The Clumber Spaniel
Two boys played under the top bunk, grabbing for the pocketknife. Al got cut, but laughing licked up the blood. Way past David Letterman, Cub coughed, tasting the soft- serve caught in his throat. Al had the cut dream. All boys that are cut later drop to dream, folding into a typical variation of the cut dream. In the dream, the staircase is longer or shorter, depending how big the cut.
The boys ran down the highway and the day wagged on after. Al wasn’t mad about the cut. During laser tag, the future sang Tom Petty “Freefallin’” into open ears. The boys found themselves in front of an old pinball game and felt the private feeling of manning a machine. The metal balls felt wet and smart, jumping among the gleaming junk of the machine’s irrelevant theme. The FBI, the major leagues, everything evened out to the same. All pinball machines endure a shadowy wait. It seems like ages until the next warm quarters.
A Fat Cat happened by when nothing else was happening. Fat Cat wasn’t fat. He was eighteen and like a big cartoon cat, unshaven and mooning on his sax. There was much to moon about. It kept coming to their heads in montage form. The mooning was about the moon and how it looked up there whole, like a balloon stuck on the ceiling.
The boys were worth locking up in a locket, worth leaving class without a pass. But now there were no classes. Now there were no passes. There were girls, but not close by. Their seventeen years lit up like a dollar bill. Nothing ever felt necessary. The sax said, “Keep it—this generous boredom."
The boredom zagged and slept. They remembered girls as girl Snoopys, pouting tears, skipping happy, saying their half asleep abstractions into the pillow. Laying in the dark, the boys heard the ghost songs of Native Americans, a lonely flute losing to the wind. They smiled and left their screennames logged on.
The boys shared their mini pizza bagels with the Clumber Spaniel, who dragged himself around the house and then hours later around again. He lay in afternoon sun. Around him, the living room spread out on all sides. A dusty collection of figurines sat on the windowsill; a rubber Donald Duck stood even with an Empire State Building. TV was projected over the flowered wallpaper. A long striped couch faded from the sun. On top of the Persian rug were the demolished remains of a massive card-house. The Clumber Spaniel snored. The Andy Warhol self-portrait moped on his wall.
The boys took frivolous naps, filling their heads with unreal preoccupation, wonderful combinations, and a gentle anxiety that clamped their foreheads like the sax’s highest note. Sleep ate their days into pieces, but there were too many to begin with. The soft-serve machine hummed next to the washer and dryer. Once you had one of those it was soft-serve every night until it was as usual as cereal—only a guest could have gotten excited.
“All I really want to eat is toothpaste. No one ever let me.” They could do that, the toothpaste, and sitcom marathons too. Too many in a row and sentiments started to swim. On the show and in the boys. Sympathy tied itself in a neat bow, but once the TV powered off, reality was back there coughing. Raw eggs had never looked so predictably bizarre.
When they needed their hands in things, Cub stuck his in the cool whip and Al had his with the spoons, in their sectioned-off drawer. “What beautiful gloom,” said Fat Cat, but that was about the dog and what was arranged around him. Monopoly sat messily underneath the Spaniel. They’d tried the board games, but their imaginations couldn’t be touched. America’s Funniest Home Videos persisted on top of the flowers. “There’s something amazing and confusing about Bob Saget.” The boys stared without blinking. Al nodded, “The things he says aren’t jokes.” Cub chewed his tongue. “What are they?”
The hungry brown of the Spaniel’s iris took up his whole eye. To successfully flip an ear open was to see the waxy galaxy that hid inside. Cub pulled his hand from the Spaniel and changed the channel. Sometimes the Andy Warhol eyed them wearily; other times his approval radiated between the pink and the red.
They’d been sitting so long their butts were sleeping. It was a dull decade to teenage in. Old film had convinced them wholly, and now they sat around squinting. “How come the seventies had different colors?” Al asked. Fat Cat was privileged to be born in ‘79. He’d stuck a fat baby foot in, before the door slammed shut.
