Nameless

By Sigrid Nunez

The dog must have followed him home. He had unlocked the front door and was about to enter the house when he glanced over his shoulder and recognized the same small black-and-white stray he’d happened to notice earlier as he was leaving the grocery store. Now it stood on the walk behind him, staring up with that hopeful expression dogs often give people whom they don’t know but trust anyway. It had fringed, conical ears and a fringed tail that was moving so slightly the man wasn’t sure whether it was being wagged by the dog or by the breeze. Except for a few spots its body was white, but the head was solid black. The dog was male, and it wore no collar or tags.

The man, whose name was Stanley Rhine, held the door open, and the dog ambled past him into the house as if it had always lived there. It followed Stanley into the kitchen where he took off his backpack and rested it on a chair. In the backpack were the groceries he had bought at the store. He owned a car, but every day he walked the two miles to the store, bought a few items, and walked back home. He did this for the exercise — the only exercise he got these days. Not that there hadn’t been plenty of times in his life when he hadn’t gotten any exercise at all. He had never belonged to a gym and had no intention of joining the village’s fitness club, however happy that would have made his daughter. In any case, Norah was less concerned about her father getting exercise than about his getting out of the house. He spent too much time alone, she said. He needed to go out more and be with other people. But Stanley wasn’t interested in being with people at a gym.

The dog was now wagging its tail in earnest. Its gaze expressed confidence that Stanley knew the right thing to do and that he would do it. He filled a large bowl with water and set it down on the floor, and while the dog was drinking he opened one of the cans of Sloppy Joe he’d bought at the store and emptied it onto a paper plate which he then set down next to the bowl.

The dog was a dainty eater, swallowing rapidly but almost without a sound, and without making any mess at all. Stanley knew enough about dogs to leave it alone while it was eating. He put away his groceries, and after the dog had licked the paper plate clean he pulled a chair up beside it and began lightly stroking its head. His eyesight had started deteriorating in the past year or so, ever since his wife, Marjorie, had died (not that Stanley drew any connection), and only now did he see how dirty the dog was, especially its paws and legs, and how thin. One of its eyes was inflamed and gummy.

Stanley let his hand fall and the dog walked to a corner of the kitchen and threw itself with such impact onto the hard floor that Stanley flinched. He thought it must have been exhausted to lie down without even investigating its new surroundings first. He thought of Lassie’s endless trek across Scotland in search of her home, her boy. He supposed it was not impossible that this dog, too, had covered hundreds of miles — but where had it started out? Stanley was sure he had never seen the dog before that morning.

As it happened, only last month, Lassie — or, rather, the famous old movie, “Lassie Come Home” — had been the cause of a disagreement between Stanley and his daughter. She and his two grandsons had come to visit on a day when he knew the movie was going to be shown on the TCM channel. He had seen the movie himself as a boy, at the theater, and again many years later, on TV, and he’d thought it would be great fun to watch it that Saturday afternoon together with the boys. But his daughter, who’d also seen the movie before, wouldn’t have it. Stanley had been astonished to hear her call the movie unsuitable for young children. (The boys were six and eight.) What did she mean by “emotionally manipulative”?

“You mean it’s too sad?” he’d asked her, remembering that parts of the movie were almost unbearably sad. Not exactly, Norah had explained. It wasn’t that she objected to exposing children to any story that might be sad. What she objected to was having them jerked around by their heartstrings. Which was, apparently, what she believed the manipulative makers of “Lassie Come Home” had set out to do.

Stanley had let it go — they were her children, after all — but he’d thought she was being ridiculous. Not that this wasn’t like Norah. She had a way of turning things that should have been simple and straightforward — as simple and straightforward as his wanting to share with his grandsons a movie that generations of children had managed to enjoy and survive unharmed — into “issues” (to use a word of hers he himself would never have used in that sense). His wife used to say it was because Norah was “a thinker.” But to Stanley she was more of an overthinker. The kind of overthinker who is only a hair away from being a bore or a wet blanket.

No doubt the boys’ father would have sided with him. Not that Stanley would have said this to Norah. The wounds of her savage divorce were still fresh. She had made the mistake a lot of women make, marrying a man whom she loved very much, thinking she would change the one or two things about him she knew she could never live with. If it had been the sort of thing a father and daughter talked about, he could have told her the marriage was doomed. He often wished he’d found a way to be more honest, and maybe tougher, with his only child. But somehow he had managed to spoil her without ever being close to her. They had never shared much of their lives with each other, and Marjorie’s death had not changed this. If anything, it had driven them further apart. Professionally, though, Norah had found success, working as a speechwriter for several political V.I.P.’s and publishing a popular guidebook on public speaking. Stanley was duly proud of her for all that. And no one was saying she hadn’t been a good wife, or that she’d deserved to marry a cheater.

