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I resign myself to being awake after an hour since it’s Saturday and I don’t have to be up at six. I don’t have to dole out colored pencils or watercolors or clay, and explain how to make coiled pots to a classroom of third graders. But I have programmed myself too well, and my body remains unconvinced that it can be slothful.

I swaddle myself in a bathrobe and pad downstairs to make coffee because soon my body will realize that it’s tired. There’s extra coffee in the pot, so I walk downstairs to the basement apartment and knock on the door to ask Cal if he’d like a cup. I don’t hear him shuffling, just his two dogs scratching at the wood. Lady is big and red and eight years old, a sweet dog who whines more than she barks. Lucky is a three-year-old chihuahua mix who picks fights. Usually they’re in the yard by now to greet the morning and relieve themselves.

I knock again. More claw scrabbling. Cal never locks the door, so I crack it open. Lady whines. Lucky dances on his hind legs. “Down, down,” I remind them though they choose not to understand me. The dogs follow as I pad to Cal’s bedroom, the door slightly ajar, and knock twice.

“Cal?”

Nothing.

I shove the door open. He’s in bed covered by a thin blue blanket, face turned to me, eyes closed and cheeks purpled. Before I place two fingers to his neck to check, I know his skin will be cold.

Lucky always tried to nip at me before, but now he leans against my legs. I close my eyes. The room doesn’t smell like anything. Lady whimpers. I need to take care of the living, walk to the back door and let the dogs out. The basement apartment is split level, so it’s six short steps up to the yard. The dogs bound outside, realizing the needs of their canine bladders.

I pad upstairs, sniff my coffee, and call 911. I say that I think my renter is dead. Actually I know he’s dead, but these declarations should be handled by professionals. I give the dispatcher my address, hang up the phone, and wonder if I gave her the correct address because at moments like this, in the shock of what should be a dream, I sometimes forget basic things, like where I live.

I walk back downstairs, though I’m not sure what I can do for the dead. Cal’s mug on the kitchen counter has a teabag inside, the water still warm. Could he have made tea, felt ill, laid back down? I shouldn’t assemble scenarios, shouldn’t even say the guy is dead.

I sit on the blue loveseat to wait for the police and listen to the dogs scratch at the door. I don’t need their chaos, I don’t need their whining at Cal in the back bedroom, I don’t need to ask whether dogs mourn. The doorbell rings and I realize the police will be at my front door, not the back entrance.

I run upstairs.

Morning heart attacks aren’t strange. That’s how I lost my dad, and that’s what I explain to the officer when I lead him down the steps. I am oddly calm yet shot through with adrenalin. What are you supposed to do with a bed when somebody dies on it? The mattress is good except he lost control of his bodily functions. It’s good Cal isn’t here because he’d be embarrassed about the yellow stain.

The dogs scratch and whine at the door. The policeman takes out an official looking notebook and I tell him Cal was 58 and walked with a cane and said he had a gimp leg because of polio when he was three, and I know he had a prescription for medical marijuana, but I didn’t know he’d transformed the closet into a grow room, and I’m very sorry, officer, I hope that’s not a big problem.

“We have other concerns,” says the cop with a shrug because this is Colorado and the dead guy is our priority.

Doorbell again.

I race back upstairs, find the detective and coroner on my front porch, and take them to the basement where they ask me questions about Cal’s mental and physical health. I explain what I know, which isn’t much. He looked a little tired and gray yesterday. I look tired and gray after a week of school, but I should have asked if he felt okay, should have remembered the gray tinge in my dad’s face before he died...

The coroner mutters about heart failure and asks if the basement door goes to the backyard. I open it and let the hurricane of dogs in, Lady and Lucky are eager to see people because maybe they have made Cal sit up. Lucky jumps on the policeman’s knees and Lady ambles to the detective. I tell them no, stay down, and feel more helpless when they ignore me, but the three men laugh. Maybe we needed this, a dose of dumb joyful dog. I am still in my robe and tell the coroner I’ll help with the gurney.

“You don’t have to,” he says.

“I need to do something,” I say.

