The boys and I were outside sledding when the man across the street started screaming. I stood at the top of the hill as they ran to the fence and stepped up on the bottom rail.
Lucy! Lucy! Lucy, no!
The man’s stomach jiggled as he ran down his driveway. He looked like he hadn’t run in a long time. A flash of some old black and white comedy, a covered wagon barreling down a rocky hill, pieces breaking off. The man flailed his arms.
His skinny brown dog charged in tight circles on his front lawn. Jumping and darting, then crouching, butt in the air, pink tongue dangling out the side of its mouth. The man hunched over, rested his hands on his knees, then set his feet and looked up. He committed to the right, the dog broke left, circled him twice. Then it bolted for the street, and the man screamed again: Lucy! Screeching tires. A hollow metal thump. The man’s screams no longer human.
The boys backed away from the fence.
“Mom! Mom! Hey, Mom!”
They kicked off their boots, wriggled out of their snowsuits, and ran upstairs. I scooped up their wet clothes and threw them down into the basement. Chips stuck her head out of the litter box, shot me a glance, then returned to her business. The chirping of the boys’ voices, a hundred miles an hour, telling Kim everything.
I walked back to the sliding glass door. It was getting dark. Blue police lights flashed on the snowbanks. Would an ambulance come? What’s the procedure for this? In the movies, they fade to black when dogs get hit by cars. They cut to the owner, months later, sitting on a park bench and staring out at a lake. Or to a framed photo of the dog, taken on a sunny day. The camera has enough decency to turn away.
Not me. And not the boys, either, apparently. We’ve watched nature shows. We’ve seen hawks steal baby chicks from nests and alligators drag zebras into swamps. But those animals aren’t in our backyard. They might as well be drawings in a book. Cats and dogs, though. Those are closer to home.
The boys followed Kim into the bathroom. I could hear them better in the hallway. They spoke in that guess-what-Dad-let-us-do tone, and I knew this would be included on the agenda for Kim’s evening meeting with me. I grabbed a seltzer from the back of the fridge. A woman stood next to the man, most likely his wife. They leaned into each other, his arm around her, the way an FBI agent might escort a rescued hostage from a building. Still no ambulance.
I’m not one of those macho dudes who believes in tough love or thinks the best way to teach his kid how to swim is to throw him in the deep end. I have the self-awareness men in their forties wear like a badge these days, proof I’m one of the good ones. Still, low-grade disgust flows through me each time Owen struts down the hallway clutching Kim’s sequined purse. Doesn’t matter that it’s filled with Matchbox cars. He begged to take it to school, and I surprised myself with how fast I said no. Even as I said it, I knew I was outnumbered, could already hear the secret conversations, the quiet pleading, the post-book/pre-sleep manipulation Kim would explain to me later. “He likes it. What’s the harm?”
I didn’t have to worry about Tommy. Tommy was what my father would call a “bruiser.” Stocky and solid, often reckless in a way that shot lightning through my heart but quickly subsided to awe, even pride. The kid tumbled off the top of his treehouse and didn’t flinch. One of Owen’s wild soccer kicks blasted Tommy in the back of his head and Tommy just laughed. Last week, he slipped down six or seven steps, and before he was fully steady on his feet, he smiled and shouted, “Cool!”
I tossed a few frozen chicken cutlets into the pressure cooker and started slicing potatoes. The police car pulled away. The neighbor’s house was dark. Was the dog still in the road?
The three of them came down and stood in the kitchen doorway. A jury of three, ready to present the verdict. Owen hid behind Kim. Tommy stood like Superman, fists on hips.
“How awful,” Kim said.
“I know, right?” I put the potatoes in a big silver bowl and tossed them with oil.
“Do you think we should stop by?”
“We don’t even know them, Kim.”
“I just feel bad,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said because it was the right thing to say, the right way to feel. “But would you want some stranger knocking on our door after something like that?”
She thought for a moment. “Maybe we can send them something. Bake something.”
Owen came out from behind her and suggested brownies. Tommy wanted cake. They went back and forth until the car and the dog faded like a dream.