The dog might be lost. Somewhere, someone might be frantically searching for it. Stanley pictured a young blond boy with his hands cupped to his mouth. The thing to do, thought Stanley, was to put up signs. But first he wanted to talk to a vet. That oozing eye worried him.

The vet said to bring the dog in right away.

Part Two

Stanley was acquainted with the vet, not because he’d ever consulted her about a pet before but because she had gone to high school with Norah. He remembered her as tall and slender and pretty as a starlet, but not full of herself. She was far from slender now but she was still pretty, her large lustrous blue eyes were still young, and, according to what Stanley had heard, she’d become something of a cold fish. He figured this meant she didn’t always fuss over pets the way their besotted owners thought she should.

She told him the dog was at least ten years old (making it almost as old, in dog years, as Stanley himself, though he’d reckoned it was younger), and that it was indeed suffering from exhaustion. When he suggested it might be lost, the vet looked doubtful. She’d never seen the dog before, had received no report of any such dog missing, and if she had to guess she’d say someone from another town had deliberately driven the dog to their town in order to dump it. It was happening everywhere, she said. Shelters were overwhelmed, and there were concerns about a possible rabies threat from the rising number of strays. When Stanley asked her why people were suddenly getting rid of their dogs, she raised her eyebrows at him — he caught a hint of peevishness in her surprise — and then he remembered.

He knew all about the economic crisis, of course, but it was rarely at the front of his mind. His own mortgage was paid, he had no outstanding debts, and besides Social Security and the pension he’d earned in his nearly five decades working as a mechanical engineer he had the benefits from his wife’s life insurance. Never one to live beyond his means, he now got by on remarkably little. But he was aware that east of the village, over by the hospital, there were streets on which every other house was in foreclosure; that the hospital itself was millions of dollars in debt and might have to close down; that construction on a row of new condos next to the golf course had been halted because the developer had run out of money; and that a few businesses, including the salon where his wife had got her hair cut for more than twenty years, had vanished from the mall.

“I doubt very much anyone’s looking for this old mutt,” the vet said.

Like most doctors Stanley had ever consulted, this one was a brusque, overbearing type, and before he knew it she had taken over. She gave the dog two, or maybe it was three, different shots and explained that he’d have to bring it back for more shots which could not be given today. She gave him drops for the dog’s eye and vitamins to put in its food and some cream to rub on dry patches on its coat, which Stanley hadn’t even noticed yet, and unless his ears deceived him she said something about scheduling an appointment to have the dog’s teeth cleaned.

When the vet’s assistant told him what he owed for today, Stanley literally rocked back on his heels. Handing over his credit card, he tried to remember the last time he’d charged anything costing so much, and he couldn’t.

That night he spoke with his daughter on the phone and told her about the dog. When he told her about the vet (catching himself just in time before blurting how pretty her old classmate still was) and the bill he’d run up, Norah laughed sympathetically and reminded him that no good deed went unpunished. She agreed that, in spite of what the vet had said, he should put up signs around town.

“And be sure to put one up at the gym,” Norah said.

She was due for one of her semi-monthly visits, and that weekend she and the boys drove the two hours from the city to the small country house where she’d spent her childhood summers and where her parents had moved after her father had retired. As she was struggling to restrain the boys from smothering the dog, she asked Stanley about the signs and he told her the truth: he had forgotten all about them. At this she gave him a look not unlike the one the vet had given him, raising her eyebrows and opening her mouth as if to speak but then shutting it again without a word.

Stanley had never had a dog before. In the house where he’d been raised, there had been a series of cats which, like all cats, had left him cold, and he couldn’t remember ever seriously pining for a dog. It was a horse he had dreamed of and had pestered his parents for and, of course, had never received.

He did not give the dog a name. It wasn’t a deliberate decision, he just wasn’t inspired, and besides, he wasn’t sure how long the dog would be staying. For the same reason, and in spite of Norah’s strong objections, he put off getting the dog a tag and applying for a license. The boys called the dog something, but because he never used the name himself Stanley forgot it from one visit to the next.

