was ridiculous and scary and real.
I didn’t know how long I’d have to hold it before it released the duck, or if it would. But it did. Jaws opened up, and the duck floated out, body still.
Probably it’s nothing. A couple coincidences capped by a mystery so minor it doesn’t deserve
the term. Probably, I could find thousands of similar instances of what happened next on Youtube, all sorts of angles and varieties—but I won’t.
We were all watching—the dog, the girl, the boy—waiting on the dock for something we knew could never happen, when suddenly, it did.
That mallard duck lifted its green-sheened, velvet head, flicked its wings, kicked its webbed feet. And with complete animal calm, it swam away through the dark water whose surface burned red in the setting sun.