Let Dogs Delight

On looking back, you perceive patterns, a particular trajectory to a life, and doubt it could have been any way other than what it was. But even in the midst of living can it really be any way else? Are we really so free to step outside ourselves and do something totally radical—as in something beyond the pale of all events and choices that lead us to such a choice?

            Her car had run off the road into a pine, killing her instantly. Apart from the towtruck that had disposed of the totaled Mercury and the ambulance that had ferried her remains to the morgue, there had been no bills to pay, no expenses that, had there been a protracted death in a hospital, where machines and medicines and people’s livelihoods are involved, would certainly have bled the trust and revived old animosities. Though weeks would pass before anyone uttered the words, her quick death was a blessing, her last act of service in this world.

            There was some discussion about scattering the remains in the garden and mixing them with Joy’s (she had always said she wanted their dust intermingled), but no one was dressed appropriately and the notice of death had yet to run in the paper, which might draw out a commiserating acquaintance. Instead, it was decided that Helen would live with Billy and Martha until business could be sorted. There was also some question as to my medication, which Billy reckoned best not taken into account—pleas to the contrary he put down at once. Then, after Helen emerged with her bags, we filed into the van, smells of new places, of new manners and new meals, of new possibilities, and the old bungalow vacant behind me at last. They had forgotten my chattels, but what did I care, for where I was going was an improvement.

            I had never been to the Stadlers—that is, to the Stadlers in Baton Rouge; Joy had, on multiple occasions (those were the years before relations had become more frayed by Bill’s demise), and had relayed information and judged the place ideal—though I had abandoned all hope of seeing it, as Joy had of going back by the time we were introduced. She had come in, happy and good natured despite the cast on her leg, but the years had taken their toll—not that she was resentful or had succumbed to pessimism or self-pity, only, I suppose, she had come to welcome her situation as anyone would, eventually taking the chains and shackles for ornaments and adornments, the deprivation of which would constitute a sort of nudity, not so much shameful as uncomfortable. She had leaned into her captivity without any thought of escape.

            At first we got along well, like siblings; she was helpful at filling with details the adumbrations of sighs, of mutterings in the hall, of insinuations and allusions to people and incidents unknown to me while I struggled to make sense of my situation. But within the year I no longer had any feelings for her, and began to think of her, if at all, more as a fixture, like a moveable piece of furniture, than as a friend or potential mate, and her blithe dedication and her suffering herself to be so handled served to put me off, so that I determined, if not to become inured to the difficulty of my circumstances or complacent to the extent of being grateful simply for having a roof over my head, to derive benefit from a practice of lethargy instead of ingratiating myself to someone who struck me as fundamentally impossible. Even during those trips across the lake to the barn, where we would go for the pleasure of “watching Crickets” (since Crickets had been deemed unrideable), I would lie away in the shade of a tractor or trailer, ignoring the wisecracks of the bumpkins whose jests were mainly overtures to induce me to tell them about city life (as though Metairie were so urbane) and perhaps on some level hoping the tractor would suddenly reverse with the same effect as the Grand Marquis had had that day on Joy, only, in my case, to break my neck.

            It was at the barn that Elise met Joy. Elise, by that point, was forty. She had always been a nervous driver, especially if the errand was not to her liking; then you could be sure we would be riding to a fanfare of honking. There had been some discussion about her social security (or lack of it), which had led to her fleeing the scene, bags packed and everything, no matter that she could not count a cent to her name, and she had cut out for the barn, I take it, to make whatever plans she could for Gypsy. In her haste she had reversed too quickly and a bright squeal, that tocsin that was to eradicate her plans of breaking away, went up. Or perhaps nothing would have changed. Elise leapt from the car and found her with a broken leg. “Oh no!” she said in that inveterate singsong, that cartoon of child’s pain. “Ooo, I’m so sorry! I should have been paying attention!” She was panting from the agony, yet her eyes were big and hopeful. “I’m sure you had a lot on your mind. That you weren’t looking is understandable. But, crikey, could you bring me, please, to a doctor?” Which was how she became a fixture, as I say, around the house. Bill could hardly protest—he did protest (that is, when he was not raving about Falaise pockets and the dark forest at Buchenwald), but in light of the fact he was bedbound, a silhouette spraddled in front of the television, his voice a declarative whisper as a result of the congestive heart failure that would carry him off by the end of the year—and he must have soon realized that expelling Joy from his house was as likely as his recovery. Things worked there by way of acquiescence, a bowing to the sheers of fate. Thus was hers spun and measured.