Now on his daily walk to the store the dog went along, always lagging a few yards behind. It walked with its head dipped low and a slight, almost comical, side-to-side swaying motion. Glancing over his shoulder, Stanley was reminded of some old philosopher, pacing with his hands behind his back, studying the ground, deep in thought. But this dog was no philosopher. In fact, Stanley often wondered what could be going on inside the dog’s head and concluded the answer must be nothing. The dog appeared to be entirely without curiosity. At home, it kept to the kitchen and the living room, as if the rest of the house did not exist. Not once did it ever go exploring. Stanley was amazed. How could it not be curious to know what was upstairs?

The dog had no interest in playing, either. Once, when they were in the back yard, Stanley picked up a stick and threw it, but the dog didn’t even follow it with its eyes let alone fetch it. When Stanley came home from having been out by himself, the dog never ran to the door to greet him. It never jumped up and tried to lick his face or get him to pet it as he’d seen other dogs do to their owners. At most it would lock eyes with him and weakly beat its tail. It paid no attention whatsoever to other people. Whether it was Stanley’s bridge group or his daughter and grandsons visiting, the dog treated everyone with the same indifference, and if it ever recognized anyone it had seen before it gave no such indication. Nevertheless, the boys adored it, and though Stanley was ashamed to admit it even to himself, it bothered him that now when they barreled through the door they were clearly more excited about seeing the dog than about seeing Gramps.

Its eye healed, the dry spots on its coat went away, its appetite was good, it looked healthy. But whether the dog was happy or unhappy Stanley had no idea. It was hard for him to imagine any creature living such an existence happy. When his elder sister, who had recently moved into a care facility, said she was glad to hear he’d found a companion he joked that he might as well have got himself a turtle.

If he could ever bring himself to return to Dr. Highway Robber, he would ask her if it was possible for a dog to be retarded. He’d never heard of a retarded dog, but he supposed it must happen.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Dad. The poor thing’s just old,” his daughter said.

Old. Well, in that case he supposed a dog could go gaga, too.

Part Three

One day, on his way to the library (he was a big reader, mostly of spy novels and American history), Stanley saw a woman waiting at the bus stop, a young woman he was almost certain he knew — and even knew well — and yet he could not place her. He stared at the woman in confusion, wondering how he could know such a person. She had stiff, fake-looking strawberry-blond hair, and she wore heavy makeup and clothes that were obviously cheap: white tank top, red miniskirt, black fishnet stockings, black flats. The clinging outfit revealed a lean, chiseled-looking figure, and though attractive to Stanley the woman did not seem quite flesh; the word android came to him, and he almost dropped the books he was carrying when he remembered.

A lifetime ago, when he was just a small child, maybe four or five, Stanley had fallen in love with one of his sister’s dolls. The doll’s big round black eyes and apricot-colored cheeks, the fruity smell of its synthetic hair — a smell he could never get enough of — had, to the merriment of his entire family, bewitched him. He would carry the doll around with him all day, hugging and kissing it, tilting its head back and forth, back and forth, hypnotized by the sharp little click of its eyes opening and shutting. The doll was dressed as some kind of dancer, or acrobat, in a white leotard with a short red skirt, fishnet tights, and black ballet shoes, all of which Stanley spent many happy hours stripping off and putting back on again.

It was the doll he was looking at, big as life.

Stanley was so stunned by this vision that he failed to notice the woman was not alone. When the hideous leer finally caught his attention, it took him a moment to realize that the young man waiting with her at the bus stop was attempting to mimic Stanley’s goggling expression. And now the woman also was staring at Stanley, exaggeratedly blinking her eyes in hostile disdain; he could all but hear them clicking.

Mortified, he dropped his gaze and moved on. He walked as fast as he could the rest of the way to the library, scolding himself for his foolishness every step.

Which should have been the end of the matter, but it was not.

Stanley did not believe in the paranormal, never had, never would. And yet he could not shake the feeling that something outside the realm of the explainable had taken place, and even days later the preposterous idea that woman and doll were one and the same still haunted him. Then, about two weeks after the encounter at the bus stop, came another, equally unsettling, experience. Leaving the house one morning, Stanley found everything as it should have been: his neighbor trimming her rose bushes, cars passing along the road — except that everyone was a dog. Identical black-and-white dogs were the only living beings to be met: waving hello with a pair of pruners, sitting behind the wheels of the cars, shopping at the grocery store. Across from the store, a crew was engaged in some road work, the hard-hatted boss-dog barking orders at the rest. A dog in a tight dress, her fringed tail lewdly lifting up her skirt in back, waited with a puppy in a stroller at the traffic light. Dogs were carrying lattes out of Starbucks. Dogs were getting their claws done, by other dogs of course, at the Color Me Pretty Nail Spa.