The boys said words that made their mouths satisfied. “Have you seen any Antonioni?” Any parental influence was trapped in the amber of the thorough movie collection left behind. “Kurosawa, Werner Herzog, Terrance Malick.” Taped on a VHS was the mother pregnant with Cub on a late night talk show, patting her fat belly and joking with the host. The footage made Cub feel locked from the whole laughing world. The boys taped it over with America’s Funniest Home Videos. They brought their beers to the bathtub, and the Clumber Spaniel watched with heavy eyes.
There are no pictures of the Clumber young. When it was young they didn’t take pictures, though all of them felt giant relief. Its mouth was new and pink. They’d bought themselves a beginning. It would pant, a dog grin, then, all of a sudden shut its mouth and look serious, reality stricken. Then just as suddenly, let its tongue back out panting. Something finally liked them and for no reason. They weakened the dog into a pet. They could leave and leave and go, and it would wait, wanting all and some and more of them.
Cub lay back on the bottom bunk, his ankles prisoners of his pants. He reached one hand under the bed and pulled out an old music box. New York used to look so shiny at night. Cub wound up the music box and it played willingly. By the end of New York City, NYU had overrun its boundaries. No other flower grew but the NYU flower, a perennial pansy genetically modified by university ag-grad students. The purple markings had been approximated into the school’s logo, spotting the white round petals. He could hear Al kicking the Clumber’s water bowl, making the sci-fi sound. Sometimes the Yankees symbol looked like a swastika. He let his eyelids fall shut. America is a studio audience, he thought, smiling into his pillow. The Clumber Spaniel was peeing in the living room. An acoustic guitar would give you as much as you gave it, plus a little more, thought Cub. An electric guitar would give you even more than that. A distortion pedal could make a note into a conversation. The soft serve machine whirred on.
With their faces in the fields, it hit home just how many little spikes of grass there were, blind and unnumbered, laid out and waiting like everything else. The weather was just a little too cold. “That how it’s supposed to be,” Al said, “you’re supposed to feel it.” The wind was constant back and forth, washing hair in air, coolly blowing their eyelashes. It was dog weather, but the Spaniel looked the same. Unconsciously it followed them out of the house, into the fields, then circled and sat in the dead grass, but wouldn’t chase a wispy tennis ball for anything. He bit his feet, sniffed nostalgically at the grass, and sat with a dead blade of it in the valley of his tongue. “This tennis ball is like prehistoric,” Al said, throwing it in Cub’s face. Cub looked at its white under-bone, “It’s just from the eighties.” Al let the tennis ball roll slowly away, “Give it some time.”
A highway winded through the fields. One side had woods, the other side had nothing. Ashley and Mary Kate sat in the back seat with their elbows on the elbow rest. “Do you realize,” they chirped, “that we’ve never swam in a lake,” they sniffed, “ever?” The bodyguards smiled despite their fat necks and pointed at the clock display.
“Whatever,” Ashley said with little breath, “please stop though, I have to pee real bad.” The woods stared blindly from the side of the highway. “I have to too,” Mary Kate said, pleased. The bodyguards had lost all but their huge bodies and a nagging inner voice that couldn’t stop reasoning. The twins walked calmly away from the car. Muddy and fun, muddy and fun, were the words beating with Ashley’s heart. The bodyguards stood by the SUV smoking cigars. The twins walked in back of the bushes and kept on without pause, their fancy sandals sinking mud.
The twins kept on through the woods. Trees are weird shapes, Ashley thought, but then she changed her mind. Highway woods are haunted, she realized all at once. “Its like we’re in Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said Mary Kate. Ashley kept on behind her, kicking at stones. Mary Kate looked at her, “The Shakespeare play with the fairies.” Ashley kicked the stones expressionlessly.
