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[personal profile] namaste
So here’s the deal: I’m doing a one-week writing class at Oxford next month, and wanted to have a recent piece of original fiction on hand before that starts, so I’ve been working on this. It’s about 5,200 words, about how one couple’s reaction to the financial meltdown all around them, and how they find their own way to cope. I’ve been debating a few titles -- Lie Down With Dogs is a current working title -- and if anyone has the inclination, I’d appreciate some feedback. Give it as critical of an eye as you’d like. I’ll be doing more revisions, and probably revising again and again.

Thanks.

Sample: “I thought you didn’t like dogs,” he said.

“I never said that.”

No, she hadn’t. But dogs shed, she’d said before, brushing off the golden retriever’s long hair from the sleeve of her dark wool coat after they left a friend’s house. Dogs need to be walked, she’d said. Someone would have to be home. They couldn’t just take off for weekends in the mountains or on the lake up north.

But there she sat, on the kitchen floor, next to two old plastic bowls -- one filled with dry dog food, the other with water. The dog sat on the floor by the cupboards, looking at her and at the room, and now at him. It wasn’t cowering, didn’t seem ready to attack. It seemed ... guarded. Unsure. Like a kid on the first day of school, trying to be good and obey the rules, but hoping his Mom comes soon to take him home.





The house sat alone at the top of a small hill with just one scraggly tree to keep it company. Even the tree looked worn down, exhausted by the winter it had just seen. Its branches were still mostly bare, with only a few small buds showing on the lower limbs.

The house looked white, but there was a patch of pale yellow still visible in shade of a dormer window on the north side, where the sun hadn’t quite bleached out all the color yet.

“It needs a coat of a paint,” Dee said, shading her eyes from the sun. The sky was a clear pale blue of early spring, and there was still frost in the air. A gusty wind was blowing hard, carrying the chill from the ice in the the lake that was maybe two miles away.

“It needs more than that,” Danny said. He took his attention off of the weathered shingles on the roof and the peeling paint to the entry at the back of the house.

Someone started an addition there, a screened in porch that looked down the back of the hill to a neat row of pine trees and the barn and fields beyond that. The work was abandoned along with the house, though. The walls were just rough plywood and tarp. Long strips of vinyl siding were stacked next to the building, a pale yellow color that looked like it would have matched the old paint job.

Danny wondered when they’d started the addition, the people who used to live here. Maybe they’d planned on fixing the house to sell later, hoping to turn a profit or at least break even. Maybe they wanted to fix it up for themselves. Maybe they’d dreamed of long summer evenings out on that porch, sitting in the shade as fireflies lit up the yard. He wondered when it had all gone wrong, when they knew their dreams wouldn’t come true.

The paperwork from the county gave rough facts and figures: the names of the people who’d bought it five years earlier, and how much they’d paid back then, along with the amount they were behind on the mortgage when the bank foreclosed. The papers didn’t say anything that he really wanted to know, though, how they’d felt when they moved in, what they’d imagined. He wondered if they’d given in easily, accepting their fate, or if they’d fought and cried.

The real estate agent jangled the keys in her hands as she looked for the right one that would open a door at the side of the house, and Danny used her delay as an excuse to step away and leave some space between him and this place. He walked until he couldn’t see inside the porch anymore, lost sight of the chairs they’d left there. It felt wrong being there. It was like they were intruding somewhere they didn’t belong. It reminded him of when he was a kid and could take the shortcut through the graveyard, the way every sound would make his hair stand on end. He reminded himself that he was a grown man now, and he should know better, but the wind let loose piece of the tarp and it slapped against the plywood, almost sounding like the crack of a whip, and Danny jumped, expecting to see someone there to chase him away, or just the vague outline of something -- or someone -- he couldn’t define.

This was the fourth house they’d looked at today, the fourth one abandoned by its owners, and the sixth since Dee got the idea that they should look at some of the properties coming up for county sale.

“We can get a deal,” she’d said the day she showed him the list for the auction set for at the end of the month. “The dogs will love all that space.”

She’d already circled some of the properties, those with extra land or even just a vague promise of additional buildings where she said they could build kennels.