It should have been hilarious — something to entertain the others over bridge. But Stanley was afraid that if he ever tried to tell this dream his voice would falter. Like the vision of the doll, the dream stayed with him and troubled his peace of mind. Whenever he remembered it (strange in itself: he never remembered his dreams anymore), it was not like a dream at all. It was too vividly, acidly real — as real as any of his memories of, say, his marriage, which came to him incessantly ever since Marjorie was gone. It was this — the stark reality of the dream (which, after all, had not been even a proper nightmare, and in which no harm had come to him) — that Stanley found so terrifying. Though he’d had it just once, anxiety that the dream might recur, or that he might have another one like it, made it harder for him to fall asleep at night. And, as if all this weren’t disturbing enough, he remembered hearing somewhere that extremely vivid dreams, like earache, could herald a stroke.

After the dream, the dog’s presence began to bother Stanley more and more. The sound of its nails clicking on the kitchen floor brought back one of his wife’s irritating habits: she used to tap her pen on the table when she was doing the crossword puzzle. As if that were how he wanted to be reminded of her! Walking the dog, he couldn’t help noticing how often people looked at them with patronizing or even pitying smiles. The old geezer and his faithful old mutt. As if he enjoyed being regarded like that!

Stanley tried to recall what it was that had made him want to keep the dog in the first place. It wasn’t as if it would protect him, say, if he were ever attacked. Make no mistake, this dog was no Lassie. It was incapable of that kind of loyalty or heroics. Anyone could break into the house and this dog would just sit there. It never barked. It never made any noise at all, causing Stanley to wonder if it was dumb in the other sense of the word, too. Once, he took hold of one of its ears and tugged, gently at first, then harder and harder — not wanting to hurt the dog, of course, but as a test — until at last he heard a thin, high-pitched whining. But even then Stanley couldn’t say for sure if the noise was actually coming from the dog or if it was just the tinnitus that sometimes afflicted him.

If the dog at least had been something to look at… And at this thought Stanley grew wistful, picturing himself with a younger dog, a handsome, feisty, demonstrative dog, a puppy, playing fetch with him, jumping up to lick his face. For the first time in his life, Stanley yearned for a dog. But not this dog. There was no point in having a dog like this. No wonder whoever had owned it before had wanted to get rid of it.

And no wonder Stanley felt resentful — especially after the price of the cheapest dog food he could find went up. The vet’s bill, though paid, continued to irk him. Not to mention the way the dog had stolen his grandsons’ affection.

But as much as he was resentful Stanley was also ashamed. He imagined Marjorie shaking her head at him: What an old crank you’re getting to be, Stanny. And it was true. The dog was turning him into a person he didn’t like.

Still, he was not the kind of person who would ever kick a dog. That is not what happened. What happened was that the dog, crossing the kitchen to reach its water bowl, accidentally got between him and the stove, and he kneed it roughly out of the way. Immediately, Stanley was filled with remorse. But as he watched the dog slink back to its corner, thirst forgotten, his remorse curdled into disgust.

It was not an unreasonable worry. One day, the dog might get underfoot again and trip him. Stanley could fall and break his hip, and that would be the beginning of the end, exactly as had happened with his wife.

His daughter heard him out with a look of anguish on her face. As usual, she was overreacting. What he was saying was so simple. Why was she making a goddamn issue out of it. Why was he shouting, she said.

But the next time they spoke on the phone, as soon as he brought up the dog Norah cut him off.

“It’s okay, Dad,” she said quietly. “I’ll take the dog.”

It was only a week until her next visit.

Part Four

The following morning, when they had got about halfway to the grocery store, Stanley glanced behind him and saw that the dog had turned and was going in the opposite direction. The dog was leaving him! Stanley had never seen it run, but it was running now, running like the devil. He watched it veer off the road and cut across someone’s lawn, hunching its body in a peculiar way so that it looked like some other kind of animal, a sheep or a goat perhaps, and vanish from sight.

Well. There was gratitude for you. Stanley wavered a moment, nonplussed. He wondered if the dog intended to come back or if (what seemed more likely) he’d just seen the last of it. He wondered if it had been his lack of love for the dog that had driven it away — a thing it had been able to sense in spite of its stupidity. And, once again, he felt remorse — partly in the form of a grinding arthritic pain in his knee. Then it occurred to him that Norah would almost certainly have told the boys that the dog was coming to live with them. When he thought how heartbroken they’d be to hear the dog was gone he felt a pang, which flared into dismay at the thought that they might find Gramps to blame.

