It’s two in the morning, raining, and the puppy and I are across the street at this abandoned school. The puppy’s playing in the puddles. It’s pitch black out and obviously no one’s out at this time of night so I can let him off the leash and not worry.
Except then the dog darts around the corner of the building and I hear a low guttural woof, followed by a whoosh whoosh, and then nothing. When I get around the corner he’s got some bird in his mouth, its head sticking out. It’s motionless in the dog’s mouth, except its eyes are twitching a little.
It’s unclear if the dog has maimed the bird or if he simply came upon a maimed bird.
Bad dog, I tell the puppy. Bad dog, I’m talking in my lowest voice. Give it here, now, boy, I say. Give it to Daddy.
He doesn’t listen. He wants to play. Like everything else, this is all a big game to him. I chase him around the school for almost twenty minutes before I get him to drop it. We’re out on the basketball court and I have to tie the dog’s leash to the basketball hoop to get him to leave it alone.
It’s a mourning dove. I see that now as it lies there on the court getting rained on.
The dog is whining and gagging as he throws himself against his choker. I am crying a little as I look at the crippled bird. I can’t find a rock big enough.
I’m not going to wring its neck with my bare hands. Birds have diseases, I think to myself. And I’ve never killed anything bigger than a cockroach.
The first time I try to stomp its head, I miss, and a jolt of pain shoots from my heel up to the back of my neck. I stomp again and miss again.
On the third stomp I get its head, feel the delicate bones crunch under my weight. I stomp again for good measure. I’m sniffling and emitting a dull moaning and I want all the pain to end.
I make the mistake of looking down at the bird crushed beneath me. I look at the dog still lunging against his choker. My little puppy, the big bad bird mangler.
Bad dog, I’m saying as I point down at the crushed bird’s head beneath me. Bad dog.
That morning I go teach my classes. It’s the last day of the semester. I give them my big last-day speech. I try to convince them the whole point of writing is about empathy and compassion. It’s about life and humanity and trying to understand all that we’ll never fully understand. I tell them about my brother who killed himself when I was ten. I tell them how he was just eighteen.
I tell them about all the times I’ve tried to kill myself and failed. I tell them how stupid and selfish I’ve been for most of my life. I tell them what my brother’s suicide did to my family, and how even knowing that, I tried and failed to kill myself three different times.
I don’t tell them about the bird I just killed last night, my new puppy the mangler. I’m not sure yet how this works into the larger narrative I’m working on about empathy and compassion.
Still I’m a little ragged and strung out from the whole event and my voice cracks and I break down crying a little every time I give this speech. I give this speech five times to five different classes. All the droopy student eyes bug out when I tell them about all the suicide attempts, the one success.
So what’s the point? I ask them. What’s the take-away? This is something I’ve asked them over and over throughout the semester. What’s our reader supposed to get out of all this?
I’ve drawn a little triangle on the board and at each point I’ve written audience, author, text. This is all you get in life, I say. I tap the white board at each word—author, audience, text. If you take nothing else from this class, let it be this.
I point at my heart and then I point at them. This is the big take-away, I say. This is what is going to stay with you forty years from now. This is what is going to make life worth living. This is what is going to keep you going when life gets hard. This is what I’ve learned from all my colossal failures.
What’s your text going to tell the people who matter the most?
I end all five classes this way. Some of the speeches go better than others. I talk for close to five hours straight. I’m beyond hoarse by the last class. The students can barely hear me through the rasp, and this, I think, adds to my ethos. You can believe me, my hoarse voice tells them. Would somebody who’s lying still be talking like this?
A few students sniffle and tear up as they shake their heads on the way out. A couple ask for hugs. A couple firm handshakes. It’s been real, some of them say. Some just turn in their final papers and wander out. Some of them are already texting their friends before they leave the classroom.
After the last class, one girl stays behind for close to ten minutes, waiting for all the others to clear out. I smile a big tired smile at her, sniffle back a tear.
Maddie, I say, my smile getting bigger. What can I do you for?
Maddie isn’t crying. She doesn’t want a hug or to shake my hand. She tugs on her shirt tail, looks down, and says she wants to know what she’s done wrong.
What she means is why I docked her two points for a reading quiz two weeks ago.