I never really thought about my reactions until I met Kim. We met near the end of college. Almost twenty years ago. Almost half my life. And before Kim, I did what I guess you’d call dating, but do those relationships still matter? It’s funny how much they meant at the time—the hand holding and future planning. I must have learned something from all that. I wish I could look back and see those relationships as innocent, a time of exploration, but honestly, those memories feel like scenes from a school play I never wanted to be in.
Kim talked about high school from time to time. The corners of her mouth lifting slowly into what we’ve affectionately named her Iceberg Smile—a little grin that hints at a big chunk of sunken pleasure. She said she didn’t sleep around in high school, but she had her fun. Sleep around. That’s the phrase she used. Like her school was on the set of a Michael Douglas and Demi Moore movie, while I and the rest of the animals used words like “banged” or “boned.” Though I did feel a twinge of jealously, more than anything, I was in awe. In awe that she enjoyed high school. In awe of all the clubs and teams and trips, which were probably available to me at my school, but seemed like cities on another planet: Travel Choir, Mathletes, Cross Country.
I’d been perfecting the art of repression since elementary school. Like one of those little roly-poly bugs the boys sometimes find in the woodpile, the ones that curl up when their home is exposed. The day I stepped out of my parents’ house and into a classroom, I contorted myself into a tight coil and haven’t unrolled since. Years of blushing became cold sweats became acne became ulcerative colitis became me. My insides curled and constricted. My whole body pinched. Then college and booze helped a bit, and if I’m being really cynical, if it weren’t for Jägermeister, I never would’ve met Kim, and Owen and Tommy wouldn’t be alive. Your mind is a liar, a good friend once told me. I hope that’s true.
Anyway, the point is I got so good at protecting myself that I dulled my senses. I didn’t flinch at gruesome movies. When friends or relatives got sick—or even died, if you want the god’s honest truth—I felt nothing. Kim shares stories about her co-worker’s marriage or news that her friend is pregnant and she is genuinely excited. I’m bored. And I would never say this to anyone, not even Kim: When the boys were born, I felt nothing. I could’ve been watching a mother lion delivering cubs on National Geographic. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come around. I like being with them. But that took time. Like coming home from work and discovering you have two new roommates. So, let’s just say it worked out for the best that it was Kim’s turn to do bedtime the day the neighbor’s dog got run over.
The next day, after I dropped the boys at school, I took my time cleaning up their toys in the backyard. I brushed the snow off their sleds and stood them up against the garage. Through the bare trees, I could see the blank face of the man’s house. Each time I turned around, I expected to see a different expression, the door bent in a grin, the shutters angled like eyebrows. It occurred to me that the dog might not be dead. Maybe it was at the vet. Maybe the man was in a chair in a white room, waiting.
I’m a cat guy. Talk all you want about the dangers of a dichotomous world: there are cat people and there are dog people and I, ladies and gentlemen, am a cat guy. I used to think I was a dog guy. Used to want to be one, used to try. You know, the bachelor off-roading in his Jeep, golden Labrador in the passenger seat. The kind of dog that wears a bandana better than me. The kind you bring to bars and everyone knows its name, the owner placing a silver bowl of water on the floor. But that’s not how it is. It’s a whole scene that I don’t have the time for or interest in. Walks and dog parks and all that. Cats are simple.
Chips has lived with us longer than the boys. When we first brought Owen home, Chips would stare at him when he cried, sometimes gently sniff the top of his head, but mostly she ignored him. That’s what I like about cats. The silent agreement between animal and owner: Don’t fuck with me and I won’t fuck with you. What more can you ask from a relationship?
A car pulled into the driveway. The man stepped out. He slowly walked to the mailbox. He took the mail, didn’t look at it, and walked back up the driveway. He was alone.
On weekdays, Chips and I had the house to ourselves. She watched me make breakfast—not to beg or out of curiosity but because she was still expecting me to leave. Her stares apathetic, disappointed. She was not only bored with me, she was exhausted. Most of the day, she didn’t make a sound, but when Kim got home she weaved between her legs, let out long, slow howls. Told her everything.
