“Sabbatical Dog” by Judith Claire Mitchell

Abstract blue and red shapes patterned with swirls, flowers and a series of black and white rectangles off to the lower right side.
Jerusalem, Rebecca Taubman Schnitzer

You can’t call it a recurrence. It’s 2008. That means Del has been clear for ten years. Also, this time it’s in the left breast.

“It’s like starting from scratch,” the doctor says. Still, because both breasts are attached to the same body, he thinks treatment should be more aggressive this go-round. For her right breast, they did only surgery and radiation. This time he wants to add chemo.

“Chemical warfare,” she says.

He says, “Did you know that in the early days of the twentieth century, when they said chemotherapy, they meant taking an aspirin?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it,” she says.

She wonders about the negotiations between her cells and the tumor. Not strong enough to fight it, they at least managed to convince it to wait until the end of the semester and the start of her sabbatical. If she has to go through it at all, then this is the right time. No teaching, no need to step foot on campus. If the chemo exhausts her, she can just stay in bed. When her hair falls out, she can be bald in private. Maybe she’ll lose weight, return to the college next fall looking better than ever. She is fifty-five. She hasn’t been able to drop a pound for a decade.

She shares this last thought with her doctor. He says, “Why is weight loss always the first place women go?” He says, “I’m trying to save lives here.”

This is how recently she acquired the puppy: she forgot he existed. Until she’s parking in her driveway, she doesn’t think to factor in the complication that is Ruckus.

She’s had him for only a week. She knows nothing about caring for dogs. Her application was for a cat so she wouldn’t be completely alone all year—cats, she knows from—but the shelter called and said they had some bad news and some very good news. The bad news was they’d adopted out their last kitten. The very good news was someone had just dropped off a puppy.

Ruckus is asleep in his crate in her bedroom. He lies on his back, all four legs in the air. She has lined the crate with a few of her sleep tees, tossed in the green bear that belonged to her son, Allie, during his babyhood. Ruckus is somebody’s baby, too. He is only sixteen weeks old or thereabouts. No one knows his exact age. Two students found him near a dumpster behind the Greek restaurant near campus. They thought he was a large rodent at first, but when they came close, they saw he was a terrier mix—part cairn, at least, and so the shelter named him Duncan—and now here he is, renamed and living in what the shelter people call his forever home. He is a lot of work, not at all like a cat. Another difference between the two species: if, after cuddling, you aim your cat towards the floor and let go, the cat arcs downward, lands elegantly. The first time Del did that with Ruckus he fell like a stone and looked up at her quizzically. She felt awful, apologized profusely. She just hadn’t known.

She wants to take him for a walk, but she can’t bear to wake him. She sits on the floor, next to the crate instead. His tummy rises and falls, pink skin and wisps of the red brown hair that is thick and curly everywhere else. His breathing is deep. It’s yoga breath, she realizes when, without meaning to, she falls into the same rhythm.

If the diagnosis had come one week earlier she would never have taken on the responsibility of a dog. She’d have thought cancer was plenty. But the shelter called before the clinic did. The clinic: we have some bad news and…yep, just bad news.

You have to think fate. You have to think God and grace. You have to, because if you don’t you have to think: I have an unfinished novel, breast cancer, and a puppy that isn’t housebroken.

The forever home is a modern cube, stucco and steel on the outside, shabby and dated when you walk through the door. It amuses her sometimes. She’s a fiction writer and English professor. She knows a metaphor when she lives in one. The truth is she’s been thinking of selling ever since Allie left home a dozen or so years ago, fourteen and opting to live with his father. It violates her ethics, a lone person occupying a house this size. The heating bills alone. Her carbon footprint. But the thought of getting it ready for the market exhausts her—as did the divorce, as did Allie’s abandonment, as did the tenure ordeal, as did the right breast ordeal. Then there’d been the years of bad reviews for the latest book. And now—a puppy and chemo.

