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Old 03-14-2010, 01:12 AM
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Devon (Offline)
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Default The Smell of Wet Dog by Owen

The rain hammered the roof of my car. Sighing, I looked at the business card, thumbing it, folding its corners, tapping the dashboard with it. It had lingered in my wallet for weeks, quietly suggesting itself whenever I reached for money, or looked at the photograph. I should have thrown the damned card away, but Suzanne had given it to me, and I'd promised her that I'd think about it. I never break a promise to my sister.

Suzanne told me that her friend Abbey had once endured a similar depression to mine, and that this woman – this nutritional psychologist – had got her through it. I'd never met Abbey, but apparently she'd lost her child in an accident outside a supermarket. Baked beans were involved. Not the usual kind, either. The barbecued ones.

Nutritional psychologist was not a profession I'd heard of, but I doubted she could bring a chink of sunlight into my darkness, regardless of her title.

Switching the engine off, I gazed across the street. Through the raindrops, I saw an obese woman trundle past with a buggy. A small child clung to her arm, waving a teddy bear around, singing with unabashed joy. The song I recognised as the theme from Teletubbies.

“Fuck it,” I muttered. I'd never been so unenthusiastic about an appointment in my entire life – either before or after the darkness had swamped me. Yet, this nutritional psychologist was beckoning me, as if through some magic power imbibed into her card. Opening the car door, I hauled my blubbery mass from the seat, and began trudging through the downpour toward a building. It was an ordinary house, with the exception of a gold plaque next to the doorbell: Maxine Price, Phd. Nutritional Psychologist - specialist, Bereavement Counselling.

My finger hovered over the buzzer. Hesitating, I decided to turn back. It was too late. The door opened in front of me, and a gaunt man walked out, barely acknowledging me as he lit a cigarette and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He muttered something under his breath.

A woman appeared behind him, in the hallway. I smelled her perfume before I saw her face. Estee Lauder. The same scent Annie used to wear, before she-

“Oh, you must be Mr. Bennet! Come in, come in. You'll catch your death out there.”

Maxine Price hooked a well manicured hand around my shoulder and ushered me in, before I had a chance to argue.

“Please,” she said. “Hang your coat and come through. I'll make some coffee and we'll get started.”

It ocurred to me that I had no idea what I was doing. The Teletubbies theme tune played on my mind.

Was it an office? A surgery? A clinic? Whatever it was, it contained bigger-than-average armchairs and several paintings that can only be described as “abstract”.

My backside filled the seat. In fact, it was a bit of a squeeze. Maxine, by comparison, had space for a person either side. Nearby, a coffee machine gurgled.

“Excuse the noise,” she said, flicking through some notes. “I prefer it freshly ground. The anticipation, the smell. The taste. Hmmm. It's worth living for, don't you think?”

Distinctly uncomfortable, I twiddled my thumbs and said nothing. I wasn't a coffee person.

“Ah, that rich aroma," she enthused. "It's the second best smell in the world.”

“And what's the first?”

Maxine laughed, as if I'd asked the most stupid question, with the most obvious answer in the world.

“It's the smell of wet dog, of course!”

Dumbstruck, I allowed my mouth to hang open.

“You like dogs, Mr. Bennet?”

She tossed her notes aside.

“Excuse me?”

“You know; dogs. Four legged flea bags. Woof. Bark. Grrrr. You like them?”

“Actually, I-”

“And broccoli? You like broccoli?”

“Well, I suppose-”

“You do now. You like dogs, and you like broccoli. I'm taking over that decision for you. I'm telling you: You're a dog loving, broccoli eating man. Those two things are going to make you live again.”

I'll admit, her tone shocked me. But then, what had I expected? Compassion? A shoulder to cry on?

“I suppose you expected pity. Well, I don't do pity. It serves only to confirm the hopelessness of a situation. Your situation stinks, Mr. Bennet. But it's not hopeless.”

“I don't know the first thing about dogs. I've never-”

Maxine closed her eyes, raised a finger, and hushed me. The gurgling stopped.

“You like coffee?” she got up, walked to her machine, and pulled two cups from a stack beside it.

“I prefer-”

“You do now. You're a coffee loving, dog loving, broccoli eating man.” She looked me up and down, raising an eyebrow. “And you don't take sugar. Not in your coffee, and not in your food.”

She handed me a cup, and perched on her chair.

“No milk?” I asked, not expecting an answer. And I didn't get one.

“Your life is dark,” she said. “Almost pitch black. But there are lights all around you. You need only to reach out and switch one on.”

A lump formed in my throat. It was obvious she'd done her homework. Read all about me. Spared me the effort of recounting the whole sorry affair. Hell, she'd probably checked my medical history, knew that I used to fit inside size 34 jeans and played football for the pub team. Most likely, Suzanne had filled her in on the rest: The day Annie left me, the moment she glared at me from the passenger seat of His BMW, our daughter strapped into the back seat. A jaded promise of a custody agreement, a smug wink from Him, a roar of wheels on gravel. And then, hours later, a telephone call from the hospital. Him, telling me the catastrophic news from a payphone outside A&E.

“Two years,” Maxine said. Her face softened, her shoulders relaxed, and she finally conceeded an air of sympathy. “You've put on eight and a half stone, in just two years. Tell me, did any of that food soften the blow? Make it easier to cope with your loss?”

“What can I say? Doughnuts. They just won't leave me alone.”