“It’s almost poetic, don’t you think?” she’d asked, “finding homes for abandoned dogs at abandoned houses?”

He’d never thought of Dee as the poetic type. She’d never been a dreamer, or at least she hadn’t seemed like it before all this started. She was a person who made things happen, she always had. She loved numbers and facts, had gone into accounting because numbers didn’t lie, she’d said just after they’d met. Numbers are numbers. Add two and two, and you knew what you were going to get.

People had always thought they knew what they were going to get when they saw her. She had brown hair cut in sharp lines around her face, and she wore suits that had just enough color in them to make her stand out from the women who were trying to fit in. From the time they met, they were supposed to be a power couple -- at least that’s what her step-father called them at the wedding, nearly four years ago. Danny had the high profile job. He was the corporate attorney with the corner office, but he knew that it was always Dee who led the way. She was the one who walked up and introduced herself while he was still trying to come up with the right opening line.

“I’m Dee,” she’d said, “want to dance?”

He’d looked into her eyes, seen the way the light bounced off them, reflecting back something that was deep inside her, some brightness that Danny wanted to find, and he let her pull him out onto the dance floor.

“I don’t know how to do this,” he admitted as she stepped up close to him. The music was something latin -- a salsa, maybe, or tango. Danny still couldn’t say what it was.

“Then I’ll teach you,” she said, and smiled. “Trust me.”

She liked the outdoors, liked to run, and found trails through the woods and up hills and around the lakeshore that she’d follow, but always knew the way home. She’d memorize bird songs to help the miles pass and could pick out the sound of a thrush from a warbler in just a few notes.

But no one would ever call her a dreamer. She planned things: daily schedules for their vacation, precise dates to pay each bill, the amount of money they had to put away into a separate account for a down payment on the vacation home they wanted to buy someday, out in the woods near the lake. She even had it figured out when they should buy.

“Four years,” she said when she showed him the schedule. “We’ll buy in the fall, when they’re getting ready to close everything up for the season. We’ll be able to bargain.”

She hated her real name. Hadn’t even told him that Dee was a replacement for Dorothy until just before the wedding, as they filled out the paperwork. She’d shortened it when she was nine years old.

“If you had people quoting the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and telling you to follow the yellow brick road for as long as you can remember, you’d hate it too,” she’d said. “And don’t even bring up munchkins or Toto.”

So he’d held his tongue when the first dog showed up, a small, shaggy black haired thing that she called Hank.

“I know we didn’t talk about it, but they were going to take him to the pound,” she said. “I had to do something.”

“I thought you didn’t like dogs,” he said.

“I never said that.”

No, she hadn’t. But dogs shed, she’d said before, brushing off the golden retriever’s long hair from the sleeve of her dark wool coat after they left a friend’s house. Dogs need to be walked, she’d said. Someone would have to be home. They couldn’t just take off for weekends in the mountains or on the lake up north.

But there she sat, on the kitchen floor, next to two old plastic bowls -- one filled with dry dog food, the other with water. The dog sat on the floor by the cupboards, looking at her and at the room, and now at him. It wasn’t cowering, didn’t seem ready to attack. It seemed ... guarded. Unsure. Like a kid on the first day of school, trying to be good and obey the rules, but hoping his Mom comes soon to take him home.

It was late autumn then, the first hard frosts starting to settle in, back when Danny thought -- when they all thought -- that they knew what to expect, when they thought there were things they could all count on. The first signs of what was about to happen were there, but they all thought it wouldn’t be that bad. Sure Dee’s office had just had its first layoffs, and the partners at his firm were talking about hiring another specialist in bankruptcy laws, but no one thought it would last.

It was just a simple matter of making adjustments, cutting back on a few luxuries, making do. But the changes were just beginning, and Hank was just the first one of those changes that came into their home.

Dee held a few nuggets of dog food in her hand, her palm open and held out toward the dog. “One of the guys from work has to move.” She looked at the dog, rather than Danny. “He won’t be able to keep him at the new place.”