The time after a death is so odd that you don’t want to think, you want to act. We wrestle a gurney down the basement steps past a tangle of dogs who want a ride. The coroner unfolds the body bag and unzips it, then he and the policeman and detective lift Cal’s body, nestle him inside, and zip it up as if they’re preparing him for long term storage like a wedding dress. The coroner rolls Cal to the door while I pad upstairs to make more coffee.

Feeling limp, I need to be useful.

Cal has been living with me for a year and a half. He was a good guy, a quiet guy who liked dogs and worked as a mechanic at a shop downtown. He paid rent by the end of the month, though sometimes he did repairs instead of rent, like fixing the sink or the toilet or the kitchen drawer that was threatening to fall out. His left leg often ached at the end of the day, so I understood why he needed to come home, smoke a joint or three, and play with dogs in the yard.

“Without my medication I’d be a son of a bitch,” he said. It made me laugh because he was a sweet guy, even when he cussed at the dogs. If the smell of pot aggravated my asthma and made me wheeze when I had the back door open, it was hard to get mad. Cal’s boss was a jerk, according to the profanity-punctured stories he told me in the evenings.

I don’t tell the detective and coroner all this, just that he didn’t have much family I know of, only a brother in California. I have his phone number on a slip of paper buried under many other slips of paper in the collage magneted to my fridge.

The coroner asks if he can contact the next of kin. I say please. I don’t know how to make phone calls like that. I was just renting out my basement. It seems obvious that fate woke me early so I’d make coffee and go downstairs and find Cal thirty seconds before his heart gave out, but I was too lazy to work with that plan. I’m sure the three men can see guilty trepidation in my eyes, but they sip their coffee like nothing is wrong. Damn them. They don’t take fingerprints or ask prying questions, just thank me for the coffee like this was a casual Saturday chat, then they ask if I will be okay.

I say yes. but mean no. There is all this stuff in my basement—clothes and tools and food and newspapers and books and pictures. There are two dogs scritch-scritching to be let in, though there is nothing for them to do but chew on the already-frayed edge of the living room carpet. I need a walk. I need a donut. I need to explain this situation to someone who did not find a dead guy in her basement two hours ago. But first I need to get dressed.

I tug on jeans and a T-shirt and grab my purse from beside the pile of paperbacks on my kitchen table. I was going to spend the morning with a pen and a book on classroom management, underlining potentially helpful phrases, but that no longer matters. Derrick, my fifth-grade nemesis, and the bane of every Monday, no longer matters. I’m not sure what matters, but I hope to find shards of perspective lying on the sidewalk.

It’s four blocks to the grocery store. I listen to the rhythmic slap of my shoes on the asphalt and wonder who will write Cal’s obituary.

Cal and I talked sometimes, usually about our jobs, but there are many things I didn’t know, things I should have asked over coffee, interrogating Cal about his life, his family, his health, the persistent cough he’d had for six months or more.

My friend Brenda works at the grocery customer service counter. I stand there eating a glazed figure-eight and then a powdered sugar donut, explaining the hollow knock on my basement door and the scritch-scritching dogs and how my house was invaded by sympathetic men wearing dark jackets, and now they are gone and so is Cal and what the hell just happened?

Brenda nods. “He was in here yesterday buying lotto tickets and breathing hard.”

“He looked pale,” says Mitch, the store manager who horns himself into our conversation since there isn’t much going on at the store at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

“It’s a shame,” says Brenda. “He was a good guy, even when he was a bit off.”

“A bit off?”  

“You know, sometimes he was just kind of off.” She shrugs.

“Yeah,” I say, though I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Mitch excuses himself to sell cigarettes.

I lower my voice, leaning over the counter toward Brenda. “I don’t know what to do with his stash. I don’t smoke the stuff.”

“I know people who know people.” She taps her chin. “Let me ask around.”

I don’t doubt Brenda or her sources, and I’d like to stay in the store all morning and lose myself in the weak buzz of humanity, but I must go home to the dogs.

