• The Song of the Sirens

    Valerie Reed Hickman

    Winter 2020

    Marlene and Douglas get the call from the pet rescue one morning in late September. When they get home with the dog, there’s a woman carrying boxes into the other half of the duplex. Marlene guesses she’s in her fifties; lean, her silvering hair cut close, classically butch, in jeans and a button-up shirt. Scuffed black shoes. Her face weathered, her mouth taut, the tendons on her hands vivid.

    They never speak to each other. At most the woman nods if they pass in the driveway. Douglas comes into the kitchen and says, Are you watching that old woman again? and Marlene says, I wouldn’t call her old.

    One evening there’s a knock at the front door. The dog barks frantically from the kitchen, trying to climb over the gate they’ve set up. Marlene is on the sofa with her ninth graders’ Romeo and Juliet quizzes; when she opens the door, the woman is there holding an envelope. I got a piece of your husband’s mail, the woman says, her voice a cool alto. Oh, we’re not married, says Marlene, taking the envelope and feeling herself go red. The woman shrugs. All right, she says. Her eyes are blue-gray.

    Marlene says, We haven’t been introduced. I’m Marlene. All right, the woman says again. The dog’s barks are alternating with long, high whines now, underlined by the rattling sound of the gate. Marlene glances behind her. Sorry about that, she says. She’s always so interested in new people.

    The dog is hard to get used to. Marlene keeps tripping on the crate at the foot of the bed, and Douglas says he doesn’t have time to make breakfast anymore because he needs to take the dog for a walk. There’s cereal, he says, nodding at the cupboard. Marlene is constantly surprised to encounter the small body pacing anxiously at Douglas’s feet or lying in the doorway of whatever room he’s in.

    They go out to dinner, and when they come back the dog runs straight past Marlene, wriggling and leaping at Douglas. I don’t think she likes me, says Marlene. Don’t be silly, he says, trying to pet the dog’s anxious head. Trixie, go see Marlene, he says, pointing. Go on! The dog yips and trots past Marlene out of the room.

    When Douglas first suggested getting a dog, Marlene had pictured something large and subdued—maybe a Saint Bernard or an elderly golden retriever. But when they finally visited the pet rescue, the dog that ran up to Douglas was small and frenetic. Who is this good girl? Douglas said, crouching down. Who is this very good girl? Marlene looked at the label on the pen. Trixie, Female, Miniature Australian Shepherd Mix. A miniature, she said. I thought we wanted something bigger. Douglas’s fingers were embedded behind the dog’s ears. We talked about that, he said, nodding. But a small one would be easier to take care of. I think we should put in an application for this one. The animal’s bright, manic eyes were fixed on Douglas’s face.

    He’d been talking about a dog for months. They’d been at the rental office signing the lease on the duplex, and he’d said, Hey, look, this place allows pets. A week after they moved in, he suggested they go down to the rescue. Marlene looked at the boxes blocking the doorway, the extension cord snaking across the middle of the room. I don’t think we’re ready for a dog, she said. Two weeks later Douglas came up from stowing the last of the empty boxes in the basement and said, How about now? How about what now? Marlene asked.

    She told herself it was the logical next step. First you move in together, then you get a dog, then it’s marriage and kids and a mortgage on some three-bedroom ranch until, presumably, death do you part. She’s been living with Douglas for more than two years already; closer to three if you count all the time he spent at her apartment when they were first dating, a little pile of his clothes gradually accumulating next to the dying peace lily in her living room. You know you have to water this sometimes, right? Douglas asked her the first time he came over, tipping his Nalgene into the oversized pot. She’d inherited the plant from an ex-boyfriend; he had asked her to take care of it while he was out of town, and then they broke up and stopped speaking to each other, and she was stuck with it. I should’ve thrown that thing out a long time ago, she said, but she smiled at the way Douglas bent tenderly over the leaves.

