There Will Be No Puppy
by Patrick Doerksen
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
We canvassed for half an hour, and the night darkened further. Rain clouds edged in, wind speed increased. Somewhere, someone was yelling for their kid to get clear of a landing delivery drone. I was impatient. I’d reached quota, but I was still waiting for that one special customer.
We came to a house with no lawn, no vehicle, only one dim light in the window and a few shifting shadows.
The first thing, post-doorbell ring, was the dog. It’s always the dog, when there is one, but this time it really startled me. There was an uncanny fullness to the bark, an amplified distress. The dog was barking at the resonant frequency of the window.
When I realized that, an uncanny feeling took hold of me. Did the dog know what it was doing? Had it adjusted the pitch of its bark in some ingenious effort to claim the hidden acoustic advantage? Yes, it seemed so. It seemed to be pleading.
Finally, I detected non-canine motion and readied myself.
The man who opened the door looked forty-something, and yet had that embarrassed-without-cause look I’ve only seen on timid teens. He was unshaven, and not in any intentional, covertly groomed way. His hair was a mess, and he was wearing plaid pyjama bottoms. Basically, he was the kind of guy you immediately felt sorry for. The kind of guy that would definitely not make an appointment for a CamXsystem Plus free trial.
He said — more to himself than us — “Who’s that, tapping, tapping at my chamber door?” Then he just stood on the threshold, tilting a little.
Well, I cleared my throat, but nothing came out. The proverbial cat had made off with the bleeding stub of my tongue. I colored, feeling the loss of language like a missing appendage.
“SoftTECH,” said the man finally, reading my ID.
“Uh... good evening, sir,” I said. “SoftTECH is offering — uh — a promotional on the new CamXsystem Plus. Maybe you’re wondering—”
“Camek system what?”
“Plus,” I said, relived by the question and recovering a little. “I was just about to say, maybe you’re wondering what that ‘Plus’ is doing there? Well—”
“I’m sorry. I’ve... I’ve been away,” said the man, rubbing the back of his neck.
I looked at Harriet. No help there. “The new CamXsystem Plus,” I continued quickly, “is quieter and more energy efficient, has an even faster run time than previous models, and—”
“Wait, hold on, it’s chilly. Come in, come in.”
I’ve said that half of success is knowing when you’re wasting your time. “Well...” I started to say.
But he gestured impatiently and grunted, “Damn wind. You’re letting it all in.” So we stepped into the landing, where he signalled for us to leave our shoes on.
“When I was a kid, I hated the wind like you would hate a person,” he said, shaking his head pleasantly. He looked much more comfortable now that the door was closed and he could turn his back on us for a moment to head up the stairs. We followed. At the top, we remained in the living room while he continued into the kitchen. Was he starting the kettle?
Everywhere in the house were the tell-tale signs of the recluse, too many to go through. I will mention the two cats. I will mention the stacks and stacks of yellowing books. And I will mention his villainously strong body odour. It was so strong that at one point he noticed me noticing it, and said, “Where’s the febreze?” though the short search that followed was unconvincing.
Also, there were empty soup cans all the way up the stairs, on the coffee table, sofa, bookshelf and carpet. It was like a plague of massive cylindrical bugs that had descended, shed their skins and buzzed off again. Ah, and look — there was the can opener between the couch cushions. I’m ashamed, but my thought was, that should be an innocuous household item, and yet how he’d hurt if I stole it.
“Is Jasmine okay?” he called from the kitchen.
Too late. There he was, bustling out with a cast-iron pot and three stubby mugs, true Japanese style or something.
Assume the close, assume the close, said Boss.
“You know, we’re really just here about the new CamXsystem,” I said.
The man sensed his presumption, hesitated. “Right. Uh... tell me about this promotional.”
Well, being polite, I did. Being polite, I gave him the whole pitch, even took out the tablet I keep in my backpack and showed him. The way he marvelled at the hologram was a little strange, but I just kept talking, describing all the features and possible upgrades, getting it all over with so that he’d have no questions and we could get out of there and on to the next house.
When I had put the tablet away again, there was a silence like the pause between the fan-cycle of some huge processor.
“Okay, okay,” he said then. “But I mean, you haven’t really told me what you do with it.”
I stared. This guy is asking what you do with it?
