My life cracked with that electric candle. It had been raining like crazy. Judy acted funny when she said she didn’t want to walk the dog. I returned soaked with apologies freshly learned from freezing rain. But no one was home, except for an uncaring cat and an unplugged candle, toppled like a defeated king on a chessboard. I probably dropped the dog leash and I suppose Baxter whimpered by my leg. All I remember for sure is that stupid candle laying there a plastic corpse.
After Judy left, I quit my job, stopped talking to my brother, and rarely shaved. The only thing that made me feel any better was walking Baxter and watching him play.
One morning, I got up reluctantly as usual with Baxter’s nose nudging me out of bed and the cat blinking at me from the corner of the room. Baxter nudged; the cat blinked. Business as usual, but something slightly different about Baxter. Those sad eyes of his held something else I couldn’t quite place. The dog park confirmed my suspicions.
“Baxter looks sluggish to me,” said Jeffers, the dog expert.
“How can you tell,” I asked.
“It’s in his run. His nose is down. That’s the blues.”
“How should I know,” Jeffers said. Then he looked around the field, as if anyone could have crept up to eavesdrop on what he was about to say: “Why don’t you ask him?”
“Ask who? Baxter?”
Jeffers made the kind of face you rarely see on men his age—eyes so wide they drank up the sky with a glisten to rival the river stones beneath the ice.
“Don’t you know about the Dog’s Honest Island?” he whispered.
I said I didn’t and then a white terrier appeared. It ran to sniff and play with Baxter and Jeffers’ black lab. Jeffers’ face turned to parchment as the terrier’s owner approached—white hair, deep set eyes, a death mask for a face and a prehistoric bone for a walking stick.
“Did I hear you telling about the island?” she asked.
Jeffers trembled. “His dog looked to me like—”
“That island ain’t no regular stretch of rock in the river.” When she turned to me I wish she hadn’t. “They say it juts from the other world into this one. Dog’s talk there, they say.”
“That’s absurd,” I said.
“Those what’s done it don’t think so,” she replied.
Jeffers clapped his hands to his ears agitated by some loud noise. He mumbled an excuse, collected his dog, and wandered off, his hands still clutching his head. Baxter lumbered to me, that air of melancholy still hovering about him.
“I see what Jeffers means,” said the woman. “Your dog wants to tell you something. Perhaps you should go to Dog’s Honest Island.”
All politeness gone, I laughed. She ignored me and pointed out a shallow lick of pebble about the size of a rowboat in the middle of the river.
“That’s Dog’s Honest Island. You take your animal there at night when the rains are pouring down good and you’ll see what’s so funny then, by god.”
I wanted to laugh again, but I heard her white terrier splashing in the water. It clawed itself onto the very island she was pointing to out in the river. It shook off water and puffed triumphant barks of vapor at us.
“That’s the spot,” she said. “Take him when night rains and you’ll get the truth.”
Baxter whimpered. The woman tapped her bone of stick against a rock and walked on. Her terrier plunged back into the river to follow her to wherever she was headed upstream.
I walked back to the apartment with Baxter pouting at my side. The place looked so dour from the outside. I tried to cheer things inside with music, which was a mistake. After crying my eyes out, I came back to my senses. The cat blinked at me, indifference with the slightest hint of disdain. My poor dog was curled up on the sofa. The fact that he was still hungry reassured me that he wasn’t physically ill. But something was definitely wrong with him. I leaned down to where Baxter’s head, the color of autumn leaves, lay on his forelegs, his brown eyes downcast.
“What is it, buddy? What’s the matter?”
The dog exhaled. It sounded so human.
“Are you sick, Baxter?”
I caressed his legs.
“Baxter? Are you okay, good boy?”
I shook his legs.
That’s when it hit me.
My dog was not looking at me.
“Baxter? Hey, Baxter!”
Nothing worked. My dog put its brown eyes everywhere my eyes weren’t. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true. No eye contact whatsoever. I thought for a while that there was something wrong with his eyes. Then I got scared thinking it was me. I went over to where the cat was perched on the arm of the loveseat by the front window. She blinked and looked away, as usual. When I put my nose against my dog’s—cooing loving, childish things, stroking his head, scratching his chin, and saying his name in ways that ranged from sweet to stern—nothing. He would not look at me even when I tried to force him.
I became somewhat afraid of my own dog. Although he was as docile as ever, I locked myself in my bedroom that night listening to the rain on the window. Baxter spent the night on the couch. The cat stood guard, alert to nothing in particular.
The next day I took Baxter to the dogpark, where he played in the mud with the other lab, Charley, whose owner, Darlene, was pretty and easy to talk to. That is why I always found it so difficult to talk to her.
“You can tell this winter is going to be hard based on how thick the ice gets around the banks in November.” She scanned the river and was about to launch into another round of weather observations when I blurted out—
“Baxter won’t look me in the eye.”
She stood stalk still, eyes widening.
I said, “Some old woman told me about the island out there and—”
Darlene put her hands to her ears startled by some blasphemy only she could hear. Oddly, she smiled through the gesture and shouted politely, as though her voice had to carry over some interference: “You should take him there, if you want the truth.”
