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Post Road Magazine #33

The Dog

Mahreen Sohail

We decided to use the word indisposed when people called to ask about our father. We had a meeting in the kitchen, my brother and I, during which we both agreed the word sounded gentle and worldly. It did not really convey anything to the people calling. At first they called normally, of course. They wanted to know the date and time of a conference, ask him about some matter of business, just chat. To these ones, we said, Sorry, he's in the toilet. When they called again we said, He is feeling sick. The third time we brought out the big guns: Indisposed. In this way, we upped the ante. It was as tough for us as it was for the callers, probably toughest for me because I was the girl. I was allowed the most leeway in terms of crying and bore it well, I think. I cried very little. Only on the way to and from work, and even then, I thought, it probably didn't count because no one could see me.

It was annoying that we had to think about the dog. We'd bought him to be a guard dog, but really, he mostly stayed in the empty plot of land next to our house and now that our father was suffering from compromised immunity, we could not go near him without taking on extreme hygiene measures. For example, I had to shower immediately after petting him. This was a hassle. My brother never went near him anymore, and my father yelled at the animal from afar when he was feeling well enough. We decided the only thing to do was to post a notice at the vet's: Labrador, one year old, untrained. Free of cost. We also wrote our number below the notice but no one called until a week had passed. My brother answered the phone. His face became sour when whoever was on the other end started to speak. Lately he'd become irritable. He was annoyed easily by everyone who wasn't our father, and he'd taken to never picking up the phone or answering the doorbell. He said people were stupid and did not know how to respond to bad news. In fact, he had been the greater advocate of the word indisposed. Give them as little as possible and then take it away, he'd said. I was worried about his future wife: it would be terrible to be married to such a bitter man. I told him this during our meeting in the kitchen. I said, Don't you want to be like our father? This was a double edgedsword, I could tell by his face: would you rather be wonderful and soon to be dead or less wonderful but always alive?

When speaking to the woman about the dog, my brother frowned into the receiver and looked at the ceiling before handing the phone over to me. It's about the dog, he said. I didn't want to be the sort of person who lost interest in things. All my life, I'd carried a chip on my shoulder about being a flake. Sometimes I wondered where the chip came from. Was it like a potato chip I could eat? Maybe if I thought hard enough, or kept calm enough, or just stayed still for a second, perhaps it would calm all this insecurity. The dog was a big insecurity. I had brought him home with love and the best of intentions but as my father's illness progressed, it became easier and easier to see the poor animal dirty and unhappy. Or if not unhappy, at least alone. He barked outside the house in the evenings or lay full-out flat on the grass and stared imploringly up at the house. I imagined all the ways in which my father's blood cells could not handle being near him. A parent's illness taught you lessons that you should not abandon. Like for example, humans should be valued more than dogs.

I was polite to the lady on the phone, and honest. I told her my father was sick, and I did not feel the lump in my throat I normally felt when I said these words. It was cold inside the house, though the smell from the gas heater had already spread through the rooms, which meant it was only a matter of a few hours before the place was warmer. Someday I was going to leave this country and this city and this house, and my brother was going to marry the girl he had been in love with for ten years. I did not, of course, tell the woman these particular things, but I did say that the dog was free. From the other room, my dad cackled. Free in theory, he said through big breaths, But a big mental pain. I told her she would have to love it and care for it. I knew these were things dog buyers wanted to hear. On the phone, the woman sounded cultured. She spoke English with hardly an accent and mentioned the local vet as if he was an old friend. Finally she asked, When can I come see him? I told her she could come whenever, we were always at home, but also added that she would have to wear a mask when she came inside because of my father. Of course, she said.

Well, asked my brother? He was sitting by my father's bed, and they were both playing Luddo. My father's green figures moved closer and closer to home, and my brother kept his eyes on the board even as he spoke to me to make sure my father didn't nudge them out of turn. We were unflappable as a family. We approached everything face up, like fish on hooks angling toward the sun. She said she'll be here in a few hours. My father coughed, Thank God that animal won't haunt us anymore. Yeah, said my brother. Just give it to her quick and let her go. Don't let her play with the dog for too long or she may not want him.

The truth was the dog was wild. We hadn't had the patience or energy to train him so he jumped on whomever he saw and had once made my back bleed by jumping up and grazing his nails on my spine. We would have to put him on a leash and make sure he didn't get too close to the woman. And tell her she can't bring it back, said my brother, keeping his eyes on the dice. I nodded.

The doorbell rang at six pm. I had cleaned the house a little for her arrival but I was still aware that it smelled like a hospital, possibly even bile. No one had visited us in a while. My brother and I cited my father as an excuse to turn away people, but really, the two of us walked around with surgical masks only tied to one ear, the ends of them flapping near our chins and necks. At the door, I handed her the mask ceremoniously and readjusted mine. The dog is outside, I said, But won't you come in? She was shorter than me and was wearing a black coat, expensive, the kind you buy from abroad. She wasn't wearing gloves but there was a ring on her finger, chunky and too trendy for a woman her age. I felt she must be rich and was immediately self-conscious, though of course we were not wanting for money. We were simply down on our luck in terms of health. How many times had my father said, No health no wealth, when we were growing up?

She stepped into the house without a pause and this took me off guard. My brother was just coming out of the kitchen, popping open a can of Coke, our father was rattling around in his sleep in the next room. I'm so sorry about your father, she said. She spoke to me as if I was young and I heard my brother stop in the doorway, too. We were young we were young. This phrase circled around in my head like a lump. The past year had been full of ugly words like lump and bed and sleep. Can I meet him? She looked expectantly at me, glancing once at my brother. It took me a second to realise she meant my father.