I took my oatmeal into the dining room and opened my laptop. My history was fantasy: porn, my old company, a few job postings. I looked up from the screen and out at the backyard. In my head, all tragedy was sudden, but in reality, tragedy was an erosion. Took years. You hardly noticed, until the ground gave out. When I got laid off, I had flashes of Kim and Owen and Tommy on the front lawn, a crew of movers in matching overalls loading all of our things into an unmarked truck. I saw Kim and I squeezed together on the daybed in her parents’ guestroom, my back pressed against the brass bars. I saw Owen and Tommy holding Chips for warmth in the back of our car, their bodies half-shadowed in streetlight. But you know what? Nothing changed. Nothing suddenly changed, anyway, aside from me not leaving the house each day at 8:15, returning a little after six. We didn’t know we could live off Kim’s salary because we’d never tried. Never had to. In some ways, things were easier—I cleaned, I cooked. Chips seemed to scratch the furniture less. And I never saw myself as some kind of breadwinner. Still, even now, almost a year later, something in me was dislodged. Unmoored. Sometimes in the middle of the night I got up to go the bathroom and the long dark hallway seemed to stretch for miles.
Not long after I was laid off, I called my father. He had retired a few years ago and seemed to be enjoying it. What are you up to, I’d ask. Nothing, he’d say. Putzin’ around. That could mean any number of things: watching a Steve McQueen movie, organizing the garage, repainting the guestroom. For a man whose life moved to the rhythm of routine—high school, the Army, forty-five years at the post office—he settled into retirement pretty smoothly, as far as I could tell. He slept a bit later. Took to drinking tea in the afternoon and watching the news, two things he never did before. He’d ask me general political questions each time we talked: What’s this yahoo in the White House up to now? He asked as if I had some insider knowledge. I imagined he assumed that because I was younger, I was more in tune with “this generation,” but what did I know? What did anybody know? All I knew was that the unemployed and the retired stood in vastly different fields—his lush and expansive, mine fenced-in and barren.
“How goes the job hunt?” he asked.
“Things good with Kim?”
The bumper sticker that’s been on his truck for decades: Happy Wife, Happy Life.
“All good, Dad.”
He slurped his tea.
“You know, Jeff is always lookin’ for guys. Not ideal, but it’s something.”
My neighbor stepped out of his house.
“Mikey? You still with me?”
“Yeah, Dad, sorry. Jeff? You mean painting? I haven’t worked with him since high school.”
“Hey, it’s cash. Off the books. Just a thought.”
My neighbor stood on the stoop, looking up at the clouds, then out across his lawn. Sweatpants. Barefoot.
“Hell of a commute, Dad.”
I could hear him thinking. Another sip. Finally, “Mikey. You gotta provide.”
Provide what? I almost blurted.
“Think about the boys.”
He stepped off the stoop and into the snow.
“Think about Kim.”
He walked to the edge of his property, where the road slopes down. He leaned against the fence and watched the asphalt.
“Think about the future.”
I got in line with the rest of the cars. We inched toward the back of the school, where the kids stood up against a brick wall, waiting to be identified. Owen waited with the second graders. His clasped hands. His perfect posture. His strained smile I often thought was clenching a scream. Tommy looked like he just jumped out of a plane—wind-blown hair, the sleeves and hood of his sweatshirt spilling out the top of his backpack. He stood in a pack of kindergarteners, flirting with Sophia. I didn’t know how else to describe it. Each day, he teased her. Shared his juice box. Put stickers on her forearm. One day, I pulled up and they were holding hands. They stared straight ahead, like the smallest bride and groom, a couple bracing themselves for the rapture.
When the boys saw me, Owen moved toward the car as if on a conveyor belt. Tommy groaned, deflated, said one last thing to Sophia, then slowly walked toward us. They both dropped their backpacks on the floor and sat back in their seats, waiting to be buckled in.
“How’s your girlfriend?” I asked, smiling.
“She’s good,” Tommy said.
I looked over at Owen, who usually joined in. He stared out the window.
“Hey, O. All good?”
“Ohhh,” Tommy said, louder. “O!”
Tommy and I looked at each other. He shrugged dramatically, like a child star about to deliver his catch phrase. Then he started humming and swinging his legs, infected by a giddiness spurred by his brother’s sulking.
