Frito’s Last Play
Marvin tossed Helen another flower bulb, leaned toward her warm shadowed ear and whispered, “Look at her out there. I wonder what she’s thinking.”
“Who cares, as long as he doesn’t act on it.”
“Aww, but hers is so pretty, hers only has pretty thoughts.”
“Will you quit talking so stupid?” She sighed and dropped a bulb into a dirt hole. “I guess he is good incentive to go for walks.”
“And I haven’t seen any squirrels in the bird feeders lately either.” The woman placed a fist across her folded legs and bared her bright teeth without smiling. “I just hope you can teach him some manners so we can start showing him off. I can see the monster right now capering through neighbors’ yards, dragging my detached arm at the end of his leash.”
The dog lay sphinx-like in the warm backyard grass watching them with a half-eaten rawhide bone clamped vertically between its front paws. Between pants and chews, patches of its black coat shifted to reveal brown highlights in the afternoon sun. The man whistled and the dog bounded toward them with frolicking sideways leaps, brushed roughly against the woman, stomped on the back of her hand, deposited three black hairs on her chin with its tail and then gamboled into the loving strokes of the man. He cuddled with it and kissed it on the mouth. The dog sneezed. The man laughed about the twenty minutes he had spent last night trying to get the dog to fetch him a Kleenex and how the dog had only sniffed his crotch and left ear for food.
He addressed the ecstatic animal in a high, doting voice. “Aww, Frito. Hers loves hers daddy, yes hers does. Does hers want to chew on mama’s tool?” He turned to his wife, “Look at her tongue, honey. Why is it hanging off to the side?”
She rubbed the back of her dirty fist and told him to quit acting so stupid. As she looked away a forgotten dandelion drooped and spun in the band of her tan sun hat.
“Keep him away from my tools, Marvin,” she said, shunning the dog’s advances. “He’ll destroy them. No, Frito! No, leave me alone, dummy! You stink! No!”
“Frito is a she,” Marvin said, pulling the dog away. He began fondling her and noticed for the first time how Frito’s head looked like a seal’s when he pressed her ears back. “Do you feel better now that you’ve insulted our black four-legged daughter? She favors your side of the family, you know. Yes hers does! Yes hers does! And me talk like Tonto, too. Me not even know why. No me doesn’t, mama!”
The woman’s grip tightened on the garden spade until the veins popped out in her forearm. She thrust it into the soil, just missing a bulb. Looking up, she pointed to their partially stained fence and told Marvin again that if she wanted something done and done right she had to do it herself.
Marvin watched his wife’s face as a cylinder of shade paused over her chin and mouth. Why did it look so much better when he was staring down at it in the dimness of their bedroom?
“He’s squashing my bulbs!”
The dog barked inches from her face and then tore around the picnic table several times, stopping occasionally to snap out a chunk of manicured sod and shake it to dust. Tiring of this, she bucked like a bronco and smacked headfirst into the picnic table with a loud squeak. Seconds later she was scratching herself and smiling. Marvin tittered contentedly.
“Hers says hers needs a flea collar, mama!” He pointed at the dog and looked at his wife but she didn’t acknowledge him. “Listen, she’s wheezing like she’s got asthma. Should we take her to the vet?”
The woman stood up, grunted something about hairballs, then lifted and dropped her tool and walked into the house without swinging her arms. Marvin heard two doors slam and a window slide. “Come in and get cleaned up,” she called. “Dax and Judy’ll be here soon.” Slam!
He knew there was no use pestering her for sex now.
“Come on, Frito, mama’s being a bitch.”
The dog complied happily, as if Marvin was a huge talking hot dog. They scampered into the house and relaxed in front of the TV, Marvin on the floor, Frito on the couch, both indifferent to the idea of being surrounded by the clutter of heavy, ill-matched pieces of furniture and ornate bric-a-brac. The remote control was nowhere in sight so they stretched out and closed their eyes. When his wife walked into the living room, Marvin was snoring and the dog was barking in its sleep and the Millers’ car was in the driveway. The doorbell rang. She roused Marvin and manhandled him out of the living room by the arm. Frito followed in a bucking gallop.