The sky was a powdery blue-like eye shadow. The sounds in the air were the twins’ feet on stones, the bending of branches, and the two heartbeats beating away. Mary Kate breathed full breaths like yoga, like the doctors. This woods was for her. Ashley kept her eyes on Mary Kate. She was Mary Kate, watching from behind like a religious prophet. A special cat who could think complex thoughts. She was Mary Kate, walking in front of her, if she made her head think so. She nodded her chin down to her neck, and with her tongue grabbed the gold script Ashley into her mouth. She sucked on the name. She sucked on the chain. If she died, she could just live inside Mary Kate.
The woods were littered with bottles and flip-flops, potato chip bags and cigarette cartons. Still, Ashley found herself far away enough that she could now understand the world from high up. Nail polish always smudged before it had its choosy chance to dry. Girls were different than boys, in more than appearance. Were there enough hobby magazines for all the new hobbies? Lots of things had changed before anyone realized it. Science had made more and more things possible, but some of the things were stupid. It was terrible how they had dried up strawberries and packaged them in with the cereal. Ashley sighed. America had seemed so great. Astronauts kept exploring outer space, even though outer space wanted to be left alone. Then there was a girl who looked like Stephanie from the show. She was leaning against a tree. The three girls locked eyes and Mary Kate ran as fast as she could towards the girl, damaging her sandal.
Stephanie’s hair was a little shorter, but her jaw sat the way her jaw always sat. The trees swayed in a hush around them and Mary Kate thought, It’s like a Botticelli painting! Only our hair is very different. Ashley remembered her question. “What did crystal meth feel like?” Stephanie looked through them like they were light.
“Bugs crawling on your arms.”
Ashley imagined what that would feel like. Mary Kate frowned and pulled at her Mary Kate necklace.
“Do you still talk to John Stamos?”
“No,” Stephanie pushed her sneaker toe in dirt, “Why?”
“Looking back,” Mary Kate began, “I thought that boyfriends were supposed to be like John on the show.”
Ashley sucked on her name, “What?”
“It defined my idea of cool,” Mary Kate whispered.
“Weird,” Ashley didn’t want to die and have to live inside Mary Kate. She would live out her own years in her own body.
Mary Kate smiled to herself, but her smile was so big they could see it. How beautiful and perfect to come across Stephanie in the woods of the prairie on Father’s Day, with Ashley with her as always! “Do you feel like we are all sisters?” Mary Kate did a small dance in her sandals.
“No.” Stephanie’s eyes burned into the sun. She wished the sun would burn back, but the sun was almost set now and gave out only a weak burn, which did nothing but redden the sky in one place.
No people lived next to the boys’ land, a grassy sprawl that said, “Andrew Wyeth was right, Andrew Wyeth was right.” But past an idling SUV, where the winding road met Route 46, there was the part that was all furniture stores. Sofas Plus, Crib City, Teen Furniture. The showrooms stretched hundreds of square feet. Kitchen alcoves with the old type of “modern” lighting. Eighties couches with sloppy zigzag prints. This is where the Comfort Kids slept five mattresses high, a gang armed with knives from the kitchen displays. The Comfort Kids walked the highway divider. “Bill Clinton is my dad” was tagged over the highway exit. “The Dali Llama smokes Marijuana.”
On past 46, the mansions built on landfills. The pornographers still working on their masterpiece; tap dances in milk, an orgy with every country represented. Past that, the country club, with Cub’s Mom living in one of its rooms. Her head in the Jacuzzi while her friends played bridge in the social room. Oldies music sang from the intercom. Daily news briefings in the news briefing room, continuing ed. classes, a softball league, talent shows. The group included Tom Selleck and Tom Hanks. Fame wasn’t fame anymore. The Toms just lived there like anyone else.
Cub and Al turned off near the field. There was a wolf call, but it wasn't a wolf, it was a little kid—Al could tell. The boys ran down the hill and stood on the baseball field with their shotguns. They stood for a good half hour. The deer hadn’t passed yet, they were busy being angels around town. The fireflies lit up like jokes. Al leaned on his shotgun. Cub shivered in his fleece. “What’s the deer’s natural enemy again?”
Al sneezed into his sleeve, “Cars.”