At this my brother came forward. He's dying, he said, abruptly, What do you mean can you meet him? I think he wanted to throw her request back in her face so she would see how much of an imposition it was, but really, she seemed so soft spoken, I wondered, why not? I turned to my brother, Why not? My father hadn't met anyone in many months. It would be nice for him to see this woman, a woman his own age. Maybe he would feel passion. She was good looking with a short dark bob cut that reached just the ends of her ears.

My brother's face changed into something or some person I couldn't recognize and outside the dog barked once. I led the stranger into my father's room. At first, when my father became sick, we had talked obsessively about the illness, ways to beat it, ways to not beat it, what to eat, how to manage. We loved the word manage; it contained all the multitudes that escaped us. Soon, we became tired and our mouths dropped. My brother and I began to tell each other that talking about it so much wasn't so good after all, we should probably not let him know he was that sick (back when we still only thought of it as sick), and slowly the talking sometimes tapered off into never talking about it. We talked instead about Luddo and the day to day business of plants growing around the house, the lack of gas, what was to be done about the shelves in the attic store. This woman could be a miracle. She was warm and from outside where people told each other what they wanted as if these were achievable things. Recently a friend of mine had called and said she wanted to have a one night stand with a man she had been working with for ten days. Why isn't it possible, she asked, for women to have that in this country? Exactly I said. We talked about it for an hour and then I felt lighter. It was nice to believe scandal could hold the longest and fiercest sway in the world.

When the woman walked into my father's bedroom, my father was asleep but the curtains were not drawn. My brother stayed, Coke can in one hand, standing now by the doorway of the kitchen staring into the room. The woman was not at all fearful or tentative, instead she seemed very sure of herself, as if she had a job to do and she knew how to do it. I was relieved she was in the house and felt a little sad that she would soon leave with the dog. She adjusted the mask on her face and went straight to the bed. Hello, sir. My father opened his eyes and blinked once or twice. He did not recognize her, and why should this be a surprise? My brother snorted from the doorway, something between a laugh and a sound of disgust. She touched my father's shoulder and sat on the edge of the bed. I'm sorry you're ill.

Thank you. He blinked again. Are you—he let the words taper off. He did not know what she was, but she saved him from the embarrassment of pretending to know, Yes, I'm here for the dog. You must be very sad to be giving him away. At this he laughed, I'm sad all the time. Do you think a dog makes much difference? Ourfamily never talked about sadness, I thought to myself, but how many people did, as a daily habit? I'm sorry, she said. It must feel terrible to be dying. I was surprised to hear my own anger in the room: He's not dying. The woman looked at me, eyes large over the blue of the mask. Oh, she said, I'm sorry.

I wanted to slap her then. It was no use letting people into your house if they were going to survey the house and your life as if they did not believe you when you told them the truth. He's not dying, my brother repeated, although I know he had said the exact opposite of those words a few minutes ago. He came and stood next to me and we faced her then together, as a family, and from the bed I saw my father close his eyes again, a small smile on his face. He always said we were going to save him and his belief made it very hard for us not to believe. It was a feedback loop that went round and round. Please, I said, let me take you to the dog. My tone was final and the woman got up, just a busy-body after all, here for the show. She stood slowly. She did not seem like she was ever asked to leave houses, even politely. Yes, she said, hand pressed to the mask. She turned to my father, I hope you get better. He nodded, Thank you. There was no sign of passion between them. I looked guiltily at my brother who squeezed my hand. Our lives were like clocks and we were waiting and waiting for someone to put the battery in so we could look at the time again.

I led her outside into the cold air, leaving my brother with my father. The dog jumped up and down the woman with its muddy paws. At first, the woman was shocked but she managed it quite well for someone who seemed so opposed to chaos. She made small clucking noises with her mouth and ushered the dog into the back seat of her car. He was a shade of copper now, probably from a combination of rain and mud. I did not feel anything as she put the car in reverse, first carefully taking off the mask and putting it next to her on the passenger seat. Good luck, she said, cheerily waving a small hand at me. Bye, I said. The dog sat quietly in the back seat, tongue hanging out. I imagined the air in there becoming hot and tangy from his breath and her needing the mask to breathe small, shallow breaths as she drove back home. After her headlights disappeared, I didn't stand out there for too long. I just looked down at the road once and then went back inside.

The lights were all on in the room and my father was wide awake. The two of them were playing Luddo again. There was another life out there where my father was fine and happy and healthy. I could feel it sometimes, right before I went to bed, this other life: almost tangible but just out of reach. In that other life he was also old and sitting up in bed on a Tuesday night, my brother across from him, both of them laughing but neither of them aware that one was soon to die. Religion, I had wanted to say to the woman, when she came in like a prophet, has no place in this house. Here, we were simply living many lives, side by side. In one life, he was this amount of sick exactly. In the other less so, and in the third he was absolutely fine. In some lives, our mother was still alive, too, and we lived in a smaller, more compact house with central heating. The dog was well-trained and sat when told to sit and fetched bottles of water from the fridge. With so many lives happening all the time around us, how dare I be ungrateful? This was the key, I thought as I joined them at the Luddo board, picked up the small yellow figures and placed them, exactly four, on my side. The key was to be as grateful as possible for as long as possible, and then maybe you would eventually be fine.

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