Lady and Lucky seem cheerful and oblivious when I let them back inside for morning kibble. When they’re done eating they try to jump on my lap, overflowing with puppy affection, but it’s hard for us to fit on the loveseat.

Dogs are overt and emotional creatures. I don’t know if that explains why I’m a cat person. Cats are quiet and demure, cuddly and judgmental, and would know more swear words than dogs, who are just happy to be here, wherever here is. Cats are miraculously programmed to pee in a box. Dogs prefer to relieve themselves at the end of leashes. They sit still while I attach them to their collars. When I open the back door we’re off down the sidewalk, a bounding tugging dance.

Cal told me that dogs were good for the soul. Dogs listened. Dogs forgave you after a bad day. Even if you told them to leave you alone, they knew you never meant it. I just wish the dogs would slow down when my cell phone rings and it’s Brenda saying she found a guy who’ll give me a couple hundred dollars for the buds.

How has so much happened today and it’s only noon?

We return home and I contemplate food, maybe a sandwich, but first I call my girlfriend because she’ll be home from her weekend shift at the bank. I say the morning was eventful and maybe she should come over. When she does I drag her to the couch and explain everything while the dogs play their favorite game in the backyard, running up the steps to my porch, peering at us through the sliding glass door, and running back down.

“Wow,” says my girlfriend, giving me the hug I needed all morning.

“No shit,” I say, and ask if she wants a grilled cheese sandwich.

While we’re eating my phone rings again, Cal’s brother calling because the coroner just called him. He sounds remarkably calm, reminding me how everyone has been remarkably calm, which seems wrong.

He wants to drive out and collect Cal’s stuff, and asks if Cal and I got along.

“Yeah,” I say. “He was a good guy. He fixed a few things around here.”

Cal’s brother pauses. “Women. Sometimes he got on better with women.”

“Oh?”

“We had rough patches. You know how it is with brothers. But we were okay now.”

He pauses again like he might want to say more. I pause to let him say more. A long silence. Several thoughts buzz through my mind. Brenda said Cal seemed off sometimes, then didn’t elaborate. Who was the guy who’d been living in my basement all these months, and does it matter now that he’s dead? Should it worry me that I only knew him in the last chapters of his life? I shake my head and return to the practical matter of finding homes for his dogs, which I mention to his brother.

“Well,” he says, “my apartment complex don’t want pets.”

I purse my lips and say we’ll keep thinking about that, but to be in touch about his visit. My girlfriend asks if I will be okay. I say yes. I still mean no, but I don’t know what anyone can do about that. We stand in my living room and she kisses me on the lips and rests her hand on my hip. Sometimes on the weekends this would be a time to cuddle and maybe more, but a guy died in my basement and there are dogs outside and I’m not in the mood. I kiss her and step back. She nods and says to call if I need anything.

I need someone to tell me what to do about the basement which is a cross between a crypt and a junk heap, full of Cal’s diet soda and ramen and teabags and the persistent sense of guilt I’m trying not to feel because of Cal’s wheezing and how he told me he didn’t trust doctors. Why didn’t I give him a pointless lecture about going in for a yearly checkup like a good stand-in mother/girlfriend/overly concerned female would have naturally done?

I ease into the empty afternoon and realize how much Cal filled the space upstairs where I live, how he laughed loudly at television shows and played jazz music and yelled at the dogs. Now all I have is their wondering whines in the evening when Cal is not back from the mechanic shop. I know small things about their routine, how they will need to be let out before I go to bed, how I should turn the TV on low so we have company.

Sunday is much the same. I let the dogs out before coffee. I let them in for kibble. I let them out when they decide chewing on carpet is boring. I sit at the table dreaming up lesson plans for what I could teach third graders about Miro and Matisse. I flip through the book on classroom management and wonder if anyone could manage Derrick, who makes my stomach hurt when he shuffles into my classroom, head up and eyes bright, bent on new destruction. He’s a pipsqueak bully who beats up other kids on the playground, cuts holes in coats and backpacks with a pocketknife, and burns the corners of his books. He’s somehow tough and frail and gutsy, his eyes permanently narrowed. I tried giving him detention after he tore a stack of watercolor paper in half. I tried praising him when he did good work on an acrylic painting. He ripped the painting to confetti and threw it on the floor.