    They’d met at a Labor Day cookout at somebody’s house; he brought her a beer, and they sat together in a corner of the lawn. He was pleasant to talk to, seemed interested in anything she had to say. The ease of being with him was a novelty. He apologized for what, to her, were the littlest things—the clothes on the floor, the way he always left a spoonful of leftovers in the container. In bed, he was clean and efficient. Polite.

    The novelty wore off, but the pleasantness remained. She thought: this must be what married life is like.

    Lately they’ve started slowing down when they walk past the Zales at the mall, eyeing the rows of rings under glass. It’s always Douglas who instigates this, but she likes to look, too. She likes to imagine the sense of completion that will no doubt come over her when the ring slides down her finger toward her heart.

    At first, Douglas leaves work every few hours to come home and check on the dog; then one day he takes her with him instead. She can sleep next to my desk, he says, it’ll be fine. But that night he comes home chagrined. No dogs in the office, he says. And I’m missing my quotas. Maybe you could check on her instead, during your free period. I work during my free periods, says Marlene. Just because I’m not in class—. Okay, okay, he says.

    The next night, Marlene comes home to a pool of urine on the kitchen floor, a hole chewed into the bag of dog food. When Douglas arrives, Trixie is tied to her stake in the backyard. She’s being punished, says Marlene, walking out to where Douglas is unclipping the lead from the dog’s collar. She doesn’t understand, he says. She’s not like a kid you can just send to her room. He cuddles the dog to his chest and says into her fur, She didn’t know she was being bad, did she? Did she?

    As soon as he puts the dog back down, she bolts toward the far edge of the yard. Sit, Trixie, he calls after her. Trixie, come! To be fair, says Marlene, I wouldn’t answer to Trixie either. Maybe we should rename her. Douglas looks at Marlene. Trixie is her name, he says. You can’t just change it.

    There’s the sound of a screen door opening, and Marlene looks up to see the woman coming out with a bag of trash. The dog makes a beeline for her. Trixie, no! Douglas shouts. Sit! Stay! The woman offers her fingertips to the dog’s snuffling nose, holding the trash at arm’s length. Sorry, says Marlene, sorry. The woman looks up. It’s all right, she says, I don’t mind. Marlene can hardly stand her gaze. Once, Douglas asked her how she knew which women weren’t straight, and she said, I can tell by their eyes.

    Do you think she works? asks Douglas one day, coming up behind Marlene while she stands at the kitchen window watching the woman rinse a plastic tub in the driveway. I never see her leave, he says. I guess she might be retired. Marlene is thinking about a woman she had a crush on once, an infatuation so intense that when she saw her she would feel her chest constrict. She’d been at the end of things with Annie then and had acted as if it was because of that other woman that they were breaking up, even though they’d begun breaking up long before. She’d asked herself: How can I settle down now when the world is still so full of possibility?

    Nothing had come of the crush. She’d mooned after the other woman for a few months before losing interest. It was then that she met the man with the peace lily, which was flourishing when she first saw it.

    On the weekends, Douglas likes to drive Trixie to the dog park or a hiking trail on the other side of town. When he asks Marlene to join them, she says she has grading to do and curls up in her chair. Eventually she says, Could we do something together this weekend? Just the two of us? Douglas looks surprised. Like what? he says. I don’t know, says Marlene. Let’s go to a movie or something. Sure, says Douglas, okay.

    They leave late for the movie because Douglas can’t get the dog to come inside, and then there’s traffic. I hate this, says Marlene, I hate being in a rush. Don’t worry, we have plenty of time, says Douglas, as if he’s never felt a sense of urgency about anything. Pulling into the theater parking lot, they have to wait to let a woman cross in front of them. Hey, how about her? Douglas says. This is something he does: tries to pick out women Marlene would date. It’s fun, he told her once, both of us checking out women together. Don’t you think it’s fun? The man with the peace lily used to say to her: but now that you’ve tried both, I mean, it’s better with men, right? That isn’t the way it works, she told him, and he laughed. Sure it is, he said.

