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Gone to the Dogsby Mary Guterson
Rena never meant to steal her ex-boyfriend's dog. She was just casually driving by his new house, taking stock of his new life, when the dog invited himself into her car...Okay, so she stole the dog. But how could Brian, her boyfriend of seven years (not to mention "unofficial" fiancé), have done this to her? Fallen off the face of the earth, only to… See more details below
Rena never meant to steal her ex-boyfriend's dog. She was just casually driving by his new house, taking stock of his new life, when the dog invited himself into her car...Okay, so she stole the dog. But how could Brian, her boyfriend of seven years (not to mention "unofficial" fiancé), have done this to her? Fallen off the face of the earth, only to resurface with a gorgeous, live-in girlfriend and live-in dog? Honestly, a girl can only take so much. Besides, how could a yellow lab as great as this one be happy living with those two very bad people?
Unfortunately, being a dog-napper is the least of Rena's problems. Her mother's dating a "potential" serial killer, her sister's having an identity crisis and she's the target of one hopeless fix-up after another--most recently, the highly moral Chuck, who just happens to know all about Rena's dog-napping escapades. If Rena wants to straighten things out, she'll have to face up to the choices she's made, the dreams she's put on hold, and the man who broke her heart.
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Gone to the Dogs
By Mary Guterson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Mary Guterson
All rights reserved.
The first time I caught sight of the former Tilly was on a Sunday in early September, the same Sunday I'd been invited to brunch at my mother's. I wasn't looking forward to this particular Sunday brunch, and not only because my mother can't make toast, much less any of the brunchlike items one would normally expect to be served when invited to a meal scheduled for midday Sunday. No. It's that in all my life, I'd never heard my mother say the words Sunday brunch before. Sunday, yes. Brunch, she may have uttered once or twice in her fifty-eight years. But never the two words together. So I knew something was up.
My mother is the last of the great matchmakers. Show her an unattached human of any size, shape, age, or intellect, and her mind will start ticking immediately as she browses the mental files of other unattached humans she keeps stashed in her brain for her matchmaking purposes. Nothing makes her happier than to bring together two otherwise lost and lonely souls. No matter that the lost and lonely souls may be enjoying their lost and lonely status and have no want of a lifelong mate or even a date for Sunday brunch. Mother knows best. Odd souls need each other whether they want each other or not.
Especially odd daughter souls.
Sure enough, on that morning in September, I walked into her house to find a strange man in a beige sweater and metal-framed glasses sitting on her living room sofa, a man I did my best not to look at. His glasses were the oversize aviator kind, and he had a mustache and black hair combed neatly over his forehead. He looked exactly like a serial killer.
"Mother," I said.
She was in the kitchen, poking her finger at something pie-shaped, wrapped in layers of tinfoil, on the oven shelf.
"Not quite done," she said, slamming the oven door shut.
"Who is the serial killer in the living room?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
If one sentence could sum up an entire mother/daughter relationship, my mother had just spoken it.
My mother didn't look like my mother. Usually, my mother dresses exactly like the ample-bodied, former hippie, current social worker that she is: drapey pants, tunic tops in earthy tones, woven scarves, a pair of flats. But today she'd traded in her normal attire for something else altogether — a knee-length navy skirt, a fitted white blouse unbuttoned enough to display a dramatic peek of maternal cleavage, and most surprising of all, a pair of leather boots that looked to be uncomfortably squeezing the tops of her calves. She resembled a schoolgirl, albeit one who had flunked a few dozen times. I didn't say a word — just because my mother never missed an opportunity to comment on my appearance didn't mean I had to stoop to her level. I only looked at her. Intensely. Had she lost her mind?
"What?" she said, as if she didn't know.
"Oh, nothing," I said.
I've learned from long experience that it's best to avoid all possible conflict-causing topics with my mother. Which probably explains why we never talk. How it is that my mother shows daily understanding for unwed teenage mothers while never managing to show an ounce of understanding for me is a conundrum I prefer not to analyze.
She pulled a big glass bowl of lettuce greens from the refrigerator and set it on the counter.
"Are your hands clean?" she asked me.
"I'm not interested in him."
"No one told you to be interested in anybody."
"Good. I'm glad that's clear."
"Toss the salad, would you?"
I said I would and she said to wash my hands first and I said thanks for reminding me, otherwise I might have forgotten. I sliced up a tomato and threw it over the lettuce.
"His name is Ronald," my mother said. "Be nice to him."
"I'm always nice."
Right then my sister, Alicia, walked in wearing a new wig. One with long bangs and a little flip at the shoulders. Very sixties.
"Hi, Rena," she said to me. And then she winked.
"I know. Serial killer," I said.
"He's not that bad."
"You take him, then."
"I'm spoken for."
Which was the truth. Alicia, who calls herself Aviva, has been married to her eye doctor husband, Aryeh — formerly Alan — for nine years now. They have five kids. Five. And I don't believe they are finished repopulating the world. Fortunately, that morning she'd left all of those five kids at home with Aryeh.