The dogs stand on the back porch and stare at me, then run back down the stairs. And up again. After lunch we take a walk. I should clean up the dog doo in the backyard but I don’t. I think they are sleeping on Cal’s bed.

Cal’s brother calls again and says he needs gas money for the trip so he might have to wait until his next paycheck. I say I’ll send him cash, the money due to his brother. Brenda’s friend of a friend comes after dark, a good time for these kinds of transactions. I show him the plants and he nods, says hell give me a hundred now and a hundred when the buds are ready.

The dogs come in. The dogs go out. The dogs sit on the loveseat and look at me expectantly. I explain that I am not a dog person. They don’t buy this. I throw a dirty yellow chew toy in their direction. Lucky bounds off the loveseat and brings it back. We repeat. I’m being trained.

My girlfriend calls and asks how I’m doing.

“Sane,” I say.

It’s creepy to be with the dogs in the basement where Cal died, even if they don’t whine like they can sense spirits, as we assume animals should be able to do. I wait for a flicker of lights, a chill or comforting hand to brush my shoulder. Nothing.

“Dammit, Cal!” I laugh. “At least give me a little guidance with these dogs.”

 

On Monday morning I leave Lady and Lucky outside with food and water and tell them this will be our routine for now, so please bear with me while I find them a new home. I explain they can go under the deck for shelter if it rains. I ask them to please not dig holes, though I know they will continue to do so. Cal is no longer around to promise to fill them up, which he never did. I don’t feel like doing it either, since I know they will reappear, inevitable as craters on the moon.

I drive to work and ponder how Cal seemed like such a calm guy, a nice guy, which could have been due to his personality or the pot. Maybe a little of each. I try to channel him when I teach fifth grade, telling them about Van Gogh and Degas while Derrick pokes his arm with a pencil to see if I’ll react. I don’t, so he draws on the table. He’d keep doing that even if I gave him a piece of paper, so at the end of class I hand him an eraser. Derrick frowns at me, then starts rubbing out his drawing like he wants to erase the table itself. He leaves a gray smear before stomping into line with the rest of his class. I was going to tell him about Ralph Rauchenberg and how he asked Willem de Kooning to do a drawing so he could erase it, but Derrick wouldn’t care.

I’ve heard various teacher lounge theories about Derrick and his species of bully, but it’s indeterminant. How do we separate an angry abandoned kid from a bored belligerent kid from a straight-up I-don’t-give-a-damn little psychopath? He has an odd home life. Nobody is sure about the mother and a few teachers have met the dad, a quiet guy who never comes to conferences. He’s supposed to be very intelligent, works in a research and development lab for a medical implements company, but he leaves early in the morning and comes home late. The kid has been left to fend for himself, an experiment in child non-rearing. That’s our latest hypothesis.

In my years of teaching I’ve learned there are bullies in theory and bullies in reality, and no education class or after-school training session can prepare you for the latter. You do that in the field, a day-on day-out mind-wrenching scream-withholding battle of wills that makes most of us long for the good old days of corporal punishment. We dream he’ll be transferred to another school, but then we return to the classroom trenches and this kid seeing how many times he can stab his math book without someone screaming at him.

On the drive home I think of the dogs, wonder how many new holes they have excavated, and if they have managed to jiggle the back gate open. But no, there they are, cherubic on the back porch until they see me through the sliding glass door and find that event so exhilarating that they run up and down the back steps until I plod down to the basement and open the door so they can bound inside for dinner.

The dogs inhale kibble, then Lady sits on my feet while Lucky nips my hand. I scratch Lady behind the ear. She farts contentedly. Lucky brings me a slobbery toy. I toss it toward the TV and wonder if I should order a pizza. There’s ice cream in the freezer. I need to be slightly destructive, which is the best way to celebrate being alive. I stand up and open the back door. The dogs remember the idea of outside, bouncing back there to sniff and shit and nose rocks and eat things they shouldn’t be eating.

