10,000 Tons of Black Ink, an online literary magazine, published my short story “What I Wouldn’t Do for You” with the following editor’s comment:
This piece is utterly heartbreaking, and I flew through it, getting more and more deeply invested in the main character. There’s a lovely sense of momentum, and a strong build to a crushing finish. This was a story that I had to sit with for some time after finishing, as Anton’s mistakes and missed opportunities, juxtaposed against his relationship with Max, and the dog’s own declining health, resonated so strongly with me that I literally had to catch my breath. Really beautifully done.
Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
What I Wouldn’t Do for You
Max scrabbled to get behind the sofa but Anton was ruthless. He had to be, he told himself, as he tugged on Max’s collar. The dog skidded forward, his back legs twisting under him. Anton slipped a hand under Max’s flanks and pulled him up. Max yelped but stayed on his feet.
Mrs. Bushnell, across the hall, opened her door a crack. Anton caught a glimpse of her hair, the color of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Every day she looked out whenever they passed. Anton pictured her, hovering behind her carved mahogany barricade, ready to deprive him of his privacy. She didn’t have to hover. He and Max made their daily treks on a schedule.
Outside it was snowing. Anton moved slowly because Max’s gait was troubled and uncertain. Creamy flakes piled up on the silver fur and periodically Anton brushed them off. He felt the grinding of the dog’s old joints shivering up the leash.
“Oatmeal this morning, my man,” he murmured, bending to scratch Max’s ears. “Good for the bowels.”
Riverside Park was another three blocks away. This early, before the cops came around, Anton had always let Max off the leash, which used to be the dog’s greatest pleasure. He’d tool around the grass, sniffing, stopping at each tree. “Checking his pee-mail,” Anton told anyone who glanced over.
This morning, the German shepherd stood at Anton’s side, not moving, not even looking around with his clabbered eyes. “Go on, old man. Put your nose in gear. There’s still plenty of smells out there.”
Anton fingered the letter. For three days it had nested in the pocket of his jacket. Now and then, he’d heave up from his easy chair and go to the closet to reassure himself it was still there.
“Fifteen years,” he said to the top of Max’s head. “She waits fifteen years. And what did I do to her? I still don’t know. Sheesh.”
The dog lifted pleading eyes.
“Go on, do your business.” He sounded harsh, he knew. But if he grew soft with the dog, things would fall apart. The center couldn’t hold. Who wrote that? Wordsworth? When he was a schoolboy, he knew. In those days, he knew a lot of things. Now all he knew was how to drag this poor dog around when the dog didn’t want to go.
“You should put him to sleep,” Mrs. Bushnell had grunted last Tuesday as she bent to retrieve her New York Post. “It’s criminal to drag him out when he’s hurting so bad. And in this weather!”
Anton had no retort and, anyway, her door had already shut. He argued with her all the way to the park. It was his decision to make. He had a right. His dog. His pain. What did she know? Goddamned old biddy.
Max hobbled up the stairs, Anton holding up his rear with a towel sling to make it a little easier. Mrs. Bushnell peered out. “Have a good walk?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He used the towel to dry the snow-soaked fur. Months ago Max loved the feel of a towel. He would burrow his way into the warm terrycloth, nosing Anton as the towel withdrew. But now, as soon as Anton paused, Max dragged himself over to his pallet, still damp.
Anton went into the alcove that served as his kitchen and started water boiling for oatmeal. “We’ll make it from scratch, okay, buddy? What do you say? Healthier, right? It’ll take a while to cool, but that gives you time to rest up, eh?”
When he spooned the lukewarm oatmeal into Max’s bowl, the dog’s nose lifted. But his head drooped back onto the pallet.
“C’mon, old buddy. Get up. Time to eat.” Anton smacked his lips, as if the gesture might persuade the dog to eat. But Max didn’t move. Anton slumped at the rickety farm table and reluctantly shoveled oatmeal into his own mouth. He had to keep up his strength. Max needed him.