"It's kosher, right?" Alicia asked, pointing at the oven. She gave my mother's schoolgirl getup a quick glance up and down but expertly refrained from either making a face or commenting. Instead she only threw me a questioning look, to which I replied with a shrug of my shoulders. We've had similar nonverbal conversations for as long as I can remember. We may be four years apart in age (Alicia is the older one), not to mention worlds apart in lifestyle, but we share a mother, and that's more than enough to permanently connect us.
"Of course it's kosher," our mother said. "You think I'd feed you something that wasn't kosher?"
"Where did you buy it?"
After that, I stopped listening. I can't stand all the kosher/nonkosher talk. Two more minutes and Alicia was going to say a little prayer at the sink and pour water over her hands from a special water pitcher. The whole thing makes me nuts. One day, I will come to grips with my sister's conversion from secular bagel-and-cream-cheese-we-don't-believe -in-Jesus-but-I'm-not-sure-what-it-is-we-do-believe-in Jew to Orthodox -wig-wearing mother of five. But that day seems awfully far in the future.
I concentrated instead on the ceramic dancing Mexicans that had landed on the ledge over my mother's sink since the last time I'd visited. My mother's house has long been stuffed to the gills with artsy tchotchkes from various worldly outposts. Growing up, I always wished we could have a normal house, the kind with a single painting on a wall or a coffee table with nothing on its surface, instead of a place that looked like an importer's emporium. But by now I'd gotten used to my mother's organized chaos. In fact, I hate to admit it, but in that moment, I sort of coveted the dancing Mexicans.
I was shaking a bottle of Italian dressing I'd found in the fridge when suddenly I felt my mother's fingertips in my hair.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"There's a piece sticking out," she said.
"God," I said.
I looked at my sister.
"I mean, Gosh."
Alicia ignored me.
My hair has been a constant source of exasperation to my mother since the day I popped out of her womb, famously hirsute. The way I see it, if she hadn't wanted a daughter with a head of massive, out-of-control curls, she very well could have married into a different gene pool from my frizzy-haired father's. She made one more pass at my head with what I now noticed were French-manicured fingernails. What, had she won a make over at a synagogue raffle?
"Enough!" I said.
I poured the dressing over the salad.
"Go out and talk to Ronald," my mother said to me. "Go on."
"I don't want to talk to Ronald," I said.
"Don't be rude. He's our guest. Go offer him something to drink. You can do it. I know you can."
It did seem awfully impolite to be avoiding the serial killer on the living room sofa any longer. What if he got angry at being left alone and decided to add the three of us to the dozens of bodies he already had stashed in his basement freezer?
I went into the living room.
"You must be Ronald," I said. "Can I get you something to drink?"
Ronald looked at me. I think. His glasses were awfully thick.
"Call me Ron," he said. "And no, thank you."
He kept looking at me. I was stuck. If only he'd given me a drink order, I'd have something purposeful to do. But there was no drink order. There was nothing. Just Ron, looking in my direction. His mustache was the kind that hangs over the top lip like a little furry curtain. I sat on the edge of the overstuffed club chair across from the sofa. From the kitchen came the sound of my mother banging shut the oven door again.
"Five more minutes!" she called out.
"So, Ron," I said. "What is it you do?"
It's exactly the kind of question I hate to be asked, but I couldn't think of anything else. You've no idea how difficult it is to make conversation with a serial killer. I tried to look comfortable perched on the edge of the overstuffed club chair. The living room drapes had been pulled shut, as usual — my mother believes that the minute she opens the drapes she is inviting all of the neighbors in to know her business — leaving us in semidarkness. In this light, or lack of it, Ron looked shadowy and mysterious, which is a nice way of saying he looked awfully scary. In fact, he seemed to pretty well blend in with the collection of menacing tribal masks dotting the wall above his head.
"I'm a doctor," he said.
"A doctor. What kind of doctor?"
"Uh-huh," I said. "Great. You must get a lot of people asking you to look at their moles at parties."
I nodded. I tried not to think about Ron looking at people's moles or whatever else he must look at day after day in his office. It seemed to me that being a dermatologist is probably the grossest of all professions. You're just asking people to show up and reveal the disgusting whatever -it-is they've got growing on their body. I couldn't imagine who would want Ron looking at their disgusting whatever-it-is, although come to think of it, having a dermatologist who isn't all that good-looking is probably preferable to showing your body to a sweet young handsome doctor.
Ron raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward me.
"Do you have a mole you're concerned about?" he asked.
"Oh, no!" I said. "No, no, no."
Then I laughed very hard to show how funny that was. Ron smiled. His mustache was now a straight line in the middle of his face.
"And you?" he asked me. "What is it that you do?"
"Good question," I said.
It wasn't a good question. It was a horrible question. Because there was no way to disguise the answer into something even remotely respectable. I was a waitress. No matter that I was a very good waitress. No matter that being a very good waitress entails honing a set of skills that would leave most people dangling at the end of their rope: physical stamina, a firm memory, attention to detail, not to mention the ability to deal with total assholes on a daily basis without resorting to violence. And yet each time I had to 'fess up to my chosen career — which I hadn't so much chosen as simply fallen into by circumstance — I felt as though I were admitting to failure. Who intends to be a waitress?