“Oh,” Cub leaned on his shotgun too. A branch crackled in the woods and the boys’ tongues jumped in their mouths. Beyond the rusted bleachers, a buck stood chewing grass. Al shot him dead. The boys stood still; their skin felt goose bumps, their minds dreamily blank. The body had turned to meat. The boredom turned to beauty.
Tears decorated the face of Mary Kate. “Ashley is lost,” she explained to the two bodyguards. She looked at the guns in their hands. “Ashley has run off,” she blurted, then felt immediately more at ease. Then she told them about “Stephanie” because it had been truly amazing. One bodyguard stayed in the black SUV and listened to a more detailed account, how it had felt like Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespeare play, how it had looked like a Botticelli painting but not quite, how fate itself had smiled upon the three sisters. The other bodyguard, heavy in his shoes, ducked his way into the woods. Miles away, Ashley dallied around the house, peaked into a window and found her eyes inside Warhol’s. She decided that finding a house by yourself right as the sun is realizing it’s pretty was way cooler than double look-alike babies, than Father’s Day dinner, than mini-TVs on the SUV seatbacks.
The sun dragged out its sunset. Cub saw kids in the woods. Looked behind for the Clumber Spaniel but the Clumber was in the house. A howl sounded again in the night. “A wolf?” Cub whispered to Al. “A kid,” Al sneered once more. A Comfort Kid stepped forward and accused the boys of stealing the Andy Warhol. Al looked at Cub. Cub looked for Fat Cat to make a joke and fix it. But the only other watchers were trees, the blind eyes of the dead deer. Was Fat Cat mooning on his sax, for all the cassette tape ribbons in trees, for all the zoo animals gone extinct?
Fat Cat was up by the house, waiting for soft serve, nose to the window watching the Clumber stumble and the Warhol smirk. Catching a glimpse of a girl from TV and wondering. Al held his gun like he meant it. The big kids had butcher knives. The little Comfort Kid had a pocketknife like Cub’s. On its side was an engraving of a flowering branch. Could it make the cutter feel better about cutting? Was it a little symbol of life, nudging the cutter, natural order, letting things lie? Or was it showing flowers cut, trees as wood, all parties end.
There in the Wyeth, the littlest Comfort Kid redly remembered what defiant ghost used to hang in his living room. A judge shown out in silkscreen dots. The flowering branch was covered with kid fingers. The Wyeth watched the knife make another cut. Al had blood like the deer. Guilt overrode the cutter, and he didn’t want the painting. Nervous laughter between the boys and the kids until Fat Cat’s Dad drove over and did stitches. The Comfort Kids cried. To have a Dad grandly around, knees in the dirt, face figured out, but then away on his motorcycle! Left in the Wyeth, they took painkillers, all of them, because Fat Cat had enough. Al was okay, but shame and painkillers convinced the Comfort Kids to camp uncomfortably in the grass.
Al coiled up in his sleeping bag and dreamt he was on a staircase. He laughed a little, the unreal friendliness of too much fun with the mirror. He laughed at the idea of himself. He laughed that he was laughing. He could walk up the stairs, or he could stay put; he could do either.
Intuitively laying his fingers to the piano, Cub felt he might figure a symphony by mistake. Then the doorbell, he tip-toed over sleeping Al, opened the door, offered up soft-serve. Laughing girl and boy Snoopys, a joint’s uneven end. Cub and Ashley in the extra room, the Ashley in Cub’s mouth. Only the Stone Temple Pilots CD was dumb enough for them to be naked without smirking. In the bare bulb light they did the fun of almost having babies. Clouding each other’s minds until an image appeared, Judy Jetson in a 50’s style interior, until a phrase said itself in a circle. But the last Clumber Spaniel snuck off to be alone. He slumped against the wall and let his eyes wet. His eyes wet, and he threw up. He threw up and then ate the throw-up. He bit his feet.
Rachel B. Glaser is the author of Moods and Pee On Water. She lives in Western Massachusetts.