“Someone I know?” Dee’s office was filled with number crunchers, guys in drab suits and bland ties who could run the figures on anything from the Tigers’ pitchers’ rising ERA stats to the money they’d owe on summer and winter tax bills if the school bond measure passed, and they could do it in their heads.

Dee shrugged. “I don’t know if you’ve met him,” she said. She didn’t look at Danny. “One of the guys they cut last week. He says he has a lead on a job out in Texas, but didn’t know if he’s be able to find a place for Hank.”

Danny crouched down near her, and held his hand out toward the dog, trying to ease his way into this new world. “Hey there, Hank,” he said.

The dog cocked his head slightly at him. There was a bit of gray along his muzzle, mixed in with the dark fur. He was a mutt, maybe with a bit of poodle in his background. He didn’t move any closer.

“I would have let you know, but it happened all of a sudden,” Dee said. “I hadn’t planned on it, but he was packing up his desk, and he mentioned his dog and how he might have to take him to the pound, and --” She sighed and put the kibble on the floor in front of the dog. “It seemed like the least I could do.” She finally looked over at Danny. “Do you mind?”

“I’m surprised, but --” he shrugged.

They’d had one or two dogs when he was growing up, but he’d never pictured the two of them as people with pets. The condo wasn’t very big, and there wasn’t any yard to send the dog out into alone, which meant one of them would have to take Hank out for regular walks. He wondered whether Dee had thought everything through before she’d agreed to take him in, but then he shook his head. Dee always thought things through. She always did. Dee never did anything on a whim, at least not until now.

“I’ve got some of toys, and his bed,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “They’re in the car.”

She stood and brushed off her hands. “You’re sure you don’t mind?” Her arms were crossed loosely over her chest, her eyebrows knit together, a look of uncertainty that he wasn’t used to seeing from her.

He smiled. “We’ll be fine.”

Hank settled himself on the bed in a corner of the laundry room that first night, sniffed out the smells of his new neighborhood at the end of the leash when Danny took him out for a walk the next morning. Dee found a dog park where he could run, and he learned to respond to the sound of their voices. Sometimes he’d stare at the door, though, and Danny wondered if he was waiting for his old master to walk through the door and take him back home.

Somehow, they all settled in. It almost seemed easy, in a way, easier than Danny had expected. Dee adjusted their budget for the extra expenses of dog food and vet bills and the dog license. When winter came, they bought a cage that would fit in the back of Danny’s Jeep where Hank could settle in for the three hour drive north to the ski hills during an overnight trip. After a fresh snowfall, Danny would pack a snowball in his hands, and Hank would catch them, shake his head as they fell apart in his mouth, and then run for another one.

But things kept changing. In February, the condo next to theirs was suddenly cleaned out, the owners packing up everything in one day. “We had no choice,” was the only thing the neighbors said, when Danny asked why they were moving. He saw the foreclosure notice on the door only after they’d left.

Halfway through the month, Dee’s office cut another twenty people -- two from her department -- in what the owners said were, “unfortunate but necessary” cutbacks, but everyone else referred to as the Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Frankie showed up a week later, with just a few hours of advance notice.

“There was a sign at the vet’s office,” Dee told him over the phone. She’d texted him twice asking him to call, but Danny had been in a deposition, and couldn’t break away until Dee had already agreed to take in another dog. “I asked the vet, and she knows her history.”

Her history, as Dee explained it, was that she’d been adopted as a puppy, was in good health and well trained and was used to being around small children and cats. “She thinks she’ll get along with Hank,” Dee said. Danny could hear the new dog’s bark through the telephone connection when he finally was able to return Dee’s calls.

Frankie’s owners were moving in with a parent’s family, and the house was too small for her, Dee told him.

“They haven’t been able to find her another home,” Dee said. “She needs us.”

Danny knew it didn’t make sense to take in another dog. Their condo was cozy as it was with Hank. Adding another dog --

“It won’t be that bad,” Dee interrupted his thoughts. “If we can take care of one dog, we can take care of two just as easily.”