My girlfriend arrives shortly before the pizza. I need sympathy as an appetizer, to recount the events of the day as we sit on the couch. She rubs my shoulder and kisses my cheek and says I’m doing a great job, the best I can, which is the most we can ask of anybody.

“Do kids now have it that much worse than we did?” I ask after the pizza has arrived and the end of my saga is still hanging in the air to be picked apart and interpreted.

“More parents are working full-time,” says my girlfriend. “And there’s more bullying on the Internet instead of the playground.”

“Maybe...” I wonder if there is ever an answer to how bullies are made, or if some people are born mean. “I’d like to think someone can flip a switch in his brain and he’ll be an okay kid.”

“Someday he’ll wake up and realize he’s a little shit,” says my girlfriend. “That happened to me. People had been telling me I was a little shit for years, but in eighth grade I realized I had no friends and I was an asshole. People have to come to this stuff on their own most of the time.”

I know that’s true, though I hope we can do more than keep Derrick a safe distance from everyone. We want to be teachers, psychologists, fight mediators, creativity encouragers, cheerleaders, and provide guidance on how to be a good person in the world, but we must remember our limits, how we only know these kids for a quarter of every day, and try to take the whole child into account while realizing we only see a fraction.

My girlfriend cuddles me on the couch, which leads to kissing, my bedroom, and the removal of clothing which is uncommon for a school night because I have too much to do for tomorrow, but I tell myself I need closeness. Afterward, her hand on my stomach, I’m still angry at Cal for dying and angry at myself for not realizing he might die and angry at the dogs for being their loving licking bounding emotional selves. After my girlfriend leaves I will pace back and forth from the kitchen to the living room, trying to figure out what to do with myself and knowing I should work on lesson plans for tomorrow’s first and second grade classes. Then I will take the dogs for a walk.

Cal’s brother needs to rent a pickup, which means he needs more money before he drives to Colorado, which means he needs to wait a few more days until he gets his next paycheck. The dogs and I take another walk. They need to stretch after fenced-in days, and I do, too. I’ve never exercised much before now, but in just a few days I've become a person who tucks plastic bags inside her jacket pockets to pick up dog doo, a person who knows to hold the leashes tight when the dogs strain to greet someone on the other side of the street. When I am not downstairs the dogs sit in front of the blank TV screen with their chew toys. They used to watch nature documentaries with Cal in the evening, and in the kitchen above I learned about meerkats and snow leopards and penguins. Now I hear their occasional bark at a passing car. I need someone in the basement making expected sounds. The noise is comforting.

My girlfriend comes over a couple times a week in the evenings, and we kiss and cuddle and often do more than that on Saturday afternoons, the blessed space when I am not thinking about school, but we don’t want to mingle our lives and belongings yet. She was married and divorced. I was almost engaged. Maybe we’re too hesitant to dig back into a relationship, wary of how things can get serious and sticky.

My breakup is hard to explain because it was amicable. We had been together for five years, but things had flattened. I looked at him across the table at breakfast and thought, You’re nice, but I can’t imagine marrying you. I don’t remember how the conversation began, and how it led to me suggesting that we see other people. I meant this to be a kind of airing, like cracking a window on a spring day to let in a breeze. I didn’t expect the too-hopeful smile to appear on his face as he said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

When he talked about moving to Chicago I couldn’t stop the story I’d started, though I thought Wait, I need a segue. I suggested time off, and you’re planning a new future.

“Will you be okay with the mortgage payments?” he asked after verbally situating himself in an apartment on the north side of Chicago within walking distance of the El.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

We’d broken up in three minutes without having to say those words. I couldn’t take anything back. He would have helped with the mortgage since he was so suffocatingly kind, but I didn’t want to speak with him once he was in the mythical land of Chicago. After he left I felt like he was haunting the condo, looking over my shoulder when I made pizza sauce, peering into the fridge and saying I bought weak beer, asking if washing the bedsheets every week was too fanatical. I needed to exorcise him from my life, so I found my bank-teller girlfriend, then I found Cal and his dogs to help with bills and provide a touch of company, or at least commotion. I didn’t realize the latter would be so important.

