Henry and Lotta brought home a shaggy, pepper-colored terrier two weeks after their youngest child, Scrofula, left for beauty college.
They acquired the dog on purpose, unlike some other empty nesters they knew who were left with a stray their kids had coaxed into the yard years ago and lost interest in. Although they had the house to themselves for the first time in twenty-five years, Henry and Lotta felt their capacity for parental love was still activated, and they wanted to continue nurturing something.
Their brood had been a curious, independent lot, but each child struggled in their own way. Quintessa spent her senior year catfishing that sad old widower in Tequesta. Woods suffered from toxic positivity. And Scrofula’s Adderall abuse was no picnic. But Henry and Lotta weren’t sure how much of their children’s struggles were their fault, and they still had residual yearnings they felt they could resolve by providing for an animal that might otherwise die in a gas chamber.
There were several adequate adult dogs to choose from at the shelter, but Henry and Lotta opted for a puppy. Henry wanted a clean slate, a dog they could train to have impeccable manners. Lotta wanted a squirmy, cuddly thing she could snuggle and spoil. But let’s face it: Both were looking for a bit of a do-over
They envisioned long, lazy mornings sipping lattes, their loyal companion curled at their feet in front of the fire. “We’ll take him to the dog park,” Henry suggested, a twinkle in his eye. “We’ll meet people. Schedule playdates.”
Lotta beamed when she thought about how she and Henry were viewing their third act. Sensibly managing their feelings about no longer having children to raise. Open to new friends and ideas. Finding ways to encourage exercise and outdoor play, like the articles in Fit and Fabulous at Fifty-Plus magazine suggested.
Like all new parents, they couldn’t tear their eyes away from their bundle of joy. They gazed, enraptured, into his black button eyes and projected a future for him, one filled with nose boops and tummy rubs, lots of lap sitting and plenty of pets, tricks and fetch and all the doggie things doggies do.
Henry and Lotta named him Sputnik since he was perpetually in their orbit (and nipping at their ankles, a bad habit he never really grew out of), but they called him dozens of different nicknames. Puddle Paws (on rainy days). Piggy Puss (when he begged for more dinner). Spuddy Buddy. Nikki Noo. Sput Butt. Bubbles. Bubbzie. Baby Bunny.
Funny thing, though. It didn’t matter what they called him. Sputnik answered to no one. He refused to learn tricks, skittered away when they tried to pet him and never once rolled over to show his belly.
Lotta desperately wanted Sputnik to learn to curl up on her lap.
“Sit on the couch,” Henry said. “I have an idea.”
Lotta did as she was told, and Henry dangled a bone-shaped dog cookie over her lap. Sputnik sprung off the floor, landed on Lotta’s folded legs and snatched the treat. He dug so hard into Lotta’s inner thigh as he pushed off of her that she was left with angry, blood-spotted welts. Sputnik disappeared behind the drapes with his treat, and Lotta went to the medicine cabinet to get the hydrogen peroxide.
“Guess he’s not a cuddler,” Henry said, as he watched his wife minister to her wounds.
“We should trim his nails,” she said.
What Sputnik excelled at was trailing Henry and Lotta through the house and whining until they gave him a treat. His superpower was deciding he needed food or water moments after Henry and Lotta sat down to relax. He was also proficient at barking at them until they relented and took him on a walk. This last quirk was problematic; Henry and Lotta had planned to take Sputnik on two walks per day, one in the morning and one in the evening. But with his constant bullying, they found themselves being dragged around the block up to eight times in a twelve-hour period.
If they left the house without walking him first, he would pee on that flokati rug Lotta won in a PTA raffle. If they didn’t walk him immediately upon return, even if they had only been gone a half hour, he pooped on the new kitchen linoleum. Consequently, they began limiting their excursions, or only going out one at a time. If they left the house twice in one day together, that added four extra walks in addition to the regular schedule, and who had time for that?
If they were gone for longer than two hours, he’d piss on their bed.
Sputnik’s hissy fits escalated to the point where Henry and Lotta couldn’t safely see a movie together without coming home to the odor of urine and a pile of excrement.
Dr. Mectin didn’t find any urinary problem. Her diagnosis was that Sputnik was “spoiled” and that it was “Henry and Lotta’s fault.”
Henry and Lotta nodded and promised Dr. Mectin they’d do better.
Dr. Mectin handed them a card that read Wags & Woofs. “Hire a trainer,” she said.
After calling the trainer and getting the eye-popping quote of $90 per hour, Henry and Lotta agreed that they didn’t have much choice but to continue to capitulate to Sputnik’s demands. They checked out some training books from the library. They watched a cable show where a man tamed a scrum of rescued fighting dogs by saying “sszzt” and tapping them on their docked ears. When the dogs reached an acceptable level of reform, he let them drag him through the tree-lined neighborhoods of Pasadena on rollerblades, sled-dog style.
Henry turned off the TV. “Guess I need rollerblades.”
Sputnik threw up on Henry’s feet. He’d gotten into the garbage a few moments before and last night’s green bean casserole didn’t agree with him.
“Good luck with that,” Lotta shouted over her shoulder as she trotted off to fetch the paper towels.
