Fiction

Miss Tennessee

Photo Credit: Kathryn Denman.Licensed CC-BY-NC.
Photo Credit: Kathryn Denman.
Licensed CC-BY-NC.

I loved the little guy from the day she brought him home. She carried him wrapped in a sweatshirt from the shelter at the corner where she’d been saying for months she was going to go. She set him down on the hardwood floor and he clipped around like a fawn–clip, clip–looking through doorways and carefully eyeing us both. He was tiny but he was strong. He was muscular and sleek, like a miniature greyhound, and we both watched intently as he clipped around, soldiering things out and whining under his breath.

Miss Tennessee looked at me and smiled and said: “Well honey? What do you think?” And I told her: “I love the little guy.”

He was never really my dog. He was more like my step-dog, but together we named him Steve. We thought it was funny, giving a dog a man’s name like that. But it fit, like Miss Tennessee, which I started just to tease her about being full-grown and long-legged and pretty, but in a tomboyish way that made it both absolutely ridiculous and absolutely plausible that she had ever been Miss Anything. It always made her swallow a grin. Steve’s name, on the other hand, made it sound like he wasn’t a dog at all, but this little man. Miss Tennessee often called him that: the little man.

Steve liked me okay but he loved Miss Tennessee. With me it was man things. After he got snipped or when he was stung by bees, down there, in grass that came up to his chin, he would come sit by me, hoping I’d understand. With her, it was everything else. When she took a bath, he stood with his paws on the side of the tub, and when she went someplace he couldn’t go he stood where he last saw her and waited. If she went into a store and left us together in the car, he stood with his paws on the dashboard, waiting and crying and looking at me like maybe I was to blame.

He was tough in his own way. He growled at people passing by and people who didn’t give him what he wanted. It was a deep and sincere growl, if not loud or at all intimidating, based as it was on anatomy smaller than a cat’s. Like a cat, he sometimes brought home dead things. He brought Miss Tennessee chipmunks and mice and assorted birds, which I buried–in his view and with much ceremony–in the soft, gray dirt under the porch.

His confidence was not unshakable, however. He was aware of certain limitations. Sometimes, when furious, like at me or at Miss Tennessee’s sister or Miss Tennessee’s sister’s dog–an Alsatian monster who sometimes came over and hoarded all the little man’s bones–he knew better than to strike directly so he would bite something else instead. He’d bite the arm of the couch or a pillow or the little blue rug he’d learned to pee on and he’d snap them around with his head–really killing them–his big marble eyes locked on the real target. It was like he was thinking: “This is you. You fucker. You fink.”

Sometimes we spoke for him. “This is you, Prince. You fucker. You fink,” I’d say when Steve pretended to bite Miss Tennessee’s sister’s monster Alsatian, and we would all laugh. There was always something Steve seemed to be thinking, and we were always saying it for him. When we ate breakfast in the living room, he’d get up on his hind legs to look at the fruit and toast laid out on the coffee table. It was creepy to look at, like maybe he really was a little man, weaving back and forth like a dancer. Miss Tennessee would nudge me with her foot to make sure I was watching.

“Look at the little man,” she’d whisper. “He’s going: Where’s mine? Where’s my toast.” And I’d say: “I don’t see why you guys get all the fruit and toast when you’re both already so big. Look at me. I’m tiny.”

Steve would catch on that we were talking about him and he’d run around the table and I’d play with him a little, batting him back and forth while he growled and snapped.

“Look,” Miss Tennessee would say. “He’s going: You’re not so tough. You’re not so tough.” And I’d say: “Fuck you. You fucker. You fink.” And we’d laugh until Miss Tennessee had to go take a shower.

***

Miss Tennessee worked eight to five in a pediatrician’s office and I taught school, although not in the summers. I usually stuck around her house after she left for the day. She wore smocks covered with balloons and clowns that made little boys want to marry her, and I would kiss her goodbye on the porch.

In the mornings, I sat in the backyard and let the sun beat on my face and watched Steve march around. In the afternoons I ran errands. If I was feeling ambitious, I would cook up a pot of gumbo with ducks my brother had hunted and killed near the lakes north of the city. It would surprise Miss Tennessee when she got home, which was usually around six, seven if it was a bad day, and eight if she went to aerobics. Sometimes she came home later and we would fight over my mentioning that I had wondered where she was and if she was all right. She would say I didn’t trust her and we would argue. Later we’d sit in bed, batting Steve around, and she would nudge me with her foot.