Danny looked back into the conference room, where they were ready to start the deposition again after their break. It should be a simple civil case protecting one of their corporate clients’ intellectual property rights. But seeing the other guy across the table, Danny couldn’t help but see him not as the defendant, but as a guy who was trying to find some way to save his own small business, and had made a bad call. Shutting him down would protect their client, but kill this guy’s shop and his ten jobs.

Danny reminded himself that his own client had jobs of his own to protect, but it was days like this he hated his job.

“Well?” Dee asked, reminding him that she was still waiting for his support.

“Fine,” he told her. “I guess it won’t hurt.” At least someone would be happy at the end of the day.

Frankie was a little bigger than Hank, another mutt. Her coat was a mixture of brown and white splotches leading up to a light brown muzzle. There might have been some kind of a setter in her background.

Unlike Hank’s first night, she wandered the length of the condo, sniffing out odors from every corner. Hank watched her, but barked to warn her off when she got too close to his bed.

“I think they’ll get along,” Dee said.

Danny wasn’t so certain, but Frankie finally claimed a corner of the living room near the couch for herself. Hank kept his distance.

Everything that had seemed easy with Hank came hard once Frankie was there. There wasn’t time to take them up north and play in the snow, and no room for both of them in the Jeep even if there was. Dee had to put their food out at separate ends of the kitchen to keep them from stealing from each others’ bowls, and Danny kept stepping on sharp bits of kibble every time he wandered in for coffee with bare feet.

Frankie shed everywhere, and Danny had to stash a lint brush at his office to clean stray bits of brown and white hair off his suits each morning.

And the dogs never quite got used to each other. Dee blamed the close quarters in the condo, and said things would get better once they could get outside more often, but Danny suspected it had more to do with both of them still feeling uncertain in this new home, and both trying to set themselves up as the leader of their small pack.

The two dogs would grudgingly spend time near each other when they were on the leash during walks, but otherwise seemed to do their best to ignore each other, like estranged cousins forced to spend time together at the holidays, who were most comfortable on opposite sides of the dining room table.

It wasn’t just the dogs. Everything felt off balance somehow. Each Monday there were fewer cars on the road. There were seats available at lunchtime at his favorite deli, where he used to have to wait for something to open up. The parking garage was a little emptier each week.

Dee didn’t want to talk about it -- not about jobs, not about politics, not about anything beyond the world she could control.

“I have to take the dogs for a walk,” she’d say, or she had to get some work done, and she’d head into the office.

After the first few times, Danny didn’t try again. Instead, he would lie awake, unable to fall asleep, while Dee often woke early and said she couldn’t get back to sleep.

On days when he’d lose his patience and yell at another driver on the way home, or Dee would turn short tempered, even complaining that he’d forgotten to pick up milk, he tried telling himself it was just because they were tired, not because everything they had known -- everything they had thought they could count on -- was changing. He wanted to believe they could still make it. That they could all make it. But mornings when he woke up alone, he’d wonder what else he had been wrong about.

The condo seemed too small, the nights too long and the winter had settled in to a long cold spell, with a north wind that took his breath away when he had to take the dogs out in the morning.

Nothing was what it had been. The world was different. Even the bills were left unpaid for days at a time, Dee’s usual careful schedule and system for paying abandoned along with her sense of humor.

The dogs were fighting over a rawhide bone when Danny decided he’d had enough, and something had to change.

“We need to find a new home for Frankie,” he said. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Just get Frankie her own bone.” Dee nodded toward the kitchen. “They’re in the cupboard.”

“That’s not going to fix anything.” Danny sat in the armchair opposite the couch, so he was facing Dee. The coffee table was covered with papers from some audit she needed to complete by Monday. He leaned toward her, his elbows on his knees. “This isn’t working.”

Dee avoided his eyes, piled some of the papers into a neater stack instead. “It’s not that bad.”

Danny sighed. Dee hated to be caught in a mistake, to have to go back and do something over. Giving up Frankie would feel like a mistake, like she’d failed. And she had. They both had.