Another argument in the house’s favor: Ruckus loves it. The mice and flying squirrels that move into the attic and walls during the winters are gone, but she can tell by the snuffling he does along the baseboards that their droppings and empty nests remain, perhaps along with some disintegrating corpses. The Mighty Hunter, all eight pounds of him. It brings him genuine joy, huffing and puffing at the registers. It’s as if she filled the house with vermin-scented candles for his pleasure. And while the stairs concerned her at first, she’s taught him how to handle them, getting down on her own hands and knees and descending, looking back at him encouragingly. He watched, head tipped, and figured it out. He is a quick study and a brave soul.

And the yard! He loves the backyard in a way she never has. Even Allie lost interest in the yard at eight or nine. The small fruit trees interfered with his imaginary base lines. He began playing H-O-R-S-E in the driveway with his father and, soon, running track at the high school with friends.

Whereas, Ruckus keens for the yard.

The day after the diagnosis, while Ruckus plays, she sits on a metal bistro chair on the back deck with a plate of green grapes and crackers and, although it’s only eight in the morning, a glass of contraindicated red wine. The wine was on her bedside table from the night before, and she carried it downstairs and out the door with her. She took the Times, too. There’s an article in the business section about publicity for writers that another writer told her to read. She reads it, but it’s a combination of nothing she doesn’t already know and nothing she would ever do.

It’s May, late spring in the upper Midwest, which means the sky is as clear and the air as crisp as a November day in her hometown, Manhattan. She wears old jeans and Crocs and a cardigan over the tee shirt she slept in.

The first time, with the right breast—1998, a century ago, is her joke—she was this way too. Haimish, hair in a pile on her head, skewered with the pencil she also used for the crossword. This same cardigan, its oatmeal-colored bulk her version of a breastplate. But when she recovered she changed back to herself, returned to her natural state, that of a writer who, hating the Midwest, frequently flies to New York. In New York she visits two shriveled people on the Upper West Side who let her use their guest room because they’re her parents. She also does nights with friends at the theater or small cocktail parties at hotels. Last year, she did a large cocktail party in a loft. She wore heels and her mother’s chunky jewelry and had been a little less fat and only fifty-four. She bummed a cigarette from Chelsea Handler, whose new book they were celebrating. “When’s your next novel coming out?” Chelsea Handler asked her. “Oh, who knows,” she said. “It’s not as easy when you’re the kind of writer who actually writes it yourself.” She meant it to be funny, but her timing was off, no doubt because the presence of an actual comedian had thrown her. Why hadn’t they both just stayed in their lanes? Why had she even attended? She could never stop herself when she was angry.

But this fucking disease—what strange power did it have over her? Why, instead of returning her to her roots, a sarcastic, unpleasant New Yorker, did it turn her into such a goddamn Midwesterner It’s true she’s technically been a goddamn Midwesterner for the past twenty-five years. Just ask her driver’s license. Just ask the state income tax division. Just ask any book critic. But, most of the time she still thought of herself as a New Yorker, a jagged-edged girl from the Upper West Side temporarily in town for a visiting professor gig. Despite the years, now, of tenure, she still feels like a professor without portfolio, someone hired to flit in and out. The meetings they expect her to attend infuriate her. Does Marilynne Robinson at Iowa go to department meetings? Does Toni Morrison at Princeton sit on the committee whose sole purpose is to coerce other professors to sit on other committees? Maybe they do; how would she know? She knows Toni slightly. She speaks to Marilynne in passing at a summer conference they both attend. Committee work has never come up. All she knows for certain is that she has to go to meetings. Not many. She wriggles out of them whenever she can. But she’s gone to enough, and still they turned down her sabbatical request because, the department chair said, she was a bad departmental citizen. Of course, as the chair continued talking, the truth slipped out. They could spare only so many bodies that year, and the others were working on scholarship. The others had to travel, do actual research in actual libraries. The others didn’t just go home and make things up. That’s what they thought she did, so easy peasy they all planned to write a novel as soon as they retired. Some even dashed them off over summer break, gave them to her to critique, by which they meant admire. The pages were full of progressive verbs and dialogue tags with modifiers. Had none of them read John Gardner or even Annie Lamott? Had none of them read a book written by a human being who wasn’t dead? How much easier to turn material gathered from the libraries housing scholarly books, which were somehow always located in London, Paris, Rome, into something marginally original, albeit of interest to no one outside one’s own rarefied field, than to create lives, to tenderly investigate, as one reviewer had said of her third novel, the breadth and burden of that which is female. But, no, no—by all means, give the sabbatical to the guy investigating the digitization of the nonalphabetic. She had to complain to the dean, who came from Human Ecology, which was basically Home Ec for College Kids, and had read all her books. He knew who she was.

