Daniel

Pickle, their stout, aging Pug, sauntered into the room and lay down at Chris’s feet. Wasn’t that also an indication of being slow, she thought. Don’t animals love slow people? Nancy imagined her husband in a wetsuit, swimming with a group of chattering dolphins that immediately began to fawn over his presence. She could almost hear the childlike giggles he’d make when their gray bodies encircled him. Maybe there was a way to give Chris an IQ test without him knowing it. If he tested in a borderline region, perhaps she’d be eligible for a clean divorce.

Looking sad, Pickle rose up onto two legs and slowly mounted Chris’s large loafer-sheathed foot, embarrassed eyes toward the floor, then began to hump. Chris shook him loose and turned the page in his notebook.

Pickle stayed close, continuing to look at the shoe in a victimized manner.

“Maybe it’s not even his fault,” said Chris. Nancy found herself unsure whether he was referring to their dog or their son.

“Why a Pug, Chris? He looks like he’s being squeezed and flattened at the same time.”

She’d been asking some variation on this question since Chris had given her the pug for Mother’s Day, a few years after she lost Bilko. Every time, Chris gave a different answer, but none of them were ever satisfying.

“Daniel picked it out,” he said this time with infuriating matter-of-factness.“He said it looked like a fun dog that might be able to make you laugh.”

“You couldn’t have gotten a Labrador? Those don’t look like practical jokes.”

A loud burst of organ music came from above. Daniel. “There he goes, composing the soundtrack to industrial misery,” she said. The music made their conversation take on a dramatic, hazardous effect, as though something shocking was going to be revealed at any moment. And then it was.

“I worried a Lab might be too painful.”

It upset Nancy when Chris displayed a note of tenderness that could indicate love. Where her husband was concerned, she had long ago resigned herself to mere duties of common preservation; for example, she laid out his vitamin each morning but did not pressure him to exercise. He didn’t need to live an exceptionally long life in her opinion. Were he to have chest pains, sure, she would call the hospital. But basic acts of courtesy were all she felt she owed him, and she wished he would be equally sparing with her, anything more only made her seem cold.

“Well, it wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, I live in the present.”

She walked to the bathroom in a fast clip and shut the door, though not tightly enough. Pickle soon approached, sniffed, and nudged the door’s tiny crack until it swung open to allow him entrance. They sat together, Nancy on the toilet and Pickle flat across the floor. Both appeared to be waiting for a natural disaster.

Nancy thought of that day, when Daniel had arrived. Maybe that was the cause of Daniel’s problems. Some type of neurological damage incurred during birth. He’d seemed more or less normal when he was younger, though. Except of course the teeth, which the dentist claimed were hereditary. She’d always felt like his teeth had been her fault. She’d tried to fix them, and thought she had. Now he’d made them her fault again.

She wasn’t proud of what she’d tried that day after Bilko’s death. But even if she could take it back, even if she had clear proof that what she’d done had in fact somehow damaged Daniel, she wouldn’t. It was her one protest on record that her life was not good and was certainly not going to improve, and the years had deemed her right. If she’d ever come close to loving Chris, it was through him respecting her most important request. “I don’t ever want to talk about this,” she’d told him in the hospital the day after it had happened, and he’d never asked her to. Ignoring that one thing was the one area where the two of them were a real success as a team.

*

Daniel looked down at his penis, hoping it might grow and widen along with the rest of his body. It was very pale, so pale that its dark veins seemed closer to the surface than they actually were. He thought about how it had never been exposed to sunlight. He liked this; it made him admire his penis. It had lived an ideal he wished he could proclaim for the rest of his body. Its smooth, strange skin confirmed Daniel’s instinct that it should never be placed in front of a bright light lest it recoil, or wither. He thought briefly of doing a window test, pulling back the thick velvet curtain of his room and placing himself inside a shaft of light. But of course, a neighbor might see. He wouldn’t want it to get back to Mother that he’d done a sunlight penis experiment.