“I know you wanted to do something good,” he said. Start with something positive. It was the way he always worked with clients to get them to swallow their pride and accept a compromise. “Things went well with Hank, so I can see why it was that it was worth a try, but we don’t have enough space here for both of them. We don’t have enough time. We don’t --”

“I know,” Dee interrupted. “I know we don’t have enough room.” She looked up at him. “So that’s what I why thinking we should buy a bigger place.”

“Wait,” Danny shook his head, trying to follow Dee’s thoughts, “a bigger place?”

“You’re right that this isn’t a good place for the dogs, but is it fair to Frankie to lose her home? Again?” She took a breath, then went on before he could answer. “No, it’s not fair. It’s not right. It wasn’t right that she lost the first family, or that her family lost their home.”

Her voice rose, and she slammed the laptop shut. “It’s not right that Hank got fired either.”

“Hank?” Danny shook his head slightly and glanced toward the kitchen and the dogs.

“Yes, Hank,” she said. “I named Hank after his owner. It was better than Prince, and Hank didn’t seem to mind.”

“Hank the dog? Or Hank the guy?”

“Both,” she said, “neither. It doesn’t matter, does it?” She didn’t wait for an answer. Her hands traced patterns along the edge of the computer, as if she couldn’t hold them still, but didn’t know what to do with them. She suddenly seemed to have more energy than he’d seen from her in weeks. “What matters is that we sit here and just watch everything fall apart, and we don’t talk about because what good does it do to talk? There’s nothing we can do, can we? I couldn’t help Hank keep his job. You can’t stop anyone from closing their shops ...”

She went quiet then. Danny wondered if she was trying to stop herself from saying too much, or if she just wanted to find the right words. She stared out at the darkness beyond the windows. The wind was blowing and he could hear it whistle through the empty branches of the tree outside their building. The condo was quiet, just the sound of Hank chewing on the rawhide bone, and the click, click, click of Frankie’s nails on the tile floor as she gave up the fight and headed toward the two of them in the living room. Danny suddenly wondered if anyone in her old family had been named Frank.

The dog settled herself down near Dee’s feet, and Dee reached down one hand, scratched behind her ears. When Dee looked up again, her words were calm, the energy and her thoughts back under control.

“Did I ever tell you why I told my parents I didn’t want to be called Dorothy anymore?” she asked.

“Wizard of Oz?” he asked, but suddenly realized that must have been as much of a fib as Hank’s name.

Frankie’s tags jingled as she shook her head under Dee’s hand.

“It was when my Dad told me he was going to get married to Joanie,” she said. “It was when I realized that my parents were never going to get back together. Before that, I used to think that the divorce was temporary. One of my friends’ parents had re-married, and I dreamed that it could happen for them too. But when Joanie came around, I finally figured out there was no point in believing in dreams. Dorothy just had to click her heels to make all her dreams come true. I couldn’t do that.” She looked up at him, her eyes were wet with tears, but she blinked them back before they could escape. “I wasn’t Dorothy.”

Danny crossed the room and sat beside her, wrapped his arms around her. She leaned against him, and took his hand in hers. “Dreams are nice, but they’re not everything,” he said. “You’re doing more than anyone I know, and that means something. I’m sure Frankie’s family is happier knowing that someone’s looking after her.”

“But it’s not enough, we could do more, but we can’t do it here. You’re right. This place isn’t big enough.” She turned toward him, fixed him with the same sure look in her eyes he’d seen the night they met. “If we buy someplace bigger, we could keep Frankie and Hank both, and maybe take in a few more dogs.”

“Wait.” Danny shook his head. “More dogs? I don’t think so. Sure, we’d have space, but we wouldn’t have any more time.”

“Just think about it.” Dee moved the papers and her laptop out of the way and reached into her computer bag. She pulled out a large brown envelope. “We could set up a non-profit organization. The paperwork’s easy, and there are tax benefits. There are other people who’d like to do something, and we’d be able to take donations -- enough to buy food and hire someone to help out with the dogs.”

The papers she showed him were already covered with estimates -- the cost of the property, the funds available with a half-dozen foundation names spelled out in her careful hand on a separate sheet, the value of their condo if they sold now, the money she’d set aside for a vacation place up north. He recognized the familiar grid pattern of numbers and details. It was the same style he’d seen time and time again whenever she was working out some plan, some idea.