Then, still smiling and covering her ears so tightly her fingers were white with the pressure, she sidled off, whistling for Charley to follow. Baxter returned to my side. I looked down at him. He glanced toward the island. I began planning it. We would need a boat. It was time to call my brother.
“Where’ve you been?” My brother sounded angry. “You don’t answer the phone for weeks and now you want my canoe? You in some kind of trouble?”
I adjusted my tone to sound less desperate than I was. “No trouble. I just want to do some fishing with Baxter.”
“You drinking again?”
I breathed before answering. I had a counselor once tell me about a breathing technique that worked the last time I visited my brother with Judy, and he started asking her all the questions about where and how we met.
“I’m not drinking okay? Look, here’s the thing. I want to explore the river on the canoe with Baxter. So can I borrow the canoe or not?”
“You’re not going to the island are you?”
I thought I misheard him, so I asked him what he said and there was a long silence over the phone. I kept saying hello and repeating my brother’s name. I could hear a faint rasp on the other line, the sound shells make in your ear. Nothing and the ocean have the same voice, as it turns out, and my brother imitated them both for a while. Eventually, he said he’d see me after work the next day and hung up.
Talking over the phone was easier than seeing him. He dropped off the canoe and the pads for mounting it on my car. He made me feel like we were kids again. It was raining lightly and after he showed me how to strap it to the hood and back fender of my car, he wanted to see me do it myself. The strap kept sliding out of my hand on account of the drizzle.
Before he left he asked the inevitable questions: “You drinking again? You in some kind of trouble?” The only part about it that was remotely enjoyable was watching him try to ask about the island, crippled over, cradling his head, and skittering into his pickup.
The rain was coming down harder when I went inside to prepare. I rummaged for clothes that were waterproof. The cat was not pleased about this as she had to vacate her perch in the corner of my closet. That’s where I found the box with the old Christmas lights that Judy had brought from her old apartment. The bulbs were the exact same size as the one that was broken on the candle. I went down to test them and sure enough, the red one fit. The candle snapped to vivid life in the window.
I put on my boots and parka and tried to make Baxter look me in the eye until it was time for us to go. He had taken to closing his eyes whenever I got close. I could sense his anticipation. I swear he knew what was happening.
To get away from him and to pass the time until nightfall, I set about cleaning the apartment, something I hadn’t done for months. I straightened up the clothes in the corner, again disturbing one of the cat’s favorite nooks, and took all the empty bottles out to the bin. I made the bed and wiped away the frosted dust from the front window warmed by the red glow of the electric candle.
Finally, it was time. I loaded Baxter into the car and drove down to the dogpark beside the river, straining to see as rain flooded the windshield. I unstrapped the canoe, tucked the paddle under one arm and dragged the boat across the gravel parking lot to the river. Baxter hated the rain and barked violently at the grumbling of the boat against the rocks. He was afraid to get in the canoe at first but I lured him with a handful of cat food, which I took from the cat’s bowl before we left, knowing how much Baxter loved those forbidden treasures.
It took me some time but I paddled us to the island, whose pebbly surface shimmered beneath the bloated waves. You could hardly tell that there was an island there at all and I almost tipped the canoe trying to get out. As I steadied the boat on the rock to anchor it, Baxter barked and barked, until the barking barked into something else.
“Damn boat! Damn boat! Damn boat!”
“Baxter! You can talk.”
“Of course, I can talk,” said the dog. “And so can this boat and I don’t like it.”
I clapped my freezing hands. “It’s a miracle.”
“Maybe,” said the dog ducking his head as the rain pelted.
I looked down at my boots. The flooding made it seem that I could walk on water.
“Baxter, why haven’t you been looking me in the eye?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said the dog.
“If I answered that I would be talking about it, now wouldn’t I?”
“I suppose,” I said. “I’m only worried about you is all.”
“About me?” Baxter shook off the rain. “I’m worried about you.”
“Because of Judy?”
“She doesn’t care if we drown now. Face that. Until you do, I can’t face you.”
We stood there for a while on that tiny island being swallowed by the tempest, watching each other’s breath twisted up by rain. And then Baxter looked at me. It had been a while. I had almost forgotten how huge his eyes were, moons in tandem orbit.
I had nothing more to say. When I got the canoe ready to leave, Baxter said, “Don’t bring me here again. I don’t want to come here again.” I nodded and we started back to shore.
The way back was the worst part of it. There was a terrible shrieking sound in my ears whenever I thought about the island and the words Baxter said. The only way to stop that earth-shattering siren in my ears was to take my mind off of the island. So I thought of a song in my head and sang it while dragging the canoe back to the car in the drenching rains. Baxter barked ferociously at the canoe again. I sang so loud that it didn’t matter that the strap kept slipping. I secured the boat and sang the whole way home.
As soon as we turned the corner, I noticed how dark the apartment looked. Smears of ink for windows. When I opened the door, the cat shot past me. I called out to her but the rain swallowed it and she was gone, long gone, into the night. By the front window, the electric candle had marks chewed into its side where it lay on the wooden floor like a hit and run accident.
Although I never got another cat, I tried having other girlfriends. It seldom worked out. Who can blame them for refusing to come between Baxter and me? The awkwardness of it all so loud it makes my ears rain just thinking about it.