            She would nurse Bill to the end, and now she had Joy to look after. The more she could help, the happier she was. Along with her nature to be put to incessant use, there was a predilection for surrounding herself with objects needing repair. As a girl she had taken in sparrows who had run into the window and incurred broken wings, a baby squirrel who had fallen and hurt its back, turtles with split shells who had been hit along the canal—there had been a predecessor, many years before, whose scent still lingered on unworn clothing, not a shepherd like Joy but some parvenu spaniel whom she had taken to sketching in various attitudes and habiliments, whose curious semblances peered, sometimes quizzically, sometimes with a sentiment akin to tenderness, an evident vulnerability, as if Elise had not only detected but managed to capture that indelible cry for help, as if mistaking pathos for pitifulness, down at us from the walls—and during her year away at school she had adopted a parakeet who was confiscated in due course, but she was always freest while on a horse. She would ride for hours, trotting the perimeter of the pasture, oblivious to everything save bounding there in the saddle. The day was fine; the horse was sweating and smelling of dust and the vitality of its leather. In the distance came the sound of hammers fastening a new steel roof on the barn, and she would turn to the horse or Billy and savor them with something of the fondness of a bride waking up on her first morning as a married woman, with the pure insouciance that all the years ahead will be as such. Years later—after her failure to make something of herself at college—it was precisely this that Bill realized he could turn to his advantage, could throw into the bargain to ensure he could continue taking those trips to Florida, away from Elise, away from Helen, away from the decisions and acquiescences that had led him to himself: her remaining at the house was contingent on her caring for Helen, but, in the exchange, she would get her horse. That was the price of her freedom.

            The fixation on riding had started not long after Helen returned from Meadowood. On weekend mornings, while his wife lay on the couch, Bill would ferry the three of them to the country, where they took lessons in dressage and learned how to groom a stable of purebred horses. In fact, Billy had been the one to suggest it: whatever he did, wherever he went, his little sister was always dogging him, doing as he did, until he eventually tired of her and ran her off, or lost interest in the activity himself.

For instance, one weekend they were playing around the uncovered cesspool. If Elise didn’t leave, Billy said, he would push her into the pool. She told him they had to play together. Billy repeated his threat. She said he’d better not, and forced him to swear, to which Billy stuck out his hand, but when she went to clasp it he jerked back his hand, which caused her to fall in the pit. The other boys laughed, and the pack of them ran off. I can imagine her there, covered in mire. I can picture her beseeching some ordering justice to the world to smite Billy down and torture him for his meanness. I say that I can imagine Elise indulging in this wishful thinking because I myself, at least for the first few years, was as prone to it as she—however, unlike Elise, I ultimately concluded that such thinking is futile, that any clinging to the hope of some miraculous intervention is not only folly, is fundamentally useless, and very likely a socially acceptable display of madness, but that hope is no virtue at all but the mind vainly deluding itself. For you imagine not some minor personal grievance such as this but a catastrophe beyond comprehension—for example, those frightened people being crammed into the showers time after time and praying for a miracle, anything, for the walls to cave in, for an earthquake to cleave the floor, for a divine army to come down and save the day—and that no governing order intervened must lead one to conclude that God is not intercessory. And if God is not going to shape events to one’s dire wanting, then it necessarily accords that events must be hoped to be brought about by oneself. Yet Elise, I am certain, never took this lesson to heart. Of all the Stadlers, only Bill seems to have fathomed it to the core of his principles, and not, of course, as a young man, and likely not still as a young husband and father, but only after years of waiting for that inert woman on the couch to get better, to improve, to delight him as she once had in the happy spring of their courtship, could he have understood the fruitlessness of hope.