“Hey, let go of me,” Marvin said, struggling with her in the hallway.
She threw his arm back.
“I told you to get ready. What is wrong with you? Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
“No, you don’t!”
“Yes, I do.”
“And I said no, you don’t.”
“OK, all right.”
She grabbed for him again, but this time Frito lunged at her with gallant swinging paws and deafening yelps and knocked her against the wall, upsetting a shelf of Precious Moments statues and a decorative mirror.
“Throw that bastard in his cage and lock it,” she said, heaving with palpitations. “He’s going back to the pound Monday, and I mean it this time! You two are not going to ruin my evening!”
Marvin and Frito continued down the hallway and into the bedroom, occasionally checking their backs. The door slammed behind a lowered tail. The trembling woman pressed her ear to the door and heard Marvin whispering derogatory statements into Frito’s mouth: “Me scalp mama, daddy. Me not have to put up with hateful squaw. Me wantum nice woman. Me want respect. Mmm hmm.” On the other side of the door, hands formed claws and a face distorted with the rage of a disciplined child.
“Helen?” Dax said in one quick syllable. He and his wife had let themselves in and were standing awkwardly at the end of the hallway, watching her. “You OK?”
“Oh yeah, it’s just—” Helen laughed in a bend and pointed at the door, “we’re having trouble with our dog. He’s been into everything, you know. And Marvin fed him three puddles of beer earlier. I told him not to.” She snorted and threw a wave at the door.
Dax spun to his wife with mock concern.
“Oh, come on into the living room,” Helen said, approaching them. “Long time no see. I rented a movie. Do you guys want a couple drinks? Judy, anything? I have some excellent wine.”
Dax declined by jerking a stained to-go coffee cup and a pint of Irish whiskey to either ear. Judy, who seldom drank well, contorted her torso under a tight white sleeveless shirt before accepting her offer and then, uncrinkling her sunburned nose, asked about Marvin. Helen dashed into the kitchen and immediately dropped a wine glass. Judy sauntered in to help; Dax zipped to the couch.
“Where is Marv?” Dax called from the living room, staring with depraved curiosity at a pile of unlabeled VCR tapes in the entertainment center. When Helen peeked in to check on him and said, “Changing,” he leaned back quickly and pretended to be admiring a red Grecian pillar holding a lacquered white pot.
Marvin moped into the living room shirtless and fell onto the couch next to Dax.
“What’s a matter, man?” Dax said, dragging his eyes down a wing of shiny brown hair, a sideburn and a tan muscular shoulder. “Forget about us? Hello?” He sipped his Irish coffee, leaned closer and whispered, “We caught Helen doing a silent rage dance. Side-splitting, man. Pissed her off, huh?”
“It’s our dog, Frito. She defended me and now Helen thinks we’re having an affair.”
“Hee hee hee. Some women hate dogs. Third wife said they act too much like men. Hulga. Remember her? Wow!” He kinked his flat, wide torso as if in remembrance, triggering a golden bang to fall across a squinty eye. “Where is the little bitch?”
“I think she’s in the kitchen getting drinks. Oh, you mean Frito. She’s caged in our bedroom like an animal.”
“Picture yourself in a cage.” He checked Dax’s knee with his thumb and middle finger. “Is that funny?”
Helen and Judy entered the room with a beer, two glasses of wine and a cup of coffee. Marvin fixed his eyes on Judy’s pressed white snowballs as the women handed them their drinks and sat down across from them on the loveseat. He wondered how many marriages had been razed by mere comparisons.
“Are Denny and Sue coming over?” Judy asked, eyeing Marvin then Helen then Marvin again as if she was about to leap from a curb.
“I doubt it,” Helen said. “You know how spiteful they are, always trying to get back at us for some little thing. I think when we decline an invitation from them they take it personal and don’t call us for a couple months as payback. Whatever. And Sue said Denny’s been working late all the time but I wonder what he’s really doing.” Helen went on to talk about several other couples in similar situations, presenting each with a little less sympathy than the one before.
