By Paul Lisicky
At some point Ginny stopped checking her rearview mirror whenever she backed up. Chuckles knew some other human would interpret this habit as a metaphor: Ginny was afraid of accepting responsibility for her past, for the loss of her job and the end of her relationship with Brett. Chuckles, however, knew that she was simply too overwhelmed to handle one more thing. If she wasn’t checking the messages on her phone, she was rotating her thumbs over the face of her phone, which was why she couldn’t keep a steady hand on his leash. Everyone thought that Ginny was walking Chuckles—and Chuckles certainly participated in that theater—but Chuckles knew he was walking Ginny, even when he stopped to smell dead bird. His job was to let her know that she was here, as a dog had to be clear when his human had her head in a dozen different places at once.
The traffic was especially congested one day. An accident had shut down the bypass, all the lanes funneled into the beach town, through the narrow street. The air was agitated as they walked through town. The black-haired baker, who never smoked, tried to strike a light against her matchbook, failing with every swipe, as if she’d left it out in the moisture all night. Ginny, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more focused: she hadn’t checked her phone for the last twelve minutes. Still, Chuckles did his best to guide Ginny along without so much as a peek at the pit bull across the street, or a stop outside the seafood restaurant that always smelled so good, damn good, of fried clam batter.
Once, Discipline didn’t have to be Chuckles’ last name. Ginny had Brett, a man whom Ginny treated like a boy, ineffectual, impulsive, even though any clear observer could see that he was the captain of the house. More than a captain: a force of sunlight, kindness, and wit. Chuckles adored Brett, especially when the two of them went away to the old motel in Rehoboth. They always took the ferry, and not five minutes after they checked in, they drove north to Cape Henlopen, where Chuckles ran in and out through cold waves. Chuckles went in and out so many times that Brett couldn’t help but bend over at the waist, clapping his hands. How Chuckles loved making Brett laugh like that, light pinking his skin, light gingering his beard, which was usually dark brown. Sometimes Chuckles knew that Brett felt lighter to be away from Ginny and her distractions. He’d see the lift in Brett’s brow, and then he’d wilt a little for Brett, and even more for himself. If something happened between Brett and Ginny, Brett and Chuckles would be over. And when they finally did break, when Brett left one summer night with a mesh sack and a rolling suitcase, Chuckles lay on the space beneath Brett’s desk, not drinking water, forgoing his food, only peeing on the wisteria outside when he absolutely had to.
Did Ginny take in the message?
Chuckles turned toward the door whether the door opened or stayed closed.
God—what could be said of His silence, His turning away? Couldn’t He have carried Brett home?
A year clocked by. Then two. Three.
Chuckles kept his vigil so long that when he finally gave up, the patch of light beneath his body could not be wiped off, not even with the harshest detergents.
They were back in the car now. Ginny pressed the power button by the steering column and looked ahead. When Chuckles thought of the joy in Brett’s face, his capacity for calling him silly names—which should have irritated him, but they were fun names, Tiny and Fatty and Muscles and Little—he twisted with joy. Who needed the name Chuckles anyway? Little! he barked. Little! Little! He slid down into the well of the driver’s seat, knocking Ginny’s foot off the accelerator. And it didn’t so much matter that they went backward instead of forward: Brett’s apartment was on that side of town anyway. Was that why Ginny was trying to push him off? Chuckles could already smell Brett, his beard oil, his long feet, the thick mat of hair starting beneath his Adam’s apple, and he steadied his weight on the pedal as they headed deeper, backward into the life that once took care of them.
Paul Lisicky is the author of four books: Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Ecotone, Fence, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, Unstuck, and other magazines and anthologies. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has twice been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in both Gay Men’s Fiction and Autobiography. He currently is an assistant professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in January 2016.