E. Christopher Clark
It’s a strange place for a farm, Charles thinks, smooshed between a highway off-ramp and a strip mall, but a text from Lu assures him that this is the place. So, he flips on the car’s blinker and prepares to make the turn.
While he waits for the light to change, Charles adjusts his rearview to check in on the old dog in the backseat. He appears to be asleep, his head resting on the keys of the typewriter that Lu used to lure him inside. Charles wonders if it’s the same one the dog kept in his red house back in the day. Then he wonders if the goggles, helmet, and scarf his little sister used to dress the dog up in—Charles wonders if those might have done the trick too.
The honk of a car’s horn breaks him from his reverie. “Wake up, you bald asshole!” someone shouts.
The farm is no ordinary farm. It is a shelter for unwanted animals. In the front there are barns for horses and livestock; further away from the road, there is a building for more common pets. And it is under the sloped roof of that well-appointed and air conditioned structure that Charles explains his situation to a woman named Doolittle. Charles is unsure how to address her. There are diplomas on the wall, several of them, including a doctorate, but he thinks they may belong to a parent; she looks far too young to be so accomplished.
“Mister Br—” she begins, once he’s finished his explanation.
“Please,” he interrupts, “call me—”
“Chuck,” she says with a smile.
“Actually,” he says, “only my ex ever calls me that.”
“Your ex? I thought you said you were married.”
“My first wife,” he says by way of clarification. “It didn’t last long. Just a phase,” he says, “before she and the woman she’s married to now finally realized that they were, you know…”
“Well,” says Doolittle. “Charlie then. You don’t look like a Charles to me.”
“Charlie is fine,” says Charles.
Doolittle smiles again. She’s got a piece of lettuce stuck between her teeth, or maybe kale, but Charles doesn’t know how to tell her without coming across like a blockhead.
“So,” says Charles, “can you help me?”
“Just so we’re clear,” says Doolittle, “you want to trade in your dog? That very good boy that you—”
“I don’t want to,” says Charles. “But my wife—“
Doolittle nods. “I understand,” she says.
“But it has to be a trade,” says Charles. “That is, I need a new pet. A comfort animal of some sort. My therapist says I absolutely must have one. My new therapist that is. Not my wife. She had to stop being my therapist once we were engaged, of course. Though, of course, if you ask me, those two are in cahoots. My wife and my therapist, I mean.”
“Did you have anything in mind?”
“Well no,” says Charles. “As I said, I don’t really want to give up my dog. He’s been in the family for years. I’ve had him since I was a kid. But Lu, she never liked him. Not even back then when we were in grade school together.”
Doolittle shuffles through a stack of paper on her desk, mumbling to herself in between shakes of her head. There are a few minutes of silence between them as she searches for whatever it is she’s looking for. And then, it’s as if he can see a lightbulb go on above her head.
“I think I have just the thing,” says Doolittle.
In one of the barns out front, with broken down nags neighing and defecating all around him, Charles stares down into the depths of a stall he at first took to be empty. Inside, trudging back and forth atop a bed of thistle, is a runt of a donkey with a missing tail.
“I thought you said he was gray,” says Charles. “He looks a little blue to me.”
“Well, Charlie, aren’t we all a little blue in this day and age? Given the state of the world, I mean.”
Doolittle laughs at her own joke. Mercifully, the guffaw dislodges the leafy detritus that was, he realizes with a turn of his stomach, still caught between her teeth.
Doolittle collects herself. “More purple than blue,” she says. “No?”
Charles squints. “Perhaps,” he says. “I suppose it depends on the light.”
“Now,” says Doolittle. “Looks can be deceiving, Charlie. So you should know that this lovely boy comes to us from the estate of a wealthy British gentleman who doted upon this fellow and the rest of his menagerie until the day he passed.”
“He kept other animals?” asks Charles, a bit more hope in his voice than he intended. After all, it isn’t as if the donkey is a terrible animal. Or a terrible idea for a pet. Maybe, like the Christmas trees he favors, this guy just needs a little love. A home.
“The other animals?” says Doolittle. “I’m afraid they’ve all been taken. It was quite the collection, though. A bear, a pig, a pair of kangaroos—”
“He seems quiet enough,” says Charles, crouching down to look the animal in the eyes. “Quieter than my dog, at the very least. Lu will appreciate that.”
The donkey makes its way across the stall to the gate and peers through a gap between the slats at Charles. He seems to frown, the donkey, as he sizes up the tired old fool on the other side of the gate. Then the donkey gives a perfunctory little nod, as if to say “Oh well,” as if to say, “You’ll do.” It reminds Charles of the way his dog would stare him down, now and again, when he refused to play the jazz record that the beagle favored as its soundtrack for raising a ruckus. The donkey and the dog—both of them seemed to know who was in charge, and they knew it wasn’t Charles.
Charles sighs. He isn’t sure this is the right thing, isn’t sure if maybe he should ask to see something in the way of a cat instead, maybe some hefty ball of fur that will do little but sleep on his lap and lap at the last of his lasagna on Thursday nights. He isn’t sure of anything at all. But then his phone buzzes in his pocket, and he knows without looking that it’s Lu wondering what’s taking him so long, and that she won’t stop texting until he gives her an answer. So, Charles looks at Doolittle and says, “Good grief, let’s get this over with.”