Puppy Breath

I try list them all from the backseat: Jackson, Boogie, Kiwi, Molly, Nelly, Felix, and Mo. I can’t remember if the hamster had a name, or the fighting fish my twin poisoned and flushed down the toilet. But I can tell from the way that Peter asked me the question, “Have you ever had any pets?” that my answer was simply a precursor to his own.

“What about you?” I ask. I had hoped to use the Uber ride to grade papers.

Peter opens up the vanity mirror in the front seat and pulls out a photograph, worn at the edges, of a white dog panting in the grass. With his eyes still on the highway, he extends his arm behind him to give me a better look of the photo, but far enough away that I can’t reach touch it.

“Meet Bentley,” he says. He has the watered down accent of a Brit who has lived in the U.S. for a long time.  He wears a black suit jacket and old jeans. Something about this partial attempt at professionalism–and the way he had insisted on opening the door of his black town car when he picked me up–makes my stomach hurt for him and the economy.

“A West Highland White terrier. I called him a West Highland White Terrorist!” he says. He repeats the joke twice, in case I don’t get it.

We are nearing my exit. I have read the first sentence of my students’ paper three times.

“He was willful. Would test you all the time. He stared at me, with his upper lip slightly lifted so you could see his tooth popping out. I said Bentley, there must be some food under your lip because you look like you’re about to bite me. I just wish I had let him bite me, just once. He’d have been happy in doggy heaven.”

He tells me Bentley lived to be fifteen, and died 10 years ago, two years after his wife Susan. I nod in acknowledgement, but realize he can’t see me.

“That’s so sweet,” I say.

“There’s nothing like the love of a dog. After Susan passed away I was dating a few different people. You know, nothing serious. My friends asked me if I was ever going to settle down again. Well, I said if I could find a women with sweet puppy breath and would look at me with cocker spaniel eyes, I would marry her in a second.”

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