by Joe Holt
Tori moved out on me when the snow melted. By May she’d found a place down in Omaha. She wanted to start over somewhere new. Fine with me. So long, Tori! And take your fat dog with you.
Thing is, she didn’t take her dog. The dog’s name is Fighter. Lazy dog. Basset hound. Tori always spoiled Fighter, feeding him chicken strips and tater tots, doting on him while ignoring me. He’s the type of dog to play sleeping, then once you look past him he’s eaten your cheeseburgers and the paper sack they were served in. With Tori gone, he’d taken to lying on the floor all day like an unfurled sleeping bag.
This new place, it’s not pet-friendly, Tori told me. Tie him up outside, I said, see if I care. Then Tori would accuse me of being brutal, and I’d tell her to give it a rest, and she’d cry and I’d apologize. Probably we shouldn’t have been talking anymore. Probably we both should have deleted the other’s number from our contacts, purged all our courtships cards and emails, shredded the old photos, etc.
So one hot day in June, I finally tug Fighter out the door and hoist him into my beat-up Nissan. Buckle up, you fat thing, I tell him. You’re going to live with your mom in Omaha.
We head south from Sioux Falls on I-29. Outside it’s all corn fields and soybean. Because it’s a weekday afternoon, the traffic is company cars and semi-trailers. I’m doing all the passing. No one’s passing me.
Fighter sits on his haunches in the seat beside me, watching me, drooling as he often does. Stop it, I tell him. Quit looking at me, you turd. Soon Fighter’s stomach makes a sound like rocks in a garbage disposal. I look over and he’s licking the passenger window.
C’mon… git… stop it, I say, yanking him by his collar. And then Fighter chokes on something, his own breath maybe. He starts wheezing. Those flaps of skin, his jowls, billow out when he exhales. Oh, please, I say. Shut up, will ya? He leans over and shakes his flappy brown ears at me, then coughs a chunk of kibble onto my lap.
At the Iowa line I exit into a roadside welcome center, park the car, and head to the restroom, where I scrub the front of my pants with a wet paper towel. Back outside, there’s a state trooper standing by my passenger door. He’s a tall man with stiff posture. This your dog? he asks.
Yessir, I say, and a fat, worthless dog he is.
The trooper narrows his eyes on me. Any reason you failed to crack the window for him? he asks. On cue, Fighter makes a small winnowing noise from inside the car. It’s eighty-five degrees out, you asshole, the trooper says. You don’t deserve a dog.
Got me there, I say. I’m always asking what I did to deserve this. Look at how the car’s leaning. I’ll need new struts by the time I reach Council Bluffs.
This angers the trooper. He stomps his boot into my headlight, which cracks into a spider-web pattern. A triangle of plastic falls down and clinks against the concrete. Then the trooper brushes past me. Looks like you pissed yourself, he adds.
Thanks a lot, I say, leading Fighter out onto the grass. You coulda laid low. The trooper’s watching us from his cruiser, so I pretend to gather the dog’s waste with newspaper from a nearby garbage barrel. Then I lift Fighter back into the passenger seat and crank down the side window an inch or two. Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya, I tell the dog.
At Sioux City we pass through the stench of a John Morrell meatpacking plant. Fighter pushes himself up with those stubby little arms and tries crossing to my seat. Whoa, wise guy, I say. Invisible line, right here—this is my space. I nearly swerve into a maroon mini-van. I fend off the dog with a forearm, guiding him back to his seat. Sit down, I tell him, be cool.
And then we’re out of the city. More farmland. Four lanes running flat and straight and endlessly into the horizon.
Now I’m having trouble sitting still. I fuss with the A/C. I stretch across the seat and roll up Fighter’s window. I wipe the dust from the stereo panel with my thumb. I scan the FM dial,
but the Twins game cuts away into static, and the only other stations are mariachi or hard-luck country western.
Out ahead is a Dairy Queen billboard, with a twenty-foot-long hot dog and a heaping banana split. My speedometer’s hitting ninety, and Fighter cranes his neck. Once we pass the billboard, he turns and bats his sad, fat eyes at me. No, I say. I turn off the radio, and the dog and I ride in silence.
It’s less than an hour until Tori’s new place in Omaha.
So what should we talk about, I ask the dog. Any last words?
He slumps down and rests his head on the center console. I notice drool glistening around the gearshift.
You were Tori’s idea, I finally say. Not mine. I wanted a ferret.
But she needed a dog, I add, she just had to have a big ol’ floppy, cuddly dog. Puppies are cute, even you were back then. And back then I’d have done about anything Tori asked.
I shouldn’t have let her feed you that garbage, I tell Fighter. I knew better. But I let it slide once or twice, and after that you can’t just say, Tori, dear, perhaps you shouldn’t, maybe it’s a bad thing. Lot of what I said went right past her anyway. Same with her to me.
What’s that tell ya? I say. One, me and Tori woulda made crummy parents, if it had come to that. And two, we had communication trouble from the start. A bunch of it was my fault, sure. But she ain’t blameless either, Fighter, you were there, you saw it all. Some help you were. But it’s not your fault, you’re just a dumb dog, you can’t help it.
I got a lot of anger still, I say. And then I shut up for a long flat stretch of highway.
And we keep driving. By my estimate we have thirty minutes left. That’s thirty minutes to tell that dog all the nasty, vile things I feel toward Tori. What’s it mean to him? Nothing. But I want an audience. I think it might help. So I reach over and scratch the soft fleshy mass where the dog’s ribs should be. He nestles comfortably into his seat. And once I know he’s listening, I say it all for the last time.