She eats some grapes, sips some wine. She decides to try a little meditation. She closes her eyes, breathes. Her mind jolts and tumbles. To-do lists, the new book, the phone calls she ought to make. For now she just wants to be still. I am calm, she tells her brain. I am a calm Midwesterner. I am a block of mild cheddar cheese. I am a farmer’s wife, sentimental about the sky and breeze and grass.

Oh, and the colors! Her eyes have opened on their own accord. The white of the birch, the soft gray branches of the invasive honeysuckle that you were supposed to rip out and burn despite the sweet pink blossoms. She isn’t the kind of writer who limns nature with lyricism and awe. She does not paint pictures with prose. She is jealous of writers who do those things, although those writers are often poets and have their own problems, their own jealousies. But she does love the colors and, as she finishes the wine, her head tilted back, she takes in the sky and tries to be the writer she isn’t. The sky is as blue as a parakeet’s wing. The sky is as blue as a cornflower. The sky is as blue as some of the other things in nature that are blue.

Meanwhile, the puppy, who, according to the book she bought, is color blind, lies in the grass and unsentimentally, methodically, stops beetles in their tracks with his paw. No ethical standards, this one. He does what he wants. If a family of beetles die, they die. He peels strips of bark off the never-productive pear tree with his small but very sharp teeth. If Del once paid two hundred dollars for that tree, what does that mean to Ruckus? Whose forever home is this, anyway?

He also digs holes. He digs holes for no discernible reason at all, but frantically, as if having to meet a deadline. He stops every now and then, mid-excavation, as if he’s suddenly regained his sense of self. He looks at Del, sitting above him on the deck, as if she might explain to him why he does what he does. He makes her laugh. That muzzle of mud. And, really, what does she care at this point in her life? Nobody else uses the yard. Why not let someone enjoy it? Why not destroy everything, start all over? Or just give up?

You go, girl, she tells Ruckus, and he does. He goes right back at it.

This is when the gate in the stockade fence opens, while she is talking out loud to the dog. The corrugated wood along the bottom scrapes its usual arc in the grass, and a middle-aged woman who resembles Del, at least in terms of age, cardigan, Crocs, messy hair, walks in. She has a cloth tote bag slung over one shoulder. She carries a clipboard.

“I rang repeatedly,” the woman says accusingly.

Del has placed the Times on the bistro table. There’s a photo of Hillary Clinton on the front page, smiling, waving. Hillary has dropped out of the presidential race this week, and Del knows how she feels. Hillary has paid the price, walked the walk, did the work, and now here is Chelsea Handler with the book and the chi-chi party. Del also knows that somewhere in there, the comparison falls apart. Hillary will not be the Democratic candidate this year, period. The dream is over and done with. Whereas Del, if she is industrious during her sabbatical and not too sickened by the chemo, could have proofs by election day, a hardcover on shelves the next year.

Still, a reasonable person would know what she means. Del supported Hillary. Earlier in the campaign season, pre-diagnosis, she attended a not-inexpensive meet-and-greet at the governor’s mansion. She shook Hillary’s hand. Hillary didn’t know Del’s work but said she’d check it out if she ever had a quiet moment again. She asked if any of Del’s books had been made into movies.

Maybe it was the disappointment of hearing the movie question from Hillary that is allowing Del to accept the outcome with such sanguinity. Or maybe it’s that Hillary’s withdrawing means that somewhere in the country Allie is jubilant. Whenever Del comes across a photo of Obama, she peers at his entourage, hoping to see Allie among them. There is no reason to believe that Allie received the kind of promotion that would put him in such close proximity to Obama now that the nomination is inevitable. But perhaps Allie has. He’s smart, energetic. On the other hand, he’s young, inexperienced. Also, pigheaded and, like her, too easily provoked, too eloquent when it comes to his anger. To know him is to be a wee tad grateful when he puts distance between you and himself, which is what he eventually does to everyone. Everyone other than his father.