“Uh... it’s just like the Braze-Plan or the iHatch. Same principle.”
“You know,” I said. “Like any old domestic-autonomic. I mean how else do you get connected?”
He shook his head, bewildered. I looked to the top corners of the room: no mod-units, nothing. Well. “Look,” I said quickly, nervously, “I’m sorry I didn’t stop you making the tea; I didn’t think... Anyway, we really need to be going. There are neighbours of yours who might want the free trial...”
I saw his eyebrows and shoulders droop, and stopped.
“I’ll be honest with you two,” he said quietly. “I’m not in a good way at the moment.”
You’re out of soup cans? I wanted to say. Instead I nodded empathetically. “No worries, no worries. It is a free trial, but don’t feel obliged or anything. Though if you’re not interested, we really need to be—”
“That’s not what I meant,” said the man, staring perfectly halfway between Harriet and me, and gave a sigh. It was like a heavy shifting of old trees in a gale, and afterwards there was a hush.
Harriet poured herself some of the tea that was growing cold and took a loud sip. The wind whipped at the windows, found no traction, left, tried again, howled in frustration. Discomfort levels climbed.
At last, he gave a little moan. “I shouldn’t have invited you in,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s just, I’m so... I’m so lonely. Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No, we’re sorry,” I said uneasily and stood. But he looked frightened. You’re not about to leave? his eyes said.
“Listen,” I began slowly, hating Harriet’s gaze, hating her tea-sipping. “We’re just in sales. We’re just canvassers. I don’t... I don’t know what you want us to do. We could call someone?”
Feeble, I know.
Harriet took another slurp and started stroking one of the cats. It was a tabby, with eyes like weak beams. It looked like a defeated cat.
“I used to pray that everyone in the world would always be happy,” the man said. “It was the best thing I could think of to pray.”
“Yeah?” I said.
The man poured himself some tea, encouraged. “I’ve been reading a lot of religious philosophy. Kierkegaard. Rumi. Dostoyevsky. Trying to understand.” Then he looked at Harriet and me, his eyes filled with a distant emotion I found hard to place. “Because it turns out that’s about the worst thing someone could pray.”
I nodded. I stood there awkwardly.
“There’s a poem I just discovered, and it’s been on my mind all day. I want you to hear it.”
“Okay,” I said. Pushover pushover pushover.
“Just... wait one moment while I find it.” He got up, looked at us as if to confirm that we would indeed stay where we were, and darted out of the room.
I sat back down on the couch and shrieked inside. And it was here, stewing in my impatience, that I remembered the guy’s dog, the one that barked at the resonant frequency of the window.
Suddenly its absence swelled.
I wondered, why hadn’t we heard it bark? Even once? Did the guy lock it in a room? And: was that suspicious? It was important, I felt; I thought of the puppy I wanted to get Olivia and knew there had to be a connection there somewhere, symbolic maybe, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I turned to Harriet, wondering if she had also noticed the general lack of barking, snuffling, and other dog-related sounds. She was staring at me, the tiny Japanese tea cup perched right under her chin.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
Deadpan, her cranberry lips and demure eyelids set to full bitch-face, she said, “So, are you going to make this sale?”
“There’s no sale here.”
“Oh, no? It was my impression that that’s what we were doing here: selling product.” She put a nasty emphasis on the last words, and I was suddenly afraid she might report me to Boss. Ridiculous; it was my own time I was wasting. My own time. My own money.
The man came back clutching a book that looked as if it had been sat upon a thousand times. He did not return to the sofa, but stood on the line where the living room became the kitchen. He looked pleased at our being there, seated, ready to listen, and without any preamble began to read. To tell the truth, though, I only paid attention to the last few lines:
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.
The man did not look up at us right away, but seemed lost in the lingering implications, as though the poem were not yet done but its last lines were composed of silence.
“Selfhood...” he murmured, beginning to tremble. As though tears were on the way, maybe? As though there were some great emotion in him heretofore subdued, undetectable, and now breaking out of his bones? “What’s the worst thing in all existence?” he said quietly. “Is it sickness? Is it grief? Hatred? Misery? No, it’s something else. Something nobody notices. Something—”
Then, right there, where the man seemed poised on the verge of some incomprehensible insight, he seemed to grow insecure and looked up at us. “You’re tuning out, aren’t you?”