“Sugar. Colestorol. Carbohydrate. Hygrogenated fats. These things are not your saviours, Mr. Bennet. They are The Devil himself, giving you false hope, making you happy one minute, but destroying you the next. They taste good. God knows, they taste good. But the aftertaste isn't on your tongue. It's in your mind. The sharper the burst of serotonin, the more sour the aftertaste of cortisol. The higher the high, the lower the low. You think your life is over now. You've given up. You're padding your body with soft gooey fat, hoping it will ease the impact when you finally fall over the edge.”

Damn this woman. Damn her. My pitiful existence summed up in a few lousy sentences. Her words struck home, twanged my heartstrings, teased tears from my tired eyes. I sat in the oversized chair, in my oversized body, and I cried like a baby.

It felt right that she would hand me a tissue, rub my shoulders, and comfort me. But instead, she handed me a card.

“Here,” she said. “This lady is a friend of mine. Her name is Linda. She works for the southern district RSPCA. I've already told her you're coming. Linda is expecting you in half an hour. She can help you out. You don't have to fall, Mr. Bennet. You don't need the extra padding. In fact, you are the extra padding.”

None the wiser, I pushed the card into my wallet.

“Half an hour?” I wiped my eyes. “But, I don't even-”

“It's just down the road from here. You can pop into Tesco's on the way. They have a special offer on broccoli this week. I suggest you take advantage. They don't usually discount their fresh vegetables.”

Blinking, I waited for Maxine to say more. But the nutritional psychologist sipped her coffee in silence.

“Is that it?” I asked. “That's your expert advice? Eat more broccoli and go see a woman about a dog?”

She looked at her watch.

“I'm sorry, but I have another appointment. Would you mind?”

With some difficulty, I pulled myself up. An imprint of my buttocks remained on the cushion. Unsure of what had taken place, I moved to shake Maxine's hand. Politeness, I thought, was all I could offer. She took my hand and shook it firmly.

“You should know, nutrition isn't about what you eat. It's about what you think. The rest is a mere symptom. Poor health usually starts in your head, and works its way down.”

My response was going to be a grudging query about the cost of our little conversation. Maxine read my mind.

“Oh, your sister has already paid. Please, come back and see me at the same time next week. I will need an update about the dog, and about the broccoli.”

She showed me out of her house without another word.

What was I feeling? Confusion? Anger? Frustration? It certainly wasn't resolution, or anything close. Perhaps it was the bitter-sweet taste of reality, hitting my taste buds for the first time in two years.

It was still raining. I thought of barbecued beans and teddy bears as I drove to the southern district RSPCA facility.

Having met and talked briefly with Linda, I filled in some forms and emerged with a six-year-old mongrel. I couldn't possibly know what mixed breeds he had descended from, but he was a humble beast with pathetic eyes and a tail that wagged non-stop. Linda told me that my new companion had no official name, but I could call it anything I wanted.

My suggestion was Dave, for no other reason than it started with a D. Dave the Dog. It seemed logical. Linda supported my idea, and requested that Dave be visited once a month by their inspectors until he had settled in. She gave me instructions to take Dave for walkies at least twice a day.

Yet again, I had no idea what I was doing, but found myself doing it anyway.

In Tesco, I purchsed some stalks of broccoli, six tins of dog food, and an overpriced squeaky toy.

Feeling a tad embarassed, I didn't wish to be seen in public with Dave. It seemed that experienced dog owners would look at me with disdain, see me for the incompetent fool that I really was. What gives Mr. Fat the right to look after a dog, they'd say. He can't even look after himself, they'd say. He couldn't look after his wife, or his daughter. They're dead because of him, and that poor dog is doomed, they'd say.

I considered what Maxine Price had said about the best smell in the world.

Dave travelled in the back seat, peering over my shoulder as I drove. We went twenty miles out of town, toward the coast. Here, the rain was harder and colder, driven by a North Sea breeze and supplemented by spray from the crashing waves. It was a fair assumption that the beach would be deserted on a day like this; there would be no critical eyes, judging me.

Putting Dave on a leash, I set about an endless walk, alongside the waves. With blind obedience, Dave kept up with my pace, tail wagging, tongue lolling. Now and then, he'd look up at me, expectantly.

My rolls of fat did nothing to keep me warm. But I don't think I wanted heat. I wanted to be cold. I wished for my bones to freeze. I yearned for ice to run loose in my blood. The bite of frozen rain would awaken me, punish me, and numb my other pains.

The walkies lasted an hour or so before my weight got the better of me. Wheezing, coughing, crying with every step, I marched on, in defiance. Eventually, my aching thighs demanded I take a break. So I stopped. Turning to face the sea, I gazed into it, transfixed. Beside me, Dave sat, joining my search for answers. None came.

Plunging my frozen hands into my pockets, I felt something soft. It squeaked.

Dave whimpered, and looked at me.

Pulling out the toy, I examined it, felt its plastic cheapness. When I squeezed it again, Dave got to his feet, running excited circles around me. The wind seemed to pick up, but the rain eased a bit.

Dave looked into my eyes, and I looked into his. There, I saw a darkness, perhaps not unlike mine. And a desperate yearning to chase that squeaky plastic bastard into those waves.

I threw it as hard as I could. Dave barked excitedly before fleeing his leash and running after it. He swam without thinking, as if by primal instinct, fighting through the maelstrom of white foam and noise, doing all in his power to retrieve this object, this cheap plastic thing.

The rain stopped. Dave momentarily lost sight of the toy. A few yards into the water, he turned his head and barked at me. Without even realising it, I laughed. Yes, I actually laughed. Dave barked again, catching sight of the toy bobbing up and down nearby. He went for it.

Doggie protocol states that you must wait for the animal to retrieve a thrown object and return it to you. But I was new at this, and rules did not concern me.

Still laughing, I threw off my jacket and braved the stormy waters with him.
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