Nothing worked, and not one of these sources offered advice on how to make a dog affectionate. Sputnik’s begging remained constant. His scatalogical punishments severe and untenable.
Sputnik’s wants consumed them.
Their oldest, Quintessa, brought her family for a brief visit. Lotta couldn’t wait for them to meet Sputnik.
“Your sister and niece are coming, Spuddy,” she said in that patronizing tone of voice some women liked to use with children and animals.
“That dog is not related to them,” Henry said. “I am not his father.”
Lotta put her hands on her hips. “Stop being such a grump. We’re one big family, aren’t we, Sput Butt?”
Their visit was cut short, however, when Quintessa got fed up with Sputnik.
“That beast is driving us bonkers,” she said. “He never sits down. You’re always shoving treats into his gullet and disappearing for an hour to take him on a walk. We can’t get through a single meal without him screaming his head off. Klivea didn’t even get to sing Never on a Sunday for you, and she’s been practicing for weeks. We came to enjoy a relaxing visit and we’re being eclipsed by a terrorist.”
“He’s a terrier,” Henry said, a lame joke that failed to lighten the mood.
“He keeps biting my ankles,” Klivea said. “I don’t like it.”
“You should keep your ankles out of his mouth,” Lotta said, a little too quickly.
“Typical,” Quintessa said under her breath. “You always blame the victim.”
“Is that what you said to your catfish?”
Quintessa rolled her eyes. “I was the catfish, Mom, not Cosmo. He paid attention to me, or should I say, he paid attention to Susan Green.”
“I’m going to walk the dog,” Henry said.
Lotta got up from the table. “I’ll join you.”
When they returned, Quintessa and her family were gone.
“Sputnik hasn’t lived up to expectation,” Henry said to an empty house.
Quintessa must have mentioned her experience to Woods and Scrofula. They never scheduled a visit.
Despite their disappointment, Henry and Lotta hung on to the belief that Sputnik had filled the void left behind when their children departed. Within a few years, Henry and Lotta’s children all had partners and children of their own. They were happy for them, as any parent would be, but they felt abandoned. And as Sputnik got older, his demands increased. More walks. More treats. All day. Every night.
When their middle child Woods—who was now a “Sales Superstar” for a multi-level marketing company called LiveLife—invited Henry and Lotta to a casual family reunion at a KOA outside of Spot Hollow, Lotta was beside herself with joy. It would be the first time the entire family and the grandchildren would all be in one place.
Lotta began shopping for gifts three weeks ahead of time. Heart shaped, baby-sized sunglasses for Stanchion. Plastic binoculars for Praxis, who expressed an interest in birds last time they Skyped. A plush unicorn with a rainbow horn for Klivea. An inflatable flamingo for all of the kids to fight over (as kids do) in the pool. Lotta named it Philomena.
Lotta was at the Drug & Chug comparing mineral-based sunscreens when her phone rang.
It was Henry. “Whole Lotta love speaking,” she answered. Her pre-vacation mood was excellent, and she danced a little two-step in the aisle.
Henry’s voice shook. “There’s been an accident. Meet me at the vet.”
Sputnik was slumped on his side and his breathing was labored. Henry loomed over him, looking like a lifetime of regret. Lotta worried that Sputnik might be cold on the metal examination table.
“He lunged for my tuna sandwich,” Henry said, his eyes wet. “He must’ve jumped three feet. Then he dropped to the floor and screamed.”
Dr. Mectin returned. Her brow was so deeply furrowed Lotta imagined what it would be like to put her pinkie in it.
“The knee is broken,” she said. “It popped apart when he leapt. He’ll need surgery.”
“How much?” Henry asked.
“It’ll be about $3500 for a figure-eight-shaped wire to press Sputnik’s bones together while they heal.”
Lotta sucked in a breath. She looked at Henry and he knew what she was thinking.
“How much is a bone saw?” Henry said, his voice dry and cracked.
“Henry,” Lotta said under her breath. “Not now.”
Lotta returned the gifts for her grandchildren and rang Woods to tell him they would be unable to join them.
“We can’t afford both the surgery and the trip,” she said. “This is our responsibility. We have no choice.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Woods said, the confused optimism in his voice clear. He had long ago learned that once Henry and Lotta’s minds were made up, there wasn’t much chance of changing them. “It’s like I tell the LiveLifers in my downline: You’ve got to live your life.”
“Exactly,” Lotta said, not entirely sure what she was agreeing with.
It was the last time Lotta and Henry received an invitation like that. Their children became absorbed in their own experiences, careers and families, and scattered throughout the country.
“We could give him away,” Henry muttered.
Lotta cringed. “We’re the only family he’s ever known. He’s a handful, but we’re calm and patient and we’re here all day. Think about what he would be like with some family, some people who come and go, leaving him by himself for hours. What would some hot head do to him when he made a mess on the floor?”
Lotta spoke directly and with passion because she had a dark secret. She’d had violent thoughts about Sputnik. She’d never act on them. But she definitely thought about kicking him across the room. With her boots on.
Henry never mentioned it again. Lotta suspected he’d been fighting the same impulses.
