I READ ONCE about a trapper caught out in the wilderness with a deadly winter storm coming on. He shot a bear, disemboweled it, and took shelter within its carcass. When I read the story, I imagined the piercing winds howling dreadfully all night long, while inside the bear, the trapper was warm and dry, perhaps reading a book or a letter by lamplight. There was one place in the world where I could find that kind of peace: deep in the guts of Flare’s two million lines of proprietary source code.
But first, coffee. Shana came into the breakroom for what was probably her second or third cup while I was pouring my first. Shana was a tax accountant, a wiry woman who wore her hair short and up, and the stone-cold queen bee of our four-person operation, Flare Mineral Asset Management. She wouldn’t give me any flack about being late. She knew—the team knew—I carried my weight. The job was my top priority. Always. The team probably figured that was why my wife left me. I’d say they were half right. Maybe sixty/forty.
“How are you doing this morning, Brando?” she said. My name is Brandon. The team calls me Brando.
I took a sip of my coffee. “My dog died,” I said.
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Long story. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“How are the updates coming?”
Our offices were on the fourth floor of a building situated on the edge of a pleasant, tree-filled, middle-class neighborhood. The weather was nice, and looking out of my office window, I could see children playing enthusiastically in the well-fenced-in backyard of a kindergarten. I turned my attention to my computer, booted it up, and dove in. I was hoping to forget, for a little while, the harsh realities of life, and how I had abandoned my dog in her hour of need.
I was nearly gone, all but swallowed up in the depths of the C, when Henry came into my office. If it had been Shana or Ted, I would have pointedly ignored them until they went away, but not Henry. I hauled myself up out of the code and gave him my full attention.
“Shana told me Maggie died,” Henry said. “I feel like I lost a friend.”
“I know. Me too.”
“Karen will be heartbroken.”
“Karen knows,” I said. “Karen put her down.”
Karen was Henry’s sister, and my ex-wife’s best friend. Karen and my ex met as hands on a dude ranch way back when. The money was lousy, but they weren’t in it for the money, they were in it for the horses. When we divvied up our friends after the divorce, my ex got Karen and I got Henry. I don’t know if the divorce was why Henry tried to kill himself, but it might have had something to do with it. Henry was a genius, one of those people that sees the universe a little too clearly, and lives on the edge, emotionally speaking. After Henry’s attempted suicide, I got him a job at our company taking care of the hardware, first, because I knew he’d be good at it, and second, so I could keep an eye on him—you know, in case of an apocalypse. If anyone could take an old box spring and a busted refrigerator, and turn it into a trebuchet or a water filtration unit, it would be Henry.
Before Henry could ask me what happened, Ted squeezed in next to him. Ted was a big, broad-shouldered guy who always wore a suit and tie to work. He had a thick black moustache he was quite proud of, apparently unaware of what a poor fit it was for his round, pink, babyface.
“So, you’re here, finally,” Ted said. “Sure wish I could come in to work any time I want. Any idea when those updates are going to be ready?”
Ted was a schmoozer and I never liked schmoozers, but at least he was our schmoozer, and he was good at it. Our clients were Texas oil men—men who fancied themselves modern-day cowboys. They often wore Italian suits but never Italian shoes—always cowboy boots—along with cowboy hats, silver belt buckles, and bolo ties with a fat diamond set on the clasp. Our clients’ old school chums were bank presidents—bank presidents who yearned to take over the mineral asset management services we provided. When one of our clients started wandering off with a banker friend, it was Ted’s job to turn him back to Flare. Ted was an expert at rounding up stray cowboys with his lariat of schmooze.
“Give him a break, Ted,” Henry said. “Maggie died this morning.”
“Your girlfriend died? Whoa.”
“Maggie was Brando’s dog,” Henry said.
“Oh. Jeez. That’s rough. I’m sorry man. What happened?”
About that time, Shana showed up, and now the whole team was in my office. They were concerned about me. They were also concerned about the updates.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’ll tell you all about it later, I promise. Now get out, so I can work. Please.”
