Animal Instincts

They feared few things more than losing their dog, or their dog dying, whether by causes natural or unnatural. Sim, a third generation bee keeper, and his wife Tawnya, a design assistant, would probably rather lose their house, they loved that dog so much, and had experienced too many scares over the years. He’d been taken for a stray, dug under the fence, jumped over the fence, been hit by a car, hit by a bike, overdosed on chocolate, eaten gunpowder—and that’s just what they could remember (he was a favorite topic of conversation, which their few close friends tolerated). That he was still alive at all, going on ten, seemed an unaccountable fact, his existence borrowed against a fragile, unearthly collateral. Trinket’s a shelter dog, adopted by Tawnya before she met Sim, and she chose him because she felt (it sounds silly even saying this) chosen first by him. Skittish and mean, a plain Heinz 57 variety, a dog among dogs really, still, he stood out from the rest by not trying to impress her, sitting uneasily in the back corner of his cage as she greeted them down the line. It wasn’t until she got him back to her apartment that he went apeshit with barking, which drove a sleep-deprived third-shift neighbor into a rage (he eventually moved). Although she was unaware she was doing this, she chose a neurotic dog on purpose, chose a dog she’d have to excuse herself from company to go feed and care for, a dog so stranger- and especially male-averse she’d have a built-in reason not to invite would-be girlfriends or wannabe boyfriends over to her place. Tawnya had wanted a dog for years; she’d read that caring for a pet could relieve stress, especially for older (if you can consider mid-thirties old) people with anxiety, a promise that didn’t quite work out the way she intended, what with Trinket’s puppy-like energy and unexamined need to have his mouth occupied. Trinket did serve the purpose of getting her out on walks more—she lost ten pounds the first month—although she learned to be on high alert for anything the dog might get ahold of and destroy. He’d shredded several treasured books, a couple throw pillows, and gnawed to splintered bits at least one valuable Mexican wood carving before she learned how to proof the place against him.

It was in the aftermath of her nasty break-up with Gary, who preferred cats to dogs anyway (why did she ever trust him?), that she finally went down to the Humane Society and committed. She could only conclude that the mutt had been abused, which is how Tawnya understood the forces that had brought them together, that caring for this dog, and being cared for by it was a mutual act of cosmic mercy and solidarity, as she’d been abused by her uncle for over a decade growing up, pretty regularly, which her father knew about but could not bring himself to stop, this being his older brother, a guy who had to dominate in some way every room he entered and every person he met. It would be a cliché to say that Uncle Wendell had become a rapist because he himself had been raped—and not only by his Smithfield cousins but by a couple of bears in his platoon in Vietnam (this occurred in Cambodia), but then life can be like that sometimes, utterly predictable, working along formulaic story lines, a bad screenplay in the hands of a hack director.

It took Wendell’s unexpected death, murdered by one of his strung-out buddies, to end those slow marches to the barn attic, and although only sixteen it was then that Tawnya left home never to return, causing unspeakable heartache to her clueless mother. Well, this dog, Trinket (her given name had been Blanket—the dog was no Blanket—so she picked something close) came to be a reminder that nothing is as fixed as it seems, a lesson she needed to re-learn after Gary, an OCD porn addict whose beard was a trigger for her. By all rights and by design, Trinket should have scuttled her relationship with Sim (Aaron, actually, but he’d gotten the nickname Sim from his fraternity brothers for reasons too crude to go into, unspeakable really, and it had stuck) before it even began, as she felt no need for a man, could imagine being single forever just fine, and anyway the dog did the work of guarding the borders of her privacy. Why Sim persisted she never asked, as the competition between the two for Tawnya’s attention, not to mention Tawnya’s active preference for Trinket, complicated things at the start. But much to her surprise, once he applied certain proprietary bee-whispering techniques in his approach to the dog (they’d met a couple times by chance, at the park, then accidentally-on-purpose while Tawyna walked him), and although Tawnya would never have accepted invitations for dates from a guy like Sim—too thin, to baby-faced, too articulate, too kind—the fact that Trinket never tried to bite him, that he later accepted Sim as one of his pack, made a (once again, for lack of a better term) cosmic impression on her, inspired her to believe that she deserved affection and could reliably give it, and before she was fully aware of what was happening they had followed the dog’s lead to the altar. They lived, by necessity, by choice, by the code of Trinket’s peculiar and unruly attachments, their alliance mediated by the third rail of the canine’s presence between them, and neither could see clearly enough into the dark glass of the future, and honestly neither wanted to, what will become of them once the beloved tyranny of his needs found a conclusion.

John Estes directs the Creative Writing Program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. Recent work has appeared in Tin House, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Crazyhorse, AGNI and other places. He is author of two books, Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming), and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America.