Dining With Maurice.
A short story by Frank Criscenti
It was a terrible time in Wayne's life for his dog to start acting weird.
Wayne had spent a half-hour just that morning, studying his thinning hair. And, after another argument last night, his five-year-old relationship with Janice seemed over for good this time. So when he looked out and saw Maurice, the dog he'd owned for 16 years, chomping down mouthfuls of soil, it seemed somehow the beginning of the end.
Wayne called Janice about the dog. It was a good excuse to talk.
"Yes?" she said, sounding impatient.
"The dog's acting crazy."
"What's he doing?"
"He eats dirt."
"So take him to the vet. He's probably senile."
"You think so?"
It was a good point. Janice always had the easy answers. He sensed the end of their conversation and was anxious to seize this opportunity.
"Do you want to meet for dinner?" he asked.
"How 'bout a movie tomorrow? There's a French film at the Guild."
"I have plans," she said, and hung up.
Wayne had been seeing a psychiatrist for several months. Janice had suggested it some time ago and he finally relented. The psychiatrist looked like Joanne Woodward.
Every week, Wayne arrived 15 minutes early at the medical center, with Maurice riding in the passenger's seat. They'd park. Before Wayne went in to his appointment he took Maurice for a short walk around the parking lot. They wouldn't walk far since the dog suffered from arthritis. Maurice would hobble about, sniff and snort about the islands of trees and bushes, pissing here and there. Wayne tugged at the leash before Maurice became overly-interested in any morsels of soil. After their walk, he'd put the dog in the car and roll the window down a little for air. Then Wayne went inside to his appointment.
"Call me Ellen..." the doctor would say when Wayne called her "Doctor."
"Ellen..." he would say.
"Wayne..." the doctor would say.
During some sessions that was as close as they got to a breakthrough. They'd exchange pleasantries, then all conversation stopped. All the words unsaid probably meant something, but Wayne couldn't decide what it might be. Whenever he was at a session he kept thinking of the concept of negative space.
When he asked why she didn't ask him questions, she said it wasn't her job. That he would talk when he was ready.
But Wayne never felt ready.
It depressed him. He worried he might have some incurable malaise.
Wayne called Maurice's vet.
"Have you ever heard of a dog eating dirt?" he asked the receptionist.
She said no, but hold and she would ask the vet.
The vet got on. "What does he eat?"
"What kind of dirt?"
"Just your ordinary garden variety," Wayne said. "He prefers the clods actually."
"Do you feed him?"
"Of course. He gets kibble, a little canned stuff, and a few left-overs."
"This happens sometimes," the vet said. "Make an appointment with my receptionist and bring him in."
He lied to the receptionist and told her he would make an appointment as soon as he checked his schedule.
Wayne decided as long as Maurice remained healthy enough for an old, unhealthy dog, what harm could a couple of mouthfuls of dirt do.
One night Wayne awoke to strange animal moans in the backyard. He threw on his robe and went outside to find Maurice rolling in the dirt, his eyes glassy and full of terror. Once, on a vacation in Northern California, when Wayne was a child, his father hit a deer with the car. He remembered the deer had the same look in its eyes right before the car hit it. Wayne thought it was the end for his buddy. He carried the dog into the house, took him on his lap. All night he sat up, stroking Maurice's grey-flecked muzzle. Come morning, Wayne called in sick to his job at the Department of Motor Vehicles. He made Maurice vegetable beef soup from a can and fed him with a big wooden spoon. That afternoon Maurice wobbled to his feet, though he listed. When the dog wagged his tail it seemed to throw off his balance completely.
Wayne took his pal to the vet. The vet kept Maurice overnight. When Wayne called the vet early the next afternoon, the vet told him the dog had congestive heart failure and all the tests he'd run and all the pills he might give might allow Maurice another six months of life.
Wayne called Janice and told her about Maurice.
"Sometimes I think you loved that dog more than me," Janice said.
"That's not true," he said, though it was.
Janice hung up on Wayne.
She always took the easy way out.
Wayne picked up Maurice from the vet in the afternoon after work. The bill came to $606. Maurice wagged his tail so hard when he saw Wayne that he slipped off his feet to the floor. The dog looked up at his master, then licked his paw, seemingly embarassed for his lack of control.
One day, Wayne decided to open up to Ellen and tell her about his arguments with Janice.
He said, "Janice says I'm noncommital and obsessive. She says I'm certainly neurotic and possibly psychotic."
"Who is she to say?" Ellen said. "She's not a professional."
"Do you think I am?"
"What she said."
"That pisses me off," Ellen said.
"Am I possibly psychotic?"
"Do you think you are?"
"I don't know," he said. "I mean, I can't tell one way or the other. It's me we're talking about. That's why I come here after all."
"That's right," she said. "You're here to learn about yourself. What some nonprofessional says about you is irrelevant."
