My wife, midwestern, calls the strip of grass between the sidewalk and our street a “parkway,” but I don’t know if this is regional naming or not. Before Britt named this public lawn, I had no name for it; I did not see it. This progression, me not seeing, her teaching, me questioning, silently accepting, is familiar. That is, when I am able to allow for this process to occur; which should be always but is not. Our block in Evanston, immediately north of Chicago, is nearly hundred-year-old brick courtyard buildings and large trees whose names I have slowly been learning and misassigning aloud as I pass them with our dog, Mo: Hill’s Oak, Princeton Elm, Village Green Zelkova. It’s spring. Cloudy mornings, dawn and afternoon rain, the sky over the lake giving away nothing. Maybe you don’t know Evanston. It’s a university town. A combination of always-residents and students in-and-out, and liberal “open-mindedness.” Not the city, and not quite the suburbs, though it is. I’m embarrassed by how much I like living where we do.
It’s not true, but it feels like all I know has been told to me, repeatedly, or quickly read. That nothing in my thoughts is earned. I take and take. I misremember and misspeak, and am absent, lost in my head, and in this way also, take endlessly.
We are less than a mile away from a part of Chicago that is routinely dangerous. We are less than a mile away from a part of Chicago that is routinely safe. We are alive. We are also pregnant. A baby girl, soon.
If I stand in the intersection at the end of our block facing east with Mo, crossing diagonally as in Toronto or Tokyo, I can see a thick hyphen of Lake Michigan, five blocks away. I don’t know what Mo can see. He’s usually looking up at me.
I speak to my dog on these walks but I do not speak to other dog owners or dogs, and I avoid eye contact with both. My avoidance is not impatience, it’s ingrained, and behavior not taken as hostile by others because my frowning smiles directed elsewhere at least are received in profile, or something near, and understood as partially for them.
Our language and tensions are our own, me and Mo’s, and having to give a summary of what is welcomed by my dog and what is not to a stranger we are passing and their own dog, is, I would say, never worth it. A few years back a shepherd mix bit Mo through his cheek because I tolerated some hello time from strangers. No eventual dog friendship was negotiated.
My wife is less dramatic. She avoids no one. Except sometimes me. She allows my despairing, drunken moments to exist mostly unseen. Or at least allows me to more easily believe such times are private. A baby is incapable of pretending to not see. Those of us with less substance have to dress up our decisions and their enaction. I do. And so, I run from people, grant my avoidance like a gift, and expect everyone to understand, encourage.
I can clearly see my fear regarding Mo. I can look at it, process it, hide in it, make decisions based on my thinking. This clarity of thought does not extend to all that scares me. I won’t be able to shuttle my daughter away from others. I won’t be protected from her telling me what I don’t want to hear. There will be no hiding. Eventually, or maybe instantly, we’ll share a language infinitely more complex than I share with Mo. Language that, in part, I’ll give to her. But, I’m not solely afraid. Speaking with my daughter, someday hearing her thoughts, not guessing at the person she will be, but seeing, hearing that person, makes me want to live.
Down our whole block’s green parkway, on either side of the street, there are raggedly straight yellow spray-painted dashes indicating the location of a natural gas line. Summer utility upkeep. Roughly every three yards, a small yellow flag on a wire pole is planted. It seems there are hundreds of these flags and though I could work the numbers to confirm or deny—length of a city block, a flag every three yards—I will tell you more about myself by saying I would rather fucking leap off the roof of our building than do that math. I’ve been doing nothing that requires attention for the past too many months because our first child has been on her way. Is on her way. Is now six weeks or so from landing. Half learning trees, asleep through the NBA playoffs, dead through work, and at home forgetting to do that which I have promised to do, all that. I could never carry a baby. What man alive has ever been strong enough, rhetorically asking. But, unease, forgetfulness, both are forgivable.
Where I’ve been able to focus, think, is on our dog walks, but I can only focus on the walks themselves, on Mo, the grass, the little flags, on rerouting, avoidance.
I am known outside now in a way I wasn’t previously because Britt is pregnant and much friendlier than I am. As she describes her husband, the listening stranger and the listening stranger’s dog look to Mo and remember, or reconstruct, the other person that walks him, the loping swings into the parkway or the darting across the street. These strangers, neighbors, accost me with shouts, “How much longer until that little girl?”
My wife has told these strangers the sex of our unborn baby and I still refuse to look them in the eye. Partly this is superstition: not wanting to admit a new life is coming. Superstition is another word for fear.
Mo’s a rescue terrier mutt that barks occasionally at everything and often at nothing. He prances more than walks. He’s lightly medicated. A month ago, Mo had a seizure. Britt was walking him, I was at work. Mo stopped walking, made a wet choking sound, and collapsed frothing at the mouth, tremoring on his side in the grass. My pregnant wife, seven months pregnant at the time, my Britt, began carrying him, trying to run four blocks home until our downstairs neighbor Cam intervened and drove them to the animal hospital. This neighbor, Cam, an unintentionally genderless woman, healthy in her early sixties, is not one of the shouters but is enmeshed with them; she has the bearing of a friendly accountant with an active mannered social life. She knows the business of all the shouters, the museum member, the Polish jazz fan, the towering shih-tzu owner, and all our other neighbors, and she knows this business and relays some while still articulating love for these people. Her dog is a Klein poodle named Larry that leaps into her arms and nests in a seated position or latches into a human-like hug depending on the pitch of the initiating whistle. Britt called and struggled with a few words that included “seizure” and I left work and met downstairs Cam, my wife, and Mo at the hospital. I hugged Cam, who I daily avoid without cause, twice in the small room at the animal hospital. After the second hug I could see in her face that what she had done was instinct for her, to help, and all the hugging was, for her, unnecessary. She accepted even the second hug, but I could see, she understood that I was weaker than she ever could have previously imagined, praising and thanking her for doing what was baseline human. Her look said, asked me, “Do you not know we are alive?”