I did nothing but blink.
He shook his head, his gritty, tangled hair bouncing against his scruff. “No one wants to get metaphysical these days. Why the aversion? What’s it mean?” He looked up at me then, and I saw something taking shape in his eyes. An expectation. He wanted something from me.
“Jensen,” he said, reading my ID. “Do you have a passion, Jensen?” You could see he very badly wanted me to have a passion.
“Sure,” I said.
Harriet sipped her cold tea.
“I was a psychology major in college,” I continued. I could see it on his face, hope rapidly draining like a fuel leak from a commercial plane at 30,000 feet. “I believe in technology. I believe that it can connect people” — Is there a segue here? God let there be a segue — “and I believe in the company I work for, which is doing just that. In fact, the reason we’re here—” But I stopped short, because I had caught a glimpse of his face.
“You’re a shallow man, Jensen,” he said.
It stunned me. Time jammed on something, and as the man shook his head bitterly I felt that he did so in a kind of void. Everything in the room stood still for observation. I felt Harriet’s amusement, her nauseating eyes on me. I felt the man’s condescension, his frustration.
“A shallow, shallow man,” he said again. “Incapable of... saving anybody.”
I knew then how desperate this man was; I think I even knew how close to the edge he was, the edge, I mean. So perhaps that makes what happened next a turning point. It was not too late to salvage things; I could have stayed longer, given this guy what he needed, sacrificed the rest of my night and, no big deal, it was only one night.
Maybe even a part of me was pushing for this. But the louder part was telling me that it was not only one night, it was the night, and that if I got out of there in time I could still find that one person, I could still get Olivia her puppy. And I wanted so badly to get her a puppy.
I stood up. “Sir.” It came out clipped, simonized, and surprised me. The man looked up, his eyes tiger-fierce. “I haven’t read Kirk-a-whatever. The only poetry I know is ‘The Raven,’ and only because Boss keeps a printout in the canvassers’ office. But I can do something for you. I can set up a free trial of this new CamXsystem, and I think that would really help you.”
His face did this thing, like Did you just piss on my carpet? And there was all his arrogance, all his condescension on full display now.
Very calmly, not at all how I felt, I said, “If you are not interested, sir, I will be going.”
“I don’t even know what that damn thing is,” he said.
“If you don’t know, I’m not sure I could explain. But look. Just try it. That’s the best way. Let the CamXsystem explain itself.”
“Look at you, you shallow, selfish kid,” he said, thrusting a finger at me. “Even right now, when there stands before you a man in full despair, you’re thinking of making a sale. You’re not a man. You’re an advertisement, a walking advertisement!”
I counted five seconds. “So I’m to understand you don’t want the free trial?”
I did not wait for his face to express whatever emotion was in process; nor did I wait for Harriet. I was down those soup-can-littered stairs and out the door like loose stool. The street was congealed now with darkness and the wind seemed to whip it about like water. It was fast, vicious; it nearly stole my binder. To hate the wind as you’d hate a person — yes, that made sense.
I zipped my jacket right up, and there, out on the street again, striding purposely forward, I started to shake violently. Because I knew what was going to happen now.
I knew it right away, I don’t know how. I clutched my bag fast to my chest and, with it, my whole being, trying, I guess, to hold myself physically together. Before it even happened I began justifying myself. I wasn’t equipped for this crap, no way! I thought as I walked, hands trembling, heels heavy and unsure, like stilts on the cement.
I heard Harriet’s quick footsteps behind me. I did not want her to catch up, not now, not in five minutes, not ever, and I quickened my pace, head down. I wasn’t equipped. No freaking way. I couldn’t be expected to—
The house contained the bang of the gun poorly, as a clasping hand contains a grenade. It was a horrible sound, like the falling of a great tree, the roots snapping like harp strings, like arteries. The whole street would have heard it, concerned parents leaning out the window with their phones, 911 already dialled. I stopped in mid-stride, lost my balance, ended up on a freshly mown lawn. There followed a sickening, ringing silence.
Then a dog began to bark. His dog. Yes, and a window began to vibrate.
Hate me if you like, but my first thought on hearing that dog’s desperate yelping was: Oh, Olivia, I’m hopeless, there will be no puppy.
Copyright © 2017 by Patrick Doerksen