by Roland Goity
Roland Goity lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and edits fiction for the online journal LITnIMAGE (www.litnimage.com). His stories have appeared in dozens of literary publications, including Fiction International, Underground Voices, Bryant Literary Review, Talking River, Eclectica, Scrivener Creative Review, Word Riot, decomP, and Compass Rose.
There they were again, that couple, that trio, approaching across the wet sand, seawater lapping just short of their feet. The woman with those high cheekbones, wearing her dirty blond hair up in a scrunchie. She was adorned with an ample behind, and Ralph always liked a big ass.
It was pleasant on the beach, with just a hint of breeze. Ralph had noticed that on cooler evenings, when the fog wasn't far from shore, the woman wore dark spandex tights, but on milder evenings, like now, she preferred light running shorts of pastel colors. Ralph focused on her hips, her thighs, her waist, as he noticed the day's choice: day-glo orange shorts, like a momentary reappearance of the sun that minutes before had fallen off the horizon.
The man was with her, of course. He was older than the woman, mid-thirties or so, around Ralph's age. Ralph didn't closely consider his outfits, but could see him now with a Dodgers cap and a USC windbreaker. Not a real fan, just a stupid frontrunner, Ralph figured. The man carried one of those dog ball throwers for the golden retriever that was always with them, and he jettisoned tennis balls in robotic fashion as if he were programmed with a computer chip. Quite a contrast to the animal, which was sleek and vibrant, and always sported an eager doggy smile.
A minute later Ralph encountered the couple in passing, smiling like always, but this time catching the eye of the woman. So he said, "That's quite an athlete you got there," and turned to the scampering retriever as it chased down another toss.
"Thanks. She loves it out here," the woman said, her voice with a surprising lilt, as if she'd been gently tickled upon speaking.
"She's a beautiful dog. Really exquisite. What's her name?"
"Ah, a beautiful name, too," Ralph said. The man grumbled something, but Ralph paid no notice. Ralph called to Genevieve, who wandered past her owners to stop at his feet. "You're a good girl, aren't you, a real good girl," Ralph said, stroking the underside of the dog's chin until she loosened her jaw and let him withdraw the goopy tennis ball from her mouth with his bare hand.
Ralph held the ball high, Genevieve jumping and barking, kicking up sand. Then he heaved it as far as he could, a distance light years beyond what the man could do with the dog ball thrower. Genevieve sped off in pursuit, and then Ralph smiled warmly and waved at the couple, both of them. "Have a nice evening," Ralph said, and he walked off with a smug solace, having seen the man simply shrug but the woman return his wave and offer a friendly, "You, too."
The remaining half-mile stroll to his condo went by as if no time transpired at all.
# # #
Ralph had moved to the coast in May after taking a glitzy sales job at a multimedia firm in Santa Monica. Initially, the responsibilities of the position--the memos, phone calls, and meetings--kept him busy until late, very late. By summer's arrival, though, he was pretty much up to speed. He'd return from work and soon hit the beach just outside his door. Temperatures spiked north of ninety in late June, but when sundown approached and the offshore winds grew stronger, bounding atop the sand in ankle-deep tidewater was the finest thing on earth.
As a beach regular Ralph continued to stumble upon the woman with Genevieve, the retriever. The woman's name he discovered was Debbie; she was a transplant from Frankfort. Not the city in Germany, the one in Kentucky. It was spelled differently, Debbie informed him, and was the Bluegrass State's capital.
The man was always there, too, but Ralph never asked or was told his name. Maybe it was a lapse in memory or a trick of the eye, but it sure seemed to Ralph that Debbie and her fellow were growing further apart, literally, as they made their way from one end of the beach to the other. Their relationship appeared to have gone secretive; even a crackerjack detective snapping pictures wouldn't have caught them in the same frame. Genevieve was the one always by Debbie's side. The man no longer carried the ball thrower, so Ralph often seized driftwood suitable for fetching if he saw them approach. Then Ralph would set Genevieve to exercise and put in a little face time with Debbie.
