A Louisiana Thanksgiving, and the seatbelts burn hot ribbons across their shoulders. In the car, seventy miles down the road—bags thrown together, a cellophane-wrapped pumpkin pie sliding around on the floorboards—and they have not yet discussed what will happen to the dog. The wife can’t imagine that they’ll keep it, though she also can’t imagine giving it away. It has become worse than a bad dog: it has become a good dog who is a liability.
The husband’s family has often joked with the wife that she loves the dog more than she loves him. It is a joke about her devotion, just above average, to the animal, though its suggestive undercurrent is that she is a ridiculous person. During this visit, when the husband pulled out a Polaroid from their wedding—a courthouse wedding, a shotgun wedding, held just months before—his mother took it into her hands and squinted.
Interesting, she said. So what exactly is it that you’re wearing here?
And when the wife proudly told her that it was actually a vintage prom dress, a thrift-store find, if she could believe it, the mother-in-law stood up to clear the table. A steal, the wife said to her mother-in-law’s back as she stood before the sink. God, I mean. I swear. It feels like air.
The husband and wife had met at a party, back in May, crowded among yucca; a party that had seemed average to her but new and daring to him, glinting with bayou liquors, freewheeling and dark, an experiment. In June, they drove to the coast at midnight, speeding through conversations about coincidences and the joke/not-joke names of future children. In July, they drifted into cohabitation. By August the weather had turned muggy and biblical. The hairs on the tomato plants stood on alert ends, and impossibly long snakes tumbled out of trees, spooking up the yard’s speedboat tarp. They’d awakened one day and lain in bed with the wife’s phone on their knees, watching the green eye of a hurricane move across the screen, flickering persistently like trick candles on a birthday cake. And when, after a while, the husband walked out into the yard and picked bouquets of iris (Louisiana iris, the rare kind, artery red), one for each of them, she had laughed, nodded. OK, yes. OK—yes!
The flowers wilted before they made it up the courthouse steps, but the hurricane itself never came and swept on suddenly toward the Carolinas.
Later, when they look at the wedding picture, the juvenile shimmer of the wife’s dress is hard for the husband’s parents to swallow; also the age difference. The husband was born in 1990. The wife was born in 1978, the year “YMCA,” by the Village People, came out. Were they to learn of her first two marriages, the husband’s parents would likely find those hard to swallow, too.
The parents, who run a popular magazine about rare bourbon varieties, are famously magnanimous. They have an open-door policy. Everyone knows this. But when it comes to the wife, they cannot help but feel that she is backwoods trash. Whenever she brings up astrology, they grow uncomfortable. Children, as a topic, don’t sit well with them, either. Dogs, as a topic, have been weakly agreed upon. Dogs, so full of neutral habits. Dogs, so full of eyes and ears, noses and tails.
The husband worships his parents—the unflagging, hand-on-back grace of their devotion to each other. He wishes that the wife could see them as he does. They are good people, dog people. Until last night, they had one, too.
The wife has had hers for nine years, and … Oh! This dog! A Tom Hanks among dogs, licking babies, flopping ecstatically on the floor. A dog who sits when you say Sit, who high-fives when you say High-five. Its nose is wet as a bath faucet, its paws large and helpless as oven mitts. The dog has been through everything with her. It has been through the first husband, the second husband, the Clozapine, the tiled kitchen floor, pink like a Mary Kay Cadillac.
She has only had her new husband for a few months, and the dog will not hurt anything again—really. She will make sure of it.
Can you keep an eye out for gas? Something under $2.90? the husband says, breaking the silence, brushing the back of her hand with his. Then he says, You know, let’s make it harder—something under $2.85.
The husband likes to make little challenges like this for himself, although, maddeningly, he is not actually competitive. He is kind. Just below the surface of what he knows about himself there is also this: a belief that the marriage is, itself, a kind of kindness.
In the back of the car, the dog lets out a long, low whine. His feet stutter as the husband eases onto the brake and off an exit. He slings a paste of drool across the headrests.
The wife has heard this particular sound from the dog before. It doesn’t have to do with shame, doesn’t have to do with hazy dog-grief; no, her dog is not thinking about the other animal it killed this morning—the dog belonging to the husband’s mother; boxy, unremarkable, and patient, the dog they found when they came downstairs for breakfast. Upon spotting it limp beneath the table, the mother-in-law let out a little throat cry, high-pitched and compromising. The wife didn’t make a sound, but her thoughts began racing. She thought, Who has come and hurt our dogs? But then she understood. When she found her own dog in the front-hall closet, hiding behind a set of golf clubs—tawny hair still caught between its teeth, confused and frightened by its own strength—she knelt and gathered it into her arms.
Now hot air zips through the open windows, and a Rolodex of billboards—they all seem to be advertising either hell or something large, the world’s largest!—unfurls beside the car. Now the sound her dog is making only has to do with needing to pee. It is a need that has appeared suddenly in its brain like a suggestion, a commercial, a balloon. It is inflating, slowly, outsizing everything else. The dog is not thinking about what will happen next.
Bingo! the husband says, pulling into a station. See? $2.84.
He glances back at the dog and gets out. In the past, he was eager to volunteer for menial dog-care tasks, eager to prove some Boy Scout willingness. He likes the dog, of course, but now when he looks at it there is already a suggestion of goodbye, an appraisal of the facts: here sits a nice dog who sometimes kills things.
It was only a few days ago, the wife thinks, that she lay in bed with the husband, her face pushed peacefully up against the cleft of his shoulder—a warm, piney miracle. She wonders mildly what she would do if she were in his position, but the thought is too impossible to host. The least she can do now is get out and take the dog over to a dry patch of grass and let it do its business. That much is on her. Open the door, she thinks. Get out. OK, do it now. Now.
She doesn’t move. She adjusts her sunglasses, takes her hair and winds it into a new ponytail. The dog whines, nudges her elbow with its nose. Outside, the pavement sizzles like seltzer and smells of bruised citrus, of something sweet and newly rotten—though once, when she described something this way, the husband laughed delightedly at the precision. What a goober, he said, we’re nowhere near fruit trees!
He pumps gas, then cracks the door open and peers in. Want anything? he asks. Peanuts? Ginger ale? Shitty coffee?
What he is getting at is that she probably wants cigarettes to calm her down, to smoke her out of this darkness. He is a good man, but he wants her to ask him for the bad thing so that he does not have to suggest it.
Peanuts, she says in a secret voice, though even as she says it, she’s not sure whether she is saying it to throw him off her trail or because she really wants peanuts.
Yes, she says.
He finishes pumping the gas. No, she thinks. She cannot part with the dog. It is getting older, and with age come spurts of a dazed, feral energy. But it has never meant to hurt anything. If it comes down to it, she thinks, if the choice is between taking the dog and driving out of this gas station, burning rubber, the husband jogging behind, yelling, Maggie, Jesus freaking Christ, Maggie, come on, Mags, she’ll do what she has to. She loves the husband, loves the uneven upside-downcake viscosity of their union, but he will be fine, will be loved, always, by someone. Of course, he might miss her, but his life is male, muscled by college sports, is blue oxford shirtsleeves rolled quarter up, is still at the very beginning—he’ll move on,maybe become a youth pastor. There is always time left for a man to become a youth pastor.
He walks off in the direction of the gas station. He trots back, peers in. From inside the car, his face looms large, impossibly big, enveloped by a white glare, almost impossible to make sense of.
He drops the keys through the crack in the window. He waits.
What? she says.
Hot out here, he says, and it is as if he is baiting her.
OK, she says. OK, and turns the pleasing flashlight of her smile up toward him.