Storyglossia Issue 26, January 2008.

The Finish Line

by Janis Hubschman

 

Grace battled local rush hour traffic to make an 8:15 vet appointment. Judy, the golden retriever puppy, rode shot gun. Like a methamphetamine addict, Judy twitched and sniffed, and then slid off the seat whenever Grace applied the brakes. It looked up from the floor, surprised each and every time to find itself there. Grace sighed with frustration. Pavlov would have hated this dog, but a poor memory would be useful after today's ordeal. Unbeknownst to Judy, she would soon be neutered, saved from the trials and the tribulations of childbirth and motherhood. But Grace was projecting again, an offense that Bob had more or less accused her of when she'd asked him to talk to their lonely dog before leaving for his Sunday golf game.

"Are you sure you're talking about the dog, Grace?" he'd said in the insinuating tone he'd perfected in his courtroom. Among the trial attorneys he was known as Judge Innuendo, a fact that seemed to amuse and delight him.

After a few sniffs of the mat, Judy scrambled back up onto the seat, leaving long scratch marks in the soft Italian leather. Grace had been looking forward to her twenty-four hour respite from Judy with the same measures of relief and guilt that she'd once counted off the long hot summer days until the start of school. Why had she so willingly strapped herself to another responsibility just when she was nearing the finish line of another? What happened to all her grandiose post-kid plans? In particular, her idea about expanding her independent personal fitness business into a program to empower women in midlife through fitness and running seemed ludicrous given her inability to deal with a new puppy. In her worst moments, lifting Judy's little turds from her pale blue Oriental carpet or walking the dog in a downpour, she had even considered returning it to the breeder, a stout dairy farmer's wife in Frenchtown who'd made dog ownership look easy. Just a month ago (it seemed longer), on that clear cool morning at the farm, Grace had admired the breeder's self-assured handling of her pack of dogs, and she had imagined herself in the older woman's sensible shoes, issuing commands in a firm but compassionate tone of voice to a group of tentative, out-of-shape women, inspiring loyalty and respect from all. But it had taken a helpless puppy to expose Grace for the weak-willed, anger-prone anti-leader that she truly was. It made her think that if it had been possible to leave her opinionated husband tied to a lamppost on the Palisades Parkway, or to ship her rebellious teenage daughters to the proverbial farm without legal repercussion, she might have done so.

The next time she came to a stop, Grace reached across the emergency brake and planted her hand squarely on the puppy's back. The muscles tensed beneath the loose skin, but she held firm as though the puppy were a football in a Super Bowl game and she was the quarterback. It was a contest of wills, she decided.

Bob and the girls had begun lobbying for the puppy on Christmas day after Bob's old law school classmate, Ted Owens, arrived with yet another nubile girl friend, a strapping blonde, a dog breeder, who came with her well-behaved and enormously pregnant golden retriever. Passing her husband's study early in the afternoon, Grace overheard Bob teasing his preternaturally virile friend: "So how old is that bitch anyway?"

Ted's laugh sounded lascivious. "Two and half, I think, but old enough, apparently," he said, eliciting a chuckle from her husband. Unnoticed, she'd continued down the hallway, horrified as usual by the way men talked about women when they thought they were alone. There had been a time, as recently as five years ago, when she would have shamed them into an apology with the smug conviction that she was scoring a point for her team. It had become increasingly clear that her team had betrayed and abandoned her. She was no longer interested in fighting the good fight, and had let her subscription to Ms. lapse.

Of course Grace's daughters had seemed infatuated with the lovely young Jenny, and they were even more in love with her pregnant dog. Annie, the 18-year old wanted to know if they could reserve a puppy as though it was a ticket to a hot concert. But Lila, the twenty-year old, had been more thoughtful, or devious if Grace took the cynical view. "A puppy might be a good idea, Mom. It can keep you company when we're gone," she said when they were alone in the kitchen, scraping plates, loading the dishwasher. "Whenever you call me at school," Lila continued, "which is like three times a day—"

"A week," she interjected, defensively. "At most, I call you three times a week."

"Whatever. My point is you sound so lonely. Maybe a puppy is just what you need, someone to take care of."

"Eeek," she said, handing her daughter a dirty plate. "I thought I raised you to be a feminist."

"If that's true, then why are the women cleaning up again?" Lila said, sounding a lot like her father.

