The alligator strolls across the room and plops down on the sofa. He removes his Boston Celtic green Air Jordans, lays his feet on a mahogany coffee table and picks up the remote off of the side table. He switches on the TV to the Animal Planet channel and yells out for a beer and chips. In a few minutes the alligator is snoring.
A man sits at his office desk entering numbers onto a computer spreadsheet. A few minutes later that same man is standing on a busy sidewalk during evening rush hour. He’s surrounded by men in tailored business suits holding their precious briefcases but he’s dressed in a black pencil skirt, a crisp white blouse, six inch heels, and his hands clutch a black Gucci handbag.
A peacock lays on a psychiatrist's couch talking casually about a bank robbery she and an alligator - who was dressed like a butler complete with a bowler hat - pulled off with the help of a man dressed like a woman who drove their getaway car wearing a yellow dress and red wig. We gave some of the stolen loot to the Salvation Army and the rest to the 3rd Avenue Food Bank. Why did you do it, asks the psychiatrist. For the fun of it, replies the peacock, it was easier than we thought.
* * *
At first Jack Wainright wrote off the symptoms he had to that of Valley Fever which he had contracted a few years earlier before they left California for Italy. The night sweats, the shortness of breath, cough, fever, fatigue, muscle aches and joint pain, and, of course, the headaches were exactly the same as those of COVID-19.
Jack is awash in sweat. Maybe it’s time we get you to a doctor, says his wife, Kelly. Jack tries to sit up but can’t.
* * *
Dreams, says the doctor, his broken English softened by his accent, according to Freud, and in reality, also have “day residue.” This is the leftover unfinished business of the day that we try to catch up on, and resolve in our sleep, he says. They’re a reflection of what’s going on in our conscious mind that becomes part of our unconscious, and we process it during sleep.
Jack is perplexed. What are you saying? What do dreams have to do with any of this? Is it or isn’t it the Coronavirus, he asks the doctor. The doctor pauses…
* * *
Oh, man, how I love to see her run like this, Jack smiles. Violet gobbles up the ground in huge, leaping strides, vaulting over rain-worn field furrows and racing down a barely visible path. It’s as if she can’t run fast enough, can’t stretch her gait long enough, and then something snags her attention — some inscrutable sound or scent or the flash of a rabbit’s tail — and she turns into the woods without skidding sideways an inch. Jack stops to watch. No leash. No fences. No worries about cars or bikes. No restraints and no concrete. She races across the Italian countryside, and it’s impossible to watch her run without feeling a similar sense of freedom and release. He cheers her on. Run. Go. Find it, girl.
Freedom is a beautiful thing.
Sweet Violet is a Labrador retriever mix. She’s a hunting dog, and she might be a better one if she weren’t also a bed dog, a sofa dog, a head-in-the-lap-during-dinner dog, a ride-in-the-front-seat dog who gets her own vanilla scoop when they stop by the gelato shop. And, sadly, Violet is a city dog, so while she gets to run more than many of her pooch pals, even the ones who lollygag near the cafe they frequent every morning, her day-to-day is still limited to daily walks through their Aventine quartiere.
And that walk is on a leash, tethered to city regulations and polite society such as it is in Rome, so Jack loves to see her run like this. The Seven Hills surrounding Rome is a sprawling mosaic of ruins and tourists. Beyond lay a patchwork of latticed trails and pathways unencumbered by the electricity of Rome’s lifeblood, and she starts whining at the truck window as soon as they turn onto the narrow path leading to a dream. Now, far down a farm path, there’s nothing to hold her back. She races through the woods, appearing and disappearing in the trees, her tan coat flashing like a Morse code signal in the alternating sun and shade. At one point along the edge of a forgotten amphitheater she seems to vault from tree trunk to tree trunk, trying not to touch the ground. Jack laughs out loud. What a goofball, he thinks. What freedom, he thinks.
And then, suddenly, she’s gone. Jack pulls up short. Violet is nowhere to be seen. He knows what’s happened: That dog loves a deer chase like no other dog he’s ever met. For the most part, Violet stays pretty close. She’ll range out 40 or 50 yards, then come flying back to check on Jack every few minutes. But with a snout full of deer scent, all bets are off.
Jack whistles and hollers, and moves back out into a nearby field so the sounds carry farther. After five minutes, his heart starts crawling into his throat. She always comes back. She always has. Another few minutes pass, and he starts to sweat. More whistling. Hollering louder. She’ll be back, he tells himself. Quit worrying. She knows the way.
When she bursts out of the verdant underbrush, her tongue is halfway to the ground. The half of her that isn’t still wet from morning dew and matted with cocklebur. On her face is the biggest dog-smile ever.
What’s up? she seems to say. Man, you missed it! You should have been there. You should have come along.
You know better, Jack admonishes, like she understands English. Like the same way she knows better than to pull garbage out of the kitchen trash can, too, but Jack still finds lemon rinds in the living room.
She stays close for a minute or two, but Jack thinks of all those days of all those miles on the leash. Take off, Jack says, holding both hands open in front of himself, palms facing out. Take off! In an instant, she’s beyond the ruins and first rows of trees.
Jack uses that command — “take off” — as a sort of blanket permission. It’s a release command: Go on, go ahead, run, take off. Most of the time, Violet takes a few tentative steps and then looks over her shoulder as if to ask: Really? You serious? Then she’s off and gone and rarely looks back twice.
Suddenly, she’s gone. Violet is nowhere to be seen. Jack’s heart starts crawling into his throat. She’ll be back, Jack tells himself. Quit worrying. She knows the way.
Jack and Violet are together now, off the path, following a faint animal trail deep in the trees along an edge where pines and hardwoods meet. Minnie runs through the middle of every mud puddle with her nose an inch underwater. Jack has no idea why. She stops to chomp on a stob of pine. Maybe it smells like pizza? She rolls around in old, mossy bones. She points out all the poop — wolf poop, bear poop, wild boar poop, deer and goat poop. She’s very helpful that way. That’s one of the benefits of following a dog in the woods. They find treasures humans walk past a million times.
* * *
Jack lays in a bed with tubes doing his breathing for him. He’s watched closely by a nurse and doctor. It’s decision time and it doesn’t look good for Jack.
A dozen feet outside his room Kelly sits on a bench. Tears fill her eyes as the doctor approaches. He reaches for Kelly’s hand and speaks to her gently. You have a decision to make, he says. It’s been twenty-eight days and there’s been no sign of improvement. Your husband has lost weight, his vitals have dropped very low, and, frankly, unless a miracle happens even if he lives he’ll be nothing but a shell of himself, a vegetable, his mind will be mush, says the doctor.
The walk back to Jack’s room seems like eternity for Kelly. Once inside his room, Kelly asks now what? The doctor and nurse go about the business of removing Jack from the life support system which has kept him alive for four weeks.
The nurse leaves the room, briefly touching Kelly’s hand as she exits. The doctor speaks to Kelly gently. He says I’ll be brutally honest here, no sense giving you false hope, it may take minutes or hours before death occurs…
Everything in the room is eerily silent.
A gasp from Jack.
When we go home, can we get a dog?
Jake used to be a writer in California, he doesn't write there anymore.