The Dancing Bear

Because the dog sleeps all day, she’s awake all night, whining at both sides of their bed, high and plaintive, punctuated by the rolling of her ball and the clicking of her nails on the wooden floor. Sometimes the ball rolls under the radiator or the bureau or the bookcase they found outside their apartment building on trash day. Then the whining is louder, more pointed, until either the man or the woman breaks, still blind with sleep, stooping on hands and knees to free the ball from its tight resting place. This goes on all night, but they do not talk about it until morning when they both agree that they need to get the dog on some sort of schedule.

He accuses her of letting the dog sleep all day.

She says it’s not like she does it on purpose.

He hears this but does not respond, a toothbrush in his mouth, his tie loose around his neck. The dog jumps between them, running with small clicking feet back and forth. Sometimes when the woman cries, the dog jumps up at her knees and balances on her hind legs, her one trick–the dancing bear they call it. It is what makes the woman love her.

After the man leaves for work, the dog circles the apartment, smelling at the edge of the door, sniffing up at the man’s side of the bed until finally, she settles down on the bathmat the woman has set out for her in front of the couch. Then she sleeps.

She sleeps, curled tight like a spring bud, until noon when the woman jangles the leash and says come here girl, and they go to the park across the street. When they bought their apartment they did not have a dog, but the realtor said give it time.

Dog, then baby, she said smiling.

The man and the woman laughed at this, uncomfortable, but careful not to appear unworthy of such a fine apartment, as the co-op board had not yet approved their application.

In the park, the dog sniffs out each fallen leaf before squatting. On a chart on the refrigerator, they write down the times of her walks and what she has done in P’s and S’s. Sometimes the woman adds “times 2 or 3 or 4” just to be thorough, though most of the time the dog is just marking territory. Other people with dogs come up to them on their walks to let the dogs sniff and nip at each other. The woman does not like this and angles her dog away toward the trees.
The woman wants to unleash the dog, let her run loose through the park, but when they adopted the dog from the shelter, they were warned that the dog was a runner. Little but fast. Don’t let her off her leash until you’re sure. The woman isn’t sure what signs to watch for. Some days she wants to test the dog, see what she will do. But then she hears the cars on the street outside the park and her stomach tightens and rolls.

For the past month the woman’s stomach has been clenching and unclenching, an angry fist shaking beneath her ribcage, her sides sore from vomiting. Yesterday on their walk, she dipped her head behind a tree to let loose a thin stream of vomit, green and ropey, then pulled the dog quickly away. No, bad, no, she said.

She circles the dog around the park twice, letting her run up at squirrels and blowing leaves, the leash taut between them. She feels this line acutely, thinks umbilical cord, thinks she is a bad person, calls the dog back to her, lets the dog do her one trick, the scar on the dog’s belly visible as she dances.

The woman has traced this scar with her fingers. At least someone took the time to get her fixed, the vet said. She’s a sweet old thing. You’re lucky. She’ll be good with children.

The man has asked her if the dog has triggered any motherly urges.

She’s almost ten, the woman replies, it’d be like giving birth to a senior citizen. She’s lost half her teeth and she sleeps all day. She’s hardly a puppy.

Still, when the man isn’t looking, the woman scoops the dog up into her arms and rocks her, cooing, the dog’s eyes half-shut.

At night, the whining dog makes the woman dream bad things. Traffic accidents, broken glass, babies turning blue. Once when she was little, in the back seat on a car trip, her father pulled over suddenly, shaking her awake. She’d been sleeping curled tight against the door, her cheek resting against her seat belt. Oh, he said, his voice tight with grief. I looked back at you in the mirror and thought you had died, your neck like that, all bent over and broken.

The woman thinks of this sometimes.

They finish the last turn around the park and the woman checks her watch. If she hurries, she will be on time. She has planned it like this, leaving no time for doubt. Cars rush by as she waits at the light. The dog, sensing something is wrong, dashes forward on her leash, straining toward home, stopping every few feet to look back over her shoulder, checking to see that the woman is still there.

Julie Innis has published stories in Slush Pile Magazine, The Moose and Pussy, facsimilation, and Kinesis Magazine, among others. In May 2009, she was selected as a Top-25 finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award Contest for New Writers. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found admiring the antics of other people’s dogs.