But it was true that with both girls away at college, Grace had succumbed to a weird maternal nostalgia. How ironic that the woman bored batty by motherhood was now mourning its loss. Whenever she'd glance into her daughters' bedrooms, objects that had held no sway over her in the past—Annie's dirty stuffed otter or Lila's ancient gymnastic trophies, say—now reduced her to tears. She did not confide these feelings to Bob who had taken to suggesting that menopause was responsible for every emotion she dared to express. In the interest of self-protection, she regularly bit her tongue and maintained a wooden fašade in his company. In the lonely pockets of her day, she tried to locate the origin of her sadness, to trap and release it like a wild animal that had invaded her house. Was the sadness connected to regret for not allowing herself to enjoy those irretrievable years of her children's lives? Or was it related to remorse? Admittedly, she had not always been very good at hiding her boredom, irritation, and loneliness from her small daughters. A good deed was worth nothing if it was not performed with a pure heart, she could still hear Pastor McGinley chiding in the dark confessional booth of her memory even though she had let her Catholicism lapse long before her subscription to Ms.

It was no surprise to anyone when three weeks after Christmas Ted and Jenny, the dog breeder, split up. There would be no puppies from that pairing. But Jenny, when Bob contacted her in the spring, had the number of another breeder, the dairy farmer's wife. By that time, Grace had begun to soften to the idea. A pet might reintroduce structure and purpose to her life, which had yielded to a mysterious entropic force since Annie and Lila's departure. Whereas before, the school schedule had imposed a neat pattern on her days and weeks, she was now sleeping late, lingering over lunch with her friends Kate and Gail, and had not bothered to replace or re-motivate the clients who'd drifted away from training.

Now as Grace slowed for the light in the school zone, she kept one hand on Judy's twitching back until all tension left its body; the puppy stretched out, and resting its chin on the seat, looked up at her from under wrinkled brows. Grace couldn't resist patting it on the head. Judy thumped her tail twice in response. The heavy-set crossing guard stepped off the curb and tentatively entered the intersection, raising the stop sign on a stick. The weather was cool for mid-June. A breeze lifted the long strands of white hair on the guard's head, uncovering a bald spot the size of a bagel; he patted the hair back in place with his free hand. On the corner, a cluster of teenagers waited in the dappled sunlight for his signal: a red head boy; a buxom blond girl carrying a tinfoil-covered plate; a short boy with unlaced sneakers. They were in the same age-range, attended the same school, yet they did not converse, did not even make eye contact. Dogs were more sociable, she reflected. Walks with Judy included frequent stops to sniff other dogs' backsides, or failing that, their scent on rocks and grass and trees.

Grace exhaled sharply as the last straggler, a gangly boy with a backwards baseball cap, shuffled across the intersection, seemingly unperturbed by the line of cars waiting. Before he reached the curb, a black Mercedes on the opposite side of the intersection rolled through the red light, and ignoring the crossing guard, made the right.

"Asshole!" she said.

The crossing guard shook his head resignedly. Wrong, she thought. The correct response was outrage. Why was everyone so afraid of objecting to uncivil behavior? A sudden exhaustion gripped her. It had been weeks since she'd lunched with her friends, and she had not found the time to call the three new clients referred to her by the gym. Her days had been taken over by dog appointments: for the vet, for behavior training classes, and for grooming—and her sadness had been replaced with an anger so intense it was like undergarments of fire that she could not remove.

The light changed, and the guard walked backwards to the sidewalk, glancing over one shoulder then the other, not an easy maneuver for a man with a belly that overhung his belt buckle. Even with the belly and the day glow vest, he was an invisible feature of the neighborhood like the streetlights or the "men at work" signs—something to be registered subliminally but not considered. It was her own fate, she feared, and the fate of every woman, except her mother maybe, who'd discovered a rejuvenating effect in multiple marriages and was about to embark on a third honeymoon.

She stepped on the gas, and the car surged forward. Judy slid to the floor again. "If you rip that seat, I'll kill you," she said, without emotion, as the puppy scrambled back up. Out of the school zone, she sailed past the Dunkin' Donuts, the post office, the sixties-era ranch style houses on the "wrong" side of the tracks. She switched on the radio. Dead at 88 the former UN secretary general, Kurt Waldheim. Heart failure. Hid his Nazi Germany military service to lead the world body. Everyone was hiding something, she thought, switching off the radio. The stories Bob told her, the stories in her own neighborhood. Only last week, Jackie Ramsey, the local PTA president had been arrested for forging Oxycontin prescriptions. She did it not once or twice but forty-four times for a total of four hundred and forty pills. Even more shocking to Grace were the neighborhood women who had risen to her defense. "We all make mistakes," Dianne Lehman, mother of three, told the Record. "That woman needs our help, not our judgment." That woman drove a carpool three days a week high on narcotics for fuck's sake, she'd shouted in her quiet kitchen, waking Judy from a rare nap, as she recalled.