I rejoined the train of cars and waited for the crossing guard/school librarian to wave us through the gate. The rearview mirror framed Owen’s pale face, his head pressed back against the seat. I was frightened by his inner life. Frightened because I had no idea what it looked like, who or what lived there. I thought of old cartoons we watched after school, before Kim got home. A doctor operating on Elmer Fudd, opening the back of his head and revealing a hamster sleeping on a wheel. When I looked at Tommy, I saw multi-colored bouncy balls ricocheting inside his head, maybe one of those spin art machines, slightly warped, smoke rising from its motor. But Owen? I couldn’t picture anything. I imagined throwing open a basement door. The smell of dirt and damp concrete. My hand on the cold wall, searching for the light switch.
We pulled into the driveway and the boys saw a package on our doorstep, most likely from my mother, and when I unbuckled them they bolted out of the car like race horses, Tommy hooting and Owen laughing and laughing.
It was from my mother—a rock painting set. The boys opened it on the back deck, spread out the pieces, quickly lost interest, and abandoned it.
“Guys, hold on. Let’s give it a shot.” I glanced at the instructions, which were more complicated than I expected. Measurements. Little baggies of colored powder. A list of tools not included. Each one of these fucking things was a test. Made by some hipster bachelor who never planned on having kids and somehow had access to hidden camera footage of me and all the other parents struggling to prove their sanity by following their directions. A month from now, I’d be able to throw this thing out and the boys wouldn’t notice. But right now, it was our responsibility to complete it.
I went inside to grab the supplies and when I returned the boys were gone. I shouted their names. Nothing. The swing set empty and still. The directions to the rock painting set blew into the bushes. I yelled their names again. No answer. The sun was unbearably bright. I ran across the yard when I saw them, on the other side of the fence, crouched down, at the edge of the neighbor’s property across the street.
I surprised myself with how nimbly I hopped the fence, landed in a snow bank, and ran to them.
“Guys! What are you doing? Why the hell would you jump the fence?”
They didn’t look up.
“Hey! Answer me.” My voice wasn’t as stern as I wanted it to be. High-pitched, hysterical.
The boys stood on the side of the street, in front of the neighbor’s driveway. Tommy held a stick. Owen leaned closer to the asphalt.
“Dad?” Owen asked. “Is that blood?”
The neighbor stuck his head out one of the top floor windows. At first, I thought he was wearing some kind of face mask or breathing apparatus, but as he leaned forward I saw he was holding binoculars.
“Get away from there!”
The boys turned to statues. The same look they got when I lost my temper: If we stand straight, look away, remain silent, maybe we can convince ourselves this isn’t happening.
But we weren’t on his property. The boys moved closer to me, and somewhere inside of me a gear began to turn.
“It’s alright,” I shouted. “Thought we lost something.”
The man lowered his binoculars. He watched us for a few more seconds, then slammed the window shut.
The boys were swirling dino nuggets in a nauseating puddle of ketchup when they heard Kim’s keys in the door.
“Oh, my guys,” she said, kneeling. “I missed you so much.”
“We saw dog blood!” Tommy shouted, still chewing.
“Yeah,” Owen said, “it’s true, Mom. We saw dog blood and then the neighbor yelled at us.”
“Wow,” Kim said, glancing at me. “You guys had a busy afternoon.”
The boys held onto the strap of her purse like a leash as she walked through the kitchen, the living room, opened the closet. They had different voices now than they did at dinner—giddy, high-pitched, racing through all the details. They told her how they’d climbed the tree at the back of our yard to get over the fence. They told her they looked both ways before crossing the street. They told her the color of dog blood.
I sat back down at the dining room table. Their ketchup had turned a deep red. Chips poked her head out from behind the basement door, scooted over to her food. She slurped and crunched, glanced up at me, licked her mouth once, then bent back to her dish.
Kim stood beside the stove, eating out of the pot and scrolling through her phone. Thumping and laughing from the boys’ room upstairs. The cuddling and reading part of bedtime was nice, but navigating the brushing of teeth and changing of clothes was precarious. If Tommy was too wound up, he’d laugh at my attempt at sternness. If Tommy laughed, Owen would, too. Owen never laughed alone, never instigated. Which was how I knew it was Tommy who led the way across the yard, up the tree, and over the fence. It was Tommy who first stepped into the street. And it was Tommy who grabbed a stick and tried scraping blood off the road. Owen just followed.