            He would come back after a long day at the office and try not to be annoyed that they were eating hotdogs and applesauce for a fourth night in a row. If the kids were causing trouble, he was usually quick to yell. Punishing them came not from a place of despising them; he just wanted life to be a little easier than it was. Then she broke the bottle. I imagine there was some petty annoyance—perhaps he could not bring himself to ingest another hotdog, or perhaps there was evidence she had been letting the kids run amok—and he let go some quip or carp, but whatever it was, she took up the ketchup bottle and broke it against his head. For that she stayed two months in Mandeville. Hence the riding, hence the perennial fighting of brother and sister, hence Bill’s trips to Florida alone. When Helen came back she was a shadow of herself, the couch her permanent residence … sprawled there, silent, inert.

When Billy left for college, in spite of the fact he had become almost an enemy, to Elise it felt like a betrayal, as though he had gone off with his friends and found a hiding place where she was forbidden to enter. Two years later she followed him to the capital. She left, thinking she had outwitted him at last, discovered the password to his fort, but by then he was in love and wanted nothing even more to do with her. The city was a bigger place to hide than the neighborhood. As a result she sat in her room and began to yearn to be back in Metairie—the old resentments, the old reminders, none of it seemed so hurtful from the perspective of eighty miles. So she left school and fell back into the routine of caring for Helen as Bill approached his retirement. Not long afterward Billy married; then they were expecting a baby, and Elise convinced Bill to let her get Gypsy. As I said, Elise was entirely mortified to operate a car—she felt like a swimmer going after some object, mindful it is only blind will keeping afloat life and will—but was willing to endure that terror for the sake of something she wanted, and I believe that had either Bill or Billy been there in the passenger’s seat by her side, she would have felt she was in good hands, but that something about the freedom of the road, her utter lack of faith in her abilities to control a multi-ton machine, and her distrust of the responsibility of others served to curarize her to the bone. Nevertheless, she would visit Gypsy two to three times a week, making that journey across the lake, those twenty or so miles without any shoulder to pull over on should she incur a blowout or require a break to stop and catch her breath, in order to dote on her horse.

            Even after Bill died and Gypsy, whom Elise had decided to breed, died while giving birth, and she was driving to the barn almost daily to spend the night nursing the foal, the driving never got any easier. Joy would be there, sitting beside her, Elise watching the road and daring to look over now and then, and Joy trained on Elise, quelling her fear. “You’re doing great. Just keep your eyes on the road and a light tap of the break, and that’s all there is. Ripper girl, you’re a natural!” In those terrible drives to the barn, Joy was almost a parent to her; she helped tidy the brutal disquiet of her mind, and it was on just such a drive that I was spotted. I do not say “I was found,” although I had no idea where I was going, only that, being the runt of the litter, I knew I would have to make my way in the world and, whether that was to become dinner for a hawk, the flattened result of a driver distracted on the phone, or an inhabitant of the swamps who preyed on garbage, I was prepared to let fate take the wheel—and that thick mane of hair came down and scooped me up.

            The house smelled of sugar cookies and vaguely of potpourri. From the outset I knew that I had done better than had I been left to scavenge among the cast-off tires and cypress knees; additionally, I realized in due course that in forgoing the instant gratification of a subpar meal I could come to expect the same comestibles of which the others partook, which, though mediocre in their own right (indeed, there seemed to be an outright aversion to herbs and spices), proved the lesser evil, a practice that Joy never cared to espouse or condoned and that, I suspect, has led to my present issue with ulcers. But then, after I gained a sense of my new environment and on what and whom I could rely, there were practices in which Joy engaged that forced me to make my disapproval evident as well: there were, for example, those long accompaniments to the washroom, those constant consolations and affirmations that even a four-year-old would have interpreted as pure condescension, and the pretense of protection for this family who, I could never make Joy agree, needed more protection from themselves if there were ever a knock at the door—and then there was the two of them on the bed. Even during the last night, she was still going up, not so much out of service, of performing a duty, but simply because she wished, was glad to be used in such a manner, as if in Elise’s will should be her peace. Did they make love, you’re wondering? That depends on how you define such a thing. We are told that one may make love in the mind’s eye; conversely, that means that one may make love without ever really making love at all. So perhaps your question should be: Did Elise believe she was making love? And the answer to that, I think, would probably be yes and no—which is to confirm that all her romantic feelings merely adapted to the means at hand. For instance, I recall there was a remark she let drop when the seven of us were on vacation regarding something about giving William a banana sling, a comment she soon followed by entrusting to him her Aunt Elise’s wedding ring, which I am certain he immediately hocked. With her there was always this ill-suited need to be of service, to be helping, to be of use, just as I observed in Billy a similar trait, that he was possessed by an indelible urge to syllogize, traits, I assume, they inherited from the silences of their childhood, alone with that woman who, if she was not sleeping all day on the couch, would read her prayerbook cover to cover.