“Look. He’s going: You’ve gotta trust people silly man.” And I’d say: “People that want to be trusted should learn to use the telephone. I can’t. My paws are too damn tiny.” And we’d laugh until we kissed and then we’d laugh again before we fell asleep.

One night Miss Tennessee was very late. I was in bed but not asleep. Steve bounced off the bed like a spring and met her at the door. He spun around the bedroom–up on the bed, down on the floor–in tighter and tighter circles. Miss Tennessee didn’t say anything. She just got undressed, draping her clothes over the open doors of the wardrobe.

“Well,” I said as Steve gnawed on a piece of rawhide that he’d placed next to my hand so he could pretend he was gnawing on me. Miss Tennessee looked over her shoulder as she pulled on a pair of boxer shorts:

“Look honey,” she said. “He’s going: Better be careful with that hand, tough guy. I’m gonna bite it off.”

I looked down at Steve.

“Look,” she said. “He’s going: Go back to your own house before I bite your hand off, you fink.” She was smiling but I didn’t smile back. “Honey, you heard him,” she said as she got into bed. “Don’t worry. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I drove home wishing I hadn’t said anything. My apartment was a mess. I was only there enough to mess it up but not enough to clean. Clothes hung over the furniture and the bed wasn’t made. I sat for a while, thumbing through mail and bills and magazines. I folded my clothes across the back of a chair and lay there wide awake, thinking about what Steve had said.

***

I spent the next morning cleaning. I sorted my clothes between closet and hamper, emptied the refrigerator, and even thinned out my medicine cabinet and the bookshelf covered with small piles of change and tiny receipts that appeared to be blank except for raised bumps. Miss Tennessee called in the afternoon.

“I just wanted to make sure you were coming over tonight,” she said.

“You don’t have plans?”

“Of course not silly. Are you coming or not?”

“Sure.”

“Let yourself in,” she said.

I spent the rest of the afternoon running errands so I could cook dinner, to show her I was sorry. When I got to her house she wasn’t home. Steve went berserk, running circles around the room and across the furniture. He seemed glad to see me. I sat in the backyard for a while, watching him blink into the sun before starting dinner. While he slept on the bed, I made a stew with parts of a deer my brother had hunted and killed.

Miss Tennessee was late, even for aerobics night. She came into the kitchen and kissed me on the neck as I warmed a loaf of French bread in the oven.

“I didn’t know you were going to cook,” she said, sniffing the air around us. “You smell funny,” she said.

“I was in the yard. I’ll take a shower before we eat.”

When I got out of the shower, she was sitting on the couch. Steve sat on the floor in front of her, staring up in worship.

“Why don’t we eat in the living room,” I shouted as I got dressed. “Fine!” she shouted back.

After I’d shaved and combed my hair, I loaded a few bowls with stew and lengths of French bread and knifefuls of butter. I carried them into the living room and sat down on the couch next to her.

“Oh honey,” she said. “Everything smells so good.”

We ate and watched Jeopardy, calling out the answers when we knew them. Steve kept his nose up in the air, sniffing, and he spent a lot of time wobbling on his back legs trying to see what we were eating.

“Look,” Miss Tennessee said, nudging me. “He’s going: Silly man. You smell like wood.” Steve sniffed around my feet. “Just like wood. Like all silly old men.” I looked to see if I’d dropped some bread on the carpet. “Not like Mommy’s friend the astronaut. Not at all. Mommy’s astronaut smells like TV.”

“Silly?” I said in the way I had of talking when I was talking for Steve. “People smelling like TV. Now that’s silly. I know that and my brain’s no bigger than a walnut.”

“Look,” Miss Tennessee said, nudging me again. “He’s going: He does. I’ve smelled him. He smells like shampoo and baby aspirins and electrical fire.”

I turned to Miss Tennessee, who was still smiling at Steve. “There aren’t any astronauts in this part of the country,” I said.

“Look,” she said, nudging. “He’s going: That’s what I thought, too, but I smelled him. I know.”

I took our plates into the kitchen. I could still hear Miss Tennessee’s voice from the other room. “Yeees. Yeees. The little man doesn’t like wood does he? The little man likes astronauts.”