“Come on, guys, you know the drill,” I said, walking up the stairs.
Then there were these moments. When there was no resistance at all, when I only had to ask once. They walked quietly into the bathroom, grabbed their toothbrushes, squeezed out a drop of strawberry toothpaste, and brushed. They peed and changed into their pajamas. On their way out, they shut off the light. For a second, I was a proud drill sergeant, my soldiers moving like a herd.
“Dad, can we read Dog Man?” Tommy asked.
He charged down the hall, Owen right behind him. Tommy grabbed the book we’d read at least four dozen times, held it over his head, the two of them jumped around me as if trying to get my autograph. I took the book and followed them into their bedroom.
Kim didn’t like Dog Man. Too much “potty talk,” which was one of those phrases we used so often around the boys that it no longer sounded odd to say when we were alone. But that wasn’t really the issue—Dog Man was just a little too generous with the “stupids” and the “fats.” I tried explaining this to my dad after he gave the book to the boys for Christmas. He sighed. They’re kids, for Christ’s sake. What’s wrong with a few fart jokes? I knew what he meant and I agreed in theory and I tried to explain to Kim that my father buying a book of any kind was a miracle, but still. The night the neighbor’s dog got hit, I heard them talking to each other about “that man’s fat tummy” and giggling. I wondered if we were giving them words they weren’t ready to use.
But all that disappeared when I walked in and saw them snuggled together, Owen reading to Tommy. Owen asked me to take over. I squeezed between them. Each book in the Dog Man series began with a recap: a human cop, slow but smart; a dog cop, fast but dumb. A tragic accident, a risky operation. The dog’s head sown onto the man’s body: Dog Man! The World’s Greatest Police Officer. A few pages in and I forgot all about “potty talk.” I was lost in it, lost in the boys’ laughter, the phrases they’d memorized. Tommy, wait, wait, this next part is amazing. Just wait. No transitions, no morals, no messages. Just goofy, rot-your-teeth fun that I found myself looking forward to as much as the boys.
There was always a moment, usually near the end of the book, when Tommy scrunched his forehead. His body almost hummed from the question charging inside him.
“Is Dog Man real?”
I’d answered this in different ways and none of them seemed right: No, it’s just a story. He’s imaginary. The author made him up. No matter what I said, I felt like a party pooper. I felt bad for them, but also disappointed in myself, that I’d arrived at the point in my adult life when the answers I gave scared off the magic. The guy who no longer heard Santa’s bells or saw a face in the moon. That was me now.
“I don’t know,” I said this time. “I’ve never met him.”
Kim was on the couch, scrolling through her phone. Scrolling. That mutated verb. She could do it for hours, and I could too, but I felt a sort of cheap superiority when I caught her. Bonus points if I was reading or paying bills while she hunched over, flicked her thumb again and again. Sometimes I watched her: flushed, raised eyebrows, her stare focused yet vacant. God, is that what I looked like?
“Look, I went inside for a second to get something for the project thing we were doing, and when I came back, they were over the fence,” I started. That, too, scored me points, though I was probably the only one keeping track.
She scrolled for a few more seconds, then placed her phone on the armrest, the screen still glowing.
“You left them alone.”
“I didn’t leave them. It’s not like I went to the store or something—I was in the kitchen, they were on the deck.”
Kim thought for a moment. “I don’t know where they even got the idea. To climb the fence. I’ve never seen them go near it until a couple days ago.”
“So I should have picked them up and ran into the house as soon as the neighbor started shouting?”
“No. I don’t know. I’m just saying they probably saw too much.”
I wanted to move, run, put my fist through the window.
“It’s not like they stumbled across a porno or something—they saw a dog die. It’s part of life.”
“Really?” she said. “That’s your explanation?”
“I’m not explaining, I’m—”
“Everything’s a part of life, Mike.”
In the middle of the night, our door opened. Tommy’s silhouette. Then Owen’s. Hazy nightlight coated the hallway in dim yellow. Their shadows pressed together could be the figurehead of a ship. Some four-armed, Medusa-haired carving. They drifted toward my side of the bed.
“Daddy?” Tommy asked. He always asked first and his question was genuine. He didn’t know if it was me.