But she is still his mother, and it would make her proud to see him on the tarmac trailing Obama, holding a briefing book or the candidate’s coat.

The woman with the clipboard has come to the lip of the deck. “Good riddance,” she says, taking note of the Hillary photo. “I hate that woman.”

“I’m voting Obama in November,” Del says, “if that’s why you’re here.”

That isn’t why she is there. She is there, the woman says, about Duncan. Del nods, but her heart quickens with a sudden outburst of nerves. The shelter told her they’d send someone out to make sure things were going well. They had to make sure she hadn’t taken the puppy for nefarious purposes, they said. Some people sold puppies to labs. Some did things even worse.

“Well,” Del says, “there he is. Healthy and happy and destroying the lawn.”

He has moved to a sunny spot that’s farther from the deck than he’s gone before. Lighting out for the territory, Del calls his migration, a series of concentric circles that grow wider by the day, each circle marked by the holes he digs. He is digging one now. He looks up, takes note of the woman. Del has begun to understand he is capable not only of making his needs known through yips and mews and head tilts but through actual facial expressions, and now—slack jaw, loose tongue—she knows he’s smiling. But also torn. To dig or to greet this stranger. Can he afford to abandon the hole? He is so near to reaching whatever.

“Call him, please,” the woman says.

Del has been ready to introduce herself, offer coffee, a seat. But the woman is all business, the way you’d be if you have a series of these appointments throughout the day, need to keep to a schedule.

“He doesn’t know ‘come’ yet,” Del says, but the woman looks at her with such annoyed exhaustion, she tries. “Ruckus,” she calls. “Ruckus, come.”

That decides the issue for Ruckus. He turns away from both women, puts his entire self into digging.

“He’s blowing you off,” the woman says, “and you’re letting him. Get up. Go get him. Never let him get away with ignoring a command.”

“He doesn’t know it’s a command,” Del says. She’s still tense. She wonders if it’s too late to hide the empty wine glass. She says, “We haven’t begun our training yet. We’re not even enrolled in Puppy I. I have some medical things coming up that make it hard for me to do a class right now. I was thinking we’d begin in the fall and in the meantime—”

The woman seems not to be listening. Del doesn’t blame her. Midwestern Del is a blitherer, an oversharer. She will turn into a busybody next.

The woman looks at Del’s plate. “Grapes are fatal for dogs,” she says. She turns, crosses the yard, sidestepping holes. Her Crocs are turquoise and pink swirled together like a child’s finger painting. The first generation came only in dark colors, pine green or brown, colors appropriate for serious gardeners. That’s why Del bought hers. She thought she’d take up gardening when she’d first found herself living alone. She tried. She hired a company to dig borders, haul in soil and peat, plant bulbs and yellow coneflowers. She figured she’d take it from there, but it turned out she had no patience for it. It turned out gardening is the way suburbanites pronounce weeding like the way some people call themselves hikers when they mean they take walks.

The woman stops six feet from Ruckus. She withdraws some sort of treat from her pocket and holds it aloft. “Duncan, come,” she says, and Ruckus comes. She feeds him, returns to the foot of the deck, holds up another treat. “Come, Duncan,” she says. Her tone is flat and unaffectionate. She sounds like a prison matron in a movie. Ruckus comes at a trot, taking the food, wagging his tail, something he does not often do. The woman climbs the stairs to the deck, offers no treat, but issues the command. Come, and Ruckus comes.

“There,” the woman says. “Now he knows come.”

“Now he also knows there are better, more expensive treats than Charley Bears,” Del says. Her nervousness has dissipated. She feels something else now. The breeze rears up. She buttons the red cardigan.

“I want to see where he sleeps,” says the woman.

That article about publicity for writers? The headline is “Need Press? Repeat: Green, Sex, Cancer, Secret, Fat.” The premise is that if you want to publish anything—an essay, a book, even if it’s just a cookbook—you’ll do well to have one of those words in the title.