I put the dishes in soapy water and told Miss Tennessee I was going home. “Alright,” she said, shaking Steve like a puppet. He looked at me and squinted.

“Look. The little man’s going to miss you,” she said. “Say, I’m going to miss you,” she told him. But Steve didn’t say anything.

***

On my way home I stopped and bought beer. In my immaculate apartment, I sat in the chair in front of the television and propped the beer next to me. I flipped through channels and drank. I watched some sports wrap-ups and bits of a beauty pageant for teenagers, although this only made me restless.

An astronaut? Was he really an astronaut? Where had she met an astronaut? Are there still astronauts? The people in the shuttles, are they technically astronauts? I opened another beer and tried to decide whether I was upset because Miss Tennessee was seeing somebody else or because that somebody else was an astronaut or because he maybe wasn’t an astronaut but had said he was and she believed him. Or maybe it was because he smelled like TV. I opened another beer and smelled my hand. Like skin and bones and beer. Like deer and French bread. Not at all like wood. I grabbed another beer and took it with me to the shower.

I didn’t hear from Miss Tennessee for days. For more than a week. I began looking forward to school. I kept busy with errands and lesson plans and some new books I was expected to teach. Early Saturday I joined my brother near the lakes north of the city to shoot at ducks and deer. I tried not to think about Steve or astronauts or Miss Tennessee. At night I ordered pornographic movies on pay-for-view, which were edited for such purpose and shot at odd angles, and wondered what the PTA would think of me now. I imagined Miss Tennessee with the astronaut, drinking cocktails made with Tang and having multiple orgasms in weightless environments. Weightlessness outside of deep space, I knew, was impossible, but then I hadn’t known we still had astronauts. I tried not to think about these things.

Miss Tennessee called while I sat in the driveway outside my apartment. I was considering the latticework on the porch of the big house where my landlord lived and thinking about all these things anyway. I didn’t answer the portable phone I kept with me in case she called, but went inside to listen to the message. She sounded as sweet as could be.

“Where have you been silly man,” she said. “When you get done sulking, give us a call.” I was nervous about who us might include but I called back anyway.

“Hey,” she said when she heard it was me.

“Hey,” I said.

“The little man misses you,” she said. I could hear her talking away from the phone. “Yeees. Isn’t that right?” she was saying.

“And you?”

“Me?”

“What about you? Do you miss me?”

“Well of course, silly. Why do you thinking I’m calling you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” Miss Tennessee said.

“With us, I mean.”

“You shouldn’t worry so much. Now are you coming over or not?”

I thought about it for a minute, although I knew what I would say.

“Sure,” I said. I could hear Miss Tennessee talking as I hung up. “Yeees,” she was saying. “Yeees.”

I took a shower and made the bed. I combed my hair and shaved. I thought about shopping for something to cook, or maybe for something for Steve, but decided to go straight over. She met me at the door. Steve bounced back and forth behind her and jumped up at my knees.

“Yes,” she said. “We missed you. See, he’s going: We missed you.”

She put her arms around me and kissed me on the neck.

“I missed you, too,” I said.

***

As we lay in bed, Steve chewing on a deer hoof between us–not the pet store kind but one I’d gotten from my brother–Miss Tennessee nudged me with her foot.

“Look,” she said. “He’s going: Mmm. This tastes good.”

“Very good,” I said, rolling over on my side to look at Miss Tennessee’s grin. “He’s thinking: This tastes better than ever. Better than I remembered.”

“He’s going: I’ll eat it all and then I’ll be huge,” she said.

“As big as you guys, with all your fruit and toast,” I said.

“If it only lasted longer. This will be gone in no time.” Miss Tennessee pressed her body against mine leaving just enough space between our legs for Steve.

“He’s going: Hey. Tough guy. I hope there’s more where this came from.” I pulled her closer to me and kissed her on the forehead.

We were quiet and Steve scraped his teeth on the hoof like scissors on a golf ball. Miss Tennessee rubbed the soft heel of her foot up and down my shin under the covers.

“Look, honey,” she said. “He’s going: Too bad it doesn’t last as long. It’s over way too quick.” Her voice got thin and dreamy as she continued. “I mean it starts and it’s good and then it goes for awhile but then, poof, it’s over and gone, burned up.”

