portion of the artwork for Nadine Darling's flash fiction

Nadine Darling

“I would suggest a terrier for this kind of thing,” said the man. “They tend to be less judgmental."

“The dog will judge me?” asked Cal, a bit frantically. Already he did not like being there, in the shelter, with its mingled smells of primal filth and chemical clean, its cocktail of Lysol and shit.

“Not in the way we know it, but, yes, there will be an element of judgment. This depends upon the breed. A Lab or a German Shepherd, well, these are very intelligent animals. Their level of disdain increases with their intelligence.”

“I guess that’s fair,” said Cal.

“Well, you can’t blame them. They can handle jobs that would kill a man. The meandering trifles of our lives … well, just imagine how ridiculous they must seem to a dog of that caliber.”

Cal imagined a dog of that caliber, warm before a roaring fire in a fine parlor, wearing a smoking jacket. Perhaps it was licking its own asshole.

“I don’t want to be judged by a dog,” he said.

“Which is what I’m saying,” said the man, pleased. “The important thing is that you get the help that you need.”

* * *

The dog was a terrier mix, maybe Fox Terrier and Brittany Spaniel, about 25 pounds and black and white. His eyes shone with kindness and curiosity, if not the great, judgmental intelligence of its Lab and German Shepherd counterparts. Its name was Ralph. Upon meeting, he rooted his snout around Cal’s crotch with great vigor.

“Down, Ralph,” said Cal.

“You’ll have to be firmer than that,” said the man, “if you expect him to be trained.”

Yes, training. Training was very important. If the websites were to be believed, DOG PLUS IMPAIRMENT DOES NOT EQUAL A MENTAL HEALTH SERVICE DOG, and that was reasonable, albeit loud.

“DOWN, RALPH,” said Cal. Everyone flinched.

“Don’t be an asshole about it,” said the man, scratching Ralph between the ears protectively. “He’s here to help you.”

* * *

He’d heard about the concept of mental health service dogs in a magazine in the doctor’s office. It was one of the magazines that Lorraine used to pile on the tank of the toilet next to the air freshener, the kind with the covers that always showed a smiling woman who had just lost or gained a great deal of weight. There was an actress, in the magazine he’d read, who’d gone through a very bad divorce and had managed to stay thin and also alive with the help of her trained anxiety dog.

The breakup was like a whirlwind, said the actress. I did not know who I was anymore. Clover helps me remember.

The interview was accompanied by pictures of the actress and a gray, fluffy mutt in normal, non-hysterical situations. Reading together in an overstuffed armchair.

Enjoying a late afternoon salad at an outdoor cafe, the dog snoozing peacefully at her feet. Cal had stared at these pictures until his eyes blurred with tears. He said words aloud, maybe they had been “Lorraine,” or “soon,” and the woman next to him in the waiting room stood and spoke to the receptionist in such an urgent manner that she was allowed to wait in an examination room.

* * *

Ralph was not toilet trained. He was a rescue from Puerto Rico. He disliked loud noises, even not-so-loud ones. On his first night at Cal’s house, Ralph spent a great deal of time barking at the blender. None of this made Cal feel less anxious. He did not, however, call Lorraine that night, not even to hear her angry breath and one of her three angry phrases: God, really? You have got to be kidding me. Next time I call the cops, Calvin.

The dog smelled bad, even for a dog, but something in that gave Cal a great deal of comfort. It certainly made him seem hygienic by comparison. He stopped running the lights and watching television, or maybe the electricity was turned off—one of the two. He lied with the dog in the dark on his unmade bed and sometimes he would talk about the divorce. It was like a whirlwind. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

After about a week of missed work, a couple of cops came around to see if he was alive. He didn’t open the door, but Ralph barked and spun and this was funny. Comforting and funny. He was a strange dog. The cop hammered at the door with his meaty fist, and said Cal’s name and also his last name.

It would not be so long before he and Ralph were at their little table at that outdoor cafe, he thought, currently cocooned within the George Jones song of his life. After training, you know, things would start to fall into place. Further training was required.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 43 | Spring 2014