One day the nameless man wasn't there, not even in the distance. Ralph was lifting a stick higher and higher, seeing how high he could get the dog to jump. He turned to Debbie and said, "No man of the house today, I see," over the dog's machine-gunning barks.
"No, not today, not tomorrow, not forever. Genevieve and I don't have Skyler to kick around anymore."
"No. Things just didn't work out between us, there was a deal killer," Debbie said. Ralph admired her tanned thighs, which were nearly bursting the nylon seams of her shorts as she knelt into a crouch beside the dog. "Skyler wasn't fond of animals, was he Genevieve? Was he Genevieve? Was he?"
Genevieve woofed and woofed at her name, and Ralph dropped the stick and motioned to the dog with his arms. The retriever jumped up into his chest, a flurry of sand and scratchy paws, the salty wet hair of her belly soaking Ralph's Hawaiian print shirt. "I love animals, dogs especially," Ralph said. He kissed Genevieve's moist black nose and held her with all his might, risking a hernia.
Debbie sighed and smiled. Her cheeks glowed and her eyes went misty at the touching display. And her knees went weak and the ability to breathe momentarily escaped her. Ralph saw it all in a furtive glance.
# # #
From then on, Debbie and the dog would frequently drop by Ralph's condo on their way to the beach. Debbie was a freelancer--she washed, braided and cut the manes of horses in stables up and down the coast--so her work hours were flexible. Ralph would return from his office around 6:30 to find Debbie and Genevieve already at his door. Within minutes Ralph would put a cocktail in Debbie's hand, provide a few doggy biscuits for Genevieve to chew on, and throw back a shot of whiskey himself. Then he'd swap his office suit for beach attire and they'd enjoy a pleasant seventy-five minute saunter from the jetty break to the pier and back. Afterwards, they'd break their separate ways until often reconvening at Chez Debbie, a drab little bungalow with a sizable yard containing numerous Frisbees with teeth marks. Ralph and Debbie would get it on at lights out, and go sometimes well into the night. Debbie's door was always open, so Genevieve might be in the room as Ralph plunged into Debbie, her legs draped over his shoulders. As the night wore on, and the pair moaned and screamed, giggled and whispered, the dog would mope around the room and yawn. Eventually she'd scoot out to the hallway, curling herself in a crescent-moon position to sleep.
But in the morning, as sunlight pierced through the crepe bedroom shutters and onto the bed, Genevieve provided a regular wake-up call, shaking her neck and jiggling her collar, pouncing on the bed between Ralph and Debbie, hot fetid morning breath worse than anyone could imagine. Ralph would usually unleash a barrage of expletives upon waking, and fling his arms and fists like a blind man punching at ghosts. Debbie would stir more amiably, and say, "Oh, come on, Ralph, don't force me to choose one of you over the other." Ralph's puffy eyes would vent slightly, and Debbie would murmur, "Besides, think what you have in common. You both like it doggy-style."
Reminded of her sweet apple bottom, something he often held near and dear, Ralph would always succumb to such suggestion and become as giddy as a schoolboy going through the teacher's desk before class. Genevieve would be shooed from the bed to the hardwood floor of the hallway. Ralph and Debbie would follow, one of them opening the back door so the retriever could go do her business while the other got the coffee brewing. Then they'd return to bed--briefly--and do a little business of their own before beginning their respective days.
# # #
The hometown Dodgers were neck and neck with the Padres for first place throughout that summer. Ralph found he enjoyed tuning into games; he'd acquired a rooting interest for his new local boys. But over at Debbie's bungalow she'd nix any attempt to turn on or switch over to a game. "Stop, not baseball," she'd say. "You're starting to remind me of Skyler."
"Just what would you rather watch?" Ralph would ask.
