By Frank Morelli
My father came right out and told me—from behind the newspaper as he checked the stocks. “Sparky’s dead,” he said. He squeezed it out past the soggy end of his cigar butt. “Go clean his bowl.” And that was the last time he spoke of it.
I couldn’t do that to Billy. I wanted to. Believe me, it would have been easier. But I couldn’t. Took one look at my son’s lunar eyes—his mother’s eyes—and I knew it’d shatter him to pieces right there on the sidewalk.
So we cross the street, go to a diner—because nobody can be sad sitting in front of a stack of pancakes. Not even Billy. “Do you think he’ll come home tonight?” he asks as I lift him into a booth. “It’s been two days.”
I sit down beside him and unfold a menu, pretend to scan the breakfast items. Truth is, I don’t know how to answer. What do you say to a five-year-old when his best friend runs away? But I had to say something. I couldn’t let him sit there and stare and me with those eyes.
“I’m sure he’ll come home,” I say. But I’m not so sure at all. In fact, I’m pretty damn certain we’ll never see Tugger again—that’s his name. Tugger. He’s a mutt. We rescued him from the pound, but I’m convinced Billy thinks he was delivered personally down to him on a moonbeam. So it’s kind of hard to break the truth. “I wouldn’t worry,” I tell him. “Tugger will be fine.”
Billy nods. He seems satisfied and I feel terrible. Because I realize I’m no different than my father. “That damn dog will come home on his own,” he’d barked at me. “I’m not wasting any gas on him.” And he didn’t. He just grumbled at me from behind his paper to “knuckle the hell up” and to “stop prancing about in front of the window” when I’d sit and wait for Sparky to come home. But he didn’t. I never heard his paws scrape against the back door again—only my father yelling about having to shell out fifty bucks on a damn road removal fee. He made me work it off mowing lawns in the summer. Told me, “Never bring home another stinking stray like that again. You here me?”
“He’s just a damn dog,” I told him, just trying to get him off my back. But he smiled. The bastard smiled and, in an instant, erased from my dignity all the moments of vigil spent in front of the window and all the flashes of Sparky’s body, twisted and broken on the side of some desolate road. And all he had to give me for my trouble was Sparky’s studded collar, all limp and empty. He tossed it on my desk and walked out before he had to watch me cry.
“We’ll find Tugger,” I say to Billy. “But let’s eat pancakes first.” I raise an index finger in the direction of the nearest waitress, a twig-thin brunette with the complexion of a corpse. A pair of fishnets hugs her thighs under a 50’s-style skirt. Her eye makeup is black as death and her lipstick is a shade darker. She pushes her hair back off her neck as she approaches the table and I see it. A studded dog collar. Sparky’s studded dog collar.
A lump rises in my throat as she reaches for her pencil and a tablet of checks. All I want to do is order some pancakes and a side of bacon, but instead I’m gnashing my teeth together and fighting back the warmth from behind my eyes. The waitress takes one look at me—at the veins bulging in my neck and the glaze washing over my skin—and I think she’s ready to call the paramedics. And then I can’t hold on any longer. The diner becomes a watery blur and tears wash down my cheeks in thin streams. Sobs wrack my body. They render my limbs useless until I’m finally aware that I’m a forty-year-old man and I’m crying in front of everyone—the wait staff, the cooks, a roomful of patrons, and my son. Billy. Poor Billy.
When the sobs relinquish, he eyes me and says, “It’ll be okay, Dad. Tugger can take care of himself.”
I smile and ask the waitress for a cup of black coffee to go with my pancakes.