"Right," he said.
"Right," she said.
So Wayne talked about himself. He talked about Janice. Everything Wayne revealed about himself and how he felt, Ellen, though seeminly preoccupied, said it was reasonable that he felt the way he did, she understood why he would respond the way he did. It wasn't important what a nonprofessional said about him.
It depressed Wayne.
Then he told Ellen about Maurice eating dirt. Ellen seemed to find the story interesting. She said in humans such a condition was called "parorexia." Professionals knew that, she said, and some people ate fabric, ashes from ashtrays, whole pencils and even worse.
By the time Wayne left the office he had decided even his dog led a more interesting life than he.
One night Wayne ordered take-out Chinese food and brought it home and shared it with Maurice. They ate together at the dinette in the kitchen. The dog ate chow mein, fried shrimps, and beef from the broccoli beef.
A few nights later Wayne ordered two Philly cheese steak sandwiches-- one for him and one for the dog.
Wayne longed to take his pal to Paris. From what Wayne understood, the French had a healthy respect for dogs, allowed their pets to dine with them even in the best restaurants.
Wayne called a travel agent and asked about touring France with a dog. The agent said he'd look into it but called back the next day and told him the laws about bringing animals into France were overly-restrictive.
This news depressed Wayne.
Wayne went to one of the best French restaurants in town and ordered two meals to go. He told the waiter it was for a shut-in. It wasn't really lying to say that, he'd decided.
Wayne sat on a chair near the reception area while the meal was being prepared. Men in suits and ties and women in black dresses with strands of white pearls stared at him as he sat there waiting. To shut out their stares, Wayne closed his eyes and imagined himself and Maurice in France, drinking wine and munching escargot. He wondered if Maurice would eat escargot. Could he get Maurice a little tie to wear over his neck for formal dinners? He thought how they would sit there, in France, in a French restaurant, and the French people would say to the two of them, "Quel chien adorable!"
At home, Maurice devored the filet de boeuf.
Wayne told Ellen abouot dining with his dog. It seemed to perk her interest.
"Maybe you need to go out of the house more," she said.
But there wasn't time. Maurice needed him.
The dog's health became worse. Wayne took him back to the vet but the vet said nothing could be done.
Wayne asked for time off work. He had it coming. He rarely took vacations, only when Janice had insisted he take her someplace.
Besides, this was an emergency.
Wayne stayed home all day and cooked for himself and his pal. He always was a pretty fair cook, if unadventurous.
Maurice lay around most of the day, dozing in the triangle of sunlight on the floor in the dining room. The dog only ventured outside for a few minutes a day to do his business and have a mouthful of dirt. At dinnertime, Wayne had to lift Maurice into his seat at the dinette. The dog ate less and less, even when served steaks, meatloaf, or boneless chicken. He was wasting away.
It depressed Wayne.
Wayne called Janice.
"Maurice doesn't hardly eat at all," he said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know you cared for him."
"He's not gone yet," Wayne said.
There was a brief silence.
He thought she might be thinking up a remedy for the dog's poor appetite. Maybe she would give him a recipe. A special steak Janice, or salmon in puff pastry Janice. She always had the easy answers.
"Wayne," she said after a moment.
"Yes?" he said. That was it. All would be well. Janice would come back to him and they would care for Maurice together. He would show off his new skills in the kitchen. They would go to France together-- no, they would move to France with Maurice.
"I've been seeing someone else for some time now," she said. "It's serious."
Well, there it was, Janice just looking out for her own narrow self-interest. "This is more serious," he said. "How unprofessional of you to bring it up." Wayne hung up.
He told Ellen about Maurice.
"Sometimes you have to let an old friend go and move on with your life," she said.
"I don't want to," he said.
Before Wayne left that day he stopped at the receptionist's desk and cancelled the rest of his appointments with the doctor.
Maurice fell one day while he was walking on the hardwood floor. He just collapsed. Wayne was alerted to the fall by the scrape of Maurice's nails.
The dog lay in the hallway, legs spread at an odd angle. When Wayne ran up to him , Maurice never bothered to try to get to his feet, but just lay there, staring up at Wayne with a sad, helpless look in his brown dog eyes.
The end was near. Wayne couldn't let his pal know he knew, but then again, he couldn't let him go without some special goodbye.
Wayne decided to make Maurice a special dinner with all his favorites.
He went shopping. He cooked all day. When the meal was prepared, he lifted Maurice into the seat at the dinette, and brought the covered plates to the table. He toasted the dog with a goblet of wine, then uncovered the plates. There was dirt with rice and dirt with meatloaf and dirt with apple tart. Wayne and his pal ate and, for a little while, it seemed as if they hadn't a care in the world.
This story first appeared in the Santa Clara Review. Spring 1993.
Don't forget Carly-- the dog of the week at the HSSV. See yesterday's post for more info.