Maddie, like most of my female students, wears short-shorts tucked up underneath this oversized fraternity t-shirt that she stole from her boyfriend. The girls down here call it the no-pants look. I’ve seen them describe it as such in their writing. That’s their fashion. The walk-of-shame, is what my friends and I used to call it.
It can be more than a little disconcerting as a forty-year-old professor to be discussing grade complaints with an eighteen-year-old girl with no pants on.
Her breathing is jittery and her lips are pursed, her cheeks puffed out. She has her reading packet in the hand she’s not holding her shirt-tail with. She’s holding the pages out to me to show her pink highlights and flowery purple handwriting all over the margins.
Oh I wouldn’t worry about it, Maddie. I want to pat her on the back to reassure but don’t for fear she’ll accuse me of inappropriate touching. It’s only two points I say. It won’t kill you.
But I really need an A, she says.
She’s going to get an A. Not because of her skill in writing or general her curiosity for the world, but because of her zealousness. Her desire to do whatever it takes, cut whatever corner she has to, to get an A in the class regardless of her absolute apathy to actual learning.
You’ll be fine, Maddie, I say. You’ll see.
But I want to know why I lost the points.
Why? Because you took a short cut. You didn’t read the ending.
Obviously, I don’t say this to her.
It was “A Good Man Was Hard to Find” and there’s that line at the end about She would have been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life. It’s an important line, and it always becomes clear who’s read the whole story when I ask them that question about it.
She would have been a good woman if… what? I ask them.
You know why you lost those two points, Maddie. This is teacher speak. Declarative. This is me getting her to admit it without me having to explain it to her. You get the student to take ownership, rather than an autocrat taking points away arbitrarily.
I told you, she tells me. I told you that whole story was a trigger for me. That whole story was about violence toward women, and you said you understood.
This is what they say now. The students who don’t want to do the reading, but still want the A.
I told you I understood where you were coming from, I tell her. I didn’t say you were off the hook.
But it’s my belief system, she says. Don’t you think violence towards women is offensive?
Were you even listening to what I was saying today?
Oh, I was listening, she says. Her eyes wide, her nostrils flaring. I heard you talking all about empathy and compassion and now you’re saying that my beliefs don’t matter and that’s why I’m not getting an A.
This conversation, I’ll likely be rehashing it with my boss, and just as likely my boss’s boss. Maybe with my career on the line, maybe not. It all depends on who’ll seem more sympathetic.
Students for the next class start peeking in the door and making a show out of checking their phones for time.
I sigh a big sigh and tell Maddie that her opinion matters very much to me and I am truly saddened that she feels I am supporting violence towards women.
But at the end of the day…, I tell her. This is what you say as a teacher to signal that a debate with a student is over.
At the end of the day, I tell her, you didn’t read the whole story, and it was a very important story, a story that the author, a female author of quite some renown, spent years slaving away on in obscurity. Years writing, rewriting, revising, and editing. I can’t in good conscience give you full credit for reading a story you didn’t read.
I’m sorry, Maddie says, but then there’s that but. There’s always that but with girls like Maddie. But, she says, I think this is all grossly and utterly offensive and unfair.
The professor for the next class is at the door and checking her watch. I certainly don’t want to be having this conversation in earshot of her, all this talk of trigger words and violence against women.
Well I’m glad you’re sticking to your guns, I say. And I can definitely appreciate where you are coming from, Maddie, but at this point, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, don’t you?
She snorts at me and makes a big deal of spinning away from me, pulling at her oversized shirt the whole time. Well I think this sucks, she says under her breath as she starts to leave. Then, even quieter: I think you suck.
Why couldn’t I just give her the two points? I don’t know. Maybe it was killing that mourning dove. Maybe it was my irritability and lack of sleep.
I don’t know.
What is your text going to be?
My text was saying that I felt stories were important and endings maybe most important. More important even than the fragile egos and pseudo-feminist theories held by eighteen-year-old girls with no pants on.
That night I get a message from an old friend I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s not a text. It’s a DM on Facebook. This is how we communicate these days, I guess. Friends who haven’t spoken in years. Friends who get new phones and don’t update old numbers.
It’s my old friend Todd from grad school. He had been a writer just like me, just like my wife. We all had been inseparable back then.
He starts off immediately by saying he’s sorry that we haven’t spoken in so long. He’s sorry too that he’s having to break the news this way.