She’d been thinking about this. While he’d been trying to put it in words, she’d been putting it all down. Facts and figures. Making some new dream into reality, even as she said she didn’t believe in dreams.

“Property’s cheap now. We can get our hands on some land where we can put in some kennels, or maybe there’ll already be a barn we can convert,” she said, and pointed to another figure. “We could always rent out the acreage we don’t need to a farmer, and that’ll help cover the property taxes.”

He took a stack of the papers she handed him and stopped when he came to a list of foreclosure sales. He recognized the language of the legal descriptions of each piece of property, the official codes of the banks and the courts noting dates, amounts and the size of each property.

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

It seems like too much to consider, but that’s what she wants him to do. She’s asking t him to change, to follow some dream that had never been his, one he’d never even considered. But he can hear her voice in his head, asking him to trust her, just as he always had.

“Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe this is crazy, but it’s better than doing nothing, isn’t it?” she asked.

Frankie pushed herself between them, put her muzzle on his lap and begged for attention. He petted her out of habit, feeling the soft fur on her head, and the way it curled around her ears. Hank sensed he was missing something, and Danny felt him him press against his other leg, using Danny as a border between him and Frankie.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I don’t know if I really want to do this.” He shook his head. “It’s a lot to think about.”

“I know.” Her eyes were clear as she looked deep into his eyes, then leaned forward to kiss him. She wasn’t dreaming, she was making plans.

Danny didn’t give her an answer that night, or the next morning. He drove to work, letting her words rattle through his head. The idea of doing something -- doing anything -- that could ease someone’s worries had a certain joy to it. But sinking money into land now didn’t make sense. Companies were cutting back. What made her think they were any safer than Hank had been, or Frank -- whoever he was. What if they couldn’t get donations?

He closed himself in his office most of the day, telling his assistant he was going to spend his time going over a new set of contracts he had to finish for a client, but instead he spread Dee’s papers out over his desk, and studied her numbers.

Every time he thought he’d come to some decision, some new idea would enter his mind. Anything they bought would be further from work, which would mean longer commutes, he told himself, and was convinced he’d turn down her plan. Then he’d convince himself the extra fifteen or twenty minutes would be worth it, if Dee was happy.

He’d work out the extra taxes they’d have to pay on all that land, then wonder how much they could get by renting out the acres they didn’t need.

He was no closer to an answer when he got home. Dee was running late, and he gathered up the dogs for a walk while he still had his boots on. There was still a bit of gray light left in the sky as he hooked the leashes on to their collars and headed out. He walked them through the parking lot, down the block, and then another block and another. The sky turned dark, but he didn’t turn toward home until he’d reached the train tracks that split their subdivision off from the rest of town.

Hank seemed ready to go further, but Frankie was starting to drag, lagging behind as they walked. Danny stood at the edge of the tracks, saw the way they stretched out in either direction -- each one going somewhere he couldn’t see. He could stand there all night, and he wouldn’t go anywhere. The only way to get somewhere was to get on the train as it rolled past, and see where it took him.

He turned toward home, letting Hank lead the way.

Maybe following Dee’s dreams didn’t make sense, but nothing made sense anymore. Maybe that’s why they should do it. Because going somewhere felt a hell of a lot better than just waiting to see what would happen if they never did anything.

And hell, it couldn’t hurt to look.

Three weeks later, they were armed with their list of foreclosures and standing out in the early spring sunshine.

“We could put the kennels there,” Dee said, nodding toward the barn.

“It’s bigger than we need,” Danny pointed out. “And it’ll take a lot of work.”

“Maybe we could grow into it.”

Danny looked at her standing there in the sun. She looked happy, sure of herself. The wind blew past them and she turned into it and smiled. “I think I can smell the water,” she said.

“I think I smell the cows from that place down the road,” Danny said, and she laughed and took him by the hand.

The real estate agent had managed to unlock the door, and she held it open, waiting for them.

“Ready to look inside?” Dee asked. She waited until he nodded.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, and let her lead him inside.


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