But the answer was always the same, a dog flick of some form or other. Not only did Debbie rent canine-featured films, she owned them as well. Her TV cabinet contained director's cut issues and special collector's editions of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Benji, and The Shaggy Dog. Once Ralph rented a Tom Hanks movie as a gag--with Hanks a detective whose sidekick is a huge, butt-ugly dog. But Debbie ended up loving it and buying a copy off Amazon. Watching television or videos with her was never a totally intimate affair; Genevieve would always be included, either at their feet in the living room or between them on the queen-size bed while watching the 19-inch black-and-white perched on Debbie's dresser.
It got worse. Whenever Debbie felt that Genevieve's "joie de vivre" was taking leave or that the dog just wasn't eating enough, she would fix two cereal bowls full of milk and dry dog food and let Genevieve hop on one of the stools at the kitchen counter beside her. There they both slurped away like animals, which was certainly reasonable in Genevieve's case but highly inappropriate, Ralph thought, in Debbie's.
One morning over the day's first coffee Debbie told Ralph, "August 8th is coming up soon."
Ralph looked up from a sales forecasting sheet he was reviewing. "What day is that?"
"Genevieve's birthday, silly. I've told you and told you," she said. "It's the big one, remember? She'll be five. We're really going to celebrate!"
By "celebrate" Ralph assumed she meant some extra doggy snacks that day, or a lengthier run on the beach. But what Debbie had in mind was a festive gala in the backyard of her bungalow with dogs of every shape, size and disposition, their owners the chaperones. Ralph had met several of Debbie's friends previously: Ron and April, Marguerite, Celeste, and Juan, the latter of whom worked down at the stables. But the only dog he knew at the party was Ron and April's bichon frise, Amelia. He kept an eye on Amelia, lest she be eaten by Caesar, the rottweiler that Juan brought along. A dozen dogs roamed the yard, including a yellow lab, a black lab, and a German shepherd. Also a mutt with three legs, a toy collie with a plastic headdress to prevent scratching, a smoke-gray French poodle whose tail was trimmed into a dangly ball. Not to mention the honored Genevieve whom Debbie had dressed in one of those faux tuxedo tees, the dog's head through the shirt's collar, her front legs through the arm sleeves. Debbie also had strapped a fedora atop Genevieve, and briefly threw a pair of sunglasses across her eyes while putting a lit cigarette in an extended cigarette holder to her black sloppy lips, a move that had guests--the human ones--laughing themselves almost to tears. Even Ralph dug it, and located a digital camera to snap a few shots. He promised to email pics to everyone.
# # #
Over time it got to be a bit much, all the affection Debbie showered upon the dog. While Ralph thought his new girlfriend was great, and his fondness for her golden retriever never wavered, he wondered if Debbie was doing Genevieve any favors with all the peculiar behavior. Such idiosyncrasies weren't always becoming or worthy of embrace, and Ralph felt a toll exacted from him, something picking away at his soul.
He started to sympathize for the aloof one, Skyler, the man no longer in the picture. Perhaps Ralph had been wrong about him. It was understandable that a man might grow weary.
# # #
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend Ralph woke before seven, head throbbing like a volcano ready to erupt. He and Debbie had been to an engagement bash for an old friend of hers. They came back at a relatively decent hour, but kept the celebration going in absentia after opening a bottle of brandy. Still, despite his present condition, Ralph planned to put his new health routine into action.
He slid from the bed, patted Debbie's blanketed rump, and quietly made his way to the hallway dressed only in his boxers. Genevieve greeted him there, doing a little dance with him after raising herself on her hind legs and digging her front claws into Ralph's thighs for balance. Ralph groaned, but not loudly; he didn't want to interrupt Debbie's rest. He opened the backdoor and Genevieve darted out for the far corner of the yard, alongside the azaleas where she liked her privacy. Ralph left the door open, anticipating her momentary return. After peeing in the hall bathroom he returned to the bedroom and stealthily changed into running attire. Then he strolled into the kitchen. It was time for his "energy" breakfast.