Later that day, I overheard Ted talking on the phone with one of our cowboys: “I know,” Ted said, “and I’m not going to make any excuses, but our top developer—his dog died this morning. He came into work today anyway—tough guy, you know—said he wanted to finish those updates. And I don’t know if I told you this, but his wife left him like, two months ago. So with the wife and now the dog, the boss sent him home. So . . . Monday—Tuesday at the latest, I promise. Hey, you want to hit the links this weekend?”
It was almost eleven when I got home. Judy was up, but not waiting up. Unlike my ex, Judy didn’t get in a stew when I worked late. I’d like to say it was because she trusted me and understood what the job meant to me, but the truth is, she didn’t care. On a good day, I could believe Judy and I were soulmates with a future. On a bad day, I knew we weren’t anything more than roommates with benefits—and that wasn’t so bad, was it?
Despite what my ex-wife tells my ex-friends, there was no overlap between her and Judy. I knew Judy before the divorce, but only in passing, and I mean that literally. I’d go jogging with Maggie in the evening, and sometimes we’d jog out to the park, and sometimes Judy would be walking out at the park, too. Maggie, who rarely took any interest in a stranger, ran right up to Judy for a pat on the head the first time she saw her, and every other time after that. While Judy patted Maggie on the head, we’d have a little chat about how nice the weather was, or how hot, or how cold, and then I’d jog on home. And that’s all there was to it, until my wife left me.
“Maggie isn’t in the backyard,” Judy said.
“Where is she?”
“Really? Oh, my God! What happened?”
“When I woke up this morning, there was some kind of ruckus going on outside. So I put on some pants and opened the front door. There were a bunch of people in the yard. Don was out there—”
“Don? The cop?”
“Yeah, Don the cop. There were a couple of animal control officers out there too—a friend of mine, Karen, was one of them—and everyone in the cul-de-sac with nothing better to do. They were standing in a big circle, and right in the middle of the circle, Maggie, looking like she meant to bite someone’s head off. Don had his gun drawn, and the animal control officers had their poles with the wire nooses out. As soon as Maggie saw me, she calmed down. Practically jumped into my arms. Don told me she bit Rusty on the ass. Karen said she had to take Maggie back to the shelter, and I could have them quarantine her for two weeks, and then get her back, or I could have her put down, in which case they’d freeze her head and send it to Austin for rabies testing.”
“What did you do?”
“I told you she’s dead,” I said.
“But you could have let them quarantine her.”
“I can’t have a dog that bites people. What if it had been worse? What if she bites someone else? What if she really hurts someone? She’s a big, strong, dog.”
“But you know why she bit Rusty.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Rusty was the neighbor’s kid. The neighbor was Don, the cop. The cop’s wife was Susan. Don was surprisingly cool about the whole incident. He said he had heard about the divorce, and figured I was distracted, and that’s why the gate was left open. Susan wasn’t cool at all. She said I’d be getting the doctor’s bills, and I should thank my lucky stars Don had decided they weren’t going to sue me. I said if I was going to pay the bills, I wanted to see the bite. From the look Susan gave me, I knew I was pushing it, but I insisted, I don’t know why—maybe I was subconsciously acting on the advice one of those oil-men gave me once: never buy a horse at night. After some tense negotiations, the wound was shown to me. A nip is all it was. I would call it a nip, anyway, but how bad it was, wasn’t entirely the point. The kid had been terrified. Don told me Rusty was walking to the school bus stop when Maggie came after him, knocked him down, pinned him to the ground, and bit him on the ass.
I told Rusty I was having the dog put down. I hoped it would make him feel better. I also hoped it would make him feel guilty—he wasn’t an innocent party.
A couple of weeks before Maggie bit Rusty, I heard her barking up a storm, so I went out into the backyard to see what the problem was. Maggie was in her backyard, and Rusty was in his—a six-foot-tall picket fence separated them. But Rusty was standing on something that elevated him head and shoulders above the fence. He had a handful of rocks or mud clods and he was pelting Maggie with them. Maggie was going nuts.