Anton thought about the letter again. What made her write now, after all this time? Years ago, he would’ve hacked off an arm, if that would’ve brought him a letter from her. He waited for years and then he bought the dog. Anton had been sitting at the same table, eating oatmeal, thinking about how no one would miss him if he disappeared. It was an odd sensation, as if he’d vanished just by thinking about it. He’d felt a little queasy and had set his spoon down on the newspaper, next to a photograph of a small dog, too small to pull a drowning boy out of the Hudson, although the paper said he had. Anton had wondered if the story were true. He thought it would take a lot more dog to rescue him. When he was little, he’d had a German shepherd—Butch had followed him everywhere. Once, when Anton was six and they were playing in the woods behind his home, Butch had stopped sideways on the path in front of him. Anton tried to go around the dog, but Butch blocked him. Anton cried and pushed the dog, but Butch wouldn’t move. And then, for no reason Anton could see, Butch suddenly let him go. Anton’s father said that night Butch knew there was danger. “What danger?” said his mother. Anton’s father shook his head. “We’ll never know but mark my words. That dog saved our boy’s life.”
After he’d given up on his daughter, Anton had turned to the classified ads at the back of the newspaper.
“You’ll be lucky,” Mrs. Bushnell had told him, “if this puppy doesn’t bankrupt you. You get sick ones from those ads. Believe me. There aren’t any bargains to be had there.”
Right after he got the dog, Anton had taken Max to the woods in New Jersey—he’d had a car in those days—and there he’d immediately lost him. “I’m an idiot,” he’d told himself, pacing the trail, calling out to a dog that didn’t yet know his own name. “I’m a confounded ass. I don’t deserve a dog.”
After forty-five minutes, he was close to giving up in despair when a young woman came around a clump of bushes with Max frolicking at the end of her belt, his jutting ears dwarfing his surprisingly delicate snout. The woman’s beltless shorts had slipped down to the swell of her hips. She had a face like fresh butter. “You let this dog off leash? How old is he?” She unhooked her belt from Max’s collar. “You’re a damned fool, Mister. People like you shouldn’t be allowed to have animals.”
“Thank you, Miss,” he’d said. “Really. Oh, jeez. Thank you so much. I’ll never let him off the leash again. I swear.”
“Yeah, right.” She clicked her tongue and marched away, hitching her belt.
Anton believed he’d been a reasonably attractive man in those days. Too old for her, of course, but presentable enough. He’d just turned fifty. There had been a few women in the two years following his divorce, but nothing serious. After Maxine (in whose honor he’d named the dog, thinking his daughter would never know about it), he hadn’t wanted to live with any woman. He wasn’t bitter, he didn’t think he was bitter. Maxine had left him for the guy who owned the corner supermarket, six blocks from their apartment, the apartment Anton still occupied. The couple had moved out to Long Island. He supposed her new husband bought another store out there. And he guessed they must be pretty happy. Maxine always wanted more than he could give her.
He didn’t mean money. Maxine wasn’t like that. She’d wanted passion and he just didn’t seem to have much. A line from Trollope came back to him: “It’s dogged as does it.” That was him. Dogged. No. That wasn’t the line. It was “It’s doggish as does it.” Damn. He couldn’t remember anything anymore.
Four years ago he’d retired, when Markham Insurance Co., Ltd., offered a buyout to senior staff. Belt tightening, they’d called it. It was more like deadwood pruning. He and the twenty-six others who’d jumped at the early retirement package watched their empty desks fill up with men and women a third their age.
When Anton retired, Max was nearly ten. At that time, the dog was already beginning to limp from the arthritic erosion that now made him reluctant to walk a block. That first year at home, Anton told himself the dog might last another year, maybe two. It would be hard, he thought, hard to let go. He’d never been good at letting go. When Maxine left, he called her and went by her place every day. Begged her to give him another chance. She’d cried and begged him in return: Just go away, Anton. Go away and leave me alone, please.
He’d fantasized traveling to South America for a holiday. No more trips was one of the hardest part of losing Maxine. She’d always made sure they had somewhere to go, something to do, someone to see. Now he endured the prolonged silence of the apartment.