Del doesn’t need press. She needs the opposite of press. She needs pull. Pull with the teenager who’s replaced her longtime editor when he retired, for instance. Artie has agreed to continue working with all his old men but not with any of his women, of course not with the women. The teenager, who is, confoundedly, in her late thirties, is now insisting Del meet the latest deadline for her manuscript. Never in all her years working with New York publishers has Del experienced such a thing. Extensions are the norm. This will be her sixth novel—she tries not to think in the more inclusive term of “books” because that would require her to count the short story collection, the detritus of her MFA days, that she had to expose to the world when her tenure committee said if she only had a new book in press, she’d be a slam dunk—so she does know a little something about New York publishing. She’s been with the same house—the best house, in her and many other’s opinions—since the start. Her advances have been insultingly modest, so they haven’t lost that much on her, and she’s won awards, not the big ones, not yet, but she’s been nominated for some of them. She’s got an impressive academic C.V. When she says hi to Marilynne and Toni, they say hi back.

And she could use some pull too in areas outside of publishing. With her own vampiric cells, for example, the ones that keep eating her other cells, turning them vampiric too, a vicious cycle.

Literally vicious. You’d think she, the one with control of the brain, could talk some sense into them, point out their self-destructive folly, but it seems she has no sway. As for the puppy, she needs pull with him, too. When collared and leashed, he throws himself onto the ground, won’t budge no matter how hard she tugs, which was not very hard. She’s afraid of abrading that tummy, those little paws. She winds up carrying him to the car.

The most interesting thing about the article—interesting is the adjective she’s going with—is how many of the words in the headline apply to her. Two indisputably: Cancer and Fat. But two others also. Isn’t it, after all, a Secret that she hasn’t had Sex since Allie’s father left a short time before the first diagnosis? A Secret, too, that Allie has not gone off to boarding school after the divorce as she told those who asked, but to California, to live with his father. He was fourteen, old enough in the eyes of the court to make his own choices.

So, there: Sex, Secrets, Cancer, and Fat. If she goes out and buys a Prius she’ll have Green and be five for five. Or if she sells the house, finds a one-bedroom condo. Or moves back to New York, in with her parents.

One reason the novel is so late is that the teenager has asked—well, not asked, texted—”Just a thought, but does she have to be a writer? U always write about writers. Regular people don’t want to read about writers. Can U make her something else? Even a housewife?” It’s given her a bit of a block. The narrator isn’t Del at all, if that’s what the teenager is implying—Del never does autobiographical; she goes off when people suggest that she does—but the narrator is definitely a writer. These things aren’t a matter of choice. That’s what the narrator is, that’s how she came to Del. “Yes, but, in the end, aren’t U in control?” the teenager asked.

It might be funny, Del thinks, to do a universal search-and-replace that removes the word writer from the entire manuscript—”Diane had always wanted to be a writer,” the novel begins—and substitutes instead “fat, secretive, sexless, cancer-ridden, Prius-driving puppy-owner.” “Here,” she’ll say to the teenager. “How about this?” The word puppy is not in the Times’ article, but Del knows that including it will sell more books than any of the other words in that article, more than any of all the words in the English language. She knows what the teenager wants.

The other day she called Artie at home. He did the deal, after all. “Look,” he said, “they’re not going to cut you loose. But maybe consider the advice. Maybe Diane is a dancer.”

The woman leads the way through the glass sliders into the kitchen as if it’s her house. Del and Ruckus follow. “He sleeps upstairs,” Del says, and the woman continues to forge ahead, even though she has to hunt for the staircase. She takes a step toward the living room before realizing her mistake and veering across the hall and to the left. Del follows like a duckling, as if she too doesn’t know the way to the stairs. The woman climbs them savagely, percussively, and Ruckus crouches, ready to spring himself forward after her. Though his legs are still shorter than the risers, he is good at stairs now. He navigates them like a rhebok conquering a steep mountain. Still, he remains crouched. He seems tentative, apprehensive. Del kneels and picks him up and, holding him against her chest, carries him.

“He’s not a toy,” the woman says without even turning her head. “He’s a dog. Put him down.”

The woman objects to the sleeping arrangements. The crate is too big; how can such a small dog feel secure in it? And all the tee shirts. Is Del using the crate in lieu of a clothes hamper? And the green bear, now limbless, its insides everywhere. It’s a child’s stuffed animal. You can tell by the remaining eye, a small button hanging by a thread, which, in case Del doesn’t know, is a choking hazard.

