Why We Can’t Stop Loving the Most Troublesome Pets
Matt Sumell on Real Friendship and Living with "Grief Time Bombs"
Twice a week I play UNO with a gay Egyptian psychiatrist who, inevitably, without fail, calls me a rat-faced piece of cheating garbage in need of hospitalization before he offers to murder my dog.
“Just leave me a key,” he says. “See a movie,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”
I consider my options and hit him with everything I’ve got, slow-like, deliberate-like, fuck-you-like: like a yellow three. Then I look him dead in his very kind eyes and say something a hate-crimer might say, or a rat-faced piece of cheating garbage in need of hospitalization might say, and then I say, “You can’t kill Seymour. He’s a good boy.”
“Is he, though?” he says and plays a yellow seven. “Is he really?”
“Oh,” I go and blink like a stunned idiot with no arms and dirt in his eyes. “This little dance again?”
“I’m sorry, miss,” he says and two-finger folds his ear at me. “What’s that?”
“I know what you’re doing,” I say.
“What am I doing?” he says.
“Psyops, bro. You’re doing mind games.”
“Am I?” he says in exactly the way that lets me know he is totally doing that. He’s asking me leading questions so that I will connect some dots in my brain and realize that Seymour is not only not a good boy, but is in fact an objectively terrible boy with one eye and no joy who wakes me up at 5 a.m. every morning by shitting in my kitchen and barking at it. I throw down a green seven and go, “Yeah, you are. What are you gonna ask next? Why there’s blood in his stool, knowing full well it’s because he has a polyp half-an-inch up his colon that the specialist texted me a photo of?” Then I hold up my phone and show him my wallpaper.
He shakes his head and Draw Twos me, then gestures to the pile of cards like it’s a cupcake he made and is proud of, but the only thing he actually half bakes are bullshit theories like that I rescued Seymour because I’m trying to save my father, and while I will acknowledge some similarities, my dad is meaner and has one leg instead of one eye and a touch more continence. Psh, I go. Pfffft. Then I pick up sixes—a red and a blue—and demand to know what lazy, fat-fingered amateur shuffled the deck.Eventually he attempts to get upright and rolls right off the edge and thumps onto the floor and shakes himself off like he’s wet even though he’s not wet, just stupid.
“You did,” he says.
“Oh,” I say, and grimace my way through the quiet. Eventually he plays a green nine and I get the same idea I get every time he plays a nine, which is that maybe I can get away with playing a six, and then I think maybe I shouldn’t do it, but then I go ahead and do it: I play the red six on his green nine and hope he doesn’t notice, but he does notice because I try the same thing every game and he always notices. Then he says I’m disgusting. Then he says I should be ashamed. Then he says he is grossed out by me. “Honest mistake,” I say, and pick up the five-card cheater penalty and thumb-point at Seymour on the couch looking like a gargoyle fucked a fruit bat with ulcerative colitis. “Let me guess. Next you’re gonna ask if he ever ruined a party by shitting on a lady.”
“Not at all,” he says.
“He did. He diarrhea-ed on Maggie Mull and I wet-wiped her legs. Sensually.”
“Let’s talk about your medication,” he says.
“Oh here we fuckin’ go,” I say and lean back in my chair. “Why? So you can segue into talking about Seymour’s? Because we have nothing to hide: Flagyl and Apoquel, phenobarbital and CBD, special eye drops for his eyeball, prescription low-fat dog food or else he gets pancreatitis and goes fugue and stares at the wall for a few days, and I mix canned pumpkin in there because it’s good for his turds.”
“Sounds expensive,” he says and runs a finger across his neck.
“You fuck,” I say. “You’re probably planning to ask how his seizures are and why his dick is yellow even though you already know the answers are real bad and because he likes to dip it in the pee puddle before he moves on.”
“I want to know—”
“If he ate a battery? Yeah. Nine-volt.”
“—if you’re taking your medication,” he says.
“How dare you,” I say. “The nerve,” I say. “Here’s the thing,” I say and tap my finger on the table a whole bunch. “No.”
