5:459 December 2020
Those who don’t notice the green Ford creaking into the lot are first alerted to the arrival of the Smoking Man by his voice ripping across Temple Park.
Heads turn as the German Shepherd galavants toward the gathering. The Smoking Man has limped across this field every day since I started coming here and I’m sure has done so since long before—a burn in his right hand and a stubby in his left. Sadie circles back to heel with his approach.
I know the name of every dog, but the one on the other end of the lead always evades me. Walter the French Bulldog and Stout Red. Ava the Westie and the Nuclear Family. Barney the pug and Electric Skateboard Man. Every day at 5:45 they filter in and unhook their hounds.
I imagine they have a name for me as well. Blue-Lead Lady. Rubber Ball Slinger. Freckles McJacket. They know Duke the black kelpie-lab though. Runoff from the drink tap water bowl accumulates in a muddy pond where Duke likes to cool his paws and, if the mood should take him, slap his belly down into the muck and roll until he has a new coat.
I’ll be here until 8:00 in the winter, or whenever the sun tucks itself under the tree line in summer—throwing the ball, over and over and over. My pocket buzzes for me to come help with dinner. I throw the ball again.
It didn’t matter that I was over 18, they still want their paperwork. One from you, one from the parents and one from a non-relative—these are the requirements. The rent assistance will be accessible once the forms go through and the social worker is satisfied. It won’t be enough to cover it all, but that’s a problem for future me. I’ve applied for an apartment and my hopes are as high as they can haul themselves.
When I tell people, they don’t understand. Aren’t siblings supposed to be like that? Bit sensitive, aren’t you? I don’t tell people anymore. I say I’m moving out. I say that it will be soon.
In August, Duke snaps his dewclaw on the tanbark that sheets the base of the park’s trees. He’s trying to beat Rosie the sheepdog to the ball when he skids through the chipped pine without so much as a yelp and carries on.
Dogs never clue you in for the long-term stuff. A friend’s Cavalier King Charles, Denny, stopped eating for a week without a whimper to clue that his back teeth were half-rotted away. But constant physical pain is nothing in comparison to a ball stuck under the couch.
Hulk Hogan look-alike points out Duke’s limp on every third step and I take him home at 6:30.
Duke has no interest in getting treated. He lies on the floor, licking his paw in the same place, over and over and over. We try to see the damage and he bares his teeth—white at least, no rot to stress. The nail is still deep in its bed but moves up and down like a light switch. It’s been two hours since every vet in the surrounding suburbs drew their blinds; we’ll have to wait until morning. My pocket buzzes and I find out they have given the apartment to someone else. I lock my door and lie awake, listening to Duke in the hall licking his paw better—over and over and over.
The vet stresses anaesthesia for the procedure. The crack runs into the nail bed and might get infected if they don’t take the whole thing out. They need an hour or two and a shitload of cash. The line between Mum’s eyebrows deepens but we fork out.
800 metres down the highway, and halfway through lunch, I get the call. I take it outside to escape the cafe’s blaring music. Mum watches from the other side of the glass. Trucks thunder past and I plug my phone-less ear, asking them to repeat. The last applicant has pulled out. If I can move in next week the place is mine. The yes scrambles to the back of my throat, rolling out over my tongue as if at any moment the cave will seal up—no time to reach back for the fedora. Just a few more forms to fill out (just throw ‘em on the pile) and then I’ll have 25 square feet to call my own (as long as the money comes through on time each month). I’m living the dream and I haven’t even signed the lease yet. We finish our coffee and sandwiches on time for the alert that Duke is awake.
The next few days feel the same. It won’t be over until I’m falling asleep in a bed six suburbs away. My definition of “over” will fluctuate in the coming months. I watch the X on the calendar, hoping it will inch a little to the left—then maybe we can meet in the middle. I leave my room to eat, piss and go to the park.
Every day Mum asks, “Have you told her yet?” Every day I consider what she’ll do if she finds out now, what she’ll do if one day she just notices I’m gone, what she’ll do to my mum and my dog if she can’t do it to me, what she’ll do to herself if she finds out. Every day I say nothing.
I only stay at the park for an hour on my last day. I have to finish packing. I say I’m moving out. I say it’s tonight.
‘Shame,’ says Smash Mouth’s Lost Member as his dog, Bubba—a tiny quivering thing resemblant of a grey lamb—crawls into my lap. Bubba is 14 years old and this is the last time I’ll be seeing him. The ground is wet and when I stand up later I’ll curse the dark heart shape that has soaked into the ass of my pants. This has happened almost every week since I started coming here and it will not happen again after today.
They say they’ll miss us. I say Duke is staying.
Duke’s head is the bud of a plastic flower. He can’t chase the ball until the cone comes off in two weeks. I have put his foot in an old sock so his bandage doesn’t get dirty. The disappointment in his eyes when he finds he can’t lick his paw says he’s learned his lesson but in six months he’ll break the other dewclaw in the exact same way. By then I’ve seen him twice since moving out and am already preparing to move again.
Several months before I left, Argo the Rhodesian Ridgeback and Kathmandu Power Couple moved away. Every so often in our circle of small talk someone would interject, ‘Wonder how Argo’s doing.’ Every day, the clock ticks past 5:45 and I wonder if they wonder about me.