Linda went to pick up Sasha because John wasn’t supposed to drive long distances with his back—sitting made it spasm—and, anyway, Linda said she was happy to do it. Happy to get a little time alone with Sasha. Zero tried to follow Linda to the car, bumping against her legs.
“He can’t be out without a leash,” Linda said. “Be gentle with him, O.K.?”
John found the leash, careful when he clipped it to the harness to avoid Zero’s raised stitches. They looked spidery, sinister. Zero was breathing hard. For another five weeks, they were supposed to make sure he didn’t roll over, didn’t jump, didn’t run. He had to be on a leash whenever he went outside, had to be accompanied at all times. Otherwise the pacemaker might get knocked loose. John hadn’t known dogs could get pacemakers, didn’t even like dogs inside the house. Now here he was, shuffling after Zero while he sniffed one tree, then another.
Zero limped slowly to the fence line, stood still for a moment, then kept going. It was two acres, the back yard, big enough that you felt insulated from the neighbors, though one of them had called the police once, because of the dog’s barking. These people, up in one another’s business, trying to control barking dogs. Zero stopped to consider a deflated soccer ball, so old it looked fossilized, then kept moving. Finally he squatted, miserable, looking back at John as he took a creamy little shit. It was a startling, unnatural green.
Inside the animal was some unseen machinery keeping him alive, keeping his animal heart pumping. Robot dog, John crooned to himself, kicking dirt over the shit.
Four o’clock. Sasha’s plane would just be landing, Linda circling arrivals. It was not too early for a glass of wine.
“Chloe? Are you interested?”
She was not. “I’m applying to jobs,” she said, cross-legged on her bed. “See?” She turned the laptop toward him for a moment, some document up on the screen, though he heard a TV show playing in the background. She still seemed like a teen-ager, though she’d graduated college almost two years ago. At her age, John had already been working for Mike for years, had his own crew by the time he was thirty. He was thirty when Sam was born. Now kids got a whole extra decade to do—what? Float around, do these internships.
He tried again. “Are you sure? We can sit outside, it’s not bad.”
Chloe didn’t look up from the laptop. “Can you close the door,” she said, tonelessly.
Sometimes their rudeness left him breathless.
He put together a snack for himself. Shards of cheese, cutting around the mold. Salami. The last of the olives, shrivelled in their brine. He took his paper plate outside and sat in one of the patio chairs. The cushions felt damp, probably rotting from the inside. He wore his jeans, his white socks, his white sneakers, a knitted sweater—Linda’s—that seemed laughably and obviously a woman’s. He didn’t worry about that anymore, how silly he might look. Who would care? Zero came to sniff his hand; he fed him a piece of salami. When the dog was calm, quiet, he wasn’t so bad. He should put Zero’s leash on, but it was inside, and, anyway, Zero seemed mellow, no danger of him running around. The back yard was green, winter green. There was a fire pit under the big oak tree which one of the kids had dug in high school and ringed with rocks, but now it was filled with leaves and trash. Probably Sam, he thought, and shouldn’t Sam clean it up, clean all this up? Anger lit him up suddenly, then passed just as quickly. What was he going to do, yell at him? The kids just laughed now if he got angry. Another piece of salami for Zero, a piece for himself. It was cold and tasted like the refrigerator, like the plastic tray it had come on. Zero stared at him with those marble eyes, exhaling his hungry, meaty breath until John shooed him away.
Even accounting for holiday traffic, Linda and Sasha got back later than he expected. He went out onto the porch when he heard their car. He’d had the yard guy put up holiday lights along the fence, along the roof, around the windows. They were these new L.E.D. ones, chilly strands of white light dripping off the eaves. It looked nice now, in the first blue dark, but he still missed the colored lights of his childhood, those cartoonish bulbs. Red, blue, orange, green. Probably they were toxic.
Sasha opened the passenger door, a purse and an empty water bottle on her lap.
“The airline lost my suitcase,” she said. “Sorry, I’m just annoyed. Hi, Dad.”
She hugged him with one arm. She looked a little sad, a little fatter than the last time he’d seen her. She was wearing some unflattering style of pant, wide at the legs, and her cheeks were sweating under too much makeup.
“Did you talk to someone?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I mean, yeah, I left my information and stuff. I got a claim number, some Web site. They’re never going to find it, I’m sure.”
“We’ll see,” Linda said. “They reimburse you, you know.”
“How was traffic?” John asked.
“Backed up all the way to 101,” Linda said. “Ridiculous.”
If there were luggage, at least he would have something to do with his hands. He gestured in the direction of the driveway, the darkness beyond the porch light.
“Well,” he said, “now everyone’s here.”