Judy took another huge drink and made another sour face.
“Where’s your new dog?”
Marvin called Frito.
Frito jingle-clicked down the hall and mingled with the guests, especially Dax; and when Helen leaned over to jerk an unread classic out of Frito’s way, Dax peeked down her loose-fitting shirt.
“He’s supposed to be locked in his cage,” Helen growled, before dousing her heat with a gulp of white wine. “Anyway, he’s going back to the pound. He attacked me earlier.”
“Oh, not thisprecious angel!” Judy squealed, stroking Frito’s extended leg as if she was cleaning a paint roller. “I feel so sorry for animals. People always leaving them or abusing them or locking them up and all they can do is make weird noises. My ex-boyfriend used to torment our dog by repeatedly sticking his hand in its mouth when it yawned so it could never finish.” She checked a yawn with an inverted smile. “Poor thing led a frustrated life. Then it got stuck in a culvert and drowned.” Frito curled at her shins, wagging its tail, body and head as if to distract Judy from the gruesome subject. “I think you should give him another chance.”
“Her,” Marvin said absently, watching Judy’s coal black hair clash with the pink walls and the plum loveseat and the yellow drapes—and Helen. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and the negative image flashed across his mind.
Frito sniffed Helen’s knee, sneezed and then scampered over to Marvin and Dax to see if they were eating.
“Sure, he’s OK now,” Helen said, eyeing Judy out of proportion with her tone, “but just you wait, he’ll be tearing something up or messing on the floor or gazing at me while I’m eating. There’s a black hair on everything we own. And he’s into everything!”
“Cmon, Helen,” Dax said, shaking whiskey into his coffee, “she’ll straighten up. Dogs are restless, especially labs. Mmm, good coffee. She’s just feeling you out.” He took three rapid sips, dropped back into the couch and then sat forward again. “Wow, she is hyper. You tried smacking her real hard? On top of the head, I mean?”
Helen downed the last of her wine and then saluted her husband with the empty glass, “Well, it doesn’t work with Marvin but let’s try it anyway.”
“Yep, I just keep on a begging for sex,” Marvin said before she finished.
“You’d never have to beg me,” Dax said.
Marvin snorted and told Frito to go to her cage.
“Trust me, Dax,” Helen said. “After the first time, he’d be a-beggin’.”
Dax’s suppressed laughter followed the dog’s jingle-clicks down the hall and into the bedroom; then more sips and ah’s filled the room. Marvin looked over at him with a curled lip and a raised eyebrow and then chugged down the rest of his beer.
“Ahhh, I love springtime,” Judy said, flexing her biceps and curving her tight white torso in a bright flaunt.
Marvin countered her gesture with, “I’ll go get the springs. Helen, Dax, will you excuse us?”
Helen understated a gasp and then commanded him to shut up and find the remote. Then she faked a smile and pointed at a distressed mission end table. “Judy can you hand me that catalog? I want to show you these pretty outfits I ordered. Thanks. They’re pricey, but . . . OK, now, where was that . . . oh, Mandy got this one and, my God, she’s just way too fat for it . . . don’t people look in the mirror before they leave the house?”
With her face aimed at the catalog, Judy rolled her eyes over Helen’s outfit.
“Everybody ready?” Dax asked, jittering toward the kitchen. No one answered.
Marvin scooted from the couch as Dax passed, knelt before the entertainment center and shuffled through a stack of tapes. “Which one of these is the porno we made, sweetie? I don’t want to put it in by mistake. I told you to label it.” He turned a grin on Dax, who was speeding back with drinks. “She never labels anything, Daxter, unless it has a face.”
“Quit acting so stupid!” Helen said, jerking herself erect in a flash of outrage. Then, as if suddenly conscious of her own tendency to sniff out friction, she sighed and picked up the fallen catalog in a light, graceful swoop. “The movie I rented is in the Blockbuster cover. And do you have to preen around half-naked when we have company? I just bought you four new shirts, classy ones.”
“Honey, you don’t need to act like we didn’t make a skin flick. You’d feel better if you just admitted it . . . masturbater.”