I’m disappointed by Cal’s lack of otherworldly assistance. I want him to possess the can opener or toaster, make them turn on at random times or do other weird shit, but no luck. I haven’t merited even a gentle haunting, a hint of posthumous instruction for what to do when Lady and Lucky won’t stop  whining for something I can’t provide.

We all feel abandoned.

Maybe that’s why I’m scared of another relationship, learning to count on someone who may decide to leave with no ceremony, just a perfunctory sticky note on the fridge scrawled with Have a nice life.

I love my girlfriend and I don’t trust her career path. Being a bank teller is a bus stop profession. It gives you somewhere to be, a placeholder while you look for something with better pay, or decide to go back to school and become an accountant. She’s told me this more than once, perhaps to let me know she is ambitious or tenuous. After Saturday dates she kisses me on the lips, says good night, and we have our separate spaces. My bed. My quiet television. My small condo. The dogs that are not mine mouthing chew toys in the basement.

I pop a piece of gum in my mouth, something to do when there is no one to talk to.

I was a plump little kid with glasses and braces who got teased on the playground. The adults in my life reminded me that sticks and stones would break my bones but words would never hurt me, a phrase no kid found reassuring unless it taught them to throw stones.

“They want to break you because they are broken,” my grandpa said. “Maybe by their parents. Maybe by their brothers and sisters. If you squint you can see pieces of tape holding them together. That’s what they have instead of love. Tape and band aids.”

I squinted so much at recess the teacher wondered if there was something wrong with my eyes and if I needed a different glasses prescription. I couldn’t tell her I was looking for tape and band-aids, but I could see cracks in the bullies’ skin. I also had to see the eye doctor (who said my glasses were fine) rather than the school counselor. After that it was easier to stand by the teacher and avoid people who threw rocks.

Now that I’m a teacher, I must confront Derrick when he breaks an entire box of colored pencils and throws them at other kids. He wants to be sent to the principal’s office. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. I don’t want to play his stupid game, just tell him he’ll have to use a plain gray pencil and I’ll need to call his dad to pay for the broken ones.

I give Derrick a piece of paper so to draw on or mangle as he sees fit. We make eye contact. He drops his gaze from mine and his hand shoots out, gripping the pencil like a dagger as he tries to stab the back of my palm. I’m alert to his movements, snatch my hand away before the pencil point breaks against the table, and grab his skinny wrist.

The kid is so frail, like the skin-and-bone hard-scrabble wolves that exist at the edge of the pack, antisocial ones who get along on the margins and like it that way. It wouldn’t be hard to twist Derrick’s arm behind his back, but I yank him up instead. He’s so light, for a moment I don’t think his feet are touching the floor. I’m surprised by his weightlessness, but I’m sick of trying to be nice and zen. If I get reprimanded for physically hauling him down to the office like I'm about to, nobody in the teachers’ lounge will blame me.

“That could have hurt me,” I yell at Derrick.

He smiles.

There are 23 witnesses to testify to his smirk.

“We’re going to the principal’s office,” I growl. I march Derrick out the door to the perfect silence of awed ten-year-olds who will gossip when we’re 10 feet down the hall. I’m ready to grab his other wrist and hold his hands behind his back if he struggles, but he doesn’t. I’m triumphant and horrible, feel like the police officer I never wanted to be flashing forward eight years when Derrick is picked up for petty theft. Or worse. He’s accomplished his goal, gotten a reaction, meaning he’s won. The little shit wanted to hurt me and he’s not coming back to my classroom if I can help it.

I probably can’t.

The secretary raises an eyebrow when we enter the office.

“He tried to stab me with a pencil,” I say.

I’ll need to write up an incident report, but I’ll take that back to my classroom while he’s confined to a one-desk room they use for detention. From the Derrick-themed conferences in the teachers’ lounge, I’ve learned that in detention he sits quietly and works math problems or reads books on astronomy. He’s finished the seventh-grade math book and gone on to the eighth. This is the same kid who sets pieces of his T-shirt on fire in the parking lot.