“Rusty!” I said, and he disappeared like a gopher down a hole. I didn’t think too much about it. Rusty was generally a good kid, and I didn’t think he was really trying to hurt Maggie. To him, it was just a game. To her, it wasn’t. So when you look at the facts—that she got out of the backyard somehow, saw her tormentor, chased him down, and bit him on the ass—it’s obvious Maggie was only dispensing her own, very reasonable, brand of justice. But you can’t have a dog that bites children, even when they deserve it. You especially can’t have a dog that bites children when you’ve just gotten divorced, and you’re working for peanuts for a startup, and if you got sued because your dog bit some stupid kid, you and your new girlfriend would wind up on the street. Or rather, you would wind up on the street. Your new girlfriend would no doubt do just fine.
I should have gone to the shelter to be with Maggie when she was put down. It was cowardly of me, to leave her to Karen. I couldn’t get it out of my head that night—how terrified Maggie must have been, how all alone.
The next morning, I called work and said I wouldn’t be in until after lunch. I went to Walmart and bought a fifty-pound bag of dogfood and drove out to the animal shelter. Karen was at the desk. I put the bag of dogfood down in front of her.
“I should have been here for her,” I said.
“You should have,” Karen said, “but I understand why you weren’t.”
That made me feel better. Karen was not the kind of person who would say she understood, if she didn’t—especially not when dogs were involved.
“How did she get out?” Karen said.
“I don’t know. Maggie sleeps . . . slept inside at night, but I let her out into the backyard in the morning—or Judy does if she gets up before me. The gate is latched, but it’s not locked. Anyone could have opened it. I think it might have been the kid, Rusty. He had some kind of feud going on with Maggie. A couple of weeks ago, I caught him throwing rocks at her over the fence. I think he might have opened the gate to let her out.”
“I don’t know. Maybe just to cause trouble for me.”
“Did you ask him?”
“If he let her out? No. I thought about it, but I didn’t want to, you know, blame the victim. And even if he did open the gate, Maggie shouldn’t have bitten him, so there didn’t seem to be much point in asking.”
“I guess not,” Karen said. She put her hands down on the dog food. “This is a nice gesture, Brandon, but you need to adopt a puppy. A life for a life.”
“I don’t know if I can afford a dog right now. And anyway I don’t have time for a puppy. I’ll let you know—”
“I’ll let you know when we have the right puppy for you,” Karen said. “I’ll find you one that won’t even bite a Rusty. A life for a life, Brandon. That’s only fair.”
“Okay,” I said.
“How’s Henry doing?”
“He’s doing fine. Great, actually. He’s a real asset to the team.”
“It’s a good thing.”
“And how are things working out with what’s-her-name—your new friend?” Karen said.
“Judy? Fine. We’re getting along fine.”
“When I got the call about the dog bite yesterday, and I was headed to your house, I think I saw her, riding her bike.”
“Could have been. When the weather’s nice, she rides her bike to her classes in the morning.”
“Classes? High school or college?”
“Oh, please. She’s not a child. She’s a graduate student in economics at the university.”
“Oh, a graduate student, okay.”
The bitterness I detected in Karen’s comments would be on my wife’s behalf, directed at the younger woman with whom I must have had something going on all along. Under the circumstances, it was de rigueur, but I felt like I needed to respond to the insinuation anyway.
“I wasn’t having an affair with Judy—or anyone else—before the divorce.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“Then what are you getting at?”
“Your wife left you two months ago, and already you have a new girlfriend. She’s young and pretty, and she rides her bike to her classes in the morning when the weather’s nice, and everything is fine.”
“Yes it is, actually.”
“But not so great for Maggie. Maggie is dead, and I was the one that had to put a needle in her heart.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“I know you don’t. Brandon . . . take care of yourself.”
I got home from work well after midnight. Judy’s books were on the kitchen table, Judy herself, in bed, asleep. I had a bowl of cereal for dinner, then I walked out into the backyard. The backyard was small, and dominated by a single old live oak with a patio made of pavers around it. Apart from the ubiquitous sound of humming AC units and chirping crickets, it was quiet. In the orange glow of what passes for night in the suburbs, I could see Maggie’s stainless-steel water bowl with plenty of water in it, and Judy’s bicycle, leaning against the tree. No doubt she’d be riding it to her classes in the morning. It was fall in Texas, and the weather was bound to be nice.