            She was talking right to the end, when she and Joy were forced to say goodbye, when anyone would beg for a moment’s silence to compose their thoughts; she was slobbering all over Joy, who, once more, was paying for it in the role of caregiver (I gave Joy the gift of my peace, though it had been years since we were on speaking terms). “I’m so sorry!” “Don’t ever say you’re sorry. You made me a better dog.” It was bone cancer; the cancer was in the leg opposite the one Elise had run over; hence, there was no way of saving her, of removing the leg and her remaining mobile, contrary to Elise’s wishful thinking. “You can’t take care of a dog without hind legs!” the doctor had tried to explain to her. The two of us watched Joy led away and heeling faultlessly alongside the nurse. As for me, I did not wish to console Elise. To lick those tears, at that point in my thinking, would have been anathema to my principles, and perhaps just as misguidedly I believed that, like the collar the nurse returned at the end of our wait, a shackle had been cast off. Perhaps now she will run away, I thought; the two of us will go across the lake and check into a Ramada and in a few weeks she will be leading trail rides along the swamp, and eventually she will collect the social security that she will need to survive. Instead, she piled on the manacles. She began to amass antiques, stuff she convinced herself had been overlooked by the rest of the world as to its value, and she was hoarding her trove for the great day of reckoning when she would cash in on her perspicacity, one of these items being an enormous tapestry, a reproduction nearly the size of a billboard of the Cluny unicorn, which she thrust on Bill on his wedding day, that furled and cumbersome symbol of chastity in tote throughout the drive halfway across the country with Billy and Martha, who must have surely been bridling their annoyance, as if she insisted on bearing with her the stigma of her fantasy or the impossible sign of her life’s clutter, a magical horse that can never be found, let alone ridden, save in a dream.

            “Leave!” I’d tell her. “What are you waiting for? You don’t have to stay. Let Billy and Martha take care of her. At worst they’ll throw her in some upscale facility.” But somewhere in who she was she had long ago made up her mind never to change or believe there was an option or opportunity for things to be different (perhaps, on considering the possibility, feeling a dread akin to the terror she had felt that night Helen had broken the bottle over Bill’s head, the sight of her father’s blood barely distinguishable from the travesty of the condiment splattered over him and the tablecloth), and she was unable even to begin to offer an account of herself, her situation, only tremble in an inane palsy. Those regular calls from Billy, whom she plainly resented on account of his having a family of his own, for his having severed himself insofar as to live eighty miles away to the north, who worried how she would survive, on her own, without a job, after Helen died—even those caustic shouting matches did not so much succeed in spurring her to look for a new kind of work with their wild prognostication of a reality soon to be as enflame her wrath, her resentment. “I do not have a problem! And we are doing just fine, thank you! And Dad, by the way, was a jerk!” The question was always: How would she live once the trust was depleted? She was not entitled to social security—she had never worked for any real company or business a day in her life, only ferried Helen to appointments and made sure her whims were attended to—and the trust would be gone in ten years: Elise by then would be seventy and would need caring for herself. Everyone said prayers. Me, I did not pray; it was obvious she was not going to change and enjoyed her captivity far more than she would have ever savored her freedom—or rather, she had found a particular freedom under which any radical uprooting would have suddenly exposed new, more unseverable bonds, and she dreaded their revelation.