She looked over at Judy now. The puppy was whimpering. A pale yellow puddle appeared beneath its paws. "Oh, shit!" she said, watching the urine spread and drip. "Stop that! Goddamn it. Shit!" She glanced futilely into the backseat for a rag then back at the street in time to see the back end of a silver Lexus SUV looming up inches from her bumper. What the fuck? She hit the brakes and Judy slid through the piss to the floor, splattering the dashboard, the window, her pocketbook, which she had carefully stowed on the center panel. The SUV was stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reason it seemed. The driver, visible in the side mirror, was chatting away on a cell phone like she was in her own goddamned kitchen.

Grace lowered her window and poked her head out. "GET OFF THE DAMNED PHONE AND DRIVE!"

The Lexus driver's door flew open and a woman jumped out. Grace's heart thumped in her chest; she tasted metal. With a weird mix of dread and excitement, she watched the dark-haired woman approach. The unreachable itch would finally be scratched. The puppy barked and whined, but Grace did not turn to look at it; her eyes were pinned on the woman who appeared to be in her late thirties, but was dressed like a teenager in low-slung jeans and a tight tank that showed off her flat toned middle and large, gravity defying breasts. Grace's bread and butter depended on women like this, women who would not touch a slice of buttered bread if it were the last food on earth. She knew everything she needed to know about this type of woman, having listened to their solipsistic drivel day in and day out for the last ten years. She smirked when she spotted the offending hot pink cell phone clutched in the woman's hand, but inside she was trembling. She had two fears, the first being that she would be inadequate to the occasion, since her outrage could not be communicated in one brief encounter; and the second that supposing—such a thing hardly seemed possible, but just supposing—the woman had a legitimate reason for stopping short.

The other woman spoke first. "What did you say?" She sounded surprisingly calm for someone who had leaped from her car in the middle of the road. Grace watched her closely, reviewed several responses. Helpfully, the woman said, "You were shouting something just now? I didn't quite hear it."

There it was: the ironic tone that she had been searching for. "I was just wondering," Grace said, "if it was legal now to talk on the phone while driving in New Jersey."

"For me it is, yes."

"Oh, I should have known," she said, making a show of looking the woman up and down as blood roared in her ears and her skin tingled. "You're special."

"That's right, I am special. I'm very special." Her calm was unnerving. She peered over her aviator sunglasses to glance into the car. "Your puppy seems to be in some kind of distress," she said. "Maybe you should take care of it instead of shouting at people."

Grace heard the whimpering. She turned to see Judy trying to squeeze between the seat and the door to reach the back seat. Grace reached over, dragging her sleeve through urine, to give the dog the needed push. Released from confinement, Judy jumped up onto the backseat and flung herself at the side window, barking. Grace felt a flash of tenderness at Judy's loyalty. "Good dog," she said. Then turning back to the woman, she said, "You're scaring my dog." But her nemesis was already getting into her car. A horn blared; Judy barked from the backseat in response.

Swearing under her breath, Grace moved forward, keeping her eyes on the big Lexus. She swatted blindly at the window buttons before finally hitting the one that controlled her own window. The Lexus turned left, and she followed it, recalculating her route to the vet's office as she drove. The driver, framed by the back window, gesticulated wildly with one hand, and with a cell phone in the other hand that left precisely no hands for steering. Grace swiveled her head looking for a cop car.

With the windows closed, the urine smell intensified; it turned her empty stomach. She groped for the window buttons again, keeping her eyes locked on the SUV, which was now picking up speed. That's right, run away, you coward. The Lexus turned right on an amber light without signaling. Grace accelerated, taking the turn a little too fast so that she could beat the red light. She raised her eyes to the rearview mirror to see how Judy was faring in the high speed car chase, but the back seat was empty. A glance over her shoulder revealed that the dog was not on the floor either, and that the window was wide open. She drew to the curb without signaling, cut the engine, and threw open the door. At the intersection, a small crowd had gathered at a spot beside the telephone pole. She glanced once more in the back seat, then slammed the door and walked toward them, feeling wobbly and heavy-legged, as though she were underwater. She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare, and made out Judy's sleek copper body in the bright green grass. Picking up her pace, she heard someone, a young girl, crying, wailing actually, and making a horrible racket. An older woman, her grandmother perhaps, was trying to calm the girl by stroking her hair and holding her tight against her own body. A boy on a bike pointed out the blood on the grass. As Grace came closer, she saw that the dog's body was twisted backward in an unnatural way, as though it were trying to bite its tail. An elderly man turned toward her. "Is it yours?" he said.

She looked at him without answering. She couldn't think with all the noise the girl was making, and if she couldn't think, she didn't know what to feel. The anger had drained away, it seemed, and in its place there was nothing. A blank space.

Copyright©2008 Janis Hubschman