“Have You Seen Lucky?”
by Nathaniel Williams
Iggy sits next to me, curled in a tight circle, on one of the row of plastic Ikea chairs. The vet’s office smells like lilacs, probably from the spray they use to cover the scent of animal pee. It burns my sinuses, but he doesn’t seem bothered.
“Mark,” he says, raising his head, “when we get home tonight, I want to play ball. Crunchy one. Not squeaky one.”
“I know which one you like.”
“Really?” His ears rise.
“You can count on me.”
Iggy is a Labrador-Australian Shepherd mix, with a Lab’s tank-like torso and the Aussie’s splotchy coat and predisposition for heterochromia. His left eye is brown and his right is ice-blue, like David Bowie. I originally wanted to name him
“Bowie” because of this, but was outvoted. Twice.
“I’d like to think I can count on you,” Iggy says, “but I’ve been waiting three whole months for this.”
Actually it’s been ten months. Dogs aren’t so great with time. Even after the operations, they understand patterns and schedules better than duration. Three just means “a lot” to him.
Iggy sighs. His chin rests on crossed paws. When he was a pup, I’d come home and find him in that position, snuggled against Jessica’s leg as she lay in sweatpants and a t-shirt on the couch studying for the MPRE, both of their cuteness factors turned up to eleven.
The vet assistant leads a howling beagle through swinging doors, revealing a a bright orange wall. All the treatment rooms have names based on whatever cartoon animal some local artist painted in them. The Snoopy Room. The Tweety Bird Room. The Marmaduke Anesthesia Recovery Room.
A woman passes us, carrying a fat, white cat with brown-tinged ears and paws that looks like an enormous burned pastry in her arms. Probably their last post-op visit. I see the cochlear scar under her ear, the same kind Jessi and I had before they healed. The cat murmurs.
“Yes, you can chase all the mousies you want,” she coos to it.
“Meeeeeeeee-yow,” Iggy shouts at her. “Wonder how long their honeymoon will last.”
This is the Iggy I’ve dealt with the past ten months. You want a talking dog, pay for the string of operations, and then get nothing but Purina-soaked vitriol.
“Be nice,” I say.
“When have I ever not been nice?”
“I was mad then.”
“Mad doesn’t make it okay.”
“Christ, you’re uptight.”
“Whatever, Lucky,” I say. I know how to get his goat.
He snorts. “When we get home, you won’t go back to calling me Lucky, will you?”
“It’d be awfully disrespectful.”
“I promise. You’re Iggy, Iggy.”
When we got him, Jessica and I settled on the name “Lucky,” a reference a missing dog poster on the back cover of a Replacements record. I wanted “Bowie,” but she won. And, truthfully, lucky was how I felt coming home exhausted from bartending another long day shift to find him and Jessi snuggled together.
We also started calling each other “Mom” and “Dad” in this fake dog voice, a gruff, happy baritone somewhere between Tom Waits and Astro from The Jetsons.
“I ruv roo Mom” I’d say as Lucky jumped on Jessi when she came home.
“Dad rets pray ball!” she’d say when I got one of Lucky’s toys from his basket and he’d sit there wiggling with his tail slapping the linoleum.
After the operation, his voice sounded like a middle-aged schoolteacher with bronchitis, not how we imagined. And he called us “Mark” and “Jessi,” so we went back to calling each other that.
He made us change his name later. Even before, back when he was a puppy, I’d play the Stooges and dance around with him, hands wrapped around his paws, fingers tapping his toenails, taking stagger steps as he balanced on two legs, shouting how I wanted to be his dog, singing along with the record in the made-up dog voice.
But afterward, when his altered senses approximated something closer to a human auditory spectrum, he became obsessed. The Sonics. The Monks. The louder and more abrasive the songs, the better. Kept begging me to put that on the stereo. (Once they learn to speak, they start giving orders.) The Stooges’ Fun House was his favorite. Iggy Pop, his hero.
Halfway through the album one day, he said: “I want you to call me Iggy from now on.” He wouldn’t let up about it, so we switched.
Around that same time, he smashed his second television, a big flat screen Jessica bought to replace the previous one he’d busted. When he was a puppy, we’d leave the TV on so he could hear people’s voices while he was alone. Someone told us that chilled out high-energy dogs. After the operations, it changed. He’d find ways to pull the TV off its stand, so we’d come home to a room full of broken glass and shredded wires.
When I asked him why, he’d say he’d seen things that bothered him. He couldn’t remember. I could guess. Daytime television’s parade of commercials featuring starving children, collapsed geriatrics, and, yes, abused, emaciated shelter dogs played hell on Iggy’s new perceptive capacities. Most humans gradually develop immunity to extreme pathos by adulthood. Iggy found himself thrust into it. He’d grown up incapable of producing words, but still able to express everything he needed. Having words but feeling things that couldn’t easily be put into them, that had to be hell.
Once, I came home from tending bar, and he’d eaten four of Jessica’s business suits, the ones that cost a month’s salary each. We’d left CNN on during a tsunami. TV wasn’t the only culprit. When he shredded the shower curtain and stashed it under our pillows, we learned from our neighbors that the divorcing couple next door had been arguing over custody rights again that afternoon.
People tell you the dogs change after the operation. But in a lot of ways, they don’t. Dogs turn on a dime emotionally. It’s like living with a perpetual thirteen-year-old. No wonder he loves the Stooges.
Another door opens, revealing a room filled with painted blue sky, a smiling pink piggy’s face, and an array of white lines patterned out in concentric arcs. The Charlotte’s Web Room. I wonder again how I’m going to pull this off. Will ten months of savings cover even half? How many months’ worth of tips will go to pay the remainder?
“You think this’ll make Jessi come home,” Iggy says.
I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement.
“Iggy, I’m doing this for you. You said you wanted it.”
The vet assistant calls our names.
“You’ll see,” he says, jumping from the chair. “It’ll be just like before. And don’t forget, when we get home, I want crunchy ball.”
Iggy lopes ahead of me, through the door and into another room that smells of lilacs, without looking back.
Nathaniel Williams‘ fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Jay Lake and Eric Reynolds’ Footprints Anthology, and elsewhere. He is an Associate Member of SFWA and a graduate of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Writers Workshop, taught by James Gunn, Chris McKitterick, and Kij Johnson at the University of Kansas.