Nobody had come in or come out of the house for the two years that Craig had lived next door. He never saw a light on either. Craig and his wife originally thought that it was a foreclosure that would be sold any day; but the grass keeps growing and nobody has come to look at it, and now there was a car in the driveway with the driver’s door standing wide open. He waited to see if anybody was coming out. Nobody did.
After ten minutes, he went and poured himself a large glass of wine and sat down with it to continue working on a crossword puzzle, but got held up on a three letter word for ‘kind of trip’, so he folded the magazine and used it to clobber a fly that had landed on the wall instead. After three whacks he nailed it dead on and turned it from a living being into a stain on the wall. “Fuck, now I have to clean that little sucker up.” Bringing back a washcloth and Windex he felt grateful for the fly’s sacrifice for giving him something to do for the next two minute.
It would be some time until Joan came home. She gets off from work around ten at night so around nine he usually begins to prepare dinner. Around eight he takes Merlin, their four-year-old yellow Labrador, out for a walk. He had two large glasses of wine before it was time to take Merlin for his walk.
It was July. The sun was still riding the horizon to the west and the fading light coated everything with a dusky appearance. He walked down the street with Merlin, who was busy inspecting trees for scents other dogs had left on them, as the neighborhood was busy receiving folks home to their houses after a long day at work. The general hum at the end of the day entertained Craig as he imagined the lives being conducted inside all the painted houses.
It’s been a year since Craig lost his job with the newspaper.
On the way back to his house, he made sure to go by the empty house next door. The car was still there. It was a gray Buick about ten years old, Craig guessed. He passed by the car to have a quick glance inside. A yellow stuffed animal with stuffing coming out of it, either a rabbit or dog or something, lay on the passenger seat. He shut the door — without locking it, just in case the owner, whomever that may be, didn’t have their key — as he did, he inhaled a nasty stench of rotten meat. He almost threw up the whiff was so rancid.
He took the leash off of Merlin and let him into the backyard through the gate, then, closed it behind him. He went inside and prepared breaded pork chops, rosemary potatoes and asparagus. Joan hated asparagus because she said it made her pee smell. That seemed to Craig like a terrible reason to hate something so healthy for you, as you shouldn’t really be spending that much time smelling your pee anyway.
He was struggling to get Joan to eat more healthy. It was going so well. She had a special craving for fried chicken that he was trying to break her from. Joan liked to tell him that since she was the one bringing home the bacon now, if she wanted bacon, she’d eat bacon.
Just another one of the ways things are flipped around now.
After some time he heard Merlin barking. He went to the door and looked for him but couldn’t see much pass the ten feet expanse the light from the kitchen covered. “Merlin,” he yelled, “get your ass inside!” The barking stopped, but Merlin was nowhere to be found. Over the fence he could see that the Buick was still there and the door was once again ajar. A solitary plane flew across a star-filled sky. “Well, come on in when you feel like it,” he said to the darkness, leaving the door opened so Merlin can come inside when he got around to it.
He poured himself another glass of wine. He turned off the lights and watched the Buick in the dark but nobody came back for it.
He could feel his mood breaking. Whenever this happened he would remember the first time he saw Joan. It usually made him feel better. She was crossing the lawn, coming into a party at his best friend Tucker’s house. Tucker had told him that his girlfriend’s roommate was coming over, and that they may like each other as they were both deep thinkers and moody and hard to figure out, but Craig held no expectations because every other time Tucker tried to hook him up was a complete failure, and because after he broke up with his last girlfriend he was really over the idea of falling in love again. Actually, considered it impossible. How many times can a man fall down before he’s broken? Plus, it didn’t really sound like Tucker was being complimentary by describing their similarities, but implying they were both irritable and strange people that nobody would want. But Joan wasn’t like any other girl he’s ever met. She was nothing like him, for that matter, despite Tucker’s description.