After school I call my girlfriend and tell her an emergency pizza is in order. The dogs sit on the back porch, watching me through the sliding glass door as I pace the kitchen.

“What are we supposed to do with a kid who doesn’t want to be helped?” I say.

There must be a way to reach him, to explain there are reasons to be a decent human being. If anyone can find a solution it should be us artists. We’re a creative, sympathetic, and not terribly well-behaved bunch, but damned if I can think of anything.

“You’re doing everything you can,” says my girlfriend.

I shake my head. If only we could put Derrick in a time capsule for 20 years and take him out when he’s 30 and more mature. At least ready to sit down and listen. A darker part of me thinks he’ll never care about anyone and the best we can do is mitigate the damage.

Later that night, after pizza and two beers, I gain enough distance to be reflective and wonder if Derrick has ghosts. There are many ways he could be haunted. His absentee dad. His mythical mother. When there are so many ghosts in your life you lose track of who’s real, who you can count on, so maybe everyone else becomes a ghost, too. But that doesn’t give Derrick the right to be my personal night terror.

The dogs have adjusted to their schedule of long days in the backyard and evenings inside. I feel horrible since I can give them little but afternoon walks. I remind them that I’m not a dog person. They think I can be converted. I know this by their eagerness when I come downstairs, their cheerful presentation of chew toys. I’ve told the animal rescue society the dogs are up for adoption and sent unbearably cute photos to post on the rescue society web site. The lady at the rescue society has reminded me that they have no room in their facility, so can I please foster the dogs for a little while longer. I say okay, and I am not a dog person.

Three weeks after Cal dies, his brother comes from California to excavate the basement with me. He looks much like Cal, only his hair is slightly browner, his paunch not so developed.

“My family has a pack rat gene,” he says, nodding at the piles of stuff on every counter and table. He brought two boxes of extra strength trash bags. We spend the weekend tossing stuff inside their black plastic maws and mounding small piles of things to keep. We fill the dumpster with newspapers, tattered books, and grease-stained clothing.

After dinner he buys a six-pack and we sit on the back deck watching the dogs run in circles and push rocks with their noses.

“They’re good pups,” he says.

“We’re on okay terms,” I reply.

“He got on well with animals.”

“He got along with people, too,” I say. “Everyone in town liked him.” I don’t know if this was the case but feel like I should defend my renter and the idea that he was a decent guy, at least he had been when he stayed with me.

Cal’s brother nods slowly. “Good to know,” he says, then asks if I want another beer.

He goes inside and I ponder his hesitance to say much about my version of Cal. I’m waiting for him to tell me something damning, that the nice guy in my basement did jail time for domestic abuse or receiving stolen property. My scope is limited. You can only know a small part of most people in your life, and you’ll never know the people they were before you met them. You’ll probably lose track of them at some point, when your orbits shift, so you’ll never know the people they’ll become years down the road either.

Cal’s brother brings my second beer. He already took the cap off.

That night he sleeps on my couch, says he’d rather not be on his brother’s bed. Dogs are the only ones who can tolerate ghosts. He extends his stay because there’ so much junk. All those shirts, pants, books, and tools have stories I don’t know. If stuff could talk we’d never throw anything away. It’s good that when people die they take their stories with them, so the living don’t drown in mementos. Most of us do that anyway.

When the basement has been emptied of debris, only the bed, table, and loveseat remain.

Cal’s brother takes me out for Chinese food. He’s stoic, orders a beer and General Tsao’s chicken which is so spicy it makes him tear up.

“I pulled over a few times while I was driving here to have a moment,” he says, wanting to tell me he is not without emotion, but also that it's proper and manly. “We were on good terms, but he was a bastard when he was a kid. He near drowned me a couple times, and shoved my bike in front of a car.” Cal’s brother is smiling and deadly serious, the way people get when telling childhood stories about times they almost died. "Lucky for me, the guy swerved."