He took a night course in Portuguese and picked up some travel brochures on Rio de Janeiro, poring over photographs of the Cristo and of Sugar Loaf, to which you could only travel on a tram dangling more than seven hundred feet in the air. He kept trying to picture himself at Mardi Gras, but the effort exhausted his imagination. What would he be doing? To whom would he speak? He thought about taking Max but a story in the New York Times reported airlines leaving crated dogs on the tarmac to cook to death. Anton couldn’t risk it.
So he devoted himself to Max’s old age. He read incessantly about arthritis and its palliatives. He cruised the Internet in search of nutritional aids, herbal preparations, nostrums promising relief from aching joints. Max persevered, whether through Anton’s ministrations or his own spirit, Anton didn’t know. But since Max gave his own survival full measure, Anton couldn’t bring himself to do less.
He switched on the television. A female judge—he didn’t know which one, he never paid much attention—was shouting. He turned the volume down so that Mrs. Bushnell wouldn’t complain. Whenever he watched Jeopardy, his favorite show, he turned the sound up so he could hear, but Mrs. Bushnell frequently knocked on his door to ask him to please turn it down. Then he’d move the coffee table aside and shift his easy chair forward until, when he sat in it, his knees almost pressed against the screen. If he bent slightly forward, he could hear well enough. Someone at the drugstore had told him it was possible to set up his television so that he could read what people were saying. But Anton had never figured out how to do that. The judge kept yelling. Anton turned off the set. He didn’t like judges.
He’d had only one encounter with a courtroom. It hadn’t been during his divorce. For that, Maxine had handled everything and he hadn’t needed to appear. She didn’t ask for anything, he didn’t ask for anything. Beatrice was nineteen, on her own, and Maxine planned to marry the supermarket guy. Anyway, she worked as a lab technician and made more money than he did, he was sure, although he’d never seen her paycheck.
No, his single encounter with court had to do with his daughter. When Beatrice was twenty, she went to court to stop being his daughter. Well, actually, the supermarket owner adopted her. Maxine had apologized to Anton in the courthouse hallway.
“It wasn’t my idea,” she said, twisting a Kleenex. “I just want you to know that, Anton. But Abel couldn’t refuse. I mean, Bee insisted and he felt it might seem like he was rejecting her, you know?”
Anton had nodded, his throat too tight to force out any sound. Beatrice erupted from the courtroom and, without a glance at him, called out, “Come on, Mommy.” The word had lodged in his temple, like a migraine behind one eye. Mommy. She had thrown her father in the garbage but she spoke to her mother like she was a four-year-old.
He pulled the letter from his pocket and smoothed it out on the farm table.
It’s been a long time and I’ve gone through lots of changes. My therapist says I need to try to fix some of the damage that’s happened to me over the years
I need to talk about my issues with you. I know you were hurt. But you can’t live your life for others, even if the things you do hurt them. That’s living for somebody else and not for yourself. I could never do that.
Call me. It’s urgent.
She’d scribbled her number across the bottom and signed the letter without a flourish: Bee. No “Love, Bee,” as she used to write on the postcards from camp. No “Hugs, Bee,” as she had written to her grandparents to thank them for Christmas and birthday presents. No “Sincerely, Beatrice Bonner,” as she had scrawled on the bottom of letters accompanying her college applications. Just “Bee.”
He pondered that “Bee” at the end. Was it good or bad? Beatrice would’ve seemed cold. But she had written Dear Dad. Did that count for anything or was it just what anyone would write at the beginning of a letter to a parent? Maybe it was the only salutation she could think of. She could hardly write Dear Anton, could she? But had she reflected on that Dear at all? His index finger traced the letters. It would mean a lot to him if she’d really meant Dear.
Why did she do it? The old question. You’d think he’d be sick of asking it. No answers came to him, not in the darkest part of night, not under the glare of noon. The shank of the day. The phrase came back to him. Didn’t it mean the best part of the day? He had already lived through the shank of his life.