Her eyes scrambled his brain the first time he looked into them. They were sad eyes, but at the same time hopeful; they were blue with a tint of green; they seemed to hide secrets, yet, were revealing; they were all sorts of contradictions but still seemed to make perfect sense to him, a kind of logic he’s been looking for his entire life. They looked at him differently than any girl’s eyes ever looked at him. He was deeply submerged in her possibilities the minute they said hello to each other.
They talked all night about how the television show Friends is an elitist plot to keep the working class of America from revolting and New Age music was a result of the increase in Pharmaceutical drugs during the 80’s and how they hoped Clinton could overcome his early troubles. He walked her home and they kissed on her step for thirty minutes. He never imagined being with another woman after that first night. Still can’t.
Joan still wasn’t home yet, so he turned back on the lights and put aluminum foil over the plates of food. He poured the last of the bottle into his glass and drank it down in two sips. The Buick was still parked in the neighbor’s driveway. It still had its door standing wide open. Merlin still hadn’t come inside.
“Where is that stupid dog?” Craig complained to the empty kitchen. He uncorked another bottle and grabbed a flashlight. The light darted all around the yard but Merlin wasn’t out there. There’s no way for him to get outside of the fence, so he must have come inside quietly and is now sleeping on the bathroom rug, as it’s his favorite place to nap in the house. He checked the bathroom, but found no sign of Merlin, then proceeded through the house searching for his dog. “Come on, boy,” he hollered, “Mama’s going to be home soon.”
The clock on the cable box said it was 10:46. Joan was over thirty minutes late, again. Lately she hasn’t even bothered to call. He poured another glass of wine and took it with him into the yard. The air was humid and the sound of crickets blended with the highway traffic down the hill. The lights of the town spread forth like a glittery infection, a ribbon of blackness Craig knew was the river snaked itself through the middle, the lights dissipated into the dark hills on the other side. Craig isolated one of the moving lights on the highway and imagined it was his wife’s car, making its way home, although he knew this game he played nightly was an exercise in self-torture.
The grass was damp and needed mowing. It got his socks wet as he trampled around looking for his missing dog. “Merlin, are you out here?” He called. A lone, scared bark retorted. It came from up high. Craig flashed his light into a tree and two lambent eyes gleamed from a branch more than six feet in the air. “What the fuck?”
Craig went to the base of the tree, set his wine in the grass, and attempted to retrieve his dog, but the branch was too tall. He almost fell over trying to reach up and in the process kicked over his wine. “How’dya get up there, silly dog? Wait, till Joan hears about this.”
Coming out of the house with a step stool, it was then that he noticed the gate was swinging back and forth in the summer breeze, the hinge creaking with each pass. Behind the gate he could see the neighbor’s driveway and noticed that the Buick was gone. There was still no light from the house next door. No sign that anybody had been in or out. Craig closed the gate, then went and fetched Merlin out of the tree.
Merlin bolted for the house once Craig set him on the ground, as if the grass was burning hot and he couldn’t stand being on it for one second. Headlights lit up the yard and he heard his wife’s car pulling into the driveway. A chill went up his spine that landed in his head and made it vibrate and tingle. “It’s just the wine. I’ve drank a whole bottle,” he told himself, carrying the step stool inside and trying to work out what he would tell Joan.
It’s the fourth night in a week she hasn’t made dinner.
He listened to her keys rattling around in the lock while standing in the hallway and thought about the Buick. She was wearing a gray skirt and a white blouse with pearls. She looked professional and nice and frightened to find him waiting for her in the hallway. “Hi, late night?” He asked.
She swallowed, put her purse on the couch. “Yeah. It’s been very busy. The calls just don’t stop.”
Craig was about to tell her about finding Merlin in the tree when Merlin raced up to her and buried his muzzle in her crotch. Joan rubbed his ears, “Hi, boy. Missed your mommy? Oh, I missed you,” she gushed. Merlin hopped up on his hind legs and lunged up and down as Joan let him lick her face.
Craig watched quietly, feeling jealous of the dog and wondering if Merlin could smell the man’s cologne on her as well.