I do forget sometimes.
So, dog walks are now layered with a new fear of seizure reoccurrence. Reoccurrence coupled with, in my case, new recognition as the husband of the pregnant woman on our block.
Britt tells me what to look for again: Mo not drinking, stopping short, losing balance, his head lolling. I don’t question, and I should already know. I was in the room with her when the vet told us these warning signs, but I was watching my wife: I wanted to know how I should feel, how strong I was capable of being.
Another seizure may never come. The rest of his dog life, clear. When I say I’m afraid of seizure reoccurrence, I’m using “seizure” as a placeholder word, because undoubtedly there will be a reoccurrence. Some violence. It’ll be me, my wife, my marriage, my daughter. That’s coming. I can’t stop that.
I am out with Mo circling on the parkway. Light rain five blocks away over the lake, the beaches dampening, couples walking quickly in windbreakers, children growing anxious outside. The dog circles before he poops. Mo cannot simply squat and release as so many dogs I have observed can. He must circle and situate and shift and grunt and then haltingly, release. As most terrible couples with dogs do, my wife and I have a private created language surrounding our animal. This is different than the language I alone share with the dog: that language is stunned gawking, nose-to-nose. That language is helping him situate between my calves in bed as I lay flat on my back. But the act I am witnessing, the pooping, is something we call “grumping out a Stephen.” If the process is quick, “gruff a Steve.” I don’t remember the origin. I reach into the red fire hydrant-shaped poop bag holder so I can move this entire process towards its return inside and the couch and find, no bags. As for trash, there is nothing in my immediate vicinity that is newspapery or broad enough for shit retrieval. There are hundreds of yellow flags wearily not flapping. I rip the yellow plasticky flag portion from one of the wire poles, it’s the size of a folded square napkin, and pick up the poop, like three breakfast sausage links.
From across the street I hear, “Nice nice!” being yelled in my direction. “Ingenuity around shit will help soon!”
Cam is wearing sneakers and a well-tailored suit. I realize I don’t actually know what she does for a living, though I’m sure I’ve been told. Larry, her poodle, groomed and schooled, and Cam are both grinning at us, the scruffy set. I shout, “Thank you,” and turn to begin walking back inside, but Larry and Cam are already next to us, have already bounded across the street and she’s handing me a poop bag to put my ingenuity into. Cam’s speaking like we are familiar, and, my god, we are.
“Here you go, wrap it. Don’t want to have to carry that folded, need the freedom of the hand.”
I think: repeat your line and leave. “Thank you,” I say and I smile at her, as if to express how long my day has been, how great my thanks, and how infinite my desire to go back inside.
“Britt told me the name. I’m just thrilled for you both. Mae Grace. It’s beautiful. She said that’s your paternal grandma’s middle name and her maternal grandma’s middle name? Such order there. Carrying down from each side, bravo.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
Our two dogs, I haven’t been paying attention, but they are licking each other’s faces. I’ve never seen Mo do this with another dog and I’m horrified. The gentle licking. I feel I might have the seizure. I say something else, “The fuck.”
Cam laughs, “No, that’s kissing. We don’t do more than that on the first date, do we now?”
I’m smiling like a person who can’t live on his own, watching the dogs. I step backwards towards home and Mo stands firm. The dogs are probing more deeply into each other’s mouths. I must still be making a face as I finally tug Mo backwards from the long tongue of the poodle, because Cam says to me, “It’s OK. I’m sorry. But, it is OK.”
We’ve managed to retreat a few steps. I take in the tree near us, the wind breathing noisily through its dense upper branches, leaves. I venture “American Beech” out loud, and think of how many others know the names of three or four trees and spend their lives wrongly categorizing that which surrounds them, bewildered, sharing and teaching that information with animals that don’t speak their language, with daughters not listening, always listening, to neighbors showing care, and wonder if the wrong name is better, if any name is better than not seeing the tree at all. Cam says, “What?” and I look at her and say, “You’re right.” I laugh the laugh I try to laugh when I am trying to charm and Mo and I walk away.
A clear logic behind making the wrong choice means nothing. But there are more harmful actions than being gently wrong: acting like years of decisions that have led to this day and the days coming are someone else’s choices. Someone else’s choices that can be ignored, denied.
Our apartment in the brick courtyard building is full of half-assembled baby equipment. Half-assembled by my wife. I cook the meals I can, wash the dishes, rub her feet, but this is nothing really. I’m signaling here, too. Signaling genuine love, but, it feels not enough. She’s at work. It’s a day off for me. I try and pick up a little. We have a dog trainer coming tomorrow in preparation for the baby, trying to get Mo to a point where the entrance of a baby will be more manageable for all of us. I straighten boxes, vacuum poorly, fill and run and empty the dishwasher, clean the rusty buildup at the bottom of our toothbrush holder, wipe the minor mold from the shower curtain, remove my wife’s long hair from the corners it clings to in the bathroom, near her nightstand, near where she sits on the far end of the couch near the window. I wash Mo’s bowls. I look at what I’ve done in total and see almost no difference. I write a note for Britt on printer paper, “I don’t understand the jargon you use when telling me about your day at work, but I love it and you,” a line I’ve had in my head for several hours, and then she’s home, in through the front door changing the entire atmosphere of the rooms that we live in.
I begin telling her about picking up Mo’s poop with the yellow flag, the neighbor, and as if she’s hearing a different story, puts a hand on her round stomach, smiles, and walks into the other room.
The baby comes and I forget the dog.
Alex Higley is the author of Cardinal (longlisted for the PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction) and Old Open. He has been previously published by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, New World Writing, PANK, and elsewhere.