What’s the news? my wife asks.
Cancer, I say. I almost say the cancer but don’t. His prostate, I tell her.
Why haven’t Todd and I spoken for so long? my wife wants to know. She asks this offhandedly as if she doesn’t really know. But she was there that night, the night before our wedding. All that coke Todd brought: his own special gift. The blur of hours. The questions about fidelity that still haunt me.
It’s petty to be offended by this now and I know that, but that does not stop me from being offended. Todd was the best man in my wedding. What role of such distinction had I ever served for him?
There was a time when I would play the tambourine as backing percussion for his open mic performances. There was a time when I would regularly get kicked out of the bar for starting fights with the hecklers who’d call us faggots and tell us to fuck ourselves and go to hell.
It’s Raining Men, that’s what he would close every performance with. It wasn’t a gay thing. He liked to be a provocateur. The regulars at the bar, they were easily provoked. How many black eyes had I gotten for him? How many sets of stitches? How many kicks to the balls?
What’s the prognosis? my wife wants to know. Is he going to undergo chemo? Did they catch it early?
I don’t know, I say. He hasn’t mentioned.
He’s young, she says. He’ll beat this, honey, she says. These are things she rattles off before I can answer her questions.
The Toddawg, that was his folk-singer alter-ego. He had the most beautiful hair I’d ever seen on a man. My wife had thought so too. Long and straight and brunette with natural auburn highlights. When he would let it down out of his ponytail, he was basically a shampoo commercial.
This and the way he would swoon for ten minutes or more on his twangy, folked-out rendition of It’s Raining Men, that’s what led some to think he might be gay, and our friendship might be forbidden love.
But he was not, and we were not, and it was not. Though it would’ve been perfectly fine if it had. We were not the closed-minded ones.
I feel like a real douche writing you like this, Todd writes at the end of his message. Hit me up so we can catch up and talk about all this for real. He leaves his number for me to call.
Call him, my wife says. Be there for him. He’s your best friend, she says. Don’t do what you usually do, she says.
What do I usually do?
You know, she says. Ghost him.
We’re sitting there in bed, her with her iPad, me with my MacBook, the puppy sleeping soundly between the two of us.
It’s late, I tell my wife. I’ll call him tomorrow.
Call him now, she says. Don’t you think he could use a friend?
I make more excuses. Don’t you think he’s been through enough, honey? He doesn’t need to hear my voice cracking on the other end. I’m still hoarse from talking to my students. This should be about him, now. He shouldn’t have to be worrying about me.
What I don’t say is Who even calls anymore? Who can maintain a thoughtful conversation over the phone in these times? I’m a writer, not a talker.
What’s your text going to say? That goddamn phrase will be stuck in my head for days, maybe weeks. And who put it there but myself?
Later, after my wife’s passed out, after the puppy’s passed out, I can’t sleep. I can’t stop the endless loop of conversations with myself about the bird, the puppy, the girl from class, Todd, my wife’s guilt.
I write Todd back to tell him I’m sorry about the cancer. That sucks, man, I write.
Then, to change the subject without fully changing the subject, I tell him about the puppy and the mangled bird.
It’s almost funny, I say, though it’s most certainly not funny, not any of this.
A fucking mourning dove, I tell him. Our cute little puppy mangled a fucking mourning dove, and I had to stomp its head to put it out of its misery. Do you believe in bad omens or what? Don’t answer that, I say. I almost put a winky face after it but decide not to.
It gets better, I tell him. Maybe a poor choice of words. I delete it and start again.
It gets more fucked up, I write.
I tell him about my big end-of-the-semester speech. I tell him about the no-pants look. I tell him that he wouldn’t last a day teaching these no-pants girls. I tell him that he’d’ve fucked this girl, given her the two points back, and then sang a song about it.
She was hot, I tell him. As I write all this I imagine being fired if anyone I worked with were to ever read it. I imagine if my wife were ever to read it, she wouldn’t be so happy either.
What’s he saying? my wife says in a sleepy voice. She’s curled up beside me with the snoring puppy.
I’m still writing, I say. He hasn’t responded.
My wife yawns, then looks up into my eyes, half-focused. Shouldn’t you be the one listening? Shouldn’t he be the one writing?
I’m just doing what you told me to, I whisper. I’m talking to him.