It was too late now, of course, to get the dog a tag. But that night Stanley sat down with a black Sharpie and some computer paper and he made some signs.

In the morning he went first to Starbucks. He had never once been a customer there, having given up coffee when he was in his fifties. (And, in all his life, he had never drunk a latte or any other kind of fancy coffee drink.) But he knew about the large bulletin board on the wall just inside the café entrance.

He was scanning the crowded board for a spare pushpin when he discovered there was already a sign about a small black-and-white dog. Except this one was for a small black-and-white dog that had been found. Of course, whoever had made the sign had included a phone number. Even with his glasses on Stanley had to struggle to make it out. However, there was no doubt that the number was his.

He left at once, the sheaf of papers rustling in his trembling hands. He went straight to his car and drove home. Though the day was cool, he was sweating so badly he could feel it even between his fingers and toes. His head was light, as if he’d forgotten to eat breakfast — and with a surge of despair he realized he could not say for sure that he had not forgotten. He concentrated fiercely on driving, grateful there weren’t too many other cars on the road. Sunlight bouncing off the aluminum flank of a delivery van lanced his eyes. His throat was thick and dry, his tongue seemed to bloat in his mouth. Many years earlier, for a while after he’d been discharged from the Navy, he had been a binge drinker, and he remembered mornings just like this: the same sensations of weakness and nausea and disorientation, the shakes, the heavy sweats, the hot needles jammed in his sinuses, the vague but none the less piercing regret, the memory blanks, the sweeping melancholy, the tonnage of dread.

But all this lifted the minute Stanley arrived home.

The dog was back. The dog had returned and it had done something — or, rather, two things — it had never done before. First, it had finally gone upstairs. Second, it had done its business in the house. Stanley almost stepped in the puddle on the landing near the stairs. He was sure it had not been an accident. He laughed out loud. How could he be angry, now that the little guy was finally showing a bit of spunk? The next thing he knew, he was seized by such a prolonged fit of laughter he had to grab the staircase banister for support. Holding onto the banister with one hand, he pounded it helplessly with the other.

But how had the damn thing got in the house? And where was it hiding now?

When he had caught his breath, Stanley went through the house. He searched everywhere, even down in the basement. Coming back up from the basement, he discovered Norah sitting at the kitchen table. What a crazy day this was turning out to be! One with no end of surprises. What on earth was she doing here in the middle of the week? And where were the boys?

“We said today, don’t you remember, Dad?”

With a spasm of irritation he saw that she was wearing her look of anguish again. What the hell — was it going to be permanent?

“We said we would talk,” Norah went on, touching her fingertips to her temples as if she had a headache. “About — you know — your being all on your own now? And how we needed to discuss — options?”

He had no idea what the fuck she was talking about. But in that instant Stanley was seized by a murderous rage. He marched across the room to the dog’s half-empty water bowl and kicked it as hard as he could.

Part Five

Stanley opened his eyes. It was night, and he did not know where he was. The narrow bed was not his bed. The window was on the wrong wall. He propped himself up on his elbows. The room was hot and thick with unfamiliar smells. Someone was winding his heart, tighter and tighter, like an old-fashioned clock. There was a bitterness at the back of his throat, like a trace of aspirin or some other pill. When he sat up all the way he was able to look out the window by separating two slats of the blinds. He must have pulled a Rip Van Winkle. For when he’d gone to bed it was spring, and look, there was snow on the ground. The snow looked peaceful, beautiful. For a moment fear relaxed its grip. He fumbled for his glasses on the night table, but before he could get them on they slipped from his grasp and were gone, like a tiny boat capsized amid the swells of his covers.

And then they were gone from his mind.

He looked out the window again: shadowland, all phantoms, blurs. The wind was driving clouds. It drove a parade of silhouettes across the moon. A figure appeared, four-legged, fringed, rearing like a heraldic beast, a lion or a dragon rampant, tugging from Stanley a bewildering stream of emotions: fear and yearning and anger and regret…. He groped for a word, a name. He heard a soft clatter then, and he remembered his glasses. It took him forever to get out of bed, pat the floor until he found them, adjust them onto his face, and climb back into bed. This time, he found the cord and pulled the blind all the way up. The clouds had dispersed. What had he been searching for in that black empty sky? The little ringmaster in his brain cracked his whip, but to no avail. Still the emotions thronged and sank sharp teeth into him: shame and pity and remorse….

Exhausted, he lay back down. Unseen, the dog moved on, back to the place of nameless things from where it had come and where someone was calling it home.