He woke around four in the morning from a nightmare, his stomach clenched, his breathing like the chuffing of a dying engine. Dying. He had dreamed about death row. Maxine came to visit him in his cell. She was blithe, happy. She talked about her new home, somewhere in Southern California. “It never rains,” she kept saying.
As Anton lay in the dark waiting to grow calm, he remembered Bee on the night of her junior prom. She wore a torn tee shirt and dirty jeans. He’d tried to joke with her about it but she’d only looked through him.
He was supposed to drive her to the prom. She was meeting her date there. He thought that almost as strange as her outfit.
“Your mother wore yellow,” he’d said. “Bouffant, it was called.”
“That’s hair. She wore organza.”
He clicked the turn signal on, frowning.
“She only told me about fifty-two times in the last week,” Bee said, turning her face to the window. It was raining. The lights of the stores flickered across her face, creating drooly smears down her cheeks. After a moment he realized she was crying.
She insisted he let her out at the corner. A half block away glare poured through the open doors of the school gymnasium. The rain had stopped. A cluster of girls came out in stiff pastel dresses. They giggled on the lawn. He waited for Bee to walk toward them but she didn’t move. He supposed she wanted him to drive away but he wasn’t going to leave his child out on the sidewalk in the dark. Neither of them moved. At last, Bee slapped the hood of the car and shrieked, “Go on, would you, damn it!”
But then, without waiting for him to leave, she pivoted away from the car and the gymnasium to cross the street. He spotted a figure in the shadows and his heart seized, but Bee hurried over to whoever stood there and they embraced. When they stepped together into a puddle of light, he watched them kiss. Two girls.
His hands trembling, Anton had jammed the car into first and pulled away. A trill of faint laughter pursued him.
But what had he done to deserve being “divorced” by his daughter? He’d never said a word to her. He hadn’t even said anything to Maxine. Two years later, Maxine said something to him, an off-hand remark about Bee’s girlfriend. Not like girlfriend, but girlfriend.
“You didn’t know?”
He’d rubbed his chin. “Know what?”
“That Bee’s gay.”
He’d flushed, feeling caught, as if Maxine had found out about him watching Bee and that other girl kiss. “Did she tell you she’s gay?”
With a cynical laugh, Maxine shook her head. “Oh, Anton, I guessed a long time ago. Don’t you have eyes? But yes, she told me.”
“Did she say I knew?”
“Why would she say that? How would you? You never intuit anything.” Intuit was one of Maxine’s favorite words. She intuited things. He never did. That was his problem. He didn’t pay enough attention to people, to feelings.
He thought then of a moment long before, when Bee was five and he’d read her to sleep every night. His favorite book was Heidi and he had read it to her many times, always with tears filming his eyes.
“Why does Heidi make you cry, Daddy?”
“Because it’s a sad story. I mean, it has a happy ending but happy endings can make you cry. Doesn’t it make you want to cry?”
She’d pursed her lips, struggling with something. At last she sighed. “Daddy, it’s boring.”
She’d had a cold heart even then. At first he’d been troubled, waking in the middle of the night and wondering what would become of his Bee. Would she marry ruthlessly, for money or position? She didn’t seem to need love. Whenever he tried to cuddle her, she turned prickly: “I can’t breathe!”
Max whimpered. “What’s the matter, old man? You need a pain pill?” Anton went to the kitchen cabinet where he stored the numerous pills and herbal concoctions for the dog. He took the vial of Tramadol down. Max was eating these like candy lately. Well. Not exactly. Anton pried open the dog’s mouth and plunged his fingers to the back of Max’s tongue. Involuntarily, Max swallowed.
“You’ll feel better in a bit.” Anton stroked him, remembering trips to the park, Max chasing a ball at top speed. They’d trudge back to the apartment, Max panting, his tongue lolling, but his mouth drawn back in an enormous grin.