Then I avoid eye contact by staring into the ashes in the ashtray for a while, and when I finally glance up he has his cards facedown and his hands steepled and he’s giving me this look like he’s sympathetically judging me so that I’ll question my own choices. But I don’t. Instead I look at him like he’s a spoon I’m trying to bend with my mind, by which I mean that I know that he knows I’m not taking my meds anymore because I can’t afford them because American medicine leverages your pain for your money and I spend all mine on fucked-up dogs that keep dying on me but—I’m gonna keep doing that.
“Why are you making that face,” he says.
“Oh,” I say. “Sorry. Your arm hair was bothering me.” Then I play a green seven and tell him to choke on it.
He doesn’t but Seymour does; he chokes and snorts and grunts because he is very itchy all of a sudden and starts berserking on the new couch—new because he destroyed the old couch when I left him home alone once for like twenty minutes—rubbing himself up it and down it before flipping onto his back with his little Frenchie legs straight up in the air like he’s dead except his eye is open and looking around. Eventually he attempts to get upright and rolls right off the edge and thumps onto the floor and shakes himself off like he’s wet even though he’s not wet, just stupid. Then he jumps back on the couch and stares at me.He’s totally heinous, but his helplessness is endearing so I tell him not to worry.
“OK fine,” I say. “He’s the worst dog I’ve ever had.”
“Bingo,” the Doctor says.
“UNO?” I say.
“No,” he says, and holds up two cards.
“Make it four, you furry geek,” I say and mess up his whole deal with a blue Draw Two–blue six power-combo.
Dude doesn’t even flinch. He just picks up his cards and counters with a blue Reverse, a green Reverse, a Draw Four, says UNO, and wins on a red two.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I say and throw my cards down. “It’s a goddamn conspiracy. Seymour! Are you even seeing this right now?!” And right then the little lump starts stalking the potted ponytail palm on my coffee table and growling at it and I am like, yes, that is correct, fuck that plant. “You tell ’em, Seymour!” I say. “You tell ’em we ain’t taking this shit lyin’ down!”
Then I walk over and lie down on the couch with him and flip him over and rub his belly. One nipple (three down, passenger side) is extra-large and weird looking so I pinch it twice and go bweep bweep. Seymour positions his head to better see me, and when I scratch his chin he makes these small, expressive sounds and tries to bat my hand away with his little paws. He’s totally heinous, but his helplessness is endearing so I tell him not to worry. “I’m not gonna let Doctor Kedorkian kill you.”
“It’s just—” the Doctor says, “most people have pets that bring them joy, but you keep adopting grief time bombs that smell like piss and make your life more difficult than it has to be.”
I think about what he says and on some level I know he’s right—that between Seymour and my last few dogs, and my last few relationships, and my father, and my fear of being swallowed up by the bubbling and gurgling wellspring of sadness I feel just underneath the surface of pretty much everything—that maybe I am kind of having a hard time here, and maybe my choices could be better. But the entire reason my choices could be better is because my thinking is bad. I prefer to feel my way through. And what I feel when I look at Seymour, who is looking at me with his lonesome eyeball (it’s like a marine mammal’s eye: oversized and sincere and vulnerable), is a tremendous tenderness for a mini-jerk doing his bad, terrible, no-good best to be OK but who remains a constant danger to himself and carpeting everywhere.
I admit nothing, especially not that my father smells like piss and has survived on a steady diet of microwaved dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and ruining holidays ever since my mom died. Instead I point my pointer finger at the Doctor’s nose, then rotate my thumb up and yell, “The boy lives!”
“Does he even want to?” he says. “Seriously.”
“I don’t know, man.” Did Hamlet? Does my dad? Do I? Occasionally. But here we are in the meantime and the best I can think to do is be there for some doggos that need me. “Nurturers gotta nurch, bro.”
He furrows his eyebrows and tilts his head and nods, and the effect is that he looks confused and demeans me at the same time. In response I tell him that according to the DSM-5 he has every symptom of mind-your-own-fucking-biz-itis. “And besides,” I say, “Seymour can do the best trick I’ve ever even seen.”What I don’t see is him shift slightly back before he launches himself upwards to expedite the biscuit’s delivery by an inch or two.