    Marlene sighs, follows Douglas’s gaze. The woman has long, straight blonde hair, a skirt that stops halfway to her knees, stiletto heels. Not my type, she says. She waits for him to say, Well, what is your type, but he just shrugs. Too bad, he says. She’s cute.

    They get to their seats just as the previews are ending. Afterwards they go for dinner at a burger place with TVs braced in every corner, a different football game playing on each. Oh, by the way, Douglas says, shaking a bottle of ketchup, I talked to our new neighbor. She’s an artist. A painter.

    What? says Marlene. You talked to her?

    He shrugs. Sure, he says. She doesn’t bite.

    Did you just go up and ask her what she does all day?

    He laughs. No, of course not. We had a talk about the trash. Haven’t you noticed how she’s been filling up the can? There’s no room left for our stuff. She told me painting produces a lot of waste. I said we needed some room in there, too.

    And? says Marlene.

    He shrugs again. We’ll see.

    When they get home they find the remains of a rotisserie chicken spread across the kitchen floor, the dog gnawing on a leg bone that she’s trapped under one paw. Trixie! says Douglas. He rushes to pull the bone away, and she gives a little growl, grabbing the joint at the other end and bracing her hind legs ineffectively against the linoleum. Trixie, no, it’s not a game! he says. This is dangerous for you, okay? He grabs her jaw with one hand and pries the bone out of her mouth with the other. Marlene watches from the doorway. I think your explanation might be going over her head, she says. He frowns at her, puts all the chicken parts into the garbage, ties up the bag. He points to it and looks at Trixie. No, okay? he says. No. He weighs the lid of the trash can down with a skillet.

    The next morning, he takes the trash outside, the dog bounding after him. A second later Marlene hears him swear and puts her head out the back door. He’s standing next to the overflowing bin, the bag still in his hand. What am I supposed to do with this? he asks. With his free hand he pulls out strips of canvas, dirty rags, sealed-up coffee cans. He sniffs one of the rags and makes a face. These probably shouldn’t even be in here, he says.

    A screen door squeaks, and they turn to see the woman standing in her doorway. The dog trots over to her. Hey, listen, says Douglas, I don’t want to be rude, but—

    The woman disappears into her side of the house and returns a minute later with an empty garbage bag. She walks over to where Douglas is standing, the dog trailing behind her, and silently begins filling the bag. When she’s done she looks into the half-empty bin, looks at the trash in Douglas’s hand, looks at Douglas. He puts his bag in the bin. She turns and walks inside, taking her bag with her. The dog follows her as far as the door.

    Douglas says, Well, now I feel like an asshole. He looks at Marlene. I wasn’t wrong, he says. No, she says. The trash bin is for all of us, he says. It is, says Marlene. But she feels ashamed, looking up to where the woman was.

    Somewhere down the street another dog barks. Trixie’s ears go up. The dog barks again, and Trixie takes off running. Douglas calls after her, but she’s already vanished around the corner. Come on, says Douglas to Marlene. She watches him sprint across the driveway and into the street. She looks over her shoulder, half hoping the woman will be standing at her door, but there is no one.

    She finds Douglas and Trixie in a yard two blocks away, facing each other down. Trixie is almost close enough for Douglas to grab, but every time he lunges, she jogs a few steps farther away and then turns back toward him, her face expectant. Can you try to, I don’t know, get behind her or something? he says to Marlene. She makes a wide circle, but the dog keeps backing up. Trixie, says Douglas, come on, come home. We have treats. The dog wags her back end at the word treats. He crouches down and holds out his hand to her, as if he were meeting her for the first time. Trixie, says Douglas. Please.

    When they’re finally back home, the dog crunching noisily in her food bowl, Douglas says, I can’t understand why she would run away like that. Doesn’t she know that we love her? That we rescued her? Marlene says, Maybe she didn’t want to be rescued.

    Valerie Reed Hickman lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. 

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing