He says it again this afternoon as he comes home from work early. “Laid off because of that stupid dog.” It turns out being late on the day of poor Bo’s demise was the last mark on an already spotty record – a record that was mostly my fault due to a miserable bout of the chicken pox I contracted late in the spring. Even though I didn’t infect him with the itchy spots, he was forced to stay home with me for a week, something bigwigs in accounting apparently frown upon. “Those bastards were just looking for an excuse,” he says as he makes his way to the kitchen. He sighs as he twists the top off a bottle of beer. I know what he is thinking. Back to canned beer – at least until he can find another job. Dad hates canned beer.
“But you can collect unemployment,” I say, trying to be helpful. “At least they didn’t fire you.” Dad grunts at me as he sinks into his chair and mashes a thumb against the on button of the remote control. I recognize the signal. I grab a juice box from the fridge and sneak out the back door, closing the screen carefully so it doesn’t slam. It doubt it matters though. I can hear the Fox News guy yelling from here.
Thunderclouds roil overhead. I dash over to Bo’s doghouse and climb inside before the rain hits. I sip my juice and wait for this storm to pass.
Dad bought me Bo after Mom died. He thought I could use the company, I guess. And mostly he was right, though even a nine-year-old knows an aging retriever is no replacement for a mother – even a mother who spent the last six months of her life chain smoking and staring out the kitchen window. I recognized her signals, too – the tap tap of the lighter against the kitchen table meant bring me another cup of coffee. The shuffle of her slippered feet against the worn linoleum signaled the need for another blanket. Her very presence meant I needed to remain quiet. No radio, no TV, no friends and no conversation – especially about the treatment that didn’t work or the gaping hole her absence was about to create. Even Dad managed to figure out those signals, and when he lost one job for missing work to take her to the doctor he quickly found another. I think he couldn’t stand watching her in silence. I think he couldn’t stand feeling helpless.
For some reason, this storm is taking longer to pass than usual. I climb out of Bo’s dog house. The evening air has grown chilly and thunder still claps in the distance. I sneak back into the house and peek into the living room. Dad is still in there, kicked back in his chair, his hand clenching the remote control. How he can sleep with the theme to Law and Order blaring is beyond me, but he does, his snores mixing in with the hard music and the occasional bang of thunder. I creep back into the kitchen and grab a jar of peanut butter and a spoon. I think about spending the night in Bo’s doghouse, but decide against it. Even though it’s summer, it’s cold all alone in a dog house with no dog.
August drags by slowly. I poke around the house all day, cleaning up the piles of newspapers and half-eaten plates of food that grow beside Dad’s chair. He has made the transition to canned beer, and I collect the empties and drop them in our recycle bin. I save them, knowing if I carry them back to the store I can feed them into the can machine for nickels to spend on tuna fish and peanut butter when times get tough. And by the looks of things I am pretty sure times are going to start getting tough soon enough.
Dad spends his days looking for work. I can hear him calling people he knows while I clean up. “Looking for leads,” he calls it. And I know it’s hard because he’s talking to people he doesn’t even like. People like Darren and Kyle and even Dr. Albertson, the doctor who told us Mom simply wasn’t going to get any better. If he’s already down to Dr. Albertson things must be bad. I get to work, stealing empty soda cans from the neighbor’s garbage can and burying them in our recycle bin. “Every little bit helps,” Mom used to say. I hope she was right.
School starts the day after Labor Day – a day Dad spends in his chair, drinking beer and watching a marathon of Chuck Norris movies on TNT. The man is coming to take the cable box tomorrow, so he’s getting his money’s worth today. At least that’s what he said when I asked him if he wanted to go to the grocery store with me. “I need school supplies, Dad. Paper, pencils. You know, school supplies?” I’ve said this every day for the past week – and if he’s heard me he’s done a great job of ignoring me. This time I have broken through, though. He shifts in his chair. Just a little, but I see it. Maybe it has to do with the list I taped to the remote control. I stand, waiting expectantly while Chuck Norris kicks some guy in the chest.
The TV fight ends, and the commercial starts. Dad reaches into his front pocket. He hands me a wad of sweaty dollar bills and a handful of change. “That’s all I got, Tina.” I flatten out the wadded up dollars. Between them and the change I have enough to get a notebook, a cheap box of crayons, and some pencils. No pens, no colored pencils, and no protractor. Mrs. Davenport is just going to have to live with it. More importantly, I am just going to have to live with it.
Leaving him alone on Tuesday is harder than I thought. “There’s bread and lunchmeat,” I tell him, pointing to the fridge. “And I got some bananas.” I try to show him everything he might need while I’m gone for the day, but he just sits in his bathrobe and laughs at me.
“I think I can handle it, Tina. I have a lunch meeting downtown today, anyway.” He smiles over his coffee cup.
“A job?” I try to keep the excitement out of my voice, but it sneaks in anyway.
“Maybe.” He looks at my face and his smile changes. “Let’s not get our hopes up, okay kid? Things might not work out.”
“But they might,” I insist. I can’t help but think of all the things on my back-to-school list I can get once Dad goes back to work. “Construction paper and colored pencils…” I say, ticking the items off on my fingers.
“What?” Dad looks up from his coffee again.
“Nothing,” I mutter. “Just good luck.”
I think he needed more than luck. Bo would have said he needed a miracle. Then he would have suggested we all run around the yard and bark at the mailman. I think Bo figured if anything can set a mood right, a good bark at the mailman is it. So I try it, in honor of Bo and miracles in general. It doesn’t work. The mailman just looks at me like I am crazy and the neighbor kids throw rocks. Dad says it’s a good thing we don’t have to pay for dog food, too. Band-Aids and groceries and six packs of beer are enough to eat up his check.
I think Dad was hoping for a miracle too. Now he plays solitaire. On the computer. He is supposed to be using it to find a job, but he isn’t. He is using it to get extra good at FreeCell, and he doesn’t seem to care if I have a research report due on the Egyptians or an essay to write about my favorite day of the year. “Fourth grade is so much harder than third,” I explain as I stand over his shoulder, waiting for a turn. “Mrs. Davenport likes things typed.”
“Well good for Mrs. Davenport,” Dad mutters as he flips cards around on the computer screen, clubs and diamonds stacking up like some sort of currency.
Mrs. Davenport also likes parents who show up at Open House and students who remember their field trip money. Clearly, Mrs. Davenport does not like me, but she is concerned when I turn in a two page essay on things you can cook with tuna fish, bologna, and flat beer from a can. Somehow, Mrs. Davenport’s concern reaches Dad’s ears and he greets me one afternoon with a scowl and a box of Tuna Helper. “Let’s stick to the basics, okay, kid?” For a moment I feel squashed – somewhere between Mrs. Davenport’s frown and Dad’s slowly shaking head. But then I shrug and take the box. Tuna Helper. Finally something I can work with.
I’ve quit asking about the job search in much the same way I quit asking Mom about the treatment. And I try not to think that the way Dad stares into the computer screen is a lot like the way Mom stared out the kitchen window. When I do think it, I sneak out to Bo’s dog house and sit a while. It still smells like him. Wet dog and something else – kibble maybe, or tennis ball. But it’s a comforting smell and despite the crisp fall weather I’ve even slept out there once or twice. A girl alone in a dog house. But somehow it’s less lonely than the real house. What would the neighbors say?
“Quit stealing our cans,” Mrs. Kendrick yells over the fence. She points her finger right at me. “Do you hear me?”
I nod. I dig my fingers into the two cans I am still holding behind my back, crushing them. “Sorry. School project.”
Mrs. Kendrick waggles her finger at me and shakes her head. “You are one strange girl,” she says as she walks away.
Dad has another interview. Box boy at the Super Store that just opened up at the edge of town. “Box boy.” He shakes his head as he says it, disgust clearly visible in his eyes.
“But maybe they’ll end up needing a computer guy,” I say as I hand him his tie. “Maybe you’ll be there stacking cans and all of the registers will go out. Maybe no one will know what to do and the owner will be throwing a fit and you’ll be the only one who can fix it.” I paint the entire picture for him. Angry customers, spoiled milk, the young cashier’s mascara running down her face as she cries. Dad taking off his apron and saving the day with just his fingers and his computer savvy brain. “Then they’ll give you a promotion and we can get the cable turned on again and…”
Dad cuts me off. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Tina. Maybe box boy will be good enough.”
God I hope so. Tuna Helper is getting tiresome, and I am expressly forbidden from doctoring it up with beer.
In an attempt to appease the job gods, or at least Bo, I race around the yard as Dad backs out of the driveway, barking like crazy, completely ignoring Mrs. Kendrick and her rock-throwing children who have wandered onto their porch to watch. I continue to bark as the car disappears down the street. Then, I shake my butt at the Kendricks and disappear into Bo’s dog house to wait.
It’s a long wait. Hours actually. Way longer than any interview for box boy should take. Way longer than any interview for box boy followed by a stop at Joe’s Pub to celebrate getting the job should take. It’s even longer than an interview and a mad drive around town after being told, “Sorry, you’re overqualified,” should take. I peer out of the dog house and watch as the sun sets behind the maple tree. I listen as the birds go silent in the dark and the cats down the street begin their evening fight. Eventually I hear the Buick turn into the driveway. But instead of climbing out of the dog house and running to see, I stay. I wait. Because suddenly I am scared. Scared of the signal that’s going to tell me whether or not he got the job. Scared for the slamming door. The beer. The thumb on the volume of the remote control.
It takes Dad a few minutes to find me. He goes into the house first, but then comes out in the yard, calling my name.
I don’t know what makes him look in the dog house, but eventually he does.
“What in the hell…” he says as he takes my hand and hauls me out.
“So?” I ask. “How did it go?”
He doesn’t answer, just points with his chin at the hood of the car where a six pack of beer is resting. Bottles!
“You got it!” I yell, jumping up and down. “You got it!”
Dad breaks into a grin. Then a bark. Together we race along the fence line, barking and howling, so loud even Bo would have been impressed. Dad takes my hand again. “Maybe when we’re caught up we can get you another dog. What do you think? A Saint Bernard, maybe? Something that’s not so hard to see.”
I squeeze his hand and he looks down and smiles. I guess he understands my signals too.