Del reaches in, removes the bear. She drops it in the wastebasket, has to physically block Ruckus when he trots over to retrieve it, imagining a new game.

She doesn’t dare tell the woman the truth, which she fears may be even worse. The book says not to do it, but she has, she did it last night after the new diagnosis. Stage 1, the doctor says, which is good news, all things considered, no lymph involvement, but also Grade III, which is bad news. After she was told 1 and III and chemo and if it comes back after that, double mastectomy, and after she came home and breathed with Ruckus, and after she red-wined herself into bed, she thought it over, got up, and took Ruckus from his crate. They’d spent the night cuddling.

Downstairs again, the woman looks in cabinets, looks in the trash, opens the fridge. She is nearly as frenzied now, it seems to Del, as a puppy digging a hole. Any moment, Del thinks, the woman will do what Ruckus does after a flurry of activity, a session of digging and running and nosing a ball bigger than his head around the kitchen: she will keel straight over like a startled fainting goat and sleep for a half hour or so. Maybe the woman is a dog come to human life, maybe that’s how she knows so much about what puppies need. Maybe she’s Ruckus’s real mother, disguised as a human so she can see him once more.

The woman thrusts her hand into the bag of pricy puppy chow the vet recommended. She holds out her palm so Del can see the kibble. “Burnt,” the woman says, “and from China. They put plastic in it.” She crouches, dips a finger in the water bowl. “No,” she says, rising. “No, no, no.”

Del can now see the first page of the thick sheaf of forms on the clipboard. It’s blank. Nothing printed on it, nothing written on it. Not yet.

In bed Ruckus placed his head beneath her breasts. She slept on her right side. He positioned his skull against the underside of the left breast. She tried to take no meaning from it. He was soothed, she supposed, by her heartbeat. But the tumor was there, too, directly against her chest wall, as deep as it could possibly be. “The hardest part of this whole thing for you,” the doctor said, “will be just prior to the lumpectomy, when we have to insert the needle locator. You won’t be numbed, and we’ll have to go all the way through. You’ve had a baby. Try to remember the breathing.”

She said she’d be fine, that she was good at breathing and had a high tolerance for pain. Still, she wished he hadn’t mentioned the needle piercing the full globe of her breast. Better, sometimes, to be surprised and angry than live in dread.

Several times during the night, she tried to reposition Ruckus just so she could roll over, but he would have none of it. He wanted to sleep exactly where he was. Terriers, the book said, are stubborn. Terriers are not for beginners.

But she wondered if it was more than that. Animals have powers. Some cats in nursing homes gravitate to the person who is going to die next. They sit at the doomed person’s feet and stare. Perhaps Ruckus’s insistence on pressing his muzzle against her breast was a dog’s version of laying on hands. Maybe he was using the sensitive nose through which he connected with the world to send a message. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. Maybe nuzzling was how you said that in Dog.

The woman has completed her inspection. She and Del face each other, Ruckus between them, dancing on his hind legs, twirling, pawing the air.

“This is unacceptable,” the woman says. “This is beyond the pale. I’m taking him with me.”

They both go for the puppy at the same time. Del is quicker. She lifts him off the floor, wraps her arms around him, presses him to her chest. She expects him to squirm, but, fainting goat that he is, his head droops against his favorite breast, and he’s asleep.

“What are you talking about?” Del says. “You’ve identified problems that I can deal with in less than an hour. A smaller crate with cushions. Whatever kibble you recommend. Or I’ll cook for him.”

“The shelter contract is clear,” the woman says. “We can take him back if you’re providing inadequate care. We can take him back for any reason. At our discretion.”

“I’m not giving up this dog,” Del says. Her calm is astonishing. It’s Ruckus’s yoga breathing, the rising falling body against her ribs, her breasts. “I’m going to call the shelter,” she says. “I’m going to talk to someone there. You can wait in your car.”

“My authority is uncontestable,” the woman says.

Del is not unaware of the block of knives on the shabby Formica counter by the stove so old that, in places, the white enamel has chipped and black iron shows through. She knows which handle belongs to the carving knife for roasts and turkeys, the one with the longest blade, the sharpest edge.