Helen and Judy cringed red-faced, and as Helen quavered upright again and stepped unevenly toward the kitchen, she grunted something to her husband that straightened his sneer.
“What movie’d you guys get?” Dax asked, removing a clammy hand from his face.
Helen returned with a roll of paper towels and answered guardedly, “Oh, it’s an older Richard Gere one.”
“Good old Dick Gere,” Marvin said, stepping backward toward the couch. “Let’s see . . . hmm . . . Dax, wanna take a squirt at it?”
“Right in the bull’s-eye!”
“Why are guys so ignorant, Judy?”
Judy took a deep breath, the kind that usually precipitates a sneeze, told Helen she didn’t know why and then pushed her wine glass into a shrewd smile. When she removed it her upper lip was glossed. “Where’s Dorito or Chico or—I’m sorry, Marvin—hee hee hee hmm—I forgot your dog’s name.”
“It’s Asshole Junior,” Helen snapped, giving Judy a look of resentment that ended up in a tight, shifting lap. “And he’s gone on Monday. We’re getting a cat, a kitten. Like Mark and Tina’s, only not as mangy and stupid.”
“Like hell we are!” Marvin said, leaning forward on the tops of his thighs and turning a serious frown from face to face. “And we’re not getting rid of my baby. And for the last time Frito is a she and hers loves hers daddy. And I named hers Frito because hers paws smell like Fritos!”
Dax retched during a warm gulp, raised his right foot off the floor and pressure-sprayed the front of his shirt with the wail of an excited elephant. In heaving paroxysms, he bobbled and dropped the paper towels and, as everyone watched them unroll across the floor to kiss Helen’s brown pumps, the elaborate wooden clock on the kitchen wall signaled: Cuckoo, snap!‚ Dax stood in a forward wobble to apologize to Marvin, who giddily accepted his apology but then extended his leg in time to interrupt Dax’s second step toward another cup of coffee, sending his crying friend sledding across the hardwood floor on his ribcage. Dax gasped to his feet, brushed himself off with the backs of his fingers while prattling affected nonsense, and then walked directly into the wall for the benefit of his friend’s unsmiling wife.
“Where’s the remote, Marvin?” Helen broke in, unamused. Ignored, she turned to find Judy giggling and gazing at Marvins convulsing midriff. “Uh, is there a problem, Judy?”
After a tingling silence, Dax answered her from the kitchen with several protracted sips, releasing a quick “ah‚” and a snicker after each. Helen suffered the distraction by adding volume to her voice, “Are you and Dax still trying to have a baby? Mike and Carla are—wow, what an ugly kid that’ll be. And Mike is so shiftless they’ll probably end up on welfare anyway.”
Judy whipped her head to the left and a slick black mane fell over the front of her right shoulder. She opened her eyes slowly on Helen. “Oh, no, there’s no problem, I mean, I was just thinking about a dog I heard about that ate a baby bottle and the nipple turned the wrong way and got stuck in its entrails.”
Helen turned away exasperated and scanned the room that she had spent many of her idle hours decorating and arranging.
Judy continued, laughing hysterically, “No, it really did. I mean, maybe your remote got . . . never mind . . . I’m sorry, I’m just—I just can’t stop laughing!”
But the sudden jingling of dog tags emanating from the bedroom stopped Judy’s laughter long enough to lay bare a mounting uneasiness.
“Santa Claus is comin’ early,” Dax said, chuckling toward the couch with a can of beer and a cup of coffee. “Thank God!”
“Thanks, God,” Judy said lightly to the ceiling with a half-smile.
“You’re welcome, my child,” Marvin said.
“Remember you’ve had three puddles of beer, Santa!” Dax called out. “Watch out for them culverts!”
Marvin, Judy, and Dax laughed.
“Find the fucking remote, Marvin!”
Clicks sounded in the hallway and the shiny black dog entered the living room gently swaying its raised tail. It stretched out quietly on its belly in front of the entertainment center and continued its passionate gnawing on Helen’s slobbered, teeth-marked sex toy.