“I’m here, bud.”
He started to cry, quietly. Then Owen.
“How did the doctor sew the dog’s head onto the policeman’s body?”
They couldn’t see me smiling, but maybe they could hear it in my voice.
“Guys, it’s just a story.”
“But you said Dog Man was real.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I said I never met him before.”
Tommy was silent. Then Owen asked, “But you might meet him? Someday?”
I rested my head on the pillow for a second. Kim started to snore. The boys held their hands over their mouths, giggling. I managed to lead them out of the room, get them in bed, and shut the door without waking her up or telling more lies. When I returned, Chips was curled on my pillow, purring.
Unemployment was my adult version of faking sick. I wasn’t pretending I was laid off—that was very real—but the experience was eerily similar to those days I wasted on the couch eating crackers and peanut butter, watching gameshow after gameshow. Giddy, polished families politely presenting a summary of their lives to the host, as if the object of the game was to impress him rather than guess survey answers or fill a shopping cart with frozen turkeys. Maybe they were all actors. Understudies for a sitcom. The kind of family with a perfect kitchen, a neat row of labeled cookie and candy jars on the counter. The kind of family that sits down for breakfast, pours orange juice from a glass pitcher. The kind of family in which each member supplies a distinct, palatable characteristic: the stern Dad, the sweet Mom, the athletic son, the artistic daughter. Even the pet has a scripted personality, an invented inner life. And a goofy, insightful neighbor who never screams or witnesses his dog’s death.
I thought about those sick days as I made coffee or scrolled through job postings I had no intention of applying for. I paced away the day—kitchen to living room, living room to bathroom, bathroom to living room. I’d come to know the house differently than the rest of my family. It was a tired session musician, dripping time in the sink, whistling between the cellar doors. A kind of industrial jazz that didn’t make sense unless you sat with it for a while, until it became an atmosphere you couldn’t remember entering or leaving. Opening the sliding glass door was like breaking a hermetic seal.
I stood on the back deck and took deep breaths. Too late for more coffee, too early for lunch. When I last spoke to my father, he asked me about the job search, then his voice slipped into an almost conspiratorial whisper: “What do you do all day?” I wanted to use his phrase—“putz around”—but somehow it felt inappropriate, like a stranger using one of my nicknames for the boys. You had to earn the right to putz, and a premature putzer was just a lazy man. I’d been trying my whole life to do nothing with confidence.
The boys’ plastic baseball swung gently from a string tied to a branch. The neighbors’ garage doors were open. I walked across the yard and leaned on the fence. I always envied their house. The kind I’d point out to Kim when we drove through a new neighborhood: neat, lush lawn; gray Belgium blocks lining a slick black driveway; swimming pool shimmering behind a clean white fence. Whoever lives there, I’d think, has it all figured out.
A white van with ladders on the roof rattled by. Then a bass-thumping BMW with tinted windows. A “problem road” another parent once told me. People used it as a short cut between Route 6 and I-87. Winding, shady hills with straight stretches long enough to hit 35, 40. The only speed limit sign was bent and rusted, stabbed into the weeds in half-hearted protest. Every few months, cops hid on the side streets, handed out a few tickets, but as soon as they left, the cars came back, full speed.
A few small broken branches littered the snow in front of the fence. The wire mesh between the rails bent into footholds. How long did Owen and Tommy wait before deciding to jump? Maybe they didn’t hesitate at all. Maybe, like inmates in an old prison movie, they’d already lived the escape in their minds, so when I went inside, they snapped into action. Their plan became instinct.
Or maybe Tommy swung from the tree as Owen cracked the same knuckle over and over, the way he does when he’s not sure which shirt he wants to wear to school. Tommy ignoring him, Owen following, the fear of being left alone outweighing the danger.
I turned and saw Chips sitting on the rock in the middle of our lawn. The backdoor wide open. She stared at me like she’d never seen me before. She licked her paw, wiped her head, licked her paw, wiped her head. Then she sat tall. Straight. I stepped closer. Palms up in surrender. My boots crunched through a thin layer of ice and sank into the snow. Cars rushed behind me. I took the last few steps, arms stretched forward, as she stood and waited.