To soothe herself, Lotta tried baking. Sputnik scrambled underfoot, begging for bits of food. After she tripped over him and landed so hard on her chin she needed stitches, she gave up the baking and watched television instead. She liked that she could pause shows to tend to Sputnik and not miss anything. Sometimes it took her two hours to get through a twenty-four-minute sitcom.
Henry increased his nightly martinis to three. He enjoyed them alone, in one of the kids’ abandoned bedrooms. He couldn’t tolerate television.
Holidays came and went, the threesome celebrating Christmas and ringing in New Year after New Year with slushy walks in the juddering cold. One Easter, Lotta hid treats all around the house so her “Baby Bunny could have proper egg hunt.” It was cute for the first few minutes, but forever after Sputnik refused a treat unless Lotta hid it first. It’s what he expected now. His favorite, most maddening game.
Klivea graduated high school and Henry and Lotta sent a gift card. Praxis got a part as a teenage corpse in a school play called Drink, Drive, Die and they sent flowers on opening night. They never heard a word about Stanchion, who they wouldn’t recognize now even if her face showed up on a milk carton at Fair Price Foods.
These years were long, but the days were longer. Sputnik’s demands began earlier and earlier. Toward the end, Henry and Lotta forced themselves to go to bed before nine o’clock so they’d have enough energy to begin tending to their charge before the sun came up the following morning.
Henry and Lotta weren’t immune to the problems that come with age. Their bones were brittle; their nerves frazzled. They never took their frustrations out on each other—they assumed the same emotional neutrality that got them through hard times with the kids—but they didn’t do much with each other anymore outside of talking about Sputnik, worrying about Sputnik, singing songs to Sputnik, mixing the food he now needed for his rotting GI tract.
Sputnik slept less, and so did Lotta. She developed night sweats. She never got comfortable, despite buying a new mattress and several expensive down pillows. Henry also lay awake, his mind battering him with the belief that he would never feel well rested again. Henry and Lotta entered their seventies feeling drawn and ragged, like they each had a demon clutched to their backs that demanded half their blood and sucked it out through their spinal cords.
Despite her constant ministrations, Lotta was gripped by guilt. She descended once again into the peculiar torture of raising a family, the nagging contradiction of feeling like they were both asking too much, and she was never doing enough. As she stared into the darkness, listening to the dog schleck himself repeatedly in the spot where his balls used to be, the anxiety pressed her chest like a pile of stones.
As the dog disintegrated, lumps called lipomas and gnarled, crusty warts broke out all over his body. Sputnik developed a hollow cough and growths on his eyes. He wobbled on the stairs. He smelled like a dumpster.
“Henry,” she began one morning over instant coffee. “I think there might be medicines or treatments that we need to get for Sputnik. Things that might fix his lumps. Or his cough.”
Sputnik took a step toward her and barked. She tried to put a treat in his mouth. He refused, turning his cheek to her. She stuffed the treat under a couch cushion. He dragged the cushion onto the floor, grabbed the treat and scarfed it down. And so on.
“He’s sixteen,” Henry said. “How much more can we take? How much more can we afford to spend?”
Sputnik spun around. He yowled, a high-pitched wail that never failed to make a few strands of Lotta’s hair fall out.
“He needs a walk,” Lotta said. “Join us?”
“Not this time,” Henry said, turning to walk out of the room. “We’ve been out four times today.”
Lotta looked at the clock. “It’s only noon.”
Sputnik’s screeching increased in pace and volume. He paced, frantic, his toenails tip-tapping on the linoleum in a way that made Lotta’s hair stand on end. She closed her eyes—just for a moment—and imagined what it would be like to live in a silent home.
Henry closed the door behind him.
The inevitable happened on breezy Tuesday in June. Sputnik collapsed on the sidewalk, and Henry and Lotta put him in the backseat of the Subaru for one final drive to Dr. Mectin’s.
They held each other as Dr. Mectin (whose Botox injections had relaxed the eleven between her brows, assigning her a certain angelic quality) administered the poison that would relieve them all. When Henry and Lotta emerged from the examination room, the receptionist had dimmed the lights in the lobby and lit a Yankee Candle that smelled like a chemist’s idea of what an apple pie should smell like.
Henry never ate another piece of apple pie again.
On the drive home, Lotta’s throat knotted at the thought that they’d been gone so long that she’d have to avoid stepping on poop in the entryway.
Then, she remembered. She felt the demon loosen its grip a tiny bit. She rolled her neck and shook her shoulders.
“I don’t think we’ll get another dog,” she said, involuntarily. She hadn’t even known she felt that way until the words slipped through her lips.
“Why would we?” Henry asked. He maneuvered the Subaru into the driveway and they both sat still for a moment, savoring the quiet and struggling to imagine what their new life could be, steeling themselves for what fresh disappointments awaited them inside.
Bethany Browning leaves clues in all her stories for the plucky gang of middle schoolers who are determined to reveal her true identity. Look for her work in Volume Three of STORIES WE TELL AFTER MIDNIGHT and at esotericamag.com. You can follow her on Twitter @buzzwordsocial.com.