“A lot of kids are bastards,” I say, thinking of Derrick.

“They grow out of it,” says Cal’s brother. “Some of ‘em take longer than others.” He shrugs, making me wonder how long it took Cal to grow out of it. There are many more stories Cal’s brother won’t tell me, tales hiding behind his teeth, or lodged in his throat. They may not involve legal trouble, but things that are somehow worse, and out of politeness or some other reason they will remain unspoken so I can maintain the notion that my renter was not an asshole. And he wasn’t when I knew him.

In the basement Cal’s brother scratches the dogs behind their ears and repeats that he’d take them if his apartment allowed pets. I say I understand. Part of me does understand. The other part wishes a willing dog person would appear on my front porch like a blessing from beyond.

Derrick is in art class after four days of in-school detention, sequestered at his own table and drawing penises. He wants a reaction.

“If you’re going to draw people, you need a model,” I say, getting out one of my classical art books and opening it to Renaissance nudes.

He looks up at me, then down at the book. I cross my arms as if to say, You are not the first person in the world to draw a penis.  

“The human body is one of the most difficult things to draw and get the proportions right,” I say, “but it’s like anything else, sports or math or sciences. You learn from the greats.”

The rest of the class is working on perspective drawings with a vanishing point, but Derrick can draw whatever the hell he wants as long as he doesn’t destroy anything. Derrick crumples his penis drawing and puts his head on the table. My brilliant idea shot down. I won’t win this one, focus on the rest of the class and let the sleeping dragon lie.

I’ll stop trying to dissect what’s going on in that kid’s head. He probably doesn’t know, and he might not for a long time. Maybe he’ll be a computer hacker in a foreign country. Maybe I’ll see his name in the blotter. Maybe in high school he’ll find the perfect charismatic teacher who’ll bash sense into his head. A few moments later I turn to Derrick to see if he’s scribbled on my book. He’s lifted his head slightly, chin balanced on the table. The next time I glance over, he’s sitting sphinx-still and turned to a different page.

When I get home the dogs are pawing at the glass door, which is smeared with backyard dust. I walk downstairs to let them inside the clean and barren basement, emptied of Cal clothing, swept free of Cal hair and Cal skin flecks, though I’m sure some remain. The dogs nose corners for the ghost of his scent. Economics will intervene eventually. I have a mortgage payment, which means I need renters, not dogs. But for the moment I acquiesce to the new routine and grab plastic bags for our evening walk.

Afterward I sit with the dogs, perched on the loveseat with Lucky beside me and Lady at my feet. Lucky has taught me to scratch his ears and not his stomach.

We watch a documentary on the Sistine Chapel. I wonder if part of my job as foster parent should be to expand the dogs’ horizons. They are attentive to the drone of the narrator, and I’ve bought a lint roller for the dog hair that has begun to cling to my clothing. I try not to think about the implications of that purchase for our relationship. It’s about necessity, what we must do to make it from one day to the next, letting the future unravel in all the ways we never expected.

 

Teresa Milbrodt has published three short story collections: Instances of Head-SwitchingBearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories, and the monograph Sexy Like Us: Disability, Humor, and Sexuality. She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, and writes the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/

Six reasons why "Basement Dogs" came into existence:
 
1. I am very much a cat person but I admire the enthusiasm of dogs, especially when nearby humans are not nearly as enthused. Dogs strike me as eternal optimists.
 
2. Heart attacks are insidious, and often happen in the morning.
 
3. My elementary school art teacher had creative ways of working with adolescent boys who tried to make her upset. They didn't know what to make of her.
 
4. I wish I had a camera that let me peer into the minds of bullies and see what they were thinking/what had happened to them early in life to turn them into bullies. Is there some deeper story behind their actions, are they just wired in a nefarious manner, or is it something else entirely?     
 
5. Anyone who thinks animals don't mourn probably hasn't owned a pet.
 
6. Occasionally I wish that ghosts would possess my kitchen appliances in an innocuous manner, just to say hello. In practice this would probably freak me out, so I don't wish this too often.