“As quick as it takes to make a phone call,” I laughed. “I know that and my brain’s no bigger than a walnut.” Miss Tennessee got quiet. She pulled away a little, rolled over on her back, and the room was filled with the sound of Steve’s scraping.

“Look,” she said. “He’s going: Really I hate this thing. I’ve got to bite it. I hate it. Like somebody who gets drunk and always talks too loud.”

I rolled over on my back and stared at the ceiling.

“Like someone who thinks she can do anything she wants and pretend it never happened,” I said.

“Like someone who passes out and snores,” she said, sing-song, smiling at Steve.

“Like a liar,” I said.

“Like someone who doesn’t trust people.”

“Someone who doesn’t let people’s feelings get in the way of her fantasy worlds.”

“A mama’s boy,” she said.

“A flirt.”

“Some pussy.”

“Crazy.”

“Like wood,” she said, grinning.

“Look, look,” I said, still smiling, putting an arm across Miss Tennessee’s bare stomach. “He’s saying: Are you so desperate and sad and stupid that you really believed that guy was an astronaut? He’s not. I smelled him. I know.”

Miss Tennessee shot out of bed and glared at me. As she stood there, bronze curls falling across her face, I looked at the fine lines of her long legs and hips, her appendix scar, her delicate neck, her thick upper arms and her thin wrists. I realized the little boys who wanted to marry her because of her smocks covered with balloons and clowns had the right idea, even if they didn’t have all the information.

“Fuck you. Fuck you. You fucking fink. You fucker,” she screamed.

***

When I went to get my things, school had already started. Miss Tennessee left a message and told me to come when she wasn’t there, she would put my things in a box. I went one day after school. I was dressed in an Oxford and slacks, a disappointment after the shorts and t-shirts of summer, especially since it had yet to cool off.

I let myself in. Miss Tennessee had done as she’d promised. There was a cardboard box inside the door. I closed the door behind me and knelt down and opened the cardboard flaps. There were some paperback books, a few cds, two T-shirts, a pair of socks, a cheese grater, and a garlic press I’d brought over to work on a pan of lasagna. There were things I’d given Steve: a stuffed kangaroo with the eyes gnawed off, a pair of deer hooves, and a stick with a feather on the end (a cat toy, really) I teased him with. As I looked through the box, I realized the little man had not met me at the door, jumping at my knees or running around the room–up on the furniture, down on the floor–in ever-tightening circles.

I went into the living room, expecting to see him asleep on the couch. I looked in the kitchen and in the bedroom. The bed was unmade and Miss Tennessee’s smocks hung over the door of the wardrobe. I even looked in the backyard to see if Steve had been left out to squint into the sun. He was nowhere to be found and there were no signs of astronauts. No Tang stains or envelopes from Cape Canaveral. I fished around in a kitchen drawer for a piece of string and fished around in my pocket for all of Miss Tennessee’s keys; keys to the front door and the screen door and the shed where she kept the lawnmower. I threaded them onto the string and opened the front door to drop them into the mailbox.

I didn’t notice the little man until I reached back inside for the cardboard box, but I almost tripped over him when I turned around. He stared up at me with his huge, marble eyes, making out what I knew could be little more than a blur. He slowly squinted, almost closing his eyes before opening them again, like he was trying to hypnotize me. “You are wanting to feed the puppy dog,” I always said in my best fortune-teller accent whenever he did this. “You are wanting to feed the puppy.” And everyone would laugh.

He was calm, just sitting and squinting. His tan fur was dark brown in places, like he’d been rolling in dirt, and he had an enormous bluejay pressed beneath his paws. It was nearly as big as he was and its feathers were dirty and bent but still brilliantly blue in places. It occurred to me to take the keys out of the mailbox and go get the shovel. Steve looked at me expectantly, his tiny ribs heaving in and out, but I knew he’d want her to be there. As I crouched down and gently smoothed his matted fur, I winced at the thought of the vicious, eye-pecking struggle.

***

This story originally appeared in 2004 — almost exactly 10 years ago — in a print journal called The Land-Grant College Review. In 2006, it appeared in an anthology with another story as a Creative Commons e-book that has since been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

Jim Hanas’s book, Why They Cried, published by ECW Press, was the first title released via their experimental Joyland series of e-book-only short story collections. The book is still available wherever e-books are sold.