Anton had considered moving somewhere Max wouldn’t have to contend with stairs, but if he left his rent-controlled apartment, he couldn’t afford to stay on the Upper West Side any longer. If the vet was right, Max probably wouldn’t live through the spring. And Anton would’ve given up living in the greatest place in the world for a few months of stair-less existence.
He’d do it, if he thought it would make a big difference to Max. But more and more, Max seemed oblivious to everything but the need to sleep. When Anton called his name, even when he said, “Want’a eat, Max?”, the dog drowsed on. Or, if Max’s eyes were open and he was staring into space, he wouldn’t turn his head. It wasn’t just that he didn’t care much about food anymore. It was that he didn’t care much about Anton anymore.
Like Bee, who’d found the end of his usefulness fifteen years ago. Anton grimaced. What a joke, clinging to his Upper West Side apartment because New York City was the greatest place in the world to live. What did he do in New York City that he couldn’t have done anywhere else, including Podunk, Iowa? He didn’t go to plays. He didn’t eat in fine restaurants. All he did was walk the streets and look at his fellow New Yorkers, wondering if their lives seemed as empty and hopeless as his own. Wondering if they too were down to their last dog.
The telephone rang, startling him. No doubt another telemarketer. No one else called him these days. Anton lifted the phone, half looking forward to hearing a voice, even a voice urging him to spend money on something he didn’t want.
Anton’s mouth opened but all that came out was a sob.
“It’s Bee,” she said, unnecessarily.
“I know,” he croaked.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? What does that mean?”
He felt the muscles at the back of his neck loosen. His head slid forward in shame. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
“You see?” she demanded. “You see? That’s how it always was. You were never there when I needed you.”
“That’s not true.” But he was still hanging onto that opening “Daddy.” She’d called Maxine “Mommy” and she loved Maxine. Now she was once again calling him “Daddy.”
“It is true. Oh, your body was there. But did you notice me? Did you see me? You never did. You never asked me who I was!”
“I’ve missed you every day for fifteen years, Bee. Next month it’ll be fifteen years.”
“So how come you never called? You never fought for me. You never fought for anything or anyone in your life. I thought—” It was her turn to choke up.
He remembered begging Maxine to come back to him, humbling himself when he knew she was sleeping with the grocer. But he couldn’t say that to Bee.
“I thought if I went to court—I just thought you’d fight for me. You didn’t say a word.”
“I didn’t know—”
“What?” But he said nothing. “Did it occur to you that I needed you, Daddy? Didn’t I write that it was urgent?”
“But, Bee, c’mon,” he pleaded. “How could anything be urgent after fifteen years? It didn’t make sense.”
“Daddy, I’m dying.”
His breath shot up through his chest, an arrowhead of pain. “What?”
“I have cancer. Stage four endometrial.”
“But they’ve caught it—surely they can—”
“No, they can’t. It’s too late. I’m in a hospice.”
The ungenerous thought crossed his mind that she had not told him this in the letter because she had wanted to witness his shock on hearing it.
“Honey, I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.” He heard himself and winced. It sounded as if he were consoling his daughter over a missed train. “That’s awful,” he said but that sounded worse. What did he feel? It wasn’t easy to feel anything after all these years, after all the misery he’d endured.
“Yeah, well.” She sounded resentful. “I want you to come out here. I need to talk to you before—before I go.”
He turned and looked at Max. The dog was snoring. “Bee, I can’t.”
“What does that mean, you can’t?”
“See, I—I have this dog.”
“He’s old. He’s close to—” No. He couldn’t say Max was close to dying. “I—I don’t have anyone to take care of him, Bee. I can’t leave him.”
“Oh, that’s just great. Just wonderful. I’m very happy for you and your dog.”
The click was the same, whether the other person threw the phone or quietly lowered it into its cradle, he thought, although he knew Bee hadn’t quietly lowered the receiver.
Anton was trembling. He sank into a chair and called to Max but the German shepherd didn’t move so Anton got up and went to him. He took the massive head between his hands and lowered his face to it. The dog lay quite still.
“What should I do, old buddy? Just tell me what to do?”