She yawns again, this time louder. Okay, she says. Then a moment before she goes back asleep: He needs you, you know? You know that, right?
I ignore her.
I’m making a joke about my student not liking depressing endings. I try not to think about this girl getting me fired.
They’re always asking me to give them some happy endings for once, I write. Seriously, this is the type of shit they say and they have no clue. It’s so hard to talk to them sometimes without laughing in their faces.
Satisfied, I hit enter. Wait a few minutes.
He’s up. I know he’s up. He doesn’t sleep. The Toddawg I knew anyway.
At some point, I see the dot-dot-dot thing that shows he’s writing something back. It goes off and on and off and on and like that for a minute or so, then eventually, it shows: What a dumb cunt.
I wait a little longer. I wait for some more dot-dot-dots to show he’s going to add something further. Clarify. Respond to other things.
I wait a long time.
Eventually he does. He writes, the doctors told me I had cancer last week, dickhead. Pretty sure it’s got shit to do with your dog eating a bird.
Then again with the waiting game. He doesn’t say, Rough day, huh? There’s no more apologizing for the pain he’s caused me in the past or the pain he’s caused me today. What a hypocrite he’s made me tonight. The days coming up where I’ll think over and over, What’s your text going to say? and have to think about Todd and his cancer. His prostate, which my wife had to remind me was not actually ass cancer.
The wasted joke potential. The puns.
My wife had dated a kid in high school who’d gotten colon cancer. Todd and I had ridiculed my wife every chance we got about her ex’s ass cancer.
Must’ve been a real pain in the ass, that guy, we’d tell her.
Oh my god, we’d scream out from shitter of the apartment we shared. Get in here, we’d tell my wife. You’ve got to see this. The cancer. I think it’s turned… asserous.
Laugh it up you assholes, she’d say. How much we’d giggle every time she’d call us assholes. It’s all fun and games, she’d say sometimes too. Until…
It only makes sense that guys like Todd and me, one of us would end up dying of a disease that neither of us could truly understand or appreciate.
I tell Todd about the prostate infection I got a couple years ago. How the piss would come out like razor blades, one searing little tear-drop at a time. I tell him how the doctor bent me over, lubed up my asshole, and then milked my prostate until he’d decided it was not responding well to being palpated.
There’s two kinds of prostate infections, the doctor tells me. The tears streaming down my face from how hard I’m gritting my teeth. Only one way to figure out which is which.
That how you found out about the cancer? I write. Or was it like blood in your piss and all that?
Are you trying to seduce me with your gift with words? he writes back. Are you trying to get in my pants again, big boy?
This is Todd’s sense of humor. This is Todd avoiding the big issue.
I write back: We both know who sucked whose dick, now don’t we?
This is my defensiveness. This is me wondering aloud if it’s gay to be so drunk and high as to let your friend suck your dick as a joke? Is it infidelity to let your wife suck your friend’s dick to complete the circle?
How drunk would you have to be? How many lines of coke would you have to snort?
Does it matter how beautiful your friend’s hair was? Does it matter that you were all just a bunch of writers trying to explore life in new and exotic ways?
There are more dot-dot-dots on Todd’s end. Then it stops. They disappear. There’s nothing.
The wife’s back asleep. The dog’s whimpering quietly but sound asleep, its feet twitching ever so slightly on the bed. No doubt dreaming that it’s raining again. Maybe it’s after another mourning dove. Everything, a big game to him. Me chasing him around and around the school, we go.
My last text to Todd says Read 12:01 AM.
Are you there? I write a minute later.
No dots. No Read.
I’m still here, dickhead, I write.
Are you gonna up and out of the blue tell me you’ve got cancer one day and then up and go and ghost me the next day, you asshole?
I wish now more than ever that it really was ass cancer. All the puns I could come up with. Blah, blah, blah, you pain in the ass. Maybe finish it all off with LMFAO. How good it would feel to be that clever and pissed off at the same time.
Eventually there’s a dot-dot-dot. But then it stops and goes back to nothing.
What’s your text going to say? I find myself asking again. But this I know.
My last word to my dying friend is Asshole.
Benjamin Drevlow is the author of the book Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father. He has published short fiction and nonfiction at Passages North, Fiction Southeast, Split Lip, among other magazines. You can find these and other stories linked at thedrevlow-olsonshow.com.