As he opened the refrigerator, the coolness of the escaping air refreshed him. But seconds later a wafting odor from outdated milk brought his hangover back to full boil. He kicked the door shut after having snatched a carton of orange juice off a shelf and an egg from its plastic oval mold in the side door. He wished he'd gobbled down a few aspirin earlier, but thought it wouldn't do him much good now, minutes from being out the door. Since coming clean with a full admission of his growing paunch earlier in the summer, Ralph had embarked on a rather serious fitness routine. He was already halfway to meeting his goal of losing twenty-five pounds by year's end.
He carefully set down the wobbly egg and the juice on the counter. Then he grabbed two tumblers from an overhanging shelf, poured himself some juice in one glass, and cracked the raw egg into the other. A clacking sounded from the tile floor and then Ralph turned to find Genevieve back at his side, her wagging tail beating against his knee.
"Down the hatch!" he said, nodding to the dog. Then he threw the egg quickly to the back of his throat, where it slid down easily. He sipped some OJ before pouring dry dog food into Genevieve's bowl and refreshing her water. Genevieve finished with both by the time Ralph drank the last drop of juice. Ralph looked at his wristwatch. "It's 7:20, girl. We gotta get rolling."
So out the door they went. Ralph clipped an iPod shuffle to the collar of his nylon shirt, wedged in his ear buds and pressed play. He sat on the curb and tightened his shoelaces while a tune by The Cure provided some nostalgia, reminding him of those destitute days of high school. Then some light stretching of the calves and hamstrings and voila, good to go.
From Debbie's, Ralph began the five-mile loop he'd devised, one that snaked through her neighborhood, across the boulevard, and past his own condo to the beach. Genevieve at his side, her leash wound around his wrist, they ran north on a paved boardwalk, dodging fellow joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists, and--the toughest obstacle of all--an oblivious couple walking their toddler son hand-in-hand between them. The family made Ralph steer Genevieve off track briefly, grains of sand sifting into his running shoes.
Man and dog soon exited the coastal path and veered right, where they ran on sidewalks through a commercial area--strip malls, gas stations, and car dealers--until taking a quiet industrial drive abutting the railroad tracks, the longest leg of the run. With the toxins from the prior night's drinking spouting from his sweaty pores, the slick perspiration running down his neck to the small of his back, the glistening Ralph felt momentarily rejuvenated. But, as the minutes wore by and he began the final quadrant of his hour-long run, fatigue set in. The pounding in his head was now more from Metallica and Lars Ulrich's drumming than a true hangover headache, but his muscles seemed sapped of strength, his body devoid of adrenalin. Genevieve was having an easier time of it, coasting along and putting slack in the leash. Though Ralph kept running, his concentration wavered, and he nearly missed Davis Street, just catching the sign in time so that he and the retriever could soon cross the tracks from there to a shortcut through a vacated lot and then through a park and back to the boulevard.
About fifty yards away, the signal at the Davis crossing sounded during a lull in the music, and Ralph turned momentarily to see the roaming headlight of an approaching train that now dissected a stand of eucalyptus trees a half-mile down the track. Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" began playing in his ears as he saw the arms come down at the crossing gate. The woof woof woof of the song's intro seemed to echo just as Ralph led Genevieve across the track. Then abruptly the leash went taut, abrading his wrist, as if the dog had become an anvil. Ralph realized the barking was no longer coming from the dog in the song, but from Genevieve--her leash had somehow snagged deep under a concrete slab used as ballast between the railroad ties. She was stuck on the track with the train roaring toward them at great speed. Ralph withdrew his earplugs, and the sound of the train's horn became nearly deafening. The ground shook wildly, as if an earthquake were in progress. Ralph crouched down onto his knees beside Genevieve and tried unsuccessfully to tug the leash from where it was wedged. He glanced quickly at the train, which now looked enormous, the size of a mountain.