He knew what he should do, what a good father ought to do. He shouldn’t let his daughter die alone. But where was Maxine? Maxine had been Bee’s comfort all these years, Maxine and her grocer. What was his name? Neanderthal? No. That was Anton’s private name for him, validated by the low growth of hair on the man’s forehead. But it was close to that. Neman? Newman? That didn’t help. And where were they? Yes, now he recalled. Maxine had contacted him nine years ago, about some annuity that had been left in his name as well as hers. She’d told him they were moving to California. But where?
He remembered. They were moving to Garden Grove. She’d given him the address, just in case, but Anton had only pretended to write it down. He had thought how ironic it was for a grocer to live in a garden. Nedermeyer. That was the man’s last name. Abel Nedermeyer. Anton had said once to Maxine that her new husband should be named Cain, not Abel. “He seems more adapted to that tradition,” he’d said. Maxine hadn’t laughed. He used to make her laugh. Once she’d said he was a very funny man, but Anton hadn’t been funny in a long time.
A man with a faltering voice answered on the fifth ring.
“Is Maxine there?”
Did he no longer recall his wife’s name? Perhaps Anton himself had gotten it wrong. After so many years, was it possible he’d somehow altered her name to suit his memory? “Your wife,” said Anton.
“Who is this?”
“I need to speak to Maxine about our daughter, Bee.”
“Anton? Oh, I’m sorry. You didn’t know. Maxine died about six years ago.”
Anton felt he’d been smacked by a linebacker on a football field. Winded. Dazed. How much was he supposed to take in a single day? “How?” was all he could manage.
“Murdered. She was caught in a hostage situation in a bank. Stupid, really.”
For the briefest moment, Anton wondered if Abel meant that Maxine had been stupid to be murdered. But what twisted in his gut was the conviction that it was his fault. He should’ve been there to protect her. Ridiculous.
“What’s going on with Bee?” said Abel.
“You don’t know?”
“I haven’t seen her since the funeral. Truth is, we never got along too well. I gotta confess, Anton. That Lesbian stuff—well, it was a big problem for me. I wish Maxine had clued me in. I found out the hard way, you know?”
“She’s dying,” Anton said, brutally.
“Yeah.” His skin prickled. “You never bothered to stay in touch with her?”
“Hey, are you the pot calling the kettle black? Where were you for the last whatever?”
“If you want, I can give you her phone number.”
“I don’t think Bee’s dying to hear from me.”
The expression was so inappropriate, Anton gasped. “I better go. I just—I just thought Maxine would, you know, that she’d be the one—well, never mind.”
The afternoon light had settled on the teapot by the time Anton looked up from his lap. The phone lay in his open hand. He’d clicked it off but hadn’t found the energy to return it to its base. He didn’t know quite where he’d been all those hours. He hadn’t cried, hadn’t even felt anything. Some invisible blanket muffled the world outside, casting him deep into a safe, empty place. But as he looked around, Bee reached in and twisted his heart. Anton began to weep. Max crawled across the floor and lay with his chin resting on Anton’s foot, looking anxiously up.
“I’m all right, Max. Just—just kind of—sad.”
He leashed the dog up and they made their painstaking way down the hall, Mrs. Bushnell’s eyes following. “Where were you at noon today?” she called.
At the park, Max peed and even sniffed a couple of trees. On the way back, his hind end wallowed around more than usual, and twice he fell over. Anton struggled to get him back on his feet on the icy sidewalk.
“Not much longer, huh, old man?” He could’ve meant until they reached the apartment or until Max’s life was over. Anton wasn’t sure himself what he meant.
But could he give the dog up? On the other hand, could he betray his daughter for a few more months, maybe a few more weeks, with Max? He dropped some hamburger into the dog’s bowl and sank into his easy chair, not bothering to turn on Jeopardy. The pills, the health food remedies, all the nostrums, remained on the shelf. He couldn’t find the energy to push them down Max’s throat.
He was still sitting there when the phone rang around midnight. Anton didn’t answer it.