"I'm a waitress."
"It's all right. It pays the bills."
"Good to get the bills paid."
"Yes. Yes, it is."
Ron nodded and I nodded back at him. We were both still nodding when my mother and Alicia finally came into the living room to join us. My mother's lips were newly painted with a shiny orange lipstick. Her hair fell past her shoulders in one enviously smooth wave. She smiled her huge smile. Ron stood up.
"I see the two of you have met," my mother said.
"Yes, we have," Ron said. He looked at me. "I mean, you must be Rena, right?"
My mother gave me her big-eye look, which is her way of demonstrating shock and disgust at the same time.
"Rena, you didn't tell him your name?"
"Rena," I said.
"Nice to meet you, Rena," Ron said.
"And this is my other daughter, Aviva," my mother said.
"Nice to meet you, Aviva."
"Well, now. Everybody hungry?" my mother asked. She smiled her huge smile again, which is her way of showing everyone how happy she is.
"I'm hungry," Ron said.
At that, my mother did a funny thing. She leaned toward Ron. She set her hand on his head and mussed his hair a little bit.
"Oh, I know you're hungry," she said to him.
It's not a very nice feeling to find out that the serial killer sitting in your mother's living room is not, in fact, the blind date your mother has planned for you, but is instead your mother's date. The moment my mother mussed Dr. Ron's thick hair with her fifty-eight-year-old French-manicured fingers was the same moment I felt more sorry for myself than I had in ages. Suddenly the serial killer looked — dare I say it? — dangerously attractive. And very employed. He looked like a guy with potential, with features you might be able to work with. The mustache, for example. It could be shaved, couldn't it? And the aviator glasses? I suddenly imagined Ron in a pair of tiny black frames. European style. Just sweep that hair off his forehead, and voilà! But, no. There would be no Ron improvement sessions. At least not taught by me.
Somehow we got through brunch. Ron turned out to be an all right guy. He was very polite and also a neat eater, which is always a plus. He was adept at wiping his mustache clean of bits of food. He seemed genuinely interested in the mishmash of topics my mother brought up. She, in turn, laughed at everything he said. It was sickening.
Okay, I told myself, time to take the high road. I will not be a baby about my mother's decision to discard her former life — one that seriously lacked in the romance department — and begin a new one. After all, there's nothing wrong with a little change every now and then, a little forward momentum. No need to feel selfishly envious of the fact that my mother had gone and found herself a nice serial killer to love. In fact, I hoped they'd be very happy together. My mother certainly looked happy enough. I decided she was my new role model. She'd spent twenty-nine years with my dad before the big split, and now look at her! Carrying on like a teenager!
I drove home from my mother's trying my best not to cry, but the radio stations had it in for me, playing one lovesick ballad after another. By the time I remembered that I had the power to turn off the radio, I was a basket case. What I needed at that moment was a big bag of chemically flavored microwave popcorn, a glass of red wine, and the three DVDs awaiting me back at my apartment in celebration of John Cusack Weekend. This was my third John Cusack Weekend in a row, but I was kind of stuck on Lloyd Dobler at the moment, and since there was no longer anyone to stop me from watching whatever the hell I pleased — suggesting we have yet another James Bond Weekend, for instance, or that one time when it was Sylvester Stallone Weekend, of all things — I went ahead and gave John Cusack a third weekend of his own.
I had no intentions at that moment of driving past Brian's new house, the one where he now lived with the tall, blond, athletic thing who had taken my place. In fact, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself turning slowly onto Cascade Boulevard. And yet there I was, cruising up the street, hoping I wouldn't be caught by the happy couple, my eyes scanning the block for evidence of anything Brian-like. Two-thirds of the way up the block, I saw his dirty blue Honda. And a moment later, there she was, tall, blond, and athletic, prancing about on the front lawn of their charming white bungalow with a dog the size of a Volkswagen. So that's what she looked like. Long legs, long blond hair, a waist the width of a ten-year-old's. Perfect, it's called.
I was so busy looking at my replacement that for a moment I didn't give much attention to the dog. But then it suddenly came to me: They'd gotten a dog. Together. The two of them. I realize it's not exactly the same thing as having a baby, but still. Brian and I had never come close to getting a pet together. We didn't even have an apartment together. We had my apartment and we had Brian's apartment and we stayed most nights at my apartment because between the two of us, I changed the sheets more often.
A goddamned dog.
I waited an hour before driving by again, and then once more before work. That evening, I served burgers and steaks and fish platters to hungry restaurant patrons and hoped for some decent tips. I thought the same thoughts I'd been thinking for three months. If only I had a gun, I thought. Or, if only I had the guts to whack off his penis and toss it out the car window. Or — a new one to add to my list — I wonder how the tall, blond, athletic thing would look in a wheelchair. Things like that.
I made lousy tips.
Excerpted from Gone to the Dogs by Mary Guterson. Copyright © 2009 Mary Guterson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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