With seconds to act, Ralph unwound the leash from his wrist and, in surreal slow-motion, fought a brief urge to flee. Genevieve, still tethered within the track, barked hysterically, although her cries were drowned out by the sounds of the train. Ralph grabbed Genevieve by the collar, right by her tags. With thumb and forefinger he unfastened the leash, and, as the train's shadow now covered them, stumbled frantically backward, as if a tug-of-war anchor set loose, pulling the dog with him until plopping his butt down a slight embankment, safely away from the track. The lead engine car had already passed by the time Ralph looked up. It was a commuter train, but few people were on board on an early weekend morning. Ralph saw a few fleeting heads pass, but no one, except perhaps the engineer, had any clue of what a close call they'd had.
The skin on his knees had somehow sliced open in dangling clumps, like divots on a golf course. Still, cradling Genevieve in his arms at that moment, Ralph had rarely felt more alive and jubilant. He kissed the dog's forehead, and she, in turn, licked his cheek.
# # #
"Thanks," Ralph said, after disembarking gingerly from a sweetly aromatic van, Genevieve hopping off behind him. He had tried to tough it out and walk back, but his legs went stiff and stingy. So he hitched, and two surfer dudes were kind enough to return them to Debbie's. The guys just nodded as they pulled from the curb; their fiberglass boards pressed against the back window kept sliding ever so slightly, like drunks in a paddy wagon, as they drove down the road.
It was just past nine, and Debbie was at the kitchen table in her robe, drinking coffee and staring absently through the nearby window, still clearing the cobwebs from the night before. "How was the run?" she asked in a disembodied voice.
"Eventful," Ralph replied. He went on to describe the turn things took with Genevieve and the leash when crossing the railroad.
"Come here, baby," Debbie cooed, pursing her lips. Ralph took a step forward until realizing she was calling Genevieve, not him. The dog came and curled up at her feet.
"What about me, your big baby?"
"You're on my shit list, Ralph. I can't believe you'd put Genevieve in such danger. I'd let you have it, but, from the looks of things, you've already got some open wounds to deal with."
Ralph cast his gaze down at his knees and could see dark mottled clumps of dry blood behind torn skin flaps, trickling tributaries of which had run down into his socks. His knees still stung like hell.
"Got any Bactine?"
"Check the left drawer below the medicine cabinet. Think there's some there," Debbie said. "And when you've cleaned things up, why don't you take off for a while. I think you've traumatized Genevieve enough for one day."
Ralph knew better than to protest. He'd always be runner-up to Genevieve for Debbie's loving attention. On the TV cabinet earlier he'd seen Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and figured it was on the night's viewing docket. Ralph had planned to give Debbie the real skinny on the film but now decided against it. He watched as Debbie scratched under the dog's chin and nudged her nose to nose, giving "Eskimo kisses." He thought he saw Genevieve glance his way, and give him an absolving look, but one that also said, Hey, whaddya want me to do?
# # #
Twenty minutes later Ralph waved them goodbye, headed out the door, and drove back to his place. The Times was running a promotion, and a free copy was on his doorstep. Inside, he collapsed on the couch with the paper in his lap. He sorted though it for the sports section. Finally in his grasp, he shook it open and found that the Dodgers had topped the Padres the day before to tie for first place. The "getaway" game that night would determine which team would win the series and have the edge for the final pennant run. Ah, baseball at its best, Ralph thought, and decided then and there to attend that night's game. Just motor on up to Chavez Ravine and root on his newly beloved team for the first time in the flesh.
The forecast called for one of those postcard SoCal days so Ralph thought he'd walk the beach after lunch, scraped knees be damned. Perhaps he'd run into Skyler there, Dodgers cap atop his head. Ralph hoped so; in fact, he decided he'd buy the man a ticket and bring him along should they have a chance meeting. They could discuss their appreciation for Manny Ramirez and the team's relief corps. Maybe after a few beers they could compare notes on Debbie; that'd sure be good for a few laughs.
But the topic of Genevieve would be off limits, as he remembered Skyler's indifference to the dog. Ralph understood that things might crumble, and crumble soon, between him and Debbie, just as they did for Skyler. Yet Ralph would always remember the dog fondly. Of that he was sure.
What did you think? Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.