            Then an idea was proposed: Billy had called the lawyer and there was a paperwork possibility they could declare Elise to be an employee of the trust, which might bring her a pittance of social security—it would be expensive, and some figures would have to be altered, but apart from her coming to live with Billy and Martha (an option that only I entertained), it looked like the sole way ahead.

            A meeting with the lawyer was scheduled. I knew she would take issue with the arrangement, despite that all she had to do was sign and date her name, and then she would become the government’s headache and not the burden of her kin. All that morning I watched her pace back and forth, talking to herself, her well-preserved face, whose agerasia made her appear less like a person her age and more like an old lady wearing a child’s mask, frowning, trembling, whimpering, and I knew she would never abide a simple solution. “Ooo, Georgie. I just can’t do it.” “Sure you can,” I said, not really paying much attention but watching some schnauzer roam between the mailboxes, sniffing each by each. “Just put your paw on the papers and scrawl your name. You can do that, can’t you?” She was saying the same thing the whole way to the lawyers. “I’m sorry … I just can’t do it.” “Do it!” I barked. And that’s when we ran off the road. It is possible we hit an oil slick—I am positive that no one ran us off, and the tire blew out, I am sure, after we went off the shoulder—and, I suppose, there is also the explanation, however remote, that a coincidental malfunction forced the steering a hard right, but whatever the case that’s when we hit the tree. The window was cracked, but had not shattered; thus I was trapped and waiting to be let out, though had there been some means by which to break free and reside in the swamps, avoiding the roads, where someone might identify me on account of my collar, I don’t think I would have done it. Firstly, I knew I would not be returning to that house, at least not for long, since Helen was fundamentally incompetent of providing for me by herself, which meant the likelihood I would move in with Billy and Martha. Secondly, being the far side of middle-aged, the thought of scavenging for trash and hoping I might be so lucky as to alight from time to time on a nest of baby nutria rats did not seem as appealing as the prospect once had. And thirdly, the wreck had accentuated the pain in my stomach, thereby forcing me to sit and wait. And wait I did. Nevertheless, during those hours I spent in the car I began once again to reflect on those poor people who were trapped in the showers with no chance of escape and who were likely praying with all their hearts for some divine intervention, and never got any, and how I had not only approached the whole issue wrong but inferred a mistaken conclusion: rather than concluding that God was not intercessory, which thereby gave license to my gluttony, lethargy, and years of idle self-licking, I should have concluded that there was no ultimate conclusion that one could hope to afford in the face of these events, that, when presented with them, all thinking, all words, all logic, and therefore all judgment, seemed, as it were, to roll over, and that the only way of proceeding would have to be one not so much unreliant on God as unreliant on any wanting to shape events, which thereby rendered me a sort of delightful disinterest in what moments now were left to me, so that what I suddenly felt while waiting through those hours was joy—pure, intenerate joy: joy to be where I was, joy to be who I was, joy at what would be. I could have gone on waiting like that forever.

Eventually arrived the police, and then the ambulance. Then Billy and Martha. Then the next day came Bill and Meredith. And the next day Elise returned, only this time in a condition the size of a jewelry box and smelling remotely of herself, as if she had rolled around in last year’s leaves.

When we got out of the car, I recognized the place at once. On our way to Baton Rouge we had made a pit stop at the doctor’s, the same place where, years earlier, I had watched Joy say goodbye to Elise. Billy led me in while the rest of them stayed in the car, and behind me I could feel that autonomous metronome suddenly spring to life and begin to thrash, keeping sporadic time. So long had it been since the last time I felt it whip I gave a sudden start, but my fright was quickly dispelled, for I recalled it signified I was happy. I was on my way to new experiences, to live with the family I had never let myself dream of having. I was happy at last, for I was on my way to my home.

Devin Jacobsen’s fiction has appeared in “The Beloit Fiction Journal,” “Consequence,” “Hobart,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” and other places, and his debut novel “Breath Like the Wind at Dawn” was published in 2020 and praised by James Wood and Zadie Smith. A follow-up short story collection, which includes “Let Dogs Delight,” is currently represented by the Bent Agency.