“Please leave my home,” Del says.

The woman puts her hands on Ruckus. He stirs slightly as if dreaming.

Del twists away. “I will call the police,” she says.

The woman’s eyes are alight. She reminds Del of the circuit court judge who did not appreciate Del’s fury when informed that Allie had decided to live with his father. “Perhaps you should look to yourself,” the judge said. The judge had met with Allie in chambers. What had Allie confided to her? To Del, Allie said only, “I don’t know, Mom. It’s hard, but in the end, I guess a boy my age needs his father,” which made her think she’d been too lax with him, had allowed him to watch far too much TV.

“I will call the police right now,” Del says. “I never invited you onto my property.”

“This will not stand,” the woman says, and Ruckus turns his head, nose against Del’s other breast, the long healed breast.

But the woman leaves. She whips through the hall, through the front door, and Del turns the lock, watches until she drives off. She returns to the kitchen, locks the sliders, puts the wooden dowel in the track. She goes down to the basement though she knows that door is locked, always locked. She checks anyway. She carries Ruckus the whole time, all through the house. Another memory, this from when Allie was a baby. How you held him against you with one arm, did everything else with the other, your shirt soaked and sour.

She takes the phone into the living room, sits on the sofa. She calls the shelter, Ruckus awake now, but content on her lap. There’s a long silence after she stops shrieking at the young-sounding girl who picks up. There is no other word for what she’s done besides shrieking. But how can she help it? Who would dare ask her for calm under these circumstances?

“Let me get Ruth,” the young-sounding person says.

“But we’d never send someone for a home visit without calling first,” this Ruth person says after she hears just the beginning of Del’s story.

They piece it together: Del, this Ruth, and the girl who originally answered. The woman with the clipboard—she’s that new volunteer. And, yes, look, oh, Jesus—the copy of the list of adopters for the entire last month has been removed from the book. All the names, all the contact information.

“Oh my God,” Ruth says.

“I knew she was bonks,” Del hears the young girl say. “Didn’t I say she was bizarro city?”

Ruth needs to get off the phone. She needs to start calling the other adopters, warning them. And the police. Maybe first she should call the police. “Jesus,” she says. “What would she have done with the dog if she’d taken it?”

“Don’t cry,” Del says.

“I can’t help it,” Ruth says. “My heart’s in my throat.”

There’s a thing about writing fiction that Del always tries to instill in her students and also her colleagues, those theorists and critics and scholars who come to her with their crime novels and romances set in London and Paris and Rome. “Did you notice I have it so something red shows up whenever the main character is pissed off?” a student might say. A colleague once said, “I’m sure you picked up on the fact that the nine murder suspects are all symbolized by different planets; whenever Jacques appears, for instance, Mars is referenced.” This was the same colleague who, before the department began hiring writers to teach writing, taught those classes himself. His first assignment always asked the students to write a story containing five discrete symbols.

“That’s not how it’s done,” she’s had to tell a number of his former students who subsequently became hers. They liked his assignment because they wanted their work to be read the same way their literature professors read the great stories in their anthologies. Joyce. Chekhov. The great men.

“Symbolism in fiction arises organically, just as it does in our lives,” she tells the students. She and Allie’s father bought this house not to serve as a metaphor, but because it was affordable, near campus, and had enough bedrooms for the family they hoped for. Allie chose the male presidential candidate over the female for reasons of policy, not because he was reenacting a childhood dilemma. Cancer developed in her left breast due to some physical vulnerability, not because this story is about Del’s failures as a woman, a mother, or about her guarded and stricken heart. She named her dog Ruckus not because that’s what life is, but because Del, walking alone, once heard a couple calling their own dog—Ruckus, come!—and it made her laugh.


Judith Claire Mitchell is the author of the novels, The Last Day of the War and A Reunion of Ghosts, the latter the recipient of the Edna Ferber Prize and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has published short fiction and essays in The Sun, The Missouri Review, EntropyThe Iowa Review, and other journals.

Rebecca Taubman Schnitzer is a painter based in Dallas who mostly works with acrylics. Several of her paintings have appeared in ACM.

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