I jump up and grab one of his medicated biscuits from the kitchen cabinet, then jog back into the room and yell, “Hey Seymour!” and he immediately perks up and stares at the wall. “He’s deaf in one ear and mostly deaf in the other so he can’t echolocate,” I say. Then I make kissy noises until Seymour turns and stares at my bookshelf, and then I wave my arms over my head and shout his name until he figures it out and plops off the couch and waddles over.
“How long is this gonna take?” the Doctor says.
“Shut the fuck up and be amazed,” I say, “because Seymour’s about to dial up a little razzle-dazzle. Ready, buddy? Here we go: Uno . . . dos . . . three—”
The biscuit is pumpkin-colored and shaped like a cartoon bone and I watch it freefall flat-side down while—in the blurry background—Seymour’s eye widens with anticipation. What I don’t see is him shift slightly back before he launches himself upwards to expedite the biscuit’s delivery by an inch or two. The reason I don’t see that is because, unlike other, fancier, healthier dogs, Seymour doesn’t do that. What Seymour does do is patiently wait for the biscuit to plonk off his bowling ball head because, while depth perception is possible in monocular individuals, it’s very limited inside of certain distances, which explains why Seymour falls off the couch and down stairs so often and—if we don’t walk the block counterclockwise—why he stumbles off curbs and donks his head on street signs and trash cans. In short, the little guy can’t catch. But what he can do, and what impresses me so much, is he can show the fuck up anyway and let the things he loves hit him in the face before he scrambles around looking for where they bounced to. I think it’s a great trick, maybe even thee trick, to everything, and I laugh and tell him what a good boy he is. “The best boy,” I say. “The number onest guy!”
The Doctor is not entertained. He is already scrolling his phone in search of a horned-up stranger with Magnum P.I. tits. I, on the other hand, announce that I am taking Seymour around the block before he shits on my floor again.
“I’ll walk out with you,” the Doctor says and stops scrolling, and I know that instead of sexing a guy he’s going to his parents’ house, to check on them, which he does on the nights we play cards, because his mom is sick and his dad is depressed and they live around the corner.
We make our way to the front door, on the back of which hangs Seymour’s leash and collar and the collars of all the hard-luck cases I’ve lost over the last few years, each of them sweet and doomed, each of them dealt terrible and unfair hands by whichever lazy, fat-fingered amateur you choose to believe in. Or, if you’re like me, none. Just bad luck. What I do believe in is standing between them and worse luck, and every time I reach for a collar I’m reminded of just how worse it can be.
Bacon’s was purple, Chancho’s blue, Sparkles’s orange, Tink’s red. Seymour’s collar is green, and sometimes I even let him wear it, but most days I mix up which one he gets. I think I do it because I like the idea of taking them with us on our walks somehow, of bringing them back out into a world I liked a whole lot better with them in it.I almost get mad, but I let him have this one, and instead of dragging him out by a rope around his neck, I sit on a stair and shush him.
At the bottom of the stairs the Doctor puts his hand on my shoulder, tells me he’s worried about me. “If I got you some samples,” he says, “would you take them?”
“Probably not,” I say. Because—while often excruciating—I’ve been trying to listen to my feelings instead of bury them. I’m tired of burying things. I do appreciate his offer, though. He’s a good friend to me.
We hug it out and say our goodbyes, and after he exits the downstairs door I give Seymour’s leash a tiny tug, to coax him out onto the sidewalk, but the little guy refuses. Because of course he refuses. Instead he sits down and growls at me or the wall or the night or some other grievance. I almost get mad, but I let him have this one, and instead of dragging him out by a rope around his neck, I sit on a stair and shush him. Tell him it’s fine. Tell him he’s a good boy. Tell him I love him. I just try to comfort him, because if my father’s taught me anything it’s that grievances can keep you going for years.
From Freeman’s: Love edited by John Freeman. Used with the permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2020 by Matt Sumell.